It’s National Parks Week: Here are some photos from two of my favorites

Time in our national parks can be some of the most rewarding you’ll spend. Sunrise at Rocky Mountain National Park.

The last couple of weeks have been heavy on the fitness side, so what better way to break back into the outdoors by paying homage to National Parks Week?

If you’ve been a reader of this site for any length of time, you know where I stand on our public lands. They are definitely a treasure, and they’re most beautifully preserved in our national parks.

I’ve been to a few, and two of my favorites are tucked inside some of America’s great mountain ranges: Rocky Mountain National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So in this post, East meets West with photos from these great American landscapes.

THE SMOKIES

The Appalachians have had a long time to perfect their allure, and the monarchs of this range are in its southern reaches. Great Smoky Mountains National Park packs a wallop when it comes to scenery.

For instance, take a look at this scene from halfway up Mount LeConte…

Alum Cave Bluff.

As you hike these mountains, you’re going to pass through ecosystems that range from low-lying broadleaf forests to spruce-filled woodlands more than a mile high.

Looking out from Tennessee’s high point, Clingman’s Dome.

And just about every overlook has a surprise waiting to be discovered.

This how the range and the park get their name.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH

In the lower 48 states, no mountain range is as mighty as the Rockies. And I think that’s what people were trying to encapsulate when they designated a specific slice of Colorado to become Rocky Mountain National Park. Big, burly mountains and alpine landscapes dominate the land.

The Keyhole on Longs Peak.

The park’s centerpiece is one of the state’s iconic mountains, Longs Peak.

Longs Peak, the sentinel of Rocky Mountain National Park.

If you want to feel small, hike here. These mountains will do the trick.

Rugged, forbidding, haunting, and beautiful.

 

So there you have it. The weekend is coming up. If you’re in range of one of our national parks, do yourself a favor and go. Breathe some clean air, see some cool places, unplug and take advantage of a wonderful piece of our national heritage.

Bob Doucette

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Getting in a staredown with Longs Peak

There we are, in shadow form, looking toward Storm Peak just after dawn.

There we are, in shadow form, looking toward Storm Peak just after dawn.

Mountains are often a source of inspiration or awe by those who visit them. Go a little deeper and you’ll likely feel humbled.

It’s always been that way for me. The peaks are big, ancient and unmovable. It doesn’t matter how strong I feel, or how weak. The most epic day in the mountains has lots of flavors, and one of them is very likely to be humility.

It should be noted that there are various levels of humility.

I’d like to tell you that my recent attempt at Longs Peak was this fantastic stew of pain, joy, struggle and victory, but it wasn’t. It was a staredown.

Longs Peak is one of 58 mountains in Colorado to rise above 14,000 feet. Readily visible from Denver, its bulk rises high above Rocky Mountain National Park. Longs is not the highest 14er in the state, or even in the Front Range. And given the number of people who try to reach its summit, you might be tempted to see it as a beginner’s peak.

Let me burst a few bubbles. Being the highest doesn’t necessarily denote the toughest. Mount Elbert is Colorado’s highest, but also one of the state’s easiest summits. Everest is THE highest, but experts will tell you K2 is harder.

And though a surprisingly large number of people count Longs as their first big mountain, even that must be given an asterisk: 50 percent who try to climb it fail, and to further illustrate the point, going back to last summer, my friend Matt’s second 14er was Sunlight Peak – ranked as the seventh toughest 14er in the state. He did this despite having very limited high country experience. There is a lot of relativity to consider when judging a peak by who has climbed it.

I joined my friends Chuck and Noel on this one, and made a couple of new friends – Craig and Dillon.

Dillon has climbed all the 14ers. He’s lean, strong, experienced and definitely the guy you want in your corner when going up a mountain.

Craig is a fellow flatlander, rolling in from Missouri to spend a week in Rocky Mountain National Park. He has a few peaks under his belt, but was the most junior of the bunch right along with me. Despite all that, he proved to be a very strong hiker, even up high.

Chuck and Noel, well, you know them from previous adventures. Stout hikers, good climbers, and very experienced in the mountains. Both are closing in on finishing off all 58 of the 14ers.

