An Arkansas outdoor adventure overview

As you might expect, there is a lot to see and do in a place like this.

You can’t encapsulate the outdoors offerings in Arkansas in a couple of blog posts, just like you can’t see it all in three days. Like most of you, I’m a working stiff that has to fit all this fun into small bits scattered between long stints at work.

But I did some research, reached out to some friends, and pulled together a more comprehensive look at what’s happening in this state, particularly in its northwest corner.

In my first post, I mentioned something about the Interior Highlands, which is in an area that covers parts of Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. The Ozarks dominate the northern part of the highlands while the Ouachitas make up the bulk of the south.

The biggest section of the Interior Highlands is in Arkansas, and this is also where it is at its wildest. The trails are long and winding, the woods are thick and scenic, and though none of the mountains here go much higher than 2,700 feet above sea level, you can find some decent vertical gain – more than 1,500 feet of it on Magazine Mountain.

What this means is you have a place that is prime for outdoor recreation, sports and just relaxing outside.

A few years back, Outside Magazine surprised a lot of people when it named Chattanooga, Tennessee, as its top destination city for the outdoors. The secret has long been out, and people are heading to eastern Tennessee to see what wonders await.

But here’s the thing: Many of the things about Chattanooga that appeal to the outdoorsy set also exist in the Ozarks. For the most part, that fact remains mostly under wraps unless you live there or in one of Arkansas’ neighboring states.

That’s  starting to change. Arkansans are beginning to realize the outdoor recreation potential for their state, and people are taking notice.

So here are some other things you should know about the adventures you can have in Arkansas…

MOUNTAIN BIKING

Mountain biking is becoming (already is?) huge in northwest Arkansas. The state’s hilly, wooded terrain contains lots of flowy singletrack, giving you anything from easy cruisers to highly technical routes.

Check out Slaughter Pen Trail out of Bentonville, or Womble on Mount Ida. And so many more. Many mountain biking trails connect to city trails around Bentonville, Fayetteville and so forth.

“Arkansas is chock full of great places to ride,” said Cleo Berninger, a Tulsa-based cyclist with a number of races under her belt.  “A wide variety of experiences are available, depending on what I want:  Hobbs is great in that it’s not a long drive from Tulsa, it’s a go-to for when Tulsa is muddy.  I love Lake Leatherwood trails in a Eureka Springs, bench cut trails… (it) feels like you are way, way out, but in truth it’s in town. Syllamo Trails at Blanchard Springs is the whopper, technical, beautiful, so challenging and days’ worth of adventure. Back 40 and Ilk are great training AND socializing. So much to do in Bentonville, it’s especially good for mixed groups where maybe not every individual wants to be on the trail.”

Eric Doswell, another Tulsa-based cyclist who also builds bikes, shares the same enthusiasm for the state’s growing mountain biking scene.

“I personally like Hobbs State Park near Rogers, it’s a nice 8 or 14 mile loop system with rolling contours singletrack.  The Womble and Ouachita trails are great for a more backcountry experience, and can be hooked together for a whopper all-day epic ride.

“In the Bentonville metroplex there is Slaughter Pen, which is accessible from multiple points along a paved trail system through the city, which also connects to The Back 40 in Bella Vista. Farther away from the city, the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail and Upper Buffalo Trails are epic backcountry experiences.”

You can find out more about Arkansas cycling here.

CLIMBING

Arkansas’s mountainous regions are loaded with cliffs and crags, giving you plenty of options for bouldering, top-roped sport climbs and multi-pitch trad routes. None of them will be the massive walls of the Rockies or the Sierras, but make no mistake: Arkansas is a climbing state.

In addition to what I mentioned earlier at Magazine Mountain, Horseshoe Canyon Ranch is a popular destination for climbers in Arkansas. The state is known for its quality sandstone precipices, all of which is present at Horseshoe Canyon.

“I’ve been visiting Horseshoe since 2006 and it’s still our favorite place to go climbing in the Midwest,” says Jacquelyn Musgrove, an Oklahoma City-based climber, cyclist and climbing coach. “Horseshoe is amazing for people who want amazing climbs with little fuss with longer rigorous approaches to some of the best rock faces around. You can tent camp or rent one of their cabins. Horseshoe is great for all types of climbers and for us having a toddler, we love taking Max. With the short approaches and nice cabins its perfect for those not looking to rough it.

“With the Midwest’s mild winters, we go year-round.”

More information on climbing sites in Arkansas can be found here.

