A flatlander’s guide to high country adventure

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As spring takes hold, a bunch of us from the flatlands are having dreams of alpine vistas and Rocky Mountain summits. But we often forget that there is a lot that goes into being ready for the challenges that come with altitude.

I live at less than 800 feet. So every time I think about heading west, I know there are things I need to do before marching to the top of a high peak.

So that’s what this is about. It’s not like I’m a pro or anything, but I’ve spent the last 13 years bagging peaks in the Colorado and New Mexico high country from late spring to early fall. I’ve learned a bit — mostly through trial and error, and from my mistakes. So that’s what I want to pass along to you.

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BEFORE THE TRIP

People who live at higher elevations have an advantage over the rest of us because they have more red blood cells — the agents that carry oxygen to the rest of the body — flowing through their bodies than us. And unless you plan on spending several weeks at altitude, your body won’t be able to match that red blood cell production in time to fit inside your vacation plans. You can acclimate some, but not that fast. So extra care has to be taken in terms of physical preparation. With that in mind…

Get yourself in shape. There are a lot of ways to do this, but I’d suggest a few basics. Plan and complete some big hikes, preferably in hilly areas. On some of these hikes, carry a backpack that will be the same size and weight as the one you plan to use in the mountains. Break in those boots if they’re new. Plan on hikes that will last as long (in number of hours) as you think it will take on your trip. I’d also recommend doing some regular cardio at least four times a week — running, cycling, swimming, stairmaster — yes to any or all of that. And sprinkle in some strength training. A rugged frame and a strong heart/set of lungs will go a long way toward helping you enjoy your alpine adventures rather than just suffer through them. Ideally, these are things you should be doing at least a few  months out from your planned trip. If you want more information on that, check out this post I wrote last year.

Test your gear. Wear and use the clothes, footwear and backpack you plan to use, and make sure the fit is good. Same goes with any tents, stoves, electronics or anything else you might use or depend on. Be familiar with how everything works, and adjust accordingly if something’s not right. Having a gear failure on the trail because of your unfamiliarity with it is a potential disaster that is entirely preventable.

Ask for advice. Got any friends who are knowledgeable about the high country? Hit ’em up. You can also find good information in online forums and through social media. People are willing to help. A question you have that goes unasked is a mystery you might not be able to afford when you’re in the backcountry.

Plan and study your routes. Again, there is a lot of information online about trails, forests, peaks, etc. Plenty of guide books, too. You don’t have to kill all spontaneity, but you should be familiar with the places you’re going, the distances you’ll travel, and the type of terrain, obstacles and hazards you’ll face. And let someone know where you are going and when you intend to return.

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WHEN YOU’RE THERE

Give yourself some time. I’ve done the thing where you drive in one day, and then a day later go hit a 14,000-foot peak. It can be done, but I don’t advise it. Rather, spend a few days at a lower elevation town or city and do some practice hikes on smaller hills. After a couple of days, head into the high country, and give yourself another day or so, embarking in acclimatization hikes. After a few days, your body will be more prepared for the task at hand.

Drink plenty of water. The Rockies are fairly dry, and because your respiration will be at an increased rate, you’ll dehydrate much faster — even in a city like Denver, at 5,280 feet — than you do at home. It’s subtle at first, and you won’t realize you’re drying out… until it’s too late. So it’s not a bad thing to be sipping water regularly throughout the day, even if you’re just chilling out. When you’re on the trail, your hydration needs will increase. A 4-8 hour day hike might mean you take 2-3 liters of water with you, and try to drink as much of that as you can. Otherwise, you’ll get nasty headaches, and possibly the beginnings of altitude sickness.

Pack right. Make sure you have enough food for your hike, and then a little more. Bring the right supplies and tools in your pack, with special detail on what you might need in an emergency. If you’re wondering what that looks like, check this link for the 10 essentials. Make sure your clothing is designed to handle a variety of weather conditions your might face.

Even if you’re from another mountain state, do not underestimate what elevation does to a hike or climb. Plenty of peak baggers and hikers hail from states with mountains that have serious elevation profiles, but aren’t as high as the Rockies. An example: I hiked Mount LeConte in Tennessee, which at various trailheads will give you 3,000 feet of elevation gain or more. Many of the peaks in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming are similar in their base-to-summit profile. But I found the going much easier in the Appalachians than in the Rockies, even when approaching LeConte’s summit, solely because of how much thinner the air is in the Rockies. Remember that the trailheads at most peaks in the Rockies start at elevations higher the tops of any mountain on the East Coast, as well as most mountains in every western state except California (the Sierras pose their own challenges, as do some of the big ones in the Cascades). The level of exertion and complications from altitude will be much different than they are in the Smokies, the White Mountains, or just about anywhere else in the Lower 48.

