Not quite ready for prime time: Stopped short on Colorado’s Mount Lindsey

Not a bad view, folks.

Humility is a good thing to have. It’s also a hard thing to receive. Receiving it, by definition, means being humbled. And that’s not a fun process.

I came into the summer doing what I usually do with the hopes of getting into the Rockies to see some new peaks. In the past, I’ve had various levels of conditioning – sometimes excellent, sometimes not so great. If I have a weakness, it’s that there are times when I try to see how little I can do and still get my butt up these things.

I took that a little too far this time. Sure, I lifted a bunch. I ran a little. I did other bits of “conditioning.” And then I drove myself to Colorado to climb Mount Lindsey, a peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range that has a fun route up its northwest ridge.

My hiking buddy for the day, Laura. Strong lungs and legs on this gal.

Some things that went right: I had another one of those meet-a-partner-at-the-trailhead moments. Laura is a Colorado gal who had roughly the same kind of experience as me, and as it turned out, she was a great partner. Knowledgeable about the high country, great conversationalist, and overall a pleasant person to be around. She was also remarkably patient. Girl’s got Colorado lungs, you see, and she could have dusted me at any time but didn’t.

We had a perfect weather day, too. No storms forecast until evening, warm temps, light breezes. Given the mileage (8.5 miles), the gain (3,500 feet) and the route difficulty (Class 3-4  on the crux wall), this was a mountain well within my wheelhouse. That is, if I was in shape.

Normally I can find a rhythm between 10,000-12,000 feet. It’s not a fast rhythm, but it eats mileage just the same. Once I get past 12,000 feet, I slow down considerably, but by then I can usually chew up the rest of a route in decent enough time.

Not so this time. The night before, I didn’t sleep. Not even a bit of dozing. I tossed and turned for seven hours at camp. Not exactly a good omen. Once we got going, I handled the easy portions of the trial just fine. But the route up Lindsey includes some steep sections in the trees, easier hiking in a basin below its summit ridge, and then steeper switchbacks going up to 13,000 feet.

I was struggling right off the bat, maybe like I never have before. Poor Laura was having to stop and wait on me every couple of minutes or so, even when we were below 11,000 feet. By the time we hit 13,000 feet, I was getting a little dizzy and was pretty much zapped. We struck up a conversation with a couple of dudes who’d come up behind us, and they were going to do the same route we planned. At that point, I suggested to Laura that she continue up with them and I’d call it a day. I’m sure I could have topped out, but I feared that I’d have nothing left for the downclimb, and that’s just not safe. This way, Laura could get her summit and I could take a slow walk down to contemplate my failure.

This is where I had to stop, below the crux wall at 13,200 feet. Behold the scene of failure.

I’ve been turned around before. Lindsey is the fourth mountain I’ve attempted and turned back short of the summit. But the other three times there were reasons that were either beyond my control (weather and route conditions) or something understandable (pooping out after having done three peaks the previous two days). In this case, the fault was entirely my own. I didn’t prepare myself for the task, and I got my butt whooped accordingly. I deserved what I got.

That’s not to say it was a total loss. The scenery was, again, drop-dead gorgeous. I met some cool people. I got a heck of a workout. But no summit. And that’s too bad. It’s rare that everything lines up so well for success, but you find yourself unable to seal the deal. This one’s going to stick in my craw for awhile.

Anyway, here are some pics of what is one of the more scenic mountain scenes I’ve laid eyes on. Maybe next summer I’ll come back, and have the fitness to get it done.

Blanca Peak showing off over this broad meadow.

Going up!

A bluebird day, folks. Shame I couldn’t make the most of it, but the scenery was grand.

Looking down at all the vert I ate. Heartburn ensued.

Rugged stuff. Lots of rugged stuff.

Looking down the west slope basin from 13,000 feet.

Blanca Peak (left) and Ellingwood Point.

A scenic creek close to the trailhead that included an interesting crossing.

Laura looks ahead toward the summit.

Until next time, folks.

Bob Doucette

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Oklahoma outdoors: Hiking in the Wichita Mountains, climbing Mount Mitchell

Jen and Luke hiking down the trail toward Mount Mitchell.

Any time I talk to people about the Wichita Mountains, I describe them as “my Oklahoma happy place.”

Growing up in Colorado, the mountains were always near, and in plain sight. Moving to the Southern Plains, that changed. But in the southwestern quarter of the state is an ancient mountain range of granite domes, spires and towers that give me the mountain fix I need.

A buddy of mine named Trent gave me my first real introduction to the Wichitas back in my 20s. Later, another friend of mine named Johnny took that to the next level. Johnny and I, and at times, his sister Ouida, tromped all over the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and its Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

I like to take people to these places, to pass down what was shown to me. Last year, it was my friend Brian, who has become so transfixed by outdoor adventure that he’s sold all of his stuff, outfitted a van and is roadtripping across the country full-time now. He plans to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail next year, and already has a bunch of big hikes under his belt. Brian and I spent a couple of days in the Wichitas in January in what was not just an introduction for him, but a badly needed homecoming for me.

This month I’ve made a conscious effort to hike more, and when company was available, bring ’em along. I put out the word that I wanted to go down there and revisit an old favorite of mine there, Mount Mitchell. The peak is in the southwest corner of the wildlife refuge and it one of the most rugged mountains in the entire range. It’s great practice for people wanting to graduate from hiking and into scrambles and climbs just short of where you might need ropes.

My brother-in-law and his wife signed up. I felt good about this for a couple of reasons. Jen is someone I’ve hiked with before. She did Mount LeConte with me a few years back and likes to climb. Luke, being a firefighter, is trained in rope rescue and is no stranger to high places. I like taking all kinds of people on these trips. But it is a relief knowing that the chances were good that these two would be able to handle to challenges Mount Mitchell offers.

Approaching Mount Mitchell.

The hike takes you about three miles from the Sunset Trailhead to the base of Mount Mitchell. It’s fairly easy hiking, going over a few hills and following a decent trail right up until we got to the junction that takes you to a rock formation called Crab Eyes (more on that place later). The trail fades a bit west of there, and eventually we were “off trail,” hiking through grassy meadows and an burned-out forest until we got to the mountain.