HIKING

Where you have trails, hills and woods, you have hiking. Arkansas’ national forests and state parks are loaded with trails. Some are as basic as easy day hikes, but for the backpacking set, you can spend a good chunk of time thru-hiking the Ouachita Trail, which weaves through the hills of the Ouachita Mountains in northwest Arkansas and southeastern Oklahoma.

As a bonus: Depending on what time of the week you hike, you’re likely to find some solitude on the more rugged trails, and wildlife viewing abounds. Arkansas is home to deer, bear, and any number of species of birds. The forests themselves are a sweet mix of broadleaf and pines – the best of what makes Southern woodlands so great. For more color, plan your hikes for mid-October to early November and catch the fall foliage of the Ozarks and Ouachitas.

A popular destination for the day-hiker crowd: Devil’s Den. Read two people’s experiences at Devil’s Den here and here.

For other hiking options, find your next big hike here.

RIVER ADVENTURE

You’d think any talk of river systems in Arkansas would include its namesake, and that would be cool – the Arkansas River is one of the country’s great waterways – but the best river adventure in the state is along the Buffalo River.

Spend a week floating the Buffalo River, and pull off to find waterfalls, great hikes and excellent mountain scenery. Paddle, hike, fish and camp. You’ll be hard-pressed to pack in more outdoor activities than you can find here.

A little more about the Buffalo River can be found here.

So there you have it. Whether you’re looking for hardcore outdoor adventure or something more relaxing, you can find all of that in Arkansas. Do a little research, find a destination and head out. The state can prove that you don’t have to travel halfway across the country for a little adventure.

Bob Doucette

An overview of Arkansas’ Mount Magazine State Park

A view south from Magazine Mountain.

In the last post, I spent a good amount of time describing a classic Arkansas hike, the Magazine Mountain Trail. But I’d be remiss if I ended the description of this mountain and accompanying state park there.

Magazine Mountain is a big place, and being a plateau formation, there is a lot of space at the top. Planners made sure that the state park offered a number of options for visitors regardless of their physical fitness, ambitions and whatnot.

That’s what we’re going to go over here: the best of the rest of Magazine Mountain and Mount Magazine State Park. Here goes…

ACCOMODATIONS

The park includes a 60-room lodge with a swimming pool, restaurant and bar. The Skycrest Restaurant has a quality menu with good service and outstanding views looking south and west from the top of the mountain. Rates vary by season, but go anywhere from $128-$228 a night, depending on the size of the room you get.

The park also includes 13 cabins, one to three bedrooms/bathrooms, and all are ADA-compliant. Like the lodge, winter rates are lower, but in-season daily rates vary from $218-$478. Dog-friendly options are available in three cabins, but there is an extra fee. All cabin kitchens are fully equipped, and the cabins also feature clothes washer/dryer, decks overlooking the countryside and hot tubs.

Campsite at the Cameron Bluff Campground. (Craig Cook photo)

Finally, there are the campsites. The Cameron Bluff Campground offers 18 sites with water and electrical hookups, parking areas large enough for RVs, tent pads, grills and fire pits (firewood is available for purchase at the visitors center). There is also a centralized building with restrooms and showers. Campsites are $28-$32 a night. If you are camping, keep your food and any fragrant items locked in your car or hang a bag from a high tree limb, as bears are known to be in the area.

A full rundown on lodging can be found here.

TRAILS

From the Signal Hill Trail.

Not every trail on the mountain is a day-long hike. Several other trails exist that go anywhere from less than a mile to 2.8 miles, and many can be linked. They vary in difficulty, but most of them are accessible to people of nearly all fitness levels.

The top of Signal Hill on Magazine Mountain, the highest point in Arkansas.

Craig and I hiked a couple of them. The first was the Signal Hill Trail, which was right by our campsite. It was about a mile round-trip and not difficult and takes you to the highest point in the state. At the top is a sign, a map and a mailbox with a registry where you can sign in. There is also a USGS marker officially showing where the high point is.

On the Bear Hollow Trail. (Craig Cook photo)

From the Benefield picnic area, we took the Benefield Loop Trail to the Bear Hollow Trail. The route is 2.8 miles one way, ending on the other side of the mountain near the Horse Camp. This one is tougher than the Signal Hill Trail, but not as difficult or wild as the Magazine Mountain Trail. The views are stunning, particularly if you’re looking for a sunrise photo. There is one minor creek crossing and two points where you can see expansive views of the eastern flanks of the mountains and seemingly endless woodlands fanning out hundreds of feet down and many miles toward the horizon. If you go here, be sure to find Inspiration Point. It does not disappoint. Overall, the Bear Hollow Trail gives you a wilder experience without the commitment required of the Magazine Mountain Trail.

