The fellowship of the run

Sitting in the lobby of my gym, I wondered who might show. I quit scrolling through Twitter long enough to check the weather. Twenty-six degrees with an 8 mph north wind. It was close to sunset, and truth be told, I wouldn’t be surprised if no one showed up for the night’s planned group run. Besides, it was Friday night. Don’t people have anything better to do on a Friday night?

But a few minutes later, Jen showed up. Tall, lean, and every bit that you’d expect from a marathoner. Minutes later, here came Donald. In his youth, he ran cross-country to stay in shape during soccer’s offseason. A decade later, old habits gave him a new incentive to get back on the road. It would be just the three of us, stumbling out into the cold, ready to tackle a planned five-mile out-and-back.

We walk for a block, get the blood working, and take off out of downtown, chatting it up as the first mile got underway. We’re a small group. But given all the reasons not to be there, I’d call us small-but-mighty.

***

Years ago, I didn’t like running. It was time-consuming, uncomfortable, and far less fun than a game of hoops. But that changed over time, largely when I discovered some of the benefits that running imparts.

For starters, it’s a great way to blow off steam. Run yourself ragged for 30 minutes, or an hour, or four hours, and you’ll likely come back having exorcised a few of the daily demons. In their place is normally an endorphin rush most people call a “runner’s high.” Most of us feel it when we’re done; a lucky few enjoy it as they go. I usually fall into the former camp, but it’s good enough to keep me coming back.

Running is also great for people who need some time alone. You know who you are. People are great, but there are moments when they need to be held at bay. Pound out a few miles and you get just that.

Being the type of person who is comfortable in solitude, I usually run alone. This is not sad or otherwise detrimental. It just is. Fact is, most people run solo.

But there are merits to having a running buddy. Or buddies. You can learn from other runners, and push each other. I find that I usually run faster when in a group and get lazy when I’m on my own.

A few years back, I joined a weekly trail running group. I knew precisely none of the two-dozen or so people who were there. But I ran with them, got to know a few of them, and picked up a lot of knowledge about trail running and our local trails. When we were done, we’d all head to a burrito place, snag some tacos and down a beer or two. Some of that group became friends, folks I can still hang out with even though I can’t go to those group runs anymore.

The fast runners were the ones everyone looked up to. Or those who had a few hundred-mile ultras under their belts. Often, these were the ones leading the groups, usually broken down into different paces to suit whoever showed up. Whoever they were, there was a sense of accomplishment that followed them. It was understood. They were “qualified” to lead a group on those gnarly, twisty trails, regardless of pace.

Years later, one of the trainers at my gym, an ex-college track guy with the resume of a serious distance runner, asked me if I would like to lead a weekly run group. “Sure,” I said. “I’d love to.”

But keep in mind, I’m about as pedestrian as they get when it comes to running. No podium finishes. No hundo belt buckles. Just a smattering of mid-pack finishes in races between 5K and marathon distance. If anyone ran with me, I wouldn’t be shocked if they thought, “Lame” and never came back.

But we’re more than a month into it, and folks still come. It’s funny to me that anyone actually shows up. That is, they show up to run with me. But I’m glad they do. Running is great solo. But it’s also great with good company.

***

A few weeks back, Donald and I were on the back side of a five-miler when we got to discussing a mutual love of hiking. He started talking about a trip years back when he was ascending Mount Elbert in Colorado, the highest peak in that state and the second-highest in the Lower 48. It’s a mountain I summited many years ago, back in 2005. We groaned about the numerous false summits we encountered, and he went on to describe how he and his hiking partners had to high-tail it down the mountain on the account of an approaching storm.

Yup, I can recall similar instances in the Rockies.

A week later, when Jen joined us, she started talking about a recent four-day excursion she and her boyfriend took to the Grand Canyon. I marveled a little that three random people seemed to have an affinity for outdoor adventure. But I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. Lots of runners also hike, climb, backpack and otherwise find themselves drawn toward the suffering and joy of pushing themselves outdoors, be it on the run or with a 50-pound pack on their backs.

More important, though, is the manner in which I’ve gotten to know people’s stories. I knew Jen as a runner, and know her now as a backpacker, but she’s also a mother of a daughter getting ready to graduate college. Donald was an Eagle Scout back in his younger days.

And there are others. Paige, one of our younger runners, competed in college cross-country and is a die-hard Patriots fan (I try not to hold that against her). Steve, our elder statesman, isn’t just an accomplished trail runner. He’s a Pikes Peak Marathon finisher.

I never would have known anything about these people had I not run with them. I wouldn’t know them at all if I wasn’t a runner.

***

The last run I led just a few days ago, another new runner joined us. Her name is Kathy, and like Jen, she’s been at this running thing for a while and can hold her own. And she’s also the mother of a soon-to-be college grad.

I promised the group a scenic run, which is code for “I’m going to make you run to the top of the biggest hills in Tulsa because I find this weirdly fun.”

