Climbing Colorado’s Wetterhorn Peak

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from nearby Matterhorn Peak.

Note: This is the next in a series of trip reports focusing on route descriptions rather than storytelling. Photos and beta only!

I’ve mentioned in numerous writings that the San Juan Mountains are my favorite range. There are mellow hikes, but also vertical climbs that can test your nerves.

Although my experience is more limited than some, I’ll say that my favorite mountain in the San Juans – or anywhere, for that matter – is Wetterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn (14,015 feet) offers the best of all worlds when it comes to peak-bagging. It’s easily accessible from Lake City, it has a reasonable route length and offers a combination of pleasant alpine hiking, solid climbing on steeper pitches, and at-times dizzying exposure that can spook some, but is fairly manageable.

And unlike a lot of San Juan peaks, Wetterhorn offers stable rock throughout the climb. Add this to the gorgeous profile of the mountain and its impeccable summit views and you have probably the most bang for your buck in terms of Colorado alpine adventure. Let’s get on with the route description.

At the trailhead, with a good view of Matterhorn Peak. But that’s not the target here.

Hike a good trail up Matterhorn Creek Basin until your reach your first sign at 0.75 mile. At that junction, go right.

The sign is a little confusing. But at this junction, go right.

Continue up the trail to the next junction, then go left. The trail will take you toward the base of Wetterhorn’s southeast ridge. At the base of that ridge, hike northeast through a yellow dirt section before the trail gives way to rockier terrain.

Go left at this trail junction.

Hike over rockier terrain on the way to Wetterhorn’s southeast ridge. The peak is shown here in the background.

Getting closer to the peak.

From here, you gain the southeast ridge, and the yellow dirt section of the route. It’s still easier hiking at this point, but that will soon change.

Climb the rocky gullies leading up to a prominent rock formation called the Prow. Note: If there is snow present in these gullies, they become trickier to traverse. As is the case on most mountains, bring foot traction and an ice axe if you think snow and ice will be on the mountain. You’re entering Class 3 scrambling/climbing here, and the runouts on some of these gullies end in a sizable cliff face below.

Rockier, class 2 hiking here. The mountain gets more rugged from here on.

Class 3 scrambling over and up some rocky gullies. Snow in the gullies will make things trickier.

When you reach the Prow, there is a notch to the right; go over the notch and work your way down to an angled rock slab ramp that goes down to the base of the final pitch. The exposure to your left is significant, but the rock is solid and if you stay close to the wall to your right you shouldn’t have any problems.

Once you’ve cleared the gullies, hike up this slope to a notch to the right of the Prow (seen to the left).

Once you reach the bottom of the ramp, the final pitch is before you. Climb up solid rock until you reach one last ledge. From here, you have two choices. Turn left and walk along a narrow, exposed ledge before going up easy Class 3 climbing to the summit. If you don’t want to walk the ledge, just keep climbing straight up on steep but solid rock until you reach the top. The summit pitch is stable, and handholds/footholds are plentiful.

At the bottom of the ramp past the notch, the climbing of the final pitch is all that’s left. It’s about a 100-foot climb to the top.

Looking up at the summit pitch. Lots of stable handholds and footholds here.

Looking down the pitch from near the summit.

On this look down, you get a clear view of the Prow and the ramp below.

A look at the ledges, about halfway up the summit pitch. Walking these ledges is completely optional.

From there, you’ll reach a flat summit that will give you some room to stretch out and enjoy views of Matterhorn Peak, Uncompahgre Peak, and the many 13ers of the Cimarrons to the north.

Summit view of Matterhorn Peak (foreground) and Uncompahgre Peak.

Hiking is Class 1 until you get past the yellow dirt, where it turns into Class 2. Climbing can get steep, but the handholds and footholds are solid and do not exceed Class 3. Route length is 7 miles with 3,300 feet of vertical gain. Note: You’ll need to bring your own water supply, as Matterhorn Creek and many of the waterways that feed it are spoiled by mine tailings and are not suitable for drinking or filtering. There are dispersed campsites along the road all the way to the trailhead.

GETTING THERE: In Lake City, take Second Street to Henson Creek Road and turn left. This is also called the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway. Drive 11 miles to the Matterhorn Creek trail road, turn right. If you have a car with good clearance and preferably four-wheel drive, go 0.7 miles to the trailhead.

Want to read the original trip report? You can see it here. And be sure to watch the video at the end.

