A flatlander’s guide to high country adventure

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As spring takes hold, a bunch of us from the flatlands are having dreams of alpine vistas and Rocky Mountain summits. But we often forget that there is a lot that goes into being ready for the challenges that come with altitude.

I live at less than 800 feet. So every time I think about heading west, I know there are things I need to do before marching to the top of a high peak.

So that’s what this is about. It’s not like I’m a pro or anything, but I’ve spent the last 13 years bagging peaks in the Colorado and New Mexico high country from late spring to early fall. I’ve learned a bit — mostly through trial and error, and from my mistakes. So that’s what I want to pass along to you.

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BEFORE THE TRIP

People who live at higher elevations have an advantage over the rest of us because they have more red blood cells — the agents that carry oxygen to the rest of the body — flowing through their bodies than us. And unless you plan on spending several weeks at altitude, your body won’t be able to match that red blood cell production in time to fit inside your vacation plans. You can acclimate some, but not that fast. So extra care has to be taken in terms of physical preparation. With that in mind…

Get yourself in shape. There are a lot of ways to do this, but I’d suggest a few basics. Plan and complete some big hikes, preferably in hilly areas. On some of these hikes, carry a backpack that will be the same size and weight as the one you plan to use in the mountains. Break in those boots if they’re new. Plan on hikes that will last as long (in number of hours) as you think it will take on your trip. I’d also recommend doing some regular cardio at least four times a week — running, cycling, swimming, stairmaster — yes to any or all of that. And sprinkle in some strength training. A rugged frame and a strong heart/set of lungs will go a long way toward helping you enjoy your alpine adventures rather than just suffer through them. Ideally, these are things you should be doing at least a few  months out from your planned trip. If you want more information on that, check out this post I wrote last year.

Test your gear. Wear and use the clothes, footwear and backpack you plan to use, and make sure the fit is good. Same goes with any tents, stoves, electronics or anything else you might use or depend on. Be familiar with how everything works, and adjust accordingly if something’s not right. Having a gear failure on the trail because of your unfamiliarity with it is a potential disaster that is entirely preventable.

Ask for advice. Got any friends who are knowledgeable about the high country? Hit ’em up. You can also find good information in online forums and through social media. People are willing to help. A question you have that goes unasked is a mystery you might not be able to afford when you’re in the backcountry.

Plan and study your routes. Again, there is a lot of information online about trails, forests, peaks, etc. Plenty of guide books, too. You don’t have to kill all spontaneity, but you should be familiar with the places you’re going, the distances you’ll travel, and the type of terrain, obstacles and hazards you’ll face. And let someone know where you are going and when you intend to return.

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WHEN YOU’RE THERE

Give yourself some time. I’ve done the thing where you drive in one day, and then a day later go hit a 14,000-foot peak. It can be done, but I don’t advise it. Rather, spend a few days at a lower elevation town or city and do some practice hikes on smaller hills. After a couple of days, head into the high country, and give yourself another day or so, embarking in acclimatization hikes. After a few days, your body will be more prepared for the task at hand.

Drink plenty of water. The Rockies are fairly dry, and because your respiration will be at an increased rate, you’ll dehydrate much faster — even in a city like Denver, at 5,280 feet — than you do at home. It’s subtle at first, and you won’t realize you’re drying out… until it’s too late. So it’s not a bad thing to be sipping water regularly throughout the day, even if you’re just chilling out. When you’re on the trail, your hydration needs will increase. A 4-8 hour day hike might mean you take 2-3 liters of water with you, and try to drink as much of that as you can. Otherwise, you’ll get nasty headaches, and possibly the beginnings of altitude sickness.

Pack right. Make sure you have enough food for your hike, and then a little more. Bring the right supplies and tools in your pack, with special detail on what you might need in an emergency. If you’re wondering what that looks like, check this link for the 10 essentials. Make sure your clothing is designed to handle a variety of weather conditions your might face.

Even if you’re from another mountain state, do not underestimate what elevation does to a hike or climb. Plenty of peak baggers and hikers hail from states with mountains that have serious elevation profiles, but aren’t as high as the Rockies. An example: I hiked Mount LeConte in Tennessee, which at various trailheads will give you 3,000 feet of elevation gain or more. Many of the peaks in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming are similar in their base-to-summit profile. But I found the going much easier in the Appalachians than in the Rockies, even when approaching LeConte’s summit, solely because of how much thinner the air is in the Rockies. Remember that the trailheads at most peaks in the Rockies start at elevations higher the tops of any mountain on the East Coast, as well as most mountains in every western state except California (the Sierras pose their own challenges, as do some of the big ones in the Cascades). The level of exertion and complications from altitude will be much different than they are in the Smokies, the White Mountains, or just about anywhere else in the Lower 48.

Watch the weather. A bluebird day in the summer can turn into a nightmare of lighting, hail and wind in a hurry. Storms can form right over your head with little warning. Start your hikes early (pre-dawn is good, and even earlier if the route is long) and be heading down the mountain well before noon. Check forecasts closely, and don’t be surprised to see snowfall on the bookend weeks of the summer. Fall and spring hikes and climbs can be even more touch-and-go when it comes to snowstorms. Perfect conditions one day can give way to blizzards. On my early July attempt of Longs Peak last summer, snow high on the mountain fell the night before our ascent and turned route conditions into a mess of sloppy snow and ice, forcing us to abort the climb. Now imagine getting caught in the middle of that, while on exposed, steep terrain. Respect for high country weather changes is a must.

Respect the land and its permanent residents. Stay on the trail and don’t stomp all over delicate alpine tundra. If you bring a dog, keep it under control and don’t let it chase after wildlife. Camp 100 feet or more away from streams. If established fire pits are available, camp fires are fine — provided the conditions are not prone to forest fires and camp fires are allowed by park and/or forestry officials. Haul out your trash, and don’t burn it. Only use deadfall wood for fires, make sure all fires are completely extinguished before you leave a fire pit unattended. If you have any doubts at all about whether you are allowed (established wilderness areas do not permit camp fires) or should build a camp fire, skip it. Leave the trail and your campsite in as good or better condition than how you found it. And do not feed wildlife. Our food is not good for them, and feeding wild animals conditions them to see humans as a food source.

