Mountain Reads, part 1: ‘Halfway to Heaven’

Humor, history and mountain adventure collide with this one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Doucette

Happy feet: Some of my favorite scenes from the trail

Sweet trails at Loveland Pass, Colo.

Sweet trails at Loveland Pass, Colo.

Spring is upon us, and that means a bunch of people are going to crawl out of their winter holes and hit the trails. Some of us like those winter trails, too, but for most of the public, spring and summer is where it’s at.

With that in mind, I think it’s time for some trail stoke. In this case, some of my favorite images of trails. So here goes…

It’s hard to beat a bluebird day above treeline…

Summit trail on Mount Lincoln, Colo.

Summit trail on Mount Lincoln, Colo.

A tough walk up can lead to pleasant valleys below…

The route down from Broken Hand Pass to Cottonwood Lake, Colo., Sangre de Cristo Range.

The route down from Broken Hand Pass to Cottonwood Lake, Colo., Sangre de Cristo Range.

A good snow can make the woods come alive in new ways…

Snowy scene from near the trailhead at Turkey Mountain, Tulsa, Okla.

Snowy scene from near the trailhead at Turkey Mountain, Tulsa, Okla.

And similarly, the ethereal feel of cloud cover will make some routes feel mysterious…

Summit ridge trail on Missouri Mountain, Colo.

Summit ridge trail on Missouri Mountain, Colo.

When your path points toward the dramatic, it become fuel to push on…

Happy backpackers on the trail up to Chicago Basin, Colo., Weminuche Wilderness.

Happy backpackers on the trail up to Chicago Basin, Colo., Weminuche Wilderness.

And a little bit of air can be pretty exciting…

Ledge-y section on the Southwest RIdge of Mount Sneffels, Colo.

Ledge-y section on the Southwest Ridge of Mount Sneffels, Colo.

Long shadows of daybreak signal the encouragement that comes with the dawn…

Denney Creek Trail up the slopes of Mount Yale, Colo.

Denney Creek Trail up the slopes of Mount Yale, Colo.

And then there are scenes ahead of you that blow your mind…

Going up toward the summit pitch on Uncompahgre Peak, Colo.

Going up toward the summit pitch on Uncompahgre Peak, Colo.

They make you feel more alive…

Approaching the saddle on Mount Shavano. Colo.

Approaching the saddle on Mount Shavano, Colo.

As it turns out, a great memory on the trail is all about timing…

Wintry sunset scene on the west-side trails at Turkey Mountain, Tulsa, Okla.

Wintry sunset scene on the west-side trails at Turkey Mountain, Tulsa, Okla.

These are just a sampling. I’ve got a lot of good hiking memories. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to hit the trail right now. Happy hiking, folks!

Bob Doucette

The eternal excitement, glory and joy of being a noob

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

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

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

The noob.

A rookie.

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

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

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

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

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

It felt awesome.

***

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

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

But it was one I knew next to nothing about.

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

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

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

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

***

Me on Mount Shavano, going up the summit pitch.

Me on Mount Shavano, going up the summit pitch.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

I was going full-on noob.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the words of Rick Perry, “Oops.”

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

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

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

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

I’m more careful about sunscreen now.

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Doucette

A conservation success story on Colorado’s Mount Shavano that we can build on

Mount Shavano, as seen from Salida, Colo.

Mount Shavano, as seen from Salida, Colo.

Mount Shavano holds a special place for me.

It’s not the prettiest mountain, or the tallest, or the most challenging to climb. But it’s a great choice for folks looking for a good alpine summit hike within sight of Salida, one of my favorite Colorado mountain towns.

Shavano was the second 14er I climbed, way back in 2004, and two weeks after I did my first. My brother and I hiked it in perfect conditions, and for a long time, it remained my favorite of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains.

On Shavano's summit, in 2004.

On Shavano’s summit, in 2004.

Five years later, I climbed it again with my friend Johnny. We’d never done a snow climb before, and Shavano’s Angel Couloir is an excellent place to cut your teeth on that front. It was a long, memorable and amazing day. I’ll probably go back so I can reach the summit of Tabeguache Peak, a shorter, neighboring mountain connected to Shavano by a ridge.

My friend Johnny getting ready to top out on Mount Shavano in 2009. The land here is part of a mining claim.

My friend Johnny getting ready to top out on Mount Shavano in 2009. The land here is part of a mining claim.

Recently, I learned some news. Unknown to a bunch of us until now, Mount Shavano’s summit block is privately owned, a part of an old mining claim. It’s common for parts of the 14ers to have mining claims, and usually that doesn’t present much of a problem. But the upper portions of Shavano’s standard route are in need of some trail work, something the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative – a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to the Colorado high country – had hoped to carry out. They key here is to make a sustainable route as to prevent further damage on the mountain, something the current route does not do.

The U.S. Forest Service wanted to oblige, but couldn’t because of the mining claim.

And all this time, who knew that this pile of rocks was privately owned?

And all this time, who knew that this pile of rocks was privately owned?

So CFI sought to raise $40,500 to buy up the parcels at Shavano’s summit. A successful fundraising campaign would allow CFI do the work needed to give this peak the needed trail upgrade it and its hikers deserve.

Tens of thousands of people hike and climb Colorado’s 14ers every year. Once word got out, people started donating to help the cause. It didn’t take long and the money was raised.

