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

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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

 

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

The peril facing public lands: How lawmakers want to sell off America’s natural heritage

Kit Carson National Forest, as seen from the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area in New Mexico. Beautiful public lands.

Kit Carson National Forest, as seen from the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area in New Mexico. Beautiful public lands.

“Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation.” — Theodore Roosevelt

Certain memories never leave you. They make an impression — hopefully for the better — that doesn’t just bring a grin to your face, but becomes a part of the fabric of who you are.

I’ve got a lot of those. Many times, they build on each other, sort of in the way that a series of short outings becomes a longer life journey that takes you where you were always meant to go. It’s a satisfying feeling when you encounter one of those moments, then look back and realize how the events of your past led you to that amazing point in time.

That happened to me about nine years ago on a backpacking trip to northern New Mexico. There were five of us there, and we spent the day hiking up to a high alpine lake perched on the lower slopes of Wheeler Peak. Tall stands of evergreens and aspens were all around, carpeting the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area, a patch of wild land that is part of the sprawling Kit Carson National Forest.

I was first up that morning, crawling out of my sleeping bag and lighting my stove to cook a little breakfast. The rest of the gang was still trying to get a few more minutes of sleep before we’d head up to the highest point in New Mexico, then march back down the hill to civilization.

As I was boiling my water, I looked to my right and there they were — a female bighorn sheep and her lamb, staring at me, then casually easing their way up the slope to investigate our little campsite. They seemed completely unconcerned about the presence of people — this was their land, their home, I guess, and they’d probably seen folks like us come and go many times. They came so close that I felt I could have stood up and scratched mama behind the ears, though I know that would have never happened. Still, when you live in a community measured in the tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions, real wildlife encounters like that aren’t all that common. Not with creatures like these.

We made a lot of memories on that trip, and yeah, we did bag Wheeler’s summit on a bright, bluebird day. But that morning in camp stuck with me more than anything.

That encounter exemplifies the value of public lands. We were well within the confines of New Mexico, but by law, that national forest and that wilderness area belongs to all of us. The same is true of many other places across the West, and indeed, the entire country. Some plots of land were meant for individual landowners. But some, by their very nature, are just too precious to sell off or give away. They belong to everyone.

Unfortunately, that value — one that was so strong in the hearts of conservationist heroes like Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, and still strong with the public at large — is waning in the houses of power.

In Utah, politicians there — backed by lobbyists representing energy and mining interests — are passing laws demanding that the federal government cede those public lands to the states. Utah actually set aside $2 million to sue over it. And the sentiment behind that is only growing.

Changing political tides on the national level are beginning to mirror Utah’s model. In March, the Senate passed an amendment (Senate Amendment 838) to a piece of legislation that would authorize selling or giving away huge quantities of public lands — those in national forests, wildlife refuges, and tracts owned by the Bureau of Land Management. Basically any federal land not already claimed by national parks or national monuments. The amendment passed 51-49, mostly along partisan lines, with three Republicans voting against it.

The measure was advanced with the ever-popular arguments of affirming states’ rights, shrinking the federal government and closing budget holes, but the reality is far more opportunistic. Forest Service and BLM lands are filled with places that have yet to be explored for oil, gas, rare earth metals, coal and other exploitable resources that any number of companies would love to extract. Billions could be made, though that doesn’t necessarily take into account the billions already being earned by people whose livelihoods depend on tourist dollars from Americans and foreigners itching to take in the wonders of the country’s vast, wild spaces, some $41 billion a year according to The New York Times. All told, that supported some 355,000 jobs.

I don’t have a problem with people wanting to earn a living, or really make a go at hitting it big. But when you’re talking about the industrialized extraction of natural resources, there is a huge and often permanent cost.

Matterhorn Creek in southwestern Colorado. It's pretty, but those waters are fouled by mine tailings.

Matterhorn Creek in southwestern Colorado. It’s pretty, but those waters are fouled by mine tailings.

