There is no such thing as an ‘easy’ 14er

About 13,000 feet on Quandary Peak’s east ridge. While this is considered one of the easier Colorado 14ers, it still presents plenty of challenges that are not easy.

Something I see posted in outdoor forums and social media sites is a question about the Colorado 14ers, or more specifically, about which peaks are the “easy” 14ers.

A lot of times, the people asking this question are just like I was many years ago when I wanted to follow in my big brother’s footsteps by seeking summits on Colorado’s highest peaks. There was no sense trying to bag the tough ones too early, at least not for someone with no experience in the high country. That was my thinking, anyway.

I’ve got a few under my belt now. Not a ton, but past the noob stage. Here’s the conclusion that I’ve come to: For most people, there is no such thing as an easy 14er.

I’ll explain why in a minute. First, a disclaimer. As of this writing, I have 32 summits of 13,000 feet or more under my belt. Twenty-two of them are 14ers, and throw in a couple of repeats, that’s 24 successful ascents of peaks of 14,000 feet or more. I’ve done some more advanced routes, but plenty of harder ones still await. The hardest peak I’ve done was Mount Eolus, ranked by 14ers.com as the 12th hardest of the 58 Colorado 14ers. So my range of experience is somewhat limited.

That said, I’ve seen a range of difficulty that backs up my claim. My reasoning…

Mount Bierstadt (right) and the Sawtooth Ridge.

Even if you’re in shape, elevation is the great equalizer. You say you’re a runner? A cyclist? A crossfitter? Well, I’ve got news for you. A well-marked and maintained trail on the gentler slopes of “beginner” peaks will still take you past 12,000 feet above sea level, and that’s when it gets tough. I’ve found myself counting steps and taking a breather on walk-up peaks, confirming that even on the shorter, less-steep and easier routes, it’s still damn hard work, even for the fit. Blame that thin air.

Huron Peak.

Elevation has other fun surprises, too. You’re going to burn a lot of energy going up that hill, but don’t be surprised if your appetite is nil. You’ll need to force down calories, but your digestive system may want none of it. Thin air will make you breathe harder, and with each exhale, you’ll lose small bits of moisture. You’ll sweat. When added to the dryness of the climate, dehydration settles in fast. The effects of these maladies, plus the general susceptibility some people have to high elevations, can bring on altitude sickness. Elevation doesn’t know you’re on a beginner hike. It’ll throw these obstacles at you regardless.

Me, with the Hilltop Mine and Mount Sherman’s summit in the background. (Jordan Doucette photo)

Beginner peaks have been known to kill. Weather and terrain can be brutally fickle on the 14ers, regardless of season. A gentle summer slope can be a killer in winter or spring if the snowpack is unsettled and avalanche-prone. Lightning strikes are deadly. And being exposed to the elements when the cold comes through and catches you unaware is an easy way to get hypothermia. Seemingly healthy people have keeled over from heart attacks on straightforward walk-up mountains like Quandary Peak.

Slogging up Mount Yale, about 12,500 feet.

Remoteness of most of the 14ers provides added challenges. Even the most accessible mountains are, in some ways, remote depending on where you are on the peak. If something goes wrong (injury, illness, getting lost) near the summit, it could be hours or even days before rescuers can reach you. That makes planning an added challenge, and places pressure on you that don’t exist on lower elevation hikes.

Me on Mount Shavano’s summit, my second ever 14er.

One last thing: Don’t let these admonitions lead you to believe that ordinary folks can’t find their way to high summit views. Plenty of Average Janes and Joes not only top out on the easier 14ers, but actually climb them all. And that’s the great allure, that hiking and climbing mountains can transform otherwise ordinary lives into ones that are more adventurous. But it’s wise to respect the peaks – regardless of their perceived difficulty – and remember that a 14er ascent is no walk in the park.

Some helpful links…

14er fitness

14er gear

Picking your first 14er

Doing your first 14er ascent

Bob Doucette

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Four things I learned outside of my comfort zone

I consider myself a lucky man. Over the years, I’ve been to some amazing places and experienced indelible moments, small points of light in a life that is otherwise routine. There’s nothing wrong with routine; you have to live your life and do what’s necessary to pay your bills, take care of folks and live. But the sweet spots leave impressions.

I’ve got a strain of wanderlust in my blood. A healthy fear of being too ill or weak to get out anymore. I crave my time outdoors, hitting the road and collecting new stories. I love a physical challenge.

All of this has taught me plenty. Much of it has been through trial and error while the best of it has been dutifully learned through patient instruction by people who know better than me.

Through all of this, I’ve come to a few conclusions.

It’s important to go to new places. It doesn’t matter of it’s a new park, a different part of town, a state you’ve never visited, or a country on the other side of the world. Broader perspectives are gained when you leave the comfortable environs of home. You learn you can be home anywhere, and you might make good friends you otherwise would never have met.

