A smattering of state high points

At the top of a state.

It’s about that time when I get out of the Southern Plains and head into the high country. On tap: Some quality time in New Mexico and Colorado.

Thoughts of summits are racing through my mind. And that got me to thinking about the high places. More specifically, the high points of every state.

Some are dramatic: Denali in Alaska, Mount Rainier in Washington, or Mount Whitney in California. Others, well, not so much. “Mount Sunflower” in Kansas is just a high point on a flat plain. Florida’s high point is a place you can walk to from the road.

For some people, reaching every state high point is a goal they chase over many years. That’s not really me, but I’ve made five of the country’s 50 state high points. Some are dramatic. Others are not. But all of them have been memorable for me.

Here’s mine…

MOUNT ELBERT, COLORADO

Summit view from Mount Elbert.

Colorado’s highest mountain stands at 14,433 feet above sea level, making it the second-highest point in the lower 48 states. It’s a gentle giant, a walk-up peak on a good trail that tests your lungs and legs. The false summits near the top can be disheartening, but like the rest of its cousins in the Sawatch Range, Mount Elbert can be head with the right amount of fitness and determination. The views of nearby Mount Massive (Colorado’s second-highest peak) and Twin Lakes are memorable.

WHEELER PEAK, NEW MEXICO

Looking south from the summit of Wheeler Peak.

The monarch of New Mexico’s high places, Wheeler Peak (13,153 feet) is a massive mountain in the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Whether you hike it via Taos or Red River, expect a big day: Routes to the summit are anywhere from 16 to 21 miles long round-trip. It can be done in a day, but many choose to backpack this mountain over a couple of days. Like Mount Elbert, Wheeler Peak is strictly a hike, and one that takes you through some amazing scenery in the Carson National Forest. This was my first “big mountain” summit and my first state high point.

CLINGMAN’S DOME, TENNESSEE

View from the observation tower on Clingman’s Dome.

The Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina are breathtaking, carpeted with broadleaf and evergreen forests for as far as the eye can see. Tennessee has a number of big Appalachian peaks, but none as high as Clingman’s Dome (6,644 feet). The mountain is the highest point of the Appalachian Trail (and you can hike it from there as a day hike). If a lengthy hike is not your thing, you can drive near the top and walk the last half mile to the top on a paved walkway. Clingman’s Dome has an observation tower that gives you incredible views of the Smokies, something other Appalachian summits in the South lack (usually, you’re surrounded by trees). If you’re hiking it, you’ll pass through a few ecosystems as the elevation changes. And you might see bears.

BLACK MESA, OKLAHOMA

Summit marker at Black Mesa.

This Southern Plains state is more than just prairie — hills and mountains in the south and east, dunes in the northwest, and plenty of wild grasslands in between. In the far western corner of the Oklahoma Panhandle, the High Plains meet volcanic remains at Black Mesa. The mesa is the hardened lava from past eruptions in the region, rising to an elevation of 4,975 feet. Black Mesa is remote, so you’re almost guaranteed some solitude on an 8-mile round-trip hike to the top. Once there, a monolith marks Oklahoma’s high place, but be sure to hike to the mesa’s cliffs and enjoy sweeping views into New Mexico, Texas, Kansas and Colorado.

MAGAZINE MOUNTAIN, ARKANSAS

Summit sign at Magazine Mountain.

Arkansas is not a high-elevation state, but it is a mountain state. The Ozarks and the Ouachitas dominate the scenery of the northwest portion of the state, and none rise higher than Magazine Mountain (2,753 feet). The mountain is a lengthy, broad ridge covered in broadleaf and pine forests. Gaining its summit at Signal Hill can be had via a short walk from established campground at the top, or you can earn it via the 9-mile (one-way) hike on the Magazine Mountain Trail. That trail, which starts in National Forest land and ends in Mount Magazine State Park, winds through thick forests, multiple stream crossings and real wilderness. Hike it on a weekday and you might have the trail to yourself until you get to the top. The summit itself is surrounded by trees and is indicated by a sign, a register and a USGS marker.

So there you have it. My extensive list of five (count ’em, five!) state high points. While only 10 percent of the list, these are some good ones that are worth a visit.

Bob Doucette

 

Hiking Arkansas’ Magazine Mountain Trail

Craig takes in the scene from an overlook on the trail.

Between the briars slicing open my shins and picking off a couple of ticks, there was one thing that I failed to notice, something my hiking partner Craig noted.

“What’s great about this is we haven’t seen another soul.”

He was right. We’d been on the trail for a couple of hours, and the only non-insect beings we saw were a couple of snakes, a few lizards, and some turkey vultures riding the air currents high above a steep, heavily wooded ravine.

Solitude is something I expect in the remote parts of the country, but not in the South. Sparsely populated western states offer plenty of alone time if you want it. That’s tougher to find in states where small towns dot the landscape and paved highways take you to the tops of mountains.

So it was remarkable that this hike, going up the Magazine Mountain Trail in northwest Arkansas, was one in which we were the only humans around.

I’ll take that every time.

Looking out over a rocky outcrop three miles in, I uttered what became the de facto humorous slogan of the trip: “This does not suck.”