Bob Doucette

Fred Beckey’s embrace of ‘the process’: Lessons for climbing, running and life

Fred Beckey is seen at the right. His eight-decade career in climbing included first ascents of difficult mountains including Mount Deborah and Mount Hunter. His embracing of the difficulties of mountaineering and climbing has lessons for all of us. (Ray Borbon photo)

This past weekend, I watched a documentary called “Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey.” Even though I’m not a regular climber, I’m a sucker for good climbing movies. It probably has to do something with all those mountains.

Anyway, there was one line in the movie in which an interview subject tries to answer a question about why Beckey put himself through so much hardship, right into his 90s, just to climb.

But first, a bit about Beckey: Before his death, he wrote numerous climbing guidebooks. Most notable first ascents in the Pacific Northwest are his. He eschewed a normal life and lived on the road, working a few odd jobs while driving to climbing sites, sleeping on the ground, and enduring some at-times heinous bushwhacks just to get to the wall or mountain he sought to climb.

And another bit about mountaineering: it’s hard. Damn hard. Suffering is part of the equation as you log miles underfoot with a beefy pack on your back, dodging storms, sleeping cold (if at all), testing your nerve and putting your body through rigors most people will never understand. Even the most basic ascents are hard work. Add some difficulty and it’s a wonder anyone climbs mountains at all. We use light-hearted euphemisms like “type 2 fun” and “sufferfest” to describe mountain climbs, but the pain involved can include serious illness, injury and death.

But going back to Beckey, and the quote about why he spent close to eight decades dedicated to the climb: The interviewee said above all else, even when it was clear he couldn’t do a lot of the climbs he planned anymore, Fred Beckey enjoyed the process.

“The process,” in case you don’t know, is the hardship. And if there is a key to enjoying climbing mountains, it is embracing the hardship so you can attain your goal. Otherwise, you’d never do it again.

The quote itself was a short aside, but it got me thinking, and not just about climbing mountains. “The process” is involved in so many things that are tough but ultimately worthwhile.

Right now, I’m a month into training for a half marathon, and as is the case every year, my goal isn’t just to finish. I want to finish faster than the year before.

The process is in two parts. Part 1 is the training schedule. The schedule includes how many miles I’m supposed to run on any given day, and what each workout should look like. Shorter runs are fine. Longer ones are a grind. Speed work is always difficult, and really, no fun at all. As the mileage increases week by week, the process hammers you anew each day with greater intensity.

Part 2 of the process involves the elements. I started building up my base in August and began the program in earnest in September. August was hot. Real hot. This September in Tulsa was the hottest since 1931, back in the Dust Bowl days. Nineteen days above 90 degrees, and with the humidity, heat indices were regularly in the 90s and 100s. Getting your long runs done in conditions like that flirts with demoralizing.

But there is also an excitement to doing it. When I got back from my ill-fated Colorado trip in July, I leaned in on conditioning. I found the hilliest routes around my home and ran in the heat. Putting together my training program was fun in a nerdy way. I knew those weekly speed workouts would suck, but I plugged them in anyway. And in the back of my mind, I realized that if I forced myself out the door, despite what the thermometer might say, all that heat training would make me faster. And probably tougher. By the time things cool off, I’m counting on a performance dividend because my past shows me that heat training works.

So my lungs burn on speed days, and my heart feels like it’s going to beat out of my chest. My brain boils on hot-weather runs that take a good 45 minutes from which to cool down. I feel like I could sleep 10 or more hours most days because of the toll the sun takes.

But that’s the process. Like Fred Beckey’s relentless pursuit of new lines on unclimbed peaks, success doesn’t just happen – some suffering must occur, a tempered-by-fire ritual of hours, days and weeks to reach that summit. Or in my case this fall, hopefully cross a finish line faster than last year.

In either case, it’s entirely personal. No one forces people to climb a mountain, and no one is putting a gun to my head to train for this race. But I think it’s healthy to test yourself. Pushing boundaries has a carryover into other areas of life. Learning to love the process, and all the highs and lows that it brings, is a worthy habit.

Bob Doucette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some helpful links:

Fourteener fitness

Fourteener gear

Picking your first Fourteener

Ascending your first Fourteener

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

Bob Doucette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Doucette

Friday distraction: Some of my favorite summit views

Man, this has been a bummer of a week in the news. We could all use a short distraction from the horrible headlines and gloomy predictions, so this is my contribution. I went through some of my older images and found a few of my favorite summit views. So sit back, forget the angry world outside and relive some alpine goodness with me.