In another favorite mountain haunt of mine, north and west of Wheeler Peak in southwestern Colorado, is the Matterhorn Creek Basin, a drainage that slopes downhill from Matterhorn Peak, Wetterhorn Peak and a large collection of other, lesser mountains that make up the area’s dramatic, primordial landscape. This place is drop-dead gorgeous, but I can’t filter water there for drinking or cooking, at least not in many of the creeks and streams flowing to the south. Old, small-time mines that are long abandoned still taint the watershed with mine tailings, making the water there unfit to drink. The San Juan Range is pockmarked with gorgeous places just like Matterhorn Creek Basin that are beautiful to look at, but traversed by waterways permanently spoiled by mines of yore.

If you go out east, in Appalachia, or north, near Butte, Montana, you can see much bigger scars on the land. Strip mines, pit mines, and mountaintop removal have all done a number on these places. In my home state of Oklahoma, in an area dubbed Tar Creek, lead and zinc mines left behind noxious chat piles the size of small ski hills, fouling streams and giving local children lead poisoning. Collapsing mine tunnels threaten to swallow buildings whole. It got so bad that the entire area was declared a federal Superfund site, and two towns — Picher and Cardin — were bought out, their residents moved and businesses closed. There were booming times in that corner of Ottawa County decades ago, but now just a couple of polluted ghost towns remain.

Huge chat piles in Picher, Oklahoma, part of the Tar Creek Superfund site. The chat piles are contaminated with lead and zinc mine tailings, which forced the abandonment of Picher and nearby Cardin a few years ago because of lead poisoning concerns. (Northwest Arkansas Community College photo)

Huge chat piles in Picher, Oklahoma, part of the Tar Creek Superfund site. The chat piles are contaminated with lead and zinc mine tailings, which forced the abandonment of Picher and nearby Cardin a few years ago because of lead poisoning concerns. (Northwest Arkansas Community College photo)

These are just a few tales from the dark side of harvesting natural resources from the ground. But no matter. Many states are hungry for economic development, and the lands they’d sell off are out of sight and out of mind to politicians in the big cities and manicured suburbs where most of their votes and donors come from. No one knows much about Matterhorn Creek’s spoiled waters because almost no one lives nearby, and getting there takes a little work. I just wish I could show it to them.

I checked a roll call of the Senate vote to approve this particular measure, and not surprisingly, both my senators were in favor of it. I didn’t bother writing Sen. Jim Inhofe. I just didn’t see the point. He’s the guy best known as the Senate’s chief climate change denier, and recently brought a snowball into the Senate chambers to prove that climate change wasn’t real. Conservation isn’t real high on this guy’s list of priorities.

I’ve heard from friends who know Sen. James Lankford, and they say he’s a reasonable man, one who will listen to others’ ideas. So I sent him a message last week. I’m still waiting for a response.

A scene from the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Oklahoma. The refuge is not only home to rugged peaks like this one, but herds of American bison like the ones in the foreground. Wildlife refuges are among the federal public lands that could be sold off if SA 838 is enacted.

A scene from the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Oklahoma. The refuge is not only home to rugged peaks like this one, but herds of American bison like the ones in the foreground. Wildlife refuges are among the federal public lands that could be sold off if SA 838 is enacted.

What I’d like to tell them is that while Oklahoma doesn’t have nearly as much federal public land as many western states, we do have amazing tracts of broadleaf and pine forests in the hills of the Ouachita Mountains (home to the Ouachita National Forest). Within the crags of the Wichita Mountains (where a U.S. wildlife refuge is found) there is an amazing biodiversity that surpasses any zoo. Buffalo, elk, coyotes, eagles — so many creatures in such a rugged, picturesque and special little realm. Do these guys really want to put these places up on the auction block? Have they ever been there? Do they even care?

Conservation has its roots in places like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone, locales so impossibly gorgeous that they’ve been declared national treasures by men and women far wiser than me. Born from that sentiment was a system of public lands that helped preserve vast acreages of wild spaces that are, many times, no less impressive, places like Wheeler Peak, the Ouachita National Forest, or the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

Conservationists gave me the ability to camp in a New Mexico alpine forest, deep within the folds of a protected wilderness area where I could bask in that national treasure and share a breakfast moment with a couple of curious bighorn sheep. Hike in to Lost Lake, and you can see that, too.