I try to plan routes that I think people will enjoy, ones with some scenery, some history, or maybe both. Other times, I’ll take them on a route I use for training, with the idea that if this sort of route helped me in one of the local races, it might help them, too.

That night’s “scenic route” took us north out of downtown, toward a college campus, and then up a sizable rise called Standpipe Hill. It’s one of the highest points in the city, and once you top out, it has a spectacular view of downtown. The sun was going down, setting the clouds overhead afire with yellows, oranges and purples, a colorful background against the shiny glow of the skyscrapers a mile to our south. The city was putting on a visual show.

“I like to stop here and catch my breath and take in the view,” I told the group. “It never gets old.”

Everyone seemed to agree. In Kathy’s case, she saw parts of the city she’d heard of, but had never seen with her own eyes. It’s an all-new experience, and in this case, one you must earn. I know I earn it every time I run this route (the hill is steep), and it never disappoints.

A few moments later, we headed down the hill, climbed another, then dropped back down into downtown’s meandering streets. One steep overpass, then another hill, and finally a quick dash back to the gym and we’re done. High-fives were exchanged before the group broke up and headed out into our own lives. But not before everyone made a little pact.

“See you next week?”

Absolutely.

Bob Doucette

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Land donation to Turkey Mountain points toward emerging opportunities for Tulsa’s outdoor recreation economy

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

Man, how things have changed over the course of less than four years.

The news out of Tulsa this week was overwhelmingly good when it comes to the status of Turkey Mountain. On Thursday, the city of Tulsa and the George Kaiser Family Foundation donated 400 acres at Turkey Mountain to the Tulsa River Parks Authority. The move triples the size of RPA’s holdings at Turkey Mountain, and together with a 50-year master lease set up late last year, the future of Turkey Mountain seems more secure than ever before.

That future appears in line with what Turkey Mountain’s users, stakeholders and managers have laid forth: that the park will remain an open green space left in a natural state. Turkey Mountain is loved by trail runners, mountain bikers, hikers and nature enthusiasts, and is known as one of the finest mountain biking trail systems in the country. It’s an asset that has grown in popularity, as can be seen in the increasing number of visitors.

But back in 2014, this seemed in doubt. Simon Properties sought to build an outlet mall on the western side of Turkey Mountain, a project that would have practically sat on top of the Westside YMCA kids camp, threatened trails nearby and caused untold traffic nightmares for years to come. Simon had allies in City Hall, including then-Mayor Dewey Bartlett.

Strong local opposition changed the trajectory of the debate, and years later, Turkey Mountain’s place as one of the city’s premier parks is set.

This brings up a bigger picture that looks even brighter, particularly when it comes to public health and economic diversification. Piece by piece, the Tulsa area’s outdoor recreation inventory is building out in a major way. So, let’s examine that, and see where it’s going.

The foundation of it is in Tulsa River Parks. Paved trail systems and open park land offer Tulsans ample opportunity to walk, run and bike, with larger fields available for team sports (rugby and soccer) and disc golf. On any given weekend, thousands of people are outside, getting exercise or relaxing by the river.

West Bank paved trail at Tulsa River Parks, near Turkey Mountain.

Turkey Mountain, with what it offers, is part of that River Parks system. Besides the daily flow of users, Turkey Mountain is also the scene of cycling races, trail running races, and even festivals. People developing a taste for trail running, hiking and biking introduce new economic opportunities for retailers who sell to people involved in these sports and activities.

On the east bank of the Arkansas River, a massive transformation is unfolding that will change the face of Tulsa’s parks system and the city itself. The $350 million Gathering Place promises to be one of the greatest urban parks in the country. It’s set to open this year, with more development continuing through 2019. There will be something for everything at the Gathering Place, and it will serve as an anchor for the park system for decades to come.

And thanks to the latest Vision Tulsa sales tax initiative, a series of dams on the Arkansas River will guarantee even water flow and good flatwater surfaces. This will open up water sports opportunities like never before. If you’re looking for what might be possible, take a look at what’s happened down the turnpike in Oklahoma City, where a prairie trickle running by downtown has been transformed into an excellent water sports destination. Flatwater kayaking, team rowing and, more recently, whitewater rafting and kayaking has been introduced in the middle of Oklahoma, spurring competitive collegiate rowing sports and attracting an Olympic training center. The transformation brought on by OKC’s Oklahoma River project can easily be duplicated in Tulsa.

Short walls that are good for bouldering, at Chandler Park. 

Elsewhere in the city, the trails and wilds of Tulsa County’s Chandler Park are a hidden gem. Plenty of trail runners have discovered what Chandler Park has to offer: a series of challenging and scenic trails much like Turkey Mountain. Close to the park’s center is a series of bluffs and cliffs that are excellent for rock climbing and bouldering.

