Hiking Arkansas’ Magazine Mountain Trail

Craig takes in the scene from an overlook on the trail.

Between the briars slicing open my shins and picking off a couple of ticks, there was one thing that I failed to notice, something my hiking partner Craig noted.

“What’s great about this is we haven’t seen another soul.”

He was right. We’d been on the trail for a couple of hours, and the only non-insect beings we saw were a couple of snakes, a few lizards, and some turkey vultures riding the air currents high above a steep, heavily wooded ravine.

Solitude is something I expect in the remote parts of the country, but not in the South. Sparsely populated western states offer plenty of alone time if you want it. That’s tougher to find in states where small towns dot the landscape and paved highways take you to the tops of mountains.

So it was remarkable that this hike, going up the Magazine Mountain Trail in northwest Arkansas, was one in which we were the only humans around.

I’ll take that every time.

Looking out over a rocky outcrop three miles in, I uttered what became the de facto humorous slogan of the trip: “This does not suck.”

ARKANSAS’ HIGH PLACE

A view looking south from near the top of Magazine Mountain.

Magazine Mountain (alternatively, and interchangeably, called Mount Magazine) is the highest mountain in Arkansas, rising to 2,753 feet. It was named by French explorers who, after witnessing a landslide on its flanks, likened the sound to a munitions magazine exploding.

It’s the monarch of the Ouachita Mountains, an ancient band of east-west ridges and mesas that once soared to heights equal to that of the Rockies, back before tectonic movement pushed it away from the Appalachians and into the heart of the interior highlands of Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

The Ouachitas are separated from the Boston Mountains and the rest of the Ozarks by the Arkansas River. Clothing the entire region are dense hardwood and lodgepole pine forests filled with life.

The mountain itself dominates the skyline south of the river. It’s a long plateau crowned with a rim of rugged cliffs at the top, offering spectacular views of the Ouachitas all the way into Oklahoma to the east and the Boston Mountains to the north.

The mountain is mostly inside national forest land, though the top of the formation is land owned by the state, Mount Magazine State Park. The state park and the National Forest Service have a great partnership here, and part of that is maintaining a route that is one of Arkansas’ classic hikes, the 9.7-mile Magazine Mountain Trail.

Most people hike the peak from campgrounds at the top of the mountain down to Cove Lake, 1,500 feet below. But a downhill hike is not what Craig and I are accustomed to.

In some ways, Craig and I are similar hikers. We’re both flatlanders who have found ourselves at home hiking Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, and have a similar number of summits. But we have key differences, namely that he’s much faster at altitude and is seemingly tireless. Me? Not so much.

Thankfully, the altitudes of Arkansas aren’t nearly the factor that they are in Colorado. Otherwise I would have been eating Craig’s dust most of the way yet again.

A WALK IN THE WOODS

The low part of the trail, maybe a mile from the lower trailhead.

Our plan was to drive one of our cars to the lake, hike to the top, then use the other car to retrieve the first. The only other option would have been to do a round-trip hike that would have approached 20 miles. Both of us had done that before, but we were looking more for fun rather than something more demanding.

The trailhead at the lake is easy to miss, but a small parking area (big enough for two cars) revealed the start of the route. I had to remind myself that spring is the time where every fallen tree branch could be a snake. And that turned out to be true. Less than a mile in, a two-foot black snake sat in the middle of the trail, sunning itself, and not at all concerned with us. We were cool with that.

The trail was mostly an up-and-down affair, and then about three miles in, we climbed up to a cliff side that revealed some sweet views of nearby ridges and woodlands. Someone had set up a fire ring at that outcropping, so I suppose you could consider that place as a potential campsite. I guess that would be fine, but there wasn’t a water source nearby, and I’m all about having somewhere close to filter water so I don’t have to haul it all in. We were just passing through, so we snapped a few pics and Craig caught me saying something goofy on video.

“Say hello for the camera,” he said.

“’Sup, camera,” was about as witty as I could get.

A scenic overlook about three miles in.

I figured that our hike up the ridge was the start of ascending the mountain, but I was wrong. Every bit of elevation we gained there we quickly surrendered as the hike went on. As it turned out, this was just a stop along the way and we’d yet to reach the foot of the mountain. So while the maps showed the elevation gain from Cove Lake to the trail’s end at about 1,500 feet, you can easily tack on at least a couple hundred feet more, given this little feature and the constant up-and-down along the way.

Another thing we noticed: This was a very watery hike. For starters, route descriptions mention creek crossings, and there were several. You could cross some without getting your feet wet, but others, not so much. There was a lot of water coming down the mountain that day, a byproduct of frequent rains that had pounded this part of the state in the preceding week.

Some of the pines here were more than a hundred feet tall.

That also made the trail muddy in numerous spots. And in others, water flowed down the trail as if it were a creek itself. Any illusions of keeping our feet dry were quickly dispelled. Once you’re good with that, it’s not a problem. Otherwise, only high-top boots with waterproofing would have provided a chance at staying dry. And that would have been a big if.

The trail is well-marked. There were mile markers (though a few were missing), and white diamond-shaped blazes were nailed to trees frequently. The only tricky areas were, believe it or not, road crossings. The first one of those had the trail reappear in a grassy area across the road (they were all gravel access roads for National Forest Service work). The second one, however, gave us a little trouble.

About four miles in, we came to a road crossing that had one side of the road going uphill and the other splitting into a Y. One of those splits led to a gate, the other downhill. We looked up and down the road and saw no clear indication where the trail picked back up, and our map wasn’t altogether clear.

A fella in a truck pulled up, so we flagged him down. Looking at our map and compass, we took a guess, went up the hill and guessed wrong. We figured that out after Truck Guy drove back up the hill to tell us he saw where the trail left the road – down the hill, the opposite direction we were going. We were grateful for the assist. Who knows where we would have ended up had we kept trudging up the road. I made a mental note that I need to work on my orienteering skills.

With Truck Guy motoring down the road and us back on track, all signs of people vanished again. Every now and then, deadfall blocked our route. My guess is high winds from recent storms took down sick or dead trees along our path.

Somewhere past Mile 5, we hit another high point where two small clearings overlooked a steep, wooded slope. We could hear a creek rushing below us. The clearings also had a fire ring, and this seemed like a good place for someone to camp. The Magazine Mountain Trail is popular with backpackers, and some people turn the hike into a two-day, overnight excursion. We plopped down for some grub, did a tick check (we performed a few of those) and let the sounds of the rushing creek below wash over us.

We encountered a lot of creek crossings, including this one where our map indicated a bridge.

We were in for one more “major” creek crossing where the map indicated a bridge. I saw footings for a bridge on either bank, but something tells me that structure is long gone. It was just another soggy creek crossing, but we were used to that by then. No biggie, just squishy feet for a few minutes (and the promise of really rank socks back at camp).

Shortly after that, the trail started heading uphill in earnest. Nothing too steep, but we did hit two sections of switchbacks that were reminders of some of the more formidable trails we’d experienced in the Rockies. After the second set of switchbacks, the trail ascended the mountain in a steeper – and at times, soggier – straight line.

We knew we hit the state park boundary once the nature of the trail changed. Instead of the partially overgrown singletrack we’d been on all day, more stone stairs appeared.

The “up” gave way soon after, and before long camp had arrived, and with it, the promise of a good nap, fresh clothes, and the best camp food of all time, bratwursts with mac-and-cheese made by yours truly. Not like I’m biased or anything.

I could tell you that the scenery stole the show, and indeed, this is a great hike. It’s not often you can trek on a longer trail in the South and have nearly absolute solitude in a place that was so lush, so green, and so alive.

Craig takes a break near the end of the hike.

But as is the case with most hikes, it’s often the company you keep that makes the trip. All along the way, Craig and I compared stories from the mountains, our solo ascents, or the more memorable peaks. We talked about how we first got into hiking the Fourteeners, who we met, and what mountains we’d like to climb next. A lot of times, sharing these mountain tales leaves many of those we know a little glassy-eyed. I think they’d rather see a couple of pics and move on.

