Video: Cheating death on Colorado’s Maroon Bells

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

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

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

Happy Monday!

Bob Doucette

Getting in a staredown with Longs Peak

There we are, in shadow form, looking toward Storm Peak just after dawn.

There we are, in shadow form, looking toward Storm Peak just after dawn.

Mountains are often a source of inspiration or awe by those who visit them. Go a little deeper and you’ll likely feel humbled.

It’s always been that way for me. The peaks are big, ancient and unmovable. It doesn’t matter how strong I feel, or how weak. The most epic day in the mountains has lots of flavors, and one of them is very likely to be humility.

It should be noted that there are various levels of humility.

I’d like to tell you that my recent attempt at Longs Peak was this fantastic stew of pain, joy, struggle and victory, but it wasn’t. It was a staredown.

Longs Peak is one of 58 mountains in Colorado to rise above 14,000 feet. Readily visible from Denver, its bulk rises high above Rocky Mountain National Park. Longs is not the highest 14er in the state, or even in the Front Range. And given the number of people who try to reach its summit, you might be tempted to see it as a beginner’s peak.

Let me burst a few bubbles. Being the highest doesn’t necessarily denote the toughest. Mount Elbert is Colorado’s highest, but also one of the state’s easiest summits. Everest is THE highest, but experts will tell you K2 is harder.

And though a surprisingly large number of people count Longs as their first big mountain, even that must be given an asterisk: 50 percent who try to climb it fail, and to further illustrate the point, going back to last summer, my friend Matt’s second 14er was Sunlight Peak – ranked as the seventh toughest 14er in the state. He did this despite having very limited high country experience. There is a lot of relativity to consider when judging a peak by who has climbed it.

I joined my friends Chuck and Noel on this one, and made a couple of new friends – Craig and Dillon.

Dillon has climbed all the 14ers. He’s lean, strong, experienced and definitely the guy you want in your corner when going up a mountain.

Craig is a fellow flatlander, rolling in from Missouri to spend a week in Rocky Mountain National Park. He has a few peaks under his belt, but was the most junior of the bunch right along with me. Despite all that, he proved to be a very strong hiker, even up high.

Chuck and Noel, well, you know them from previous adventures. Stout hikers, good climbers, and very experienced in the mountains. Both are closing in on finishing off all 58 of the 14ers.

EARLY START

Longs Peak isn’t just a high mountain. It’s also big. This may take some explanation.

I mentioned Mount Elbert. It’s the highest peak in Colorado, and the second-highest point in the contiguous 48 states. It’s even higher than Washington’s Mount Rainier.

But it’s not bigger than Rainier. Not even close. I imagine you could fit a few Elberts inside of Rainier quite comfortably. If you can understand that concept, it will go a long way into appreciating the size of Longs Peak. It’s no Rainier, but it is bigger than most of its Rocky Mountain cousins.

By its standard route, it’s a 15-mile round trip. The final mile or so is rocky, exposed and not amenable to fast ascents or retreats. So you have to plan for this, and that means a really early start.

That meant lights out at 6 p.m., a 12:30 a.m. wakeup call, and heading up the trail by 2 a.m. It sounds ridiculous, but unless you want to camp above treeline, this is what you need to do to give yourself the best chance of summiting before afternoon storms roll in.

This brings me to a term to which I recently became aware. It’s called “second-level fun.” A good movie, a roller coaster, hanging with friends at a pub or club, these are not examples of second-level fun. Sleep deprivation, hours of physical exertion, some aches and pain, maybe a little blood and suffering, all for the sake of great views and bragging rights – these are the things associated with second-level fun. Longs Peak has all of these in abundance.

We weren’t the only ones on the trail. This was the same weekend Andrew Hamilton broke Cave Dog’s 14er speed record, so he and a healthy group of well-wishers were on their way down as we ascended. It was a cool moment (he definitely had the rock star thing going on around him, and was very accommodating to all the fans who had gathered), and I saw a couple of people I knew from past trips. First was Brady, who had climbed Wetterhorn with me last year, and later on, Danielle, who was on the big Chicago Basin backpacking trip a little later on.

Danielle was excited to see us, bubbling with energy as always. She promised to run back up and join us on the climb, even though she’d already hiked to 11,000 feet to meet Hamilton and the gang.

One thing we gained from meeting Hamilton’s entourage was a piece of information of what lay ahead: Fresh, wet snow on the upper portions of the mountain, and an abundance of wet rock on some of the steepest parts of the route. That would weigh heavily later on.

The hike is a beautiful one, but you don’t get to see much of it for the first few hours. Whatever your headlamp illuminates is about all you get. But somewhere around 5 a.m. as dawn breaks and you’re above treeline, the magnificence of the peak reveals itself. With clouds below us and above and stony mountaintops in between, that morning’s sunrise was the most spectacular I’d ever seen. It washed over the hills slowly, illuminating the land and giving us our first good look at the mountain. It was an awesome sight.

Sunrise on Longs Peak. Goodness.

Sunrise on Longs Peak. Goodness.

Looking up toward Longs Peak shortly after dawn. Kinda cloudy...

Looking up toward Longs Peak shortly after dawn. Kinda cloudy…

Noel taking a break as we approach the Boulder Field. Longs Peak's North Face, Diamond and Keyhole are all visible.

Noel taking a break as we approach the Boulder Field. Longs Peak’s North Face, Diamond and Keyhole are all visible.

I was cussing myself a little for not dropping some weight before I got to Colorado. Carrying 10 extra pounds is not ideal. Also bugging me: I sweat a lot. It doesn’t take much at all to get my sweat glands going. It was windy and cool, and I was already sweating through my clothes, despite my careful layering strategy. I was good as long as I was moving, but cold at every stop.

The one thing I’d caution people about is that any pictures you see of Longs Peak are going to be deceiving. Being there in real life shows you that the features are much bigger and steeper than what you see in photographs.

This became apparent once we got to the Boulder Field. This is the place where you camp if you plan to break up your ascent. It sits around 12,000 feet, and as the name suggests, it’s a rugged, treeless and harsh place. The campsites have to be reserved in advance through the National Park Service, and you even get the luxury of outhouses nearby. I didn’t use one, but my buddies told me they were kinda nasty. Given that and the possibility of a rather uncomfortable overnight at the campsites, well, use your best judgment.

The trail ends in the Boulder Field. From there, you hop on rocks and awkwardly scramble up boulders at a gradually steepening grade toward the Keyhole, a distinct opening in the ridge that overlooks the Boulder Field.

