The Winter 14ers “Game”: 2018-19 Kickoff

It happens every week during the shoulder seasons on 14ers-related websites and social media groups. Some poor, unsuspecting soul will ask for beta on a winter 14er climb coming up in November or share a glory shot from their claimed winter 14er summit in April. They barely have a chance to refresh their page before the legions of frosty veterans are vying to see who can scream “BUT IT’S NOT REALLY WINTER” the loudest.

With calendar winter beginning today, Friday, Dec. 21, it’s the perfect time to give a brief rundown of what exactly counts as a winter 14er, strictly speaking, and why anyone even cares.

First, the basics. The window used by most mountaineers who pursue winter 14er summits begins on the winter solstice in mid-December and ends on the spring equinox in mid-March. The exact day and time of these events varies from year to year. For 2018-2019, calendar winter will run from 3:23 p.m. Friday, Dec. 21 until 3:58 p.m. Wednesday, March 20.

If you want to check that little box on your 14ers.com peak list that says Calendar Winter Ascent, you shouldn’t leave your vehicle for a hike until one minute after the winter solstice, and you should return to your vehicle at least one minute before the spring equinox. If you climb Mt. Elbert on March 20, but get back to your car at 4 p.m., some would argue it doesn’t count. You can also only drive as far as your on-highway vehicle will take you. The winter trailhead for many peaks is a moving target, depending on road closures due to snowfall and other factors such as mining operations. Get as close to the summer trailhead as your lifted Toyota Tacoma legally allows, but ATVs and snowmobiles are considered cheating.

Why? Because the first couple guys who summited all the 14ers in winter said so.

Though Carl Blaurock and Bill Ervin became the world’s first 14er finishers way back in 1923, it wasn’t until 1992 that Tom Mereness accomplished the same feat within the confines of calendar winter. His contemporary Jim Bock followed in 1997, and together they laid the groundwork for the winter 14er list. Obviously anyone is free to climb in whatever style they choose — peakbagging is an intensely personal pursuit — but the parameters they set are widely accepted in the Colorado hiking community.

Aron Ralston (yes, that Aron Ralston, of 127 Hours fame) upped the ante in 2005, when he completed the original list of 58 winter 14ers and added North Massive as a 59th summit. Ralston also climbed every peak solo, an almost incomprehensible feat of stamina. The decision behind counting North Massive, and why the answer to “how many 14ers are there in Colorado?” can range from 53 to 72, is a discussion for another day. The important factor here is that subsequent winter climbers have generally followed Ralston’s precedent, and the most common winter 14er list now includes 59 peaks.

No rules exist against “trench poaching,” which refers to the act of targeting peaks that were recently attempted by other climbers. Utilizing an existing snowshoe trench or ski track requires only a fraction of the effort of breaking your own trail. Making a habit of trench poaching, however, is a surefire way to earn a reputation within the small faction of dedicated winter mountaineers.

In recent years, that fringe community is growing precipitously. This is due to several factors: Colorado’s population growth, an increasing nationwide interest in outdoor recreation, a trend of dry winters, and information sharing on websites and social media. (This includes jerks like me with blogs like this.) The 2011(ish) addition of a 14ers.com tracking tool for Calendar Winter Ascents, known colloquially as “snowflakes” because of the badge that displays on your user profile, also coincided with the well-publicized journey of the fourth winter 14er finisher, Steve Gladbach. (If you haven’t read Steve’s canon of trip reports and forum posts, set aside half a day over the upcoming holiday weekend and treat yourself. He is sorely missed.)

The result is that, as of the end of the 2017-18 season, approximately 14 men and one woman have completed the winter 14er list. This includes Andrew Hamilton, who became the first to summit all 59 in a single season last year. (He included North Massive as an homage to those who came before, but stated his public belief that the list of 58 is best.) Another four people are within striking distance of finishing this year, and at least eight others are more than halfway done.

That’s it. Those are the guidelines. Do you have to follow them? No, not really. Some people use meteorological winter instead of calendar winter as their window, which is December 1 through March 1. Others count anything that has winter conditions (read: snow, cold and wind) as a winter summit, regardless of date. Many of the rules laid out above are hotly debated. It’s up to each individual to define their own goals and ethics. But, the fact stands that if you want to join the exclusive club established by Mereness, Bock, Ralston and Gladbach, you have to play by their rules.

Source 1 (Steve Gladbach)

Source 2 (Steve Gladbach)

Source 3 (14ers.com/Andrew Hamilton)

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Igniting a Life Outdoors: A Jacket, WornWear, and Rebirth

Like a first love, it opened a world of possibilities.

