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

Advertisements

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

On Kilian Jornet, Alex Honnold and Ueli Steck: What comes next?

Kilian Jornet. (Sebastien Montaz-Rosset photo)

As the spring of 2017 unfolded, new frontiers in climbing and mountaineering were opened.

On May 21, Kilian Jornet set a speed record ascent of Mount Everest, climbing the world’s highest peak in just 26 hours. For most climbers, whether they’re paying clients of expedition companies or elite climbers in their own right, a climb of Everest is an endeavor measured in weeks, with the final pushes taking several days. Jornet did it from the lower base camp on the Tibet side of the mountain in a shade over a day.

As if that wasn’t amazing enough, Jornet did it again: Starting from Advanced Base Camp (10.4 miles up and 4,000 feet higher), he reached the summit in just 17 hours. Jornet climbed the mountain in a fast-and-light style that has served him well in setting speed ascent records on Denali, Mont Blanc and Matterhorn.

Alex Honnold. (NatGeo photo)

Meanwhile, back in the United States, another audacious plan was coming to fruition. Alex Honnold had quietly been preparing to do something that had never been done. Honnold is famous for his free-solo climbs of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. But the monarch of Yosemite, El Capitan, had never been free-soloed.

That changed on June 3, when one of the world’s best rock climbers set off to ascend the 3,000-foot tower without the benefit of ropes or safety equipment. In just under four hours, he topped out, standing alone with what might be the most impressive feat of climbing ever undertaken. Keep in mind, most people spend days climbing El Cap.

These two climbers, the greatest in their respective skills, have done things most of us cannot comprehend. Even their peers are in awe.

It begs the question: What comes next? Will someone else free-solo El Cap from a more difficult route? Or follow up Honnold’s feat in less time? Can someone race from the Tibet base camp to Everest’s summit in less than a day?

It’s hard to take stock in this. The passage of time has given us improved equipment, better climbing techniques, more knowledge of the mountains and advanced training methods that push the boundaries of mountaineering. But it wasn’t that long ago that mountains like Everest were unclimbed, and that scaling a face like El Capitan was unimaginable without climbing aids and a significant commitment of time.

So, what’s next? Can these feats be topped? One thing I know is that someone will try. If not these two athletes, then someone else, a name we might already know, or perhaps a climber currently cutting their teeth at some unknown climbing gym or perfecting techniques on their local crag. Or maybe there’s a trail runner burning up local races in the mountains we don’t know yet who is experimenting in mountaineering and climbing that, when he or she is ready, will give it a go.

Ueli Steck. (Jonathan Griffith photo)

And that leads me to a third mountaineering story from this spring: the death of Ueli Steck.

Steck fell and died April 30 during a solo training climb on Nuptse, elevation 25,791 feet, a peak in the same neighborhood as Everest. He’d been gunning for an ambitious climb of Everest’s west ridge, then traversing to the summit of neighboring Lhotse.

Steck was an athlete in the class of Jornet and Honnold, at least in his accomplishments. Credited for the only known solo climb of Annapurna’s south face, he’s also summited 82 4,000-meter peaks in the Alps in 80 days. And now he’s gone.

I’m not sure why the feats of Jornet and Honnold bring up thoughts on Steck and his demise, but they do. Perhaps it’s because these things happened within a couple of months of each other. Or maybe it’s the fact that pushing the envelope of mountaineering – and the risk that entails – makes me wonder what story we’ll see in the future.

The early days of alpine exploration were a strange combination of scientific curiosity and nationalistic drive. That’s not the case anymore. Corporate dollars are on the line, as many of the elite in the mountaineering world are sponsored by gear companies. Social media can fuel this further. I’d hate to think that dollars and likes are what drive us now, but these are different times.

But the common thread of what people do now and what they did decades ago is as old as humanity itself, that of seeing just how far we can push the limits of physicality, of mental steel, and of commitment to a goal.

So I say this knowing that it’s likely that someone will try to climb Everest faster the Jornet, and someone will climb something harder than Honnold. Most will fail, but a few will probably succeed. And as is too common in mountaineering, someone will probably die trying. At that point, we’ll be awed by the accomplishments and saddened by the loss. And asking ourselves again, “what’s next?”

Bob Doucette

Mountain Reads, part 2: ‘Sixty Meters to Anywhere’ by Brendan Leonard

Imagine sinking so deeply into your vices that your immediate future included jail time, and your long-term prospects would likely involve sickness, heartache and succumbing to your addictions.

Then imagine detailing it, warts and all, to anyone willing read about it.

That’s not the entire scope of Brendan Leonard’s memoir “Sixty Meters to Anywhere,” but it is the foundation of this unapologetically open account of how he spent his younger years, and the series of events that turned things around.