There is no disadvantage to being strong. Making yourself physically stronger will only add years to your life and will make you a more capable person. The stronger you are, the harder you are to kill, be it from illness, accidents or from others who would do you harm. Strength is useful. Build it.

Find a difficult challenge and commit to it. I’m not talking about discovering the secret to world peace or curing cancer, although those are great (if you can do it, please do!). Consider this more of a personal thing. When my oldest brother talked about climbing mountains, I wondered if I could do that. And then I did. It was hard, but worth it. Same deal with running a marathon. It was a huge commitment well out of my comfort zone, but I have no regrets. In both cases, I felt I grew from the experience. What’s your challenge? Find one that sounds awesome but spooks you a little. And then try. You might end up changed for the better.

There is great value in spending time outside. Yes, there is fun to be had at the pub, at the movies, binging Netflix or playing video games. But all of those things – and the growing amount of time we spend hunched over smartphones, laptops and tablets – cannot do for us what an hour or so outside can. We need time outside to unplug from all this tech, to listen to the stirrings of the woods and the wind whipping in the lonely places, if only to remind us that there is a world outside of our big wooden, steel and glass boxes lining endless networks of asphalt. A night in the wild, rising with the sun and moving to the rhythms of nature, is a great balm for all that social media angst we always bitch about but willingly indulge. Make a habit of hiking a trail. It’s medicinal.

I hope to learn more in the years to come, during those times when I leave the house, my hometown, my state, and even my country. I can count the number of runs I’ve regretted on one hand and still have digits left over. I want to eat strange and exotic foods in a nation I’ve never visited, and hopefully enjoy some conversation with the people who made it. I look forward to the challenge of that next big mountain.

Here’s to the next journey outside my comfort zone, and the things learned therein.

Bob Doucette

Life outside: My favorite photos from 2018

I know most people do posts like this before the year ends, but hey, I was busy. So it’s mid-January and now I’m finally getting to it.

Getting outside allows you to see some incredible sights. So what you have here is a collection of cool scenes that stuck with me. Let’s get to it.

CAMPSITE SUNRISE

A lakeside sunrise in the Wichita Mountains.

I took this shortly after crawling out of my tent on a cool January morning in the Wichita Mountains. Our campsite was right next to this lake. There’s nothing quite like the sun setting the sky on fire the first thing in the morning.

THOSE CLOUDS

Sunset Peak, Wichita Mountains.

The cloud cover made the light a little flat, but the clouds themselves fanning out over the south summit of Sunset Peak in the Wichita Mountains caught my eye. The scenery is never boring here.

LATE SUN, THICK GREENERY

Hi Chi Trail, Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness, Tulsa.

I made a point last year to hike more, even if just locally. As the sun gets close to setting, you hit this magic hour when it pierces the woods and lights up the forest with a warmer glow than what you usually see when the sun is high and blasting you with Southern Plains heat.

THE CRESTONES

Crestone Needle (left) and Crestone Peak, as seen from the upper slopes of Humboldt Peak, Colo.

I had a hard time picking just one photo from last summer’s trip to South Colony Lakes. This one sums up the rugged beauty of the Crestones, two of the giants of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado. This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and I hope to go back soon.

AGAIN WITH THE MAGIC HOUR

Hiking the Mountain Trail, Robbers Cave State Park, Okla.

Oklahoma is a Southern Plains state, and most people see it as an expanse of prairie. That’s true in a lot of the state, but in southeastern Oklahoma are the Ouachita Mountains, an ancient swath of high, rolling hills covered in broadleaf and pine forests that stretch deep into western Arkansas. Coming back down the Mountain Trail at Robbers Cave State Park, the lowering sun cast light and long shadows through the pines. The Ouachitas were showing off.

ONE WORD: RUGGED

Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area, Wichita Mountains, as seen from Mount Mitchell.

We’re ending it here where we started: Deep inside the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area in the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma. We’d climbed to the top of Mount Mitchell and sought an easier route down. While scrambling down the mountain’s east ridge, I stopped to take in this view. The image encapsulates what may be the most rugged terrain in the state.

So there ya have it. What’s in store for 2019? We’ll see. Hopefully it’s at least as good as this.

Bob Doucette

Oklahoma outdoors: Hiking in the Wichita Mountains, climbing Mount Mitchell

Jen and Luke hiking down the trail toward Mount Mitchell.

Any time I talk to people about the Wichita Mountains, I describe them as “my Oklahoma happy place.”

Growing up in Colorado, the mountains were always near, and in plain sight. Moving to the Southern Plains, that changed. But in the southwestern quarter of the state is an ancient mountain range of granite domes, spires and towers that give me the mountain fix I need.