Summing it up, within the next few years you will be able to enjoy running, hiking, road biking, mountain biking, horseback riding, rock climbing/bouldering, and water sports, all within the city limits of Tulsa.

Growth of outdoor recreation isn’t confined to the city. To the north, people in the city of Claremore are reaping the benefits of the revival of a trail system by Claremore Lake. Work has been ongoing to update and expand that lake’s trail system, and Claremore Lake is quickly becoming a new hotspot for mountain bikers.

And east of Tulsa, folks in Tahlequah are upping their game as well. Tahlequah has long had ample trails to explore, and the Illinois River is well known for people who enjoy float trips, canoeing and kayaking.

A new organization, called Tahlequah Trails, is hoping to build on that, with its stated goal to “support a trail system similar to northwest Arkansas,” according to its Facebook site.

That’s a lofty goal, for sure. Arkansas is one of the top destinations in the country for mountain bikers in the know. But it’s a worthy one, considering how well Arkansas has tapped into its natural beauty to attract athletes and tourists. The state has been better than most when it comes to building its economy by offering people an active place to play.

A cyclist rides the trails at Turkey Mountain.

And that brings me to this: Northeast Oklahoma in general, and Tulsa specifically, has a huge opportunity before it. City leaders and businesses are hungry for growth, and they can find it in outdoor recreation. Nationally, the outdoor recreation economy is more than $887 billion a year, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Yes, that’s billion with a “B.”

In Oklahoma, outdoor recreation accounts for $10.6 billion in consumer spending, $3.1 billion in wages and salaries, 97,000 jobs and a whopping $663 million in state and local taxes, according to OIA. Tapping into that economic energy has transformed other cities across the country. Communities like Chattanooga, Tenn., Boulder, Colo., Richmond, Va., and many more have diversified and strengthened their economies while upping their quality of life, thus making them more attractive to other businesses. In the case of Richmond, the presence of ample off-road cycling transformed the city’s economy and even its neighborhoods. Given the natural assets we have here, there is no reason that Tulsa can’t see similar results.

Circling back to the news of the week, we can see momentum building, piece by piece, to set the city up for success. Consolidating and preserving the land at Turkey Mountain has economic and ecological benefits that will pay forward for decades to come. Here’s hoping that we can keep this going. So much has already happened in the span of less than four years.

— Bob Doucette

Bigger floods, more fires, stronger storms, longer heat waves: As the climate changes, get used to more of this

Golfers get in a round while wildfires burn in the background. I can’t think of a better metaphor of how climate change is being addressed in Washington right now. (Kristi McCluer, photo)

If you were to summarize and visualize the effects of climate change in the United States, all you would need is a weather recap of 2016 and 2017.

From the National Climate Assessment, these are a couple of the summarized findings and predicted conditions we can expect as the planet warms:

Extreme weather: There have been changes in some types of extreme weather events over the last several decades. Heat waves have become more frequent and intense, especially in the West. Cold waves have become less frequent and intense across the nation. There have been regional trends in floods and droughts. Droughts in the Southwest and heat waves everywhere are projected to become more intense, and cold waves less intense everywhere.

Hurricanes: The intensity, frequency, and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes, as well as the frequency of the strongest (Category 4 and 5) hurricanes, have all increased since the early 1980s. The relative contributions of human and natural causes to these increases are still uncertain. Hurricane-associated storm intensity and rainfall rates are projected to increase as the climate continues to warm.

I’ve left out the 10 other categories, mostly for the sake of brevity. But to look back on some weather events over the past 12 months or so, it looks like a rogue’s gallery of future conditions climate scientists predict is headed our way.

In November of 2016, severe drought conditions and high winds turned the U.S. Southeast into a tinderbox. Two teens lit matches and threw them on the ground near Gatlinburg, Tenn., starting a firestorm that killed 14 people, torched 2,400 buildings in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, and burned 17,000 acres in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Future warming is said to threaten the woodlands of the southeastern U.S., turning it from a temperate forest region into a warmer, and far less forested, savannah environment.

During the winter of 2016-2017, the Sierra Nevada Range saw massive snowfall that averaged, in some places, between 500 and 700 inches. This, after years of drought so severe that the entire state of California was on a water rationing plan. Previous snowpack levels were as low as less than 25 percent of normal, and yet this past winter, it was an abrupt reversal. As late as June, eight feet of snow was still present in some areas. While generally welcomed, record precipitation also prompted flooding that caused more than $1 billion in damage and caused the Oroville dam’s spillways to fail.

Not long after this bounty of moisture, the West Coast went through an intense heat wave that prompted one of the worst fire seasons in memory. Wildfires along the West Coast and in the Rocky Mountain states burned at record levels. Northern California wildfires are said to be the deadliest and most damaging that the state has ever seen. Seattle went through a near-record span without rain. Portland, Ore., normally a temperate city, broke 100 degrees regularly. And we are told that the nation’s wildfire season continues to steadily grow in length as the years have gone by, particularly in the West.

