Pics or it didn’t happen: Would you climb a mountain without posting pictures?

Hiking and photography go together. But will you hike without posting pics?

I asked a question on Twitter and got some interesting answers to this: “Would you climb a mountain if you couldn’t take or post pictures?”

The question itself was rhetorical. But people answered.

“Absolutely. My camera is my least important piece of equipment. If I did not carry my phone for navigation I would likely take even fewer pictures than I do,” one responder said.

Another: “Definitely, though I think I’d still want some way of recording the experience to remember it later, probably some scribbled notes.”

And another: “Do it all the time.”

I believe these folks, as well as the others who more or less said the same thing. Based on what they’ve posted, many of them are pretty serious about their outdoor undertakings. They hike and climb for the sake of the activity, not because they want to be able to say that they’ve done it.

But I also know that there are those who probably would not climb mountains if they couldn’t take photos, or share the experience on a blog or via social media. In fact, many of them are trying to get new images for the sake of keeping those platforms stocked with new things for people to look at, comment on, or hit “like” or whatever.

I also know the nature of the question (and the responses that followed) probably discouraged these folks from answering that no, they wouldn’t climb if they couldn’t share. To admit it would seem shallow.

That’s the part I want to break down, because I think there are a couple of reasons that push people toward this side of the outdoor world.

For some, it really is a question of meeting demand. Many hikers, climbers, mountaineers or whatever have websites that need new posts. They’ve got social media channels that need fresh photos and videos. Sponsorships might be part of the deal, or perhaps a larger prize down the road that will pay off if all these online efforts showcasing their adventures hit some sort of critical mass. So yeah, that’s pressure to get out there more, push harder and provide new stories to tell online audiences.

For others, it’s simpler. They’ll hike a mountain, or climb a pitch, get a dramatic photo, and post it. Soon thereafter, folks are double-tapping that image like crazy and their phone is blowing up with likes and comments from enthralled followers. It’s a symbiotic stimulus-response reaction between the person and their audience. For the followers, it’s a matter of expressed appreciation. For the poster, it’s validation. And validation is a powerful drug. A numbers game follows where the tally of likes and followers drives these folks to see what image will garner even greater numbers.

Most of the time, this is pretty harmless. If it floats your boat, you do you, man. While there are examples of people trying things in places where they get in over their heads (sometimes with deadly consequences), those are rare exceptions.

I asked the question following a trip to Colorado for a family wedding. I had a day after the ceremony where I could head up into the mountains and maybe hike a trail and bag a peak. Might as well, right?

But it had snowed pretty hard in the high country, and I’d left my ice axe at home. I read a report that a hiker had a near-miss with an avalanche in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. And someone else lost control of their car at Loveland Pass, with icy conditions sending them down the mountainside. I took a pass.

And yet, part of me regretted not going up, especially after seeing some friends’ pics in the hills at the same time I’d planned to go. Was it fear of missing out? Or fear of missing the opportunity to take a bunch of photos of snowy alpine scenes, writing a trip report, and posting fresh images on the IG?

And that brought up a deeper question: What’s my overriding motive?

I’m a storyteller by nature, be it with words or pictures. I enjoy it. But I’d hate to get to the point where every outing has to be justified by fresh content for all the interwebz to consume. Worse yet, I’d hate if it turned into something where I planned all my trips on the basis of what new thing I can publish.

In other words, I needed to check myself. Hence the question.

I can say yeah, I’d climb a mountain if I couldn’t take pics or post about it. I have before, and I enjoyed the experience just fine. I’ve done plenty of hikes without snapping a single shot. Those were good, too. And so were the ascents and hikes where I took dozens of photos.

But I don’t want to get to the point where I’m hiking for the approval of others. I never want to make the hike akin to a job, where it must be done and documented or it’s not worth my time. That would signal a loss of the love for the outdoors, and that would be far more tragic than not seeing a bunch of affirming notifications pop up on a hand-held screen.

My next hike ought to have no photos taken. Or at least I should give myself that option.

Bob Doucette

Advertisements

Let’s get on board with the fact that mountain goats are pee-lapping weirdos

Majestic. Wild. Weirdos.

To most people, seeing a mountain goat is to view something majestic, powerful and wild.

I know better. These creatures of the rock are just plain weird. And it was confirmed after news got out that a bunch of mountain goats were being airlifted out of Washington’s Olympic National Park because, for starters, there are too many of them. And also, their growing throng has as unnatural attraction to human urine.

You read that right. Some online headlines are proclaiming these horned lords of the crag are addicted to pee.

You might be thinking, “What in the name of Bear Grylls is going on here? Pee? Really?”

Really. As far as these guys are concerned, all you hikers making a pit stop on the trail for No. 1 may as well be playing the role of Heisenberg, dealing yellow-tinted meth in the A-B-Q.

This requires some explanation.