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So those are some ideas. Good advice can be found at this link. And most of all, enjoy your time in the high country.

Bob Doucette

My favorite mountain photos

Sunrise on the Longs Peak Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Sunrise on the Longs Peak Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Two short facts about me: I love the mountains, and I like to take pictures of them. I’m not a great photographer, but the cool thing about the mountains is their very nature can make a mediocre photographer look pretty good.

Another fact: I can get wordy. This post is going to be the opposite of that. It’s going to be all about the images of peaks that I love. So here we go…

Misty mountains

Peak 18 and Windom Peak, Colorado.

Peak 18 and Windom Peak, Colorado.

This was taken in a break in the weather during a soggy backpacking and peak bagging trip in southwestern Colorado. We spent hours in our tents waiting for the weather to improve. The occasional lulls in the rain gave us scenes like this.

Tundra in bloom

Looking down the trail on Cupid. Front Range, Colorado.

Looking down the trail on Cupid. Front Range, Colorado.

Last summer, the weather — again — conspired against me. But I found a brief window near Loveland Pass to do a solo hike of Cupid, a 13,000-foot peak along the Front Range. Gray skies, snow patches and loads of wildflowers made this sweet stretch of singletrack one of the more memorable images I have.

Don’t fence me in

Glass Mountain, Oklahoma.

Glass Mountain, Oklahoma.

While driving to Black Mesa, Oklahoma, I drove through a patch of short peaks and mesas in the northwestern part of the state that caught my eye. I love the lines in this one, from the high, wispy clouds in the sky to the fence line in the foreground. Added to that, the textures of the mountain itself. It’s not a big mountain, but it sure is pretty.

Holy moly

Holy Cross Ridge, near Minturn, Colorado.

Holy Cross Ridge, near Minturn, Colorado.

I took this photo from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross. The camera is not a good one — from an iPhone 3 — but the profile of the ridge, the snow, and the way the sun was hitting it made it pretty striking.

Brooding over mountains

Huron Peak, Colorado.

Huron Peak, Colorado.

Another one from the iPhone 3. I snapped this one hiking down the mountain, and the timing was good — a storm was forming over the top of the peak. It’s always good to get below treeline before storms roll in, and it made for a cool image as well.

Mountain monarch

Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Longs Peak is one of the most photogenic mountains I’ve ever seen. It’s big, dramatic and wild. It will test you, but it will also reward you with vivid, dramatic scenery that look great in pictures. I might add that pictures do not do this mountain much justice.

Hiking into mystery

Summit ridge on Missouri Mountain, Colorado.

Summit ridge on Missouri Mountain, Colorado.

Another memorable solo outing. Dodgy weather almost made this one a no-go, but conditions held long enough to bag the summit. While on the ridge, swirling clouds made this part of the trail appear to vanish into the mists. It was surreal and amazing to hike this stretch of alpine singletrack.

Ancient reflections

Mount Mitchell, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma.

Mount Mitchell, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma.

I cut my teeth on Class 3 and 4 climbing on this one. This scene framed itself nicely. The light in the sky is a little flat, but I liked the way the mountain is reflected in the water, and how you can see all the grooves in this ancient granite crag. The Wichitas are hundreds of millions of years old, but still stand proudly over the western Oklahoma prairie.

Clothed in white

Northeastern San Juan Range, near Lake City, Colorado.

Northeastern San Juan Range, near Lake City, Colorado.

You can see four 13,000-foot peaks in this one, graced with late spring snow — Coxcomb, Redcliff, Precipice and Heisshorn. The suncupped snow in the foreground is actually the summit of Wetterhorn Peak, which contrasts nicely with the peaks in the middle of the frame and the skies far to the north. Breathtaking scenery atop my favorite mountain.

Adventure is out there

Overlooking the Angle of Shavano Coulior, Mount Shavano, Colorado.

Overlooking the Angel of Shavano Coulior, Mount Shavano, Colorado.

A shot of one of my adventure buddies, Johnny Hunter, on our first snow climb on Mount Shavano. The sweeping lines of the trail, the couloir and the saddle of the mountain, combined with the sky in the background, just screams “spirit of adventure” to me.

Moment before a triumph

Mount Shavano summit.

Mount Shavano summit.

Another one from Mount Shavano. This was taken less than a hundred feet from the summit. Johnny is paused here, looking up. To me, this captures the moment when you realize that victory is near — the hard work, physical strain, whipping winds — all of it is converging on a slice of time when you’re about to top out after a big day on the mountain. It’s a sweet feeling that keeps us coming back for more.

Watch your step

Summit of Uncompahgre Peak, near Lake City, Colorado.

Summit of Uncompahgre Peak, near Lake City, Colorado.

My official “sweaty palms” photo from the top of the San Juans’ highest mountain, Uncompahgre Peak. It’s a simple hike to the top with a small stretch of scrambling near the summit. But the north face cliffs are sheer. This shot is looking 700 feet straight down.

Seasons in flux

Looking east from the summit of Uncompahgre Peak.

Looking east from the summit of Uncompahgre Peak.

Rain and graupple falling to the east gave these peaks a frosty appearance over the Labor Day weekend of 2009. A very moody image that shows how the weather and mountains interact.

Striking figure

Wetterhorn Peak, Colorado.

Wetterhorn Peak, Colorado.

My favorite mountain, Wetterhorn, as seen from the summit of Matterhorn Peak. Wetterhorn offers so many dramatic profiles and is an incredible (and surprisingly accessible) mountain to climb. The spiny connecting ridge between the two mountains offers a little more visual spice that symbolizes the wildness of the San Juans.

