An appreciation of trail people

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

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

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

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

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

So imagine the potential discomfort with this scenario…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINDING POINT C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All he needed now were some companions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You need your trail people.

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

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

14ER HIGH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill has experienced all of that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noel. (Chuck Erle photo)

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

TIES THAT BIND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She became the Cookie Hiker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY TRIBE

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

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

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

There’s an architect and an interior designer.

Air Force vets and a combat soldier.

A weed dealer and an air traffic controller.

An accountant and a ski bum.

A bar tender.

A physical therapist.

A musician.

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

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

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

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

You meet so pretty great people on the trail.

You meet some pretty great people on the trail.

— Bob Doucette

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

On nostalgia, gentrification, and the fading dream of a mountain life

A few childhood mountain memories are burned into my mind.

A flying saucer in the woods.

A sylvan scene in a thick aspen grove.

The smell of beer and the sounds of the Steve Miller Band playing on a stereo.

These are the images of a time long past in the Rockies, from the day when ordinary mountain people lived in the high country to do as they pleased without the strictures of “normal life” to hold them down. People built weird, secluded houses in the forest and took up hermitage or came to biker parties at a cabin with their kids in tow. Disney-like tableaus that could have come straight out of “Bambi” were common just a few hundred yards from the family cabin.

I liked those times. I miss those times. I miss them because for most ordinary people, they’re just memories. The Rocky Mountain West has increasingly become an expensive playground for the well-heeled, and the rest of us are welcome to visit, but increasingly unable to stay.

The family cabin near Bailey, Colorado. A little slice of alpine heaven.

The family cabin near Bailey, Colo. A little slice of alpine heaven.

I was blessed to grow up in Colorado, and doubly blessed when my parents saved up a little money and plunked down about 10 grand on a small A-frame cabin near a little burg called Bailey. The cabin itself sat on an acre-and-a-half of pine forest, accessible by a twisty dirt road the family’s massive 1969 Caprice could barely navigate.

The cabin itself was somewhat spare, but perfect just the same. We had to haul in our own water, and the toilet was outside, in a two-holer outhouse. But it had electricity, was fully furnished and equipped and sported a sweet deck with a hummingbird feeder that entertained me endlessly.

The cabin served as base camp for a lot of my early outdoor adventures, usually short hikes into the woods looking for places to build a fort and play Army with my brothers and whatever friends they brought with them. On one such hike, we went pretty far from the cabin (or so it seemed through my six-year-old eyes), then stumbled into a sunlit grotto of pines and aspens. Sunlight pierced through the leaves and pine needles, illuminating this little corner of the forest in an array of green hues that stopped me in my tracks.

I don’t know how the rest of the gang reacted when they saw it, but it was a real Lady of the Lake moment for me (minus the water, of course), like I was Arthur looking for Excalibur, and there it was, being thrust from the brush by the arm of some unseen wood nymph. If you want to know where my sense of wonder with the outdoors came from, it was there, in that spot, on that day.

Back at the cabin, my mom whipped up dinner that cannot be adequately described in words of praise. She’s that good. Our bellies full, we relaxed to mid-70s soft rock tunes oozing from the 1930s-era wooden console radio that came with the cabin and watched the sky transform from blue to various hues of yellow, orange, red and purple. No sense of contentment was higher than at that moment as the kids played games, pieced together puzzles or read a book.

We had neighbors. Real hippies, from what I can guess. They invited my family to a cookout one summer day, so we all walked down the dirt road to their place and were immediately cloaked in the aroma of grilling burgers and hot dogs. This is where I heard Steve Miller for the first time, and the Eagles, too.

It’s also the place where I first smelled beer. You know the smell. A freshly cracked-open can of Coors, announcing itself with smells of barley and hops. I never tasted the stuff — that was reserved for the adults, a mix of flower children and leather-clad motorcycle enthusiasts. And my folks, of course. Just an ordinary, eclectic mix of, you know, mountain people. A funny, weird, and totally likeable bunch.

