Mountain Reads, part 1: ‘Halfway to Heaven’

Humor, history and mountain adventure collide with this one.

I go on reading spurts and droughts, and after a lengthy drought, I figured it was time to read something other than someone’s link on Facebook. So I bought a bunch of books that looked interesting to me – some of them older, some of them newer – and plopped my butt down for a read, this time with my nose in a book and not pointed down toward a glowing screen.

With that in mind, I’m going to do an occasional series called Mountain Reads. The books involved will be some good ones I’ve picked up recently and over the years, stuff from authors whose writings will fill you up with mountain stoke for the spring and summer.

First up is a 2010 title from author Mark Obmascik called “Halfway to Heaven: My White-knuckled – and Knuckleheaded – Quest for the Rocky Mountain High.”

This is an autobiographical account about how the longtime Denver Post reporter decided one summer to hike and climb all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.

Climbing the 14ers, as they’re called, is serious business, but not as serious as high-altitude mountaineering in the Himalayas. Lots of people in Colorado try these peaks, and a select few climb them all. Almost all of these people make their living doing something other than climbing, meaning that mountaineering in Colorado is an “everyman’s” sport.

And that’s the route the writer takes. His humorous and self-deprecating style lets you know that’s he’s not the second coming of Edmund Hillary. Instead, Obmascik takes you through the humbling process of willing yourself up the mountain at ridiculous hours in the morning, of trying a little too hard to find hiking partners and otherwise trying to fit this new obsession into the confines of a suburban family man’s life. It gets pretty funny.

That said, Obmascik is a journalist by trade, and every chapter is studded with deeply researched facts on the peaks, on Colorado history, on the people who first settled the state, and of mountaineering in the Rockies. Included are plenty of anecdotes from more recent times, and some straightforward accounts of what can (and did) go wrong in the high country. You walk away from this book understanding how wild the West could get, and how deadly serious its mountains can be.

He also takes care to make sure the story is not just his own. The array of subjects in this book include anyone from weekend warriors to serious endurance athletes, each with stories all their own as to what drives them into the Rockies to test themselves on the peaks.

You can also see how Obmascik progressed, gaining confidence, strength and skill as he topped out on tougher peaks. It echoes a journey so many people have made – painfully trudging uphill, fleeing electrical storms, glorious summit days and near-death close calls.

I relate to this guy. We’re both ordinary dudes with an exceptional obsession with the mountains. The book captures that spirit well while treating you to some great storytelling throughout. If you dig the outdoor life but haven’t read this one yet, give it a look.

Bob Doucette

The eternal excitement, glory and joy of being a noob

My friend Rick (left) and I at the top of Wheeler Peak, NM, in 2003. Check out that cottony, newbie goodness we're wearing.

My friend Rick (left) and I at the top of Wheeler Peak, NM, in 2003. Check out that cottony, newbie goodness we’re wearing.

If there is a title that nobody wants but everyone’s had, it’s that of being the newbie.

The noob.

A rookie.

We’ve all had our turn at being a beginner, a gaper, or whatever other term that is used to describe someone who is new to climbing, skiing, mountaineering or whatever. Usually we’re desperate to shuck that label, learning the lingo of the sport, buying all the right gear and going for “the look” of someone who has been there and done that, as if wearing/using the right brand of stuff will give us an outdoorsy version of “the thousand-yard stare” or something.

As for me, guilty as charged. Years later I ask myself, why the hell did I do that?

One of the glories of being a noob is the excitement of the “new.” You might remember it: You saw something that looked awesome, and decided you wanted to try it. So you made your plans, prepared for the task, and then got it done. The anticipation of the reaching the goal, and the satisfaction of having done it, is one of the sweetest rewards in life.

I remember a few years ago, I’d just gotten into the peak-bagging thing and was consuming stories and books about it like a starving man at Thanksgiving. Many of the most compelling stories I saw involved ascending on snow, and in my book, I couldn’t be a “real mountaineer” unless I attempted a snow climb. (For the record, I still don’t consider myself a “real mountaineer”).

I hit up my buddy Johnny on the idea. Being the kind of guy he is, he agreed to play along. We picked a mountain, found a date, and let those newbie vibes propel us toward an adventure neither of us had ever done before.

It felt awesome.

***

I’ve been drawn to the mountains ever since I was a kid, growing up in the suburbs of Denver with the Rockies an ever-present visual any time I looked toward the west. But for all the childhood camping, fishing and other adventures in the high country, I never visited to top of one of these titanic piles of rock.

Years later, my brother Mike got into hiking and climbing the Fourteeners, Colorado’s peaks that top 14,000 feet. He’d tell stories of the hardships and rewards of reaching these high summits, and the photographs he showed me – glorious vistas, dizzying drop-offs, and other amazing sights – compelled me to consider taking on that challenge.

But it was one I knew next to nothing about.

I remember going on vacation in Red River, New Mexico, having a good time exploring that town and some of the others in a region called the Enchanted Circle of that state’s Sangre de Cristo range. Included in that was a whitewater rafting trip, which would normally be the highlight of such a vacation.

But what stuck out was the morning I looked outside my window, stared at Red River’s ski mountain, and decided I was going to hike to its summit.

So that’s what I did. I don’t remember how long it took, how lengthy the route was, or anything like that. But I do remember feeling pretty rad hiking to the top – somewhere over 10,000 feet – and waiting on all the people who taken a ski-lift ride to the top. They rode up. I got there under my own power.

My gear: Jeans, a cotton T-shirt, a jacket and a pair of steel-toed work boots, with a dead tree branch used as a walking stick. You know, typical noob stuff.

***

Me on Mount Shavano, going up the summit pitch.

Me on Mount Shavano, going up the summit pitch.

A lot of planning went into that snow climb. I wasn’t so dumb as to pick a mountain that was out of my league. We chose familiar ground – Mount Shavano, a mountain I’d summited five years before in summer conditions with my oldest brother. In the winter and spring, there are three ribbons of snow that look like a stick figure with its arms signaling “touchdown!” in a gully leading to a saddle between Shavano’s summit and another nearby, lesser peak.