A buddy of mine named Trent gave me my first real introduction to the Wichitas back in my 20s. Later, another friend of mine named Johnny took that to the next level. Johnny and I, and at times, his sister Ouida, tromped all over the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and its Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

I like to take people to these places, to pass down what was shown to me. Last year, it was my friend Brian, who has become so transfixed by outdoor adventure that he’s sold all of his stuff, outfitted a van and is roadtripping across the country full-time now. He plans to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail next year, and already has a bunch of big hikes under his belt. Brian and I spent a couple of days in the Wichitas in January in what was not just an introduction for him, but a badly needed homecoming for me.

This month I’ve made a conscious effort to hike more, and when company was available, bring ’em along. I put out the word that I wanted to go down there and revisit an old favorite of mine there, Mount Mitchell. The peak is in the southwest corner of the wildlife refuge and it one of the most rugged mountains in the entire range. It’s great practice for people wanting to graduate from hiking and into scrambles and climbs just short of where you might need ropes.

My brother-in-law and his wife signed up. I felt good about this for a couple of reasons. Jen is someone I’ve hiked with before. She did Mount LeConte with me a few years back and likes to climb. Luke, being a firefighter, is trained in rope rescue and is no stranger to high places. I like taking all kinds of people on these trips. But it is a relief knowing that the chances were good that these two would be able to handle to challenges Mount Mitchell offers.

Approaching Mount Mitchell.

The hike takes you about three miles from the Sunset Trailhead to the base of Mount Mitchell. It’s fairly easy hiking, going over a few hills and following a decent trail right up until we got to the junction that takes you to a rock formation called Crab Eyes (more on that place later). The trail fades a bit west of there, and eventually we were “off trail,” hiking through grassy meadows and an burned-out forest until we got to the mountain.

What I’ve told people about the Wichitas is that the area has something for everyone. If you’re looking for easy, short and scenic hikes, there are plenty. If you are jonesing for difficult roped climbs, there are dozens of them throughout the refuge. Mount Mitchell is in between, a peak that can be scaled without ropes, but is no hike, not even by its easiest route. There is plenty of Class 3 scrambles and Class 4 climbing throughout.

I figured I’d taken them up the same way I went last time I was here, up a gully on the mountain’s north face. It’s rugged, steep and filled with route-finding problems. The granite on the mountain is grippy — great for handholds and footholds, ideal for friction climbing, and tough on your hands unless you’re wearing some sort of glove. I learned a few years back that when doing scrambles like this, a pair of batting gloves can save you a lot of grief when the rock is cutting up your fingers and palms on every move.

Me starting up the mountain. Climbing butt-shot. (Jen Baines photo)

Jen and I going up the gully. (Luke Baines photo)

The upper part of the climb with the summit in sight.

The downside for the three of us was that it has been nine years since I’ve climbed Mitchell. I knew the basics of how to get to the top, but the specifics eluded me. So I did a lot of scouting to see if a particular line would go, only having to turn around and look for another way up. Mitchell’s north face is a complicated mix of boulders, cracks and slabs, and some obstacles aren’t visible until you’re right up on it.

That said, Luke and Jen provided plenty of feedback of their own, often helping us move forward, and eventually to the summit ridge.

One thing I was looking forward to was finding a fissure below the summit that leads to a fun 15-foot chimney climb. Had to do that one again for old-times’ sake.

Eventually we topped out, took a few pics on Mitchell’s tiny summit, then found a place protected from the winds to chow down on some lunch. Jen brought a book and read a few pages. We all checked out the views overlooking the wildest, most rugged part of the range, where Styx Canyon links Crab Eyes to Mitchell, and where Twin Rock Mountain and Granite Mountain guard Treasure Lake.

Jen takes in the views just below the summit while eating some lunch.

Luke and Jen noticed some grassy meadows below us on the south face and figured heading down there and following the east ridge to the bottom might be the easier path off the mountain rather than descending the way we came. Earlier I’d told them, “The good news is that we got the summit. The bad news is that we have to go down the way we came, and going down is always harder than going up.” With that in mind, we agreed the east ridge down was worth a shot.

Going down the south face/east ridge, looking toward the ruggedness of Twin Rock Mountain and Granite Mountain in the distance.

It turned out to be a good choice. I have memories descending the north face, and it had a couple of pucker-factor moments. Going down the south face/east ridge was considerably easier, though still Class 3 in some spots.

We did some more off-trail hiking around the mountain, then up a hill that gave us some great views of Sunset Peak’s south summit. We heard what sounded like a large animal give off a huff/grunt somewhere on the other side of the hill. I figured this might be our shot to finally see a buffalo (we hadn’t seen any all day), but no dice. Whatever it was stayed out of sight.

Hiking toward Crab Eyes, with Sunset peak in the background.

Our next stop was Crab Eyes. This is a popular hiking destination, and if you’re a seasoned climber, it has challenging routes that go all the way up to 5.10. You can also get to the spot just below the two “eyes” at the top of the formation’s tower, something that involves an awkward, and at times highly exposed scramble to the top. Jen was keen on doing it, so we got there and climbed around on this odd little peak for a while before a few others arrived to do the same. I’ve had Crab Eyes to myself a few times, but the last couple of trips have seen more visitors than in years past.

