With five deaths in six weeks on Capitol Peak, mountain safety takes on greater urgency

Capitol Peak, Colo. (Wikipedia commons photo)

Anytime someone dies in the mountains, it gets attention. Landslides, avalanches, falls, or otherwise, the terror of finding your end on a high peak garners headlines.

People speculate how it happened. They express grief and sympathy for the fallen climber’s family and friends. A few may even throw barbs toward the victim, though that is, thankfully, rare.

This is repeated every year, especially in the summer when hordes of hikers and climbers take advantage of longer days and more favorable weather to get their summit fix.

But this summer feels a bit different, in that the volume of deaths seems to be on the rise. And more than that, the number of fatalities on one particular mountain, Colorado’s Capitol Peak.

I’ve never climbed it, but I know some people who have. There is bountiful information about the peak and its challenges available online and in books. From these sources, I can tell you a few things about the mountain: It’s exposed, with large drop-offs and a number of “no-fall zones.” Like the rest of the Elk Range where it resides, it’s notoriously loose, with rotten rock in all the wrong places. It doesn’t take much for toaster-sized rocks – or boulders far larger – to tear loose from the mountainside and careen down its steep slopes, and God help you if you’re in the fall line. One friend of mine survived a rockfall incident, but deals with traumatic brain injury symptoms years later after having two loose rocks smash into her head during a climb in 2013. Thank God for climbing helmets, or she’d be dead.

More recent news has solidified the mountain’s reputation. Over the past six weeks, Capitol Peak has claimed five lives.

That’s an extraordinary number, given the fact that the mountain hasn’t had more deaths than that over the previous several years combined. And for more perspective, it’s just two fewer than Mount Everest recorded during its spring climbing season this year. I don’t want to equate the two mountains, but the numbers are what they are.

So what do we know of the 2017 fatalities? The first two seem to be cases of falls associated with loose rock. But the last three indicate something else.

The third and fourth deaths on Capitol Peak, Carly Brightwell and Ryan Marcil, were a couple who had climbed the mountain, then fell on a steep section below the summit but before the solid yet very exposed knife-edge ridge.

The fifth death, Zackaria White, was a climber who fell in the same area.

What separates these two incidents is the experience of the climbers. The couple in question had some time in the mountains under their belts. White did not. In fact, Capitol Peak was his first 14er (a mountain that meets or exceeds 14,000 feet above sea level).

The knife-edge ridge on Capitol Peak. (Wikipedia commons photo)

What they have in common is it appears all three people tried to find another route down the mountain to avoid traversing the knife edge, according to local search-and-rescue team reports. They cliffed out, got to a point where they could not ascend or descend, and fell to their deaths.

Those similarities would, at least, point toward some obvious lessons: Stay on the route, especially on challenging mountains like Capitol. But this is no cure-all, as evidenced by the other fatalities on Capitol, as well as two more deaths on the nearby Maroon Bells, a pair of striking but dangerous mountains in the same range.* The “Deadly Bells,” as they are known, are like the rest of the Elk Range: steep, exposed and littered with loose rock that can break off under you at any moment. Deaths on the Bells, as well as a number of mountains in this range and many others throughout Colorado (10 fatalities so far this year), come with a wide variety of causes.

In fact, if you were to make a list of causes of death (and preventative measures to minimize risks for each situation), it would be so broad as to nullify any attempt at standard, one-size-fits-all practices to curtail mountain tragedies. To wit: bring the 10 essentials; eat and hydrate; get an early start; watch the weather; study the route; bring an emergency locator beacon; be in top shape; don’t wear cotton; bring the proper footwear; don’t try a mountain beyond your abilities; hike with a partner; and so on. Even if you did all these things – and most people do – there is a chance that you could still die on a mountain by pure blind chance. That, too, has happened often enough, claiming newbies and veteran climbers alike.

It should be noted that the ratio of people who have safely summited Capitol Peak, and any number of other Colorado mountains, to those who have died on them is starkly in favor of survival. For every death, thousands have successfully climbed and come home intact.

But rescue and recovery missions are expensive, taxing and at times risky endeavors. Given that, and the growing number of people who try their luck in the high country (to the tune of hundreds of thousands every year) mean that the myriad of ways people can get into trouble will only ensnare more, which will mean more rescues, more risk on the part of the rescuers, and to those who can’t be saved, more deaths.

An exasperated Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo told the Aspen Times his office would more aggressively educate people on the risks of climbing mountains, especially the ones in his jurisdiction. Mountain Rescue Aspen is drawing up plans to do just that.

But here is where we are: We exist in a time where outdoor adventure is more popular than ever. Social media, especially channels like Instagram and Facebook, drive people to do more, push harder and otherwise ply their skills for the sake of not just enjoying the high country, but to pursue “likes,” audience growth, and potential sponsorships from gear companies, retailers and others who seek out social media influencers to market their brands. They may not be the only drivers, but they are potent. And they will only grow more powerful as populations in Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Portland, among others, swell.

To be frank, I don’t know if there’s an answer here. I can’t say if this summer in Colorado is an anomaly or the beginning of a trend. But it does bring me back to a couple truths.

First, the ultimate responsibility has and always will lie with the individual. No one forces anyone to climb mountains. For those who do, the burden of preparedness and safety is squarely on their shoulders. Given the massive volume of information out there on mountain safety, there is no excuse for being uneducated on the topic or on the peaks people climb.

Second, it’s important for people to have each other’s backs. Teach those with less experience than you. Be the one to give guidance on the trail to your partners, and take charge when needed. Know when it’s time to call it a day and turn around. Those lower on the pecking order need to pay attention to those with more experience. And those with the experience need to get a good read on their partners and understand their limitations, or any other problems that may arise. Teams should not split up unless absolutely necessary, and believe me, that’s rare.