Making our way through the Boulder Field, close to the Keyhole.

Making our way through the Boulder Field, close to the Keyhole.

It was here that we ran into a fella from Chicago who looked a little perplexed. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a light top, he was cold and unsure what to do because his cousin had gone ahead toward the Keyhole without him. Dillon was kind enough to let him borrow his jacket. Noel started calling out the cousin’s name, and we eventually caught up with him toward the Keyhole.

Now Noel has a habit of bring and sharing homemade cookies. That’s why she’s known as the Cookiehiker. Upon meeting the ambitious cousin, she mentioned something about him not getting any of her cookies.

The lesson: Unless your partner is secure and safe, you don’t leave him or her behind while you do your own thing. This is especially true of people who are inexperienced in the mountains, which was clearly the case here. Eventually we got everyone reunited, all was forgiven, and the offending cousin was even allowed a few of Noel’s baked goodies.

READING THE SIGNS

Like I said earlier, the Boulder Field is an awkward piece of hiking that turns into light scrambling toward the top. There is a shelter built there in honor of a couple of people who had died on the mountain long ago. It’s not exactly weathertight – a good bit of blown-in snow was still there, filling about half the structure. But it’s a cool feature, and a great place to take a rest before tackling the toughest part of the route.

The rock shelter by the Keyhole.

The rock shelter by the Keyhole.

But it was here that we had difficult decisions to make. The long hike, the punishment of the Boulder Field the reports we’d received of the route conditions ahead, and dicey looking weather blowing in wore heavy on us. Winds coming through the Keyhole were fierce, a steady 30-40 mph with gusts much higher. We all took a peek around the corner from the Keyhole and saw slick route conditions ahead and steep drop-offs below.

The route past the Keyhole. Errrggg....

The route past the Keyhole. Errrggg….

Storm Peak looking pretty stormy.

Storm Peak looking pretty stormy.

Me at the Keyhole, which would have to be my summit that day. (Noel Johnson photo)

Me at the Keyhole, which would have to be my summit that day. (Noel Johnson photo)

You never know what a route really holds until you’re on it. And hey, Andrew Hamilton did this in the dark, right?

But we’re not Andrew Hamilton, we weren’t chasing a record, and poor route conditions combined with sketchy looking weather added up to too many negative variables. We were all thinking it, but Dillon was the first to say it: There was going to be no summit today.

It bothers me now, of course, but at the time I had no problem with it. They Keyhole was our summit, and a month removed from that day, I’m convinced we made the right call. Longs’ summit would have to wait for another day.

As we munched on food and snapped pics, we spotted the bright jacket of a climber ambling her way up to us. It was Danielle! She actually caught up with us, despite running on minimal sleep and less food. I have to hand it to her, there is an energy to this woman that could power a nuclear reactor.

We told her our thoughts, which elicited a half-hearted plea to try anyway, but we were firm and eventually she agreed. In any case, it was cool to see one of our partners in crime from the Chicago Basin trip once again.

The gang. Danielle is up front, and from left, Dillon, Chuck, Noek, Craig  and myself. (Danielle Ardan photo)

The gang. Danielle is up front, and from left, Dillon, Chuck, Noel, Craig and myself. (Danielle Ardan photo)

Hiking back down, Craig was determined to summit something. So he hiked up Mount Lady Washington while we made our way on the trail. Danielle and I talked running and life (both of those seem to be going rather well for her) before we caught up with everyone else. She ended up singing Disney tunes with Noel much of the way down.

In the light of day, I got to appreciate how gorgeous the trail is, and gazed in awe at some of the more prominent features of Longs Peak.

Rock and air.

Rock and air.

Longs Peak frowning on us. We get it, dude. Not today.

Longs Peak frowning on us. We get it, dude. Not today.

A healthy, greedy, friendly, opportunistic marmot.

A healthy, greedy, friendly, opportunistic marmot.

The Ship's Prow and part of Mount Meeker, as seen from the Chasm Lake approach.

The Ship’s Prow and part of Mount Meeker, as seen from the Chasm Lake approach.

Something about water tumbling downhill is pretty. People like it.

Something about water tumbling downhill is pretty. People like it.

We put in about 14 miles that day, cracking open a bacon-flavored soda at the trailhead (not recommended, but funny). Even with no summit, we ate a victory-sized meal back in Estes Park just the same.

Taking a swig of bacon-flavored soda at the trailhead. Not sure this was a good idea. (Craig Cook photo)

Taking a swig of bacon-flavored soda at the trailhead. Not sure this was a good idea. (Craig Cook photo)

It was great meeting new friends, and particularly sweet meeting up with buddies from mountain ascents past.

More importantly, it was good to experience this. It wasn’t just a matter of knowing what it’s like to fail, but also knowing how correct decision-making led us to that point. Longs Peak isn’t going anywhere, but one bad move on a sketchy route could end any future climbs in a flash.

This leads be to a sort of epilogue. Maybe a week after this, Danielle was back at Longs, and she got to that summit. She also climbed some of the tougher peaks of the Elk Range as well.

Later in the week, Craig and his wife hiked Grays Peak, and he got Torreys to boot.

Noel and Chuck tore it up and several other peaks not long after, and in the second week of August, teamed up for another shot at Longs Peak. This time, they would not be denied.

Often a strategic retreat to safety leads to better things later on. God willing, I’ll be back at Longs, and maybe next time I’ll summit, having given myself the chance to do so by relenting to the mountain when I was there last.

Bob Doucette

The king of the Colorado Rockies: Longs Peak

All hail the king.

All hail the king.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s The Mountain.

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

Bob Doucette

Seven signs it’s time to bail on a summit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Doucette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The upper portions of Longs Peak.

The upper portions of Longs Peak.

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

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

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

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

Bob Doucette

An appreciation of trail people

I showed up at a trailhead not knowing these folks. I left with a new group of friends. This was three years ago on Torreys Peak, Colo. (Chuck Erle photo)

I showed up at a trailhead not knowing these folks. I left with a new group of friends. This was three years ago on Torreys Peak, Colo. (Chuck Erle photo)

Friends come quickly when you’re a kid. There’s an innocence about childhood where it’s easier to trust your peers, and the medium on which friendships are built is usually as simple as the availability to come out and play. When you get older, friends might be people you meet in class, on your team, or in some other group where people find interesting or like-minded peers.