I was 23 and a recent transplant to Boston when it found me on the glossy back page of an outdoor magazine. I was newly severed from the Rocky Mountains, for which I’d only just begun to develop an affinity, displaced into a world of brick and nonexistent social grace in pursuit of other capricious dreams.

Though I’d only dipped my toe before departing the West, mountaineering had seized my soul. The $199 Igniter jacket gracing the shoulders of some Eddie Bauer/First Ascent guide, probably Ed Viesturs or Dave Hahn, represented a connection to a captivating world I barely understood. No sooner had I put down the magazine than I e-mailed my mom to let her know what I wanted for Christmas.

The Igniter was one of the first real pieces of gear I owned, and certainly the first centered on mountaineering. I rocked it proudly around Boston as if every peacoat-clad businessperson in Copley Square would think I was a real, honest-to-goodness mountaineer, regardless if I only had three summer 14ers to my credit.

My favorite jacket returned with me to Colorado a few months later. I cycled through packs, shells, midlayers, boots and countless other pieces of gear as I dialed in my kit, but the Igniter survived every cut. My faithful puffy followed me to the tops of Mt. Rainier, dozens of winter 14ers, my inaugural frozen waterfalls and 18,500-foot Orizaba.

Of course I didn’t realize it until recently, but that beloved synthetic the color of an azure alpine lake performed the rare miracle of igniting (ba-dum, tshhh) an idea and subsequently seeing it through to reality. It not only inspired dreams, it accompanied me as they came true.

My Igniter succumbed, as things often do, to the inevitable arrows of time. The main zipper was weak and often pulled apart. One of the hand pockets lost its zipper altogether, and the other had a hole the size of a half-dollar ripped just beneath it. Part of the sleeve near the left shoulder suffered a gnarly snag that exposed large swaths of insulation. The jacket was still mostly functional, but by then it was five years old. The market was flooded with sexy alternatives. The role of synthetic belay puffy transferred first to a Rab, and later to an Arc’teryx.

I could never quite bring myself to get rid of the Igniter, as I did so easily with many other jackets. It hung forgotten in my gear closet, a tangible reminder of humbler days. There it remained as I finished the 14ers, ascended dream mountains, earned a full-time gig in the outdoor industry, signed on as an Arc’teryx Denver ambassador, accepted a contract to write an ice-climbing guidebook and once had like three whole people comment on one of my blog posts.

As my outdoor resume grew alongside my outerwear collection, I fell victim to the insidious trap awaiting anyone who stays in a hobby long enough to become a subject-matter expert. I lost touch with my roots. It became increasingly difficult to relate to mountaineering newcomers as I remained focused on my own goals and the insular group of veterans with whom I’d cut my teeth. Worse, gone was the magic that used to set my heart aflutter whenever my eyes first touched a lofty summit. Practicality and minutiae won out over the initial boundless promise of the American West.

Patagonia created a program called WornWear a few years ago, and they had representatives at the recent SIA Snow Show in downtown Denver. They offered to fix any piece of gear, within reason, for the benevolent cost of free.

I found my faithful Igniter where I’d left it, lonely and sandwiched between a twice-as-expensive synthetic belay jacket and my top-of-the-line down puffy. I shrugged it on with the familiarity of an old catcher’s mitt, reveling in the forgotten memories of each stain, stitch and tear. Within in hour of dropping it at the Patagonia booth, both ruined zippers functioned better than new. The rep also gave me the materials to mend the remaining injuries on my own. Like a phoenix from the ashes, my old jacket was reborn.

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I wore it a few days later during a snowshoe outing in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Looking down at the mottled splash of blue recalled dozens of fond memories: relaxing at Ingraham Flats on my virgin trip to Mt. Rainier, a winter camp shared with a now departed friend, watching sunrise from 16,500 feet on Orizaba, hooting and hollering after my first pitch of ice and opening a long-anticipated Christmas present that brought me nearer to the distant mountains calling me home.

We were all neophytes once, dreamers with pockets full of airy ideas and empty of common sense. I envied those newcomers. I missed the feelings of reverence for the mountains that bubbled in my 23-year-old belly.

The outdoor community, sadly, often turns into the very rat race we’re seeking to escape. In some form, we all crave recognition, acclaim, sponsorship, likes, follows, free gear, blog hits, paychecks and so on. It is and always has been a constant cycle of one-upsmanship. The choice to remove ourselves and truly experience the centering power of wild places is a conscious one.