EARLY START

Longs Peak isn’t just a high mountain. It’s also big. This may take some explanation.

I mentioned Mount Elbert. It’s the highest peak in Colorado, and the second-highest point in the contiguous 48 states. It’s even higher than Washington’s Mount Rainier.

But it’s not bigger than Rainier. Not even close. I imagine you could fit a few Elberts inside of Rainier quite comfortably. If you can understand that concept, it will go a long way into appreciating the size of Longs Peak. It’s no Rainier, but it is bigger than most of its Rocky Mountain cousins.

By its standard route, it’s a 15-mile round trip. The final mile or so is rocky, exposed and not amenable to fast ascents or retreats. So you have to plan for this, and that means a really early start.

That meant lights out at 6 p.m., a 12:30 a.m. wakeup call, and heading up the trail by 2 a.m. It sounds ridiculous, but unless you want to camp above treeline, this is what you need to do to give yourself the best chance of summiting before afternoon storms roll in.

This brings me to a term to which I recently became aware. It’s called “second-level fun.” A good movie, a roller coaster, hanging with friends at a pub or club, these are not examples of second-level fun. Sleep deprivation, hours of physical exertion, some aches and pain, maybe a little blood and suffering, all for the sake of great views and bragging rights – these are the things associated with second-level fun. Longs Peak has all of these in abundance.

We weren’t the only ones on the trail. This was the same weekend Andrew Hamilton broke Cave Dog’s 14er speed record, so he and a healthy group of well-wishers were on their way down as we ascended. It was a cool moment (he definitely had the rock star thing going on around him, and was very accommodating to all the fans who had gathered), and I saw a couple of people I knew from past trips. First was Brady, who had climbed Wetterhorn with me last year, and later on, Danielle, who was on the big Chicago Basin backpacking trip.

Danielle was excited to see us, bubbling with energy as always. She promised to run back up and join us on the climb, even though she’d already hiked to 11,000 feet to meet Hamilton and the gang.

One thing we gained from meeting Hamilton’s entourage was a piece of information of what lay ahead: Fresh, wet snow on the upper portions of the mountain, and an abundance of wet rock on some of the steepest parts of the route. That would weigh heavily later on.

The hike is a beautiful one, but you don’t get to see much of it for the first few hours. Whatever your headlamp illuminates is about all you get. But somewhere around 5 a.m. as dawn breaks and you’re above treeline, the magnificence of the peak reveals itself. With clouds below us and above and stony mountaintops in between, that morning’s sunrise was the most spectacular I’d ever seen. It washed over the hills slowly, illuminating the land and giving us our first good look at the mountain. It was an awesome sight.

Sunrise on Longs Peak. Goodness.

Sunrise on Longs Peak. Goodness.

Looking up toward Longs Peak shortly after dawn. Kinda cloudy...

Looking up toward Longs Peak shortly after dawn. Kinda cloudy…

Noel taking a break as we approach the Boulder Field. Longs Peak's North Face, Diamond and Keyhole are all visible.

Noel taking a break as we approach the Boulder Field. Longs Peak’s North Face, Diamond and Keyhole are all visible.

I was cussing myself a little for not dropping some weight before I got to Colorado. Carrying 10 extra pounds is not ideal. Also bugging me: I sweat a lot. It doesn’t take much at all to get my sweat glands going. It was windy and cool, and I was already sweating through my clothes, despite my careful layering strategy. I was good as long as I was moving, but cold at every stop.

The one thing I’d caution people about is that any pictures you see of Longs Peak are going to be deceiving. Being there in real life shows you that the features are much bigger and steeper than what you see in photographs.

This became apparent once we got to the Boulder Field. This is the place where you camp if you plan to break up your ascent. It sits around 12,000 feet, and as the name suggests, it’s a rugged, treeless and harsh place. The campsites have to be reserved in advance through the National Park Service, and you even get the luxury of outhouses nearby. I didn’t use one, but my buddies told me they were kinda nasty. Given that and the possibility of a rather uncomfortable overnight at the campsites, well, use your best judgment.

