#OptOutside on the water: Toledo Bend Reservoir, Texas

Cruising over the waters of Toledo Bend Reservoir, Texas.

Another Black Friday came and went, and for the third straight year, a good chunk of the masses decided to forgo the sales and head outside. Kudos to REI for kickstarting the #OptOutside movement, and everything it symbolizes (specifically, what it must mean to its employees).

For me, it’s usually meant hiking or trail running. But this year it was different. A good chunk of my family met up at a lake house on the shores of Toledo Bend Reservoir in east Texas for the holiday, and anytime you’re at a lake like this one, time on the water trumps all.

My niece’s husband is definitely a lake guy. Fishing, water skiing or just cruising around, he loves the water. Back when Liz and Mitchel were dating, he picked up a boat for $300, with some wondering if it would ever be seaworthy. Mitchel had it on the water that day.

The boat has been nicknamed the Black Pearl. Great name for this vessel, as it may be a bit worn, but pulls its weight and has a bit of a legend. You can fish from it, pull a skier and, amazingly, get some work done. As it turns out, the Pearl has a history that goes beyond being a reclaimed wreckage.

Back when Hurricane Harvey was busy dumping a year’s worth of rain on Houston, many neighborhoods were flooded. Folks were trapped in their swamped homes, with nowhere to get food, water and decent shelter. A call went out for people with boats to help these folks out.

Enter the Black Pearl, with Mitchel and Liz helping some folk escape flooded homes to safety.

Flooded Houstonians get a lift to safety on the Black Pearl after Hurricane Harvey.

Over the weekend, we used it to pull of 50-foot log off a beach, haul it to boat ramp and eventually cut it into sections that were used to line the out ring of a now under-construction fire pit.

Reclaiming some driftwood for a project at my sister’s lake house. It took some doing, but Mitchel and his trusty boat got it back to shore and ready for the job.

As it turns out, the Pearl is a good working boat.

But Black Friday on the Black Pearl was more about fun. We took the girls out for a cruise, checking out flooded trees on the lake where eagles had their nests. The lake is lined with houses of varying sizes, but it also is dotted with islands and surrounded by the Sabine National Forest and state park land on the Louisiana side. Toledo Bend is a popular destination for bass fishing tournaments, and plenty of anglers were on the water.

We mixed up our cruise with full-throttled blasts and slower runs to see the sights. Sunny skies and cold beer mixed nicely with the tunes playing from on-board speakers in the bow. It was a great way to kill a couple of hours before dinner.

Mitchel in his element, piloting the Black Pearl.

My turn at the wheel. I haven’t driven a boat since I was a kid.

The next day featured some free time and calm waters. I’d been eating a ton, so some exercise seemed appropriate. Poking around the garage, I found a flatwater kayak and all the gear needed to go out on the water.

The kayak was hot pink. All that was missing were some My Little Pony decals to complete the picture, but I didn’t care. That sucker was going in the water with me in it.

Something to keep in mind: I’ve never been in a kayak. Canoe? Sure. Many times. And rafts. But never a kayak.

This was a good time with a good view.

It takes some getting used to. Since this was a shorter boat, keeping it straight was a bit of work, but manageable. Every now and then I got into a rhythm, paddling outside the main boating channels and staying relatively close to shore, never more than a few hundred feet from the beach.

At times, I’d stop paddling just to listen. If there weren’t any boats speeding by, the quiet was interrupted only by the water lapping against the side of the hull.

What I found is that type of gentle quiet is very similar to what I experience when I stop in the middle of a hike just to listen to the sounds of the woods or the breeze atop a summit. With so much noise around us at all times, we need those moments of quiet. Life has been pretty noisy lately, so those couple of hours on the kayak were a soothing balm.

Even though I live close to a number of lakes, I’m more of a trail guy. I don’t think that’s going to change. But mixing things up has its perks, and there’s plenty of good to be found on the water. And just like those #OptOutside days on the trail, Black Friday on the water was way better than fighting crowds looking for the next-best deal on the next-best doo-dad. Gimme a power boat or a kayak any time.

Bob Doucette

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What went right, what went wrong: Five lessons learned on the trail

All revved up and ready to go.

Experience can teach you a lot about hiking, and as the years go by, understanding yourself, your skills and your limitations goes a long way to being a safer hiker. Mistakes often turn into lasting lessons that make future outings much more enjoyable. And while that newbie phase can be fun and exciting, it can also put you in a world of hurt.

It’s one thing to use those lessons to help yourself. But what about the people you’re with? I hike solo from time to time, but many times I’m with other people, with varying levels of experience, ability and ambition. Mix a bunch of these folks into one outing, and you can have a comprehensive, positive experience, or you can have a hot mess.

Those years on the trail have given me a mix of both. I’ll summarize a few scenarios and go over what went right, and what went wrong.

BACKPACKING TRIP

View hiking up Wheeler Peak, NM.

