Turkey Mountain is safe… for now

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When it ended, it was not with a thud or a bang, but with a slow, last gasp.

On Monday, representatives with the Simon Property Group told the city of Tulsa that is was dropping its plans for an outlet mall at Turkey Mountain. A new site, likely in the suburb of Jenks, is now being targeted as the place where the retail development giant will turn next.

Some folks at city hall are not happy about this. They really wanted that sales tax money, and they’re not giving up on finding a new place inside Tulsa’s city limits for the mall. But it ain’t happening at Turkey Mountain. Of that, we’re quite certain.

“It’s the nail in the coffin for that particular site,” Clay Bird, the director of the Mayor’s Office for Economic Development, told the Tulsa World. “As far as I know, they haven’t decided anything for certain or officially.”

For Bird, uttering those words had to hurt. He was a big booster of building at the intersection of U.S. 75 and 61st Street, a site overlooking the Westside YMCA kids camp and a lot of wild, wooded acres that outdoor enthusiasts have come to love. But there it is. No need for a city council vote for final approval (or denial) is needed, and I’m sure there are some on that board who are all too happy about that.

So what did we learn? A lot, really.

First, you can never underestimate the power of ordinary people. Thousands signed a petition to stop the mall development, and the social media campaigns to prevent it were numerous. A lot of folks stepped up, let their voices be heard, and faced down big money and (to an extent) city hall to save what they saw as valuable.

Second, the optics of a big retail development looming over a kids’ outdoor camp proved to be the proverbial last straw. Opposition was stout regardless, but the prospect of a kids’ camp losing its most important aspect — that of being in the woods, and away from the city — soured a lot of people on the mall.

And third, there is still a good deal of work to be done. Just because Simon won’t be hauling in the bulldozers doesn’t mean someone else won’t try. The best way to secure the boundaries of Turkey Mountain is to take that piece of land out of play. To preserve it, someone needs to buy it.

Who might that be? It’s hard to say at this point. The Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition won’t come right out and say it’s gunning to buy that specific parcel. But it has been working to raise funds for the purpose of acquiring property to secure Turkey Mountain’s long-term future. You can read between the lines there yourself.

But the price tag is in the millions. So if the coalition is going to do it, it needs help. So here’s what I know:

The coalition has a site set up through the Tulsa Community Foundation to accept funds specifically for the acquisition of land. You can donate to that fund online at the link above.

TUWC also has a GoFundMe site established to raise money for land acquisition and other operating costs.

My guess is that if enough people donate, people with deeper pockets will notice and join in. Suddenly that huge sum of money looks like a much more reachable goal.

So there you have it. The future of Turkey Mountain is safe, for now. But there is a good way to make that future much more permanent. Check the sites listed above, and if you are so inclined, go ahead and donate. It’s a fantastic long-term investment.

Bob Doucette

Seven signs it’s time to bail on a summit

When you're so close to the top, it's hard to turn around. But there are times when you must.

When you’re so close to the top, it’s hard to turn around. But there are times when you must.

In 12 years of peak-bagging, I’ve found there is hardly a greater moment than topping out on a hard-earned summit. The post-climb eat-feat that usually follows, complete with exultant friends and brews aplenty, makes for sweet memories as well.

But mountains can turn on you with little warning, making that high country adventure more than you bargained for. Summit fever is a real thing, and it gets some people in serious trouble. Lightning strikes, heart attacks, rockfall injuries and avalanches — these are just a few maladies that strike would-be hikers, climbers and mountaineers when they push on despite the warning signs and forget uber-climber Ed Viesturs’ cardinal rule: getting the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.

So here are seven signs it’s time to bail on a summit bid…

  1. When the mountain says no. Defining this can be a bit murky, but when you see it, you’ll know. The route may be too icy and steep, or perhaps you are seeing too many signs of dangerous rockfall. Maybe that cornice above you looks menacing, and temperatures or wind conditions tell you that a slope is ripe for an avalanche. If a route you spied is too dangerous, or would take too long to be safe, reassess and back off if needed.
  2. When the weather says no. This is pretty straightforward. When storm clouds arise, it’s time to bug out — regardless of season. Thunderstorms can bring lightning and heavy rain. Being caught in an electrical storm is clearly nothing anyone wants to mess with, and a doable route in dry conditions can become treacherous when wet. Snowstorms often lead to whiteouts, and then can get you lost, stranded or, in the worst possible scenario, lead you right off a cliff. If you get pinned down in a snowstorm, hypothermia and frostbite become real dangers. Keep an eye on the forecasts, and always watch the skies. When they turn on you, turn around.
  3. When your skill level says no. There is nothing wrong with pushing your limits to get better. But there comes a point when your experience and skills don’t — and won’t — measure up to a challenge you come across at a specific time. The thought of bragging rights after a climb might sounds awesome… until you get cliffed out or injured and need to be evacuated from the mountain. Or worse. Don’t end up being a headline because your eyes were bigger than your stomach, so to speak. Be excited, be daring, but be realistic and honest with yourself.
  4. When your body says no. There are a lot of factors to consider here. Some of it might be conditioning, which is often the case at altitude. Perhaps the route was too long and too taxing, and you are out of steam. Or maybe you end up suffering from dehydration, altitude sickness or some other sort of illness that is making your summit bid too daunting to continue. I’ve pushed through pneumonia to bag a peak, but I don’t advise it. It’s better to listen to your body.
  5. When your partners say no. This is a biggie, and can be complicated. You may be following an experienced buddy and are amped to do something great, but he/she tells you it’s time to bail. Or perhaps you’re leading a group and your friends are too sketched out or too tired to continue. Listen to them. The only way you can split up a group is if you’ve planned for that contingency, and this is a rare exception. Even if you are sure you can go on to tackle a peak, or you’re certain that your partners are being overly cautious, listen to them anyway. The dangers of splitting up a group and the risks of alienating your friends/partners is not worth an iffy summit bid.
  6. When your preparations say no. Whether it’s the clothes you bring, the gear you hauled or the food/water you packed, if your adventure is going to outstrip your provisions it’s time to face the facts: being too hot/cold/wet/hungry/thirsty to reach your goal is a good sign it’s time to back off. Take a few mental notes, learn from your mistakes and use that knowledge to try again another day.
  7. When a combination of those first six items say no. Sometimes it seems that the world is plotting against you. When it really feels that way, maybe that’s less of a cosmic conspiracy and more of a giant series of red flags that it’s time to call it a day. Trust your instincts when lots of things are going really, really wrong before committing to topping out.

So that’s my list. Any tips of your own? Feel free to share in the comments!

