Year in review: A roller coaster 2014

2014 was all about high country dreamin'.

2014 was all about high country dreamin’.

If I recall 2013, I dubbed it as a pretty incredible year. A lot of firsts happened then, giving thoughts to how much more could be done in 2014.

Well, not so fast. I’d say there were some great moments, but there were other things that got in the way of a few of my goals. But even with all that, 2014 turned out to be a good year anyway. So here’s a recap:

RUNNING

After a rough spring and summer, I rallied a bit in the fall. This was at the Escape From Turkey Mountain trail race in September.

After a rough spring and summer, I rallied a bit in the fall. This was at the Escape From Turkey Mountain trail race in September.

Unlike 2013, there would be no marathon. I topped out at 25K (twice), and did so with mixed results.

Coming off a pretty bad little illness earlier in the year, I got in shape enough to finish the Post Oak Challenge 25K. In 2013, I ran the 10K in the same event. The difference between the two is quite stark. Needless to say, I felt that Post Oak’s rugged and hilly 25K was every bit as hard as the marathon I ran three months earlier. I clocked in at around 3 ½ hours, pretty slow for that length of a race. I definitely have some redemption due to me here in a couple of months.

A couple of weeks later, I logged 15.75 miles at the 3-hour Snake Run, topping my previous result in that race by a half mile. I felt pretty good about that, though I attribute it to better in-race gamesmanship rather than fitness.

That led me to April’s half marathon at the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. That was where I ran my first half marathon a year earlier. I had high hopes going into that one, but a 2-hour delay to the start, warm temps and so-so conditioning led me to logging a time that was nearly identical to the year before. A 2:22 was fine for my first time, but a little disappointing for the second go-around.

Summer was a bit of a bust. Too much work, not enough training. But I rallied late in the season, good enough to whip myself into better shape. I didn’t set PRs, but I was in the neighborhood: a 1:32 at the Tulsa Run 15K, a 2:17 at the Route 66 half marathon and about 30 seconds off my PR in the 5K, a 26:37. I’m a bit heavier right now, so those times, while not fast, seem to be OK for now.

Me and Dan after the Route 66 half marathon in November. It ended up being a pretty good race.

Me and Dan after the Route 66 half marathon in November. It ended up being a pretty good race.

Going forward, I’m still trying to strike the balance between strength and endurance. I’m integrating more sprint and hill training into my workouts. And in the weight room, things are starting to get interesting. Consistency will be key.

OUTDOORS

The crew before heading up Wetterhorn Peak.

The crew before heading up Wetterhorn Peak.

A lot of good things happened in relatively short periods of time. My only regret was not being about to get out more. But in those short trips, ah man. Sweetness.

In late June, I joined up with some of my Colorado buds for some fun in the San Juan range. We had a rewarding climb of Wetterhorn Peak, which has turned into my favorite thus far. It ended up being a snowy, cloudy and cool day that included a gorgeous approach hike, a fun scramble to the summit, some dicey moments on the descent and a wild ride of a glissade on the lower slopes. This, not to mention the great company I had: Friends from past trips as well as new ones. I’d do this climb again.

Getting ready to hit the toughest sections of Wetterhorn Peak.

Getting ready to hit the toughest sections of Wetterhorn Peak.

A month later, I was back in Colorado for another go at the peaks, this time targeting the mountains of Chicago Basin. He basin is in the heart of the San Juans. But unlike past trips, this one did not lend itself to car camping. It’s just too remote.

Instead, it included a steam train ride to a trailhead and a 7-mile hike in to the campsite. From there, four 14ers await.

These were some of the fun folks who I had the privilege of backpacking into Chicago Basin with.

These were some of the fun folks who I had the privilege of backpacking into Chicago Basin with.

I got two of them : Mount Eolus and North Eolus. The ridge route we took on Mount Eolus was probably the airiest of I’ve done in Colorado, but extremely rewarding. It was also hard work: The hike up the headwall leading to the peaks is no joke, and at that point I was in pretty sad condition. By the time I got back to camp from those first two peaks, I’d resolved to take the next day off.

That didn’t slow down the rest of the crew, which went up and tagged Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak. One gal, named Kay, proved particularly ambitious, summiting a couple of 13ers to boot. My friend Matt, who drove up from Tulsa with me, climbed his first 14er, and his second and third. He impressed us all.

There were a number of people on this trip I’d never met, and a couple I only knew via social media. Kay was one of those, Jenny another. Both aren’t just turning into real mountain hounds. They already are. So add them to a list of outdoor women I know (talking to you, Noel and Beth) who more than hold their own.

Probably the best mountain view I've seen to date, from atop North Eolus.

Probably the best mountain view I’ve seen to date, from atop North Eolus.

I almost forgot: There was a 13er hike that week as well, when Matt and I hiked Mount Snitkau as a warmup to the real show at Chicago Basin. It was a worthwhile hike on its own, packed with scenery, and so close to Denver. I can see going back to Loveland Pass.

On the western edge of Black Mesa, looking into New Mexico.

On the western edge of Black Mesa, looking into New Mexico.

The last outing of the year took me to Black Mesa, in far western Oklahoma. This is a place I’d long wanted to see, not because it was the state’s high place, but because I’d heard how beautiful it was. Black Mesa didn’t disappoint. I did this one solo, and experienced the kind of solitude I hadn’t ever had before. I knew I’d enjoy that. I’ve come to a point where I need it. Add that to the stories people told me along the way and the unique experience that it was, and that little journey into the Panhandle may have been one of the most memorable I’ve had in many years.

I look forward to going back to Chicago Basin, back to Colorado, and also exploring places closer to home.

ON THE SITE

It was a good year for expanding readership on the blog. I had to cut some things out (no more Weekly Stoke), but that freed up time to concentrate on trip reports, essays and posts about fitness topics.

It also freed up time to get a few more gear reviews up. I’m always down to test new stuff.

As of this writing, the blog recorded more than 53,000 views for 2014. I also expanded its social media footprint via Facebook and Instagram. Those are growing slowly, but they’ve been a nice outlet to connect with existing readers as well as new folks. Since Proactiveoutside was created three years ago, nearly 155,000 people have given it a click.

For that I’m grateful. Thanks for reading, interacting, and being a part of this little project. Here’s to making 2015 that much more memorable!

What do you have planned for the coming year? Let’s hear it!

Bob Doucette

Black Mesa: Solitude, silence and serenity at Oklahoma’s high place

The rugged, arid and hauntingly beautiful scenery near Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

The rugged, arid and hauntingly beautiful scenery near Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

Think of a place. A place that you’ve never been, that caught your attention, and for whatever reason, didn’t let go. You tell yourself that one day, you’re going to go there.

I seem to zig where other people zag. Whereas a lot of people might gravitate toward a tropical paradise or some sort of alpine wonderland, I seem to be drawn toward something else. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to explore Patagonia or the Himalayas, or spend a week or five on the beaches of Bora Bora. It’s just that those lonely little corners, the remote places, that capture my attention so much more.

For me, that place is Black Mesa. As in Oklahoma. Yeah, you heard that right. For the better part of a couple of decades, I’ve thought about going to the furthest point west in the Oklahoma Panhandle to see the semi-arid bluffs of Black Mesa. It started with seeing a TV news story about the people who live in Kenton, a small ranching outpost of a town situated right in the middle of the tabletop formations that rise from the high plains. The TV crew filmed it well, showcasing its haunting, Old West beauty. Scenes of the sun setting over the rocky, windswept landscape remained with me for years.

I like desolate places. I like the people who dare to live in them. There is an eternal hardness to such locales that draws me to them. It was high time I scratched that itch.

The journey is half the fun

Getting there is a bit of a haul. It’s one thing to say that you’re going to the furthest corner of a state and proclaim that it’s “remote.” But state lines are just man-made constructs, and truth be told, the corner of many states is actually pretty close to something else.

That’s not the case with Black Mesa. No major thoroughfare goes through the area. If you’re on the highway leading to Black Mesa and the town of Kenton, you have to want to get there. It’s a very intentional decision. It’s closer to Denver than it is to my home city of Tulsa; this is also true of the state’s capital, Oklahoma City. And believe me, Black Mesa ain’t anywhere near Denver. It’s a good seven hours from my home, taking secondary highways across the prairie and farmlands of northern Oklahoma and through the Panhandle until there is almost no place further north and west you can get before entering another state.