Reconnecting with a threadbare old jacket was an unexpected lesson. A reminder to look up, to stop and fill your lungs with the healing air of a frost-nipped morning, to follow your whimsical dreams and to allow yourself to enjoy the bountiful gifts of the present. That’s what brought me to the mountains. Long after any of my meager accomplishments are forgotten, that’s what will keep me here.

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Rescued: A Boy and His Dog

Her origin story will always remain a mystery. One of the few known facts is that she was born on or around March 3, 2015, near the Mescalero Reservation in southern New Mexico.

This is a familiar tale. Stray dogs on Native American reservations are a growing epidemic. It blew me away the first time I saw it first-hand, driving through the town of Shiprock near the Four Corners. Most of these mutts will never see a veterinarian, much less a spray/neuter clinic, and when they breed their puppies enter a harsh and unforgiving world. Many are killed well before reaching adulthood. Most survivors earn an emaciated life as scavengers scraping by in a barren landscape, detested as rodents by the human world.

A few are lucky.

She and her brother found their way into the hands of a La Luz, N.M., woman who makes a hobby of rescuing these “Rez Dogs.” She was even given a name: Daisy. I try not to think about what happened to the rest of the litter.

Daisy and her brother were nursed to health, along with four other mutts. When they’d reached the proper age, on May 8, 2015, the puppies were surrendered for adoption to an animal shelter in Ruidoso, N.M. This is speculation, but I’d wager that a humane society that borders a reservation in rural New Mexico probably falls on the wrong side of the supply-and-demand equation. I don’t know if whatever shelter that housed Daisy and her brother has a no-kill policy, but it’s another of those things I try not to think about.

Here’s where Daisy’s good fortune continued. She was located by Colorado Puppy Rescue and brought north to the Denver metro area, renamed “Puppy #509.” In case you didn’t know, Coloradans think dogs are just super neat-o. The supply-and-demand equation suddenly flipped.

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Empathizing with the early part of her life is heartbreaking for me. She was born into a world that didn’t want her. I can’t imagine what was going through her little puppy brain as she saw the harsh realities of reservation life before being passed from kennel to kennel and finally being put in the back of a van with a dozen other crying canine orphans as they drove for hours to the Colorado state line. Here’s this sweet girl, so full of curiosity, affection, intelligence and playfulness, who spent the first three months of her life without a loving hand.

The weekend she was born just happened to also be one of the worst weekends of my life. I was on a two-year anniversary trip with my girlfriend in Del Norte, Colo., hunting down some new ice climbs and enjoying all the leisures of the surrounding San Juan mountain towns. Things had been heading south for a while, but our long-weekend adventures were always the highlight of our relationship. No matter how bad things were at home, we always found love again on the road.

That trip was different. We bickered and fought almost constantly. Though we went through the motions for another couple weeks, it wasn’t a huge shock when she said she was moving out. She took with her a dog, Remy, that I’d grown to love as if he was my own.

I didn’t take it well. Without going into too much detail, I found rock bottom pretty fast. I was depressed, I was careless with the feelings of others, I alienated friends and I retreated into a shell of self-loathing and self-pity.

I grew up with dogs. There was always one around, or more likely two or three. Cowboy, Wolfie, Babe, Clover, Lucky, Cassie — and even that awful min-pin Shadow — bring a smile to my face to this day. I always wanted my own, but I forced myself to wait until I had the maturity, living situation and financial security required to be a responsible owner. By then I had Remy. As I pulled my life back together, I realized the timing was finally right.

Puppy #509 wasn’t my first choice. She wasn’t even my second, third or fourth. I showed up to Colorado Puppy Rescue’s May 28, 2015, adoption event with a handful of other dogs in mind. I arrived an hour early expecting to be near the front of the line, but in classic “me” fashion, I was unaware there was an early online check-in beginning at midnight. Despite being one of the first arrivals, I was roughly 20th in the first-come, first-served line to see the puppies. The four I was most excited about were chosen first. I guess I have a good eye for cute dogs.

I’d driven all the way to Aurora, however, and I figured I’d at least play with a puppy. My friends counseled me both before and during the adoption event to be patient. It’s as much about a dog choosing you as it is you choosing a dog.

“When it’s the right fit, you’ll know it,” said seemingly everyone.

