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

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Let’s talk about cairns and rock stacking

Some cairns and rock stacks are helpful. Some are not. And it’s becoming a growing problem in backcountry environments. Pictured here is a helpful cairn leading to a route up Broken Hand Pass in Colorado, with Crestone Needle seen in the background..

I’m a little late to the party on the subject of rock stacking, but I figured it was worth weighing in on now. So let me start with a story.

About a year ago, I was hiking with a friend in the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma. I was showing him some of my favorite places, but also acknowledged that I hadn’t been to these spots in about eight years. Our goal that day was to go up to the south summit of Sunset Peak, traverse to the north summit, then hike down and check out one more place before packing it in and hitting the road for home.

Sunset Peak’s south summit it this weird combination of hiking, scrambling and bushwhacking that’s hard to describe. There’s no defined route to the top. You just pick your way through scrub brush, boulders and rock slabs until you make one final push to the top. We were about three-quarters of the way there, and I started looking around for the best way to go up when I spotted a cairn.

Most of you already know what a cairn is. If you don’t, it’s a stack of rocks built to be noticed. Some build them as route-finding aides or important markers. Others of late have built them for aesthetic value, stacking stones in pretty places and taking photographs. There are Instagram pages dedicated to rock stacking.

Anyway, I’m thinking that this particular cairn was supposed to be a route-finding aide. So I climbed up to it, took a look around, and found nowhere to go. I backtracked, bushwhacked and found another way up. This was an annoyance, for sure, but no real harm was done.

But the ambiguity of why people build these things can lead to bigger problems. Go on 14ers.com and you’ll read stories about complicated and difficult routes littered with useless or deceiving rock stacks. People following them sometimes run the risk of getting lost or, possibly in danger.

As far as the cairns built for art’s sake, there are other issues. Some have decried excessive rock stacking as a form of littering otherwise picturesque natural scenes. In some places, rock stacking might lead to a degree of environmental damage. Rock-stacking enthusiasts dismiss this, saying they are doing no harm that anyone can measure, at least in their eyes, and they are enjoying the outdoors in their own way.

I’m a live-and-let-live guy. But there are aspects of this debate worth addressing.

First, let’s talk about building cairns for route-finding. Generally, this is a positive. Anything we can do to unobtrusively keep people from getting lost is a good thing. On Colorado’s Mount of the Holy Cross, a huge cairn was built on its north ridge to keep people from descending the wrong way into the wilderness area that surrounds the mountain. People have gotten lost there, never to be seen again, or found dead months later. The cairn keeps people on track as they descend the mountain.

But if you’re going to build one, make sure it actually helps. Be certain there aren’t already cairns built for this purpose, as yours might just confuse people. And best yet, it’s not a bad idea to leave cairn and blaze marking to the people whose job it is to maintain the lands where you hike and climb. I think the person who built the cairn on Sunset Peak was trying to be helpful, but it ended up being a hindrance. Someone following it might have been convinced that climbing a nearby airy and exposed rock rib was the easiest way up, but in truth was the riskiest.

Now what about the rock stacking for the sake of photos? This comes down to a question of values. If you value altering a landscape to suit your photographic goals, rock stacking is a temptation. If you do it, I’d ask that you limit it to a single cairn, take your pic and then dismantle the stack, putting the stones back where you found them. I can’t think of any justification for patches of beaches, river banks or cliffsides where dozens of these things are built and left standing. When others behind you are looking for beautiful settings to see and photograph, a chessboard of rock stacks kills the vibe.

Am I making too much of this? Maybe. But know that the National Park Service is discouraging this. And don’t be the guy/gal who builds an unhelpful cairn that gets people off route, and possibly at risk.

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

Places I like: South Colony Lakes

The northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise abruptly over the town of Westcliffe to the east, and their towering spires loom over Great Sand Dunes National Monument to the west. But what the tall peaks hide within their folds is one of the most stunning alpine scenes I’ve ever laid eyes on.

That’s a big claim, for sure. I’ve seen some fantastic places. But there is something about South Colony Lakes that stands out.

The lakes fill a tiered basin underneath the steep slopes of Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak and Broken Hand Peak on one side, and the gentler, cliff-banded flanks of Humboldt Peak on the other. To the south, Marble Mountain and other majestic spires rise. Many of these mountains have exposed, striated layers, giving a clue to the intense pressures of geologic uplift, wringing ancient and persistent violence to bend rock layers just so.

