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-feat 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

Dean Potter, climbing legend, and Graham Hunt reported killed in BASE jump accident

Dean Potter. (planetmountain.com photo)

Dean Potter. (planetmountain.com photo)

UPDATED AS OF 11 P.M.: The New York Times is reporting that Dean Potter and Graham Hunt, in their BASE jump of Taft Point, attempted to clear a notch on the cliffs below but were not able to, hitting the rock before they could deploy their chutes. More of that story here.

UPDATED AS OF 9 P.M.: The Associated Press is reporting that search and rescuers who found the bodies of Dean Potter and Graham Hunt say their parachutes apparently did not deploy. They were attempting a wingsuit flight.

UPDATED: Outside Online is reporting the accident took place on Taft Point in Yosemite, and that Potter’s partner, who was also killed, was Graham Hunt. Read more on that here.

***

Various Internet reports are saying that Dean Potter, a famous rock climber and BASE jumper, has died in a BASE jumping accident in California.

Gripped.com is saying that he and his climbing partner, who was not named, died Saturday when their jump went awry around Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite National Park. You can read that report here.

More details are also available on this reddit post about the accident.

Potter, 43, was one of the lead figures in a generation of Yosemite climbers that took hold in the  1990s, a group famous for pioneering new, big-wall routes and free-solo climbing. Among that group, Potter was considered one of the most daring and best. Potter was also known for his speed climbing and high-lining feats.

A huge loss to the climbing and outdoor community.

Five reasons why you need to climb a mountain

The mountains are calling. Don't you want to go?

The mountains are calling. Don’t you want to go?

OK, you. It’s not like you’ve got enough things on your to-do list. It’s probably filled with things that are high in the mundane, uninteresting and nagging. Such is the life most of us lead.

Mow your yard.

Pay that bill.

Go to the dentist.

Yawn.

Repeat.

Or something like that. You get the idea.

My advice, should this pattern seem endless and intractable, is to shake things up a little bit, to do something different, something that will stretch you, push you and provide an exclamation point to a series of life events that consistently end in periods.

So here it is: Five reasons you should go climb a mountain…

You need a goal that goes past your previous goals. If you’re shooting for that coveted rec league softball championship, a yard of the month award or getting more than a hundred likes on your next Instagram selfie, you need new goals. The challenge of climbing a mountain will do that. You have to rise up physically and mentally to do it, a process that includes getting yourself in top condition and studying the task of reaching that summit. Goal-setting is not just about the reward after a job well done, it’s about the process of getting there, and the growth that happens along the way. And it’s way better than being the next fantasy league champ.

You need the lessons that hardship brings. Climbing a mountain is hard. Even if it’s a walk-up, when you’re hiking uphill in the cold at 12,000+ feet it will feel like the hardest thing you ever do. Tougher peaks, where climbing is involved, add critical thinking stress to the fatigue that comes with altitude. When you’re on the flanks of a mountain, you’ll feel sore, tired, winded, cold and uncomfortable. If you can deal with those things and still reach the top, you’ll have learned not only what it takes to persevere, but also a bit more about yourself. Embrace the sufferfest!

You need to do something that scares you a little. Is there anything quite like scaling some steep rock with a whole lot of air below you? No? There is a bit of a rush to stuff like that, not to mention the confidence that facing down your fears instills. At times, it may make you want to brown your shorts. But it also might make everyday challenges look a lot less daunting.

You need to unplug. One of the great things about mountains is that they’re often in wild places that (gasp!) don’t have cellphone service. Whether it’s a few hours or several days where you’re unconnected from the world, not having your head craned downward toward your phone, tablet or laptop might just be the best thing you do for yourself during that time. Don’t just tune out the noise. Turn it off. Get busy on those peaks. Those texts/emails/notifications can wait.

You need to see things from a new point of view. This comes from several angles. Obviously, there is no view quite like a summit view. Seeing the world from a mountaintop is one of the great, simple pleasures of life. But seeing wilderness from the inside, viewing wildlife in its element, absorbing the greatness of the outdoors – we rarely get these privileges in our home environments. You can’t appreciate what is out of sight/out of mind. Getting out there on that mountain might just change the way you think… in a good way.

So there you have it. Tempted to spend your precious time ramping up for a season of meh? Wouldn’t you rather go high and go big?

Bob Doucette

My love of the outdoors: Who I have to thank for it

Me being in places like this didn't happen in a vacuum. A lot of people were and still are a part of my ongoing outdoors journey.

Me being in places like this didn’t happen in a vacuum. A lot of people were and still are a part of my ongoing outdoors journey.

