Another look at training, performance and being ready to climb mountains

The high country can be fun if you’re physically ready for it.

I’m in a group on Facebook that deals with strength and fitness, and the administrator of that group asked me to post something there about what I do for conditioning in terms of being in what I call “mountain shape.”

This is an evolving thing for me, but over the years I’ve found some things that have worked well, and others not as much. Anyway, I figured I’d share that here, just in case some of you were looking at ideas for getting ready for hikes and climbs in the mountains, particularly when the altitude is high. Keep in mind, this is a post for a group that is focused on people focused on strength training, so it’s going to have a bias toward that and away from endurance athletics. That said, I think these ideas are fairly universal for people wanting to perform better at altitude. Have a read, and feel free to chime in with a few of your own ideas.

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I’m a big fan of Ed Viesturs, the first American to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks. He’s a beast on the hill. His primary ways of getting in shape: He runs 8 miles a pop, and he guides on Mount Rainier. That’s what got me into running.

BUT… as we all know, a lot of steady-state cardio can have negatives. Especially if you’re trying to build muscle. Steady state has its place. Lifting coach Tony Gentilcore wrote an entire post about its benefits in developing capillary density, aerobic capacity, etc. (he’s a legit lifter, too; can pull 600+ on the deadlift). But the body adapts to endless steady state cardio over time, and its benefits diminish. Meanwhile, lots of weekly mileage running can start to eat away muscle and sap strength. Metabolic changes can also occur, making it harder to maintain leanness over time. So what’s the middle ground? Some ideas:

You can get your run on without having to run tons of miles. Intervals, negative splits and sprints will get you in shape.

Intervals: You can do this in a number of ways. I like doing 8 repetitions of 400-meter runs. I push these hard, take a 90-second break, then do the next one a little faster. You can vary distances, too. 200-meter intervals at faster speeds can get a lot of work done. If you’re a real sadist, 800-meter intervals. If you can get to the point where you’re doing 8×800 or 10×800, you’re gonna be one tough mutha when it comes to stamina.

Sprints: 40- to 50-meter sprints are awesome. A hard sprint workout will not only get that conditioning benefit, but it will also enhance overall power and athleticism. That said, if you’re not used to doing sprints, ease into these at first. Someone who isn’t used to doing sprints, then shows up at the track and goes all out is asking for an injury. Do your homework, start conservatively, then work up to it. Sprinting is a skill. Check out this link for more.

Negative splits: A “split” is a term used to describe the time you run a specific length of a run. So on a 3-mile run, you could have three “splits” of a mile apiece. A negative split describes when a runner runs each split faster than the one before. This is a TOUGH workout. How I do it: I jog the first mile, easy pace. Second mile, I run at a goal “race pace.” Conversation at this pace would be difficult, as in short, infrequent sentences. On the last mile, I speed up again at a “suicide” pace. It’s not a sprint, but it’s fast enough that finishing that last mile at that speed is not guaranteed. You might want to ralph when it’s over. Great builder of VO max/mental toughness.

Take your fitness outside the gym to get in mountain shape. Go hike. Go climb. (Brady Lee photo)

As for conditioning specific to the mountains, I’d suggest three things. First, you gotta hike. Hike hills. Carry a loaded pack. Spend a few hours out there. Second, you gotta climb. If you’re going to tackle a mountain that’s not a walk-up, you need to put your body through the movements you’ll use on the peak. Find a local crag, go to a climbing gym, etc. It’s practice. Lastly, become friends with the stairmaster. Yeah, it’s an inside-the-gym machine, but it works all the muscles used in going uphill. Try increasing your speed as you go to mimic the increased aerobic demand of elevation gain.

Don’t forget to lift!

And as always, keep lifting. Your lifts should be based on the four basic movements: Squat, hip-hinge, press and pull. All of these are useful on the peaks, in building strength, and in everyday life.

How it looks for me: I lift Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. For conditioning, I do the stairmaster on Monday; short tempo run (steady state, race pace) Tuesday; longer run OR hill run OR negative split run on Wednesdays (this will be a high-demand conditioning day); stairmaster or HIIT on Thursday; medium-length tempo run Fridays. Saturday is an outdoors day. So I’ll go hike, climb, or do a long bike ride. I keep Saturdays open and fun, but fun with a purpose. Sundays I chill.

So there you have it. Again, if you’ve got your own ideas, let’s hear about it in the comments. And for more on this topic, check out this post.

Bob Doucette

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So you want to climb all the Colorado 14ers? Here are some thoughts and advice from three people who have done it

If you’ve gotten started on the Colorado 14ers, you’re going to notice a significant difference between the walk-up peaks and the more technical climbs. Pictured here is Mount Eolus, as seen from the summit of North Eolus.

One night last summer, I was at a pub with friends when I got into a conversation about mountains. The fella I was talking to and his wife had recently hiked to the top of Mount Bierstadt, one of Colorado’s 58 14,000-foot peaks known as the 14ers.

As the conversation continued, he told me what he hoped to do. He planned to climb them all.

In another case, I watched with amazement as another friend went on a 14er rampage over the summer while also getting ready to run the Leadville 100. He amassed a couple dozen 14ers during that time, and like guy I mentioned earlier, he expressed interest in tagging all 58 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains.

This is a big goal, but a doable one. I don’t say that as someone who has done it. I haven’t. But I know several people who have. Thousands of people have completed the list, and the number grows every year. But it’s not a small accomplishment, and there is a dividing line the confronts anyone trying to do it.