The lakes are pretty, to be sure, shining gems under the bright Colorado sky. But the star of the show is Crestone Needle, and it is best seen at dawn.

As the sun rises, the long shadow of Humboldt Peak makes a retreat. The low light of sunrise drench the eastern face of Crestone Needle, giving it a warm, orange hue that is one of the most spectacular mountain vistas I’ve come across. You understand the meaning of the word “alpenglow” when you catch Crestone Needle during the peak colors of sunrise.

And it’s a fleeting thing, gone in minutes. But the scenery still packs a wallop just about any time of day, as the Needle commands center stage above the lakes.

Bob Doucette

This is no time for retreat, and no place for silence

Wilderness is cold, indifferent and ultimately egalitarian. In days like these, it might feel good to find refuge in that sort of purity. But we can’t do that.

I’m in a weird place right now. Call it a bit of a funk. I’ve been back from a sweet New Mexico/Colorado trip that took me to some fantastic places. Every time I return from a trip out west, I wish I was back. But eventually that fades a little as I get into the swing of work, training and living my “ordinary” life far from wilderness peaks and alpine forests.

But it feels different now. The urge is much stronger, not necessarily to revisit old haunts, but to get the hell away from what’s going on around us now.

I got to thinking about this more during a recent run and worked it out like this:

When I’m in the wilderness, I don’t hear or see much of anything except what exists in the natural world. This is much more acute if I’m solo. I’m surrounded by things much bigger than me, and all the trappings, labels, prejudices and accolades with which we adorn ourselves and others are notably absent.

There’s no male or female. No white, brown, black or red. No American or foreigner. No gay or straight. No rich or poor. No Christian, Muslim, Jew or Hindu, or Buddhist, Sikh or atheist. On the mountaintop, in the forest or on high plains, I’m an organism left to the mercies of the elements, the terrain, the forces of gravity and the whims of weather. Aside from the technical gear I bring with me, I’m reduced to nothing more than visitor that must play by the same rules as everything else, be they the trees, the rocks, the grasses and the other creatures who call these environs home. Solo wilderness adventures are a wonderful self-imposed equalizer.

So now a confession. I find myself wanting to be in that space. It’s tough to be there, and lonely. Maybe even brutal. But it’s so simple. The rules are not your own, or anyone else’s. Politics don’t matter. Race doesn’t matter. Pick your identity, and out there, none of it matters. There’s something appealing about an exile like that, free from the strife of competing ideas, biases and expectations. Just you and the mountain, you and the trail. No favors or exclusions, just minute-to-minute decisions and basic survival. The wilderness doesn’t care if you’re happy, sad, fulfilled or disappointed. It doesn’t care if you live or die. It just is, a truly egalitarian world that is random and cruel, but in its own way, absolutely just.

On this day, late in the summer of 2017, that sounds far better than what we have in the world of “civilization.” Could you blame me if I decided to pack it in and do the hermit thing?

But the reality is this: Such thoughts are a fantasy. Through the centuries, humans have become decidedly un-wild. We’re creatures of our constructions. It’s practically in our DNA now. So running away from our problems and pretending to be one with the wild solves nothing. It’s merely an abdication of responsibility. Like it or not, we’re in this thing together.

The Nuremberg rally of 1935. This looks eerily familiar.

My mom grew up in Germany, born a year after World War II really got cooking. Our discussions about her early years are a combination of childhood memories and retellings of tales from her parents. She remembers hiding in bomb cellars, fleeing east from Berlin, then fleeing back to the city as the Russians advanced. She remembers the cruelties of war visited upon her, her family and her neighbors. Of doctors who disappeared one day and never came back. Of a city and a country ripped to pieces by an ideology that held up a nation and its people – check that, a certain kind of people – above all other humans. She recalls feeling no pride in being a German because of the evils inflicted on her Jewish countrymen, and millions upon millions more throughout Europe because someone decided it was time to put all the “inferior” people in their place, which ultimately meant being put to death.

