With five deaths in six weeks on Capitol Peak, mountain safety takes on greater urgency

Capitol Peak, Colo. (Wikipedia commons photo)

Anytime someone dies in the mountains, it gets attention. Landslides, avalanches, falls, or otherwise, the terror of finding your end on a high peak garners headlines.

People speculate how it happened. They express grief and sympathy for the fallen climber’s family and friends. A few may even throw barbs toward the victim, though that is, thankfully, rare.

This is repeated every year, especially in the summer when hordes of hikers and climbers take advantage of longer days and more favorable weather to get their summit fix.

But this summer feels a bit different, in that the volume of deaths seems to be on the rise. And more than that, the number of fatalities on one particular mountain, Colorado’s Capitol Peak.

I’ve never climbed it, but I know some people who have. There is bountiful information about the peak and its challenges available online and in books. From these sources, I can tell you a few things about the mountain: It’s exposed, with large drop-offs and a number of “no-fall zones.” Like the rest of the Elk Range where it resides, it’s notoriously loose, with rotten rock in all the wrong places. It doesn’t take much for toaster-sized rocks – or boulders far larger – to tear loose from the mountainside and careen down its steep slopes, and God help you if you’re in the fall line. One friend of mine survived a rockfall incident, but deals with traumatic brain injury symptoms years later after having two loose rocks smash into her head during a climb in 2013. Thank God for climbing helmets, or she’d be dead.

More recent news has solidified the mountain’s reputation. Over the past six weeks, Capitol Peak has claimed five lives.

That’s an extraordinary number, given the fact that the mountain hasn’t had more deaths than that over the previous several years combined. And for more perspective, it’s just two fewer than Mount Everest recorded during its spring climbing season this year. I don’t want to equate the two mountains, but the numbers are what they are.

So what do we know of the 2017 fatalities? The first two seem to be cases of falls associated with loose rock. But the last three indicate something else.

The third and fourth deaths on Capitol Peak, Carly Brightwell and Ryan Marcil, were a couple who had climbed the mountain, then fell on a steep section below the summit but before the solid yet very exposed knife-edge ridge.

The fifth death, Zackaria White, was a climber who fell in the same area.

What separates these two incidents is the experience of the climbers. The couple in question had some time in the mountains under their belts. White did not. In fact, Capitol Peak was his first 14er (a mountain that meets or exceeds 14,000 feet above sea level).

The knife-edge ridge on Capitol Peak. (Wikipedia commons photo)

What they have in common is it appears all three people tried to find another route down the mountain to avoid traversing the knife edge, according to local search-and-rescue team reports. They cliffed out, got to a point where they could not ascend or descend, and fell to their deaths.

Those similarities would, at least, point toward some obvious lessons: Stay on the route, especially on challenging mountains like Capitol. But this is no cure-all, as evidenced by the other fatalities on Capitol, as well as two more deaths on the nearby Maroon Bells, a pair of striking but dangerous mountains in the same range.* The “Deadly Bells,” as they are known, are like the rest of the Elk Range: steep, exposed and littered with loose rock that can break off under you at any moment. Deaths on the Bells, as well as a number of mountains in this range and many others throughout Colorado (10 fatalities so far this year), come with a wide variety of causes.

In fact, if you were to make a list of causes of death (and preventative measures to minimize risks for each situation), it would be so broad as to nullify any attempt at standard, one-size-fits-all practices to curtail mountain tragedies. To wit: bring the 10 essentials; eat and hydrate; get an early start; watch the weather; study the route; bring an emergency locator beacon; be in top shape; don’t wear cotton; bring the proper footwear; don’t try a mountain beyond your abilities; hike with a partner; and so on. Even if you did all these things – and most people do – there is a chance that you could still die on a mountain by pure blind chance. That, too, has happened often enough, claiming newbies and veteran climbers alike.

It should be noted that the ratio of people who have safely summited Capitol Peak, and any number of other Colorado mountains, to those who have died on them is starkly in favor of survival. For every death, thousands have successfully climbed and come home intact.

But rescue and recovery missions are expensive, taxing and at times risky endeavors. Given that, and the growing number of people who try their luck in the high country (to the tune of hundreds of thousands every year) mean that the myriad of ways people can get into trouble will only ensnare more, which will mean more rescues, more risk on the part of the rescuers, and to those who can’t be saved, more deaths.