Like most animals, simple hydration with water is nice, but not enough to sustain proper bodily function. You need electrolytes. Salts, to keep it in layman’s terms. And urine contains, among other things, plenty of salts.

Humans have long known the worth of salt. During the days of antiquity, salt was more valuable than gold. It was mined extensively in North Africa, building the riches of civilizations there for generations. Today, we sprinkle the stuff on our food to add flavor and add electrolytes to our sports drinks to keep us performing on the field and the court.

We even put out salt blocks for our cattle during the winter so they get enough of the stuff to keep them happy.

But I guess what separates us from the animals (except for the aforementioned Grylls, or maybe Aron Ralston) is the fact that we don’t piss on our food or tip back goblets filled with the fruit of our bladders.

Then again, survival in the wild is something almost none of us can contemplate, at least not in the way the creatures of the wilderness do. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and when every waking moment is consumed by where you’ll get your nutrition, well, that sounds pretty desperate to me. The goats have found an answer to their salt problem.

And they aren’t alone. Marmots will gnaw the sweat-stained handles of your trekking poles just to get a nip of that salt your hands deposit on them during an arduous uphill hike. Pikas and mice will steal your gloves for the same reason. And deer have taken a liking to your pee just like the goats.

About nine years ago, I was camping in the Uncompahgre National Forest of Colorado, and while eating some grub with my campmates, I noticed a healthy doe rooting around the dirt not far from my tent. I was wondering what on earth was so interesting to that deer, and then it dawned on me: That’s where I was relieving myself in the middle of the night. Eww, I thought. But when you really need salt, you get it where you can.

You do you, Bambi.

Lounging weirdo.

But the deer wasn’t weird about it, at least not beyond the innate weirdness of lapping up the piss-soaked dirt a few yards from my tent. But mountain goats? They’re weird about it. Really, really weird about it.

Let me take you back a few years to another pristine slice of alpine heaven in Colorado’s southwestern corner. The place is called Chicago Basin, a remote but popular backpacking and peak-bagging destination tucked deep inside the Weminuche Wilderness of the San Juan Mountains. It’s an impossibly gorgeous basin flanked by jagged peaks and has to be one of the most scenic places I’ve ever been. The snows in the ‘Nuche are typically deep, and the summer monsoons tend to dump heavier and more frequently than elsewhere in the Rockies. The result is a lush mountain landscape that defies the semi-arid reputation of the Rockies.

The downside to this place is three-fold. First, you’re likely to get rained out of any climbs at some point during the summer. Second, the flies. Dear God, the flies. They are everywhere. And last, are the mountain goats. They are drawn to humans and can be quite pesky at camp.

They’ll follow you around, stalking you like fluffy, horned paparazzi. They’ll monitor your every move, and the males can be a little, er, assertive. It’s not that they’re curious. They’re just slavishly thirsty for your little yellow drink.

While at camp, one of my friends decided to do an experiment. Being the funny guy that he is, he thought it would be hilarious to take a leak on a bush just to see what happened. And so he did.

He spent a few seconds watering a lonely sapling bush with his golden bounty, and the goats couldn’t wait. They were practically tripping over themselves to get there, then proceeded to denude that shrub in a matter of a minute. I think all the leaves were gone before he had finished. It was the funniest and most bizarre thing I’ve seen in years, and I’ve seen a lot of weird shit in my days. But to paraphrase Will Smith from his “Men in Black” days, the Great Shrub Massacre of 2014 just about broke the needle on my weird-shit-o-meter.

I suppose the conservationist in me should say something profound or important about the pitfalls of frequent human contact with wild animals, maybe even with a tone of solemn concern. But I just can’t. Mountain goats are majestic, amazing creatures.  But they’re also really damn weird.

Seriously, dude. Get off the pee-pipe, ya weirdo.

Bob Doucette

Places I like: South Colony Lakes

The northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise abruptly over the town of Westcliffe to the east, and their towering spires loom over Great Sand Dunes National Monument to the west. But what the tall peaks hide within their folds is one of the most stunning alpine scenes I’ve ever laid eyes on.

That’s a big claim, for sure. I’ve seen some fantastic places. But there is something about South Colony Lakes that stands out.

The lakes fill a tiered basin underneath the steep slopes of Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak and Broken Hand Peak on one side, and the gentler, cliff-banded flanks of Humboldt Peak on the other. To the south, Marble Mountain and other majestic spires rise. Many of these mountains have exposed, striated layers, giving a clue to the intense pressures of geologic uplift, wringing ancient and persistent violence to bend rock layers just so.

The lakes are pretty, to be sure, shining gems under the bright Colorado sky. But the star of the show is Crestone Needle, and it is best seen at dawn.

As the sun rises, the long shadow of Humboldt Peak makes a retreat. The low light of sunrise drench the eastern face of Crestone Needle, giving it a warm, orange hue that is one of the most spectacular mountain vistas I’ve come across. You understand the meaning of the word “alpenglow” when you catch Crestone Needle during the peak colors of sunrise.