The 2017 hurricane season saw more extremes. The trend of stronger hurricanes has been on the rise since the 1980s. If this season was any indication, things can get much worse. Hurricane Harvey parked itself over Houston and east Texas, using the abnormally high water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico to feed itself for days on end. In addition to storm surge and wind damage, Harvey unloaded a year’s worth of rain on the area in the span of a week. Harvey was followed by Hurricane Irma, which hit Category 5 status at one point, and slammed into Florida with damaging winds, storm surge and flooding. Then came Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, causing damage which could linger for a generation or longer. Hurricane Ophelia hit Ireland (Ireland!), the first such storm so strike the island in nearly 60 years. Ophelia was the 10th major hurricane this season, making this the most active hurricane season since 1893.

I could go on. The warming earth has led to the spread of the pine beetle, which has devastated forests in the American West, adding further fuel to already dangerous fire conditions. We could talk about ocean acidification, which stressing marine life and threatening fisheries. And then there is the real possibilities that some places in the world inhabited by hundreds of millions of people could become so hot as to be unlivable (heat deaths in India have been in the thousands as of late, and one city in Iran recorded a heat index of 165 degrees a little more than two years ago), and that warming conditions in Southwest Asia may have contributed to the explosion of violence and turmoil seen in Syria – a crisis which flooded the region with war, sent refugees to Europe by the millions, seismically altered politics on that continent almost overnight, and even had reverberations here in the U.S. Maybe that’s why the Pentagon recently cited climate change as a major threat to U.S. national security.

And just to be clear, we are causing this.

I spend most of my time on this site discussing the outdoors, or fitness, or plenty of other things far less serious than everything detailed above. But I believe that if you love the outdoors, conservationism must be a part of your life. Naturally, a lot of us want to protect the places we enjoy. Many others make their living helping us do just that. And more importantly, we all have a stake in seeing that the places we live, work and play don’t become washed away by floods or turned to ash by fires just because we didn’t pay attention to what the planet is telling us.

And then there’s this: There are people in power trying to downplay the risk, or stifle commentary on it altogether. Multiple federal agencies are being cowed into submission by people representing interests that do not want to see any action on how we deal with climate change. In some cases, they are literally voicing and printing the talking points of industries that fear they might lose revenue and shareholder value should common-sense conservation policy be allowed to take hold.

So pay attention. Get to know who your elected officials are. Write them often. At some point, enough people must speak up for the political class to listen.

Bob Doucette

Seen on the run: Reminders from the past of why I run

We have these, right here in town. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

I remember the first time I saw an eagle in the wild.

No, it wasn’t on some adventure deep in the Rockies, or some other rugged mountain landscape. It was about six miles from home, in the middle of a city, and not far from the river that splits my community two.

Not 30 feet from the paved path I was running on, and overlooking the Arkansas River, there it was: A big, bald eagle, surveying the waters flowing by and likely looking for lunch swimming under the surface. It was one of the coolest and most random things I’d ever seen on a run, and to see it smack in the middle of Tulsa’s southern reaches made it that much more unreal. And yet there it was, in all of its regal glory, presiding over its domain. As it turns out, bald eagles have become a fixture along the river. You just have to know where to look.

More importantly, you have to be out there in the first place. If I hadn’t been on my weekly long run, I’d never have seen it at all.

***

I remember when I first started running more seriously, and how enamored I became with the little details I saw during even the shortest, simplest runs. I made a point to take my phone with me not to provide music or capture my pace, but to snap photos of how the downtown Tulsa skyline looked from a certain angle, or the way the glow of a sunset bathed the buildings in warm, fading light.

I’d come home and write notes about interesting people I saw, weird things I smelled and small epiphanies I had while I ran. I learned a lot about my city. One park I run through commemorates the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, something that for many Tulsans was left out of their history lessons despite being the scene of the single worst outburst of racial violence in American history. Years later, I still run through that park, reminded that we’ve yet to get past racial divides.

Night running scene.

There were other details of the city to be gleaned from these runs, too. On a couple of occasions, I’d run at night. An urban landscape has an entirely different feel at night than it does during the day. Light from street lamps catches broken glass on the pavement and in alleys, making them glisten in a harsh sort of way. It’s harder to see people’s faces, thus more difficult to discern intent. But no one ever bothered me. A smoky bar served up whiskey shots next door to a private workshop where a bearded, tattooed fella in a plain white tank tinkered under the hood of a classic car. Nighttime in the city, away from the “safer” venues, is just as alive as it is in the day. It just feels more mysterious, if not risky.

And many times, I’d notice people. The suits and the slackers mixed at different paces, and transients often barely budged. On one street, I’d spot someone talking to himself while walking briskly, totally focused on whatever conversation was happening via Bluetooth. Around the corner, someone else, slumped against a wall, might be wallowing in his own puke, having drank too much bourbon the hour before. Down the street, a tattooed pizzeria worker sat out by the curb, getting one last smoke in before his break was over.