But within our little fellowship, these stories are the spice of life. They often intersect with big lessons learned, shared experiences with family and friends, and time to process big ideas. It’s made easier when there’s no cellphone service, so any urgent texts, emails or notifications are held at bay, leaving room for good conversation or quiet reflection. We don’t get enough of that, you know.

And all that would indeed come. We’d go back to families, back to jobs, back to the noise of daily life beyond these ancient woods. But for a time we let the forest take us in, block everything else out and send us back in time before people tried to tame these lands. Wild places can be savage, but they can also soothe.

ABOUT THE ROUTE

From Cove Lake, start the hike at a small parking pullout near the dam. The trail is well-marked and easy to follow, with very few side trails, most of which are partially overgrown.

About two miles in will be your first road crossing. Tall grasses obscure the trail on the other side of the road, but it will be slightly to your right.

Continue another mile to reach a rocky outcropping. This is a potential camping area, but also a good spot to rest, eat and evaluate the weather, as the bulk of the hike still lies ahead.

Another 1.5 miles up the trail is another road crossing. To your right, the road splits into a Y, with the right-hand fork leading immediately to a gate while the other fork goes downhill. Take the downhill fork. The route includes a small section of the road, but less than 200 yards downhill, the trail will appear to your left and leaves the road for good.

From here, a general uphill climb begins, with some elevation loss and gain. About 5 miles in, you’ll reach two clearings that have been used as campsites. This is just past the halfway point of the route, so it’s a logical place to stop and camp if you’re backpacking. It’s also a good point to evaluate the weather as well as your progress, as the hardest part of the hike still awaits.

The woods reflected on the still waters of a pond.

Past the campsites, the trail continues another two miles before going uphill in earnest. You’ll go uphill for a time and the route will flatten out and take you between two ponds.

Upon leaving the ponds behind, you’ll arrive at the first set of steeper switchbacks, of which there are four. The route eases for a bit, then hits another set of three switchbacks. Leaving those behind, the route eases momentarily, then steepens again. A series of rock steps will appear as you leave the Ozark National Forest and enter Mount Magazine State Park. Continue a steep hike for another mile before the terrain eases and leads you to the boundary of the Cameron Bluffs campsites.

Route length is 9.7 miles, all Class 1 hiking with minimal exposure.

EXTRA CREDIT

Hike south through the campsite, cross the main road and go a half mile up the Signal Hill Trail to the summit of Magazine Mountain and the state’s high point.

Or, if you’re up for it, make it a bigger day by hiking from Cove Lake to the summit, then back down to the lake. 19-21 miles, depending on if you tack on the Signal Hill Trail hike.

THINGS TO KNOW

There is no motorized travel or biking allowed on the Magazine Mountain Trail. Hiking only.

The mountains of Arkansas are bear country. Talk and make noise to alert bears of your presence, and do not attempt to feed them (or any wildlife, for that matter). Give any bear plenty of room, especially if it is a mother with her cubs. If you’re camping, be sure to hang any food or fragrant possessions (toothpaste, deordorant, soap, etc) in a bear bag away from your campsite. Never store these items in your tent.

Bob Doucette

Picking the right shoe for your next hike

Hmmm. Which should I wear for my next hike…

As we move closer to Memorial Day weekend, a lot of people are looking toward bigger hikes through the summer and into fall. Many of you are all-season hikers, but a good set of people lace up their hiking boots in earnest once the warm weather seasons settle in.

This is the crowd I’m talking to. And the main topic in this post is going to be about footwear.

Millions of words have been written about all kinds of gear you might need or want for hiking. I’m not exaggerating about that. But when it comes to hiking gear, it always starts with what you slip on your feet.

Plenty of stories about newbie hikers getting in trouble on the trail include references to blisters, frostbite or injured ankles due to inadequate footwear. For most people, the wrong shoe or boot can become a painful nuisance. In more extreme cases – injuries, infections or other maladies – what you wear can be the difference between a great day outside and a major crisis.

But not every trail or outing requires heavy-duty boots. And some trails require more than a light shoe.

Let’s keep this simple so things don’t get too complicated. Basically speaking, you’re looking at three types of hiking footwear: a light shoe, a light boot and a heavy-duty boot. Here’s how I’d describe them:

Light shoe: In short, these are shoes for trail running. They’re going to be light, they’ll drain water quickly, and unlike regular running shoes, their soles are going to be more rugged as they’re designed to protect a runner’s feet from protruding rocks, roots and stumps. While designed for running, they are fine for hiking and desirable for people who are trying to cut weight in what they wear on the trail.

Light boot: Meant for hiking. These will have more rugged construction in the upper and the sole than a light shoe. Though you can run in them, they’re going to be heavier than is comfortable over longer distances. Instead, light boots are made to provide comfort and protection for your feet, but will not be so bulky to weigh you down. Light boots are designed for day hikers who might do some off-trail hiking or walking on more rugged, demanding terrain than a light shoe would warrant. Many light boots are low-top in design, so ankle support would be similar to a light shoe. Some will be mid-top for more support.

Heavy-duty boot: Meant for hiking under demanding conditions, including steep slopes, uneven or loose terrain, bushwhacking and possible water crossings and snow travel. These boots will have sturdy soles and uppers. A decent boot will also have some sort of waterproofing, and many will be fitted in a way where crampons can be strapped on when needed. The best of them will be puncture resistant to things like cactus, rocks and roots. The bulk of these boots will have a mid- to high-top for more ankle stability.

What you choose to wear is going to depend on where you’re going, your goals, and even your level of hiking experience. Here are some general scenarios and then recommendations. Keep in mind, no recommendation is absolute. Here goes:

A short hike on a good trail meant that I was fine with wearing these.

Short day hike on well-maintained and easier trails: Comfort is key to enjoying a hike like this, so lighter footwear is called for. Go with the light shoe.

Day hike on hilly, more difficult terrain: In this case, performance is what matters. You’re going to need to protect your feet, keep your footing but still have enough comfort where the hike is enjoyable. The light boot is a good bet here, but a light shoe can be work if you’re confident in your hiking abilities or have a higher degree of familiarity with the route being hiked.

Exploratory hike that might include off-route bushwhacking: In this case, you’re going to be on uneven terrain with a high potential for encountering tripping elements like rocks and roots, and possibly puncture hazards like cactus, sharp rocks and broken or sharp limbs. Comfort and protection will be key, so light shoes are out. You can get away with a light boot, but a heavy-duty boot would be a better bet.

Below this summit were snow slopes. A heavier boot that could handle crampons was called for.

Mixed-terrain hiking that includes water crossings and/or snow travel: These types of hikes often include the same pitfalls as the exploratory hikes, but throw in the added problems of keeping your feet dry when encountering stream crossings, standing water or snow. The snow issue becomes more acute when the route is on a steeper slope or up a couloir, when the snow might be deeper. Postholing also becomes an issue, as you might be punching through snow and into unseen, uneven ground. In these situations, you’re going to want footwear that is waterproof, has ankle support and rugged overall construction. You can get away with wearing a light boot, but you’re better served with a heavy-duty boot that can handle the rigors of the route and keep your feet dry.

Long-haul hiking or backpacking: This could be anything from multi-day backpacking to thru-hiking. Your footwear is going to need to be engineered to protect your feet from everything listed in mixed-terrain hiking, but also must be comfortable and light enough to help you sustain extended periods of hiking while loaded with backpacking gear. The boot in question will also need to be durable enough to handle these demands over several days or weeks without breaking down. The heavy-duty boot is called upon here, but you’ll want to shop carefully to make sure that it meets all your demands while being as light as possible. If this is your game, you’ll want to research thoroughly and prepare to spend more on a high-end, heavy-duty boot. The extra money spent here will be worth every penny when you’ve been on the trail for a few weeks. Or months.

So there you have it. Any good hike always starts with what you put on your feet. Enjoy the trail!

Bob Doucette

When adventure happens: Things don’t go as planned on Crestone Peak

David at the top of Broken Hand Pass, contemplating the storm and the descent.

David at the top of Broken Hand Pass, contemplating the storm and the descent.

