I Fell Down a Mountain! Colorado Trail Thru-Hike, Part 6
Dusk was gathering as I wedged my tent between willow bushes next to a creek. It wasn’t the ideal spot to camp, right next to the trail, but it would do. Having easy access to water was a welcome bonus.
My day was longer than planned because the campsites I targeted further back just didn’t materialize. I usually planned to stop at spots I found on Far Out app or in the Colorado Trail Databook, but sometimes they just didn’t exist.
Such was the case today, so I continued picking my way over the endless rock falls, praying I’d see a swath of flat, soft terrain soon. I was tired and ready to call it a night.
I hadn’t seen very many hikers all day so I was happy to see the large, gray-haired man approaching me now. He didn’t look like a thru-hiker, though. His huge pack and mountain-man clothing made him look more like a local, so maybe he had some beta to share.
“Did you see any decent campsites back there?” I asked. He informed me that a mile or so ahead a thru-hiker was setting up camp near the creek, “But it doesn’t look like a very good site,” he said, shaking his head. “Go past that and you might find something.”
When I reached the creek, the little spot where I landed beckoned. Just yards ahead was a tent in what I assumed was the not-so-great site, which actually looked fine to me. I guess through-hikers have different standards for “decent” campsites. I’ve certainly bedded down in enough not-so-great sites myself!
I quickly set up camp, made dinner, and retreated to my tent for the night. It wasn’t quite dark yet, but that didn’t matter. I was tired enough to sleep in broad daylight.
As I began to doze off, I heard a kerfuffle outside. A big group of people was moving down the trail noisily in a carefully choreographed fashion. Static burst from a radio, preceding the broken sound of voices far away, and I knew what was happening without even looking.
The hiker I passed on the trail earlier told me about an injured woman who had used her Garmin to call for help. He thought she hurt her leg or knee and couldn’t walk, so she was stranded in the rocky valley. After pressing the SOS button, she was waiting in her tent for a rescue team to come extract her.
I didn’t bother peeking out of my tent, instead, I said a little prayer for the woman and her rescuers. They wouldn’t have an easy time of it, I thought. The last few miles I hiked were steep and strewn with cascades of rocks. The terrain wouldn’t be forgiving, especially carrying an injured person uphill along some other trail to a road somewhere.
In the morning I broke camp early and began hiking uphill once again, continuing to traverse the ocean of rocks and scree that lined every slope. The valley was breathtaking, bathed in golden light that gave the boulders an otherworldly aura. It looked like a scene from a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie.
“How can this be real,” I wondered. But it was.
Soon my uphill hiking brought me to a ridge beneath Emma Burr Mountain. The trail led me down a little way, then up what might be an intense climb to another saddle.
I was looking around, contemplating which direction that trail might take when a young hiker passed me heading in the other direction. “Oh, it’s just right up there,” he said breezily, pointing to the ridge behind him.
“Whew,” I thought as I moved on to tackle the first switchback. Relief didn’t last long.
I quickly realized how steep the climb was. What I saw when I started up wasn’t even ¼ of the ascent, and soon I was begging the trail to give me a break. How many false summits could there be?
When I reached what seemed like the fourth peak (or was it the fifth?) I turned to get a photo of where I’d come from, a thousand feet below. The view had already vanished, hidden by undulations of the trail.
Gale-force winds hit me as soon as I rounded the bend to descend from 12,860’ toward the next valley. I grabbed my hat and leaned into the upslope of the narrow trail, slowing my pace. The wind let up for a minute and I continued on.
Then another, stronger gust whipped me, nearly knocking me off my feet. I stopped in my tracks, hoping I wouldn’t be blown off the mountain. This was crazy!
My descent became a start-and-stop affair as the blew hard, then abated, then burst forth again. Maybe this trail IS trying to kill me!
A trio of northbound German hikers was stopped just ahead of me, sheltered by a curve in the mountainside. They hadn’t reached the windy side of the trail yet. I paused to warn them, but I’m not sure they understood.
I carried on, alone again, and relieved to be out of the wind for a while.
As I hiked on, the trail corridor broadened and I took a minute to record my thoughts about hiking solo, and how lonely it could be for my daily YouTube video.
