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What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?

- Henry David Thoreau

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Adventure Travel

Jun 12, 2018

The Bounty of Living in Boulder

From its refined downtown gem, Pearl Street, to the tops of its sandstone giants, the Flatirons, Boulder has a variety of adventures for all your tastes.

WRITTEN BY

Mick Follari

This story originally featured in The Outdoor Journal print edition. Subscribe here.

Swirl three times, pour. Wait three breaths, turn the cup back over. In Dushanbe, Tajikistan I’m reading tea leaves stuck to a white cup, without much success. Gaunt and tired from climbing in Afghanistan, I have 7,000 miles of travel still ahead, and a baby due in a few weeks, so my mind is only on getting home to Boulder, Colorado.

Having lived there almost 20 years, it’s easier to reflect on it when I’m far away. Ironically, we have our own authentic Tajik teahouse, sent piece by piece from the City of Dushanbe as a gift. I’d be glad to be there right now.

Boulder sits elevated at 1600m where the Great Plains suddenly meet the soaring Rocky Mountains. If you arrive overland from the East, as I did, across a flat sea of grasses, it’s breathtaking. Once here, you find a stunning variety of outdoor activities accessible from a picture-perfect downtown where the sun shines nearly all the time and everybody’s healthy. But, an ominous curse whispers across 150 years. Arapahoe Chief Niwot warned the first settlers: “People seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will be the undoing of the beauty.”

climbing Boulder

The Earth makes herself known here. Rock juts out of the hills and canyons around town: from glacially-polished granite, to sandstone, to a unique igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic link. Baseline Road lies on the 40th latitude, gold mining brought the first white settlers, and several national earth science research centers are housed here. Weather moves quickly. A sunny June afternoon can turn into hail and ankle-deep slush. Likewise, in January a Monday snow storm can become T-shirt weather by Thursday.

For visitors, as well as those who live here, it is a wonderland of outdoor adventure stocked with world-class dining and culture. 230 km of trails, 98,000 acres of open space, 60 urban parks, and 500km of bike ways and trails are set aside for 100,000 citizens and their guests. Rocky Mountain National Park, an hour away, is laced with trails, lakes and wildflowers, Denver lies only 40km away, and skiing is within 40 minutes’ drive. The 20 bike shops, 40 yoga studios, and 79,000 square foot Whole Foods hint at an obsession with fitness and well-being. Numerous professional athletes (and wannabes) make it their home, and her trails, cliffs, and roads are well-loved by many hands, feet and wheels.

The topographic playground and backdrop are beautiful, but they are matched by an impressive community and culture. Colorado University is a research powerhouse, there’s Buddhist Naropa University, massage, and herbal medicine schools. Vibrant creativity, a sparky startup community, and leading science research make for an inspirational population.

The wonders of Boulder are no secret however, and the press, enamored with superlatives, regularly place it in various Top-Ten type lists. Usually they extol the fitness, healthy lifestyle, outdoor opportunities, braininess, creativity, business verve, foodie-ness, etc. But there is, naturally, a backlash, and it is a favorite target of some post-modern negativity.

It is wryly called ‘The Bubble’ or ‘The People’s Republic of Boulder’, or more cynically, “25 square miles surrounded by reality.” The same preservationist and well-intended progressive policies that keep it so attractive have elevated the cost of living, changed demographics. You will see bumper stickers shouting to “keep Boulder weird!”

Chief Niwot must be smiling to himself.

living in Boulder, Colorado

Before you get too distracted by intriguing lectures, local craft beer, galleries or restaurants, however, plan out some of those outdoor activities you came for. Start a hike at Chautauqua Park and you can stroll leisurely up the Bluebell trail or southward on the 12km Mesa Trail to connect with dozens of others in the Open Space where moderate hikes are plentiful. Pound out a difficult ascent of Bear Peak and you’ll be rewarded with sensational views of the eastern plains, foothills, and snowy Indian Peaks. The trails at Mt. Sanitas and Flagstaff are favorites, lined with bouldering. If you’re lucky, you may see black bear, foxes, coyote or even a mountain lion off the trails.

