The Pros and Cons of Adopting a Mountain Mutt

You can hardly hike a trail in the Front Range without spotting one. One-third heeler, one-quarter lab, one-fifth aussie and pure unfiltered joy, the mountain mutt is a Colorado staple.

The Denver metro area alone has dozens of rescue organizations and shelters dedicated to plucking these pariahs from areas they’re unwanted — reservations, slums, former households, kill shelters — and finding them forever homes in a state where dogs are perhaps more in demand than anywhere else. If you’re searching for a new four-legged hiking buddy, consider forgoing the $1,500 purebred Liechtensteinian Coarse-Haired Manatee Shepherd Dog. Your local shelter is brimming with wonderful mixed-breeds (and some pure, too) awaiting a lifetime of love and adventure.

It’s not all sunshine and butterflies. Like anything in life, there are pros and cons to adopting a mountain mutt. Here are a few, in honor of my own pup’s Gotcha Day:

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A mountain mutt in her element.

PRO: Trails Will Become 1,000 Times More Fun

I’ll stop short of saying a mountain mutt is the best hiking partner ever. The world is full of some pretty awesome people. Sometimes those people are busy, however, and you still want to escape the city for a while. A mountain mutt will be your constant companion, whether it’s a morning run in the foothills or a week-long backpacking trip deep in the wilderness. You’ll always have a tail-wagging, tongue-lolling, bright-eyed pup padding along at your side. The things they do will be the constant source of smiles and laughter. After adopting a mountain mutt, it’s like the trails previously viewed in grainy black-and-white transition to full high-definition color.

CON: Embarrassing Car Magnets Will Tempt You

“Who Rescued Who?”

“Rescue Mom”

“I ❤ My Rescue Mutt”

We’ve all seen them. At best we regarded them with indifference, at worst we rolled our eyes and made snide comments about their excessive lameness to our friends. Yet there you are, a week after adopting a dog, standing in front of the magnet display at your local pet store. Maybe they’re not so bad, you tell yourself. Maybe they’re actually pretty damn cool. Roughly $15 later, you’ve purchased all three and the only remaining debate is in which order they should go on your back windshield.

PRO: You’ll Save a Ton of Money vs. a Breeder

Two caveats. First, you shouldn’t adopt a dog just because you can’t afford one from a breeder. Responsible pet ownership requires at least a modicum of financial security. You’re also welcoming a new family member for a decade or more, if you’re lucky. The initial price tag shouldn’t play much of a part in such a huge commitment. (It’s a bargain, any way you look at it.) Second, I have nothing against pure breeds or people who own them. I grew up with black labs and Rottweilers and understand the allure of “that’s what I’ve always had” and wanting a healthy dog with quirks and traits to which you’re accustomed.

That said, a typical adoption fee is $150-300. A breeder probably charges four times as much. Is $1,000 really worth the difference between a German Shepherd from Trump Family Farms and a shepherd-mix that looks and acts almost exactly the same? You can even put the savings toward (gasp!) training, toys and other essentials, dog sports or outdoor gear. The latter might be frustrating, though, because…

CON: Dog Gear Won’t Fit

Apparently almost every major manufacturer of outdoor gear for dogs uses the same labrador retriever as a size/fit model. The wildly varying builds of rescue mutts present a challenge. My dog Zia, for example, fits in gear — sometimes even comfortably — ranging from extra small to medium from the same brand. A 40-pound border-collie mix, rocking the same jacket as a pug and the same pack as a labradoodle. It’s a constant game of trial-and-error and unending adjustments. With the array of options out there, at least you’re guaranteed to find something that works. Eventually.

PRO: They’re Hardy and Resilient

Many rescue animals have suffered some form of hardship. Maybe it was days or months or even years on the street. Maybe it was getting picked up as a newborn from the side of the road and riding 500 miles with other yelping puppies for the privilege of being poked and prodded by a strange veterinarian before an adoption event. Maybe it was receiving an off-brand toy from the dollar store instead of a KONG. The horror.

The past remains a mystery for most rescue animals. Regardless what they’ve endured, mountain mutts typically return love and kindness a hundred fold. Who knows, maybe it’s the first affection they’ve ever experienced. Once built back up, it’s hard to tear these pups down. Mental and physical toughness are key traits of any good hiking partner. Mountain mutts have these attributes in spades.

CON: More Difficult to Become Instafamous

Your aussie/collie mix might be able to summit Mt. Everest faster than Kilian Jornet, but the fame is hard to come by unless you own a Wolfdog, golden retriever or some sort of Heeler pack. Those breeds admittedly do look darn cute a quarter-mile from the trailhead parking lot during their magic-hour shoots. You and your weird-looking mountain mutt will trot right on by these spectacles on your way to a 14-mile summit hike, gladly trading those 5,000 likes for a rewarding day exploring the outdoors.

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Probably got about 12 likes.