The term “adventure” means different things to different people. For some, it could be something as benign as checking out a farmer’s market in a town where you’ve never been. For others, a day of climbing on a new crag or backpacking to a place in which you’re unfamiliar. And for the rare souls, maybe traversing foreign lands solo on a motorcycle, where the language is not your own, the food is strange and the risk of harm from wildlife, weather or other humans is real.

Perspective is everything here. But in my conversations with people about adventure, there is a common thread that surfaces just about every time: Adventure often exists in realms where the unplanned happens. If the success of your plans for a trip or an outing is guaranteed, it’s not an adventure.

This is something I keep in mind every time I head to the mountains. The interaction of elevation, weather and will can make or break your goals in the high country.

I found that out on Longs Peak last summer, when poor weather turned me and my friends back a mile and a thousand feet short of the summit. All that effort, only to walk away with disappointment. That was in the back of my mind when my friend David and I headed into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to tackle Crestone Peak and Humboldt Peak.

I felt confident that I could handle the challenges of these mountains. But I also know that all mountains – from the benign walk-ups to their burlier, steeper cousins – have the potential to humble the most seasoned among us.

THE PEAKS

The plan was to attempt a climb of Crestone Peak, a rugged spire that shares the skyline with its more elegant kin, Crestone Needle, above South Colony Lakes. We’d considered climbing the Needle, but neither of us had been on that mountain before, and we’d read reports of people having route-finding problems in the way down. About a month ago, a climber died from a fall after going down the wrong gully, and just last week, another fall on the Needle required an extraction from a local search and rescue team. Crestone Peak is much more straightforward, so we opted for that mountain instead.

Crestone Peak is no piece of cake. The bulk of the ascent involves a good amount of exposed, sustained climbing on good, knobby rock. That has a special appeal, but the quality of the rock does not mean this is an easy mountain to climb. It has its challenges, too, and if you’re caught high on the peak with weather moving in, it’s a dangerous place to be. It’s considered the ninth-most-difficult of the 58 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado for a reason.

Humboldt Peak has a completely different nature than the Crestones. It’s a straightforward hike up it’s cool, windswept west ridge, and its appearance – described by mountaineer and author Gerry Roach as “a shapeless hump” – makes it seem like far less of a challenge than its South Colony Lakes neighbors. Objectively speaking, this is true. But even Humboldt has its surprises, particularly when snow and ice is present. Cliff bands on the middle and lower flanks of its slopes have proven to be quite dangerous to the unwary who have attempted glissades and ski descents. Humboldt has been known to kill. Snow and ice were nearly absent in the area when we arrived, but stories of mishaps on all these peaks were good reminders not to take any of them lightly.

ALTITUDE, RAIN AND CHILLED TO THE BONE

When I go to the mountains, one of my biggest obstacles is altitude. I live far away, at 800 feet above sea level. Even when I’m in shape, the challenge of altitude is high. No amount of running, hill climbs or heat training has adequately prepared me for hiking uphill with a loaded pack at 10,000 feet or higher.

So backpacking into South Colony Lakes was laborious. A road that led higher up the route had since been closed, so it’s a few miles from the new four-wheel-drive trailhead to the campsites near the lakes. It’s not steep, but it feels that way when your lungs and heart are still operating as if they were at sea level. Past the old upper trailhead, the route gets a little steeper and more rugged.

Rain began to intermittently fall on us as we hiked higher. Temperatures dropped. The level of work my body was putting in had already made me sweat through my shirt, so a little rain wasn’t going to make any difference. But things changed once we got to our campsite and stopped hiking. With the activity that kept my core temperature up now over, the whole “cold and wet” thing took over.

“Man, I need to get myself going,” I told David as I tried to get the tent out of my pack and get it set up, shivering.

“Yeah, can barely get my fingers to work right,” he said.

We fumbled around with the tent poles and the stakes until we finally got our shelter in place. There was still some campsite work to be done, but as my shivering grew more extreme, I decided I needed to get in my sleeping bag immediately. I had to warm up.

So I crawled into my bag and shook for about 40 minutes as the sun continued to set. I felt a little bad about it, partially because of the aforementioned camp chores that still awaited, but also because I felt like the weak link. Something that’s always in the back of my mind is a hope that my own deficiencies do not hinder my friends from achieving their goals. David has more than 60 summits under his belt, and from past experiences (we’ve climbed Mount Sneffels and Wetterhorn Peak together) I knew that he was the senior partner on this venture. I wondered if the sight of me huffing and puffing up to camp, and now shivering in my sleeping bag was bringing him down. It certainly didn’t look like a good omen to me.

After a bit, I rallied enough to get out of the tent and help out a little before we called it a night. Neither of us slept much, but consolation came as the clouds cleared and the stars came out. One of the benefits of having to take a leak in the middle of the night is getting a quiet moment to look at the night sky, and the tens of thousands of stars that shine overhead in ways you cannot appreciate inside a city or at lower altitudes.

I tucked in again and listened to high winds build through the pre-dawn hours. Sleep never came as I wondered what those winds would be like going over Broken Hand Pass, and then higher on the peak. Thankfully, the winds subsided by dawn, but the pass had its own obstacles.

A THOUSAND FEET OF YUCK

Alpenglow on Crestone Needle.

Alpenglow on Crestone Needle.

By morning, I was surprisingly energetic. Maybe it was the fact that the winds died down, or that bright sunshine seemed to indicate favorable conditions for the day. Our first sight was alpenglow hitting Crestone Needle – one of the most beautiful alpine scenes you could ever ask for. The Needle is a lot of things, but first and foremost, it’s one of the most striking peaks I’ve ever seen.

The hike toward the pass is pleasant enough. But the pass is anything but. Broken Hand Pass is just shy of 1,000 feet above South Colony Lakes and is gained by hiking and scrambling up a loose, rubble-filled mess of a gully before ending with a short, grassy slope near the top.

We burned a lot of energy going up this pass, and David wondered aloud what it would be like descending it on our way back.

Looking up toward Broken Hand Pass.

Looking up toward Broken Hand Pass.

The pass wasn’t a total bust – it had a short section of scrambling that was sort of fun, and a taste of what we hoped to see later when we reached the peak. But our progress was slow, and rockfall a concern. We both agreed that the gully and the pass would not be a good place to be if the weather turned.

Topping out at just shy of 13,000 feet, we looked down into mellower slopes leading toward Cottonwood Lake, and later, to the base of Crestone Peak.

Low clouds were beginning to blow in from the west, but it was still mostly sunny and the temps began to warm. Sunshine seemed to bring life into the valley, and by that, I mean the bugs. Once things warmed, mosquitoes and flies rose from the marshes and set upon us almost immediately. It was great motivation to get moving, get higher and get away from the swarm that sought to feast on us that morning.

At the top of Broken Hand Pass, looking down at Cottonwood Lake.

At the top of Broken Hand Pass, looking down at Cottonwood Lake.

ON THE PEAK

For awhile, it appeared the clouds coming from the west were only going to amount to fog. They’d obscured Crestone Peak for much of the morning, but cleared just long enough for us to get a good look at the route. Some steeper hiking led to a signature feature in the middle of the mountain, the Red Gully, a water-worn strip of red rock that splits the center of the mountain’s south face. Above it were rockier, steeper pitches of conglomerate rock that were said to make for enjoyable, sustained climbing all the way to the peak’s summit.

Going up the Red Gully on Crestone Peak.

Going up the Red Gully on Crestone Peak.

It’s important to note that the type of rock in the Red Gully is different than what is higher up. Runoff from the mountain flows down the face and has worn much of the gully smooth. It’s not that steep, but it is slick in spots, even more so when wet. You need good traction from your footwear at this point, something David was having trouble finding.

His boots were only a year old, but the tread, for whatever reason, wasn’t allowing him to smear the face of the gully without slipping. As the gully steepened, the problems only got worse.

“I think I’m getting past my comfort zone here,” he said, while also saying he wished he had has trail runners on at that point. “I can’t get any grip.”