And it’s a fleeting thing, gone in minutes. But the scenery still packs a wallop just about any time of day, as the Needle commands center stage above the lakes.

Bob Doucette

Colorado hiking: A solo hike to Chicago Lakes

Let’s go hike. (Jordan Doucette photo)

NOTE: This is a guest post from Jordan Doucette, an NBC Universal broadcast professional, hiker and two-time Spartan Race finisher. He’s also my nephew, and a man who has done five of Colorado’s 14ers with me. Find him on Instagram @jordandoucette and Twitter @JordanDoucette9.

Life sure has a funny way of humbling you. Ultimately, when I take a step back, I realize what an awesome day I had at Chicago Lakes Trail up near Mount Evans. But I learned a few interesting lessons along the way. Here’s a look at my day.

A change from the morning shift to the overnight shift at work scored me a much-needed four-day weekend. About three weeks ago, I found out that I’d be getting promoted. Much like my last promotion, this one came with a condition. I’d be moved, for the fourth time, back to the overnight shift. Mind you, this change is only temporary; I’ll be back in the sunlight in the land of the living in just a few short weeks. But this change doesn’t come without some struggles. Human bodies are not designed for the overnight lifestyle. So, I started to look for a hike. One last journey under the sun before I’m condemned to the graveyards. I needed something close to home, and something I could knock out in about 6 hours or less. Some internet sleuthing led me to Chicago Lakes Trail.

The trailhead is located just west of the Echo Lake Campground off Mount Evans road in Idaho Springs. Located near this campground are several trailheads. And so we begin the “lessons learned” portion of this blog. Lesson #1: Know where your trailhead is! Just east of Echo Lake Campground is a detailed look at the several trails located in that area. Unfortunately, the trail I started down lead east. A tracking app on my phone came in handy, as just over a quarter-mile in, I noticed I was going the wrong way. The signage for Chicago Lake Trailhead is located west, across CO-5, from the parking that’s available by the campground. I had parked at around 7:45 a.m., but didn’t find my trailhead until just before 8:30. Nonetheless, I found my way, and gleefully wandered down the trail. Let the fun begin.

The trail starts with a meander through some thick pines, followed by a fork in the road. To the west, a look at Echo Lake along “Echo Lake Trail”. To the south, the continued path towards Chicago Lake. I walked the couple-hundred feet to the fence surrounding Echo Lake, got my look, and headed back south on my trail. I must tell you, I was feeling particularly chipper on this beautiful August morning, despite the rush hour traffic on my way to the trail. I noticed an extra pep in my step as I made my way up the trail. In fact, that brings me to Lesson #2: Pace yourself! I would pay for my early-trail hustle on the hike back a few hours later. The first WOW moment of this trail comes about a mile in. A steep drop to the hiker’s right, I’d call it mild exposure given the amount of room to work with on the left, is completely overshadowed by…. This.

Alpine scenery opening up nicely. (Jordan Doucette photo)

Now, if you’ve ever hiked with me, you know I love big moments on the trail. Those moments when you recognize just how small you are in God’s massive creation. This was one of those moments for me. I noticed a lot of downhill terrain in the first mile or so. In fact, that’s when I started to realize I might have been pushing myself a bit too much in the early going. A flurry of “Private Property” signs and a wide road led me to my next WOW moment. About two miles in, enter Idaho Springs Reservoir. The water, while not perfectly clear, gleams in the sunlight. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There’s something about water at elevation. There’s something pure about it. Not to mention, the Front Range provides one heck of a breathtaking backdrop.

Alpine lake goodness. And this was just the first taste. (Jordan Doucette photo)

The area just south of the reservoir features a couple of small cabins and, of course, The Labyrinth. An opportunity for hikers to clear their minds, and um, walk some more. I can’t lie, I found the Labyrinth incredibly charming, and a fun milestone on the way to the day’s final destination.

Reading the rules or something. (Jordan Doucette photo)

The Labyrinth. (Jordan Doucette photo)

About 2.5 miles in, I found a stop with waiver to sign as an acknowledgment of a few rules to be applied throughout the rest of the trail. Pretty simple stuff, dogs on 6-foot leashes, no groups bigger than 15, no fire, etc. It was at this point that the treachery began. About a mile straight of nothing but relatively steep, uphill climbs towards… the next steep, uphill climb. Still, the lust of seductive Chicago Lake drove me forward. Surrounded by trees, I looked forward, rushed towards an opening, and there she was. Chicago Lake. And yet again… WOW!