I got into an interesting online discussion where the question was asked, “Who was it that instilled in you a love of the outdoors?”

This is a great question, because I don’t think anything happens in a vacuum. No one just walks outside and says, “I think I’m going to be an outdoorsy person.” Something has to light that fire, and in most cases that fire is lit by someone your with.  So here is my list of people who lit and stoked my love of the outdoors.

My parents

These two were there when I was a mere sprout, doing the little things that got me outside. This is the three of us after the Oklahoma Memorial marathon.

These two were there when I was a mere sprout, doing the little things that got me outside. This is the three of us after the Oklahoma City Memorial marathon.

Last week, I wrote about my (fading) fading dream of living the mountain life. A part of that dream was created in 1976 when my parents bought this amazing little cabin in the Rockies. So many formative adventures started here.

Easter at the family cabin in Colorado.

Easter at the family cabin in Colorado.

All of us really loved that place. It was our base camp for fishing, hiking, watching nature and launching outdoor dreams.

My sister Shiela, her friend Valerie and myself looking at doing a little fishing near the family cabin.

My sister Shiela, her friend Valerie and myself looking at doing a little fishing near the family cabin.

You can never underestimate how those small experiences outside can grow into wonderfully big expressions in adulthood. They are formative and significant. So parents, if you want your kids to love and respect the outdoors, turn ’em into little rippers now. My parents did, and all of their kids were better for it.

My brother-in-law, Mark

Mark and a nice gar. This dude can fish.

Mark and a nice gar. This dude can fish.

A born-and-bred Texan, Mark met my sister when they both lived in the Denver area. During his early 20s, he spent a lot of time feeding his love of fishing out in the Colorado high country, angling for trout in the streams and beaver ponds of the Rockies.

Shortly after they married, Mark was kind enough to take me fishing several times. We hit plenty of places in northern Colorado, out west near Eagle, and then south not far from Buena Vista and Tincup.

Thirteen-year-old me (awkward!) with a stringer full of fish Mark and I bagged near Eagle, Colo.

Thirteen-year-old me (awkward!) with a stringer full of fish Mark and I bagged near Eagle, Colo.

These were the trips where I learned to fish for trout, the reason why I almost never get skunked when I’m getting a hook wet in a trout stream. I learned how to fish, how to read a river, and how to appreciate how awesome the settings are for trout fishing. It’s no accident that most of the first mountains I hiked and climbed weren’t far from those old fishing holes. The first time I laid eyes on the incredible skyline of Mount Princeton, Mount Yale and Mount Antero was when the two of us were driving west in Mark’s little pickup, heading to where we’d camp and fish the next day.

My brother Mike

My brother Mike on the slopes of Wheeler Peak, N.M.

My brother Mike on the slopes of Wheeler Peak, N.M.

Mike was another guy who loved to fish, and some of my earliest memories of fishing were with him as we plied the waters of the Kishwaukee River in northern Illinois, or on nearby farm ponds. We kept that fishing habit up for a long time, and what Mark started in me, Mike honed even further.

It’s so very Mike that Mark and I showed him the ropes of trout fishing, and later on, he was teaching me.

Later on, Mike grew a passion for hiking and climbing the Colorado 14ers, the mountains that rise to more than 14,000 feet in elevation. He inspired me to hike my first big mountain, Wheeler Peak, N.M., and was there with me on my first three 14ers in Colorado.

Mike and I on the summit of Mount Elbert, Colo.

Mike and I on the summit of Mount Elbert, Colo.

A few years later, we brought our brother Steve into the 14er fold, with all of us tagging the summits of Quandary Peak and Mount Bierstadt.

Mike, me and Steve atop Quandary Peak, Colo.

Mike, me and Steve atop Quandary Peak, Colo.

Mike left us far too soon. He passed away in 2011 from cancer at the age of 47. In so many positive ways, however, his legacy lives on in his family and friends, things that go way beyond the mountains. But my little 14er obsession has its roots in hearing Mike talk about those early hikes up Mount Bierstadt, traversing the Sawtooth Ridge, and climbing Longs Peak.

My friend Johnny

Closer to home, my adventure bug got numerous feedings from my friend Johnny Hunter. We met through martial arts, and it was there that we discovered a shared love of hiking.

Johnny Hunter on the crags of Mount Mitchell, Okla.

Johnny Hunter on the crags of Mount Mitchell, Okla.

I’d been to the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma before, but really got to explore them with Johnny. We’ve tagged a bunch of peaks out there, anything from gentle hikes to airy, exposed, slabby climbs. Johnny is one of those guys with no fear of heights and is always up for adventure.