World War II ended in 1945 with the total subjugation of Germany and its allies. It ended with the utter repudiation of Nazi ideology. Its falsehoods and evils were readily apparent to most of the world before the war, but made clear to everyone else – including the Germans themselves – once the shooting, shelling and bombing stopped. Tens of millions had to die to make it so, including over 400,000 Americans.

America’s original sin. It still haunts us.

Here in the United States, we have our own national sin. It started the day slavers began importing Africans to the New World to be used as forced labor on sprawling farms all over North America, South America and the Caribbean. Most of the world abandoned slavery before too long, but the U.S. stubbornly held on to it because owning people and forcing them to work was cheaper and easier than actually paying a wage or doing the work yourself. An entire regional economy was built on this model, one which enabled the splitting up of families, beatings, murders and rapes.

We fought a war over this, too. Apologists will say it was about “states’ rights” and “northern aggression,” but those are just covers for the fact that a group of people wanted to end slavery in America and another group did not. More people died in the American Civil War than in all our nation’s other wars combined. The northern states won, as did the cause of emancipation. But soon after, the formerly enslaved and newly freed African-Americans were subjugated yet again through decades of legislative action, rigged court rulings and socially enforced inequality. When these tools of racism weren’t enough, more violent implements were used: intimidation, beatings, murder and terrorism. Children died in church bombings, and in my hometown, an entire section of the city was burned over several days, with the victims being targeted only because they were black.

Oh yeah. The day Charlotteville, Va., looked a little like Nuremberg in 1935.

It’s 2017, folks. Seventy-two years after the end of World War II, and 152 years after the end of the Civil War. We’re nearly a century removed from the Tulsa Race Riot and more than five decades past the height of what we know as the Civil Rights Movement. And yet in 2017, we’re seeing Nazi salutes and Klan-like rallies in an American city that had the temerity to decide to take down the statue of a Confederate general. The torchlit march on the University of Virginia campus last week had all the feel of the great Nuremberg rallies of Nazi Germany. Grown men, kitted in military gear and long guns may as well have been the Brownshirts of yore. The ideology of these people is what led to the assassination Alan Berg in Denver and the bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City. These people, who have embraced the murderous – even genocidal – legacies of white supremacy, felt emboldened enough to crawl out of their basements and camps and spoil for a fight for all of us to see.

Inspired by “The Turner Diaries,” a novel about a white supremicist uprising against the federal government, Timothy McVeigh set off a bomb that killed 168 people, including 19 children in the Murrah Federal Building bombing in 1995. Here is an example of white supremacy’s more recent legacy in the U.S.

We can’t run from this. As tempting as it may be to wait it out, ignore it or minimize it, we just can’t. I know that the fringe that seems to be rising is a very small slice of our population, but it is a fringe that has found fertile ground in our land.

And that’s something we must challenge. Starting with ourselves.

Let’s not pretend we can be color-blind. That’s also a fantasy. And let’s be humble enough to accept that we don’t understand people who are different from us. We don’t know what it’s like to live someone else’s life. But you can seek some understanding. You can try to walk in another person’s shoes. You can seek honest discussions with folks who aren’t like you, and when you do, listen more and talk less. Hear their stories without caveat. Don’t accept some pundit’s agenda-driven characterization of folks that don’t fit into their “acceptable” realm. See for yourself, and follow that up with a healthy serving of “do unto others.”

From there, it’s important to be heard when you see wrong. People who remain quiet in the face of evil, even when they know it’s evil, are complicit. Folks on the receiving end of hate need to know we have their backs. Yeah, it’s going to be uncomfortable, testy and maybe heartbreaking. But standing on the sidelines gives us Jim Crow laws. Or worse.

I’m fighting the urge to turn inward, to insulate myself in some quiet pocket of solitude, surrounded only by the things that give me peace. A hard life in the wilderness might seem preferable – even more pure – than facing the mess that people make. But as tempting as it is to retreat into whatever isolated wilderness we’d choose, it’s not an option. There’s far too much to lose.

Bob Doucette

My favorite mountain photos

Sunrise on the Longs Peak Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Sunrise on the Longs Peak Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Two short facts about me: I love the mountains, and I like to take pictures of them. I’m not a great photographer, but the cool thing about the mountains is their very nature can make a mediocre photographer look pretty good.

