Jenn Fields
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To learn more about the Front Ranger Barefoot Hiking Group and get details on their next hike on January 21, go to meetup.com/Front-Range-Barefoot-Hiking/ .

When Sonnet Baker showed up at the bottom of Mount Kilimanjaro ready to hike up the mountain barefoot, her guides had doubts.

"They didn't think I was going to be able to do it, and they were not really welcoming it," said Baker, of Boulder.

When she booked the trip to the 19,336-foot mountain -- Africa's highest peak -- last year, she checked with her travel agent, Robin Paschall, owner of Boulder's Adventures Within Reach, to make sure she'd be able to attempt the mountain barefoot.

Paschall said sure, even though no one had ever made a request like that before. When asked whether the guides would've thought it crazy to try to climb Kili barefoot, Paschall said, "I think they think just about everyone climbing the mountain is quite crazy."

But Baker didn't think it was crazy.

"Longs Peak is a hell of a lot harder than Kilimanjaro, so I knew I could do it," she said.

Baker's barefoot ascent was a bit loftier than most, but local barefooters say that hiking without shoes is growing in popularity on the heels of the barefoot running boom.

Barefoot and minimalist hiking is becoming a big deal, says Steven Sashen, founder of Invisible Shoes, which makes light Vibram-soled sandals -- minimalist footwear -- for nearly-barefoot running and walking.

"I get testimonials and pictures from people showing me pictures of them on top of some mountain somewhere," Sashen said.

"We had some guys do the Appalachian Trail in our (shoes)," he said. "People are really getting into this barefoot, natural, minimalist thing."

Mary Hartman, the founder of the Front Range Barefoot Hiking Meetup group said she started barefoot hiking after trying it for running.

"I started barefoot running a while ago," Hartman said. "I had shin splints and a few other problems. I was training for a marathon at the time, and I had some back pain. I thought barefoot running would be a change."

It was a change. Though she didn't run the marathon, she kept going barefoot -- while walking and eventually, hiking.

Hartman's partner in organizing the barefoot hiking group is Kriste Brushaber, a movement practitioner who was one of the first people to join the group.

Brushaber was already spending a lot of her day barefoot -- she's barefoot when she works with clients and at home, and since she enjoyed hiking, she thought, why not try it?

Brushaber said their group has grown -- they recently surpassed 100 members, she said.

"I think what's grabbing people's attention now is the running thing, because running is so prolific in our society," she said. "But when people start to explore that, you have to look at, well, what about the rest of my day?"

The group hikes year-round and has members from Aurora to Boulder -- but the group's favorite trailhead is Chautauqua, Brushaber said.

"Chautauqua is the greatest," Hartman said. "There's so many textures to experience."

Hartman explained that one of the things she enjoys about being barefoot -- and what she calls the "barefoot lifestyle" -- is that you get to feel with your feet.

"It's more just choosing not to wear shoes because you're more comfortable without them," Hartman said. "You get used to feeling the world around you, and it's almost an addicting feeling."

Hartman likens wearing shoes to wearing gloves all the time. With shoes, she said, "you get disconnected. It's closing off one of the senses to the world."

"When you can feel the ground, it's a whole different thing," said Sashen, of Invisible Shoes. I've gotten to the point where wearing actual shoes feels, I just feel like I'm off balance."

"I've only worn real shoes in the last two years four times, and two of those were for shoveling snow," he added.

Cold Feet

On Kilimanjaro, Baker encountered cold temps and ground underfoot.

"From base camp from the top was all ice," she said.

"It was hard, it was very challenging mentally to take the steps, worry about my feet," she said.

When it rained overnight and she awoke to ice the next morning, Baker was worried that she'd made it that far barefoot but would have to wear shoes the rest of the way. She donned boots as she walked out of camp but then thought better of it.

"We were within two minutes of the ranger station, and I said, I just can't do this with my boots on, I know I can do it without," she said.

She dashed back to swap her boots for cycling booties, which only covered the tops of her feet.

"It was so amazing, the whole way up, my heart was just shooting fire through to my feet," she said. "It was warming my feet, because my spirits were high, I was so excited."

On the ice, she'd stop every 10 minutes or so to warm her feet, then continue. She thinks it was about zero degrees out there on summit day.

"We all started out in jackets and snowpants and all that stuff," Baker said. "It was rainy, misty, the whole way up, and foggy the whole way."

Brushaber said that here in Colorado, she has done some hiking in snow, but she cautioned that it's not for everyone, and that it's not a good idea to start off with that if you haven't done any barefoot hiking, running or walking.

"We bring shoes with us in case we feel things are too challenging or too icy," she said of the group's winter hikes. "You have to let your body adapt, just like anything else."

"I'm kind of a cold wimp, too, so I had to work on it," she said with a laugh. "But after I got used to being out in cold temps with my feet, it's not that big of a deal any more."

There are plenty of other conditions barefoot hikers encounter beyond cold. Hartman confessed a love for hiking in mud. And both women said they got a lot of joy out of scrambling barefoot.

"Scrambling is really fun, because your feet just turn into gecko feet," Brushaber said.

"It's a very down to earth, natural way of scrambling," Hartman said.

Bare Summit

On the summit of Kilimanjaro, some of the guides told Baker they'd seen an Italian man hike it barefoot, but they thought she was the first woman to do it.

For Baker, it was a long way to come from the running injury years ago that left her wearing nothing but flip-flops, then not even those. As to what her next adventure will be, she's already thought about it.

"I'm going to ride my bike to South America," she said.

She's not sure whether she'll wear shoes for that journey. But she's considering it.

"I read about these three guys who rode from Canada to the Andes," she said. "They were riding on little paths through the mountain tops, and one of them went barefoot the whole way."