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!

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

Dean Potter. (planetmountain.com photo)

Dean Potter. (planetmountain.com photo)

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

A huge loss to the climbing and outdoor community.

Five reasons why you need to climb a mountain

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

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

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

Mow your yard.

Pay that bill.

Go to the dentist.

Yawn.

Repeat.

Or something like that. You get the idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Doucette

Year in review: A roller coaster 2014

2014 was all about high country dreamin'.

2014 was all about high country dreamin’.

If I recall 2013, I dubbed it as a pretty incredible year. A lot of firsts happened then, giving thoughts to how much more could be done in 2014.

Well, not so fast. I’d say there were some great moments, but there were other things that got in the way of a few of my goals. But even with all that, 2014 turned out to be a good year anyway. So here’s a recap:

RUNNING

After a rough spring and summer, I rallied a bit in the fall. This was at the Escape From Turkey Mountain trail race in September.

After a rough spring and summer, I rallied a bit in the fall. This was at the Escape From Turkey Mountain trail race in September.

Unlike 2013, there would be no marathon. I topped out at 25K (twice), and did so with mixed results.

Coming off a pretty bad little illness earlier in the year, I got in shape enough to finish the Post Oak Challenge 25K. In 2013, I ran the 10K in the same event. The difference between the two is quite stark. Needless to say, I felt that Post Oak’s rugged and hilly 25K was every bit as hard as the marathon I ran three months earlier. I clocked in at around 3 ½ hours, pretty slow for that length of a race. I definitely have some redemption due to me here in a couple of months.

A couple of weeks later, I logged 15.75 miles at the 3-hour Snake Run, topping my previous result in that race by a half mile. I felt pretty good about that, though I attribute it to better in-race gamesmanship rather than fitness.

That led me to April’s half marathon at the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. That was where I ran my first half marathon a year earlier. I had high hopes going into that one, but a 2-hour delay to the start, warm temps and so-so conditioning led me to logging a time that was nearly identical to the year before. A 2:22 was fine for my first time, but a little disappointing for the second go-around.

Summer was a bit of a bust. Too much work, not enough training. But I rallied late in the season, good enough to whip myself into better shape. I didn’t set PRs, but I was in the neighborhood: a 1:32 at the Tulsa Run 15K, a 2:17 at the Route 66 half marathon and about 30 seconds off my PR in the 5K, a 26:37. I’m a bit heavier right now, so those times, while not fast, seem to be OK for now.

Me and Dan after the Route 66 half marathon in November. It ended up being a pretty good race.

Me and Dan after the Route 66 half marathon in November. It ended up being a pretty good race.

Going forward, I’m still trying to strike the balance between strength and endurance. I’m integrating more sprint and hill training into my workouts. And in the weight room, things are starting to get interesting. Consistency will be key.

OUTDOORS

The crew before heading up Wetterhorn Peak.

The crew before heading up Wetterhorn Peak.

A lot of good things happened in relatively short periods of time. My only regret was not being about to get out more. But in those short trips, ah man. Sweetness.

In late June, I joined up with some of my Colorado buds for some fun in the San Juan range. We had a rewarding climb of Wetterhorn Peak, which has turned into my favorite thus far. It ended up being a snowy, cloudy and cool day that included a gorgeous approach hike, a fun scramble to the summit, some dicey moments on the descent and a wild ride of a glissade on the lower slopes. This, not to mention the great company I had: Friends from past trips as well as new ones. I’d do this climb again.

Getting ready to hit the toughest sections of Wetterhorn Peak.

Getting ready to hit the toughest sections of Wetterhorn Peak.

A month later, I was back in Colorado for another go at the peaks, this time targeting the mountains of Chicago Basin. He basin is in the heart of the San Juans. But unlike past trips, this one did not lend itself to car camping. It’s just too remote.

Instead, it included a steam train ride to a trailhead and a 7-mile hike in to the campsite. From there, four 14ers await.

These were some of the fun folks who I had the privilege of backpacking into Chicago Basin with.

These were some of the fun folks who I had the privilege of backpacking into Chicago Basin with.

I got two of them : Mount Eolus and North Eolus. The ridge route we took on Mount Eolus was probably the airiest of I’ve done in Colorado, but extremely rewarding. It was also hard work: The hike up the headwall leading to the peaks is no joke, and at that point I was in pretty sad condition. By the time I got back to camp from those first two peaks, I’d resolved to take the next day off.

That didn’t slow down the rest of the crew, which went up and tagged Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak. One gal, named Kay, proved particularly ambitious, summiting a couple of 13ers to boot. My friend Matt, who drove up from Tulsa with me, climbed his first 14er, and his second and third. He impressed us all.