I was OK with this. Back when I lived in the Oklahoma City area, all my drives to New Mexico and Colorado traversed rural western Oklahoma all the way through the Panhandle. Flyover country can be just as monotonous as it sounds, but sometimes it can surprise you. Just east of Woodward, I ran into a surprise in an area called the Glass Mountains. Rolling plains give way to short tabletops and bluffs that, at times, cut a dramatic skyline. These aren’t the Rockies, but the range’s namesake, Glass Mountain, packs a lot of ambition in its vertically limited but striking profile.

Glass Mountain, the namesake peak of the Glass Mountains of northwest Oklahoma,

Glass Mountain, the namesake peak of the Glass Mountains of northwest Oklahoma,

Certain things I’d see along the way made me curious about what it was like to live in the Panhandle, a three-county stretch of flat prairie that at one time was forsaken by tribal and state authorities alike, dubbed “No Man’s Land” by outsiders and inhabited by the supremely tough or the thoroughly criminal before eventually becoming part of Oklahoma Territory. The Panhandle has never been cosmopolitan, wealthy or flashy. It is now much as it was back then – wide stretches of plains suitable for cattle and farming. Aside from those activities, well, you can always go back to Oklahoma City.

One site of curiosity for me is in a little wide spot in the road called Elmwood. There isn’t much here – two gas stations and a burned-out building called the Pit Stop Motel. I know about the Pit Stop because in 2002, back when I was a newspaper reporter, there was a murder here I wrote about. Someone got whacked behind the motel – shot several times and left in a car obscured by bushes, a rare crime in these parts.

A few years later, when driving out west, I noticed the Pit Stop motel had turned into a charred husk. Holy cow. First a murder, then a fire. That’s a lot of calamity for one place. Surely this place had a story. If only I could find someone to tell it.

The ruins of the Pit Stop Motel in Elmwood. But the gas station next door is still alive and kicking.

The ruins of the Pit Stop Motel in Elmwood. But the gas station next door is still alive and kicking.

So on my way out there, I stopped at the ruins of the Pit Stop to have a look. Yep, still in ruins. But something was out of place: A bright sign planted on the property’s west end advertising lottery tickets. That part of the building appeared to be intact, and upon closer inspection, was open for business.

How did I miss this? The Pit Stop Motel might be toast, but the Pit Stop convenience store was still stubbornly hanging on after all these years.

I went inside and found a woman named Emily manning the counter, eager to help. Not many of the lights were on, but the walls were lined with coolers stocked with drinks. So I asked her about the motel.

“It used to do good business,” Emily said. Her accent was strong, possibly eastern European, or maybe eastern Mediterranean. I couldn’t quite tell. “But a big storm, the worst storm, came through. It was hit by lightning.”

She couldn’t have been any older than me, but had been running the show here for the better part of a decade. The murder behind the motel happened before she came along, the storm some time after. Emily had plans to hopefully bulldoze the wreckage and open an RV park. I hope that day comes. She was really sweet and open about it. It would be nice to see things turn around in a place where opportunities just don’t grow on trees.

I bought a soda and a Tecate and continued west, satisfying a curiosity of mine that went back ten years.

Being alone

The time it took me to get from Tulsa to the Panhandle was about the same as it would take to get to the Panhandle’s end. It’s just a really long way out there. I navigated the speed trap that is Hardesty, then picked my way through the de facto capital of the Panhandle, Guymon. Unlike the rest of the region, Guymon is actually growing, with an influx of Hispanic immigrants finding work here in the city’s pork processing plants, then later, in the construction and oilfield jobs that have come along. Western Oklahoma is mostly lily white, but not here. Texas County is about a quarter Hispanic now, and in Guymon, the ratio is about a third. You can see it just walking around town, and even on the electronic marquis of a fairly new elementary school on the east side, displaying messages in English and Spanish.

Something tells me there has to be a really great Mexican food restaurant here, one that I’d like to find. I’m a sucker for pork carnita tacos and a cold Mexican lager.

Back on the road, the day was getting long, and daylight short. It was nearing sunset in Boise City, the largest town and county seat for Cimarron County, with about 1,300 people calling it home. Instead of a stoplight, you get a traffic circle that uses the county courthouse as its hub. Signs tell you which way to Denver to the north, Clayton, New Mexico, to the southwest and finally Kenton to the west. Driving straight west, it took about five minutes before I became the only car on the road.

Now that’s a strange feeling. Drive in any rural area and you’re bound to see a passing car every now and then, and usually the driver will give you a friendly wave before passing by. But I saw nothing, just the occasional ranch home, sometimes with Christmas lights up, every 10 miles or so. Other than that, I might as well have been driving on the moon.

When you’re by yourself, your senses become magnified. You’ll notice things that wouldn’t ordinarily catch your eye if someone is with you. In this case, as I tried to beat the darkness to my campsite, it was the different phases of dusk. First, you get those brilliant hues of yellow, orange, red and purple as the sun retreats below the horizon. Once it disappears, the darker, less vibrant colors take over the show as the hues of the land become flatter and darker. Soon, only a cool glow remains out west, and the land turns gray, then black, and eventually melts into the darkening sky. By then, all you can see is what is illuminated by your headlights or from lamp poles and homes miles away.

That was the point I was at when I finally got to Black Mesa State Park. All I could see where the light poles. As I pulled in and drove through, I came to realize that no one was there. No campers, no park staff, not a soul. The only thing here were the dimly lit, almost ghostly, campsites and me, motoring around until I found a suitable place to park and settle in for the night.

We’re spoiled by electricity. In “normal” life, we can do all sorts of things well into nighttime because of the benefit of electric lighting. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, that changes. Darkness is the signal to call it a night. I set up my camp, ate a little dinner, then hunkered down with a book for awhile, drifting into sleep before waking up again, usually because the copious amounts of water and caffeinated drinks I’d had on the road wouldn’t leave me alone.

Daybreak gives me a better look at my campsite at Black Mesa State Park.

Daybreak gives me a better look at my campsite at Black Mesa State Park.

Weird noises greeted me when I went outside to take care of business. Camp was near some sort of body of water, the bank on the other side covered in trees. I knew I was being watched, mostly because of the noises I’d hear when I went outside – strange calls, scratching sounds, a plop into the water. But what was the source? Antelope? Coyotes? Some other predator? No way to tell. In addition to sharpening your physical senses, being alone has a nice way of intensifying  your sense of paranoia. In my mind, I knew that even predators mostly shunned people, that wildlife is more scared of us than we are of it. It was, however, impossible not to conjure up images of a pack of coyotes suddenly surrounding me, catching me quite literally with my pants down, and collectively licking their chops.

My bathroom breaks were brief.

Getting up the next morning, I went back outside and walked up to the pond just past camp and found the source of the sneaky commotion. As it turned out, the things that were going bump in the night were just ducks. To my knowledge, no human had ever been devoured by a flock of waterfowl.

With morning also came a break in the solitude. Someone else was here. I saw him motoring around on an ATV around the campgrounds.

We visited for a bit. His name was Cody, the park superintendent, and like a lot of people, he drove a good ways just to get to work every day – 43 miles from Keyes, a little down just east of the county seat. Cody told me that the previous week, he’d only seen three or four campers in the park, and I was the first this week.

“So what do you do here when it’s so quiet?” I asked.

“There’s always something that needs to be done,” he said, noting that many of the screens at a group camp building all needed replacement, and that he’d been working on flooring and other improvements for awhile now. It occurred to be that this guy experiences solitude quite often, working hours at a park which, during the off season, hardly anyone visits. And when the day is done, he hops back into his pickup for the long haul home – I imagine just about everyone out here is accustomed to long bouts behind the wheel to get just about anywhere – before getting up early the next morning and doing it all over again.

Given that, he was eager to chat. So we talked about the park, Black Mesa and some dinosaur tracks I could see if I didn’t mind driving a little further. He also mentioned the volcanoes around Capulin, New Mexico, formed in the same period that gave birth to Black Mesa and the neighboring buttes scattered throughout this corner of the Panhandle. I’d been there a couple of times before, so that wasn’t in the itinerary this time.