Thirty-nine of the 14ers are what we call “walk-ups.” That means they are ascended via hiking. No matter the mountain, even the walk-ups will be hard work, and some are harder than others. But generally speaking, the walk-ups are nontechnical and don’t have the big drop-offs and fall hazards that you see on steeper peaks. It’s mostly a test of endurance, mentality and keeping an eye on the weather.

But to finish the 14ers, you have to climb the rest of the list, which includes 19 mountains that aren’t walk-ups. Harder routes, the demands of climbing and higher risks of things like rockfall, loose rock and exposure to drop-offs. Some aren’t too bad. Others are objectively dangerous.

So if you’re one of those folks who has a few walk-ups under your belt and think you’d like to polish off the entire 58, what do you need to know?

Like I said, I’m not a finisher. My own list is mostly the walk-ups, sprinkled with a few of the harder mountains and routes. But I know a bunch of the finishers, and figured I’d ask them and pass along their answers to you.

First up is Bill Wood. Bill is a 14er finisher who is working on his second lap. He’s also climbed Mount Rainier, Mount Hood and Mexico’s Pico de Orizaba. His thoughts?

“Give it time – don’t try for quick success because while many people have done it quickly, it’s not as fun a trip along the way. Stay relatively healthy and in shape; read the dotcom (14ers.com) for advice as needed, trip reports as needed and find a couple of mentors who have been there and done that and willing to do it again.”

Solid stuff. I’ve done a few peaks with Bill, and I’d trust him on all of those.

Next up is Annalise Grueter, another finisher, ultramarathoner and overall mountain athlete. She’s had her fair share of alpine successes in Colorado, Latin America and Europe, the type of experience that provides good perspective.

“So, it takes a stubborn person. Whether you spend decades or years working on a goal, it’s something that you’re fixated upon completing eventually.

“Flexibility can be crucial. Having plan Bs and Cs for the class 3 and 4 peaks is super helpful and makes it easier to adjust on short notice when weather is being weird.

(Class 3 and 4 routes are those where you transition from hiking to climbing. Class 1 and 2 routes are hiking. Class 5 is roped, near-vertical to vertical technical climbing.)

“It takes some degree of stupidity, aka reasonably high risk tolerance. You need to be aware of when you’re in a dangerous spot, but also able to mute that part of your brain and proceed calmly and logically (using fear productively as opposed to panicking).

“As others have mentioned, I don’t think physical fitness plays into it quite as much. Yes, you definitely want to be sure you’re somewhat acclimated, but folks of all shapes and sizes and different types of fitness have finished the 14ers. If it’s something you value, endurance training certainly helps, and being at low elevation, intervals can help you as well, but those pieces aren’t mandatory per se.”

Lastly is Michael Weddell. He’s a finisher who is known by his friends as the expert on the Elk Range, home to the hardest and most dangerous 14ers in Colorado. Between that and all the other big mountains he has on his resume, he’s legit.

“When you are planning peaks throughout the middle section of the list (he’s speaking of the mountains where hiking gives way to climbing), be flexible. For example, if you are going for Mount Lindsey, and the forecast is bad, maybe the San Juans are the way to go. Increase your chances for success.”

(In this case, Mount Lindsey is a peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range; the San Juans are southwest of that mountain, making a potential alternative destination if weather in the Sangres is looking bad.)

“For myself personally, I have a small window of time for upper class 3s and 4s. I only plan on them from about the third or fourth week in July until the first dusting of snow in September. I don’t like complicating a climb with snow. I’ll leave that for someone above my skill level!”

(He’s being modest here, but the point is worth repeating: give yourself the best opportunity to succeed by picking the right seasons.)

To sum up their advice: Don’t rush it. Be stubborn, but don’t be in a hurry. Be in shape, but don’t think you need Olympic-level fitness to do the job. Test your risk tolerance, and allow it to grow by moving, step by step, from easier peaks to harder ones. Identify and plan for the best times of year to climb so you can increase your chances of success. And always have a Plan B. Or even a Plan C.

Other pieces of advice I’ve heard include taking up rock climbing, and practice those skills in places that can simulate the tougher routes you’re hoping to try.

So there you have it. I’m not one to give out advice on something where I don’t have authority. But listen to these three. They’ve been there and done that. If you’re still game – whether you’re a mountain state resident or a flatlander like me –  then give it a shot. The 14ers await.

Some helpful links:

Fourteener fitness

Fourteener gear

Picking your first Fourteener

Ascending your first Fourteener

If your want to read more about Annalise’s adventures in the mountains and in running, check out her blog here.

Bob Doucette

Oklahoma outdoors: Hiking in the Wichita Mountains, climbing Mount Mitchell

Jen and Luke hiking down the trail toward Mount Mitchell.

Any time I talk to people about the Wichita Mountains, I describe them as “my Oklahoma happy place.”

Growing up in Colorado, the mountains were always near, and in plain sight. Moving to the Southern Plains, that changed. But in the southwestern quarter of the state is an ancient mountain range of granite domes, spires and towers that give me the mountain fix I need.