The two of us, with no real coaching from anyone, did our first snow climb together on Mount Shavano in Colorado. And he’s been there with me on other mountain ascents numerous times. Anytime the adventure siren calls, Johnny is game.

My Colorado mountain buddies

There are too many of them to name, as this circle has grown quite a bit over the years. But those who are consistently in the mix, and have been there during those critical times of growth, include friends Bill Wood, his sister Beth Ketel, Noel Johnson, Chuck Erle and David Bates.

Me, Beth and Bill atop Mount of the Holy Cross, Colo.

Me, Beth and Bill atop Mount of the Holy Cross, Colo.

Clockwise from left, Chuck, David, me and Noel atop Mount Sneffels, Colo.

Clockwise from left, Chuck, David, me and Noel atop Mount Sneffels, Colo.

I’ve learned a ton from these folks, and I’m continual appreciation how they took me, a comparative noob, under their wing like I was an equal partner. That sort of humility and patience is a rare, beautiful thing you find much more commonly in hikers, climbers and mountaineers. Here’s hoping for more summits with this gang, and all of the other folks in Colorado I’ve met and hiked/climbed with since. You know who you are.

So there you have it. From my childhood to the present, these are the people who have created and sustained that love of the outdoors in me.

Do you have people like that in your lives? Feel free to share in the comments. I’d love to hear your stories…

Bob Doucette

Places I like: Wetterhorn Peak

For many years, I had this thing for a Colorado mountain called Wetterhorn Peak. I saw pictures of it. Heard about people climbing it.

And then I saw it. Five years ago, while hiking Uncompahgre Peak, I finally laid eyes on this beauty. That’s when a low-grade obsession began — not all-consuming (that would be weird), but frequently on my mind.

A few months ago, I finally got to climb it. What usually happens after a climb a peak is something like still feeling a great appreciation for it, but the allure it had previously fades a bit.

That didn’t happen this time. Every time I see a picture of Wetterhorn, or relive that late spring ascent, I still find myself in a bit of awe. Not because of the difficulty of the climb (it’s not an extremely tough ascent), but more from its beauty.

Four ridges rise to its 14,015 summit. From the north, it’s rise is nearly shear. The south features a dramatic and signature sweep. Its east and west ridges are steep and rugged.

Pictures tell the tale better. Here is Wetterhorn as seen from the summit of nearby Matterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak as seen from Matterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak as seen from Matterhorn Peak.

My friend Kay hiked in from the north and snapped this amazing photo.

Wetterhorn as seen from the north. (Kay Bessler photo)

Wetterhorn as seen from the north. (Kay Bessler photo)

Wetterhorn wears the snow pretty well.

Late spring snow conditions on Wetterhorn's east face.

Late spring snow conditions on Wetterhorn’s east face.

And like a true beauty, she holds up well in a close-up.

The Wetterhorn summit, with the Prow to the left.

The Wetterhorn summit, with the Prow to the left.

And if you’re fortunate enough to reach Wetterhorn’s summit, the views from the top are incredible.

Amazing views to the north from Wetterhorn Peak's summit.

Amazing views to the north from Wetterhorn Peak’s summit.

Climber and BASE jumper/wingsuit flier Steph Davis writes a blog she titles “High Infatuation.” Though I think that term has a different meaning for her than for me, I can definitely  relate to the sentiment. Especially when it comes to this mountain. She hasn’t lost her luster.

Bob Doucette

The Fellowship of the Trail: Backpacking and climbing the peaks of Chicago Basin, Colorado

Clouds swirl around Peak 18 (left) and Windom Peak in Chicago Basin.

Clouds swirl around Peak 18 (left) and Windom Peak in Chicago Basin.

“You can’t underestimate the power of people’s desire to be part of a group,” my friend Matt told me.

I can’t remember what the exact subject was, but his statement was part of a longer discussion we used to kill some time and miles while driving through Kansas on our way to Denver.

I met Matt a couple of years ago when I worked day-shift hours and was able to join some group runs at Turkey Mountain, a local trail haunt for Tulsa runners and mountain bikers. Post-run burritos and beers turned into discussions about the mountains, backpacking, hiking, and climbing. He was itching to go on one of these Rocky Mountain adventures, and when I told him about some plans for a backpacking trip to Chicago Basin, he was all in.

