Wildfires this summer are stretching government resources to their limits. (Uriah Walker/U.S. Army photo)
Nobody loves a good camp fire more than me. I can stare into the flames and enjoy that mellow nighttime vibe for hours.
But if I’m camping anywhere west of the High Plains, I’m not making one. And neither should anyone else this summer.
As of this writing, there are scores of large, active fires burning in the United States, and all but a few are in western states. Arizona has closed four national forests to visitors as massive wildfires there spread. Large fires are popping up in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, California, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Montana, as well as in British Columbia. And given the lousy snowpack much of the West received this winter and spring, there’s a good chance fire conditions are going to worsen.
The western drought is so severe that lake levels at massive reservoirs such as Lake Mead are near record lows. That’s a sign that this drought isn’t just one season in the making. It’s been an ongoing trauma to ecosystems in much of the western half of the continent.
Topping it off is the widespread tree die-off from bark beetle infestations. The mountain pine beetle has killed about 100,000 square miles of forest in the North American west over the past 20 years, leaving behind huge swaths of dead trees from New Mexico to British Columbia – ready fuel to turn the smallest fire into an inferno.
I could go into the whole fire etiquette thing – keep the fire in a fire ring, make sure it’s out and cold before leaving it, etc. – but we’re past that now. Any open fire sheds embers and sparks, and as we’ve seen, it doesn’t take much heat to get a fire going. Carelessness with camp fires often leads to disaster, but given the conditions right now, even if you do everything right, you could still set off a wildfire.
Some would argue that natural events, such as lightning, are a bigger cause of wildfires than people, but this is a myth. In the U.S., almost 85 percent of all wildland fires are caused by humans.
These wildfires can – and do – cause real harm to people. Property damage from wildfires runs into the billions of dollars, and as we saw with the 2018 Paradise fire in California, the effects turned deadly. Eighty-five people were killed in that fast-moving, fast growing fire that razed a town.
A calming camp fire is a time-honored tradition, and we all like cooking over a fire. But you can use a camp stove to cook, and find other ways to make that camp experience more relaxing. This summer, we need to do our part and not light those fires.
There are some states where if you don’t find a way to get outside and step on a trail, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
Washington is one of those states. Three mountain ranges cross the state from north to south: The Olympics, the Cascades, and to the east, the Selkirk Range.
The Selkirks won’t garner the love that the Olympics or the Cascades get, but if you’re in Spokane or the Idaho towns to the east, there’s plenty to do and see.
One of the simple pleasures for the outdoorist is a long mountain hike. And just east of Spokane Valley, you have one in Mica Peak.
The mountain is easy to distinguish: There’s a white, globe-like structure perched at its summit, like some giant golf ball awaiting God’s tee time (in reality, it’s an FAA radar station).
My hiking buddy on this one, Doug, lives in Spokane Valley and he sees the mountain every time he walks out his front door. He’s been eyeballing this ever since moving here with his family about a year ago. I needed a good training hike, so up we went.
There are a lot of trails on this mountain, and the paths themselves are a mix of jeep roads, singletrack and, close to the top, a wide gravel road. There are a lot of side trails, too, so it’s a good idea to study a map before you go. Otherwise, it’s easy to get off course (we did that a few times and turned an 11-mile out-and-back summit hike into some just over 13 miles. Oops.).
The basic route we followed was looking for markers that pointed toward “Moonshine.”
That path has you choose between what look like a fork in the road (really, two jeep trails) early on. The more established one to the left is the way to go. The route will mostly stay on a path like this following the ridgeline for a few miles. Some might balk at the idea of hiking on a jeep trail, but the scenery is just as good from it as it would be any singletrack. Sweeping overlooks into the valley to the west as well as nearby wooded ridges abound as you ascend, though we had a hard time seeing many of them because of the weather: Clouds, light rain and even some fog obscured most of the views on the way up, though there is an appeal to the look of a misty forest, where stands of trees disappear into the gloom of the fog. A whole different feel for sure.
Not far from the top, the route changes its spots: Double-track jeep trails give way to an abrupt right turn up a steep singletrack path that ascends sharply for about a quarter mile. Most of the route to this point is a gentle but steady incline, but now at about 5,000 feet, you give your legs and lungs more of a test. Once we topped out there, we were greeted by two things: a sweeping view of the valley below, and that gravel road I mentioned that continued up. The slope eased some here, and before we knew it, the FAA’s giant golf ball appeared through the mists. We’d topped out.
