There are a lot of wild scenes you envision when topping out on a high peak, but what greeted us atop Mount Democrat was anything but. The trail leading to the summit was lined with hikers, and plenty of people were already there. Not quite the natural, man-beats-mountain tableau that would commonly come to mind.
And yet, there was this: My nephew, Jordan, had strode to the top just ahead of me, and when I finally caught up, there were high fives and a hug.
“Proud of you man,” I told him, congratulating him on his second 14er. “Nice job!”
He reciprocated, and we both talked about the steepness of the trail. I said something about finally breaking my 14er losing streak (it had been two years since I’d summitted a 14,000-foot mountain). We ate a little, drank a little, and took a look at the surroundings and the work ahead.
Blue skies, a chill in the air, and three more peaks awaited. A big, glorious day in the high country was in store, and it wasn’t just because of the mountains. Sometimes what matters more is who you’re with.
A LITTLE FAMILY HISTORY
The family tradition of hiking and climbing Colorado’s high peaks is not a terribly long one, but it’s been packed full of adventures that several of us have enjoyed going back to around 2000 or so.
My oldest brother Mike kicked it off. A longtime Colorado resident, Mike took to the 14ers around the same time he took his health more seriously, and within a few years he’d bagged more than three dozen summits, including some of the more famous ones like Longs Peak and the Sawtooth Ridge between Mount Evans and Mount Bierstadt.
I joined in the fun soon after, and Mike was with me on my first four high summits in New Mexico and Colorado. We later brought my next oldest brother, Steve, into the fold, hitting up Quandary Peak and Mount Bierstadt during a weekend of brotherly adventures. And about four years ago, Steve and I led his his three kids, Hillary, Hannah and Hunter, as well as his wife Beth and my eldest niece, Liz, back to Quandary for another trek up the mountain’s east ridge.
Jordan jumped on this train early, heading up Bierstadt with his dad when he was a grade schooler. It was his first, and until that day with me on Mount Democrat, his only 14er ascent.
I imagine he would have done more by now, especially with Mike being such an avid hiker, but this is where the story takes a sad turn. Mike, the picture of health in our family for well over a decade, grew ill with a type of bone marrow cancer similar to leukemia, and it was an illness from which he wouldn’t recover. His passing more than five years ago was a crushing blow to my family, and especially to Jordan, his sister Katie, and their mom, Lisa. It still hurts. Every time I go up a new peak, I wonder what Mike would have thought about it. When I learn something new about training, or look for someone to call with advice about the subject, his name still pops up first. They say time heals all wounds, but that’s only true to an extent.
I can’t imagine, however, what it must feel like for his son.
Years later, Jordan has grown from being a student to a professional, and has likewise taken his dad’s path to becoming a fitter, more capable man. The dude set a goal to compete in a local Spartan race and met the challenge, but is not content with that. He’s still pounding the weights, running and playing sports.
So when I made my latest plans to head to the mountains, I floated the idea of me and him hitting a four-peak loop dubbed the Decalibron.
Of course, he said yes.
The Decalibron gets its name from a combination of four 14ers in the Mosquito Range, a grouping of mountains between the touristy town of Breckenridge and the high alpine valley around Fairplay.
The mountains – Mount Democrat, Mount Cameron, Mount Lincoln and Mount Bross – loom over Fairplay like a huge alpine fortress, easily visible from the highway.
All of the mountains are straightforward hikes, so you eliminate the complications that come with more vertical pitches and exposure. The loop itself is not that long, just 7.25 miles.
The challenge, however, comes from a couple of things. First, the initial part of the route – two miles and 2,000 feet up Mount Democrat – is pretty steep. And second, the majority of the route takes place around 13,000 feet or higher. The trailhead at Kite Lake itself starts at 12,000 feet. So no matter what, you’re spending your entire day above treeline.
The result is a hike that ends up being a fitness challenge of sorts. A doable one, but a test nonetheless.
UP WE GO
So here’s the thing. Over the years, I’ve spent some time in the Rockies hiking and climbing the peaks, and even on bad days, I’ve been able to overcome different challenges to top out. Back in 2008, pneumonia didn’t prevent me from summitting Mount Yale, though in hindsight, it should have (the two-month recovery was brutal).