Another fact: I can get wordy. This post is going to be the opposite of that. It’s going to be all about the images of peaks that I love. So here we go…

Misty mountains

Peak 18 and Windom Peak, Colorado.

Peak 18 and Windom Peak, Colorado.

This was taken in a break in the weather during a soggy backpacking and peak bagging trip in southwestern Colorado. We spent hours in our tents waiting for the weather to improve. The occasional lulls in the rain gave us scenes like this.

Tundra in bloom

Looking down the trail on Cupid. Front Range, Colorado.

Looking down the trail on Cupid. Front Range, Colorado.

Last summer, the weather — again — conspired against me. But I found a brief window near Loveland Pass to do a solo hike of Cupid, a 13,000-foot peak along the Front Range. Gray skies, snow patches and loads of wildflowers made this sweet stretch of singletrack one of the more memorable images I have.

Don’t fence me in

Glass Mountain, Oklahoma.

Glass Mountain, Oklahoma.

While driving to Black Mesa, Oklahoma, I drove through a patch of short peaks and mesas in the northwestern part of the state that caught my eye. I love the lines in this one, from the high, wispy clouds in the sky to the fence line in the foreground. Added to that, the textures of the mountain itself. It’s not a big mountain, but it sure is pretty.

Holy moly

Holy Cross Ridge, near Minturn, Colorado.

Holy Cross Ridge, near Minturn, Colorado.

I took this photo from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross. The camera is not a good one — from an iPhone 3 — but the profile of the ridge, the snow, and the way the sun was hitting it made it pretty striking.

Brooding over mountains

Huron Peak, Colorado.

Huron Peak, Colorado.

Another one from the iPhone 3. I snapped this one hiking down the mountain, and the timing was good — a storm was forming over the top of the peak. It’s always good to get below treeline before storms roll in, and it made for a cool image as well.

Mountain monarch

Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Longs Peak is one of the most photogenic mountains I’ve ever seen. It’s big, dramatic and wild. It will test you, but it will also reward you with vivid, dramatic scenery that look great in pictures. I might add that pictures do not do this mountain much justice.

Hiking into mystery

Summit ridge on Missouri Mountain, Colorado.

Summit ridge on Missouri Mountain, Colorado.

Another memorable solo outing. Dodgy weather almost made this one a no-go, but conditions held long enough to bag the summit. While on the ridge, swirling clouds made this part of the trail appear to vanish into the mists. It was surreal and amazing to hike this stretch of alpine singletrack.

Ancient reflections

Mount Mitchell, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma.

Mount Mitchell, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma.

I cut my teeth on Class 3 and 4 climbing on this one. This scene framed itself nicely. The light in the sky is a little flat, but I liked the way the mountain is reflected in the water, and how you can see all the grooves in this ancient granite crag. The Wichitas are hundreds of millions of years old, but still stand proudly over the western Oklahoma prairie.

Clothed in white

Northeastern San Juan Range, near Lake City, Colorado.

Northeastern San Juan Range, near Lake City, Colorado.

You can see four 13,000-foot peaks in this one, graced with late spring snow — Coxcomb, Redcliff, Precipice and Heisshorn. The suncupped snow in the foreground is actually the summit of Wetterhorn Peak, which contrasts nicely with the peaks in the middle of the frame and the skies far to the north. Breathtaking scenery atop my favorite mountain.

Adventure is out there

Overlooking the Angle of Shavano Coulior, Mount Shavano, Colorado.

Overlooking the Angel of Shavano Coulior, Mount Shavano, Colorado.

A shot of one of my adventure buddies, Johnny Hunter, on our first snow climb on Mount Shavano. The sweeping lines of the trail, the couloir and the saddle of the mountain, combined with the sky in the background, just screams “spirit of adventure” to me.

Moment before a triumph

Mount Shavano summit.

Mount Shavano summit.

Another one from Mount Shavano. This was taken less than a hundred feet from the summit. Johnny is paused here, looking up. To me, this captures the moment when you realize that victory is near — the hard work, physical strain, whipping winds — all of it is converging on a slice of time when you’re about to top out after a big day on the mountain. It’s a sweet feeling that keeps us coming back for more.

Watch your step

Summit of Uncompahgre Peak, near Lake City, Colorado.

Summit of Uncompahgre Peak, near Lake City, Colorado.