Yeah, this view does not suck. (Jordan Doucette photo)

Instantly, I was reenergized. A rocky journey downhill led me toward the base of the lake. Then, an interesting twist. A climb back uphill, towards a set of massive rocks overlooking the lake. At this point, I debated sitting atop one of the larger boulders, eating my lunch, and heading back towards the Jeep. But something told me to keep going. Just as I hit the top of yet another hill, a second, smaller lake came into view. I lifted my hands in the air, smiling and let out a brief, “Woo!” Both lakes have a unique green tint to them. Not like a, “These lakes are polluted,” kind of look. More like a glowing emerald glistening in the sun. Simply put, I was in awe. Backdrops of Mount Evans and Mount Goliath loom large. Finally, I could eat my lunch. The Bob Doucette special, a couple of tortillas with deli meat and cheese. I sat on a rock overlooking the larger lake. I stumbled into a couple that was visiting from Germany, one of about 15 or so couples I saw on the train that morning. They started at Summit Lake and make the journey down to Chicago Lakes. It was their first day in Colorado, and they were blown away.

A lake plus some high mountains equals one impressive alpine amphitheater. (Jordan Doucette photo)

The journey back left my knees trembling, as I continued to learn not to push myself too hard in the early going. The trip back to Echo Lake Campground is just as grueling as the trip to Chicago Lakes. The winding and hilly nature of the trail kept me challenged throughout. A second look at the Idaho Springs Reservoir made the 4-plus mile jaunt back well worth the time. Finally, I arrived back at the Jeep at around 1:45, making my total trip time just a little over 5 hours.

Final Verdict: HIT THIS TRAIL! The nine-mile path makes for a pretty long day, but the WOW moments make every step worth the suffer.

Jordan Doucette

All that mountain fun comes with a cost

A conversation starter.

Dawn was just breaking as we approached treeline, revealing the towering peaks that surround South Colony Lakes. The uphill march at 12,000 feet is never easy for me, and even for the guys who are more used to this sort of thing, it’s work.

The payoff, of course, is the scenery. It gets more dramatic and memorable the higher you go. The effort it takes to climb a mountain, the skills that some of these peaks demand, and the conclusion of a successful ascent demands repeat performances. It’s easy to get hooked on this stuff.

But it comes with a cost.

I’ve hiked with Mike a couple of times. We were part of a big backpacking group that marched into Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness a few years back. We bagged Mount Eolus and North Eolus on a brilliant August day, but more memorable than the mountain was the man. Bright, funny, irreverent and fun. We swore we’d get together again.

Years later, it was Mike, me and Bill, our eyes on summits surrounding South Colony Lakes in the northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In between the jokes and general banter about the peaks that were on our minds was a bit of honesty. Mike was feeling a little guilt.

It takes time to do these things. If you’re an occasional peak-bagger like myself, it’s not as severe. But for those trying to climb all of Colorado’s 14ers, or something more ambitious (the Centennials, the Bi-Centennials, and for the super-obsessed, maybe all of the Colorado 13ers), the pursuit of mountains consumes precious time. The drive time to get to trailheads is measured in hours. Approach hikes can be lengthy. If multiple peaks are sought in one outing, you could be out there for a few days. Each trip consumes weekends, vacations and other free time that might be filled with other things that involve other people.

When we see views like this, we often don’t see it with those closest to us.

The fact is a lot of us dive into these endeavors without our loved ones. Even if there is a shared passion here, there are times when schedules or goals are mismatched from time to time. Risk tolerances may differ. So do skill levels, fitness and a ton of other variables that will have one person heading into the hills while another stays home, left to watch the kids, feed the dogs or figure out what to do on consecutive nights when we’re out there getting our altitude fix.

These were the things Mike had on his mind. His wife Maggie enjoys the high country, too, but isn’t always up for yet another weekend of thin air, dirt, sweat and soreness. Not as often as he is, anyway.

And there is also the presence of objective risk in the mountains. I’ve been lucky that my family doesn’t give me too much grief about this stuff, but there was one instance when I’d planned to climb a more difficult mountain at the same time my eldest brother was in need of a bone marrow transplant. I heard loud and clear that I should hold off on any climbs until we knew if I was donor match. Translation: If you die on that mountain and could have saved your brother’s life, it would be a double tragedy.

I stayed home from that one. But I’m sure the worries from loved ones are still there with every trip. They’re just not voiced, or at least not as urgently.

Grand beauty, but with objective risks.

In the back of my mind, I know that I’ll probably be safe on the mountains I like to hike and climb. But I also know that nothing is guaranteed. A couple of weeks back, a man died on one of the easier 14er hikes out there, the east ridge of Quandary Peak. He died of a heart attack. Other fatalities have nothing to do with the climber. Rockfall happens at random, and can kill. Entire sections of a mountain have been known to slide off, carrying unlucky climbers with them. When these thing happen, people get hurt. Or die. Most injuries and deaths are caused by bad judgment (not reading the weather, stumbling into avalanche zones, or inexperience/overconfidence on difficult terrain), but sometimes bad things happen randomly when people are in the way. It’s way safer to not go, and spare our loved ones the worry or, when the worst happens, picking up the pieces when we suffer serious injury or death.

