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

‘The Walking Dead’ and survival: What the show can teach us about making it in the wild

Could you survive this?

Could you survive this?

I’m a sucker for a good story. One of the stories I follow on TV is “The Walking Dead” series on AMC.

Now don’t worry, there’s not going to be any spoilers here. But I’ve thought long and hard about why this show appeals to me, and to millions of others.

The story lines, the acting, the action — sure, all of that plays a part. But I think the foundation is built on a question: What would I do in that type of world?

If you’re not familiar with the show, it goes something like this: A mysterious disease swamps the world, and there’s no cure. Only a few survive it, and the infected become mindless zombies looking for the flesh of the living on which to feed. Those who survive must contend with a world that went from civilized and technologically advanced to the dark ages in a matter of months. Governments, money, modern conveniences — they’re all gone, leaving behind a brutish, savage and dark world.

So I ask myself, “Could I hack it?”

My take on it will be different than it is for a lot of people, mostly because I look at it from the point of view of someone who spends a decent amount of time outdoors. I’ve tried to learn how to operate in areas beyond the reach of roads, technology and comfort. I might be up on this subject more than most, but consider myself very much the student still. But letting this question percolate brings to mind some basic survival concepts that you, too, would face if thrust into a zombie apocalypse, or something dreadfully similar to it. So here goes…

Worse than zombies.

Worse than zombies.

The big things will scare you, but it’s the little things that will kill you. Fear of a zombie horde will motivate you to be safe, but chances are, your end wouldn’t come by way of a bite from the undead. It would be something much smaller. A blister pops, and without proper medicine, infection sets in. Untreated, sepsis will occur, and that will take you down. Small illnesses like colds or the flu can become crises of lethal proportions absent the comforts and cures of the developed world. Clean water will be harder to find, and given our lack of immunity to waterborne diseases, a gastrointestinal malady will take you out in a matter of days.

The fix: Learn wilderness first aid, and how to filter and sanitize water. These aren’t cure-alls, but the fewer incidental infections in the wild you have, the better your chances of survival. Bummer if you get the flu, though.

Ed Wardle went into the Yukon backcountry and couldn't stop thinking about food.

Ed Wardle went into the Yukon backcountry and couldn’t stop thinking about food.

The thought of food will consume your thoughts and activities as much as anything else. Sure, you’ll scavenge and hoard the non-perishables for awhile, but eventually those supplies will run out. At that point, you’ll have to resort to growing our own food (hard to do with Negan on the prowl, or zombies closing in) or revert to hunting/gathering.

Most of us don’t know how to farm. And farming/gardening can be very seasonal, depending on where you live, meaning that those lean winter months can be tough sledding. So chances are, most of us will have to go paleo for real and become hunter/gatherers.

I watched a show a few years ago called “Alone in the Wild,” where the star of the show planned to spend 90 days in the Yukon wilderness. As the show progressed, I couldn’t help but notice how most of his thoughts dwelled on food. Where to get it. How much he needed. How hungry he was. All the time. How sapped he felt. All the time. He could catch a trout or two, but consume only 400 calories while burning through 2,000 to 3,000 a day. After awhile, he was reduced to mimicking the wildlife around him, possessed by the thought of the next meal, and controlled by the lack of it. That’s your life in “The Walking Dead” world if you survive the initial calamity.

The fix: Learn how to hunt (firearm and archery), trap and fish, and bone up on your edible plants (here are some examples). Couldn’t hurt to pick up some food preservation skills, either, to get you through those lean months.

Negan's one bad dude. In chaotic survival situations, sometimes ordinary folks break bad.

Negan’s one bad dude. In chaotic survival situations, sometimes ordinary folks break bad.

Wildlife can be dangerous, but people more so. People are social animals, but as we know, more of us die at the hands of other people than we do wildlife. And in the middle of an undead dystopia, the worst of us are going to manifest themselves into characters like The Governor, Negan, The Wolves, and those dreadfully hungry residents of Terminus. In the real world, famine, disaster, civil war and other disruptive events that can crash a society have shown that we truly don’t understand how deep people’s bad intentions can become when survival is on the line.

The fix: There is safety in numbers, but trusting others in dark times is risky business. Carefully pick out a small group you can trust, and one that can bolt for safety at a moment’s notice. No point getting caught by warlord’s minions while trapped in a stationary place with lots of defenseless people. And speaking of defense, it’s always a good idea to learn how to defend yourself. Pick up some martial arts. If you’re going to defend yourself with a firearm, learn how to use is and practice regularly. If you’re going to live in the wild, be prepared to fight like there are no rules.

Home is where you can make it. Make it right.