Books, movies and tales told face-to-face can make outdoor adventures appealing to a wide group of people, and my own stories of hiking New Mexico’s highest mountain, Wheeler Peak, drew some interest. I took my wife, Bec, her sister, and two friends and we hauled our gear to the trailhead of the Middle Fork Trail. It is a 16-mile round-trip hike.

Our plan: Hike five miles to Lost Lake, camp there, summit the next morning and then head back down for steaks and high-fives in nearby Red River.

In terms of, well, everything, this group was all over the map. My friends had done plenty of backpacking in the western U.S. and in China, but were a little light on their fitness. The same could be said for Bec, who was also new to backpacking. Her sister, Liz, was also a relative noob in backpacking, but was in marathon-ready shape. People’s gear was anything from high-end to inadvisable.

In terms of our objective, all of us summited the peak and made it back to Red River safely. Success! Right? Well, sort of. My friends had their moments of altitude sickness. Liz did great. Bec’s boots lacked proper support and her socks gave her blisters early on in the hike. By the time it was over, her feet were wrecked and the back side of her foot was shredded. What should have been a tired but happy scene at the trailhead was really some dazed folks and no shortage of tears.

What went right: We got most of the gear right, and the scope of the trip was (barely) within the level of everyone’s abilities. We reached our objectives, and got back safe.

What went wrong: Plenty. Only two of us were really in shape for this effort, and it’s asking a lot of new hikers to embark on a higher-altitude backpacking trip in the Rockies. Footwear was obviously an issue. I’d say we got away with a lot of mistakes, and this easily could have bred more serious situations.

Being the leader of this group, a lot of that is on me. I could have easily picked a different objective more within the group’s collective abilities, and a pre-trip gear check would have saved my poor spouse a lot of grief. As for the others, they are responsible for their own conditioning, and to a degree, everyone is accountable to do the proper research on gear. We all learned from this one.

WEATHER ON THE MOUNTAIN

Marching up toward the Keyhole on Longs Peak, CO.

As you grow in your outdoor experience, bigger and tougher goals become more appealing. Easier walk-ups give way to scrambles, which often lead to exposed, airy climbs. Before you know it, the newbie hiker of years past is boasting summits of big Latin American volcanoes, or Rainier, or maybe Grand Teton while eyeing Denali.

That’s not me, but the progression is similar. I went with some friends to tackle Longs Peak, Colorado, a couple of years ago, hoping to knock off a tougher peak.

Longs Peak is a lengthy route. Alpine starts often have you hitting the trail at 2 a.m., with thoughts of beating the weather around this notoriously unpredictable mountain. It has a big stretch near the top where you don’t want to be when the weather goes south.

We set off at 2:15 a.m., and made OK time to the Boulder Field, a bumpy section just before the standard route’s famous Keyhole. The Keyhole is where hiking gives way to scrambling, climbing and exposure en route to the summit.

But we’d heard from others that a previous day’s storms had dumped some wet, sloppy snow over the upper portions of the mountains. Clouds were swirling around the summit. Winds were up. A couple of us (me, for one) were dragging a bit. When we got to the Keyhole, we took a peek around the corner and saw, with dismay, that the reports we heard were true. The route conditions looked bad, especially since some of us weren’t as salty as the rest.

The de facto leader of the group, a fella named Dillon, saw it right away. And he’s the one who called it. We munched our summit food at the rock shelter by the Keyhole, packed up and headed down the mountain, stopped well short of our objective.

What went right: We listened to the voice of experience. Dillon has it in bucketloads. Even though we were equipped for the task, those of us on the lower level of experience might not have been ready for the route conditions. And the weather’s unpredictability made it an obvious no-go. Any protests were weak and short-lived. We knew the truth.

What went wrong: Nothing for anyone else. I’d criticize my level of fitness for that one. I know better now. Aside from that, I have memories of a big, burly mountain, Chasm Lake, and sunrise over one of the nation’s iconic national parks.

PACING A NEWCOMER

Hiking down Mount LeConte.

A couple of years ago, my sister-in-law Jen wanted to go with me to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to hike Mount LeConte. While not the Rockies, the bigger mountains of eastern Tennessee can have long routes with plenty of elevation gain. LeConte was no different, with the route we chose being the Alum Cave Bluff Trail: 11 miles with nearly 3,000 feet of gain to its summit.

Jen’s a gamer, but she’s also new to this. We took off on the lower part of the trail, and I set my usual pace.

Not long after you hit Arch Rock, the route steepens. We live around 800 feet above sea level, and by this time we were getting into the upper 4,000-foot level. It was right about there that I figured it was wise to slow things down.

Once we got to Alum Cave Bluff, we took a break. I wasn’t sure how much further Jen wanted to go, but after catching her breath, we decided to keep going. With a more measured pace and breaks every 20 to 30 minutes, we topped out on one of Tennessee’s highest peaks. It turned into a spectacular day that lit a fire under her for more adventures.