There are numerous other trails we didn’t have the time to hike, but if you want to learn more about them, check this link.

A view from a north rim scenic pullout, easily accessible on foot, on bike or by car.

There is a one-way paved roadway that can take you to what are, at sunset, the best views on the mountain. The road skirts the Cameron Bluff campsites and offers two pullouts with incredible scenery looking across large cliffs below and toward the Boston Mountains to the north. There is a pavilion and a seating area that are popular with visitors; the stone seating area is often used as an outdoor wedding venue. After a hard day of hiking, this is an excellent place to drive or ride your bike (they have marked bike lanes) to catch the sunset in what may be one of the most beautiful scenes in all of Arkansas, and that’s saying something.

ROCK CLIMBING

Where there are cliffs, you’re bound to find some rock climbing. That’s true on the mountain.

Bouldering, sport climbing and rappelling are allowed in a designated area on the mountain’s south bluff overlooking the Petit Jean River Valley. According to the park’s website, the mountain has a 1,500-foot wide stretch of sandstone with more than 100 routes up to 80 feet high, ranging from 5.5 to 5.12c in difficulty, with plenty in the 5.10 and under range. I didn’t have time to check these out, but maybe next time.

Before rock climbing here, you are required to register at the state park visitor center. More information on climbing routes can be found here.

MOUNTAIN BIKING/CYCLING/ATVs/HORSEBACK

There are 34 miles of off-road biking available on the Huckleberry Mountain Trail, which is near the park on land in the Ozark National Forest. The trails are also used for ATV tours and riders on horseback.

If you’re not up for the dirt, you can rent bikes at the lodge and ride on the roads all around the park. In a similar vein, Magazine Mountain is a popular destination for motorcyclists, as the roads leading up to and around the mountain are packed with great scenery for a ride.

HANG GLIDING

The steep drop-offs at the top of the peak make Magazine Mountain an ideal place for hang gliding. Hang gliding takes place on the south side of the mountain. Anyone hang gliding must register at the visitor center. If you are a certified Class 4 flier, you can fly alone; Class 3 fliers can hang glide with another Class 4 flier. There is an established launch site on the mountain.

So there’s the basic rundown of Mount Magazine State Park. What I’ve told people is if you’re looking for high outdoor adventure, you can find it here. If you want chill, eat well and enjoy leisurely views, you can do that, too. And everything in between.

In the next post, I’ll go over a few more things you should know about Arkansas and why this might become the next big thing in outdoor adventure travel.

Bob Doucette

Ueli Steck dies in a fall in the Himalayas

The mountaineering community suffered a huge loss on Sunday following a fall in the Himalayas that claimed the life of Ueli Steck. He was 40 years old.

Known as the Swiss Machine, Steck was well known for a high number of speed ascent records all over the world. He’s spent the last few years going to the Himalyas trying harder routes, and is credited with being the first to ascend  Annapurna’s south face solo. In 2015, he climbed 82 4,000-meter peaks in 80 days. He’s a two-time winner of the Piolet d’Or, mountaineering’s highest honor.

This spring, Steck was attempting to climb the Lohtse-Everest traverse, gaining Everest’s summit by its notoriously difficult west ridge. He was acclimatizing near a neighboring peak, Nuptse, when he fell 1,000 meters to his death on Sunday, according to Reuters.

For more on Steck and Sunday’s accident, read this report from Outside Online.

To see more on his planned project this spring, watch this video.

Everyday adventure: Go micro, go local to get your outdoors fix

Crags in Chandler Park.

Crags in Chandler Park.

Rock climbing in Yosemite. Mountaineering in the Rockies. Trail races in the Cascades. Through-hikes on the Appalachian Trail.

These are the things that make social media stars, best-selling books and outdoor ad campaigns. They make for great adventures, too. Lord knows I’d love to partake in these endeavors on a much more frequent basis. But like most of you, I also hold a full-time job, live far from these adventure meccas, and have people at home that would rather not see me leave for months at a time to pursue my outdoor fantasies.

There is something to be said for those who radically simplify their lives so they actually can travel the country — and the world — to hunt for adventure. Much personal sacrifice must be made. But for the rest of us? You’ve got to think local and micro if you want to get your adventure fix more than a couple of times a year.

I’ve got a number of friends who live in states where the playgrounds I mentioned above are close by. So it’s no problem for them. But living in Tulsa presents its own challenges. Ask anyone locally where the best and closest rock climbing is, they’ll tell you it’s in Arkansas. Drive four hours east and you’re there.