I see scenes like this every day when I run. It fascinated me for a long time, me being a guy who until that time had spent a lifetime living in suburbs and small towns, far from anything one might define as urban.

As the years have gone by, however, all of this has become normal. I still see cool stuff, but more often any run is more of me and the run itself, battling through fatigue, the elements, injuries and whatever else is motivating me or telling me to stop. And as I age, the chorus of inner voices telling me to bag it seems to get bigger. And louder.

***

Last week was one of the lousiest weeks of training I’ve had in a while. Fall is here, but Oklahoma rarely pays attention to the calendar. It was just another hot, humid week, and if you run much you know that heat and humidity sucks all the fun out of running. If I didn’t have a couple of races to train for, I’m not sure I’d even have bothered.

But we got a break this week. On Monday, cloud cover. Blessed cloud cover. Eighty-eight degrees in direct sun (plus humidity) is one thing. But 88 and cloudy is another. As in better.

I was out on a simple four-mile out-and-back run through a neighborhood that might be generously classified as “working class.” It’s on the upswing, but there is plenty of industrial desperation still waiting to be remedied here. Not that it bothers me – that sort of environment is way more interesting than any suburban scene I’ve ever trodden.

Anyway, I ran by a house where a fella was on the porch, working on some sort of machine, and he had his tunes on full blast: ‘80s funk and R&B. I ran past, reached my turnaround place and headed back. I’d pass his house again, this time from the same side of the street. On deck: Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching me,” featuring none other than the King of Pop. I’m not sure why, but when I got in earshot, it gave me an extra bounce, and I made sure to let the dude know that I wish I had his tunes with me the rest of the way. We both got a laugh out of that.

Getting some miles on the trails. I see cool stuff out here. (Clint Green photo)

A day later, on a six-miler, I was on trails close to the Arkansas River again. I didn’t see them, but I heard them: eagles. Somewhere close by, the master raptors were calling out, and would likely be on the hunt for more fish soon. It got me thinking about all the other wildlife I’ve seen, usually when trail running through nearby wooded hills. Squirrels and rabbits, hurrying away from the path. An armadillo ambling along, rooting through the leaves for bugs. And on one blessed run, a massive owl that was silently gliding below the canopy, then extending its wings to make a full stop just a few feet away from where I ran. One of the most majestic things I’ve ever seen.

That’s when I was reminded why I still do this. Races are fun, and great motivation to get in shape. But for me, there’s no finish line or medal worth the weeks and months of training that it takes to finish a long-distance race. Instead, it’s the things I encounter along the way.

The random faces that make a city live and breathe.

The myriad of colors of a cool evening sunset.

The smell of fall from decaying foliage on the forest floor.

And timely reminders from the past, be it the cry of a regal bird of prey, or the music pumping from the speakers owned by someone getting their funk on during a warm autumn afternoon. Any finish line glory is gravy after that.

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.

This is no time for retreat, and no place for silence

Wilderness is cold, indifferent and ultimately egalitarian. In days like these, it might feel good to find refuge in that sort of purity. But we can’t do that.

I’m in a weird place right now. Call it a bit of a funk. I’ve been back from a sweet New Mexico/Colorado trip that took me to some fantastic places. Every time I return from a trip out west, I wish I was back. But eventually that fades a little as I get into the swing of work, training and living my “ordinary” life far from wilderness peaks and alpine forests.

But it feels different now. The urge is much stronger, not necessarily to revisit old haunts, but to get the hell away from what’s going on around us now.

I got to thinking about this more during a recent run and worked it out like this:

When I’m in the wilderness, I don’t hear or see much of anything except what exists in the natural world. This is much more acute if I’m solo. I’m surrounded by things much bigger than me, and all the trappings, labels, prejudices and accolades with which we adorn ourselves and others are notably absent.

There’s no male or female. No white, brown, black or red. No American or foreigner. No gay or straight. No rich or poor. No Christian, Muslim, Jew or Hindu, or Buddhist, Sikh or atheist. On the mountaintop, in the forest or on high plains, I’m an organism left to the mercies of the elements, the terrain, the forces of gravity and the whims of weather. Aside from the technical gear I bring with me, I’m reduced to nothing more than visitor that must play by the same rules as everything else, be they the trees, the rocks, the grasses and the other creatures who call these environs home. Solo wilderness adventures are a wonderful self-imposed equalizer.

So now a confession. I find myself wanting to be in that space. It’s tough to be there, and lonely. Maybe even brutal. But it’s so simple. The rules are not your own, or anyone else’s. Politics don’t matter. Race doesn’t matter. Pick your identity, and out there, none of it matters. There’s something appealing about an exile like that, free from the strife of competing ideas, biases and expectations. Just you and the mountain, you and the trail. No favors or exclusions, just minute-to-minute decisions and basic survival. The wilderness doesn’t care if you’re happy, sad, fulfilled or disappointed. It doesn’t care if you live or die. It just is, a truly egalitarian world that is random and cruel, but in its own way, absolutely just.