We know people will have problems in the high country. We know people will die. And we’ll analyze these incidents, looking for answers. But don’t expect a cure-all solution. As lame as this might sound, we must do the best we can at taking care of ourselves, doing the things we love in the places we cherish, knowing that these marvels of nature can snuff us out at any time, with total indifference, even if we do everything right. It’s the nature of mountains, and one none of us should ever forget.

Bob Doucette

*An earlier version of this post said there were four deaths in the Maroon Bells this year. There have been two.

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Road trip distractions: The value of getting sidetracked

I’m not sure how you do road trips, but my normal pattern has me going from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. I want to get there, have my fun, and avoid dragging out the long drive home.

But there is something to be said for sacrificing a little time to enjoy the little distractions along the way. They might slow your journey, but sometimes that’s not a bad thing. I found one of my favorite barbecue joints in Salina, Kan., just because me and my travel buddy had a craving for pork. We blew more than an hour there, and it was worth every tasty bite.

On my last trip out west, we took a couple of stops to examine some scenery in northwest Oklahoma. The Sooner State is known as a prairie state, but there are some unique bits of scenery that are worth a stop.

First up, the Gloss Mountains. Or Glass Mountains. Officially, I think it’s Gloss, but Glass Mountain gets its name from the mineral formations visible at its peak.

Glass Mountain. Or Gloss Mountain? Whatever. It looks cool.

Gloss Mountains State Park contains loads of mesa-like formations like this. There is a bunch of hiking throughout this park, and it’s a cool contrast to the gently rolling plains that dominate the scenery in northwestern Oklahoma. The park is just east of Woodward, which, by the way, is home to another great barbecue find, Wagg’s. Trust me on this one.

Dramatic skies help frame the shot of this formation in the Gloss Mountains.

The Gloss Mountains were on our way to New Mexico, so it’s not like this stop took lots of time. But seeing Black Mesa on the way home would be a much longer detour. Again, totally worth it.

Black Mesa is in the far northwest corner of the Oklahoma Panhandle. Cimarron County is as flat as a board. But that changes abruptly when you get to area surrounding Black Mesa. One minute you’re in flat, high plains prairie. The next, you’re driving around and between high cliffs and hoodoos.

Hoodoos south of Black Mesa.

More hoodoos. There is also the remains of petrified trees at nearby Black Mesa State Park.

In some ways, Black Mesa is the easternmost outpost of the southern Rockies. Lava flows filled ancient valleys eons ago. As softer rock and soil eroded over time, Black Mesa’s harder volcanic rock remained. The Black Mesa summit is Oklahoma’s highest point (4,975 feet above sea level), and has a good trail to the top. As you drive west into New Mexico, more of these formations are visible, as well as a number of dormant volcanic cinder cones. All of these arise just before the Rocky Mountain uplift soars into the skies west of places like Raton and Cimarron. So yeah, Black Mesa is sort of where the Rockies and the high plains meet. It’s a cool place.

Black Mesa. Very green for this time of year.

Another shot of Black Mesa, near the trailhead. The formation is huge, so you’re looking at a small corner of it.

Near Black Mesa you can see dinosaur tracks. A number of bed and breakfasts operate near Black Mesa, and the natural setting of Kenton, a small town nearby, is about as scenic as you can get in this part of the world.

Going here added about 90 minutes to our return trip, but it was worth it. Cedar, cactus, sage and shortgrass carpet these rugged lands. If you’re looking for a place with an Old West feel, Black Mesa has it.

Anyway, all this is to say that if you have the time and can pull over from time to time, do it. You never know what  you’ll discover, or what you’ll learn from out-of-the-way places. And if you’re really lucky, maybe you’ll find a spot with good ribs.

Bob Doucette

Hiking the La Plata Trail

La Plata Peak, as seen the day before we tried to summit it.

What a week at had been already. In just a few days, there had been pleasant trails and old mill town ruins in New Mexico. Thirteen thousand-foot peaks along the Front Range. And the day before, the old mines and high ridges of Mount Sherman with my nephew Jordan.

We were halfway through our trip into the mountains together, with one more target in mind: La Plata Peak, one of the higher points of the Sawatch Range and a commanding presence not far from Leadville and Buena Vista.

Rain greeted us shortly after leaving Mount Sherman, and lingered for much of the evening as we set out to feed ourselves and find a decent place to camp before heading out to give La Plata a try.

It’s been awhile since I’ve done anything in the Sawatch Range, but what I remember still holds true: These peaks are big, and the routes are long. They start a good 1,000 feet or more below treeline, and your generally pick up 4,500 feet or more of gain in anywhere from nine to 12 miles round trip. Bagging one of them is, for the average person, a pretty big day that requires an early start and decent conditioning.

We turned in for the night at a National Forest Service campground just off the highway. We did it with all the comforts we could cram into Jordan’s keep, which meant our tent would be posh by most tent camping standards. We owed ourselves a decent night of sleep.

As the night went along, we both slept hard. The alarm rang shortly after 4 a.m., and neither one of us was particularly urgent about getting up. I could feel it in me, that maybe this wasn’t going to be my day. At the same time, you have to break out of that mindset, get moving and pick up the task at hand.

Getting close to treeline.

I don’t like being turned back on mountains, but it’s something that has happened more often lately. Most of the time, it’s been because of adverse weather. Hence, the early starts before mid-day monsoon storms start forming over the Rockies. On this hike, I figured I could shake off whatever was holding me back once we got going. Summiting wasn’t that big of a deal to me that day, but I didn’t want to disappoint Jordan by costing him a bid at the mountintop.

