A walk in the woods. A trek in the hills. A gnarly ridge traverse that leads to an airy summit. Short or long, easy or hard — or even dangerous — the venerable hike is as old as humanity itself.
We’re one of those rare creatures that get around solely on two feet, and there is no more reliable form of transportation that putting one foot in front of the other. Whether it’s a familiar path on easy ground or something more adventurous, hiking can be just about anything.
I’ve been a hiker for awhile now. As a kid, I hiked to places where I liked to fish. I tromped through the woods to see what was there. And into adulthood, hiking has taken me to destinations I’d never have seen in a car, on a bike, or on TV. If you’ve got an explorer’s heart, you should be hiking.
For me, there are lots of reasons why I hike. Here are five of them…
Because it’s good for my body. Hiking up and down hills and miles through woods is exercise. Yes, it’s not like doing sprints at the track or cranking out as many reps as you can at the gym. But a well-paced walk through natural terrain works your legs, back and core. Throw on a backpack and the “workout” becomes even more demanding. And if you’re doing it on steep inclines or higher elevations, it’ll beat you down nicely. A good day of hiking, repeated often, will get you in shape.
Because it’s good for my mind. I spend enough time in a chair, at my desk, staring at a computer screen. And even more lounging around watching sports or the latest episode of “Game of Thrones.” Taking in all the messages, tweets, videos, memes and other bits of bytes on social media is akin to drinking through a digital fire hose. Our minds are under constant assault from work stress, manufactured images and artificial blatherscythe. A walk amongst the trees or over the hills for a few hours does wonders to clear my mind and allows me to really think about the world, or not think at all, if that’s what’s needed. Hiking is a good time to pray. Or just listen. The sights, sounds and smells of the woods are said to have tangible health benefits for your mind. I believe it.
Because of the people I meet. Some of the coolest people I know I’ve met through hiking. These are folks who are easygoing, non-judgmental and curious about the world. Most of the time, they’re smart. Wise. Grounded. The connections you make with hikers are different than those you make at work, at church, or at the bar scene. Maybe it’s because we’re all looking for the same thing, I suppose. In any case, your hiking friends might end up being the best ones you have. And if not, they’ll still be some of the most interesting and enjoyable to be around.
Because I can. Thank God I’m still mobile and can walk. Having that ability is akin to having the hottest sports car you can imagine. You wouldn’t own that car and never drive it, right? That’s how I feel about hiking. If I can get out there and hike a short loop or go backpacking for days, I’m going to do it. My health and mobility is a gift, and to not use it would be a waste. If your choice is to use it or lose it, is that really a choice at all?
Because of the awesome places I see. Like this:
Or any number of incredible forests, burly mountains, scenic vistas or jaw-dropping sunrises. You can live your whole life in the ‘burbs and see the same thing every day, and not much will change, even with the seasons. Or you can lace up your boots, grab a pack and find a trail and see where it leads. We humans crave a little adventure. When you’re talking about hiking, the adventure is ahead of you, one step at a time.
If you’re a hiker, what do you like about it? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
As spring takes hold, a bunch of us from the flatlands are having dreams of alpine vistas and Rocky Mountain summits. But we often forget that there is a lot that goes into being ready for the challenges that come with altitude.
I live at less than 800 feet. So every time I think about heading west, I know there are things I need to do before marching to the top of a high peak.
So that’s what this is about. It’s not like I’m a pro or anything, but I’ve spent the last 13 years bagging peaks in the Colorado and New Mexico high country from late spring to early fall. I’ve learned a bit — mostly through trial and error, and from my mistakes. So that’s what I want to pass along to you.