What I’ve told people about the Wichitas is that the area has something for everyone. If you’re looking for easy, short and scenic hikes, there are plenty. If you are jonesing for difficult roped climbs, there are dozens of them throughout the refuge. Mount Mitchell is in between, a peak that can be scaled without ropes, but is no hike, not even by its easiest route. There is plenty of Class 3 scrambles and Class 4 climbing throughout.

I figured I’d taken them up the same way I went last time I was here, up a gully on the mountain’s north face. It’s rugged, steep and filled with route-finding problems. The granite on the mountain is grippy — great for handholds and footholds, ideal for friction climbing, and tough on your hands unless you’re wearing some sort of glove. I learned a few years back that when doing scrambles like this, a pair of batting gloves can save you a lot of grief when the rock is cutting up your fingers and palms on every move.

Me starting up the mountain. Climbing butt-shot. (Jen Baines photo)

Jen and I going up the gully. (Luke Baines photo)

The upper part of the climb with the summit in sight.

The downside for the three of us was that it has been nine years since I’ve climbed Mitchell. I knew the basics of how to get to the top, but the specifics eluded me. So I did a lot of scouting to see if a particular line would go, only having to turn around and look for another way up. Mitchell’s north face is a complicated mix of boulders, cracks and slabs, and some obstacles aren’t visible until you’re right up on it.

That said, Luke and Jen provided plenty of feedback of their own, often helping us move forward, and eventually to the summit ridge.

One thing I was looking forward to was finding a fissure below the summit that leads to a fun 15-foot chimney climb. Had to do that one again for old-times’ sake.

Eventually we topped out, took a few pics on Mitchell’s tiny summit, then found a place protected from the winds to chow down on some lunch. Jen brought a book and read a few pages. We all checked out the views overlooking the wildest, most rugged part of the range, where Styx Canyon links Crab Eyes to Mitchell, and where Twin Rock Mountain and Granite Mountain guard Treasure Lake.

Jen takes in the views just below the summit while eating some lunch.

Luke and Jen noticed some grassy meadows below us on the south face and figured heading down there and following the east ridge to the bottom might be the easier path off the mountain rather than descending the way we came. Earlier I’d told them, “The good news is that we got the summit. The bad news is that we have to go down the way we came, and going down is always harder than going up.” With that in mind, we agreed the east ridge down was worth a shot.

Going down the south face/east ridge, looking toward the ruggedness of Twin Rock Mountain and Granite Mountain in the distance.

It turned out to be a good choice. I have memories descending the north face, and it had a couple of pucker-factor moments. Going down the south face/east ridge was considerably easier, though still Class 3 in some spots.

We did some more off-trail hiking around the mountain, then up a hill that gave us some great views of Sunset Peak’s south summit. We heard what sounded like a large animal give off a huff/grunt somewhere on the other side of the hill. I figured this might be our shot to finally see a buffalo (we hadn’t seen any all day), but no dice. Whatever it was stayed out of sight.

Hiking toward Crab Eyes, with Sunset peak in the background.

Our next stop was Crab Eyes. This is a popular hiking destination, and if you’re a seasoned climber, it has challenging routes that go all the way up to 5.10. You can also get to the spot just below the two “eyes” at the top of the formation’s tower, something that involves an awkward, and at times highly exposed scramble to the top. Jen was keen on doing it, so we got there and climbed around on this odd little peak for a while before a few others arrived to do the same. I’ve had Crab Eyes to myself a few times, but the last couple of trips have seen more visitors than in years past.

Crab Eyes.

Luke looks it over as we hike out.

Crab Eyes capped off a solid day of hiking and climbing under blue skies and mild temps. I love hiking in the Wichitas in the fall and winter, and I think my buddies felt the same way. And we finally saw an elusive buffalo on the drive out.

Me and Luke walking toward Mount Mitchell. (Jen Baines photo)

The trail through the woods on the way out.

My sad photo of a buffalo, taken from the car on the way home.

I can envision another trip coming soon.

Bob Doucette

Oklahoma hiking: The Mountain Trail, Robbers Cave State Park

Golden hour light on the Mountain Trail at Robbers Cave State Park, Okla.

Once my fall races ended in November, I did a major re-think about how I scheduled my time. It seemed I was devoting six days a week for training toward some sort of goal, be it a race or some arbitrary strength metric that usually meant I was sticking close to home every week so I wouldn’t miss a workout.

That meant that I was crowding out some of the thing I loved. It made weekend road trips nonexistent. Any hiking had to be within minutes from my house. It’s very limiting, and it showed: For all of 2018, I only went on two trips outside my city to go hike or climb something. Those were awesome trips, but too few in number. It’s hard to get your outdoor fix when you’re tethered to a schedule that’s tied to the places you run or lift.

So I resolved to do a couple of things. One was to keep Saturdays free. That way I could at least take a day trip somewhere new. The second was to make sure I was doing things that would help me get in “mountain shape.” There are only so many ways a flatlander can prepare for the rigors of altitude, but I can do things to help me get used to carrying a pack, hiking long miles and getting some vert. I know that sounds a lot like “training,” but I don’t see anything wrong with injecting some utility in the fun you’re having.

Gradual uphill near the trailhead.

Last weekend, I went to a place I’ve visited a couple of times before: Robbers Cave State Park in southeastern Oklahoma. The southeast quarter of the state is different than what most people might think. Oklahoma conjures images of sweeping plains and flat prairie, and that’s true for much of the state. But in the southeast, Oklahoma has a small mountain range with good-sized hills and ridges covered in hardwood and pine forests. Robbers Cave is the first place I ever tried rock climbing, and offers a nice introduction into the Ouachita Mountains that rise over sections of Oklahoma and western Arkansas.

One plus to this trip: Robbers Cave is only a couple of hours from my home. And once you get south of Interstate 40, the countryside is gorgeous. On the negative: I spent the previous night binge-watching “An Innocent Man” on Netflix (I recommend it). As in the whole series. So I went to bed very late and didn’t get out the door until late morning.