Crab Eyes.

Luke looks it over as we hike out.

Crab Eyes capped off a solid day of hiking and climbing under blue skies and mild temps. I love hiking in the Wichitas in the fall and winter, and I think my buddies felt the same way. And we finally saw an elusive buffalo on the drive out.

Me and Luke walking toward Mount Mitchell. (Jen Baines photo)

The trail through the woods on the way out.

My sad photo of a buffalo, taken from the car on the way home.

I can envision another trip coming soon.

Bob Doucette

Oklahoma hiking: The Mountain Trail, Robbers Cave State Park

Golden hour light on the Mountain Trail at Robbers Cave State Park, Okla.

Once my fall races ended in November, I did a major re-think about how I scheduled my time. It seemed I was devoting six days a week for training toward some sort of goal, be it a race or some arbitrary strength metric that usually meant I was sticking close to home every week so I wouldn’t miss a workout.

That meant that I was crowding out some of the thing I loved. It made weekend road trips nonexistent. Any hiking had to be within minutes from my house. It’s very limiting, and it showed: For all of 2018, I only went on two trips outside my city to go hike or climb something. Those were awesome trips, but too few in number. It’s hard to get your outdoor fix when you’re tethered to a schedule that’s tied to the places you run or lift.

So I resolved to do a couple of things. One was to keep Saturdays free. That way I could at least take a day trip somewhere new. The second was to make sure I was doing things that would help me get in “mountain shape.” There are only so many ways a flatlander can prepare for the rigors of altitude, but I can do things to help me get used to carrying a pack, hiking long miles and getting some vert. I know that sounds a lot like “training,” but I don’t see anything wrong with injecting some utility in the fun you’re having.

Gradual uphill near the trailhead.

Last weekend, I went to a place I’ve visited a couple of times before: Robbers Cave State Park in southeastern Oklahoma. The southeast quarter of the state is different than what most people might think. Oklahoma conjures images of sweeping plains and flat prairie, and that’s true for much of the state. But in the southeast, Oklahoma has a small mountain range with good-sized hills and ridges covered in hardwood and pine forests. Robbers Cave is the first place I ever tried rock climbing, and offers a nice introduction into the Ouachita Mountains that rise over sections of Oklahoma and western Arkansas.

One plus to this trip: Robbers Cave is only a couple of hours from my home. And once you get south of Interstate 40, the countryside is gorgeous. On the negative: I spent the previous night binge-watching “An Innocent Man” on Netflix (I recommend it). As in the whole series. So I went to bed very late and didn’t get out the door until late morning.

There are a ton of trails at Robbers Cave, so much so that there is going to be an ultramarathon held there next year, the Outlaw 100. Given the hilliness of the terrain, I’m going to say that this will be a challenging course. My goal was to hike the Mountain Trail, a 7-mile out-and-back that is one of the tougher trails in the park.

I got there two days after the state had received a good 36 hours of on-and-off again rain, so the trail was soggy in spots, especially down low. Just getting off the trailhead involved a stream crossing, one of several I’d make through the day.

The trail starts out as a long, gradual uphill before topping out, then descending to the shoreline of Lake Carlton. It’s an easy shoreline walk before the trail reached the base of a sizable cliff face that had a few running waterfalls. A steep climb led to somewhat exposed trail sections by a series of clifftops overlooking the lake before turning to a more gradual uphill section. A couple of miles in, the trail went on a quick, moderately steep downhill that led to a freely flowing creek at the bottom of a ravine.

Spillway at Lake Carlton.

Shoreline views. Mellow hiking here.

More rugged, steeper hiking near this outcrop.

Clifftop view over Lake Carlton.

I stopped there to eat and contemplated what to do next. My late start meant that hiking the entire trail was probably out of the question unless I wanted to hike in the dark. Ahead of me was a third uphill climb, and the biggest one of the hike. I had to call it a day there and turn back to the car. Maybe next time.

One of the great things about this hike was I had solitude for almost all of it. A group of kids wandered down to my lunch spot, but other than them, I saw no one. The forest is beautiful: Southeastern Oklahoma and northwest Arkansas have incredible woodlands of big hardwoods and tall lodgepole pines. I loved the look of it, especially as the sun began to sink and pierce the woods with golden light and long shadows.

On the downside, the trail is never far from the lake, and the noise of campers hanging out there. You can also hear highway traffic that’s close by. So while the trail has a wild feel, it’s definitely not a wilderness experience.

Look at how green that is!

But if you can get past that, it’s a place with big views and a lot of natural beauty. Add to that the availability of rock climbing, rappelling and trout fishing elsewhere in the park and you have a place with a ton of outdoor recreation options. Camp sites run start at $14 a night for tent camping.