So there you have it. You’ll notice that all of these are from two states. I’ve hiked and climbed mountains in New Mexico, Montana, Tennessee and even China, but it is coincidence that my favorite mountain pics come from the two states — Colorado and Oklahoma — where I’ve lived the longest.

I’d like to see your favorite mountain pics. So here’s what I’m proposing: Go to the Proactiveoutside Facebook page (please “like” it if you haven’t already!) and put your best mountain pic in the comments that accompany this post. Include a brief description of what mountain we’re looking at, where it is, and any other interesting information about the image. If I get enough, I’ll compile them and post them in a future blog of your best images. So let’s see em!

Bob Doucette

A look at some of the greatest explorers ever

Personal exploration is something we should all do. But did you ever wonder who the greatest explorers were?

Personal exploration is something we should all do. But did you ever wonder who the greatest explorers were?

Every now and then, I dive into the ole Twitterverse to take part in a select few chats, most of which deal with the outdoors.

One of them is the Adventure Travel Q&A, or simply known as #ATQA. Some very cool folks take part in this on a weekly basis, and the topics are interesting. The latest one really got me thinking.

The subject was “exploration.” I think there are two ways to look at this concept.

The first is personal exploration. By that, I’m talking about going to places new to you. This is the type of travel where you see something you’ve never seen before, revel in new experiences, and quite often, learn and grow. When people talk about “exploring” something, this is usually the type of exploration they’re referencing. For the record, I’m all for doing as much of this as you can.

The second type of exploration is more of the classic definition: An adventure where you are going somewhere no one has ever been, or doing something that’s never been done.

By this, I’m talking about those folks who were the first to summit the world’s highest peaks, to dive to the deepest part of the ocean, to see new lands never documented by man, or to peer into the darkest corners of space. We’re talking macro-exploration here.

The question was asked who the greatest explorers were. This is exactly the type of question that I can geek out on like nobody’s business. After some thinking, this is what I came up with:

A replica of an oceangoing Polynesian boat. Imagine crossing the Pacific Ocean in one of these.

A replica of an oceangoing Polynesian boat. Imagine crossing the Pacific Ocean in one of these.

The Polynesians. You want to know how there came to be people who live in places like Tahiti, Fiji or Hawaii? They didn’t jump on a steam ship or an airplane. Not originally. No, those brave folks used canoes and rafts powered by the wind (via small sails) and their own oars. The traversed the world’s largest ocean in vessels most of us would be scared to board on a big lake. But they did it, and covered THOUSANDS of miles, braving high heat, huge waves, big storms and hungry sharks. You may not know this, but the Hawaiian Islands make up the most remote island archipelago on the planet. European sailors didn’t land there before these bits of earth had long been discovered, explored and settled by Polynesians centuries before. I’d be hard-pressed to find another group of explorers more hardy than these determined mariners.

The Vikings sailed from Scandinavia to places like Iceland, Greenland and even North America in vessels like this one, centuries before Christopher Columbus.

The Vikings sailed from Scandinavia to places like Iceland, Greenland and even North America in vessels like this one, centuries before Christopher Columbus.

The Vikings. Coming a close second are the Scandinavian butt-kickers known more for their savagery toward the poor inhabitants of Britain, Ireland and Continental Europe. These guys were expert warriors, and adept at the art of psychological warfare. That’s what made their raids and acts of extortion so lucrative. But these folks were also capable sailors, be it along the coast, up rivers or in the open sea. On that last count, they one-upped Christopher Columbus by a few centuries, crossing the North Atlantic toward Iceland, Greenland and even North America. The Vikings briefly settled the southeastern coast of modern-day Canada before giving up — way back in the 10th Century. While they quit North America, the remains of their amazing feats of exploration can be seen in the ruins of Greenland and in the continuing civilization that flourishes on Iceland. Want to know how amazing this is? A typical Viking ship was powered only by sail and oar, and the ships themselves were a little over 50 feet long. Like the Polynesians, they did it without the benefit of modern navigation we take for granted today, and if you don’t already know, the North Atlantic can have some of the nastiest, stormiest weather on earth.

The moon landing may possibly be the greatest example of exploration in history, and certainly one of the greatest achievements in the history of the United States. Exploration!

The moon landing may possibly be the greatest example of exploration in history, and certainly one of the greatest achievements in the history of the United States. Exploration!

The astronauts. Be they American or Soviet space explorers (and many other nationalities now), astronauts (the USSR called them cosmonauts) take part in a type of travel that is completely novel, and overly hostile to the presence of humans. The science, technology and pure guts it takes to strap yourself into a metal can and rocket into the void cannot be understated. Think about it: You have to take everything with you — food, water and air — and protect yourself from blinding light, searing heat/deadly cold and unfiltered radiation. If everything goes right, you live, provided you can get home without frying in the earth’s atmosphere on the journey back. Everything about space is pretty much trying to kill you.

Among the grandest accomplishments therein has to be the moon landings. Seeing this happened nearly five decades ago, and how numb we are to such feats, it requires you to step back to really appreciate what the astronauts of the Saturn project did. They traveled tens of thousands of miles, LEAVING THE PLANET to land on a completely new world. Humans have walked on earth for all of our existence. Before Neil Armstrong, no living thing had ever sniffed the surface of the moon. A lot will be said about what the United States has accomplished in its brief history, but this monumental feat of exploration will go down as one of the country’s greatest-ever achievements. So you were the first to climb X mountain? Fuggetaboutit. These guys are the only living beings on earth to have set foot on another world.

You might be bumming because your own explorations don’t measure up to these badasses. But don’t be sad, little camper. Take heart. Our efforts pale in comparison, but the spirit is the same. The effort involved, the planning, and at times, the courage to carry it out, can be extreme. But think about how much you grow. The deeds of our greatest explorers illustrate how the process of adventure is a pretty awesome thing. Use that for motivation the next time the itch to explore arises.