A buddy of mine named Trent gave me my first real introduction to the Wichitas back in my 20s. Later, another friend of mine named Johnny took that to the next level. Johnny and I, and at times, his sister Ouida, tromped all over the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and its Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

I like to take people to these places, to pass down what was shown to me. Last year, it was my friend Brian, who has become so transfixed by outdoor adventure that he’s sold all of his stuff, outfitted a van and is roadtripping across the country full-time now. He plans to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail next year, and already has a bunch of big hikes under his belt. Brian and I spent a couple of days in the Wichitas in January in what was not just an introduction for him, but a badly needed homecoming for me.

This month I’ve made a conscious effort to hike more, and when company was available, bring ’em along. I put out the word that I wanted to go down there and revisit an old favorite of mine there, Mount Mitchell. The peak is in the southwest corner of the wildlife refuge and it one of the most rugged mountains in the entire range. It’s great practice for people wanting to graduate from hiking and into scrambles and climbs just short of where you might need ropes.

My brother-in-law and his wife signed up. I felt good about this for a couple of reasons. Jen is someone I’ve hiked with before. She did Mount LeConte with me a few years back and likes to climb. Luke, being a firefighter, is trained in rope rescue and is no stranger to high places. I like taking all kinds of people on these trips. But it is a relief knowing that the chances were good that these two would be able to handle to challenges Mount Mitchell offers.

Approaching Mount Mitchell.

The hike takes you about three miles from the Sunset Trailhead to the base of Mount Mitchell. It’s fairly easy hiking, going over a few hills and following a decent trail right up until we got to the junction that takes you to a rock formation called Crab Eyes (more on that place later). The trail fades a bit west of there, and eventually we were “off trail,” hiking through grassy meadows and an burned-out forest until we got to the mountain.

What I’ve told people about the Wichitas is that the area has something for everyone. If you’re looking for easy, short and scenic hikes, there are plenty. If you are jonesing for difficult roped climbs, there are dozens of them throughout the refuge. Mount Mitchell is in between, a peak that can be scaled without ropes, but is no hike, not even by its easiest route. There is plenty of Class 3 scrambles and Class 4 climbing throughout.

I figured I’d taken them up the same way I went last time I was here, up a gully on the mountain’s north face. It’s rugged, steep and filled with route-finding problems. The granite on the mountain is grippy — great for handholds and footholds, ideal for friction climbing, and tough on your hands unless you’re wearing some sort of glove. I learned a few years back that when doing scrambles like this, a pair of batting gloves can save you a lot of grief when the rock is cutting up your fingers and palms on every move.

Me starting up the mountain. Climbing butt-shot. (Jen Baines photo)

Jen and I going up the gully. (Luke Baines photo)

The upper part of the climb with the summit in sight.

The downside for the three of us was that it has been nine years since I’ve climbed Mitchell. I knew the basics of how to get to the top, but the specifics eluded me. So I did a lot of scouting to see if a particular line would go, only having to turn around and look for another way up. Mitchell’s north face is a complicated mix of boulders, cracks and slabs, and some obstacles aren’t visible until you’re right up on it.

That said, Luke and Jen provided plenty of feedback of their own, often helping us move forward, and eventually to the summit ridge.

One thing I was looking forward to was finding a fissure below the summit that leads to a fun 15-foot chimney climb. Had to do that one again for old-times’ sake.

Eventually we topped out, took a few pics on Mitchell’s tiny summit, then found a place protected from the winds to chow down on some lunch. Jen brought a book and read a few pages. We all checked out the views overlooking the wildest, most rugged part of the range, where Styx Canyon links Crab Eyes to Mitchell, and where Twin Rock Mountain and Granite Mountain guard Treasure Lake.

Jen takes in the views just below the summit while eating some lunch.

Luke and Jen noticed some grassy meadows below us on the south face and figured heading down there and following the east ridge to the bottom might be the easier path off the mountain rather than descending the way we came. Earlier I’d told them, “The good news is that we got the summit. The bad news is that we have to go down the way we came, and going down is always harder than going up.” With that in mind, we agreed the east ridge down was worth a shot.

Going down the south face/east ridge, looking toward the ruggedness of Twin Rock Mountain and Granite Mountain in the distance.

It turned out to be a good choice. I have memories descending the north face, and it had a couple of pucker-factor moments. Going down the south face/east ridge was considerably easier, though still Class 3 in some spots.

We did some more off-trail hiking around the mountain, then up a hill that gave us some great views of Sunset Peak’s south summit. We heard what sounded like a large animal give off a huff/grunt somewhere on the other side of the hill. I figured this might be our shot to finally see a buffalo (we hadn’t seen any all day), but no dice. Whatever it was stayed out of sight.

Hiking toward Crab Eyes, with Sunset peak in the background.

Our next stop was Crab Eyes. This is a popular hiking destination, and if you’re a seasoned climber, it has challenging routes that go all the way up to 5.10. You can also get to the spot just below the two “eyes” at the top of the formation’s tower, something that involves an awkward, and at times highly exposed scramble to the top. Jen was keen on doing it, so we got there and climbed around on this odd little peak for a while before a few others arrived to do the same. I’ve had Crab Eyes to myself a few times, but the last couple of trips have seen more visitors than in years past.

Crab Eyes.

Luke looks it over as we hike out.

Crab Eyes capped off a solid day of hiking and climbing under blue skies and mild temps. I love hiking in the Wichitas in the fall and winter, and I think my buddies felt the same way. And we finally saw an elusive buffalo on the drive out.

Me and Luke walking toward Mount Mitchell. (Jen Baines photo)

The trail through the woods on the way out.