We stopped for a few minutes to assess the situation. We figured getting up the gully could be managed, but getting down could get difficult. Water continued to flow down the gully’s center, reminding us what had made the rock so slick, and foretelling what it might be like should we get caught in rain. I looked up and saw the route ahead, with still another 1,000 feet or more of climbing yet to do. Crestone’s summit was again hidden by clouds, and over a couple of ridges, those clouds appeared to build. The forecast for the day predicted a chance of storms early that afternoon, but it was clear that those storms were arriving early. With well over an hour of climbing ahead of us just to summit and the other problems now at hand it wasn’t looking good. Halfway up the Red Gully, we pulled the plug.

Gathering clouds around the ridge between Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle.

Gathering clouds around the ridge between Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle.

David was feeling pretty bad about it, noting that I’d come a long way to do this particular peak. But if there is one thing I appreciate about him is his respect for risk, and his experience in determining what those risks are. I’m positive we could have summitted. I’m not so sure how safe the downclimb would have been, especially considering how the skies were beginning to look. As they day wore on, his boot problems might have been providential, giving us pause at the correct moment to turn around before we became overcommitted going up as the weather worsened.

RETREAT OVER THE PASS

Wildflowers galore.

Wildflowers galore.

While it was a bummer to bail on the summit, it did allow for more time to enjoy the scenery around Cottonwood Lake. The monsoons had given the lake plenty of water, fed by runoff from the surrounding peaks and a busy little stream that split the valley. By early August, many of the wildflower blooms were long over, but not here. The banks of the stream were carpeted by tall plants with golden blooms, a great contrast to the green grasses and stony brown and gray walls surrounding the lake. Above us, clouds continued to move in like freight trains, quickly and steadily rushing across the skies and in between the spires high above. The interplay between the sun and the clouds, of bright light and dark shadows, gave the entire valley an ethereal feel. I stopped frequently to look up and around, taking pictures and enjoying the wild scenery before the real work of reascending Broken Hand Pass began.

Both of us had talked about the possibility of hiking Humboldt Peak the next morning. It’s a less demanding ascent, but we were pretty beat. But after getting turned back on Crestone Peak, there was more determination to salvage what we could out of the trip.

That thought had us looking ahead, perhaps a bit too far. The skies reminded us to pay attention to the now.

Ominous optics at Cottonwood Lake.

Ominous optics at Cottonwood Lake.

About two-thirds of the way up the pass, a loud and prolonged peal of thunder sounded off. The best I could tell, it came from the east, and the weather patterns indicated that anything going east of us would be heading away. Even then, I knew lightning strikes could travel in any direction. But no matter what, we’d be forced to keep climbing. It didn’t matter what the storm was doing – we still had to go up and over the pass in order to get into camp and relative safety. There was no good place to shelter where we were, or back down at Cottonwood Lake. We’d have to take our chances high on the pass and in the trickier parts of the descent on the other side and hope for the best.

Near the top of the pass, another peal of thunder, this time louder, bouncing off the walls of the mountains in a fast-moving explosion of echoes, like timed dynamite charges. The clouds darkened. Again, it was east of us. But it was a sign to get moving and get down quickly.

When we topped out, we could see the storm and its handiwork. Large volumes of rain were falling, and traces of hail or grauppel – we weren’t sure which – frosted the rugged cliff bands of Humboldt Peak. It was quite a sight, dark and forbidding. But it also confirmed to us that the storm was moving on and had not dumped much of anything on the pass. A good sign, seeing that the descent would be tricky enough as it was.

It took awhile to get down. We descended in choreographed segments, making sure whoever was downslope was clear of the fall line in case the person above accidentally kicked something loose. Rockfall is a real issue on the east side of Broken Hand Pass.

As time passed, the weather improved. We were tired and cursed the difficulties of the pass (“If I never see Broken Hand Pass again, it will be too soon,” I muttered more than once), but optimistic about what we could do the next day.

ONE MORE SURPRISE

The steepness of the trail eased once we reached the lakes. The day was ending well, and the upside to the hike was clearly seeing the route on Humboldt. David said the trail work done there recently was excellent, and its length wasn’t that much, so a good night’s sleep and some hot food should have had us ready to roll the next morning.

David near the bottom of Broken Hand Pass.

David near the bottom of Broken Hand Pass.

We entered the woods just below the lakes and neared camp. About then David stopped and walked up to a partially uprooted tree, then pointed it out to me.

Looking around a bit, he said, “It’s gone.”

By “it,” he meant his bear canister. He’d stashed it there, about a hundred feet away from our tent, as per the instructions that came with it. All of our food was in that canister, with the exception of what we had in our summit packs: half a summer sausage, a couple of cheese sticks, some apple sauce, trail mix and some dried fruit. Barely enough for one person’s single meal.

We looked around camp. No sign of it. One of two things happened: There is currently a bear around South Colony Lakes playing soccer with David’s canister, or someone saw where it was stashed and made off with it.

I’m thinking it was people rather than wildlife. There had been no reports of bear activity in the area that we’d heard of, and no signs of bear tracks or scat. A brand new canister loaded with food might have been tempting to campers lacking a conscience.

What this meant for us: Humboldt was now a no-go. That choice had been made for us by others. The only question remaining was whether we stayed the night and hiked out in the morning or packed out that afternoon.

We chose the latter. But not before chowing down on what we had left and getting a good snooze. We earned that much. Once that was done and we started packing out, David said something that summed up the last two days:

“Well, you could definitely say we had an adventure.”

I thought about that for a bit, and it stuck with me. Yes, we did have an adventure. It wasn’t a Mallory-on-Everest adventure, or Amundsen-Scott in Antarctica, but it was an adventure. We had some hardships, like the beginnings of hypothermia. There were challenges, like getting over Broken Hand Pass. Threats from the skies, like high winds in the middle of the night and storms the next day. And in some cases, too much of the wrong things to make the trip “a success,” when weather, gear and human morality all failed.

But it wasn’t a total loss. In between all those misfortunes were grand scenes of some of the most dramatic places in the Colorado high country: the rays of the rising sun bathing Crestone Needle, for example. The lush greenery around Cottonwood Lake. The fierce ramparts of Crestone Peak, shrouded in clouds, glowering at us from a couple of thousand feet above. Those sights are seared into my memory, as is the knowledge gained from being there. If there’s a next time, I have a good idea what to expect.

I also had good company. That matters when you’re out in the backcountry. A good, strong partner who can hold a conversation is valuable, especially when it’s someone you know you can trust and who will put up with your own flaws.

So we did have an adventure, one that didn’t go as planned. But it was worthwhile nonetheless.

Hiking out.

Hiking out.

Bob Doucette

Spectacular scenes from the San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Late spring atop Wetterhorn Peak.

Late spring atop Wetterhorn Peak.

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

American Basin, near Lake City, Colorado.

American Basin, near Lake City, Colorado.

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

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from neighboring Matterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from neighboring Matterhorn Peak.

…and how wild the weather can get.

Changing weather as seen from atop Uncompahgre Peak.

Changing weather as seen from atop Uncompahgre Peak.

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

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

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

Bob Doucette

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

An appreciation of trail people

I showed up at a trailhead not knowing these folks. I left with a new group of friends. This was three years ago on Torreys Peak, Colo. (Chuck Erle photo)

I showed up at a trailhead not knowing these folks. I left with a new group of friends. This was three years ago on Torreys Peak, Colo. (Chuck Erle photo)

Friends come quickly when you’re a kid. There’s an innocence about childhood where it’s easier to trust your peers, and the medium on which friendships are built is usually as simple as the availability to come out and play. When you get older, friends might be people you meet in class, on your team, or in some other group where people find interesting or like-minded peers.

It gets more complicated as you age. Trust is harder to earn, but even then it’s amazing how quickly people get together and become best buds in places like high school or college. Especially college. You get a reset there, where you go from knowing a bunch of people from your neighborhood or hometown to knowing almost no one, forcing you to crawl out of your protective shell, meet people and learn a lot of them are as insecure and in need of a friendly face as you are.

I don’t meet people easily. Every time I go to a new place or try to engage strangers in social functions, it doesn’t feel right to me. It often seems forced. Trust is a commodity I value highly, and I don’t give it lightly. I’m sure, like a lot of you out there, it has something to do with opening up to someone who seemed trustworthy only to get burned later, or to think you had a bead on someone only to find out that he or she was nothing like you originally thought. So I sit back, quietly observe, and maybe over time I let folks in. It’s not that I’m unfriendly or standoff-ish, but I definitely take my time cultivating relationships.