PRO: You’ll Savor the Experiences

Ego fuels many outdoor sports. People want to go farther, faster and over more difficult terrain than their peers. The beauty of the setting and the deep sense of place that draw many of us to the mountains in the first place are often lost while checking boxes off a list or striving to beat your rival’s ascent time.

Sharing the outdoors with a mountain mutt slows everything back down. Priorities shift. You can still aspire to complete the 14ers or lead 5.12 or whatever else, but it’s no longer the singular goal. Just as enjoyable are long ambles with little objective other than garnering inspiration and fulfillment from the landscape, watching your pup splash around in a creek as you fill your lungs with wintry mountain air and your eyes with life-affirming panoramas.

CON: You’ll Want to Volunteer, but Can’t

If you get on the waitlist now, your great-grandchildren have a 40-percent chance of volunteering for your favorite shelter or rescue organization. The supply of willful help far exceeds the demand in the Front Range. Don’t fret. Though the rescue through which you adopted your dog might not be accepting applications, there are plenty of smaller and newer organizations that do need your assistance. A little research will turn up a dozen rescues in desperate need of support. Let go of your loyalties, keep an open mind, exercise your Google-fu and you’ll be a hero to needy canines in no time.

PRO: You’re Literally Saving a Life

Again, I’m not against pure breeds, especially when they are performing the working tasks for which they were designed. It’s difficult, however, to understand the purposeful creation of household pets when there are thousands of rescues already on this earth in need of loving homes. Mixes can be nearly identical in appearance and personality to purebred dogs. It’s easy to find exactly what you’re looking for in a market as saturated with rescue organizations as Colorado.

The adopt-or-die scenario is admittedly rare in the Front Range, given the high demand for dogs and the surprising number of no-kill shelters. If I hadn’t taken Zia home, someone else would have that very same day. She was in no danger. That’s true of many mutts awaiting adoption in Colorado.

Even given this pet-friendly climate, however, nearly 50 animals are euthanized every day in shelters across our state, according to Colorado Public Radio.

What’s also true is that every dog adopted from one of Denver’s wonderful and humane rescues opens a vacancy for another dog who might be facing grimmer odds elsewhere. A puppy that would have a dozen suitors in Colorado but none in their kill shelter in rural New Mexico has to make it here, first. Space is limited.

Though this list was evenly split and largely tongue-in-cheek, the pros for adopting a mountain mutt far outweigh the cons. It’s like comparing Capitol Hill to Mt. Elbert. Go out there and create your own Gotcha Day. I promise, you won’t regret it.

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The 13 Types of People You’ll Meet on a Colorado 14er

The allure of a 14er summit beckons to people from all walks of life. To some it’s simply a thing to do during summer break, to others it’s the realization of an enduring dream. Colorado’s mountains are tools used to achieve personal fulfillment, escape the doldrums of urban life, seize untapped vitality or feed a fragile ego. Whatever brings them to the base of the mountain, most 14er hikers fall into one — or a combination — of the following categories.

1. The Fundraiser

Whether it’s for an incurable disease, natural disaster relief or their cat Bojangles’ memorial 5K, The Fundraiser can’t take a step without shaking you down for money. Literally — each stride on the trail earns a nickel pledged from their benefactors. The Fundraiser’s pack is overflowing with color-printed summit signs designed in Microsoft Paint, and you’ll probably recognize them from the local news feature they earned after four months of harassing a reporter on Twitter. You can rest easy, at least, knowing your money is making a real difference in the world. All the proceeds go toward financing The Fundraiser’s next awareness-raising trip to Nepal. Wait, what?

Probably Overheard Saying: “I’m the first 1/8th-Cherokee male between the age of 16 and 27 to climb all the 14ers that start with an ‘S’ to raise awareness for babies born without hair.”

2. The Laissez-Faire Dog Owner

Ranger is the world’s best dog. Everyone loves him, even the child he just barreled over, the pika he just crunched and the leash-aggressive husky he just spooked. How could you be upset at such a cute face? He’s even wearing a cool backpack! The Laissez-Faire Dog Owner spent hours training Ranger to play dead, but didn’t see much point in working on off-leash control. Ranger always comes back, eventually, so what if he’s trailing a wake of resentment and destruction? It’s your problem if he ate your summit sandwich. You shouldn’t have put it down in the first place. Don’t trouble them to pick up their dog’s poop, either. The bags are way too smelly and gross to carry the quarter-mile back to the trailhead.

Probably Overheard Saying: “He’s friendly!”

3. The White Goodman

Only one thing matters: Absolute domination. Of the mountain, of other hikers, of crippling and deep-rooted insecurity. Like Ben Stiller’s character in Dodgeball, The White Goodman is misguided and probably a little dim. The summit is merely a secondary objective. Priority is passing everyone in sight while taking care not to make any social contact other than a mutter of “got ’em” as they whisk past. Everything in life is a competition, and a pleasant hike on a bluebird morning is no exception. They are easily recognizable due to their painted-on Under Armour baselayer and habit of constantly looking over their shoulder. On the summit, they are the ones broadcasting their ascent time or peak list loudly to no one in particular.