Anyway, we got going right around dawn, hiking the road from the La Plata Trail parking lot. A small sign and a side trail marked the place where we’d turn off and start heading up the mountain.

We’d been warned that the beginning of this trail is deceiving, and that it gets steep once you’re a couple of miles in. Below treeline, I figured, would be easy enough, and would give us time to get a rhythm when the real work was set to begin.

On the lower part of La Plata’s summit ridge.

My take on the lower part of the trail: the trail builders did an excellent job constructing this thing. Plenty of steps on the steeper parts, and then some flatter portions. But I won’t lie: those steep steps were kicking my butt. I was already in a fight early on, sweating profusely, and wondering when my body would adjust and get into gear. Nagging thoughts of this not being my day were creeping in. I was getting quiet, just slogging away, and keeping an eye on our progress.

In this position, the hike out of the trees seems to take forever. When you hit treeline, you normally have another 3,000 feet or so to go before hitting the summit. So it can be discouraging when you’re hiking through the woods, working hard, and seeing hundreds of feet of gain left before your even break treeline.

When we were close to treeline, I got a better idea of what people were saying about this trail. The trees thinned, giving way to willows up a steep slope and a long series of switchbacks that make the trail up Missouri Gulch look tame. I was stopping often here, and not talking much.

Tasty scenery.

“Hey man, are you mad at me?” Jordan asked. He’d noticed my quietness.

“No man, just keeping my head down and trying to get through it. Fighting it a bit. I don’t talk much when I’m like this.”

He understood. Jordan had been hiking strong thus far, but like me, was wondering how this day might unfold. The switchbacks leading to the ridge seemed endless.

“So what do you think?” he said during a pause.

“Man, I don’t know. But let’s get up there and see how things are going,” I said, pointing to some otherwise nondescript landmark up the slope.

We repeated this process a few times, checking in with each other, catching our breath, and looking at the route ahead. We got to one point where I could see the route joining the ridge that led to the summit.

“Let’s get up to that point up there and see how things look,” I said.

When we got to the ridge, the views opened up. Spectacularly. The summit ridge was in full view, giving us a good look at the work ahead. On the other side of the mountain, La Plata’s formidable Ellingwood Ridge came into view, a long and demanding Class 3 scramble that often proved too taxing for many climbers.

A mellower part of the trail with some sweet scenery to boot.

By now, it was nearly midmorning. I wasn’t sweating as much, but I think that might have been due to early onset dehydration. Jordan had gone through a good chunk of his fluids already. Small puffy clouds were beginning to form and multiply. We were at 12,000 feet, and the way I was moving, it might have been at least another two hours before we climbed the remaining 2,300 feet and 1.5 miles or so that were left.

At this point, we both knew. Jordan was hiking stronger than me, but even in his superior condition, it probably wasn’t happening today. I figured we could have slogged it out, but we stood a good chance of being on the summit with storms overhead and being low on water. The previous couple of days, I’d bagged three summits. Jordan was with me on one of those, and had a particularly tough training session the day before, part of his process of getting ready for a burly obstacle race in late August. Neither of us had slept that much for the past three days.

At 12,000 feet, we decided that choice view of Ellingwood Ridge would be our summit that day.

It was a bit of a relief. Knowing that the car and a good meal weren’t but a couple of hours away, I can say the level of disappointment wasn’t that extreme.

On our way down, with sweeping views ahead.

We saw plenty of hikers going up as we descended. Many of them were young Colorado natives, powering upward in ways that could only bring me envy. And then there was a solo hiker ambling his way up with some sort of weird music playing on his smartphone. We chatted him up a bit, with him telling us he’d done Castle Peak and Conundrum Peak a couple of days earlier. We told him what we’d been up to, and got scolded: “I’d never do another 14er right after doing one the day before!”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’d already done the back-to-back thing, and it wasn’t that big of a deal. We let him go on his way, weird musing blaring, giving him a collective eyeroll.

In the woods, clouds starting to build a little.

It’s often on the way down when I notice how beautiful a place is. There’s no deadline now, just ticking off landmarks and getting back to the car. I will say this: The La Plata Trail is as good as advertised.

Driving away from camp and the mountain, big storms thundered overhead. At the speed we’d been going, we may have been still above treeline at that time. Or maybe not. We’ll never know. But La Plata Peak isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon, and it’s a place I’d gladly revisit.

Clearer skies looking back at La Plata Peak.

Bob Doucette

Heading up Mount Sherman’s southwest ridge

Jordan gets a view of Mount Sheridan from the summit ridge of Mount Sherman.

There is a certain satisfaction with finishing a job with the person with whom you started it. Maybe it’s something you build together, or a shared journey.

This summer, I concocted a plan to do something like that with my nephew Jordan, part of the Colorado contingent of my family and my oldest brother’s son. We talked the year before about heading into the mountains to hike some of the 14ers, and we ended up with a fantastic day doing the four-peak loop called the Decalibron – Mount Democrat, Mount Cameron, Mount Lincoln and Mount Bross.

Prior to that, Jordan’s sole mountain ascent happened when he was far younger, a trip up Mount Bierstadt with his dad. Now 25 years old, he may have caught the 14er bug a little. It seemed natural to polish off the Mosquito Range 14ers together with a hike up Mount Sherman.

In the previous days, I’d spent some time hiking in New Mexico, then snagged a couple of 13ers in Colorado’s Front Range two days later. I needed to force my body to be ready for bigger challenges, namely keeping up with Jordan.