These are costs. Costs of time, angst, money and grief. All for an activity that has only selfish value. So why do we bother, given the steepness of the price?

A few years back, I wrote a piece titled “Five reasons why you should climb a mountain.” Looking back on it, I still agree with every word I wrote. But I would simplify it.

We do it because it makes us feel more alive. The mountain experience is visceral. The commitment to go there, the physical hardship, those objective risks — all of those combine to make your blood pump a little harder, altitude notwithstanding. Pushing yourself to do something you doubt you could do is a rush. The joke is that you hate yourself for getting into these adventures and the difficulties and pain they bring, but by the time you’re back at the trailhead, the gears in your mind are already turning, wondering what new mountain outing you can dream up. Get bit by this bug and you might just develop a feverish obsession.

By the end of the day, Mike, Bill and I got what we came for. We got to tick off a few more summits from whatever list we were pursuing, snagged some incredible summit photos and spent ourselves physically in ways that don’t happen anywhere else. We eventually made our way home, back to the people we care about and the everyday obligations of life. We’ll end up taking care of the routine business, spend time with others doing non-mountain stuff and do so in ways that don’t worry our families. But we ask for some patience. Sooner or later, we’ll be back in the mountains. It’s not something we have to do, but damn close to it.

Hate to break it to ya, but we’ll probably go back. A lot.

Bob Doucette

Brewery-hopping, a hike, a book launch and a homecoming

A common thread from last weekend: A bunch of people connected by a common love of the outdoors going back many years.

Ever have one of those jam-packed weekends that left you trashed, but grateful?

Sunday afternoon I dragged myself to work after a non-stop weekend of, well, a little of everything that didn’t end until just before my shift started.

Friday evening, I had one last run with a fella named Donald who has been part of my run group since it started in November. Back then, he came in bigger than he’d like and slow. We had to stop every half-mile or so. He changed that in a hurry, and by now is running a 27:45 5K. I’ve never seen anyone make such a quick turnaround – he was running under a 30-minute 5K within two months.

The run group after a fun few miles on the trails a couple of months back. Donald is the guy second from the left.

Anyway, he’s moving to Oregon. It was going to be just the two of us running that evening, so we decided to go out with a bang by hitting the trails instead of the streets. It was a fitting way to send him off, seeing he’s about to head into trail nirvana soon.

That night, a friend of mine, Matt, was flying in from California on his annual trip to see family and friends. This time, he brought five of his Cali buddies with him.

Anywhere Matt goes, there’s a throng. Some people have that humble, fun charisma about them that draws people. That’s Matt. So I got to meet his buds and reconnect with his Oklahoma friends all in one night of pub-crawling.

Interesting aside: One of his California friends, Kelly, has read the book I just put out. It was fun listening to what she had to say about it. It’s rare I get face-to-face reader interactions on anything I write, not to mention from some who was, to that point, a complete stranger. Very cool stuff. Matt and his entourage would spend the next few days crisscrossing northeastern Oklahoma, Northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri while the rest of us bade them well.

Saturday was going to be a big day. That night I was doing an “Outsider” book launch shindig at a downtown bar. Nothing fancy, just show up, hang out, eat, have a drink and gather with friends. I made it low-key because I’m not good at this party stuff.

So as I’m getting ready to head over to a friend’s house to do some fence repair that afternoon, I get this message:

“Meant to turn right at Walsenburg, got a bit lost.”

And he sends me these two photos.

Hmmm… this looks familiar.

Wait a minute. This is like a mile from my house. Dude…

So here’s the deal. Walsenburg is in southern Colorado. Bill is from Denver. Prairie Artisan Ales’ taproom is in downtown Tulsa.

You get the picture. The dude flew in that morning from Denver just to hang out and be at that night’s party.

Bill (left) and Mike on their 13er rampage a couple of weeks ago. (Bill Wood photo)

Man, that’s a friend. I did something similar for him back in 2012, driving to Colorado to hike with him as he climbed Mount of the Holy Cross, his final peak to finish the 14ers. He said he figured he owed me one.

On the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross for Bill’s 14er finisher in 2012. I’m second from left, Bill is second from right.

I met him at Prairie, had a couple of pours, and we moved on to a couple more taprooms (American Solera and Cabin Boys, in this instance) and grabbed some grub. Bill knows his beer, so it was good to take him around and get his take on some of our local breweries. He gave us a thumbs up.

With a belly full of beer and burritos, I headed home to nap it off before the launch. Eventually I made my way to the venue, and as I’m getting ready to go in, another surprise – I watched as my parents walked in the door ahead of me. It’s always good to see them, but this was a particularly pleasant surprise. I didn’t expect them to be there. They’ve been supportive of me through good times and bad, so I shouldn’t be shocked that they made the trip from Dallas to be there. That’s just who they are.