On this day, late in the summer of 2017, that sounds far better than what we have in the world of “civilization.” Could you blame me if I decided to pack it in and do the hermit thing?

But the reality is this: Such thoughts are a fantasy. Through the centuries, humans have become decidedly un-wild. We’re creatures of our constructions. It’s practically in our DNA now. So running away from our problems and pretending to be one with the wild solves nothing. It’s merely an abdication of responsibility. Like it or not, we’re in this thing together.

The Nuremberg rally of 1935. This looks eerily familiar.

My mom grew up in Germany, born a year after World War II really got cooking. Our discussions about her early years are a combination of childhood memories and retellings of tales from her parents. She remembers hiding in bomb cellars, fleeing east from Berlin, then fleeing back to the city as the Russians advanced. She remembers the cruelties of war visited upon her, her family and her neighbors. Of doctors who disappeared one day and never came back. Of a city and a country ripped to pieces by an ideology that held up a nation and its people – check that, a certain kind of people – above all other humans. She recalls feeling no pride in being a German because of the evils inflicted on her Jewish countrymen, and millions upon millions more throughout Europe because someone decided it was time to put all the “inferior” people in their place, which ultimately meant being put to death.

World War II ended in 1945 with the total subjugation of Germany and its allies. It ended with the utter repudiation of Nazi ideology. Its falsehoods and evils were readily apparent to most of the world before the war, but made clear to everyone else – including the Germans themselves – once the shooting, shelling and bombing stopped. Tens of millions had to die to make it so, including over 400,000 Americans.

America’s original sin. It still haunts us.

Here in the United States, we have our own national sin. It started the day slavers began importing Africans to the New World to be used as forced labor on sprawling farms all over North America, South America and the Caribbean. Most of the world abandoned slavery before too long, but the U.S. stubbornly held on to it because owning people and forcing them to work was cheaper and easier than actually paying a wage or doing the work yourself. An entire regional economy was built on this model, one which enabled the splitting up of families, beatings, murders and rapes.

We fought a war over this, too. Apologists will say it was about “states’ rights” and “northern aggression,” but those are just covers for the fact that a group of people wanted to end slavery in America and another group did not. More people died in the American Civil War than in all our nation’s other wars combined. The northern states won, as did the cause of emancipation. But soon after, the formerly enslaved and newly freed African-Americans were subjugated yet again through decades of legislative action, rigged court rulings and socially enforced inequality. When these tools of racism weren’t enough, more violent implements were used: intimidation, beatings, murder and terrorism. Children died in church bombings, and in my hometown, an entire section of the city was burned over several days, with the victims being targeted only because they were black.

Oh yeah. The day Charlotteville, Va., looked a little like Nuremberg in 1935.

It’s 2017, folks. Seventy-two years after the end of World War II, and 152 years after the end of the Civil War. We’re nearly a century removed from the Tulsa Race Riot and more than five decades past the height of what we know as the Civil Rights Movement. And yet in 2017, we’re seeing Nazi salutes and Klan-like rallies in an American city that had the temerity to decide to take down the statue of a Confederate general. The torchlit march on the University of Virginia campus last week had all the feel of the great Nuremberg rallies of Nazi Germany. Grown men, kitted in military gear and long guns may as well have been the Brownshirts of yore. The ideology of these people is what led to the assassination Alan Berg in Denver and the bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City. These people, who have embraced the murderous – even genocidal – legacies of white supremacy, felt emboldened enough to crawl out of their basements and camps and spoil for a fight for all of us to see.

Inspired by “The Turner Diaries,” a novel about a white supremicist uprising against the federal government, Timothy McVeigh set off a bomb that killed 168 people, including 19 children in the Murrah Federal Building bombing in 1995. Here is an example of white supremacy’s more recent legacy in the U.S.

We can’t run from this. As tempting as it may be to wait it out, ignore it or minimize it, we just can’t. I know that the fringe that seems to be rising is a very small slice of our population, but it is a fringe that has found fertile ground in our land.

And that’s something we must challenge. Starting with ourselves.

Let’s not pretend we can be color-blind. That’s also a fantasy. And let’s be humble enough to accept that we don’t understand people who are different from us. We don’t know what it’s like to live someone else’s life. But you can seek some understanding. You can try to walk in another person’s shoes. You can seek honest discussions with folks who aren’t like you, and when you do, listen more and talk less. Hear their stories without caveat. Don’t accept some pundit’s agenda-driven characterization of folks that don’t fit into their “acceptable” realm. See for yourself, and follow that up with a healthy serving of “do unto others.”