Bob Doucette

Andrew Hamilton, the 14ers speed record, and the magnitude of the feat

Andrew Hamilton gets some summit cookies from Noel, and poses for a pic with well-wishers after breaking Cave Dog's 14ers speed record. (Craig Cook photo)

Andrew Hamilton gets some summit cookies from Noel, and poses for a pic with well-wishers after breaking Cave Dog’s 14ers speed record. (Craig Cook photo)

Andrew Hamilton doesn’t know me. But as it turns out, I’ve met him. Twice.

If you’re into the Colorado hiking and mountaineering scene, you know who this guy is. For those of you who don’t, a quick primer…

Hamilton, 40, broke what looked to be an unbreakable record, climbing to the top of all of Colorado’s 58 14,000-foot peaks in nine days, 21 hours and 51 minutes. The previous record, held by Theodore “Cave Dog” Keizer, was 10 days and 21 minutes, and stood for well over a decade before Hamilton broke it on the slopes of Longs Peak on Wednesday night. It became official once he’d descended 3,000 feet below that mountain’s summit early Thursday morning.

My first encounter with Hamilton was when I was sitting atop the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross in the fall of 2012. I was exhausted, having driven straight from Tulsa, where I live, to the trailhead the day before, then hiking six miles (with nearly 5,000 feet of gain) with no acclimatization and questionable conditioning. Hamilton strolled to the top shortly after, his wife and two young boys in tow, as if they were taking a walk in Washington Park.

A little conversation with him showed that he and his wife had summited all of Colorado’s highest peaks numerous times. His oldest son, just a grade-schooler, had also climbed all 58 of the 14ers. And the youngest, a preschooler, already had a few peaks in the bag as well.

I thought to myself how amazing this family must be, and how those kids were fortunate to have parents who instilled a sense of adventure and accomplishment into them at such a young age.

“That was one inspiring family,” I wrote at the time. “They would pass me down the trail, energetic and laughing as if they’d just gone for a walk through the mall. The thought that went through my head was how far ahead those two boys are from their peers: They’d tackled physical and mental challenges that other children hadn’t even sniffed and had learned quite a bit about how tough they could really be. That has to be a lesson that will translate into something positive for them later in life. Well done, mountain parents. Your kids are gonna rock.”

Fast-forward almost three years, and the story is much the same. Hamilton’s mountaineering resume is still lofty, and both his sons now boast finishing off the list of 14ers. And yes, they’re both still in grade school. Little did I know that Andrew Hamilton was just getting started to make his mark.

A lot of people have tried to break Cave Dog’s record, and they usually fail miserably. A lot of it has to do with the rules.

Yes, you can have a support crew. And if the mountains are too far apart to link together, you can use a bike or motorized transport to get from one peak to the next. But you have to ascend at least 3,000 feet to the top, then descend 3,000 feet on your own two feet. Simple enough, right?

For some peaks, this isn’t too daunting. A number of Colorado’s mountains are “walk-ups,” or mountains that can be summited by hiking. But others are not — some involve time-consuming climbing, nerve-wracking drop-offs and loose rock that make speedy ascents all but impossible unless you’re a bit of a freak. Cave Dog fits that mold, and so does Hamilton.

And since this is a speed challenge, that means Hamilton would be attempting this on minimal sleep, at all times of day, and in all kinds of weather. Bluebird day conditions? Sure. Howling winds, snow, and wet rock in the middle of the night? Yes to that, too.

The upper portions of Longs Peak.

The upper portions of Longs Peak.

In fact, that is what Hamilton faced on his last peak on Wednesday, Longs Peak, smack in the middle of Rocky Mountain National Park. The approach hike is lengthy, and by its standard route, you face a punishing section of boulder-hopping to a ridge feature called the Keyhole, then a series of narrow ledges and steep, rocky scrambles for the last mile and 1,000 feet to the top of the mountain. He did this in the middle of the night, in foul weather, and horrible route conditions that would turn back most climbers.

But he did it, then met a small crowd of well-wishers who hiked to 11,000 feet to greet and congratulate him for breaking the unbreakable record. About 3 a.m. or so, me and a few friends who were on our way up the mountain met him as he was coming down. He was tired but lucid, in good spirits, even accepting a gift of cookies from my buddy Noel and stopping for photos from people who wanted to preserve a moment in which they can say they were there when Hamilton completed the feat.

My first brush with Hamilton left me with a sense of admiration. My second, a sense of appreciation. There are more than a few famous names in mountaineering lore, and they’ll get the accolades and endorsements that come with bravely tackling the challenges of the high country. I don’t know if that sort of attention is coming Hamilton’s way, but I’d say he deserves it, achieving in less than two weeks what takes most people years.

Will Hamilton’s record be broken? It’s hard to say. This has been a week of records being broken, with Scott Jurek setting a speed record on the Appalachian Trail. Others will surely try. But take a moment to consider what a huge precedent Cave Dog set, how long his record stood, and the guts it took to break it.

Bob Doucette

Gear review: A first look at the Salomon Sense Pro trail running shoe

The Salomon Sense Pro trail shoe.

The Salomon Sense Pro trail shoe.

After hundreds of miles through dirt, rocks, mud and snow, through numerous races and scores of training runs, I finally had to retire my trail runners.

Salomon had generously provided those shoes to me back then, with the idea of testing them out and letting all of you know how I felt. They performed well and lasted a long time, especially considering the abuse I put them through.

Salomon approached me again about testing their Sense Pro – an upgrade from the Sense Mantra I tested previously, and I was all too happy to oblige. Would the Sense Pro live up to the reputation of its predecessor? The final verdict has yet to be given, but some of my initial thoughts are here.

Features

The Sense Pro comes in with a sole that is 10 mm at the forefoot, and 16 mm at the heel for a 6 mm drop – still light enough to give you a feel for our running surface, but thick enough to protect your feet.

The sole’s traction system is designed to give you grip in multiple directions. This is particularly helpful on uneven surfaces, and on uphill and downhill stretches where trail-grip needs change. The nugs are not as large as you would see in a more aggressively cleated design but I can tell you from experience that you’ll be able to climb walls with the traction you get, and in a variety of conditions.

A look at the tread design on the Salomon Sense Pro.

A look at the tread design on the Salomon Sense Pro.

The Sense Pro also includes Salomon’s OS Tendon, which is geared to give you proper flex in the sole as well as energy return.

The lace-up system is also different than your typical shoe lace. The Quicklace system allows you to tighten up and stay tight, and the loose end tucks under is a small pocket on top of the tongue. I want to say that the system is improved; my prior pair was a little more stubborn, whereas with the Sense Pros, it’s been smooth and easy, yet secure when tightened. This was a minor annoyance before (and a common gripe with some runners who prefer traditional laces) that seems to be moot now.