ARKANSAS’ HIGH PLACE

A view looking south from near the top of Magazine Mountain.

Magazine Mountain (alternatively, and interchangeably, called Mount Magazine) is the highest mountain in Arkansas, rising to 2,753 feet. It was named by French explorers who, after witnessing a landslide on its flanks, likened the sound to a munitions magazine exploding.

It’s the monarch of the Ouachita Mountains, an ancient band of east-west ridges and mesas that once soared to heights equal to that of the Rockies, back before tectonic movement pushed it away from the Appalachians and into the heart of the interior highlands of Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

The Ouachitas are separated from the Boston Mountains and the rest of the Ozarks by the Arkansas River. Clothing the entire region are dense hardwood and lodgepole pine forests filled with life.

The mountain itself dominates the skyline south of the river. It’s a long plateau crowned with a rim of rugged cliffs at the top, offering spectacular views of the Ouachitas all the way into Oklahoma to the east and the Boston Mountains to the north.

The mountain is mostly inside national forest land, though the top of the formation is land owned by the state, Mount Magazine State Park. The state park and the National Forest Service have a great partnership here, and part of that is maintaining a route that is one of Arkansas’ classic hikes, the 9.7-mile Magazine Mountain Trail.

Most people hike the peak from campgrounds at the top of the mountain down to Cove Lake, 1,500 feet below. But a downhill hike is not what Craig and I are accustomed to.

In some ways, Craig and I are similar hikers. We’re both flatlanders who have found ourselves at home hiking Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, and have a similar number of summits. But we have key differences, namely that he’s much faster at altitude and is seemingly tireless. Me? Not so much.

Thankfully, the altitudes of Arkansas aren’t nearly the factor that they are in Colorado. Otherwise I would have been eating Craig’s dust most of the way yet again.

A WALK IN THE WOODS

The low part of the trail, maybe a mile from the lower trailhead.

Our plan was to drive one of our cars to the lake, hike to the top, then use the other car to retrieve the first. The only other option would have been to do a round-trip hike that would have approached 20 miles. Both of us had done that before, but we were looking more for fun rather than something more demanding.

The trailhead at the lake is easy to miss, but a small parking area (big enough for two cars) revealed the start of the route. I had to remind myself that spring is the time where every fallen tree branch could be a snake. And that turned out to be true. Less than a mile in, a two-foot black snake sat in the middle of the trail, sunning itself, and not at all concerned with us. We were cool with that.

The trail was mostly an up-and-down affair, and then about three miles in, we climbed up to a cliff side that revealed some sweet views of nearby ridges and woodlands. Someone had set up a fire ring at that outcropping, so I suppose you could consider that place as a potential campsite. I guess that would be fine, but there wasn’t a water source nearby, and I’m all about having somewhere close to filter water so I don’t have to haul it all in. We were just passing through, so we snapped a few pics and Craig caught me saying something goofy on video.

“Say hello for the camera,” he said.

“’Sup, camera,” was about as witty as I could get.

A scenic overlook about three miles in.

I figured that our hike up the ridge was the start of ascending the mountain, but I was wrong. Every bit of elevation we gained there we quickly surrendered as the hike went on. As it turned out, this was just a stop along the way and we’d yet to reach the foot of the mountain. So while the maps showed the elevation gain from Cove Lake to the trail’s end at about 1,500 feet, you can easily tack on at least a couple hundred feet more, given this little feature and the constant up-and-down along the way.

Another thing we noticed: This was a very watery hike. For starters, route descriptions mention creek crossings, and there were several. You could cross some without getting your feet wet, but others, not so much. There was a lot of water coming down the mountain that day, a byproduct of frequent rains that had pounded this part of the state in the preceding week.

Some of the pines here were more than a hundred feet tall.

That also made the trail muddy in numerous spots. And in others, water flowed down the trail as if it were a creek itself. Any illusions of keeping our feet dry were quickly dispelled. Once you’re good with that, it’s not a problem. Otherwise, only high-top boots with waterproofing would have provided a chance at staying dry. And that would have been a big if.

The trail is well-marked. There were mile markers (though a few were missing), and white diamond-shaped blazes were nailed to trees frequently. The only tricky areas were, believe it or not, road crossings. The first one of those had the trail reappear in a grassy area across the road (they were all gravel access roads for National Forest Service work). The second one, however, gave us a little trouble.

About four miles in, we came to a road crossing that had one side of the road going uphill and the other splitting into a Y. One of those splits led to a gate, the other downhill. We looked up and down the road and saw no clear indication where the trail picked back up, and our map wasn’t altogether clear.

A fella in a truck pulled up, so we flagged him down. Looking at our map and compass, we took a guess, went up the hill and guessed wrong. We figured that out after Truck Guy drove back up the hill to tell us he saw where the trail left the road – down the hill, the opposite direction we were going. We were grateful for the assist. Who knows where we would have ended up had we kept trudging up the road. I made a mental note that I need to work on my orienteering skills.

With Truck Guy motoring down the road and us back on track, all signs of people vanished again. Every now and then, deadfall blocked our route. My guess is high winds from recent storms took down sick or dead trees along our path.