I was also wondering if there was a trailhead outhouse at Black Mesa. Seeing that the restrooms at the park were all locked, I figured a pit stop before the day’s hike might be a good idea. He then proceeded to tell me there was, and how nice it was, how it cost $80,000, and how much he could get done at the park for the price of that single outhouse. He was joking about it, of course. Mostly.

I paid him my $12, and he asked me where I was from.

“Tulsa,” I replied, and he then told me that he gets more visitors from my city than any other town. “Oklahoma City is second, for sure, but for some reason, well, I always ask them what the draw is. Why here?”

That’s a good question. Maybe it’s because it’s so different from where we live. Or perhaps it’s the lure of seeing the highest point in the state. It could be that we’re just more adventurous than our neighbors in OKC. They’ve got NBA basketball to distract them now.

Some examples of petrified trees at Black Mesa State Park.

Some examples of petrified trees at Black Mesa State Park.

This sign explains a bit of the history behind the petrified trees.

This sign explains a bit of the history behind the petrified trees.

With that, I left him, checked out the remains of a petrified forest inside the park, then took the winding two-lane road further north and west, toward the remotest part of Oklahoma. Black Mesa was in my sights.

Oklahoma’s high place

The state park isn’t actually at Black Mesa. It’s within the same geological formations, but to get to the mesa you have to drive another 17 miles or so. Practically like going to the mailbox, right?

The drive has its charms. You get to see more of the mesas, and in some stretches, hoodoos. I figured these curious formations to be more of a Utah or Arizona thing, yet here they were, twisted, windblown stone sentinels overlooking the highway.

Hoodoos seen on the side of the road near Back Mesa.

Hoodoos seen on the side of the road near Black Mesa.

Kenton is nearby, but not actually on the road to Black Mesa. It’s a very small town, but situated perfectly amongst the hills. You could find many towns that have a less attractive setting than Kenton. There are a few things you need to know, however. The hours of operation of anything except the post office are pretty limited, and if you’re low on gas, you’re out of luck. The closest gas station is behind you in Boise City.

What it does have: bed and breakfasts. It’s how a few of the ranchers out here supplement their incomes. There is also a curious looking building outside of Kenton that looks like a mock-up of an Old West town. At first appearance, it looks fairly new. But I could spy some parts of the building already falling apart from neglect. My guess: it was a would-be tourist destination that never got off the ground, now left to the elements to eventually be reclaimed by the land on which it sits. It will take time for that to happen, but in this part of the world, time is abundant and relentless.

Eventually I reached the Black Mesa trailhead. A ranch-style cattle gate barred things from inside getting out (the state allows ranchers to run livestock on the nature preserve), but had a nice little chute for people to squeeze through.

Oh, and it also had that wondrous $80,000 outhouse. Which was locked. For all of the ingenious engineering that went into this shiny new one-holer, I could only hear Cody’s voice telling me that the money might have been better spent somewhere else.

I packed some extra napkins in case I had to use the non-locked outhouse at Black Mesa, which is another term for a hole in the ground dug by yours truly if the need arose.

The winter sun tries to break through the clouds over Black Mesa.

The winter sun tries to break through the clouds over Black Mesa.

I saw one other person—a small SUV pulled into the lot as I was about to start the hike. It had Colorado plates. I figured the driver would breeze past me on trail, but I never saw the dude. My guess is he stopped to make use of the 80 grand in taxpayer facilities, found them shut tight, cursed his lot in this world and moved on down the road. So as I planned, I’d have the mesa to myself.

For a mid-December day, it couldn’t have been much better. It was maybe 40 degrees, mostly overcast and still. Considering that this area sometimes sees major blizzards and normally gets whipped by high winds, I think I lucked out.

One thing that struck me about Black Mesa: It’s huge. You can’t really see it all at any given vantage point.

It also became fairly clear how it got its name. Black Mesa is volcanic in origin, having been formed by massive lava flows that filled primordial valleys from eons past. Over time, soft soil and rock eroded away, leaving behind the sturdier rock of the hardened lava. It’s been described as a region of “upside-down valleys,” which makes sense: Most of the bare rocks you see out there are black or a deep slate-and-brown hue, colors festooned upon them by the ultra-high heat from deep beneath the earth that filled a void much the same way you might create a sculpture from a plaster form.

The hardness of that rock makes the entire region, well into New Mexico, impossible to farm. No plow can penetrate the soil. Only stubborn junipers, oak, cactus, wildflowers and prairie shortgrass can break that firm crust, so the only agricultural activity going on out here is ranching.

The most common critter I saw -- Black Angus cattle.

The most common critter I saw — Black Angus cattle.

I guess it’s not surprising that the most common animal I saw at the base of the mesa was Black Angus cattle. Scores of them were out there munching on whatever they could scrape up from the mid-winter scrub. I also managed to scare up a few coveys of quail, and ravens soared overhead. All the other wildlife common to Black Mesa – antelope, deer, coyotes and rattlesnakes – remained hidden from view.

The hike was simple enough – flat for the first couple of miles before turning up a ravine in the Mesa. This is where you pick up most of the 600 feet of elevation gain to the top. The trail got a little more rugged and somewhat steep in spots – it reminded me a little of hiking Elk Mountain in the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma, just bigger. And higher.

Not quite halfway to the top. The steeper section lasts about a mile.

Not quite halfway to the top. The steeper section lasts about a mile.

I’ve hiked and climbed above 14,000 feet plenty of times, but the fact is that I live in Tulsa, elevation 800 feet. Black Mesa’s summit is more than 4,000 feet higher than where I live. It wasn’t too bad, but I felt the elevation going up.

About a mile later, I was on mesa’s top. Walking away from the rim, it looked exactly like I was in the middle of a prairie. The top of the mesa is that big.

Near the top, looking north.

Near the top, looking north.

The trail was clear, however, so I kept heading west. And then I saw it: a stone obelisk, marking the highest point in Oklahoma. Now as much as I get into the high country, I only have two state high points under my belt. Black Mesa marked the third – and shortest – in my life, 4,973 feet above sea level.

The marker of Oklahoma's highest point.

The marker of Oklahoma’s highest point.

So I stood there and looked around. Scrub brush as far as I could see on this thing, considered one of the easternmost outposts of the Rockies. Then I stared out west and made out what appeared to be a snowcapped peak. Or was that just a cloud? I walked past the monument, treading west to see if I could make it out better.

This took me to western rim of the mesa. Shortgrass gave way to black rock, and a sharply dropping cliff face overlooking a wide valley in New Mexico. And that was no cloud. It was, indeed, a large mountain, maybe 8,000 feet high, some thirty miles or more away. The winds were calm as the sun struggled to break through the clouds. While a bit chilly, that cliff seemed like the perfect place for lunch and a view.

The incredible lunchtime view on the side of a cliff on Black Mesa. New Mexico lies beneath me.

The incredible lunchtime view on the side of a cliff on Black Mesa. New Mexico lies beneath me.

I pulled out a pocket knife, a summer sausage, some cheese and Hawaiian rolls. Serious trail cuisine, you know. And I munched on that while taking in ridiculous views that went on for days. There were a couple of ranch homes way down below and not much else. I imagine it was a lonesome life, at least to some degree. But man. It would be hard to beat the scenery. You might lack company, but you’d be rich in so many other things. So I sat there slicing off hunks of meat and cheese and soaked it in. Black Mesa may not be the most dramatic or hard-won summit I’ve seen, but as I stared out into the high plains, I can say that the sights and sounds of that moment may be some of the most indelible of my life. Few outdoor experiences have been so sweet.

The hits kept coming. After eating I turned back to head back down. Across the mesa top, then down the ravine and back to the flat pastures of the valley floor. From time to time, I thought I heard something – some sort of animal, I imagined – and would stop to listen. Each time this happened, I’d stand stock still, even to the point of slowing my breathing. Sometimes I’d find the source of the sounds, usually a bird call or something. But other times, just silence.

The remains of cactus.

The remains of cactus.

