Going up Mount Evans with a dude named Animal

Animal starts blasting his way up the lower slopes of Mount Spalding.

Animal starts blasting his way up the lower slopes of Mount Spalding.

After gaining the shoulder of Mount Spalding’s lower flanks, I got treated to something I’ve never seen before.

“Gonna make this mountain my bitch!”

And with that, my hiking partner for the day started running up the slope.

Did I mention we were near 13,000 feet at that point?

If there is any single moment that would describe both the day and the man, that would be the one. This was the first time I’d seen Animal — that’s the name he goes by these days — in several years. Back when I first knew him, he was a skinny little college kid. Today he’s a rocked-out Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, personal trainer, Internet entrepreneur and night club bouncer. Animal is many things, but the one constant is intensity.

Below Mount Spalding's summit, the ridge of Mount Evans is seen here.

Below Mount Spalding’s summit, the ridge of Mount Evans is seen here.

Nothing he does his half-assed, and such was the case when we started doing our Mount Spalding-to-Mount Evans traverse last week. Animal is a guy with a lot of plans and dreams, and one of those dates back many years. We talked about it a lot on the drive up into the mountains west of Denver, stories read in books about men testing themselves in the mountains. He’s been dying to get into the game.

The trick was finding the right peak. I was in need of getting some work in at elevation; Animal was just wanting to stand on a tall summit. Mount Evans, the grand 14,264-foot peak overlooking Denver, fit the bill.

Evans is easily accessible, and is actually one of those rare mountains where a road can take you to a spot just short of the top. A lot of tourists do just that.

Animal adds a little to a cairn on the trail on Mount Evans' west slopes.

Animal adds a little to a cairn on the trail on Mount Evans’ west slopes.

At the same time, it’s a complicated mountain. When the snow is in, there are numerous snow climbs that can get you to the summit. All of them are steep.

You can also hike straight up its eastern side from the north or the south, or go up to the top after summiting nearby Mount Bierstadt and scrambling across the dramatic Sawtooth Ridge that connects the two.

We chose to go up Evans’ west ridge via Mount Spalding, an unranked 13er that’s part of the Evans massif. Parking at Summit Lake, the whole loop picks up about 2,000 feet of elevation in 4.25 miles.

A view of Mount Bierstadt as seen from Mount Evans.

A view of Mount Bierstadt as seen from Mount Evans.

We got a late start and clouds had rolled in. This worried me for awhile but this amounted to little more than dramatic cloudcover and cool, breezy conditions.

By the time we gained Spalding’s summit, the rest of the route came into view. Evans is not a mountain that sparked my imagination much – the idea of a road leading to the top takes the romance out of it. But like any of Colorado’s high peaks, I always end up being surprised by what I see.

The cliffs below the top are sheer and dramatic. Views from the summit ridge reveal some old friends of mine: Bierstadt is right next door (and it looks so different when viewed from the east) while Grays and Torreys loom in the distance. Further away, the distinctive east slopes of Quandary Peak come into view.

High on Mount Evans's ridge, looking toward the summit.

High on Mount Evans’s ridge, looking toward the summit. You can see two people on top.

The visuals of Evans energized me, but it was a different story for Animal. Physical and mental challenge – and coming out on the winning side – power this guy.

I told him, given the weather conditions, that we would successfully tag Evans’ summit only if the mountain let us. He disagreed, hence the insistence on making Evans “our bitch.”

When I think about it, it makes a lot of sense from his perspective. Combat sports are a part of his life. We discussed that quite a bit during our drive up and back – the feeling of fear, excitement and anticipation when you step into the cage and the gate swings closed behind you. There’s no way out at that point. You simply have to go through your opponent or he will go through you.

The final trail leading to Evans' summit.

The final trail leading to Evans’ summit.

Animal scrambles his way to the summit.

Animal scrambles his way to the summit.

Most of us don’t live in that world. Our lives growing up are easier, perhaps. Our jobs are tame, sitting behind a desk pounding a keyboard. Life at home is stable, typical.