As in prior models, Salomon also included an extra layer of material called Profeel Film built in to the sole that extends from the arch to the toes, giving you a little extra protection from rocks, roots and stumps.

The Sense Pro also has a sleeve on the interior of the shoe that hugs your foot. So no sliding around in the shoe, a concept that dovetails nicely with the security you get with the Quicklace system. Anyone who runs any sort of distance can appreciate blister-free training, which is just one benefit here.

At 8.8 ounces, it’s also lightweight, though a tiny bit heavier than the Sense Mantra (8.5 ounces).

Finally, as you would expect in any decent trail shoe, there is added, tougher material around the toe box.

Performance

I had no reason to believe the Sense Pro would not live up to the experiences I’ve had in the past, and I was correct. My initial run took me through muddy and at times watery singletrack, and with the exception of the sloppiest grades, I had no trouble keeping my footing.

On another test run – hill repeats on a steep, loose and rocky incline – I found similar security on the uphills and downhills. Truthfully, I could have probably pushed harder downhill had I not been a little banged up in my knees.

Needless to say, in dry conditions, I hugged corners, climbed hills and bounded down slopes with high confidence. My feet were comfortable and the weight of the shoe was not a burden. The fit was snug and secure, but not tight, and I had plenty of room in the toe box.

Salomon is marketing the Sense Pro as a “city trail” shoe, but on the wilder, rougher and more technical trails I run, they did just fine.

I’ll come back to these shoes for a second look when I’ve put a bunch more miles on them. If they show the same durability of my previous pair, I’ll likely be running in the Sense Pros for a long time.

The Sense Pro retails for $130.

Bob Doucette

Lightning strike on Mount Bierstadt: 5 weather reminders for hiking in the high country

Mount Bierstadt and its Sawtooth Ridge.

Mount Bierstadt (right) and its Sawtooth Ridge.

There are “rules” when it comes to hiking and climbing in the alpine areas of the Rocky Mountains. And yes, some of those rules supersede all others.

The summer is the busiest time for hiking in the mountains. The temperatures are friendlier, the snow is mostly gone and the weather is somewhat more predictable and “safer.”

I use that term with a serious caveat, however. Just because the likelihood of getting caught in a wind-driven blizzard is far more remote than in the other three seasons, summer in the high country has its own risks.

Chief among those: lightning.

Storms build in the mountains during the late morning, often bringing afternoon storms to the peaks and, later on, the high plains to the east. So, as a general rule, we’re often told that when you get to the top of a high summit, you need to make your way down by noon.

But this rule gets trumped, just as it did on Sunday.

A storm hit Mount Bierstadt in Colorado during the late morning hours. Lightning hit the peak when there were about 100 people on it, injuring 15. Some were taken to a hospital. A dog who was accompanying a hiker was killed.

The incident took place about 11:30 a.m., well before that “noon deadline.” But that’s the thing: the weather doesn’t run on our time schedules.

So while it’s good to keep the noon rule in mind, you should also keep your eyes to the skies. Blue skies are safe. Wispy summer clouds are also relatively benign. An isolated white, puffy cloud is no big deal. But when the sky starts to fill up with white, puffy clouds, the weather bears closer scrutiny.

The sign that it’s time to get down quickly is when the bottoms of those fluffy clouds turn gray. At that point, those clouds are trying to become storms and can start throwing lightning at any time.

This is a serious and potentially deadly situation. Above timberline, you might be the highest object on a slope, ridge or summit, making you a potential human lightning rod. Lightning can travel for miles, along horizontal, vertical and diagonal planes. And it comes with almost no warning.

So to sum it up, here are some things to remember when hiking above timberline in the high country:

Start early. Dawn or predawn is best. Even if you’re in shape, it’s going to take you a lot longer to hike 3 to 5 miles 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. Small puffy clouds get bigger, and 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 Sunday who can tell you how dangerous it can be when you’re up 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.

— Bob Doucette

My 500th post: What a ride it’s been

After 500 posts, you'd think I'd run out of stuff to say. Nope.

After 500 posts, you’d think I’d run out of stuff to say. Nope.

It’s hard for me to believe, but this very post marks a milestone for me. Going back to the fall of 2011, I’ve posted here 499 times. This marks No. 500.

It’s tough to quantify all that has happened during that time, and what I’ve chronicled here. It’s been a fun ride so far!

Adventure anyone?

Adventure anyone?

Some of the highlights for me have been the trip reports. I created a category just for them, and I still believe the heart of this blog belongs there — all the training, the gear, the planning, those things led to adventures that have taken me to some incredible places in several states. Add in a couple of guest posts and you’re talking about stories coming from Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Not surprisingly, these reports keep getting clicked by people seeking their own adventures in the places I’ve grown to love.

Being active outdoors. Yes, please.

Being active outdoors. Yes, please.

There has also been plenty of fitness to go around. It’s a big part of my life, be it about running, weight training or just funny observations I’ve seen while on the run or in the gym. Race reports have been big here. You all have seen me go from an occasional runner to a marathoner in just a few short years. Maybe it’s time to do another one.

Despite the fear and violence, the good guys showed up. And will keep doing so.

Despite the fear and violence, the good guys showed up. And will keep doing so.

Lighthearted fun and humor is a big part of what I do, but there have been some more serious moments. Following the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon, I looked at what was facing the people of Boston by what I’d seen already happen in Oklahoma City. I found cause for encouragement, and said as much. More than 40,000 of you read that post, which remains the most-read thing I’ve ever written on an online platform. Since then, we’ve seen the justice system deal with the surviving terrorist from the attack, as well as a whole lot of inspiration in the past two Boston Marathons from runners, supporters and survivors. Boston proved me right.

Mmmm. Gear.

Mmmm. Gear.

And let’s not forget the gear reviews. I’ve been able to test a lot of gear for running, hiking, backpacking and camping, among other things. I’ve done most of that on my own, but it’s also been good to work with Salomon Sports to test their shoes and give them — and you — honest feedback on their stuff.

Worth protecting.

Worth protecting.

Lastly, it’s been great to see how this space has helped give voice to preserving my local trail haunt. Thousands of people read and shared posts about Turkey Mountain and the controversy surrounding a proposed outlet mall there. While that situation is still not completely settled, the level of awareness and advocacy for urban wilderness in my hometown has increased dramatically since last fall. It’s been good to be a part of that, and I’m grateful to all who have joined the effort.

So what can you look forward to going forward? Life has its ebbs and flows, but rest assured there will be more adventures, a whole lot more fitness and more gear reviews.

