Video: Cheating death on Colorado’s Maroon Bells

This video caught my attention. Anyone who has spent time in the mountains knows that rockfall and loose rock underfoot is scary stuff, particularly when you’re in highly exposed places.

Setting up: The climbers here are doing what is called the Bells Traverse — they’ve climbed Maroon Peak, and are traversing the airy ridge connecting Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak. Both are 14,000-foot peaks, and are considered two of the toughest in the state. This is a short but difficult and risky route between the peaks. Seeing this video, taken at the aptly named Leap of Faith, you’ll see why…

If that dude were a cat, he’d be down to eight lives or so. The Elk Range has been described as “red, rugged and rotten.” Now you know why. One fall there, and we’re reading about that fella the next day.

Happy Monday!

Bob Doucette

The king of the Colorado Rockies: Longs Peak

All hail the king.

All hail the king.

Throughout the Rockies of Colorado, there are nearly 700 peaks that rise over 13,000 feet. No other state in the country comes close to that, at least not in sheer volume.

Among that number are 58 summits topping 14,000 feet, again, unique to Colorado. In this mix are mountains that run the gamut: large, hulking lumps, craggy, vertical spires and behemoth peaks that dominate the surrounding landscape. Some are hikes, requiring only a strong set of legs and lungs to reach the top. Others play harder to get, if you get my drift.

Pikes Peak is probably Colorado’s most famous, towering over Colorado Springs and visible from Denver. Mount Evans is the centerpiece of the Rocky Mountain skyline from Colorado’s capital city, its distinct concave bowl easily discerned. And back in the day, Mount of the Holy Cross had special allure: Its cross-shaped couloir became the desired sight of many travelers, and the subject of numerous painters’ canvasses. Mount Elbert rises gently over Twin Lakes and Leadville, the state’s highest point and the second-loftiest peak in the contiguous 48 states. Capitol Peak is known as the toughest of the state’s highest 58.

All of these and more have their own claims to fame. But if I were to pick one to rule them all, it wouldn’t be Colorado’s most famous, highest or whatnot. I’d pick one that could take the same place that Rainier has in Washington, dubbed simply as “the mountain” by those in the Upper Left. If you had to pick one in Colorado to get that designation, it would have to be Longs Peak. Let me make my case.

Longs Peak, at 14,255 feet, isn’t even the highest in the Front Range, though its bulk sets it apart from its three higher siblings to the south. It’s visible from Denver, the centerpiece of Rocky Mountain National Park, and to borrow some terminology from a friend I know, it’s one burly mountain.

Because of its proximity to a number of east slope cities (and being smack in the middle of a widely visited national park), more people attempt to climb it than almost any other peak in the state. A paved road takes you to the trailhead. But Longs’ proximity and accessibility belie its challenge: About 50 percent who try don’t reach the top.

Longs also has a reputation for risk. More fatalities have occurred on Longs Peak than any other in Colorado, about 60 at last count. There are plenty of stories about people getting injured, lost or otherwise stranded on the mountain, underestimating its difficulty or getting marooned by bad weather that can pounce much more quickly than most realize. Longs Peak was named by Outside Magazine as one of the 20 most dangerous hikes in the world.

The route to the top is lengthy, no matter which one you choose. At a minimum, expect at least 14 miles of hiking and climbing to get to the top. And getting to the top, even by its easiest route, is still a significant undertaking –much more so than most of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks. A lengthy hike takes you to a rugged and taxing place called the Boulder Field, a rock-hopping, joint-jarring and awkward ascent to a feature in a ridge called the Keyhole, which serves as a gateway to another mile of narrow traverses, steep climbs and airy drop-offs for the final 1,000 feet or so of the ascent.

The mountain’s other routes are a tad shorter, but more steep, more exposed, and more dangerous: the steep and often snowy Loft route by Chasm Lake, and, at its most difficult, a vertical, multi-pitch rock climb up Longs’ most recognizable feature, the Diamond, a sheer wall as high as most skyscrapers in America.

There are other ways to the top — none as hard as a trip up the Diamond, but all difficult nonetheless. No matter which you choose, count on giving yourself a lot of time: Most people start the hike around 2 a.m.