While it might be true that I have a few more peaks under my belt then he does, it is also true that I’m 22 years his senior. I live around 700 feet above sea level, he lives in Denver. And over the past couple of years, the dude has gotten serious about his conditioning.

His preparing for the Spartan race in a couple of weeks, where he intends to take on the Beast course: 13 miles or so, and tons of obstacles. He’s done the shorter version of the race, but now is looking to tackle something much tougher. Needless to say, many months of running, lifting and thought-out eating have turned him into a lean, muscley human built to fly through the course.

Me, not so much. Usually my thoughts when it comes to food are limited to wondering if it will be a burrito, barbecue or bacon. I’d already conceded the fact that he’d be waiting on me the entire trip. I asked Jordan to be patient. He was good for it.

Jordan heads up the talus slope toward the Hilltop Mine. We thought this was “the route,” but it was a good, scenic side trip up the mountain.

Willing partner

A lot of life had happened since we last met up. Jordan has numerous interests. Sports, broadcasting, the outdoors, fitness, and going back to his high school and college days, music. Hip-hop, to be more precise. Jordan made an album years back, performed some live shows in front of decent crowds, but set it down for a time to focus on getting his college coursework done and a television career off the ground.

But he’s circled back to music. It’s something we talked a lot about on the way up, listening to a few songs he’s already recorded, as well as a couple of miscellaneous tunes that grabbed our attention. I’m no musician, but I love talking about music and it’s interesting to get a real musician’s take on what’s out there. The topic is also a great way to stay awake when driving into the mountains when most people are still fast asleep.

There was something else in these discussions, too. Music is a way that Jordan works through things that he sees, whether in his own life or in the world at large. The creative process is a way of hashing it all out, much in the same way people take up running to work out their demons or gardening to calm their spirits. I get all that. Writing does that for me. As well as running, or hiking, or even hitting the iron at the gym. I’ve got issues, man. That explains the numerous venues I use to deal with them.

In any case, these methods of processing the world are mostly solitary endeavors. If you want to dig deep, talk to “creatives” about why they do what they do, and what’s behind a particular song, artwork or essay. As the highway snaked its way over hilltops and down valleys, we caught up on the small stuff and probed the bigger things that were on our minds. I’ve long believed that there is something medicinal about good conversation on long drives in remote places. Every new trip confirms it.

At the saddle between Mount Sherman and Mount Sheridan.

No ordinary experience

Sooner than we expected, we were on the long dirt road leading to the Fourmile Creek trailhead. It wasn’t nearly as rough as the upper part of the Kite Lake Road at the foot of Mount Democrat, but it was slow going. A bumpy but not particularly demanding ride just about any car could handle.

Upon arriving, we saw a familiar setting, namely the remains of defunct mines that are common throughout the Mosquito Range. We also got a look at something more spectacular, that being the impressive namesake face of Horseshoe Mountain, a high 13er nearby that is jaw-dropping to behold with its semi-circular face resembling that of a massive coliseum. It’s an impressive sight, and I get why people come back to hike that one. I’d do it for the visuals alone.

Mount Sherman is another matter. It’d say by 14er standards, it’s fairly ordinary. Not too steep, and no real distinguishing landmarks – say, like Longs Peak’s Diamond, or Wetterhorn Peak’s prow – to set it apart. But it is still a big mountain that commands the skyline, and it has a few treasures of its own that make it worth the trip.

The Hilltop Mine seen on our way down. This is one of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken from the mountains. It’s surprising what pops up as memorable on these peaks.

I mentioned those mines. The one near the trailhead is just flattened ruins, but other mining features higher up are more fetching. The backdrop of a crisp, blue sky and pillowy clouds, set against the muted tones of the mountain stand in stark contrast the weathered, beaten but still resilient structures of men who sought their fortunes in high country minerals.

It’s about here when I got a fuller appreciation of how many trails there are on this mountain. Many high peaks are limited to a couple trails, but on Mount Sherman, side trails criss-cross the peak like a spiderweb, partially due to all the mining that occurred here, and partially from hikers taking different paths, I’m sure. Standing next to the Hilltop Mine, we had to go down again to gain Sherman’s summit ridge. An easier route showed itself to our right. I’d remember that on our way down.

As expected, there were plenty of people on the mountain. Ease of access and favorable weather guarantee crowds, even on a weekday. But we didn’t come to Mount Sherman looking for solitude. For that, you’re going to need to go to more remote ranges, and probably ones without that magic 14,000-foot number attached. We came here to finish a job.

Higher on the summit ridge, I realize we’ve fallen into a bit of luck. Sherman has a reputation of being a windy peak, yet on the narrowest part of the ridge, fully exposed to the winds, we were in the middle of a calm day with wispy clouds and blue sky all around. It’s cool, yeah, but just like last year in the Decalibron, we’re in good conditions making great time. As expected, Jordan is plowing ahead at a pace slowed only by him waiting on me.

The “skinny” portion of the summit ridge on Mount Sherman.

We came up to a narrower section of the summit ridge, and I must admit, it was airier than I thought it would be. Not anything scary, but more of a pleasant surprise. So many of the peaks in this range as well as the distant Sawatch Range are massive lumps of rock that can be dreary slogs above timberline. One hiker mentions to me that he thought it was “sketchy.” I guess sketchiness, airiness, and exposure are all in the eyes of the beholder. For me, a little air to the left or the right (or both) is interesting.

In less than two hours, we’re at the top, taking in the scene with a dozen others, including a family with kids, some out-of-staters, and a smattering of Coloradoans.

Summit view on Mount Sherman.

It dawns on me that this is the thirteenth time I’ve shared a summit of a family member. Five with Jordan over the past two years, plus the rest with brothers, nieces, nephews, in-laws and my wife. That’s nearly half my total number, and I like that figure. It’s good to know that partners may not be hard to find in the future, though I still intend to call upon friends as well.