Watch the weather. A bluebird day in the summer can turn into a nightmare of lighting, hail and wind in a hurry. Storms can form right over your head with little warning. Start your hikes early (pre-dawn is good, and even earlier if the route is long) and be heading down the mountain well before noon. Check forecasts closely, and don’t be surprised to see snowfall on the bookend weeks of the summer. Fall and spring hikes and climbs can be even more touch-and-go when it comes to snowstorms. Perfect conditions one day can give way to blizzards. On my early July attempt of Longs Peak last summer, snow high on the mountain fell the night before our ascent and turned route conditions into a mess of sloppy snow and ice, forcing us to abort the climb. Now imagine getting caught in the middle of that, while on exposed, steep terrain. Respect for high country weather changes is a must.

Respect the land and its permanent residents. Stay on the trail and don’t stomp all over delicate alpine tundra. If you bring a dog, keep it under control and don’t let it chase after wildlife. Camp 100 feet or more away from streams. If established fire pits are available, camp fires are fine — provided the conditions are not prone to forest fires and camp fires are allowed by park and/or forestry officials. Haul out your trash, and don’t burn it. Only use deadfall wood for fires, make sure all fires are completely extinguished before you leave a fire pit unattended. If you have any doubts at all about whether you are allowed (established wilderness areas do not permit camp fires) or should build a camp fire, skip it. Leave the trail and your campsite in as good or better condition than how you found it. And do not feed wildlife. Our food is not good for them, and feeding wild animals conditions them to see humans as a food source.

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So those are some ideas. Good advice can be found at this link. And most of all, enjoy your time in the high country.

Bob Doucette

Despite the risk, climb on

Others have been here before us. And yet we still go. Any why not?

Others have been here before us. And yet we still go. Any why not?

Not long ago, I was reading a book titled One Mountain, Thousand Summits, a tome about the 2008 K2 climbing disaster. The writer, Freddie Wilkinson, makes a point of not only documenting what occurred on the mountain, but also what happened around the world in response to the tragedy. In doing so, he followed media reporting – and reader comments – on the Internet.

For the sake of context: Eleven people died directly and indirectly from a serac collapse high on K2, one of the worst disasters in mountaineering history.

Some of the online comments quoted in the book are as follows:

“Spirit of exploration? Please. K2 has been climbed before. Many times. It was ‘discovered’ a long time ago. Climbers today climb 8,000-meter peaks for one reason: themselves.”

Another was even more blunt:

“This was not a voyage of discovery; it was an ego trip, as most mountain ascents are today.”

Similar sentiments were made after the 1996 Everest disaster, and just about any other report of a mountaineering accident that includes someone’s death.

Let’s go beyond the callousness that goes into writing screeds like these. There is a deeper philosophical question to be posed here: Do these armchair quarterbacks have a point?

Why do we climb mountains? For that matter, why do we do a lot of the physically challenging and at times risky things we do?

The great mountains of the world have been climbed. The poles have been reached. The jungles and deserts of the world have, for the most part, been traversed and explored.

And yet we still climb these peaks, journey to the poles and travel in some of the most inhospitable environments in the world. Often, people do this with a twist: trying to be the “first” at something (oldest, youngest, first woman, first blind person, etc.), and admittedly, some of these efforts are done for publicity’s sake. But more commonly, we merely retrace paths already taken – often many times before – only for our own benefit.

I can relate. Every mountain I’ve climbed and every route I’ve taken has already been done, maybe hundreds or thousands of times.

So outside of space and the oceans, much of the age of exploration has come to an end, the purposes of which have gone beyond the greater good and now veer toward the strictly personal.

So why bother? Why risk injury and death to climb?

I set my book down and let this question rattle around in my brain for awhile, and then let the thought broaden. Mountaineering accidents, particularly high-profile mishaps, get a lot of attention. News articles, TV specials and books usually follow. But there are other things we do that draw parallels.

People die running marathons. Not often, but it happens. Why run a marathon on Pikes Peak? People have had heart attacks and dropped dead trying that race. Even in my city’s local marathon there has been a fatality. The people who have died in these races possessed, for the most part, the fitness level needed for the task.

I know that’s extreme, but there are other less severe yet still noteworthy examples of how people have suffered incredibly by trying to run 26.2 miles or more. Training for such races can do a whole lot of damage to your body, consume a lot of your time and energy and change your lifestyle in ways that are not always positive.

Here’s a fact: The overwhelming number of people who run ultramarathons, marathons, half marathons, 15ks, 10ks and 5ks do so without even the slightest chance of actually winning. Or placing high. Or even winning their gender, age group or whatever. It is supposed to be a race, right? Why run a race you have no shot of winning? Or no shot of even being the slightest bit competitive?