As I said before, the weather gave us light rain and drizzle most of the day. But by the time we were at the summit (and lunch!) it was 38 degrees and snowing. Yup, late May in the mountains – even mountains that don’t quite reach a mile above sea level – can bring snow. It was a tasty but chilly lunch, and we didn’t waste too much time getting a move-on.
On the way down, the clouds lifted a little, and we were treated to better views. There was plenty of evidence of wildlife (Spokane County maintains much of the mountain for recreation and as a nature preserve), be it droppings from deer or, we suspected, large predators. One paw print looked like it very well could have been from a decent sized cat. Mountain lions, black bear, moose, elk, deer and more call these woods home.
In the middle of all this was conversation. You know you’ve found a good hiking buddy when you don’t run out of words (though I’ll admit to clamming up on higher altitude peaks). Discussions included cars, family, sports, jobs and more. It definitely makes those miles tick by faster.
By the time we got back to the trailhead, the sun was poking through the clouds, which were busy trying to clear out. Mica Peak’s summit was still hidden in clouds, but somewhere up there was that giant golf ball in the sky, something Doug will be able to show his kids and say, “I’ve been up there.”
About the route: If you do it right (and not get off track like we did), the round-trip hike is about 11 miles with somewhere near 2,500 feet of vertical gain. All Class 1 hiking, with a short stretch of steeper Class 2 close to the top just before you reach the gravel road. The true summit is a fenced-off FAA site that does not have public access.
NOTE: The following is an adaptation from the book“Outsider: Tales from the road, the trail and the run.” It has been updated to reflect the name change of the events of May 31-June 1, 1921, in the Black Wall Street area of Tulsa, as well as that of the district north of downtown.
There are some things I’ve learned while on the run. Sometimes I’ll take a route by the baseball stadium. It’s a fairly new ballpark for Tulsa’s Double-A baseball team, and it’s a nice one at that. You can actually get good beer there (not just the swill most ballparks serve), and they shoot off fireworks at the end of Friday and Saturday night home games. Any seat in the house is good, with picturesque views of the downtown skyline clearly visible over the outfield wall.
The ballpark sits at the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street, once the nexus of what used to be called America’s “Black Wall Street.” Back before 1921, Tulsa’s Black community had built up some thriving enterprises just north of downtown. But an accusation was made – a black man assaulting a white woman, something that was never proven – and that set off an armed confrontation between white residents of the city and folks who lived in Tulsa’s primarily black north side.
It was a bloodbath. The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 left Black Wall Street a charred, broken ruin. An untold number of black-owned business and homes were burned, and while official figures on the number of dead are in the dozens, most historians put the body count in the hundreds. Black Wall Street was dead, and it died violently.
Northside residents rebuilt after the attack, trying to recapture the glory that the neighborhood once held. To an extent, they succeeded, but urban renewal projects, including a highway loop around downtown, razed many buildings and cut through the heart of the area. As the years passed by it degraded into a warehouse district with few tenants and high crime. In recent years it’s been revived as an arts district, with lots of cool galleries, music venues, clubs, restaurants and bars. There’s a hotel in there, too, and a great little park that’s home to concerts, a farmer’s market and people just hanging out or grabbing some grub from food trucks.
There’s also that baseball stadium, and across the street from it, a smaller, less conspicuous park that was built to commemorate the losses of the race massacre. It’s called Reconciliation Park, and it’s an incredible little green space. People who visit and take time to read the placards installed at various stations will get a chance to learn a few things about what were undoubtedly Tulsa’s darkest days. It’s great that we have this park; I wish it was bigger, maybe more dramatic, something befitting of all that was lost in 1921. I realize that doing so might have inconvenienced those who built the ballpark, the television station not far away, and all the trendy businesses nearby. I just hope everyone involved in the establishment of these places understands their prosperity is built on the ashes of someone else’s long-ago broken dreams. The Tulsa Arts District is a jewel for my city, alive with people and commerce. But that was also true of Black Wall Street in 1921. It just so happened that back then the people who flocked here were of a different hue than the rest of the city, a fact leaving them relatively powerless to stop the nightmare that burned the heart of their community to the ground.