But when you make your living cracking the skulls of drunk idiots at a club, or train for months on end to test yourself in a fighting arena the size of a small living room, the way you look at life is a little different from everyone else. In this scenario, the methods of tackling physical and mental challenges are less Zen and more Fight Club.

It’s funny that I ended up being the guide in this trip, because I’d never been up this mountain before, and sure enough, I led us to the wrong summit. A short descent and scramble up and we found Evans’ true summit. We were joined by non-hikers there, people who had driven the Mount Evans Road to the parking lot less than 100 feet below.

The high parking lot at the end of Mount Evans Road. I'm not sure how I feel about this.

The high parking lot at the end of Mount Evans Road. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

Going there, we mingled for a bit with the tourists. I ran up on an Asian family taking in the views when a little girl in the group stared at me, then pointed off to her right. I looked, and there they were – the true denizens of the mountains, a family of mountain goats less than 20 feet away. I got to within 5 feet of them and snapped of few photos; they seemed unconcerned.

Mountain goats!

Mountain goats!

Descending toward the lake, we eventually made out way back to the car and down to Idaho Springs for a well-earned dinner at Tommyknockers, a restaurant and microbrewery that’s a favorite destination for people who like hiking these hills. High-calorie eats and tasty brews led to conversations about big dreams, mainly those in the mountains. With Evans under his belt, Animal is thinking about other, more famous peaks.

That’s a theme in this dude’s life; conquer one challenge, look for the next, tougher feat. It’s a long road from a Colorado walk-up 14er to mountains like Rainier or Denali, but at the same time making that journey has to start somewhere. It also takes time, money and experience in the high country to get to the point where you’re standing atop the real big boys of mountaineering, but here’s the deal: the most important thing you need is mental toughness.

It’s no accident that Animal had his headphones going, listening to the same hard-charging music that blared out of the loudspeakers when he made his way toward the cage in his last fight. Life has been a battle for this guy, and the way he has tackled it has been simple: Step into the ring, hear the gate close behind you and stare your opponent in the eye just before you do everything in your power to put him to sleep.

If that is what it takes to get you to the top, then so be it. I’m sure that time will eventually hone his mentality into a more nuanced approach when it comes to gaining summits. It has to. But until then, use what you’ve got. Animal’s brief career in the 14ers is 1-0.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From Summit Lake, follow the trail north, then west up the slopes of Mount Spalding. The hiking starts steep, then gradually eases to Spalding’s summit at 13,842 feet. Follow the cairned trail down to the saddle between Spalding and Evans. The trail will take you to the southwest slopes before turning slightly northeast. The terrain here is more rugged but is well cairned. The Mount Evans Road parking lot will come into view, and the route eases into a switchback trail that leads to the summit. To descend, go to the parking lot’s north side and drop down into a trail that leads down toward the road, which eventually leads you back to the Summit Lake parking lot. Route difficulty is Class 2, with second-class exposure.

GETTING THERE: From Interstate 70, take Exit 240 at Idaho Springs. Follow State Highway 103 to the entrance of Mount Evans Road. It costs $10 to gain entrance. Follow Mount Evans Road 9 miles to Summit Lake.

EXTRA CREDIT: There are numerous routes to Evans’ summit, either by snow gullies on its north face, or from the west at Guanella Pass, either up Evans directly or through the Bierstadt-Evans combo over the Sawtooth Ridge.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Explaining my absence: It’s been a good week

I haven’t been posting much within the past week because I took some much needed time to break from my routine (you might have noticed there was no Weekly Stoke last week). I’ll be writing a lot more about all of that, and I’ve covered some of it here in the past. But here’s a taste:

A week ago Sunday was Lipbuster Challenge…

Lipbuster Challenge. I'm the dude in the grey shirt in the middle of the pack. (Danielle Huddleston photo)

Lipbuster Challenge. I’m the dude in the grey shirt in the middle of the pack. (Danielle Huddleston photo)

Then a fast trip to Colorado. First up: An ascent of Mount Evans…

Looking toward the summit of Mount Evans, with two people taking in the view.

Looking toward the summit of Mount Evans, with two people taking in the view.