An exasperated Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo told the Aspen Times his office would more aggressively educate people on the risks of climbing mountains, especially the ones in his jurisdiction. Mountain Rescue Aspen is drawing up plans to do just that.

But here is where we are: We exist in a time where outdoor adventure is more popular than ever. Social media, especially channels like Instagram and Facebook, drive people to do more, push harder and otherwise ply their skills for the sake of not just enjoying the high country, but to pursue “likes,” audience growth, and potential sponsorships from gear companies, retailers and others who seek out social media influencers to market their brands. They may not be the only drivers, but they are potent. And they will only grow more powerful as populations in Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Portland, among others, swell.

To be frank, I don’t know if there’s an answer here. I can’t say if this summer in Colorado is an anomaly or the beginning of a trend. But it does bring me back to a couple truths.

First, the ultimate responsibility has and always will lie with the individual. No one forces anyone to climb mountains. For those who do, the burden of preparedness and safety is squarely on their shoulders. Given the massive volume of information out there on mountain safety, there is no excuse for being uneducated on the topic or on the peaks people climb.

Second, it’s important for people to have each other’s backs. Teach those with less experience than you. Be the one to give guidance on the trail to your partners, and take charge when needed. Know when it’s time to call it a day and turn around. Those lower on the pecking order need to pay attention to those with more experience. And those with the experience need to get a good read on their partners and understand their limitations, or any other problems that may arise. Teams should not split up unless absolutely necessary, and believe me, that’s rare.

We know people will have problems in the high country. We know people will die. And we’ll analyze these incidents, looking for answers. But don’t expect a cure-all solution. As lame as this might sound, we must do the best we can at taking care of ourselves, doing the things we love in the places we cherish, knowing that these marvels of nature can snuff us out at any time, with total indifference, even if we do everything right. It’s the nature of mountains, and one none of us should ever forget.

Bob Doucette

*An earlier version of this post said there were four deaths in the Maroon Bells this year. There have been two.

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Hiking the La Plata Trail

La Plata Peak, as seen the day before we tried to summit it.

What a week at had been already. In just a few days, there had been pleasant trails and old mill town ruins in New Mexico. Thirteen thousand-foot peaks along the Front Range. And the day before, the old mines and high ridges of Mount Sherman with my nephew Jordan.

We were halfway through our trip into the mountains together, with one more target in mind: La Plata Peak, one of the higher points of the Sawatch Range and a commanding presence not far from Leadville and Buena Vista.

Rain greeted us shortly after leaving Mount Sherman, and lingered for much of the evening as we set out to feed ourselves and find a decent place to camp before heading out to give La Plata a try.

It’s been awhile since I’ve done anything in the Sawatch Range, but what I remember still holds true: These peaks are big, and the routes are long. They start a good 1,000 feet or more below treeline, and your generally pick up 4,500 feet or more of gain in anywhere from nine to 12 miles round trip. Bagging one of them is, for the average person, a pretty big day that requires an early start and decent conditioning.

We turned in for the night at a National Forest Service campground just off the highway. We did it with all the comforts we could cram into Jordan’s keep, which meant our tent would be posh by most tent camping standards. We owed ourselves a decent night of sleep.

As the night went along, we both slept hard. The alarm rang shortly after 4 a.m., and neither one of us was particularly urgent about getting up. I could feel it in me, that maybe this wasn’t going to be my day. At the same time, you have to break out of that mindset, get moving and pick up the task at hand.

Getting close to treeline.

I don’t like being turned back on mountains, but it’s something that has happened more often lately. Most of the time, it’s been because of adverse weather. Hence, the early starts before mid-day monsoon storms start forming over the Rockies. On this hike, I figured I could shake off whatever was holding me back once we got going. Summiting wasn’t that big of a deal to me that day, but I didn’t want to disappoint Jordan by costing him a bid at the mountintop.

Anyway, we got going right around dawn, hiking the road from the La Plata Trail parking lot. A small sign and a side trail marked the place where we’d turn off and start heading up the mountain.

We’d been warned that the beginning of this trail is deceiving, and that it gets steep once you’re a couple of miles in. Below treeline, I figured, would be easy enough, and would give us time to get a rhythm when the real work was set to begin.

On the lower part of La Plata’s summit ridge.