The launch itself was like a homecoming. I had a bunch of my Tulsa friends there, people who have let me into their circles since I moved here seven years ago. Buddies from my college days showed up. A dear friend from Arkansas and her daughter. Hiking friends from the Oklahoma City area. Folks I met through advocacy efforts on behalf of Turkey Mountain. It was a dizzying array of people from many strata of my life. My only regret was not being able to spend more time with all of them. You’d think it would be all about the book, and I’d do something like a reading or whatever, but no. We just hung out for a few hours and caught up. I like it better that way, mostly because I’m not entirely comfortable with being the center of attention. (Thanks for all the party pics, Steph!)

Needless to say, that went pretty late, followed by an early breakfast and then picking up Bill for one last outing. He’s heard me talk about Turkey Mountain (as have you all) quite a bit, so I figured I owed him a hike out there. We put in seven hot miles through the woods and talked about life. The book came up, too, and he had some observations that I felt were deep. Like I said earlier, I get a kick out of hearing people’s thoughts on what they’ve read. Often they’ll have conclusions that I didn’t see, and I wrote the dang thing.

Not exactly the Rockies, but I figured Bill could use some trail time at Turkey Mountain.

We followed that up with some post-hike pizza, then one last brewery stop (Heirloom Rustic Ales) before he had to head to the airport and home. Like the three other taprooms we visited, Heirloom does great work. It was also a hipster hangout, complete with not one, but two dudes (one sporting one of those ironic mustaches) spinning vinyl on a turntable.

After all that, I was whipped. But in a good way. There are a lot of people I met last weekend I’d like to get to know better. Folks I want to visit again soon. People I know I’ll see again, if for no other reason than to climb a mountain. The bulk of these folks I know through hiking, climbing or running. And those who aren’t directly tied to those experiences share a common love of the outdoors. Good people all. And I’m blessed to know all of them.

If you’re curious about the book “Outsider,” you can order it (print or Kindle) here.

Bob Doucette

South Colony Lakes, Humboldt Peak and a bunch of Colorado 13ers

Dawn on the hike up to South Colony Lakes.

One thing I’ve learned about the mountains is that you must be prepared to change your plans.

Weather is often the main factor. I’ve been chased off a few peaks because of approaching storms. It’s not a hard decision to turn around when the weather is threatening.

Other times, it’s something else. Maybe you’re not feeling it that day. That happened to me last summer in La Plata Peak. Or maybe it’s something as basic as you’re running out of food, low on water, or there’s a gear failure.

But a change in plans doesn’t have to be something that points to failure. There are those days when you have options, and given your desire, energy level or something else, you chose Plan B over Plan A and it works out OK. That’s sort of how it went for me the last time I was in the Sangre de Cristo Range.

Most of the things I listed above were factors in how things played out, but at the end of the day, there was satisfaction earned on a high summit on what turned out to be a fine day in the hills.

THE PLAN

Going back a couple of months, me and my friend Bill had been doing some planning on what would make for a decent mountain adventure. Bill is on his second lap of Colorado’s 14ers, and he’s also trying to knock out the Centennials – the 100 highest mountains in the state.

We originally looked at doing Mount Wilson and Wilson Peak in the San Juan Mountains. I love the San Juans, and these peaks intrigued me. But deep drought and wildfires scuttled that plan. Instead, he came up with a wild plan to climb Kit Carson Peak’s north ridge, then tag Columbia Point and Challenger Point as a bonus. Some stout climbers were recruited for this one. It looked to be one heck of a weekend in the Sangres.

But weather forecasts scared most folks away. So that idea vanished.

One of the guys Bill talked to, a funny and seasoned climber named Mike, circled back, however, and a third plan was hatched: Hike up to South Colony Lakes, then tag the high 13ers at Obstruction Peak, Columbia Point, and another high point on Kit Carson Mountain dubbed “Kitty Kat.” (Kit Carson Mountain being a large massif that includes Kit Carson Peak, Columbia Point, “Kitty Kat” and other high points)

So I signed on for that.

I’d been to South Colony Lakes before on an ill-fated attempt at Crestone Peak and Humboldt Peak. The area is easily one of the most stunning places I’d ever seen. I’m not fixated on 14ers – 13ers are good, too. A return trip here seemed great to me.

OFF WE GO

The drive to Westcliffe took a detour in Florence, one of the more famous prison towns in the country. The federal supermax lockup is there, housing the likes of Djokar Tsarnaev, Terry Nichols and Ted Kaczynski. Real swell guys. But there’s also Florence Brewing, a microbrew with a taproom and some pretty good offerings. We caught it on a good night: The place was packed, a barbecue cook was serving up pulled pork sandwiches, and a trivia match was going on. The three of us obnoxiously bullied our way to a second-place finish, but I made sure everyone knew we were “CHAMPIONS” over and over again. Why not? These folks would never see us again and some fun was needed. Our weakness was guessing the country artists. Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and a bunch of other auto-tuned country crooners all sounded the same to us. Whatever. We took our hard-earned mini-mugs and headed to Westcliffe.