Let’s move into other sports, say football. It’s a great game, one of my favorites. Pro football in particular interests me because it is the game played at the highest level by the biggest, fastest and most skilled athletes in the sport. It’s such a difficult challenge to even win one game, not to mention a championship.

But at what cost? The concussion debate has been raging now for a few years. But there is a host of other injuries these guys suffer on top of that, maladies that leave these fantastic physical specimens barely able to walk (not to mention run) when middle age sets in. Obviously, the money is a major reason why these men do this, but when the crowds no longer cheer and all you’re left with is a broken body (and in some cases, mind), can you say that those years of abuse were worth it?

Here’s another question: What’s the alternative?

The alternative is not to pursue the difficulties of planning, training for and finally attempting a mountain climb. The alternative is to stay inside, substitute your running shoes for a pair of house slippers and spend yet another mindless day on the couch watching TV or playing video games (which often portray characters doing epic things. Kind of ironic). The alternative is to never plumb the depths of your abilities to see how far you can take your God-given talents.

If you never push yourself to see how strong you can be, you’ll never be strong. And that’s not just in terms of physical strength, but mental and emotional strength as well. These tests tell us how tough we can be and often lead us to personal growth that can’t be replicated in the world of the easy and mundane.

None of us will ever be the first to climb Everest, K2 or thousands of other peaks. We won’t be the first to reach the north or south poles. Almost no one in this world of seven billion people will set a new world-record marathon time, and the tiniest fraction of all athletes will even do something as comparatively normal as actually winning a long-distance race. Sorry to burst your bubble.

But so what? These are the ways we measure ourselves, promote growth and even inspire others to try and do great things. Obviously, some pursuits are riskier than others, but you won’t see me discourage people from such endeavors, provided they weigh the risks, prepare thoroughly, and do so with a healthy degree of humility for the task at hand.

Lace ‘em up, people. Buckle that chin strap. Climb on. If you want to criticize that, then enjoy your time on the couch. I’m sure it will be your faithful companion on your journey to the perfectly average for some time to come. For those who choose to go out and “do” things, you never know what reward awaits you when the challenge is accepted, then met.

NOTE: What’s written above is an excerpt from a larger writing project I’m working on about the outdoors.

Bob Doucette

13er Thursday: A gallery of some great peaks that don’t hit 14,000 feet

On the slopes of Cupid, a Colorado 13er that was remarkably free of people when I was there.

On the slopes of Cupid, a Colorado 13er that was remarkably free of people when I was there.

If you’re into the Colorado hiking and climbing scene, you know all about the  14ers, the peaks that rise to elevations of more than 14,000 feet. Colorado has more of those than any state in the country, 58 high points that hit that magic number.

To say that the 14ers are popular is an understatement. Many of these peaks get crowded in the summer, with packed trails and clogged trailhead parking lots. Looking for a moment of solitude in the mountains? That’s not likely among the 14ers during the peak season of summer hiking. You’ll need to hit ’em up in less friendly conditions that surround winter for that.

But there are plenty of other mountains in Colorado. Believe it or not, most of them don’t top 14,000 feet. And because of that, they’ve become the forgotten mountains of the peak bagger realm.

Fine by me. I like the 13ers. They’re wild, beautiful and largely absent of people. My experience in the 13ers is a little limited, but memorable just the same.

Enough words. Just take a look and you’ll see what I mean.

Grizzly Peal D is in there somewhere...

Grizzly Peak D is in there somewhere…

You can hike this one and many others just up the road from Denver, and chances are, you will see few people.

Iowa Peak (left) and Emerald Peak.

Iowa Peak (right) and Emerald Peak.

Just south of Missouri Mountain are these beauties.

Gilpin Peak. Rugged stuff near Telluride.

Gilpin Peak (left). Rugged stuff near Telluride.

Yankee Boy Basin is home to some seriously amazing 13er scenery.

Kismet and Potosi.

Kismet (right) and Potosi.

See what I mean?

Campsite view of Peak 18.

Campsite view of Peak 18.

The 13ers can be quite dramatic, even if their names are not.

Pigeon and Turret peaks.

Turret and Pigeon peaks.

One word. Wow.

13ers everywhere. In the distance, Vestal and Arrow peaks.

13ers everywhere. In the distance, Vestal and Arrow peaks.

Did I say wow? Yes. Yes I did.

Coxcomb, Redcliff and somewhere over there, Precipice peaks.

Coxcomb, Redcliff and somewhere over there, Precipice.

They look good in snow, too.

Matterhorn Peak.

Matterhorn Peak.

A knockout, right?

Precipice Peak.

Precipice Peak.