I usually run through that park at least a few times a week. I make a point of it.
In the days following the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens, I learned that ash from the volcano would eventually circle the globe. As a grade school kid living in the shadow of a bunch of other high mountains, the saga that unfolded in the Pacific Northwest fascinated me.
Years later, it still does. Maybe more than any single location in that part of the country, a visit to this scene of volcanic violence has been on my mind for some time.
I got a chance to head that direction last week, but with just two days to explore the area, this leg of the trip turned out to be a barnstorming tour, hitting the highlights of one locale briefly before moving on to the next.
It wasn’t enough, but at the same time, was plenty good. The drive west from Spokane to the Cascades stoked my appetite to see more.
Spokane reminds me a lot of Denver. It’s relatively dry, but gets enough snow and rain to support large stands of pine and spruce forests, which grow thicker as you move east. But 20 minutes west of the city, Washington state flattens and dries out, leaving a rolling landscape that supports mostly scrub brush, irrigated farms and sporadic vineyards.
But I noticed something else. Rocky outcrops occasionally jutted out the hillsides, revealing blackened stone. In the fields, rocks of similar composition littered open rangeland. It reminded me of the vast grazing lands of northeastern New Mexico, territory no good for farming because underneath thin topsoil were the hardened remains of ancient lava flows.
Washington, like the rest of the West Coast, is known for its seismic activity. The great Cascade peaks are all volcanoes, powered by an offshore subduction zone where one tectonic plate reluctantly slides under another. Once these fault lines slip, massive earthquakes and tsunamis can result. Pressure deep underground also pushes magma to the surface, which in turn erupts to form the enormous piles of ash and rock that, on most days, look like grand mountain scenes.
But here I was, hundreds of miles from that fault line, and evidence of volcanic activity was all around.
It became more stark once Interstate 90 crossed the Columbia River. A deep gorge has been carved into the landscape, with layers of volcanic rock exposed by the gash in the earth carved by the river. It’s worth a stop to take it in.
Across the bridge, the landscape begins to change. The gentle hills of the middle of the state give way to bigger, steeper slopes. In the distance, barren mountains appear. And beyond them, you can see the snowy peaks of the Cascades.
I knew that once we entered the range, it would become much greener. But out here, the rain shadow of the Cascades leaves behind a desert that extends south into Oregon. Most great mountain ranges do this: On one side of the range, atmospheric moisture is hemmed in, dropping rain and snow in abundance, creating lush forests and grasslands. The other side is left with thirsty scrublands and deserts.
West of Yakima, there are a number of roads that lead to Mount Rainier National Park, the first stop on this jaunt. Mount Rainier is a bucket list climb for me, so seeing it was high on my list. As it turns out, even in mid-May a number of passes and roads leading to the park are closed, still buried under snow. But we got there, only to be greeted by thick clouds and occasional rain.
I knew the mountain was huge – much bigger in mass than anything in the Rockies, and at 14,410 feet above sea level, one of the highest peaks in the contiguous United States. We got to see the peak up to about 10,000 feet, and it is indeed enormous. This much I would tell, even with the top 4,000 feet or so socked in by clouds. Funny thing about the Cascades – they don’t always avail themselves to the views craved by tourists. We saw what we could see, then beat a path toward Mount St. Helens.
The hope was that the weather that cloaked Rainier would clear out by the time we got to Mount St. Helens. But all the way up the road leading to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, it was clouds, rain and fog. There was a good chance there’s be nothing to see at all.
Once we got there, we got what I’d call “a true mountain experience.” Winds were hitting us at 20-30 mph, laden with rain and sleet. Once at the observatory, most of the mountain was shrouded in swirling gray mists.
Oy. What to do. I could see right up to the bottom of the crater, but no further. Socked in again. But with the winds blowing hard, I thought there might be a chance it would blow enough of the cloud cover away to reveal more of the mountain.