One last note about the trail: I was surprised with the amount of elevation changes on the route. I mean, we’re talking about a Southern Plains state, so huge vert is never going to happen. But if you do the entire Mountain Trail, you’ll get more than 1,200 feet of vert for your trouble. That’s good training for people wanting to hike in mountain terrain. The trail is extremely well-marked with blue blazes, decently maintained and straightforward to follow. It’s mostly class 1 hiking, with some rugged class 2 sections near the clifftops. Unless it’s been dry, expect at least five mellow creek crossings on the hike.

It’s a beautiful trail, and it’s well marked.

After doing some hikes on my local trails in Tulsa, it was cool to see something new and more challenging on this outing. And plans are already in place to do more. Stay tuned, because some awesome destinations may be on tap.

Bob Doucette

Colorado hiking: A solo hike to Chicago Lakes

Let’s go hike. (Jordan Doucette photo)

NOTE: This is a guest post from Jordan Doucette, an NBC Universal broadcast professional, hiker and two-time Spartan Race finisher. He’s also my nephew, and a man who has done five of Colorado’s 14ers with me. Find him on Instagram @jordandoucette and Twitter @JordanDoucette9.

Life sure has a funny way of humbling you. Ultimately, when I take a step back, I realize what an awesome day I had at Chicago Lakes Trail up near Mount Evans. But I learned a few interesting lessons along the way. Here’s a look at my day.

A change from the morning shift to the overnight shift at work scored me a much-needed four-day weekend. About three weeks ago, I found out that I’d be getting promoted. Much like my last promotion, this one came with a condition. I’d be moved, for the fourth time, back to the overnight shift. Mind you, this change is only temporary; I’ll be back in the sunlight in the land of the living in just a few short weeks. But this change doesn’t come without some struggles. Human bodies are not designed for the overnight lifestyle. So, I started to look for a hike. One last journey under the sun before I’m condemned to the graveyards. I needed something close to home, and something I could knock out in about 6 hours or less. Some internet sleuthing led me to Chicago Lakes Trail.

The trailhead is located just west of the Echo Lake Campground off Mount Evans road in Idaho Springs. Located near this campground are several trailheads. And so we begin the “lessons learned” portion of this blog. Lesson #1: Know where your trailhead is! Just east of Echo Lake Campground is a detailed look at the several trails located in that area. Unfortunately, the trail I started down lead east. A tracking app on my phone came in handy, as just over a quarter-mile in, I noticed I was going the wrong way. The signage for Chicago Lake Trailhead is located west, across CO-5, from the parking that’s available by the campground. I had parked at around 7:45 a.m., but didn’t find my trailhead until just before 8:30. Nonetheless, I found my way, and gleefully wandered down the trail. Let the fun begin.

The trail starts with a meander through some thick pines, followed by a fork in the road. To the west, a look at Echo Lake along “Echo Lake Trail”. To the south, the continued path towards Chicago Lake. I walked the couple-hundred feet to the fence surrounding Echo Lake, got my look, and headed back south on my trail. I must tell you, I was feeling particularly chipper on this beautiful August morning, despite the rush hour traffic on my way to the trail. I noticed an extra pep in my step as I made my way up the trail. In fact, that brings me to Lesson #2: Pace yourself! I would pay for my early-trail hustle on the hike back a few hours later. The first WOW moment of this trail comes about a mile in. A steep drop to the hiker’s right, I’d call it mild exposure given the amount of room to work with on the left, is completely overshadowed by…. This.

Alpine scenery opening up nicely. (Jordan Doucette photo)

Now, if you’ve ever hiked with me, you know I love big moments on the trail. Those moments when you recognize just how small you are in God’s massive creation. This was one of those moments for me. I noticed a lot of downhill terrain in the first mile or so. In fact, that’s when I started to realize I might have been pushing myself a bit too much in the early going. A flurry of “Private Property” signs and a wide road led me to my next WOW moment. About two miles in, enter Idaho Springs Reservoir. The water, while not perfectly clear, gleams in the sunlight. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There’s something about water at elevation. There’s something pure about it. Not to mention, the Front Range provides one heck of a breathtaking backdrop.

Alpine lake goodness. And this was just the first taste. (Jordan Doucette photo)

The area just south of the reservoir features a couple of small cabins and, of course, The Labyrinth. An opportunity for hikers to clear their minds, and um, walk some more. I can’t lie, I found the Labyrinth incredibly charming, and a fun milestone on the way to the day’s final destination.

Reading the rules or something. (Jordan Doucette photo)

The Labyrinth. (Jordan Doucette photo)

About 2.5 miles in, I found a stop with waiver to sign as an acknowledgment of a few rules to be applied throughout the rest of the trail. Pretty simple stuff, dogs on 6-foot leashes, no groups bigger than 15, no fire, etc. It was at this point that the treachery began. About a mile straight of nothing but relatively steep, uphill climbs towards… the next steep, uphill climb. Still, the lust of seductive Chicago Lake drove me forward. Surrounded by trees, I looked forward, rushed towards an opening, and there she was. Chicago Lake. And yet again… WOW!