Chicago Basin is one of those places that’s not easy to get to. It’s in one of the most remote corners of the most out-of-the-way mountain range in Colorado, the San Juans. There’s no road to the trailhead. Your two methods of getting there are either on foot (one really long hike in, just to get to the trailhead) or hopping a steam train in either Durango or Silverton and getting dropped off at a midpoint stop that used to be the rail town of Needleton (no such town exists now, just a wide spot by the railroad and a bridge over the Animas River).

The reward comes after hiking in several miles and seeing the prize before you: A collection of 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks in the basin. Each mountain offers its own set of challenges, both physical and mental.

But as much as this story is about the place, it’s also about the people. You know, the group.

The cast

A lot of the people on this trip were familiar faces, people who had been kind enough to let me join them on past trips – Chuck, Noel, and Bill – strong hikers, good climbers, and either close to or past the point of topping out on all of the state’s 14,000-foot high points.

There were a lot of new faces. Some I know “virtually” though 14ers.com, its Facebook page, or through other means. Joining Bill on the drive down was Jenny, a young and pretty ambitious gal when it comes to the 14ers.

We had some “power couples.” And by that, I mean they were pretty awesome. Nathan and Danielle, both rock-solid climbers, and the perfect yin and yang. Nathan is pure chill, and Danielle might be the happiest person I’ve ever met (if you want to find her, just follow the laughter). And then there’s Mike and Maggie – Mike (also known as “Mikey Zee”) being the funniest dude I know, and Maggie playing the role of calm in the midst of Mike’s hilarious chaos. More on that later.

There were the mountain goats – Mike W., Zach, Todd, Steve and Andrew. And the Bosnian Baron, Senad, who was an absolute beast on the hill.

And then one last character who appeared out of the mists of social media – Miss “go! go! go!”, a runner and climber named Kay who I follow on Instagram (you can find her at halfpint22,and her feed is a good one). I saw her at the train station in Durango, recognized her, and discovered that she’d be part of this merry little band. Small world, folks.

Matt enjoying the ride on his way to his first 14er experience.

Matt enjoying the ride on his way to his first 14er experience.

In their midst was myself and Matt – a newcomer to the 14er scene, a fella with a huge sense of curiosity and a dude who was down for anything.

So many different personalities. So many challenges. You could taste the potential for something big. Early on, there’s no telling what that was going to be. All of it would depend on how well these folks would work and interact together under trying conditions.

Riding the rails

When it comes to backpacking, most of it steers away from touristy stuff. Leave that to the vacationers hiking a half mile from the parking lot to take a picture of some nondescript waterfall. So it’s a curious twist that to go into one of Colorado’s more remote wildernesses, you have to jump on a 19thcentury-style, coal-powered steam train with several carloads of tourists willing to pay $100 a pop to take a slow, scenic ride between Durango and Silverton. Uniformed staff give passengers details about the train and the route. One of them had a retro, curled-up mustache that was big back in the day. Or is that more of a hipster thing? Confusing times, man.

The rig that took us to the trailhead.

The rig that took us to the trailhead.

The train operators know their customer base, though. Backpackers are given the option of riding in the cheaper open-air cars. You kill two birds with one stone – save backpackers money (we ain’t loaded, ya know), and spare the rest of the passengers that lovely odor we tend to accumulate over a few days on the trail. Oh, and there’s a beer car.

Chugging along...

Chugging along…

Anyway, the train gave the group a chance to catch up with old friends or break the ice with those we just met. A couple of hours in, the train stopped near a pedestrian suspension bridge spanning the Animas River. The tourist experience was over. Time to hike in.

Where is this? Washington state?

If you’ve been to Colorado much, you know it’s a pretty dry state. Even with all the winter and spring snows, and the almost daily summer afternoon thunderstorms, the Centennial State is somewhere just shy of a desert in most of its environs. This is especially true of the western third of the state.

And we're off!

And we’re off!

The San Juans are different, though. Something about this mountain range, some trick of topography and geography, collects moisture. I saw that in a big way a month earlier, when Wetterhorn Peak was still socked in with snow late into June. But it was nothing like what we experienced hiking nearly 7 miles into Chicago Basin.

It was warm. Humid. Lush. Moss hung from the trees, and everything around us was carpeted in green. The skies were bright, but pocked with heavy white-and-gray clouds that threatened to dump rain on our little slow-moving parade that trudged up the trail.

The trail starts easy enough.

The trail starts easy enough.

I wondered out loud if this is what it was like to backpack in the Pacific Northwest. Having only been there once, my frame of reference is limited.  But one thing I do know – Rainier and other Cascade giants notwithstanding, most of the Pacific Northwest lies comfortably below the 8,000 or so feet above sea level where this little jaunt started.

