High Altitude Blues: Colorado Trail Days 2-3

Day 2 – August 14

I wake on Day 2 to damp walls inside my tent. This is my first big trip with a single-walled tent (Durston X-Mid Pro 2P). While I was prepared for some condensation, this is more than I expected. The river valley below (where my moose friend was last night) must be the source of the moisture. I wipe it off the best I can and start packing up.

I say goodbye to the father/son duo, who are hiking northbound, and head out. The day starts with a slow climb at the edge of tree line for a couple miles before my first real climb of the day and I enjoy taking in the views. Sinking fog fills the valley as the rising sun works to burn it off. It is stunning.

Fog in the valley between mountains as seen from Collegiate West Segment 3

Climbing Is A Struggle

Then I begin my first climb of the day, and once again, hiking uphill is a struggle. I generally prefer to hike as efficiently as I can and minimize stopping/restarting. That is simply not an option at this altitude. I have to stop frequently to try to catch my breath. I do the best I can and take a snack break at the top.

From the pass, I can see the next, steeper climb. The benefit and curse of being above the trees is the ability to see the switchbacks that await you. I distract myself by marveling at the work the trail builders did here. Much of this trail is built through talus and scree fields and it is impressive work. I remind myself not to take it for granted – I chose this; I can do this.

I wanted to channel this sunning marmot.

It is easy to forget these positive words as the next climb starts switchbacking much more steeply. I see a marmot lazing on a boulder and feel envious. A descending hiker passes me and, in a classic downhill-hiker fashion, informs me the climb won’t be that bad, as much of it is stairs. Uh oh. That means it is steep. This climb is harder and I find myself getting frustrated again.

“This isn’t fun,” I say out loud at yet another switchback as I gasp for air. But finally, I make it to the top, enjoy a snack, and take in the view.

Collegiate West Segment 4

The most challenging parts of CW3 are finally behind me. The trail winds below a ridge line and navigates some scree before the big descent from Tincup Pass, and I feel a surge of positivity. I am in the trees again! The tread of the trail is lovely and I make up some time on the descent, enjoying the last views of CW3.

After a lunch break and filtering water, I start up the next climb. Another solo woman hiker, HR, hikes with me for a bit. I warn her that I’m not acclimated and am very slow uphill at this altitude, but she says she wants to go slow for a bit. It only takes a couple of miles before she passes me and forges ahead, but I am relieved. I can feel my energy waning from the effort of hiking with someone who already has their trail legs.

I pushed myself too much for day 2 at this altitude. There is one more hard climb left and the clouds are starting to darken overhead. Once again, I feel like imaginary weights are around my ankles. I find myself stopping for breath just 20 steps from the top. My eyes are on the clouds as I focus on my breathing. It feels like breathing is getting harder, rather than easier, but I chalk that up to being tired. I am sure I will acclimate soon.

Finally – finally – I crest the pass to see skies clearing. The clouds were just a warning, today. I make it another mile to the Alpine Tunnel trail to find HR setting up camp with another hiker, Scott. Shortly, hiker Stormpitch joins us. The ground is lumpy, but the views are incredible. I feel relieved and exhausted and hope that I start to find my trail legs and lungs tomorrow.

Campsite near the Alpine Tunnel in Collegiate West Segment 4

The site of the old alpine train tunnel, a short distance from our campsite.

Day 3 – August 15

I awaken to elk bugling in the river valley far below us. It’s a beautiful sound and one I didn’t expect to hear in August. This time, my tent not only is full of condensation but also has frost on the inside. I am grateful for my 10 degree quilt that kept me cozy all night.

The trail today starts on a railroad grade with a gradual descent. There are old railroad ties still visible, along with recent ATV tracks. It is an interesting juxtaposition.

Old railroad ties visible on the Alpine Tunnel trail in Collegiate West Segment 4

What an enjoyable hike it is for a few miles! We are led by a ptarmigan for a while on trail, run into a volunteer ranger who gives us trail intel, and are treated to views and wildflowers. Then we hit a split in the trail. We almost walk right past the sign, but I double check FarOut and realize we take the tiny steep trail uphill. HR quickly passes me and I am on my own on the trail.