I’m not bragging here. All I’m saying is not reaching that goal is something I’m not used to. I fully expect that there will be times when a summit won’t happen. But up until last summer, it hadn’t happened to me.
So the last time I stood at 14,000 feet was on a warm summer morning in 2014, atop North Eolus in the Weminuche Wilderness of southwestern Colorado. A 2015 attempt at Longs Peak ended up in failure, and weather washed out most of my other plans for that time.
Then, just days before Jordan and I drove up to Kite Lake, weather again was a major contributor to getting turned back on Crestone Peak. A food thief – animal or human – made the next day’s planned hike of Humboldt Peak a no-go, and weather once again soured plans to climb the Citadel.
So I was feeling a bit snakebit when it came to the mountains. The losing streak was lengthening with each planned trip, every aborted summit, and each goal unreached. The forecast looked good, and we were at the trailhead early enough to get a good start. But I had to wonder what new bump in the road was going to stall me this time.
We parked at Kite Lake – there’s a $3 price tag with that, something I think is worth it – and started up the trail soon after. It starts mellow as you go by the lake, but picks up in steepness on a switchbacking trail that leads to the saddle between Democrat and Cameron. Jordan was powering through it well, as were most of the people populating the trail that morning.
One thing I found interesting was the lack of Colorado residents I saw. I met people from Iowa, for example, and a couple of other flatland states. They were a lot like me, gutting out segments of the route before stopping for a breather. The higher up we got, the more frequent those breaks became.
I felt surprisingly good. As the saddle neared, I felt confident that we’d hit the summit and do so in enough time to go for at least one more peak before the weather had a chance to turn.
A blast of cold, northerly winds greeted us there, the kind that hits your head and spawns an instant headache. But the views of the Tenmile Range, including Quandary Peak, helped me shrug it off. We took it in quickly, then chewed up the last, steep bit of hiking before the terrain eased just short of the summit. Ten minutes later, we were there.
Let me tell you, it felt good to get off the schneid. Standing at 14,148 feet, the two-year summit drought finally ended.
And what a vantage point. Looking west, I spied the giants of the Elk Range – Snowmass, Capitol, the Maroon Bells and Pyramid. Quandary towered just to the north, and far away, Pikes Peak stood guard over the southern Front Range.
Most importantly, we got a look at the rest of the route, starting with Mount Cameron. From where we stood, it looked like another steep piece of work.
THE PEOPLE YOU MEET
The trail up Mount Democrat was crowded, to say the least. Lots of people showed up that morning to try their hand at Mount Democrat, and possibly the rest of the loop.
What we discovered as we headed up Mount Cameron is that most of the crowd decided to hang it up after Democrat. I can understand that. The toughest part of the Decalibron is at the beginning, gaining Democrat’s summit. The mountain had a way of weeding folks out.
For our part, Jordan and I found a rhythm. It was nice to be going uphill and still able to hold a conversation. That’s not a problem for Colorado natives, but for folks like me the high altitude stuff usually turns into a head-down-feet-shuffling thing between rest stops, without much talking. Perhaps the previous days’ adventures at altitude were finally paying off in terms of acclimatizing.
About halfway up Cameron, we came across a group of younger dudes from Ohio. Cleveland, to be more precise. They’d flown into Colorado days before and were doing their best to charge up the hill. One guy in particular, with a mop-top of blond hair and an abundance of bro-enthusiasm, proved to be particularly entertaining. We all cursed the thin air and the struggle of going up. And then he would take off running up the trail, gassing about after a hundred yards or so, then stopping momentarily to bitch about the thin air before rambling uphill again. It wasn’t unlike a puppy who would sprint around the yard until near collapse, stopping to pant, then forgetting his fatigue before renewing his race around the fenceline.
“These guys are crazy,” one of the Clevelanders said, watching his friend bolt up the trail. “But I guess that’s why they’re my friends.”
