Echo Mountain Park was a busy place last Saturday. Outdoor enthusiasts came from miles around to hazard its plunging slopes and partake of its sweeping vistas.
In place of skis, they wore hiking shoes. Breezy T-shirts replaced bulky jackets. Sweat-soaked bandanas substituted for woolen caps. It's August, after all, and snow is scarce on Squaw Pass Road. So what brought those summer sojourners to Clear Creek County's newest winter playground? It was the mountain area's inaugural Climb to Conquer Cancer, an uplifting experience in more ways than one.
"It's our first time up here, so we'll be happy if we make one dollar and get the word out about the event," said American Cancer Society volunteer Nathan Vahling. "They've been doing this in Golden for a couple years, at least, and so far we're really pleased with the turnout."
Judy Simpson and her grandson, 9-year-old Torin Hayslip, turned out all the way from Greeley. Judy's worked with the local cancer society in the past and thought Echo Mountain would be a fine way to introduce Torin to the concept of philanthropy. She was right.
"It's really cool," said Torin, who must be forgiven for taking more interest in the park's immense and idle snow-grooming equipment than in fighting an unseen and -- at his age -- unfathomable disease.
It took Vahling and fellow cancer society volunteer Susie Battler about six months to arrange Saturday's hiking party, a big job managed only with a lot of help from Echo Mountain. As the park's indoor operations manager, Julie Teach saw the event as a chance to put a stunning location to useful work between snowfalls.
"We wanted to explore different summer options," Teach said. "We have perfect trails for hiking, and what better way is there to use them than for this?"
Indeed, the trails were perfect, but in a surprising and adventuresome way. With just one full season of winter behind it, Echo Mountain's slopes are a work in progress and feature no trails in the traditional sense. Instead, park employees charted tracks using only the terrain's natural excellence, their imaginations and strips of pink ribbon.
"The advanced trail goes up across Squaw Pass Road and connects with the Chief Mountain trail," explained Andrew Bradberry, who works ski patrol in season but didn't seem to mind coming back to the office on a perfect summer weekend. "The beginner trail just follows the service road down to the bottom, and they can take the chairlift back up."
Perhaps because most people generally fall into that category, anyway, most of Saturday's trekkers opted for the intermediate route. Well marked, but not a trail in any traditional sense, that path tripped easily down the mountainside through dense fir groves and over a supple carpet of fragrant needles, thick mats of moss and grapefruit-size toadstools, finally joining the area's central ski slope about 300 vertical feet from the bottom.
"I used to come up here in high school when it was the Squaw Pass Ski Area," said Mary Gallagher. A Golden resident, Gallagher shunned the welcoming chairlift, preferring to travel both directions under her own steam. "It's cool to see it without the snow."
Stripped of its 300-inch winter-white mantle, the steep hillside becomes a fantastic lunar landscape of soil and gravel and fist-size rocks plummeting into the void. Add to that a spectacular view of Indian Peaks to the north and some contemporary music drifting gently down from the lift towers, and Climbing to Conquer Cancer could become a very agreeable habit.
"I think I might do the Lookout Mountain climb next weekend," said Gallagher. "This is nice."
Stepping up to support a good cause -- no matter how much fun it happens to be -- deserves thanks. On Saturday, thanks were Clear-Creek-blue T-shirts and at least 4 yards of mouthwatering submarine sandwich from Fontano's of Lakewood. Some accepted their edible thanks in Echo Mountain's comfortable lunchroom, while others preferred to take it on the patio and wash it down with hearty draughts of fresh air and sunshine. All looked well-pleased with their day's outing.
On top of the requested $35 donation each hiker supplied, many thought to line up sponsors before the fact. All told, the day may net more than $3,000 to support the American Cancer Society's good works. That's a lot more than a dollar, and bodes well for next year's mountain-style Climb to Conquer Cancer.
"For our first time out, the response has been great," Vahling said. "Cancer affects every one of us, and we couldn't have picked a better place to raise awareness in the mountain area."
To learn more about the Climb to Conquer Cancer and other American Cancer Society events, visit www.acsevents.org.
Contact staff writer Stephen Knapp at stephen@evergreenco .com or 720-261-1665.