Yeah, this view does not suck. (Jordan Doucette photo)

Instantly, I was reenergized. A rocky journey downhill led me toward the base of the lake. Then, an interesting twist. A climb back uphill, towards a set of massive rocks overlooking the lake. At this point, I debated sitting atop one of the larger boulders, eating my lunch, and heading back towards the Jeep. But something told me to keep going. Just as I hit the top of yet another hill, a second, smaller lake came into view. I lifted my hands in the air, smiling and let out a brief, “Woo!” Both lakes have a unique green tint to them. Not like a, “These lakes are polluted,” kind of look. More like a glowing emerald glistening in the sun. Simply put, I was in awe. Backdrops of Mount Evans and Mount Goliath loom large. Finally, I could eat my lunch. The Bob Doucette special, a couple of tortillas with deli meat and cheese. I sat on a rock overlooking the larger lake. I stumbled into a couple that was visiting from Germany, one of about 15 or so couples I saw on the train that morning. They started at Summit Lake and make the journey down to Chicago Lakes. It was their first day in Colorado, and they were blown away.

A lake plus some high mountains equals one impressive alpine amphitheater. (Jordan Doucette photo)

The journey back left my knees trembling, as I continued to learn not to push myself too hard in the early going. The trip back to Echo Lake Campground is just as grueling as the trip to Chicago Lakes. The winding and hilly nature of the trail kept me challenged throughout. A second look at the Idaho Springs Reservoir made the 4-plus mile jaunt back well worth the time. Finally, I arrived back at the Jeep at around 1:45, making my total trip time just a little over 5 hours.

Final Verdict: HIT THIS TRAIL! The nine-mile path makes for a pretty long day, but the WOW moments make every step worth the suffer.

Jordan Doucette

South Colony Lakes, Humboldt Peak and a bunch of Colorado 13ers

Dawn on the hike up to South Colony Lakes.

One thing I’ve learned about the mountains is that you must be prepared to change your plans.

Weather is often the main factor. I’ve been chased off a few peaks because of approaching storms. It’s not a hard decision to turn around when the weather is threatening.

Other times, it’s something else. Maybe you’re not feeling it that day. That happened to me last summer in La Plata Peak. Or maybe it’s something as basic as you’re running out of food, low on water, or there’s a gear failure.

But a change in plans doesn’t have to be something that points to failure. There are those days when you have options, and given your desire, energy level or something else, you chose Plan B over Plan A and it works out OK. That’s sort of how it went for me the last time I was in the Sangre de Cristo Range.

Most of the things I listed above were factors in how things played out, but at the end of the day, there was satisfaction earned on a high summit on what turned out to be a fine day in the hills.

THE PLAN

Going back a couple of months, me and my friend Bill had been doing some planning on what would make for a decent mountain adventure. Bill is on his second lap of Colorado’s 14ers, and he’s also trying to knock out the Centennials – the 100 highest mountains in the state.

We originally looked at doing Mount Wilson and Wilson Peak in the San Juan Mountains. I love the San Juans, and these peaks intrigued me. But deep drought and wildfires scuttled that plan. Instead, he came up with a wild plan to climb Kit Carson Peak’s north ridge, then tag Columbia Point and Challenger Point as a bonus. Some stout climbers were recruited for this one. It looked to be one heck of a weekend in the Sangres.

But weather forecasts scared most folks away. So that idea vanished.

One of the guys Bill talked to, a funny and seasoned climber named Mike, circled back, however, and a third plan was hatched: Hike up to South Colony Lakes, then tag the high 13ers at Obstruction Peak, Columbia Point, and another high point on Kit Carson Mountain dubbed “Kitty Kat.” (Kit Carson Mountain being a large massif that includes Kit Carson Peak, Columbia Point, “Kitty Kat” and other high points)

So I signed on for that.

I’d been to South Colony Lakes before on an ill-fated attempt at Crestone Peak and Humboldt Peak. The area is easily one of the most stunning places I’d ever seen. I’m not fixated on 14ers – 13ers are good, too. A return trip here seemed great to me.

OFF WE GO

The drive to Westcliffe took a detour in Florence, one of the more famous prison towns in the country. The federal supermax lockup is there, housing the likes of Djokar Tsarnaev, Terry Nichols and Ted Kaczynski. Real swell guys. But there’s also Florence Brewing, a microbrew with a taproom and some pretty good offerings. We caught it on a good night: The place was packed, a barbecue cook was serving up pulled pork sandwiches, and a trivia match was going on. The three of us obnoxiously bullied our way to a second-place finish, but I made sure everyone knew we were “CHAMPIONS” over and over again. Why not? These folks would never see us again and some fun was needed. Our weakness was guessing the country artists. Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and a bunch of other auto-tuned country crooners all sounded the same to us. Whatever. We took our hard-earned mini-mugs and headed to Westcliffe.