Now contemplate that for a moment. How often in your life do you actually perceive silence? In your home, office or workshop, even at its most quiet, you’re likely to hear the whir of a computer’s internal cooling fan, or the blower from a vent, or the hum of electric lights. More often, we have noise around us, even if it’s just white noise – the din of conversation, or tires on the road, or maybe the TV or radio broadcasting whatever.

But here, in windless conditions, I heard nothing. Absolutely nothing. To think of a place this big, with so much in it, making no noise whatsoever is difficult to describe, not to mention comprehend. The closest I can recall to this sort of audio sensory deprivation is in the midst of heavy snowfall. But other than that, the silence was, for me, quite rare. And beautiful.

Once back at the trailhead, I thought about one more thing Cody told me I needed to see – the dinosaur tracks. So a little further up the road, I pulled onto a dirt road that led to a flat area where it looked like people had driven around or parked. Stopping the car, I looked around, and then headed down into a dry creek bed that seemed to be a place where fossilized tracks might be.

Sure enough, there they were.

Dinosaur tracks!

Dinosaur tracks!

The tracks were large, about the size of dinner trays, maybe a few feet apart, a few inches deep and some filled with water. Whatever prehistoric beast left these impressions could be measured in tons. Many, many tons.

I climbed out of the creek bed and went back to the lot. It had been a couple of hours and a whole lot of hiking since I last ate, so I munched on more of my trail food and cracked open the Tecate I bought from Emily the day before. As is always the case after a rewarding summit, that beer could not have tasted better.

Dark clouds began to gather to the north. Time to head home.

Bright sunlight hits the bluffs just as dark clouds move in from the north.

Bright sunlight hits the bluffs just as dark clouds move in from the north.

On the way back, I made one more stop: A barbecue joint in the small town of Woodward called Wagg’s, a place I’d visited years before when I was out this way to write about caving at Alabaster Caverns. The food was good, so a repeat visit seemed in order.

I sat down and placed an order. There were a few other people there, too, gnawing on ribs and jawing about the day’s events. A guy on a barstool strummed quiet notes on a guitar while gently crooning country tunes in front of a tip jar. It was completely mellow, almost warm, warm in the way that the glow and crackle of a fire calms the spirit while a winter storm rages outside.

I sat there for awhile, listening to the music and enjoying my dinner while thinking about what the last two days had given me.

I got to hear the “sound” of total silence. Roam an ancient land while having the entire place to myself. Walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs.

I got to peer into the lives of people in places few people know, but places brimming with stories just the same.

At that moment, I felt gratitude. I was grateful to have the time and the health to be there. It’s rare to have any these moments, not to mention having so many all at once. When you come across such a confluence, you have to acknowledge that.

I’m a blessed man.

GETTING THERE: From Tulsa, take U.S. 412/64 west until you get to Boise City. In Boise City, continue west on Oklahoma Highway 325. The highway will take you to the state park and beyond: turn north just before you get to Kenton to reach the Black Mesa Nature Preserve. The trailhead parking lot will be on your left.

From Oklahoma City, take Interstate 40 west until you reach U.S. 270 northwest until the highway intersects with U.S. 412/64 in Woodward. Go west until you reach Boise City, then continue west on Oklahoma Highway 325 until you reach the turn north just east of Kenton to reach the nature preserve.

From Denver, go east on Interstate 70 to Limon, then continue southeast, then south on U.S. 287 until you reach Boise City, then go west on Oklahoma Highway 325,turning north just before Kenton to the nature preserve.

Mile marker benches are placed along the trail up Black Mesa. This one has a pretty nice view.

Mile marker benches are placed along the trail up Black Mesa. This one has a pretty nice view.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: At the trailhead, go through the gate and hike west, then south on a flat, well-marked trail. There is a chance you will encounter cattle on this portion of the trail. Signs with green, metal arrows show the way, and every mile there are park benches marked with the number of miles you’ve hiked.

Continue hiking on this portion of the trail for about 2.25 miles, then reach the portion of the trail that ascends the mesa. The switchbacks here are moderately steep and there is some loose rock and washouts, but the path is clear and the washouts avoidable. This portion of the trail lasts a little less than a mile, and most of the elevation gain happens here. You’ll pass under a wooden and barbed-wire gate of sorts at the top.

The trail continues south, then west on flat, easy terrain until you reach the summit marker a mile later.

Estimated total elevation gain is about 600 feet. Round-trip route length is about 8.4 miles and does not exceed Class 1, with minimal exposure. I’d consider the hike as moderately strenuous at its most difficult. Bring plenty to drink, as there are no places to filter water. This is especially important during the summer, when temperatures can easily exceed 100 degrees. Also, during mild to hot weather, be on the lookout for rattlesnakes.

Bob Doucette

Alone time: A case for going solo

There are days where you wish you never would have gotten out of bed.

Most of the time, those days pass. The sun rises the next day, you breathe easier and chalk up one bad day as something you have to go through every now and then.

But there are times when those days run back-to-back. Or maybe they run on for a week. Or several weeks.

I’ve had a few of those stretches. Personally, I’d like to forget most of 2010-2011. But more recently, it goes something like this…

There is, legitimately, a lot of angst over this little guy.

There is, legitimately, a lot of angst over this little guy.

I wake up in the morning and check the headlines. Ebola has made it to the United States. Elsewhere, some crazy, well-armed maniacs are making a case for beheading people they don’t like. And according to one group, the rainbow flag is now the new “sign of the beast.”

Add to that a few long, stressful shifts on the job, and let me tell you, I’m ready to escape. I’m ready to be away from people. I’m ready to see no one, hear nothing, and just be still for awhile.

Funny thing. I was involved in a Twitter chat recently where the topic was solo travel. It got me to thinking about those times when I hit the road for some serious alone time.

Back when I was in college, my family was spread out all over the world. At one point, I had a sister in west Texas, a brother in Colorado, another brother in Germany and my parents in France. I was attending courses at a small Baptist liberal arts college smack in the middle of Oklahoma.

I was cool being on my own. I liked school. I had good friends, things to do and a certain feeling of, dare I say, “accomplishment” for making it on my own. Never mind that I had my parents’ gas card and plenty of help along the way. But I digress.

When the holidays rolled around and campus cleared out, I’d often make my way to my sister’s place in Midland, a small west Texas city built on the petro-riches found deep underground in the Permian Basin. The routine: Load up my duffle, slip on a thick hoodie and a jacket, and buy a pack of cheap cigars as my truck rolled southwest to the flattest land in all of Texas. That’s an eight-hour drive, boring as hell and I loved every minute of it.

Probably not your idea of a good time, but hear me out. After a semester of communal living, tight class schedules, high stress and all that other business, those eight hours on the road — blowing cigar smoke out the window as the sound of the engine, the tires on the road and the music on the radio droned on — was just the release I needed. The yellow, orange, red and purple glow of sunset over the horizon was a pretty sweet bonus.

I’m sure the trip would have gone by faster with some company, but then I wouldn’t have been able to burn all those cigars, wouldn’t have been able to sing all those songs a full volume, and wouldn’t have had all that time to decompress.

Going solo is often about just that – decompression. The time alone without distractions to just drink in what’s going on around you without having to satisfy anyone else’s agenda but your own is exactly the tonic I need when life gets a little too crazy for a little too long.

A rainy day in the Wichita Mountains. This was taken on a different outing, but the visual effect is the same.

A rainy day in the Wichita Mountains. This was taken on a different outing, but the visual effect is the same.

Those couple of years that went awry (I mentioned 2010-2011 earlier) was also a time when I had one of the most amazing and memorable outdoor experiences of my life. A solo hike in the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma included a near-miss with a charging buffalo, a record-setting torrential rain storm and some absolutely incredible scenery – ancient granite peaks shrouded in rain and fog, transforming the appearance from sandy, beige granite into icy hues of pewter, silver and white.

When I tell people about that hike, they wonder aloud what would have happened to me if that buffalo would have gored me (self-rescue would have been a serious issues), or how I could possibly enjoy being soaked to the bone for hours on end.

But being alone allowed me to really pay attention to my surroundings. When you’re solo, your senses are heightened to a point where every sight, smell and scent is much more intense than it would have been if you had shared it with others.

It also gave me time to think. And believe me, I had a lot on my mind.