My take on the lower part of the trail: the trail builders did an excellent job constructing this thing. Plenty of steps on the steeper parts, and then some flatter portions. But I won’t lie: those steep steps were kicking my butt. I was already in a fight early on, sweating profusely, and wondering when my body would adjust and get into gear. Nagging thoughts of this not being my day were creeping in. I was getting quiet, just slogging away, and keeping an eye on our progress.

In this position, the hike out of the trees seems to take forever. When you hit treeline, you normally have another 3,000 feet or so to go before hitting the summit. So it can be discouraging when you’re hiking through the woods, working hard, and seeing hundreds of feet of gain left before your even break treeline.

When we were close to treeline, I got a better idea of what people were saying about this trail. The trees thinned, giving way to willows up a steep slope and a long series of switchbacks that make the trail up Missouri Gulch look tame. I was stopping often here, and not talking much.

Tasty scenery.

“Hey man, are you mad at me?” Jordan asked. He’d noticed my quietness.

“No man, just keeping my head down and trying to get through it. Fighting it a bit. I don’t talk much when I’m like this.”

He understood. Jordan had been hiking strong thus far, but like me, was wondering how this day might unfold. The switchbacks leading to the ridge seemed endless.

“So what do you think?” he said during a pause.

“Man, I don’t know. But let’s get up there and see how things are going,” I said, pointing to some otherwise nondescript landmark up the slope.

We repeated this process a few times, checking in with each other, catching our breath, and looking at the route ahead. We got to one point where I could see the route joining the ridge that led to the summit.

“Let’s get up to that point up there and see how things look,” I said.

When we got to the ridge, the views opened up. Spectacularly. The summit ridge was in full view, giving us a good look at the work ahead. On the other side of the mountain, La Plata’s formidable Ellingwood Ridge came into view, a long and demanding Class 3 scramble that often proved too taxing for many climbers.

A mellower part of the trail with some sweet scenery to boot.

By now, it was nearly midmorning. I wasn’t sweating as much, but I think that might have been due to early onset dehydration. Jordan had gone through a good chunk of his fluids already. Small puffy clouds were beginning to form and multiply. We were at 12,000 feet, and the way I was moving, it might have been at least another two hours before we climbed the remaining 2,300 feet and 1.5 miles or so that were left.

At this point, we both knew. Jordan was hiking stronger than me, but even in his superior condition, it probably wasn’t happening today. I figured we could have slogged it out, but we stood a good chance of being on the summit with storms overhead and being low on water. The previous couple of days, I’d bagged three summits. Jordan was with me on one of those, and had a particularly tough training session the day before, part of his process of getting ready for a burly obstacle race in late August. Neither of us had slept that much for the past three days.

At 12,000 feet, we decided that choice view of Ellingwood Ridge would be our summit that day.

It was a bit of a relief. Knowing that the car and a good meal weren’t but a couple of hours away, I can say the level of disappointment wasn’t that extreme.

On our way down, with sweeping views ahead.

We saw plenty of hikers going up as we descended. Many of them were young Colorado natives, powering upward in ways that could only bring me envy. And then there was a solo hiker ambling his way up with some sort of weird music playing on his smartphone. We chatted him up a bit, with him telling us he’d done Castle Peak and Conundrum Peak a couple of days earlier. We told him what we’d been up to, and got scolded: “I’d never do another 14er right after doing one the day before!”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’d already done the back-to-back thing, and it wasn’t that big of a deal. We let him go on his way, weird musing blaring, giving him a collective eyeroll.

In the woods, clouds starting to build a little.

It’s often on the way down when I notice how beautiful a place is. There’s no deadline now, just ticking off landmarks and getting back to the car. I will say this: The La Plata Trail is as good as advertised.

Driving away from camp and the mountain, big storms thundered overhead. At the speed we’d been going, we may have been still above treeline at that time. Or maybe not. We’ll never know. But La Plata Peak isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon, and it’s a place I’d gladly revisit.

Clearer skies looking back at La Plata Peak.

Bob Doucette

Heading up Mount Sherman’s southwest ridge

Jordan gets a view of Mount Sheridan from the summit ridge of Mount Sherman.

There is a certain satisfaction with finishing a job with the person with whom you started it. Maybe it’s something you build together, or a shared journey.