The trail ends in the Boulder Field. From there, you hop on rocks and awkwardly scramble up boulders at a gradually steepening grade toward the Keyhole, a distinct opening in the ridge that overlooks the Boulder Field.

Making our way through the Boulder Field, close to the Keyhole.

Making our way through the Boulder Field, close to the Keyhole.

It was here that we ran into a fella from Chicago who looked a little perplexed. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a light top, he was cold and unsure what to do because his cousin had gone ahead toward the Keyhole without him. Dillon was kind enough to let him borrow his jacket. Noel started calling out the cousin’s name, and we eventually caught up with him toward the Keyhole.

Now Noel has a habit of bring and sharing homemade cookies. That’s why she’s known as the Cookiehiker. Upon meeting the ambitious cousin, she mentioned something about him not getting any of her cookies.

The lesson: Unless your partner is secure and safe, you don’t leave him or her behind while you do your own thing. This is especially true of people who are inexperienced in the mountains, which was clearly the case here. Eventually we got everyone reunited, all was forgiven, and the offending cousin was even allowed a few of Noel’s baked goodies.

READING THE SIGNS

Like I said earlier, the Boulder Field is an awkward piece of hiking that turns into light scrambling toward the top. There is a shelter built there in honor of a couple of people who had died on the mountain long ago. It’s not exactly weathertight – a good bit of blown-in snow was still there, filling about half the structure. But it’s a cool feature, and a great place to take a rest before tackling the toughest part of the route.

The rock shelter by the Keyhole.

The rock shelter by the Keyhole.

But it was here that we had difficult decisions to make. The long hike, the punishment of the Boulder Field the reports we’d received of the route conditions ahead, and dicey looking weather blowing in wore heavy on us. Winds coming through the Keyhole were fierce, a steady 30-40 mph with gusts much higher. We all took a peek around the corner from the Keyhole and saw slick route conditions ahead and steep drop-offs below.

The route past the Keyhole. Errrggg....

The route past the Keyhole. Errrggg….

Storm Peak looking pretty stormy.

Storm Peak looking pretty stormy.

Me at the Keyhole, which would have to be my summit that day. (Noel Johnson photo)

Me at the Keyhole, which would have to be my summit that day. (Noel Johnson photo)

You never know what a route really holds until you’re on it. And hey, Andrew Hamilton did this in the dark, right?

But we’re not Andrew Hamilton, we weren’t chasing a record, and poor route conditions combined with sketchy looking weather added up to too many negative variables. We were all thinking it, but Dillon was the first to say it: There was going to be no summit today.

It bothers me now, of course, but at the time I had no problem with it. They Keyhole was our summit, and a month removed from that day, I’m convinced we made the right call. Longs’ summit would have to wait for another day.

As we munched on food and snapped pics, we spotted the bright jacket of a climber ambling her way up to us. It was Danielle! She actually caught up with us, despite running on minimal sleep and less food. I have to hand it to her, there is an energy to this woman that could power a nuclear reactor.

We told her our thoughts, which elicited a half-hearted plea to try anyway, but we were firm and eventually she agreed. In any case, it was cool to see one of our partners in crime from the Chicago Basin trip once again.

The gang. Danielle is up front, and from left, Dillon, Chuck, Noek, Craig  and myself. (Danielle Ardan photo)

The gang. Danielle is up front, and from left, Dillon, Chuck, Noel, Craig and myself. (Danielle Ardan photo)

Hiking back down, Craig was determined to summit something. So he hiked up Mount Lady Washington while we made our way on the trail. Danielle and I talked running and life (both of those seem to be going rather well for her) before we caught up with everyone else. She ended up singing Disney tunes with Noel much of the way down.

In the light of day, I got to appreciate how gorgeous the trail is, and gazed in awe at some of the more prominent features of Longs Peak.

Rock and air.

Rock and air.

Longs Peak frowning on us. We get it, dude. Not today.

Longs Peak frowning on us. We get it, dude. Not today.

A healthy, greedy, friendly, opportunistic marmot.

A healthy, greedy, friendly, opportunistic marmot.

The Ship's Prow and part of Mount Meeker, as seen from the Chasm Lake approach.