My official “sweaty palms” photo from the top of the San Juans’ highest mountain, Uncompahgre Peak. It’s a simple hike to the top with a small stretch of scrambling near the summit. But the north face cliffs are sheer. This shot is looking 700 feet straight down.

Seasons in flux

Looking east from the summit of Uncompahgre Peak.

Looking east from the summit of Uncompahgre Peak.

Rain and graupple falling to the east gave these peaks a frosty appearance over the Labor Day weekend of 2009. A very moody image that shows how the weather and mountains interact.

Striking figure

Wetterhorn Peak, Colorado.

Wetterhorn Peak, Colorado.

My favorite mountain, Wetterhorn, as seen from the summit of Matterhorn Peak. Wetterhorn offers so many dramatic profiles and is an incredible (and surprisingly accessible) mountain to climb. The spiny connecting ridge between the two mountains offers a little more visual spice that symbolizes the wildness of the San Juans.

So there you have it. You’ll notice that all of these are from two states. I’ve hiked and climbed mountains in New Mexico, Montana, Tennessee and even China, but it is coincidence that my favorite mountain pics come from the two states — Colorado and Oklahoma — where I’ve lived the longest.

I’d like to see your favorite mountain pics. So here’s what I’m proposing: Go to the Proactiveoutside Facebook page (please “like” it if you haven’t already!) and put your best mountain pic in the comments that accompany this post. Include a brief description of what mountain we’re looking at, where it is, and any other interesting information about the image. If I get enough, I’ll compile them and post them in a future blog of your best images. So let’s see em!

Bob Doucette

Finding the hill where the Lord hides

crabeyesoverlook

A long time ago, I found my dad doing something he loves: sitting in front of a sound system, with one of his favorite artists cranking out tunes. My dad spent years of his life as a professional musician, all the way back to his early teens, and is a bit of an expert when it comes to audio. If he didn’t have his headphones on, the house was filled with sounds ranging from Aaron Copeland to Pink Floyd.

In this instance it was Chuck Mangione. Mangione is a legendary trumpet player, jazz artist and band leader back in the 1960s and 1970s, and one piece in particular is considered one of his best. It starts out with Mangione on a lonesome trumpet solo, then builds as the full fury of his orchestra is unleashed.

The title of this song: “Hill Where the Lord Hides.”

It made me wonder what inspired Mangione to compose such a thing, and to have it titled so.

Years later – many, many years later – I found a place that could fit the description of Mangione’s piece. It was on the side of a hill, ancient boulders all around, in the middle of a stand of Oklahoma forest and away from the noise of the city. I paused as the sun was setting and felt that if there was anywhere God might be in those woods, it would be there. It demanded me to stop.

****

missouribasin

Ask my folks what sort of kid I was and they’d have plenty of descriptions, but one theme that would often arise is that I had no problem entertaining myself. Play with kids? Sure. Do my own thing? Just as good.

This carried over well into adulthood. Running, hiking, lifting, whatever. I enjoy doing these things with other people. I also enjoy doing them alone. I’ve long been comfortable spending many hours punishing myself on the trail with no one else around.

A few years back, I drove 10 hours to Denver to meet a group of friends for a climb of Capitol Peak. The mountain is one of Colorado’s famous 14ers, a moniker denoting peaks that rise to 14,000 feet or more. Of those 14ers, Capitol is considered the toughest.

I felt good about joining this group because of how experienced everyone else was. Confidence in a team’s experience becomes confidence in yourself, I’ve found. But the weather that week was awful, particularly in the northern half of the state. Heavy rains and floods ravaged much of the East Slope, and well into the Rockies. Higher up, such weather would turn Capitol’s already challenging and tricky route into something far more dangerous. The plan fell apart, and as the days rolled on the group was less and less excited about finding another destination.

For me: a major bummer. I drove a long way to stand on a pile of rocks, and I wasn’t about to head home without trying to summit something. So I fixed my eyes farther south, where the weather wasn’t so nasty, and on a mountain that my experience and skill would prove adequate, even if I was solo.