This summer, I concocted a plan to do something like that with my nephew Jordan, part of the Colorado contingent of my family and my oldest brother’s son. We talked the year before about heading into the mountains to hike some of the 14ers, and we ended up with a fantastic day doing the four-peak loop called the Decalibron – Mount Democrat, Mount Cameron, Mount Lincoln and Mount Bross.

Prior to that, Jordan’s sole mountain ascent happened when he was far younger, a trip up Mount Bierstadt with his dad. Now 25 years old, he may have caught the 14er bug a little. It seemed natural to polish off the Mosquito Range 14ers together with a hike up Mount Sherman.

In the previous days, I’d spent some time hiking in New Mexico, then snagged a couple of 13ers in Colorado’s Front Range two days later. I needed to force my body to be ready for bigger challenges, namely keeping up with Jordan.

While it might be true that I have a few more peaks under my belt then he does, it is also true that I’m 22 years his senior. I live around 700 feet above sea level, he lives in Denver. And over the past couple of years, the dude has gotten serious about his conditioning.

His preparing for the Spartan race in a couple of weeks, where he intends to take on the Beast course: 13 miles or so, and tons of obstacles. He’s done the shorter version of the race, but now is looking to tackle something much tougher. Needless to say, many months of running, lifting and thought-out eating have turned him into a lean, muscley human built to fly through the course.

Me, not so much. Usually my thoughts when it comes to food are limited to wondering if it will be a burrito, barbecue or bacon. I’d already conceded the fact that he’d be waiting on me the entire trip. I asked Jordan to be patient. He was good for it.

Jordan heads up the talus slope toward the Hilltop Mine. We thought this was “the route,” but it was a good, scenic side trip up the mountain.

Willing partner

A lot of life had happened since we last met up. Jordan has numerous interests. Sports, broadcasting, the outdoors, fitness, and going back to his high school and college days, music. Hip-hop, to be more precise. Jordan made an album years back, performed some live shows in front of decent crowds, but set it down for a time to focus on getting his college coursework done and a television career off the ground.

But he’s circled back to music. It’s something we talked a lot about on the way up, listening to a few songs he’s already recorded, as well as a couple of miscellaneous tunes that grabbed our attention. I’m no musician, but I love talking about music and it’s interesting to get a real musician’s take on what’s out there. The topic is also a great way to stay awake when driving into the mountains when most people are still fast asleep.

There was something else in these discussions, too. Music is a way that Jordan works through things that he sees, whether in his own life or in the world at large. The creative process is a way of hashing it all out, much in the same way people take up running to work out their demons or gardening to calm their spirits. I get all that. Writing does that for me. As well as running, or hiking, or even hitting the iron at the gym. I’ve got issues, man. That explains the numerous venues I use to deal with them.

In any case, these methods of processing the world are mostly solitary endeavors. If you want to dig deep, talk to “creatives” about why they do what they do, and what’s behind a particular song, artwork or essay. As the highway snaked its way over hilltops and down valleys, we caught up on the small stuff and probed the bigger things that were on our minds. I’ve long believed that there is something medicinal about good conversation on long drives in remote places. Every new trip confirms it.

At the saddle between Mount Sherman and Mount Sheridan.

No ordinary experience

Sooner than we expected, we were on the long dirt road leading to the Fourmile Creek trailhead. It wasn’t nearly as rough as the upper part of the Kite Lake Road at the foot of Mount Democrat, but it was slow going. A bumpy but not particularly demanding ride just about any car could handle.

Upon arriving, we saw a familiar setting, namely the remains of defunct mines that are common throughout the Mosquito Range. We also got a look at something more spectacular, that being the impressive namesake face of Horseshoe Mountain, a high 13er nearby that is jaw-dropping to behold with its semi-circular face resembling that of a massive coliseum. It’s an impressive sight, and I get why people come back to hike that one. I’d do it for the visuals alone.

Mount Sherman is another matter. It’d say by 14er standards, it’s fairly ordinary. Not too steep, and no real distinguishing landmarks – say, like Longs Peak’s Diamond, or Wetterhorn Peak’s prow – to set it apart. But it is still a big mountain that commands the skyline, and it has a few treasures of its own that make it worth the trip.

The Hilltop Mine seen on our way down. This is one of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken from the mountains. It’s surprising what pops up as memorable on these peaks.