So I hiked out on the ridge, my attempt to wait it out. Clouds whipped by, and high whistling sounds whipped through the tree limbs of the few evergreens that were growing out here. Once lush with old growth forest, Mount St. Helens erupted with such violence that it wiped out thousands of acres of woodland, buried Spirit Lake, and caused a collapse of the mountain that caused its summit elevation to drop by more than 1,300 feet. Pre-eruption, its near-perfect conical form earned it the nickname “America’s Mount Fuji,” but now it’s shaped like an amphitheater, with a small but growing lava dome at the bottom of the bowl of the now hollowed-out mountain.
Even with so much hidden from view, seeing the landscape around the mountain was fascinating. Grasses and willows now carpeted the scarred land, the area a mix of browns and light greens surrounded by forest covered ridges. I imagine from the air, it looks like a giant scar (which it is), with Mount St. Helens at the epicenter.
Hiking out on the ridge, I fought the winds, the cold and the rain. One day I’d like to hike the munros of Scotland, and I imagined the weather was a lot like this. I confess to having the wrong clothes to be out there in those conditions, so it didn’t take long to get a bit soaked. Hiking back to the car, I gave up waiting out the mountain, snapped the best pics I could and called it a win. It’s a marvelous place, and I hope to come back on a day when the weather is more forgiving.
A night’s sleep means turning back east, but not before making one last stop, this one requiring far less effort. On the Oregon side of the Columbia River, east of Portland, tall waterfalls drop from steep cliffs. Of these, Multnomah Falls is the most dramatic. A thin, silvery band of water drops 611 feet from the cliffs above, falling into thickly wooded, moss-covered basins below. The drive to the falls is pretty, and you can pull over to see other handsome waterfalls as well. But Multnomah is the monarch of the Columbia River Gorge falls, made more majestic by a bridge centered about a third of the way up that makes for an excellent viewing deck. Scores of camera-laden tourists happily made their way up to the falls, looking for that perfect pic. Honestly, you’d have to have terrible photo skills to not get something gorgeous.
Driving back east toward Spokane became a review of what was seen on the way out west. It’s easy to looks at landscapes and see “mountains,” “deserts,” “hills,” “rivers” and whatnot. But what struck me is that all these landscapes were related, made the way they are because huge pieces of the earth are in a slow-motion collision eons in the making. Everything is connected here, born from the same ongoing geologic trauma. Sometimes that brings on cataclysmic eruptions or earthquakes. But on nearly every other day, we’re given natural spectacles that stick in our memories for years to come.
There are two competing messages in regards to what has happened to people’s fitness during the pandemic.
The first goes something like, “Here’s how to lose all those pandemic pounds!” Or something like that.
The second is a stiff counter narrative, admonishing people to give themselves grace if they’ve added a few, and scolding those who, in their minds, are guilt-tripping people over their inability to uphold a body image ideal during a stressful time.
In both cases, the focus is more or less on appearance. What I’m going to suggest is scrapping both narratives for something more useful.
But first, let me tell you a personal story. It goes like this:
When the pandemic hit the U.S. in earnest about a year ago, my gym shut down. I did workouts from home for a couple of months until it reopened. I waited to see how serious the gym’s management would take COVID-19 safety protocols, was satisfied with their work and started up again. So I began lifting hard, eating to gain some muscle, and running less. Seeing that in-person races weren’t on the horizon, I figured I’d go all-in on the lifting and run just enough to keep up a measure of cardiovascular fitness.
The good news is that I got a lot stronger. I gained some muscle mass. And I was “fit” enough to do some of the more taxing things I love.
The bad news is that without the normal fall race season, I didn’t have that one piece of my training that kept my weight in check: long runs, speed work, and plenty of mileage. Once summer ended, I didn’t switch to race training. I just kept doing the same thing I’d been doing since May.
As my strength gains peaked in February, my body did what everyone’s will do: Plateau. It’s inevitable that any strength program has a shelf life, and the fact that I was able to use mine for nine months and see gains throughout that time is astonishing. But even then, a ceiling was reached.
And by consistently eating more than normal (sometimes by design, and sometimes because work-from-home = easy access to the fridge), my body did what a lot of people’s bodies will do: It stopped using those extra calories for muscle-building and started storing them as body fat. There’s a term for it: insulin resistance. And it’s a bad thing. So while I picked up a good amount of strength, I also gained a bunch of extra weight in all the wrong places: in my belly, around my waist, and very likely around my vital organs. Needless to say, that’s not healthy.