Leonard is best known for his popular outdoor blog semi-rad.com, and his debut book, “The New American Road Trip Mixtape” was a hit among the outdoorsy set. And for good reason: That was a book in which he bared his soul while colorfully retelling the journeys he took – literal and metaphorical – across the American West while living out of his car. Leonard’s prose is spare, and I mean that in a good way – absent are the clunky mechanisms that trap a lot of wordy writers, leaving behind sleek, fast-paced storytelling. (You can read a review of that book here.)

In “Sixty Meters to Anywhere,” Leonard’s toolbox is the same and with similar effect: You get a style of writing that is stripped down yet chock full of imagery as he describes his descent into substance abuse, hitting rock bottom, and then slowly climbing out of it during post-graduate studies, far from home and isolated from his family, friends and the demons of his Iowa hometown.

It’s no real spoiler to say that he discovered something to fill the void of the troublesome fun he found too often at the bottom of a bottle – the outdoors. Those familiar with his writing (aside from his blog, he has credits in Outside, Climbing and Backpacker magazines, among others) already know he’s an accomplished climber and outdoorsman. But how he got there is the essence of what lies behind “Sixty Meters.” Baby steps into the mountains, followed by a particularly fortuitous gift (the name of the book comes from the standard length of climbing rope he received), not only gave Leonard a new way to channel his passions, but also a path to fundamentally change who he was and avoid the sad story of what could have been.

Leonard doesn’t shy away from his shortcomings and doesn’t glamorize his accomplishments, and he’s careful to include the ways in which his actions hurt others. You find yourself rooting for him while also appreciating the people who stood by him over the years. It’s that sort of honesty that has won over his fans.

The outdoors has proven to be a haven for people who bottom-out in life, and Leonard’s story embodies that. I’m sure it has — and will — resonate with a lot of readers.

NOTE: This is the second in an occasional series called Mountain Reads. Part one can be read here.

Bob Doucette

When life was falling apart, it was running that put me back together

Me and Mike on Mount Elbert. I miss this dude.

I got into an online discussion with a friend who was trying to weigh her desire to join her running buddies in a longer road race versus the time commitment needed to train for it. She’s a busy gal, with a full-time job, lots of family around and plenty of things to worry about.

Something she said struck me. She said that when she runs, it clears her head. And that over the past year, it may have saved her. “I think I would have fallen apart without it,” she admitted.

That resonated with me. I’ve had similar thoughts, sometimes recently, and it became even more clear as a dreaded anniversary crept near.

Six years ago, my oldest brother died. And when everything settled down and I was left to my own thoughts, it was the alone time pounding the pavement or coursing through wooded trails that pulled me from an abyss.

Running may have saved me, too.

***

Mike and I were close. Some of it had to do with the fact that we shared a number of interests. We loved the mountains. Fishing for trout was a favorite, and later on, I got hooked on climbing Colorado’s high peaks after hearing his tales of high mountain summits. We climbed a few peaks together, including my first three 14,000-footers, and made a thing of it with all the brothers – Mike, Steve, and myself – are few years back.

From left, Mike, me and Steve on the summit of Quandary Peak, Colo.

Mike and I were also gym rats. I bumbled around the weight room with a little success while he mastered the art of weight training and bodybuilding. Naturally, we’d talk about all things lifting, and more often than not I’d be the one doing the listening as he offered tips and told of his experiences. Years later, I still can’t sniff the PRs he managed on the big lifts.

But I keep plugging away, and sometimes I’ll learn something new or set my own PR. Instinctively, I look around for my phone, thinking about shooting him a text or a phone call to talk about it. But that gets shot down pretty quick.

Shit. I can’t call Mike. I can’t call him because he’s gone.

***

Around the time when Mike was diagnosed with cancer (it was a blood disease similar to leukemia), other crises were afoot. My job was going down the crapper, and as he got sicker, my own prospects worsened. In January of 2011, I flew to Denver to visit him, not knowing if he’d make it for the next few days or if he’d pull through. A couple days after arriving, Mike grew stronger.

But then I got a call. My employer had a layoff, and I was caught in it. Twelve mostly good years there were over. It’s a hell of a thing to learn you’re on the street via a long-distance phone call from a hospital hallway.

The silver lining was being able to spend more time with Mike. I hoped he’d pull out of it, recover and then we’d be back at it, hiking up mountains and traveling the West. But it was not to be.

Mike’s condition eventually won. His death was slow – agonizingly so – and from everything I saw, miserable. Cruel, even. The whole family was there when he passed. The final moments unleashed our sorrows in a flood of tears and hugs, all of us hating the fact that he was gone yet glad he wasn’t suffering anymore. In the hours and days following Mike’s passing, we shuffled from here to there, buying clothes for the funeral, heading to the church to say our last good-byes, and then settling into the finality of it all.

A few days later, after being out of work for four months, I got a call. The guy who is now my boss, Tim, wondered if I’d like to interview for a job in Tulsa. I said yes, and we arranged for an interview time. I got the job, which necessitated a move. So I moved up to Tulsa while my wife Becca stayed in our soon-to-be ex-hometown east of Oklahoma City to get our house ready for sale. I’d come back on the weekends, then drive back to Tulsa before my Monday shift began.