It gets more complicated as you age. Trust is harder to earn, but even then it’s amazing how quickly people get together and become best buds in places like high school or college. Especially college. You get a reset there, where you go from knowing a bunch of people from your neighborhood or hometown to knowing almost no one, forcing you to crawl out of your protective shell, meet people and learn a lot of them are as insecure and in need of a friendly face as you are.

I don’t meet people easily. Every time I go to a new place or try to engage strangers in social functions, it doesn’t feel right to me. It often seems forced. Trust is a commodity I value highly, and I don’t give it lightly. I’m sure, like a lot of you out there, it has something to do with opening up to someone who seemed trustworthy only to get burned later, or to think you had a bead on someone only to find out that he or she was nothing like you originally thought. So I sit back, quietly observe, and maybe over time I let folks in. It’s not that I’m unfriendly or standoff-ish, but I definitely take my time cultivating relationships.

So imagine the potential discomfort with this scenario…

Step one: Get on social media, play up an idea to go on a short trip into the mountains.

Step two: Get replies from people I’ve never met or only met once saying they’d like to be part of that plan.

Step three: Say, “OK, I’ll go with you into a wild area without having any idea what spending many hours in potentially uncomfortable places is going to be like with you, or how you’ll react to me.”

On the surface, this sounds like a great way to get robbed or pushed off a cliff, depending on the intentions of the people you’re meeting, or how weary of you they become after spending said many hours with you in uncomfortable places. But here’s the thing: I’ve done this before. I’ve done this a few times, and thus far, I have yet to regret any such meet-up to spend a day, or even several days, with folks I’ve never met.

This happens a lot among various outdoorsy communities. Climbers, hikers, backpackers, you get the drift. I like to call them trail people, because whatever it is they’re doing, there is a decent chance it’s going to include some time walking on a trail through the woods or in a desert or wherever.

Trail people are a different lot. Some of the finest people I know are men and women who I met, quite literally, at a trailhead or in a meetup to drive to a trailhead, and thus far none of them have turned out to be stick-up artists or axe murderers. Their stories are often my stories, too, and because of that, those bonds of friendship seem to coalesce a little faster than they do in my non-trail world.

Chuck Erle in his element on the Crestones. (Noel Johnson photo)

Chuck Erle in his element on the Crestones. (Noel Johnson photo)

FINDING POINT C

Sometimes you get to a point in life where you feel stuck. Whatever that might be, your Point A led to a Point B, and Point B didn’t turn out to be what you’d hoped. Maybe it was radically different than what you expected, or a bit of a letdown. Point B can also be a gateway: a passage to change.

Point B eventually led my friend Chuck to Point C, which happened to be atop an icy, windblown summit on Colorado’s Torreys Peak in the middle of winter. To hear him tell it, the journey to that summit was an eventful one, and one relying heavily on people who shared his growing fascination with the high country.

I’ve hiked with Chuck a few times, and climbed some of Colorado’s highest with him. I find it almost impossible to keep up with the dude. He’s built like a basketball small forward, long-legged and rangy, each stride seemingly consuming twice the amount of ground as mine. For a bigger guy, he moves smoothly and fast, even at altitude. I think the last time I hiked with him I gave up keeping pace somewhere just past 11,000 feet. Staying on his heels was rather pointless for me, the hapless flatlander. I figured I’d see him later on, chilling on the summit, busting my chops when I arrived.

Chuck has climbed nearly all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, popularly known as the 14ers. His first peak was the same as it was for countless others, Grays Peak, a tall but relatively simple hike to its 14,270-foot summit, the highest spot in the Front Range. It’s close to Denver, making it a popular destination day hikers and people wanting to get their first 14er under their belt.

For Chuck, it was a date of sorts with his girlfriend at the time well over a decade ago. They’d also hiked Mount Sniktau and a few other local peaks. That relationship passed, and it would be awhile longer before he’d hit the peaks again.

“After we broke up I never hiked again…instead, I dated, partied, got married (a second time), got fat, smoked, drank and just worked in the suburbia rat race,” he said.

But Grays had planted a seed in his mind, and before long he was seeking advice from others on where to go and what to do in the high country. So he hit the gym, lost some weight, quit smoking and got online to learn more about the 14ers.

“I met some really cool people on the page (the 14ers.com website) and had a blast Facebooking with them. I was becoming obsessed with the fun that the 14er group page was becoming and needed to get back into climbing 14ers again. From mid-summer to October 2011, only after a few months in the gym and having quit ten years of smoking I hiked Quandary, Bierstadt, Sherman, Princeton, Shavano, and Antero.”

Like a lot of people, he obeyed the unwritten rules of when hiking season officially began and ended, assuming that things would be too cold, uncomfortable and dangerous when the snow began in the fall.

But then he saw some photos on that Facebook page of a gal named Noel getting her altitude fix on the flanks of Pikes Peak in the dead of winter. So he started corresponding with her, asking questions, and building the confidence that maybe a winter summit isn’t something reserved for hardcore mountaineers after all.

Chuck is a planner, so he kept doing the things he felt would give him the best chance of success in this coveted winter adventure. He kept hitting the gym, dropping down to a trim 195 pounds (down from north of 250 in his past, pre-14er life) and researched local routes that were doable for a guy who had yet to challenge the peaks during winter. His work steered him back toward a familiar area, not far from his first 14er, Grays Peak. The plan: Drive to Loveland Pass, hike to Grizzly Peak, then traverse the distance between it and another one of the Front Range giants, Torreys Peak, Grays’ slightly shorter but wilder sibling. He’d then hike down the Grays Peak trail into Stevens Gulch, where presumably a second car would be waiting and call it a day.

All he needed now were some companions.

He knew a guy named Durant, and they pulled in another dude from the virtual world, Rob. They followed a route along the Continental Divide, topping out on unnamed 12,000-foot peaks, then Cupid Peak, and later Grizzly Peak. From there, it was decision time, to see whether the conditions and their speed would allow them to continue on to Torreys’ 14,267-foot summit. Once they dropped off Grizzly, they’d be committed to tackling Torreys and whatever the elements had in store, no small thing considering how quickly and dangerously things can change during a Rocky Mountain winter.

Fortunately, the weather cooperated. Unfortunately, gravity did not.