Probably Overheard Saying: “Suck failure, freaks.”

4. The Reluctant Significant Other

The Reluctant Significant Other didn’t sign up for this. They didn’t sign up for any of it. Why waste a perfectly good Sunday on a 14er when they could be drinking bottomless mimosas at brunch or watching NFL football? Their loved one wanted to hike, however, and bonding time is important. Each step is a further descent into hell. Everything hurts. Danger lurks beyond every bend: raging avalanches, hungry mountain lions, the beckoning abyss. Nevermind that they’re on a groomed Class 1 trail with 200 other people in the middle of summer. They voice their displeasure often and want nothing more than to turn around, but the White Goodman they met on Tinder just elbowed a toddler out of the way 200 feet up the trail. Left with no choice, The Reluctant Significant Other trudges onward to certain death.

Probably Overheard Saying: “I’m going to die and I didn’t even set my fantasy football lineup.”

5. The Nature Knight

If the Kingdom of Nature Knights had a flag, it would be a singular color: khaki. Staples of the uniform include a floppy wide-brimmed hat, a button-down shirt with mesh in bizarre places, binoculars, a nature journal and a giant beige chip on their shoulder. Forget that you’re on public land two miles from a paved highway within an hour of Denver. Your presence is ruining their wilderness experience. It doesn’t matter if you’re staying on trail, picking up after your dog and carrying out all your trash — something you’re doing is wrong, and you deserve to get yelled at for it. Well-meaning and helpful conversations have no place in the Kingdom of Nature Knights. The goal isn’t to spread knowledge. It’s to feel superior. If they lack the courage to discuss their disdain in person, you can find their anti-social rants every Monday on a 14ers-related Internet forum.

Probably Overheard Saying: “I spent four hours on a volunteer trail crew in 2013, what have YOU done?”

6. The Head-Scratcher

He takes many forms. He could be barefoot hippy, a foreign tourist in slacks and a V-neck, a lone pre-teen in skate shoes or a mustachioed man in a leather vest and motorcycle boots who apparently dropped out of a portal from Sturgis. In whichever way he appears, he’s going to turn your head. Questions overwhelm you. How did he get here? Where is his gear? Who is he with? Why did he choose a 14er? Should I say something? Before you have the chance to satiate your curiosity, he’ll smile warmly, nod a polite greeting and continue his journey toward enlightenment.

Probably Overheard Saying: “Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds, and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue.”

7. The Vicarious Parent

She’s accomplished a lot in her 40 years. She finished 12th in a trail marathon, came close (twice!) to summiting Mt. Rainier and once climbed 5.10b in the rock gym. The highlight, of course, was producing three beautiful children — all of whom are going to make Ricardo Cassin look like a total bitch. Despite not yet hitting puberty, little Reinhold, Arlene and Alex Honnold Jr. (no relation) have climbed more peaks than you could ever dream. The entire gaggle is brightly decked out in top-of-the-line gear they’ll outgrow in a couple months, complete with those adorable child-sized glacier glasses. As you’re passing this wandering circus, the Vicarious Parent will proudly tell you all about the family’s future goals as Alex Honnold Jr. sobs into a block of talus.

Probably Overheard Saying: “Climbing Capitol isn’t that big of a deal, Reinhold did it when he was 5.”

8. The Eagle Scout

No, they’re not training for Everest. No, they’re not on an overnight trip. It’s simply unsafe to enter the wilderness without The 49 Essentials shoved into an 80-pound pack. The Eagle Scout is carrying tents and sleeping bags for everyone on the mountain, just in case, as well as enough gadgets to be properly considered a cyborg. The annual fees on their personal locator beacons, tracking software and GPS apps cost more than a mortgage. They rock a helmet on Class 2 and never leave the house without a week’s worth of food. The Eagle Scout is totally prepared for anything the wilds might throw at them, unless the batteries die on one of their devices.

Probably Overheard Saying: “Hold on, I haven’t sent an OK message for like 10 minutes.”

9. The Internet Celebrity

Oh, you haven’t heard of them? They have, like, more than 800 followers on Instagram, bro. A DSLR camera set to “Auto” swings from their neck and an iPhone that’s at storage capacity from free editing apps sits holstered on their hip. More advanced versions can be spotted with a drone and a helmet-mounted GoPro. Hiding behind a facade of energetic passion, they’re on a quest to #neverstopexploring while #inspiring others with #mountainstoke and #coloradotography as they #travel the world in constant search of #validation from strangers. Most of the scenery is observed through a viewfinder rather than the human eye. The trail and the wildlife and the personal challenge of summiting are neat and all, but the real accomplishment is breaking 100 likes Facebook. Set that saturation slider to 100 and rake in the Internet affirmation, homie.

Probably Overheard Saying: “Let’s pop off our tops.”