I spent some time with family, including a round of 18 holes with my nephew Jordan. Then it was off with some friends to Yankee Boy Basin and another mountain climb deep in the San Juans of Colorado…

Can you blame me for getting caught up in the moment in a place like this? (Noel Johnson photo)

Can you blame me for getting caught up in the moment in a place like this? (Noel Johnson photo)

Like I said, I’ll be writing more about all this later. I’m back to traveling soon before getting home and collecting my thoughts on all the awesomeness that I was fortunate to experience. Until then, have a great time outside!

Bob Doucette

On Twitter at RMHigh7088

Some thoughts on Missy, a dog rescue, and putting your pet at risk on the trail

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

We love our dogs.

We treat them as family. Name them, adopt them, rescue them. We carry them around in dog-purses, photograph them like they were our first-borns and write books about them.

For many people, their dogs are part of their outdoor pastimes. Our faithful friends are running buddies, hiking partners and even pack animals on the trail.

So it’s no surprise that the story of Missy has touched a nerve nationally.

Here’s the backstory.

Missy is a German Shepherd who, along with her owner and another hiker, were in the middle of hiking a challenging route in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Between Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans is a rugged and exposed connecting ridge called the Sawtooth. While a hike up Bierstadt is relatively straightforward, traversing the ridge is a Class 3 climb that involves some careful moves over areas with significant drop-offs.

This is a challenge, and quite honestly, a lot of accidents have occurred on the ridge that have seriously hurt or even killed some people. While it’s not considered the toughest ridge traverse in the state, the accidents that have occurred there underscore that it’s not a walk in the park.

Somewhere in the middle of the traverse, Missy could go no further. She was tired, her paws were bleeding from the rocks and she’d had enough. Her human companions, from what has been posted online by acquaintances, grew concerned about deteriorating weather conditions and could not carry the 100-pound animal out.

So they made a big decision: They decided to turn back and leave Missy on the ridge.

The story went national not long after another couple traversing the same ridge came across Missy. She was still alive, but in worse shape. They also could not carry her out. So they gave her some food and water, left the ridge, and made a post on 14ers.com about Missy with hopes that someone might be able to organize an effort to get her off the mountain.

People rallied, Missy was found alive and is now recovering in the custody of local authorities.

A view of the Sawtooth, a connecting ridge between Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans in Colorado.

There are a lot of subplots. The owner came forward, expressed gratitude to Missy’s rescuers and said he hoped to get his dog back. There’s been a lot of anger about this incident, and not just a little bit of vitriol. Two separate threads on the 14ers.com forum had to be locked by the site’s administrator because of how heated things got.

My thoughts on this don’t center on Missy’s owner, his decision to leave the dog there, and the good fortune that she was found alive and successfully removed from the mountain (a pretty remarkable team effort). (UPDATE: Missy’s owner was charged with animal cruelty on Friday, according to this report from Outside Online.)

Instead, I look toward the decisions made before that little excursion started.

Back in 2005, I was hiking along the shore of the Gunnison River deep in the Black Canyon, getting ready to start a nice little climb to some pretty hot fishing. Down the shore, I saw a couple hiking toward us, with the woman carrying her toy-sized pooch in a dog purse. I thought this was strange, but laughed it off. It was Paris Hilton meets “Man vs. Wild,” a punchline of the funny extremes people will go to for the purpose of including their beloved pet in their daily activities (it’s doubtful that little guy would have made it far on such rocky terrain on its own).

A few years later, I saw something similar but much more disconcerting while climbing Mount Yale.

Much of that mountain’s route is pretty dog-friendly, a well-marked and maintained trail. But the summit ridge is a rocky, boulder-strewn mess. It’s fun for people who like boulder-hopping and scrambling. No problem for hooved creatures like mountain goats and bighorn sheep, and likewise pretty friendly for smaller animals like marmots and pikas.

For canines, not so much. And after one dog – a beautiful golden lab – reached its limit, it pooped out and stopped cold.

So what’s an owner to do? Turn around? Rest with his pet for awhile? Nope. The guy picked up the dog and carried it to the summit.

That, my friends, is ridiculous.