These facts are all well and good, but for me it goes beyond that. Longs Peak has to be seen and experienced in a more personal way. You’ve got to see the huge summit block at sunrise, and gaze on the dark, forbidding rock that towers overhead. You have to absorb its scale, and that of the features that make it distinct — the Diamond’s imposing wall, the twisted tower of the Ship’s Prow, the dark outline of nearby Mount Meeker, a daunting peak in its own right.

You need to feel the blast of wind that greets you at the Keyhole (if that’s the route you choose) and marvel at the swirl of clouds that rushes by.

I am by no means an expert mountaineer, but in 12 years of bagging peaks I can say that I’ve never seen a more dramatic, more muscular peak in Colorado than Longs Peak. It embodies everything that its kin scattered across the state possess — sweeping, wooded slopes, vertical rock spires, imposing cliffs and dizzying heights. It’s everything that any 14er in the state is, but more of it.

And I might add, it’s beautiful, particularly up close when the rays of the morning sun bounce off the summit.

Many will rightly note that there are more than a few mountains that are more difficult, and certainly several are higher. But when you add up everything that makes Longs Peak what it is, I think it goes beyond being the monarch of Rocky Mountain National Park. Crown it the state’s king. It’s Colorado’s Rainier.

It’s The Mountain.

Got another take on this? Or a good story of your own from Longs Peak? Let’s hear about it in the comments, and be sure to take the poll.

Bob Doucette

Seven signs it’s time to bail on a summit

When you're so close to the top, it's hard to turn around. But there are times when you must.

When you’re so close to the top, it’s hard to turn around. But there are times when you must.

In 12 years of peak-bagging, I’ve found there is hardly a greater moment than topping out on a hard-earned summit. The post-climb eat-feat that usually follows, complete with exultant friends and brews aplenty, makes for sweet memories as well.

But mountains can turn on you with little warning, making that high country adventure more than you bargained for. Summit fever is a real thing, and it gets some people in serious trouble. Lightning strikes, heart attacks, rockfall injuries and avalanches — these are just a few maladies that strike would-be hikers, climbers and mountaineers when they push on despite the warning signs and forget uber-climber Ed Viesturs’ cardinal rule: getting the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.

So here are seven signs it’s time to bail on a summit bid…

  1. When the mountain says no. Defining this can be a bit murky, but when you see it, you’ll know. The route may be too icy and steep, or perhaps you are seeing too many signs of dangerous rockfall. Maybe that cornice above you looks menacing, and temperatures or wind conditions tell you that a slope is ripe for an avalanche. If a route you spied is too dangerous, or would take too long to be safe, reassess and back off if needed.
  2. When the weather says no. This is pretty straightforward. When storm clouds arise, it’s time to bug out — regardless of season. Thunderstorms can bring lightning and heavy rain. Being caught in an electrical storm is clearly nothing anyone wants to mess with, and a doable route in dry conditions can become treacherous when wet. Snowstorms often lead to whiteouts, and then can get you lost, stranded or, in the worst possible scenario, lead you right off a cliff. If you get pinned down in a snowstorm, hypothermia and frostbite become real dangers. Keep an eye on the forecasts, and always watch the skies. When they turn on you, turn around.
  3. When your skill level says no. There is nothing wrong with pushing your limits to get better. But there comes a point when your experience and skills don’t — and won’t — measure up to a challenge you come across at a specific time. The thought of bragging rights after a climb might sounds awesome… until you get cliffed out or injured and need to be evacuated from the mountain. Or worse. Don’t end up being a headline because your eyes were bigger than your stomach, so to speak. Be excited, be daring, but be realistic and honest with yourself.
  4. When your body says no. There are a lot of factors to consider here. Some of it might be conditioning, which is often the case at altitude. Perhaps the route was too long and too taxing, and you are out of steam. Or maybe you end up suffering from dehydration, altitude sickness or some other sort of illness that is making your summit bid too daunting to continue. I’ve pushed through pneumonia to bag a peak, but I don’t advise it. It’s better to listen to your body.
  5. When your partners say no. This is a biggie, and can be complicated. You may be following an experienced buddy and are amped to do something great, but he/she tells you it’s time to bail. Or perhaps you’re leading a group and your friends are too sketched out or too tired to continue. Listen to them. The only way you can split up a group is if you’ve planned for that contingency, and this is a rare exception. Even if you are sure you can go on to tackle a peak, or you’re certain that your partners are being overly cautious, listen to them anyway. The dangers of splitting up a group and the risks of alienating your friends/partners is not worth an iffy summit bid.
  6. When your preparations say no. Whether it’s the clothes you bring, the gear you hauled or the food/water you packed, if your adventure is going to outstrip your provisions it’s time to face the facts: being too hot/cold/wet/hungry/thirsty to reach your goal is a good sign it’s time to back off. Take a few mental notes, learn from your mistakes and use that knowledge to try again another day.
  7. When a combination of those first six items say no. Sometimes it seems that the world is plotting against you. When it really feels that way, maybe that’s less of a cosmic conspiracy and more of a giant series of red flags that it’s time to call it a day. Trust your instincts when lots of things are going really, really wrong before committing to topping out.