From there, it’s important to be heard when you see wrong. People who remain quiet in the face of evil, even when they know it’s evil, are complicit. Folks on the receiving end of hate need to know we have their backs. Yeah, it’s going to be uncomfortable, testy and maybe heartbreaking. But standing on the sidelines gives us Jim Crow laws. Or worse.

I’m fighting the urge to turn inward, to insulate myself in some quiet pocket of solitude, surrounded only by the things that give me peace. A hard life in the wilderness might seem preferable – even more pure – than facing the mess that people make. But as tempting as it is to retreat into whatever isolated wilderness we’d choose, it’s not an option. There’s far too much to lose.

Bob Doucette

Heading up Mount Sherman’s southwest ridge

Jordan gets a view of Mount Sheridan from the summit ridge of Mount Sherman.

There is a certain satisfaction with finishing a job with the person with whom you started it. Maybe it’s something you build together, or a shared journey.

This summer, I concocted a plan to do something like that with my nephew Jordan, part of the Colorado contingent of my family and my oldest brother’s son. We talked the year before about heading into the mountains to hike some of the 14ers, and we ended up with a fantastic day doing the four-peak loop called the Decalibron – Mount Democrat, Mount Cameron, Mount Lincoln and Mount Bross.

Prior to that, Jordan’s sole mountain ascent happened when he was far younger, a trip up Mount Bierstadt with his dad. Now 25 years old, he may have caught the 14er bug a little. It seemed natural to polish off the Mosquito Range 14ers together with a hike up Mount Sherman.

In the previous days, I’d spent some time hiking in New Mexico, then snagged a couple of 13ers in Colorado’s Front Range two days later. I needed to force my body to be ready for bigger challenges, namely keeping up with Jordan.

While it might be true that I have a few more peaks under my belt then he does, it is also true that I’m 22 years his senior. I live around 700 feet above sea level, he lives in Denver. And over the past couple of years, the dude has gotten serious about his conditioning.

His preparing for the Spartan race in a couple of weeks, where he intends to take on the Beast course: 13 miles or so, and tons of obstacles. He’s done the shorter version of the race, but now is looking to tackle something much tougher. Needless to say, many months of running, lifting and thought-out eating have turned him into a lean, muscley human built to fly through the course.

Me, not so much. Usually my thoughts when it comes to food are limited to wondering if it will be a burrito, barbecue or bacon. I’d already conceded the fact that he’d be waiting on me the entire trip. I asked Jordan to be patient. He was good for it.

Jordan heads up the talus slope toward the Hilltop Mine. We thought this was “the route,” but it was a good, scenic side trip up the mountain.

Willing partner

A lot of life had happened since we last met up. Jordan has numerous interests. Sports, broadcasting, the outdoors, fitness, and going back to his high school and college days, music. Hip-hop, to be more precise. Jordan made an album years back, performed some live shows in front of decent crowds, but set it down for a time to focus on getting his college coursework done and a television career off the ground.

But he’s circled back to music. It’s something we talked a lot about on the way up, listening to a few songs he’s already recorded, as well as a couple of miscellaneous tunes that grabbed our attention. I’m no musician, but I love talking about music and it’s interesting to get a real musician’s take on what’s out there. The topic is also a great way to stay awake when driving into the mountains when most people are still fast asleep.

There was something else in these discussions, too. Music is a way that Jordan works through things that he sees, whether in his own life or in the world at large. The creative process is a way of hashing it all out, much in the same way people take up running to work out their demons or gardening to calm their spirits. I get all that. Writing does that for me. As well as running, or hiking, or even hitting the iron at the gym. I’ve got issues, man. That explains the numerous venues I use to deal with them.

In any case, these methods of processing the world are mostly solitary endeavors. If you want to dig deep, talk to “creatives” about why they do what they do, and what’s behind a particular song, artwork or essay. As the highway snaked its way over hilltops and down valleys, we caught up on the small stuff and probed the bigger things that were on our minds. I’ve long believed that there is something medicinal about good conversation on long drives in remote places. Every new trip confirms it.

At the saddle between Mount Sherman and Mount Sheridan.

No ordinary experience

Sooner than we expected, we were on the long dirt road leading to the Fourmile Creek trailhead. It wasn’t nearly as rough as the upper part of the Kite Lake Road at the foot of Mount Democrat, but it was slow going. A bumpy but not particularly demanding ride just about any car could handle.

Upon arriving, we saw a familiar setting, namely the remains of defunct mines that are common throughout the Mosquito Range. We also got a look at something more spectacular, that being the impressive namesake face of Horseshoe Mountain, a high 13er nearby that is jaw-dropping to behold with its semi-circular face resembling that of a massive coliseum. It’s an impressive sight, and I get why people come back to hike that one. I’d do it for the visuals alone.