The black-lab mix I’d been eyeing found her forever home with the family literally in front of me. With few puppies left, in a rushed last-minute decision I locked onto #509 and her brother, still sharing a kennel after their long and improbable journey from southern New Mexico. I remember observing how calm, quiet and alert they were despite all the fuss. Most of my favorite dogs growing up were girls, so I asked to see #509. The sign on her kennel called her a “Border Collie Mix.” I walked over to the small playpen as a volunteer went to grab the puppy I was pretty sure I was going to pass on.

I knew I’d been chosen from the second she wobbled over to me, tail wagging in overdrive. I even teared up waiting in line to pay the adoption fee. Very little in my life has ever felt so right.

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Daisy/#509 became Zia, in honor of her homeland. She’s served as my constant companion ever since. From the almighty Wikipedia:

The Zia Sun Symbol is featured on the New Mexico flag. The Zia Indians of New Mexico regard the Sun as a sacred symbol. Their symbol, a red circle with groups of rays pointing in four directions, is painted on ceremonial vases, drawn on the ground around campfires, and used to introduce newborns to the Sun.

Adoption day was a whirlwind, full of friends and wild emotions. When I finally had some alone time with my new pup, I whispered into her ear a promise of which I remind myself almost daily: “I’m going to give you the best life, little Rez Dog.”

Zia turned 1 year old today, on March 3, 2016. I’ve had her for barely nine full months and already I feel like I have a lifetime of happy memories. It’s a symbiotic relationship. I provide her with love, food, attention, exercise and limitless toys to eviscerate, while she continues to help me heal and grow as a person.

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There were lows, to be sure. The time she cut her paw and had to wear a bandage for weeks because some jackass threw a glass beer bottle over the fence. The time she had the runs inside a retail store. The time she turned her (third) brand-new $40 bed into tatters. The time the wind blew open my back gate while she was outside and I didn’t notice for nearly 20 minutes, assuming she was gone forever. (She was waiting patiently at the front gate, wondering what all my melodramatic screams were about.)

The highs were far more numerous. The time she was my kickball team’s mascot, the time she went for her first hike at Elk Meadow Park, the time she summited a 14er and spent the night clawing her way into my sleeping bag with intense terrified shivers because she heard a coyote howl a mile away. Our Christmas together. The time she caught her first frisbee in mid-flight. The time she tried to play with my now-girlfriend’s cats and got swatted so hard she wouldn’t go within 10 feet of them for weeks. The time I picked her up from being spayed and her groggy eyes finally focused on me and I saw pure, unbridled happiness.

My favorite memory is the first time she experienced snow. Zia, my little Rez Dog from southern New Mexico. How would she react? Well…

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It’s a good thing, too. Snow and ice are two of my favorite things. I only know a handful of people who feel the same way. I don’t say lightly that Zia might even love frozen water more than I do.

Today, for her birthday, we went to St. Mary’s Glacier. I had grander plans, but an absurd wind forecast scared me off. The end goal was just to let her play in the snow for a while. Per usual, she went insane. So much so that she’s been snoring on my feet during the entire writing of this blog. She’s starting to wake now. Oh, these border collies — dead weight one minute, juiced the next.

I might be a crazy dog man. The thing is, I don’t take that as a negative. Anyone who doesn’t “get it” probably has never felt the bond between a boy (or girl) and his (or her) dog.

She was born on a reservation and didn’t know love for the first three months of her life. She’s now snoozing on a dog bed that’s two sizes too big after spending a day running in the snow with a belly full of some sort of expensive dog food that’s supposed to mimic the diet of wolves or some crap. Yet, somehow, I feel like it’s my life that’s become richer.

Happy birthday, sweet girl.

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Mountain Therapy

An Ode to the Constant

Life is chaos. Nothing ever stays the same. Regardless if it’s positive or negative, change often leads to stress, uncertainty and a whirlwind of difficult emotions. It’s the constants that serve as a lighthouse in the fog, helping us chart a course through the choppy waters of human experience. For some people, that constant is sailing. Others choose fly fishing, salsa dancing, surfing or storm chasing. These are places we can go that calm our minds and offer a deep internal sense of enrichment. They’ll always be there, whether we’re going through a divorce or changing jobs or dealing with the loss of a loved one. We bond with people over them, forming long-lasting relationships and even entire communities. They define who we are and how we perceive the world. Mountains are my constant. No matter what’s happening in my personal life, I can always find solace in the hills. It can be a simple stroll through the forest or a difficult ice climb; as long as I’m in the mountain element, my troubles melt away.

