The peak bagger’s muse: Wrangling the almighty list

This peak represents two things. First, a beautiful sight. Second, it's a name on a list to check off.

This peak represents two things. First, a beautiful sight. Second, it’s a name on a list to check off.

If you were to believe all the articles written, blog posts shared, Instagram photos produced and just about anything else that conveys why we do stuff, you’d come to the conclusion that people climb mountains because of the intrinsic inspiration of high places.

More specifically, people would spin some sort of narrative about “being out in nature” or “living life to the fullest” or “taking on a challenge.” All those sayings found on motivational wall-hangings in every other office building  in the country, well, sometimes outdoorsy folks sound a lot like those. We are the lords of flowery memes.

Before I go on, let’s be clear that I’m not saying these things are untrue. People hike and climb peaks to get away from the rat race, be in the wild and live in the moment, on the edge and whatnot. But once you get into it a little, I’ve found something else pushes people back out there, flinging them headlong from the comfortable into the decidedly uncomfortable.

What is this great motivator? The list, of course.

A bunch of you will look at that sentence with all the confusion of a puppy hearing a high-pitched whine, head cocked, eyes wide open, ears tuned in. But those of you who are slaves to the list, well, you know. The urge is strong, a tractor beam pulling you from your bed at 2 a.m. to drive for four hours, hike for eight more, ascending the equivalent of a few big skyscrapers and enduring loose scree, steep trails, sketchy rock and rotten weather, all so you can go home, get online, and put a checkmark by the name of the peak you just survived. You may as well be driving the Millennium Falcon to the trailhead, ready to climb Mount Death Star. The pull is that strong, Young Skywalker.

So what lists are we talking about? There are so many. In Colorado, it’s the 58 14ers, the peaks that rise to 14,000 feet or more. Mountain hounds with the time, energy and chutzpah make a big push to complete this list. The bragging rights are huge. If that challenge isn’t big enough, you can always go for the Centennials, the highest 100 in the state. And there are 600-plus 13,000-foot peaks that comprise their own ridiculous list to fill.

Outside Colorado, there are more. So many more. You can tackle to Adirondack 46ers, a list of 46 peaks in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York that are 4,000 feet or higher. If you want to see the country, try hitting all the high points of each state — 50 peaks and high spots on that one. More of a world traveler, with some time, money and mountaineering chops? Fill out the Seven Summits list — the highest point on each continent. And for the elite mountaineers, there is a list of 14 8,000-meter peaks in Nepal and Tibet just waiting for you. You might not live through that list, but the bragging rights are pretty impressive if you do.

Closer to home, you can hit the high points of every county in your state. That might not be a lot of fun in a state like Kansas, but one blogger in Colorado is having a ball with it.

We love the lists so much that there is a mountaineering list of lists. It’s call the Lists of John, and it’s exhaustive (188,546 peaks!). Lists of John even has its own Facebook page.

Looking for an obscure list of peaks? How about Malaysia's highest? ( photo)

Looking for an obscure list of peaks? How about Malaysia’s 30 highest? ( photo)

I went on social media (Facebook and Twitter in this case) to ask people about the allure of the list. The responses I got had a nice mix, with most saying the lists quantified their goals.

From Noel: “I have gone through stages with my hiking of the 14ers. First it was…Wow! I hiked a 14er! Then…Cool! I hiked a few more! Then…Hmm, I wonder if I could do some of the tougher ones. Then…Whoa! Maybe I could actually work toward finishing these peaks! Then…These are getting tough, but ‘the list’ is nearing completion!”

From Bill: “Certainly helped me organize and plan. Helps one another measure up; discuss plans. I couldn’t imagine having as much inspiration to just climb a random number of random peaks.”

From Mike: “Important. They give me structure and keep me focused.”

And from Sean: “They are very important because the take you to places you wouldn’t consider going before.”

For others, it was more nuanced.

From Annalise: “I have very mixed feelings about lists. They really frustrate me in the sense of allowing the dangerous possibility of overly inflated ego and self-limitation. The concept of ‘conquering’ mountains deeply bothers me, because I don’t believe in that and I feel like peak bagging lists are commonly associated with that idea. Though it’s wonderful to see other mountain lovers empowered by ‘bagging peaks,’ it’s deeply worrisome to see some that get cocky and overconfident and attribute their achievements entirely to their own greatness, belittling these sacred places. Personally, I’m a big fan of being silly and joking around on summits, but when I am moving, I do my best to give reverence to the peaks. Geology is so much bigger than we are.