There are a ton of trails at Robbers Cave, so much so that there is going to be an ultramarathon held there next year, the Outlaw 100. Given the hilliness of the terrain, I’m going to say that this will be a challenging course. My goal was to hike the Mountain Trail, a 7-mile out-and-back that is one of the tougher trails in the park.

I got there two days after the state had received a good 36 hours of on-and-off again rain, so the trail was soggy in spots, especially down low. Just getting off the trailhead involved a stream crossing, one of several I’d make through the day.

The trail starts out as a long, gradual uphill before topping out, then descending to the shoreline of Lake Carlton. It’s an easy shoreline walk before the trail reached the base of a sizable cliff face that had a few running waterfalls. A steep climb led to somewhat exposed trail sections by a series of clifftops overlooking the lake before turning to a more gradual uphill section. A couple of miles in, the trail went on a quick, moderately steep downhill that led to a freely flowing creek at the bottom of a ravine.

Spillway at Lake Carlton.

Shoreline views. Mellow hiking here.

More rugged, steeper hiking near this outcrop.

Clifftop view over Lake Carlton.

I stopped there to eat and contemplated what to do next. My late start meant that hiking the entire trail was probably out of the question unless I wanted to hike in the dark. Ahead of me was a third uphill climb, and the biggest one of the hike. I had to call it a day there and turn back to the car. Maybe next time.

One of the great things about this hike was I had solitude for almost all of it. A group of kids wandered down to my lunch spot, but other than them, I saw no one. The forest is beautiful: Southeastern Oklahoma and northwest Arkansas have incredible woodlands of big hardwoods and tall lodgepole pines. I loved the look of it, especially as the sun began to sink and pierce the woods with golden light and long shadows.

On the downside, the trail is never far from the lake, and the noise of campers hanging out there. You can also hear highway traffic that’s close by. So while the trail has a wild feel, it’s definitely not a wilderness experience.

Look at how green that is!

But if you can get past that, it’s a place with big views and a lot of natural beauty. Add to that the availability of rock climbing, rappelling and trout fishing elsewhere in the park and you have a place with a ton of outdoor recreation options. Camp sites run start at $14 a night for tent camping.

One last note about the trail: I was surprised with the amount of elevation changes on the route. I mean, we’re talking about a Southern Plains state, so huge vert is never going to happen. But if you do the entire Mountain Trail, you’ll get more than 1,200 feet of vert for your trouble. That’s good training for people wanting to hike in mountain terrain. The trail is extremely well-marked with blue blazes, decently maintained and straightforward to follow. It’s mostly class 1 hiking, with some rugged class 2 sections near the clifftops. Unless it’s been dry, expect at least five mellow creek crossings on the hike.

It’s a beautiful trail, and it’s well marked.

After doing some hikes on my local trails in Tulsa, it was cool to see something new and more challenging on this outing. And plans are already in place to do more. Stay tuned, because some awesome destinations may be on tap.

Bob Doucette

Colorado hiking: A solo hike to Chicago Lakes

Let’s go hike. (Jordan Doucette photo)

NOTE: This is a guest post from Jordan Doucette, an NBC Universal broadcast professional, hiker and two-time Spartan Race finisher. He’s also my nephew, and a man who has done five of Colorado’s 14ers with me. Find him on Instagram @jordandoucette and Twitter @JordanDoucette9.

Life sure has a funny way of humbling you. Ultimately, when I take a step back, I realize what an awesome day I had at Chicago Lakes Trail up near Mount Evans. But I learned a few interesting lessons along the way. Here’s a look at my day.

A change from the morning shift to the overnight shift at work scored me a much-needed four-day weekend. About three weeks ago, I found out that I’d be getting promoted. Much like my last promotion, this one came with a condition. I’d be moved, for the fourth time, back to the overnight shift. Mind you, this change is only temporary; I’ll be back in the sunlight in the land of the living in just a few short weeks. But this change doesn’t come without some struggles. Human bodies are not designed for the overnight lifestyle. So, I started to look for a hike. One last journey under the sun before I’m condemned to the graveyards. I needed something close to home, and something I could knock out in about 6 hours or less. Some internet sleuthing led me to Chicago Lakes Trail.

The trailhead is located just west of the Echo Lake Campground off Mount Evans road in Idaho Springs. Located near this campground are several trailheads. And so we begin the “lessons learned” portion of this blog. Lesson #1: Know where your trailhead is! Just east of Echo Lake Campground is a detailed look at the several trails located in that area. Unfortunately, the trail I started down lead east. A tracking app on my phone came in handy, as just over a quarter-mile in, I noticed I was going the wrong way. The signage for Chicago Lake Trailhead is located west, across CO-5, from the parking that’s available by the campground. I had parked at around 7:45 a.m., but didn’t find my trailhead until just before 8:30. Nonetheless, I found my way, and gleefully wandered down the trail. Let the fun begin.

The trail starts with a meander through some thick pines, followed by a fork in the road. To the west, a look at Echo Lake along “Echo Lake Trail”. To the south, the continued path towards Chicago Lake. I walked the couple-hundred feet to the fence surrounding Echo Lake, got my look, and headed back south on my trail. I must tell you, I was feeling particularly chipper on this beautiful August morning, despite the rush hour traffic on my way to the trail. I noticed an extra pep in my step as I made my way up the trail. In fact, that brings me to Lesson #2: Pace yourself! I would pay for my early-trail hustle on the hike back a few hours later. The first WOW moment of this trail comes about a mile in. A steep drop to the hiker’s right, I’d call it mild exposure given the amount of room to work with on the left, is completely overshadowed by…. This.

Alpine scenery opening up nicely. (Jordan Doucette photo)

Now, if you’ve ever hiked with me, you know I love big moments on the trail. Those moments when you recognize just how small you are in God’s massive creation. This was one of those moments for me. I noticed a lot of downhill terrain in the first mile or so. In fact, that’s when I started to realize I might have been pushing myself a bit too much in the early going. A flurry of “Private Property” signs and a wide road led me to my next WOW moment. About two miles in, enter Idaho Springs Reservoir. The water, while not perfectly clear, gleams in the sunlight. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There’s something about water at elevation. There’s something pure about it. Not to mention, the Front Range provides one heck of a breathtaking backdrop.