IMG_1945 Why do people climb? It’s a silly question. How can you explain to an uninitiated bystander the joys of graceful movement, breathing in the cool morning air from a campsite lightly wet with dew, the never-ending views from a hard-earned summit, the sound an ice ax makes as it plunges into perfect snow or the human connections that form through mutual sacrifice, suffering and success? Climbing, like any constant, leads to a sense of personal happiness and fulfillment. Sure, there’s the added element of risk, but acquiring the skills to mitigate it and gaining a fundamental understanding of how you react to adversity and fear is part of the allure. It’s comforting to know that I can always lean on the mountains. Even when the current steals me out of a sheltered bay and into white-capped open waters, a few hours in the alpine remind me that everything will be all right. It’s not an escape. I’m not running from anything. It’s that when you approach them with the right mindset, the mountains distill life to its most basic form.

IMG_2998 Most tasks in the real world come with ill-defined goals and even looser parameters. With climbing, the objectives are much simpler. You have yourself, the gear you choose to carry, a point on the map to reach and only one rule — return safely. You gain an understanding of what truly matters, as well as how to let go of situations you can’t control. You learn your capabilities and limitations. Most importantly, it affords you the opportunity to look at yourself in a figurative mirror and see a clear vision in return. So many outside influences affect how we perceive ourselves. Our self-esteem is too often based on the opinions and actions of others. Climbing brings everything back to center. Mountains recalibrate the soul.

The hills aren’t for everyone. Some people don’t get it. That’s OK. All I wish is that those folks have their own constant, whatever it may be. Life sure would be a lot harder without one.

11 Tips for Hiking 14ers Like a Grown Up

1. THE INFORMATION IS OUT THERE

Don’t ask for information on Quandary’s East Ridge in August. There’s no faster way to rile up the masses. If you have a question about the 14ers, it’s already been posed and answered at least a dozen times. Invest energy in doing your own research. I promise, it’s more fulfulling. The search function on the 14ers.com forum is easy to use, and there are thousands of archived trip reports containing everything you need to know. Nearly a half-dozen guidebooks specific to the 14ers exist. Pick one (or several) and read them. Still have a question? Frame it in a thoughtful, intelligent way and post it on the 14ers.com forum or Facebook group. The answers will arrive within minutes.

2. DO YOUR HOMEWORK

I can’t emphasize this enough. Whether it’s arrogance or naivety, too many people head into the backcountry with little to no information. Study your intended route. Read trip reports. A shockingly large number of accidents are caused by hikers getting off-route, and it’s heartbreaking that many of these are avoidable. Fancy GPS units with programmed waypoints are a nice supplement, but they’re not a replacement for genuine knowledge and intuition. A map is essential. There’s no excuse for not carrying one — free software such as Caltopo.com is readily available for easy printing.

3. BE SELF SUFFICIENT

Traveling in groups is a double-edged sword. Yes, there’s an added measure of safety. The dynamics can also lead to a false sense of security. Regardless of party size, always ask yourself: “Could I make it up and down this mountain on my own, survive a night out if I become stranded, and somehow get the attention of Search & Rescue if necessary?” If the answer is no, pick another objective.

Carry and know how to use the 10 Essentials. Either bring more water than you think you’ll need or a purification system. Most 14er routes cross or follow streams — if you do your homework (hinthint), you’ll know where to find them. If you don’t want to invest in or haul a traditional filter, iodine tablets are cheap and weigh next to nothing. Sure, they taste terrible, but that’s preferable to dehydration.

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4. START EARLY

Yeah, that 5 a.m. alarm sucks. It’s also your ticket to safety and success. A summer afternoon free of thunderstorms is rare in the Colorado high country. The risk of death via lightning may be overblown, but no one that’s been caught above treeline in a thunderstorm is jumping to repeat the experience. For most 14er routes I aim to start at first light, which generally comes between 6-7 a.m. I’ll start earlier for high-mileage days. Just get up and go. Missing out on an hour of sleep is better than having to turn around or putting yourself in a life-threatening situation.

5. LEAVE NO TRACE

I wish I was kidding, but last summer I saw a group hitting golf balls off Grays Peak. People have left lawn chairs, grills, toasters, flags and even human excrement on summits. On top of these extravagant affronts, there’s the routine garbage such as food wrappers and discarded summit signs. The Front Range is attracting more and more people, and the overcrowding on 14ers is only going to get worse. Respect the resource; leave the backcountry as you found it. Take your summit signs down with you (or better yet, don’t bring them in the first place), remove your trash, dispose properly of human waste, camp responsibly, follow Wilderness and Forest Service guidelines and most importantly, don’t be a golf ball-hitting jackass.