It’s been awhile since I’ve been backpacking. I’m pretty good at keeping my pack weight low, but the last time I strapped 35 pounds to my back and headed up a hill was 2009.

And then there’s this: I’m working a lot these days, which means training less. I quickly became the guy in the slow lane amongst a group of hikers who were decidedly much faster than me.

Jenny and Bill as we get closer to camp.

Jenny and Bill as we get closer to camp.

I’d like to blame it on being a flatlander. It’s a great excuse I’ve used before, like an old reliable crutch I could use when bringing up the rear. But then Matt comes along, a fellow Tulsa guy, and the altitude didn’t seem to bug him much. He was near the front of the line that day, and pretty much the entire time. Freak of nature? Maybe. More likely he’s just in way better shape and able to hang with just about anyone.

Our group was big, and it was a pretty busy weekend in the basin. So we were forced to hike in a little further and higher than we originally planned. After a few creek crossings and a long trudge up, the sight of my buddies in camp just uphill from a stream was welcome indeed. It was warm, and I’d long since sweat through everything I was wearing.

The view from my tent.

The view from my tent.

So began the daily routine of camp chores – setting up the tent, filtering water, getting ready for dinner. Everything is tougher at 11,000 feet. But little things help ease the burden.

Enter Noel. We first met each other a couple of years ago and have since hiked and climbed several mountains together. She’s closing in on bagging every 14,000-foot peak in the state, and in the time it has taken to do all that work, she’s learned a few things about backpacking. Nothing beats good eats when you’re at camp, and aside from her famous cookies (she’s known as “the cookiehiker” for a reason), Noel has learned a thing or two about making dehydrated meals. She offered to bring me a few for this trip, and I gladly accepted. Dinner that night was chicken and couscous. What did you eat the last time you went backpacking?

Noel and I.

Noel and I.

Anyway, I’m lucky to know this gal.

That’s not to say that everyone else ate miserable food. Nathan and Danielle hauled up unusually heavy packs, but the reasoning behind that added weight became clear with the sounds and smells of sizzling bacon. The two carried a small cooler full of tasty foods and a skillet, among other things. Much jealousy ensued.

I made sure to soak in the scenery. Across the creek, the steep, grassy shoulder of Mount Eolus rose high above. Up the basin, the dramatic profiles of Peak 18 (this beauty needs a better name) and Windom Peak loomed overhead. Deer and mountain goats circled the camp, unafraid and curious.

Late afternoon sun on Peak 18 and Windom Peak, as seen from camp.

Late afternoon sun on Peak 18 and Windom Peak, as seen from camp.

The sheer number of people in our group made the surroundings seem a little less wild, but there was no doubt that we were deep within the folds of wilderness.

Everyone turned in early. Rains were off-and-on all afternoon and evening, and to have any shot at a summit, an early start was required.

The alarm was set for 3:15.

Mount Eolus and North Eolus

Twenty minutes.

From sundown until my alarm went off, I think I might have been unconscious for just 20 minutes the entire night. The rest of that time was spent tossing and turning, mitigating the discomforts of sleeping on the ground (hello, shoulder and hip soreness) and occasionally dozing a bit. But sleep was elusive. Altitude will definitely mess with your sleep if you’re not used to it.

I felt bad for Matt, with all the rustling around I was doing, but he scoured some ear plugs to help him get some Z’s. Lucky for him.

A quick breakfast preceded the gathering of gear. Headlamps on, the group headed up the trail, looking to tag the summits of Mount Eolus and its neighbor, North Eolus.

“We’re going to take our time,” I remember Noel telling me the night before. “There’s no rush.”

Yeah, right.

Alpenglow on Mount Eolus.

Alpenglow on Mount Eolus.

It was immediately clear that the pace being set on the trail was going to be a fast one. Not a problem early on when the incline was more gentle. But to get to the peaks above, you had to hike up a sizable headwall that was at times pretty steep. I started in the middle of the pack, but quickly drifted toward the back. There was no sense trying to keep up with these folks.

In time, I was reduced to counting off 100 steps, then stopping to take a breather. The skies began to show the initial signs of dawn as the headlamps ahead drifted further and further up and away. I’d really hoped to be stronger that morning, but it wasn’t happening. So I kept chewing up the slope, slowly, until the group had gathered near the stony saddle between the two peaks.

Sunrise over Chicago Basin.

Sunrise over Chicago Basin.

I was grateful for Bill and Jenny at this point. They were closer to my speed, and as we hit the higher parts of the route, we ended up climbing together.