During the week, I stayed at my sister-in-law’s house in a Tulsa suburb. She and her family had moved to Texas and were trying to sell their Oklahoma home, and they kindly let me stay there until we found a place of our own. The house, somewhere short of 3,000 square feet, was empty – no furniture, no TV, nothing. I made my home in the master bedroom, a cavernous space where I occupied a tiny sliver, sleeping on an air mattress and playing Angry Birds on my phone or reading a book when I got home from work. Aside from the job, I had a lot of alone time, time to worry about the future and mourn Mike’s death.

Before work, I’d head to the gym, and then two miles down the road I’d go to a local park that had a gravel trail a little over a mile long. Work was a great distraction, but my demons were there in that empty house on those long nights after work. I fought back on the trails. Running, it seemed, drove them away.

***

Running became a sorely needed habit — and refuge — during one of the more challenging periods of my life.

I’d gotten into a running habit before Mike got sick, but things took off once I moved to Tulsa. It was cheap – the price of shoes, socks and some tech clothes. It turned out to be a great way to explore my new hometown. Every slow, lumbering run was interesting. I’d see something new, work up my miles and get a little faster.

Not long after, I discovered a park that had a huge network of trails that ran wild through wooded hills that were left as close as possible to their natural state. I’d run plenty on pavement, but this trail running thing was brand new. I learned that trail runners were different. Most runners obsess over mile times, distances and splits. Trail runners get into vertical gain a little, but mostly run hard, have fun and replace all the calories they burned with burritos and beer. This was something I could get into.

For a brief period, I ran with a weekly run group, but most times I explored the trails by myself – in the furnace of the Oklahoma summer, in the rain and mud, and even in the snow. I’d run myself ragged on big hills, trip over tree roots and rocks and go through the painstaking process of tick-checks. I spied snakes, lizards, deer and hawks. Squirrels and rabbits, too. I watched sunsets through the trees, breathed in the scents of fresh redbud blooms and listened to cicadas blast their noisy calls on sweltering summer days. I loved running with friends, but these were experiences I mostly had on my own.

These were the times I’d think. Sometimes pray. I’d rage at God for how Mike died, then calm down and express gratitude that I was still healthy, and able to enjoy these runs on the trails when so many others couldn’t or wouldn’t.

I’d like to tell you that I found peace and healing inside the folds of a new church congregation, but it never worked out that way for me. Too many places of worship were too busy fighting the culture wars for my taste. But I found God anyway. God was in those woods, tolerating my griping, reminding me of my blessings, and listening in. Being there when I was unlovable. That sort of thing matters when you reach a point of being a jerk, something I can testify to rather well. Sometimes I’m not the easiest person to be around, prone to poor judgment and selfishness. Things that Mike wasn’t but I was.

Over time, running became bigger. Slow two-mile jaunts around the neighborhood turned into five-milers. And then 10. Or 12. Within a few years, I was knocking out half marathons, 25Ks, and on a bitterly cold November day, my first marathon. The process was one that required some mental toughening, sharpening your mind in the middle of 20-mile training runs, and the day-long recovery periods that followed.

But I found something out there. I found a rhythm, a meditative cadence that cleared my busy mind of the stresses and insecurities that confronted me daily. I’m not one of those crazies who pounds out 80 or more miles a week, or runs insanely long races, or any of that. But I miss it when I stop. Normally I come back from a run feeling spent, and in a good way, like I went to war with my demons, beat them back and stood atop a hill looking at the battlefield when it’s over, me still alive and my foes in retreat. I’m not one to make easy war metaphors; that dishonors real warriors. But when negativity and grief and self-loathing and worry rage at your gates, it feels like a fight. You use the tools at your disposal in order to win.

***

Sunset in the woods at the end of a fun trail run.

Mike wasn’t much of a runner, at least not in his final years. More of a cyclist, a hiker and a lifter. But I think he could appreciate it just the same, like he would after a long day in the mountains or right after coming off the saddle after a 30-mile ride through Denver. He’d get it. He battled through plenty of his own struggles and won them all except for the one that finally claimed him.

I was thinking of Mike at the end of my last trail run. It was a short trip, just a few miles on mostly empty trails near dusk. When I got through and reached the trailhead, the sun was dipping into the horizon, setting the skies and their clouds afire with hues of yellow, orange and red. I snapped a photo with my phone and suddenly got the urge to text it to Mike. Look how beautiful it is out here, dude! And then I’d remember.

But I grinned anyway. I knew that Mike would understand, that he knew running for me was a gift from God, the salve I needed – and still need – in this stage of life. I was sweaty, dirty and spent and more content than I’d ever be, even if only for a few minutes. I was at peace.

I hope my friend decides to do that longer race, mostly because I know where she’s at, and have felt that calming, inner-warmth that comes from a good run.

Bob Doucette