BEFORE THE TRIP
People who live at higher elevations have an advantage over the rest of us because they have more red blood cells — the agents that carry oxygen to the rest of the body — flowing through their bodies than us. And unless you plan on spending several weeks at altitude, your body won’t be able to match that red blood cell production in time to fit inside your vacation plans. You can acclimate some, but not that fast. So extra care has to be taken in terms of physical preparation. With that in mind…
Get yourself in shape. There are a lot of ways to do this, but I’d suggest a few basics. Plan and complete some big hikes, preferably in hilly areas. On some of these hikes, carry a backpack that will be the same size and weight as the one you plan to use in the mountains. Break in those boots if they’re new. Plan on hikes that will last as long (in number of hours) as you think it will take on your trip. I’d also recommend doing some regular cardio at least four times a week — running, cycling, swimming, stairmaster — yes to any or all of that. And sprinkle in some strength training. A rugged frame and a strong heart/set of lungs will go a long way toward helping you enjoy your alpine adventures rather than just suffer through them. Ideally, these are things you should be doing at least a few months out from your planned trip. If you want more information on that, check out this post I wrote last year.
Test your gear. Wear and use the clothes, footwear and backpack you plan to use, and make sure the fit is good. Same goes with any tents, stoves, electronics or anything else you might use or depend on. Be familiar with how everything works, and adjust accordingly if something’s not right. Having a gear failure on the trail because of your unfamiliarity with it is a potential disaster that is entirely preventable.
Ask for advice. Got any friends who are knowledgeable about the high country? Hit ’em up. You can also find good information in online forums and through social media. People are willing to help. A question you have that goes unasked is a mystery you might not be able to afford when you’re in the backcountry.
Plan and study your routes. Again, there is a lot of information online about trails, forests, peaks, etc. Plenty of guide books, too. You don’t have to kill all spontaneity, but you should be familiar with the places you’re going, the distances you’ll travel, and the type of terrain, obstacles and hazards you’ll face. And let someone know where you are going and when you intend to return.
WHEN YOU’RE THERE
Give yourself some time. I’ve done the thing where you drive in one day, and then a day later go hit a 14,000-foot peak. It can be done, but I don’t advise it. Rather, spend a few days at a lower elevation town or city and do some practice hikes on smaller hills. After a couple of days, head into the high country, and give yourself another day or so, embarking in acclimatization hikes. After a few days, your body will be more prepared for the task at hand.
Drink plenty of water. The Rockies are fairly dry, and because your respiration will be at an increased rate, you’ll dehydrate much faster — even in a city like Denver, at 5,280 feet — than you do at home. It’s subtle at first, and you won’t realize you’re drying out… until it’s too late. So it’s not a bad thing to be sipping water regularly throughout the day, even if you’re just chilling out. When you’re on the trail, your hydration needs will increase. A 4-8 hour day hike might mean you take 2-3 liters of water with you, and try to drink as much of that as you can. Otherwise, you’ll get nasty headaches, and possibly the beginnings of altitude sickness.
Pack right. Make sure you have enough food for your hike, and then a little more. Bring the right supplies and tools in your pack, with special detail on what you might need in an emergency. If you’re wondering what that looks like, check this link for the 10 essentials. Make sure your clothing is designed to handle a variety of weather conditions your might face.
Even if you’re from another mountain state, do not underestimate what elevation does to a hike or climb. Plenty of peak baggers and hikers hail from states with mountains that have serious elevation profiles, but aren’t as high as the Rockies. An example: I hiked Mount LeConte in Tennessee, which at various trailheads will give you 3,000 feet of elevation gain or more. Many of the peaks in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming are similar in their base-to-summit profile. But I found the going much easier in the Appalachians than in the Rockies, even when approaching LeConte’s summit, solely because of how much thinner the air is in the Rockies. Remember that the trailheads at most peaks in the Rockies start at elevations higher the tops of any mountain on the East Coast, as well as most mountains in every western state except California (the Sierras pose their own challenges, as do some of the big ones in the Cascades). The level of exertion and complications from altitude will be much different than they are in the Smokies, the White Mountains, or just about anywhere else in the Lower 48.
Watch the weather. A bluebird day in the summer can turn into a nightmare of lighting, hail and wind in a hurry. Storms can form right over your head with little warning. Start your hikes early (pre-dawn is good, and even earlier if the route is long) and be heading down the mountain well before noon. Check forecasts closely, and don’t be surprised to see snowfall on the bookend weeks of the summer. Fall and spring hikes and climbs can be even more touch-and-go when it comes to snowstorms. Perfect conditions one day can give way to blizzards. On my early July attempt of Longs Peak last summer, snow high on the mountain fell the night before our ascent and turned route conditions into a mess of sloppy snow and ice, forcing us to abort the climb. Now imagine getting caught in the middle of that, while on exposed, steep terrain. Respect for high country weather changes is a must.