1. North Eolus

Looking deep into the Weminuche Wilderness from the summit of North Eolus.

The mountain itself is sort of an afterthought of the four big peaks that rise over Chicago Basin. But I found this view from North Eolus particularly impressive. I love the San Juan Mountains, and this view of a sea of wild, jagged peaks exemplifies the range’s rugged nature. “Awe-inspiring” is an understatement.

2. Mount Sneffels

The view west from the summit of Mount Sneffels.

Sticking with the San Juans, this view from the top of Mount Sneffels is one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever been. Mount Sneffels is, by itself, an impressive peak, but it’s joined by a family of high mountains that add to the ridiculously scenic area around Yankee Boy Basin. To date, climbing Mount Sneffels remains one of my favorite days in the mountains.

3. Missouri Mountain

Looking into Missouri Gulch Basin from the summit of Missouri Mountain.

I’m a repeat customer at Missouri Gulch Basin, and I know I’ll go back. Five years ago, I did a solo climb of Missouri Mountain and was rewarded with this dramatic summit scene. The basin is beautiful, but is particularly impressive from the south end, guarded by the wall of rock that is Missouri Mountain. An unforgettable fall day.

4. Wetterhorn Peak

Looking north from the Wetterhorn Peak summit.

Back in the San Juans, Wetterhorn Peak remains my favorite mountain. It’s got all the goods for hikers and climbers. No less impressive is the payoff at the top. A summer solstice climb revealed a range still clothed in snow, and looking north from Wetterhorn’s summit gave me this lasting memory of 13,000-foot peaks that guard the northeast flank of the San Juans.

5. Mount of the Holy Cross

Holy Cross Ridge from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross.

There are so many great views from Mount of the Holy Cross, but this one of Holy Cross Ridge hits the mark. It’s a striking ridge, made even more so by the presence of snow contrasting with the dark coloring of the rock. The peak’s Cross Couloir is its most famous feature, one that has captured imaginations for well over a century. But there’s more to this mountain’s beauty than its namesake scar.

6. Uncompahgre Peak

Northwest view from the summit of Uncompahgre Peak.

Back in the San Juans, there’s no shortage of excellent views from the highest peak in the range. This one got my attention, giving you a decent perspective on the height of the mountain and the expanse of the kingdom it oversees. The San Juan Mountains are captivating.

7. Sunset Peak

A unique view north from Sunset Peak’s southern summit.

I couldn’t finish this list without at least one summit view from my home state of Oklahoma. The Wichita Mountains make up a collection of ancient crags and domes that are out of place in the surrounding Southern Plains. While not as lofty as most North American ranges, they still pack a lot of punch. The gnarly cedar remains of a tree on Sunset Peak’s southern summit caught my eye and is one of my favorite mountain images I’ve ever taken.

Obviously, I have a lot of other memories of great summit views from dozens of other mountains. But these rank as some of my favorite photos from any given mountaintop. Hopefully you can get out and make a few mountain memories of your own and, for a few hours or days, forget about the bad news floating around right now.

Bob Doucette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Doucette

Eight key attributes to being a leader in the outdoors

Being a leader or a mentor in the outdoors is more than just telling people what to do or where to go. Much more.

I’m lucky to be blessed with the company of folks who could show me the ropes in the outdoors. As the years have gone by, I’ve been able to share things that I’ve learned. In between all that is a bunch of give-and-take when it comes to being the leader or the learner.

The more time you spend out there, the better the chances are that you’ll end up being a teacher, leader or even a mentor. How you perform this task can have a huge impact on how well people grow in their own outdoor pursuits. Here are eight things you ought to know:

  1. Be an open book. Be honest about your experiences, whether it’s the activity at hand or the place you’re in. When people ask you questions, give the best answers you can. And do it in a way that’s accessible and clear. Clarity, honesty and approachability are key when people look to you for guidance. And never lie about or exaggerate your experience and qualifications. If you do and get found out, all your credibility is immediately lost.
  2. Let people learn some things for themselves. Part of growing into a role is trying things, making mistakes, and learning from the experience. You don’t want to be the person who micromanages someone’s adventure. It’s annoying, and eventually people will tune you out. That said…
  3. Be assertive when the stakes are high. There are some situations that call for a firm hand. High-risk activities like mountaineering and rock climbing are no places to stay quiet when you can see something about to go terribly wrong. If you wander up to a bear or a buffalo and your buddy wants to get closer for a wildlife selfie, that’s a good time to speak up. Same might be said if you’re about to ski into an avalanche-prone area, or if a big thunderhead begins to form over the mountain you’re ascending.
  4. Don’t ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t do or haven’t done yourself. This is an integrity thing. You should be willing to do the hard, or tedious, or unglamorous tasks. Lead by example and do those things. Demonstrating this will go a long way with a group.
  5. Be the leader, but create a team. History is filled with top-down taskmasters in famous expeditions. Sometimes that worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But you can be guaranteed that if your partners believe they have a say in things and that their input is not only valued but expected, that creates buy-in. It can also be helpful to get different perspectives on problems you might not have seen.
  6. Listen to the team, but if you’re the leader, make decisions. After you’ve gained input from your group, you don’t want to dawdle in overanalysis. That often leads to inaction. Consider the facts and ideas, then make a decision. This is especially true in emergency situations, where decision-making is critical. This is one area where you don’t want paralysis by analysis.
  7. Admit when you’re wrong. If you’ve chosen a course of action and it was wrong, fess up. Everyone will probably know anyway. Denying it will only erode your position as a leader or mentor. People can forgive a mistake. It’s harder to forgive stubborn arrogance or denial.
  8. Strive for future adventures. By this, I mean that you should be the type of person someone would partner with again. Keep things enjoyable, safe and fruitful for your partner or group. In the back of your mind, let your personal conduct and your competence make those around you think, “When I’m going to do X, I want this guy/gal with me.”

So there you go. The great thing about these ideas is that they apply not only in the outdoors, but in everyday life. Got some thoughts of your own? Let’s hear about it in the comments.

Bob Doucette

Mountain reads: ‘Colorado 14er Disasters’ by Mark Scott-Nash

NOTE: This is an installment of an occasional series on books, old and new, about outdoor adventures.

We’ve seen an uptick in the allure of alpine adventure, and nowhere is this more true than in Colorado.

Specifically, the state has seen a spike in interest and visitors to its 14ers, the peaks that rise to heights of 14,000 feet. It’s a rite of passage for many in Colorado to climb one, and as I can attest, the attraction goes well outside of Colorado’s borders.

But as is true of any wild place, the mountains can be risky places to be, particularly for the unprepared and inexperienced. Even seasoned hikers and mountaineers can get caught in a bad place in the high country.

And that’s the point of Mark Scott-Nash’s “Colorado 14er Disasters,” a compact book detailing incidents that have led to major rescue efforts, serious injuries, and even deaths on the high peaks.

I came into this book hoping for something akin to “Death in the Grand Canyon,” a sizable tome that recorded every recorded death there. This is not that book – there are far too many incidents, too many deaths, and too many unknown and unrecorded stories to cover. Instead, the author picks a number of accidents and incidents that are representative of what happens in the mountains when things go sideways.

In putting this together, Scott-Nash goes through incident reports, news reports and interviews with people involved in the accidents or those who took part in rescues. The reasons for these mishaps vary – weather, getting lost, accidental falls, rockfall/avalanche, etc. Most times, the fault lies with something the victim did or did not do.

Scott-Nash doesn’t pull punches. Where he finds fault in the individual, he says so. Some people may find some of these observations harsh. But at the same time, the stark description of mistakes and assumed risk also serve as important warnings for those new mountain adventures.

The book contains helpful appendices and a glossary of terms and is peppered with informational blurbs concerning relevant information in each chapter.

What I found particularly interesting was the fact that I’m familiar with some of the stories he tells and have been to some of the mountains where the accidents he profiles took place. Viewing Humboldt Peak, for instance, I can see exactly where the dangerous portions of this otherwise tame mountain could be. I can see where people could get lost on Mount of the Holy Cross (though trail improvements, including huge cairns on the mountain’s northwest ridge have helped), and can easily spot the problem areas on Longs Peak, a burly mountain that is routinely underestimated by far too many climbers.

It’s a matter-of-fact book that doesn’t go into narrative storytelling. Rather, “Colorado 14er Disasters” is more like an expanded compilation of mountain incident reports, organized and written in a way to help readers understand just how tenuous life can be in the high country. Most importantly, it dissects each incident and provides relevant information readers can take with them the next time they plan a mountain adventure.

Bob Doucette

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

Capitol Peak, Colo. (Wikipedia commons photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Doucette

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

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