That’s the beauty of public lands. My experiences can be yours, too. Or anyone else’s. These places belong to all of us. So please don’t tell me that they’re for sale.

Bob Doucette

As prime hiking season nears, a list of ‘first’ mountain adventures

Great views like this are the things that make people want to go to the mountains. Here's how to get started.

Great views like this are the things that make people want to go to the mountains. Here’s how to get started.

Many people are looking for new challenges these days, and a big chunk of that crowd looks to fill that urge outdoors. For me, that always pointed me toward the mountains. Something about the high country just exudes an energy of adventure that is hard to find elsewhere.

Is this you? Yeah? But where to start?

Well, you’re in luck. It just so happens there are a number of places you can go in Colorado and New Mexico that will fit the bill, even if seeing the world from a mountaintop is something you haven’t done before.

We’ll break it down into categories, based on what your interests are, locations, and a bit more for those of you looking to take the next step in your alpine adventures. So here goes:

FIRST MOUNTAIN, CLOSE TO DENVER

There are several to choose from, as a bunch of high peaks are within 90 minutes of the Denver metro area. If you’re looking for something that doesn’t require a long drive, you can expect a busy trail during the peak hiking season. But you’ll still have a good time.

Mount Bierstadt and its Sawtooth Ridge.

Mount Bierstadt and its Sawtooth Ridge.

My choice: Mount Biesrstadt. It’s close to the Interstate 70 town of Georgetown, with easy access to the trailhead and a straightforward route. It’s a hike, and the round-trip route is about 7 miles. Standing at 14,060 feet, you’ll need a good set of legs and lungs to get up there. But you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of Bierstadt’s Sawtooth Ridge as well as a host of nearby peaks. There are some boulder-hopping on the final stretch, but nothing too demanding. The trail is also dog-friendly, and you’ll likely meet a lot of other altitude seekers along the way.

Route info

FIRST MOUNTAIN, COMFORTABLE OVERNIGHT STAY

I’ve got one in mind here that’s close to Breckenridge. If you’d rather forgo the long drive from Denver and still have a comfortable place to stay before and after your summit, then the Breckenridge-Quandary Peak combo is for you.

Quandary Peak.

Quandary Peak.

Like Biesrstadt, it’s an easy-to-follow trail that goes right up the mountain’s east ridge and to the top. Again, about seven miles round-trip, topping out at 14,265 feet. Quandary Peak has incredible views of the nearby Mosquito Range as well as some of the high summits of the Tenmile Range. Again, this will be a busy peak during the summer, but a memorable one as well.

If you have more time and energy, go ahead and check out the loop that includes Mount Democrat, Mount Cameron, Mount Lincoln and Mount Bross, all nearby 14ers in the Mosquito Range. Or just relax and enjoy some time in Breckenridge.

Route info

FIRST MOUNTAIN, MORE SOLITUDE

If you can get further away from the bigger cities and find time on a weekday, Huron Peak near Buena Vista, Colorado, is my choice. In fact, of all the first-time peaks on my list, Huron Peak has the most bang for the buck.

Huron Peak.

Huron Peak.

The mountain is deeper in the Sawatch Range, and if you ask anyone who has been there, they’ll tell you it has the some of the best views you can find. At 14,003 feet, it has commanding vistas of the nearby Three Apostles formation, three dramatic 13,000-foot peaks that make for excellent views and stunning photographs. Because it is farther away from any cities of size, it will also be less travelled than Bierstadt or Quandary. The route is just under seven miles from the four-wheel-drive trailhead, and just over 10 from the two-wheel-drive trailhead.

Route info

FIRST MOUNTAIN, BACKPACKING ADVENTURE

There are a lot of choices all throughout the Rockies, but my pick here is in the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. Head into Red River, and then to the Middle Fork Trail parking lot for a trek up Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico at 13,159 feet.

Summit view from Wheeler Peak.

Summit view from Wheeler Peak.