Bob Doucette

13er Thursday: A gallery of some great peaks that don’t hit 14,000 feet

On the slopes of Cupid, a Colorado 13er that was remarkably free of people when I was there.

On the slopes of Cupid, a Colorado 13er that was remarkably free of people when I was there.

If you’re into the Colorado hiking and climbing scene, you know all about the  14ers, the peaks that rise to elevations of more than 14,000 feet. Colorado has more of those than any state in the country, 58 high points that hit that magic number.

To say that the 14ers are popular is an understatement. Many of these peaks get crowded in the summer, with packed trails and clogged trailhead parking lots. Looking for a moment of solitude in the mountains? That’s not likely among the 14ers during the peak season of summer hiking. You’ll need to hit ’em up in less friendly conditions that surround winter for that.

But there are plenty of other mountains in Colorado. Believe it or not, most of them don’t top 14,000 feet. And because of that, they’ve become the forgotten mountains of the peak bagger realm.

Fine by me. I like the 13ers. They’re wild, beautiful and largely absent of people. My experience in the 13ers is a little limited, but memorable just the same.

Enough words. Just take a look and you’ll see what I mean.

Grizzly Peal D is in there somewhere...

Grizzly Peak D is in there somewhere…

You can hike this one and many others just up the road from Denver, and chances are, you will see few people.

Iowa Peak (left) and Emerald Peak.

Iowa Peak (right) and Emerald Peak.

Just south of Missouri Mountain are these beauties.

Gilpin Peak. Rugged stuff near Telluride.

Gilpin Peak (left). Rugged stuff near Telluride.

Yankee Boy Basin is home to some seriously amazing 13er scenery.

Kismet and Potosi.

Kismet (right) and Potosi.

See what I mean?

Campsite view of Peak 18.

Campsite view of Peak 18.

The 13ers can be quite dramatic, even if their names are not.

Pigeon and Turret peaks.

Turret and Pigeon peaks.

One word. Wow.

13ers everywhere. In the distance, Vestal and Arrow peaks.

13ers everywhere. In the distance, Vestal and Arrow peaks.

Did I say wow? Yes. Yes I did.

Coxcomb, Redcliff and somewhere over there, Precipice peaks.

Coxcomb, Redcliff and somewhere over there, Precipice.

They look good in snow, too.

Matterhorn Peak.

Matterhorn Peak.

A knockout, right?

Precipice Peak.

Precipice Peak.

Indeed, they are. In all seasons.

So there ya go. It doesn’t have to be 14,000 feet to be awesome. There are more than 600 of these amazing 13,000-foot rockpiles out there. Plenty to explore away from crowds.

Scenic Mount Sniktau's summit ridge.

Scenic Mount Sniktau’s summit ridge.

Bob Doucette

The year that was: Looking back on a challenging, educational and fruitful 2015

I gladly chose to #OptOutside. (Jen Baines photo)

All things considered, 2015 was a challenging but rewarding year.

Sometimes you have one of those years where things don’t quite go as you planned. But in retrospect, you find that some pretty great things happened despite the challenges. Those silver linings always shine though. 2015 was that sort of year.

The past year was marked by setbacks, unmet goals and some disappointments. But in the midst of that, there were quite a few lessons learned — things that propelled me forward toward the end of 2015 and should reap some benefits going forward.

RUNNING

Cue the heroic "Braveheart" music, and imagine me yelling out, "This day, I will choose my destiny! I will choose not to suck!"

Running took a hit, but there was a rally in the fall. Momentum is back on my side!

I’d say it is in this area, and in fitness overall, where I fell flat. After a decent 2014 (which followed an amazing 2013), I backslid significantly. I took a break from races, which in itself is not a bad thing. Sometimes you need to back off.

But without any goals on the horizon, I slacked off on my training, with predictable results. I gained some bad weight, got slower, and lost that “free” feeling I’d earned after a season of marathon training two years ago. It became laborious.

Fortunately, I rallied in the fall, a season in which I declared that I was choosing not to suck. I ended up running three road races over three months, capping it off with a second half marathon at the Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa. By the time I got into the last weeks of training for that race, I got my running groove back.

What I learned: It’s easy to lose your conditioning, and hard to regain it. You don’t have to race, but you do need to keep challenging yourself.

IN THE MOUNTAINS

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

I didn’t conquer the mountain. It conquered me. At the Keyhole on Longs Peak.

A few things conspired against me when I turned my attention to the high country. By summer, my fitness wasn’t where it should have been, so when I joined some buddies in a climb of Longs Peak, I wasn’t at my best.

But it was the weather that did us in. Despite being an early July attempt, storms created near-winter conditions high on the peak. High winds, wet snow and a slippery rock made it a no-go, turning us back about a mile and a thousand feet below the summit at the Keyhole formation. It was the right decision, but frustrating nonetheless.

In the business, we call this trail porn. Sweet trail, awesome mountains, wildflowers in bloom. Inspiring lust for hikers everywhere.

Silver linings of came in the form of weather windows that gave me views like this. On Cupid, near Loveland Pass.

The entire week was like that. I had plans to do some easier peaks, too, but I only got one decent weather window for a quick hike up Cupid, a minor 13,000-foot peak near Loveland Pass.

But I gained good experiences in all of this, able to spend time with good friends, take some amazing photographs and learn what it’s like when the mountain says no.

Trail magic.

Trail magic on Mount LeConte.

All this was in the back of my mind heading into the fall, and a family gathering in Tennessee put me tantalizingly close to the Appalachians. I was determined to stand on top of a mountain before year’s end, so I took my sister-in-law Jen with me for a hike up Mount LeConte, my first foray into the Smokies and a memorable one at that. I love the Rockies, but I’ve got room in my heart for those wonderful East Coast peaks as well.

ADVOCACY

Turkey Mountain and the Arkansas River in Tulsa. Two natural resources that people are starting to value more.