Home is where you can make it. Make it right.

Most of us are helpless without gadgets, gasoline and the power grid. It will hurt if you lose those modern conveniences, but where this really hits you is when you need to find adequate shelter and warmth. And it’s a killer when it comes to getting from Point A to Point B. Think about it: Your house or apartment becomes a really tough place to stay when the power is out. Dead of winter? Freezing cold. Mid-summer? Unliveably hot. And where would you be if you didn’t have the ability to drive a car, hop a bus or take a train?

You could get by for awhile, but as time passes, gasoline will run out, cars will break down and shelter built on the contingency of the power grid working will eventually cease to be viable.

The fix: Home is where you are, and that’s something to remember if you are regularly on the move. Without modern transportation, you’re going to need to condition your body to hike long distances, with all your possessions on your back (don’t forget those 10 essentials). Take up backpacking and make hiking a habit. That, and learning to ride a horse might also be a good idea. As for shelter, sure, you can make do with existing  structures. But you’ll also want to learn how to make your own shelter: Lean-to shelters in warmer months, and in snowy areas, you should know how to make a quinzee. And at the top of this, learn how to start a fire (here are some ideas on how to do it without a match or lighter). Fires are crucial for warmth, cooking, and sterilizing water and medical tools. If you have these skills down, you’re several steps of everyone else wandering around in the apocalypse.

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

A flatlander’s guide to high country adventure

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

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

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

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BEFORE THE TRIP

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

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

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

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

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

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WHEN YOU’RE THERE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Doucette

Should dogs be brought into the backcountry?

Our dogs can make the ultimate trail buddies. (Craig Cook photo)

Our dogs can make the ultimate trail buddies. (Craig Cook photo)

They call the domesticated canine “man’s best friend,” and it seems more true these days than most. People love their cats, but America’s love of dogs seems to have flown into the stratosphere, with people taking them to bars, insuring their health and toting them around in purses.

The outdoorsy set is no different. We love our dogs, and to share our adventures with them. Find the right breed and you’ll have a furry friend that’s up for long hikes, backpacking trips or trail runs for life. Given most pups’ eagerness to do whatever their human friend is doing, it’s tough to find a better adventure buddy or training partner.

I recently read an essay in The Adventure Journal (originally posted in the High Country News) that caught my eye. The headline, “Dogs Don’t Belong in National Park Backcountry,” caused a bit of a fuss, I’m sure. Make a suggestion about a dog not being allowed to go somewhere its human goes will get pet owners’ hackles up as much as their pooch’s when the doorbell rings.

The writer made a few points that are worth considering: that some breeds aren’t good for hiking; that the mixing of dogs and wildlife often isn’t good for either; and that it’s unfair to the dog to be put in situations of risk when the animal doesn’t have any real understanding of what risk is.

(As a matter of disclosure on the article, its main point was that some people are abusing “service dog” considerations to get around rules that prohibit dogs in restricted areas, such as NPS backcountry.)

Although I don’t currently own a dog, I’m hugely pro-dog. Most dogs like me, and I can spend a lot of time playing with dogs. I even chose my barber because he keeps a huge Great Dane/Rhodesian Ridgeback with him in his shop. I see people out with their dogs on walks, running/biking trails, and out in the backcountry all the time, and I’ve personally never had any trouble with them. A number of my friends bring Fido along on all their adventures, and indeed, their trips wouldn’t be the same without them. Given the right amount of outdoor space, I’d own a dog for sure.

One appeal to the outdoorsy dog: their energy is contagious. (Ken Childress photo)

One appeal to the outdoorsy dog: their energy is contagious. (Ken Childress photo)

But I’m not going to say the essay in question was just a case of a non-dog person writing a big harrumph at dog owners’ expense.

Let’s take a look at her first point: that a lot of dogs are not good hikers.

About 10 years ago, I was doing some fishing in Colorado’s Black Canyon when something really weird caught my eye: a couple hiking along the other bank of the river, with the woman carrying a toy-breed dog in a dog purse. Obviously, that dog wasn’t going to be good for hiking, but to each his/her own. If she wants to pull a Paris Hilton while hiking along a mountain river, that’s on her.

Another time, while hiking Quandary Peak, I came across another party and their golden lab, which clearly was not ready for a full day’s hiking at altitude. The dog reached its physical limit, plopped down, and refused to move. The owners had two choices: Pick the animal up and carry it out, or simply wait until it was ready to move again. I’m not sure how that went down. My group moved on. Hopefully they were able to coax their dog the rest of the way down the mountain, or find a way to otherwise bring it back to the trailhead.