My sad photo of a buffalo, taken from the car on the way home.

I can envision another trip coming soon.

Bob Doucette

A pursuit of excellence: My biggest takeaway from Alex Honnold and ‘Free Solo’

Alex Honnold was the subject of what many consider one of the best climbing films ever, “Free Solo.”

When I went in to see “Free Solo” on the big screen, I had high expectations. Alex Honnold’s feats in big-wall rock climbing are incomparable. Given the filmmakers involved, including pro adventurer Jimmy Chin, I figured the production quality would be somewhere on a “Meru” scale, which is in my eyes, pretty damn good.

We all knew Honnold succeeded in becoming the first person to free-solo El Capitan. That’s news from awhile back. But seeing it unfold on the big screen? That’s a whole other thing.

The film delivered. I got sweaty palms watching it unfold. I was given his backstory. All of it was beautifully filmed, expertly told and compellingly arranged. You don’t have to be a hard-core climber to enjoy “Free Solo.”

But there is something else I got from “Free Solo” that I wasn’t expecting, and in my eyes, it was probably the most revealing part of the movie: Honnold is driven by a desire for excellence.

I think it’s forgotten by most of us just how much preparation, practice and study it takes to do what he does. “Free Solo” makes sure you know.

There is a montage about midway through the film in which Honnold is shown reading from one of his climbing journals. Every entry is about a specific part of the Freerider route he planned to climb, sans rope, from base to summit. It’s loaded with climber jargon, route locations and descriptions of specific obstacles he’d have to work though to finish the route. Each step is detailed, complete with what sort of technique and move he’d apply. There’s nothing colorful or emotive about his writings. It’s all business.

His meticulous attention to detail is matched by the hours he spent “practicing,” or in other words, time spent climbing the route over and over again. He climbed Freerider a number of times in the traditional roped style while also climbing big walls elsewhere and hitting the climbing gym often.

Pro athletes are seen spending hours in the gym or on the practice field, and hours more in film rooms, and hours more still hitting the weights. It’s no different for Honnold, except when it’s game time for him, the price of losing is fatal. To succeed – which is to live through it – is to be as close to perfect as a human can get. Getting yourself ready to be perfect is an exercise in discipline and work ethic that’s hard to fathom.

I left the theater wowed, just like everyone else. But more than that, I walked out hoping that in some fashion, I’d reach a level of excellence in something – anything – that Honnold achieved when he topped out on Freerider in the spring of 2017. It won’t happen in climbing for me, and in reality, it probably won’t happen in anything I do. But if it did, we’re talking about Hall of Fame/Pulitzer/Nobel-level stuff. Maybe climbing doesn’t have the gravitas of all that, but if you want to see what being the best at something looks like, watch the film.

As it turns out, the dirtbag climber community has more to offer than high stoke, big views and an adrenaline rush. The best of them can show us what it takes to be great. Or in Honnold’s case, the greatest.

Bob Doucette

Of thrilling victory and tragic defeat: A tale of two climbs on El Capitan

El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park. (Wikipedia commons/Little Mountain 5 photo)

Years ago, ABC used to air a weekend program called “Wide World of Sports.” It was a staple for many who were interested in watching events that weren’t part of the “big four” of American sports, that being football, baseball, basketball and hockey.

But the show’s most lasting imprint on popular culture didn’t come from the sports it televised. It came from its intro, a montage of clips from a variety of contests. The narrator speaks of “the thrill of victory,” then cues up a downhill skier wiping out violently during a race before continuing, “and the agony of defeat.”

The stakes of sports are what make them compelling. The higher the stakes, the greater the drama. Nowhere is that more true than in the mountains, and we saw both the thrill and the agony play out within days of each other on one of the most iconic rock faces on the planet.

On June 2, climbers Jason Wells and Tim Klein were on El Capitan’s Freeblast route when they fell, ultimately plummeting more than 1,000 feet to their deaths. Both were accomplished, experienced climbers on a section of the route described as well within their abilities when the fall occurred.

On Wednesday, June 6, climbers Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell were also at El Capitan, trying to set speed records on the Nose. They accomplished this – twice. The new speed record for climbing this route stands at 1 hour, 58 minutes and 7 seconds, an astonishing feat on a route that takes most people days to complete.

Two solid climbing teams, two very different outcomes, on the same mountain. Wells and Klein are mourned; Honnold and Caldwell are celebrated. Only four days separated them.

This is the dualism of mountaineering. Obviously, there are other possible outcomes. You can get turned back by weather or route conditions, or perhaps forced into retreat by illness or injury. But there are few sports where the reward for success is, in reality, so modest, and the toll of failure (even if you did everything right) so painfully high.

It’s something I think about every time summer draws near. Exploring the mountains is becoming more popular every year. Most aren’t climbing El Capitan, but they are venturing into wild places that aren’t inherently safe or forgiving. Many thousands cut their teeth on the easier peaks, then try tougher challenges as time goes on. The vast majority do OK. But some don’t make it back. That’s how it works in the high country.

I won’t waste time grousing about the unnecessary chances people take, or social media pressures to go bigger each time. That’s been covered. But it does make me stop and think. Last year, scores (hundreds?) of people successfully climbed Capitol Peak in Colorado’s Elk Mountains. But within a span of six weeks, five people died on that same mountain. Other peaks, in Colorado and elsewhere, had similar stories, I’m sure.