In conclusion, let me just say thank you. Thanks for reading, as there is no greater compliment to a writer. Thanks for commenting, even if you disagree with my take. The interaction is great regardless. And thanks for sharing. If you’ve shared any of my posts on social media other otherwise, you have my gratitude.

So there it is, folks. No. 500 in the books. I hope you all have enjoyed it, found some usefulness from the posts, and maybe some inspiration. Possibly even a laugh or two. Here’s hoping we can keep going down this journey together for a while longer, and who knows — maybe I’ll see you all on the trail.

NOTE: Oh, and if you haven’t already, look me up on Instagram (proactiveoutside), find me on Twitter (@RMHigh7088) or like my page on Facebook. I’d love to connect!

Bob Doucette

An appreciation of trail people

I showed up at a trailhead not knowing these folks. I left with a new group of friends. This was three years ago on Torreys Peak, Colo. (Chuck Erle photo)

I showed up at a trailhead not knowing these folks. I left with a new group of friends. This was three years ago on Torreys Peak, Colo. (Chuck Erle photo)

Friends come quickly when you’re a kid. There’s an innocence about childhood where it’s easier to trust your peers, and the medium on which friendships are built is usually as simple as the availability to come out and play. When you get older, friends might be people you meet in class, on your team, or in some other group where people find interesting or like-minded peers.

It gets more complicated as you age. Trust is harder to earn, but even then it’s amazing how quickly people get together and become best buds in places like high school or college. Especially college. You get a reset there, where you go from knowing a bunch of people from your neighborhood or hometown to knowing almost no one, forcing you to crawl out of your protective shell, meet people and learn a lot of them are as insecure and in need of a friendly face as you are.

I don’t meet people easily. Every time I go to a new place or try to engage strangers in social functions, it doesn’t feel right to me. It often seems forced. Trust is a commodity I value highly, and I don’t give it lightly. I’m sure, like a lot of you out there, it has something to do with opening up to someone who seemed trustworthy only to get burned later, or to think you had a bead on someone only to find out that he or she was nothing like you originally thought. So I sit back, quietly observe, and maybe over time I let folks in. It’s not that I’m unfriendly or standoff-ish, but I definitely take my time cultivating relationships.

So imagine the potential discomfort with this scenario…

Step one: Get on social media, play up an idea to go on a short trip into the mountains.

Step two: Get replies from people I’ve never met or only met once saying they’d like to be part of that plan.

Step three: Say, “OK, I’ll go with you into a wild area without having any idea what spending many hours in potentially uncomfortable places is going to be like with you, or how you’ll react to me.”

On the surface, this sounds like a great way to get robbed or pushed off a cliff, depending on the intentions of the people you’re meeting, or how weary of you they become after spending said many hours with you in uncomfortable places. But here’s the thing: I’ve done this before. I’ve done this a few times, and thus far, I have yet to regret any such meet-up to spend a day, or even several days, with folks I’ve never met.

This happens a lot among various outdoorsy communities. Climbers, hikers, backpackers, you get the drift. I like to call them trail people, because whatever it is they’re doing, there is a decent chance it’s going to include some time walking on a trail through the woods or in a desert or wherever.

Trail people are a different lot. Some of the finest people I know are men and women who I met, quite literally, at a trailhead or in a meetup to drive to a trailhead, and thus far none of them have turned out to be stick-up artists or axe murderers. Their stories are often my stories, too, and because of that, those bonds of friendship seem to coalesce a little faster than they do in my non-trail world.

Chuck Erle in his element on the Crestones. (Noel Johnson photo)

Chuck Erle in his element on the Crestones. (Noel Johnson photo)

FINDING POINT C

Sometimes you get to a point in life where you feel stuck. Whatever that might be, your Point A led to a Point B, and Point B didn’t turn out to be what you’d hoped. Maybe it was radically different than what you expected, or a bit of a letdown. Point B can also be a gateway: a passage to change.

Point B eventually led my friend Chuck to Point C, which happened to be atop an icy, windblown summit on Colorado’s Torreys Peak in the middle of winter. To hear him tell it, the journey to that summit was an eventful one, and one relying heavily on people who shared his growing fascination with the high country.

I’ve hiked with Chuck a few times, and climbed some of Colorado’s highest with him. I find it almost impossible to keep up with the dude. He’s built like a basketball small forward, long-legged and rangy, each stride seemingly consuming twice the amount of ground as mine. For a bigger guy, he moves smoothly and fast, even at altitude. I think the last time I hiked with him I gave up keeping pace somewhere just past 11,000 feet. Staying on his heels was rather pointless for me, the hapless flatlander. I figured I’d see him later on, chilling on the summit, busting my chops when I arrived.

Chuck has climbed nearly all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, popularly known as the 14ers. His first peak was the same as it was for countless others, Grays Peak, a tall but relatively simple hike to its 14,270-foot summit, the highest spot in the Front Range. It’s close to Denver, making it a popular destination day hikers and people wanting to get their first 14er under their belt.

For Chuck, it was a date of sorts with his girlfriend at the time well over a decade ago. They’d also hiked Mount Sniktau and a few other local peaks. That relationship passed, and it would be awhile longer before he’d hit the peaks again.

“After we broke up I never hiked again…instead, I dated, partied, got married (a second time), got fat, smoked, drank and just worked in the suburbia rat race,” he said.

But Grays had planted a seed in his mind, and before long he was seeking advice from others on where to go and what to do in the high country. So he hit the gym, lost some weight, quit smoking and got online to learn more about the 14ers.

“I met some really cool people on the page (the 14ers.com website) and had a blast Facebooking with them. I was becoming obsessed with the fun that the 14er group page was becoming and needed to get back into climbing 14ers again. From mid-summer to October 2011, only after a few months in the gym and having quit ten years of smoking I hiked Quandary, Bierstadt, Sherman, Princeton, Shavano, and Antero.”

Like a lot of people, he obeyed the unwritten rules of when hiking season officially began and ended, assuming that things would be too cold, uncomfortable and dangerous when the snow began in the fall.

But then he saw some photos on that Facebook page of a gal named Noel getting her altitude fix on the flanks of Pikes Peak in the dead of winter. So he started corresponding with her, asking questions, and building the confidence that maybe a winter summit isn’t something reserved for hardcore mountaineers after all.

Chuck is a planner, so he kept doing the things he felt would give him the best chance of success in this coveted winter adventure. He kept hitting the gym, dropping down to a trim 195 pounds (down from north of 250 in his past, pre-14er life) and researched local routes that were doable for a guy who had yet to challenge the peaks during winter. His work steered him back toward a familiar area, not far from his first 14er, Grays Peak. The plan: Drive to Loveland Pass, hike to Grizzly Peak, then traverse the distance between it and another one of the Front Range giants, Torreys Peak, Grays’ slightly shorter but wilder sibling. He’d then hike down the Grays Peak trail into Stevens Gulch, where presumably a second car would be waiting and call it a day.