I found that as I got heavier, all the other things I liked doing – running, biking and hiking – all got harder, and not just in terms of being winded. My back, hips, knees, ankles and feet all let me know that carrying around a lot of extra weight was doing harm.
So I have a choice: live with my new pandemic pounds or get rid of them.
Going back to my original point about the two competing narratives: In both cases, the focus is on the wrong thing. On one side, you’ve got someone urging you to look your best, and on the other is one telling you to love your body as it is. On the surface, neither is necessarily wrong. But the question they pose is.
What should the focus be? Answer: How is my body performing?
How I see it, body “performance” is examined in two ways. I’m going to use really general terms to keep it easy. One way is “internal” and the other is “external.”
Internal includes things such as how well your cardiovascular system is oxygenating your body. Is your heart working harder than it should? How’s your blood pressure? Does your current physical condition compromise your immune system? Are the habits you picked up during the pandemic negatively affecting your metabolism? How well are you sleeping compared to pre-pandemic weight gain? Are your internal organs functioning properly? How does your blood work look? If the answers to these questions fall to the negative side, this isn’t a question of “body love.” This is a question of your short- and long-term health prospects.
External has to do with how your body moves. Are you more gassed from walking a flight of stairs? Are you finding that your back hurts more? How are your hips, knees and ankles feeling when you’re out for a longer walk? Or when you run? Or after a tennis match?
If you’re more athletically inclined, how are your times looking on your training runs? Or when you’re on the bike? Are you falling further behind your pre-pandemic athletic performance? If the answer is yes, then you’ve got work to do if you want to regain those abilities.
The fact is this: We beat ourselves up with false narratives on body image. BMI is a joke, but it’s still used. We look at “the ideal” and conclude we’re slacking if we don’t resemble fitness models or Instagram stars. All of that needs to go away if it’s undermining your mindset. I’ve seen plenty of people who don’t have the right “numbers,” whether it’s body composition, BMI, weight on the scale, and so on, but their bodies look just fine and they are physically capable of doing all the things they love (my fastest 5K time happened at a weight that was 15 pounds more than when I ran my second-fastest time). And often, they are internally very healthy people.
But if your body is not performing well – internally and externally – then now is not the time to hold back. If you can’t run or play a sport like you want to, or hike as far or as much as you used to, then the joy of those pursuits is stolen.
More critically, if your body is not performing well internally, then you’re staring down a future filled with potentially expensive, painful and possibly debilitating health problems. Let that go on too long, and they can cascade. If your pandemic pounds aren’t hurting you and you’re fine with how you look, don’t let anyone guilt you into doing/feeling anything. But if those pandemic pounds are robbing you of your health, it’s time to act.
Interesting things are underway on my local trails. Turkey Mountain used to be a place that was occasionally used but often neglected. As it became a more popular place for people to go, we saw more intensive efforts to clean up trash and repair badly damaged sections of trail.
But lately, stewardship of Turkey Mountain has matured. All of the other activities are still happening, but there is an increasing emphasis on making this patch of woods and its trail system more sustainable.
Earlier this winter, a work day included some routine trash pickup and pruning to keep the trails clear. But we also spent some time on habitat restoration.
What this entailed was closing off rogue trails that had been marked earlier in the year and installing signage to tell people to let that area be for a while, and let nature take its course in getting it back to a more natural – and sustainable – state.
The National Parks System and the National Forest System has used similar practices to promote healing/repair to sections of trails that had become too worn or were chronic erosion problems. It’s become standard practice, especially in environmentally sensitive areas, like alpine tundra. Damage in those ecosystems can take several years to become whole again.
At Turkey Mountain, the scars will heal much faster. Temperate woodlands are remarkably resilient. But heavy usage – by hikers, runners, cyclists and others – means a lot more wear and tear. And to be frank, many of these trails were not made with much attention given to the effects of erosion. That’s made several trails turn into ugly, rutted washouts, brown gashes exposing rocks and tree roots that promise to get worse. So I imagine we’re going to be doing restoration work on several areas for many years to come.