Somewhere past Mile 5, we hit another high point where two small clearings overlooked a steep, wooded slope. We could hear a creek rushing below us. The clearings also had a fire ring, and this seemed like a good place for someone to camp. The Magazine Mountain Trail is popular with backpackers, and some people turn the hike into a two-day, overnight excursion. We plopped down for some grub, did a tick check (we performed a few of those) and let the sounds of the rushing creek below wash over us.

We encountered a lot of creek crossings, including this one where our map indicated a bridge.

We were in for one more “major” creek crossing where the map indicated a bridge. I saw footings for a bridge on either bank, but something tells me that structure is long gone. It was just another soggy creek crossing, but we were used to that by then. No biggie, just squishy feet for a few minutes (and the promise of really rank socks back at camp).

Shortly after that, the trail started heading uphill in earnest. Nothing too steep, but we did hit two sections of switchbacks that were reminders of some of the more formidable trails we’d experienced in the Rockies. After the second set of switchbacks, the trail ascended the mountain in a steeper – and at times, soggier – straight line.

We knew we hit the state park boundary once the nature of the trail changed. Instead of the partially overgrown singletrack we’d been on all day, more stone stairs appeared.

The “up” gave way soon after, and before long camp had arrived, and with it, the promise of a good nap, fresh clothes, and the best camp food of all time, bratwursts with mac-and-cheese made by yours truly. Not like I’m biased or anything.

I could tell you that the scenery stole the show, and indeed, this is a great hike. It’s not often you can trek on a longer trail in the South and have nearly absolute solitude in a place that was so lush, so green, and so alive.

Craig takes a break near the end of the hike.

But as is the case with most hikes, it’s often the company you keep that makes the trip. All along the way, Craig and I compared stories from the mountains, our solo ascents, or the more memorable peaks. We talked about how we first got into hiking the Fourteeners, who we met, and what mountains we’d like to climb next. A lot of times, sharing these mountain tales leaves many of those we know a little glassy-eyed. I think they’d rather see a couple of pics and move on.

But within our little fellowship, these stories are the spice of life. They often intersect with big lessons learned, shared experiences with family and friends, and time to process big ideas. It’s made easier when there’s no cellphone service, so any urgent texts, emails or notifications are held at bay, leaving room for good conversation or quiet reflection. We don’t get enough of that, you know.

And all that would indeed come. We’d go back to families, back to jobs, back to the noise of daily life beyond these ancient woods. But for a time we let the forest take us in, block everything else out and send us back in time before people tried to tame these lands. Wild places can be savage, but they can also soothe.

ABOUT THE ROUTE

From Cove Lake, start the hike at a small parking pullout near the dam. The trail is well-marked and easy to follow, with very few side trails, most of which are partially overgrown.

About two miles in will be your first road crossing. Tall grasses obscure the trail on the other side of the road, but it will be slightly to your right.

Continue another mile to reach a rocky outcropping. This is a potential camping area, but also a good spot to rest, eat and evaluate the weather, as the bulk of the hike still lies ahead.

Another 1.5 miles up the trail is another road crossing. To your right, the road splits into a Y, with the right-hand fork leading immediately to a gate while the other fork goes downhill. Take the downhill fork. The route includes a small section of the road, but less than 200 yards downhill, the trail will appear to your left and leaves the road for good.

From here, a general uphill climb begins, with some elevation loss and gain. About 5 miles in, you’ll reach two clearings that have been used as campsites. This is just past the halfway point of the route, so it’s a logical place to stop and camp if you’re backpacking. It’s also a good point to evaluate the weather as well as your progress, as the hardest part of the hike still awaits.

The woods reflected on the still waters of a pond.

Past the campsites, the trail continues another two miles before going uphill in earnest. You’ll go uphill for a time and the route will flatten out and take you between two ponds.

Upon leaving the ponds behind, you’ll arrive at the first set of steeper switchbacks, of which there are four. The route eases for a bit, then hits another set of three switchbacks. Leaving those behind, the route eases momentarily, then steepens again. A series of rock steps will appear as you leave the Ozark National Forest and enter Mount Magazine State Park. Continue a steep hike for another mile before the terrain eases and leads you to the boundary of the Cameron Bluffs campsites.

Route length is 9.7 miles, all Class 1 hiking with minimal exposure.

EXTRA CREDIT

Hike south through the campsite, cross the main road and go a half mile up the Signal Hill Trail to the summit of Magazine Mountain and the state’s high point.

Or, if you’re up for it, make it a bigger day by hiking from Cove Lake to the summit, then back down to the lake. 19-21 miles, depending on if you tack on the Signal Hill Trail hike.

THINGS TO KNOW

There is no motorized travel or biking allowed on the Magazine Mountain Trail. Hiking only.

The mountains of Arkansas are bear country. Talk and make noise to alert bears of your presence, and do not attempt to feed them (or any wildlife, for that matter). Give any bear plenty of room, especially if it is a mother with her cubs. If you’re camping, be sure to hang any food or fragrant possessions (toothpaste, deordorant, soap, etc) in a bear bag away from your campsite. Never store these items in your tent.