So on a Sunday afternoon, I pulled myself away from a televised football game, hit the highway and made my way southwest toward Buena Vista. I car-camped at a trailhead in the Collegiate Peaks, a stone’s throw away from a creek that began its flow high in the Missouri Gulch Basin. I’d been here before, 10 years back, to hike Mount Belford: a steep but straightforward march that tested me and a bunch of friends who were new to the whole 14er thing. Memories of that trip – and the route to the basin – would help me navigate my way up Missouri Mountain at dawn.

Like any 14er hike or climb, this one tested my legs and lungs as well as my will. As far as I knew no one else was within miles of me, so I had to rationalize continuing as my body and the weather said “turn around.” Being a stubborn ole goat, I forced my way up to Missouri’s summit ridge and topped out mid-morning.

Clouds swirled, built and fled, almost as if they were teasing me with the possibility of unleashing a storm, or perhaps blowing away altogether. At times they were light gray, then moments almost charcoal. Winds were moving them, but unheard even high atop that ridge.

Below me were layers. All the layers of the alpine in the fall. Grays and browns of ancient rock, and light browns and greens of the tundra. Still farther down were deeper greens of willows, then evergreens, and in the distance, red, orange and gold hues from aspens in full fall regalia. Alone at the summit and surveying the sublime greatness of the high country, I verbally expressed my gratefulness to God. If I were him, I’d be in places like this every day.

****

rockcity

The spot where I like to run has a network of trails that covers 48 miles through a trio of tree-carpeted ridges on the southern edge of the Osage Hills on Tulsa’s south side. Before I learned of this place, I’d been a running for about a year, picking up an exercise habit from my youth, but not coming into my own as a runner – really identifying as a runner – until I started pounding dirt on those trails. So many paths to explore, so many opportunities to get lost, turned around, see new things and discover new places, all within 15 minutes from my doorstep. Years later, if I don’t get out there at least once a week, it feels as if I’ve missed a crucial opportunity.

One such week, I had some free time but no real reason to run. The day was growing long, but there was still enough time to jump in my car, get to the trailhead and log a few miles, even if it was just a hike. I eschewed the running gear for sturdier, warmer hiking garb, including a trusted pair of boots, and hit the trail.

My hope was to do a loop that would take me to a sweet little outcrop nicknamed “Rock City” by local mountain bikers and trail runners. I liked it because it was out-of-the-way, quiet and, with the trees stripped of their leaves by the winter, curiously scenic. I’m not sure why, but I felt an urge to go there and catch the views as the sun was going down.

I also knew that as darkness approached, the trails would clear out. That sounded good to me. Some time alone on the trails, in the depths of the woods, was what I needed, almost in the way that you might crave a certain type of food after a week of privation, or maybe a shot of caffeine to jolt you awake in the morning.

As I hiked I knew there was no way I’d cover the two miles to Rock City before dusk. The relative warmth of the hour was giving way to the chill of night, a subtle nip and lengthening shadows signaling the waning strength of day. It was time to pick up the pace, so the hike turned into a run despite my initial intentions. I had somewhere to be, and a finite bit of time to get there.

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crabeyes1

I am amazed by how much water can fall from the air.

I figured the cloud cover on that early June day in 2010 would be a blessing, shading my hike from the hot Oklahoma sun. Well, I got that. And a whole lot more. Shortly after hitting the trail in the Charon’s Garden Wilderness of the Wichita Mountains, those blessed, cloudy sunshades dumped their contents on me and pretty much the rest of western Oklahoma in record amounts.

A weekday hike in a wilderness increases the possibility of solitude. A deluge? Well, that pretty much seals it. Solitude was what I was looking for, and solitude is what I got. Me, alone and waterlogged in the ruggedness of the Wichitas, working out a few of my demons while trying to find some calm during what was, fittingly, a very stormy part of my life.

Eventually those rains gave way. The thunder and lightning subsided. I’d been given a break – a pass, maybe – to continue on.

My destination was an ancient crag called Crab Eyes, so named because of the two, nearly identical boulders perched atop a giant slab of granite. Seen from the north, it looks like a massive stony crab peering over groves of scrub oak and cedar.

Hiking there is a matter of following a skinny trail over a couple of gentle ridges before a final approach to the formation itself. It disappears from view behind the folds of the terrain looming over the trail, and then you make one last turn around a bend.

And there it is.

A short headwall forms the base of Crab Eyes, a foundation for the rock tower that holds the “eyes” of the formation aloft.