More recently, a group went out to scout out more areas where trail work can be done. There are big plans for Turkey Mountain, ideas that focus on making trails more durable while keeping the park as wild as it can be. Some trouble spots were identified, and in looking at these places I walked some paths I hadn’t seen before. There are ponds all over Turkey Mountain, but I didn’t know that one of them (one I hadn’t seen before) was a substantial beaver pond, complete with a lodge. It’s a good reminder that while the park is in the middle of a city, it’s still home to numerous species of wildlife. We enjoy recreating there, but for these creatures, Turkey Mountain is home. Food for thought not only as we work there, but also in terms of how we play there.
More big news from Turkey Mountain is coming. The pandemic delayed or canned some plans, but with COVID-19 finally starting to loosen its grip, there’s a chance that a lot of the education programming, athletic events and other activities that were put on hold can resume.
It’s not lost on me that just a few years ago, the future of Turkey Mountain was in doubt. Single-year leases, a hodge-podge of privately owned parcels and a proposal to turn a chunk of it into an outlet mall made the park’s outlook unclear. It doesn’t seem that way now.
I could probably make a checklist of more than a dozen things to know before you tackle climbing a 14,000-foot peak. I wrote a series about it starting with this post. But the other day, I was thinking about how to boil down the issue into a couple of simple ideas before you get going.
More specifically, what can you do to get ready for the physical tasks of gaining a 14er summit?
On any of the 58 in Colorado, or the numerous 14ers in California, there are two things you’ll likely confront: Steep uphill hiking and “scrambling,” which is a fancy term for basic climbing.
Obviously, operating at high altitude is going to require a high level of cardiovascular fitness and stamina. How you get there – running, cycling, or some other form of exercise – is up to you. But in the midst of all that, there’s this:
You need to spend a good amount of time walking steep uphill inclines. Walking uphill sounds basic enough, but it is different than other forms of exercise, especially if the trail you’re hiking is steep. I heard a presentation from some professional mountain guides, and when asked if running or cycling would be sufficient, they said “no.” Instead, they advised loading up a backpack, finding local mountains or hills, and spending time hiking up those slopes. Don’t have hills? Find some staircases. Many gyms have stairmills, which will do in a pinch. Even if you’re hiking a mild route, expect to spend hours walking uphill in thin air, and possibly up steep grades. Work your way up to multi-hour hikes with increasing miles and plenty of vert. May as well get used to it now rather than gas out a mile into your ascent.
If you’re going to tackle peaks with Class 3 or 4 routes, take up rock climbing. Routes are ranked 1-5, with Classes 1 and 2 still firmly in the realm of hiking. Once you hit Class 3 and higher, you’ll need to use your hands to help you ascend. On Class 4, the climbing becomes more challenging, the routes steeper and the moves more committing. Class 5 involves roped climbing, and there aren’t any standard routes on the Colorado 14ers that are Class 5 (though many alternative routes with this classification exist). Rock climbing, whether it’s in a gym or outside on natural crags, will get your mind and body used to the movement required and will help you become accustomed to heights. Both are hugely helpful when you’re on a mountain with big air around. Climbing with friends will add input and encouragement. When you get to the point of regularly completing 5.7-5.9 climbing routes, you’ll be ready to roll on just about any Class 3 or 4 route on a mountain.
In both cases, practice makes perfect. There are a ton of other considerations when climbing mountains, but these two are the foundation. You need to have your body and mind ready for the task, and the best way to do that is spend time doing the things you’ll be doing when you’re on the mountain.
I live at a latitude that is not conducive to much snow. It happens on occasion, rarely accumulates and sometimes doesn’t even stick. Winter in the Southern Plains is mostly a brown and grey affair.
Not that I mind these winter hues, but I grew up in snowier climates. So sometimes I miss the white stuff.
Last month, we got a solid dump. I’d hesitate to call it a blizzard, but a good, heavy dose of thick, wet snow dropped somewhere around 5-6 inches on my city. And as anyone will tell you, I like to hike on days like that.
Here are some pics that show one of my favorite hiking spots about a week before the storm…
There’s beauty just about anywhere at any time in the forest. But cover it in a bunch of snow? It’s like you’re in a whole other world.
I don’t have anything profound to say about these two hikes, other than the fact that winter, while sometimes dreary and dark, can be gorgeous and inviting. It was well worth the chill to see what the woods looked like with this frozen bounty.