Turkey Mountain and the Arkansas River in Tulsa. Two natural resources that people are starting to value more.

This was a big high point in 2015. I’ve been working with the Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition for more than a year now, and many of our efforts have been focused on protecting the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area from commercial development. More specifically, from being home to an outlet mall.

I wrote a lot about this, and the coalition made a compelling case to keep Turkey Mountain wild. Tulsans came out in droves to town hall meetings to discuss the plan, with an overwhelming majority taking the side of conservation.

City council members listened, and so did the outlet mall developers. The plan for Turkey Mountain was scrapped, moved to another part of the metro area. And more recently, there is serious discussion about expanding the urban wilderness as part of a sales tax package that should go before voters in the spring. This was a huge win not only for the coalition and Turkey Mountain, but for the entire city. If not for the tireless work of the TUWC, it’s doubtful the mountain would have been protected.

ON THE BLOG AND ONLINE

It was a good year for the blog. The number of readers I had grew, and you all responded kindly to a number of posts I threw your way.

The most popular was written shortly after my attempt on Long Peak: Seven Signs It’s Time to Bail on a Summit. Apparently, thousands of you have experienced the same thing.

Three of my top 10 posts of 2015 had to deal with the ongoing developments concerning Turkey Mountain. A lot of people shared those posts in hope of letting their friends know what was going on and what was at stake. I appreciate that more than you know, especially given how things turned out.

In addition to the blog, I continued to meet more of you in the virtual world via Proactiveoutside’s Facebook page, Instagram account and on Twitter. I definitely appreciate every follow and like I get!

LOOKING AHEAD

Somewhere just under 13,000 feet, I'm taking a break. Ran some, hiked some up here. The Sense Pro is good in the alpine.

See ya on the trails, friends!

I choose not to look at 2015 as a disappointment. There were letdowns, but there were also some incredible moments, good times with good people, and resounding successes, most of which were shared with others.

My hope is that 2016 will see greater accomplishments, more time outdoors, and perhaps a bit of news from yours truly. Stay tuned, my friends! And may your 2016 be a great one.

Bob Doucette

Hiking Tennessee’s Mount LeConte

A sweeping view of the Smokies from Mount LeConte.

A sweeping view of the Smokies from Mount LeConte.

There are some things that don’t agree with me. Black Friday is one of them.

The idea of it—getting up ridiculously early, fighting crowds, spending wads of money and feeding the increasingly ravenous commercialism that has become Christmas is a major turnoff for me. I’ve spent the last three Black Fridays getting up early, lining up at the start line and running a 5K. Way more fun than storming the ramparts of Wal-Mart of Best Buy.

This year was going to be different, as a family get-together in Tennessee for Thanksgiving was on deck, so no race this time. I’ve never been to Tennessee before, but I’ve heard some good things about the natural beauty of the Volunteer State, particularly at its eastern edge.

I floated a plan to spend Black Friday in the Smoky Mountains, and to join like-minded people who were joining in REI’s #OptOutside movement is getting outdoors instead of stampeding the malls.

Some context…

It’s been a funny year for me. I got lazy, a little chunky, and paid for it. Dreams of summits and big races got whittled down to meager results: a failed bid at Longs Peak, a half-hearted spring trail race, and hitting just one summit – a minor 13,000-foot peak in Colorado – were all I had to show for my labors. I rallied in the fall by doing a few road races (my season-long decision choosing not to suck), but I still felt the need to try to bag one more peak before the year ended. So why not one of the Smokies’ biggies in Tennessee? It seemed a shame to get that close to a mountain range I’d never seen and not try to get out there. One peak in particular caught my eye: Mount LeConte.

Why Mount LeConte?

When I started wrapping my mind around this idea, I immediately gravitated toward trying to find the state’s highest point. That mountain would be Clingman’s Dome at 6,643 feet. That sounded cool and all, seeing I’ve got a few other state high points under my belt. But after researching the mountain, one thing stuck out – there’s a huge concrete observation tower at the summit, which is not something I want to see when I’m out in the woods going up a mountain.

I took to social media and asked around, and more than once, Mount LeConte came up as the place to go when it comes to a summit hike in the Smokies. In particular, the Alum Cave Trail was noted as being the most scenic of the many routes to LeConte’s 6,593-foot summit.

One couple’s opinion rang particularly true – Dan and Ashley Walsh, who live in Georgia and frequent the Smokies quite often. I’ve seen their Instagram pages, and their many photos of LeConte. When in doubt, trust those who have been there before.

Jen and I at the trailhead, getting ready for the big day.

Jen and I at the trailhead, getting ready for the big day.

A partner in crime…

I don’t mind doing stuff like this solo. The solitude of hitting the trails on your own has its own special aesthetic appeal, but truth be told, I prefer going with people.

I also know that a big day of hiking is not for everyone. So I brought up the idea of bringing people along, if they so chose. I got one taker.

My sister-in-law Jen digs the outdoors. She loves travel. But she’s also a mom of two boys, a wife and a one-woman landscaping show, operating her own business in a few towns north of Tulsa. It’s not like the gal has a bunch of free time on her hands, so when offered the chance to do something different – even if it meant many hours of driving and a big day on the mountain –  she was game.

Never mind that she hadn’t done a hike this long or this high in her life. A willing soul is all it takes. We’ll sort out the blisters and aches/pains later.

So what about that mountain…

As I said before, Mount LeConte is one of the behemoths of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the third highest in the park and one of the biggest in all of the southern Appalachians. The range itself, stretching about 1,500 miles from northern Alabama into Newfoundland in Canada, is one of the world’s oldest, forming some 480 million years ago. Geologists say that at their peak, the Appalachians may have been as high or higher than the Himalayas.