It’s called the Angel of Shavano, and if you’re going to pick a first-time snow climb on the Fourteeners, this is the route you choose. It’s not too steep, and in late spring, avalanche danger is minimal. If you catch it early enough in the spring, more snow will be with you all the way to the summit.

Here’s the problem: Johnny and I don’t live anywhere near a mountain where you could practice snow climbing. Sure, you can buy the gear – crampons, an ice axe, a helmet, etc. – but that won’t mean anything unless you get to actually use that gear.

Of course, that didn’t stop us. We bought the gear online and watched videos on how to self-arrest. That would work, right?

So in early June, we packed up my rig and drove to Buena Vista, Colorado, checked into a hotel and tried on our crampons for the first time. The next day, we’d see what this whole “snow climbing” thing was all about.

***

That New Mexico trip lit a bit of a fire in me. The day after hiking that ski mountain, I picked up a brochure on some of the more popular hikes in the Red River area. One of them was Wheeler Peak, the state’s highest mountain, described as “extremely strenuous” and a good 20 miles round-trip from the East Fork trailhead. I hiked a little of that trail that day, clearly not expecting to top out, but just wanting to see what it looked like.

The next year, I was back. I did some serious planning for this one, picking up real hiking boots (as it turns out, steel-toed work boots are not ideal), a day pack (complete with water bladder!) and what more or less qualified as the ten essentials. I recruited my brother Mike and a friend named Rick to give it a shot.

The one thing we had going for us was we were all in excellent shape. It helped that Mike had done hikes like this many times before, so this wouldn’t be the blind leading the blind, so to speak.

But our noob-ness showed. In choosing to return to Wheeler Peak, I’d picked a walk-up (good choice!) but also one with what turned out to be 21 miles of hiking, all of it over 9,000 feet. That’s a big day for anyone, especially for a couple of beginners. And while my footwear choice was good, I was still wearing cotton clothing and sporting a dead tree branch as a walking stick.

But our hubris was rewarded. The weather held out, our conditioning was adequate, and we reached Wheeler’s summit and got back to the car in less than 10 hours. To this day, it ranks as one of my favorite summit hikes, and it turned a curiosity into an obsession. In the months to come, I devoured all things mountaineering.

I was going full-on noob.

***

Johnny and I hiked awhile before we spotted a place where we could traverse and reach the snowfield of the Angel of Shavano Couloir. We’d missed the place where we were supposed to turn, but no matter. We could get there now.

Soon we were at the couloir’s base. We stopped, ate some food, and strapped on our crampons. The helmet came next. Winds were barreling down on us through the gap in the saddle above, but the skies were mostly clear as we, for the first time in our lives, kick-stepped our way up the couloir.

There is a rhythm to this type of hiking that is far different than the normal slog up a trail: Kick, set the ice axe in the snow, step up, then kick again. Traction was good, and we methodically reached the saddle, then turned our attention to the summit pitch. Mixed snow and rock lay before us until we reached the summit slopes, and then a thick blanket of snow all the way to the top. It was as if the lords of winter had set a path upward, covering the rocks and tundra of the mountain with a magical substance that made the climb easier, more interesting, and even a bit more scenic.

It taxed us – neither of us were in great shape, but before long, we’d topped out. Two snow-climbing newbies from Oklahoma showed up and got it done. It felt pretty rad, that I might be able to graduate from being a mere hiker to being christened a “mountaineer.” Years later, I know better. But on that summit, it was a real consideration.

Might we be recognized for our outdoor excellence? Did we finally have that thousand-yard stare? Had we earned the right to be elevated from the ranks of the newbies?

Nope. Not yet. That would become apparent soon enough.

***

So. Much. Noob. And so much awesome. The crew on Mount Belford, 2004.

So. Much. Noob. And so much awesome. The crew on Mount Belford, 2004.

The excitement of the noob takes on many forms, but there are a few common threads. One of those has to do with gear.

A lot of time is spent researching what gear you need, what brands work best, and the kinds of outer wear that will keep you warm and dry during your time in the alpine. I remember spending significant time online, shopping different retailers for all the stuff I wanted: Tents, backpacks, sleeping pads, socks, boots, sleeping bags, camp stoves, and so forth. When not online, I haunted a few local outdoor shops, spending far too long drooling over gear I could never afford but eventually walking out with something I figured I needed. Many lifelong gear junkies are born during this stage of noobism, and I now possess enough stuff to lend to like-minded friends.

I also recall spending hours on online forums and different hiking and mountaineering websites, perusing trip reports, route descriptions and topical discussions, even weighing in a few times when I felt I had enough knowledge to actually add something to the conversation. I believe I reached this level of expertise and wisdom after collecting four summits. Or was it five? Anyway…

You would figure that all this preparation, time and monetary expense would have quickened the learning curve, but it ain’t so. Noobism tends to hang around awhile, sticking to you like a bad cold. And that brings me to a second thread: Learning the hard way.

It took me a few mistakes to get a better handle on how to do the backpacking/hiking/mountaineering thing. I remember being annoyed at the mosquitoes below treeline while hiking Mount Elbert, so I reached into my bag and applied plenty of DEET-infused bug spray to keep the little buggers away. Wanting to be sure every bit of exposed skin was protected, I sprayed some on my hands, then rubbed the stuff onto my neck, cheeks and forehead.

Mike and I on Mount Elbert in 2005. By then, some of the noob had worn off of me, but not much.

Mike and I on Mount Elbert in 2005. By then, some of the noob had worn off of me, but not much.

Total noob move. Anytime I’m hiking uphill (especially at elevation), my body is working hard. I’ve long contended that I’m one of the sweatiest humans on earth, and this is true even on a cool alpine morning. The combination of my sweat and newly applied DEET was not a good one, as the stuff ran down my face and into my mouth. I can tell you through experience that DEET tastes terrible and will make your lips go numb. You can thank me for that pro tip later.

I also learned that when choosing foods for a backpacking trip, canned tuna, MREs and self-heating dinners aren’t the best options. All of them have a good deal of water in them, and that extra weight will make your pack go from a reasonable 35 to 40 pounds to 50 to 60 in a hurry. That, and the extra cotton hoodies and whatever other extra crap I used to bring.