A question popped up recently on an online hiking forum, submitted by a guy from Texas.
He asked what Rocky Mountain peaks he should consider climbing in late fall. He said he would be traveling alone, and was open about the types of summits he’d achieved to date.
In short, he’d hiked about a half-dozen “beginner” peaks that topped 14,000 feet, and had done so in summer conditions. He got a lot of advice, even more warnings, and a few admonitions to pass on the idea altogether.
I love a good adventure, and testing yourself in conditions that are new to you can be enjoyable, and a way to grow. I mean, I’m the guy who watched YouTube videos on how to self-arrest with an ice axe before buying said axe, a pair of crampons and heading out for my first snow climb as green as it gets. Me and a buddy got our summit, got back down and didn’t get hurt or killed, so there you go. Sometimes you can booger-head your way through things as a noob.
On the other hand, we did this snow climb in late spring conditions – the easiest weather conditions you can get on a snow climb – and on a beginner-friendly route. Believe me, that played a significant role in our success.
But there are things about being in the high country this time of year that go beyond a smattering of extra challenges. For the newbie, flatlander crowd, here are a few I can think of…
In the mountains, fall often means winter. Aside from some pleasant September or even October days, there are times when conditions above 10,000 feet are full-on winter, calendar be damned. Weather systems can move through fast and plunge temperatures well below zero. Add in high winds and you could be facing wind chills that go -40 degrees or worse. That kind of cold will cause frostbite quickly to any exposed skin. Whiteout conditions are possible. Get caught up high in a storm near a summit, it can be many hours before you get back to a trailhead, and if you’re forced to stop and take shelter, rescue could be a day or more away. Don’t let the calendar fool you. For that matter, don’t let a pleasant fall day down low fool you, either. Things change fast up there.
Don’t equate your skiing experience as adequate for winter mountaineering. Sure, you’ve trekked from the plains of north Texas plenty of times to get some turns at your favorite ski resort. You’ve enjoyed the sport during powder days, in the cold, and felt pretty good (if a little chilled) on the ski lift up and the run down the mountain. But your ski attire is designed to be comfortable while you’re skiing. When you’re climbing a mountain, there’s no lodge with hot food, a steamy drink and a warm fire minutes away. It’s different when you’re many hours away from warmth of any kind and, mostly likely, isolated from any form of safety or rescue. You may have skied in below-zero temps, but it’s not the same.
High country hiking can be hard. Winter travel is MUCH harder. When you’re coming from the oxygen-rich environs of low altitudes, the lack of O2 hits you like a ton of bricks when you get above 10,000 feet. Simple uphill hiking on moderate grades feels exhausting. Now try breaking trail in knee-deep snow, with a weighty pack and all that cold-weather gear. I’ve heard it said that in winter, one mile is actually two. Oh, and those summer trailheads (and the roads leading to them) are likely closed, so you’ll be adding more miles and vertical gain. Slower going, more taxing conditions, longer routes and a less daylight. Something to think about.
Your gear list will be different. The obvious things that come to mind: Snowshoes, ice axe, crampons/microspikes, gaiters. But also, the clothing layering system has to keep you warm, but wick away sweat. You need to have gear that minimizes exposed skin, and it has to be rated to handle extreme cold. And your pack needs to have the gear needed to survive overnight on the mountain. That means an emergency shelter and a winter-rated sleeping bag. That summertime fast-and-light thing won’t cut it this time of year.
The benign mountains of summer can be dangerous in winter. Aside from high winds and extreme cold, the buildup of snow can change the hazards of even the tamest of peaks. Wheeler Peak, N.M., is about as “safe” as they get in the summer – a Class 1 route all the way to the top. But in winter, many of its slopes are avalanche-prone, something that’s true for a lot of Class 1 and 2 peaks anywhere in the Rockies, Sierras or Cascades. Getting buried in an avalanche is not akin to being covered in powdery fluff. Avalanche snow thickens and hardens, and when it finally stops it’s like being trapped in concrete. It’s key to understanding avalanche risk, and if you don’t know what to look for, a winter ascent may not be for you.