But in also focusing on the task at hand – navigating wilderness with no one else there to help – it also allowed me to escape. Maybe not forget. But even if for a day or two, just to not be where all the world’s troubles were, where all my problems were –  yes, that is an escape. As hostile as the conditions, and maybe the wildlife, were, that place at that time was a refuge not unlike the smoke-filled cab of my little pickup motoring down a west Texas highway.

More recently, a group climb in northern Colorado got washed out by bad weather, forcing me to make a choice: Go solo in a drier part of the state or go home. I chose the former.

I camped at the trailhead parking lot, which was dark and empty, nodding off to sleep to the mellower tunes I had on my phone before waking up in the pre-dawn hours and setting off on the trail up Missouri Mountain.

When you're walking into this misty void alone, the experience is visceral. This is on Missouri Mountain's summit ridge, just shy of 14,000 feet.

When you’re walking into this misty void alone, the experience is visceral. This is on Missouri Mountain’s summit ridge, just shy of 14,000 feet.

I suffered a bit on that trip, and the weather was dodgy the entire ascent. The only voice I heard was in my head, telling me to turn around and pack it in. But that same sense of heightened awareness I experienced in the Wichitas returned as I plodded my way up past 13,000 feet, and ultimately an amazing time where, for the first time in my life, I had a high summit to myself.

Hours later, I was back in my car headed toward civilization. As it turned out, I missed the news of the day – a mass shooting at a Navy station that ultimate kicked off another predictable social media shoutfest over guns.

At that point, I wished I was back in the bosom of wilderness, and away from the angst and outrage of “the real world.”

After the week I just had, I feel that pull pretty bad. The world can be a noisy, angry place. When I’ve had my fill of that, the quiet indifference of the wild, taken in on my own, sounds like paradise.

Bob Doucette

Places I like: Wetterhorn Peak

For many years, I had this thing for a Colorado mountain called Wetterhorn Peak. I saw pictures of it. Heard about people climbing it.

And then I saw it. Five years ago, while hiking Uncompahgre Peak, I finally laid eyes on this beauty. That’s when a low-grade obsession began — not all-consuming (that would be weird), but frequently on my mind.

A few months ago, I finally got to climb it. What usually happens after a climb a peak is something like still feeling a great appreciation for it, but the allure it had previously fades a bit.

That didn’t happen this time. Every time I see a picture of Wetterhorn, or relive that late spring ascent, I still find myself in a bit of awe. Not because of the difficulty of the climb (it’s not an extremely tough ascent), but more from its beauty.

Four ridges rise to its 14,015 summit. From the north, it’s rise is nearly shear. The south features a dramatic and signature sweep. Its east and west ridges are steep and rugged.

Pictures tell the tale better. Here is Wetterhorn as seen from the summit of nearby Matterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak as seen from Matterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak as seen from Matterhorn Peak.

My friend Kay hiked in from the north and snapped this amazing photo.

Wetterhorn as seen from the north. (Kay Bessler photo)

Wetterhorn as seen from the north. (Kay Bessler photo)

Wetterhorn wears the snow pretty well.

Late spring snow conditions on Wetterhorn's east face.

Late spring snow conditions on Wetterhorn’s east face.

And like a true beauty, she holds up well in a close-up.

The Wetterhorn summit, with the Prow to the left.

The Wetterhorn summit, with the Prow to the left.

And if you’re fortunate enough to reach Wetterhorn’s summit, the views from the top are incredible.

Amazing views to the north from Wetterhorn Peak's summit.

Amazing views to the north from Wetterhorn Peak’s summit.

Climber and BASE jumper/wingsuit flier Steph Davis writes a blog she titles “High Infatuation.” Though I think that term has a different meaning for her than for me, I can definitely  relate to the sentiment. Especially when it comes to this mountain. She hasn’t lost her luster.

Bob Doucette

Places I like: Chicago Basin, Colorado

chi1

You know how wild a place is going to be based on how difficult it is to get to. While not a foolproof axiom, it generally holds up.

And that describes Chicago Basin, Colorado, very well. You can either hike in from some 20 miles out or hop a train and get dropped off in the middle of nowhere to start your journey to this slice of alpine heaven.

It’s a lot different than most of Colorado. The state is pretty dry by nature, but the San Juans tend to accumulate more rain and snow than neighboring ranges. And compared to the rest of the San Juans, Chicago Basin gets even more. The end result is a place so lush, so green, that is practically drips with foliage.

At times, the clouds and mists obscure the real rock stars of the basin – its peaks. But invariably, these beauties refuse to remain veiled for very long. Four summits towering more than 14,000 feet crown the upper reaches of the basin and even more 13,000-foot peaks join the show. Like the wilderness itself, all these mountains are wild. No gentle, grassy slopes for these crags. Instead, you’re greeted by sheer cliffs, tall spires and rocky ramparts that create an imposing – and inspiring – skyline.

In some ways, it’s too bad you can see these scenes from the road. But like a lot of things in life, with great effort comes great rewards. You’re going to have to do more than take a long drive to see Chicago Basin. But if you’re willing and don’t mind the toil, you’re going to see real wilderness on its terms, and in its full glory.

chi2

Bob Doucette

Colorado’s Mount Sniktau: A gateway to alpine hiking

Scenic Mount Sniktau's summit ridge.

Scenic Mount Sniktau’s summit ridge.

This one goes out to the people who need an altitude fix and need it fast.

Or those who are unsure about this whole alpine hiking thing but want to at least give it a try.

If you live in the Denver area or you are traveling there and have a little time to kill, let me introduce you to your new best friend: Mount Sniktau.

You might remember that thing I wrote about the road trip/train ride/rainy hike/mountain climbing thing in southwestern Colorado’s Chicago Basin. But before I stepped foot on the trail leading up to that little wilderness paradise, there was another ascent that was supposed to gear me up for the challenges to come.

My friend Matt and I were in Denver, but still a couple of days away from meeting up with our merry band of backpackers in Durango. Denver is a fine town, and the mile high city is substantially higher than my hometown. But you’re not going to acclimate for 14,000 feet by hanging out in a city 9,000 feet lower than that.

So the prescription was to find an alpine hike that was close to Denver, but one that we could get to in a passenger car with low clearance.

After looking at my options, I eventually settled on Sniktau. Mount Evans would have been a solid choice, too, but I’d kinda been there and done that the year before. Similar deal with Mount Bierstadt and Quandary Peak. Grays Peak and Torreys Peak? The road to the trailhead was too much for our car. Castle Peak was pretty far, and a longer day than we wanted.

But then there was Mount Sniktau, elevation 13,234 feet.

Midway up Sniktau's grassy slopes.

Midway up Sniktau’s grassy slopes.

Just past Idaho Springs with easy access from Interstate 70, this seemed to be the ticket. The route was short but high, giving us some flexibility on start times and hiking speed.

My only worry was that it would be lame.

The thing is Matt has been to some pretty awesome places. He hiked New Mexico’s highest point, Wheeler Peak, a few years ago. Did the Maroon Bells loop. And last fall he hiked to Everest Base Camp in Nepal. I might be easily amused, but I wasn’t so sure about Matt.

But he was also battling a bum ankle he’d sprained a couple of weeks earlier while burning up the trails at Turkey Mountain on a trail run.

That’s a lot of considerations going into what would be a big week in the Rockies.

Looking west toward Loveland Ski Area.

Looking west toward Loveland Ski Area.

Hiking it on a weekday was a good choice. The trail is popular, mostly because of its proximity to the Denver area and its relatively short length (3.5 miles round trip). I can only imagine how busy it would be on a weekend.

As you drive west on I-70, Sniktau is the first big mountain you see to your south. When I was less familiar with the area, I wondered if it was a 14er (maybe Grays Peak). I know better now, but that’s how big it looks compared to the surrounding mountains just before you hit the Eisenhower Tunnel. Those high, green, grassy slopes just seem to rise forever when you look at them from the road.

Eventually we wound our way up Loveland Pass, where a small parking lot is carved out at the top. A stone staircase leads up from there and took us to the trail that followed Sniktau’s steadily rising ridgeline.

The route takes a break before heading up to Point 13,152, a false summit on Mount Sniktau.