Indeed, they are. In all seasons.

So there ya go. It doesn’t have to be 14,000 feet to be awesome. There are more than 600 of these amazing 13,000-foot rockpiles out there. Plenty to explore away from crowds.

Scenic Mount Sniktau's summit ridge.

Scenic Mount Sniktau’s summit ridge.

Bob Doucette

The peak bagger’s muse: Wrangling the almighty list

This peak represents two things. First, a beautiful sight. Second, it's a name on a list to check off.

This peak represents two things. First, a beautiful sight. Second, it’s a name on a list to check off.

If you were to believe all the articles written, blog posts shared, Instagram photos produced and just about anything else that conveys why we do stuff, you’d come to the conclusion that people climb mountains because of the intrinsic inspiration of high places.

More specifically, people would spin some sort of narrative about “being out in nature” or “living life to the fullest” or “taking on a challenge.” All those sayings found on motivational wall-hangings in every other office building  in the country, well, sometimes outdoorsy folks sound a lot like those. We are the lords of flowery memes.

Before I go on, let’s be clear that I’m not saying these things are untrue. People hike and climb peaks to get away from the rat race, be in the wild and live in the moment, on the edge and whatnot. But once you get into it a little, I’ve found something else pushes people back out there, flinging them headlong from the comfortable into the decidedly uncomfortable.

What is this great motivator? The list, of course.

A bunch of you will look at that sentence with all the confusion of a puppy hearing a high-pitched whine, head cocked, eyes wide open, ears tuned in. But those of you who are slaves to the list, well, you know. The urge is strong, a tractor beam pulling you from your bed at 2 a.m. to drive for four hours, hike for eight more, ascending the equivalent of a few big skyscrapers and enduring loose scree, steep trails, sketchy rock and rotten weather, all so you can go home, get online, and put a checkmark by the name of the peak you just survived. You may as well be driving the Millennium Falcon to the trailhead, ready to climb Mount Death Star. The pull is that strong, Young Skywalker.

So what lists are we talking about? There are so many. In Colorado, it’s the 58 14ers, the peaks that rise to 14,000 feet or more. Mountain hounds with the time, energy and chutzpah make a big push to complete this list. The bragging rights are huge. If that challenge isn’t big enough, you can always go for the Centennials, the highest 100 in the state. And there are 600-plus 13,000-foot peaks that comprise their own ridiculous list to fill.

Outside Colorado, there are more. So many more. You can tackle to Adirondack 46ers, a list of 46 peaks in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York that are 4,000 feet or higher. If you want to see the country, try hitting all the high points of each state — 50 peaks and high spots on that one. More of a world traveler, with some time, money and mountaineering chops? Fill out the Seven Summits list — the highest point on each continent. And for the elite mountaineers, there is a list of 14 8,000-meter peaks in Nepal and Tibet just waiting for you. You might not live through that list, but the bragging rights are pretty impressive if you do.

Closer to home, you can hit the high points of every county in your state. That might not be a lot of fun in a state like Kansas, but one blogger in Colorado is having a ball with it.

We love the lists so much that there is a mountaineering list of lists. It’s call the Lists of John, and it’s exhaustive (188,546 peaks!). Lists of John even has its own Facebook page.

Looking for an obscure list of peaks? How about Malaysia's highest? (malaysia-travvler.com photo)

Looking for an obscure list of peaks? How about Malaysia’s 30 highest? (malaysia-traveller.com photo)

I went on social media (Facebook and Twitter in this case) to ask people about the allure of the list. The responses I got had a nice mix, with most saying the lists quantified their goals.

From Noel: “I have gone through stages with my hiking of the 14ers. First it was…Wow! I hiked a 14er! Then…Cool! I hiked a few more! Then…Hmm, I wonder if I could do some of the tougher ones. Then…Whoa! Maybe I could actually work toward finishing these peaks! Then…These are getting tough, but ‘the list’ is nearing completion!”

From Bill: “Certainly helped me organize and plan. Helps one another measure up; discuss plans. I couldn’t imagine having as much inspiration to just climb a random number of random peaks.”

From Mike: “Important. They give me structure and keep me focused.”

And from Sean: “They are very important because the take you to places you wouldn’t consider going before.”

For others, it was more nuanced.

From Annalise: “I have very mixed feelings about lists. They really frustrate me in the sense of allowing the dangerous possibility of overly inflated ego and self-limitation. The concept of ‘conquering’ mountains deeply bothers me, because I don’t believe in that and I feel like peak bagging lists are commonly associated with that idea. Though it’s wonderful to see other mountain lovers empowered by ‘bagging peaks,’ it’s deeply worrisome to see some that get cocky and overconfident and attribute their achievements entirely to their own greatness, belittling these sacred places. Personally, I’m a big fan of being silly and joking around on summits, but when I am moving, I do my best to give reverence to the peaks. Geology is so much bigger than we are.