Johnny traverses across a wall before gaining the summit ridge.

Scrambling in the Wichitas.

In-state? The Wichita Mountains are about three and a half hours southwest of me. Anything closer? Robbers Cave State Park, in southeastern Oklahoma, is a little more than two hours distant.

And yet, even here in the Southern Plains, there are jewels in the making only minutes away.

When I first moved here, I heard about Turkey Mountain, a large, hilly park left in its natural state that has around 48 miles of dirt trails weaving through the woods. Places like this are rare in Midwestern cities, and yet here it was. Hikers, runners, mountain bikers and more flock to this park in increasing numbers, and it’s safe to say I would not have become a trail runner had it not been there.

I also heard of another park, this one even closer to home. Tulsa County manages a huge property called Chandler Park. There are your typical park amenities there, but there are also a number of hiking trails and, as it turns out, some crags on the side of the hill where the park sits. Tulsa, as relatively flat as it is, has a nice-sized system of bouldering and climbing routes within sight of downtown.

Testing myself outdoors has become a more important part of my life. So this past weekend, in lieu of high adventure, I got my fix locally.

Another 3.1 miles in the books. I'm slow, BTW.

Another 3.1 miles in the books. I’m slow, BTW.

On Friday night, there was the annual Cinco de Mayo 5K. Yeah, it’s a road race, but it was also a good excuse to go outside, run with friends, snag a couple of free, er, refreshments, and get my heart rate up.

Then on Saturday, a friend joined me to do a few scrambles and climbs at Chandler Park. I don’t climb a lot, and I’m not particularly good. But we had fun, I didn’t bust my butt, and you can bet more repeat trips to the park will improve my climbing skills.

My friend Thomas climbing one of the walls at Chandler Park. This was a fun one.

My friend Thomas climbing one of the walls at Chandler Park. This was a fun one.

Short walls that are good for bouldering, at Chandler Park. You can see Thomas traversing the wall at the top.

Short walls that are good for bouldering, at Chandler Park. You can see Thomas traversing the wall at the top.

In any case, these explorations have taught me a few things about microadventures right in my own city. On any given day, you can hike through the woods, or run trails, or go mountain biking inside the city limits. You can also go kayaking or fishing on the Arkansas River. And yes, you can go rock climbing or bouldering, inside the city, and not have to be resigned to a gym (though New Heights is a pretty sweet climbing gym in town). Rigorous trail races are held several times a year for runners and mountain bikers. You can see eagles soaring along the river, looking for prey in the waters below. And if you’d rather stay on pavement, there are loads of bike and pedestrian trails that attract runners and cyclists year-round (and have also helped grow the Tulsa cycling community which, by the way, hosts an awesome, all-weekend bicycle racing event in June called Tulsa Tough that gets bigger every year).

Turkey Mountain and the Arkansas River in Tulsa. Two natural resources that people are starting to value more.

Turkey Mountain and the Arkansas River in Tulsa. Two natural resources that people are starting to value more.

The Arkansas River, just south of downtown Tulsa.

The Arkansas River, just south of downtown Tulsa.

We bike here.

We bike here.

...And we run here.

…And we run here.

Sure, I still get envious of my buddies out west who are bagging peaks in the Rockies and whatnot. Same goes for the people on social media I follow who are killing it in the Cascades, the Smokies, and the Sierras. But if you don’t live in Boulder, Chattanooga, Bozeman or Bend, you owe it to yourself to do some deeper exploration in your own community. Maybe Omaha has some sick singletrack right in town. Perhaps Kansas City has some crags. And don’t look now, but you can hop in a kayak and challenge some whitewater courses… in downtown Oklahoma City.

Come out and play...

Come out and play…

Tulsa will never be synonymous with rock climbing, trail running or mountain biking, at least not nationally. But I know for a fact that you can do all those things here, because I’ve done it, and spent no more than 15 minutes driving from my urban doorstep to my chosen destination.

So what’s in your town? Give me a shout in the comments, and let me know what hidden gems are in your community.

Bob Doucette

A flatlander’s guide to high country adventure

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As spring takes hold, a bunch of us from the flatlands are having dreams of alpine vistas and Rocky Mountain summits. But we often forget that there is a lot that goes into being ready for the challenges that come with altitude.

I live at less than 800 feet. So every time I think about heading west, I know there are things I need to do before marching to the top of a high peak.