Respect the land and its permanent residents. Stay on the trail and don’t stomp all over delicate alpine tundra. If you bring a dog, keep it under control and don’t let it chase after wildlife. Camp 100 feet or more away from streams. If established fire pits are available, camp fires are fine — provided the conditions are not prone to forest fires and camp fires are allowed by park and/or forestry officials. Haul out your trash, and don’t burn it. Only use deadfall wood for fires, make sure all fires are completely extinguished before you leave a fire pit unattended. If you have any doubts at all about whether you are allowed (established wilderness areas do not permit camp fires) or should build a camp fire, skip it. Leave the trail and your campsite in as good or better condition than how you found it. And do not feed wildlife. Our food is not good for them, and feeding wild animals conditions them to see humans as a food source.
So those are some ideas. Good advice can be found at this link. And most of all, enjoy your time in the high country.
Sunrise on the Longs Peak Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Two short facts about me: I love the mountains, and I like to take pictures of them. I’m not a great photographer, but the cool thing about the mountains is their very nature can make a mediocre photographer look pretty good.
Another fact: I can get wordy. This post is going to be the opposite of that. It’s going to be all about the images of peaks that I love. So here we go…
Peak 18 and Windom Peak, Colorado.
This was taken in a break in the weather during a soggy backpacking and peak bagging trip in southwestern Colorado. We spent hours in our tents waiting for the weather to improve. The occasional lulls in the rain gave us scenes like this.
Tundra in bloom
Looking down the trail on Cupid. Front Range, Colorado.
Last summer, the weather — again — conspired against me. But I found a brief window near Loveland Pass to do a solo hike of Cupid, a 13,000-foot peak along the Front Range. Gray skies, snow patches and loads of wildflowers made this sweet stretch of singletrack one of the more memorable images I have.
Don’t fence me in
Glass Mountain, Oklahoma.
While driving to Black Mesa, Oklahoma, I drove through a patch of short peaks and mesas in the northwestern part of the state that caught my eye. I love the lines in this one, from the high, wispy clouds in the sky to the fence line in the foreground. Added to that, the textures of the mountain itself. It’s not a big mountain, but it sure is pretty.
Holy Cross Ridge, near Minturn, Colorado.
I took this photo from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross. The camera is not a good one — from an iPhone 3 — but the profile of the ridge, the snow, and the way the sun was hitting it made it pretty striking.
Brooding over mountains
Huron Peak, Colorado.
Another one from the iPhone 3. I snapped this one hiking down the mountain, and the timing was good — a storm was forming over the top of the peak. It’s always good to get below treeline before storms roll in, and it made for a cool image as well.
Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Longs Peak is one of the most photogenic mountains I’ve ever seen. It’s big, dramatic and wild. It will test you, but it will also reward you with vivid, dramatic scenery that look great in pictures. I might add that pictures do not do this mountain much justice.
Hiking into mystery
Summit ridge on Missouri Mountain, Colorado.
Another memorable solo outing. Dodgy weather almost made this one a no-go, but conditions held long enough to bag the summit. While on the ridge, swirling clouds made this part of the trail appear to vanish into the mists. It was surreal and amazing to hike this stretch of alpine singletrack.
Mount Mitchell, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma.
I cut my teeth on Class 3 and 4 climbing on this one. This scene framed itself nicely. The light in the sky is a little flat, but I liked the way the mountain is reflected in the water, and how you can see all the grooves in this ancient granite crag. The Wichitas are hundreds of millions of years old, but still stand proudly over the western Oklahoma prairie.
Clothed in white
Northeastern San Juan Range, near Lake City, Colorado.
You can see four 13,000-foot peaks in this one, graced with late spring snow — Coxcomb, Redcliff, Precipice and Heisshorn. The suncupped snow in the foreground is actually the summit of Wetterhorn Peak, which contrasts nicely with the peaks in the middle of the frame and the skies far to the north. Breathtaking scenery atop my favorite mountain.