Of the whole crew, Bill is the most experienced. He’s already summitted all of Colorado’s 14ers, many of them multiple times. Well over 100 14er climbs and counting. Add to that Rainier, Mount Hood and Pico de Orizaba, and you get the picture. Been there, done that.

Getting ready to cross the Catwalk. Jenny takes one last look back.

Getting ready to cross the Catwalk. Jenny takes one last look back.

Jenny is no slouch, either. She got the 14er bug a couple of years ago, and is less than 10 peaks away from bagging all the state’s 14,000-foot summits. She’d been to Chicago Basin before — a year ago, in fact. One of the challenges before us turned her back last time – the connecting ridge between the peaks called the Catwalk.

The Catwalk is unlike any saddle I’d ever seen before. It’s a skinny sliver of rock, anywhere from five to 15 feet wide, a couple of football fields long and with near vertical drops on either side. If you’re headed toward Eolus, the exposure to your right is particularly dramatic. It’s no surprise that the Catwalk has turned back more than a few people, just based on the visuals. It’s not tough to cross once you get past the initial intimidation factor. With a little encouragement, Jenny slew that dragon, and we got a good look at the work ahead.

Crossing the Catwalk.

Crossing the Catwalk.

Mount Eolus’ summit pitch is defined by its ledges. Huge, solid blocks make up a system of those ledges you have to navigate as you snake your way up a path that parallels the northeast ridge. We checked that out for a bit, but instead decided to reverse course and tackle the ridge directly.

This meant a couple of things. One, the route to the summit was much more straightforward. And two, the climbing was tougher and the exposure more dramatic.

Climbing the ridge. (Mikey Zee photo)

Climbing the ridge. (Mikey Zee photo)

Close to topping out on Eolus' tiny summit.

Close to topping out on Eolus’ tiny summit.

Danielle led here. She’d give us a few hints of what was to come, followed by half joyous, half nervous laughter. Sometimes getting a straight answer in the midst of her exploratory glee was elusive.

“Danielle, talk to us like a human being!” Bill shouted at one point. Followed by more laughter.

There were a couple of moves we had to make that were pretty committing. Nothing overly difficult, but you needed to hit it right and not have any mishaps. A fall on that ridge would send you into a rocky abyss. There were a couple of times I asked myself, “You’re really going to do this, huh?” And then I did it and moved on. Before long, we’d all topped out. Crazy summit photos ensued, some daring, some, er, interesting. I’ll just leave it at that.

Looking at Sunlight Peak, Sunlight Spire and Windom Peak at the other end of the Basin.

Looking at Sunlight Peak, Sunlight Spire and Windom Peak at the other end of the Basin.

To date, I’d say Eolus is the most challenging peak I’ve done. The approach, the route-finding, the climbing and the exposure – it all combined for pretty great summit. I remember telling Jenny, who crossed back over the Catwalk with decidedly less trepidation than she had 40 minutes earlier, that she’d grown a bit since we first walked up on that ridge. But I may as well have said the same thing about myself. No way I would have climbed that ridge five years ago. No way I would have crossed that catwalk a decade past. The truth is, a lot of us were making some strides in the Basin that day.

Mount Eolus, as seen from North Eolus' summit.

Mount Eolus, as seen from North Eolus’ summit.

I was good with tagging Eolus and calling it a day, but the scramble to the top of North Eolus from the Catwalk is short. The rock was different – slabby, grippy and sharp. Ideal for friction climbing. It may have been the easiest Class 3 pitch I’ve ever done.  Twenty minutes later, summit No. 2 was in the books.

Glorious San Juan wilderness.

Glorious San Juan wilderness.

The views from these peaks are stunning. On this end of the San Juans, wild peaks abound – the stony sentinels Pigeon and Turret peaks, the verticality of Arrow and Vestal, and on the opposite side of the Basin, Sunlight and Windom.

Mountain goat chillin'.

Mountain goat chillin’.

Wildflowers galore.

Wildflowers galore.

We called it a day from there and started the hike down. Green alpine grasses were littered with wildflowers, and mountain goats patrolled the meadows looking for places to graze or just lounge in the sun. Strolling into camp, I pretty much had decided I’d be sleeping in the next day.

Heading back toward camp.

Heading back toward camp.

The weather hates us

We’d topped out early – an 8 a.m. summit of Eolus, and by the time we were done being lazy atop North Eolus, it was about 9:30. We were in camp by noon or so.

Routines picked up again – eat, nap, filter water, cook food. Stories were shared. Kay, being the most energetic of the bunch, had also tagged Glacier Point, a high 13er in the Basin between Eolus and Sunlight. But before long, the weather decided to interrupt the party.