“From the top of Grizzly, Durant, Rob and myself had a quick rest to rehydrate and fuel up before finishing the first leg of the trip. Torreys lay in wait as we gathered our gear… well, as Durant and I gathered our gear. Rob had placed his new pack on the snow near the Grizzly summit and as we were all distracted milling through our packs for food and drink, Rob’s pack began to slowly slide off the summit ridge, picked up momentum and was soon bounding down the slope and eventually veering off cliff edges and exploding with each airy bounce, jettisoning his food, drink and new gear he picked up just a day earlier, including his wife’s cell phone. Luckily we had extra water and a few snacks that Rob would ration for the duration of the hike.”

Safety is, indeed, found in numbers. Had Rob been alone, losing all that gear so far from a trailhead could have had dire consequences. Fortunately his buddies had his back.

Eventually, the strain of the day started to catch up with Chuck. Fighting the snowpack, the winds, the steepness of the slope and the altitude made his legs heavy, and soon Durant and Rob began to fade out of sight. Chuck kept on, stopping to rest, adjust his pack or take in the views. As is often the case, weird and sometimes macabre thoughts crossed his mind.

“I actually thought about how long it would take Search and Rescue to come pick me up if I were to become too exhausted to continue.”

He rallied, however, finding a rhythm and catching sight of his friends higher up. Waving his trekking poles to let them know he was still moving, he caught up and the three advanced to the top of Torreys Peak together.

Winter outings like Chuck’s can be amazing because of the solitude. You and your group may be the only ones out there while everyone else is sequestered indoors or crowding ski lifts or doing something other than willing their way up the icy slopes of a high peak on a cold day. That was the case for Chuck, Durant and Rob, taking in sweeping views of nearby Front Range peaks, with even the giant mass of Pikes Peak visible from more than a hundred miles away.

That sort of solitude makes you feel a little special, as if what you see, hear and smell is there only for you – a reward for venturing out when others wouldn’t, going places that are hard to get to and passing the physical and mental tests along the way. Using one of his trekking poles to steady his camera, Chuck began documenting the views in pictures.

The trio got off the mountain, got in their waiting second car and drove back retrieve the first car parked at Loveland Pass. On the way, his first thought was to text Noel, the gal who encouraged him to give a winter ascent a try.

“I knew she would appreciate the accomplishment and be proud. I had told her all along this trip was in part inspired by her. My only disappointment that day was that she was unable to accompany me on the hike.”

Chuck’s trip lasted a day, but the journey was much, much longer. When you live in Denver, you see the mountains every time you step outside and look to the west. You wonder what it would be like to climb one. Mount Evans looms tall over the city, inviting you to come on up. And some do, like when Chuck and his ex-girlfriend did years ago, and perhaps that experience inspires more.

But as is often the case, getting to those places takes a team, with each person playing a specific role. You need an instigator to drag you out for a hike. You need an inspiration, a person doing things who makes you think, “Hey, if she can do it, why can’t I?” And you need friends who can go with you, to be your safety net, your encouragement, your source of high-fives at the summit and people with whom you can retell stories over burgers and beer in some mountain town down the road from the trailhead, guys like Durant and Rob.

You need your trail people.

Bill Wood heading up the trail toward Mount Eolus. (Jenny Saylor photo)

Bill Wood heading up the trail toward Mount Eolus. (Jenny Saylor photo)

14ER HIGH

You might wonder how I came to know Chuck, or how I came to learn this part of his story. We didn’t grow up together, we’re not neighbors, and really, if not for a few chance encounters, I may never have met him at all. How I got to know Chuck was as simple as knowing someone who knew him, and having that guy respond to a call looking for people who might be interested in tackling a peak on a summer weekend when I happened to be in Denver.

That guy’s name is Bill. How I met Bill is a little like how Chuck met Noel, corresponding online, then later meeting face to face when I was hiking out from a backpacking trip in the San Juans.

Colorado’s hiking community – it’s trail people –  is dominated by those seeking the summits of the 14ers. There’s an entire website dedicated to the 14ers, a comprehensive service with route descriptions, lists, real-time conditions reports and a forum for users to talk to each other about all things hiking, climbing and skiing the 14ers. One day a few years back I put a post on the forum about “Okie Mountaineering,” describing some offseason climbing opportunities for people living in the Southern Plains. A gal named Beth had been doing some work in southeastern Oklahoma and messaged me about what hiking opportunities might be close to her job site.

We chatted about those topics for a while, and then her brother joined in, her brother being Bill. I learned that they’d be hiking Uncompahgre Peak the same weekend I’d be there, but we all just missed each other until I was walking out on the four-wheel-drive road down the mountain. Bill and Beth were fortunate enough to have a rig that could handle the roughness of that road, and somehow they recognized me as they were easing their way down. Just like that, people in the virtual world met in the flesh.

We kept in touch over the years, and it was in preparing for a business trip to Denver that we got our first opportunity to hit the trail together. Bill answered my query by suggesting an alternative route up Torreys Peak.

Unlike that winter ascent of Torreys Peak that Chuck pursued, where no one was on the mountain except for him and his little group, Torreys Peak in the summer is a really busy place. Being so close to Denver and easy to get to, many people give it a try. Its most popular route is a hike – a strenuous one, for sure, but not something where any special skill or daring is required.

But Torreys Peak is somewhat complicated, with several other ways to the top. When snow is present, there is a deep, vertical gash down the middle of the mountain called Dead Dog Couloir that some people will try to climb, and for expert skiers, ride down. We wouldn’t be doing that, but we would get a crack at a different path, that of scaling the peak from its wilder, more demanding Kelso Ridge.

Kelso Ridge is, at points, a steep line that includes several gullies and walls that take you from mere hiking to climbing. Many of these climbing spots overlook airy drop-offs some people can’t stomach. One such wall overlooks Dead Dog, then tops out at the ridge’s most dramatic feature, a short knife-edge ridge that abruptly ends at a large, white rock formation just below the summit. Going over that knife-edge, then traversing the white rock is an exercise in absorbing the visuals of big air all around. If you’re unduly scared of heights, I imagine this ridge would not be your idea of a good time. But if you can get past that, it really is a lot of fun to climb and it frees you from the conga line of day hikers trudging their way up the well-worn trail on the other side of the mountain.

This was the first time I’d been on a mountain with Bill and Beth. It was also the place where I first met Chuck, Noel and Durant. You might remember how earlier I said that the prospect of online meet-ups is far, far out of my comfort zone. And yet there I was, hanging out with a gaggle of new friends on a mountain, enjoying a spectacular, blue-bird day after tackling what was, for me at the time, a challenging line to the top. Kelso Ridge may have been the first time I’d hiked with this bunch, but it would not be the last.