Adventure is out there
Overlooking the Angel of Shavano Coulior, Mount Shavano, Colorado.
A shot of one of my adventure buddies, Johnny Hunter, on our first snow climb on Mount Shavano. The sweeping lines of the trail, the couloir and the saddle of the mountain, combined with the sky in the background, just screams “spirit of adventure” to me.
Moment before a triumph
Mount Shavano summit.
Another one from Mount Shavano. This was taken less than a hundred feet from the summit. Johnny is paused here, looking up. To me, this captures the moment when you realize that victory is near — the hard work, physical strain, whipping winds — all of it is converging on a slice of time when you’re about to top out after a big day on the mountain. It’s a sweet feeling that keeps us coming back for more.
Watch your step
Summit of Uncompahgre Peak, near Lake City, Colorado.
My official “sweaty palms” photo from the top of the San Juans’ highest mountain, Uncompahgre Peak. It’s a simple hike to the top with a small stretch of scrambling near the summit. But the north face cliffs are sheer. This shot is looking 700 feet straight down.
Seasons in flux
Looking east from the summit of Uncompahgre Peak.
Rain and graupple falling to the east gave these peaks a frosty appearance over the Labor Day weekend of 2009. A very moody image that shows how the weather and mountains interact.
Wetterhorn Peak, Colorado.
My favorite mountain, Wetterhorn, as seen from the summit of Matterhorn Peak. Wetterhorn offers so many dramatic profiles and is an incredible (and surprisingly accessible) mountain to climb. The spiny connecting ridge between the two mountains offers a little more visual spice that symbolizes the wildness of the San Juans.
So there you have it. You’ll notice that all of these are from two states. I’ve hiked and climbed mountains in New Mexico, Montana, Tennessee and even China, but it is coincidence that my favorite mountain pics come from the two states — Colorado and Oklahoma — where I’ve lived the longest.
I’d like to see your favorite mountain pics. So here’s what I’m proposing: Go to the Proactiveoutside Facebook page (please “like” it if you haven’t already!) and put your best mountain pic in the comments that accompany this post. Include a brief description of what mountain we’re looking at, where it is, and any other interesting information about the image. If I get enough, I’ll compile them and post them in a future blog of your best images. So let’s see em!
Personal exploration is something we should all do. But did you ever wonder who the greatest explorers were?
Every now and then, I dive into the ole Twitterverse to take part in a select few chats, most of which deal with the outdoors.
One of them is the Adventure Travel Q&A, or simply known as #ATQA. Some very cool folks take part in this on a weekly basis, and the topics are interesting. The latest one really got me thinking.
The subject was “exploration.” I think there are two ways to look at this concept.
The first is personal exploration. By that, I’m talking about going to places new to you. This is the type of travel where you see something you’ve never seen before, revel in new experiences, and quite often, learn and grow. When people talk about “exploring” something, this is usually the type of exploration they’re referencing. For the record, I’m all for doing as much of this as you can.
The second type of exploration is more of the classic definition: An adventure where you are going somewhere no one has ever been, or doing something that’s never been done.
By this, I’m talking about those folks who were the first to summit the world’s highest peaks, to dive to the deepest part of the ocean, to see new lands never documented by man, or to peer into the darkest corners of space. We’re talking macro-exploration here.
The question was asked who the greatest explorers were. This is exactly the type of question that I can geek out on like nobody’s business. After some thinking, this is what I came up with:
A replica of an oceangoing Polynesian boat. Imagine crossing the Pacific Ocean in one of these.
The Polynesians. You want to know how there came to be people who live in places like Tahiti, Fiji or Hawaii? They didn’t jump on a steam ship or an airplane. Not originally. No, those brave folks used canoes and rafts powered by the wind (via small sails) and their own oars. The traversed the world’s largest ocean in vessels most of us would be scared to board on a big lake. But they did it, and covered THOUSANDS of miles, braving high heat, huge waves, big storms and hungry sharks. You may not know this, but the Hawaiian Islands make up the most remote island archipelago on the planet. European sailors didn’t land there before these bits of earth had long been discovered, explored and settled by Polynesians centuries before. I’d be hard-pressed to find another group of explorers more hardy than these determined mariners.