But all those eons of rain, snow, wind and gravity have eroded them to what they are today, their slopes more gentle and their flanks clothed in forest (though up north, there are treelines on the higher mountains). LeConte stands nearly as tall as any of the peaks in the range, and indeed, despite its age, it’s still a sizable peak. LeConte’s base is low, maybe a bit more than 1,000 feet above sea level, meaning the mountain itself rises more than a mile. A good number of famous Rocky Mountain peaks don’t have that sort of rise.

Its height is also reflected in its size. LeConte dominates the eastern skyline in the tourist towns of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. No route to the top is less than 11 miles round trip.

That 11-miler is also the steepest, and just so happens to be the route we picked – the Alum Cave Trail.

Alum Cave Creek, low on the trail.

Alum Cave Creek, low on the trail.

The hike…

It should be noted that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the nation’s most popular, getting more visitors than even Yosemite or Yellowstone. Being so close to those tourist towns and on a day where a lot of people were off work, I knew it was going to be a busy day on the trails. I was right on that count. I’m not sure the two of us went 10 minutes without seeing other people.

This was especially true lower on the mountain. Most people who hike the trail go up to Alum Cave Bluff, then turn around there.

It starts flat, winding through a mix of broadleaf and evergreen woods while following Alum Cave Creek. It’s a pretty stretch, still very green despite being in late autumn. Moss covered rocks and tree trunks all around. Unlike the mountains I’m used to hiking, this range is quite humid and gets plenty of rain. I imagine summer hiking around here gets pretty sticky.

The trail steepened as we approached a feature called Arch Rock, which has a cleverly placed stone staircase that goes through the arch and begins the first steep pitch of the hike.

Looking back at the stairs at Arch Rock. (Jen Baines photo)

Looking back at the stairs at Arch Rock. (Jen Baines photo)

Given the trailhead sits just short of 4,000 feet above sea level, I think most people might underestimate the difficulty of the hike – right up until they begin that stair climb through Arch Rock. Four-thousand feet will feel fine to any flatlander who is standing or sitting still, but add a good uphill pitch and it becomes noticeable. If you’re not used to higher elevations, keep in mind that when you hike here, thinner air will make the going a bit tougher. It won’t make you sick (a common problem in the Rockies and other higher ranges), but it will add to the effort you expend.

Past Arch Rock, the grade maintained a steeper pitch than what we saw in the first couple of miles, gaining a higher angle as we approached the trail’s namesake, Alum Cave Bluff.

Jen takes in the view from Alum Cave Bluff. (Jen Baines photo)

Jen takes in the view from Alum Cave Bluff. (Jen Baines photo)

First off, Alum Cave is not really a cave. Instead, it’s a prominent chunk of overhanging rock that builds a sort of shelter at the base. It’s dramatic, and the views from the bluff are worth the effort to get there. I can see why this hike is so popular, with the sweeping scenery and accessibility from the trailhead. I can also see why a lot of day hikers choose to turn around here instead of continuing to the summit. A sign tells you that the summit is still 2.7 miles away, and there is a lot of elevation gain between the bluff and the top.

We decided to take a breather here. One of the things I wanted to do was make sure that our pace was even and sustainable. No sense blowing ourselves out getting to the summit. I broke up the ascent into one-hour segments where we’d take a break, eat a little something, drink and maybe stretch out. So part of my job was to be a good timekeeper, letting Jen know, “Hey, let’s go another 15 minutes and then take a break,” and keep it steady. Jen was a little beat when we got to Alum Cave, but the one thing I’ve discovered about her is she has a second gear when it comes to toughness. Outside observers might have thought she was ready to cash it in, but more than once, she told me that there was no way she was going to stop before we topped out. Her spirit was willing, the weather was good, and a lot of great hiking awaited.

As we went higher, the views opened up.

As we went higher, the views opened up.

As is often the case on trips like this, we talked a lot. She asked me if I thought her boys would be able to do a hike like this. I said yes, but it would be a case of if they wanted it badly enough. Hard work and short attention spans can cut off willpower when it comes to the younger set, but there are plenty of little rippers out there who can and do hike and climb some pretty big peaks.

We also noticed accents and nationalities. Jen heard lots of voices that sounded like they heralded from the Middle East, India and the Far East.

I noticed those too, but more than that, I was taken aback by the variety of Southern accents. Some sounded Deep South, others more Cajun. I can definitely tell the difference between the sugary-sweet Tennessee or Georgia southern accents from what I normally encounter in Oklahoma and Texas. Call me weird, but I thought it was fascinating. Maybe that’s why my Colorado friends keep inviting me on their trips – to hear that funny Okie accent I picked up as a teenager.

Steeper hiking and changing flora on the upper slopes.

Steeper hiking and changing flora on the upper slopes.

The higher we went, the more things changed. There is no treeline on LeConte or any of the other Smokies, but the rapidly changing elevations meant there would be subtle differences in what you saw around you. What was just wet lower down turned into thick patches of ice higher up. The more lush broadleaf plants and trees below were supplanted by thickening groves of spruces and firs, and as the summit neared, the forest gained that familiar scent of the evergreen woods from Rocky Mountain hikes past, sort of like the sweet, fresh smell of a live Christmas tree in your house right after it’s been cut. That never gets old, and it was nice to smell it again on LeConte’s upper slopes.

Views for days.

Views for days.

Nearing the top, the trail leveled out and before we knew it a confluence of other trails split off into different directions, pointing toward other routes down and to the Cliff Tops overlook nearby. And in front of us, a collection of rustic cabins, collectively known as the LeConte Lodge. It was closed this time of year, but you can reserve a cabin when it’s open. The catch – very few utilities, and you have to hike to get there. I like the concept – you earn your stay with a little sweat equity on the trail.

Me at the summit, with the cairn behind me. And lots of trees.

Me at the summit, with the cairn behind me. And lots of trees.