10. The Smug Cloud

What you’re doing is lame, it sucks, and you should be ashamed. Any grandpa can walk up a 14er, but you’re not rad unless you run it in less than 1:17:04. That’s The Smug Cloud’s personal best, for the record, and they’d beat it if you’d get your sorry ass out of the way. Whatever their chosen sport — paragliding, mountain biking, trail running, rock climbing — the most enjoyable part of the hobby is being better than you. Sure, they could practice their passion on any number of other trails or mountains, but that’s not as satisfying to the ego as Mt. Bierstadt. The worst type of Smug Cloud, ironically, is the longtime peakbagger. They completed the 14ers in 2006 and their profile on Lists of John reads longer than War & Peace. Instead of dispensing advice and serving as mentors, however, they retreat to insular cliques and look down their noses at all who come after.

Probably Overheard Saying: “Back in my day, on 14erWorld…”

11. The Bucket Lister

The Bucket Lister just wants to get this over with. It’s criminal to be a Centennial State native and not climb at least one 14er, and an ascent to a rugged Colorado mountaintop can yield decades worth of stories for a visiting flatlander. It’s time to dig out that threadbare bookbag from high school, load it full of plastic water bottles and earn a story to tell at happy hours until the end of time. The Bucket Lister’s uniform is usually a cotton sweatshirt emblazoned with a university logo, basketball shorts or yoga pants, old running shoes and aviator sunglasses. Most of the previous evening was spent creating a cardboard sign reading “Mt. Quandry, 14,762 feet” that’s destined to remain as litter on the summit alongside a rock with a Sharpie autograph. Though seemingly ill prepared, most Bucket Listers are fit and competent. In fact, many of them go on to become one of the other archetypes.

Probably Overheard Saying: “How much longer to the summit?”

12. The (Self-Proclaimed) Expert

They’ve caught the bug. What started as doing a 14er or two for fun has turned into a life-altering quest to conquer them all. They’ve tackled their first Class 3 route, knocked out most of the Front Range and are considering a Very Difficult-rated mountain next weekend. They know just enough to be dangerous. With a peak list now in the teens, they’re ready and willing to unload advice on anyone within earshot. You can spot them most often lounging on summits or at trailheads wearing brand-new gear from head to toe, regaling resting hikers with tales of their daring ascents up Mt. Princeton and Redcloud/Sunshine. They are a factory of Ed Viesturs and John Muir quotes, as well as admonishments about building storms for anyone still ascending after 10:30 a.m.

Probably Overheard Saying: “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”

13. The One We All Think We Are

The One We All Think We Are is a certified badass. Like The Head-Scratcher, they come in many forms: retired grandparents, world-class mountaineers and average joes. The unifying knot is that they climb 14ers, whether it’s their first or 300th, purely for personal enjoyment. They aren’t measuring against anything or anyone but themselves. Their online presence, if it exists at all, serves merely to share information and discuss adventures with family and friends. They might have strong ambitions or goals, and that’s OK, because they’re humble and helpful and respectful toward everyone else on the peak. Mountains are viewed in balanced perspective. Their dogs are leashed or well trained, they practice Leave No Trace and they know the rules of the trail. They give advice when asked and offer encouragement instead of deprecating laughter or lectures. This is the category in which we all place ourselves. Which one are you, really?

Probably Overheard Saying: Nothing. They’re listening to you, instead.

The Other 5 Essentials

How you choose to fill your backpack on a given day is about as personal as picking your own bellybutton.

Most people who have ever set foot in the backcountry know of The 10 Essentials. Even hikers who skimp are likely to take along sunscreen, food and water, an extra layer and a basic first-aid kit on every excursion. Beyond that, what goes into a backpack varies wildly from person to person and trip to trip.

There’s seasonal gear, there’s gear you only carry on overnight backpacks or snowshoeing trips or to the crag, and there’s gear you excitedly bought on a whim that’s done nothing but accrue dust in the corner of your garage. The indispensables that never leave your side are few, and even those are seldom agreed upon.

Over the years, however, I’ve discovered fringe items that I almost always carry. They’re as essential as sunscreen and Snickers bars. You won’t find more appreciated gifts this holiday season, whether it’s for the outdoors-lover in your life — or yourself.

 

1. Vacuum Thermos

 

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Subliminal Message: JOIN THE CMC.

 

I often joke that of the thousands of dollars of outdoor gear I’ve garnered over nearly a decade, the best purchase I ever made was an $11 vacuum thermos. The more I say it, the more I realize it’s true. That rugged little sucker comes with me on nearly every adventure, whether it’s an alpine dayhike, Mt. Rainier, a morning ice climb or simply traipsing around the city during a snowstorm.

Thermoses come in all shapes, sizes and price ranges. I bought mine on sale, REI brand, back before there was an explosion in companies specializing in such products. Though most are much more than $11 these days, you can’t put a price on 12 fluid ounces of bliss when you’re eight miles into a winter 14er climb and can’t remember what it’s like to feel your appendages. I can’t speak for all brands, but mine can keep liquid steaming hot for nearly 10 hours.