As expected, climbing is nearly a cultural imperative. Locals enjoy an early-morning jaunt up the 450m First Flatiron before breakfast. Contact the Colorado Mountain School for help setting up instruction and equipment. If you are an experienced climber, head to Eldorado Canyon State Park whose sandstone walls are lined with thousands of routes and 50 years of history. Boulder Canyon is another popular destination, with thousands of its own granite sport routes. Neptune Mountaineering can outfit you, including guidebooks.

Boulder, Colorado

Bikes are everywhere… whether the rattle of a single mountain bike, a peloton of road bikers passing farms on the edge of town, or several hundred glowing, rolling costumes slowing traffic on the Thursday night downtown cruiser ride. There are even 100 automated bike rental stations around town. Visit University Bikes for your general needs. If you’re a connoisseur, there are specialty shops just for you.

Pearl Street is the heart of downtown and it beats from 6am coffee to 2am boozing. Re-born in 1977 in an effort to revitalize downtown, the street was torn up, permanently closed to cars, and repaved with bricks. A thousand businesses and flowers line the Mall in historic buildings. 85% of them are local, and with public art, sculptures, and street performers it’s the most popular area of town for restaurants, night life, galleries and coffee. Lots of coffee. I keep a rotation and can’t recommend just one. Ozo, The Cup, Amante, the Trident and the Laughing Goat each have their distinct appeal. For me, sitting here drinking a rich dark coffee is like a vacation, even just after a vacation.

Boulder, Colorado

You will have earned your meals doing all that activity, and luckily Boulder can feed the hungriest and the most discerning diner alike. Nationally-renowned chefs preside over a number of the best spots in town with taglines like Farm-to-Table, wind-powered, and organic. Try the creole breakfast at Lucille’s, rooftop margaritas at The Rio, and for deceptively casual dinner, neighbors The Kitchen or Salt. Between April and November, visit the lively Farmer’s Market, located on 13th St, which gets closed to traffic, sandwiched between Central Park and the Dushanbe Tea House.

So, here I am, sipping tea again, in a Dushanbe Tea House, but this time relieved to be doing it in my hometown. This one is nicer than the one in Dushanbe! Completely hand-built by Tajik craftsmen then shipped here, it is a work of art that serves food and drinks. The menu is wonderful and varied, with dishes from Cuba to Persia, North Africa to Thailand. And teas. When you can’t decide your next activity, maybe you’ll have luck reading the leaves.

Mick Follari is a alpinist, rock and ice climber, photographer and videographer. You can find out more about his work here and follow him on Instagram here.

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Boulder

Feb 28, 2019

The Legend of Longs Peak, One of Colorado’s Most Popular 14ers

Longs Peak enthralls weekend warriors and veteran mountaineers alike. It’s been called “Colorado’s deadliest peak”, but do the numbers support the nickname?

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WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

Longs Peaks, viewed from the metropolitan centers of the northern Front Range, is a prominent knuckle of gnarled granite foregrounded by Mt. Meeker’s dramatic east face. The 14,255 foot behemoth is the indisputable crown jewel of the Front Range Rockies, and it occupies a mythic place in Colorado mountain lore. From geologic formation to modern mountaineering, Longs Peak is a hallowed repository of sediment and stories. As Rocky Mountain National Park’s sole 14er, Longs Peak enthralls weekend warriors and veteran mountaineers alike.

An advanced and arduous venture.

Today, social media reveals the mountain’s popularity. The deluge of Instagram summit selfies may boost tourism in the area, but the increased exposure can lure the unprepared to seek the summit, an advanced and arduous venture. Despite the dramatic uptick in Longs Peak tourism and sensational headlines highlighting hiker fatalities, deaths have actually remained relatively stable in the past several decades. In other words, given the increasing number of attempts and steady overall incident count, the rate of fatal accidents has actually decreased.  