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6. RESPECT OTHER TRAIL USERS

We all hike for our own reasons, using our own methods. Want to smoke pot, let your dog off leash or blast music from a portable speaker? I’m not going to turn you in to the fun police — as long as you aren’t disturbing the experience of other hikers. Leash the dog if it’s being a nuisance, find a spot off trail to smoke and turn down the music when you see other people approaching. If someone is faster than you, let them pass. Give a brief greeting to people heading the opposite direction and yield the trail if necessary. (The general agreement is that uphill hikers have the right-of-way, but most of them won’t pass up a chance to stop for a breather. Communicate.) Mutual respect really isn’t that hard.

7. THE MOUNTAIN ISN’T GOING ANYWHERE

Smart decision making is not synonymous with failure. Many hikers consider it a point of pride to have only turned back “X number of times” because of weather, fatigue or other factors. It’s not. There’s more honor in good judgment than putting yourself in a dangerous situation to tag a meaningless summit. Listen to your body. Trust your instincts. Watch the sky. Turn around if necessary and return to the mountain when conditions are more favorable. Not only will you reduce the risks, I guarantee you’ll also have a more enjoyable summit.My first time on Capitol I called it quits at the subsummit “K2″ because of slick rock, cloudy skies and a forecast that called for an 80 percent chance of thunderstorms after 9 a.m. Most of my party continued on, summited in a whiteout and safely returned to camp. The lightning started soon after. I returned three weeks later on a warm, cloudless day. Even with the benefit of hindsight and knowing my friends experienced no major issues on the first trip, I’d make that same decision 10 out of 10 times. You can only toss so many dice before you roll snake eyes.

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8. PUT EFFORT INTO A TRIP REPORT

Title: “Mt. Quandry – East Ridge”
Pictures: 3 (one rotated off-axis)
Words: “We climbed Quandry yesterday. It was crowded. Dan had a peanut butter sandwich on the summit. I could see Pike’s Peak. On the way down I tripped on a loose rock. Overall the hike was fun.”

Would you want to read that? No one else does, either.

(It’s Quandary Peak, by the way. Mt. Lindsey. Longs Peak. Pikes Peak. Mt. Bierstadt. Grays Peak. Torreys Peak.)

Writing a trip report should be fun. Don’t make it work, you’re not getting paid for it. Relive your experience and inject some energy into the content. Tell the story of your hike. Include personal anecdotes, or if that’s not your thing, provide unique details about the route and trail conditions. Trip reports are personal endeavors. Photographer with no interest in writing? Share a photo essay. English major with nothing but a flip-phone camera? Stretch that sucker out to 1,500 words. Bottom line, make the report interesting. Consider your audience and what they want to see, know and hear — then deliver.

9. SHARE THE STOKE

Whether you took a vacation from sea level to hike Mt. Sherman or just jogged Capitol Peak as a daytrip, you’ve just notched an awesome life accomplishment. Celebrate it. Share your photos on Facebook. Write a trip report or blog post. Blow up Instagram for a week. It’s OK to be proud of yourself. More importantly, fellow hikers will benefit from your reports on conditions, the route and the overall experience. It’s easy for veteran climbers to forget what it was like to try their first summit, first Class 3 or first couloir. It’s always on to the next challenge, with little time for the rear-view mirror. Forget ’em. For every blowhard rolling their eyes at your accomplishment, there are 10 people who will find it inspiring.

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10. STAY HUMBLE

You are not a special snowflake. Regardless what you’ve accomplished, many people came before and many more will follow. Narcissism is a widespread disease in the climbing community. It’s a constant game of oneupsmanship. An impressive climbing resume does not make you an awesome person. To be honest, no one except you cares. Even if you’ve finished the 14ers and climbed Denali, it’s not an excuse to talk down to or consider yourself above a fellow human being. Mountaineering often serves as a cornerstone for a climber’s sense of personal worth, and I’m not saying that you shouldn’t embrace those self-esteem boosts. They’re awesome. Just don’t let your head get lost in the clouds. It happens all too often.

11. ENJOY THE EXPERIENCE

There is no parade or world-shattering epiphany when you finish the 14ers. Life beats on as it always has. You get a little street cred, a certificate from the Colorado Mountain Club and a sentence for the “Other” section of your resume. That’s about it. So, what’s the rush? Swap those three-peak sufferfest weekends for setting up camp in Yankee Boy Basin and climbing only Mt. Sneffels. Breathe the mountain air, observe the wildflowers, linger on campfire conversations, pause to ponder the world under a twinkling blanket of stars. Those are the moments you’ll remember, not your round-trip time on Pyramid Peak.