“That said… it is a very helpful organization tool. It is really nice to be able to think ‘I want to go explore another inspiring place outside of everyday human infrastructure’ and be able to look up names on a list (and progress to planning from there) much as once upon a time we looked up names and numbers of people in a phone book. It’s soothing.

“Anyway, I can’t really resolve my two conflicting ideas about lists. They both exist in my head, and so far they’ve pretty much stayed in balance. The former makes me hate the latter, but the latter makes me attempt to be a little more open-minded (to little avail). And around it goes.”

From Zach: “It’s really just a list, but for me it gives me objectives to plan. Half of the excitement is studying the route and quantifying it in my head. I put all of the logistics together and then it’s game day. My awareness of the day is higher because I’m driven to make it unfold successfully. As I get close to finishing the 14ers, I wonder if I’ll find that drive without a menu of objectives to choose from. Welcome to my neurosis!”

But the list didn’t hold attraction for everyone.

From David: “At first I was interested in the lists, then I was trying to figure out who I was doing the list for. Me? Or what I wanted people to think of me? I lost the fun. Now, I go out to have fun. Fun with people, different experience on the same mountain. The list doesn’t matter. I understand why people chase them and I am glad they do. I just don’t feel the need to chase a list.”

And from Kay: “I could care less about lists when it comes to mountains. Which is ironic because I like checking things off lists in every other aspect of my life. Mountains are the one place I feel total freedom and that includes freedom from the constraints of lists. Lists remind me of going to the grocery store or the amount of school work I have to do. Climbing mountains is my freedom and I love them all equally.”

As for me? I’m somewhere in between. Living where I live, and working full-time, the free time to chase summits and knock off big lists doesn’t exist. I don’t have the money for things like the Seven Summits, and certainly not the cash, experience and skills for the 8,000-ers.

And yet I still keep track. The website has features where you can check off 14ers you’ve climbed, and 13ers as well. I like Dave’s take – that I head to the mountains to have fun and enjoy the moment. But by the time I get back to civilization and anywhere close to a computer, I log on. I find the list. And I check ‘em off, one peak at a time. I guess the list owns me, too, even if I never complete it.

Bob Doucette

Quick adventures: Hiking Cupid and the Loveland Pass peaks

Some of the scenery of Loveland Pass. Cupid is on the left, and many more amazing mountains are close by.

Some of the scenery of Loveland Pass. Cupid is on the left, and many more amazing mountains are close by.

Something I’ve learned lately is you don’t have to trek to the middle of nowhere to have a good outdoor experience. I’ve learned that in my hometown of Tulsa, where I can go from a downtown apartment to a network of wild, wooded trails in 15 minutes.  Don’t get me wrong, my best outdoor memories have been made deep in the backcountry. But there is something to be said for more local escapes.

Last year, in an attempt to get ready for some time at altitude, I did some research on peaks near Denver that had quick access. It led me to Loveland Pass and Mount Sniktau. It’s an easy drive from the Mile High City, and a short hike that might not be the wildest or most radical outdoor experience I’ve ever had, and the route was pretty short. But it was big on scenery and training value (the trailhead is just short of 12,000 feet, and starts out steep). Sniktau made for a nice morning alpine hike.

As it turns out, there are a lot of peaks accessible from Loveland Pass. An ambitious and stout hiker could link up three 13ers and two 14ers in a day, should the weather cooperate. And even then, you’d still have plenty of summits left to bag.

Back in July, I was faced with similar needs to acclimatize and get some altitude quickly. The weather had been wonky all week, and finding paydirt was going to be tough unless I could find a place I could get to quickly and get out.  Loveland Pass proved to be just the ticket. Just past Idaho Springs, I could check out the conditions and not be forced to lose an entire day if Mother Nature rained me out.

My plan was to hike to Cupid, and if things looked good, continue on to Grizzly Peak D. The route had plenty of up-and-down, so despite the limited miles, you’ll get a workout.

Like I said before, I had fits with the weather all week – I’d been chased off Mount Morrison, had to scuttle plans for the Kite Lake peaks, and wondered if Longs Peak later in the week would pan out (it didn’t). My morning at Loveland Pass would be no different.