Bob Doucette

Coming soon: Getting on the trail in Arkansas

Just one of the views from Magazine Mountain, Arkansas.

Like a lot of you, I have a need to find wild trails for awhile, be it on a multi-day excursion or a simple trail run. I can find these in other states, or down the road minutes from my home.

One thing that I’ve considered a personal failure was having never done much exploring in Arkansas. The state line is only a couple of hours from where I live, and everything I’ve heard about it seems to indicate that it’s a worthy haven for the outdoorsy set.

I finally remedied this error, spending three days in northwest Arkansas with a hiking buddy of mine, Craig, who agreed to drive down from Kansas City to meet me there.

It was time well spent. It was great catching up with Craig, one of my partners on an attempt to climb Longs Peak two years ago, and see how he’s been doing. We both had one thing in common: A need to take a break from everyday life and to unwind on the trail.

In the coming days, I’m going to publish some posts about what we discovered at Mount Magazine State Park – loads of hiking, great camping, and opportunities for a whole lot more. And I think you’ll be blown away by how beautiful this place is. I certainly was.

So stay tuned. In the next few posts,  I’ll be going over a classic Arkansas mountain hike, examining the features of the state park, and add a little more about some of the great things you can do in Arkansas.

Bob Doucette

Mountain Reads, part 1: ‘Halfway to Heaven’

Humor, history and mountain adventure collide with this one.

I go on reading spurts and droughts, and after a lengthy drought, I figured it was time to read something other than someone’s link on Facebook. So I bought a bunch of books that looked interesting to me – some of them older, some of them newer – and plopped my butt down for a read, this time with my nose in a book and not pointed down toward a glowing screen.

With that in mind, I’m going to do an occasional series called Mountain Reads. The books involved will be some good ones I’ve picked up recently and over the years, stuff from authors whose writings will fill you up with mountain stoke for the spring and summer.

First up is a 2010 title from author Mark Obmascik called “Halfway to Heaven: My White-knuckled – and Knuckleheaded – Quest for the Rocky Mountain High.”

This is an autobiographical account about how the longtime Denver Post reporter decided one summer to hike and climb all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.

Climbing the 14ers, as they’re called, is serious business, but not as serious as high-altitude mountaineering in the Himalayas. Lots of people in Colorado try these peaks, and a select few climb them all. Almost all of these people make their living doing something other than climbing, meaning that mountaineering in Colorado is an “everyman’s” sport.

And that’s the route the writer takes. His humorous and self-deprecating style lets you know that’s he’s not the second coming of Edmund Hillary. Instead, Obmascik takes you through the humbling process of willing yourself up the mountain at ridiculous hours in the morning, of trying a little too hard to find hiking partners and otherwise trying to fit this new obsession into the confines of a suburban family man’s life. It gets pretty funny.

That said, Obmascik is a journalist by trade, and every chapter is studded with deeply researched facts on the peaks, on Colorado history, on the people who first settled the state, and of mountaineering in the Rockies. Included are plenty of anecdotes from more recent times, and some straightforward accounts of what can (and did) go wrong in the high country. You walk away from this book understanding how wild the West could get, and how deadly serious its mountains can be.

He also takes care to make sure the story is not just his own. The array of subjects in this book include anyone from weekend warriors to serious endurance athletes, each with stories all their own as to what drives them into the Rockies to test themselves on the peaks.

You can also see how Obmascik progressed, gaining confidence, strength and skill as he topped out on tougher peaks. It echoes a journey so many people have made – painfully trudging uphill, fleeing electrical storms, glorious summit days and near-death close calls.

I relate to this guy. We’re both ordinary dudes with an exceptional obsession with the mountains. The book captures that spirit well while treating you to some great storytelling throughout. If you dig the outdoor life but haven’t read this one yet, give it a look.

Bob Doucette

Happy feet: Some of my favorite scenes from the trail

Sweet trails at Loveland Pass, Colo.

Sweet trails at Loveland Pass, Colo.

Spring is upon us, and that means a bunch of people are going to crawl out of their winter holes and hit the trails. Some of us like those winter trails, too, but for most of the public, spring and summer is where it’s at.

With that in mind, I think it’s time for some trail stoke. In this case, some of my favorite images of trails. So here goes…

It’s hard to beat a bluebird day above treeline…

Summit trail on Mount Lincoln, Colo.

Summit trail on Mount Lincoln, Colo.

A tough walk up can lead to pleasant valleys below…

The route down from Broken Hand Pass to Cottonwood Lake, Colo., Sangre de Cristo Range.

The route down from Broken Hand Pass to Cottonwood Lake, Colo., Sangre de Cristo Range.

A good snow can make the woods come alive in new ways…

Snowy scene from near the trailhead at Turkey Mountain, Tulsa, Okla.

Snowy scene from near the trailhead at Turkey Mountain, Tulsa, Okla.

And similarly, the ethereal feel of cloud cover will make some routes feel mysterious…

Summit ridge trail on Missouri Mountain, Colo.

Summit ridge trail on Missouri Mountain, Colo.

When your path points toward the dramatic, it become fuel to push on…

Happy backpackers on the trail up to Chicago Basin, Colo., Weminuche Wilderness.