In the middle of all this, we chatted these guys up. Jordan is a huge sports fan, so naturally, the topic of NBA basketball came up, and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship run. That’s a conversation any Cleveland fan is all too happy to have, and for good reason. Discussing this and the route ahead – “So, are you guys planning to get all four peaks?” – we came up with a good alternative name for the loop – the Decalibron James. Congrats, LeBron. Not only are you a champion and Finals MVP, but you’re now a part of 14ers lore, thanks to Jordan’s way with words.
Cameron gets steeper for awhile, but the trail eases close to the top. The summit itself is a broad expanse of brown, beige and even reddish dirt and rock. From the top, Lincoln’s summit is in view, as is the route to Mount Bross. Up here, you wonder if you’re still on Earth or on the surface of Mars. We joked about maybe seeing Matt Damon up there somewhere.
Cameron marked a good place for lunch. The weather was brilliant, and Lincoln’s summit was a foregone conclusion. The sense of urgency was past as 14er summit No. 2 was in the bag.
Our Cleveland friends were there, and in the midst of refueling a flask of Jim Beam got passed around. Hard to say no to that.
We took more pics, surveyed the scene and realized right then that we were going to get all four summits. It was nice to have that sort of confidence after a couple of years of frustration.
ROUNDING IT OUT
We got moving again toward Lincoln, which on this loop was the easiest summit to gain. The distance between it and Cameron’s summit is short, and the elevation loss and gain minimal. Crossing the lunar-like landscape was pretty cool. Another fella hiking the loop, a dude about my age from Minnesota (“I remember what it was like to see Nirvana live!”) hit us up for conversation on this leg of the journey. He was a lot like me, a guy from lower elevations who made a point to come to the Rockies for an elevation fix.
Lincoln’s summit it the smallest, highest, and most interesting of the bunch. There is a cliff face facing the west, and a steep gully that opens up right at the top. Probably a good idea to not descend that one.
With three summits down, it was time to check out the skies and look at the remaining route. So far, the skies looked fine. A few more clouds, and there were some building farther to the north, but nothing where we were. The summit of Bross was 1.5 miles away, the longest segment between the peaks, and then there was still the awful descent off that mountain I’d heard and read about. Spoiler alert: the stories are true. More on that later.
Coming off Lincoln, Jordan and I had plenty of time to talk about the amazing day we were having, about life, work, and how much Mike would have loved this trip. A lot has changed for Jordan in these last five years: He’s gone from a searching young college kid to an established broadcast media professional. He’s taken total charge of his life and not let the adversity that crashed into his family set him back. He’s experienced the worst days, some joyous times, and witnessed his mom find love again, remarrying a super great guy and starting anew. That’s a lot for a young man to take in, but he’s done it. Hearing about all of that was a huge blessing to me.
It also helps that he’s a lot of fun to be around. I’ve been fortunate to have a good run of company when it comes to hiking the peaks. Some of the kindest, bravest, funniest and most interesting people I’ve ever known have been folks with whom I’ve shared the trail. Jordan ranks with the best of them.
So, on to Bross. Funny thing about this mountain. Parts of it are private property, owned by mining interests that go back a ways. This includes a chunk of real estate at the summit, so technically speaking, you’re not supposed to hike to the summit at all.
And that must be the most poorly enforced edict of all time. No, there is no maintained trail to the top. But, yes, there are trails. And a windbreak. And a piece of wood in the windbreak that has “Mt Bross 14,179 ft” written on it, there for the sole purpose of people picking up and holding for a summit photograph. Maybe the trail police will get us all one day, but only those most skittish about authority actually avoid the summit of Mount Bross, which, like Cameron, has that broad, Mars-like quality that makes you think you’re on another planet.
It made for a sweet finish. We enjoyed a perfect day weather-wise, and once everyone else started heading down, Jordan and I had the summit to ourselves. It’s not often you can get four summits in one day, and enjoy it on a day in which the conditions were so close to perfect. It was a nice contrast compared to the wash-outs of the past.
It was also cool to see Jordan revisit the experience he had with his dad many years ago as he tagged his second, third, fourth and fifth 14ers. Surely Mike looked down on us with a bit of a grin on his face.