Clouds enveloped the peaks. Light rain began to fall, but not so much as to chase us into our tents. But it kept intensifying, then added some thunder and lightning. So into the tents we retreated.

Rain that night flooded some people’s tents, and about half the group decided they’d had enough. The other half geared up to have a go at Sunlight and Windom peaks. As for me, I decided a relaxing day at camp was in order. Laziness rules!

As folks started packing up, we had a little fun with the mountain goats. For the uninitiated, here’s a little secret about mountain goats: They crave salt. And a great place for them to find it is where campers pee.

Yes, it’s gross. But it’s automatic. These creatures patrolled our campsites looking for places where we’d urinated, then licked the ground greedily, as if we’d spilled manna from heaven at their hooves.

Mike, who we also know as Mikey Zee, decided to have a little fun. He whizzed on a bush not too far from my tent, then watched the fireworks. Goats flocked to the bush. Munched on the bush. Fought over the bush. Eventually, the shrub was completely denuded of foliage. Certainly not something you see on any of those PBS nature shows.

Eventually I had the camp to myself. The group left, with idea of meeting up a day later in Durango. So I chilled out, swatted at flies and waited for the rest of the gang to return from the summits.

Matt tearing it up on Sunlight Peak. (Bill Wood photo)

Matt tearing it up on Sunlight Peak. (Bill Wood photo)

Everyone had stories to tell. Matt, by travel buddy, tagged Sunlight and Windom. I considered this a major feat, as he’d confessed earlier his fear of heights and had taken a pass on the Catwalk. What does he do the next day? He climbs one of the toughest, most exposed of all the 14ers. Again — growth, man.

Others had done the same. And Kay, looking for more, did both of those plus Peak 18.

Back at camp, more stories were told, experiences compared, congratulations handed out. I didn’t regret my day of rest to that point, but later on I realized I’d missed out. I actually slept well the night before and felt good that morning. An opportunity missed, perhaps? Maybe. But I can always go back.

As had been the norm, the weather turned sour. So for a second straight day, we were chased into our tents. For 12 freaking hours.

There are only so many times you can look at pictures, take naps and otherwise try to kill time when you’re stuck in a cramped tent that long. It got old. My body ached. I’d hoped for a small break in the rain just so I could stand up and move my body. But it wouldn’t happen. By morning, with more tents flooding (ours had stayed remarkably dry; others’, not so much), all of us were ready to get down and find someplace dry.

Back to civilization

The rain stopped long enough for us to pack up and get moving down the hill – 7 miles to the Needleton stop, 7 miles to our first taste of civilization in several days.

You’d think a march like that, with full packs, would be a drudgery, but in reality it was pleasant and fast. The weather was cool and mostly overcast and the trail was soft and forgiving. Two-and-a-half hours later, we were at the tracks waiting for our ride home.

About an hour later, the train appeared. We loaded our stuff, found a spot in the open cars and waved at the crowd of backpackers who’d disembarked in their own adventures. My first order of business – a Coke and a bag of Lay’s potato chips. Manna from heaven, and not the goat kind, either.

What followed was a tour-de-eat like you wouldn’t believe. First stop, in Silverton, we gorged on burgers and beer. Once we got turned around and back in Durango, more gluttony. And on and on.

Chowing down and having a few laughs at a restaurant in Durango with my tribe. (Mikey Zee photo)

Chowing down and having a few laughs at a restaurant in Durango with my tribe. (Mikey Zee photo)

At a Tex-Mex place in Durango, the whole group reunited. Stories were swapped, and Chuck got an impromptu birthday serenade from the restaurant’s wait staff. Pretty surprising, considering it wasn’t his birthday. Remember what I said about Mikey Zee being the funniest man I’d ever met? Yeah, that gag was his idea. Between that and a whole lot of other hilarity, I can’t remember the last time I’d laughed that hard.

With the trip wrapping up, I recalled a few conversations that Matt and I had with Bill and Jenny on the way to Durango. The 14er scene is a lot like high school, Bill had reasoned, with new people all wide-eyed at the experience (like high school freshmen) and the experienced hikers and climbers there to show them the ropes (like seniors). Romances come and go. And people move on, just in time for the noobs to graduate to senior status and welcome in a new group of fresh faces who in turn look up to them and their high country tales with wonder. And so the cycle goes.

But Bill added something a little deeper than that, making the scene seem less transient. Work was work, he said, but the mountain scene was different.

“These people,” he said, “these are my friends. They’re the ones I want to hang out with and do things with.”