On our way down, Jordan and I started talking sports again. Football season is approaching, and we’re wondering if the Denver Broncos will make strides from the previous season or revert to the mediocrity of the pre-Manning, post-Elway years. Time will tell on that subject, which really isn’t that important but is debated as intelligently and fully as anything in the realm of current events, politics, religion or whatever else. That’s the great thing about sports. We can dissect the Broncos’ moves on its offensive and defensive lines, maybe argue a bit over the merits of one player over another, but not face the existential crisis and warlike musings of the current political climate.

Before long, we were down. Storms started to build around the mountain. People like us were coming down, but others still going up. Given all the information out there about safety in the mountains, this astounds me. But some people have to learn by experience.

Our experience, on the other hand, is something else. Both of us have changed over the past year. We’re learning things and trying to apply those lessons to our lives, then share what we know while driving to trailheads, hiking trails and lingering on high summits. Each new mountaintop adds not only to our alpine experience, but to knowledge passed along by peering into each other’s worlds during those hours unplugged from “normal” life.

Me, with the Hilltop Mine and Mount Sherman’s summit in the background. (Jordan Doucette photo)

GETTING THERE: From Denver, take U.S. 285 southwest toward Fairplay. Continue south for a mile and turn right on County Road 18. Drive on this road for about 10 miles to the trailhead.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the Leavick Mine site, follow the trail (road) and veer right to skirt the ridge that leads to the Hilltop Mine (it’s a freestanding mine building on top of a ridge that can be viewed low on the route). There are many side trails throughout the lower part of the mountain, and most of them lead to the summit ridge. Hike the trail and gain the summit ridge. From here, the route is straightforward. Just short of the summit, the ridge narrows significantly, and this is one of the windier parts of the mountain. Once past this, the route eases. The true summit is about a 100-yard walk from where the ridge flattens out. Class 2 hiking, 5.25 miles round trip, with 2,100 feet of elevation gain.

EXTRA CREDIT: Hike to the summit of Mount Sheridan. At the saddle between Mount Sherman and Mount Sheridan, turn south instead of north. Mount Sheridan is a ranked 13er.

Bob Doucette

When, not if, lightning strikes: Watch those skies, folks

Storms forming near Mount Sherman, as seen from near the trailhead. When this photo was taken, at least a dozen people were still heading up the mountain, some just above this spot.

Hiking down the slopes of Mount Sherman, I was taken aback by the striking beauty of storm clouds beginning to form, contrasting with bright blue skies and the muted tones of the mountain itself.

An old mine building atop the ridge looked particularly photo-worthy, so tiny and fragile compared to the enormous scale of the mountain and the blossoming cumulus clouds in the distance. I stopped, framed the image and snapped one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken in the high country.

By this time, my nephew Jordan and I were almost down to the trailhead where his car – and the promise of a sizable lunch – awaited. It was late morning, and a good time to be almost down.

But we both noticed something troubling. Plenty of people were still on the way up.

Jordan spotted some people higher on the ridge, with at least an hour of hiking ahead of them – and a growing collection of puffy, gray-bottomed clouds all around. Down the trail, maybe 15 minutes from the trailhead, even more people – a young woman with her dog, a middle-aged couple, and four bros power-hiking every 20 steps, then stopping to rest – were going up. Over their shoulders, a particularly angry-looking storm was getting ready to explode over White Ridge.

Further conversations I had with folks that week noted some interesting comments from people walking into forming storms.

“Oh, I’ll keep an eye on the weather,” was a common one.

“I’m from Kansas. We get storms. I’m not afraid of getting wet,” was another.

“I’ve been doing these for awhile. I know what I’m getting into.” Uh-huh.

I’m not one of those who stops people with dire warnings about how cotton kills or how they shouldn’t try a summit so late. I’m guilty of many high country hiking sins, and frankly, a stern warning from a stranger rarely goes over well. People don’t like being told they’re wrong. But I don’t mind giving people advice if they ask.

But here in cyberspace, it’s different because people search the internet for tips and information on how to safely navigate the potential hazards in the mountains. Hence this post.

Back in 2015, there was a day when more than a hundred people were on the slopes of Mount Bierstadt. Around 11:30 a.m., storms had formed while people were going up and down the mountain. A lightning strike slammed into a group of hikers, injuring 15 people and killing one hiker’s dog.

It should be noted that lightning strike fatalities are rare. So far this year, 12 people in the U.S. have died by lightning strike, including one horseback rider in Colorado who was struck in an open field, according to the National Weather Service.

But when it comes to hiking in alpine areas, success is partly build upon minimizing risk. Marching into a summer storm is counter to that. Summer storms can not only hurl lightning on unprotected hikers, but can also create dangerous conditions on relatively benign routes, and make tougher routes deadly. On a summer day late in August of 2004, another hiker – dressed in summer attire and running shoes – died from hypothermia after getting caught in a storm high on Longs Peak.

Weather changes the nature of mountains. Experienced hikers and expert mountaineers can push weather boundaries more than most, but as peak-bagging becomes more popular, there is a rush of people with scant experience in the high country itching to try their luck in the mountains. Bragging rights to friends or triple-digit (quadruple?) likes on Instagram sometimes trump good judgment. And frankly, not knowing what you don’t know is just as dangerous as anything else. Ignorance is not bliss.

Going back in some of my older posts, I pulled out a list of ways people can mitigate the risks that summer weather poses. It’s worth looking at again.