So that’s my list. Any tips of your own? Feel free to share in the comments!

Bob Doucette

Andrew Hamilton, the 14ers speed record, and the magnitude of the feat

Andrew Hamilton gets some summit cookies from Noel, and poses for a pic with well-wishers after breaking Cave Dog's 14ers speed record. (Craig Cook photo)

Andrew Hamilton gets some summit cookies from Noel, and poses for a pic with well-wishers after breaking Cave Dog’s 14ers speed record. (Craig Cook photo)

Andrew Hamilton doesn’t know me. But as it turns out, I’ve met him. Twice.

If you’re into the Colorado hiking and mountaineering scene, you know who this guy is. For those of you who don’t, a quick primer…

Hamilton, 40, broke what looked to be an unbreakable record, climbing to the top of all of Colorado’s 58 14,000-foot peaks in nine days, 21 hours and 51 minutes. The previous record, held by Theodore “Cave Dog” Keizer, was 10 days and 21 minutes, and stood for well over a decade before Hamilton broke it on the slopes of Longs Peak on Wednesday night. It became official once he’d descended 3,000 feet below that mountain’s summit early Thursday morning.

My first encounter with Hamilton was when I was sitting atop the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross in the fall of 2012. I was exhausted, having driven straight from Tulsa, where I live, to the trailhead the day before, then hiking six miles (with nearly 5,000 feet of gain) with no acclimatization and questionable conditioning. Hamilton strolled to the top shortly after, his wife and two young boys in tow, as if they were taking a walk in Washington Park.

A little conversation with him showed that he and his wife had summited all of Colorado’s highest peaks numerous times. His oldest son, just a grade-schooler, had also climbed all 58 of the 14ers. And the youngest, a preschooler, already had a few peaks in the bag as well.

I thought to myself how amazing this family must be, and how those kids were fortunate to have parents who instilled a sense of adventure and accomplishment into them at such a young age.

“That was one inspiring family,” I wrote at the time. “They would pass me down the trail, energetic and laughing as if they’d just gone for a walk through the mall. The thought that went through my head was how far ahead those two boys are from their peers: They’d tackled physical and mental challenges that other children hadn’t even sniffed and had learned quite a bit about how tough they could really be. That has to be a lesson that will translate into something positive for them later in life. Well done, mountain parents. Your kids are gonna rock.”

Fast-forward almost three years, and the story is much the same. Hamilton’s mountaineering resume is still lofty, and both his sons now boast finishing off the list of 14ers. And yes, they’re both still in grade school. Little did I know that Andrew Hamilton was just getting started to make his mark.

A lot of people have tried to break Cave Dog’s record, and they usually fail miserably. A lot of it has to do with the rules.

Yes, you can have a support crew. And if the mountains are too far apart to link together, you can use a bike or motorized transport to get from one peak to the next. But you have to ascend at least 3,000 feet to the top, then descend 3,000 feet on your own two feet. Simple enough, right?

For some peaks, this isn’t too daunting. A number of Colorado’s mountains are “walk-ups,” or mountains that can be summited by hiking. But others are not — some involve time-consuming climbing, nerve-wracking drop-offs and loose rock that make speedy ascents all but impossible unless you’re a bit of a freak. Cave Dog fits that mold, and so does Hamilton.