Speaking of crap, it’s also wise to bring toilet paper, and to make sure that your toilet paper is in a waterproof container. Backpacks usually aren’t waterproof, and toilet paper loses its effectiveness when getting drenched by rain. A self-sealing baggie will do wonders to solve that problem, unless you simply omit bringing it altogether.

On the backpacking trip where I was learning these valuable nuggets of knowledge, some of my buddies were getting the hard-knocks treatment as well. For some reason, everyone on the newbie crowd thinks it’s cool – nay, even necessary – to attach as much shit as possible to the outside of your pack. I don’t advise that, especially if your gear is hanging on the bottom of your pack. All that junk swinging around and hitting the back of your legs is no way to hike.

And then there was the gun. Another member of my party sported an enormous pack, strapped a hydration pack to his chest, and a leather holster with a .40-caliber revolver, loaded and ready to roll. Revolvers ain’t light, and it took about a quarter mile of hiking, huffing and puffing before the decision was made to go back to the trailhead, hide the gun in the van and lock it up tight.

We survived all these newbie mistakes. Not only that, but both trips ended up being a good time. Most of us ended up topping out and coming back with good stories about the mountain. Some of us even decided that we should keep doing this stuff, even though camping on the cold ground is decidedly uncomfortable, as is straining for breath above 12,000 feet and running away from afternoon thunderstorms that toss hail and lightning upon you out of the blue. I guess we could just do an all-inclusive tropical vacation in the Caribbean, but really, where is the fun in that?

You can’t summit a beach, and the gear for a week at Sandals isn’t nearly as cool. But that’s probably the noob in me talking.

***

Johnny on Mount Shavano. He's the least noobish noob I've ever known. He did awesome on what was our first snow climb in 2009.

Johnny on Mount Shavano. He’s the least noobish noob I’ve ever known. He did awesome on what was our first snow climb in 2009.

I’d be lying if I said everything went according to plan for Johnny and I. Yes, we did properly use our new-fangled snow gear, and we summited Mount Shavano without skidding down a slope and breaking our necks. It’s not a huge accomplishment, given the ease of this particular snow climb. But we do get credit for a successful outing.

However, we broke a couple of rules. For one, we topped out well after noon. Maybe something like 1:30 in the afternoon, which will get a whole lot of finger-wagging, dismissive looks and maybe a couple of lectures from the non-noob crowd. I’m OK with that. We dodged a bullet, or more precisely, an afternoon storm.

But we were admittedly not in the best shape of our lives, and we felt it going down. Shavano’s trail is rough, and we arrived back at the trailhead beat up. Our knees, backs and ankles were all singing a chorus of “why do you do this crap to us?” in an angry harmony.

But that wasn’t my worst sin (Johnny gets a pass here). Not even close. And it’s something I wouldn’t realize until later that night.

We were far too tired to do the big victory dinner back in Salida. Instead, we opted to hit a Subway, crawl back to the motel in Buena Vista and turn in early. Gluttony at a local pizzeria would have to wait.

But as I was sleeping, I woke up feeling dampness on my face. I figured it might be sweat, but I wasn’t hot, nor did I feel sick. And the stuff was sticky to the touch.

As it turns out, the moisture I was feeling was the gunk that normally appears when you become so sunburned that your skin blisters. And that makes sense, because that’s what happened. Worst of all, it was totally avoidable. Let’s rewind.

Back on the ascent, when we stopped to don our mighty crampons and unhitch our fearsome ice axes from our packs, I left one small detail out. Even though it was in my pack, I forgot to apply sunscreen.

In the words of Rick Perry, “Oops.”

This is a multifaceted problem. First, all noobs are told to bring – and use – sunscreen, because the sun at high altitudes is particularly intense. Thinner air and closer proximity to that giant ball of atomic fire means more radiation is zapping your unsuspecting epidermis. Sunburns are easy to get in the high country.

But wait! There’s more. When you’re on a snowfield, you get double the pleasure as rays from the sun are reflected off the snow. If the direct sunlight doesn’t get you, the reflected sunlight will.

And we’re not done yet! Remember how I said how windy it was that day? As it happens, the wind was blowing right in our face at a steady 35 mph, gusting to over 50. Chafing from wind burns is actually a thing.

The predictable result was my face turning into a blistered, scabbed-up mess that made me look like a monster. An inexperienced, noobified gaper of a monster.

I’m more careful about sunscreen now.

Years later, I’ve tackled more peaks, done tougher ascents and perhaps, in the minds of some, finally moved on from the newbie stage. But in my mind, I’m still there. I don’t feel too far removed from noobland because I know where I stand in comparison to some of my friends who have climbed most or all 58 of the Fourteeners (I’m not even halfway there). And for them, they are a few steps behind those who climb these things in winter. Or those who have climbed the glaciated giants of the Cascades, Alaska, Mexico and South America. And those people look like lightweights compared to the mountaineers who ply their skills in the Alps, the Himalayas and the Karakoram.

Besides, there are benefits to keeping the newbie spirit alive. I’d hate to get to the point where some mountain hikes are “beneath me,” or I get too jaded because of the growing crowds of first-timers clogging the trails. I never want to lose the enthusiasm I had when I hiked Wheeler Peak back in 2003, or when my friends joined me a year later on our Colorado backpacking trip.

The mountains offer varying degrees of sufferfests – sometimes by their nature, other times by our own hand – but for a bunch of us, the allure never dies unless we let it. And I don’t want to. Experience is awesome, and it makes you safer, more capable, and able to do more in the peaks. My wish, no matter how many mountains I climb, is to keep the sense of wonder alive as long as I can, to view each summit through the eyes of a guy who is a newcomer to the high country, much like I was years ago in northern New Mexico on a fine July day.

I’ll just remember to leave the cotton T-shirt at home and to apply the sunscreen. Liberally.

Want to read more great newbie stories? Lose yourself in this glorious thread.

Bob Doucette

2016 get you down? Not me, and here’s why

2016 wasn't all gloomy skies and bad times.

2016 wasn’t all gloomy skies and bad times.

I know a lot of people bemoaned 2016. Certainly, there was enough bad news going around to make you think that 2016 was about as dark as it gets, though you’d have to admit, unless you’re someone who just fled the ruins of Aleppo, that statement might be a bit hyperbolic.