And on one more occasion, while topping out on Mount Yale, I saw a fella carrying his pet (another lab) the entire way up the mountain’s final, bouldery and rugged stretch to the top. At that point, I wondered if it was more of a pride thing for the owner (“Me and Bruno bagged our 10th 14er!”) than anything else.

Not all hikes are a walk in the park, and certainly not all dogs — even your furry little athlete — are ready for big days in the wild.

Canine camp companions. (Matt Carver photo)

Canine camp companions. (Matt Carver photo)

Let’s move on to the second point — that dogs and wildlife often don’t mix.

Now this is a little trickier, because it’s hard to quantify dogs’ impact on wildlife if the dog is well-behaved. The article mentioned the potential effects of dogs’ droppings, noises and scents on wildlife. I’m not knowledgeable enough to comment on that, but there are other impacts that are much easier to see.

A few years back, I interviewed Jessica Evett, who at the time had been doing a lot of work with the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a conservation organization that benefits the Colorado high country. I asked her for advice on how people should conduct themselves on the peak, and one of her points was to mind your pets.

She advised keeping dogs on a leash when on the trail. I’m not going to go that far, but her reasons for saying this are based on sound logic. Dogs like to explore, and when they see wildlife, they often like to give chase. For many of those animals, the months they’ve spent fattening up on the bounty of spring and summer means storing life-saving calories for the harder, colder months to come. Burning those calories escaping your dog could mean the difference between life and death in the winter.

It’s important to remember that the places we love to visit are the homes of wild animals. We get to leave and enjoy the comforts of civilization. They have to deal with the consequences of our encounters.

And all of this says nothing of wildlife encounters that go wrong for the dog. Just imagine a curious or feisty dog getting the wrong end of a moose’s antlers, a mountain goat’s horns, or a bear’s claws. ‘Nuff said.

And now the third point: that the insistence on bringing a dog into the backcountry can lead to grave consequences for the animal.

A few years ago, much of Colorado was abuzz after some hikers and their dog ran into trouble when their dog, an able-bodied German Shepherd we came to know as “Missy,” pooped out in the middle of a rugged ridge traverse between Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans. Missy’s paws were bleeding (common for dogs on rough terrain like the Rockies), and I’m sure the fatigue of a long day above 12,000 feet put the animal in a no-win situation. With deteriorating weather moving in, Missy’s owner and companions didn’t feel they could carry her out. So they left her on the ridge and hiked back to safety.

Volunteers get ready to transport Missy, a German Shepherd, off the Sawtooth Ridge in Colorado. Missy became stranded there when she could not continue the traverse of the ridge and was left there by her owner. (Huffington Post photo)

Volunteers get ready to transport Missy, a German Shepherd, off the Sawtooth Ridge in Colorado. Missy became stranded there when she could not continue the traverse of the ridge and was left there by her owner. (Huffington Post photo)

The good news is that word got out about Missy, and some determined souls went up the mountain, found the dog, and eventually carried her down safely.

The problem here is that the hikers who brought Missy to the mountain knew beforehand what the terrain had in store, and could make a decision on what to do if the hike and climb proved to be too much. Missy, being a dog, wouldn’t have had a clue. Safe to say, bringing her to that mountain and on the ridge was grossly unfair to the dog, and could have left her dead. How many other dogs are put in similar situations, simply because their owners insist on bringing them? Who knows. Probably more than we’d like to admit. And it points to a concern that maybe most dogs aren’t cut out for the rigors of backcountry adventure. Some are, for sure. But many others aren’t.

Dogs can be capable of a lot of things in the outdoors. As an owner, make sure they're ready for the places you want to take them. (Noel Johnson photo)

Dogs can be capable of a lot of things in the outdoors. As an owner, make sure they’re ready for the places you want to take them. (Noel Johnson photo)

For me, this leads me to two words: personal responsibility. You, the dog owner, know far more about what you’re getting into than your dog ever could. So the animal’s welfare rests almost entirely on you. You should definitely have enough food and water for the dog, and any gear or supplies that might be needed if your pet has problems on the trail. And if you can’t carry the animal out, maybe you should think twice before taking it with you.

It also seems wise to train your dog for your adventures. No one decides to run a marathon, then heads out for 26.2 miles the next day. It’s something you have to train for.

It’s the same thing for a big hike. You’re not going to do a 20-miler in the mountains without testing your legs and body on shorter hikes first, so why would anyone expect their dog to be any different? Training your dog to obey your commands and getting it physically ready for your outings seems like the right thing to do for your pet’s sake.

I’m not going to say dogs shouldn’t be in the backcountry. Some do quite well. But just how well they do is often entirely up to you.

Got some thoughts on this subject? Take the poll below, and leave some comments.