It’s obvious the dog either did not want to go any further or could not go any further. The decision to haul it up to the top was entirely a decision of the owner. Why do this? To get a summit photo with his pet? To say he did it with his dog? To put a checkmark by the name of the mountain he climbed? No matter what the answer is, the decision in that case was done without the dog’s well-being in mind. That little trick was all about what the owner wanted.

I’m all for bringing your dog on outdoor adventures. But you need to be certain that the adventure in which you’re embarking is within the capabilities of your companions. Remember, just the act of taking your dog with you makes you responsible for the animal’s safety. Your pet didn’t drag you to the mountains. You made the decision to take it there.

In the same way you are responsible for your kids, or beginner hikers/climbers, or clients, you are responsible for your animals on the trail. They trust you. They are unaware of the challenges that lie ahead.

An out-of-shape or old dog probably isn’t up for a long hike. Fewer dogs are up for anything above Class 2 hikes, and certainly any climb involving the need for three to four points of contact will rule out your pet.

Take your dog on your hikes. Get it some exercise and outdoor time. But just remember that heat, cold, elevation and bad weather will affect dogs as much as they do people. And unless you put booties on Fido’s paws, the wear and tear from rock scrambles will chew their paw pads up badly over time.

Don’t let your dog end up like Missy. Don’t let yourself get vilified like Missy’s owner. And don’t leave it up to others to haul your animal off the mountain.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Tornado spotted on Mount Evans, Colo.

A tornado forms near Mount Evans, Colo., on Saturday. (Mike and Jamie Connors photo)

Add this to the news of the weird. And the things you have to watch out for when you hiking and climbing in the high country.

On Saturday, a tornado was sighted on the slopes of Mount Evans, a 14,264-foot peak in Colorado’s Front Range.

A National Weather Service report says the tornado was spotted southeast of the peak near Lincoln Lake, with its funnel dropping down to about 12,500 feet. The tornado caused no damage and eventually dissipated.

I can’t say for sure if this is or is close to a record for the highest elevation a tornado has ever been spotted. But it is rare.

Typically, tornadoes are the stuff of violent supercells that occur on the plains east of the Rockies. They can occur anywhere (as evidenced here), but a tornado in the mountains — and that high — is extremely uncommon.

So, a list of stuff to watch out for in the high country: Altitude sickness, lightning, wildlife, dehydration, sun exposure, hypothermia — and tornadoes.

But don’t let that stop you from bagging a peak or two.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

An ascent of Colorado’s Mount Bierstadt

Mount Bierstadt's west slopes.

Among those who live on Colorado’s East Slope, Mount Bierstadt is one of maybe four 14,000-foot peaks that end up being their first to climb.

Its proximity to Denver, easy access and short, straightforward route make it an ideal introduction to the state’s high peaks – not too risky, but at 14,060 feet still a summit that requires some effort for the uninitiated.

For the experienced hikers and mountaineers, Bierstadt is a peak to be avoided during the summer months, as its heavily trafficked west slope trail attracts, quite literally, hundreds of people. Sure, you can go up the mountain’s more difficult east ridge, but you’ll be greeted by a sizable crowd at the summit. That’s a huge turnoff for some (though it can’t be quite as weird as the parking lot and gift shop at the top of Pikes Peak).

Looking back across the willows.

I can’t say this one was high on my list of mountains to hike or climb. But many times, it’s more about the company you keep than the mountain itself. Back in 2009, me and my two brothers, Mike and Steve, made the short trip from Breckenridge to one of the most well-trodden trails of all Colorado’s high summits.

This mountain is different from most of the ones I’ve hiked and climbed. The entire route is in view from the trailhead parking lot. The only greenery, aside from the alpine grasses, are thickets of low-lying willows (with a few trees here and there). Absent is the normal blanket of pines and aspen stands common throughout the rest of the Rockies.

You also lose elevation before starting to gain it again, dipping downhill from the parking lot before crossing a stream and heading up again.

The Sawtooth Ridge.

Bierstadt’s west slopes used to be more arduous than they are now. Not too long ago, hikers were forced to slog their way through the marshy tangle of willow thickets low on the mountain for nearly a mile – easily the toughest part of the route, aside from the challenges of elevation higher up. All of that is circumvented by a convenient wooden plank walkway that keeps you above it all.