We opted to forgo backpacking and camping in South Colony Lakes. We took a few hours of sleep at a motel and went for an alpine start. The good: We got to sleep in a bed. The bad: We’d be getting up super early (3:15 a.m.) and adding some mileage to the day.

Loading up in Bill’s Jeep, we took off. I hijacked the stereo and gave them a taste of early morning metal, hip-hop and punk. Bill and Mike weren’t amused. But I was, so that made it worth it.

Going up the dirt road leading to the lakes, you have a couple of options. If your vehicle is not four-wheel drive with good clearance, you’ll be banished to the two-wheel drive trailhead. That adds a bunch of miles to your hike. With the right rig, you can crawl your way up to the four-wheel drive trailhead. To get any of the peaks, you’re still in for a hefty day, somewhere between 10 to 14 miles round-trip, depending on where you go.

The guys hiking up the trail with Crestone Needle in the background.

We saw a few people trudging up the rougher part of the road and picked one of them up, an Evergreen resident named Roger. He was going for Humboldt Peak that day. He was a pretty cool dude who’d bagged a good number of peaks in his day.

And that got us all thinking. I’d missed my chance at Humboldt two years earlier. And being a flatlander, I was concerned I’d be slowing Bill and Mike down. As we got out of the car and started up the trail, we all concluded it would be a good idea for me to tag Humboldt with Roger while Bill and Mike chased 13er summits past Bear’s Playground.

This turned out to be a really good decision.

GETTING UP THERE

Lower South Colony Lake, Broken Hand Peak, and Music Mountain in the background.

I found the initial part of the hike OK. We were in the dark, hiking by headlamp, seeing the dawn break just as we got into the basin where South Colony Lakes are located. Dawn here is nothing short of spectacular. Jerry Roach’s Fourteener guidebook is adorned with a sunrise alpenglow shot of Crestone Needle, and seeing it in person for the second time is no less spectacular than what’s seen on the book.

Bill, Mike and Roger kept a good pace, and one that was fine by me until we got to the headwall leading up to the saddle at the base of Humboldt’s ridge. It seems 12,000 feet is my red line, the place where things start to get tough. Blame my flatlander lungs for that. I stopped to eat a little, grab a sip and trudged up the switchbacks to the saddle. By then, Mike and Bill had taken their left turn toward Bear’s Playground and the 13er fest they planned to hold. Roger and I started making our way up the ridge.

If the headwall was my reality check, the ridge was a slap in the face. It was tough sledding for me, and the route was different than what I thought it would be. My understanding was some extensive trail work had been done here, and indeed, I saw evidence of that. Fine work has been done here. But there were plenty of sections where I was boulder-hopping and scrambling, looking up at various, well-placed cairns to keep me going the right direction. I’m usually a little wary of cairns, mostly because some people make a sport of rock-stacking in miscellaneous places that have nothing to do with the route. Thankfully that was not the case on Humboldt.

At the saddle, looking at an unnamed 13,000-foot point.

The ridge is somewhat steep. And the jumbled nature of some sections of the route made it tedious. Then again, all I had to do was stop, take a rest, and look behind me. Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle were there for the viewing, and they are downright jaw-dropping. From time to time, I’d hear climbers on the Needle’s Ellingwood Arete: “On belay!” “Belay on!” That climb is above my pay grade, but it’s cool to see people doing it.

Weather-wise, I couldn’t have asked for a better day. All we had were a few high clouds and a lot of blue sky. It was also curiously warm. Some people were dressed in long-sleeve tech shirts, soft shells or even puffy jackets. Me? Short sleeves all the way. I’d be burning up with anything more on me.

Roger was one patient dude. I told him he could dust me any time he wanted to, and I’m sure he could have. But he stopped to check on me every few minutes, seemingly coaxing me up the mountain. It seemed to take forever to get past Humboldt’s false summit, but once there, it was an easy walk across the remainder of the ridge and one last scramble to the top.

Colony Baldy Mountain, as seen from Humboldt Peak’s west ridge.

Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak, as seen from the side of Humboldt’s false summit.

The final, easy walk to Humboldt’s summit.

I blew a lot of energy getting there. It reminded me of last year’s failure on La Plata Peak, only this time, I was on fresher legs. Good thing, too. Otherwise, I might have pooped out here, too. But it was nice to finally get a Sangre 14er summit after being denied twice two years ago.

Summit view, looking south at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Roger noticed he was about out of water, so I offered him some of mine. He declined, saying instead he’d hustle down the ridge and filter some at the lakes below. And hustle he did. Once he got to the steep part below the false summit, I never saw him again (we did get a note left on Bill’s Jeep saying when he got there, and a thank-you for the company).

As for me, well, getting down the ridge proved as tedious as it was going up.