The Ship’s Prow and part of Mount Meeker, as seen from the Chasm Lake approach.

Something about water tumbling downhill is pretty. People like it.

Something about water tumbling downhill is pretty. People like it.

We put in about 14 miles that day, cracking open a bacon-flavored soda at the trailhead (not recommended, but funny). Even with no summit, we ate a victory-sized meal back in Estes Park just the same.

Taking a swig of bacon-flavored soda at the trailhead. Not sure this was a good idea. (Craig Cook photo)

Taking a swig of bacon-flavored soda at the trailhead. Not sure this was a good idea. (Craig Cook photo)

It was great meeting new friends, and particularly sweet meeting up with buddies from mountain ascents past.

More importantly, it was good to experience this. It wasn’t just a matter of knowing what it’s like to fail, but also knowing how correct decision-making led us to that point. Longs Peak isn’t going anywhere, but one bad move on a sketchy route could end any future climbs in a flash.

This leads be to a sort of epilogue. Maybe a week after this, Danielle was back at Longs, and she got to that summit. She also climbed some of the tougher peaks of the Elk Range as well.

Later in the week, Craig and his wife hiked Grays Peak, and he got Torreys to boot.

Noel and Chuck tore it up and several other peaks not long after, and in the second week of August, teamed up for another shot at Longs Peak. This time, they would not be denied.

Often a strategic retreat to safety leads to better things later on. God willing, I’ll be back at Longs, and maybe next time I’ll summit, having given myself the chance to do so by relenting to the mountain when I was there last.

Bob Doucette

The king of the Colorado Rockies: Longs Peak

All hail the king.

All hail the king.

Throughout the Rockies of Colorado, there are nearly 700 peaks that rise over 13,000 feet. No other state in the country comes close to that, at least not in sheer volume.

Among that number are 58 summits topping 14,000 feet, again, unique to Colorado. In this mix are mountains that run the gamut: large, hulking lumps, craggy, vertical spires and behemoth peaks that dominate the surrounding landscape. Some are hikes, requiring only a strong set of legs and lungs to reach the top. Others play harder to get, if you get my drift.

Pikes Peak is probably Colorado’s most famous, towering over Colorado Springs and visible from Denver. Mount Evans is the centerpiece of the Rocky Mountain skyline from Colorado’s capital city, its distinct concave bowl easily discerned. And back in the day, Mount of the Holy Cross had special allure: Its cross-shaped couloir became the desired sight of many travelers, and the subject of numerous painters’ canvasses. Mount Elbert rises gently over Twin Lakes and Leadville, the state’s highest point and the second-loftiest peak in the contiguous 48 states. Capitol Peak is known as the toughest of the state’s highest 58.

All of these and more have their own claims to fame. But if I were to pick one to rule them all, it wouldn’t be Colorado’s most famous, highest or whatnot. I’d pick one that could take the same place that Rainier has in Washington, dubbed simply as “the mountain” by those in the Upper Left. If you had to pick one in Colorado to get that designation, it would have to be Longs Peak. Let me make my case.

Longs Peak, at 14,255 feet, isn’t even the highest in the Front Range, though its bulk sets it apart from its three higher siblings to the south. It’s visible from Denver, the centerpiece of Rocky Mountain National Park, and to borrow some terminology from a friend I know, it’s one burly mountain.

Because of its proximity to a number of east slope cities (and being smack in the middle of a widely visited national park), more people attempt to climb it than almost any other peak in the state. A paved road takes you to the trailhead. But Longs’ proximity and accessibility belie its challenge: About 50 percent who try don’t reach the top.

Longs also has a reputation for risk. More fatalities have occurred on Longs Peak than any other in Colorado, about 60 at last count. There are plenty of stories about people getting injured, lost or otherwise stranded on the mountain, underestimating its difficulty or getting marooned by bad weather that can pounce much more quickly than most realize. Longs Peak was named by Outside Magazine as one of the 20 most dangerous hikes in the world.