There’s more that is not mentioned here. A lot more. I don’t want to sound like a killjoy, and I know people’s safety boils down to personal responsibility. We all have the right to make those choices. But it would be a mistake to think that a winter summit bid is roughly the same as it is in summer, just colder. In truth, it’s a whole other animal.
For a more detailed post on this subject, including gear recommendations, check out this post.
Humboldt Peak, as seen from Broken Hand Pass. (Mike Zee photo)
Note: This is the next in a series of trip reports focusing on route descriptions rather than storytelling. Photos and beta only!
Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains offer some of the finest alpine adventures you can find in the southern Rockies, with anything from beefy hikes to serious climbs. The peaks are more remote, being that they’re not that close to any larger cities, and some of them require a sturdier vehicle to reach trailheads.
One thing about the Colorado Sangres 14ers: There are not a lot of easy entry point peaks. All but a couple are Class 3 and 4, and some of them are among the toughest of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks.
But if you’re looking for a mountain that will give you those spectacular Sangres views without the commitment of a Class 3 or 4 climb, then Humboldt Peak might be your ticket.
Humboldt is one of three 14ers surrounding South Colony Lakes and is accessible via the same road and trailhead. It’s technically a walk-up, though I found a couple of more difficult scrambly sections higher on the mountain. The big reward for reaching Humboldt’s summit is the incredible platform to see Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak, just west of South Colony Lakes. That alone makes Humboldt’s summit a worthy prize.
There are two ways to get to the top: One is via the very long east ridge, the other a shorter route with less vertical gain via its west ridge. This will be about the latter.
You can drive on 120 Road near Westcliffe for a short distance to a two-wheel-drive trailhead or, if your vehicle is four-wheel-drive and capable, continue 2.7 miles to a gate that marks the end of the drivable portion of the road.
Easy hiking past the road and into the woods near South Colony Lakes.
From the four-wheel-drive trailhead, hike up the road past the gate and over a foot bridge until you reach a trail junction turnoff to your right. Follow easy trail hiking through the woods and past some campsites. (Many people hiking Humboldt or climbing the Crestones choose to backpack and camp here, then begin their ascents the next day. It’s a beautiful place to camp.)
Humboldt Peak, as seen from the south. (Mike Zee photo)
Gaining altitude, and seeing Crestone Needle along the way.
You’ll be hiking the trail east of and above South Colony Lakes. From here, you’ll begin hiking up long switchbacks on a headwall leading to a saddle between Humboldt’s west ridge and an area nearby called Bear’s Playground. Turn right at the saddle to gain to Humboldt’s west ridge.
Hiking up to Humboldt’s saddle, you get this view of South Colony Lakes and Broken Hand Peak.
At Humboldt’s saddle. The peak pictured here is not your target, but rather a point of interest on your way to Bear’s Playground if you’re headed that way.
A view of Humboldt Peak as seen from Crestone Needle’s summit. At lower left, you can see the saddle, and trace your route to the top on the mountain’s west ridge. (Mike Zee photo)
The trail steepens as you gain the ridge, and as you ascend, you’ll end up doing some rock-hopping and light scrambling. The route is well-cairned, and the cairns are fairly accurate. At times, the trail will disappear into jumbled rocks, then reappear when the terrain eases.
Getting closer to the top.
Almost there. It’s hard not to look over your shoulder at that view.
Eventually, the ridge will take you up to Humboldt’s false summit – there is still some work to do. But once you reach this point, the ascent is almost done.
Past the false summit, with the real summit in view. Easy breezy from here.
Past the false summit, the steepness eases with only a few hundred yards of easy hiking left to the top.
Once there, you’ve earned one heck of a view. Two your west is one of the most spectacular mountain scenes in the Sangres, that of Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle, Broken Hand Peak and the South Colony Lakes. If you time your hike right, you’ll catch the sunrise alpenglow on Crestone Needle’s east face – an incredible and unforgettable sight.
Humboldt Peak’s real treasure is this view of the Crestones. Not easily forgotten.
The route is Class 2, 11 miles round trip with 4,200 feet of elevation gain and mild exposure.
NOTE: If your car/truck does not have four-wheel drive and good clearance, you’ll need to park at the two-wheel drive trailhead. This will add 5.4 miles and another 1,100 feet of elevation gain to your route.
Want to read the original trip report? Check it out here.