One of the key things about hiking and climbing mountains is to make sure you don’t blow yourself out getting to the summit. Sure, part of mountain climbing is dealing with fatigue and pushing through it. But if your legs are gone and you’re out of steam when bad weather rolls in, having some gas in the tank is critical. Admittedly, I was on dead legs on the way down. Fortunately, the weather held up nicely. I picked my way down the ridge, then down the headwall and finally to the trail (which went on forever) and the road (which also went on forever) until I saw the blessed bridge that signified the end of the hike.

Mighty Crestone Needle, as seen on the hike down.

Easier trail hiking below treeline.

Despite a really dry winter and spring, there were plenty of opportunities for wildflower peeping.

Even though it was a slog, it wasn’t without its charms. Clouds cast shadows into the valley, which played games on the flanks of the Crestones. Whenever I grew weary of the walk, I stopped to take a look around and marveled. Few places in the Rockies are as dramatic as the skyline of the Crestones and the surrounding, lower peaks of South Colony Lakes. I’d come back here in a heartbeat.

Given my slow progress down the mountain, I half expected Mike and Bill to be waiting on me at the Jeep. Nope. They were still up there, somewhere.

SO WHAT ABOUT THOSE GUYS?

I’d love to give you a detailed description of the peaks and ridges Bill and Mike scaled. But I wasn’t there. What I can tell you, however, is this: The views of the Crestones from Bear’s Playground are ridiculous. The distance they hiked was somewhere around 14 miles. And the total vert was well over a mile.

And yes, they tagged all their target summits. It’s exactly the type of performance you’d expect from guys who’ve finished the 14ers, and also have summits like Rainier, Hood and Pico de Orizaba under their belts. While the plebes like me are tagging walk-ups and popular Class 3 14ers, they’re busy chasing more obscure, less traveled 13ers and making good work out of ambitious projects.

I can’t tell you much more about it, but I can show you because they gave me permission to swipe some of their photos. Have a look.

Bill and Mike on their 13er rampage. (Bill Wood photo)

Looking south toward the Crestones and Humboldt Peak. (Bill Wood photo)

Bear’s Playground view of the Crestones. (Mike Zee photo)

Way above treeline here. This part of the hike was mostly over 13,000 feet for Bill and Mike, with lots of gain and loss. (Mike Zee photo)

Lots of ridge hiking, with Humboldt Peak in the background. (Mike Zee photo)

BACK TO FLORENCE

About 45 minutes after I stumbled back to the trailhead, so did Mike and Bill. We were all worked over pretty good, but decided a return trip to Florence Brewing was needed.

When we arrived, no barbecue guy or trivia night crowd was there. It was a quieter place until we got there. The bartender was good, patient company as we peppered her with questions about the federal supermax prison and any other general nonsense we were blathering about. I guess that’s her job, but I tipped her well nonetheless. We drank brews and ate cheap fast-food burgers that tasted like Michelin-starred cuisine at that moment.

Such is the way of these mountain trips. You get pumped up by a plan. You dread the alpine start alarm clock. You hike in the dark, see a brilliant sunrise and embrace the slog. You feel like quitting, because it’s easier to lounge by the pool than climb a mountain. You revel in the summit views, grind away at the downclimb and spend yourself utterly on a peak’s slopes. You throw down vast quantities of food, get a beer buzz and strike up lengthy, boisterous conversations with people you don’t know and may never see again. You might even make a new friend on the trail.

And then new plans get made.

The Crestones. Couldn’t stop taking pics of them.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the four-wheel-drive trailhead, hike up the road past the gate and over a foot bridge until you reach a trail junction turnoff to your right. Follow easy trail hiking through the woods and past some campsites. You’ll be hiking the trail east of and above South Colony Lakes. From here, you’ll begin hiking up long switchbacks on a headwall leading to a saddle that goes right to Humboldt’s west ridge, or left toward Bear’s Playground. The trail steepens as you gain the ridge, and as you ascend, you’ll end up doing some rock-hopping and light scrambling. The route is well-cairned, and the cairns seem to be accurate. At times, the trail will disappear into jumbled rocks, then reappear when the terrain eases. It will take you up to Humboldt’s false summit, but once you reach that, the ascent is almost done. Past the false summit, the steepness eases with only a few hundred yards of easy hiking left to the summit. Class 2, 11 miles round trip with 4,200 feet of elevation gain. NOTE: If your car/truck does not have four-wheel drive and good clearance, you’ll need to park at the two-wheel drive trailhead. This will add 5.4 miles and another 1,100 feet of elevation gain to your route.

EXTRA CREDIT: There are tons of options. From the Humboldt saddle, go north and explore Bear’s Playground. Spend more time camping in South Colony Lakes and climb Crestone Peak (class 3) or Crestone Needle (class 4). Experienced climbers might also look to climb both peaks and traverse the ridge between them. This is one of Colorado’s four Grand Traverses of the 14ers, and includes high exposure and a class 5 section. Also nearby are Class 3 routes up Broken Hand Peak and Music Mountain. Like I said, tons of options.

Bob Doucette