It would also be silly to ask why people bother, given the risks of climbing, mountaineering and backcountry exploration. Mountains draw us in. Wild places fascinate us. Summit views, the sounds of the woods and the quiet of wilderness are always going to be a draw. The good parts, and the feeling of accomplishment, have their own special allure. That’s our version of the thrill of victory.

But I suppose it’s worth considering the agony of defeat. I’ve had a few close scrapes, but have come out of those OK. Others haven’t, even if they have many times before.

Maybe that’s the lesson from Yosemite Valley last week, just in time for the crowds who are heading into the mountains now.

Bob Doucette

Return to the Wichitas, Part 2: Hiking Sunset Peak and Crab Eyes in Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains

Brian heading into the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

It usually takes a me couple of days to get used to sleeping on the ground. Fancy mattresses and memory foam have made us weak. Comfy, but weak.

The growing chill of the night and the empty bottles of beer that Brian and I had finished off signaled that it was time to hit the rack. Frankly, I looked forward to crawling into my sleeping bag. It had to be warmer than sitting outside in the cool chill of the wind. But sleep doesn’t come easy. Not at camp, and certainly not with a thin pad between me and the ground. Then again, I knew this. It would be 20 minutes of dozing here, an hour there and so on for several hours, interrupted by the need to roll over to another side, shake off the chill or go outside to take a piss.

What I didn’t expect were the wake-up calls from our neighbors. And by “neighbors,” I mean the furry, four-footed kinds.

Somewhere near the lake, a chorus of howling and yipping pierced the still of the night. A regular coyote party, loud, constant and maybe even a tad aggressive. Those suckers wanted to be heard. And then, as if something caught their attention, it would cease. Not tail off from weariness, but end abruptly. It was weird. The little buggers would repeat this act a couple more times during the night. It wasn’t scary, but it was loud. It’s almost as if they knew they’d be waking us up.

On another occasion, I heard something more sinister. Some rustling, then loud, high-pitched animalistic noises of protest and pain, and finally silence. It wasn’t hard to solve that mystery. One fuzzy creature became another fuzzy creature’s dinner. It’s a hell of a thing to listen to something die.

That happened twice, further disrupting my sleep. The circle of life, on display in the Wichita Mountains: an annoying wakeup call to be sure, but at least I wasn’t someone’s midnight snack.

DAYBREAK

Sunrise from camp. Oklahoma does sunrises right.

Being a night shift worker, I rarely see a sunrise. That’s the beauty of camping, though. When it gets dark, you turn in. When it gets light, you get up. More like it should be outside the artificial construct of things like work, civilization and whatnot.

Dawn broke and I willed myself out of my sleeping bag to get the day going. We had a big day planned, so there was no sense dragging out any more minutes in the bag and on the cold, hard ground.

I was greeted by a cheery sunrise over the lake where we camped. High clouds blown in the from the south added texture to the fiery colors of the rising sun, with the orange, red and pink hues of dawn reflecting off the water. Oklahoma sunrises and sunsets are vastly underrated.

We munched breakfast, gathered our gear and talked about what the day might be like. Seven years of being away from the Wichitas left me wondering if I’d remember how to get to some of the spots I hoped to see. The trails in the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area tended to be faint and sparsely marked, and I’ve been known to get lost a time or two.

No matter. We’d figure it out. We got in the truck and headed back to the Sunset trailhead and made our way west.

I told a few stories along the way. As we were hiking through a patch of thickets and blackjack oak, I showed him where I had a close call with a buffalo nearly eight years earlier. Although I wasn’t keen on repeating that experience, I was hoping that we’d see some bison.

Shortly after leaving the woods, we ran up on a trio of hikers coming the other way. A man and his wife, plus another fella were making their way toward us. The second guy, as it turned out, was the other man’s father. His age: 86.

I know plenty of people 10, 20 and even 30 years younger than this guy who’ve long resigned themselves to steering clear of anything remotely close to wilderness exploration. And here he was, pounding dirt on a brisk Saturday morning. Call me impressed.

Eventually we made our way far enough where I could show him where Crab Eyes was, but that side trip would have to wait. The first destination, Sunset Peak, had to come first. We kept hiking west.

Mount Mitchell.

Somehow, I got us on the wrong side of a ridge that was taking us away from Sunset Peak and toward another mountain, Mount Mitchell. I figured this would lengthen our approach (Bad guide! Bad!), but it also showed me a more direct route to Mount Mitchell than the one I’d taken nine years before with my friend Johnny and his sister Ouida. On that trip, we hiked to Crab Eyes, then pointed ourselves toward Mount Mitchell by way of Styx Canyon. The canyon is probably the most rugged patch of “hiking” in Charon’s Garden. There’s no trail, but there is about an hour’s worth of heinous bushwhacking and route-finding before you’re clear of the thickets, thorns and boulders that litter the canyon floor. That’s not exactly what I’d call fun, so finding a smoother, clearer game trail that went straight to Mount Mitchell’s base was a pleasant discovery.

Around the time we were making out way around the ridge and toward Sunset Peak, we had our first megafauna sighting: First, it was one female elk. Then another. And then, more. At least seven of them warily eyed us from the crest of the ridge, then loped away and out of sight. No buffalo yet, but seeing elk in Oklahoma is rather rare unless you’re in the Wichitas.

By now, Sunset Peak’s south summit was in view. It stands out, towering above a high meadow that rests atop a short headwall. The last time I was here, that meadow sported a herd of a couple dozen bison. So I half expected to see them again once we topped the headwall.

