8 Tips for Winter Hiking with Your Dog

Dogs are descendants of wolves, and wolves are synonymous with snow. It’s hard to imagine canis lupus stalking prey without a backdrop of silent winter white.

While some domestic dogs still share many traits with the mighty timberwolf, others are less equipped to handle the elements. I doubt a Bichon Frise finding much enjoyment in getting dumped out of its luxurious leather purse into a pile of powder snow.

Fortunately, in this Golden Age of Adventure Dogs, many companies make products that help even the most domestic of breeds romp around in the cold. Here are some tips to keep your best friend safe and comfortable this winter, whether you’re summiting mountains, snowshoeing through a meadow or walking around the city block.

Protect Those Paws

The toughness of dog footpads varies wildly. Many pups can traverse sharp talus for hours without issue, while others would be bleeding and sore on the same terrain. The same is true of snow and ice, but even sled dogs need vigilant monitoring and occasional paw protection.

Dog booties are almost required gear in winter. Even if your pup doesn’t normally need them, they’re essential for extra-cold days or in an emergency. Get your dog comfortable wearing them at home before hitting the trail, or you might not make it very far. Also remember to check them regularly for proper fit and to ensure snow isn’t sneaking in and freezing around the top opening.

I’m lucky to have a dog that doesn’t need booties too often. I do, however, lather her paws with musher’s wax. When applied thoroughly and liberally, it keeps ice from accumulating on a dog’s fur or between their toes. Balled, clinging snow is a major source of discomfort. Musher’s wax is a strong deterrent to this problem. Two bonus tips: coat the lower legs up the joint as well as between the toes, and don’t apply it right before getting into the car. (Unless waxy pawprints all over your upholstery is your idea of a good time.)

Even with booties and wax, make a habit of regularly checking your dog’s paws, clearing them of ice buildup and observing for any signs of pain or discomfort.

FullSizeRender[2]

Have a Plan B

Forecasting winter weather and snow conditions is an inexact science, especially in the mountains. Countless times, I’ve driven two hours to a trailhead in Colorado’s high country only to find temperatures 15 degrees colder or winds three times as strong as predicted.

Dogs are living, breathing beings, prone to good days and bad days. One weekend they might plow through snowdrifts for hours with nary a shiver, and the next they might be picking up their paws and whining before you even get out of the parking lot.

Play it safe. Especially if you’re traveling an hour or more from the car, there’s simply too much that can go wrong in the relentless winter elements to justify pushing your luck. Mistakes in the summer can be a mild inconvenience. Mistakes in the winter can result in major injury, or even death.

Have a backup plan — something shorter, lower, drier, more protected. Sometimes this means scrapping an adventure altogether. Cuddling on the couch and crying into a mug of hot chocolate while watching All Dogs Go to Heaven is preferable to visiting the vet to treat frostbitten paws. Know your dog, observe them carefully and always be willing to turn around if it’s in their best interest.

Keep the Liquid Flowing

No matter how much fun it looks like your dog is having doing it, eating snow isn’t an adequate method of hydration. Snow is mostly air, and getting the necessary liquid would require consuming many mouthfuls. The effort a body has to go through to melt snow saps too much energy and warmth for it to be an effective source of fluids.

Natural streams and lakes are likely solid ice through the winter, as water has the unfortunate habit of freezing when exposed to temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Carry plenty of extra water for your dog, as well as yourself, inside your pack and wrapped in an insulating sleeve or your extra clothing layers.

Buy a Go-To Dog Jacket

Dozens and dozens of options exist from many different brands. For winter use, look for a jacket with a shell outer layer or synthetic insulation. (Or, preferably, both.) Hard or soft shell material repels moisture, and synthetic insulation stays warm even when it gets wet. This is important for when your dog is creating World War I-style trenches through neck-deep snow at breakneck speed. Dog jackets are great for warmth, obviously, but they also cut the wind and protect a pup’s belly from clinging snow. With the exception of dogs explicitly bred for frigid conditions, they’re a pretty necessary piece of winter equipment. My border collie, even with her thick undercoat, sports a Ruffwear Powderhound on nearly every snow excursion.

F49A1FFD-8746-457E-AF36-C96E94F4AB74

Choose Treats Carefully

As with human food, some dog treats can become so hard in cold weather that they’re extremely difficult to eat. This might require a bit of trial and error depending on your preferred brands, but identify treats that stay soft and easy to chew even as the temperature dips well below freezing. SuperFood Blend, Power Bones and PureNZ Cords, all from Zuke’s, do the trick for me.

Another tip is to carry your dog’s treat pouch on your person, instead of in a backpack. By storing it in one of your jacket or pants pockets, your body heat keeps the treats from becoming too rigid to chew. This is highly recommended for most human food, as well, unless you enjoy chipping a tooth on your Snickers bar.

Carry an Insulated Pad, Bed or Blanket

No one wants to sit on cold snow for too long. Humans have the luxury of squatting on their backpack or tree stumps or whatever else is convenient for avoiding direct contact with the ground, but dogs don’t usually have such options. Bring along a blanket or foam pad for your pooch to rest on during breaks. Several companies even make lightweight, packable, insulated dog beds. You want your pup to have a warm, comfortable spot to rest, or they might be an icicle before you getting moving again.

Train Them to Ignore Skiers and Snowboarders

Like with mountain bikes in the summer, dogs should be trained to ignore and stay out of the way of riders. Something about skis sets off the herding instinct in many breeds. It’s a scary, fast, foreign method of travel to which many dogs aren’t accustomed, and a frightened pooch can get loud and defensive. I’ve witnessed quite a few wipe outs as a skier rounds a corner only to meet a startled, barking dog. Ski edges are also sharp and moving fast, and they can cause a nasty laceration to an onrushing pup. Use treats and conditioning to ensure your dog is comfortable with skiers and snowboarders, or keep them on a leash in areas popular with those pursuits.

D1B29149-B206-44F7-84DB-1E93807E121E

Be Wary of Lakes, Streams and Avalanche Terrain

Dogs don’t understand hazards in the same was as humans. A partially frozen lake, to them, is just more ground to romp on. Keep a vigilant mental account of your surroundings at all times and have your dog on a leash or under strict voice control in areas that could potentially be dangerous. Don’t let them on a frozen surface unless you’re 100 percent sure it’s safe. Even then, it’s probably best to avoid the ice if at all possible.

The difference between being in the clear and in an avalanche runout zone can be as little as a few meters. Many off-leash dogs wander. Take an avalanche course, know how to travel safely in wintery mountain terrain and keep your pup close when warranted.

Hiking in the snow, with dogs that love it and humans that are prepared, can be exponentially more rewarding than summer trails. If you’re lucky enough to have a powderhound, I hope these tips help you enjoy the backcountry with more comfort and peace of mind.

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:

FullSizeRender
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.

FullSizeRender
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.

IMG_6097

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.

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.

img_1342

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.

img_1364

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

 

img_1198
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

 

img_7091
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

 

10167947_10101078575133986_708853930885757043_n
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

 

13173703_10101533303025646_1022535398922068710_n
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

 

13707561_10100991528820211_7562892920669130175_n
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.

 

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.

IMG_6097

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.

IMG_4100

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.

IMG_4084

IMG_4117

IMG_4399

IMG_0407

IMG_5319

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…

IMG_6357

IMG_6480

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.

IMG_2095

IMG_2100

 

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.

IMG_5821

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.

407229_940527797996_792425708_n

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.

420199_10100357393378006_30766061_n

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.

1017402_10100667561328946_1495335086_n

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.

1604566_10100660234382206_802679623_n

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.