But I understand. We’ve been given a steady diet of celebrity deaths and election dysfunction for 12 months, and a chunk of the country is apprehensive about the future. But I’d ask you, before you go into a deeper funk, to do an inventory on your 2016. I did that, and found that while plenty of things left me scratching my head, I have much to be grateful for.

I saw this in 2016, and it did not suck

I saw this in 2016, and it did not suck

I got to hike a lot. I hit my local trails hard, discovered a new place to go bouldering in town and found myself on a bunch of trails in the Rocky Mountains as well as Tennessee. I found four summits with my nephew Jordan, took my wife to Tennessee’s high point and had an unforgettable adventure in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado with a pretty cool dude. Never mind that weather and thieves robbed us of a couple of summits. The Colony Lakes region of Colorado is ridiculously beautiful.

I also ran a bunch. Not as much as the year I ran a marathon, but still quite a bit. I ran trails and streets, sometimes for a few minutes, and sometimes for several hours. I got better at running, too. Maybe even a little faster at the longer distances. As my age advances, I’m all too glad that I can lace ‘em up and bust out a few miles just about any time I want. Plenty of other Gen-Xers can’t.

Time on the bike increased a billion-fold in 2016. That did not suck.

Time on the bike increased a billion-fold in 2016. That did not suck.

I spent more time on a bike in 2016 than I have in decades. Daily bike commutes to work and longer rides just for fun. I almost forgot how freeing that time on the saddle can be.

My time in the weight room had been profitable. I’m not a terribly strong dude just yet, but I made progress, remained mostly injury free and learned a ton about what it takes to get strong. I’ll be putting that bit of knowledge to good use all through the coming year.

And then there’s this: I have my health. Only this past week have I felt the slightest bit ill, breaking a two-year streak sick-free days that kept me on my feet and out of the medicine cabinet. That’s pretty awesome. I also remained employed, well-fed and housed. Family and friends still bless my life, whether they’re here in town or in states many hours and hundreds of miles away. There are people I know who are looking for work, struggling with health and don’t have much family left.

A view seen in the Smokies -- in 2016! -- that did not suck.

A view seen in the Smokies — in 2016! — that did not suck.

When you total all that up, I’d say my 2016 was pretty good. I might not like the news of the world, but I can’t get too bummed when I consider the good things that happened to me. That’s not to say I didn’t have some disappointments, or that I’m entirely satisfied with where I’m at. There is definitely room for improvement for me personally, and I’d love to catch a few breaks in some other areas of my life. But I can’t dwell on the latter without considering the former.

Going forward, I’ve never been much of a resolutions guy. If you see something you want to change, change it. If other things are going well, keep doing the things that make you succeed. My plan is pretty simple. I’m going to hike some trails. Run ‘em, too. I’ll race some, but I’ll spend way more time running without a race bib, by myself, through urban streets and wooded trails because I can and I like it. I’m going to move some iron, and pick up heavy things. I’ll keep riding my bike. I’ll travel to wild places, hike secluded trails, spend time with rad friends or hike alone. God willing and weather cooperating, I’ll climb some more mountains. From the sound of it, 2017 is going to be a lot like 2016, though I’m sure there will be some tweaks and changes that will give it it’s own spice. And who knows? Maybe something awesome will happen along the way.

I got to run some in 2016. That did not suck.

I got to run some in 2016. That did not suck.

Take a look back at your 2016. It may have sucked, I don’t know. But maybe it was pretty good, even though Prince died, American democracy reached new lows, and the Kardashians are still on the air. If it was good, then consider that, be grateful for it and make the next 12 months worth celebrating. There’s a lot we can’t control, but you sure as hell can control you.

Own your 2017. Our days are limited, and each one is more precious than the last.

Bob Doucette

High times on the Decalibron loop: 4 summits, two hikers, one great day

Bluebird day at Kite Lake and the Lincoln Group.

Bluebird day at Kite Lake and the Lincoln Group.

There are a lot of wild scenes you envision when topping out on a high peak, but what greeted us atop Mount Democrat was anything but. The trail leading to the summit was lined with hikers, and plenty of people were already there. Not quite the natural, man-beats-mountain tableau that would commonly come to mind.

And yet, there was this: My nephew, Jordan, had strode to the top just ahead of me, and when I finally caught up, there were high fives and a hug.

“Proud of you man,” I told him, congratulating him on his second 14er. “Nice job!”

He reciprocated, and we both talked about the steepness of the trail. I said something about finally breaking my 14er losing streak (it had been two years since I’d summitted a 14,000-foot mountain). We ate a little, drank a little, and took a look at the surroundings and the work ahead.

Blue skies, a chill in the air, and three more peaks awaited. A big, glorious day in the high country was in store, and it wasn’t just because of the mountains. Sometimes what matters more is who you’re with.

Mining shack ruins on Mount Democrat.

Mining shack ruins on Mount Democrat.

A LITTLE FAMILY HISTORY

The family tradition of hiking and climbing Colorado’s high peaks is not a terribly long one, but it’s been packed full of adventures that several of us have enjoyed going back to around 2000 or so.

My oldest brother Mike kicked it off. A longtime Colorado resident, Mike took to the 14ers around the same time he took his health more seriously, and within a few years he’d bagged more than three dozen summits, including some of the more famous ones like Longs Peak and the Sawtooth Ridge between Mount Evans and Mount Bierstadt.

I joined in the fun soon after, and Mike was with me on my first four high summits in New Mexico and Colorado. We later brought my next oldest brother, Steve, into the fold, hitting up Quandary Peak and Mount Bierstadt during a weekend of brotherly adventures. And about four years ago, Steve and I led his his three kids, Hillary, Hannah and Hunter, as well as his wife Beth and my eldest niece, Liz, back to Quandary for another trek up the mountain’s east ridge.

Jordan jumped on this train early, heading up Bierstadt with his dad when he was a grade schooler. It was his first, and until that day with me on Mount Democrat, his only 14er ascent.