To hear Bill tell it, his story is not much different.

Bill had done some hiking earlier in life, but it was Beth that got him into doing the 14ers. She was talking about going up Huron Peak, a gorgeous hike with some of the most dramatic views in the entire Sawatch Range of central Colorado. Bill’s interest was piqued.

“I distinctly remember one July morning in 2002, when my sister, who had been climbing some 14ers in the past, had said that she was planning on climbing Huron Peak.  Something inside me just leaped out and asked if I could come,” he said.

So on August 2 of that year (the date is seared into his memory), Bill summitted Huron Peak, his first 14er, and a new passion was born. He got a few more under his belt and formed a group called “The Lardass 14ers Club” (“we had T-shirts made,” he notes). Beth served as Bill’s guide for a while, and as the group grew and he got to know more like-minded people, an entirely new circle of friends was found. Many years and many peaks later, I became a small part of that growing crowd.

During a more recent summer drive into the San Juans, Bill was driving a group of us around and we were discussing the type of people who like exploring the mountains. He had a friend of his, a young gal named Jenny, and I’d brought a buddy from Tulsa, Matt, who was looking to climb his first 14er. As a matter of passing time, I asked Bill and Jenny what it was about their “mountain” friends that made them different from others. Bill had some good insight on this subject, and he held court as he drove Jenny’s Nissan Pathfinder down the road at 70 miles per hour.

He separated it into a couple of categories. First was how the 14er community relates as a group. And the second, how people in the community relate to one another individually.

He likened the group dynamic to that of a high school. Not in the way that high schools divide up into interests or cliques or whatever, but in simpler terms, how it organizes by class, and in turn, how those classes interact. It’s the same deal with the 14ers crowd, with wide-eyed newbies trying their best to fit in and learn from experienced mountaineers by way of listening to their stories, asking questions and hoping to tag along on the next adventure.

I found that take rather fascinating. I guess I’d never thought about it that way, but the more I explored the idea, the more it made sense. I’d unwittingly become an underclassman at 14er High and was just now figuring that out. Remembering that conversation, we revisited it later on so he could elaborate.

“You first get there, and everyone who is already there looks older and more impressive, even if they aren’t… the simple fact that they were there before you makes them knowledgeable and experienced,” Bill said. “As you first start to talk, you find people who are similar in skill level and need (AKA the same grade as you) so you make plans with these guys knowing that the logistics of climbing will be similar in this group.”

To further the analogy, 14er High has a subset, a dating scene that is alarmingly similar to what we all saw and experienced walking down the halls at school. Guys and gals find their love of the peaks leads to a flirt, a date, a hook-up and probably a peak or five. But, as Bill warns, it has its pitfalls: “Like high school, that group of people is sometimes catty, full of drama and gossip.”

It’s an interesting mix, to say the least, fueled by meet-ups at Denver or Colorado Springs bars. Fourteener Happy Hours are where the whole student body can get together, have a few drinks, tell tall tales, dish dirt, meet girls/guys and scheme for that next big mountain trip.

The group also plans “gatherings,” where a spot is selected to in which to camp, and anyone who wants to come is invited. Fall, spring and winter gatherings allow people floating in the ether to meet up on the trail and hike or climb with the rest of the community. It’s different than the happy hours because there is actual hiking going on, but a lot of the other elements of those happy hours, both good and bad, are the same.

In any case, these are the ways this particular outdoor community bonds. Instead of doing it at house parties, football games or class trips, they coalesce around the peaks. But time passes, and just like high school, the nature of the people changes as well. Beginners start bagging more summits, and before long they have dozens of peaks to their credit and all the requisite scars, wisdom and memories that come with them.

“As you grow through the seasons, you increase in class – sophomores, juniors, seniors.  It’s all the same,” Bill said.  “You start to become the elders that ‘newbies’ look up to, who think you are the most experienced person, or people, they’ve ever seen.  In reality, I am nothing like that, but try convincing some of these folks of that.  So, as you either finish the 14ers, or they lose a relevancy in your life, you have ‘graduated.’  You may not hang around as much anymore.  If you attend happy hours or the gatherings you are looked at by some like the high school kids look at the college kids who come back to the high school parties…  ‘Who is this old timer, is he just going to talk about climbing in his day?’  Sooner or later you stop going to happy hours as you cannot relate to the new crop of climbers.”

Of course, that is just one facet, one rough analogy, of how trail folk relate. It’s a good one, as it explains quite a bit. But there is more to the story.

Among other things, the mountains are places that fuel ambition, and right or wrong, self worth. On a more basic level, they are sources of adrenaline, as the nature of mountains – that of being big, wild, and at times, dangerous – makes them scenes of high intensity. The sense of achievement over tackling a difficult climb can be a serious high, just like a close brush with death. Memories associated with the darker side of the mountain experience – the loss of a friend, or perhaps a debilitating accident – can bring you down just as low as those successful summits can lift you up. Fear is a common element in all this, like a storm cloud bubbling with dark, angry intensity, power and foreboding, where overcoming it makes you feel like a dragon slayer while succumbing to it is akin to being run out of your own home. You can come back from a simple day hike with strangers and feel friendly toward them, but when you get off a mountain with any or all of the experiences I just related, something else happens entirely. A bond will be created that is not easily explained. It’s safe to say intense experiences lead to intense feelings and leave it at that.

This creates a peculiar dynamic among those who share these moments of risk. Friendships come fast: They run hot, but they have their limitations. What do you have in common outside of the mountains? If you can’t answer that question with anything of substance, you might never see a lot of the friends you made on the trail if you or they, for whatever reason, leave that part of life behind to make room for other things. And those romances? It’s the same deal, but turbocharged, shining bright for a time, then burning out if the couple in question don’t have anything else holding them together aside from their love of the outdoors.

Bill has experienced all of that.

“When you are climbing in a group of friends, and climbing a lot – you develop a friendship based on trust abnormally quick,” he said.  “Same with the girlfriends. You sort of fall in love real quick, because while no one admits what they are doing on the peaks is very dangerous –  you are in a precarious place with that person or those people – you can’t help but overinflate some feelings for these people up front.  Not saying it’s fake friendships but it’s rushed, and that’s natural.  As soon as the intensity is over, people mostly go their separate ways looking for their next fix, whatever that is.”