All he needed now were some companions.

He knew a guy named Durant, and they pulled in another dude from the virtual world, Rob. They followed a route along the Continental Divide, topping out on unnamed 12,000-foot peaks, then Cupid Peak, and later Grizzly Peak. From there, it was decision time, to see whether the conditions and their speed would allow them to continue on to Torreys’ 14,267-foot summit. Once they dropped off Grizzly, they’d be committed to tackling Torreys and whatever the elements had in store, no small thing considering how quickly and dangerously things can change during a Rocky Mountain winter.

Fortunately, the weather cooperated. Unfortunately, gravity did not.

“From the top of Grizzly, Durant, Rob and myself had a quick rest to rehydrate and fuel up before finishing the first leg of the trip. Torreys lay in wait as we gathered our gear… well, as Durant and I gathered our gear. Rob had placed his new pack on the snow near the Grizzly summit and as we were all distracted milling through our packs for food and drink, Rob’s pack began to slowly slide off the summit ridge, picked up momentum and was soon bounding down the slope and eventually veering off cliff edges and exploding with each airy bounce, jettisoning his food, drink and new gear he picked up just a day earlier, including his wife’s cell phone. Luckily we had extra water and a few snacks that Rob would ration for the duration of the hike.”

Safety is, indeed, found in numbers. Had Rob been alone, losing all that gear so far from a trailhead could have had dire consequences. Fortunately his buddies had his back.

Eventually, the strain of the day started to catch up with Chuck. Fighting the snowpack, the winds, the steepness of the slope and the altitude made his legs heavy, and soon Durant and Rob began to fade out of sight. Chuck kept on, stopping to rest, adjust his pack or take in the views. As is often the case, weird and sometimes macabre thoughts crossed his mind.

“I actually thought about how long it would take Search and Rescue to come pick me up if I were to become too exhausted to continue.”

He rallied, however, finding a rhythm and catching sight of his friends higher up. Waving his trekking poles to let them know he was still moving, he caught up and the three advanced to the top of Torreys Peak together.

Winter outings like Chuck’s can be amazing because of the solitude. You and your group may be the only ones out there while everyone else is sequestered indoors or crowding ski lifts or doing something other than willing their way up the icy slopes of a high peak on a cold day. That was the case for Chuck, Durant and Rob, taking in sweeping views of nearby Front Range peaks, with even the giant mass of Pikes Peak visible from more than a hundred miles away.

That sort of solitude makes you feel a little special, as if what you see, hear and smell is there only for you – a reward for venturing out when others wouldn’t, going places that are hard to get to and passing the physical and mental tests along the way. Using one of his trekking poles to steady his camera, Chuck began documenting the views in pictures.

The trio got off the mountain, got in their waiting second car and drove back retrieve the first car parked at Loveland Pass. On the way, his first thought was to text Noel, the gal who encouraged him to give a winter ascent a try.

“I knew she would appreciate the accomplishment and be proud. I had told her all along this trip was in part inspired by her. My only disappointment that day was that she was unable to accompany me on the hike.”

Chuck’s trip lasted a day, but the journey was much, much longer. When you live in Denver, you see the mountains every time you step outside and look to the west. You wonder what it would be like to climb one. Mount Evans looms tall over the city, inviting you to come on up. And some do, like when Chuck and his ex-girlfriend did years ago, and perhaps that experience inspires more.

But as is often the case, getting to those places takes a team, with each person playing a specific role. You need an instigator to drag you out for a hike. You need an inspiration, a person doing things who makes you think, “Hey, if she can do it, why can’t I?” And you need friends who can go with you, to be your safety net, your encouragement, your source of high-fives at the summit and people with whom you can retell stories over burgers and beer in some mountain town down the road from the trailhead, guys like Durant and Rob.

You need your trail people.

Bill Wood heading up the trail toward Mount Eolus. (Jenny Saylor photo)

Bill Wood heading up the trail toward Mount Eolus. (Jenny Saylor photo)

14ER HIGH

You might wonder how I came to know Chuck, or how I came to learn this part of his story. We didn’t grow up together, we’re not neighbors, and really, if not for a few chance encounters, I may never have met him at all. How I got to know Chuck was as simple as knowing someone who knew him, and having that guy respond to a call looking for people who might be interested in tackling a peak on a summer weekend when I happened to be in Denver.

That guy’s name is Bill. How I met Bill is a little like how Chuck met Noel, corresponding online, then later meeting face to face when I was hiking out from a backpacking trip in the San Juans.

Colorado’s hiking community – it’s trail people –  is dominated by those seeking the summits of the 14ers. There’s an entire website dedicated to the 14ers, a comprehensive service with route descriptions, lists, real-time conditions reports and a forum for users to talk to each other about all things hiking, climbing and skiing the 14ers. One day a few years back I put a post on the forum about “Okie Mountaineering,” describing some offseason climbing opportunities for people living in the Southern Plains. A gal named Beth had been doing some work in southeastern Oklahoma and messaged me about what hiking opportunities might be close to her job site.

We chatted about those topics for a while, and then her brother joined in, her brother being Bill. I learned that they’d be hiking Uncompahgre Peak the same weekend I’d be there, but we all just missed each other until I was walking out on the four-wheel-drive road down the mountain. Bill and Beth were fortunate enough to have a rig that could handle the roughness of that road, and somehow they recognized me as they were easing their way down. Just like that, people in the virtual world met in the flesh.

We kept in touch over the years, and it was in preparing for a business trip to Denver that we got our first opportunity to hit the trail together. Bill answered my query by suggesting an alternative route up Torreys Peak.

Unlike that winter ascent of Torreys Peak that Chuck pursued, where no one was on the mountain except for him and his little group, Torreys Peak in the summer is a really busy place. Being so close to Denver and easy to get to, many people give it a try. Its most popular route is a hike – a strenuous one, for sure, but not something where any special skill or daring is required.

But Torreys Peak is somewhat complicated, with several other ways to the top. When snow is present, there is a deep, vertical gash down the middle of the mountain called Dead Dog Couloir that some people will try to climb, and for expert skiers, ride down. We wouldn’t be doing that, but we would get a crack at a different path, that of scaling the peak from its wilder, more demanding Kelso Ridge.