It’s easy to describe how Crab Eyes looks. But actually seeing it, even feeling it, well, that’s another matter. It took me a long time to figure that out. I knew it felt different from the rest of the wilderness. The peaks surrounding it are bigger, and maybe more grand. But in truth, Crab Eyes is the center of this little universe. Like I said, it took me some time to capture its feel, but years later, I know. Crab Eyes is akin to a temple, its headwall leading to an altar that overlooks most of the range. During the stillness of the lull in the storm, it felt almost holy, its playful name thoroughly unfit for its actual character.

I walked up the headwall, then had a seat on the giant base of the rock tower. The views of Elk Mountain, Granite Mountain and Twin Rock Mountain were spectacular. The clouds thinned slightly and birds began to sing. I snacked on some trail food, reclined on a rock and enjoyed the quiet warmth of midday. I could easily see how other people would also revere this place, perhaps even hold it sacred. I could imagine native peoples coming to a site like this to do business with their creator in days long gone. I felt that, too.

Right then, what I needed was peace. I needed a calm in the storm, somewhere the phone calls and texts and emails and all sorts of urgent voices couldn’t find me. I could imagine God himself feeling that way. Maybe Crab Eyes was a place God would go, to bask in his creation for awhile before resuming his urgent work. Maybe such a thought is heretical. Hell, it probably is. But in that time, I felt drawn to that stony temple, to seek refuge, even for just a short stay. And God was with me, showing me the place he likes to go when things get too loud for too long.

****

Hiking boots aren’t the best choice you can make for running trails. On the plus side, they’ll handle anything underfoot. You feel like a human version of a Jeep as you plow right over rocks and roots, and through mud and puddles. They’re also heavy, and the running becomes laborious. But the clock was ticking, the sun lowering, and time was running short.

I finally rounded a familiar bend, and to my right were the rugged landmarks of Rock City. I’d arrived just in time to stop, snap a few pics and take in the views.

I like the way these hills look at sunset. Any photographer will tell you that late afternoon light (as well as that of dawn) is prime time for shooting the most dramatic pictures. Softening light colors the terrain in deeper shades and the warm glow of the sun contrasts with the shadowy contours of the trees and the rocks. The light is ever-changing and fleeting, so timing is everything.

After a time, I’d taken all the photographs I thought I could get. So I found a stony perch, sat down and watched as the sun sunk low in the west.

I didn’t come here just to shoot pictures. I came here to be alone. I heard a runner pass by a few minutes before, but now it was just me, a light breeze and the occasional rustling of dead leaves from a squirrel scurrying for cover as night approached.

Suddenly my mind was flooded with memories, and most of them were bittersweet, faces of people I know and knew, of pleasant moments and hard times. Reflective thought is often like that, when you get enough time to stop and let regrets revisit you like old ghosts. What-if scenarios play out. Your own history accuses you, not in a prosecutorial way, but something more subtle. And yet it stings just the same, cruelly tearing at you and leaving you feeling a little more tattered and frayed.

Thinking he’d be the only other being out there, I brought these things to God. I asked for things I knew I couldn’t have, beseeching him for favors when I knew the answer was a preordained “no.” But why not? An all-knowing being knows what I’m thinking anyway, so I might as well come clean and get it off my chest. The past is the past, unchangeable and ultimately affecting the direction of our future. I expected those prayers to become teachable moments, but not in the way where immediate revelation is bestowed. I suppose I’d have to wait for clarity.

A lot of people don’t believe in God, or prayer, or any sort of spirituality at all, and I get that. But even if my thoughts and words are floating away into space, unheard and unheeded, there is still value to finding a little sanctuary like Rock City, tending to my scars and letting the stillness of the woods serve as a place to convalesce, even if for the brief time it took for the sun to finally dip below the horizon. I looked to this place for some catharsis, and I got what I came for. Dusk was upon me, and it was time to go.

****

blackmesacliff

One might be tempted to look at solo ventures to lonely places as a setup for brooding, but it’s not always that way. There are times when you’re in a wild place without a soul to be seen for miles and miles, and completely different emotions wash over you. Being alone for a few hours doesn’t have to have an emo-laden soundtrack on perpetual repeat.