It never hurts to have something to look forward to in the midst of a sufferfest. The possibilities are endless: Black coffee (there is no other acceptable form), peppermint tea, tomato soup, hot chocolate, spiced apple cider. Hell, you can even add some liquor. Speaking of…

 

2. Flask

 

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Subliminal Message: BUY ARC’TERYX.

 

It’s small, it weighs little and you’ll never find a better morale boost. It can be a victory celebration. It can be a bonding experience around a campfire. It can be the only thing that keeps you and your partner sane on hour 18 of being tentbound in a whiteout. A summit beer is great as well, but it’s heavier and takes up more space. There’s really not much reason not to carry vitality, warmth and courage in an easily transportable container. Of course, liquor should only be consumed responsibly once you’re in a safe location. (Hi mom!)

 

3. MICROspikes

 

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The one guy not wearing MICROspikes was never seen again.

 

I’d say traction devices, but this is a rare case in which I’ve developed such absurd brand loyalty that I look down my nose at anyone not using Kahtoola MICROspikes. To my knowledge, there isn’t really anything close to their ease of use, durability and assured function. Kahtoola has perfected the concept. Everyone else is just trying to find something they can lure people into buying at a lower pricepoint.

Now that I’ve assured my future Kahtoola sponsorship, I can’t overstate the convenience of lightweight traction devices in Colorado. I carry MICROspikes in my backpack 10 months out of the year, whether it’s walking Zia around the Elk Meadow Park Dog Off-leash Area in January or attempting a 14er in September. They’re on my boots as much as snowshoes or crampons, if not moreso. In certain situations, they’re absolutely essential to safe travel.

Just buy them. Carry them. Use them. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

 

4. Multiclava

 

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John is using his multiclava for yet another function, blowing hot air into it to unfreeze his eyelid.

 

Known colloquially by the brand name Buff, many companies are now making quality versions of a multiclava. What can’t these things do? They’re sun protection, sweatbands, face warmers, helmet liners, washcloths, potholders and a cool way to accentuate your campfire pirate impression. They’re like a pocket knife but more useful and with cool artwork. Buff even makes one with a neat Colorado flag print if you want everyone to know you just moved here from Iowa three months ago.

Seriously, I don’t go anywhere without a multiclava. Year-round. It’s the perfect piece of outdoor gear and I will fight you if you insinuate otherwise. There’s no better feeling you can have with your clothes on than dipping a multiclava into ice-cold creek water and putting it on your head during a hot summer afternoon in the mountains. Most of the hikes I go on in August are simply to chase that dragon.

 

5. Summit Pack

 

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You can barely see the summit pack? Yeah, that’s the point.

 

It’s a common sight on peaks across the world. The summit-day mountaineer taking the final few steps to the top, shapeless five-pound 70-liter pack on their back filled only with a handful of granola and a headlamp, overworked compression straps flapping solemnly in the breeze like some sort of flag representing the Republic of Suffering Climbers. Stop! Just stop. There’s a better way.

A good summit pack weighs 10-12 ounces and compresses to the size of Donald Trump’s hands. You can find them for as little as $30. Some even have ice ax attachments, water bladder sleeves, extra compartments and tons of other useful features. Sure, it’s another thing to carry in an already heavy backpack. I’m the first person to throw out all unnecessary luxuries for a long climb. You’ll never catch me with a camp pillow or a tent lantern on an overnight. A summit pack, however, is always worth it.

I hauled my Arc’teryx Cierzo 28 this summer on the entirety of the 40-mile round-trip trek to summit Gannett Peak in Wyoming. It was in my pack for four days out of five. Summit day, usually the most arduous on any mountaineering trip, made it all worth it. I’ll gladly trade an extra 10 ounces on the approach for infinitely improved comfort and functionality when the chips are on the table.

The real kicker? A quality summit pack can serve double duty for shorter, more leisurely hikes. I’ve long since ditched heavy daypacks that weigh three pounds and have more features than a 2016 Mercedes-Benz S-class in favor of the simplicity and lightness of the summit pack.

 

Have your own extra essential that you carry on every hike? Share it in the comments.

 

5 Winter 14ers for Beginners

Often the most difficult aspect of committing to a big endeavor, such as climbing a 14,000-foot mountain in winter, is knowing where to start. It’s a common misconception for summer hikers that winter is off limits, a no-man’s-land of arctic temperatures, sheer ice faces and hourly avalanches. That’s simply not true. I previously wrote a basic overview for exploring the alpine in the so-called offseason, and now I’ll attempt to answer another oft-repeated question: Which peak(s) to try first?

As a disclaimer, none of these routes offer guaranteed safety. It’s imperative for anyone venturing into the winter backcountry to have at least a basic understanding and awareness of avalanche terrain. The stakes are also exponentially higher. More care needs to be given to gear selection, route knowledge, emergency preparedness and other safety precautions. A forced night out in the summer could be uncomfortable. A forced night out in the winter could be fatal.

I chose the following five mountains based on access, minimal avalanche danger, ease of routefinding and general popularity. Many others are doable as relatively safe winter daytrips. These are simply the lowest-hanging fruit.