Start early. Dawn or predawn is best. Even if you’re in shape, it’s going to take you a lot longer to hike at altitude than it would at lower elevations. Give yourself enough time to summit early so you don’t have to play “beat the clock” with the afternoon storms.

Check weather reports. Afternoon storms are almost a given, but be sure to check forecasts the night before and the morning of your hike or climb. Real-time data will give you a better look at what might be in store.

Watch the skies. Looks for signs that storms might begin forming. Isolated clouds or high, wispy formations are usually pretty harmless. But small, puffy clouds often multiply, coalesce and grow. A gray bottom is a good sign that the clouds are forming a storm. When they do, that’s a good time to reassess your plans.

Don’t be afraid to turn around. Summit fever kills. You might decide to take a chance, but there is a place where you reach a “point of no return” when it comes to getting below treeline before storms hit. Time spent getting to safety can be measured in hours if you’re in trouble on or close to a summit — a long time to be stuck in bad weather in such a vulnerable place. Remember that the mountain isn’t going anywhere, and you’ll likely be able to try it again another day. That won’t be the case if you get killed rolling the dice with the weather.

Respect all the mountains. Even the “easy” ones can be treacherous under the wrong conditions. Bierstadt is considered one of the easier 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, but there are scores of people who were on that mountain during that 2015 lightning strike who can tell you how dangerous it can be when you’re there at the wrong time. So whether you’re doing a short walk-up hike or a really demanding climb, treat each ascent with care.

Bad weather and poor route conditions caused by storms have turned me back a few times. It’s a bummer when you work so hard for a summit, only to be turned around short of your goal. But it’s better to do that than to become the subject for a story about tragedy in the mountains.

Bob Doucette

Your morning vert: Grizzly Peak D from Loveland Pass

Grizzly Peak D, near Loveland Pass, Colorado.

My first trip up to Loveland Pass was two-fold in purpose. First, I wanted to see what the hiking was like. Second, I wanted easily accessible mountains close to Denver where I could get a little altitude.

I checked both boxes with a short hike to Mount Sniktau three years ago, a good training exercise just days before a more difficult outing far to the southwest in the San Juan Range redoubt of Chicago Basin.

But as a bonus, I got to see a more extensive trail system that led to a number of other peaks nearby. A year later I was back, but adverse weather conditions cut my trip short, with just a quick jaunt up Cupid, a 13,000-foot bump near Sniktau, as my sole summit. Still, that hike allowed me to get a closer look at its taller neighbor, Grizzly Peak D, and a couple of 14ers in the distance, Grays Peak and Torreys Peak.

A wise retreat that day left me hoping to return and go a little farther down the trail to get my next Loveland Pass summit.

Another two years passed before I got my shot. Following a great three days in New Mexico, I was hoping to build on my altitude training by coming back up the pass to explore more of the area.

Grizzly Peak D is, in its neighborhood, a relatively minor summit along the Continental Divide. At 13,427 feet above sea level, it’s overshadowed by its 14er neighbors, and doesn’t have the dramatic profile of some of the other 13ers nearby like Lenawee and the Citadel. But for my purposes, it was perfect.

I hiked this one solo. Which is to say, in the Front Range during the summer months, hiking solo doesn’t mean you’re alone. A half-dozen other people were on the route that day, with two couples sporting dogs.

Front Range morning views.

The entire route is above treeline, with the trailhead at the top of the pass – 11,990 feet above sea level. You get a few dozen yards of easygoing strolling before the route steepens dramatically. It’s a shock to the system, especially for a flatlander like me. But unlike the past couple of times I was here, it didn’t feel as rough as normal. Plenty of hard breathing to be sure, but I made good time to a turnoff away from the Sniktau route and toward Cupid.

That piece of trail is pleasant hiking, being relatively flat. A quarter-mile later, a series of switchbacks starts the vert in earnest to gain the ridge connecting Cupid with Point 12,915. Soon after, I was atop Cupid – just as scenic as I remembered it, but this time with clear, blue skies and none of the threatening weather that was present a couple of years earlier.

Going up Cupid, looking toward Mount Sniktau.

It also gave me a good view of the connecting ridge between Cupid and Grizzly D.

My memory failed me a bit, seeing that I thought I remembered only one bump on the ridge between the two mountains. Inspecting the route now, I saw plenty of up-and-down between me and my goal – a series of small high points on the ridge that signaled a surprising amount of vert to be gained on what is just a 5.5-mile round trip.

Coming down Cupid, looking at Grizzly Peak D and the connecting ridge.

Grizzly D, with Torreys Peak and Grays Peak seen to the left and in the distance.

On the way up Cupid, I passed the first couple I met, two Colorado natives and their dog who were repeating the Grizzly D climb. They weren’t in a rush and were happy to chat. I envied them a bit, as it seemed like they lived close enough to make hikes like this a regular part of what they do. No such opportunity at home for me, deep in the Southern Plains. Grizzly D was a bigger deal to me than them. Still, outpacing a Colorado pair gave me a little confidence boost. Maybe my conditioning was a little better than I thought.

Heading down Cupid, the scale of these “bumps” became clearer. The hiking up and around them was steeper than they seemed at first glance, but again, I was feeling pretty good and plowed through. Going over the last one, I got a good look at the path up Grizzly D: It looked steep, and ahead of me, a couple of other hikers were picking their way up.

In the middle of the ridge, looking back on Cupid and a high spot on the ridge.

Still in the middle of the ridge, looking toward another high spot, with Grizzly D in the background.

I figured it would be a lung-buster, but the final ascent was only about 500 feet or so. I could grind this out and reach the summit without eating too much time.