The trail takes you five miles into the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area. At Lost Lake, there are a number of dispersed, primitive campsites. This is not the most heavily traveled route up the mountain – that is on the other side of the mountain near Taos. What you’ll get are great campsites, alpine scenery and plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing (I had bighorn sheep walking through my campsite when I was last there). Get up the next morning and hike the remaining three miles to Wheeler Peak’s summit.

If you’re going to break into high country backpacking, I can’t think of many other places that will top it.

Route info

FIRST SNOW CLIMB

Late spring still means there’s going to be now on the mountains, which a lot of hikers seek to avoid. But if you’re looking to try your hand at traversing and ascending snowy slopes, a good starter route is the Angel of Shavano Couloir on Mount Shavano.

Near the top of Mount Shavano.

Near the top of Mount Shavano.

Mount Shavano is near Salida and Poncha Springs, and the southernmost of the massive Sawatch 14ers. It’s a hike all the way, but below the saddle between Shavano and a neighboring peak is a gully that fills with snow during the colder months. That’s the Angel of Shavano Couloir.

If you’re itching to learn skills using an ice axe and crampons, this is one of the better places to start. The Angel melts out fast in the spring, but if you hit it at the right time, the couloir links up to snow fields on Shavano’s summit cone that will take you all the way to the top. Learn how to use these pieces of gear, and if possible, go with someone who has done a snow climb before. Mount Shavano is a good introduction to these types of skills.

Route info

FIRST MOUNTAIN TO KICK IT UP A NOTCH

When you’ve got to the point where you’re ready to graduate from the walk-up peaks and do a little climbing, some interesting options come to mind. My pick means taking a bit of a drive to southwestern Colorado, but it will be worth the trip. Few peaks have the beauty and challenge in combination with accessibility than Wetterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak.

Two-wheel-drive access to the Matterhorn Creek trailhead will get you to great campsites, and the route to the top is a little over seven miles. It’s all hiking until you get just under a formation called the Prow, and that’s where the climbing begins. Also called “scrambling,” a Class 3 route (Classes 1 and 2 are hiking only, with varying degrees of difficulty; Class 4 is more difficult unroped climbing, and Class 5 is technical climbing using ropes) will involve using your hands and feet to ascend. It is unroped climbing, but the rock is solid and getting to the top is fun.

The catch: The top section of Wetterhorn is pretty airy and if you’re intimidated by heights, this could be a challenge. But the best way to overcome those fears and push yourself to new levels is to tackle them head-on. Wetterhorn is a good peak to do just that.

Route info

So there’s a list you can check out and use to make your spring and summer plans. My guess is that after you do one of these peaks, you’ll want to do more.

Bob Doucette

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

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

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

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

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

My parents

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

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

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

Easter at the family cabin in Colorado.

Easter at the family cabin in Colorado.

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

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

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

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

My brother-in-law, Mark

Mark and a nice gar. This dude can fish.

Mark and a nice gar. This dude can fish.

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

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

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

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

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

My brother Mike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike, me and Steve atop Quandary Peak, Colo.

Mike, me and Steve atop Quandary Peak, Colo.

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

My friend Johnny

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

Johnny Hunter on the crags of Mount Mitchell, Okla.

Johnny Hunter on the crags of Mount Mitchell, Okla.

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

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

My Colorado mountain buddies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Doucette

The colors of fall in the high country

I’ll be writing more about Missouri Mountain later, but the one thing I wanted to share has a lot to do with timing.

Fall is here in the Rockies, and now is the time to go see the foliage turn. The aspens in particular are exploding with color right now.

Here is a shot from the trail yesterday through an aspen grove…

fall1

As you can, see, they’re just getting ready to go all-out on fire.

Here’s another shot, this time looking at a mountainside that is ablaze in color.

fall2

The great thing is you don’t have to make a strenuous hike to see this kind of stuff. Or, if you want to get away from everything, venture deeper into the backcountry. Anywhere there are aspen groves, this is the type of stuff you’ll see.

Reason enough to leave the four walls that surround you right now and spend some time outside. Am I right?

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088