Happy backpackers on the trail up to Chicago Basin, Colo., Weminuche Wilderness.

And a little bit of air can be pretty exciting…

Ledge-y section on the Southwest RIdge of Mount Sneffels, Colo.

Ledge-y section on the Southwest Ridge of Mount Sneffels, Colo.

Long shadows of daybreak signal the encouragement that comes with the dawn…

Denney Creek Trail up the slopes of Mount Yale, Colo.

Denney Creek Trail up the slopes of Mount Yale, Colo.

And then there are scenes ahead of you that blow your mind…

Going up toward the summit pitch on Uncompahgre Peak, Colo.

Going up toward the summit pitch on Uncompahgre Peak, Colo.

They make you feel more alive…

Approaching the saddle on Mount Shavano. Colo.

Approaching the saddle on Mount Shavano, Colo.

As it turns out, a great memory on the trail is all about timing…

Wintry sunset scene on the west-side trails at Turkey Mountain, Tulsa, Okla.

Wintry sunset scene on the west-side trails at Turkey Mountain, Tulsa, Okla.

These are just a sampling. I’ve got a lot of good hiking memories. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to hit the trail right now. Happy hiking, folks!

Bob Doucette

The eternal excitement, glory and joy of being a noob

My friend Rick (left) and I at the top of Wheeler Peak, NM, in 2003. Check out that cottony, newbie goodness we're wearing.

My friend Rick (left) and I at the top of Wheeler Peak, NM, in 2003. Check out that cottony, newbie goodness we’re wearing.

If there is a title that nobody wants but everyone’s had, it’s that of being the newbie.

The noob.

A rookie.

We’ve all had our turn at being a beginner, a gaper, or whatever other term that is used to describe someone who is new to climbing, skiing, mountaineering or whatever. Usually we’re desperate to shuck that label, learning the lingo of the sport, buying all the right gear and going for “the look” of someone who has been there and done that, as if wearing/using the right brand of stuff will give us an outdoorsy version of “the thousand-yard stare” or something.

As for me, guilty as charged. Years later I ask myself, why the hell did I do that?

One of the glories of being a noob is the excitement of the “new.” You might remember it: You saw something that looked awesome, and decided you wanted to try it. So you made your plans, prepared for the task, and then got it done. The anticipation of the reaching the goal, and the satisfaction of having done it, is one of the sweetest rewards in life.

I remember a few years ago, I’d just gotten into the peak-bagging thing and was consuming stories and books about it like a starving man at Thanksgiving. Many of the most compelling stories I saw involved ascending on snow, and in my book, I couldn’t be a “real mountaineer” unless I attempted a snow climb. (For the record, I still don’t consider myself a “real mountaineer”).

I hit up my buddy Johnny on the idea. Being the kind of guy he is, he agreed to play along. We picked a mountain, found a date, and let those newbie vibes propel us toward an adventure neither of us had ever done before.

It felt awesome.

***

I’ve been drawn to the mountains ever since I was a kid, growing up in the suburbs of Denver with the Rockies an ever-present visual any time I looked toward the west. But for all the childhood camping, fishing and other adventures in the high country, I never visited to top of one of these titanic piles of rock.

Years later, my brother Mike got into hiking and climbing the Fourteeners, Colorado’s peaks that top 14,000 feet. He’d tell stories of the hardships and rewards of reaching these high summits, and the photographs he showed me – glorious vistas, dizzying drop-offs, and other amazing sights – compelled me to consider taking on that challenge.

But it was one I knew next to nothing about.

I remember going on vacation in Red River, New Mexico, having a good time exploring that town and some of the others in a region called the Enchanted Circle of that state’s Sangre de Cristo range. Included in that was a whitewater rafting trip, which would normally be the highlight of such a vacation.

But what stuck out was the morning I looked outside my window, stared at Red River’s ski mountain, and decided I was going to hike to its summit.

So that’s what I did. I don’t remember how long it took, how lengthy the route was, or anything like that. But I do remember feeling pretty rad hiking to the top – somewhere over 10,000 feet – and waiting on all the people who taken a ski-lift ride to the top. They rode up. I got there under my own power.

My gear: Jeans, a cotton T-shirt, a jacket and a pair of steel-toed work boots, with a dead tree branch used as a walking stick. You know, typical noob stuff.

***

Me on Mount Shavano, going up the summit pitch.

Me on Mount Shavano, going up the summit pitch.

A lot of planning went into that snow climb. I wasn’t so dumb as to pick a mountain that was out of my league. We chose familiar ground – Mount Shavano, a mountain I’d summited five years before in summer conditions with my oldest brother. In the winter and spring, there are three ribbons of snow that look like a stick figure with its arms signaling “touchdown!” in a gully leading to a saddle between Shavano’s summit and another nearby, lesser peak.

It’s called the Angel of Shavano, and if you’re going to pick a first-time snow climb on the Fourteeners, this is the route you choose. It’s not too steep, and in late spring, avalanche danger is minimal. If you catch it early enough in the spring, more snow will be with you all the way to the summit.