“That said… it is a very helpful organization tool. It is really nice to be able to think ‘I want to go explore another inspiring place outside of everyday human infrastructure’ and be able to look up names on a list (and progress to planning from there) much as once upon a time we looked up names and numbers of people in a phone book. It’s soothing.

“Anyway, I can’t really resolve my two conflicting ideas about lists. They both exist in my head, and so far they’ve pretty much stayed in balance. The former makes me hate the latter, but the latter makes me attempt to be a little more open-minded (to little avail). And around it goes.”

From Zach: “It’s really just a list, but for me it gives me objectives to plan. Half of the excitement is studying the route and quantifying it in my head. I put all of the logistics together and then it’s game day. My awareness of the day is higher because I’m driven to make it unfold successfully. As I get close to finishing the 14ers, I wonder if I’ll find that drive without a menu of objectives to choose from. Welcome to my neurosis!”

But the list didn’t hold attraction for everyone.

From David: “At first I was interested in the lists, then I was trying to figure out who I was doing the list for. Me? Or what I wanted people to think of me? I lost the fun. Now, I go out to have fun. Fun with people, different experience on the same mountain. The list doesn’t matter. I understand why people chase them and I am glad they do. I just don’t feel the need to chase a list.”

And from Kay: “I could care less about lists when it comes to mountains. Which is ironic because I like checking things off lists in every other aspect of my life. Mountains are the one place I feel total freedom and that includes freedom from the constraints of lists. Lists remind me of going to the grocery store or the amount of school work I have to do. Climbing mountains is my freedom and I love them all equally.”

As for me? I’m somewhere in between. Living where I live, and working full-time, the free time to chase summits and knock off big lists doesn’t exist. I don’t have the money for things like the Seven Summits, and certainly not the cash, experience and skills for the 8,000-ers.

And yet I still keep track. The 14ers.com website has features where you can check off 14ers you’ve climbed, and 13ers as well. I like Dave’s take – that I head to the mountains to have fun and enjoy the moment. But by the time I get back to civilization and anywhere close to a computer, I log on. I find the list. And I check ‘em off, one peak at a time. I guess the list owns me, too, even if I never complete it.

Bob Doucette

Everest, moviemaking, and scratching the surface of what happened in 1996

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Anyone who has read Jon Krakauer’s signature work “Into Thin Air” knows just how good a story can be when you combine the elements of adventure and tragedy. Krakauer is a skilled storyteller and an excellent reporter, and his bird’s-eye view of the disaster that unfolded on Mount Everest in the spring of 1996 gave him that much more perspective on one of the saddest — and most important — days on the mountain.

So it’s no surprise that “Into Thin Air” was the main source material for the new film “Everest,” which premiered last week in IMAX theaters across the country. Filmmakers used other sources, too, but “Into Thin Air” was definitely the foundation for the cinematic version of this story.

Krakauer didn’t pull any punches, trying hard to tell what he saw and learned as evenly and thoroughly as possible. The result, from a literary perspective, is solid.

Hollywood, however, has its own ways of storytelling. When forced to choose between telling it like it is and presenting it in the most easily digested fashion, it’s simpler to go with the latter.

I saw “Everest” last weekend. No way I was going to miss that one. It was worth the price of admission, although I’m an eternal skeptic when it comes to 3-D movies (I have yet to see a 3-D film that couldn’t be told just as well in 2-D, and for less money out of my pocket).

The film features an all-star ensemble cast, excellent cinematic special effects, and a well-crafted feel about how bad things can get on the world’s highest peak. More than any non-documentary film on mountaineering I’ve seen, “Everest” gives you a sense of scale and awe. Filmmakers have to take a little license here and there (we can’t have brightly colored mummies talking through goggles and oxygen masks the entire time). But generally speaking, this is a decent portrayal of mountaineering for general consumption.

But there are aspects of the fashion in which the story is constructed that are a bit too formulaic, and it has much to do with how the characters are portrayed.

Every adventure-disaster movie has to have a central good guy, a cocky fella begging for some humble pie, a wild card, and a few others who have varying shades of good and bad that push the story forward. It’s a cookie-cutter way of doing it, and that’s the one flaw with this film. To wit:

Is it fair to paint Scott Fischer as the somewhat resentful loose cannon — lamenting the crowds of commercial clients on the mountain — reluctantly going along with plans made by Rob Hall?

Did Beck Weathers really carry that much Texas swagger into the climb, to the point where’s he’d snap at his guide and talk smack to other climbers?