We opted to forgo backpacking and camping in South Colony Lakes. We took a few hours of sleep at a motel and went for an alpine start. The good: We got to sleep in a bed. The bad: We’d be getting up super early (3:15 a.m.) and adding some mileage to the day.

Loading up in Bill’s Jeep, we took off. I hijacked the stereo and gave them a taste of early morning metal, hip-hop and punk. Bill and Mike weren’t amused. But I was, so that made it worth it.

Going up the dirt road leading to the lakes, you have a couple of options. If your vehicle is not four-wheel drive with good clearance, you’ll be banished to the two-wheel drive trailhead. That adds a bunch of miles to your hike. With the right rig, you can crawl your way up to the four-wheel drive trailhead. To get any of the peaks, you’re still in for a hefty day, somewhere between 10 to 14 miles round-trip, depending on where you go.

The guys hiking up the trail with Crestone Needle in the background.

We saw a few people trudging up the rougher part of the road and picked one of them up, an Evergreen resident named Roger. He was going for Humboldt Peak that day. He was a pretty cool dude who’d bagged a good number of peaks in his day.

And that got us all thinking. I’d missed my chance at Humboldt two years earlier. And being a flatlander, I was concerned I’d be slowing Bill and Mike down. As we got out of the car and started up the trail, we all concluded it would be a good idea for me to tag Humboldt with Roger while Bill and Mike chased 13er summits past Bear’s Playground.

This turned out to be a really good decision.

GETTING UP THERE

Lower South Colony Lake, Broken Hand Peak, and Music Mountain in the background.

I found the initial part of the hike OK. We were in the dark, hiking by headlamp, seeing the dawn break just as we got into the basin where South Colony Lakes are located. Dawn here is nothing short of spectacular. Jerry Roach’s Fourteener guidebook is adorned with a sunrise alpenglow shot of Crestone Needle, and seeing it in person for the second time is no less spectacular than what’s seen on the book.

Bill, Mike and Roger kept a good pace, and one that was fine by me until we got to the headwall leading up to the saddle at the base of Humboldt’s ridge. It seems 12,000 feet is my red line, the place where things start to get tough. Blame my flatlander lungs for that. I stopped to eat a little, grab a sip and trudged up the switchbacks to the saddle. By then, Mike and Bill had taken their left turn toward Bear’s Playground and the 13er fest they planned to hold. Roger and I started making our way up the ridge.

If the headwall was my reality check, the ridge was a slap in the face. It was tough sledding for me, and the route was different than what I thought it would be. My understanding was some extensive trail work had been done here, and indeed, I saw evidence of that. Fine work has been done here. But there were plenty of sections where I was boulder-hopping and scrambling, looking up at various, well-placed cairns to keep me going the right direction. I’m usually a little wary of cairns, mostly because some people make a sport of rock-stacking in miscellaneous places that have nothing to do with the route. Thankfully that was not the case on Humboldt.

At the saddle, looking at an unnamed 13,000-foot point.

The ridge is somewhat steep. And the jumbled nature of some sections of the route made it tedious. Then again, all I had to do was stop, take a rest, and look behind me. Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle were there for the viewing, and they are downright jaw-dropping. From time to time, I’d hear climbers on the Needle’s Ellingwood Arete: “On belay!” “Belay on!” That climb is above my pay grade, but it’s cool to see people doing it.

Weather-wise, I couldn’t have asked for a better day. All we had were a few high clouds and a lot of blue sky. It was also curiously warm. Some people were dressed in long-sleeve tech shirts, soft shells or even puffy jackets. Me? Short sleeves all the way. I’d be burning up with anything more on me.

Roger was one patient dude. I told him he could dust me any time he wanted to, and I’m sure he could have. But he stopped to check on me every few minutes, seemingly coaxing me up the mountain. It seemed to take forever to get past Humboldt’s false summit, but once there, it was an easy walk across the remainder of the ridge and one last scramble to the top.

Colony Baldy Mountain, as seen from Humboldt Peak’s west ridge.

Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak, as seen from the side of Humboldt’s false summit.

The final, easy walk to Humboldt’s summit.

I blew a lot of energy getting there. It reminded me of last year’s failure on La Plata Peak, only this time, I was on fresher legs. Good thing, too. Otherwise, I might have pooped out here, too. But it was nice to finally get a Sangre 14er summit after being denied twice two years ago.

Summit view, looking south at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Roger noticed he was about out of water, so I offered him some of mine. He declined, saying instead he’d hustle down the ridge and filter some at the lakes below. And hustle he did. Once he got to the steep part below the false summit, I never saw him again (we did get a note left on Bill’s Jeep saying when he got there, and a thank-you for the company).

As for me, well, getting down the ridge proved as tedious as it was going up.