So that’s what this is about. It’s not like I’m a pro or anything, but I’ve spent the last 13 years bagging peaks in the Colorado and New Mexico high country from late spring to early fall. I’ve learned a bit — mostly through trial and error, and from my mistakes. So that’s what I want to pass along to you.

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BEFORE THE TRIP

People who live at higher elevations have an advantage over the rest of us because they have more red blood cells — the agents that carry oxygen to the rest of the body — flowing through their bodies than us. And unless you plan on spending several weeks at altitude, your body won’t be able to match that red blood cell production in time to fit inside your vacation plans. You can acclimate some, but not that fast. So extra care has to be taken in terms of physical preparation. With that in mind…

Get yourself in shape. There are a lot of ways to do this, but I’d suggest a few basics. Plan and complete some big hikes, preferably in hilly areas. On some of these hikes, carry a backpack that will be the same size and weight as the one you plan to use in the mountains. Break in those boots if they’re new. Plan on hikes that will last as long (in number of hours) as you think it will take on your trip. I’d also recommend doing some regular cardio at least four times a week — running, cycling, swimming, stairmaster — yes to any or all of that. And sprinkle in some strength training. A rugged frame and a strong heart/set of lungs will go a long way toward helping you enjoy your alpine adventures rather than just suffer through them. Ideally, these are things you should be doing at least a few  months out from your planned trip. If you want more information on that, check out this post I wrote last year.

Test your gear. Wear and use the clothes, footwear and backpack you plan to use, and make sure the fit is good. Same goes with any tents, stoves, electronics or anything else you might use or depend on. Be familiar with how everything works, and adjust accordingly if something’s not right. Having a gear failure on the trail because of your unfamiliarity with it is a potential disaster that is entirely preventable.

Ask for advice. Got any friends who are knowledgeable about the high country? Hit ’em up. You can also find good information in online forums and through social media. People are willing to help. A question you have that goes unasked is a mystery you might not be able to afford when you’re in the backcountry.

Plan and study your routes. Again, there is a lot of information online about trails, forests, peaks, etc. Plenty of guide books, too. You don’t have to kill all spontaneity, but you should be familiar with the places you’re going, the distances you’ll travel, and the type of terrain, obstacles and hazards you’ll face. And let someone know where you are going and when you intend to return.

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WHEN YOU’RE THERE

Give yourself some time. I’ve done the thing where you drive in one day, and then a day later go hit a 14,000-foot peak. It can be done, but I don’t advise it. Rather, spend a few days at a lower elevation town or city and do some practice hikes on smaller hills. After a couple of days, head into the high country, and give yourself another day or so, embarking in acclimatization hikes. After a few days, your body will be more prepared for the task at hand.

Drink plenty of water. The Rockies are fairly dry, and because your respiration will be at an increased rate, you’ll dehydrate much faster — even in a city like Denver, at 5,280 feet — than you do at home. It’s subtle at first, and you won’t realize you’re drying out… until it’s too late. So it’s not a bad thing to be sipping water regularly throughout the day, even if you’re just chilling out. When you’re on the trail, your hydration needs will increase. A 4-8 hour day hike might mean you take 2-3 liters of water with you, and try to drink as much of that as you can. Otherwise, you’ll get nasty headaches, and possibly the beginnings of altitude sickness.

Pack right. Make sure you have enough food for your hike, and then a little more. Bring the right supplies and tools in your pack, with special detail on what you might need in an emergency. If you’re wondering what that looks like, check this link for the 10 essentials. Make sure your clothing is designed to handle a variety of weather conditions your might face.

Even if you’re from another mountain state, do not underestimate what elevation does to a hike or climb. Plenty of peak baggers and hikers hail from states with mountains that have serious elevation profiles, but aren’t as high as the Rockies. An example: I hiked Mount LeConte in Tennessee, which at various trailheads will give you 3,000 feet of elevation gain or more. Many of the peaks in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming are similar in their base-to-summit profile. But I found the going much easier in the Appalachians than in the Rockies, even when approaching LeConte’s summit, solely because of how much thinner the air is in the Rockies. Remember that the trailheads at most peaks in the Rockies start at elevations higher the tops of any mountain on the East Coast, as well as most mountains in every western state except California (the Sierras pose their own challenges, as do some of the big ones in the Cascades). The level of exertion and complications from altitude will be much different than they are in the Smokies, the White Mountains, or just about anywhere else in the Lower 48.