Alpine lake goodness. And this was just the first taste. (Jordan Doucette photo)

The area just south of the reservoir features a couple of small cabins and, of course, The Labyrinth. An opportunity for hikers to clear their minds, and um, walk some more. I can’t lie, I found the Labyrinth incredibly charming, and a fun milestone on the way to the day’s final destination.

Reading the rules or something. (Jordan Doucette photo)

The Labyrinth. (Jordan Doucette photo)

About 2.5 miles in, I found a stop with waiver to sign as an acknowledgment of a few rules to be applied throughout the rest of the trail. Pretty simple stuff, dogs on 6-foot leashes, no groups bigger than 15, no fire, etc. It was at this point that the treachery began. About a mile straight of nothing but relatively steep, uphill climbs towards… the next steep, uphill climb. Still, the lust of seductive Chicago Lake drove me forward. Surrounded by trees, I looked forward, rushed towards an opening, and there she was. Chicago Lake. And yet again… WOW!

Yeah, this view does not suck. (Jordan Doucette photo)

Instantly, I was reenergized. A rocky journey downhill led me toward the base of the lake. Then, an interesting twist. A climb back uphill, towards a set of massive rocks overlooking the lake. At this point, I debated sitting atop one of the larger boulders, eating my lunch, and heading back towards the Jeep. But something told me to keep going. Just as I hit the top of yet another hill, a second, smaller lake came into view. I lifted my hands in the air, smiling and let out a brief, “Woo!” Both lakes have a unique green tint to them. Not like a, “These lakes are polluted,” kind of look. More like a glowing emerald glistening in the sun. Simply put, I was in awe. Backdrops of Mount Evans and Mount Goliath loom large. Finally, I could eat my lunch. The Bob Doucette special, a couple of tortillas with deli meat and cheese. I sat on a rock overlooking the larger lake. I stumbled into a couple that was visiting from Germany, one of about 15 or so couples I saw on the train that morning. They started at Summit Lake and make the journey down to Chicago Lakes. It was their first day in Colorado, and they were blown away.

A lake plus some high mountains equals one impressive alpine amphitheater. (Jordan Doucette photo)

The journey back left my knees trembling, as I continued to learn not to push myself too hard in the early going. The trip back to Echo Lake Campground is just as grueling as the trip to Chicago Lakes. The winding and hilly nature of the trail kept me challenged throughout. A second look at the Idaho Springs Reservoir made the 4-plus mile jaunt back well worth the time. Finally, I arrived back at the Jeep at around 1:45, making my total trip time just a little over 5 hours.

Final Verdict: HIT THIS TRAIL! The nine-mile path makes for a pretty long day, but the WOW moments make every step worth the suffer.

Jordan Doucette

South Colony Lakes, Humboldt Peak and a bunch of Colorado 13ers

Dawn on the hike up to South Colony Lakes.

One thing I’ve learned about the mountains is that you must be prepared to change your plans.

Weather is often the main factor. I’ve been chased off a few peaks because of approaching storms. It’s not a hard decision to turn around when the weather is threatening.

Other times, it’s something else. Maybe you’re not feeling it that day. That happened to me last summer in La Plata Peak. Or maybe it’s something as basic as you’re running out of food, low on water, or there’s a gear failure.

But a change in plans doesn’t have to be something that points to failure. There are those days when you have options, and given your desire, energy level or something else, you chose Plan B over Plan A and it works out OK. That’s sort of how it went for me the last time I was in the Sangre de Cristo Range.

Most of the things I listed above were factors in how things played out, but at the end of the day, there was satisfaction earned on a high summit on what turned out to be a fine day in the hills.

THE PLAN

Going back a couple of months, me and my friend Bill had been doing some planning on what would make for a decent mountain adventure. Bill is on his second lap of Colorado’s 14ers, and he’s also trying to knock out the Centennials – the 100 highest mountains in the state.

We originally looked at doing Mount Wilson and Wilson Peak in the San Juan Mountains. I love the San Juans, and these peaks intrigued me. But deep drought and wildfires scuttled that plan. Instead, he came up with a wild plan to climb Kit Carson Peak’s north ridge, then tag Columbia Point and Challenger Point as a bonus. Some stout climbers were recruited for this one. It looked to be one heck of a weekend in the Sangres.

But weather forecasts scared most folks away. So that idea vanished.

One of the guys Bill talked to, a funny and seasoned climber named Mike, circled back, however, and a third plan was hatched: Hike up to South Colony Lakes, then tag the high 13ers at Obstruction Peak, Columbia Point, and another high point on Kit Carson Mountain dubbed “Kitty Kat.” (Kit Carson Mountain being a large massif that includes Kit Carson Peak, Columbia Point, “Kitty Kat” and other high points)

So I signed on for that.

I’d been to South Colony Lakes before on an ill-fated attempt at Crestone Peak and Humboldt Peak. The area is easily one of the most stunning places I’d ever seen. I’m not fixated on 14ers – 13ers are good, too. A return trip here seemed great to me.

OFF WE GO

The drive to Westcliffe took a detour in Florence, one of the more famous prison towns in the country. The federal supermax lockup is there, housing the likes of Djokar Tsarnaev, Terry Nichols and Ted Kaczynski. Real swell guys. But there’s also Florence Brewing, a microbrew with a taproom and some pretty good offerings. We caught it on a good night: The place was packed, a barbecue cook was serving up pulled pork sandwiches, and a trivia match was going on. The three of us obnoxiously bullied our way to a second-place finish, but I made sure everyone knew we were “CHAMPIONS” over and over again. Why not? These folks would never see us again and some fun was needed. Our weakness was guessing the country artists. Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and a bunch of other auto-tuned country crooners all sounded the same to us. Whatever. We took our hard-earned mini-mugs and headed to Westcliffe.

We opted to forgo backpacking and camping in South Colony Lakes. We took a few hours of sleep at a motel and went for an alpine start. The good: We got to sleep in a bed. The bad: We’d be getting up super early (3:15 a.m.) and adding some mileage to the day.

Loading up in Bill’s Jeep, we took off. I hijacked the stereo and gave them a taste of early morning metal, hip-hop and punk. Bill and Mike weren’t amused. But I was, so that made it worth it.