Alpenglow on the Diamond face of Longs Peak, foregrounded by Chasm Lake. Photo by Dusty J via Flickr.

The legend of Longs begins with its geologic inception nearly 2 billion years ago. The metamorphic schist and gneiss of its slopes evince ancient matrimony of plate movements, intense pressure, and scorching heat. 1.4 billion years ago, magma intrusions cooled and crystallized into Rocky Mountain granite. The latent peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park were comprised of this swirl of sediments, launched skyward 70 million years ago by an uplift. Situated at more or less their current elevations, the mountains developed sharp precipes, veined grooves, and deep cirques by way of glaciation. The famous Diamond face of Longs Peak, a shear wall anchored by Mills Glacier and illumined by rosy morning alpenglow, is testimony to the carnal power of erosion. As Colorado’s northernmost 14er, with a summit as large and flat as a football field, Longs Peak dominates the surrounding skyline and calls adventurers to its heights.

It’s born a handful of names and millions of bootprints. To the Native Americans, it was Nesotaiuexthe Two Guides. After they were driven from the plains into the mountains by white settlers in the early 19th century, they reportedly caught eagles from its crags, using their feathers for adornment. French trappers proclaimed it Les Deux Oreilles, or Two Ears, a reference to its forked summit. Isabella Bird, who became the third woman ever to summit the peak, dubbed it both the “Mont Blanc of Northern Colorado” and the “American Matterhorn’’ in her 1879 autobiography A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. The enduring moniker, Longs Peak, is a nod to Stephen Harriman Long, an explorer who became the first American to sight and describe the mountain for the government in 1820. Major John Wesley Powell notched the first official ascent of the peak on August 23, 1868, commencing a flood of summit fever that would swell in volume over the next century and a half to the 10,000 annual total that attain Long’s pinnacle today. Most summit bids trace the standard Keyhole Route, which necessitates exposed scrambling and ascends 5,000 vertical feet in 7 miles. Unprepared hikers may find themselves getting more than they bargained for, but that hasn’t deterred the crowds.

The Boulderfield below the Keyhole Route, in summer and winter. Photo from the National Park Service.

The lure of Longs is understandablethe trailhead is just 90 minutes from Denver International Airport and the standard Keyhole Route to the summit is doable for most fit, prepared hikers in a long day. Though its reputation as a non-technical challenge and proximity to big cities makes it one of Colorado’s most popular 14ers, the sheer number of summit attempts has also made it one of the country’s most deadly hikes, according to an Outside Magazine article from 2014. Spokeswoman Kyle Patterson says that Rocky Mountain National Park runs the third busiest search-and-rescue operation in the Park Service, and 20 percent of their efforts are concentrated in the Longs Peak region. Since 1884, Longs has claimed 67 lives, with over 70% of fatalities resulting from a fall. This past summer was particularly deadly, with four hikers losing their lives on or near the mountain. 2018’s fatalities, combined with ten others since 2010, make this past decade the deadliest ever in recorded history, eclipsing the 13 deaths of the 1970s. But to take these statistics at face value would be to misjudge the threat.

By some estimates, over 25,000 hopefuls set out from the trailhead every summer—less than half of them summit. Just a sliver of hikes end in fatalities, but as overall trail traffic increases, so do overall incidents. A dive into the decades reveals a small increase in fatalities, but that increase comes with a caveat:

  • 17 deaths from 1961–1980
  • 18 deaths from 1981–2000
  • 19 deaths from 2001–2020 (assuming a projected rate of one death per year in 2019 and 2020)


The caveat
: Summit attempts have increased assiduously, tracking overall park visitation. In 2017 alone, Rocky saw 4 million tourists–that’s a 40% uptick since 2014. According to Patterson, around 10,000 hikers hit the summit in 2002. Those numbers are based on a research project undertaken from May through October of that year. Successful summits have likely increased in the following two decades. But fatalities haven’t skyrocketed. If incidences tracked overall attempts, Longs would be on the short-list for the world’s deadliest mountain. The executive editor of the American Alpine Club Dougald MacDonald suggests that “visitation has roughly doubled in the last fifty years,” but, coincidingly, “there certainly has not been an enormous surge in fatalities”. The most remarkable characteristic of recent fatality reports is their scantiness, given the crescive swell of summit-seekers.