Mount Sherman is another matter. It’d say by 14er standards, it’s fairly ordinary. Not too steep, and no real distinguishing landmarks – say, like Longs Peak’s Diamond, or Wetterhorn Peak’s prow – to set it apart. But it is still a big mountain that commands the skyline, and it has a few treasures of its own that make it worth the trip.

The Hilltop Mine seen on our way down. This is one of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken from the mountains. It’s surprising what pops up as memorable on these peaks.

I mentioned those mines. The one near the trailhead is just flattened ruins, but other mining features higher up are more fetching. The backdrop of a crisp, blue sky and pillowy clouds, set against the muted tones of the mountain stand in stark contrast the weathered, beaten but still resilient structures of men who sought their fortunes in high country minerals.

It’s about here when I got a fuller appreciation of how many trails there are on this mountain. Many high peaks are limited to a couple trails, but on Mount Sherman, side trails criss-cross the peak like a spiderweb, partially due to all the mining that occurred here, and partially from hikers taking different paths, I’m sure. Standing next to the Hilltop Mine, we had to go down again to gain Sherman’s summit ridge. An easier route showed itself to our right. I’d remember that on our way down.

As expected, there were plenty of people on the mountain. Ease of access and favorable weather guarantee crowds, even on a weekday. But we didn’t come to Mount Sherman looking for solitude. For that, you’re going to need to go to more remote ranges, and probably ones without that magic 14,000-foot number attached. We came here to finish a job.

Higher on the summit ridge, I realize we’ve fallen into a bit of luck. Sherman has a reputation of being a windy peak, yet on the narrowest part of the ridge, fully exposed to the winds, we were in the middle of a calm day with wispy clouds and blue sky all around. It’s cool, yeah, but just like last year in the Decalibron, we’re in good conditions making great time. As expected, Jordan is plowing ahead at a pace slowed only by him waiting on me.

The “skinny” portion of the summit ridge on Mount Sherman.

We came up to a narrower section of the summit ridge, and I must admit, it was airier than I thought it would be. Not anything scary, but more of a pleasant surprise. So many of the peaks in this range as well as the distant Sawatch Range are massive lumps of rock that can be dreary slogs above timberline. One hiker mentions to me that he thought it was “sketchy.” I guess sketchiness, airiness, and exposure are all in the eyes of the beholder. For me, a little air to the left or the right (or both) is interesting.

In less than two hours, we’re at the top, taking in the scene with a dozen others, including a family with kids, some out-of-staters, and a smattering of Coloradoans.

Summit view on Mount Sherman.

It dawns on me that this is the thirteenth time I’ve shared a summit of a family member. Five with Jordan over the past two years, plus the rest with brothers, nieces, nephews, in-laws and my wife. That’s nearly half my total number, and I like that figure. It’s good to know that partners may not be hard to find in the future, though I still intend to call upon friends as well.

On our way down, Jordan and I started talking sports again. Football season is approaching, and we’re wondering if the Denver Broncos will make strides from the previous season or revert to the mediocrity of the pre-Manning, post-Elway years. Time will tell on that subject, which really isn’t that important but is debated as intelligently and fully as anything in the realm of current events, politics, religion or whatever else. That’s the great thing about sports. We can dissect the Broncos’ moves on its offensive and defensive lines, maybe argue a bit over the merits of one player over another, but not face the existential crisis and warlike musings of the current political climate.

Before long, we were down. Storms started to build around the mountain. People like us were coming down, but others still going up. Given all the information out there about safety in the mountains, this astounds me. But some people have to learn by experience.

Our experience, on the other hand, is something else. Both of us have changed over the past year. We’re learning things and trying to apply those lessons to our lives, then share what we know while driving to trailheads, hiking trails and lingering on high summits. Each new mountaintop adds not only to our alpine experience, but to knowledge passed along by peering into each other’s worlds during those hours unplugged from “normal” life.

Me, with the Hilltop Mine and Mount Sherman’s summit in the background. (Jordan Doucette photo)

GETTING THERE: From Denver, take U.S. 285 southwest toward Fairplay. Continue south for a mile and turn right on County Road 18. Drive on this road for about 10 miles to the trailhead.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the Leavick Mine site, follow the trail (road) and veer right to skirt the ridge that leads to the Hilltop Mine (it’s a freestanding mine building on top of a ridge that can be viewed low on the route). There are many side trails throughout the lower part of the mountain, and most of them lead to the summit ridge. Hike the trail and gain the summit ridge. From here, the route is straightforward. Just short of the summit, the ridge narrows significantly, and this is one of the windier parts of the mountain. Once past this, the route eases. The true summit is about a 100-yard walk from where the ridge flattens out. Class 2 hiking, 5.25 miles round trip, with 2,100 feet of elevation gain.

EXTRA CREDIT: Hike to the summit of Mount Sheridan. At the saddle between Mount Sherman and Mount Sheridan, turn south instead of north. Mount Sheridan is a ranked 13er.

Bob Doucette