Going up the dirt road leading to the lakes, you have a couple of options. If your vehicle is not four-wheel drive with good clearance, you’ll be banished to the two-wheel drive trailhead. That adds a bunch of miles to your hike. With the right rig, you can crawl your way up to the four-wheel drive trailhead. To get any of the peaks, you’re still in for a hefty day, somewhere between 10 to 14 miles round-trip, depending on where you go.

The guys hiking up the trail with Crestone Needle in the background.

We saw a few people trudging up the rougher part of the road and picked one of them up, an Evergreen resident named Roger. He was going for Humboldt Peak that day. He was a pretty cool dude who’d bagged a good number of peaks in his day.

And that got us all thinking. I’d missed my chance at Humboldt two years earlier. And being a flatlander, I was concerned I’d be slowing Bill and Mike down. As we got out of the car and started up the trail, we all concluded it would be a good idea for me to tag Humboldt with Roger while Bill and Mike chased 13er summits past Bear’s Playground.

This turned out to be a really good decision.

GETTING UP THERE

Lower South Colony Lake, Broken Hand Peak, and Music Mountain in the background.

I found the initial part of the hike OK. We were in the dark, hiking by headlamp, seeing the dawn break just as we got into the basin where South Colony Lakes are located. Dawn here is nothing short of spectacular. Jerry Roach’s Fourteener guidebook is adorned with a sunrise alpenglow shot of Crestone Needle, and seeing it in person for the second time is no less spectacular than what’s seen on the book.

Bill, Mike and Roger kept a good pace, and one that was fine by me until we got to the headwall leading up to the saddle at the base of Humboldt’s ridge. It seems 12,000 feet is my red line, the place where things start to get tough. Blame my flatlander lungs for that. I stopped to eat a little, grab a sip and trudged up the switchbacks to the saddle. By then, Mike and Bill had taken their left turn toward Bear’s Playground and the 13er fest they planned to hold. Roger and I started making our way up the ridge.

If the headwall was my reality check, the ridge was a slap in the face. It was tough sledding for me, and the route was different than what I thought it would be. My understanding was some extensive trail work had been done here, and indeed, I saw evidence of that. Fine work has been done here. But there were plenty of sections where I was boulder-hopping and scrambling, looking up at various, well-placed cairns to keep me going the right direction. I’m usually a little wary of cairns, mostly because some people make a sport of rock-stacking in miscellaneous places that have nothing to do with the route. Thankfully that was not the case on Humboldt.

At the saddle, looking at an unnamed 13,000-foot point.

The ridge is somewhat steep. And the jumbled nature of some sections of the route made it tedious. Then again, all I had to do was stop, take a rest, and look behind me. Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle were there for the viewing, and they are downright jaw-dropping. From time to time, I’d hear climbers on the Needle’s Ellingwood Arete: “On belay!” “Belay on!” That climb is above my pay grade, but it’s cool to see people doing it.

Weather-wise, I couldn’t have asked for a better day. All we had were a few high clouds and a lot of blue sky. It was also curiously warm. Some people were dressed in long-sleeve tech shirts, soft shells or even puffy jackets. Me? Short sleeves all the way. I’d be burning up with anything more on me.

Roger was one patient dude. I told him he could dust me any time he wanted to, and I’m sure he could have. But he stopped to check on me every few minutes, seemingly coaxing me up the mountain. It seemed to take forever to get past Humboldt’s false summit, but once there, it was an easy walk across the remainder of the ridge and one last scramble to the top.

Colony Baldy Mountain, as seen from Humboldt Peak’s west ridge.

Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak, as seen from the side of Humboldt’s false summit.

The final, easy walk to Humboldt’s summit.

I blew a lot of energy getting there. It reminded me of last year’s failure on La Plata Peak, only this time, I was on fresher legs. Good thing, too. Otherwise, I might have pooped out here, too. But it was nice to finally get a Sangre 14er summit after being denied twice two years ago.

Summit view, looking south at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Roger noticed he was about out of water, so I offered him some of mine. He declined, saying instead he’d hustle down the ridge and filter some at the lakes below. And hustle he did. Once he got to the steep part below the false summit, I never saw him again (we did get a note left on Bill’s Jeep saying when he got there, and a thank-you for the company).

As for me, well, getting down the ridge proved as tedious as it was going up.

One of the key things about hiking and climbing mountains is to make sure you don’t blow yourself out getting to the summit. Sure, part of mountain climbing is dealing with fatigue and pushing through it. But if your legs are gone and you’re out of steam when bad weather rolls in, having some gas in the tank is critical. Admittedly, I was on dead legs on the way down. Fortunately, the weather held up nicely. I picked my way down the ridge, then down the headwall and finally to the trail (which went on forever) and the road (which also went on forever) until I saw the blessed bridge that signified the end of the hike.

Mighty Crestone Needle, as seen on the hike down.

Easier trail hiking below treeline.

Despite a really dry winter and spring, there were plenty of opportunities for wildflower peeping.

Even though it was a slog, it wasn’t without its charms. Clouds cast shadows into the valley, which played games on the flanks of the Crestones. Whenever I grew weary of the walk, I stopped to take a look around and marveled. Few places in the Rockies are as dramatic as the skyline of the Crestones and the surrounding, lower peaks of South Colony Lakes. I’d come back here in a heartbeat.

Given my slow progress down the mountain, I half expected Mike and Bill to be waiting on me at the Jeep. Nope. They were still up there, somewhere.

SO WHAT ABOUT THOSE GUYS?

I’d love to give you a detailed description of the peaks and ridges Bill and Mike scaled. But I wasn’t there. What I can tell you, however, is this: The views of the Crestones from Bear’s Playground are ridiculous. The distance they hiked was somewhere around 14 miles. And the total vert was well over a mile.

And yes, they tagged all their target summits. It’s exactly the type of performance you’d expect from guys who’ve finished the 14ers, and also have summits like Rainier, Hood and Pico de Orizaba under their belts. While the plebes like me are tagging walk-ups and popular Class 3 14ers, they’re busy chasing more obscure, less traveled 13ers and making good work out of ambitious projects.