This is one of those great success stories of where conservation efforts meet up with land users to make a difference. But the Shavano story is just one of many. Increasing foot traffic on Colorado’s high peaks causes a good deal of wear and tear on the trails. Social trails are a problem, as they contribute to erosion in the very delicate environment of the alpine. CFI has done tremendous work to solve these problems, creating safe, durable trails that serve hikers while also helping to protect sensitive ecosystems above treeline.

I’d love to go through all of CFI’s success stories, but I’ll point to one in particular.

A very helpful cairn built on the upper standard route of Mount of the Holy Cross, courtesy of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.

A very helpful cairn built on the upper standard route of Mount of the Holy Cross, courtesy of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.

For many years, hikers coming down from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross would find the descent confusing. Folks would sometimes get lost. And more than once, an errant hiker would become confused and unable to find their way out of the wilderness area that surrounds the mountain’s standard route. People disappeared and died.

CFI remedied that with an improved route and sizable cairns to direct people toward the proper way down the mountain. Not only did this improve the route, but likely saved lives going forward.

If you’re interested in supporting efforts like these, here’s a link to donate to CFI. They’re a great group that does a tremendous amount of hard work making hikers’ and climbers’ lives easier by building and maintaining solid routes up these popular peaks. They’ve earned our trust, and we definitely owe this organization our thanks. Give it some thought, and by all means, throw a few bucks their way. It’ll be worth it.

Bob Doucette

Hiking Eagle Peak, near Colorado Springs, CO

Pikes Peak, as seen from the Eagle Peak summit.

Pikes Peak, as seen from the Eagle Peak summit.

It’s taken me awhile to post about this hike, one of three that I did on my last visit to Colorado this summer.

I was going to meet up with my friend Chuck and a buddy of his named Kevin. The original plan was to climb the Citadel near Loveland Pass, but the weather decided not to cooperate. Time for Plan B, which in this case was Eagle Peak, a 9,368-foot mountain overlooking the U.S. Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs. I figured this would be a good warm-up hike for doing a four-peak loop later in the week. Little did I know that it would offer plenty of challenge on its own.

It was surprisingly steep. In addition, several sections were pretty loose. Eagle Peak is no stroll in the park.

That said, it’s scenic, and for the uber-fit fellas from the Academy or the trail runners in the Springs, it’s a great running challenge right outside of town. More power to ’em. I had a tough enough time hiking up the dang thing with my flatlander lungs.

The payoff, of course, goes beyond the fitness benefits. The summit views are amazing. I’ll let the pics to the talking.

Looking north from the summit.

Looking north from the summit.

The Air Force Academy campus.

The Air Force Academy campus.

Another view from the top, looking toward the Academy and the city.

Another view from the top, looking toward the Academy and the city.

The trail itself was beautiful, with a flat section below the summit filled with aspens and evergreens, and a waterfall farther down. I didn’t get a decent pic of the falls, but I did snap some other shots of the woods.

Kevin and Chuck hiking the trail.

Kevin and Chuck hiking the trail.

Aspen grove.

Aspen grove.

Wooded goodness on a well-placed flat section of the route. Trust me, the rest of this trail is dang steep.

Wooded goodness on a well-placed flat section of the route. Trust me, the rest of this trail is dang steep.

I’ve heard Eagle Peak described as “the Incline, but on a trail.” Sounds about right (The Incline, if you’re not familiar with it, is a popular hike up an old cog rail line that picks up about 2,000 feet in a mile. Its trailhead is in Manitou Springs). It’s a 3.6-mile out-and-back hike on what I’d call a difficult Class 2 route with around 2,106 feet of elevation gain. Needless to say, it made it easy to justify the barbecue feast the ensued after this one was over.

For people living in the area, Eagle Peak might be a good substitute for the Incline, as the latter is being closed for maintenance. The peak is also far less crowded and doesn’t come with any parking fees.

GETTING THERE: Go to the South Gate at the Air Force Academy and  gain entry to the school’s property (a guard will ask questions before you continue). Drive on Stadium Boulevard, and turn west on Academy Drive when you get to the stadium. Drive to where the Falcon Trail meets the road and park there.

Bob Doucette

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

Bluebird day at Kite Lake and the Lincoln Group.

Bluebird day at Kite Lake and the Lincoln Group.

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

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

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

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

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

Mining shack ruins on Mount Democrat.

Mining shack ruins on Mount Democrat.

A LITTLE FAMILY HISTORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, he said yes.

Jordan on Mount Democrat.

Jordan on Mount Democrat.

THE PEAKS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UP WE GO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mount Cameron.

Mount Democrat.

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

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

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

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

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

Looking toward Quandary Peak from Mount Cameron.

Looking toward Quandary Peak from Mount Cameron.

THE PEOPLE YOU MEET

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

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

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

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

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

Summit of Cameron, looking toward Mount Lincoln.

Summit of Cameron, looking toward Mount Lincoln.

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

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

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

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

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

Final march toward Mount Lincoln's summit.

Final march toward Mount Lincoln’s summit.

ROUNDING IT OUT

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

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

Mountain stoke.

Mountain stoke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democrat and Cameron as seen from the descent of Bross.

Democrat and Cameron as seen from the descent of Bross.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Doucette

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