And since this is a speed challenge, that means Hamilton would be attempting this on minimal sleep, at all times of day, and in all kinds of weather. Bluebird day conditions? Sure. Howling winds, snow, and wet rock in the middle of the night? Yes to that, too.

The upper portions of Longs Peak.

The upper portions of Longs Peak.

In fact, that is what Hamilton faced on his last peak on Wednesday, Longs Peak, smack in the middle of Rocky Mountain National Park. The approach hike is lengthy, and by its standard route, you face a punishing section of boulder-hopping to a ridge feature called the Keyhole, then a series of narrow ledges and steep, rocky scrambles for the last mile and 1,000 feet to the top of the mountain. He did this in the middle of the night, in foul weather, and horrible route conditions that would turn back most climbers.

But he did it, then met a small crowd of well-wishers who hiked to 11,000 feet to greet and congratulate him for breaking the unbreakable record. About 3 a.m. or so, me and a few friends who were on our way up the mountain met him as he was coming down. He was tired but lucid, in good spirits, even accepting a gift of cookies from my buddy Noel and stopping for photos from people who wanted to preserve a moment in which they can say they were there when Hamilton completed the feat.

My first brush with Hamilton left me with a sense of admiration. My second, a sense of appreciation. There are more than a few famous names in mountaineering lore, and they’ll get the accolades and endorsements that come with bravely tackling the challenges of the high country. I don’t know if that sort of attention is coming Hamilton’s way, but I’d say he deserves it, achieving in less than two weeks what takes most people years.

Will Hamilton’s record be broken? It’s hard to say. This has been a week of records being broken, with Scott Jurek setting a speed record on the Appalachian Trail. Others will surely try. But take a moment to consider what a huge precedent Cave Dog set, how long his record stood, and the guts it took to break it.

Bob Doucette

Dean Potter, climbing legend, and Graham Hunt reported killed in BASE jump accident

Dean Potter. (planetmountain.com photo)

Dean Potter. (planetmountain.com photo)

UPDATED AS OF 11 P.M.: The New York Times is reporting that Dean Potter and Graham Hunt, in their BASE jump of Taft Point, attempted to clear a notch on the cliffs below but were not able to, hitting the rock before they could deploy their chutes. More of that story here.

UPDATED AS OF 9 P.M.: The Associated Press is reporting that search and rescuers who found the bodies of Dean Potter and Graham Hunt say their parachutes apparently did not deploy. They were attempting a wingsuit flight.

UPDATED: Outside Online is reporting the accident took place on Taft Point in Yosemite, and that Potter’s partner, who was also killed, was Graham Hunt. Read more on that here.

***

Various Internet reports are saying that Dean Potter, a famous rock climber and BASE jumper, has died in a BASE jumping accident in California.

Gripped.com is saying that he and his climbing partner, who was not named, died Saturday when their jump went awry around Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite National Park. You can read that report here.

More details are also available on this reddit post about the accident.

Potter, 43, was one of the lead figures in a generation of Yosemite climbers that took hold in the  1990s, a group famous for pioneering new, big-wall routes and free-solo climbing. Among that group, Potter was considered one of the most daring and best. Potter was also known for his speed climbing and high-lining feats.

A huge loss to the climbing and outdoor community.

Updated: Nepal earthquake death toll tops 2,500; 17 killed on Everest

Rescuers treat the wounded and dig through the rubble in quake-stricken Kathmandu, Nepal. (cbsnews.com photo)

Rescuers treat the wounded and dig through the rubble in quake-stricken Kathmandu, Nepal. (cbsnews.com photo)

UPDATED: The Associated Press is now reporting the death toll in Nepal at more than 2,500 people, with more than a third of the casualties in Kathmandu. There are still people being dug out of collapsed ruins there and in other cities and towns across Nepal.

The New York Times is putting the death toll on Mount Everest at 17. Their deaths were caused by a substantial avalanche set loose down the Khumbu Icefall, sweeping into Base Camp and burying many people in their tents. Rescue efforts there are underway. Climbing teams are also trying to figure out how to get to people who are stranded above the icefall at Camp 1 and higher, as the route set through the icefall has been wiped out.

This video shows the scene from Base Camp as the avalanche struck:

****

For the second year in a row, natural disaster has struck Nepal, but this time in the worst way possible.

A massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the Himalayan country about noon local time, toppling buildings in Kathmandu and other cities and towns in the country while also triggering a slide on Mount Everest, where the spring climbing season is underway.

The Associated Press reports that nearly 1,200 people have been confirmed dead so far, but that the death toll is likely to rise much higher. Thousands may be injured, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, still missing. Many of the buildings in the Nepalese capital are not built to withstand powerful quakes, and this one definitely was — the strongest since an 8.2 hit Chile in 2014, and probably the deadliest since a huge quake rocked Japan in 2011.

It’s not yet known how badly damaged the smaller communities in rest of the country have fared, though the building construction problems are probably similar to what’s seen in Kathmandu.

Mount Everest. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Mount Everest. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

On the south side of Mount Everest, the climbing season was just getting underway when the earthquake struck. The AP is reporting that 10 people were killed at Base Camp after the quake triggered a slide; another five were killed in Tibet, according to the BBC. Outside Online is reporting that the route through the Khumbu Icefall has been smashed, and there is speculation that this may end the climbing season on the mountain. If so, it would be the second year in a row that a season was ended prematurely, as a deadly avalanche shut down the mountain’s south side last spring.

The AP says this quake is the deadliest to hit Nepal in 80 years. Deaths were also reported in India and Bangladesh, though not nearly as many.

Five reasons why you need to climb a mountain

The mountains are calling. Don't you want to go?

The mountains are calling. Don’t you want to go?

OK, you. It’s not like you’ve got enough things on your to-do list. It’s probably filled with things that are high in the mundane, uninteresting and nagging. Such is the life most of us lead.

Mow your yard.

Pay that bill.

Go to the dentist.

Yawn.

Repeat.

Or something like that. You get the idea.

My advice, should this pattern seem endless and intractable, is to shake things up a little bit, to do something different, something that will stretch you, push you and provide an exclamation point to a series of life events that consistently end in periods.

So here it is: Five reasons you should go climb a mountain…

You need a goal that goes past your previous goals. If you’re shooting for that coveted rec league softball championship, a yard of the month award or getting more than a hundred likes on your next Instagram selfie, you need new goals. The challenge of climbing a mountain will do that. You have to rise up physically and mentally to do it, a process that includes getting yourself in top condition and studying the task of reaching that summit. Goal-setting is not just about the reward after a job well done, it’s about the process of getting there, and the growth that happens along the way. And it’s way better than being the next fantasy league champ.

You need the lessons that hardship brings. Climbing a mountain is hard. Even if it’s a walk-up, when you’re hiking uphill in the cold at 12,000+ feet it will feel like the hardest thing you ever do. Tougher peaks, where climbing is involved, add critical thinking stress to the fatigue that comes with altitude. When you’re on the flanks of a mountain, you’ll feel sore, tired, winded, cold and uncomfortable. If you can deal with those things and still reach the top, you’ll have learned not only what it takes to persevere, but also a bit more about yourself. Embrace the sufferfest!

You need to do something that scares you a little. Is there anything quite like scaling some steep rock with a whole lot of air below you? No? There is a bit of a rush to stuff like that, not to mention the confidence that facing down your fears instills. At times, it may make you want to brown your shorts. But it also might make everyday challenges look a lot less daunting.

You need to unplug. One of the great things about mountains is that they’re often in wild places that (gasp!) don’t have cellphone service. Whether it’s a few hours or several days where you’re unconnected from the world, not having your head craned downward toward your phone, tablet or laptop might just be the best thing you do for yourself during that time. Don’t just tune out the noise. Turn it off. Get busy on those peaks. Those texts/emails/notifications can wait.

You need to see things from a new point of view. This comes from several angles. Obviously, there is no view quite like a summit view. Seeing the world from a mountaintop is one of the great, simple pleasures of life. But seeing wilderness from the inside, viewing wildlife in its element, absorbing the greatness of the outdoors – we rarely get these privileges in our home environments. You can’t appreciate what is out of sight/out of mind. Getting out there on that mountain might just change the way you think… in a good way.

So there you have it. Tempted to spend your precious time ramping up for a season of meh? Wouldn’t you rather go high and go big?

Bob Doucette