Here’s the problem: Johnny and I don’t live anywhere near a mountain where you could practice snow climbing. Sure, you can buy the gear – crampons, an ice axe, a helmet, etc. – but that won’t mean anything unless you get to actually use that gear.

Of course, that didn’t stop us. We bought the gear online and watched videos on how to self-arrest. That would work, right?

So in early June, we packed up my rig and drove to Buena Vista, Colorado, checked into a hotel and tried on our crampons for the first time. The next day, we’d see what this whole “snow climbing” thing was all about.

***

That New Mexico trip lit a bit of a fire in me. The day after hiking that ski mountain, I picked up a brochure on some of the more popular hikes in the Red River area. One of them was Wheeler Peak, the state’s highest mountain, described as “extremely strenuous” and a good 20 miles round-trip from the East Fork trailhead. I hiked a little of that trail that day, clearly not expecting to top out, but just wanting to see what it looked like.

The next year, I was back. I did some serious planning for this one, picking up real hiking boots (as it turns out, steel-toed work boots are not ideal), a day pack (complete with water bladder!) and what more or less qualified as the ten essentials. I recruited my brother Mike and a friend named Rick to give it a shot.

The one thing we had going for us was we were all in excellent shape. It helped that Mike had done hikes like this many times before, so this wouldn’t be the blind leading the blind, so to speak.

But our noob-ness showed. In choosing to return to Wheeler Peak, I’d picked a walk-up (good choice!) but also one with what turned out to be 21 miles of hiking, all of it over 9,000 feet. That’s a big day for anyone, especially for a couple of beginners. And while my footwear choice was good, I was still wearing cotton clothing and sporting a dead tree branch as a walking stick.

But our hubris was rewarded. The weather held out, our conditioning was adequate, and we reached Wheeler’s summit and got back to the car in less than 10 hours. To this day, it ranks as one of my favorite summit hikes, and it turned a curiosity into an obsession. In the months to come, I devoured all things mountaineering.

I was going full-on noob.

***

Johnny and I hiked awhile before we spotted a place where we could traverse and reach the snowfield of the Angel of Shavano Couloir. We’d missed the place where we were supposed to turn, but no matter. We could get there now.

Soon we were at the couloir’s base. We stopped, ate some food, and strapped on our crampons. The helmet came next. Winds were barreling down on us through the gap in the saddle above, but the skies were mostly clear as we, for the first time in our lives, kick-stepped our way up the couloir.

There is a rhythm to this type of hiking that is far different than the normal slog up a trail: Kick, set the ice axe in the snow, step up, then kick again. Traction was good, and we methodically reached the saddle, then turned our attention to the summit pitch. Mixed snow and rock lay before us until we reached the summit slopes, and then a thick blanket of snow all the way to the top. It was as if the lords of winter had set a path upward, covering the rocks and tundra of the mountain with a magical substance that made the climb easier, more interesting, and even a bit more scenic.

It taxed us – neither of us were in great shape, but before long, we’d topped out. Two snow-climbing newbies from Oklahoma showed up and got it done. It felt pretty rad, that I might be able to graduate from being a mere hiker to being christened a “mountaineer.” Years later, I know better. But on that summit, it was a real consideration.

Might we be recognized for our outdoor excellence? Did we finally have that thousand-yard stare? Had we earned the right to be elevated from the ranks of the newbies?

Nope. Not yet. That would become apparent soon enough.

***

So. Much. Noob. And so much awesome. The crew on Mount Belford, 2004.

So. Much. Noob. And so much awesome. The crew on Mount Belford, 2004.

The excitement of the noob takes on many forms, but there are a few common threads. One of those has to do with gear.

A lot of time is spent researching what gear you need, what brands work best, and the kinds of outer wear that will keep you warm and dry during your time in the alpine. I remember spending significant time online, shopping different retailers for all the stuff I wanted: Tents, backpacks, sleeping pads, socks, boots, sleeping bags, camp stoves, and so forth. When not online, I haunted a few local outdoor shops, spending far too long drooling over gear I could never afford but eventually walking out with something I figured I needed. Many lifelong gear junkies are born during this stage of noobism, and I now possess enough stuff to lend to like-minded friends.

I also recall spending hours on online forums and different hiking and mountaineering websites, perusing trip reports, route descriptions and topical discussions, even weighing in a few times when I felt I had enough knowledge to actually add something to the conversation. I believe I reached this level of expertise and wisdom after collecting four summits. Or was it five? Anyway…

You would figure that all this preparation, time and monetary expense would have quickened the learning curve, but it ain’t so. Noobism tends to hang around awhile, sticking to you like a bad cold. And that brings me to a second thread: Learning the hard way.

It took me a few mistakes to get a better handle on how to do the backpacking/hiking/mountaineering thing. I remember being annoyed at the mosquitoes below treeline while hiking Mount Elbert, so I reached into my bag and applied plenty of DEET-infused bug spray to keep the little buggers away. Wanting to be sure every bit of exposed skin was protected, I sprayed some on my hands, then rubbed the stuff onto my neck, cheeks and forehead.

Mike and I on Mount Elbert in 2005. By then, some of the noob had worn off of me, but not much.