But the meadow was empty. It was just us, the wind, and stubborn cloud cover that was keeping the temperatures down. While it would have been fun to see buffalo, at least we didn’t have to worry about navigating around these at-time temperamental beasts. Before long, we at the base of the peak.

SUNSET PEAK

Sunset Peak’s south summit.

Nearly seven years ago, my friend Johnny and I topped out on this mountain. It was tamer than Mount Mitchell, but there were still a few challenges getting up to the top. I remember some fantastic views and a little bit of effort, but I figured this mountain to be solidly Class 2 without any need for Class 3 scrambling unless you wanted it.

What we got was something else altogether.

There’s no trail up the south summit. It’s all about zig-zagging your way up the face, and route-finding is a constant.

My memory must have dimmed a bit on this one. I didn’t recall the thick, intermittent bushwhacking. And I certainly don’t recall as many Class 3 scrambles as we got. Brian readjusted his pack and stowed his trekking poles to handle the climb more easily.

Halfway up Sunset Peak.

Brian tackles a scramble going up Sunset Peak.

We did spot one cairn, so I went over to it hoping it would lead to a more obvious route up. No dice. It was a worthless rock stack, and I should have kicked it over. That took me back to more scrambles up the face before we eventually climbed our way to the big blocks atop the south summit.

One memory did hold, and that was the views. They’re spectacular. Shorter peaks and rock formations littered the surroundings. Farther north, Sunset Peak’s north summit (and true high point) awaited. The big sentinels of the Wichitas loomed in the distance, and for miles to the west, the fringes of the range could be seen rising from the prairie floor from as far away as Altus.

View from the top of Sunset Peak’s south summit.

What I like about these mountains is that they offer something most peaks east of the Rockies don’t: unobstructed summit views. When you’re in the Appalachians, most summits are covered with trees. It’s not until you get to New England that you hit mountains with treelines. The same is true in the Ozarks, the Ouachitas and most other mountain ranges east of the Rockies. You’ll get occasional outcroppings with panoramic vistas, but the Wichitas give you that alpine-style, 360-degree view without all the hassles of high altitudes. It’s hard to describe, other than maybe the Wichitas resemble what Joshua Tree might look like if you plopped it down on the Southern Plains.

We took a snack break in a natural wind break. Forecasts called for 60-degree temperatures, but even at 10 a.m., it was just 40 degrees and incredibly windy atop the peak. Soon we headed away from our shelter and down the saddle toward Sunset’s north summit.

Traversing the saddle proved a lot easier than climbing the south summit, and the north summit was an easy hike to the top. No bushwhacking, no scrambles. The north summit might be Sunset’s high point, but it’s considerably milder than its southern neighbor. Sadly, I forgot to take any pics from here. You’ll have to trust me that we got there.

From the east, you can see Sunset Peak’s gentler north (true) summit to the right.

Another view of the Sunset Peak massif. Both the north and south summits are visible.

From there, we stayed on the eastern slopes of the mountain and angled our way down south toward a ridge that stood between us and Crab Eyes. I wanted to avoid the ravine – just more boulder-filled heinous bushwhacking that didn’t look like a lot of fun. As we left the mountain and hiked up the rise, we saw the elk herd again, and just like last time, they eyed us for a few moments and hurried off. Within a half hour, we were back at the junction of the trail we took to Mount Mitchell and the southern trail that led to Crab Eyes, our final destination of the day.

CRAB EYES

A good look at Crab Eyes. This is an older photo from another visit to the formation.

We also talked with a young couple that was camping there: they were among the lucky few that got a backcountry permit. They were relaxed, munching on pizzas they made at their campsite. Cold pizzas, of course: Campfires are forbidden in the wilderness area.

The hike to Crab Eyes is a fun one. You meander through skinny trails that hug rock walls leading to the formation’s base, and then you see it towering above you: enormous granite slabs holding two massive boulders at the top. It looks like a huge, stony hermit crab staring down at you, hence the name.

A view of Elk Mountain, from the base of Crab Eyes.

Every time I’ve come here, I’ve had the place to myself. But this time we had company. I spotted three people at the base, with one person shimmying between two rock slabs. I recognized the move, as the route he was climbing was the “easy” way to the top. It goes something like this:

First, you wedge yourself between two roughly horizontal but slightly angled slabs and crawl your way up. Free of that obstacle, you can do one of two things: Crab-walk up two slabs (hands on one slab, feet on the other) or, for the more daring and dexterous, tightrope-walk up one of the slabs and never mind that 50-foot drop to your left. I’d call it a solid Class 4 route with a no-fall zone to the climber’s left.

As it turned out, they were making this climb to set up an anchor to do a technical climb up Crab Eyes’ east face. This is no small trick.

Though it’s a single-pitch climb, it’s notoriously tough. It’s a crack climb on really grippy granite, but it’s also slightly overhanging in spots. It’s rated a 5.10+, and according to this crew, a tough 5.10 at that.

A climber tackles a technical route on the east face of Crab Eyes. It’s rated a 5.10.

Belaying the climber on Crab Eyes.

I munched a little more and watched one of them negotiate the climb. He handled it expertly, but even after being lowered down, he admitted, “It’s harder than I remembered it.”

His friend piped in, “Just typical climbing in the Wichitas!”