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1. Quandary Peak

Winter Trailhead: Quandary (same as summer)
Winter Route: East Ridge (same as summer)
Winter Mileage: 7 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 3,500’

When asked what’s the easiest 14er to attempt in the summer, an argument could be made for several different mountains. When the same question is asked for the winter months, there really is only one best answer. It’s Quandary Peak.

Quandary’s standard trailhead is right off Highway 9, which is consistently plowed. No extra effort is needed to reach the summer starting point. It’s also the most popular winter 14er, meaning there likely will be an established snow trench unless you’re climbing immediately after a major storm. Snowshoes are still recommended, but the need to break your own trail is rare. Staying on the ridge nearly negates avalanche danger except in extreme conditions, though venturing out onto the East Face can put you in harm’s way.

In short, if you hug the ridgeline, carry a bit of extra gear, have a good forecast, enjoy minor suffering and go in moderate or better avalanche conditions, Quandary isn’t much more challenging in winter than summer.

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2. Mt. Bierstadt

Winter Trailhead: Roughly 1.75 miles below Guanella Pass at the Guanella Pass Campground (Georgetown side)
Winter Route: West Slopes (same as summer)
Winter Mileage: 10.5 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 3,800’

The only thing more difficult about Mt. Bierstadt in the winter is about three miles of road walking. The west-facing slopes harboring the summer route are often blown clear by intense winter winds, with lengthy segments of the trail exposed above treeline. Some avalanche danger is possible during part of the approach up the road, as well as while gaining the upper shoulder at around 12,000 feet. In most conditions, a safe line is apparent.

Many people try to save themselves a couple hundred feet of elevation gain by leaving the road early and making a beeline for Bierstadt without visiting the summit of Guanella Pass. I generally advise against this, as it takes you through a soul-sucking patch of willows. In my experience, it’s easier to stick to the road and suck up the minimal extra gain.

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3. Mt. Elbert

Winter Trailhead: South Mt. Elbert
Winter Route: East Ridge
Winter Mileage: 12.5 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 4,900’

See the other side of famous Mt. Elbert. The hardest route statistically on this list also comes with perhaps the lowest avalanche danger. Mt. Elbert’s broad and gentle East Ridge seldom gets steep enough to allow a slide. Like many winter routes, it starts with a two-mile stroll along a closed 4WD road before joining the South Mount Elbert Trail. In some seasons, especially early on, all or part of this road can be driven.

Prepare your mind for the upper portions of this hike. It includes several heartbreaking false summits. Combined with the incessant wind that almost always berates Colorado’s highest peak in the winter, this is as much an exercise in mental fortitude as it is physical endurance.

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4. Mt. Sherman

Winter Trailhead: About 2.5 miles short of the standard summer 4WD gate
Winter Route: South Slopes
Winter Mileage: 8.5 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 3,100’ to 3,500′, depending on parking area

Be careful on this popular winter peak. Avalanche-safe lines abound, but the danger is insidious. Venturing even a hundred feet in the wrong direction could put you in a slide area. Along with Quandary and Bierstadt, this is probably the most attempted winter route, due to its short length. I personally know at least three parties that have gotten caught in slides on this mountain. Avalanche terrain awareness and careful decision making are essential.

The starting point for this hike varies considerably. I’ve logged four attempts in winter and began from a different staging area each time. In general, plan to start about a mile below the Leavick site. Anything closer is a bonus. Walk the road to just before the summer 4WD gate, then veer right. The terrain here can be confusing and deceptive. Select a cautious line and make your way toward the obvious shallow gully to the right of the Mt. Sherman summit, targeting the broad plateau between Sherman and White Ridge.

It’s important to take this alternate route and not attempt to stay on the standard trail. Gaining the Sheridan-Sherman saddle on the summer path comes with considerable avalanche risk, including a large and reliable cornice.

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5. Pikes Peak

Winter Trailhead: Crags Campground
Standard Winter Route: Northwest Slopes
Winter Mileage: 14 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 4,300’

It would be hard for 14 miles to feel much shorter. This gentle route maintains an easy grade most of the way, with only a few steep sections. The popularity of the Crags area as a dayhike also means that a trench is a nearly permanent fixture. The upper portion of the hike, above Devil’s Playground, parallels the summit road. Because Pikes stands largely alone, it’s often subjected to blasting winds. Large sections of the wide, obvious trail above treeline were visible every time I’ve done this peak with snow.

In contrast with Mt. Evans, the road up Pikes Peak remains open year-round, weather permitting. It’s hard to express the sheer joy that’s felt while eating a donut and drinking hot chocolate in the confines of a brick shelter after seven miles hiking uphill in a subzero wind chill. It’s also hard to express the willpower that’s necessary to leave that shelter for the seven-mile hike down.

One More Drink, and I’ll Move On (Conundrum Couloir)

Mountain(s): Conundrum Peak (14,060′) and Castle Peak (14,265′)
Route: Conundrum Couloir (Steep Snow)
Date: July 11, 2015
RT Distance: 14.5 miles
RT Gain: 4,850′
RT Time: 10 hours
Climbers: Ben, Jeff

Summer is here.