The Vikings sailed from Scandinavia to places like Iceland, Greenland and even North America in vessels like this one, centuries before Christopher Columbus.
The Vikings. Coming a close second are the Scandinavian butt-kickers known more for their savagery toward the poor inhabitants of Britain, Ireland and Continental Europe. These guys were expert warriors, and adept at the art of psychological warfare. That’s what made their raids and acts of extortion so lucrative. But these folks were also capable sailors, be it along the coast, up rivers or in the open sea. On that last count, they one-upped Christopher Columbus by a few centuries, crossing the North Atlantic toward Iceland, Greenland and even North America. The Vikings briefly settled the southeastern coast of modern-day Canada before giving up — way back in the 10th Century. While they quit North America, the remains of their amazing feats of exploration can be seen in the ruins of Greenland and in the continuing civilization that flourishes on Iceland. Want to know how amazing this is? A typical Viking ship was powered only by sail and oar, and the ships themselves were a little over 50 feet long. Like the Polynesians, they did it without the benefit of modern navigation we take for granted today, and if you don’t already know, the North Atlantic can have some of the nastiest, stormiest weather on earth.
The moon landing may possibly be the greatest example of exploration in history, and certainly one of the greatest achievements in the history of the United States. Exploration!
The astronauts. Be they American or Soviet space explorers (and many other nationalities now), astronauts (the USSR called them cosmonauts) take part in a type of travel that is completely novel, and overly hostile to the presence of humans. The science, technology and pure guts it takes to strap yourself into a metal can and rocket into the void cannot be understated. Think about it: You have to take everything with you — food, water and air — and protect yourself from blinding light, searing heat/deadly cold and unfiltered radiation. If everything goes right, you live, provided you can get home without frying in the earth’s atmosphere on the journey back. Everything about space is pretty much trying to kill you.
Among the grandest accomplishments therein has to be the moon landings. Seeing this happened nearly five decades ago, and how numb we are to such feats, it requires you to step back to really appreciate what the astronauts of the Saturn project did. They traveled tens of thousands of miles, LEAVING THE PLANET to land on a completely new world. Humans have walked on earth for all of our existence. Before Neil Armstrong, no living thing had ever sniffed the surface of the moon. A lot will be said about what the United States has accomplished in its brief history, but this monumental feat of exploration will go down as one of the country’s greatest-ever achievements. So you were the first to climb X mountain? Fuggetaboutit. These guys are the only living beings on earth to have set foot on another world.
You might be bumming because your own explorations don’t measure up to these badasses. But don’t be sad, little camper. Take heart. Our efforts pale in comparison, but the spirit is the same. The effort involved, the planning, and at times, the courage to carry it out, can be extreme. But think about how much you grow. The deeds of our greatest explorers illustrate how the process of adventure is a pretty awesome thing. Use that for motivation the next time the itch to explore arises.
On the slopes of Cupid, a Colorado 13er that was remarkably free of people when I was there.
If you’re into the Colorado hiking and climbing scene, you know all about the 14ers, the peaks that rise to elevations of more than 14,000 feet. Colorado has more of those than any state in the country, 58 high points that hit that magic number.
To say that the 14ers are popular is an understatement. Many of these peaks get crowded in the summer, with packed trails and clogged trailhead parking lots. Looking for a moment of solitude in the mountains? That’s not likely among the 14ers during the peak season of summer hiking. You’ll need to hit ’em up in less friendly conditions that surround winter for that.
But there are plenty of other mountains in Colorado. Believe it or not, most of them don’t top 14,000 feet. And because of that, they’ve become the forgotten mountains of the peak bagger realm.
Fine by me. I like the 13ers. They’re wild, beautiful and largely absent of people. My experience in the 13ers is a little limited, but memorable just the same.
Enough words. Just take a look and you’ll see what I mean.
Grizzly Peak D is in there somewhere…
You can hike this one and many others just up the road from Denver, and chances are, you will see few people.
Iowa Peak (right) and Emerald Peak.