Brian struck up a conversation with a third member of that party. She was considering hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and given Brian’s interest in through-hiking that Appalachian Trail, talk of gear and logistics came easy. As for me, I munched on my trail fave: summer sausage, cheese and a tortilla.

Tortilla, summer sausage and cheddar. This may be one of the best food combinations ever created.

We headed back not long after, reliving the complications of Sunset Peak and the beauty of the range. Too few people in Oklahoma know of this place, the most rugged patch of rock in the state. Considering the scarcity of public lands and real wilderness, it’s a little surprising to me.

At the same time, it is exactly as I remembered it. Wild, untamed and severe. It was a reminder of what America does right, in that we have long taken seriously the idea of preserving wild places such as this.

I can only hope that sentiment endures. The Wichitas are my Oklahoma happy place, a destination where I can climb rocky crags, enjoy sweeping summit views and tread the same paths of creatures that have called these environs home for longer than people have lived here. I hope it is always so.

Okie mountains rock.

Getting there: Take Interstate 44 to the State Highway 49 exit and go west. The highway will take you to the refuge.

About the route, Sunset Peak: From the Sunset trailhead, take the trail that starts at the gate of the west side of the parking lot. You’ll hike through a wooded grove until you reach a sign pointing left toward the Charon’s Garden Trail. Go right instead, continuing roughly west. You will cross two dry creek beds, then hike up a rise that gives you a view of the western portions of Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

In less than half a mile, you will run into a junction in the trail. One spur goes south toward Crab Eyes, the other turns into a game trail going west. Keep going west. You will hike toward Mount Mitchell, then turn north at the end of a rocky ridge to your right. Getting around the ridge, you will see Sunset Peak’s south summit. Hike up the headwall and cross the meadow to the peak’s base. From here, you’ll likely zigzag your way up the face. Route finding will be essential. About half this effort will be steep hiking, with some short but numerous scrambles on mostly solid rock. Continue until you get under the summit blocks, then traverse to your right to gain the top.

Once you’ve reached the south summit, hike down the saddle between the south and north summits. You should be able to find easier hiking with a little boulder hopping by staying toward the left side of the saddle. At the bottom, start going up toward the north summit on easy hiking to the top. A small bit of boulder hopping near the top will help you gain Sunset Peak’s true summit.

Round-trip hiking is about 6 miles. The route up Sunset’s south summit is difficult Class 2 to Class 3. The rest of the hike is a Class 1 approach, with class 2 sections on some portions of the mountain’s north summit.

Always something to see.

Crab Eyes: Follow the trail out of the Sunset trailhead parking lot like you would going to Sunset Peak. At the trail junction mentioned above, go left (south) and follow the established trail up toward the formation. The trail will eventually take you to a small headwall at the base of Crab Eyes. Hike left of the headwall, then up and to the right to the base of Crab Eyes. A Class 4 route to the top is the easiest way up if you choose to do it. On the north side of the base, hike up to an upwardly slanted pair of horizontal slabs. To ascend, wedge yourself between the slabs and shimmy your way up about 20 feet. From there, you will see two parallel vertical slabs about three feet apart that make up the main tower of the formation. You can crab walk up (hands on one slab, feet on the other) or tightrope walk up the left slab to the top. This is a very exposed part of the climb, as a 50-foot+ vertical drop is on your immediate left. The climb takes you to the top of the formation where the “eyes” (two large boulders) rest. Don’t bother climbing the boulders.

Otherwise, there are Class 5 routes up both the east and west faces. Bolts are in place on the west face.

The hike to Crab Eyes is Class 1, with Class 2 portions at the end, and is 3.6 miles round trip.

Things to know: The Wichita Mountains are home to abundant wildlife as well as a managed herd of longhorn cattle. Of particular note are bison. Give bison and the longhorn cattle plenty of room, as they can be dangerous when spooked or angered. The range is also home to rattlesnakes, so be on the lookout for them during warmer months. The range is also dry. All creeks and waterfalls are seasonal, so opportunities for filtering are relatively few. Bring plenty of water, regardless of season.

Dawn breaks at the Doris Campgrounds.

Camping: For tent or car camping, the Doris Campground features 90 spots. Some are semi-primitive, others have RV hookups. The east edge of the campground is by the western shore of Quanah Parker Lake. Campsite costs are $10 a night for tent camping. Prices go up for sites with electrical hookups. Restrooms and showers are on site.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also offers limited backcountry camping permits in Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area. Inquire for reservations; all permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis. No campfires are allowed in the backcountry.

For more, go here.

Read Part 1 of “Return to the Wichitas” here.

Bob Doucette

With five deaths in six weeks on Capitol Peak, mountain safety takes on greater urgency

Capitol Peak, Colo. (Wikipedia commons photo)

Anytime someone dies in the mountains, it gets attention. Landslides, avalanches, falls, or otherwise, the terror of finding your end on a high peak garners headlines.

People speculate how it happened. They express grief and sympathy for the fallen climber’s family and friends. A few may even throw barbs toward the victim, though that is, thankfully, rare.

This is repeated every year, especially in the summer when hordes of hikers and climbers take advantage of longer days and more favorable weather to get their summit fix.

But this summer feels a bit different, in that the volume of deaths seems to be on the rise. And more than that, the number of fatalities on one particular mountain, Colorado’s Capitol Peak.