I mentioned those mines. The one near the trailhead is just flattened ruins, but other mining features higher up are more fetching. The backdrop of a crisp, blue sky and pillowy clouds, set against the muted tones of the mountain stand in stark contrast the weathered, beaten but still resilient structures of men who sought their fortunes in high country minerals.

It’s about here when I got a fuller appreciation of how many trails there are on this mountain. Many high peaks are limited to a couple trails, but on Mount Sherman, side trails criss-cross the peak like a spiderweb, partially due to all the mining that occurred here, and partially from hikers taking different paths, I’m sure. Standing next to the Hilltop Mine, we had to go down again to gain Sherman’s summit ridge. An easier route showed itself to our right. I’d remember that on our way down.

As expected, there were plenty of people on the mountain. Ease of access and favorable weather guarantee crowds, even on a weekday. But we didn’t come to Mount Sherman looking for solitude. For that, you’re going to need to go to more remote ranges, and probably ones without that magic 14,000-foot number attached. We came here to finish a job.

Higher on the summit ridge, I realize we’ve fallen into a bit of luck. Sherman has a reputation of being a windy peak, yet on the narrowest part of the ridge, fully exposed to the winds, we were in the middle of a calm day with wispy clouds and blue sky all around. It’s cool, yeah, but just like last year in the Decalibron, we’re in good conditions making great time. As expected, Jordan is plowing ahead at a pace slowed only by him waiting on me.

The “skinny” portion of the summit ridge on Mount Sherman.

We came up to a narrower section of the summit ridge, and I must admit, it was airier than I thought it would be. Not anything scary, but more of a pleasant surprise. So many of the peaks in this range as well as the distant Sawatch Range are massive lumps of rock that can be dreary slogs above timberline. One hiker mentions to me that he thought it was “sketchy.” I guess sketchiness, airiness, and exposure are all in the eyes of the beholder. For me, a little air to the left or the right (or both) is interesting.

In less than two hours, we’re at the top, taking in the scene with a dozen others, including a family with kids, some out-of-staters, and a smattering of Coloradoans.

Summit view on Mount Sherman.

It dawns on me that this is the thirteenth time I’ve shared a summit of a family member. Five with Jordan over the past two years, plus the rest with brothers, nieces, nephews, in-laws and my wife. That’s nearly half my total number, and I like that figure. It’s good to know that partners may not be hard to find in the future, though I still intend to call upon friends as well.

On our way down, Jordan and I started talking sports again. Football season is approaching, and we’re wondering if the Denver Broncos will make strides from the previous season or revert to the mediocrity of the pre-Manning, post-Elway years. Time will tell on that subject, which really isn’t that important but is debated as intelligently and fully as anything in the realm of current events, politics, religion or whatever else. That’s the great thing about sports. We can dissect the Broncos’ moves on its offensive and defensive lines, maybe argue a bit over the merits of one player over another, but not face the existential crisis and warlike musings of the current political climate.

Before long, we were down. Storms started to build around the mountain. People like us were coming down, but others still going up. Given all the information out there about safety in the mountains, this astounds me. But some people have to learn by experience.

Our experience, on the other hand, is something else. Both of us have changed over the past year. We’re learning things and trying to apply those lessons to our lives, then share what we know while driving to trailheads, hiking trails and lingering on high summits. Each new mountaintop adds not only to our alpine experience, but to knowledge passed along by peering into each other’s worlds during those hours unplugged from “normal” life.

Me, with the Hilltop Mine and Mount Sherman’s summit in the background. (Jordan Doucette photo)

GETTING THERE: From Denver, take U.S. 285 southwest toward Fairplay. Continue south for a mile and turn right on County Road 18. Drive on this road for about 10 miles to the trailhead.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the Leavick Mine site, follow the trail (road) and veer right to skirt the ridge that leads to the Hilltop Mine (it’s a freestanding mine building on top of a ridge that can be viewed low on the route). There are many side trails throughout the lower part of the mountain, and most of them lead to the summit ridge. Hike the trail and gain the summit ridge. From here, the route is straightforward. Just short of the summit, the ridge narrows significantly, and this is one of the windier parts of the mountain. Once past this, the route eases. The true summit is about a 100-yard walk from where the ridge flattens out. Class 2 hiking, 5.25 miles round trip, with 2,100 feet of elevation gain.