Still, it’s not uncommon for those bonds to endure. In our subsequent conversations, Bill mentioned to me a group of friends who became known as “the brat pack,” climbers who were all in the same stages of experience and ambition who were cemented even further by the death of a friend, mountaineer Rob Jansen, who was killed in a freak rockslide on Hagerman Peak in 2012. His death hit them hard, making them all the more determined to climb the peaks in a way that would make their fallen friend proud.

“I think many people have a core group in friendships, and something distinctly defines that core group.  For us, the loss of Rob Jansen defined us.  We were determined, and successful, in finishing the 14ers for us, for him.”

Bill acknowledged that the brat pack is not as active as it once was. But given the chance, he’d gear up with them again.

“I consider every person I’ve hiked with a kindred spirit, and someone I’d definitely consider a friend if asked.  But it’s like everything in life, as we grow and develop more interests elsewhere, you change the scene.  They always stay a part of your past, perhaps a couple will become lifelong friends.

“I still talk to all of the others and will climb with any of them in a second if asked.”

Noel. (Chuck Erle photo)

Noel Johnson kicking back atop Mount Sneffels. (Chuck Erle photo)

TIES THAT BIND

It’s funny to look back and see how the things Bill described have manifested themselves in my own behavior. A few months after we topped out on Torreys Peak, Bill was getting ready to summit the final 14er on his list, Mount of the Holy Cross, a gorgeous sentinel in the northern Sawatch Range not far from Vail. A friend of his was also finishing up on Holy Cross, so the party was going to be big. A couple of dozen people drove to the tiny town of Minturn, then weaved up a lonely dirt road to a campsite a few more miles away.

I joined that group. I had no time off from work, so if I wanted to be there, I’d have to drive from Tulsa to Minturn (and the campsite), get up the next morning to climb the peak, head back down and drive home, all within the space of three days, thirty hours of which was spent driving. It was a stupid plan, but the draw was being able to be there for Bill and meet up with the gang I’d met on Kelso Ridge. It was a tremendous expense of time and energy for a fella I’d seen three times in my life, but at the time it seemed totally worth it.

I got back to Tulsa with maybe a few hours of sleep between the time I left to the time I returned, and still worked a full shift. I’m not sure I had ever been that tired, despite the volumes of Mountain Dews and 5-Hour Energy drinks I consumed. Even though I’d never do something that foolish again, I have zero regrets about it.

But why? Why would I go through such great lengths to get in one more mountain trip? I can only describe it as a sense of kinship. There were possibilities here beyond the potential for new adventures, something closer to finding a level of authenticity lacking elsewhere in my life. It might be that it was an illusion, caused by what Bill described as an inflated bond produced by the rush of the climb. Even with that in mind, I felt there was more out there.

I got a similar sense from Noel, or at least from her story.

Noel is an Air Force veteran who had settled into family life in Colorado Springs. She devoted much of her adult life to raising her kids, peppering in a little fun via her creative and prolific baking streak. But over time the kids grew up, moved out and started lives of their own. A void was created, a blank spot ultimately filled when she was cleaning out a closet and found one of her kids’ pair of childhood hiking boots. They were still in great shape and looked like they might fit.

So she tried them on. Lo and behold, like the glass slipper from Cinderella fame, they were just her size.

Noel found her way to the slopes of Pikes Peak, that monster mountain looming over the Springs, and its popular Barr Trail. The more she hiked, the stronger she got, and suddenly a new chapter in her life unfolded. A friendly sort, Noel would tote small containers of homemade cookies in her pack, offering her goodies to people she hiked with and even strangers she met on the trail. Finding those boots, taking those initial steps on the Barr Trail, and topping out on Pikes Peak on foot, a new Noel was born.

She became the Cookie Hiker.

She made a lot of friends on the trail, and discovered something different in the 14er community than what existed elsewhere in her life, a drive and commitment with these hikers and mountaineers that she found admirable.

“These friends have that extra level of understanding of what it takes to climb some of these mountains that my non-hiking friends will just never really be able to grasp,” Noel told me. “There is a bond there with these friends because they know the skill, attention, physical training, and mental toughness it takes to do some of these climbs.  They understand the passion of the sometimes risky sport of mountain climbing and are as thrilled to talk about it as I am. Trying to explain these things to others doesn’t always compute with them.

“Overall, in just five years of hiking, I have made more friends than I have in many years when I led a non-hiking life.”

Noel has evolved over the years, adding skills to her tool box that include things like sport climbing, trad climbing and even ice climbing. She regularly hikes up Pikes Peak’s mellower trails, but included in her ascents are some of the toughest in all of Colorado.

Tackling those harder peaks has also given her perspective on trust and teamwork, not to mention a healthy regard for the dangers these mountains present.

Anyone who has been up in the mountains very often can probably tell you about close calls. Many times, it’s a story involving a quick change in the weather, or perhaps a near fall. Illness can also come into play. Most ascents are incident-free, but the mountains aren’t designed by risk managers and lawyers and there aren’t any handrails up there. Sometimes bad things happen.

A couple of years back, Noel came face to face with that. She was with a group climbing one of Colorado’s hardest and most intimidating mountains, Capitol Peak. It’s the baddest of the bad boys in the Elk Range, a line of mountains known for their extreme beauty, dramatic profiles and potential for danger. The Maroon Bells are nicknamed “the Deadly Bells” because of the fatal encounters that have transpired there. Across the valley from the Bells, Pyramid Peak shares their more unsavory attributes – it’s steep, exposed, and littered with loose rock that only heightens the risk of falls and rockslides. Snowmass Mountain, in the words of people I know, “moves beneath your feet.”

But Capitol Peak seems to be a whole other animal. It’s remote, making it a bit of a haul to get to its lower flanks. The easiest way up includes a hike up its steep shoulder, then climbing over or around a prominent feature on its ridgeline called “K2,” which can be dicey – the scramble is a steep one, and the drop-offs on either side are significant. Once you get past K2, Capitol’s signature feature awaits – a long, slender and ridiculously exposed knife-edge ridge that takes a bit of nerve to traverse. The rock is said to be quite solid, but this is a place where you cannot move fast, cannot be careless and absolutely cannot afford a misstep. The knife-edge ridge is a “no-fall zone,” meaning that if you fall here, the certainty of death is pretty much one-hundred percent.