It’s crazy how fast the Colorado mountains transitioned from buried to dry. Most standard 14er routes only require a few short snow crossings these days, which is hardly believable after all the late-spring moisture. The wet weather made for a weird couloir season, with the window between “avalanche prone” and “rage-inducing scree field” short and difficult to judge.

Few traditional snow couloirs remain in mid-July, but what’s left is generally safe. Ben and I decided to attempt one more before the soaring summer temperatures claim the last of the continuous snow lines. My original idea was Cross Couloir on Mt. of the Holy Cross, an incredibly famous route that’s gathered dust on my to-do list for years. Ben, who’s trying to finish the 14ers this summer, was more interested in two new checkmarks on Castle and Conundrum. A few minutes of research uncovered that Conundrum Couloir, another classic option, was likely still filled. A plan was born.

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Our intention was to meet in Golden around 3 p.m. and depart directly from my office at the American Mountaineering Center. That would give us plenty of time to establish a camp, start a fire, drink a couple beers and catch up. Unfortunately, Ben got stuck at work and then in the heinous Highway 93 traffic. He didn’t get to my office until shortly after 5 p.m., which might be the latest anyone has worked at the American Mountaineering Center on a Friday since at least 2009.

The result was arriving at the Castle/Conundrum trailhead around 9 p.m. My low-clearance 2WD Mazda 3 could only make it up the road far enough to reach the first four campsites, all of which were inhabited by squatting retirees from Texas. We limped back to the pavement and debated our options. Signage made it obvious that no camping is allowed apparently anywhere, ever. Given the late hour and our 3 a.m. wake-up call, we figured no one would notice if we just set up our tents in the corner of the parking lot. It meant packing all our gear first thing in the morning rather than leaving it up to dry, but our assumption was correct. We snagged a few uninterrupted hours of unsanctioned sleep. Don’t tell anyone, Internet.

Rather than risk my car’s oil pan to crawl a half-mile up the road, we decided to hoof it from the paved highway. Sunrise greeted us a couple hours later high in Montezuma Basin, well beyond the Pearl Pass turnoff. Pre-dawn road walking is an easy way to pass miles and time.

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Our solitary vigil ended along with the road. A pair of solo hikers caught us while I was transitioning from trail runners to mountaineering boots, and a brave soul in a stock 4Runner arrived carrying a full cab of hitchhikers. Our newfound crowd began moving up the snow-covered headwall together. Ben and I opted for crampons and a direct line up the snow, while others found a more-or-less dry path through the rocks.

A big push up steep terrain delivered us to the upper cirque, where Conundrum Couloir was beautifully filled. No decision needed to be made here. We’d stick with the original plan.

Surprise cloud-cover, a steady wind and the early hour meant firm snow conditions. The moderate apron quickly gives way to steeper terrain, and the morning fog dissipated from our heads as the need for focus increased. The choke point about halfway up turned out to be the crux. The angle hovered around 50 degrees, and the inset nature of the section meant a general lack of sun. The hard snow meant Ben could only produce minuscule steps, which I did my best to widen with a few extra kicks. Solid ice ax self-belays did provide an extra measure of confidence and security.

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The angle relaxed slightly as we climbed above the choke point and approached the massive cornice. This late in the season, an easy exit existed on the right. A few more feet of 50-degree snow deposited us on the saddle between Conundrum’s twin summits.

We scrambled up to the high point and enjoyed the rare summer solitude. Castle was beginning to look crowded, and a few people had started to traverse over, but for about 20 minutes we had the top to ourselves. The multiple forecasts calling for calm and sunshine looked worse by the minute, with clouds building and an incessant breeze that forced us into down jackets. Still, we were treated to inspiring views of the surrounding Elk Range giants.

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The fun was over for the day, but Ben also needed Castle Peak to notch his 53rd Fourteener. Rather than blissfully glissade the Castle-Conundrum saddle for a quick reunion with beers and burgers, we had to slog up a couple hundred more feet of crumbling Elk rock. It was all worth it, of course, to stand on the range’s highest summit. Stellar views of Snowmass, Capitol, the Bells and Pyramid were a worthy reward. We spent another 15-20 minutes snapping photos before the worsening weather urged us to retreat.

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We opted to take the standard Northeast Ridge down to complete a loop of the cirque. A couple hundred feet below the summit, I was shocked to hear a female voice casually say, “Hi, Jeff.” Standing just below were Zach Smith, Noel Finta-Johnson, and their hiking partner Joe. Random encounters with friends in the mountains are always welcome.

A graupel storm kept the descent interesting. The weird weather would hound us all the way back to the car, alternating between blistering sunshine, pouring graupel and brief rain showers. The crux of the day was deciding what layers to wear while walking down the road.