One of the key things about hiking and climbing mountains is to make sure you don’t blow yourself out getting to the summit. Sure, part of mountain climbing is dealing with fatigue and pushing through it. But if your legs are gone and you’re out of steam when bad weather rolls in, having some gas in the tank is critical. Admittedly, I was on dead legs on the way down. Fortunately, the weather held up nicely. I picked my way down the ridge, then down the headwall and finally to the trail (which went on forever) and the road (which also went on forever) until I saw the blessed bridge that signified the end of the hike.

Mighty Crestone Needle, as seen on the hike down.

Easier trail hiking below treeline.

Despite a really dry winter and spring, there were plenty of opportunities for wildflower peeping.

Even though it was a slog, it wasn’t without its charms. Clouds cast shadows into the valley, which played games on the flanks of the Crestones. Whenever I grew weary of the walk, I stopped to take a look around and marveled. Few places in the Rockies are as dramatic as the skyline of the Crestones and the surrounding, lower peaks of South Colony Lakes. I’d come back here in a heartbeat.

Given my slow progress down the mountain, I half expected Mike and Bill to be waiting on me at the Jeep. Nope. They were still up there, somewhere.

SO WHAT ABOUT THOSE GUYS?

I’d love to give you a detailed description of the peaks and ridges Bill and Mike scaled. But I wasn’t there. What I can tell you, however, is this: The views of the Crestones from Bear’s Playground are ridiculous. The distance they hiked was somewhere around 14 miles. And the total vert was well over a mile.

And yes, they tagged all their target summits. It’s exactly the type of performance you’d expect from guys who’ve finished the 14ers, and also have summits like Rainier, Hood and Pico de Orizaba under their belts. While the plebes like me are tagging walk-ups and popular Class 3 14ers, they’re busy chasing more obscure, less traveled 13ers and making good work out of ambitious projects.

I can’t tell you much more about it, but I can show you because they gave me permission to swipe some of their photos. Have a look.

Bill and Mike on their 13er rampage. (Bill Wood photo)

Looking south toward the Crestones and Humboldt Peak. (Bill Wood photo)

Bear’s Playground view of the Crestones. (Mike Zee photo)

Way above treeline here. This part of the hike was mostly over 13,000 feet for Bill and Mike, with lots of gain and loss. (Mike Zee photo)

Lots of ridge hiking, with Humboldt Peak in the background. (Mike Zee photo)

BACK TO FLORENCE

About 45 minutes after I stumbled back to the trailhead, so did Mike and Bill. We were all worked over pretty good, but decided a return trip to Florence Brewing was needed.

When we arrived, no barbecue guy or trivia night crowd was there. It was a quieter place until we got there. The bartender was good, patient company as we peppered her with questions about the federal supermax prison and any other general nonsense we were blathering about. I guess that’s her job, but I tipped her well nonetheless. We drank brews and ate cheap fast-food burgers that tasted like Michelin-starred cuisine at that moment.

Such is the way of these mountain trips. You get pumped up by a plan. You dread the alpine start alarm clock. You hike in the dark, see a brilliant sunrise and embrace the slog. You feel like quitting, because it’s easier to lounge by the pool than climb a mountain. You revel in the summit views, grind away at the downclimb and spend yourself utterly on a peak’s slopes. You throw down vast quantities of food, get a beer buzz and strike up lengthy, boisterous conversations with people you don’t know and may never see again. You might even make a new friend on the trail.

And then new plans get made.

The Crestones. Couldn’t stop taking pics of them.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the four-wheel-drive trailhead, hike up the road past the gate and over a foot bridge until you reach a trail junction turnoff to your right. Follow easy trail hiking through the woods and past some campsites. You’ll be hiking the trail east of and above South Colony Lakes. From here, you’ll begin hiking up long switchbacks on a headwall leading to a saddle that goes right to Humboldt’s west ridge, or left toward Bear’s Playground. The trail steepens as you gain the ridge, and as you ascend, you’ll end up doing some rock-hopping and light scrambling. The route is well-cairned, and the cairns seem to be accurate. At times, the trail will disappear into jumbled rocks, then reappear when the terrain eases. It will take you up to Humboldt’s false summit, but once you reach that, the ascent is almost done. Past the false summit, the steepness eases with only a few hundred yards of easy hiking left to the summit. Class 2, 11 miles round trip with 4,200 feet of elevation gain. NOTE: If your car/truck does not have four-wheel drive and good clearance, you’ll need to park at the two-wheel drive trailhead. This will add 5.4 miles and another 1,100 feet of elevation gain to your route.

EXTRA CREDIT: There are tons of options. From the Humboldt saddle, go north and explore Bear’s Playground. Spend more time camping in South Colony Lakes and climb Crestone Peak (class 3) or Crestone Needle (class 4). Experienced climbers might also look to climb both peaks and traverse the ridge between them. This is one of Colorado’s four Grand Traverses of the 14ers, and includes high exposure and a class 5 section. Also nearby are Class 3 routes up Broken Hand Peak and Music Mountain. Like I said, tons of options.

Bob Doucette