EXTRA CREDIT: Hike to the summit of Mount Sheridan. At the saddle between Mount Sherman and Mount Sheridan, turn south instead of north. Mount Sheridan is a ranked 13er.

Bob Doucette

When, not if, lightning strikes: Watch those skies, folks

Storms forming near Mount Sherman, as seen from near the trailhead. When this photo was taken, at least a dozen people were still heading up the mountain, some just above this spot.

Hiking down the slopes of Mount Sherman, I was taken aback by the striking beauty of storm clouds beginning to form, contrasting with bright blue skies and the muted tones of the mountain itself.

An old mine building atop the ridge looked particularly photo-worthy, so tiny and fragile compared to the enormous scale of the mountain and the blossoming cumulus clouds in the distance. I stopped, framed the image and snapped one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken in the high country.

By this time, my nephew Jordan and I were almost down to the trailhead where his car – and the promise of a sizable lunch – awaited. It was late morning, and a good time to be almost down.

But we both noticed something troubling. Plenty of people were still on the way up.

Jordan spotted some people higher on the ridge, with at least an hour of hiking ahead of them – and a growing collection of puffy, gray-bottomed clouds all around. Down the trail, maybe 15 minutes from the trailhead, even more people – a young woman with her dog, a middle-aged couple, and four bros power-hiking every 20 steps, then stopping to rest – were going up. Over their shoulders, a particularly angry-looking storm was getting ready to explode over White Ridge.

Further conversations I had with folks that week noted some interesting comments from people walking into forming storms.

“Oh, I’ll keep an eye on the weather,” was a common one.

“I’m from Kansas. We get storms. I’m not afraid of getting wet,” was another.

“I’ve been doing these for awhile. I know what I’m getting into.” Uh-huh.

I’m not one of those who stops people with dire warnings about how cotton kills or how they shouldn’t try a summit so late. I’m guilty of many high country hiking sins, and frankly, a stern warning from a stranger rarely goes over well. People don’t like being told they’re wrong. But I don’t mind giving people advice if they ask.

But here in cyberspace, it’s different because people search the internet for tips and information on how to safely navigate the potential hazards in the mountains. Hence this post.

Back in 2015, there was a day when more than a hundred people were on the slopes of Mount Bierstadt. Around 11:30 a.m., storms had formed while people were going up and down the mountain. A lightning strike slammed into a group of hikers, injuring 15 people and killing one hiker’s dog.

It should be noted that lightning strike fatalities are rare. So far this year, 12 people in the U.S. have died by lightning strike, including one horseback rider in Colorado who was struck in an open field, according to the National Weather Service.

But when it comes to hiking in alpine areas, success is partly build upon minimizing risk. Marching into a summer storm is counter to that. Summer storms can not only hurl lightning on unprotected hikers, but can also create dangerous conditions on relatively benign routes, and make tougher routes deadly. On a summer day late in August of 2004, another hiker – dressed in summer attire and running shoes – died from hypothermia after getting caught in a storm high on Longs Peak.

Weather changes the nature of mountains. Experienced hikers and expert mountaineers can push weather boundaries more than most, but as peak-bagging becomes more popular, there is a rush of people with scant experience in the high country itching to try their luck in the mountains. Bragging rights to friends or triple-digit (quadruple?) likes on Instagram sometimes trump good judgment. And frankly, not knowing what you don’t know is just as dangerous as anything else. Ignorance is not bliss.

Going back in some of my older posts, I pulled out a list of ways people can mitigate the risks that summer weather poses. It’s worth looking at again.

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

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

Watch the skies. Looks for signs that storms might begin forming. Isolated clouds or high, wispy formations are usually pretty harmless. But small, puffy clouds often multiply, coalesce and grow. A gray bottom is a good sign that the clouds are forming a storm. When they do, that’s a good time to reassess your plans.

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

Respect all the mountains. Even the “easy” ones can be treacherous under the wrong conditions. Bierstadt is considered one of the easier 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, but there are scores of people who were on that mountain during that 2015 lightning strike who can tell you how dangerous it can be when you’re there at the wrong time. So whether you’re doing a short walk-up hike or a really demanding climb, treat each ascent with care.

Bad weather and poor route conditions caused by storms have turned me back a few times. It’s a bummer when you work so hard for a summit, only to be turned around short of your goal. But it’s better to do that than to become the subject for a story about tragedy in the mountains.