I imagine he would have done more by now, especially with Mike being such an avid hiker, but this is where the story takes a sad turn. Mike, the picture of health in our family for well over a decade, grew ill with a type of bone marrow cancer similar to leukemia, and it was an illness from which he wouldn’t recover. His passing more than five years ago was a crushing blow to my family, and especially to Jordan, his sister Katie, and their mom, Lisa. It still hurts. Every time I go up a new peak, I wonder what Mike would have thought about it. When I learn something new about training, or look for someone to call with advice about the subject, his name still pops up first. They say time heals all wounds, but that’s only true to an extent.

I can’t imagine, however, what it must feel like for his son.

Years later, Jordan has grown from being a student to a professional, and has likewise taken his dad’s path to becoming a fitter, more capable man. The dude set a goal to compete in a local Spartan race and met the challenge, but is not content with that. He’s still pounding the weights, running and playing sports.

So when I made my latest plans to head to the mountains, I floated the idea of me and him hitting a four-peak loop dubbed the Decalibron.

Of course, he said yes.

Jordan on Mount Democrat.

Jordan on Mount Democrat.

THE PEAKS

The Decalibron gets its name from a combination of four 14ers in the Mosquito Range, a grouping of mountains between the touristy town of Breckenridge and the high alpine valley around Fairplay.

The mountains – Mount Democrat, Mount Cameron, Mount Lincoln and Mount Bross – loom over Fairplay like a huge alpine fortress, easily visible from the highway.

All of the mountains are straightforward hikes, so you eliminate the complications that come with more vertical pitches and exposure. The loop itself is not that long, just 7.25 miles.

The challenge, however, comes from a couple of things. First, the initial part of the route – two miles and 2,000 feet up Mount Democrat – is pretty steep. And second, the majority of the route takes place around 13,000 feet or higher. The trailhead at Kite Lake itself starts at 12,000 feet. So no matter what, you’re spending your entire day above treeline.

The result is a hike that ends up being a fitness challenge of sorts. A doable one, but a test nonetheless.

Summit views from Mount Democrat, looking west toward the Elk Range.

Below the summit of Mount Democrat, looking west toward the Elk Range.

UP WE GO

So here’s the thing. Over the years, I’ve spent some time in the Rockies hiking and climbing the peaks, and even on bad days, I’ve been able to overcome different challenges to top out. Back in 2008, pneumonia didn’t prevent me from summitting Mount Yale, though in hindsight, it should have (the two-month recovery was brutal).

I’m not bragging here. All I’m saying is not reaching that goal is something I’m not used to. I fully expect that there will be times when a summit won’t happen. But up until last summer, it hadn’t happened to me.

So the last time I stood at 14,000 feet was on a warm summer morning in 2014, atop North Eolus in the Weminuche Wilderness of southwestern Colorado. A 2015 attempt at Longs Peak ended up in failure, and weather washed out most of my other plans for that time.

Then, just days before Jordan and I drove up to Kite Lake, weather again was a major contributor to getting turned back on Crestone Peak. A food thief – animal or human – made the next day’s planned hike of Humboldt Peak a no-go, and weather once again soured plans to climb the Citadel.

So I was feeling a bit snakebit when it came to the mountains. The losing streak was lengthening with each planned trip, every aborted summit, and each goal unreached. The forecast looked good, and we were at the trailhead early enough to get a good start. But I had to wonder what new bump in the road was going to stall me this time.

We parked at Kite Lake – there’s a $3 price tag with that, something I think is worth it – and started up the trail soon after. It starts mellow as you go by the lake, but picks up in steepness on a switchbacking trail that leads to the saddle between Democrat and Cameron. Jordan was powering through it well, as were most of the people populating the trail that morning.

One thing I found interesting was the lack of Colorado residents I saw. I met people from Iowa, for example, and a couple of other flatland states. They were a lot like me, gutting out segments of the route before stopping for a breather. The higher up we got, the more frequent those breaks became.

Mount Cameron.

Mount Democrat.

I felt surprisingly good. As the saddle neared, I felt confident that we’d hit the summit and do so in enough time to go for at least one more peak before the weather had a chance to turn.

A blast of cold, northerly winds greeted us there, the kind that hits your head and spawns an instant headache. But the views of the Tenmile Range, including Quandary Peak, helped me shrug it off. We took it in quickly, then chewed up the last, steep bit of hiking before the terrain eased just short of the summit. Ten minutes later, we were there.

Let me tell you, it felt good to get off the schneid. Standing at 14,148 feet, the two-year summit drought finally ended.

And what a vantage point. Looking west, I spied the giants of the Elk Range – Snowmass, Capitol, the Maroon Bells and Pyramid. Quandary towered just to the north, and far away, Pikes Peak stood guard over the southern Front Range.

Most importantly, we got a look at the rest of the route, starting with Mount Cameron. From where we stood, it looked like another steep piece of work.

Looking toward Quandary Peak from Mount Cameron.

Looking toward Quandary Peak from Mount Cameron.

THE PEOPLE YOU MEET

The trail up Mount Democrat was crowded, to say the least. Lots of people showed up that morning to try their hand at Mount Democrat, and possibly the rest of the loop.

What we discovered as we headed up Mount Cameron is that most of the crowd decided to hang it up after Democrat. I can understand that. The toughest part of the Decalibron is at the beginning, gaining Democrat’s summit. The mountain had a way of weeding folks out.

For our part, Jordan and I found a rhythm. It was nice to be going uphill and still able to hold a conversation. That’s not a problem for Colorado natives, but for folks like me the high altitude stuff usually turns into a head-down-feet-shuffling thing between rest stops, without much talking. Perhaps the previous days’ adventures at altitude were finally paying off in terms of acclimatizing.

About halfway up Cameron, we came across a group of younger dudes from Ohio. Cleveland, to be more precise. They’d flown into Colorado days before and were doing their best to charge up the hill. One guy in particular, with a mop-top of blond hair and an abundance of bro-enthusiasm, proved to be particularly entertaining. We all cursed the thin air and the struggle of going up. And then he would take off running up the trail, gassing about after a hundred yards or so, then stopping momentarily to bitch about the thin air before rambling uphill again. It wasn’t unlike a puppy who would sprint around the yard until near collapse, stopping to pant, then forgetting his fatigue before renewing his race around the fenceline.

