Everest, moviemaking, and scratching the surface of what happened in 1996


Anyone who has read Jon Krakauer’s signature work “Into Thin Air” knows just how good a story can be when you combine the elements of adventure and tragedy. Krakauer is a skilled storyteller and an excellent reporter, and his bird’s-eye view of the disaster that unfolded on Mount Everest in the spring of 1996 gave him that much more perspective on one of the saddest — and most important — days on the mountain.

So it’s no surprise that “Into Thin Air” was the main source material for the new film “Everest,” which premiered last week in IMAX theaters across the country. Filmmakers used other sources, too, but “Into Thin Air” was definitely the foundation for the cinematic version of this story.

Krakauer didn’t pull any punches, trying hard to tell what he saw and learned as evenly and thoroughly as possible. The result, from a literary perspective, is solid.

Hollywood, however, has its own ways of storytelling. When forced to choose between telling it like it is and presenting it in the most easily digested fashion, it’s simpler to go with the latter.

I saw “Everest” last weekend. No way I was going to miss that one. It was worth the price of admission, although I’m an eternal skeptic when it comes to 3-D movies (I have yet to see a 3-D film that couldn’t be told just as well in 2-D, and for less money out of my pocket).

The film features an all-star ensemble cast, excellent cinematic special effects, and a well-crafted feel about how bad things can get on the world’s highest peak. More than any non-documentary film on mountaineering I’ve seen, “Everest” gives you a sense of scale and awe. Filmmakers have to take a little license here and there (we can’t have brightly colored mummies talking through goggles and oxygen masks the entire time). But generally speaking, this is a decent portrayal of mountaineering for general consumption.

But there are aspects of the fashion in which the story is constructed that are a bit too formulaic, and it has much to do with how the characters are portrayed.

Every adventure-disaster movie has to have a central good guy, a cocky fella begging for some humble pie, a wild card, and a few others who have varying shades of good and bad that push the story forward. It’s a cookie-cutter way of doing it, and that’s the one flaw with this film. To wit:

Is it fair to paint Scott Fischer as the somewhat resentful loose cannon — lamenting the crowds of commercial clients on the mountain — reluctantly going along with plans made by Rob Hall?

Did Beck Weathers really carry that much Texas swagger into the climb, to the point where’s he’d snap at his guide and talk smack to other climbers?

Was Anatoly Boukreev rightly portrayed as 100 percent heroic, or were Krakauer’s criticisms (he’d written how the Russian mountaineering pro could have gone up to rescue climbers higher on the mountain, but refused) more in line with the truth?

I can’t say I know everything about this incident, but it would be plausible to think that there would be some rivalry between Fischer and Hall. They were competitors, after all, chasing the same dollars guiding amateurs up the mountain.

And Boukreev did a lot of heroic things as the disaster unfolded, searching for stricken climbers who were wandering near-dead in a whiteout on Everest’s South Col.

And hell, every non-Texan in the world could believe that someone from the Lone Star State might show up with, shall we say, a little bit of self-confidence (kudos to the filmmakers digging deeper into Weathers’ multi-faceted character as the film progressed, though).

But the overall formula didn’t help tell the story. It hindered it, making it a little too easy to swallow without getting deeper into the people involved. There’s only so much you can do in two hours, I get that. And the star of the film isn’t any of the actors. It’s the mountain.

So I suppose what I’m saying is if you go see “Everest,” see it for the right reasons — to be entertained. The deeper lessons of the good and bad of climbing Mount Everest are only hinted at here. The movie is good (there are some scenes that will rip your heart out, emotionally speaking). But the written accounts about life and death on Big E are numerous, as are the lessons about the troubles that have plagued it dating back to that infamous day in 1996. If you want to go beyond being entertained, those are also worth a look.

Bob Doucette

White House announces Mt. McKinley to be officially renamed Denali

Alaska's Denali, North America's highest peak.

Alaska’s Denali, North America’s highest peak.

It was a move that was not only a long time in coming, but also somewhat of a no-brainer. On Sunday, the White House announced that Mt. McKinley, North America’s highest peak, would be renamed Denali, an Athabaskan word for “the High One.”

The Obama Administration says this is within the powers of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and that it was time to give the mountain’s name to the native people who knew the peak as Denali well before the United States was even a country.

I’m sure there will be some sort of political backlash. First, because President Barack Obama made it happen (one congressman is already calling it “constitutional overreach”). But second, because there is some historical resistance to officially giving the mountain its original name.

Ohio politicians have long fought the name-change. The mountain was named after William McKinley, a former U.S. president who is from the Buckeye State.

But Alaskans have been working on a change for some time now. Their contention is that most people in Alaska know the mountain as “Denali,” and that McKinley had no ties to Alaska or its highest mountain whatsoever.

The mountain is located in Denali National Park, and any federal employee associated with with the mountain calls it Denali. So do the mountaineers who climb it. And just about anyone else.

Aside from ruffling a few feathers in Ohio, the only inconvenience I see is having to change the name on new maps of Alaska, Denali National Park, and maps of the U.S. and North America.

We give a lot of respect and deference to our dead presidents. But in this case, it seems to desires of the living (as well as Alaskans from many generations back) deserve the name more.

So Denali it is. Finally.

— Bob Doucette

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.


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.


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