Day 1 and Already Have a Poop Story: Colorado Trail Re-Attempt

August 12, 2023 – Day 1 (?)

Day 1 dawns bright and early. I wake up filled with apprehension and what feels almost like dread. I feel tingly and I’m not sure if it is the anticipation or the Diamox. (Diamox, or acetazolamide, is a medication to help prevent acute mountain sickness – tingly fingers is a common side effect.)

I turn to my husband, Alex, and say, honestly, “I don’t remember why I want to do this.”

There is so much to anticipate and I can’t shake the anxiety of it all as we pack up and drive the hour to the trailhead at Cottonwood Pass. About halfway there, I start to leave the fog of my worry and notice what is happening outside the rental car: rain. I live in Seattle, so I am quite used to rain, but the Coloradan in me is disoriented by morning rain in Colorado. Summer in Colorado means afternoon storms, and morning storms are unusual.

By the time we get to the trailhead, it is fully pouring. We check the weather reports, and find it is supposed to rain all day. Collegiate West segment 3, where I am returning to trail, is almost entirely above treeline. Right now, it is just raining, but the forecast indicates that this could become a thunderstorm at any point. The last place I want to be when lightning shows up is above treeline. It’s pretty clear that I am not starting today.

I am very grateful that I have the flexibility to postpone by one day. We quickly reschedule travel plans, book a night in Buena Vista, and then try to figure out what to do with our bonus day in the Colorado mountains. It turns into a good bonus prep day. But the best part is what happens to my nearly paralyzing apprehension. The sudden fear of losing the hike, and needing to reschedule the start – even by just a day – allows me to be excited that it still is happening. I am still hiking. I am still following my dream, and I feel even more ready.

The author stands next to the Cottonwood Pass sign at the start of her hike.

The start! Blue skies – much better.

August 13, 2023 – Day 1 Take 2

We arrive at the trailhead for the Collegiate West segment 3, at Cottonwood Pass, around 8 am. Things look much better. Blue skies, clear views, and a more promising weather report that thunderstorms will stick to their normal afternoon time slot. I’m planning a shorter day to ease into the hike and hope to be to camp before the forecasted storms arrive.

What a stunningly beautiful place to start. Alex hikes with me for a mile to the first high point at 12,500 ft elevation. I feel positive but anxious; there is so much trail in front of me and so little I can predict. It’s now up to my body, the trail, and the famously unpredictable Colorado weather. I decide to take it one climb at a time, one day at a time.

Alex and I have an emotional goodbye and he returns to the rental car as I embark on the journey to complete what I started. Miles and miles of trail await, so all I can do is start walking.

Alex and I at our goodbye spot, 1 mile from Cottonwood Pass.

On My Own Again

I am overwhelmed by emotion as I hike away from Alex, looking back often until I can no longer see where we parted. A longer and higher climb is just ahead, so I try to refocus on the task at hand. Ordinarily, I am steady and consistent climber. I am not fast, but I stick with it and rarely take breaks. But I quickly realize that is not the case here above 12,000 feet. I am trying not to push myself but do notice I need to take more frequent pauses to catch my breath. I don’t think too much about it as I crest the climb and stop for a snack.

The next climb is much longer and even higher – it goes to 12,700 – so I enjoy my break and watch the clouds starting to form the coming afternoon storm. The clouds don’t worry me yet because it is still early, but I start on the next climb.

Lost Lake from above in CW3. The CT Databook says you can camp here, but it is quite a ways off trail.

Altitude Blues

As I start this much longer and harder climb, I find myself getting into my hiking groove. I’m smiling at the marmots and pikas while enjoying the wide open vistas and the ability to see the trail ahead for miles.

But then the climbs steepens. I feel so slow, as though someone tied weights to my ankles. I find I am physically unable to go any faster than a molasses speed uphill and even so, need to stop at every switchback to gasp for air. Challenging myself, I try to make it two switchbacks before I stop. Nope.

I can see the top, but it feels so far. The clouds are gathering and start to take on their darker, stormier appearance. I feel so frustrated, wanting to outrun the clouds over this high pass and being completely unable to move any faster. I find tears of frustration and fear springing to my eyes, but slowly, I make it. The climb levels out, the storm clouds are still a ways off, and I know I can go much faster downhill.

The First Camp

With the forecasted storms and anticipating a hard first day, I tentatively planned to camp early. Knowing I won’t be able to hike over yet another pass before the storms arrive, I am grateful for this plan. I round a bend in the trail and there is a beautiful flat outcropping with space for plenty of tents. It’s only 1:30 pm, but I set up camp. The instant the tent is up, the storm arrives – perfect timing.

Dramatic tent shot taken just before it started pouring.

I hide, cozy and dry in my tent, and hope other hikers are safe in this precarious segment. Just as the thunderstorm passes, I hear voices on the trail and peek my head out.

“Do you know if there’s other camping nearby?” It’s a father/son duo hiking the Collegiate Loop, and I invite them to take one of the many spots here. We eat dinner together overlooking the valley, and I learn that the father is close friends with the woman I hiked with on my very last day on trail last year. Lisa was a true angel that day, and got me through a confusing talus field, two difficult stream crossings, and my emotional decision to leave. It feels like a good omen that she is connected to me on this first day of my return.

Moose Poop

After dinner, I find a private copse of trees to dig a cat hole. The copse is on the edge of the outcropping, before a steep slope to the river valley below, so it provides a lovely view. I busy myself digging (Colorado is notoriously difficult for this task), and as I turn around, I realize I am being watched. In the river valley below, maybe 50 feet down the slope, is a bull moose with eyes locked on me.

I saw a mother and baby moose last year on trail, but this is the first bull moose I have seen. I try to remember what I know about moose: bad eyesight, unpredictable, charge when threatened. Assuming he was triggered by movement, I freeze. If he charges, I’m pretty limited in my ability to react with my pants around my ankles.

He stares for an uncomfortably long 30 seconds before finally turning away. I breathe out the air I was holding, and subsequently set a personal speed record for cleaning myself up and filling in the hole. I slowly creep away and laugh to myself. The first time I see a bull moose, and it was mid-poop. Amazing. I don’t know what a day 1 like this means, but I feel like it is an auspicious start.

Hiking off on my own at the beginning of the segment


Day 1 Stats

7.3 trail miles hiked
1750 gain/1950 descent
Campsite elevation: 11,800
7.3 miles into Collegiate West Segment 3
226.6 total CT miles hiked

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