“These guys are crazy,” one of the Clevelanders said, watching his friend bolt up the trail. “But I guess that’s why they’re my friends.”

Summit of Cameron, looking toward Mount Lincoln.

Summit of Cameron, looking toward Mount Lincoln.

In the middle of all this, we chatted these guys up. Jordan is a huge sports fan, so naturally, the topic of NBA basketball came up, and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship run. That’s a conversation any Cleveland fan is all too happy to have, and for good reason. Discussing this and the route ahead – “So, are you guys planning to get all four peaks?” – we came up with a good alternative name for the loop – the Decalibron James. Congrats, LeBron. Not only are you a champion and Finals MVP, but you’re now a part of 14ers lore, thanks to Jordan’s way with words.

Cameron gets steeper for awhile, but the trail eases close to the top. The summit itself is a broad expanse of brown, beige and even reddish dirt and rock. From the top, Lincoln’s summit is in view, as is the route to Mount Bross. Up here, you wonder if you’re still on Earth or on the surface of Mars. We joked about maybe seeing Matt Damon up there somewhere.

Cameron marked a good place for lunch. The weather was brilliant, and Lincoln’s summit was a foregone conclusion. The sense of urgency was past as 14er summit No. 2 was in the bag.

Our Cleveland friends were there, and in the midst of refueling a flask of Jim Beam got passed around. Hard to say no to that.

We took more pics, surveyed the scene and realized right then that we were going to get all four summits. It was nice to have that sort of confidence after a couple of years of frustration.

Final march toward Mount Lincoln's summit.

Final march toward Mount Lincoln’s summit.

ROUNDING IT OUT

We got moving again toward Lincoln, which on this loop was the easiest summit to gain. The distance between it and Cameron’s summit is short, and the elevation loss and gain minimal. Crossing the lunar-like landscape was pretty cool. Another fella hiking the loop, a dude about my age from Minnesota (“I remember what it was like to see Nirvana live!”) hit us up for conversation on this leg of the journey. He was a lot like me, a guy from lower elevations who made a point to come to the Rockies for an elevation fix.

Lincoln’s summit it the smallest, highest, and most interesting of the bunch. There is a cliff face facing the west, and a steep gully that opens up right at the top. Probably a good idea to not descend that one.

Mountain stoke.

Mountain stoke.

With three summits down, it was time to check out the skies and look at the remaining route. So far, the skies looked fine. A few more clouds, and there were some building farther to the north, but nothing where we were. The summit of Bross was 1.5 miles away, the longest segment between the peaks, and then there was still the awful descent off that mountain I’d heard and read about. Spoiler alert: the stories are true. More on that later.

Coming off Lincoln, Jordan and I had plenty of time to talk about the amazing day we were having, about life, work, and how much Mike would have loved this trip. A lot has changed for Jordan in these last five years: He’s gone from a searching young college kid to an established broadcast media professional. He’s taken total charge of his life and not let the adversity that crashed into his family set him back. He’s experienced the worst days, some joyous times, and witnessed his mom find love again, remarrying a super great guy and starting anew. That’s a lot for a young man to take in, but he’s done it. Hearing about all of that was a huge blessing to me.

It also helps that he’s a lot of fun to be around. I’ve been fortunate to have a good run of company when it comes to hiking the peaks. Some of the kindest, bravest, funniest and most interesting people I’ve ever known have been folks with whom I’ve shared the trail. Jordan ranks with the best of them.

Cliff bands on Mount Lincoln, on the way to Bross.

Cliff bands on Mount Lincoln, on the way to Bross.

So, on to Bross. Funny thing about this mountain. Parts of it are private property, owned by mining interests that go back a ways. This includes a chunk of real estate at the summit, so technically speaking, you’re not supposed to hike to the summit at all.

And that must be the most poorly enforced edict of all time. No, there is no maintained trail to the top. But, yes, there are trails. And a windbreak. And a piece of wood in the windbreak that has “Mt Bross 14,179 ft” written on it, there for the sole purpose of people picking up and holding for a summit photograph. Maybe the trail police will get us all one day, but only those most skittish about authority actually avoid the summit of Mount Bross, which, like Cameron, has that broad, Mars-like quality that makes you think you’re on another planet.

It made for a sweet finish. We enjoyed a perfect day weather-wise, and once everyone else started heading down, Jordan and I had the summit to ourselves. It’s not often you can get four summits in one day, and enjoy it on a day in which the conditions were so close to perfect. It was a nice contrast compared to the wash-outs of the past.

It was also cool to see Jordan revisit the experience he had with his dad many years ago as he tagged his second, third, fourth and fifth 14ers. Surely Mike looked down on us with a bit of a grin on his face.

No. 4 in the bag, from the summit of Bross. Lawbreakers.

No. 4 in the bag, from the summit of Bross. Lawbreakers.

If you remember from earlier, I said the descent off Mount Bross is every bit as bad as advertised. If you read route descriptions and trip reports, there are mentions of loose rocks and scree, and “skiing” down dinner plates of talus. I can confirm this is all true. It starts out like you’re hiking on BBs, then the route steepens on the middle of the ridge heading down. There were times when it made more sense to slide down and move my feet and knees as if I were making turns at Vail or something. Oh, and there was a woman hiking down who seemed to be making a better go of it than we were. She asked us what we were wearing on our feet, then gently scolded us for not wearing hiking boots. Had to give an eyeroll at that. We were wearing trail running shoes, which works pretty well on rocky, dry routes. That sort of high country condescension makes me want to show up at the next trailhead in jeans, a cotton T-shirt and a pair of Chacos. Just to piss off the “elite.” No one likes unsolicited advice, but seeing that it’s all in vogue right now, here’s a little from me: Unless your input is requested or you see danger on the immediate horizon, it’s best to keep your mouth shut. Let people learn from their mistakes. I can say without hesitation that my choice of trail running shoes over boots was intentional and well thought-out.

Democrat and Cameron as seen from the descent of Bross.

Democrat and Cameron as seen from the descent of Bross.