So imagine the potential discomfort with this scenario…

Step one: Get on social media, play up an idea to go on a short trip into the mountains.

Step two: Get replies from people I’ve never met or only met once saying they’d like to be part of that plan.

Step three: Say, “OK, I’ll go with you into a wild area without having any idea what spending many hours in potentially uncomfortable places is going to be like with you, or how you’ll react to me.”

On the surface, this sounds like a great way to get robbed or pushed off a cliff, depending on the intentions of the people you’re meeting, or how weary of you they become after spending said many hours with you in uncomfortable places. But here’s the thing: I’ve done this before. I’ve done this a few times, and thus far, I have yet to regret any such meet-up to spend a day, or even several days, with folks I’ve never met.

This happens a lot among various outdoorsy communities. Climbers, hikers, backpackers, you get the drift. I like to call them trail people, because whatever it is they’re doing, there is a decent chance it’s going to include some time walking on a trail through the woods or in a desert or wherever.

Trail people are a different lot. Some of the finest people I know are men and women who I met, quite literally, at a trailhead or in a meetup to drive to a trailhead, and thus far none of them have turned out to be stick-up artists or axe murderers. Their stories are often my stories, too, and because of that, those bonds of friendship seem to coalesce a little faster than they do in my non-trail world.

Chuck Erle in his element on the Crestones. (Noel Johnson photo)

Chuck Erle in his element on the Crestones. (Noel Johnson photo)

FINDING POINT C

Sometimes you get to a point in life where you feel stuck. Whatever that might be, your Point A led to a Point B, and Point B didn’t turn out to be what you’d hoped. Maybe it was radically different than what you expected, or a bit of a letdown. Point B can also be a gateway: a passage to change.

Point B eventually led my friend Chuck to Point C, which happened to be atop an icy, windblown summit on Colorado’s Torreys Peak in the middle of winter. To hear him tell it, the journey to that summit was an eventful one, and one relying heavily on people who shared his growing fascination with the high country.

I’ve hiked with Chuck a few times, and climbed some of Colorado’s highest with him. I find it almost impossible to keep up with the dude. He’s built like a basketball small forward, long-legged and rangy, each stride seemingly consuming twice the amount of ground as mine. For a bigger guy, he moves smoothly and fast, even at altitude. I think the last time I hiked with him I gave up keeping pace somewhere just past 11,000 feet. Staying on his heels was rather pointless for me, the hapless flatlander. I figured I’d see him later on, chilling on the summit, busting my chops when I arrived.

Chuck has climbed nearly all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, popularly known as the 14ers. His first peak was the same as it was for countless others, Grays Peak, a tall but relatively simple hike to its 14,270-foot summit, the highest spot in the Front Range. It’s close to Denver, making it a popular destination day hikers and people wanting to get their first 14er under their belt.

For Chuck, it was a date of sorts with his girlfriend at the time well over a decade ago. They’d also hiked Mount Sniktau and a few other local peaks. That relationship passed, and it would be awhile longer before he’d hit the peaks again.

“After we broke up I never hiked again…instead, I dated, partied, got married (a second time), got fat, smoked, drank and just worked in the suburbia rat race,” he said.

But Grays had planted a seed in his mind, and before long he was seeking advice from others on where to go and what to do in the high country. So he hit the gym, lost some weight, quit smoking and got online to learn more about the 14ers.

“I met some really cool people on the page (the 14ers.com website) and had a blast Facebooking with them. I was becoming obsessed with the fun that the 14er group page was becoming and needed to get back into climbing 14ers again. From mid-summer to October 2011, only after a few months in the gym and having quit ten years of smoking I hiked Quandary, Bierstadt, Sherman, Princeton, Shavano, and Antero.”

Like a lot of people, he obeyed the unwritten rules of when hiking season officially began and ended, assuming that things would be too cold, uncomfortable and dangerous when the snow began in the fall.

But then he saw some photos on that Facebook page of a gal named Noel getting her altitude fix on the flanks of Pikes Peak in the dead of winter. So he started corresponding with her, asking questions, and building the confidence that maybe a winter summit isn’t something reserved for hardcore mountaineers after all.

Chuck is a planner, so he kept doing the things he felt would give him the best chance of success in this coveted winter adventure. He kept hitting the gym, dropping down to a trim 195 pounds (down from north of 250 in his past, pre-14er life) and researched local routes that were doable for a guy who had yet to challenge the peaks during winter. His work steered him back toward a familiar area, not far from his first 14er, Grays Peak. The plan: Drive to Loveland Pass, hike to Grizzly Peak, then traverse the distance between it and another one of the Front Range giants, Torreys Peak, Grays’ slightly shorter but wilder sibling. He’d then hike down the Grays Peak trail into Stevens Gulch, where presumably a second car would be waiting and call it a day.

All he needed now were some companions.

He knew a guy named Durant, and they pulled in another dude from the virtual world, Rob. They followed a route along the Continental Divide, topping out on unnamed 12,000-foot peaks, then Cupid Peak, and later Grizzly Peak. From there, it was decision time, to see whether the conditions and their speed would allow them to continue on to Torreys’ 14,267-foot summit. Once they dropped off Grizzly, they’d be committed to tackling Torreys and whatever the elements had in store, no small thing considering how quickly and dangerously things can change during a Rocky Mountain winter.

Fortunately, the weather cooperated. Unfortunately, gravity did not.

“From the top of Grizzly, Durant, Rob and myself had a quick rest to rehydrate and fuel up before finishing the first leg of the trip. Torreys lay in wait as we gathered our gear… well, as Durant and I gathered our gear. Rob had placed his new pack on the snow near the Grizzly summit and as we were all distracted milling through our packs for food and drink, Rob’s pack began to slowly slide off the summit ridge, picked up momentum and was soon bounding down the slope and eventually veering off cliff edges and exploding with each airy bounce, jettisoning his food, drink and new gear he picked up just a day earlier, including his wife’s cell phone. Luckily we had extra water and a few snacks that Rob would ration for the duration of the hike.”

Safety is, indeed, found in numbers. Had Rob been alone, losing all that gear so far from a trailhead could have had dire consequences. Fortunately his buddies had his back.

Eventually, the strain of the day started to catch up with Chuck. Fighting the snowpack, the winds, the steepness of the slope and the altitude made his legs heavy, and soon Durant and Rob began to fade out of sight. Chuck kept on, stopping to rest, adjust his pack or take in the views. As is often the case, weird and sometimes macabre thoughts crossed his mind.

“I actually thought about how long it would take Search and Rescue to come pick me up if I were to become too exhausted to continue.”

He rallied, however, finding a rhythm and catching sight of his friends higher up. Waving his trekking poles to let them know he was still moving, he caught up and the three advanced to the top of Torreys Peak together.

Winter outings like Chuck’s can be amazing because of the solitude. You and your group may be the only ones out there while everyone else is sequestered indoors or crowding ski lifts or doing something other than willing their way up the icy slopes of a high peak on a cold day. That was the case for Chuck, Durant and Rob, taking in sweeping views of nearby Front Range peaks, with even the giant mass of Pikes Peak visible from more than a hundred miles away.

That sort of solitude makes you feel a little special, as if what you see, hear and smell is there only for you – a reward for venturing out when others wouldn’t, going places that are hard to get to and passing the physical and mental tests along the way. Using one of his trekking poles to steady his camera, Chuck began documenting the views in pictures.

The trio got off the mountain, got in their waiting second car and drove back retrieve the first car parked at Loveland Pass. On the way, his first thought was to text Noel, the gal who encouraged him to give a winter ascent a try.

“I knew she would appreciate the accomplishment and be proud. I had told her all along this trip was in part inspired by her. My only disappointment that day was that she was unable to accompany me on the hike.”

Chuck’s trip lasted a day, but the journey was much, much longer. When you live in Denver, you see the mountains every time you step outside and look to the west. You wonder what it would be like to climb one. Mount Evans looms tall over the city, inviting you to come on up. And some do, like when Chuck and his ex-girlfriend did years ago, and perhaps that experience inspires more.