Top 5 Colorado Mountain Towns (for Dirtbag Climbers)

One of the biggest perks of pursuing 14ers and 13ers is having an excuse to range far and wide across Colorado. Little towns that even natives haven’t heard of become favorite haunts, complete with their hole-in-the-wall restaurants, obscure festivals, historic sites, quirky attractions, sunny patios and small-batch breweries. When you exit ski country, you enter the real Colorado.

I’m daunted by even the thought of trying to tally how many road miles I’ve logged in-state over the past four years. Hiking and climbing nearly every weekend, let’s just say I’ve gotten to know Colorado fairly well. The only criteria I have for the following list is the question, “Which towns do I look forward to visiting, time and again, even as much as the surrounding summits?” This mostly boils down to mountain access, nearby free camping areas and quality of local restaurants and breweries.

1. Ouray

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The undisputed champ. Any ranking of Colorado mountain towns that doesn’t start with Ouray is invalid. It has the world-famous Ouray Ice Park; access to the most beautiful mountains in the state, including the 14er Mt. Sneffels; several hot springs; affordable lodging and tons of camping; a smorgasboard of charming coffee shops and restaurants; and my second-favorite brewery in Colorado. For those of you exclaiming how much you also love the Ouray Brewery — pipe down. That place is serviceable, but the Ourayle Brewery, also known as the Mr. Grumpy Pants Brewery, blows it out of the water. The fact that most people go to Ouray Brewery and overlook Ourayle just adds to its allure. Ourayle has what I’d argue is the best atmosphere of any bar in the state — as long as you can appreciate sarcasm and take a joke. Also, don’t be a Beermadonna. Other awesome establishments include O’Brien’s, Backstreet Bistro, Mouse’s Chocolates & Coffee and Goldbelt Bar & Grill.

2. Durango

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I placed Durango here largely because of its size. It’s a mountain town big enough that the average city-dweller would feel comfortable living there, at least for a year or two. It has all the amenities, a large regional airport, raucous nightlife and enough climbing to occupy several lifetimes. It’s also the basecamp for most everyone venturing into the recesses of the Weminuche, Colorado’s best wilderness area. I mentioned Ourayle as my second-favorite brewery, and the only one to top it — Ska Brewing — resides in Durango. Steamworks also has great beer in addition to some of the best pub food I’ve ever tasted. A trio of top-notch outdoor shops, dueling sushi restaurants, a hidden used bookstore and a variety of watering holes solidify Durango’s ranking.

3. Buena Vista/Salida

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I know, I know, they’re technically two separate towns. From a climber’s perspective, they’re one and the same. The surrounding Sawatch Mountains are regarded by most hikers as boring lumps of talus, but there are a lot of them, and the towns at their foot are a dirtbag’s dream. There’s so much dispersed camping in the area I find a new spot nearly every time I visit. The presence of Elevation Beer Co., Eddyline Brewing and the Boathouse Cantina make choosing an apres-climb stop difficult. Best of all, this area is only two hours from Denver. These are the two mountain towns I find myself in most often, and you won’t catch me complaining.

4. Lake City

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This town could be described as Ouray’s little brother, and that’s not a bad thing. What Lake City lacks in size and amenities, it more than makes up for in character. This town has a fledgling ice park complete with an annual Ice Festival the first weekend of February. It’s one of the highlights of my winter. Whereas the Ouray Ice Festival is a bit of a spectacle, the Lake City Ice Festival is a grassroots gathering of the tribe for beginners and crushers alike. Though Lake City tends to be overrun with Texans in the summer, it’s worth wading through the sea of ATVs for access to many of the state’s best high peaks. There’s limitless free camping in the area, and even a hostel for the dirtbag with delicate sensibilities. Must-stop establishments include Poker Alice and Packer Saloon.

5. Silver Cliff/Westcliffe

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These sister-towns are the gateway to the east side of the Sange de Cristo Range. There honestly aren’t many notable attractions within the city limits, but the views are breathtaking, the amount of nearby trailheads is nearly overwhelming and Tony’s Mountain Pizza has the best pies I’ve yet to find in Colorado. You could literally spend weeks in this area camping for free, hiking a quality 13er or 14er every day and refueling with a different pizza every night. Once someone opens a brewery here, it’s game over, man. Anyone want to throw in with me?