The route to the top is lengthy, no matter which one you choose. At a minimum, expect at least 14 miles of hiking and climbing to get to the top. And getting to the top, even by its easiest route, is still a significant undertaking –much more so than most of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks. A lengthy hike takes you to a rugged and taxing place called the Boulder Field, a rock-hopping, joint-jarring and awkward ascent to a feature in a ridge called the Keyhole, which serves as a gateway to another mile of narrow traverses, steep climbs and airy drop-offs for the final 1,000 feet or so of the ascent.

The mountain’s other routes are a tad shorter, but more steep, more exposed, and more dangerous: the steep and often snowy Loft route by Chasm Lake, and, at its most difficult, a vertical, multi-pitch rock climb up Longs’ most recognizable feature, the Diamond, a sheer wall as high as most skyscrapers in America.

There are other ways to the top — none as hard as a trip up the Diamond, but all difficult nonetheless. No matter which you choose, count on giving yourself a lot of time: Most people start the hike around 2 a.m.

These facts are all well and good, but for me it goes beyond that. Longs Peak has to be seen and experienced in a more personal way. You’ve got to see the huge summit block at sunrise, and gaze on the dark, forbidding rock that towers overhead. You have to absorb its scale, and that of the features that make it distinct — the Diamond’s imposing wall, the twisted tower of the Ship’s Prow, the dark outline of nearby Mount Meeker, a daunting peak in its own right.

You need to feel the blast of wind that greets you at the Keyhole (if that’s the route you choose) and marvel at the swirl of clouds that rushes by.

I am by no means an expert mountaineer, but in 12 years of bagging peaks I can say that I’ve never seen a more dramatic, more muscular peak in Colorado than Longs Peak. It embodies everything that its kin scattered across the state possess — sweeping, wooded slopes, vertical rock spires, imposing cliffs and dizzying heights. It’s everything that any 14er in the state is, but more of it.

And I might add, it’s beautiful, particularly up close when the rays of the morning sun bounce off the summit.

Many will rightly note that there are more than a few mountains that are more difficult, and certainly several are higher. But when you add up everything that makes Longs Peak what it is, I think it goes beyond being the monarch of Rocky Mountain National Park. Crown it the state’s king. It’s Colorado’s Rainier.

It’s The Mountain.

Got another take on this? Or a good story of your own from Longs Peak? Let’s hear about it in the comments, and be sure to take the poll.

Bob Doucette

Hiking safety: 3 tips to avoid lightning strikes in the mountains

Lightning at Rocky Mountain National Park. (NPS photo)

Lightning at Rocky Mountain National Park. (NPS photo)

For what it’s worth, plenty of you who read this site already know all about what I’m getting ready to discuss. For the rest of you who are not as experienced at hiking and climbing in alpine areas, this is just a gentle reminder that even though summer in the high country is prime-time hiking weather, there is one really big reason to watch the clouds.

Lightning.

On July 11, Rebecca Teilhet, 42, of Yellow Springs, Ohio, was killed by a lightning strike in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.

A day later, Gregory Cardwell, 52, of Scottsbluff, Neb., was also killed by a lightning strike in the same park. In those two days, 21 people were hospitalized after lightning strikes in RMNP, USA Today reported.

Finally, during that weekend’s Hardrock 100 ultramarathon in southwestern Colorado, competitor Adam Campbell was knocked to the ground by an indirect strike while he was racing atop Handies Peak, a 14,000-foot mountain near Lake City. He wasn’t hurt badly and finished the race. But a scary moment just the same.

According to the National Weather Service, more than 70 percent of all fatal lightning strikes in the U.S. occur in the months of June, July and August. More than 30 percent of all lightning deaths take place in July, making it the peak month for fatalities, USA Today reported.

I’ve also heard that New Mexico, a state with plenty of alpine/above-treeline territory, leads the nation in lightning-related deaths.

A few facts to be aware of:

The Rocky Mountains have a monsoon season, and that season runs through the summer. It works like this: As the sun heats the air during the morning, clouds form and coalesce. Little puffy clouds bloom into larger clouds, which eventually become storms. These storms then shower the mountains (and later the plains east of there) with rain and, unfortunately, lightning. During the summer, this is an almost daily occurrence.