Kelso Ridge is, at points, a steep line that includes several gullies and walls that take you from mere hiking to climbing. Many of these climbing spots overlook airy drop-offs some people can’t stomach. One such wall overlooks Dead Dog, then tops out at the ridge’s most dramatic feature, a short knife-edge ridge that abruptly ends at a large, white rock formation just below the summit. Going over that knife-edge, then traversing the white rock is an exercise in absorbing the visuals of big air all around. If you’re unduly scared of heights, I imagine this ridge would not be your idea of a good time. But if you can get past that, it really is a lot of fun to climb and it frees you from the conga line of day hikers trudging their way up the well-worn trail on the other side of the mountain.

This was the first time I’d been on a mountain with Bill and Beth. It was also the place where I first met Chuck, Noel and Durant. You might remember how earlier I said that the prospect of online meet-ups is far, far out of my comfort zone. And yet there I was, hanging out with a gaggle of new friends on a mountain, enjoying a spectacular, blue-bird day after tackling what was, for me at the time, a challenging line to the top. Kelso Ridge may have been the first time I’d hiked with this bunch, but it would not be the last.

To hear Bill tell it, his story is not much different.

Bill had done some hiking earlier in life, but it was Beth that got him into doing the 14ers. She was talking about going up Huron Peak, a gorgeous hike with some of the most dramatic views in the entire Sawatch Range of central Colorado. Bill’s interest was piqued.

“I distinctly remember one July morning in 2002, when my sister, who had been climbing some 14ers in the past, had said that she was planning on climbing Huron Peak.  Something inside me just leaped out and asked if I could come,” he said.

So on August 2 of that year (the date is seared into his memory), Bill summitted Huron Peak, his first 14er, and a new passion was born. He got a few more under his belt and formed a group called “The Lardass 14ers Club” (“we had T-shirts made,” he notes). Beth served as Bill’s guide for a while, and as the group grew and he got to know more like-minded people, an entirely new circle of friends was found. Many years and many peaks later, I became a small part of that growing crowd.

During a more recent summer drive into the San Juans, Bill was driving a group of us around and we were discussing the type of people who like exploring the mountains. He had a friend of his, a young gal named Jenny, and I’d brought a buddy from Tulsa, Matt, who was looking to climb his first 14er. As a matter of passing time, I asked Bill and Jenny what it was about their “mountain” friends that made them different from others. Bill had some good insight on this subject, and he held court as he drove Jenny’s Nissan Pathfinder down the road at 70 miles per hour.

He separated it into a couple of categories. First was how the 14er community relates as a group. And the second, how people in the community relate to one another individually.

He likened the group dynamic to that of a high school. Not in the way that high schools divide up into interests or cliques or whatever, but in simpler terms, how it organizes by class, and in turn, how those classes interact. It’s the same deal with the 14ers crowd, with wide-eyed newbies trying their best to fit in and learn from experienced mountaineers by way of listening to their stories, asking questions and hoping to tag along on the next adventure.

I found that take rather fascinating. I guess I’d never thought about it that way, but the more I explored the idea, the more it made sense. I’d unwittingly become an underclassman at 14er High and was just now figuring that out. Remembering that conversation, we revisited it later on so he could elaborate.

“You first get there, and everyone who is already there looks older and more impressive, even if they aren’t… the simple fact that they were there before you makes them knowledgeable and experienced,” Bill said. “As you first start to talk, you find people who are similar in skill level and need (AKA the same grade as you) so you make plans with these guys knowing that the logistics of climbing will be similar in this group.”

To further the analogy, 14er High has a subset, a dating scene that is alarmingly similar to what we all saw and experienced walking down the halls at school. Guys and gals find their love of the peaks leads to a flirt, a date, a hook-up and probably a peak or five. But, as Bill warns, it has its pitfalls: “Like high school, that group of people is sometimes catty, full of drama and gossip.”

It’s an interesting mix, to say the least, fueled by meet-ups at Denver or Colorado Springs bars. Fourteener Happy Hours are where the whole student body can get together, have a few drinks, tell tall tales, dish dirt, meet girls/guys and scheme for that next big mountain trip.

The group also plans “gatherings,” where a spot is selected to in which to camp, and anyone who wants to come is invited. Fall, spring and winter gatherings allow people floating in the ether to meet up on the trail and hike or climb with the rest of the community. It’s different than the happy hours because there is actual hiking going on, but a lot of the other elements of those happy hours, both good and bad, are the same.

In any case, these are the ways this particular outdoor community bonds. Instead of doing it at house parties, football games or class trips, they coalesce around the peaks. But time passes, and just like high school, the nature of the people changes as well. Beginners start bagging more summits, and before long they have dozens of peaks to their credit and all the requisite scars, wisdom and memories that come with them.

“As you grow through the seasons, you increase in class – sophomores, juniors, seniors.  It’s all the same,” Bill said.  “You start to become the elders that ‘newbies’ look up to, who think you are the most experienced person, or people, they’ve ever seen.  In reality, I am nothing like that, but try convincing some of these folks of that.  So, as you either finish the 14ers, or they lose a relevancy in your life, you have ‘graduated.’  You may not hang around as much anymore.  If you attend happy hours or the gatherings you are looked at by some like the high school kids look at the college kids who come back to the high school parties…  ‘Who is this old timer, is he just going to talk about climbing in his day?’  Sooner or later you stop going to happy hours as you cannot relate to the new crop of climbers.”

Of course, that is just one facet, one rough analogy, of how trail folk relate. It’s a good one, as it explains quite a bit. But there is more to the story.

Among other things, the mountains are places that fuel ambition, and right or wrong, self worth. On a more basic level, they are sources of adrenaline, as the nature of mountains – that of being big, wild, and at times, dangerous – makes them scenes of high intensity. The sense of achievement over tackling a difficult climb can be a serious high, just like a close brush with death. Memories associated with the darker side of the mountain experience – the loss of a friend, or perhaps a debilitating accident – can bring you down just as low as those successful summits can lift you up. Fear is a common element in all this, like a storm cloud bubbling with dark, angry intensity, power and foreboding, where overcoming it makes you feel like a dragon slayer while succumbing to it is akin to being run out of your own home. You can come back from a simple day hike with strangers and feel friendly toward them, but when you get off a mountain with any or all of the experiences I just related, something else happens entirely. A bond will be created that is not easily explained. It’s safe to say intense experiences lead to intense feelings and leave it at that.

This creates a peculiar dynamic among those who share these moments of risk. Friendships come fast: They run hot, but they have their limitations. What do you have in common outside of the mountains? If you can’t answer that question with anything of substance, you might never see a lot of the friends you made on the trail if you or they, for whatever reason, leave that part of life behind to make room for other things. And those romances? It’s the same deal, but turbocharged, shining bright for a time, then burning out if the couple in question don’t have anything else holding them together aside from their love of the outdoors.

Bill has experienced all of that.