Was Anatoly Boukreev rightly portrayed as 100 percent heroic, or were Krakauer’s criticisms (he’d written how the Russian mountaineering pro could have gone up to rescue climbers higher on the mountain, but refused) more in line with the truth?

I can’t say I know everything about this incident, but it would be plausible to think that there would be some rivalry between Fischer and Hall. They were competitors, after all, chasing the same dollars guiding amateurs up the mountain.

And Boukreev did a lot of heroic things as the disaster unfolded, searching for stricken climbers who were wandering near-dead in a whiteout on Everest’s South Col.

And hell, every non-Texan in the world could believe that someone from the Lone Star State might show up with, shall we say, a little bit of self-confidence (kudos to the filmmakers digging deeper into Weathers’ multi-faceted character as the film progressed, though).

But the overall formula didn’t help tell the story. It hindered it, making it a little too easy to swallow without getting deeper into the people involved. There’s only so much you can do in two hours, I get that. And the star of the film isn’t any of the actors. It’s the mountain.

So I suppose what I’m saying is if you go see “Everest,” see it for the right reasons — to be entertained. The deeper lessons of the good and bad of climbing Mount Everest are only hinted at here. The movie is good (there are some scenes that will rip your heart out, emotionally speaking). But the written accounts about life and death on Big E are numerous, as are the lessons about the troubles that have plagued it dating back to that infamous day in 1996. If you want to go beyond being entertained, those are also worth a look.

Bob Doucette

Video: Cheating death on Colorado’s Maroon Bells

This video caught my attention. Anyone who has spent time in the mountains knows that rockfall and loose rock underfoot is scary stuff, particularly when you’re in highly exposed places.

Setting up: The climbers here are doing what is called the Bells Traverse — they’ve climbed Maroon Peak, and are traversing the airy ridge connecting Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak. Both are 14,000-foot peaks, and are considered two of the toughest in the state. This is a short but difficult and risky route between the peaks. Seeing this video, taken at the aptly named Leap of Faith, you’ll see why…

If that dude were a cat, he’d be down to eight lives or so. The Elk Range has been described as “red, rugged and rotten.” Now you know why. One fall there, and we’re reading about that fella the next day.

Happy Monday!

Bob Doucette

Getting in a staredown with Longs Peak

There we are, in shadow form, looking toward Storm Peak just after dawn.

There we are, in shadow form, looking toward Storm Peak just after dawn.

Mountains are often a source of inspiration or awe by those who visit them. Go a little deeper and you’ll likely feel humbled.

It’s always been that way for me. The peaks are big, ancient and unmovable. It doesn’t matter how strong I feel, or how weak. The most epic day in the mountains has lots of flavors, and one of them is very likely to be humility.

It should be noted that there are various levels of humility.

I’d like to tell you that my recent attempt at Longs Peak was this fantastic stew of pain, joy, struggle and victory, but it wasn’t. It was a staredown.

Longs Peak is one of 58 mountains in Colorado to rise above 14,000 feet. Readily visible from Denver, its bulk rises high above Rocky Mountain National Park. Longs is not the highest 14er in the state, or even in the Front Range. And given the number of people who try to reach its summit, you might be tempted to see it as a beginner’s peak.

Let me burst a few bubbles. Being the highest doesn’t necessarily denote the toughest. Mount Elbert is Colorado’s highest, but also one of the state’s easiest summits. Everest is THE highest, but experts will tell you K2 is harder.

And though a surprisingly large number of people count Longs as their first big mountain, even that must be given an asterisk: 50 percent who try to climb it fail, and to further illustrate the point, going back to last summer, my friend Matt’s second 14er was Sunlight Peak – ranked as the seventh toughest 14er in the state. He did this despite having very limited high country experience. There is a lot of relativity to consider when judging a peak by who has climbed it.

I joined my friends Chuck and Noel on this one, and made a couple of new friends – Craig and Dillon.

Dillon has climbed all the 14ers. He’s lean, strong, experienced and definitely the guy you want in your corner when going up a mountain.

Craig is a fellow flatlander, rolling in from Missouri to spend a week in Rocky Mountain National Park. He has a few peaks under his belt, but was the most junior of the bunch right along with me. Despite all that, he proved to be a very strong hiker, even up high.

Chuck and Noel, well, you know them from previous adventures. Stout hikers, good climbers, and very experienced in the mountains. Both are closing in on finishing off all 58 of the 14ers.

EARLY START

Longs Peak isn’t just a high mountain. It’s also big. This may take some explanation.

I mentioned Mount Elbert. It’s the highest peak in Colorado, and the second-highest point in the contiguous 48 states. It’s even higher than Washington’s Mount Rainier.