It’s hard to say how many of us would even know each other if not for the shared love of the mountains. Maybe none of us. Maybe we’d be involved in some other deal, with other people, or we’d just get lost in our own world of collective anonymity.

But that ain’t the case. We do know each other. We like each other’s company, work well as teams and support each other. In sharing risks and struggles, we bond in ways that’s not possible in most other circles.

It’s sort of like what Matt said during that long drive through Kansas. You can’t underestimate the power of wanting to be part of a group. You just hope you find the right one.

As for me, I think I have. I kinda like my tribe.

GETTING THERE: Snag a ticket, from either Silverton or Durango, and hop the steam train to the Needleton Stop. Open-air, round-trip tickets cost about $90. If you park at the train station, there is also a parking fee at the gate.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: Hike across the bridge crossing the Animas River. A good trail goes all the way to the Basin. About 5.5 miles in, you will see places where you can camp. Campsites are available up to 7 miles or so from the bridge crossing. From there, follow the trail up the headwall – steep Class 1 and 2 hiking. Higher up the headwall, you will cross rock slabs that are slippery when wet. At the saddle between Mount Eolus and North Eolus, you’ll see the Catwalk. Cross the Catwalk toward Mount Eolus. The rock is solid but exposed. Mostly, it’s a walk with an occasional scrambling move.

Once off the Catwalk, follow a series of cairns up the ledges leading to the summit. Or, for a more direct climb, go up the northeast ridge proper. Taking  the ledges is Class 3, with 4th-class exposure. The ridge is Class 4 climbing, with 4th-class+ exposure. You will be able to climb over or around several stone blocks; some require traverses that are pretty committing.

For North Eolus, follow the ridgeline immediately off the end of the Catwalk. Pick your route toward the top; the rock is slabby and easy to grip, with just a few short, Class 3 sections to climb. The rest is Class 2 hiking, and a short trip from the saddle.

Bob Doucette

The list: Pros and cons of backpacking

Backpacking is awesome. Sometimes. (Matt Carver photo)

Backpacking is awesome. Sometimes. (Matt Carver photo)

If you’ve ever spent any time in a wilderness, you know there are good and bad sides of the experience. All of it makes for some fun stories, fond memories and more than a few laughs.

I just got back from a short backpacking trip in the San Juan Range of Colorado. Aside from not being used to the backpacking thing (it’s been awhile since I’ve truly been “backpacking”), there are a lot of little things that stand out to me. So what follows is a list of pros and cons to leaving home and heading out into the bush for awhile…

Pro: Leaving behind all the bad news you get inundated with via TV, websites and social media. For four days, I didn’t hear a word about war, Obamacare, shootings, the tea party or any of that other crap that drives people a little crazy. My biggest debate was whether or not I would dare to leave my tent and go out in the rain to go pee or just hold it awhile longer.

Con: Coming back to civilization and being run over by war, crime, Obamacare, the tea party and all of the other crap that drives people crazy.

Pro: Not really having to worry about what you look like or smell like for several days.

Con: Smelling yourself in your clothes and sleeping bag, and then seeing what you look like when you come back into civilization. Nothing quite as unsexy as the underbeard, otherwise known as the neck beard.

Pro: Being overjoyed by the little things, like the taste of summer sausage your campmate shared, the sound of a nearby creek, and nailing it when it comes to taking the perfect poop (don’t judge until you’ve done it).

Con: Having to poop in the woods. Eww.

Seeing wildlife is cool. But sometimes wildlife is annoying. And gross.

Seeing wildlife is cool. But sometimes wildlife is annoying. And gross.

Pro: Seeing wildlife, like mountain goats, marmots, deer and other critters you otherwise might see outside of a zoo.

Con: Putting up with their behavior in camp, whether it be marmots stealing food/clothes (they do that) or mountain goats ravaging that bush you peed on just for a taste of salt. Again, eww.

Seeing stuff like this is why I hike and climb mountains. I kinda wish it wasn't so hard, though.

Seeing stuff like this is why I hike and climb mountains. I kinda wish it wasn’t so hard, though.

Pro: Summit  views. No explanation needed.

Con: The physical thrashing it takes to earn that summit view. Nothing quite like being out of breath for three hours straight. Note to self: Next time, run more and run more hills. Sheesh!

Pro: Having awesome gear that keeps you warm and dry during an alpine downpour.

Con: Being stuck in a dry but cramped tent for 12 hours during an alpine downpour.

There are many, many more. So I invite you to share your list. What are your pros and cons to backpacking? Share ’em!

Bob Doucette