If you remember from earlier, I said the descent off Mount Bross is every bit as bad as advertised. If you read route descriptions and trip reports, there are mentions of loose rocks and scree, and “skiing” down dinner plates of talus. I can confirm this is all true. It starts out like you’re hiking on BBs, then the route steepens on the middle of the ridge heading down. There were times when it made more sense to slide down and move my feet and knees as if I were making turns at Vail or something. Oh, and there was a woman hiking down who seemed to be making a better go of it than we were. She asked us what we were wearing on our feet, then gently scolded us for not wearing hiking boots. Had to give an eyeroll at that. We were wearing trail running shoes, which works pretty well on rocky, dry routes. That sort of high country condescension makes me want to show up at the next trailhead in jeans, a cotton T-shirt and a pair of Chacos. Just to piss off the “elite.” No one likes unsolicited advice, but seeing that it’s all in vogue right now, here’s a little from me: Unless your input is requested or you see danger on the immediate horizon, it’s best to keep your mouth shut. Let people learn from their mistakes. I can say without hesitation that my choice of trail running shoes over boots was intentional and well thought-out.
Thankfully, she scooted out of our orbit, leaving us and our apparently inadequate footwear to negotiate the mess below. We caught up with another pair of hikers we met that day – a dude and a gal who work at Tommyknockers, and fantastic little brewpub in Idaho Springs – and finished the hike chatting them up. We learned that they’d driven up to the trailhead in a Toyota Corolla, so I offered them a ride down to their car, assuming there is no way a subcompact with no clearance would have made it up to the lake. No need, they said. They were parked maybe 50 feet from us. Score another one for the noob tribe.
Driving down, we got our kicks watching others in passenger cars bravely attempting to negotiate the road going up. I admit, I stopped, watched in my rearview mirrors, and then laughed loudly when I saw their reverse lights engage. I guess I’m kind of a jerk like that. But it’s all in good fun.
And good fun is what it’s all about. We remember those sufferfests with pride. Hard days in the high country make for great stories and incredible learning experiences. But those great days, where everything goes right, the company is excellent and God smiles on you broadly from the mountaintop, that’s the stuff that keeps us coming back. Four peaks in one day under beautiful blue skies with a rad dude like Jordan made this trip about as perfect as it could get.
GETTING THERE: From Denver, take US 285 southwest toward Fairplay. Once in town, take State Highway 9 north toward Alma. In Alma, watch for street signs on your left. One of them will point toward Kite Lake. Take that dirt road out of town for about 6 miles to Kite Lake. The road has some decent sized ruts and dips, so a car or truck with decent clearance is advisable. If you park at Kite Lake, there is a $3 fee.
ABOUT THE ROUTE: From Kite Lake, follow the trail as it goes up the slopes toward a saddle between Mount Democrat and Mount Cameron. Once at the saddle, go left and follow the switchbacks up to a broad, flatter area just below the summit. From here, hike to remaining couple of hundred yards to the top. This segment gains about 2,000 feet and is the hardest part of the route. It is also a good point to stop, look at the weather and decide if you will move on to Mount Cameron.
From here, descend the mountain back to the saddle and follow the trail up the ridge on Cameron. The terrain steepens for a few hundred yards, then eases as the summit nears. Cameron’s summit is broad, and you get a good look toward Mount Lincoln and the remaining route toward Mount Bross. This is another good place to do a weather check and see if you will have time for what comes next.
The easiest part of the route is following the trail off Cameron’s summit toward the saddle between it and Mount Lincoln. It’s a short descent, then a quick rise over a knob, then on to Lincoln’s true summit.
From here, go back to the Cameron/Lincoln saddle and follow the trail that goes around Cameron’s south side. It continues between a long, broad connecting ridge to Mount Bross. This is the longest section of the upper route, and is a mild grade in its entirety. The 1.5 mile hike to Bross ends either just short of the summit or, if you wish, follow one of the unmaintained trails (there are a few) to the top.
Leaving Bross, head west down the ridge that slopes down toward Kite Lake. The hiking is easy at first, but degrades as you get lower and the route steepens. Loose footing is present until the route goes left of the ridge and follows a more solid, gentler incline that leads to the willows and the easy hiking back to the lake.
The route is 7.25 miles from the lake. Going up Mount Democrat is Class 2; the rest of the hiking, with the exception of the descent off Bross, is Class 1.