Watch the weather. A bluebird day in the summer can turn into a nightmare of lighting, hail and wind in a hurry. Storms can form right over your head with little warning. Start your hikes early (pre-dawn is good, and even earlier if the route is long) and be heading down the mountain well before noon. Check forecasts closely, and don’t be surprised to see snowfall on the bookend weeks of the summer. Fall and spring hikes and climbs can be even more touch-and-go when it comes to snowstorms. Perfect conditions one day can give way to blizzards. On my early July attempt of Longs Peak last summer, snow high on the mountain fell the night before our ascent and turned route conditions into a mess of sloppy snow and ice, forcing us to abort the climb. Now imagine getting caught in the middle of that, while on exposed, steep terrain. Respect for high country weather changes is a must.

Respect the land and its permanent residents. Stay on the trail and don’t stomp all over delicate alpine tundra. If you bring a dog, keep it under control and don’t let it chase after wildlife. Camp 100 feet or more away from streams. If established fire pits are available, camp fires are fine — provided the conditions are not prone to forest fires and camp fires are allowed by park and/or forestry officials. Haul out your trash, and don’t burn it. Only use deadfall wood for fires, make sure all fires are completely extinguished before you leave a fire pit unattended. If you have any doubts at all about whether you are allowed (established wilderness areas do not permit camp fires) or should build a camp fire, skip it. Leave the trail and your campsite in as good or better condition than how you found it. And do not feed wildlife. Our food is not good for them, and feeding wild animals conditions them to see humans as a food source.

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So those are some ideas. Good advice can be found at this link. And most of all, enjoy your time in the high country.

Bob Doucette

Despite the risk, climb on

Others have been here before us. And yet we still go. Any why not?

Others have been here before us. And yet we still go. Any why not?

Not long ago, I was reading a book titled One Mountain, Thousand Summits, a tome about the 2008 K2 climbing disaster. The writer, Freddie Wilkinson, makes a point of not only documenting what occurred on the mountain, but also what happened around the world in response to the tragedy. In doing so, he followed media reporting – and reader comments – on the Internet.

For the sake of context: Eleven people died directly and indirectly from a serac collapse high on K2, one of the worst disasters in mountaineering history.

Some of the online comments quoted in the book are as follows:

“Spirit of exploration? Please. K2 has been climbed before. Many times. It was ‘discovered’ a long time ago. Climbers today climb 8,000-meter peaks for one reason: themselves.”

Another was even more blunt:

“This was not a voyage of discovery; it was an ego trip, as most mountain ascents are today.”

Similar sentiments were made after the 1996 Everest disaster, and just about any other report of a mountaineering accident that includes someone’s death.

Let’s go beyond the callousness that goes into writing screeds like these. There is a deeper philosophical question to be posed here: Do these armchair quarterbacks have a point?

Why do we climb mountains? For that matter, why do we do a lot of the physically challenging and at times risky things we do?

The great mountains of the world have been climbed. The poles have been reached. The jungles and deserts of the world have, for the most part, been traversed and explored.

And yet we still climb these peaks, journey to the poles and travel in some of the most inhospitable environments in the world. Often, people do this with a twist: trying to be the “first” at something (oldest, youngest, first woman, first blind person, etc.), and admittedly, some of these efforts are done for publicity’s sake. But more commonly, we merely retrace paths already taken – often many times before – only for our own benefit.

I can relate. Every mountain I’ve climbed and every route I’ve taken has already been done, maybe hundreds or thousands of times.

So outside of space and the oceans, much of the age of exploration has come to an end, the purposes of which have gone beyond the greater good and now veer toward the strictly personal.

So why bother? Why risk injury and death to climb?

I set my book down and let this question rattle around in my brain for awhile, and then let the thought broaden. Mountaineering accidents, particularly high-profile mishaps, get a lot of attention. News articles, TV specials and books usually follow. But there are other things we do that draw parallels.

People die running marathons. Not often, but it happens. Why run a marathon on Pikes Peak? People have had heart attacks and dropped dead trying that race. Even in my city’s local marathon there has been a fatality. The people who have died in these races possessed, for the most part, the fitness level needed for the task.

I know that’s extreme, but there are other less severe yet still noteworthy examples of how people have suffered incredibly by trying to run 26.2 miles or more. Training for such races can do a whole lot of damage to your body, consume a lot of your time and energy and change your lifestyle in ways that are not always positive.

Here’s a fact: The overwhelming number of people who run ultramarathons, marathons, half marathons, 15ks, 10ks and 5ks do so without even the slightest chance of actually winning. Or placing high. Or even winning their gender, age group or whatever. It is supposed to be a race, right? Why run a race you have no shot of winning? Or no shot of even being the slightest bit competitive?