Given the increasing number of attempts and steady overall incident count, the rate of fatal accidents has actually decreased.

What might be heralded as a triumph of public safety is often diluted by headlines corroborating Longs deadly legacy. Bernard Gillett, local climber and guidebook writer, remarks that “Accounts of deaths in the media are sensationalized; that’s what sells newspapers and increases advertising revenue”. This past year’s fatality reports contributed to the sentiment of increasing peril, with four highly publicized search-and-rescue operations carried out by the park service in the Longs Peak area. This task force, working tirelessly behind-the-scenes to keep visitors safe, is most visible during times of crisis.

Patterson says that the Longs Peak rangers rely on the current infrastructure to limit crowding on Longs. “Due to the size of the parking lot at the Longs Peak Trailhead as well as spillover parking on the County Road, parking is limited,” she reports. The lot is at capacity most days mid-July through early September. “Compared to ten years ago, there are more weekdays now that the parking lot is full, so overall attempts have likely increased,” she continues. But parking space hasn’t expanded in a decade, enforcing some semblance of carrying capacity. For now, that’s the slyest ace up the forest-green sleeves of the Park Service.

Rocky Mountain National Park personnel implemented an interdivisional task force in the Longs Peak area in 2011 to address the still-daunting crowds who do find parking. They’ve orchestrated a robust safety outreach program, both online and on-site. They added a signpost in the Boulderfield, 1.5 miles from the summit, to warn hikers of the perils ahead. “We also are concerned with the increase of social media, websites, and “trip planning” sites that highlight experiences and photographs, but often do not provide accurate information or safety messages and very little context as to overall preparedness,” Patterson disclosed.

Close-up of the Keyhole Route sign in the Boulderfield. Photo provided by Kyle Patterson.

More tourism is a boon to local business, but city-sponsored events may attract summit-seekers who underestimate the extreme mountain environment.

Safety on Longs Peak may be a feather in the felt caps of the Park Service, but overcrowding in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is a pressing concern. The annual 4 million that tromp the trails bring in big revenue, at the cost of congestion and crowding. “RMNP benefits from the increase in the number of visitors,” Gillett opines. “[They] get to keep 80% of the revenue generated from the park entrance fees, with the rest distributed to lesser-visited parks in the National Park System.” To the city of Estes Park, which functions as the gateway to RMNP, more tourism is a boon to local business. Park-goers buttress the economy, and as such, “[they’ve] got a huge incentive to bring as many people to the Park as they can,”. Gillett says that in the past 40 years, he’s noticed an uptick in city-sponsored events catered to out-of-towners. “It used to be that the town got pretty quiet once summer was over and everyone went back to school.  But now there’s an event every weekend in September, and its spilt over into October and even the middle of winter.” Now, even in the winter months when average daytime highs are a brisk 25°, the Longs Peak Trail sees a respectable stream of snowshoers. The winter warriors and summer hordes are good business, but the exposure may attract summit-seekers who are, in Patterson’s words, “unprepared for the conditions on Longs Peak and underestimate extreme mountain environments”.

Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The “Longs Peak Superhighway” of headlamp-clad hikers huffing upward in the predawn darkness of most summer mornings is both spectacle and scourge. Trail traffic, remarkably congruous to car congestion on popular Trail Ridge Road, is an inevitability of a Park as popular as Rocky. Longs is and will continue to be one of Colorado’s most popular 14ers; those vying for solitude on the northern giant can try their hand at one of the less popular routes, which see just a fraction of the traffic as the classic Keyhole route and offer sustained, exposed scrambling. Whatever the route, diligent preparation and smart decision-making are mandatory to safely enjoy the legendary Longs Peak.

The Diamond face of Longs. Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

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