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Mountain Goats senior hiking group stands test of time

Chip Babbit of the Mountain Goats Summit County senior hiking group traverses a ridge above treeline.
Courtesy Jeffrey Johnson

DILLON — After the deep 2018-19 winter, the summer hiking season was affected by tons of lingering snowmelt. Jamie Lewis and the Mountain Goats senior hiking group saw this firsthand during a summer hike of Atlantic Peak in the Tenmile-Mosquito Range.

After the group chose an alternative path up the left side of Mayflower Gulch — one that required much bushwhacking and crossing big, fast snowmelt streams — the group of fit hikers attempted to traverse the narrow knife’s-edge ridge to the 13,841-foot summit of Atlantic Peak just south of Breckenridge. But the lingering snow made the route impassable, and after a 45-minute conversation atop Rocky Mountain talus, the crew decided to find another way down.

“In total, it was a seven-hour hike that exemplifies everything (about us),” said Lewis, the group’s “goat herder,” a term for hike organizer. “We stuck together, had fun with the bushwhacking, looked for a safe way to cross the streams and snowfields, scrambled and ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the risk to cross the snowfield to get to the peak.

“That is the goat’s spirit: To find new things to do,” she added. “All that different terrain all on the same hike, and to keep an eye on weather and terrain and make safety-based decisions.”

Around since 1992, the current incarnation of the Mountain Goats includes 80 people between the ages of 58 and 84 on the mailing list. But only about 20 regularly set out for the ambitious weekly Wednesday hikes in Summit County and beyond. The goats, as Lewis and assistant goat herder Jeff Johnson call themselves, specifically seek less crowded routes and alternative ways to mountain peaks, saddles and ridgelines. The goal for the goats is to find exhilarating experiences full of Alpine meadows, scree and talus scrambles that cover an average of 10 miles and often several thousand feet of elevation gain.

Considering their motivation is the furthest thing from bagging one 14er after another, the goats like to hike point-to-point or loops.

When the goats take on a point-to-point hike, Lewis said they often do so by handing off car keys to one another. If one group of goats departed from trailhead A, they’ll hike to the midpoint of the route, often at a magnificent Rocky Mountain overlook high above tree line, before swapping car keys with another group of goats coming from trailhead B in the other direction. The key swap creates an efficient way to take in the views from a Rocky Mountain ridgeline before both groups rendezvous for food and refreshments at an alternate location.

“Last year, we did that from Boreas to Hoosier Pass,” Johnson said. “… We know each other’s skill and ability and which hikes we’ve done together or not. So it’s real easy to say to so and so, ‘This hike coming up, you can do that. It’s similar to one previously you know.’ We have that knowledge about each other. And we generally don’t do hikes that are described in books.”

The goats also benefit from an almost fraternal-like element to becoming a group member. Not just anyone can become a goat. Even for Lewis, an accomplished and uber-fit competitive swimmer, joining the tribe was a bit of a question at first because she didn’t have much experience with high-consequence, high-altitude hikes. But once someone has proven themselves, they benefit from the wisdom of goat elders like Chip Babbit, Mike Uyvari, Bob Ruuhela, Sharon Siler and others.

Just this past Wednesday, Siler once again led a goat hike thanks to her quarter-century worth of experience hiking in the greater Summit County area.

“Her outdoor life experience is probably worth a book in itself,” Johnson said.

The hike brought the group members on a 90-minute drive west on Interstate 70 to a route near Sylvan Lake State Park south of Edwards. After heading 2.5 miles in on a trail, the senior hikers bushwhacked another 2 miles up to New York Peak, a remote mountain near 12,550 feet.

As the 14 hikers traversed the milelong ridge and gawked at Maroon Bells in the distance and the beautiful New York Lake down below, Johnson had yet another moment of appreciating the Rocky Mountain geology he loves getting to know on each hike.

After a career using his expertise in geology on a global scale to find possible deposit locations for ExxonMobil, the Rocky Mountains and its granite and metamorphic rocks — and the resulting rounded talus slopes the earth forms over time — are truly special to Johnson.

“What I appreciate is how big the Rocky Mountains are,” Johnson said. “Both the length and width. There’s so much. The number of peaks, the ranges — the playground is huge.”


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