But as is often the case, getting to those places takes a team, with each person playing a specific role. You need an instigator to drag you out for a hike. You need an inspiration, a person doing things who makes you think, “Hey, if she can do it, why can’t I?” And you need friends who can go with you, to be your safety net, your encouragement, your source of high-fives at the summit and people with whom you can retell stories over burgers and beer in some mountain town down the road from the trailhead, guys like Durant and Rob.

You need your trail people.

Bill Wood heading up the trail toward Mount Eolus. (Jenny Saylor photo)

Bill Wood heading up the trail toward Mount Eolus. (Jenny Saylor photo)

14ER HIGH

You might wonder how I came to know Chuck, or how I came to learn this part of his story. We didn’t grow up together, we’re not neighbors, and really, if not for a few chance encounters, I may never have met him at all. How I got to know Chuck was as simple as knowing someone who knew him, and having that guy respond to a call looking for people who might be interested in tackling a peak on a summer weekend when I happened to be in Denver.

That guy’s name is Bill. How I met Bill is a little like how Chuck met Noel, corresponding online, then later meeting face to face when I was hiking out from a backpacking trip in the San Juans.

Colorado’s hiking community – it’s trail people –  is dominated by those seeking the summits of the 14ers. There’s an entire website dedicated to the 14ers, a comprehensive service with route descriptions, lists, real-time conditions reports and a forum for users to talk to each other about all things hiking, climbing and skiing the 14ers. One day a few years back I put a post on the forum about “Okie Mountaineering,” describing some offseason climbing opportunities for people living in the Southern Plains. A gal named Beth had been doing some work in southeastern Oklahoma and messaged me about what hiking opportunities might be close to her job site.

We chatted about those topics for a while, and then her brother joined in, her brother being Bill. I learned that they’d be hiking Uncompahgre Peak the same weekend I’d be there, but we all just missed each other until I was walking out on the four-wheel-drive road down the mountain. Bill and Beth were fortunate enough to have a rig that could handle the roughness of that road, and somehow they recognized me as they were easing their way down. Just like that, people in the virtual world met in the flesh.

We kept in touch over the years, and it was in preparing for a business trip to Denver that we got our first opportunity to hit the trail together. Bill answered my query by suggesting an alternative route up Torreys Peak.

Unlike that winter ascent of Torreys Peak that Chuck pursued, where no one was on the mountain except for him and his little group, Torreys Peak in the summer is a really busy place. Being so close to Denver and easy to get to, many people give it a try. Its most popular route is a hike – a strenuous one, for sure, but not something where any special skill or daring is required.

But Torreys Peak is somewhat complicated, with several other ways to the top. When snow is present, there is a deep, vertical gash down the middle of the mountain called Dead Dog Couloir that some people will try to climb, and for expert skiers, ride down. We wouldn’t be doing that, but we would get a crack at a different path, that of scaling the peak from its wilder, more demanding Kelso Ridge.

Kelso Ridge is, at points, a steep line that includes several gullies and walls that take you from mere hiking to climbing. Many of these climbing spots overlook airy drop-offs some people can’t stomach. One such wall overlooks Dead Dog, then tops out at the ridge’s most dramatic feature, a short knife-edge ridge that abruptly ends at a large, white rock formation just below the summit. Going over that knife-edge, then traversing the white rock is an exercise in absorbing the visuals of big air all around. If you’re unduly scared of heights, I imagine this ridge would not be your idea of a good time. But if you can get past that, it really is a lot of fun to climb and it frees you from the conga line of day hikers trudging their way up the well-worn trail on the other side of the mountain.

This was the first time I’d been on a mountain with Bill and Beth. It was also the place where I first met Chuck, Noel and Durant. You might remember how earlier I said that the prospect of online meet-ups is far, far out of my comfort zone. And yet there I was, hanging out with a gaggle of new friends on a mountain, enjoying a spectacular, blue-bird day after tackling what was, for me at the time, a challenging line to the top. Kelso Ridge may have been the first time I’d hiked with this bunch, but it would not be the last.

To hear Bill tell it, his story is not much different.

Bill had done some hiking earlier in life, but it was Beth that got him into doing the 14ers. She was talking about going up Huron Peak, a gorgeous hike with some of the most dramatic views in the entire Sawatch Range of central Colorado. Bill’s interest was piqued.

“I distinctly remember one July morning in 2002, when my sister, who had been climbing some 14ers in the past, had said that she was planning on climbing Huron Peak.  Something inside me just leaped out and asked if I could come,” he said.

So on August 2 of that year (the date is seared into his memory), Bill summitted Huron Peak, his first 14er, and a new passion was born. He got a few more under his belt and formed a group called “The Lardass 14ers Club” (“we had T-shirts made,” he notes). Beth served as Bill’s guide for a while, and as the group grew and he got to know more like-minded people, an entirely new circle of friends was found. Many years and many peaks later, I became a small part of that growing crowd.

During a more recent summer drive into the San Juans, Bill was driving a group of us around and we were discussing the type of people who like exploring the mountains. He had a friend of his, a young gal named Jenny, and I’d brought a buddy from Tulsa, Matt, who was looking to climb his first 14er. As a matter of passing time, I asked Bill and Jenny what it was about their “mountain” friends that made them different from others. Bill had some good insight on this subject, and he held court as he drove Jenny’s Nissan Pathfinder down the road at 70 miles per hour.

He separated it into a couple of categories. First was how the 14er community relates as a group. And the second, how people in the community relate to one another individually.

He likened the group dynamic to that of a high school. Not in the way that high schools divide up into interests or cliques or whatever, but in simpler terms, how it organizes by class, and in turn, how those classes interact. It’s the same deal with the 14ers crowd, with wide-eyed newbies trying their best to fit in and learn from experienced mountaineers by way of listening to their stories, asking questions and hoping to tag along on the next adventure.

I found that take rather fascinating. I guess I’d never thought about it that way, but the more I explored the idea, the more it made sense. I’d unwittingly become an underclassman at 14er High and was just now figuring that out. Remembering that conversation, we revisited it later on so he could elaborate.

“You first get there, and everyone who is already there looks older and more impressive, even if they aren’t… the simple fact that they were there before you makes them knowledgeable and experienced,” Bill said. “As you first start to talk, you find people who are similar in skill level and need (AKA the same grade as you) so you make plans with these guys knowing that the logistics of climbing will be similar in this group.”

To further the analogy, 14er High has a subset, a dating scene that is alarmingly similar to what we all saw and experienced walking down the halls at school. Guys and gals find their love of the peaks leads to a flirt, a date, a hook-up and probably a peak or five. But, as Bill warns, it has its pitfalls: “Like high school, that group of people is sometimes catty, full of drama and gossip.”

It’s an interesting mix, to say the least, fueled by meet-ups at Denver or Colorado Springs bars. Fourteener Happy Hours are where the whole student body can get together, have a few drinks, tell tall tales, dish dirt, meet girls/guys and scheme for that next big mountain trip.

The group also plans “gatherings,” where a spot is selected to in which to camp, and anyone who wants to come is invited. Fall, spring and winter gatherings allow people floating in the ether to meet up on the trail and hike or climb with the rest of the community. It’s different than the happy hours because there is actual hiking going on, but a lot of the other elements of those happy hours, both good and bad, are the same.

In any case, these are the ways this particular outdoor community bonds. Instead of doing it at house parties, football games or class trips, they coalesce around the peaks. But time passes, and just like high school, the nature of the people changes as well. Beginners start bagging more summits, and before long they have dozens of peaks to their credit and all the requisite scars, wisdom and memories that come with them.

“As you grow through the seasons, you increase in class – sophomores, juniors, seniors.  It’s all the same,” Bill said.  “You start to become the elders that ‘newbies’ look up to, who think you are the most experienced person, or people, they’ve ever seen.  In reality, I am nothing like that, but try convincing some of these folks of that.  So, as you either finish the 14ers, or they lose a relevancy in your life, you have ‘graduated.’  You may not hang around as much anymore.  If you attend happy hours or the gatherings you are looked at by some like the high school kids look at the college kids who come back to the high school parties…  ‘Who is this old timer, is he just going to talk about climbing in his day?’  Sooner or later you stop going to happy hours as you cannot relate to the new crop of climbers.”