Just south of Missouri Mountain are these beauties.
Gilpin Peak (left). Rugged stuff near Telluride.
Yankee Boy Basin is home to some seriously amazing 13er scenery.
Kismet (right) and Potosi.
See what I mean?
Campsite view of Peak 18.
The 13ers can be quite dramatic, even if their names are not.
Turret and Pigeon peaks.
One word. Wow.
13ers everywhere. In the distance, Vestal and Arrow peaks.
Did I say wow? Yes. Yes I did.
Coxcomb, Redcliff and somewhere over there, Precipice.
They look good in snow, too.
A knockout, right?
Indeed, they are. In all seasons.
So there ya go. It doesn’t have to be 14,000 feet to be awesome. There are more than 600 of these amazing 13,000-foot rockpiles out there. Plenty to explore away from crowds.
All things considered, 2015 was a challenging but rewarding year.
Sometimes you have one of those years where things don’t quite go as you planned. But in retrospect, you find that some pretty great things happened despite the challenges. Those silver linings always shine though. 2015 was that sort of year.
The past year was marked by setbacks, unmet goals and some disappointments. But in the midst of that, there were quite a few lessons learned — things that propelled me forward toward the end of 2015 and should reap some benefits going forward.
Running took a hit, but there was a rally in the fall. Momentum is back on my side!
I’d say it is in this area, and in fitness overall, where I fell flat. After a decent 2014 (which followed an amazing 2013), I backslid significantly. I took a break from races, which in itself is not a bad thing. Sometimes you need to back off.
But without any goals on the horizon, I slacked off on my training, with predictable results. I gained some bad weight, got slower, and lost that “free” feeling I’d earned after a season of marathon training two years ago. It became laborious.
Fortunately, I rallied in the fall, a season in which I declared that I was choosing not to suck. I ended up running three road races over three months, capping it off with a second half marathon at the Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa. By the time I got into the last weeks of training for that race, I got my running groove back.
What I learned: It’s easy to lose your conditioning, and hard to regain it. You don’t have to race, but you do need to keep challenging yourself.
IN THE MOUNTAINS
I didn’t conquer the mountain. It conquered me. At the Keyhole on Longs Peak.
A few things conspired against me when I turned my attention to the high country. By summer, my fitness wasn’t where it should have been, so when I joined some buddies in a climb of Longs Peak, I wasn’t at my best.
But it was the weather that did us in. Despite being an early July attempt, storms created near-winter conditions high on the peak. High winds, wet snow and a slippery rock made it a no-go, turning us back about a mile and a thousand feet below the summit at the Keyhole formation. It was the right decision, but frustrating nonetheless.
Silver linings of came in the form of weather windows that gave me views like this. On Cupid, near Loveland Pass.
The entire week was like that. I had plans to do some easier peaks, too, but I only got one decent weather window for a quick hike up Cupid, a minor 13,000-foot peak near Loveland Pass.
But I gained good experiences in all of this, able to spend time with good friends, take some amazing photographs and learn what it’s like when the mountain says no.
Trail magic on Mount LeConte.
All this was in the back of my mind heading into the fall, and a family gathering in Tennessee put me tantalizingly close to the Appalachians. I was determined to stand on top of a mountain before year’s end, so I took my sister-in-law Jen with me for a hike up Mount LeConte, my first foray into the Smokies and a memorable one at that. I love the Rockies, but I’ve got room in my heart for those wonderful East Coast peaks as well.
Turkey Mountain and the Arkansas River in Tulsa. Two natural resources that people are starting to value more.
This was a big high point in 2015. I’ve been working with the Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition for more than a year now, and many of our efforts have been focused on protecting the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area from commercial development. More specifically, from being home to an outlet mall.
I wrote a lot about this, and the coalition made a compelling case to keep Turkey Mountain wild. Tulsans came out in droves to town hall meetings to discuss the plan, with an overwhelming majority taking the side of conservation.