I can’t tell you much more about it, but I can show you because they gave me permission to swipe some of their photos. Have a look.

Bill and Mike on their 13er rampage. (Bill Wood photo)

Looking south toward the Crestones and Humboldt Peak. (Bill Wood photo)

Bear’s Playground view of the Crestones. (Mike Zee photo)

Way above treeline here. This part of the hike was mostly over 13,000 feet for Bill and Mike, with lots of gain and loss. (Mike Zee photo)

Lots of ridge hiking, with Humboldt Peak in the background. (Mike Zee photo)

BACK TO FLORENCE

About 45 minutes after I stumbled back to the trailhead, so did Mike and Bill. We were all worked over pretty good, but decided a return trip to Florence Brewing was needed.

When we arrived, no barbecue guy or trivia night crowd was there. It was a quieter place until we got there. The bartender was good, patient company as we peppered her with questions about the federal supermax prison and any other general nonsense we were blathering about. I guess that’s her job, but I tipped her well nonetheless. We drank brews and ate cheap fast-food burgers that tasted like Michelin-starred cuisine at that moment.

Such is the way of these mountain trips. You get pumped up by a plan. You dread the alpine start alarm clock. You hike in the dark, see a brilliant sunrise and embrace the slog. You feel like quitting, because it’s easier to lounge by the pool than climb a mountain. You revel in the summit views, grind away at the downclimb and spend yourself utterly on a peak’s slopes. You throw down vast quantities of food, get a beer buzz and strike up lengthy, boisterous conversations with people you don’t know and may never see again. You might even make a new friend on the trail.

And then new plans get made.

The Crestones. Couldn’t stop taking pics of them.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the four-wheel-drive trailhead, hike up the road past the gate and over a foot bridge until you reach a trail junction turnoff to your right. Follow easy trail hiking through the woods and past some campsites. You’ll be hiking the trail east of and above South Colony Lakes. From here, you’ll begin hiking up long switchbacks on a headwall leading to a saddle that goes right to Humboldt’s west ridge, or left toward Bear’s Playground. The trail steepens as you gain the ridge, and as you ascend, you’ll end up doing some rock-hopping and light scrambling. The route is well-cairned, and the cairns seem to be accurate. At times, the trail will disappear into jumbled rocks, then reappear when the terrain eases. It will take you up to Humboldt’s false summit, but once you reach that, the ascent is almost done. Past the false summit, the steepness eases with only a few hundred yards of easy hiking left to the summit. Class 2, 11 miles round trip with 4,200 feet of elevation gain. NOTE: If your car/truck does not have four-wheel drive and good clearance, you’ll need to park at the two-wheel drive trailhead. This will add 5.4 miles and another 1,100 feet of elevation gain to your route.

EXTRA CREDIT: There are tons of options. From the Humboldt saddle, go north and explore Bear’s Playground. Spend more time camping in South Colony Lakes and climb Crestone Peak (class 3) or Crestone Needle (class 4). Experienced climbers might also look to climb both peaks and traverse the ridge between them. This is one of Colorado’s four Grand Traverses of the 14ers, and includes high exposure and a class 5 section. Also nearby are Class 3 routes up Broken Hand Peak and Music Mountain. Like I said, tons of options.

Bob Doucette

Video: Take a visual tour of the Wichita Mountains

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve written about a recent trip to the Wichita Mountains in southwestern Oklahoma. It’s a unique landscape of ancient mountains, wide valleys and amazing wildlife.

It’s one thing to see pictures and read words, but another to see it in video. My partner in this adventure, Brian, put together a good compilation of the things we saw and did. It’s about 13 minutes, and it’s definitely worth your time. Have a look:

If you missed it, you can read my two-part series on our Wichita Mountains trip here and here.

Bob Doucette

Return to the Wichitas, Part 2: Hiking Sunset Peak and Crab Eyes in Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains

Brian heading into the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

It usually takes a me couple of days to get used to sleeping on the ground. Fancy mattresses and memory foam have made us weak. Comfy, but weak.

The growing chill of the night and the empty bottles of beer that Brian and I had finished off signaled that it was time to hit the rack. Frankly, I looked forward to crawling into my sleeping bag. It had to be warmer than sitting outside in the cool chill of the wind. But sleep doesn’t come easy. Not at camp, and certainly not with a thin pad between me and the ground. Then again, I knew this. It would be 20 minutes of dozing here, an hour there and so on for several hours, interrupted by the need to roll over to another side, shake off the chill or go outside to take a piss.

What I didn’t expect were the wake-up calls from our neighbors. And by “neighbors,” I mean the furry, four-footed kinds.

Somewhere near the lake, a chorus of howling and yipping pierced the still of the night. A regular coyote party, loud, constant and maybe even a tad aggressive. Those suckers wanted to be heard. And then, as if something caught their attention, it would cease. Not tail off from weariness, but end abruptly. It was weird. The little buggers would repeat this act a couple more times during the night. It wasn’t scary, but it was loud. It’s almost as if they knew they’d be waking us up.

On another occasion, I heard something more sinister. Some rustling, then loud, high-pitched animalistic noises of protest and pain, and finally silence. It wasn’t hard to solve that mystery. One fuzzy creature became another fuzzy creature’s dinner. It’s a hell of a thing to listen to something die.

That happened twice, further disrupting my sleep. The circle of life, on display in the Wichita Mountains: an annoying wakeup call to be sure, but at least I wasn’t someone’s midnight snack.

DAYBREAK

Sunrise from camp. Oklahoma does sunrises right.

Being a night shift worker, I rarely see a sunrise. That’s the beauty of camping, though. When it gets dark, you turn in. When it gets light, you get up. More like it should be outside the artificial construct of things like work, civilization and whatnot.

Dawn broke and I willed myself out of my sleeping bag to get the day going. We had a big day planned, so there was no sense dragging out any more minutes in the bag and on the cold, hard ground.

I was greeted by a cheery sunrise over the lake where we camped. High clouds blown in the from the south added texture to the fiery colors of the rising sun, with the orange, red and pink hues of dawn reflecting off the water. Oklahoma sunrises and sunsets are vastly underrated.