Of course, that is just one facet, one rough analogy, of how trail folk relate. It’s a good one, as it explains quite a bit. But there is more to the story.

Among other things, the mountains are places that fuel ambition, and right or wrong, self worth. On a more basic level, they are sources of adrenaline, as the nature of mountains – that of being big, wild, and at times, dangerous – makes them scenes of high intensity. The sense of achievement over tackling a difficult climb can be a serious high, just like a close brush with death. Memories associated with the darker side of the mountain experience – the loss of a friend, or perhaps a debilitating accident – can bring you down just as low as those successful summits can lift you up. Fear is a common element in all this, like a storm cloud bubbling with dark, angry intensity, power and foreboding, where overcoming it makes you feel like a dragon slayer while succumbing to it is akin to being run out of your own home. You can come back from a simple day hike with strangers and feel friendly toward them, but when you get off a mountain with any or all of the experiences I just related, something else happens entirely. A bond will be created that is not easily explained. It’s safe to say intense experiences lead to intense feelings and leave it at that.

This creates a peculiar dynamic among those who share these moments of risk. Friendships come fast: They run hot, but they have their limitations. What do you have in common outside of the mountains? If you can’t answer that question with anything of substance, you might never see a lot of the friends you made on the trail if you or they, for whatever reason, leave that part of life behind to make room for other things. And those romances? It’s the same deal, but turbocharged, shining bright for a time, then burning out if the couple in question don’t have anything else holding them together aside from their love of the outdoors.

Bill has experienced all of that.

“When you are climbing in a group of friends, and climbing a lot – you develop a friendship based on trust abnormally quick,” he said.  “Same with the girlfriends. You sort of fall in love real quick, because while no one admits what they are doing on the peaks is very dangerous –  you are in a precarious place with that person or those people – you can’t help but overinflate some feelings for these people up front.  Not saying it’s fake friendships but it’s rushed, and that’s natural.  As soon as the intensity is over, people mostly go their separate ways looking for their next fix, whatever that is.”

Still, it’s not uncommon for those bonds to endure. In our subsequent conversations, Bill mentioned to me a group of friends who became known as “the brat pack,” climbers who were all in the same stages of experience and ambition who were cemented even further by the death of a friend, mountaineer Rob Jansen, who was killed in a freak rockslide on Hagerman Peak in 2012. His death hit them hard, making them all the more determined to climb the peaks in a way that would make their fallen friend proud.

“I think many people have a core group in friendships, and something distinctly defines that core group.  For us, the loss of Rob Jansen defined us.  We were determined, and successful, in finishing the 14ers for us, for him.”

Bill acknowledged that the brat pack is not as active as it once was. But given the chance, he’d gear up with them again.

“I consider every person I’ve hiked with a kindred spirit, and someone I’d definitely consider a friend if asked.  But it’s like everything in life, as we grow and develop more interests elsewhere, you change the scene.  They always stay a part of your past, perhaps a couple will become lifelong friends.

“I still talk to all of the others and will climb with any of them in a second if asked.”

Noel. (Chuck Erle photo)

Noel Johnson kicking back atop Mount Sneffels. (Chuck Erle photo)

TIES THAT BIND

It’s funny to look back and see how the things Bill described have manifested themselves in my own behavior. A few months after we topped out on Torreys Peak, Bill was getting ready to summit the final 14er on his list, Mount of the Holy Cross, a gorgeous sentinel in the northern Sawatch Range not far from Vail. A friend of his was also finishing up on Holy Cross, so the party was going to be big. A couple of dozen people drove to the tiny town of Minturn, then weaved up a lonely dirt road to a campsite a few more miles away.

I joined that group. I had no time off from work, so if I wanted to be there, I’d have to drive from Tulsa to Minturn (and the campsite), get up the next morning to climb the peak, head back down and drive home, all within the space of three days, thirty hours of which was spent driving. It was a stupid plan, but the draw was being able to be there for Bill and meet up with the gang I’d met on Kelso Ridge. It was a tremendous expense of time and energy for a fella I’d seen three times in my life, but at the time it seemed totally worth it.

I got back to Tulsa with maybe a few hours of sleep between the time I left to the time I returned, and still worked a full shift. I’m not sure I had ever been that tired, despite the volumes of Mountain Dews and 5-Hour Energy drinks I consumed. Even though I’d never do something that foolish again, I have zero regrets about it.

But why? Why would I go through such great lengths to get in one more mountain trip? I can only describe it as a sense of kinship. There were possibilities here beyond the potential for new adventures, something closer to finding a level of authenticity lacking elsewhere in my life. It might be that it was an illusion, caused by what Bill described as an inflated bond produced by the rush of the climb. Even with that in mind, I felt there was more out there.

I got a similar sense from Noel, or at least from her story.

Noel is an Air Force veteran who had settled into family life in Colorado Springs. She devoted much of her adult life to raising her kids, peppering in a little fun via her creative and prolific baking streak. But over time the kids grew up, moved out and started lives of their own. A void was created, a blank spot ultimately filled when she was cleaning out a closet and found one of her kids’ pair of childhood hiking boots. They were still in great shape and looked like they might fit.

So she tried them on. Lo and behold, like the glass slipper from Cinderella fame, they were just her size.

Noel found her way to the slopes of Pikes Peak, that monster mountain looming over the Springs, and its popular Barr Trail. The more she hiked, the stronger she got, and suddenly a new chapter in her life unfolded. A friendly sort, Noel would tote small containers of homemade cookies in her pack, offering her goodies to people she hiked with and even strangers she met on the trail. Finding those boots, taking those initial steps on the Barr Trail, and topping out on Pikes Peak on foot, a new Noel was born.

She became the Cookie Hiker.

She made a lot of friends on the trail, and discovered something different in the 14er community than what existed elsewhere in her life, a drive and commitment with these hikers and mountaineers that she found admirable.

“These friends have that extra level of understanding of what it takes to climb some of these mountains that my non-hiking friends will just never really be able to grasp,” Noel told me. “There is a bond there with these friends because they know the skill, attention, physical training, and mental toughness it takes to do some of these climbs.  They understand the passion of the sometimes risky sport of mountain climbing and are as thrilled to talk about it as I am. Trying to explain these things to others doesn’t always compute with them.

“Overall, in just five years of hiking, I have made more friends than I have in many years when I led a non-hiking life.”

Noel has evolved over the years, adding skills to her tool box that include things like sport climbing, trad climbing and even ice climbing. She regularly hikes up Pikes Peak’s mellower trails, but included in her ascents are some of the toughest in all of Colorado.

Tackling those harder peaks has also given her perspective on trust and teamwork, not to mention a healthy regard for the dangers these mountains present.

Anyone who has been up in the mountains very often can probably tell you about close calls. Many times, it’s a story involving a quick change in the weather, or perhaps a near fall. Illness can also come into play. Most ascents are incident-free, but the mountains aren’t designed by risk managers and lawyers and there aren’t any handrails up there. Sometimes bad things happen.

A couple of years back, Noel came face to face with that. She was with a group climbing one of Colorado’s hardest and most intimidating mountains, Capitol Peak. It’s the baddest of the bad boys in the Elk Range, a line of mountains known for their extreme beauty, dramatic profiles and potential for danger. The Maroon Bells are nicknamed “the Deadly Bells” because of the fatal encounters that have transpired there. Across the valley from the Bells, Pyramid Peak shares their more unsavory attributes – it’s steep, exposed, and littered with loose rock that only heightens the risk of falls and rockslides. Snowmass Mountain, in the words of people I know, “moves beneath your feet.”

But Capitol Peak seems to be a whole other animal. It’s remote, making it a bit of a haul to get to its lower flanks. The easiest way up includes a hike up its steep shoulder, then climbing over or around a prominent feature on its ridgeline called “K2,” which can be dicey – the scramble is a steep one, and the drop-offs on either side are significant. Once you get past K2, Capitol’s signature feature awaits – a long, slender and ridiculously exposed knife-edge ridge that takes a bit of nerve to traverse. The rock is said to be quite solid, but this is a place where you cannot move fast, cannot be careless and absolutely cannot afford a misstep. The knife-edge ridge is a “no-fall zone,” meaning that if you fall here, the certainty of death is pretty much one-hundred percent.