My guess is that some sort of hybrid of these people is what built the flying saucer house I saw a few years later with a childhood friend while tooling around the woods near Wellington Reservoir. We’d spent the better part of a few days trying, without luck, to pull trout out of that lake. We usually caught suckers, “trash fish” that resembled carp, but smaller. They had a ravenous appetite for salmon eggs we hoped would tempt the ever-elusive trout. So in between these fruitless exercises in angling came a lot of hiking, exploring wild places like kids do.

Not the same place, but the UFO house I saw as a kid looked a lot like this one. (thegrumpyoldlimey.com photo)

Not the same place, but the UFO house I saw as a kid looked a lot like this one. (thegrumpyoldlimey.com photo)

And there it was, beyond a “KEEP OUT!” sign attached to a barbed-wire fence: a dwelling made of metal that looked like a 1950s-era, B-movie UFO, not much bigger than a large RV. It takes a special kind of person to live in something like that, let alone want to live in something like that.

So who would live there? Mountain people, that’s who. Mountain people from yore.

*****

Things have changed a bit since then. As it turns out, a wide range of people like to live in pretty places like the Rockies. Those who can afford it build their dream sanctuary there. And if they have a lot of money, they do it up big.

Back in the day, such ventures weren’t all that pricey. Old mining towns that saw their ventures play out nearly withered and died, saved only by their proximity to gorgeous, skiable mountains.

That’s precisely what happened to Breckenridge. A few years ago, while doing some travel writing, I went to Breck and a few other ski havens to see what they were offering these days. We got a tour of the town from one of the local historical society people, who proceeded to walk us through Breckenridge’s storied history in mining.

No one digs in Breckenridge anymore. But there’s plenty of money to be made. It’s home to world-class skiing, and the town now caters to tourists looking to make some turns on the slopes.

As it turns out, plenty of visitors like Breckenridge. Any why not? It’s a beautiful little town, and a good place to ski. So up went the vacation homes, some as small as condos, others palatial. Few if any are lived in year-round. Some are investment properties, and still others are trophies for the well-heeled.

It takes a lot to keep a place like Breckenridge running. Namely workers who are willing to clean those expensive estates, serve you drinks and food downtown or fit you with the right skis, poles and boots before you hit the slopes. Someone has to man the chair lifts, and someone had to be there to pull you off the hill if you get hurt.

There are a ton of other workers serving you and other visitors. Most of them have one thing in common (other than being employed in the service industry): Very few of them actually live in Breckenridge.

Chances are, they don’t live in nearby Frisco, either. Even Dillon is going to be a stretch. It’s just too pricey for the poor to middle class to live in these places, and for many who do, they end up shacking up with lots of roommates in cramped apartments, trailer houses or other small-but-cheap-enough dwellings that get them close enough to the places where they work and play.

But actually living in Breck? Maybe some of the business owners. And some of the wealthy to whom they cater.

You can bet you ass that none of them are living in flying saucers with “KEEP OUT” signs or hosting parties for their biker friends.

Quick access to beautiful places and great skiing is what has driven up housing costs in the mountains. This pic was taken at Winter Park, Colo.

Quick access to beautiful places and great skiing is what has driven up housing costs in the mountains. This pic was taken at Winter Park, Colo.

This goes for plenty of other mountain towns. Take Crested Butte, for example.

It’s a gorgeous little community just south of the mighty Elk Range. It surrounds Mount Crested Butte, which holds some of Colorado’s sweetest ski runs. Like a lot of ski towns, moneyed travelers fell in love with the place, built homes and sort of moved in. Housing prices went up. People who work in the Butte got priced out. So they moved to “South Crested Butte,” just down the road.

South Crested Butte is pretty, too, and still has easy access to those beloved slopes. There is a river that runs by with incredible scenery. Supply was met with demand, and acreage was parceled off for large vacation homes and such. So soon enough, anyone not making major bank got priced out of South Crested Butte, too.