The route takes a break before heading up to Point 13,152, a false summit on Mount Sniktau.

A whole mix of people was out that day. A group of kids wearing way too much clothing. More seasoned hikers with their trekking poles and hydration packs. An old dude with a butterfly net.

The pass is near 12,000 feet, so the total elevation gain is not that much. But you pick up about 1,000 feet of it right off the bat. The trail is decent, though pretty sandy.

At the false summit and a rocky windbreak, looking toward Sniktau's true summit.

At the false summit and a rocky windbreak, looking toward Sniktau’s true summit.

Another thing about Sniktau: It’s windy. Breezes sweep over its ridgeline constantly, and they can get pretty strong at times. Higher up on the mountain, it’s no surprise that people had constructed a few windbreaks to take shelter from those gusts.

Hiking up the ridge, you don’t get to see the real summit until you top out on the false summit, Point 13,152. From here, you drop into a saddle, then begin the final ascent to the top. Somewhere just short of the  false summit, and then most of the way to the top the trail goes from sandy BBs to scree and talus. But the rocks are pretty solid, a relief to Matt, who was constantly minding that wonky ankle.

Torreys Peak as seen from Mount Sniktau.

Torreys Peak as seen from Mount Sniktau.

By the time we topped out, the winds died down. An older couple and their adult daughter were there, snapping pics and checking out the views and the marmots who were, in turn, watching us.

Sniktau gives you some pretty good views of nearby mountains – Torreys Peak is the closest “big” mountain in view, and Quandary Peak further away, to name a couple.

Matt hanging out near the summit, taking in the views.

Matt hanging out taking in the views, I-70 far below.

What we weren’t expecting: A C-130 darting between the peaks, having fun as only pilots can. We’re more accustomed to seeing planes of that size flying over the mountains, not flirting with mountaintops and ridgelines.

Clouds began to roll in, and it was time to go. Those sandy parts of the trail nailed me on the way down, causing a slip where I banged my hand pretty hard on the rocks and got a nice cut in the process. Hey, if that’s the worst thing that will happen, I’m fine with it. But it’s a good lesson – I was wearing worn-out running shoes instead of something more fit for hiking, so my trail grip wasn’t the best. I’ll know better than to be so casual next time.

What surprises me, though, is how often I see people heading up the mountain late, in the face of incoming bad weather. It was true again that day.

I was pleased at how scenic the hike actually was. Naturally, I assumed a peak so close to Denver and so heavily traveled would be less than inspiring. But that view of the summit from high on the ridge packs a lot of punch.

So go ahead. Bypass the busy 14ers. Get your elevation fix, get it fast, and savor it on Sniktau.

GETTING THERE: From Denver, take I-70 west past Idaho Springs, then exit south on U.S. 6 (the Loveland Pass exit) Drive to the top of the pass and park at the trailhead parking lot. The trailhead will be on your left as you park.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the parking lot, go up the staircase to the trail and continue hiking up the ridge to Point 13,152. The trail gets a little rougher from here, and earlier in the summer, there might be snow on the route. Continue hiking down the saddle and then up the final pitch to the top. The route is 3.5 miles round trip, with about 1,300 feet of elevation gain. Class 2 hiking.

EXTRA CREDIT: Many people cut their teeth on winter hiking on Sniktau. And for those who want give ski mountaineering a try often do it on Sniktau’s slopes, which is pretty convenient for skiers at nearby Loveland Ski Area. Lastly, you can link up Sniktau and nearby Grizzly Peak and Torreys Peak if you want a bigger day. And if you’re particularly stout of heart, the trail would make a great ridge run.

Bob Doucette

The Fellowship of the Trail: Backpacking and climbing the peaks of Chicago Basin, Colorado

Clouds swirl around Peak 18 (left) and Windom Peak in Chicago Basin.

Clouds swirl around Peak 18 (left) and Windom Peak in Chicago Basin.

“You can’t underestimate the power of people’s desire to be part of a group,” my friend Matt told me.

I can’t remember what the exact subject was, but his statement was part of a longer discussion we used to kill some time and miles while driving through Kansas on our way to Denver.

I met Matt a couple of years ago when I worked day-shift hours and was able to join some group runs at Turkey Mountain, a local trail haunt for Tulsa runners and mountain bikers. Post-run burritos and beers turned into discussions about the mountains, backpacking, hiking, and climbing. He was itching to go on one of these Rocky Mountain adventures, and when I told him about some plans for a backpacking trip to Chicago Basin, he was all in.

Chicago Basin is one of those places that’s not easy to get to. It’s in one of the most remote corners of the most out-of-the-way mountain range in Colorado, the San Juans. There’s no road to the trailhead. Your two methods of getting there are either on foot (one really long hike in, just to get to the trailhead) or hopping a steam train in either Durango or Silverton and getting dropped off at a midpoint stop that used to be the rail town of Needleton (no such town exists now, just a wide spot by the railroad and a bridge over the Animas River).

The reward comes after hiking in several miles and seeing the prize before you: A collection of 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks in the basin. Each mountain offers its own set of challenges, both physical and mental.

But as much as this story is about the place, it’s also about the people. You know, the group.

The cast

A lot of the people on this trip were familiar faces, people who had been kind enough to let me join them on past trips – Chuck, Noel, and Bill – strong hikers, good climbers, and either close to or past the point of topping out on all of the state’s 14,000-foot high points.

There were a lot of new faces. Some I know “virtually” though 14ers.com, its Facebook page, or through other means. Joining Bill on the drive down was Jenny, a young and pretty ambitious gal when it comes to the 14ers.

We had some “power couples.” And by that, I mean they were pretty awesome. Nathan and Danielle, both rock-solid climbers, and the perfect yin and yang. Nathan is pure chill, and Danielle might be the happiest person I’ve ever met (if you want to find her, just follow the laughter). And then there’s Mike and Maggie – Mike (also known as “Mikey Zee”) being the funniest dude I know, and Maggie playing the role of calm in the midst of Mike’s hilarious chaos. More on that later.

There were the mountain goats – Mike W., Zach, Todd, Steve and Andrew. And the Bosnian Baron, Senad, who was an absolute beast on the hill.

And then one last character who appeared out of the mists of social media – Miss “go! go! go!”, a runner and climber named Kay who I follow on Instagram (you can find her at halfpint22,and her feed is a good one). I saw her at the train station in Durango, recognized her, and discovered that she’d be part of this merry little band. Small world, folks.

Matt enjoying the ride on his way to his first 14er experience.

Matt enjoying the ride on his way to his first 14er experience.

In their midst was myself and Matt – a newcomer to the 14er scene, a fella with a huge sense of curiosity and a dude who was down for anything.

So many different personalities. So many challenges. You could taste the potential for something big. Early on, there’s no telling what that was going to be. All of it would depend on how well these folks would work and interact together under trying conditions.

Riding the rails

When it comes to backpacking, most of it steers away from touristy stuff. Leave that to the vacationers hiking a half mile from the parking lot to take a picture of some nondescript waterfall. So it’s a curious twist that to go into one of Colorado’s more remote wildernesses, you have to jump on a 19thcentury-style, coal-powered steam train with several carloads of tourists willing to pay $100 a pop to take a slow, scenic ride between Durango and Silverton. Uniformed staff give passengers details about the train and the route. One of them had a retro, curled-up mustache that was big back in the day. Or is that more of a hipster thing? Confusing times, man.

The rig that took us to the trailhead.

The rig that took us to the trailhead.

The train operators know their customer base, though. Backpackers are given the option of riding in the cheaper open-air cars. You kill two birds with one stone – save backpackers money (we ain’t loaded, ya know), and spare the rest of the passengers that lovely odor we tend to accumulate over a few days on the trail. Oh, and there’s a beer car.

Chugging along...

Chugging along…

Anyway, the train gave the group a chance to catch up with old friends or break the ice with those we just met. A couple of hours in, the train stopped near a pedestrian suspension bridge spanning the Animas River. The tourist experience was over. Time to hike in.

Where is this? Washington state?

If you’ve been to Colorado much, you know it’s a pretty dry state. Even with all the winter and spring snows, and the almost daily summer afternoon thunderstorms, the Centennial State is somewhere just shy of a desert in most of its environs. This is especially true of the western third of the state.