I’ve never climbed it, but I know some people who have. There is bountiful information about the peak and its challenges available online and in books. From these sources, I can tell you a few things about the mountain: It’s exposed, with large drop-offs and a number of “no-fall zones.” Like the rest of the Elk Range where it resides, it’s notoriously loose, with rotten rock in all the wrong places. It doesn’t take much for toaster-sized rocks – or boulders far larger – to tear loose from the mountainside and careen down its steep slopes, and God help you if you’re in the fall line. One friend of mine survived a rockfall incident, but deals with traumatic brain injury symptoms years later after having two loose rocks smash into her head during a climb in 2013. Thank God for climbing helmets, or she’d be dead.

More recent news has solidified the mountain’s reputation. Over the past six weeks, Capitol Peak has claimed five lives.

That’s an extraordinary number, given the fact that the mountain hasn’t had more deaths than that over the previous several years combined. And for more perspective, it’s just two fewer than Mount Everest recorded during its spring climbing season this year. I don’t want to equate the two mountains, but the numbers are what they are.

So what do we know of the 2017 fatalities? The first two seem to be cases of falls associated with loose rock. But the last three indicate something else.

The third and fourth deaths on Capitol Peak, Carly Brightwell and Ryan Marcil, were a couple who had climbed the mountain, then fell on a steep section below the summit but before the solid yet very exposed knife-edge ridge.

The fifth death, Zackaria White, was a climber who fell in the same area.

What separates these two incidents is the experience of the climbers. The couple in question had some time in the mountains under their belts. White did not. In fact, Capitol Peak was his first 14er (a mountain that meets or exceeds 14,000 feet above sea level).

The knife-edge ridge on Capitol Peak. (Wikipedia commons photo)

What they have in common is it appears all three people tried to find another route down the mountain to avoid traversing the knife edge, according to local search-and-rescue team reports. They cliffed out, got to a point where they could not ascend or descend, and fell to their deaths.

Those similarities would, at least, point toward some obvious lessons: Stay on the route, especially on challenging mountains like Capitol. But this is no cure-all, as evidenced by the other fatalities on Capitol, as well as two more deaths on the nearby Maroon Bells, a pair of striking but dangerous mountains in the same range.* The “Deadly Bells,” as they are known, are like the rest of the Elk Range: steep, exposed and littered with loose rock that can break off under you at any moment. Deaths on the Bells, as well as a number of mountains in this range and many others throughout Colorado (10 fatalities so far this year), come with a wide variety of causes.

In fact, if you were to make a list of causes of death (and preventative measures to minimize risks for each situation), it would be so broad as to nullify any attempt at standard, one-size-fits-all practices to curtail mountain tragedies. To wit: bring the 10 essentials; eat and hydrate; get an early start; watch the weather; study the route; bring an emergency locator beacon; be in top shape; don’t wear cotton; bring the proper footwear; don’t try a mountain beyond your abilities; hike with a partner; and so on. Even if you did all these things – and most people do – there is a chance that you could still die on a mountain by pure blind chance. That, too, has happened often enough, claiming newbies and veteran climbers alike.

It should be noted that the ratio of people who have safely summited Capitol Peak, and any number of other Colorado mountains, to those who have died on them is starkly in favor of survival. For every death, thousands have successfully climbed and come home intact.

But rescue and recovery missions are expensive, taxing and at times risky endeavors. Given that, and the growing number of people who try their luck in the high country (to the tune of hundreds of thousands every year) mean that the myriad of ways people can get into trouble will only ensnare more, which will mean more rescues, more risk on the part of the rescuers, and to those who can’t be saved, more deaths.

An exasperated Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo told the Aspen Times his office would more aggressively educate people on the risks of climbing mountains, especially the ones in his jurisdiction. Mountain Rescue Aspen is drawing up plans to do just that.

But here is where we are: We exist in a time where outdoor adventure is more popular than ever. Social media, especially channels like Instagram and Facebook, drive people to do more, push harder and otherwise ply their skills for the sake of not just enjoying the high country, but to pursue “likes,” audience growth, and potential sponsorships from gear companies, retailers and others who seek out social media influencers to market their brands. They may not be the only drivers, but they are potent. And they will only grow more powerful as populations in Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Portland, among others, swell.

To be frank, I don’t know if there’s an answer here. I can’t say if this summer in Colorado is an anomaly or the beginning of a trend. But it does bring me back to a couple truths.

First, the ultimate responsibility has and always will lie with the individual. No one forces anyone to climb mountains. For those who do, the burden of preparedness and safety is squarely on their shoulders. Given the massive volume of information out there on mountain safety, there is no excuse for being uneducated on the topic or on the peaks people climb.

Second, it’s important for people to have each other’s backs. Teach those with less experience than you. Be the one to give guidance on the trail to your partners, and take charge when needed. Know when it’s time to call it a day and turn around. Those lower on the pecking order need to pay attention to those with more experience. And those with the experience need to get a good read on their partners and understand their limitations, or any other problems that may arise. Teams should not split up unless absolutely necessary, and believe me, that’s rare.

We know people will have problems in the high country. We know people will die. And we’ll analyze these incidents, looking for answers. But don’t expect a cure-all solution. As lame as this might sound, we must do the best we can at taking care of ourselves, doing the things we love in the places we cherish, knowing that these marvels of nature can snuff us out at any time, with total indifference, even if we do everything right. It’s the nature of mountains, and one none of us should ever forget.

Bob Doucette

*An earlier version of this post said there were four deaths in the Maroon Bells this year. There have been two.