“When you are climbing in a group of friends, and climbing a lot – you develop a friendship based on trust abnormally quick,” he said.  “Same with the girlfriends. You sort of fall in love real quick, because while no one admits what they are doing on the peaks is very dangerous –  you are in a precarious place with that person or those people – you can’t help but overinflate some feelings for these people up front.  Not saying it’s fake friendships but it’s rushed, and that’s natural.  As soon as the intensity is over, people mostly go their separate ways looking for their next fix, whatever that is.”

Still, it’s not uncommon for those bonds to endure. In our subsequent conversations, Bill mentioned to me a group of friends who became known as “the brat pack,” climbers who were all in the same stages of experience and ambition who were cemented even further by the death of a friend, mountaineer Rob Jansen, who was killed in a freak rockslide on Hagerman Peak in 2012. His death hit them hard, making them all the more determined to climb the peaks in a way that would make their fallen friend proud.

“I think many people have a core group in friendships, and something distinctly defines that core group.  For us, the loss of Rob Jansen defined us.  We were determined, and successful, in finishing the 14ers for us, for him.”

Bill acknowledged that the brat pack is not as active as it once was. But given the chance, he’d gear up with them again.

“I consider every person I’ve hiked with a kindred spirit, and someone I’d definitely consider a friend if asked.  But it’s like everything in life, as we grow and develop more interests elsewhere, you change the scene.  They always stay a part of your past, perhaps a couple will become lifelong friends.

“I still talk to all of the others and will climb with any of them in a second if asked.”

Noel. (Chuck Erle photo)

Noel Johnson kicking back atop Mount Sneffels. (Chuck Erle photo)

TIES THAT BIND

It’s funny to look back and see how the things Bill described have manifested themselves in my own behavior. A few months after we topped out on Torreys Peak, Bill was getting ready to summit the final 14er on his list, Mount of the Holy Cross, a gorgeous sentinel in the northern Sawatch Range not far from Vail. A friend of his was also finishing up on Holy Cross, so the party was going to be big. A couple of dozen people drove to the tiny town of Minturn, then weaved up a lonely dirt road to a campsite a few more miles away.

I joined that group. I had no time off from work, so if I wanted to be there, I’d have to drive from Tulsa to Minturn (and the campsite), get up the next morning to climb the peak, head back down and drive home, all within the space of three days, thirty hours of which was spent driving. It was a stupid plan, but the draw was being able to be there for Bill and meet up with the gang I’d met on Kelso Ridge. It was a tremendous expense of time and energy for a fella I’d seen three times in my life, but at the time it seemed totally worth it.

I got back to Tulsa with maybe a few hours of sleep between the time I left to the time I returned, and still worked a full shift. I’m not sure I had ever been that tired, despite the volumes of Mountain Dews and 5-Hour Energy drinks I consumed. Even though I’d never do something that foolish again, I have zero regrets about it.

But why? Why would I go through such great lengths to get in one more mountain trip? I can only describe it as a sense of kinship. There were possibilities here beyond the potential for new adventures, something closer to finding a level of authenticity lacking elsewhere in my life. It might be that it was an illusion, caused by what Bill described as an inflated bond produced by the rush of the climb. Even with that in mind, I felt there was more out there.

I got a similar sense from Noel, or at least from her story.

Noel is an Air Force veteran who had settled into family life in Colorado Springs. She devoted much of her adult life to raising her kids, peppering in a little fun via her creative and prolific baking streak. But over time the kids grew up, moved out and started lives of their own. A void was created, a blank spot ultimately filled when she was cleaning out a closet and found one of her kids’ pair of childhood hiking boots. They were still in great shape and looked like they might fit.

So she tried them on. Lo and behold, like the glass slipper from Cinderella fame, they were just her size.

Noel found her way to the slopes of Pikes Peak, that monster mountain looming over the Springs, and its popular Barr Trail. The more she hiked, the stronger she got, and suddenly a new chapter in her life unfolded. A friendly sort, Noel would tote small containers of homemade cookies in her pack, offering her goodies to people she hiked with and even strangers she met on the trail. Finding those boots, taking those initial steps on the Barr Trail, and topping out on Pikes Peak on foot, a new Noel was born.

She became the Cookie Hiker.

She made a lot of friends on the trail, and discovered something different in the 14er community than what existed elsewhere in her life, a drive and commitment with these hikers and mountaineers that she found admirable.

“These friends have that extra level of understanding of what it takes to climb some of these mountains that my non-hiking friends will just never really be able to grasp,” Noel told me. “There is a bond there with these friends because they know the skill, attention, physical training, and mental toughness it takes to do some of these climbs.  They understand the passion of the sometimes risky sport of mountain climbing and are as thrilled to talk about it as I am. Trying to explain these things to others doesn’t always compute with them.

“Overall, in just five years of hiking, I have made more friends than I have in many years when I led a non-hiking life.”

Noel has evolved over the years, adding skills to her tool box that include things like sport climbing, trad climbing and even ice climbing. She regularly hikes up Pikes Peak’s mellower trails, but included in her ascents are some of the toughest in all of Colorado.

Tackling those harder peaks has also given her perspective on trust and teamwork, not to mention a healthy regard for the dangers these mountains present.

Anyone who has been up in the mountains very often can probably tell you about close calls. Many times, it’s a story involving a quick change in the weather, or perhaps a near fall. Illness can also come into play. Most ascents are incident-free, but the mountains aren’t designed by risk managers and lawyers and there aren’t any handrails up there. Sometimes bad things happen.

A couple of years back, Noel came face to face with that. She was with a group climbing one of Colorado’s hardest and most intimidating mountains, Capitol Peak. It’s the baddest of the bad boys in the Elk Range, a line of mountains known for their extreme beauty, dramatic profiles and potential for danger. The Maroon Bells are nicknamed “the Deadly Bells” because of the fatal encounters that have transpired there. Across the valley from the Bells, Pyramid Peak shares their more unsavory attributes – it’s steep, exposed, and littered with loose rock that only heightens the risk of falls and rockslides. Snowmass Mountain, in the words of people I know, “moves beneath your feet.”

But Capitol Peak seems to be a whole other animal. It’s remote, making it a bit of a haul to get to its lower flanks. The easiest way up includes a hike up its steep shoulder, then climbing over or around a prominent feature on its ridgeline called “K2,” which can be dicey – the scramble is a steep one, and the drop-offs on either side are significant. Once you get past K2, Capitol’s signature feature awaits – a long, slender and ridiculously exposed knife-edge ridge that takes a bit of nerve to traverse. The rock is said to be quite solid, but this is a place where you cannot move fast, cannot be careless and absolutely cannot afford a misstep. The knife-edge ridge is a “no-fall zone,” meaning that if you fall here, the certainty of death is pretty much one-hundred percent.