Then I reached yet another snowbank draped over yet another rock fall. This one was a lateral traverse with two footpaths across it, and it didn’t look bad.
“Here we go again,” I said into my camera, before starting across the upper path.
Slush and Slide
It was 11 a.m., a perfect time for crossing snow. At this hour it shouldn’t be too icy or too slushy. I crammed my feet into the impressions left by previous hikers and made sure each step was secure before shifting my weight forward and lifting the foot behind.
This was a longer traverse than most and I found several spots were softer than I would have liked. If my shoe slipped as I placed it, I’d stomp it down once, twice, until I was sure of my footing.
About ¾ of the way across, I was happy to be almost done. Then suddenly I was sliding on my stomach, the weight of my body and my pack accelerating downhill as I grasped desperately at the snow with my hands.
“OMG!!” I screamed inside my head as I realized I was falling. And just as suddenly, I stopped.
Looking around I realized that the lower footpath had stopped my fall down the mountain, preventing me from crashing into the rocks below. “Thank God.”
I sat up carefully, afraid to stand, and assessed the situation. One trekking pole was still on the trail above me, where I was crossing. The edge of the snowbank I was aiming for wasn’t far ahead, maybe 15, or 20 feet?
“I’m OK, I told myself. “I can get there.”
I shed my pack and moved it to the side, then slid my body up next to it. Again and again, I slowly shuffled sideways until I could reach the rocks and pull myself up to the trail.
“I just fell down a mountain,” I thought, thankful I wasn’t hurt.
I sat on a rock at the edge of the snowbank and looked at my lonely lost pole. Could I retrieve it? Maybe a hiker would come along and pick it up for me as they crossed.
I waited. No one came.
For 45 minutes I debated how to retrieve my trekking pole, hoping another hiker would appear. I cast a bear line with a rock, over and over, thinking maybe I could drag it back.
It didn’t work.
Three times I tried to walk out on the snow to fetch the pole, but I was too scared. “What if I fall again, and don’t stop this time?”
While my body wasn’t broken, my confidence was shattered.
“What if that had happened at Lake Ann Pass?” I wondered. Or on that “death-defying” climb to the high point after Cottonwood Pass?
I might not be dead, but I’d certainly be injured.
I texted Andy via my Garmin to tell him I had fallen down a mountain. “I might be done,” I said.
Almost an hour had passed without any other hikers in sight. I was getting cold now, and I needed to hike on. The trailhead was 2.7 miles away. Maybe I’d meet someone as I hiked down, and I could ask them to remove the trekking pole.
As I began walking, I thought more about how I had seen hardly anyone that day…and the preceding days. I thought about how hikers who fall often create a “yard sale,” losing their pack and their gear as it gets scatted along their path.
“What if I had been injured AND lost my Garmin?”
“How would I call for help with no one around?”
After thousands of miles of solo hiking, I suddenly didn’t feel safe backpacking alone on this trail.
I made arrangements with Andy, 5 hours away, to come get me and hiked down the mountain. No other hikers passed me in either direction.
So This is St. Elmo
As I neared the trailhead, something blue moving in the woods caught my eye. It was a man with a hand saw, working to remove a blowdown. I was glad to finally see someone. I greeted him and told him I fell down a mountain, that my trekking pole was stuck out there, and that Andy was on his way to pick me up.
Jeff was a trail maintainer, familiar with the area. “What does he drive?” he asked, and I told him.
“He won’t be able to get here,” Jeff informed me. “Only ATVs or high clearance 4×4 vehicles can get to this trailhead.”
“You’ll need to hitch into St. Elmo,” he said, and I blanched. “Let me walk with you, we’ll find you a ride,” he said, immediately sprouting trail angel wings. When we reached the trailhead, he flagged down an ATV and sent me off to the tiny ghost town.
There was no cell service, so the kind folks at the General Store lent me a phone so I could redirect Andy to my current location. I whiled away the afternoon on the porch of an old building, watching tourists feed chipmunks on the other side of the road.
Not wanting to think about my thru-hike ending, I picked up a book about St. Elmo in the store and read it while I waited. I kept my emotions in check, but as soon as Andy arrived, lava-like tears erupted.
“This can’t be over,” I sobbed into his shoulder, and off we went toward home.
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