One might think this view says "go home." Start of the trail toward Sniktau and Cupid.

One might think this view says “go home.” Start of the trail toward Sniktau and Cupid.

Rains hit the Front Range and Denver much of the morning, and clouds swirled around the mountains when it was dry. It would be touch-and-go.

As previously mentioned, the route starts steep. You walk up a staircase, plod along a wide trail for a couple hundred feet, then start the steep ascent toward the top of hump that is just short of 13,000 feet. The gain is almost 1,000 feet in less than a mile.

There's a ski resort over there somewhere. And a lot of other cool stuff.

There’s a ski resort over there somewhere. And a lot of other cool stuff.

For Cupid, however, you can take a bypass. A fork in the trail gives you the option of continuing up, or by turning right, you can follow below a ridgeline connecting the main route to Cupid. I took the latter.

I crossed a couple of snowfields on mellow hiking, then climbed up to the ridge. From there, it was a steady uphill pitch straight to Cupid’s summit at 13,117 feet. Simple enough, right?

More moody weather, but it looked like it was getting ready to clear up.

More moody weather, but it looked like it was getting ready to clear up.

Looking toward U.S. 6 as it goes through the pass. Clouding up again.

Looking toward U.S. 6 as it goes through the pass. Clouding up again.

But what made an impression on me were a couple other things.

First, I saw a dude running the trails. He passed me a couple of times, first early on the route, churning up the hill while I was trudging upward. Then later, going the other way off the top of Cupid, he was headed down. We chatted a bit on that second meeting before he took off again, apparently pressed to meet his wife at the trailhead. He was dressed like he was running a 5K, despite cool temps (in the 40s) and plenty of wind. I guess the body heat from, oh, RUNNING at 13,000 feet made his wardrobe choice OK. Inspired by his pluck, I’d later attempt to run some of the mellower pitches as well, but got light-headed. I reverted to hiking in short order. That’s what being a flatlander gets ya.

The good trail at the half-mile junction. Cupid is straight ahead.

The good trail at the half-mile junction. Cupid is straight ahead.

A little snow was on the route. Just one crossing here, but considerably more looking toward Mount Sniktau, which is obscured by thickening clouds.

A little snow was on the route. Just one crossing here, but considerably more looking toward Mount Sniktau, which is obscured by thickening clouds.

The next thing that hit me was the weather, The atmospherics of the day – a delightfully moody mix of colors from the snow, grasses, wildflowers, the rock and the cloudcover – made this one of the most scenic jaunts I’ve had in some time. None of these peaks have the wildness of, say, the San Juans, but when you combine all of the visual elements present that day, it made for quite a visual payoff.

After runner dude left me in the dust, there was maybe a quarter-mile left to Cupid’s summit and some decision-making in the offing. There were times when the cloudcover would appear to thin, then immediately get thicker and darker. Just when it looked like rains were imminent, a break would appear in the form of a sliver of blue sky. Reading the skies is an acquired skill. Not every cloud bank is the same. You balance what you see with the time it takes to accomplish the next task, then weigh the risks. Cold rain would be one thing, but a real storm is quite another. All I had to go by was what had occurred earlier in the day (steady rains), what I was seeing now (lots of moisture in the air, but a lack of anything electrical) and what the forecasts said (a high probability of more rain and possible storms as temperatures rose).

Getting closer to the top.

Getting closer to the top.

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

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

When I got to Cupid’s broad, rocky summit, I decided that Grizzly would have to wait. It would be another couple of miles round-trip, and slow going at that, with plenty of rocky, steep up-and-down hiking ahead. Who knows if the weather would have turned. So I paused at the summit, took a few pics and drank in the scenery. Not getting Grizzly would give me a reason to come back and explore more.

On the summit. Grizzly D and Torreys Peak are around there somewhere.

On the summit. Grizzly D and Torreys Peak are around there somewhere.

Looking toward Sniktau,still hiding in the clouds.

Looking toward Sniktau,still hiding in the clouds.

Dark, ominous and maybe a tad inviting? I say yes, but I'm weird like that.

Dark, ominous and maybe a tad inviting? I say yes, but I’m weird like that.