I might have gotten a late start, but I was able to salvage a bit of this couloir season the past couple weeks. Classic routes like Conundrum Couloir are a great reminder of the joys of steep snow. The crampons and ice ax will now get shelved for a few months before the fall ice season begins, but it’s hard to feel depressed with summer scrambling, multi-day backpacking rambles and long nights around the campfire with good friends on the horizon. Winter is coming, but summer is here. Might as well enjoy it.

Cornice Busting on Southpaw Couloir

Mountain: Torreys Peak – 14,267′
Route: Southpaw Couloir
Date: July 3, 2015
RT Distance: 8 miles
RT Gain: 3,000′
RT Time: 6 hours 45 minutes
Climbers: Speth (speth), Adam, Jeff

This snow-climbing season was disappointing. Between major life changes, a new puppy, a minor finger injury and the unsettled weather, I accomplished almost none of my goals. I hardly climbed at all in May and June, even missing the Spring Gathering and the past several happy hours. “Stir crazy” doesn’t even begin to describe it. With Friday off for the Fourth and an acceptable forecast, I pinged Speth and Adam about climbing Mt. Edwards via the Goatfinger Couloir. They immediately agreed.

The need for an early start and time constraints (this spring’s theme) Saturday led to us driving up Friday night to bro out around a campfire at the Stevens Gulch Trailhead. It was car camping at its finest, complete with a brick-walled fire ring and wooden benches. A few IPAs, many Dave Chappelle quotes and a magnificent sunset later, we were ready to crash in anticipation of a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call.

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First light saw us high in Stevens Gulch staring at a half-dry Goatfinger. Lost Rat was melted out at the top as well, and Dead Dog appeared to be limping along. Looming beautifully in front of us, however, was a fat-looking Southpaw.

This couloir, which is shorter and steeper than the more famous Dead Dog, is seldom climbed because the exit is guarded by a menacing cornice. We stared at it for a while and decided that, this late in the season, a few reasonable options existed to surmount the final obstacle. All I knew about Southpaw was that it wasn’t supposed to be terribly steep and that Moonstalker wrote an excellent TR a couple years back. We set off without a ton of beta, and like any such adventure, the result was equal parts joy, laughter, terror, adrenaline and accomplishment.

Southpaw begins with a long, mellow 30- to 35-degree apron. We were shocked and thrilled to find surprisingly good snow conditions. The angle gradually increases as you ascend, culminating in a 50ish-degree finish to the vertical cornice.

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The climb itself was simply amazing — supportive snow, attention-keeping yet easy terrain, and copious jokes relevant to 30ish-year-old “grown” men. As we neared the top, the two exit options looked to remain feasible. We hugged the right side of the couloir to avoid an unstable Volkswagen-sized block and eyed a less-than-vertical ramp just to its right for our escape.

Adam, in the lead, was the first to reach the cornice. The ramp we’d chosen comprised only about four-to-six feet of 70-degree snow. A couple swings, a few kicks, and we’d be over the top. It quickly became apparent that our optimism was going to go unrewarded. Unlike the rest of the couloir, the snow on the cornice was 100 percent pure garbage.

IMG_4637After Adam deemed our intended finish too dangerous, I started peering over my shoulder and weighing our retreat options. The first 200 feet or so was steep enough to require face-in downclimbing, and the snow conditions were deteriorating rapidly. Still, it seemed reasonable.

A horizontal two-foot-wide ledge of snow, ice and scree also caught our attention, as it led to a spot where the cornice was only about three feet high. If we could reach it — which would require several delicate moves across exposed Class 4 terrain — it seemed like it would go. Speth led across first, balancing on crampon points and grasping for anything that resembled trustworthy rock. He made it safely to the ledge and disappeared around the corner. Adam went next, talking himself through the balance-y moves. Only a few tiny islands of solid rock interrupted the 50- to 55-degree scree and snow. Without much in the way of handholds, it was a mental battle to trust your frontpoints and shimmy across. A few sections of thin ice that took a pick or point provided extra security.

Adam reached the ledge and talked me through the traverse, which I completed with only minor whimpering. A couple deep postholes kept the pucker factor high while crossing the snow ledge, but before long we found Speth standing on terra firma above the cornice. He offered a hand to help us over the final waist-high wall, and we all collapsed into a heap on the standard trail near two frat bros sipping PBRs. Welcome to summer on Grays and Torreys.

IMG_4638We stayed put for a while, giddily releasing adrenaline, before taking off our climbing gear and finishing the trudge up to the summit The Big T. Awaiting at the top was the standard July fare, including summit signs, selfie sticks and trail-runners in Colorado flag bikinis. Kelso Ridge was a popular route choice on this Friday, and it was cool to watch party after party come up, basking in their accomplishment.

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Thanks to Speth and Adam for yet another fun day out. Southpaw Couloir isn’t climbed much for a good reason — unless conditions are perfect, that ever-present cornice is a monster. If you catch it right, however, I could see it being an absolute classic. I suspect that only happens for a week or two every couple years, though. Happy hunting.

P.S. Prrrrrrrrrrrrrrrdddddddddd.

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.