Notable omissions, with reasoning:

Estes Park: Flooded with tourists, lack of free dispersed camping areas, fee required to enter Rocky Mountain National Park, only one (overloved) 14er and you have to go through Boulder to get there.

Aspen: Unless you have a trust fund…

Silverton/Telluride: Proximity to Ouray and Durango. I didn’t want this to turn into a list of only mountain towns in the San Juans, which would be pretty easy. I regard both Silverton and Telluride as highly as the other Southwest Colorado entries.

Pagosa Springs: If only Pagosa had more nearby 13ers/14ers, it wouldn’t just be on the list — it would be near the top. It’s a fantastic town on the borders of both the Weminuche and South San Juan wilderness areas.

Alamosa: It’s the biggest settlement on the west side of the Sangres, but shockingly, you just don’t go through it that often in the pursuit of summits. San Luis Valley Brewing Co. is a treat during the rare visit.

Leadville: No brewery, a kind of depressing vibe and only two passable restaurants (High Mountain Pies and Tennessee Pass Cafe). Turquoise Lake is a worthwhile weekend destination, though.

A Legend Passes: In Memory of Steve Gladbach

I’d planned on a couple of trip reports being my next blog posts, but the events of the past 24 hours take precedence.

Steve Gladbach, a preeminent Colorado mountaineer and by all accounts one of the finest human beings on the planet, was killed in a climbing accident on “Thunder Pyramid” near Aspen. The details are still emerging, and I won’t speculate on the cause except to say “Thunder Pyramid” is regarded as one of the most difficult Centennial 13ers. It’s infamous for its steepness, loose rock and routefinding challenges. Steve had summited the mountain at least once before, and I believe he’d done it twice or even several times.

Steve Gladbach (courtesy Facebook.com)

Steve, 52, was the quintessential role model for 14ers.com. If the website had a Mt. Rushmore, he’d be on it. He mentored wave after wave of novice climbers, and did so in such a way that everyone who had the privilege of meeting him felt a special bond.

His accolades as a mountaineer are staggering. He became only the fourth person in history to climb all 59 Fourteeners in winter, a quest he completed in 2011. He finished four laps around the 14ers and was only 12 peaks away from meeting his goal of climbing all the ranked, named AND unranked 13ers in Colorado. That’s more than 750 peaks. Only one other person in history is known to have accomplished this feat. Steve was also trying to become the first person to summit the state’s 100 highest peaks, called the Centennials, in winter. He put up several first and second ascents in pursuit of this dream.

Yet, his climbing accomplishments pale in comparison to his quality as a human being. His capacity to give was unmatched, and despite having earned several lifetimes worth of bragging rights, he was one of the most humble people on earth. That’s a rare trait in high-level mountaineers. I can’t even imagine how many messages he received on 14ers.com asking for advice or route information, and yet he took the time to reply to all of them in detail.

I first met Steve, who was already a rockstar in my mind, at the Winter Gathering he organized in 2011. It was my first snow-camping trip and only my third attempt on a winter 14er. Battling up the ridge of Mt. Columbia in winds exceeding 40 or 50 miles per hour, I considered turning around like most of my partners already had. Then I encountered Steve, who was on his way down with several others. He yelled over the blowing gale to provide much-needed support and encouragement. Steeled against the elements, I successfully made the top. I’ve always held the belief I couldn’t have done it without him.

On our way to Mt. Lindsey in the spring of 2012, Rob Jansen, Greg Fischer and I stopped at Steve’s home in West Pueblo. Fish was a school teacher, like Steve, and needed equipment for his fledgling high school mountaineering club. Steve was generously donating box after box after box of old gear. Once Fish had everything he needed, Steve offered to let each us take anything we wanted, as well. Greg ended up with a Grivel pack we immediately labeled “The Gladpach,” which entitled the wearer to superhuman powers in the mountains. That’s how we viewed Steve. He was our hero.

Steve was also a dedicated family man. He leaves behind two girls, who were absolutely the center of his universe. I was on Mt. Belford in spring 2011 when he was hiking the same mountain with his pre-teen, Alise. The first thing I noticed was how proud he was and how much he obviously cared for her. His facial expressions showed everything. When the pair glissaded away down the mountain, it was with unbridled joy. I’ll always remember Steve as I saw him that day.

Rest in peace, Steve. Thank for your all your contributions to the Colorado climbing community. I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am without you. There are hundreds of others who would say the same.