Let’s move into other sports, say football. It’s a great game, one of my favorites. Pro football in particular interests me because it is the game played at the highest level by the biggest, fastest and most skilled athletes in the sport. It’s such a difficult challenge to even win one game, not to mention a championship.

But at what cost? The concussion debate has been raging now for a few years. But there is a host of other injuries these guys suffer on top of that, maladies that leave these fantastic physical specimens barely able to walk (not to mention run) when middle age sets in. Obviously, the money is a major reason why these men do this, but when the crowds no longer cheer and all you’re left with is a broken body (and in some cases, mind), can you say that those years of abuse were worth it?

Here’s another question: What’s the alternative?

The alternative is not to pursue the difficulties of planning, training for and finally attempting a mountain climb. The alternative is to stay inside, substitute your running shoes for a pair of house slippers and spend yet another mindless day on the couch watching TV or playing video games (which often portray characters doing epic things. Kind of ironic). The alternative is to never plumb the depths of your abilities to see how far you can take your God-given talents.

If you never push yourself to see how strong you can be, you’ll never be strong. And that’s not just in terms of physical strength, but mental and emotional strength as well. These tests tell us how tough we can be and often lead us to personal growth that can’t be replicated in the world of the easy and mundane.

None of us will ever be the first to climb Everest, K2 or thousands of other peaks. We won’t be the first to reach the north or south poles. Almost no one in this world of seven billion people will set a new world-record marathon time, and the tiniest fraction of all athletes will even do something as comparatively normal as actually winning a long-distance race. Sorry to burst your bubble.

But so what? These are the ways we measure ourselves, promote growth and even inspire others to try and do great things. Obviously, some pursuits are riskier than others, but you won’t see me discourage people from such endeavors, provided they weigh the risks, prepare thoroughly, and do so with a healthy degree of humility for the task at hand.

Lace ‘em up, people. Buckle that chin strap. Climb on. If you want to criticize that, then enjoy your time on the couch. I’m sure it will be your faithful companion on your journey to the perfectly average for some time to come. For those who choose to go out and “do” things, you never know what reward awaits you when the challenge is accepted, then met.

NOTE: What’s written above is an excerpt from a larger writing project I’m working on about the outdoors.

Bob Doucette

The peak bagger’s muse: Wrangling the almighty list

This peak represents two things. First, a beautiful sight. Second, it's a name on a list to check off.

This peak represents two things. First, a beautiful sight. Second, it’s a name on a list to check off.

If you were to believe all the articles written, blog posts shared, Instagram photos produced and just about anything else that conveys why we do stuff, you’d come to the conclusion that people climb mountains because of the intrinsic inspiration of high places.

More specifically, people would spin some sort of narrative about “being out in nature” or “living life to the fullest” or “taking on a challenge.” All those sayings found on motivational wall-hangings in every other office building  in the country, well, sometimes outdoorsy folks sound a lot like those. We are the lords of flowery memes.

Before I go on, let’s be clear that I’m not saying these things are untrue. People hike and climb peaks to get away from the rat race, be in the wild and live in the moment, on the edge and whatnot. But once you get into it a little, I’ve found something else pushes people back out there, flinging them headlong from the comfortable into the decidedly uncomfortable.

What is this great motivator? The list, of course.

A bunch of you will look at that sentence with all the confusion of a puppy hearing a high-pitched whine, head cocked, eyes wide open, ears tuned in. But those of you who are slaves to the list, well, you know. The urge is strong, a tractor beam pulling you from your bed at 2 a.m. to drive for four hours, hike for eight more, ascending the equivalent of a few big skyscrapers and enduring loose scree, steep trails, sketchy rock and rotten weather, all so you can go home, get online, and put a checkmark by the name of the peak you just survived. You may as well be driving the Millennium Falcon to the trailhead, ready to climb Mount Death Star. The pull is that strong, Young Skywalker.

So what lists are we talking about? There are so many. In Colorado, it’s the 58 14ers, the peaks that rise to 14,000 feet or more. Mountain hounds with the time, energy and chutzpah make a big push to complete this list. The bragging rights are huge. If that challenge isn’t big enough, you can always go for the Centennials, the highest 100 in the state. And there are 600-plus 13,000-foot peaks that comprise their own ridiculous list to fill.