When you get past the ridge and take on Capitol’s summit pitch, the peak reveals itself to be kin to its Elk Range neighbors – steep, complicated, and plagued with crumbling, rotten rock.

By the summer of 2013, Noel had honed her mountaineering skills to the point where an attempt at Capitol was realistic. So she joined a group of friends to climb it and hopefully add another notch to an impressively growing collection of high country accomplishments.

The hike up to K2 went fine, as did the knife-edge ridge traverse. Near the top of the mountain, however, things went awry.

From above, a rock moved, then tumbled down toward her. She got warning, but not before the toaster-sized stone crashed on top of her helmeted head. A second rock trailed behind, smashing into the side of her head. One of the rocks also struck her left forearm, causing immediate swelling. She thought it might have been broken, but the contusion didn’t limit her mobility. In true Noel fashion, she wrapped up her arm, dusted off, and finished the climb.

The bad stuff happened after. She didn’t realize it until later, when they were off the mountain, but the rocks that struck her in the head were the ones that did the real damage, causing a severe concussion that for a time looked as though it might alter her life for good. Subsequent doctor visits showed significant brain trauma that somehow held off from manifesting itself until after she’d gotten down. The helmet likely saved her life, but it couldn’t undo the consequences of the rockfall impact.

Caring for her injured arm, finishing the climb and then getting back down proved to be important in other ways, too. Anyone who hears her story marvels at how she was able to complete the climb at all, considering what had happened to her and the difficulties that descending the peak still had in store. But the way that her climbing partners were able to administer a little first-aid, encourage her to the summit, and be there during the descent made an impression. After Capitol Peak, these weren’t just people who shared some good memories. They were, more than most, people she could trust with her safety, even her life. She’d circle back to these climbers again for future challenges.

The following year was not an easy one for Noel. Battling “brain pain” on a daily basis was (and still is) a grinding exercise of forbearance, exhausting in its seemingly untiring persistence. Noel is a cheery sort and not given to complaining about her troubles, but as is often the case with people suffering from chronic and debilitating pain, the struggle wears on you. Most people don’t know how much you suffer and can’t really understand it. But in her own trail community, she found a friend, a lean, spry outdoorsman named Zach who had also faced down some of his own health challenges and the despairing times that often accompany them. He’s pushed past those issues to continue on his own mountaineering journey, taking him to other difficult Colorado peaks as well as to the summit of Mount Rainier. Zach had been where Noel was at and gave her the encouraging words she needed to hear – that it was possible to suffer these pains and still keep doing the things you love. An understanding voice – as well as a chorus of well-wishers offering encouragement where they could – helped her get through some of the darkest times following the rockfall incident on Capitol Peak. The thing all these people had in common is they were folks she’d gotten to know in the days and years after she first set foot on the Barr Trail in her kid’s old hiking boots.

Nearly a year later, a good-sized group of us gathered to climb Wetterhorn Peak, a gorgeous precipice in southwestern Colorado that would be the first somewhat challenging mountain Noel had attempted since the Capitol climb. Wetterhorn turned Noel back the last time she was there – dicey snow conditions just below the summit and right above some sizable cliffs made the risks feel too great – making it her “nemesis” peak. Given those circumstances, this particular trip had the potential to be emotionally charged.

The hike up the mountain’s shoulder went well, and we took a quick pause just before trudging up the “yellow dirt” portion of the ridge just before the rockier, tougher sections of the mountain. Noel welled up with emotions for a bit, collected herself, and then blasted up the hill until she stood on the chunky, rain-pocked snow on Wetterhorn’s airy summit. She’d done plenty of tougher peaks before, but the significance here – tackling the only mountain to have previously turned her away, and moving past the mental barriers that often follow physical trauma – made this summit particularly significant.

But to hear her tell it, it’s the people she was with who made the day, and continue to be a major part of why she enjoys these adventures so much. High-fives and hugs were shared all around. As well as some cookies.

“I have a select few friends I hike with often, because I know we complement one another’s hiking abilities and I enjoy their company very much,” she said.  “There have been some friends who instantly click with me and I know we will remain lifelong friends from our experiences in the mountains.  Just to have someone truly understand and explain how things are going to be and encourage me along in my journey means the world to me and helps me get through.”

Thumbs up, high-fives and more atop Wetterhorn Peak.

Thumbs up, high-fives and more atop Wetterhorn Peak.

MY TRIBE

I’ve spent most of my life doing outdoorsy things, with a good chunk of that on trails, hiking to fishing holes or setting up campsites in the backcountry. We’d build fires, sometimes far too big to be safe, sometimes just big enough to give everyone that nice, warm glow that can only emanate from the small, flickering flames that dance within the tight confines of a fire ring. But it’s only been for the last dozen years I’ve been taking these adventures to high mountain summits, first with friends from home, and eventually, with people I’d meet along the way.

These are definitely two different categories of people. I know a lot of people from work, or church, or from high school and college or whatever, and how we came to know one another varies in more ways than I can recollect. But the second group is different in that how I met them (never mind the medium) is pretty consistent. Had it not been for a shared love of the high country, I’d never have known Chuck, Bill or Noel, or a whole host of people. But because of the mountains I know who they are, and on the trails is where I’ve learned more about their lives.

I stopped one night to contemplate this, to get a partial tally of the different folks I’ve met, people with whom I’ve hiked, camped and climbed. A sampling:

There’s an architect and an interior designer.

Air Force vets and a combat soldier.

A weed dealer and an air traffic controller.

An accountant and a ski bum.

A bar tender.

A physical therapist.

A musician.

And a supercharged, super-tatted vegan/ridge runner/engineering student who wants to change the world.

I know Chuck could probably make a good living as a photographer, I know how to get to Bill’s house and the name of his dog, and I know the nicknames Noel has given her grandkids. All because we love the mountains and were willing to take a chance at spending time with people who were complete strangers at a trailhead and came back from the summit as friends.

Shared passions are important here, but I think Noel had it right: It’s the shared experiences on the trail that sealed the deal.

You could call us a tribe, a trail people tribe, folks who aren’t born into a lineage, but rather bound by an appreciation of shared victories and an understanding of common struggles. It’s not an easy thing to understand unless you’ve been there, working out the soreness of a long backpacking stretch, being breathless on a high peak, or facing down looming fears. Those experiences become a part of you, just like the people with whom you’ve shared them.

You meet so pretty great people on the trail.

You meet some pretty great people on the trail.

— Bob Doucette

NOTE: This is part of a larger project I’m working on that I hope to publish in the future. Thanks for reading!