Once you cross Scott Gomer Creek, the uphill portion begins.

The incline is fairly gentle, mimicking the graceful sweep of the mountain’s west slopes. The trail, well-marked and maintained, is easy to follow and gives you an excellent view of the striking connecting ridge between Bierstadt and its taller neighbor, Mount Evans.

Looking up the final pitch on the summit ridge.

Evans is the centerpiece summit overlooking Denver, but here it’s that ridge – the Sawtooth Ridge – that inspires a bit of awe. It’s long, jagged and foreboding. Traversing the ridge is a rocky and exposed route that can make for a long day for climbers who chose to do it. The Sawtooth is seen as a bit of a test piece for people who seek to overcome fears of steep, towering drop-offs. Conquer the Sawtooth and bigger challenges beckon. Those who are exhilarated by it take the bait; those who are not chalk it up as an accomplishment and leave it at that.

The Sawtooth was not on our agenda that day, but it didn’t mean we wouldn’t be without a little fun. Even though we were ascending on a weekday, summer crowds were still pretty thick. We saw all sorts, including one guy hiking the route barefoot. I might have nicknamed him Frodo if he wasn’t so tall.

Looking down the Sawtooth from Bierstadt's summit.

Eventually we made our way to the summit ridge, which had us doing a little boulder-hopping and the occasional scramble. I’m not sure why, but I find boulder-hopping and scrambling kinda fun, a sort of mental break from the constant one-foot-in-front-of-the-other that goes on for miles and miles on most walk-up peaks. I don’t have a problem with mountain hikes, it’s just that sometimes a change in terrain – and the methods used to go higher – add more to the experience.

A USGS summit marker.

On the summit we see more of Bierstadt’s wilder sides. There’s a bird’s-eye view of the Sawtooth, but also a great look at the mountain’s formidable east ridge and Point 13,641. (The east ridge is highly exposed Class 3, and for the more ambitious, there is a short Class 5 section going up the subpeak).

Aside from that, we had company. Dozens of people were up there, as were not just a few marmots and pikas looking to score a free meal from the peak’s visitors.

The folks up here weren’t much different than me and my brothers. Everyone I saw was with someone, making it an outing with friends and family. For us, this was a poignant time, as Steve was months away from a deployment and, unbeknownst to all of us at the time, a sort of last hurrah for Mike.

The east ridge and Point 13,641.

For the novice, Bierstadt is the goal and the prize. For others, it’s something else. For the three of us, it was about brotherhood in the truest sense. Leaving behind the lives we led in our hometowns in three different states, there we were – aged a bit, maybe not the picture of youthful vibrancy we once were. But this new experience, mixed with all those memories from childhood, made for the kind of stew that satisfies. The mountain was beautiful and memorable, but in this case, it was appreciated most of all for its ability to be a venue for some good times shared with a couple of dudes who just happen to be two of the most important people in my life.

Mount Bierstadt is a first for many and an afterthought for some. For me, it’s a place of importance.

A hungry marmot looking for a snack.

GETTING THERE: If you’re coming from Denver on Interstate 70, take the Georgetown exit. Drive through Georgetown and follow the signs for the Guanella Pass Scenic Byway. Drive 12 miles to the top of Guanella Pass and park in one of the two large, paved parking areas on either side of the road. The Bierstadt trail starts near the parking area on the east side of the road.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: The early part of the route is mixed trail and wood plank walkways that go across a sizable patch of willows. They lead to a crossing at Scott Gomer Creek, which entails a little rock-hopping to get across dry. Continue following a well-maintained trail as it winds its way up the west slopes, eventually leading to a rockier approach to the summit ridge. From here, follow the summit ridge to the top. The route is classified Class 2 with very mild exposure; it’s about 7 miles round trip.

EXTRA CREDIT: From the summit, head down to the Sawtooth Ridge connecting Bierstadt and Mount Evans. Rated Class 3 with higher exposure. Or gain the summit via the east ridge, Class 3 with high exposure.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088