Outside Colorado, there are more. So many more. You can tackle to Adirondack 46ers, a list of 46 peaks in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York that are 4,000 feet or higher. If you want to see the country, try hitting all the high points of each state — 50 peaks and high spots on that one. More of a world traveler, with some time, money and mountaineering chops? Fill out the Seven Summits list — the highest point on each continent. And for the elite mountaineers, there is a list of 14 8,000-meter peaks in Nepal and Tibet just waiting for you. You might not live through that list, but the bragging rights are pretty impressive if you do.

Closer to home, you can hit the high points of every county in your state. That might not be a lot of fun in a state like Kansas, but one blogger in Colorado is having a ball with it.

We love the lists so much that there is a mountaineering list of lists. It’s call the Lists of John, and it’s exhaustive (188,546 peaks!). Lists of John even has its own Facebook page.

Looking for an obscure list of peaks? How about Malaysia's highest? (malaysia-travvler.com photo)

Looking for an obscure list of peaks? How about Malaysia’s 30 highest? (malaysia-traveller.com photo)

I went on social media (Facebook and Twitter in this case) to ask people about the allure of the list. The responses I got had a nice mix, with most saying the lists quantified their goals.

From Noel: “I have gone through stages with my hiking of the 14ers. First it was…Wow! I hiked a 14er! Then…Cool! I hiked a few more! Then…Hmm, I wonder if I could do some of the tougher ones. Then…Whoa! Maybe I could actually work toward finishing these peaks! Then…These are getting tough, but ‘the list’ is nearing completion!”

From Bill: “Certainly helped me organize and plan. Helps one another measure up; discuss plans. I couldn’t imagine having as much inspiration to just climb a random number of random peaks.”

From Mike: “Important. They give me structure and keep me focused.”

And from Sean: “They are very important because the take you to places you wouldn’t consider going before.”

For others, it was more nuanced.

From Annalise: “I have very mixed feelings about lists. They really frustrate me in the sense of allowing the dangerous possibility of overly inflated ego and self-limitation. The concept of ‘conquering’ mountains deeply bothers me, because I don’t believe in that and I feel like peak bagging lists are commonly associated with that idea. Though it’s wonderful to see other mountain lovers empowered by ‘bagging peaks,’ it’s deeply worrisome to see some that get cocky and overconfident and attribute their achievements entirely to their own greatness, belittling these sacred places. Personally, I’m a big fan of being silly and joking around on summits, but when I am moving, I do my best to give reverence to the peaks. Geology is so much bigger than we are.

“That said… it is a very helpful organization tool. It is really nice to be able to think ‘I want to go explore another inspiring place outside of everyday human infrastructure’ and be able to look up names on a list (and progress to planning from there) much as once upon a time we looked up names and numbers of people in a phone book. It’s soothing.

“Anyway, I can’t really resolve my two conflicting ideas about lists. They both exist in my head, and so far they’ve pretty much stayed in balance. The former makes me hate the latter, but the latter makes me attempt to be a little more open-minded (to little avail). And around it goes.”

From Zach: “It’s really just a list, but for me it gives me objectives to plan. Half of the excitement is studying the route and quantifying it in my head. I put all of the logistics together and then it’s game day. My awareness of the day is higher because I’m driven to make it unfold successfully. As I get close to finishing the 14ers, I wonder if I’ll find that drive without a menu of objectives to choose from. Welcome to my neurosis!”

But the list didn’t hold attraction for everyone.

From David: “At first I was interested in the lists, then I was trying to figure out who I was doing the list for. Me? Or what I wanted people to think of me? I lost the fun. Now, I go out to have fun. Fun with people, different experience on the same mountain. The list doesn’t matter. I understand why people chase them and I am glad they do. I just don’t feel the need to chase a list.”

And from Kay: “I could care less about lists when it comes to mountains. Which is ironic because I like checking things off lists in every other aspect of my life. Mountains are the one place I feel total freedom and that includes freedom from the constraints of lists. Lists remind me of going to the grocery store or the amount of school work I have to do. Climbing mountains is my freedom and I love them all equally.”

As for me? I’m somewhere in between. Living where I live, and working full-time, the free time to chase summits and knock off big lists doesn’t exist. I don’t have the money for things like the Seven Summits, and certainly not the cash, experience and skills for the 8,000-ers.

And yet I still keep track. The 14ers.com website has features where you can check off 14ers you’ve climbed, and 13ers as well. I like Dave’s take – that I head to the mountains to have fun and enjoy the moment. But by the time I get back to civilization and anywhere close to a computer, I log on. I find the list. And I check ‘em off, one peak at a time. I guess the list owns me, too, even if I never complete it.

Bob Doucette