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Backcountry beckons adrenaline junkies

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Silly me.

I thought vacations were for relaxing. Lie flat on the beach, let the sound of the waves lull you into stupidity. Feel the sun bake the tension away. Stare at the clouds. Find shapes in them. Eat shrimp. Drink wine. Drink more wine. I'm a simple kind of girl.

Then there are the adrenaline junkies — incomprehensible people of my age who find "fun" in going head-to-head with nature in an effort to best her. Guess who nearly always wins that one.

Meet Rob Kelly and Steve Berk, 47-year-old south Lake County guys who like pain. Kelly is a community activist/bunny-hugger who owns a small public-relations firm and has just created www.thelakeblog.com. Berk is a contractor. Mismatched by philosophy? Not necessarily so atop a mountain. Or even in the flats of Florida.

No. 3 in the group is Paul Bregoli, a 56-year-old east Lake builder of decks and handicapped ramps. He's also Jack's human. Jack is a 7-year-old silky golden retriever who does a fine imitation of the proverbial Saint Bernard on a rescue mission, despite his age of 49 in people years. The fourth fellow on this excursion was Ed Skelly, 46, an assistant attorney general from California.

50-pound backpacksTwo years ago, these same guys climbed Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states.

This time, their target was Snowmass Mountain, which at 14,092 feet is the third-highest in Colorado's Elk Range.

There's something to be said for a little renewal of the soul in crisp air, surrounded by the majesty of one of the most beautiful mountain ranges on the planet.

First, you have to get there.

The guys hiked nine miles carrying 50-pound backpacks and made a base camp at a 12,500-foot pass next to Snowmass Lake, where they stayed for five days. Few people ever see spectacular Snowmass Mountain because it isn't visible from any town or road. The mountain with its perpetual snowfield on the east side is tucked between a couple other 14,000-footers and is hidden from view.

Dogs going into the wilderness areas are supposed to be on a leash, so the crew tied a short one on Jack, who ran free and led the way up the mountain. He carried 8 pounds of water in a doggie-pack.

"He loved it!" Kelly said. "We crossed about 10 streams and rivers to get to the lake, and he got in each one and lay down and drank the water."

Back to natureAlong the way, they found a number of ponds made by beavers, and they fished for trout.

One Web site about the area described Snowmass as having "knife-edge ridges leading to the summit" and rocks that jet skyward "like spears coming out of the earth." Climbing it is a "very exposed, dangerous, long and tedious process."

Leave it to Kelly to insist on climbing to the peak.

"Everybody else was scared they were not fit enough, so I climbed the mountain solo," he said. "Babies."

And there you have a glimpse into five days with four guy egos and a dog.

So how was it getting to the top? Was it as bad as he expected?

"Yes," he said. "I was ready to fall over when I got back to base camp. I was worn out."

There, there, Rob. The boys were ready with cheese and crackers when he returned.

"They had everything but an IV," he quipped.

Kelly said the trips are a "great escape from the daily minutiae of things."

"It's a chance to get out and focus on the basics of living.... You have to keep your hygiene up because next you have to cook. You have to filter water to take out the bacteria. You have to make sure you have enough drinking water. You have to manage stove fuel so you don't run out," he said. "You have to string up the food at night so the bears don't get it."

'Incredibly clear'It is best if you string the cooler up on branches that will support its weight. Then you will not find it dangling 2 feet above the ground in the morning, a very convenient height for bear consumption.

Lest you, gentle reader, think that conditions were too harsh, your faithful columnist will share the truth about this trip: donkeys.

Kelly and his buddies paid a cowboy $85 a donkey for two of them to bring "necessities," such as two coolers containing ribeye steaks, pork chops and spaghetti, along with camp chairs and a big stove. Not to mention a couple bottles of wine for spaghetti night. Can't be without that. Ah, there's the common thread between us relaxing vacationers and the adventure hounds!

One thing they didn't trust to the cowboy: Bregoli's homemade brandy. Corked up in a wooden cask, the brandy came up on the mountain on Berk's back. He complained all day about smelling the fumes. Gee, that must have been awful.

"At night, with just a screen tent, I lay in my sleeping back looking up at 40- to 50-foot pine trees and then a galaxy of stars that are incredibly clear. Even though I live in the Green Swamp in Lake with few lights, being two miles closer to the stars makes them even brighter," Kelly said.

"I fell asleep at night to cold, crisp air looking up at the stars through the trees, hoping I wouldn't wake to a bear looking down at me."

'Whole other world'Bregoli, who lived in Colorado 17 years, enjoys it so much that he's thinking of moving back. He loves the cold. Good thing. The temperature at night was in the high 20s and low 30s, and during the day it "warmed up" to between 50 and 75 degrees.

"It's a whole other world out there," he said. "I can't put it in words. I just feel at home when I'm there."

Bregoli said his role is to watch the young guys.

If things ever go awry, he said, "I'm the one who would take care of all of them."

And Jack?

The ol' boy had a blast.

He sniffed everything and got to bark at deer that came near the campsite.

At 100 pounds, Jack hiked twice as much as anyone, Bregoli said. The dog likes to lead, but he also worried about his fellow trekkers, so he turned to trot to whoever was farther back on the trail. Just a quick doggie well-being check.

The guys want him on the next trip — which is already in the planning stages.

"He doesn't go anywhere without me," Bregoli said. "He's in good shape, just a little arthritic. But so am I."

Lauren Ritchie can be reached at 352-742-5918 or Lritchie@orlandosentinel.com. Her blog is online at OrlandoSentinel.com/ laurenonlake.

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