LeConte’s summit was still a half-mile away, so we kept trucking. Jen was thinking we might have reached it already, but I kept telling her you’ll know you’re there when there’s nowhere else you can go to get higher. Before long, we were there, greeted not by some sweeping summit view, but a giant cairn tucked away in the trees. I’m used to cairns, but it was a little strange to top out and see nothing but woods around me. Fortunately, there were breaks in the trees down the trail that featured expansive overviews of the Smokies all around. For as far as I could see, miles and miles of long, high wooded ridges below us, giving us some of the choicest panoramas in all of the South.

A view a little down from the summit.

A view a little down from the summit.

With the summit it in the bag, we headed back down to the lodge, found a picnic table and chowed down. A married couple was wandering around, looking for water, so Jen obliged and gave them some of hers. It’s hard to believe anyone would do a hike as long as this one without more than a single 16-ounce bottle on hand, but I suppose it happens. With mild temps that day, I suppose you could get away with it, but seriously, take more than you need. You never know what might happen, and the sun sets early out there in late fall. Anyway, the dude returned the favor by handing us a Butterfinger bar, which I happily accepted. No sense turning down free food, right?

Jen at the LeConte Lodge, posing for a potential gig as a brand ambassador for Capri Sun. (Jen Baines photo)

Jen at the LeConte Lodge, posing for a potential gig as a brand ambassador for Capri Sun. (Jen Baines photo)

Eventually it was time head back down. Our late start (traffic through Sevierville/Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg is a bit slow) meant getting down before dark would be a push. After a bit, Jen said, “Going back down feels kinda sad.”

“Why is that?” I asked, my mind drifting toward what might be up for dinner once we got down.

“Because it’s almost over,” she answered.

I reassured her that there were plenty of good times in front of us on the way back to the trailhead. After all, the trail always looks different going the other way, and with the sun heading down the fading brightness of daylight bathed the hills and the woods with a warm glow that belied the growing chill in the air. Sensory overload, to be sure, and I mean that in the best way.

Heading back down. Many parts of the trail hug cliffsides, which offer dramatic views of the mountains.

Heading back down. Many parts of the trail hug cliffsides, which offer dramatic views of the mountains.

Late afternoon light, and plenty to see to fire the imagination.

Late afternoon light, and plenty to see to fire the imagination.

But what she said resonated with me. I understand exactly what she meant, that heading back to the trailhead was a step closer to leaving the adventure behind and going back to “real life” and all of its obligations, stresses and tedium. Also, the fact that the end of the trip brought about a little sadness meant that the hard work, the sweat, the soreness – all that “second-level fun” most people don’t enjoy, but a few of us relish – was worth something to her. I suspect she expected that before the hike started, but having that confirmed when it was ending was particularly gratifying. I go out there because I enjoy it, but there is a special satisfaction in taking someone on a big hike like this and turning them on to the things that the outdoors has to offer. Adventure ain’t for everyone because it’s hard. But for those who get a taste and then a fire lights in their eyes, well, getting the adventure bug can be a little like magic. Life-changing, wonderful magic.

Trail magic.

Trail magic.

So another Black Friday has come and gone, without me spending a single second shopping for anything. By opting outside, I’m sure Jen would agree with me on this: Better and more lasting memories were made on that trail then could ever have been made in line.

trailmapleconte

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the trailhead, follow the well-marked and obvious trail from the parking lot through low-lying woodlands. The trail follows Alum Cave Creek until it ascends toward Arch Rock. Climb the stairs that pass through the rock and get ready for steeper inclines the rest of the way. About a mile past that you’ll reach Alum Cave Bluff. The approach to the bluff is one of the steepest parts of the route, and under the bluff that path is very sandy. From here, it’s 2.7 miles to LeConte’s summit.

The trail continues at a steady uphill grade for another 2 miles. Parts of the trail will be on solid rock, which is often wet, so watch your footing. During late fall and into winter, some of those surfaces will be icy. The park service has installed cables to steady yourself through most of those rocky areas. In addition, the trail often hugs cliffsides, but the exposure on these sections is easily avoided and the risk of falls is minimal.

As you near the LeConte Lodge cabins, the trail levels out. It steepens slightly again past the cabins toward the top. A 6-foot high cairn marks LeConte’s summit. The trail is Class 1 and easy to follow, so the risk of getting off-route is low. The route is 11 miles round-trip; park officials recommend giving yourself 7 hours to complete the hike (including breaks, we did it in about 6.5 hours).

The Smokies are home to a wide variety of wildlife, and black bears are common in the area. Most wildlife will avoid contact with humans, but be sure to properly stow your food and do not approach or try to feed any wildlife, especially bears.

I gladly chose to #OptOutside. (Jen Baines photo)

I gladly chose to #OptOutside. (Jen Baines photo)

EXTRA CREDIT: If you have the time, explore the many other trails on LeConte, including the Boulevard Trail (16 miles, 1,080-foot gain), the Bullhead Trail (14.4 miles, 3,820-foot gain), the Rainbow Falls Trail (13 miles, 3,820-foot gain) and the Trillium Gap Trail (13 miles 3,820-foot gain). Closer to the Alum Cave Bluff Trail take the short detour from the lodge to the Cliff Tops, which are famous for their sunset views.

GETTING THERE: From Interstate 40, take Tennessee Highway 66 south (near Kodak). The road will merge with U.S. 441 as you continue south through Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Continuing past Gatlinburg, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitor center will appear to your right. The Alum Cave Bluffs trailhead will be 8.6 miles down the road from the visitor center. There is a paved parking lot, but it fills up fast, so don’t be surprised if you have to park on the side of the road. As a side note, give yourself plenty of time to get through Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, especially on weekends and holidays. The towns are often choked with tourist traffic.

Bob Doucette

Outdoors in Arkansas: Hiking Devil’s Den State Park

Devil's Den State Park has a great historical legacy of public lands.  Decades later, the park is an excellent example of how to establish and preserve public lands for the long term.

Devil’s Den State Park has a great historical legacy of public lands. Decades later, the park is an excellent example of how to establish and preserve public lands for the long term.