When you get past the ridge and take on Capitol’s summit pitch, the peak reveals itself to be kin to its Elk Range neighbors – steep, complicated, and plagued with crumbling, rotten rock.

By the summer of 2013, Noel had honed her mountaineering skills to the point where an attempt at Capitol was realistic. So she joined a group of friends to climb it and hopefully add another notch to an impressively growing collection of high country accomplishments.

The hike up to K2 went fine, as did the knife-edge ridge traverse. Near the top of the mountain, however, things went awry.

From above, a rock moved, then tumbled down toward her. She got warning, but not before the toaster-sized stone crashed on top of her helmeted head. A second rock trailed behind, smashing into the side of her head. One of the rocks also struck her left forearm, causing immediate swelling. She thought it might have been broken, but the contusion didn’t limit her mobility. In true Noel fashion, she wrapped up her arm, dusted off, and finished the climb.

The bad stuff happened after. She didn’t realize it until later, when they were off the mountain, but the rocks that struck her in the head were the ones that did the real damage, causing a severe concussion that for a time looked as though it might alter her life for good. Subsequent doctor visits showed significant brain trauma that somehow held off from manifesting itself until after she’d gotten down. The helmet likely saved her life, but it couldn’t undo the consequences of the rockfall impact.

Caring for her injured arm, finishing the climb and then getting back down proved to be important in other ways, too. Anyone who hears her story marvels at how she was able to complete the climb at all, considering what had happened to her and the difficulties that descending the peak still had in store. But the way that her climbing partners were able to administer a little first-aid, encourage her to the summit, and be there during the descent made an impression. After Capitol Peak, these weren’t just people who shared some good memories. They were, more than most, people she could trust with her safety, even her life. She’d circle back to these climbers again for future challenges.

The following year was not an easy one for Noel. Battling “brain pain” on a daily basis was (and still is) a grinding exercise of forbearance, exhausting in its seemingly untiring persistence. Noel is a cheery sort and not given to complaining about her troubles, but as is often the case with people suffering from chronic and debilitating pain, the struggle wears on you. Most people don’t know how much you suffer and can’t really understand it. But in her own trail community, she found a friend, a lean, spry outdoorsman named Zach who had also faced down some of his own health challenges and the despairing times that often accompany them. He’s pushed past those issues to continue on his own mountaineering journey, taking him to other difficult Colorado peaks as well as to the summit of Mount Rainier. Zach had been where Noel was at and gave her the encouraging words she needed to hear – that it was possible to suffer these pains and still keep doing the things you love. An understanding voice – as well as a chorus of well-wishers offering encouragement where they could – helped her get through some of the darkest times following the rockfall incident on Capitol Peak. The thing all these people had in common is they were folks she’d gotten to know in the days and years after she first set foot on the Barr Trail in her kid’s old hiking boots.

Nearly a year later, a good-sized group of us gathered to climb Wetterhorn Peak, a gorgeous precipice in southwestern Colorado that would be the first somewhat challenging mountain Noel had attempted since the Capitol climb. Wetterhorn turned Noel back the last time she was there – dicey snow conditions just below the summit and right above some sizable cliffs made the risks feel too great – making it her “nemesis” peak. Given those circumstances, this particular trip had the potential to be emotionally charged.

The hike up the mountain’s shoulder went well, and we took a quick pause just before trudging up the “yellow dirt” portion of the ridge just before the rockier, tougher sections of the mountain. Noel welled up with emotions for a bit, collected herself, and then blasted up the hill until she stood on the chunky, rain-pocked snow on Wetterhorn’s airy summit. She’d done plenty of tougher peaks before, but the significance here – tackling the only mountain to have previously turned her away, and moving past the mental barriers that often follow physical trauma – made this summit particularly significant.

But to hear her tell it, it’s the people she was with who made the day, and continue to be a major part of why she enjoys these adventures so much. High-fives and hugs were shared all around. As well as some cookies.

“I have a select few friends I hike with often, because I know we complement one another’s hiking abilities and I enjoy their company very much,” she said.  “There have been some friends who instantly click with me and I know we will remain lifelong friends from our experiences in the mountains.  Just to have someone truly understand and explain how things are going to be and encourage me along in my journey means the world to me and helps me get through.”

Thumbs up, high-fives and more atop Wetterhorn Peak.

Thumbs up, high-fives and more atop Wetterhorn Peak.

MY TRIBE

I’ve spent most of my life doing outdoorsy things, with a good chunk of that on trails, hiking to fishing holes or setting up campsites in the backcountry. We’d build fires, sometimes far too big to be safe, sometimes just big enough to give everyone that nice, warm glow that can only emanate from the small, flickering flames that dance within the tight confines of a fire ring. But it’s only been for the last dozen years I’ve been taking these adventures to high mountain summits, first with friends from home, and eventually, with people I’d meet along the way.

These are definitely two different categories of people. I know a lot of people from work, or church, or from high school and college or whatever, and how we came to know one another varies in more ways than I can recollect. But the second group is different in that how I met them (never mind the medium) is pretty consistent. Had it not been for a shared love of the high country, I’d never have known Chuck, Bill or Noel, or a whole host of people. But because of the mountains I know who they are, and on the trails is where I’ve learned more about their lives.

I stopped one night to contemplate this, to get a partial tally of the different folks I’ve met, people with whom I’ve hiked, camped and climbed. A sampling:

There’s an architect and an interior designer.

Air Force vets and a combat soldier.

A weed dealer and an air traffic controller.

An accountant and a ski bum.

A bar tender.

A physical therapist.

A musician.

And a supercharged, super-tatted vegan/ridge runner/engineering student who wants to change the world.

I know Chuck could probably make a good living as a photographer, I know how to get to Bill’s house and the name of his dog, and I know the nicknames Noel has given her grandkids. All because we love the mountains and were willing to take a chance at spending time with people who were complete strangers at a trailhead and came back from the summit as friends.

Shared passions are important here, but I think Noel had it right: It’s the shared experiences on the trail that sealed the deal.

You could call us a tribe, a trail people tribe, folks who aren’t born into a lineage, but rather bound by an appreciation of shared victories and an understanding of common struggles. It’s not an easy thing to understand unless you’ve been there, working out the soreness of a long backpacking stretch, being breathless on a high peak, or facing down looming fears. Those experiences become a part of you, just like the people with whom you’ve shared them.

You meet so pretty great people on the trail.

You meet some pretty great people on the trail.

— Bob Doucette

NOTE: This is part of a larger project I’m working on that I hope to publish in the future. Thanks for reading!