Heading back down, I had one of those moments where the virtual world met the real one. You might remember last year when, at the Durango train station, I met Kay, a gal I knew as halfpint22 on Instagram. It turned out she was on the same Chicago Basin trip I was, and it was cool getting to know her a little. This time, I saw a gal I knew through the Facebook page named Elissa, working her way up Cupid as I was heading down. Elissa was working nights as a nurse, and this morning solo jaunt for her was an after-work escape. It’s always good to see people take advantage of having great hiking right by your doorstep and not mailing it in after work.

And that brings me back to why I like Loveland Pass so much. If you’re looking for a summit, a good hike at high altitude, or some time in nature alone, this is the perfect fit. You can find a little adventure an hour from home and be back in the city in time for lunch.

I can’t wait to go back.

Kicking back. Fatigues by the U.S. Air Force via my brother Steve; shoes courtesy Salomon. And yes, I did some running here. "Some" running.

Kicking back. Fatigues by the U.S. Air Force via my brother Steve; shoes courtesy Salomon. And yes, I did some running here. “Some” running.

GETTING THERE: From Denver, take I-70 west past Idaho Springs, then exit south on U.S. 6 (the Loveland Pass exit) Drive to the top of the pass and park at the trailhead parking lot. The trailhead will be on your left as you park.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the parking lot, hike a sandy, steep trail on the route toward Mount Sniktau. About a half mile up, the trail has a fork. Continue straight to the top of a point that stands around 12,800 feet; the trail will split there to take you to either Cupid or Sniktau. Go right for Cupid. Your second option at the half-mile trail junction is to turn right and follow the ridgeline straight toward Cupid. This is the easier and shorter option.

Following this trail, it will hit a steeper portion to gain the ridge proper. The trail then follows the ridge to Cupid’s summit. Round-trip, it’s about three miles. Most of the route is Class 1 hiking, with some of the steeper and rockier portions rated Class 2.

EXTRA CREDIT: Continue from Cupid’s summit to Grizzly Peak D. And if you hit that point, Grizzly D connects to 14er Torreys Peak, and ultimately, Grays Peak, the highest point in the Front Range and on the Continental Divide.

Bob Doucette

White House announces Mt. McKinley to be officially renamed Denali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Denali it is. Finally.

— Bob Doucette

Getting in a staredown with Longs Peak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunrise on Longs Peak. Goodness.

Sunrise on Longs Peak. Goodness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The rock shelter by the Keyhole.

The rock shelter by the Keyhole.

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

The route past the Keyhole. Errrggg....

The route past the Keyhole. Errrggg….

Storm Peak looking pretty stormy.

Storm Peak looking pretty stormy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rock and air.

Rock and air.

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

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

A healthy, greedy, friendly, opportunistic marmot.

A healthy, greedy, friendly, opportunistic marmot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Doucette

The king of the Colorado Rockies: Longs Peak

All hail the king.

All hail the king.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s The Mountain.

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

Bob Doucette

Lightning strike on Mount Bierstadt: 5 weather reminders for hiking in the high country

Mount Bierstadt and its Sawtooth Ridge.

Mount Bierstadt (right) and its Sawtooth Ridge.

There are “rules” when it comes to hiking and climbing in the alpine areas of the Rocky Mountains. And yes, some of those rules supersede all others.

The summer is the busiest time for hiking in the mountains. The temperatures are friendlier, the snow is mostly gone and the weather is somewhat more predictable and “safer.”

I use that term with a serious caveat, however. Just because the likelihood of getting caught in a wind-driven blizzard is far more remote than in the other three seasons, summer in the high country has its own risks.

Chief among those: lightning.

Storms build in the mountains during the late morning, often bringing afternoon storms to the peaks and, later on, the high plains to the east. So, as a general rule, we’re often told that when you get to the top of a high summit, you need to make your way down by noon.

But this rule gets trumped, just as it did on Sunday.

A storm hit Mount Bierstadt in Colorado during the late morning hours. Lightning hit the peak when there were about 100 people on it, injuring 15. Some were taken to a hospital. A dog who was accompanying a hiker was killed.

The incident took place about 11:30 a.m., well before that “noon deadline.” But that’s the thing: the weather doesn’t run on our time schedules.