Thankfully, she scooted out of our orbit, leaving us and our apparently inadequate footwear to negotiate the mess below. We caught up with another pair of hikers we met that day – a dude and a gal who work at Tommyknockers, and fantastic little brewpub in Idaho Springs – and finished the hike chatting them up. We learned that they’d driven up to the trailhead in a Toyota Corolla, so I offered them a ride down to their car, assuming there is no way a subcompact with no clearance would have made it up to the lake. No need, they said. They were parked maybe 50 feet from us. Score another one for the noob tribe.

Driving down, we got our kicks watching others in passenger cars bravely attempting to negotiate the road going up. I admit, I stopped, watched in my rearview mirrors, and then laughed loudly when I saw their reverse lights engage. I guess I’m kind of a jerk like that. But it’s all in good fun.

And good fun is what it’s all about. We remember those sufferfests with pride. Hard days in the high country make for great stories and incredible learning experiences. But those great days, where everything goes right, the company is excellent and God smiles on you broadly from the mountaintop, that’s the stuff that keeps us coming back. Four peaks in one day under beautiful blue skies with a rad dude like Jordan made this trip about as perfect as it could get.

GETTING THERE: From Denver, take US 285 southwest toward Fairplay. Once in town, take State Highway 9 north toward Alma. In Alma, watch for street signs on your left. One of them will point toward Kite Lake. Take that dirt road out of town for about 6 miles to Kite Lake. The road has some decent sized ruts and dips, so a car or truck with decent clearance is advisable. If you park at Kite Lake, there is a $3 fee.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From Kite Lake, follow the trail as it goes up the slopes toward a saddle between Mount Democrat and Mount Cameron. Once at the saddle, go left and follow the switchbacks up to a broad, flatter area just below the summit. From here, hike to remaining couple of hundred yards to the top. This segment gains about 2,000 feet and is the hardest part of the route. It is also a good point to stop, look at the weather and decide if you will move on to Mount Cameron.

From here, descend the mountain back to the saddle and follow the trail up the ridge on Cameron. The terrain steepens for a few hundred yards, then eases as the summit nears. Cameron’s summit is broad, and you get a good look toward Mount Lincoln and the remaining route toward Mount Bross. This is another good place to do a weather check and see if you will have time for what comes next.

The easiest part of the route is following the trail off Cameron’s summit toward the saddle between it and Mount Lincoln. It’s a short descent, then a quick rise over a knob, then on to Lincoln’s true summit.

From here, go back to the Cameron/Lincoln saddle and follow the trail that goes around Cameron’s south side. It continues between a long, broad connecting ridge to Mount Bross. This is the longest section of the upper route, and is a mild grade in its entirety. The 1.5 mile hike to Bross ends either just short of the summit or, if you wish, follow one of the unmaintained trails (there are a few) to the top.

Leaving Bross, head west down the ridge that slopes down toward Kite Lake. The hiking is easy at first, but degrades as you get lower and the route steepens. Loose footing is present until the route goes left of the ridge and follows a more solid, gentler incline that leads to the willows and the easy hiking back to the lake.

The route is 7.25 miles from the lake. Going up Mount Democrat is Class 2; the rest of the hiking, with the exception of the descent off Bross, is Class 1.

Bob Doucette

Some scenes from Colorado’s Sawatch Range

sawatchcover

Last week, I posted images from my favorite mountain range, the San Juan Mountains. As much as I love that range, there are some awesome scenes from other places as well. One range I’ve frequented is the Sawatch of central and southern Colorado.

While gorgeous, the Sawatch lacks the dramatics of the Elks or the San Juans. Technical ascents are harder to come by. The routes are long slogs.

But the character of these mountains — their sheer size — makes them inspiring just the same. Coming from the east and heading into the Arkansas River Valley near Buena Vista, you can’t help but be impressed by the abrupt rise of these giants.

So here we go. Few words, lots of pics of my favorite scenes from the Sawatch, starting with Huron Peak, a favorite among many…

A storm forms over Huron Peak. Glad we were on our way down.

A storm forms over Huron Peak. Glad we were on our way down.

This summit view is one of the many aspects which gives Mount of the Holy Cross its spiritual inspirations…

Holy Cross Ridge, as seen from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross.

Holy Cross Ridge, as seen from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross.

Sometimes a mountain will give you some unforgettable memories. Maybe of a lot of them, like this…

Mists obscure the summit ridge of Missouri Mountain.

Mists obscure the summit ridge of Missouri Mountain.

Or this…

Huron Peak emerging from the clouds, as seen from the northwest ridge of Missouri Mountain.

Huron Peak emerging from the clouds, as seen from the northwest ridge of Missouri Mountain.

And maybe this…

Looking down into Missouri Gulch Basin from Missouri Mountain's summit.

Looking down into Missouri Gulch Basin from Missouri Mountain’s summit.

It’s important to stop and look around, even though you’re tempted to put your head down and gut it out…

The long morning march up Mount Yale.

The long morning march up Mount Yale.

Because you get views on the way up like this…

The upper switchbacks on Mount Belford.

The upper switchbacks on Mount Belford.

It’s inspiring to look up at these titanic piles of rock…

Morning view of Mount Belford.

Morning view of Mount Belford.

And take a look around…

Overlooking the Angel of Shavano on Mount Shavano.

Overlooking the Angel of Shavano on Mount Shavano.

Because before you know it, you’re topping out…

Getting ready to top out on Mount Shavano.

Getting ready to summit Mount Shavano.

Good times, man. Let’s hear it for the walk-ups of the Sawatch.

My best selfie.

My best selfie.

Bob Doucette

Spectacular scenes from the San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Seeing we’re in mid-summer, the mountain stoke is high. Summer gives us unique access to the high country, and it’s a busy and amazing time to be up there.

This got me to thinking about my favorite mountain range, the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.

This will be one of those posts with a lot of pictures and not a lot of words. So here goes, my favorite images from the San Juans, starting from this moody image in the Weminuche…

Peak 18 and Windom Peak on a misty day in Chicago Basin.

Peak 18 and Windom Peak on a misty day in Chicago Basin.

Not far from there, but about 3,500 feet higher, there’s this…

Looking deep into the Weminuche Wilderness, as seen from 14,000 feet.

Looking deep into the Weminuche Wilderness, as seen from 14,000 feet.