Mike and I on Mount Elbert in 2005. By then, some of the noob had worn off of me, but not much.

Total noob move. Anytime I’m hiking uphill (especially at elevation), my body is working hard. I’ve long contended that I’m one of the sweatiest humans on earth, and this is true even on a cool alpine morning. The combination of my sweat and newly applied DEET was not a good one, as the stuff ran down my face and into my mouth. I can tell you through experience that DEET tastes terrible and will make your lips go numb. You can thank me for that pro tip later.

I also learned that when choosing foods for a backpacking trip, canned tuna, MREs and self-heating dinners aren’t the best options. All of them have a good deal of water in them, and that extra weight will make your pack go from a reasonable 35 to 40 pounds to 50 to 60 in a hurry. That, and the extra cotton hoodies and whatever other extra crap I used to bring.

Speaking of crap, it’s also wise to bring toilet paper, and to make sure that your toilet paper is in a waterproof container. Backpacks usually aren’t waterproof, and toilet paper loses its effectiveness when getting drenched by rain. A self-sealing baggie will do wonders to solve that problem, unless you simply omit bringing it altogether.

On the backpacking trip where I was learning these valuable nuggets of knowledge, some of my buddies were getting the hard-knocks treatment as well. For some reason, everyone on the newbie crowd thinks it’s cool – nay, even necessary – to attach as much shit as possible to the outside of your pack. I don’t advise that, especially if your gear is hanging on the bottom of your pack. All that junk swinging around and hitting the back of your legs is no way to hike.

And then there was the gun. Another member of my party sported an enormous pack, strapped a hydration pack to his chest, and a leather holster with a .40-caliber revolver, loaded and ready to roll. Revolvers ain’t light, and it took about a quarter mile of hiking, huffing and puffing before the decision was made to go back to the trailhead, hide the gun in the van and lock it up tight.

We survived all these newbie mistakes. Not only that, but both trips ended up being a good time. Most of us ended up topping out and coming back with good stories about the mountain. Some of us even decided that we should keep doing this stuff, even though camping on the cold ground is decidedly uncomfortable, as is straining for breath above 12,000 feet and running away from afternoon thunderstorms that toss hail and lightning upon you out of the blue. I guess we could just do an all-inclusive tropical vacation in the Caribbean, but really, where is the fun in that?

You can’t summit a beach, and the gear for a week at Sandals isn’t nearly as cool. But that’s probably the noob in me talking.

***

Johnny on Mount Shavano. He's the least noobish noob I've ever known. He did awesome on what was our first snow climb in 2009.

Johnny on Mount Shavano. He’s the least noobish noob I’ve ever known. He did awesome on what was our first snow climb in 2009.

I’d be lying if I said everything went according to plan for Johnny and I. Yes, we did properly use our new-fangled snow gear, and we summited Mount Shavano without skidding down a slope and breaking our necks. It’s not a huge accomplishment, given the ease of this particular snow climb. But we do get credit for a successful outing.

However, we broke a couple of rules. For one, we topped out well after noon. Maybe something like 1:30 in the afternoon, which will get a whole lot of finger-wagging, dismissive looks and maybe a couple of lectures from the non-noob crowd. I’m OK with that. We dodged a bullet, or more precisely, an afternoon storm.

But we were admittedly not in the best shape of our lives, and we felt it going down. Shavano’s trail is rough, and we arrived back at the trailhead beat up. Our knees, backs and ankles were all singing a chorus of “why do you do this crap to us?” in an angry harmony.

But that wasn’t my worst sin (Johnny gets a pass here). Not even close. And it’s something I wouldn’t realize until later that night.

We were far too tired to do the big victory dinner back in Salida. Instead, we opted to hit a Subway, crawl back to the motel in Buena Vista and turn in early. Gluttony at a local pizzeria would have to wait.

But as I was sleeping, I woke up feeling dampness on my face. I figured it might be sweat, but I wasn’t hot, nor did I feel sick. And the stuff was sticky to the touch.

As it turns out, the moisture I was feeling was the gunk that normally appears when you become so sunburned that your skin blisters. And that makes sense, because that’s what happened. Worst of all, it was totally avoidable. Let’s rewind.

Back on the ascent, when we stopped to don our mighty crampons and unhitch our fearsome ice axes from our packs, I left one small detail out. Even though it was in my pack, I forgot to apply sunscreen.

In the words of Rick Perry, “Oops.”

This is a multifaceted problem. First, all noobs are told to bring – and use – sunscreen, because the sun at high altitudes is particularly intense. Thinner air and closer proximity to that giant ball of atomic fire means more radiation is zapping your unsuspecting epidermis. Sunburns are easy to get in the high country.

But wait! There’s more. When you’re on a snowfield, you get double the pleasure as rays from the sun are reflected off the snow. If the direct sunlight doesn’t get you, the reflected sunlight will.

And we’re not done yet! Remember how I said how windy it was that day? As it happens, the wind was blowing right in our face at a steady 35 mph, gusting to over 50. Chafing from wind burns is actually a thing.

The predictable result was my face turning into a blistered, scabbed-up mess that made me look like a monster. An inexperienced, noobified gaper of a monster.