Bob Doucette

Your morning vert: Grizzly Peak D from Loveland Pass

Grizzly Peak D, near Loveland Pass, Colorado.

My first trip up to Loveland Pass was two-fold in purpose. First, I wanted to see what the hiking was like. Second, I wanted easily accessible mountains close to Denver where I could get a little altitude.

I checked both boxes with a short hike to Mount Sniktau three years ago, a good training exercise just days before a more difficult outing far to the southwest in the San Juan Range redoubt of Chicago Basin.

But as a bonus, I got to see a more extensive trail system that led to a number of other peaks nearby. A year later I was back, but adverse weather conditions cut my trip short, with just a quick jaunt up Cupid, a 13,000-foot bump near Sniktau, as my sole summit. Still, that hike allowed me to get a closer look at its taller neighbor, Grizzly Peak D, and a couple of 14ers in the distance, Grays Peak and Torreys Peak.

A wise retreat that day left me hoping to return and go a little farther down the trail to get my next Loveland Pass summit.

Another two years passed before I got my shot. Following a great three days in New Mexico, I was hoping to build on my altitude training by coming back up the pass to explore more of the area.

Grizzly Peak D is, in its neighborhood, a relatively minor summit along the Continental Divide. At 13,427 feet above sea level, it’s overshadowed by its 14er neighbors, and doesn’t have the dramatic profile of some of the other 13ers nearby like Lenawee and the Citadel. But for my purposes, it was perfect.

I hiked this one solo. Which is to say, in the Front Range during the summer months, hiking solo doesn’t mean you’re alone. A half-dozen other people were on the route that day, with two couples sporting dogs.

Front Range morning views.

The entire route is above treeline, with the trailhead at the top of the pass – 11,990 feet above sea level. You get a few dozen yards of easygoing strolling before the route steepens dramatically. It’s a shock to the system, especially for a flatlander like me. But unlike the past couple of times I was here, it didn’t feel as rough as normal. Plenty of hard breathing to be sure, but I made good time to a turnoff away from the Sniktau route and toward Cupid.

That piece of trail is pleasant hiking, being relatively flat. A quarter-mile later, a series of switchbacks starts the vert in earnest to gain the ridge connecting Cupid with Point 12,915. Soon after, I was atop Cupid – just as scenic as I remembered it, but this time with clear, blue skies and none of the threatening weather that was present a couple of years earlier.

Going up Cupid, looking toward Mount Sniktau.

It also gave me a good view of the connecting ridge between Cupid and Grizzly D.

My memory failed me a bit, seeing that I thought I remembered only one bump on the ridge between the two mountains. Inspecting the route now, I saw plenty of up-and-down between me and my goal – a series of small high points on the ridge that signaled a surprising amount of vert to be gained on what is just a 5.5-mile round trip.

Coming down Cupid, looking at Grizzly Peak D and the connecting ridge.

Grizzly D, with Torreys Peak and Grays Peak seen to the left and in the distance.

On the way up Cupid, I passed the first couple I met, two Colorado natives and their dog who were repeating the Grizzly D climb. They weren’t in a rush and were happy to chat. I envied them a bit, as it seemed like they lived close enough to make hikes like this a regular part of what they do. No such opportunity at home for me, deep in the Southern Plains. Grizzly D was a bigger deal to me than them. Still, outpacing a Colorado pair gave me a little confidence boost. Maybe my conditioning was a little better than I thought.

Heading down Cupid, the scale of these “bumps” became clearer. The hiking up and around them was steeper than they seemed at first glance, but again, I was feeling pretty good and plowed through. Going over the last one, I got a good look at the path up Grizzly D: It looked steep, and ahead of me, a couple of other hikers were picking their way up.

In the middle of the ridge, looking back on Cupid and a high spot on the ridge.

Still in the middle of the ridge, looking toward another high spot, with Grizzly D in the background.

I figured it would be a lung-buster, but the final ascent was only about 500 feet or so. I could grind this out and reach the summit without eating too much time.

The hike up Grizzly’s summit pitch was as tough as it looked. Already, I was dreading the downclimb, as the path was steep and, in spots, sandier than I would have preferred. My pace slowed some, but I could tell that I was closing in on the pair I spied a few minutes earlier. I had no plans to catch them – I mean, what would that actually prove? – but it was useful observing them and the time it was taking them to negotiate sections of the climb that were still ahead of me.