Bob Doucette

Video: Cheating death on Colorado’s Maroon Bells

This video caught my attention. Anyone who has spent time in the mountains knows that rockfall and loose rock underfoot is scary stuff, particularly when you’re in highly exposed places.

Setting up: The climbers here are doing what is called the Bells Traverse — they’ve climbed Maroon Peak, and are traversing the airy ridge connecting Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak. Both are 14,000-foot peaks, and are considered two of the toughest in the state. This is a short but difficult and risky route between the peaks. Seeing this video, taken at the aptly named Leap of Faith, you’ll see why…

If that dude were a cat, he’d be down to eight lives or so. The Elk Range has been described as “red, rugged and rotten.” Now you know why. One fall there, and we’re reading about that fella the next day.

Happy Monday!

Bob Doucette

Seven signs it’s time to bail on a summit

When you're so close to the top, it's hard to turn around. But there are times when you must.

When you’re so close to the top, it’s hard to turn around. But there are times when you must.

In 12 years of peak-bagging, I’ve found there is hardly a greater moment than topping out on a hard-earned summit. The post-climb eat-fest that usually follows, complete with exultant friends and brews aplenty, makes for sweet memories as well.

But mountains can turn on you with little warning, making that high country adventure more than you bargained for. Summit fever is a real thing, and it gets some people in serious trouble. Lightning strikes, heart attacks, rockfall injuries and avalanches — these are just a few maladies that strike would-be hikers, climbers and mountaineers when they push on despite the warning signs and forget uber-climber Ed Viesturs’ cardinal rule: getting the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.

So here are seven signs it’s time to bail on a summit bid…

  1. When the mountain says no. Defining this can be a bit murky, but when you see it, you’ll know. The route may be too icy and steep, or perhaps you are seeing too many signs of dangerous rockfall. Maybe that cornice above you looks menacing, and temperatures or wind conditions tell you that a slope is ripe for an avalanche. If a route you spied is too dangerous, or would take too long to be safe, reassess and back off if needed.
  2. When the weather says no. This is pretty straightforward. When storm clouds arise, it’s time to bug out — regardless of season. Thunderstorms can bring lightning and heavy rain. Being caught in an electrical storm is clearly nothing anyone wants to mess with, and a doable route in dry conditions can become treacherous when wet. Snowstorms often lead to whiteouts, and then can get you lost, stranded or, in the worst possible scenario, lead you right off a cliff. If you get pinned down in a snowstorm, hypothermia and frostbite become real dangers. Keep an eye on the forecasts, and always watch the skies. When they turn on you, turn around.
  3. When your skill level says no. There is nothing wrong with pushing your limits to get better. But there comes a point when your experience and skills don’t — and won’t — measure up to a challenge you come across at a specific time. The thought of bragging rights after a climb might sounds awesome… until you get cliffed out or injured and need to be evacuated from the mountain. Or worse. Don’t end up being a headline because your eyes were bigger than your stomach, so to speak. Be excited, be daring, but be realistic and honest with yourself.
  4. When your body says no. There are a lot of factors to consider here. Some of it might be conditioning, which is often the case at altitude. Perhaps the route was too long and too taxing, and you are out of steam. Or maybe you end up suffering from dehydration, altitude sickness or some other sort of illness that is making your summit bid too daunting to continue. I’ve pushed through pneumonia to bag a peak, but I don’t advise it. It’s better to listen to your body.
  5. When your partners say no. This is a biggie, and can be complicated. You may be following an experienced buddy and are amped to do something great, but he/she tells you it’s time to bail. Or perhaps you’re leading a group and your friends are too sketched out or too tired to continue. Listen to them. The only way you can split up a group is if you’ve planned for that contingency, and this is a rare exception. Even if you are sure you can go on to tackle a peak, or you’re certain that your partners are being overly cautious, listen to them anyway. The dangers of splitting up a group and the risks of alienating your friends/partners is not worth an iffy summit bid.
  6. When your preparations say no. Whether it’s the clothes you bring, the gear you hauled or the food/water you packed, if your adventure is going to outstrip your provisions it’s time to face the facts: being too hot/cold/wet/hungry/thirsty to reach your goal is a good sign it’s time to back off. Take a few mental notes, learn from your mistakes and use that knowledge to try again another day.
  7. When a combination of those first six items say no. Sometimes it seems that the world is plotting against you. When it really feels that way, maybe that’s less of a cosmic conspiracy and more of a giant series of red flags that it’s time to call it a day. Trust your instincts when lots of things are going really, really wrong before committing to topping out.

So that’s my list. Any tips of your own? Feel free to share in the comments!

Bob Doucette