Typically, the storms start forming around the lunch hour. And it doesn’t take long for a few puffs of innocent-looking clouds to turn into thunderstorms.

Knowing this, you need to be off the high point of your hike or climb NO LATER than noon, preferably before. The reason is simple: Most alpine routes are pretty long, at least a few miles from the trailhead to a summit, and it takes awhile to get from the midpoint of your trip to treeline again. So depending on how long your route is, it could take hours before your get to treeline and relative safety. Getting caught in the middle of a storm above treeline is quite dangerous.

When you are above treeline, you may be the tallest thing on that slope or ridge. And there is a good chance you’ll be carrying something metallic, such as trekking poles. Many hikers and climbers can tell horror stories about hearing an audible hum or ringing from a trekking pole or ice axe during a storm. You don’t want that experience.

When you see clouds like this one forming over Huron Peak, you know storms are on the way and it's time to get below treeline.

When you see clouds like this one forming over Huron Peak, you know storms are on the way and it’s time to get below treeline.

So here are a few tips:

1. Check the weather forecast. See what the chance of storms will be in the area you plan to go. If there is a high chance, you might pick another day.

2. Start early. Pre-dawn is a good idea to start your hike at the trailhead, and I’d say no later than sunrise.

3. Watch the weather. Look for those white puffy clouds. A couple in the sky aren’t a big deal. A bunch of them could be signs of things to come. If those clouds start getting gray bottoms, it is time to consider turning around. And if you see rain falling from them or hear thunder/see lightning, even if it’s miles away, start going down immediately. Lightning can travel several miles.

There are always exceptions. There will be that dry, clear-sky day where lingering above treeline in the afternoon is no big deal. Maybe rain is just rain and not from a thunderstorm. But it is always wise to heighten your chances for success and lessen your chances of a serious incident. There are enough potential pitfalls when wandering around in an alpine wilderness. So keep your eyes on the skies and your watch, and don’t let yourself be at risk of becoming the next lightning strike victim.

Stay safe!

Bob Doucette

Lessons from the weekend: Mother Nature is the boss

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At about this time, my hope was to be standing on the summit of Capitol Peak in northern Colorado.

Obviously, since I’m writing this, I am not. The forecast for Capitol Peak right now is a 90 percent chance of precipitation with 1-3 inches of snow possible. Given the difficulties already on that mountain in the best of conditions, it’s no big secret why my group had to bail on this one.

There are just times when your best-laid plans get scrapped by Mother Nature.

It’s been a horrendous several days of weather in Colorado.  Unusually heavy rains caused some of the worst flooding along the Front Range that the state has ever seen. People have lost homes, and in a few cases, their lives. A group of school kids on a field trip near Estes Park had to be airlifted out of there by way of a military helicopter. There’s something surreal about watching little kids, with colorful backpacks strapped to their backs, running out of a helicopter like they just got off the school bus.

The weather did not stop some people from trying to get up to a summit. Further south, I know people had good conditions in the Sawatch, but up north, on Longs Peak, two women from Maine, Connie Yang and Suzanne Turrell, tried to climb the peak in the height of the nasty weather that was pummeling Rocky Mountain National Park. They got stranded in a whiteout of sleet, snow and ice somewhere above 13,000 feet and were afraid to descend because of icy conditions on the bare rock sections below them.

A text message sent out by them on Friday asked for help. They had a tent and 30-degree sleeping bags, but they were justifiably afraid they might be at risk for hypothermia.

Fortunately, they were eventually able to get down on their own. All’s well that ends well.

If anything can be learned from this weekend’s storms is that nature will do what it wants, and if you’re in the way bad things can happen. Those of us who live in Tornado Alley can attest to that, as can anyone who lives along the Gulf Coast or the eastern seaboard during hurricane season.

For hikers and climbers, the lesson becomes more pointed. So if you take nothing else from this post then please remember this:

If you decide to ascend into the teeth of the storm, do not be shocked if you get bit.

I’m bummed I lost out on my shot at Capitol Peak this year. But I’m glad I’m not stuck on its flanks right now. Maybe I can be there another day, when Mother Nature is in a better mood.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088