We munched breakfast, gathered our gear and talked about what the day might be like. Seven years of being away from the Wichitas left me wondering if I’d remember how to get to some of the spots I hoped to see. The trails in the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area tended to be faint and sparsely marked, and I’ve been known to get lost a time or two.

No matter. We’d figure it out. We got in the truck and headed back to the Sunset trailhead and made our way west.

I told a few stories along the way. As we were hiking through a patch of thickets and blackjack oak, I showed him where I had a close call with a buffalo nearly eight years earlier. Although I wasn’t keen on repeating that experience, I was hoping that we’d see some bison.

Shortly after leaving the woods, we ran up on a trio of hikers coming the other way. A man and his wife, plus another fella were making their way toward us. The second guy, as it turned out, was the other man’s father. His age: 86.

I know plenty of people 10, 20 and even 30 years younger than this guy who’ve long resigned themselves to steering clear of anything remotely close to wilderness exploration. And here he was, pounding dirt on a brisk Saturday morning. Call me impressed.

Eventually we made our way far enough where I could show him where Crab Eyes was, but that side trip would have to wait. The first destination, Sunset Peak, had to come first. We kept hiking west.

Mount Mitchell.

Somehow, I got us on the wrong side of a ridge that was taking us away from Sunset Peak and toward another mountain, Mount Mitchell. I figured this would lengthen our approach (Bad guide! Bad!), but it also showed me a more direct route to Mount Mitchell than the one I’d taken nine years before with my friend Johnny and his sister Ouida. On that trip, we hiked to Crab Eyes, then pointed ourselves toward Mount Mitchell by way of Styx Canyon. The canyon is probably the most rugged patch of “hiking” in Charon’s Garden. There’s no trail, but there is about an hour’s worth of heinous bushwhacking and route-finding before you’re clear of the thickets, thorns and boulders that litter the canyon floor. That’s not exactly what I’d call fun, so finding a smoother, clearer game trail that went straight to Mount Mitchell’s base was a pleasant discovery.

Around the time we were making out way around the ridge and toward Sunset Peak, we had our first megafauna sighting: First, it was one female elk. Then another. And then, more. At least seven of them warily eyed us from the crest of the ridge, then loped away and out of sight. No buffalo yet, but seeing elk in Oklahoma is rather rare unless you’re in the Wichitas.

By now, Sunset Peak’s south summit was in view. It stands out, towering above a high meadow that rests atop a short headwall. The last time I was here, that meadow sported a herd of a couple dozen bison. So I half expected to see them again once we topped the headwall.

But the meadow was empty. It was just us, the wind, and stubborn cloud cover that was keeping the temperatures down. While it would have been fun to see buffalo, at least we didn’t have to worry about navigating around these at-time temperamental beasts. Before long, we at the base of the peak.

SUNSET PEAK

Sunset Peak’s south summit.

Nearly seven years ago, my friend Johnny and I topped out on this mountain. It was tamer than Mount Mitchell, but there were still a few challenges getting up to the top. I remember some fantastic views and a little bit of effort, but I figured this mountain to be solidly Class 2 without any need for Class 3 scrambling unless you wanted it.

What we got was something else altogether.

There’s no trail up the south summit. It’s all about zig-zagging your way up the face, and route-finding is a constant.

My memory must have dimmed a bit on this one. I didn’t recall the thick, intermittent bushwhacking. And I certainly don’t recall as many Class 3 scrambles as we got. Brian readjusted his pack and stowed his trekking poles to handle the climb more easily.

Halfway up Sunset Peak.

Brian tackles a scramble going up Sunset Peak.

We did spot one cairn, so I went over to it hoping it would lead to a more obvious route up. No dice. It was a worthless rock stack, and I should have kicked it over. That took me back to more scrambles up the face before we eventually climbed our way to the big blocks atop the south summit.

One memory did hold, and that was the views. They’re spectacular. Shorter peaks and rock formations littered the surroundings. Farther north, Sunset Peak’s north summit (and true high point) awaited. The big sentinels of the Wichitas loomed in the distance, and for miles to the west, the fringes of the range could be seen rising from the prairie floor from as far away as Altus.

View from the top of Sunset Peak’s south summit.

What I like about these mountains is that they offer something most peaks east of the Rockies don’t: unobstructed summit views. When you’re in the Appalachians, most summits are covered with trees. It’s not until you get to New England that you hit mountains with treelines. The same is true in the Ozarks, the Ouachitas and most other mountain ranges east of the Rockies. You’ll get occasional outcroppings with panoramic vistas, but the Wichitas give you that alpine-style, 360-degree view without all the hassles of high altitudes. It’s hard to describe, other than maybe the Wichitas resemble what Joshua Tree might look like if you plopped it down on the Southern Plains.

We took a snack break in a natural wind break. Forecasts called for 60-degree temperatures, but even at 10 a.m., it was just 40 degrees and incredibly windy atop the peak. Soon we headed away from our shelter and down the saddle toward Sunset’s north summit.

Traversing the saddle proved a lot easier than climbing the south summit, and the north summit was an easy hike to the top. No bushwhacking, no scrambles. The north summit might be Sunset’s high point, but it’s considerably milder than its southern neighbor. Sadly, I forgot to take any pics from here. You’ll have to trust me that we got there.

From the east, you can see Sunset Peak’s gentler north (true) summit to the right.

Another view of the Sunset Peak massif. Both the north and south summits are visible.

From there, we stayed on the eastern slopes of the mountain and angled our way down south toward a ridge that stood between us and Crab Eyes. I wanted to avoid the ravine – just more boulder-filled heinous bushwhacking that didn’t look like a lot of fun. As we left the mountain and hiked up the rise, we saw the elk herd again, and just like last time, they eyed us for a few moments and hurried off. Within a half hour, we were back at the junction of the trail we took to Mount Mitchell and the southern trail that led to Crab Eyes, our final destination of the day.

CRAB EYES

A good look at Crab Eyes. This is an older photo from another visit to the formation.

We also talked with a young couple that was camping there: they were among the lucky few that got a backcountry permit. They were relaxed, munching on pizzas they made at their campsite. Cold pizzas, of course: Campfires are forbidden in the wilderness area.