Note: The following is a guest post from a friend and colleague, Cary Aspinwall, who also happens to be a big fan of spending time outdoors. Check out her bio at the end of the post.

Last year, my friend Courtney and I decided to start an annual tradition of a destination hike.

Though I was born in the mountains, I’ve always been a bit of a chicken about hikes, preferring to stick to easier trails closer to home.

Then in 2014, I read “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk,” by one of my favorite writers, Ben Montgomery (who happens to be an Okie and all-around nice guy).

Frankly, Grandma Gatewood made me feel like a wimp.

She hiked the Appalachian Trail alone, in Keds. In the 1950s.

I should be braver, I realized.

I made Courtney read the book, too, and we picked out a fun and challenging hike that we could do in a day with a short drive.

Last year, we chose Robber’s Cave State Park near Wilburton — I liked the story about the outlaw hideout in the San Bois mountains.

I looked at the trails on maps ahead of time, and saw several reviews that said detailed trail maps were available for purchase at the Robber’s Cave visitors’ center.

When we got there, however, the woman running the shop said they were out of official trail maps they usually sold. There was a crappy, free black-and-white copy of something barely legible, and a hot pink bandana with a not-to-scale map available for purchase. (It was made by a Skiatook company called Trail Hankie, and I’m now obsessed with collecting these from places I hike).

So Courtney and I set out with our pink bandana for what ended up being a nearly 7-hour unplanned adventure (we had water and popcorn balls for food. It was the day before Halloween, and we were planning on a simple three-hour hike).

We had a cell phone, but you can imagine how great reception in the rural San Bois mountains is. The trails were poorly marked with faded paint splotches on trees that were hard to distinguish. (Lest you think we’re just terrible at hiking, Courtney recently heard from some trail running friends who said they also got lost at Robber’s Cave.)

Lucky for us, I have a really good internal compass, so we finally made it to the Robber’s Cave feature and then our car in a parking lot several miles away. But the hike took way longer than planned and was a little stressful.

I don’t recommend navigating from a souvenir bandana unless you have to.

A sweet waterfall along the trail.

A sweet waterfall along the trail.

We didn’t care to relive that experience this year, and chose to head to Arkansas to explore Devil’s Den State Park. It’s south of Fayetteville and is a testament to the beautiful legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps programs from 1933-1942 as part of the New Deal.

We printed several maps in advance, but to our delight, there were plenty of free, detailed maps at the visitor’s center and friendly park rangers to go over them with you (we bought another Trail Hankie for fun, however).

We had originally toyed with the idea of hiking part of the Butterfield Hiking Trail, which is named after the old Butterfield Overland stagecoach route. The entire thing is 15 miles and stretches far outside the state park’s boundaries. It begins and ends at Devil’s Den, but much of the trail is actually in the Ozark National Forest.

After talking to the park staff, we decided to start out with the beautiful Devil’s Den trail right by the visitor’s center (it’s a 1.5 mile loop, but it has some steep elevation changes). The caves are currently closed to protect the bats living in them, but you get an idea of their depth from the crevices and views on this trail. There are also several waterfalls that are likely spectacular during rainier seasons (we went on a dry, sunny November day).

I can’t recommend this trail enough. It’s truly a CCC masterpiece and even with the elevation changes, suitable for most levels of fitness and hiking ability. It’s well-marked, easy to follow and there were lots of families hiking together while we were out there.

Bright skies and an inviting river along the trail.

Bright skies and an inviting river along the route.

Instead of heading out to tackle a piece of the Butterfield after that, a park ranger instead steered us toward the Fossil Flats Trail, which is inside the park and just under 6 miles, if you take the full loop. There are trails that cross over and allow you to shorten it to a 3- or 4-mile hike).

Fossil Flats is a multi-use trail designed for mountain bikers as well, but it loops around beautiful Lee Creek and we only saw hikers and campers.

The entire trail is well-marked with color-coded pieces of plastic fixed along trees and posts, we never once got lost.

The view of Lee Creek is the best thing about this trail — we were able to stop and eat a snack on a bench overlooking the water. Farther up the trail, we explored a dry creek bed for fossils and interesting rocks (the hazards of hiking with your geologist friend).

The Racer’s Hill portion (this is the loop that extends it to the full 5.6 miles or so) was the least interesting in terms of scenery, but added a nice fitness challenge. It’s more geared toward mountain bikers (even the trail markers are placed closer to where bikers would see them) and so I might skip that portion on any return trips.

If you start Fossil Flats from the campground like we did, you’ll have a small water crossing at the end, which was really fun (you might want to plan on keeping a dry pair of shoes in your car, though).

The Devil’s Den and Fossil Flats trails were so lovely and fun that now we’re really wanting to come back and try the full Butterfield trail next time, with the proper supplies.

I can’t say enough about the Arkansas State Parks system. From the website to the park rangers and free maps, everything was functional and helpful.

A big day of hiking isn't complete without a victory meal, and AQ Chicken House fits the bill. It's a favorite place among Arkansans, including a certain two-term president from Hope.

A big day of hiking isn’t complete without a victory meal, and AQ Chicken House fits the bill. It’s a favorite place among Arkansans, including a certain two-term president from Hope.

Part of our plan in traveling to Arkansas for this hike involved stopping at AQ Chicken House on the way back to Tulsa, which worked out well. We were starving by this time and devoured an embarrassing amount of fresh rolls and fried chicken, but je ne regrette rien.

Getting there: From Interstate 540, take the Arkansas Highway 74 exit (West Devil’s Den Road) and go west. The road will meander southwest and lead you to the park.

 

Cary Aspinwall is the creative director and a writer for The Frontier in Tulsa. She enjoys walking her dogs and hiking, and has reluctantly run a couple of races and half marathons in between all the reading, writing and wine drinking. You can follow her misadventures on Twitter or Instagram  or on her blog for the Frontier.