When you get past the ridge and take on Capitol’s summit pitch, the peak reveals itself to be kin to its Elk Range neighbors – steep, complicated, and plagued with crumbling, rotten rock.

By the summer of 2013, Noel had honed her mountaineering skills to the point where an attempt at Capitol was realistic. So she joined a group of friends to climb it and hopefully add another notch to an impressively growing collection of high country accomplishments.

The hike up to K2 went fine, as did the knife-edge ridge traverse. Near the top of the mountain, however, things went awry.

From above, a rock moved, then tumbled down toward her. She got warning, but not before the toaster-sized stone crashed on top of her helmeted head. A second rock trailed behind, smashing into the side of her head. One of the rocks also struck her left forearm, causing immediate swelling. She thought it might have been broken, but the contusion didn’t limit her mobility. In true Noel fashion, she wrapped up her arm, dusted off, and finished the climb.

The bad stuff happened after. She didn’t realize it until later, when they were off the mountain, but the rocks that struck her in the head were the ones that did the real damage, causing a severe concussion that for a time looked as though it might alter her life for good. Subsequent doctor visits showed significant brain trauma that somehow held off from manifesting itself until after she’d gotten down. The helmet likely saved her life, but it couldn’t undo the consequences of the rockfall impact.

Caring for her injured arm, finishing the climb and then getting back down proved to be important in other ways, too. Anyone who hears her story marvels at how she was able to complete the climb at all, considering what had happened to her and the difficulties that descending the peak still had in store. But the way that her climbing partners were able to administer a little first-aid, encourage her to the summit, and be there during the descent made an impression. After Capitol Peak, these weren’t just people who shared some good memories. They were, more than most, people she could trust with her safety, even her life. She’d circle back to these climbers again for future challenges.

The following year was not an easy one for Noel. Battling “brain pain” on a daily basis was (and still is) a grinding exercise of forbearance, exhausting in its seemingly untiring persistence. Noel is a cheery sort and not given to complaining about her troubles, but as is often the case with people suffering from chronic and debilitating pain, the struggle wears on you. Most people don’t know how much you suffer and can’t really understand it. But in her own trail community, she found a friend, a lean, spry outdoorsman named Zach who had also faced down some of his own health challenges and the despairing times that often accompany them. He’s pushed past those issues to continue on his own mountaineering journey, taking him to other difficult Colorado peaks as well as to the summit of Mount Rainier. Zach had been where Noel was at and gave her the encouraging words she needed to hear – that it was possible to suffer these pains and still keep doing the things you love. An understanding voice – as well as a chorus of well-wishers offering encouragement where they could – helped her get through some of the darkest times following the rockfall incident on Capitol Peak. The thing all these people had in common is they were folks she’d gotten to know in the days and years after she first set foot on the Barr Trail in her kid’s old hiking boots.

Nearly a year later, a good-sized group of us gathered to climb Wetterhorn Peak, a gorgeous precipice in southwestern Colorado that would be the first somewhat challenging mountain Noel had attempted since the Capitol climb. Wetterhorn turned Noel back the last time she was there – dicey snow conditions just below the summit and right above some sizable cliffs made the risks feel too great – making it her “nemesis” peak. Given those circumstances, this particular trip had the potential to be emotionally charged.

The hike up the mountain’s shoulder went well, and we took a quick pause just before trudging up the “yellow dirt” portion of the ridge just before the rockier, tougher sections of the mountain. Noel welled up with emotions for a bit, collected herself, and then blasted up the hill until she stood on the chunky, rain-pocked snow on Wetterhorn’s airy summit. She’d done plenty of tougher peaks before, but the significance here – tackling the only mountain to have previously turned her away, and moving past the mental barriers that often follow physical trauma – made this summit particularly significant.

But to hear her tell it, it’s the people she was with who made the day, and continue to be a major part of why she enjoys these adventures so much. High-fives and hugs were shared all around. As well as some cookies.

“I have a select few friends I hike with often, because I know we complement one another’s hiking abilities and I enjoy their company very much,” she said.  “There have been some friends who instantly click with me and I know we will remain lifelong friends from our experiences in the mountains.  Just to have someone truly understand and explain how things are going to be and encourage me along in my journey means the world to me and helps me get through.”

Thumbs up, high-fives and more atop Wetterhorn Peak.

Thumbs up, high-fives and more atop Wetterhorn Peak.

MY TRIBE

I’ve spent most of my life doing outdoorsy things, with a good chunk of that on trails, hiking to fishing holes or setting up campsites in the backcountry. We’d build fires, sometimes far too big to be safe, sometimes just big enough to give everyone that nice, warm glow that can only emanate from the small, flickering flames that dance within the tight confines of a fire ring. But it’s only been for the last dozen years I’ve been taking these adventures to high mountain summits, first with friends from home, and eventually, with people I’d meet along the way.

These are definitely two different categories of people. I know a lot of people from work, or church, or from high school and college or whatever, and how we came to know one another varies in more ways than I can recollect. But the second group is different in that how I met them (never mind the medium) is pretty consistent. Had it not been for a shared love of the high country, I’d never have known Chuck, Bill or Noel, or a whole host of people. But because of the mountains I know who they are, and on the trails is where I’ve learned more about their lives.

I stopped one night to contemplate this, to get a partial tally of the different folks I’ve met, people with whom I’ve hiked, camped and climbed. A sampling:

There’s an architect and an interior designer.

Air Force vets and a combat soldier.

A weed dealer and an air traffic controller.

An accountant and a ski bum.

A bar tender.

A physical therapist.

A musician.

And a supercharged, super-tatted vegan/ridge runner/engineering student who wants to change the world.

I know Chuck could probably make a good living as a photographer, I know how to get to Bill’s house and the name of his dog, and I know the nicknames Noel has given her grandkids. All because we love the mountains and were willing to take a chance at spending time with people who were complete strangers at a trailhead and came back from the summit as friends.

Shared passions are important here, but I think Noel had it right: It’s the shared experiences on the trail that sealed the deal.

You could call us a tribe, a trail people tribe, folks who aren’t born into a lineage, but rather bound by an appreciation of shared victories and an understanding of common struggles. It’s not an easy thing to understand unless you’ve been there, working out the soreness of a long backpacking stretch, being breathless on a high peak, or facing down looming fears. Those experiences become a part of you, just like the people with whom you’ve shared them.

You meet so pretty great people on the trail.

You meet some pretty great people on the trail.

— Bob Doucette

NOTE: This is part of a larger project I’m working on that I hope to publish in the future. Thanks for reading!

Places I like: Chicago Basin, Colorado

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You know how wild a place is going to be based on how difficult it is to get to. While not a foolproof axiom, it generally holds up.

And that describes Chicago Basin, Colorado, very well. You can either hike in from some 20 miles out or hop a train and get dropped off in the middle of nowhere to start your journey to this slice of alpine heaven.

It’s a lot different than most of Colorado. The state is pretty dry by nature, but the San Juans tend to accumulate more rain and snow than neighboring ranges. And compared to the rest of the San Juans, Chicago Basin gets even more. The end result is a place so lush, so green, that is practically drips with foliage.

At times, the clouds and mists obscure the real rock stars of the basin – its peaks. But invariably, these beauties refuse to remain veiled for very long. Four summits towering more than 14,000 feet crown the upper reaches of the basin and even more 13,000-foot peaks join the show. Like the wilderness itself, all these mountains are wild. No gentle, grassy slopes for these crags. Instead, you’re greeted by sheer cliffs, tall spires and rocky ramparts that create an imposing – and inspiring – skyline.

In some ways, it’s too bad you can see these scenes from the road. But like a lot of things in life, with great effort comes great rewards. You’re going to have to do more than take a long drive to see Chicago Basin. But if you’re willing and don’t mind the toil, you’re going to see real wilderness on its terms, and in its full glory.

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Bob Doucette