So while it’s good to keep the noon rule in mind, you should also keep your eyes to the skies. Blue skies are safe. Wispy summer clouds are also relatively benign. An isolated white, puffy cloud is no big deal. But when the sky starts to fill up with white, puffy clouds, the weather bears closer scrutiny.

The sign that it’s time to get down quickly is when the bottoms of those fluffy clouds turn gray. At that point, those clouds are trying to become storms and can start throwing lightning at any time.

This is a serious and potentially deadly situation. Above timberline, you might be the highest object on a slope, ridge or summit, making you a potential human lightning rod. Lightning can travel for miles, along horizontal, vertical and diagonal planes. And it comes with almost no warning.

So to sum it up, here are some things to remember when hiking above timberline in the high country:

Start early. Dawn or predawn is best. Even if you’re in shape, it’s going to take you a lot longer to hike 3 to 5 miles at altitude than it would at lower elevations. Give yourself enough time to summit early so you don’t have to play “beat the clock” with the afternoon storms.

Check weather reports. Afternoon storms are almost a given, but be sure to check forecasts the night before and the morning of your hike or climb. Real-time data will give you a better look at what might be in store.

Watch the skies. Looks for signs that storms might begin forming. Small puffy clouds get bigger, and when they do, that’s a good time to reassess your plans.

Don’t be afraid to turn around. Summit fever kills. You might decide to take a chance, but there is a place where you reach a “point of no return” when it comes to getting below treeline before storms hit. Time spent getting to safety can be measured in hours if you’re in trouble on or close to a summit — a long time to be stuck in bad weather in such a vulnerable place. Remember that the mountain isn’t going anywhere, and you’ll likely be able to try it again another day. That won’t be the case if you get killed rolling the dice with the weather.

Respect all the mountains. Even the “easy” ones can be treacherous under the wrong conditions. Bierstadt is considered one of the easier 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, but there are scores of people who were on that mountain Sunday who can tell you how dangerous it can be when you’re up there at the wrong time. So whether you’re doing a short walk-up hike or a really demanding climb, treat each ascent with care.

— Bob Doucette

Updated: Nepal earthquake death toll tops 2,500; 17 killed on Everest

Rescuers treat the wounded and dig through the rubble in quake-stricken Kathmandu, Nepal. ( photo)

Rescuers treat the wounded and dig through the rubble in quake-stricken Kathmandu, Nepal. ( photo)

UPDATED: The Associated Press is now reporting the death toll in Nepal at more than 2,500 people, with more than a third of the casualties in Kathmandu. There are still people being dug out of collapsed ruins there and in other cities and towns across Nepal.

The New York Times is putting the death toll on Mount Everest at 17. Their deaths were caused by a substantial avalanche set loose down the Khumbu Icefall, sweeping into Base Camp and burying many people in their tents. Rescue efforts there are underway. Climbing teams are also trying to figure out how to get to people who are stranded above the icefall at Camp 1 and higher, as the route set through the icefall has been wiped out.

This video shows the scene from Base Camp as the avalanche struck:


For the second year in a row, natural disaster has struck Nepal, but this time in the worst way possible.

A massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the Himalayan country about noon local time, toppling buildings in Kathmandu and other cities and towns in the country while also triggering a slide on Mount Everest, where the spring climbing season is underway.

The Associated Press reports that nearly 1,200 people have been confirmed dead so far, but that the death toll is likely to rise much higher. Thousands may be injured, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, still missing. Many of the buildings in the Nepalese capital are not built to withstand powerful quakes, and this one definitely was — the strongest since an 8.2 hit Chile in 2014, and probably the deadliest since a huge quake rocked Japan in 2011.

It’s not yet known how badly damaged the smaller communities in rest of the country have fared, though the building construction problems are probably similar to what’s seen in Kathmandu.

Mount Everest. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Mount Everest. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

On the south side of Mount Everest, the climbing season was just getting underway when the earthquake struck. The AP is reporting that 10 people were killed at Base Camp after the quake triggered a slide; another five were killed in Tibet, according to the BBC. Outside Online is reporting that the route through the Khumbu Icefall has been smashed, and there is speculation that this may end the climbing season on the mountain. If so, it would be the second year in a row that a season was ended prematurely, as a deadly avalanche shut down the mountain’s south side last spring.

The AP says this quake is the deadliest to hit Nepal in 80 years. Deaths were also reported in India and Bangladesh, though not nearly as many.