High Altitude Truths

I am hiking through classic moose territory, so I am more on edge than usual. I am loud and approaching blind corners cautiously. But more importantly, I am even slower than the day before on this gradual climb. My lungs actually feel sore as I stop and try to catch my breath. I stop more often. Most concerning, I have a new symptom: nausea. I stop to dry-heave on the side of the trail more than once.

Now I get worried. As I’m thinking through what this new symptom means, I trip on my own trekking pole and fall face-first onto the trail. My head stops 1 inch from a rock, and I feel rattled. I stop and sit on the trail, sobbing. I could have been really hurt from that fall, and confusion and brain fog are another symptom of altitude issues. That could have led to the fall. I also started coughing yesterday, and the coughing increases substantially when I climb. I’m coughing so hard I can’t tell if that is what is making me dry-heave, or if that is a separate symptom.

Either way, I suspect that I am dealing with what could be early symptoms of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). HAPE is a serious altitude illness and one that could completely halt my hike or worse. My symptoms are increasing, and I’m still ascending. I need to make a change.

Changing Course

I make it up the last climb of Collegiate West 4, up and over Chalk Creek Pass. The symptoms remain and I find myself gasping for air at every switchback and multiple points in between.

Looking back at Hancock Lakes from the top of Chalk Creek Pass

I had been planning to camp at Hunt Lake with HR and StormPitch a couple miles into the next segment. The first several miles of Collegiate West Segment 5 are a substantial climb that is longer than any climb I’ve done since I started at CW3. I know in my gut that attempting that climb with my current symptoms would be a mistake. I want to finish this hike strong, not leave on day 4 in a helicopter.

My decision is to hike to the Butterfly Hostel in Garfield. It’s about 1.5 miles on a Jeep road from the end of the segment, and is significantly lower in elevation. From there, I will arrange a ride to the Monarch Crest store in the morning, thus skipping 10 miles of CW5.

It is almost an epiphany. Yes, I’m skipping miles, and don’t know when/if I will complete them. But if I didn’t skip these miles, I may not be able to continue at all unless I took a substantial break. I feel free, not being bound to exact miles but rather to the journey itself. This is my journey, and right now, these specific miles don’t fit.

The Trail Provides

I hike to the end of the Segment with HR and StormPitch. As we say our goodbyes, a couple of day hikers show up at the trailhead and ask us if we are thru-hikers. Turns out Jen (one of the day hikers) hiked it last year. She and her husband walk me to the 1.5 miles to the road, telling me their stories and journeys. I was feeling discouraged, but their positive energy changes me. They offer me a ride to the hostel, but it is only .2 miles down the road, so I say my goodbyes.

Once at the hostel, I busy myself showering and doing laundry. Scott, who camped with us last night, is also staying there tonight. We make dinner, put up our feet, and the hostel caretaker offers me a ride to Monarch Crest in the morning. It feels very clear to me that this was the right decision.

My plan from here changes: climb high, sleep low. Sleep below 11,000 feet every night – lower, if possible. This won’t be an option when I get to the San Juan Mountains, but as that is over a week away, I am hopeful that my lungs will recover and acclimate by then. The only way to know is to just keep hiking.

The state flower of Colorado, a columbine, from early in the day on day 3

Daily Stats

Day 2

Trail miles hiked: 14
3245 gain/3570 descent
Campsite elevation: 11581
5.4 miles into Collegiate West 4
240.6 trail miles from Denver

Day 3

Trail miles hiked: 11.4 (+2 miles to hostel)
1445 gain/3324 descent
Hostel elevation: 9400
End of Collegiate West 4
252 trail miles from Denver (over halfway!)

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Comments 2

  • Michael P.Burke : Sep 22nd

    Just listen to your body. You will be fine. Good luck!

    • Ruth : Sep 22nd

      Thank you!


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