The hike up Grizzly’s summit pitch was as tough as it looked. Already, I was dreading the downclimb, as the path was steep and, in spots, sandier than I would have preferred. My pace slowed some, but I could tell that I was closing in on the pair I spied a few minutes earlier. I had no plans to catch them – I mean, what would that actually prove? – but it was useful observing them and the time it was taking them to negotiate sections of the climb that were still ahead of me.

Starting up Grizzly D. looking back toward Cupid. Not bad at this point, but it was getting ready to get steeper.

About three-quarters of the way up, it seemed the route relented a bit and before long I was on top. A younger couple, also from Colorado, and their dog were resting and taking in the views when I got there.

“You were making good time,” the man told me.

“Yeah, I’m feeling pretty good today,” I replied, letting my head swell a little bit at the idea of being close to passing two – count em, two! – pairs of Colorado natives with my flatlander legs and lungs.

On the Grizzly D summit, looking toward Torreys Peak (left) and Grays Peak.

Summit view looking west.

We all looked toward Torreys Peak, and what would have been a ridge traverse very similar to what we just did, just much longer and bigger. It wasn’t in the cards time-wise for me, and really, I wasn’t here to blow myself out just for some hiking bragging rights. I still had a couple days of mountain ascents ahead of me. I snacked a bit, drank up and headed back down the mountain.

The downclimb turned out to be easier than I thought. Part of the reason is I spent my winter and spring pounding my legs in the weight room. It’s amazing how much that made a difference, both going up and down the hill. I also descended at my own pace, which is pretty slow. But I felt good when I got to the bottom.

Looking at Cupid on the way down.

It was there that I ran into my last pair of hikers on the route. Two fellas were on their way up, and we talked for a bit about the mountain and what they were up to.

These guys were 69 and 70 years old. I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to see people at that age still slaying summits. Even better, the older of the two was doing his last training hike before heading up to Washington state to climb Mount Rainier, a mountain he’d already climbed years ago. They passed along some tips on breathing technique, and you can bet your butt that I listened.

Now down from Grizzly’s summit ridge, I looked at the work ahead. Unlike most mountains, this one wasn’t a lengthy downhill to the trailhead. Instead, it means going up and over all the stuff I’d already done just to get here. The sneaky fact about this hike is even though the elevation distance between the trailhead and the Grizzly D summit is a tad over 1,500 feet, the actual elevation change you experience is closer to 3,000 feet. Regaining all those bumps on the ridge as well as the Cupid summit proved a bit tougher on the way back. Ordinarily, the trip down is much quicker than the ascent, but not so this time. My pace got a little more leisurely as the morning wore on, and the sandy surface of the trail on the last half mile or so was a nuisance, threatening to upend me and land me on my butt more than a few times.

Pleasant singletrack hiking back to the car.

When it was done, I got exactly what I wanted: a few miles at elevation, a new summit, and a look at a more ambitious hike for the future, maybe with a partner. I envision an earlier start, parking one car at the pass, another at Stevens Gulch, and hiking from the pass to Grizzly D, then on to Torreys Peak and Grays Peak before heading to the second car waiting below. That would be a big day, but possible.

And that’s what I like about Loveland Pass. It’s close enough to Denver to avoid the commitment of climbs farther west, but it’s also filled with possibilities for future efforts. There’s still plenty left for me to do.

I dig the colors of the alpine.

GETTING THERE: From Denver, take I-70 west until you get to the U.S. 6 west exit, which takes you to Loveland Pass. At the top of the pass is parking on both sides of the road.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the trailhead, hike up some stairs, then toward the hillside leading to a high point between Mount Sniktau and Cupid. Instead of hiking to the top of the high point, turn right at a side trail that takes you toward Cupid. This will be easy hiking for about a quarter mile before reaching some switchbacks that gain the ridge leading to Cupid. The trail can take you to Cupid’s rocky summit, or you can bypass it just below the top before getting a look at the remainder of the route. Descend Cupid along the ridge and you will encounter four bumps between Cupid and Grizzly D. Some of the hiking is somewhat steep. Upon passing the last bump in the ridge, the rest of the route leads to Grizzly D’s summit. This is the steepest part of the hike, but does not exceed Class 2. The route eases somewhat close to the top before putting you at Grizzly D’s summit.

EXTRA CREDIT: Tackle Torreys Peak by hiking the ridge between it and Grizzly D. And if you’re really feeling yourself, continue on to Grays Peak, This would best be done with a two-car strategy, with one left at the Stevens Gulch trailhead and the other at Loveland Pass.

Bob Doucette

Exploring Cimarron, New Mexico, and the Valle Vidal

Woodlands in the Valle Vidal, near Cimarron, N.M.

My affection for New Mexico goes back years. Almost two decades, actually. Long before the cultural touchstones of “Breaking Bad”, but long after Georgia O’Keeffe worked her magic, I drove to this state’s northern reaches and saw something that reminded me of childhood adventures in the Rockies west of Denver.

The Sangre de Cristo Range has all the alpine wonder you’d expect farther north, even if most of this state has a more arid character. But where it differs from its northern neighbor is its ability to maintain its character, a mosaic of the West mostly untainted by rampant development that is clogging Colorado’s Front Range and Eastern Slope.

Yes, the state has its tourist draws. But beneath the veneer of tourism lies the state’s older character, a history steeped in Spanish settlements dating back five centuries, of rich Native American heritage, and of Old West vocations rooted in ranching.

The mountains attract people for a lot of reasons, but the main difference I see here and in the state where I grew up is that enjoying them in Colorado often involves extended stays on clogged highways filled with people afflicted by the same high country lust I have. In New Mexico, you can bask in the high country and feel a part of the landscape without having to endure the gridlock farther north.