And we're off!

And we’re off!

The San Juans are different, though. Something about this mountain range, some trick of topography and geography, collects moisture. I saw that in a big way a month earlier, when Wetterhorn Peak was still socked in with snow late into June. But it was nothing like what we experienced hiking nearly 7 miles into Chicago Basin.

It was warm. Humid. Lush. Moss hung from the trees, and everything around us was carpeted in green. The skies were bright, but pocked with heavy white-and-gray clouds that threatened to dump rain on our little slow-moving parade that trudged up the trail.

The trail starts easy enough.

The trail starts easy enough.

I wondered out loud if this is what it was like to backpack in the Pacific Northwest. Having only been there once, my frame of reference is limited.  But one thing I do know – Rainier and other Cascade giants notwithstanding, most of the Pacific Northwest lies comfortably below the 8,000 or so feet above sea level where this little jaunt started.

It’s been awhile since I’ve been backpacking. I’m pretty good at keeping my pack weight low, but the last time I strapped 35 pounds to my back and headed up a hill was 2009.

And then there’s this: I’m working a lot these days, which means training less. I quickly became the guy in the slow lane amongst a group of hikers who were decidedly much faster than me.

Jenny and Bill as we get closer to camp.

Jenny and Bill as we get closer to camp.

I’d like to blame it on being a flatlander. It’s a great excuse I’ve used before, like an old reliable crutch I could use when bringing up the rear. But then Matt comes along, a fellow Tulsa guy, and the altitude didn’t seem to bug him much. He was near the front of the line that day, and pretty much the entire time. Freak of nature? Maybe. More likely he’s just in way better shape and able to hang with just about anyone.

Our group was big, and it was a pretty busy weekend in the basin. So we were forced to hike in a little further and higher than we originally planned. After a few creek crossings and a long trudge up, the sight of my buddies in camp just uphill from a stream was welcome indeed. It was warm, and I’d long since sweat through everything I was wearing.

The view from my tent.

The view from my tent.

So began the daily routine of camp chores – setting up the tent, filtering water, getting ready for dinner. Everything is tougher at 11,000 feet. But little things help ease the burden.

Enter Noel. We first met each other a couple of years ago and have since hiked and climbed several mountains together. She’s closing in on bagging every 14,000-foot peak in the state, and in the time it has taken to do all that work, she’s learned a few things about backpacking. Nothing beats good eats when you’re at camp, and aside from her famous cookies (she’s known as “the cookiehiker” for a reason), Noel has learned a thing or two about making dehydrated meals. She offered to bring me a few for this trip, and I gladly accepted. Dinner that night was chicken and couscous. What did you eat the last time you went backpacking?

Noel and I.

Noel and I.

Anyway, I’m lucky to know this gal.

That’s not to say that everyone else ate miserable food. Nathan and Danielle hauled up unusually heavy packs, but the reasoning behind that added weight became clear with the sounds and smells of sizzling bacon. The two carried a small cooler full of tasty foods and a skillet, among other things. Much jealousy ensued.

I made sure to soak in the scenery. Across the creek, the steep, grassy shoulder of Mount Eolus rose high above. Up the basin, the dramatic profiles of Peak 18 (this beauty needs a better name) and Windom Peak loomed overhead. Deer and mountain goats circled the camp, unafraid and curious.

Late afternoon sun on Peak 18 and Windom Peak, as seen from camp.

Late afternoon sun on Peak 18 and Windom Peak, as seen from camp.

The sheer number of people in our group made the surroundings seem a little less wild, but there was no doubt that we were deep within the folds of wilderness.

Everyone turned in early. Rains were off-and-on all afternoon and evening, and to have any shot at a summit, an early start was required.

The alarm was set for 3:15.

Mount Eolus and North Eolus

Twenty minutes.

From sundown until my alarm went off, I think I might have been unconscious for just 20 minutes the entire night. The rest of that time was spent tossing and turning, mitigating the discomforts of sleeping on the ground (hello, shoulder and hip soreness) and occasionally dozing a bit. But sleep was elusive. Altitude will definitely mess with your sleep if you’re not used to it.

I felt bad for Matt, with all the rustling around I was doing, but he scoured some ear plugs to help him get some Z’s. Lucky for him.

A quick breakfast preceded the gathering of gear. Headlamps on, the group headed up the trail, looking to tag the summits of Mount Eolus and its neighbor, North Eolus.

“We’re going to take our time,” I remember Noel telling me the night before. “There’s no rush.”

Yeah, right.

Alpenglow on Mount Eolus.

Alpenglow on Mount Eolus.

It was immediately clear that the pace being set on the trail was going to be a fast one. Not a problem early on when the incline was more gentle. But to get to the peaks above, you had to hike up a sizable headwall that was at times pretty steep. I started in the middle of the pack, but quickly drifted toward the back. There was no sense trying to keep up with these folks.

In time, I was reduced to counting off 100 steps, then stopping to take a breather. The skies began to show the initial signs of dawn as the headlamps ahead drifted further and further up and away. I’d really hoped to be stronger that morning, but it wasn’t happening. So I kept chewing up the slope, slowly, until the group had gathered near the stony saddle between the two peaks.

Sunrise over Chicago Basin.

Sunrise over Chicago Basin.

I was grateful for Bill and Jenny at this point. They were closer to my speed, and as we hit the higher parts of the route, we ended up climbing together.

Of the whole crew, Bill is the most experienced. He’s already summitted all of Colorado’s 14ers, many of them multiple times. Well over 100 14er climbs and counting. Add to that Rainier, Mount Hood and Pico de Orizaba, and you get the picture. Been there, done that.

Getting ready to cross the Catwalk. Jenny takes one last look back.

Getting ready to cross the Catwalk. Jenny takes one last look back.

Jenny is no slouch, either. She got the 14er bug a couple of years ago, and is less than 10 peaks away from bagging all the state’s 14,000-foot summits. She’d been to Chicago Basin before — a year ago, in fact. One of the challenges before us turned her back last time – the connecting ridge between the peaks called the Catwalk.

The Catwalk is unlike any saddle I’d ever seen before. It’s a skinny sliver of rock, anywhere from five to 15 feet wide, a couple of football fields long and with near vertical drops on either side. If you’re headed toward Eolus, the exposure to your right is particularly dramatic. It’s no surprise that the Catwalk has turned back more than a few people, just based on the visuals. It’s not tough to cross once you get past the initial intimidation factor. With a little encouragement, Jenny slew that dragon, and we got a good look at the work ahead.

Crossing the Catwalk.

Crossing the Catwalk.

Mount Eolus’ summit pitch is defined by its ledges. Huge, solid blocks make up a system of those ledges you have to navigate as you snake your way up a path that parallels the northeast ridge. We checked that out for a bit, but instead decided to reverse course and tackle the ridge directly.

This meant a couple of things. One, the route to the summit was much more straightforward. And two, the climbing was tougher and the exposure more dramatic.

Climbing the ridge. (Mikey Zee photo)

Climbing the ridge. (Mikey Zee photo)

Close to topping out on Eolus' tiny summit.

Close to topping out on Eolus’ tiny summit.

Danielle led here. She’d give us a few hints of what was to come, followed by half joyous, half nervous laughter. Sometimes getting a straight answer in the midst of her exploratory glee was elusive.

“Danielle, talk to us like a human being!” Bill shouted at one point. Followed by more laughter.

There were a couple of moves we had to make that were pretty committing. Nothing overly difficult, but you needed to hit it right and not have any mishaps. A fall on that ridge would send you into a rocky abyss. There were a couple of times I asked myself, “You’re really going to do this, huh?” And then I did it and moved on. Before long, we’d all topped out. Crazy summit photos ensued, some daring, some, er, interesting. I’ll just leave it at that.

Looking at Sunlight Peak, Sunlight Spire and Windom Peak at the other end of the Basin.

Looking at Sunlight Peak, Sunlight Spire and Windom Peak at the other end of the Basin.