I’m more careful about sunscreen now.

Years later, I’ve tackled more peaks, done tougher ascents and perhaps, in the minds of some, finally moved on from the newbie stage. But in my mind, I’m still there. I don’t feel too far removed from noobland because I know where I stand in comparison to some of my friends who have climbed most or all 58 of the Fourteeners (I’m not even halfway there). And for them, they are a few steps behind those who climb these things in winter. Or those who have climbed the glaciated giants of the Cascades, Alaska, Mexico and South America. And those people look like lightweights compared to the mountaineers who ply their skills in the Alps, the Himalayas and the Karakoram.

Besides, there are benefits to keeping the newbie spirit alive. I’d hate to get to the point where some mountain hikes are “beneath me,” or I get too jaded because of the growing crowds of first-timers clogging the trails. I never want to lose the enthusiasm I had when I hiked Wheeler Peak back in 2003, or when my friends joined me a year later on our Colorado backpacking trip.

The mountains offer varying degrees of sufferfests – sometimes by their nature, other times by our own hand – but for a bunch of us, the allure never dies unless we let it. And I don’t want to. Experience is awesome, and it makes you safer, more capable, and able to do more in the peaks. My wish, no matter how many mountains I climb, is to keep the sense of wonder alive as long as I can, to view each summit through the eyes of a guy who is a newcomer to the high country, much like I was years ago in northern New Mexico on a fine July day.

I’ll just remember to leave the cotton T-shirt at home and to apply the sunscreen. Liberally.

Want to read more great newbie stories? Lose yourself in this glorious thread.

Bob Doucette

A conservation success story on Colorado’s Mount Shavano that we can build on

Mount Shavano, as seen from Salida, Colo.

Mount Shavano, as seen from Salida, Colo.

Mount Shavano holds a special place for me.

It’s not the prettiest mountain, or the tallest, or the most challenging to climb. But it’s a great choice for folks looking for a good alpine summit hike within sight of Salida, one of my favorite Colorado mountain towns.

Shavano was the second 14er I climbed, way back in 2004, and two weeks after I did my first. My brother and I hiked it in perfect conditions, and for a long time, it remained my favorite of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains.

On Shavano's summit, in 2004.

On Shavano’s summit, in 2004.

Five years later, I climbed it again with my friend Johnny. We’d never done a snow climb before, and Shavano’s Angel Couloir is an excellent place to cut your teeth on that front. It was a long, memorable and amazing day. I’ll probably go back so I can reach the summit of Tabeguache Peak, a shorter, neighboring mountain connected to Shavano by a ridge.

My friend Johnny getting ready to top out on Mount Shavano in 2009. The land here is part of a mining claim.

My friend Johnny getting ready to top out on Mount Shavano in 2009. The land here is part of a mining claim.

Recently, I learned some news. Unknown to a bunch of us until now, Mount Shavano’s summit block is privately owned, a part of an old mining claim. It’s common for parts of the 14ers to have mining claims, and usually that doesn’t present much of a problem. But the upper portions of Shavano’s standard route are in need of some trail work, something the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative – a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to the Colorado high country – had hoped to carry out. They key here is to make a sustainable route as to prevent further damage on the mountain, something the current route does not do.

The U.S. Forest Service wanted to oblige, but couldn’t because of the mining claim.

And all this time, who knew that this pile of rocks was privately owned?

And all this time, who knew that this pile of rocks was privately owned?

So CFI sought to raise $40,500 to buy up the parcels at Shavano’s summit. A successful fundraising campaign would allow CFI do the work needed to give this peak the needed trail upgrade it and its hikers deserve.

Tens of thousands of people hike and climb Colorado’s 14ers every year. Once word got out, people started donating to help the cause. It didn’t take long and the money was raised.

This is one of those great success stories of where conservation efforts meet up with land users to make a difference. But the Shavano story is just one of many. Increasing foot traffic on Colorado’s high peaks causes a good deal of wear and tear on the trails. Social trails are a problem, as they contribute to erosion in the very delicate environment of the alpine. CFI has done tremendous work to solve these problems, creating safe, durable trails that serve hikers while also helping to protect sensitive ecosystems above treeline.

I’d love to go through all of CFI’s success stories, but I’ll point to one in particular.

A very helpful cairn built on the upper standard route of Mount of the Holy Cross, courtesy of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.

A very helpful cairn built on the upper standard route of Mount of the Holy Cross, courtesy of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.

For many years, hikers coming down from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross would find the descent confusing. Folks would sometimes get lost. And more than once, an errant hiker would become confused and unable to find their way out of the wilderness area that surrounds the mountain’s standard route. People disappeared and died.

CFI remedied that with an improved route and sizable cairns to direct people toward the proper way down the mountain. Not only did this improve the route, but likely saved lives going forward.

If you’re interested in supporting efforts like these, here’s a link to donate to CFI. They’re a great group that does a tremendous amount of hard work making hikers’ and climbers’ lives easier by building and maintaining solid routes up these popular peaks. They’ve earned our trust, and we definitely owe this organization our thanks. Give it some thought, and by all means, throw a few bucks their way. It’ll be worth it.

Bob Doucette