As prime hiking season nears, a list of ‘first’ mountain adventures

Great views like this are the things that make people want to go to the mountains. Here's how to get started.

Great views like this are the things that make people want to go to the mountains. Here’s how to get started.

Many people are looking for new challenges these days, and a big chunk of that crowd looks to fill that urge outdoors. For me, that always pointed me toward the mountains. Something about the high country just exudes an energy of adventure that is hard to find elsewhere.

Is this you? Yeah? But where to start?

Well, you’re in luck. It just so happens there are a number of places you can go in Colorado and New Mexico that will fit the bill, even if seeing the world from a mountaintop is something you haven’t done before.

We’ll break it down into categories, based on what your interests are, locations, and a bit more for those of you looking to take the next step in your alpine adventures. So here goes:

FIRST MOUNTAIN, CLOSE TO DENVER

There are several to choose from, as a bunch of high peaks are within 90 minutes of the Denver metro area. If you’re looking for something that doesn’t require a long drive, you can expect a busy trail during the peak hiking season. But you’ll still have a good time.

Mount Bierstadt and its Sawtooth Ridge.

Mount Bierstadt and its Sawtooth Ridge.

My choice: Mount Biesrstadt. It’s close to the Interstate 70 town of Georgetown, with easy access to the trailhead and a straightforward route. It’s a hike, and the round-trip route is about 7 miles. Standing at 14,060 feet, you’ll need a good set of legs and lungs to get up there. But you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of Bierstadt’s Sawtooth Ridge as well as a host of nearby peaks. There are some boulder-hopping on the final stretch, but nothing too demanding. The trail is also dog-friendly, and you’ll likely meet a lot of other altitude seekers along the way.

Route info

FIRST MOUNTAIN, COMFORTABLE OVERNIGHT STAY

I’ve got one in mind here that’s close to Breckenridge. If you’d rather forgo the long drive from Denver and still have a comfortable place to stay before and after your summit, then the Breckenridge-Quandary Peak combo is for you.

Quandary Peak.

Quandary Peak.

Like Biesrstadt, it’s an easy-to-follow trail that goes right up the mountain’s east ridge and to the top. Again, about seven miles round-trip, topping out at 14,265 feet. Quandary Peak has incredible views of the nearby Mosquito Range as well as some of the high summits of the Tenmile Range. Again, this will be a busy peak during the summer, but a memorable one as well.

If you have more time and energy, go ahead and check out the loop that includes Mount Democrat, Mount Cameron, Mount Lincoln and Mount Bross, all nearby 14ers in the Mosquito Range. Or just relax and enjoy some time in Breckenridge.

Route info

FIRST MOUNTAIN, MORE SOLITUDE

If you can get further away from the bigger cities and find time on a weekday, Huron Peak near Buena Vista, Colorado, is my choice. In fact, of all the first-time peaks on my list, Huron Peak has the most bang for the buck.

Huron Peak.

Huron Peak.

The mountain is deeper in the Sawatch Range, and if you ask anyone who has been there, they’ll tell you it has the some of the best views you can find. At 14,003 feet, it has commanding vistas of the nearby Three Apostles formation, three dramatic 13,000-foot peaks that make for excellent views and stunning photographs. Because it is farther away from any cities of size, it will also be less travelled than Bierstadt or Quandary. The route is just under seven miles from the four-wheel-drive trailhead, and just over 10 from the two-wheel-drive trailhead.

Route info

FIRST MOUNTAIN, BACKPACKING ADVENTURE

There are a lot of choices all throughout the Rockies, but my pick here is in the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. Head into Red River, and then to the Middle Fork Trail parking lot for a trek up Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico at 13,159 feet.

Summit view from Wheeler Peak.

Summit view from Wheeler Peak.

The trail takes you five miles into the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area. At Lost Lake, there are a number of dispersed, primitive campsites. This is not the most heavily traveled route up the mountain – that is on the other side of the mountain near Taos. What you’ll get are great campsites, alpine scenery and plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing (I had bighorn sheep walking through my campsite when I was last there). Get up the next morning and hike the remaining three miles to Wheeler Peak’s summit.

If you’re going to break into high country backpacking, I can’t think of many other places that will top it.

Route info

FIRST SNOW CLIMB

Late spring still means there’s going to be now on the mountains, which a lot of hikers seek to avoid. But if you’re looking to try your hand at traversing and ascending snowy slopes, a good starter route is the Angel of Shavano Couloir on Mount Shavano.

Near the top of Mount Shavano.

Near the top of Mount Shavano.

Mount Shavano is near Salida and Poncha Springs, and the southernmost of the massive Sawatch 14ers. It’s a hike all the way, but below the saddle between Shavano and a neighboring peak is a gully that fills with snow during the colder months. That’s the Angel of Shavano Couloir.

If you’re itching to learn skills using an ice axe and crampons, this is one of the better places to start. The Angel melts out fast in the spring, but if you hit it at the right time, the couloir links up to snow fields on Shavano’s summit cone that will take you all the way to the top. Learn how to use these pieces of gear, and if possible, go with someone who has done a snow climb before. Mount Shavano is a good introduction to these types of skills.

Route info

FIRST MOUNTAIN TO KICK IT UP A NOTCH

When you’ve got to the point where you’re ready to graduate from the walk-up peaks and do a little climbing, some interesting options come to mind. My pick means taking a bit of a drive to southwestern Colorado, but it will be worth the trip. Few peaks have the beauty and challenge in combination with accessibility than Wetterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak.

Two-wheel-drive access to the Matterhorn Creek trailhead will get you to great campsites, and the route to the top is a little over seven miles. It’s all hiking until you get just under a formation called the Prow, and that’s where the climbing begins. Also called “scrambling,” a Class 3 route (Classes 1 and 2 are hiking only, with varying degrees of difficulty; Class 4 is more difficult unroped climbing, and Class 5 is technical climbing using ropes) will involve using your hands and feet to ascend. It is unroped climbing, but the rock is solid and getting to the top is fun.

The catch: The top section of Wetterhorn is pretty airy and if you’re intimidated by heights, this could be a challenge. But the best way to overcome those fears and push yourself to new levels is to tackle them head-on. Wetterhorn is a good peak to do just that.

Route info

So there’s a list you can check out and use to make your spring and summer plans. My guess is that after you do one of these peaks, you’ll want to do more.

Bob Doucette