City council members listened, and so did the outlet mall developers. The plan for Turkey Mountain was scrapped, moved to another part of the metro area. And more recently, there is serious discussion about expanding the urban wilderness as part of a sales tax package that should go before voters in the spring. This was a huge win not only for the coalition and Turkey Mountain, but for the entire city. If not for the tireless work of the TUWC, it’s doubtful the mountain would have been protected.
ON THE BLOG AND ONLINE
It was a good year for the blog. The number of readers I had grew, and you all responded kindly to a number of posts I threw your way.
Three of my top 10 posts of 2015 had to deal with the ongoing developments concerning Turkey Mountain. A lot of people shared those posts in hope of letting their friends know what was going on and what was at stake. I appreciate that more than you know, especially given how things turned out.
In addition to the blog, I continued to meet more of you in the virtual world via Proactiveoutside’s Facebook page, Instagram account and on Twitter. I definitely appreciate every follow and like I get!
See ya on the trails, friends!
I choose not to look at 2015 as a disappointment. There were letdowns, but there were also some incredible moments, good times with good people, and resounding successes, most of which were shared with others.
My hope is that 2016 will see greater accomplishments, more time outdoors, and perhaps a bit of news from yours truly. Stay tuned, my friends! And may your 2016 be a great one.
Our dogs can make the ultimate trail buddies. (Craig Cook photo)
They call the domesticated canine “man’s best friend,” and it seems more true these days than most. People love their cats, but America’s love of dogs seems to have flown into the stratosphere, with people taking them to bars, insuring their health and toting them around in purses.
The outdoorsy set is no different. We love our dogs, and to share our adventures with them. Find the right breed and you’ll have a furry friend that’s up for long hikes, backpacking trips or trail runs for life. Given most pups’ eagerness to do whatever their human friend is doing, it’s tough to find a better adventure buddy or training partner.
I recently read an essay in The Adventure Journal (originally posted in the High Country News) that caught my eye. The headline, “Dogs Don’t Belong in National Park Backcountry,” caused a bit of a fuss, I’m sure. Make a suggestion about a dog not being allowed to go somewhere its human goes will get pet owners’ hackles up as much as their pooch’s when the doorbell rings.
The writer made a few points that are worth considering: that some breeds aren’t good for hiking; that the mixing of dogs and wildlife often isn’t good for either; and that it’s unfair to the dog to be put in situations of risk when the animal doesn’t have any real understanding of what risk is.
(As a matter of disclosure on the article, its main point was that some people are abusing “service dog” considerations to get around rules that prohibit dogs in restricted areas, such as NPS backcountry.)
Although I don’t currently own a dog, I’m hugely pro-dog. Most dogs like me, and I can spend a lot of time playing with dogs. I even chose my barber because he keeps a huge Great Dane/Rhodesian Ridgeback with him in his shop. I see people out with their dogs on walks, running/biking trails, and out in the backcountry all the time, and I’ve personally never had any trouble with them. A number of my friends bring Fido along on all their adventures, and indeed, their trips wouldn’t be the same without them. Given the right amount of outdoor space, I’d own a dog for sure.
One appeal to the outdoorsy dog: their energy is contagious. (Ken Childress photo)
But I’m not going to say the essay in question was just a case of a non-dog person writing a big harrumph at dog owners’ expense.
Let’s take a look at her first point: that a lot of dogs are not good hikers.
About 10 years ago, I was doing some fishing in Colorado’s Black Canyon when something really weird caught my eye: a couple hiking along the other bank of the river, with the woman carrying a toy-breed dog in a dog purse. Obviously, that dog wasn’t going to be good for hiking, but to each his/her own. If she wants to pull a Paris Hilton while hiking along a mountain river, that’s on her.
Another time, while hiking Quandary Peak, I came across another party and their golden lab, which clearly was not ready for a full day’s hiking at altitude. The dog reached its physical limit, plopped down, and refused to move. The owners had two choices: Pick the animal up and carry it out, or simply wait until it was ready to move again. I’m not sure how that went down. My group moved on. Hopefully they were able to coax their dog the rest of the way down the mountain, or find a way to otherwise bring it back to the trailhead.
And on one more occasion, while topping out on Mount Yale, I saw a fella carrying his pet (another lab) the entire way up the mountain’s final, bouldery and rugged stretch to the top. At that point, I wondered if it was more of a pride thing for the owner (“Me and Bruno bagged our 10th 14er!”) than anything else.