The next closest town, unfortunately, is pretty far down the road – Gunnison. I like Gunnison. But it’s far different from Crested Butte. Whereas CB is all green forests, grassy glades and steep mountain peaks, Gunnison is more arid: open spaces, wide valleys and sage-covered hills. Gunnison is windswept and, in the winter, one of the coldest places in the lower 48. It’s a cool town with good places to eat and quick access to some amazing places (you need to see the Black Canyon), but it’s not Crested Butte.

However, this is where a lot of people who work in Crested Butte live, about 30 miles away. And even then, that’s changing.

It was after a fishing trip in the Black Canyon that I got to talking to a guy who lived in Gunnison. His home was this rustic, two-story house sided with corrugated metal, just the kind of unique structure you’d expect to see in a mountain town. He was kind enough to lead me and my friends to one of his favorite fishing spots in the canyon, and once we got through we got to talking about the costs of living in the Rockies. He lamented the fact that even in Gunnison, prices were going up.

In terms of appearances, Gunnison and Crested Butte might as well be in different worlds. But the economics of gentrification have seemingly left them irreversibly linked.

Before that conversation, I looked at Gunnison as a place I could live. Now I’m not so sure. It may yet be one more mountain town where I can only visit.

******

This topic came up a few months ago at the tail end of a backpacking trip in the San Juans.

The trip itself was amazing. A crew of us hiked into Chicago Basin and climbed some mountains there, a place so remote that you couldn’t get to it by road. It was truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and the thrill of the peaks was matched by the company I kept – reconnecting with friends from past hikes and climbs, as well as meeting new friends with a shared love of the high country.

Eventually, it was time to go home, and four of us – my friends Matt, Bill and Jenny, and myself – took a pit stop in another cool little mountain town and one of its microbreweries. Salida’s Elevation Beer Co. is a pretty simple place – they make beer and have a small bar and shop where you can sample the goods.

We snagged our brews and pulled up a bench at a thick, wooden table and shot the breeze for awhile, and the topic of high country gentrification came up. I’m probably the guy who brought it up, and the high-point beer loosened me up to the point where I got pretty animated about the subject. It’s hard for me to say, but if you were to poll my friends, they’d likely say I was rather passionate about it.

Relaxing with friends, sipping on some quality brews at Elevation Beer Co. in Salida, Colo.

Relaxing with friends, sipping on some quality brews at Elevation Beer Co. in Salida, Colo.

I’m not sure why this subject eats at me so. I haven’t lived in Colorado since I was a teenager, and my parents sold that cabin the year we moved across the country to northern Illinois. As much as I travel to Colorado and New Mexico, I really don’t have a dog in this hunt. I’m not a stakeholder in any real way, just another visitor gawking awestruck at the towering peaks and endless forests of the alpine wonderland that is the Rocky Mountains.

But you can’t underestimate the power of nostalgia. There is a part of me that wishes very badly that I could somehow recapture the wonder I felt as a kid, walking into that brightly lit glade or perhaps joining a neighbor’s party as classic rock poured out of a beat-up old sound system. I’d like to own a piece of that dream, maybe become neighbors with the weirdo who lives in the UFO house.  I think I could live in a cabin with an outhouse, just as long as it had that deck with the hummingbird feeder and that killer view of pine forests all around.

But I fear (perhaps irrationally) that the “everyman” mountain people are mostly gone now, displaced by the nouveau riche landowners who only live in the mountains part-time, relegating the old-timers to far less scenic, far more desperate communities. So much of the Rockies now belong to large-scale ranchers and vacation home owners that the dream of settling down amidst the peaks looks all but unattainable.

(I also understand that beyond gentrification, jobs are harder to come by, and even those in professions that normally pay well in other places pay less in the mountains because employers know workers will accept less pay to live in the grandeur of the high country, yet another consequence of mountain life that feeds into its unattainability for most.)

I hate to think that someone who loves the mountains as much as I do may be assigned to permanent visitor status, but that’s where gentrification has taken us.

At least I still have my memories, and the ability to make more. But sadly, that may be where line has been drawn.

Bob Doucette