Ranger offers tips for backcountry hiking

Lisa Foster, a Rocky Mountain National Park ranger, has scaled Longs Peak in every month of the year. Enlarge photo

Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post

Lisa Foster, a Rocky Mountain National Park ranger, has scaled Longs Peak in every month of the year.

ESTES PARK (AP) – Many hikers put away their boots when the aspen shiver bare-branched and the snowfall starts shifting from a dusting to something measurable.

Not Lisa Foster.

Tall, with a chiseled face and a lean, angular body, Foster lives by her version of the Swedish axiom, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

She has climbed Longs Peak 49 times, by 15 different routes, including two technical routes up the face of the Diamond. Last winter, when she stood on Longs’ summit on Dec. 8, she set a new standard by becoming the first woman to reach its summit in every month of the year.

Not that she’s recommending monthly ascents of 14,000-foot mountains for everyone.

“There are so many trails you can do that are more fun in the park,” she says, meaning Rocky Mountain National Park, which has been her workplace and second home for more than 20 years.

Foster, a National Park Service biological field technician, has hiked and climbed to every named destination in the park – every mapped mountain peak, park, pass, lake, meadow and ridge.

Her 2005 book, Rocky Mountain National Park: The Complete Hiking Guide, describes each of those destinations, with detailed information about each trail, its history and geology. She takes pride in having personally hiked and climbed every inch of the routes described in the book, a feat that can’t be claimed by all guidebook authors.

Foster pushes herself beyond limits that she doesn’t recommend to her readers.

While she researched the hiking guide, she came down with pneumonia and viral bronchitis, an excellent reason to take a break in August and September, especially given the unusual weather that featured more rain than sun. But she pressed on, eager to complete all the destinations on the west side of the park before Trail Ridge Road closed for the season.

That determination, and her singular passion for Longs Peak, were what prompted Foster to set the goal of summiting the 14,259-foot mountain in every month of the year.

Her first ascent of Longs was on July 24, 1987.

“I was lucky because I had no idea what I was doing,” she said. “I had good weather, and I just fell in love with the mountain.”

But falling in love with the mountain means maintaining respect for its power, she said. Longs Peak is famous for its changeable weather. Bringing the right clothing and gear can mean the difference between a successful climb and an accident, and that goes for lower trails, as well.

“This time of year, you might have summer conditions or winter conditions out there,” Foster said one cool day in late September.

“Yesterday, it was really sunny. Yesterday, Longs was not a technical climb. But last night, it snowed a lot up there. As of today, it is a technical climb,” she said. “Today would not be a day for someone who isn’t an experienced climber to try to climb Longs.”

In fact, winter ascents can be daunting even for seasoned climbers. In addition to Foster’s 49 successful ascents of Longs Peak, 23 attempts forced her to turn back, usually because of weather problems. Her successful summit last December involved what she calls “difficult conditions.”

“Low temperatures to about 10 degrees Fahrenheit, erratic winds gusting to 60 miles per hour, snowfall, decreased visibility from running ground blizzard conditions, loose three-foot-deep snowpack and climbing on poorly bonded ice,” she said. It took 16 hours, round-trip, for Foster and her climbing partners to complete the trip.

“The steepest part of the route, nearly vertical, required ice axes, crampons, ropes and other technical climbing gear. It was a brutal weather day. It was so windy, we couldn’t see without our goggles, and they kept fogging up.

“On the rappel, we were in the dark, battling stinging snow and ice blasting in our faces. I have no idea what the high temp was, but it couldn’t have been much higher than the low. I wore all the clothing I own for cold-weather ascents. My two partners got mild frostbite on their feet, and one of them had numb hands for weeks afterward. I got frostnip on my toes. It was cold.”

After that, many people might cross Longs Peak permanently off their to-do list. Not Foster.

“Nope,” she said. “I love it. I just like to admire the mountain. It’s a very regal peak. It has so many personalities – different routes, different seasons, different times in my life. It’s a mountain of contrasts, and a mountain of beauty.”