Starting up Grizzly D. looking back toward Cupid. Not bad at this point, but it was getting ready to get steeper.

About three-quarters of the way up, it seemed the route relented a bit and before long I was on top. A younger couple, also from Colorado, and their dog were resting and taking in the views when I got there.

“You were making good time,” the man told me.

“Yeah, I’m feeling pretty good today,” I replied, letting my head swell a little bit at the idea of being close to passing two – count em, two! – pairs of Colorado natives with my flatlander legs and lungs.

On the Grizzly D summit, looking toward Torreys Peak (left) and Grays Peak.

Summit view looking west.

We all looked toward Torreys Peak, and what would have been a ridge traverse very similar to what we just did, just much longer and bigger. It wasn’t in the cards time-wise for me, and really, I wasn’t here to blow myself out just for some hiking bragging rights. I still had a couple days of mountain ascents ahead of me. I snacked a bit, drank up and headed back down the mountain.

The downclimb turned out to be easier than I thought. Part of the reason is I spent my winter and spring pounding my legs in the weight room. It’s amazing how much that made a difference, both going up and down the hill. I also descended at my own pace, which is pretty slow. But I felt good when I got to the bottom.

Looking at Cupid on the way down.

It was there that I ran into my last pair of hikers on the route. Two fellas were on their way up, and we talked for a bit about the mountain and what they were up to.

These guys were 69 and 70 years old. I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to see people at that age still slaying summits. Even better, the older of the two was doing his last training hike before heading up to Washington state to climb Mount Rainier, a mountain he’d already climbed years ago. They passed along some tips on breathing technique, and you can bet your butt that I listened.

Now down from Grizzly’s summit ridge, I looked at the work ahead. Unlike most mountains, this one wasn’t a lengthy downhill to the trailhead. Instead, it means going up and over all the stuff I’d already done just to get here. The sneaky fact about this hike is even though the elevation distance between the trailhead and the Grizzly D summit is a tad over 1,500 feet, the actual elevation change you experience is closer to 3,000 feet. Regaining all those bumps on the ridge as well as the Cupid summit proved a bit tougher on the way back. Ordinarily, the trip down is much quicker than the ascent, but not so this time. My pace got a little more leisurely as the morning wore on, and the sandy surface of the trail on the last half mile or so was a nuisance, threatening to upend me and land me on my butt more than a few times.

Pleasant singletrack hiking back to the car.

When it was done, I got exactly what I wanted: a few miles at elevation, a new summit, and a look at a more ambitious hike for the future, maybe with a partner. I envision an earlier start, parking one car at the pass, another at Stevens Gulch, and hiking from the pass to Grizzly D, then on to Torreys Peak and Grays Peak before heading to the second car waiting below. That would be a big day, but possible.

And that’s what I like about Loveland Pass. It’s close enough to Denver to avoid the commitment of climbs farther west, but it’s also filled with possibilities for future efforts. There’s still plenty left for me to do.

I dig the colors of the alpine.

GETTING THERE: From Denver, take I-70 west until you get to the U.S. 6 west exit, which takes you to Loveland Pass. At the top of the pass is parking on both sides of the road.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the trailhead, hike up some stairs, then toward the hillside leading to a high point between Mount Sniktau and Cupid. Instead of hiking to the top of the high point, turn right at a side trail that takes you toward Cupid. This will be easy hiking for about a quarter mile before reaching some switchbacks that gain the ridge leading to Cupid. The trail can take you to Cupid’s rocky summit, or you can bypass it just below the top before getting a look at the remainder of the route. Descend Cupid along the ridge and you will encounter four bumps between Cupid and Grizzly D. Some of the hiking is somewhat steep. Upon passing the last bump in the ridge, the rest of the route leads to Grizzly D’s summit. This is the steepest part of the hike, but does not exceed Class 2. The route eases somewhat close to the top before putting you at Grizzly D’s summit.

EXTRA CREDIT: Tackle Torreys Peak by hiking the ridge between it and Grizzly D. And if you’re really feeling yourself, continue on to Grays Peak, This would best be done with a two-car strategy, with one left at the Stevens Gulch trailhead and the other at Loveland Pass.

Bob Doucette

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