Fear Won’t End My Hike | Colorado Trail Thru-Hike, Part 7
After my fall down the mountain, I headed home from the tiny town of St. Elmo in defeat, rattled by fear and adrenaline. For 3 ½ hours in the car, I waffled between silent disbelief that I quit and urgently trying to explain all the details of what happened to Andy.
I was severely shaken and my fear must have been palpable. Andy didn’t say much, other than to reassure me that I was OK. While I believed my thru-hike attempt was over, I think that he wasn’t so sure. Andy knew how badly I wanted this and that I could be tenacious in my pursuit of a goal.
The next morning, Andy went off to work leaving me home alone to contemplate the events of the day before. I called my family and updated them on where I was and why. Everyone agreed I was right to get off the trail, and that hiking the Colorado Trail solo – especially the Collegiate West – wasn’t safe for me at the moment.
“Finishing a thru-hike wasn’t worth my life,” I said to a chorus of relieved family members.
But oh, how I wanted to finish!
I thought about what happened and how scared I was in that moment. Looking back on the cornice at Lake Ann Pass and my death-defying climb above Cottonwood Pass, I knew I had taken some risks.
If I had fallen in either of those places, the outcome could have been a lot worse than my fall down the snow bank.
“What if” can really get in your head and erode your confidence, and mine was destroyed. But I didn’t want to let fear defeat me. It never did when I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, so why should it now?
Thoughts of a return to the trail washed away my despair at having quit so suddenly. I was determined that fear would not end my Colorado Trail adventure. Was there a way to make it work and still be safe? I wasn’t sure, and I was concerned that my family, who were so happy I had made it home unscathed would not support me if I wanted to go back.
Friends to the Rescue
The universe must have sent a message to my hiking friends. Before I’d been home 24 hours I was fielding messages from hikers I’d met earlier on the trail. They had no idea what had happened, but for some reason, they all decided to check in the same day!
I shared my news: I fell. I went home. I might be done, but I’d really like to go back.
Some of my friends were already home themselves, having only planned to do a section of the Colorado Trail this year. They were supportive and encouraging. Then Gunslinger reached out.
We first met in Bailey, then enjoyed seeing each other in Leadville. We even slack-packed around Mount Massive together and had a great time. The next day when we hit the trail bound for Lake City, Gunslinger was starting the Collegiate East while I went West. We parted ways, not knowing if we’d bump into each other further down the trail.
Making a Plan
Like me, Gunslinger was feeling the loneliness of hiking solo. She, and many others I spoke with on the trail, wondered, “Where is everyone?” We all found we were not seeing as many hikers as we expected. The trail seemed too quiet.
“You could meet me after the Collegiates, and we could hike together for a while,” Gunslinger suggested. Bells went off in my head. What a perfect solution!
When Andy returned home from work that day, I told him of my plans. I updated my family, reassuring them I had someone to hike with, and I’d feel much safer.
A few days later I was back on the trail. I would be hiking solo for a few days, but I was OK with that. Gunslinger and I were in touch as we coordinated our schedules, and it felt good to have a friend on the trail to watch my back, even if we hadn’t met up yet.
I finished the Collegiate West and was thrilled when I passed the point where East and West converge a few miles after Monarch Pass. The terrain was more favorable and the views were amazing. I was seeing more day hikers – as well as mountain bikers and even dirt bikes – so I didn’t feel so alone.
Triple Trail Magic
I passed Gunnison but didn’t stop, although I enjoyed a morning of trail magic while I dried wet gear at the trailhead. In fact, I got trail magic three times that day! First from a couple who set up shop in their pickup at the trailhead, then from an older hiker named John. Although he was 20 years my senior, we shared a great conversation about being older hikers as I rested heading up a long hill, and he took a break heading down.
At the end of the day, I was about to search out a suspicious water source when another couple came roaring down the trail in an ATV. Startled, I jumped off the trail hoping I wouldn’t be mowed down.
They stopped as well, asking if I needed any water. “Sure,” I replied gratefully. They filled both my bottles and then offered me snacks and some butterscotch candies. I gladly accepted.
When I found the water source I would have used, I was even more grateful. It was a sad dribble, more like a mud puddle than a stream. The clean fresh water they gave me tasted divine.
A Little Less Lonely
That night I camped alone at a large campsite. I had seen some other hikers along the trail that day and thought some of them might stop, but they didn’t.
I was up early in the morning and passed them, still in camp, as I hiked through beautiful, quiet meadows bathed in golden sunlight. We made official introductions and compared notes on possible water sources. The Data Book listed several possible stops but comments on the Far Out app showed that decent water was scarce.
This was cow-patty land and cattle fouled many of the water sources. I reached a spring – or at least, a location where there was supposed to be a spring – and dropped my pack to start searching. I found water with cow patties dropped right in the middle, but no spring coming fresh from the earth.
The hikers I met earlier arrived and we all traipsed around, but none of us found the spring. In desperation, I filled my bottles with “water of last resort” hoping I’d find a better source before I needed to drink it. (I always carry purification tablets as a secondary measure for questionable water after filtering.)
A few miles ahead we converged again on the bank of a crystal clear creek. The other hikers were much younger and faster than me. By the time I arrived, they had already done trail laundry and were enjoying lunch. I did the same. When dug into my food bag I remembered I’d been carrying some packets of Gushers that I really didn’t like.
“Does anyone like Gushers,” I asked and they all perked up. “Take them” I offered, and lightened my load just a tad.
My Longest Day
I hiked on, pushing to reach my goal of 18 miles that day. Gunslinger and I were to meet in Lake City in a few days, and if I could get there on time I could enjoy the Sunday night “Hiker Feed” the community hosts each week. I had a plan for how many miles I needed to hike each day to make that happen.
It was a long day, my longest on the trail so far. Buoyed by the camaraderie of my new friends (who had long since passed me) I stuck to my goal and rolled into camp at about 6:30 p.m. It was a Friday night and I was anxious that the trailhead would be full of noisy car campers, but it wasn’t.
Fear Won’t Win
There were just two people there when I arrived. One was a thru-hiker and the other was camping so he could get an early start on a nearby Fourteener in the morning. We sat and chatted for a while as the sun dipped below the mountains. It surprised me to learn that the younger hiker – she was probably 30 years my junior – was grappling with the same kind of negative self-talk that undermined my own confidence.
She felt unworthy as if she wasn’t fit enough or fast enough to do this hike. (She absolutely was!) That was eye-opening. We agreed that hiking alone for too long can mess with your head. When you are hiking solo, there’s no one to help you snap out of it when your mind wanders to dark places.
The mountaineer chimed in, chastising me for my lack of self-confidence. “You’re selling yourself short,” he said. “How many people have even attempted what you’re doing?” he asked. So many people dream of getting out and hiking the Colorado Trial, but there’s a difference between dreamers and doers. “You’re doing it,” he continued, “and you should be proud of yourself.”
“True,” I thought. I am doing it, and fear isn’t going to win. It’s time to stop beating myself up and celebrate the fact that I came back when I could easily have stayed home.
“I’ll finish this trail,” I promised myself.
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