I make a pilgrimage west at least once a year, and this time gave me a little more time to wander, and in this case, take a trip down south. It’s been 11 years since I spent any time here, and upon my return I found that New Mexico has lost none of its flavor.

CIMARRON

As luck would have it, I’ve got friends here. A married couple I know from my local outdoor community had recently packed up and moved to the tiny burg of Cimmaron with a combination of longstanding dreams meeting at a confluence in New Mexico’s eastern slope. Colin Tawney has long wanted to move West, and his wife, Erin Tawney, had been intrigued at the idea of running a bed and breakfast.

They found one in Cimarron, and the Blue Dragonfly Inn was born.

When we pulled in, I was surprised how big the place was. It’s got enough room for a couple of families at a time, and sports a large indoor swimming pool, exercise equipment, commons areas and a sweet back porch where you can take in the sweeping views of the nearby mountains and hummingbirds feasting on flowers and nectar feeders hung from a nearby tree. The porch ended up a favorite spot for me to catch up on some reading while watching the afternoon monsoon storms bloom to the west.

The Tawneys have a large van that can pick people up from nearby airports or take groups on excursions. There’s plenty to do here, and Colin sees his enterprise and the town of Cimarron itself as a great base for hikers, mountain bikers, anglers and hunters. Eagle Nest Lake is not far, so kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding are also good summer options.

Also helping the cause: Erin can cook. Three fantastic breakfasts in a row, and she has recipes to account for people on special diets, be they vegan, gluten-free, or just about anything else.

Back porch view at the Blue Dragonfly Inn.

Breakfast is served: Egg fritatta with Italian sausage and marinara, sweet potato fries and a choice of fruit. Holy cow, this was good.

The Blue Dragonfly Inn.

The Inn has other amenities as well, including free Wi-Fi and complimentary Netflix. (If you want to know more, look up the Blue Dragonfly Inn on Facebook.)

The town itself punches above its weight, considering its size and relative distance from larger cities or ski resorts. We found excellent food at the St. James Hotel, and The Porch is also highly recommended. East of town there is a place called the Colfax Tavern, but most people here know it simply as “Cold Beer.” That moniker, derived from the sign advertising its wares, even gave birth to a craft brew lager they have specially made and shipped in from Oregon. It’s great on draft and goes well with the fresh pizzas or short rib pork.

For those looking for a bit of history, there are antique stores in town as well as a sawmill museum.

THE VALLE VIDAL

At Ring Camp in the Valle Vidal.

Logging and ranching built Cimarron, but the town butters its bread on its proximity to the Philmont Scout Ranch, a huge facility that hosts tens of thousands of Boy Scouts every year. Scouts take off from the camp and into an extensive trail system weaving its way through evergreen forests and mountains that top 12,000 feet.

The land surrounding the camp is the Valle Vidal, 101,794 acres of alpine forests, meadows and hills that lie at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Range. It was once owned by wealthy landowner, then Pennzoil Corporation before being donated as an addition to the Carson National Forest. It’s now protected public land, and being surrounded in part by Philmont and a sprawling ranch owned by Ted Turner, encroachment via commercial development is a nearly nonexistent threat. Ranchers can graze cattle here, but other than that, the Valle Vidal is allowed to remain wild.

As I mentioned before, Colin and Erin are serious trail enthusiasts. Both are avid mountain bikers, and they’ve already found some sweet places to ride. But they’re always looking for more, and hope to one day perhaps create mountain bike events that traverse the ample trail system in the Valle Vidal.

We picked a day to scout out some of those trails, driving to a trailhead where we could do a simple out-and-back hike to a logging ghost town called Ring Town.

Out first stop took us to Ring Camp, an active facility run by Philmont. “Welcome to Ring Camp!” was the greeting we got from four young folk employed by Philmont and charged with looking after the place while also seeing to the needs of Boy Scout groups that passed through in the middle of backpacking trips that spanned two weeks at a time.

They hailed anywhere from Maryland to Texas and many places in between. I never had a summer job that looked as good as they gig these four had.

Taking off from there, we followed jeep paths through a pasture and some very wary cows. My wife, Becca, noticed that one horned bovine watched us intently the entire time while calves bellowed for their mothers as we passed. Not quite a wildlife experience, but it’s worth noting to be cool and calm as to not upset creatures that are much bigger than you.

Colin checks out the remains of a fallen windmill at Ring Town.

About 2.5 miles in, we ran into Ring Town. Or at least what’s left of it. My guess is this was a timber community for a time, but had long since gone under. We found the remains of windmills and water tanks scattered across the banks of a stream nearby. Colin went looking for a cemetery that was supposed to be close by, but building storm clouds cut that search short.

On the return trip, those clouds unleashed on us. Lightning was a concern — New Mexico has the highest death rate by lightning in the country. And when the rain started dumping on us, we were right in the middle of a wide pasture without any cover in sight. Fortunately, there were no close calls, just a good bit of sogginess. It was one of the faster — and wetter — mile-long stretches I’ve hiked.

Wrinkles like that can make a hike that much more memorable. The Tawneys got to stretch their legs and explore new places for their bikes. Bec got to test out her new kicks. And with the bulk of the hike between 8,200 and 8,400 feet above sea level, I got some badly needed activity at elevation just prior to some summit hikes I’d planned later in the week.

Looking back, the time we spent in the Valle Vidal reminded me why I like New Mexico so much: Random points of interest and people mixed in with unspoiled mountain scenery, the quiet sounds of nature, and the slowed pace of a land mostly free from the machinery of civilization. Who knows how long that will last. But for now, it’s still there, far from the busy interstates and busy metropolises that dominate elsewhere.

Bob Doucette