To date, I’d say Eolus is the most challenging peak I’ve done. The approach, the route-finding, the climbing and the exposure – it all combined for pretty great summit. I remember telling Jenny, who crossed back over the Catwalk with decidedly less trepidation than she had 40 minutes earlier, that she’d grown a bit since we first walked up on that ridge. But I may as well have said the same thing about myself. No way I would have climbed that ridge five years ago. No way I would have crossed that catwalk a decade past. The truth is, a lot of us were making some strides in the Basin that day.

Mount Eolus, as seen from North Eolus' summit.

Mount Eolus, as seen from North Eolus’ summit.

I was good with tagging Eolus and calling it a day, but the scramble to the top of North Eolus from the Catwalk is short. The rock was different – slabby, grippy and sharp. Ideal for friction climbing. It may have been the easiest Class 3 pitch I’ve ever done.  Twenty minutes later, summit No. 2 was in the books.

Glorious San Juan wilderness.

Glorious San Juan wilderness.

The views from these peaks are stunning. On this end of the San Juans, wild peaks abound – the stony sentinels Pigeon and Turret peaks, the verticality of Arrow and Vestal, and on the opposite side of the Basin, Sunlight and Windom.

Mountain goat chillin'.

Mountain goat chillin’.

Wildflowers galore.

Wildflowers galore.

We called it a day from there and started the hike down. Green alpine grasses were littered with wildflowers, and mountain goats patrolled the meadows looking for places to graze or just lounge in the sun. Strolling into camp, I pretty much had decided I’d be sleeping in the next day.

Heading back toward camp.

Heading back toward camp.

The weather hates us

We’d topped out early – an 8 a.m. summit of Eolus, and by the time we were done being lazy atop North Eolus, it was about 9:30. We were in camp by noon or so.

Routines picked up again – eat, nap, filter water, cook food. Stories were shared. Kay, being the most energetic of the bunch, had also tagged Glacier Point, a high 13er in the Basin between Eolus and Sunlight. But before long, the weather decided to interrupt the party.

Clouds enveloped the peaks. Light rain began to fall, but not so much as to chase us into our tents. But it kept intensifying, then added some thunder and lightning. So into the tents we retreated.

Rain that night flooded some people’s tents, and about half the group decided they’d had enough. The other half geared up to have a go at Sunlight and Windom peaks. As for me, I decided a relaxing day at camp was in order. Laziness rules!

As folks started packing up, we had a little fun with the mountain goats. For the uninitiated, here’s a little secret about mountain goats: They crave salt. And a great place for them to find it is where campers pee.

Yes, it’s gross. But it’s automatic. These creatures patrolled our campsites looking for places where we’d urinated, then licked the ground greedily, as if we’d spilled manna from heaven at their hooves.

Mike, who we also know as Mikey Zee, decided to have a little fun. He whizzed on a bush not too far from my tent, then watched the fireworks. Goats flocked to the bush. Munched on the bush. Fought over the bush. Eventually, the shrub was completely denuded of foliage. Certainly not something you see on any of those PBS nature shows.

Eventually I had the camp to myself. The group left, with idea of meeting up a day later in Durango. So I chilled out, swatted at flies and waited for the rest of the gang to return from the summits.

Matt tearing it up on Sunlight Peak. (Bill Wood photo)

Matt tearing it up on Sunlight Peak. (Bill Wood photo)

Everyone had stories to tell. Matt, by travel buddy, tagged Sunlight and Windom. I considered this a major feat, as he’d confessed earlier his fear of heights and had taken a pass on the Catwalk. What does he do the next day? He climbs one of the toughest, most exposed of all the 14ers. Again — growth, man.

Others had done the same. And Kay, looking for more, did both of those plus Peak 18.

Back at camp, more stories were told, experiences compared, congratulations handed out. I didn’t regret my day of rest to that point, but later on I realized I’d missed out. I actually slept well the night before and felt good that morning. An opportunity missed, perhaps? Maybe. But I can always go back.

As had been the norm, the weather turned sour. So for a second straight day, we were chased into our tents. For 12 freaking hours.

There are only so many times you can look at pictures, take naps and otherwise try to kill time when you’re stuck in a cramped tent that long. It got old. My body ached. I’d hoped for a small break in the rain just so I could stand up and move my body. But it wouldn’t happen. By morning, with more tents flooding (ours had stayed remarkably dry; others’, not so much), all of us were ready to get down and find someplace dry.

Back to civilization

The rain stopped long enough for us to pack up and get moving down the hill – 7 miles to the Needleton stop, 7 miles to our first taste of civilization in several days.

You’d think a march like that, with full packs, would be a drudgery, but in reality it was pleasant and fast. The weather was cool and mostly overcast and the trail was soft and forgiving. Two-and-a-half hours later, we were at the tracks waiting for our ride home.

About an hour later, the train appeared. We loaded our stuff, found a spot in the open cars and waved at the crowd of backpackers who’d disembarked in their own adventures. My first order of business – a Coke and a bag of Lay’s potato chips. Manna from heaven, and not the goat kind, either.

What followed was a tour-de-eat like you wouldn’t believe. First stop, in Silverton, we gorged on burgers and beer. Once we got turned around and back in Durango, more gluttony. And on and on.

Chowing down and having a few laughs at a restaurant in Durango with my tribe. (Mikey Zee photo)

Chowing down and having a few laughs at a restaurant in Durango with my tribe. (Mikey Zee photo)

At a Tex-Mex place in Durango, the whole group reunited. Stories were swapped, and Chuck got an impromptu birthday serenade from the restaurant’s wait staff. Pretty surprising, considering it wasn’t his birthday. Remember what I said about Mikey Zee being the funniest man I’d ever met? Yeah, that gag was his idea. Between that and a whole lot of other hilarity, I can’t remember the last time I’d laughed that hard.

With the trip wrapping up, I recalled a few conversations that Matt and I had with Bill and Jenny on the way to Durango. The 14er scene is a lot like high school, Bill had reasoned, with new people all wide-eyed at the experience (like high school freshmen) and the experienced hikers and climbers there to show them the ropes (like seniors). Romances come and go. And people move on, just in time for the noobs to graduate to senior status and welcome in a new group of fresh faces who in turn look up to them and their high country tales with wonder. And so the cycle goes.

But Bill added something a little deeper than that, making the scene seem less transient. Work was work, he said, but the mountain scene was different.

“These people,” he said, “these are my friends. They’re the ones I want to hang out with and do things with.”

It’s hard to say how many of us would even know each other if not for the shared love of the mountains. Maybe none of us. Maybe we’d be involved in some other deal, with other people, or we’d just get lost in our own world of collective anonymity.

But that ain’t the case. We do know each other. We like each other’s company, work well as teams and support each other. In sharing risks and struggles, we bond in ways that’s not possible in most other circles.

It’s sort of like what Matt said during that long drive through Kansas. You can’t underestimate the power of wanting to be part of a group. You just hope you find the right one.

As for me, I think I have. I kinda like my tribe.

GETTING THERE: Snag a ticket, from either Silverton or Durango, and hop the steam train to the Needleton Stop. Open-air, round-trip tickets cost about $90. If you park at the train station, there is also a parking fee at the gate.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: Hike across the bridge crossing the Animas River. A good trail goes all the way to the Basin. About 5.5 miles in, you will see places where you can camp. Campsites are available up to 7 miles or so from the bridge crossing. From there, follow the trail up the headwall – steep Class 1 and 2 hiking. Higher up the headwall, you will cross rock slabs that are slippery when wet. At the saddle between Mount Eolus and North Eolus, you’ll see the Catwalk. Cross the Catwalk toward Mount Eolus. The rock is solid but exposed. Mostly, it’s a walk with an occasional scrambling move.

Once off the Catwalk, follow a series of cairns up the ledges leading to the summit. Or, for a more direct climb, go up the northeast ridge proper. Taking  the ledges is Class 3, with 4th-class exposure. The ridge is Class 4 climbing, with 4th-class+ exposure. You will be able to climb over or around several stone blocks; some require traverses that are pretty committing.

For North Eolus, follow the ridgeline immediately off the end of the Catwalk. Pick your route toward the top; the rock is slabby and easy to grip, with just a few short, Class 3 sections to climb. The rest is Class 2 hiking, and a short trip from the saddle.

Bob Doucette