But it’s not bigger than Rainier. Not even close. I imagine you could fit a few Elberts inside of Rainier quite comfortably. If you can understand that concept, it will go a long way into appreciating the size of Longs Peak. It’s no Rainier, but it is bigger than most of its Rocky Mountain cousins.

By its standard route, it’s a 15-mile round trip. The final mile or so is rocky, exposed and not amenable to fast ascents or retreats. So you have to plan for this, and that means a really early start.

That meant lights out at 6 p.m., a 12:30 a.m. wakeup call, and heading up the trail by 2 a.m. It sounds ridiculous, but unless you want to camp above treeline, this is what you need to do to give yourself the best chance of summiting before afternoon storms roll in.

This brings me to a term to which I recently became aware. It’s called “second-level fun.” A good movie, a roller coaster, hanging with friends at a pub or club, these are not examples of second-level fun. Sleep deprivation, hours of physical exertion, some aches and pain, maybe a little blood and suffering, all for the sake of great views and bragging rights – these are the things associated with second-level fun. Longs Peak has all of these in abundance.

We weren’t the only ones on the trail. This was the same weekend Andrew Hamilton broke Cave Dog’s 14er speed record, so he and a healthy group of well-wishers were on their way down as we ascended. It was a cool moment (he definitely had the rock star thing going on around him, and was very accommodating to all the fans who had gathered), and I saw a couple of people I knew from past trips. First was Brady, who had climbed Wetterhorn with me last year, and later on, Danielle, who was on the big Chicago Basin backpacking trip a little later on.

Danielle was excited to see us, bubbling with energy as always. She promised to run back up and join us on the climb, even though she’d already hiked to 11,000 feet to meet Hamilton and the gang.

One thing we gained from meeting Hamilton’s entourage was a piece of information of what lay ahead: Fresh, wet snow on the upper portions of the mountain, and an abundance of wet rock on some of the steepest parts of the route. That would weigh heavily later on.

The hike is a beautiful one, but you don’t get to see much of it for the first few hours. Whatever your headlamp illuminates is about all you get. But somewhere around 5 a.m. as dawn breaks and you’re above treeline, the magnificence of the peak reveals itself. With clouds below us and above and stony mountaintops in between, that morning’s sunrise was the most spectacular I’d ever seen. It washed over the hills slowly, illuminating the land and giving us our first good look at the mountain. It was an awesome sight.

Sunrise on Longs Peak. Goodness.

Sunrise on Longs Peak. Goodness.

Looking up toward Longs Peak shortly after dawn. Kinda cloudy...

Looking up toward Longs Peak shortly after dawn. Kinda cloudy…

Noel taking a break as we approach the Boulder Field. Longs Peak's North Face, Diamond and Keyhole are all visible.

Noel taking a break as we approach the Boulder Field. Longs Peak’s North Face, Diamond and Keyhole are all visible.

I was cussing myself a little for not dropping some weight before I got to Colorado. Carrying 10 extra pounds is not ideal. Also bugging me: I sweat a lot. It doesn’t take much at all to get my sweat glands going. It was windy and cool, and I was already sweating through my clothes, despite my careful layering strategy. I was good as long as I was moving, but cold at every stop.

The one thing I’d caution people about is that any pictures you see of Longs Peak are going to be deceiving. Being there in real life shows you that the features are much bigger and steeper than what you see in photographs.

This became apparent once we got to the Boulder Field. This is the place where you camp if you plan to break up your ascent. It sits around 12,000 feet, and as the name suggests, it’s a rugged, treeless and harsh place. The campsites have to be reserved in advance through the National Park Service, and you even get the luxury of outhouses nearby. I didn’t use one, but my buddies told me they were kinda nasty. Given that and the possibility of a rather uncomfortable overnight at the campsites, well, use your best judgment.

The trail ends in the Boulder Field. From there, you hop on rocks and awkwardly scramble up boulders at a gradually steepening grade toward the Keyhole, a distinct opening in the ridge that overlooks the Boulder Field.

Making our way through the Boulder Field, close to the Keyhole.

Making our way through the Boulder Field, close to the Keyhole.

It was here that we ran into a fella from Chicago who looked a little perplexed. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a light top, he was cold and unsure what to do because his cousin had gone ahead toward the Keyhole without him. Dillon was kind enough to let him borrow his jacket. Noel started calling out the cousin’s name, and we eventually caught up with him toward the Keyhole.

Now Noel has a habit of bring and sharing homemade cookies. That’s why she’s known as the Cookiehiker. Upon meeting the ambitious cousin, she mentioned something about him not getting any of her cookies.

The lesson: Unless your partner is secure and safe, you don’t leave him or her behind while you do your own thing. This is especially true of people who are inexperienced in the mountains, which was clearly the case here. Eventually we got everyone reunited, all was forgiven, and the offending cousin was even allowed a few of Noel’s baked goodies.