The hike to Crab Eyes is a fun one. You meander through skinny trails that hug rock walls leading to the formation’s base, and then you see it towering above you: enormous granite slabs holding two massive boulders at the top. It looks like a huge, stony hermit crab staring down at you, hence the name.

A view of Elk Mountain, from the base of Crab Eyes.

Every time I’ve come here, I’ve had the place to myself. But this time we had company. I spotted three people at the base, with one person shimmying between two rock slabs. I recognized the move, as the route he was climbing was the “easy” way to the top. It goes something like this:

First, you wedge yourself between two roughly horizontal but slightly angled slabs and crawl your way up. Free of that obstacle, you can do one of two things: Crab-walk up two slabs (hands on one slab, feet on the other) or, for the more daring and dexterous, tightrope-walk up one of the slabs and never mind that 50-foot drop to your left. I’d call it a solid Class 4 route with a no-fall zone to the climber’s left.

As it turned out, they were making this climb to set up an anchor to do a technical climb up Crab Eyes’ east face. This is no small trick.

Though it’s a single-pitch climb, it’s notoriously tough. It’s a crack climb on really grippy granite, but it’s also slightly overhanging in spots. It’s rated a 5.10+, and according to this crew, a tough 5.10 at that.

A climber tackles a technical route on the east face of Crab Eyes. It’s rated a 5.10.

Belaying the climber on Crab Eyes.

I munched a little more and watched one of them negotiate the climb. He handled it expertly, but even after being lowered down, he admitted, “It’s harder than I remembered it.”

His friend piped in, “Just typical climbing in the Wichitas!”

Brian struck up a conversation with a third member of that party. She was considering hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and given Brian’s interest in through-hiking that Appalachian Trail, talk of gear and logistics came easy. As for me, I munched on my trail fave: summer sausage, cheese and a tortilla.

Tortilla, summer sausage and cheddar. This may be one of the best food combinations ever created.

We headed back not long after, reliving the complications of Sunset Peak and the beauty of the range. Too few people in Oklahoma know of this place, the most rugged patch of rock in the state. Considering the scarcity of public lands and real wilderness, it’s a little surprising to me.

At the same time, it is exactly as I remembered it. Wild, untamed and severe. It was a reminder of what America does right, in that we have long taken seriously the idea of preserving wild places such as this.

I can only hope that sentiment endures. The Wichitas are my Oklahoma happy place, a destination where I can climb rocky crags, enjoy sweeping summit views and tread the same paths of creatures that have called these environs home for longer than people have lived here. I hope it is always so.

Okie mountains rock.

Getting there: Take Interstate 44 to the State Highway 49 exit and go west. The highway will take you to the refuge.

About the route, Sunset Peak: From the Sunset trailhead, take the trail that starts at the gate of the west side of the parking lot. You’ll hike through a wooded grove until you reach a sign pointing left toward the Charon’s Garden Trail. Go right instead, continuing roughly west. You will cross two dry creek beds, then hike up a rise that gives you a view of the western portions of Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

In less than half a mile, you will run into a junction in the trail. One spur goes south toward Crab Eyes, the other turns into a game trail going west. Keep going west. You will hike toward Mount Mitchell, then turn north at the end of a rocky ridge to your right. Getting around the ridge, you will see Sunset Peak’s south summit. Hike up the headwall and cross the meadow to the peak’s base. From here, you’ll likely zigzag your way up the face. Route finding will be essential. About half this effort will be steep hiking, with some short but numerous scrambles on mostly solid rock. Continue until you get under the summit blocks, then traverse to your right to gain the top.

Once you’ve reached the south summit, hike down the saddle between the south and north summits. You should be able to find easier hiking with a little boulder hopping by staying toward the left side of the saddle. At the bottom, start going up toward the north summit on easy hiking to the top. A small bit of boulder hopping near the top will help you gain Sunset Peak’s true summit.

Round-trip hiking is about 6 miles. The route up Sunset’s south summit is difficult Class 2 to Class 3. The rest of the hike is a Class 1 approach, with class 2 sections on some portions of the mountain’s north summit.

Always something to see.

Crab Eyes: Follow the trail out of the Sunset trailhead parking lot like you would going to Sunset Peak. At the trail junction mentioned above, go left (south) and follow the established trail up toward the formation. The trail will eventually take you to a small headwall at the base of Crab Eyes. Hike left of the headwall, then up and to the right to the base of Crab Eyes. A Class 4 route to the top is the easiest way up if you choose to do it. On the north side of the base, hike up to an upwardly slanted pair of horizontal slabs. To ascend, wedge yourself between the slabs and shimmy your way up about 20 feet. From there, you will see two parallel vertical slabs about three feet apart that make up the main tower of the formation. You can crab walk up (hands on one slab, feet on the other) or tightrope walk up the left slab to the top. This is a very exposed part of the climb, as a 50-foot+ vertical drop is on your immediate left. The climb takes you to the top of the formation where the “eyes” (two large boulders) rest. Don’t bother climbing the boulders.

Otherwise, there are Class 5 routes up both the east and west faces. Bolts are in place on the west face.

The hike to Crab Eyes is Class 1, with Class 2 portions at the end, and is 3.6 miles round trip.

Things to know: The Wichita Mountains are home to abundant wildlife as well as a managed herd of longhorn cattle. Of particular note are bison. Give bison and the longhorn cattle plenty of room, as they can be dangerous when spooked or angered. The range is also home to rattlesnakes, so be on the lookout for them during warmer months. The range is also dry. All creeks and waterfalls are seasonal, so opportunities for filtering are relatively few. Bring plenty of water, regardless of season.

Dawn breaks at the Doris Campgrounds.

Camping: For tent or car camping, the Doris Campground features 90 spots. Some are semi-primitive, others have RV hookups. The east edge of the campground is by the western shore of Quanah Parker Lake. Campsite costs are $10 a night for tent camping. Prices go up for sites with electrical hookups. Restrooms and showers are on site.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also offers limited backcountry camping permits in Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area. Inquire for reservations; all permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis. No campfires are allowed in the backcountry.

For more, go here.

Read Part 1 of “Return to the Wichitas” here.

Bob Doucette