Not all hikes are a walk in the park, and certainly not all dogs — even your furry little athlete — are ready for big days in the wild.
Canine camp companions. (Matt Carver photo)
Let’s move on to the second point — that dogs and wildlife often don’t mix.
Now this is a little trickier, because it’s hard to quantify dogs’ impact on wildlife if the dog is well-behaved. The article mentioned the potential effects of dogs’ droppings, noises and scents on wildlife. I’m not knowledgeable enough to comment on that, but there are other impacts that are much easier to see.
A few years back, I interviewed Jessica Evett, who at the time had been doing a lot of work with the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a conservation organization that benefits the Colorado high country. I asked her for advice on how people should conduct themselves on the peak, and one of her points was to mind your pets.
She advised keeping dogs on a leash when on the trail. I’m not going to go that far, but her reasons for saying this are based on sound logic. Dogs like to explore, and when they see wildlife, they often like to give chase. For many of those animals, the months they’ve spent fattening up on the bounty of spring and summer means storing life-saving calories for the harder, colder months to come. Burning those calories escaping your dog could mean the difference between life and death in the winter.
It’s important to remember that the places we love to visit are the homes of wild animals. We get to leave and enjoy the comforts of civilization. They have to deal with the consequences of our encounters.
And all of this says nothing of wildlife encounters that go wrong for the dog. Just imagine a curious or feisty dog getting the wrong end of a moose’s antlers, a mountain goat’s horns, or a bear’s claws. ‘Nuff said.
And now the third point: that the insistence on bringing a dog into the backcountry can lead to grave consequences for the animal.
A few years ago, much of Colorado was abuzz after some hikers and their dog ran into trouble when their dog, an able-bodied German Shepherd we came to know as “Missy,” pooped out in the middle of a rugged ridge traverse between Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans. Missy’s paws were bleeding (common for dogs on rough terrain like the Rockies), and I’m sure the fatigue of a long day above 12,000 feet put the animal in a no-win situation. With deteriorating weather moving in, Missy’s owner and companions didn’t feel they could carry her out. So they left her on the ridge and hiked back to safety.
Volunteers get ready to transport Missy, a German Shepherd, off the Sawtooth Ridge in Colorado. Missy became stranded there when she could not continue the traverse of the ridge and was left there by her owner. (Huffington Post photo)
The good news is that word got out about Missy, and some determined souls went up the mountain, found the dog, and eventually carried her down safely.
The problem here is that the hikers who brought Missy to the mountain knew beforehand what the terrain had in store, and could make a decision on what to do if the hike and climb proved to be too much. Missy, being a dog, wouldn’t have had a clue. Safe to say, bringing her to that mountain and on the ridge was grossly unfair to the dog, and could have left her dead. How many other dogs are put in similar situations, simply because their owners insist on bringing them? Who knows. Probably more than we’d like to admit. And it points to a concern that maybe most dogs aren’t cut out for the rigors of backcountry adventure. Some are, for sure. But many others aren’t.
Dogs can be capable of a lot of things in the outdoors. As an owner, make sure they’re ready for the places you want to take them. (Noel Johnson photo)
For me, this leads me to two words: personal responsibility. You, the dog owner, know far more about what you’re getting into than your dog ever could. So the animal’s welfare rests almost entirely on you. You should definitely have enough food and water for the dog, and any gear or supplies that might be needed if your pet has problems on the trail. And if you can’t carry the animal out, maybe you should think twice before taking it with you.
It also seems wise to train your dog for your adventures. No one decides to run a marathon, then heads out for 26.2 miles the next day. It’s something you have to train for.
It’s the same thing for a big hike. You’re not going to do a 20-miler in the mountains without testing your legs and body on shorter hikes first, so why would anyone expect their dog to be any different? Training your dog to obey your commands and getting it physically ready for your outings seems like the right thing to do for your pet’s sake.
I’m not going to say dogs shouldn’t be in the backcountry. Some do quite well. But just how well they do is often entirely up to you.
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