About a year ago, I trekked to far western Oklahoma to see a place that had transfixed me since I was a teen – Black Mesa, the highest point in the state, so far away from everything else in the Sooner State that it exists in the Mountain Time Zone. A little town called Kenton is nearby, a picturesque village of maybe a few dozen souls stubbornly clinging to the western lifestyle of the High Plains.

Black Mesa is no towering peak or grand formation. But it’s beautiful just the same. It’s the remains of old lava flows that coursed through the area eons ago, the hard rock of solidified lava standing firm while softer rock and soil slowly eroded away.

The hike to the top is straightforward and not too difficult. On that mid-December day, no one was out there. All I saw were some cows (the Nature Conservancy allows ranchers to run cattle out there), a few birds, and maybe some ground squirrels. But other than that, it was as still as you can get.

Topping out took a little time, and once I did I hiked to the western rim of the mesa, plopped down on the edge of a cliff and stared out across a panoramic view overlooking northeastern New Mexico. Far in the distance loomed a lone volcanic peak, clothed in snow.

My meal was simple and delicious – rolls, summer sausage, cheese and an orange. Clouds that had obscured the skies briefly broke, and while it was cool, it wasn’t uncomfortable.

Nothing negative bounced inside my head this time. Instead, I spent my lunchtime reflecting on the trip itself – the weird noises of unseen creatures I heard at camp the night before, the improbable beauty of the Glass Mountains near Woodward (a couple hours east of me), the conversation I had with the owner of a lonely gas station farther east in the Oklahoma Panhandle. I was looking forward to hunting down some dinosaur tracks on the way out, a cold brew, and if time allowed, some famously good barbecue for dinner.

Meeting new people, hearing their stories and seeing new places is energizing. The views from Black Mesa were equally so. I’d spent seven hours driving out here, hoping that there would be some sort of payoff, and there was. In spades.

The trip itself was a gift. Not that anyone surprised me and said, “You’re going to Black Mesa!” as if it were a game-show prize. But how it turned out – being able to do all these things, and have the time and physical ability to do so (not to mention cooperative weather) was a pleasant confluence that left me grateful.

Sometimes you have your moments. The universe smiles and says, “this day, this place, is for you.” Black Mesa symbolizes that for me. It may not have the radical vistas of the Rockies, or the storied scenery of China’s Huang Shan or whatever, but gratitude is what Black Mesa means to me. It was good for me to be there, and better to enjoy it on its terms, with no distractions. I suppose I could have stayed home, watched Netflix, hit the gym or done some laundry. But it wouldn’t have topped the experience of slicing off another chunk of sausage and munching away as I stared out into the seemingly endless New Mexico prairie below.

Certain places will provoke dread or pain. Others comfort or safety. But Black Mesa? That place is a big ole smile.

****

Leaving Rock City was a lot like how I go there, a slow clomping run so I could cover as much ground as possible before darkness fell. The ruggedness of the trails and the failing light made me think better of it after only a few minutes.

Slowing down to a hike allowed me to look around a little more, to notice things that might have  escaped my attention if I were still looking at the ground in front of me, picking lines to avoid tripping and face-planting into the dirt. Walking is way easier than running when darkness falls.

There is a spot on the trail that opens up, where trees have been cleared to make way for a row of powerlines that feed electricity to the city. The gap allowed me to see something rising where the sun had just set: Venus was shining bright in the purple and dark blue of the evening sky. Looking to my left, the skies were already blackening, and the stars glinting brightly as night took over.

I’m not sure why this particular trip to Rock City sticks out, but part of it has to do with Venus and the stars, sort of a cosmic wink letting me know that despite my angst, things were going to be OK. And when they weren’t, I could always come back, find my bit of peace, and have my words with God in the quiet embrace of the forest. It would be there, and he would be there, in the lonely places. The sacred places. The happy places. The hill where the Lord hides was in these woods, at the edge of an ancient lava flow, in a stony tabernacle of crags, and on the lofty heights of a Rocky Mountain summit.

These are the places where the worldly and the otherworldly meet, and it’s what continues to draw me to them.

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If you’re curious about the Mangione song referred to above, here’s a video showing a live performance. You’ll really dig it if you’re into that 1970s jazz sound with a huge ensemble.

Bob Doucette