READING THE SIGNS

Like I said earlier, the Boulder Field is an awkward piece of hiking that turns into light scrambling toward the top. There is a shelter built there in honor of a couple of people who had died on the mountain long ago. It’s not exactly weathertight – a good bit of blown-in snow was still there, filling about half the structure. But it’s a cool feature, and a great place to take a rest before tackling the toughest part of the route.

The rock shelter by the Keyhole.

The rock shelter by the Keyhole.

But it was here that we had difficult decisions to make. The long hike, the punishment of the Boulder Field the reports we’d received of the route conditions ahead, and dicey looking weather blowing in wore heavy on us. Winds coming through the Keyhole were fierce, a steady 30-40 mph with gusts much higher. We all took a peek around the corner from the Keyhole and saw slick route conditions ahead and steep drop-offs below.

The route past the Keyhole. Errrggg....

The route past the Keyhole. Errrggg….

Storm Peak looking pretty stormy.

Storm Peak looking pretty stormy.

Me at the Keyhole, which would have to be my summit that day. (Noel Johnson photo)

Me at the Keyhole, which would have to be my summit that day. (Noel Johnson photo)

You never know what a route really holds until you’re on it. And hey, Andrew Hamilton did this in the dark, right?

But we’re not Andrew Hamilton, we weren’t chasing a record, and poor route conditions combined with sketchy looking weather added up to too many negative variables. We were all thinking it, but Dillon was the first to say it: There was going to be no summit today.

It bothers me now, of course, but at the time I had no problem with it. They Keyhole was our summit, and a month removed from that day, I’m convinced we made the right call. Longs’ summit would have to wait for another day.

As we munched on food and snapped pics, we spotted the bright jacket of a climber ambling her way up to us. It was Danielle! She actually caught up with us, despite running on minimal sleep and less food. I have to hand it to her, there is an energy to this woman that could power a nuclear reactor.

We told her our thoughts, which elicited a half-hearted plea to try anyway, but we were firm and eventually she agreed. In any case, it was cool to see one of our partners in crime from the Chicago Basin trip once again.

The gang. Danielle is up front, and from left, Dillon, Chuck, Noek, Craig  and myself. (Danielle Ardan photo)

The gang. Danielle is up front, and from left, Dillon, Chuck, Noel, Craig and myself. (Danielle Ardan photo)

Hiking back down, Craig was determined to summit something. So he hiked up Mount Lady Washington while we made our way on the trail. Danielle and I talked running and life (both of those seem to be going rather well for her) before we caught up with everyone else. She ended up singing Disney tunes with Noel much of the way down.

In the light of day, I got to appreciate how gorgeous the trail is, and gazed in awe at some of the more prominent features of Longs Peak.

Rock and air.

Rock and air.

Longs Peak frowning on us. We get it, dude. Not today.

Longs Peak frowning on us. We get it, dude. Not today.

A healthy, greedy, friendly, opportunistic marmot.

A healthy, greedy, friendly, opportunistic marmot.

The Ship's Prow and part of Mount Meeker, as seen from the Chasm Lake approach.

The Ship’s Prow and part of Mount Meeker, as seen from the Chasm Lake approach.

Something about water tumbling downhill is pretty. People like it.

Something about water tumbling downhill is pretty. People like it.

We put in about 14 miles that day, cracking open a bacon-flavored soda at the trailhead (not recommended, but funny). Even with no summit, we ate a victory-sized meal back in Estes Park just the same.

Taking a swig of bacon-flavored soda at the trailhead. Not sure this was a good idea. (Craig Cook photo)

Taking a swig of bacon-flavored soda at the trailhead. Not sure this was a good idea. (Craig Cook photo)

It was great meeting new friends, and particularly sweet meeting up with buddies from mountain ascents past.

More importantly, it was good to experience this. It wasn’t just a matter of knowing what it’s like to fail, but also knowing how correct decision-making led us to that point. Longs Peak isn’t going anywhere, but one bad move on a sketchy route could end any future climbs in a flash.

This leads be to a sort of epilogue. Maybe a week after this, Danielle was back at Longs, and she got to that summit. She also climbed some of the tougher peaks of the Elk Range as well.

Later in the week, Craig and his wife hiked Grays Peak, and he got Torreys to boot.

Noel and Chuck tore it up and several other peaks not long after, and in the second week of August, teamed up for another shot at Longs Peak. This time, they would not be denied.

Often a strategic retreat to safety leads to better things later on. God willing, I’ll be back at Longs, and maybe next time I’ll summit, having given myself the chance to do so by relenting to the mountain when I was there last.

Bob Doucette