What went right: Recognizing that our early pace was too fast, and breaking the hike down into more manageable chunks. This is what I have to do in the Rockies, and it would make sense to do that here where the elevation was significantly higher than at home. It was also important to “read” my hiking partner: She’s got a lot of heart and a true competitor’s spirit, so her capacity to endure some physical hardship was going to be greater than others. That, combined with the right pace, got us to the top and back safely.

What went wrong: Really, it went about as well as I could have imagined. Had I insisted on keeping a faster pace, our trip likely would have ended sooner, and might have led to some hard feelings. I can’t emphasize how important it is to observe your partners. Glad we nipped that in the bud early.

NOT FEELING RIGHT

Late light at Hobbs State Park, AR.

I’m going to rat on Bec again with this one.

We were out in Arkansas recently, having a very chill few days in the hills and woods near Bentonville. We wanted to spend one day hiking some trails, and I found some good ones at Hobbs State Park.

But Bec was suffering from allergies, which led to some allergy medicine being taken the night before our planned hike. It did great in helping her sleep. But it left her in a fog the next day.

My plan was to get out there and hike as long as she saw fit, then turn around and head back. In more recent months, she’s gone on day hikes with me that went anywhere from two to five miles, with our most recent outing in New Mexico. She handled five miles at 8,600+ feet just fine, so I had no real worries.

I wanted her to lead for a few reasons. First, I figured it would be more fun for her if she had something to look at other than my backside. Second, it would allow us (force us) to go at her pace. And third, she wouldn’t be pressured to keep going if I was plowing away in the lead.

But dang, that medicine. It left her groggy and her head was swimming. She was kicking rocks the whole way, just short of tripping on, well, everything. It was a gorgeous day with good temperatures, and the forest in this park is a fantastic mix of hardwoods and pines. No matter. The medicine’s after-effects were making this outing a big case of “nope.” A mile in, we turned around, headed back to the car and hunted down some dinner.

What went right: Making her lead was the right decision. I wanted this to be fun for both of us, and crashing down the trail as fast as I can wasn’t going to do anything for me. I was just happy to be out there, regardless of how far we went. Having her set the pace and lead the way gave us the best chance of both of us enjoying it. When that became impossible, it made sense to pack it in when she was ready.

What went wrong: Really, nothing. We missed out on the overlooks further up the trail, but had we pushed through and done the whole four-mile loop, would it have been any fun at all? Nope.

SICK AS A DOG AT 14,000 FEET

I wish I could say I was feeling great about this summit in this pic. I wasn’t.

Now I’m going to tattle on myself. Back in 2008, a group of us decided to take a shot at Mount Yale in Colorado, a 14,000-foot peak near Buena Vista.

I’d been battling respiratory issues in the weeks leading up to the trip. A hacking cough pestered me to no end. But I figured I could give it a go.

We backpacked in a mile, set up camp and set out for Yale’s summit the next morning.

Early on, things seemed fine. I started slowing down more around 12,000 feet. Nothing unusual there. But at 13,000 feet, I started feeling side cramps. Normally, cramps like that occur when you’re running or sprinting, not when you’re hiking. Leg cramps? Sure. A side-stitch? No. But that’s what I was feeling. With no real idea what was going on, I pushed on.

The cramps got worse, and by the time I topped out, I was gassed. Here’s where things got weird.

Those side cramps, which came with the expected heart/lung stress of going uphill at altitude, didn’t go away. Anytime I got moving, the cramps would take hold. When I stopped, I was getting strangely cold. Soon, symptoms of altitude sickness were taking hold. I was moving slowly down the mountain, and weather was moving in. Treeline seemed incredibly far off. My declining physical state, and the conditions moving in, got me worried.

I knew if I got to treeline, I’d be OK. But I also knew I needed to eat something. I did, though I almost barfed it up. Having been on the mountain much longer than I thought, I was running low on water.

Eventually I got to treeline. I ran into a group of hikers, swallowed my pride, and asked if they had anything they could spare to drink.

When I got back to camp, my condition only worsened. Back at home, a hospital visit revealed a severe case of pneumonia, pleurisy and fluid around my heart. Recovery from this mess took a couple of months.

What went right: Well, I did summit! In all seriousness, though, not much. It was good that I recognized my predicament, kept heading downhill and, when available, asked for help. I ate when I needed to. I put myself in a position to get home safely, see a doctor and get treatment.

What went wrong: Almost everything else. This trip is a laundry list of avoidable errors. For starters, I should never have gone. The hacking cough was a good sign that whatever was ailing me wasn’t done. Those weird side cramps should have been a big enough red flag to turn me around. The two liters of water wasn’t enough. Pneumonia is a serious condition anywhere, and downright dangerous at altitude (that’s what prompted the altitude sickness). Fluid around my heart and my right lung could have been lethal. Mount Yale is a beautiful mountain, but it’s not worth my life. It was good that I humbled myself and asked for help when I saw those other hikers. But that humility would have been better served by staying home.

I could go on, but that’s a good sampling of scenarios I’ve faced, along with the good and bad about the decisions that were made. Experience is a great teacher, and hopefully it’s made me a better – and safer – hiker.

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