On the eastern edge of the range, snow gives the peaks a whole new appearance…

Late spring atop Wetterhorn Peak.

Late spring atop Wetterhorn Peak.

And in the fall, you can see the mountains getting ready to make the transition to winter…

American Basin, near Lake City, Colorado.

American Basin, near Lake City, Colorado.

Skylines like these speak to how wild these mountains really are…

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from neighboring Matterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from neighboring Matterhorn Peak.

…and how wild the weather can get.

Changing weather as seen from atop Uncompahgre Peak.

Changing weather as seen from atop Uncompahgre Peak.

Needless to say, I’ve never had a bad time in the San Juans…

Checking out the views on the southwest ridge of Mount Sneffels.

Checking out the views on the southwest ridge of Mount Sneffels.

Bob Doucette

Caution, summer hikers: It’s still snowy in the mountains

The northeastern San Juan Mountains of Colorado in June 2014.

The northeastern San Juan Mountains of Colorado in June 2014.

Last week, a post about a serious accident in the mountains of Colorado prompted a good online discussion about high country safety.

In the post, the woman who wrote it talked about how she and another hiker had gone up Humboldt Peak, and on the descent, attempted a glissade (sliding down a slope on your butt) down a long snow slope. The conditions were icy, and her partner ended up losing control and getting injured. In her attempt to reach him, she also slid and banged herself up but escaped serious injury. The pair was able to contact local search-and-rescue and both were led safely down the mountain.

The accident was somewhat similar to another one on the same mountain several years earlier. In that incident, the climbers involved were more experienced than the pair I first mentioned. In this case, the climber attempting the glissade lost control and was gravely injured. His partner was able to put him in a sleeping bag to keep him warm while she descended for help. He was airlifted off the mountain, but later succumbed to his injuries.

My initial thinking was that this mountain, a Class 2 walk-up, has a spooky nature to it. But a commenter online had a different take. He said that people who have a lot of experience in summer and fall mountaineering aren’t necessarily going to be as proficient when thick snow is present. A second commenter reaffirmed that message. Her take, in short: Snow changes everything.

What got me to writing this is that many weekend day-trippers and out-of-state vacationers are heading to the mountains this month. Even though the calendar makes us think “summer,” the fact is many mountains still have a great deal of snow on them. If you’re determined to climb a mountain in June, you should know that most of these mountains are different now than they will be in a month or two, and potentially more dangerous, depending on the peak.

My experience on snow is limited. I don’t live in Colorado, so I’m a visitor just like so many others. But in my few experiences, here are a couple things I’ve seen:

My friend David helps a stranded climber put on some microspikes so she can safely descend a snow slope on Mount Sneffels.

My friend David helps a stranded climber put on some microspikes so she can safely descend a snow slope on Mount Sneffels.

In June 2013, while climbing Mount Sneffels, I saw people who lacked the traction gear needed for the couloir that is the mountain’s signature feature on its upper route. The Lavender Couloir holds snow well into the summer, and when temperatures rise, it can break under your feet and send you skidding down the mountain. One woman I saw, who was “guided” up that portion of the mountain, froze when confronted with the challenges of steeper snow and inadequate gear. Her partner was nowhere to be found, but my group was able to help her down to a safer part of the mountain. Clearly, this was not the mountain experience she thought it would be.

Slick patches like these on Wetterhorn Peak can pose risks to climbers.

Slick patches like these on Wetterhorn Peak can pose risks to climbers.

In June 2014, while climbing Wetterhorn Peak, wet, slushy snow made our descent dicey. Three of us had our footing on the snow give out. Two of us arrested quickly without incident. A third climber slid about a hundred feet and hit some rocks. His injuries were minor, but it was a scary scene nonetheless. Wetterhorn’s standard route is very solid in dry summer conditions. But like I said before, snow changes everything. A slide on the wrong part of that mountain could send you off a 700-foot cliff.

Experienced mountaineers already have the knowledge to operate on snow slopes. But most people heading into what’s considered prime hiking season are not experienced mountaineers. Even those with a couple dozen or more summits under their belts aren’t in the “experienced” category if they haven’t had the time and training to handle snow.

So this post is directed more toward the summer hikers and not those who hike and climb in all four seasons. In light of this, some thoughts:

Check conditions on the route you’re planning. There are often online resources with up-to-date route conditions. Find those and read up. Be aware that late spring and early summer conditions often include the presence of significant snow on the route, and this will affect the difficulty and risk of a climb. Postholing will make your ascent slower and burn more energy. Snow and ice will make conditions slippery. Avalanches (“wet slides” in warmer conditions) are still a concern. A quick check of route conditions can alert you to the presence of these risks.

If you’re determined to climb mountains where snow is present, train for the conditions. Many mountain states have organizations that teach you everything you need to know about reading and traveling through snow conditions. Printed and online resources are out there. Find some friends and practice snow skills on low-risk areas. Be honest about your skills, fitness and risk tolerances.

Own and use the gear needed for snow travel. Sole spikes, crampons, ice axes, gaiters and a climbing helmet should be in your inventory if you’re going to climb snow slopes. Know how to use an ice axe.

If you are reticent to spend the time and money to equip and train for snow travel, consider different destinations or a later time of year to go into the mountains. If you’re hitting the peaks in late spring and early summer, consider lower elevation hikes and climbs. Mid- to late July through early September are much more snow-free if you’re determined to tag higher summits. Plan accordingly.

Lean on friends with high country experience. These folks are more likely to have real-time information on how routes look, they’ll know what equipment to buy and how to use it, and can be steadying influences during a climb. I had a guy like that last summer on an attempt of Longs Peak, and with sketchy conditions that had most of us questioning the wisdom of going forward, his keen eye had a more definitive answer. His word to turn around ended any ambiguity as to what we would do next and all of us got to go home with our health intact.

Near the Mount Shavano summit in June 2009.

Near the Mount Shavano summit in June 2009.

June is a funny month  in the Rockies. We all want to get into the mountains and enjoy a little adventure. But at higher elevations, the transition from winter to summer in June is ongoing. If you’re like me and your experience on snow is limited, these are some things to keep in mind.

Bob Doucette