There were a number of people on this trip I’d never met, and a couple I only knew via social media. Kay was one of those, Jenny another. Both aren’t just turning into real mountain hounds. They already are. So add them to a list of outdoor women I know (talking to you, Noel and Beth) who more than hold their own.

Probably the best mountain view I've seen to date, from atop North Eolus.

Probably the best mountain view I’ve seen to date, from atop North Eolus.

I almost forgot: There was a 13er hike that week as well, when Matt and I hiked Mount Snitkau as a warmup to the real show at Chicago Basin. It was a worthwhile hike on its own, packed with scenery, and so close to Denver. I can see going back to Loveland Pass.

On the western edge of Black Mesa, looking into New Mexico.

On the western edge of Black Mesa, looking into New Mexico.

The last outing of the year took me to Black Mesa, in far western Oklahoma. This is a place I’d long wanted to see, not because it was the state’s high place, but because I’d heard how beautiful it was. Black Mesa didn’t disappoint. I did this one solo, and experienced the kind of solitude I hadn’t ever had before. I knew I’d enjoy that. I’ve come to a point where I need it. Add that to the stories people told me along the way and the unique experience that it was, and that little journey into the Panhandle may have been one of the most memorable I’ve had in many years.

I look forward to going back to Chicago Basin, back to Colorado, and also exploring places closer to home.

ON THE SITE

It was a good year for expanding readership on the blog. I had to cut some things out (no more Weekly Stoke), but that freed up time to concentrate on trip reports, essays and posts about fitness topics.

It also freed up time to get a few more gear reviews up. I’m always down to test new stuff.

As of this writing, the blog recorded more than 53,000 views for 2014. I also expanded its social media footprint via Facebook and Instagram. Those are growing slowly, but they’ve been a nice outlet to connect with existing readers as well as new folks. Since Proactiveoutside was created three years ago, nearly 155,000 people have given it a click.

For that I’m grateful. Thanks for reading, interacting, and being a part of this little project. Here’s to making 2015 that much more memorable!

What do you have planned for the coming year? Let’s hear it!

Bob Doucette

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

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

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

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

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

My parents

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

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

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

Easter at the family cabin in Colorado.

Easter at the family cabin in Colorado.

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

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

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

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

My brother-in-law, Mark

Mark and a nice gar. This dude can fish.

Mark and a nice gar. This dude can fish.

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

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

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

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

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

My brother Mike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike, me and Steve atop Quandary Peak, Colo.

Mike, me and Steve atop Quandary Peak, Colo.

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

My friend Johnny

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

Johnny Hunter on the crags of Mount Mitchell, Okla.

Johnny Hunter on the crags of Mount Mitchell, Okla.

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

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

My Colorado mountain buddies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Doucette

Places I like: Wetterhorn Peak

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wetterhorn Peak as seen from Matterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak as seen from Matterhorn Peak.

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

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

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

Wetterhorn wears the snow pretty well.

Late spring snow conditions on Wetterhorn's east face.

Late spring snow conditions on Wetterhorn’s east face.

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

The Wetterhorn summit, with the Prow to the left.

The Wetterhorn summit, with the Prow to the left.

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

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

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

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

Bob Doucette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riding the rails

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

The rig that took us to the trailhead.

The rig that took us to the trailhead.

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

Chugging along...

Chugging along…

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

Where is this? Washington state?

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

And we're off!

And we’re off!

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

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

The trail starts easy enough.

The trail starts easy enough.

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

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

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

Jenny and Bill as we get closer to camp.

Jenny and Bill as we get closer to camp.

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

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

The view from my tent.

The view from my tent.

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

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

Noel and I.

Noel and I.

Anyway, I’m lucky to know this gal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The alarm was set for 3:15.

Mount Eolus and North Eolus

Twenty minutes.

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

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

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

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

Yeah, right.

Alpenglow on Mount Eolus.

Alpenglow on Mount Eolus.

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

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

Sunrise over Chicago Basin.

Sunrise over Chicago Basin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossing the Catwalk.

Crossing the Catwalk.

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

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

Climbing the ridge. (Mikey Zee photo)

Climbing the ridge. (Mikey Zee photo)

Close to topping out on Eolus' tiny summit.

Close to topping out on Eolus’ tiny summit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mount Eolus, as seen from North Eolus' summit.

Mount Eolus, as seen from North Eolus’ summit.

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

Glorious San Juan wilderness.

Glorious San Juan wilderness.

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

Mountain goat chillin'.

Mountain goat chillin’.

Wildflowers galore.

Wildflowers galore.

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

Heading back toward camp.

Heading back toward camp.

The weather hates us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to civilization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Doucette