My Longest and Strongest Day Ever: Colorado Trail Day 16
Day 16 – August 28
I hear rustling outside my tent before the sun is up. Blueberry Pie and Old School, camping nearby, are getting a pre-dawn start to their hike. I don’t mind the wake-up, though, because today I plan to hike the most I have ever hiked in one day. The plan is to go 18-19 miles with well over 4000 feet of gain. It is asking a lot of myself, but I am absolutely determined to make it to the Elk Park station in time tomorrow to catch the train into Silverton.
To add to the motivation, I woke up to my cough returning. This cough was one of my most prominent altitude symptoms from the early days of the hike. I was able to nearly eliminate it by sleeping as low as possible every night. Unfortunately, that is difficult in a segment that never dips below 12,000 feet. There are beautiful views, but less oxygen. My eyes appreciate it, but my lungs do not. If I can hike at least 18 miles, I should be able to dip below 12,000 feet tonight.
As I step outside to pack up my tent, I notice frost on my tent. I look around. Every tent is at least half covered in frost. It is a brisk start to the day.
Jeff decides to join me to attempt the long, difficult day. We start hiking just after 6:30 am.
In an effort to parse the difficult hike ahead, I studied the map carefully last night in my tent. I determined that there are eight real climbs to get through the day, some steeper than others. I am not worrying too much about the difficulty of each climb; on a day like this, a climb is a climb. It is all difficult, and all over 12,000 feet. Instead, I am motivating myself with little celebrations after each one, slowly counting down until I get to my intended campsite just past the beginning of the Elk Creek drainage.
When I started preparing for the trail in 2022, I learned just how goal-oriented I am. If I have a goal that is the right level of challenge, I am extremely diligent and motivated about getting there. The only way I can contemplate extremely difficult things is to break them into smaller parts and complete each one at a time. I find that is exactly how I am approaching this long day. Yesterday, I was feeling overwhelmed by the altitude, weather, and totality of miles until the finish. Today, I am focused only on the next mile until the end of this first climb. It’s a remarkable change.
Jeff and I make the most of the morning, slowly ticking off the climbs one by one. On the way up the third climb, the trio of Scout/Sonic/Little Red pass us. At the top of the fourth climb, a particularly challenging one with steep and unforgiving switchbacks, I see the trio taking an early lunch. I am halfway through the climbs but not halfway through the miles, so I decide not to stop yet. I want a little more forward progress before I take a break.
From here, the land stretches out endlessly in every direction. The San Juans are absolutely unlike anywhere I have been. They feel like meandering, high altitude meadows, crumbling at the edges and dropping into nothingness. They are epic and breathtaking.
The Limit Does Not Exist
As I start the fifth climb, I feel fatigue setting in. My familiar uphill crankiness is appearing. I quickly eat some Honey Stingers chews as I climb, which helps take the edge off. Each time I feel the urge to stop, I look ahead and set a goal: At that boulder ahead, you can take a break if you still need to. Often, by the time I reach the promised spot, I have found new energy to keep going. You are stronger than you think. At the top of this climb, you can stop for lunch. You got this.
I am being so much kinder to myself today than I have been this entire trip. Since the beginning, when the altitude made me much weaker than I expected, I have been so hard on myself. Every unexpected stop uphill, gasping for air, would result in unkind and negative self-talk. Wow. Why is this so hard? This should be easier. Maybe I can’t do this. If I tripped over a root or a rock: You idiot. How hard is it just to lift your feet?
But today, likely because I am pushing myself more than I ever have, I am much softer to myself. I also am rising to the challenge in ways I haven’t until now. Part of that is because I finally – finally – am acclimated enough to do this. And part of it is because I have no choice not to.
The most appealing and satisfying part of long distance hiking for me is exactly this. I cannot know what my limit is until I reach it. And then, the limit moves. Yesterday, I cried half of the day and thought very seriously about quitting. I was justifiably scared after the lightning, sure. But today I am pursuing something I couldn’t have attempted even yesterday. By noon, I have finished five of eight climbs and nearly half of 18 miles. I am not just attempting it, I am doing it. My limit has moved.
Five Climbs Done
At the top of the fifth climb is a pond and a nice break spot. ZigZag is lunching at the top, along with his hiking companion Doc, who I meet for the first time. His other hiking companion, YetToBe, was at Cataract Lake this morning when we left and had decided to slow down for the rest of the trail.
I stop for a restful lunch, a rare treat. I get out my damp and frosty tent to dry in the breezy sun. The wind has a bit of a bite, so I bundle up, but it works to mostly dry out my tent.
In preparation for this hike, I dehydrated lots of food and put together most of my own meals. Much of my prepared recipes came from Backcountry Foodie. However, for this section, I resupplied from the grocery store in Lake City for variety. Today, my lunch is my old standby from the early days of hiking: tuna and tortillas. I immediately remember why I don’t eat this anymore. Tuna is a favorite of mine off-trail, but in this context I cannot stand it after depending on it too much. I gag it down for the calories alone.
Jeff catches up and after we eat, we head down the hill to the next water source to filter. I feel my typical post-lunch panic setting in: I took too much time to eat and filter water. I need to get going or I will never make it. No. I try to reset my mind; a break for my feet was needed and will rejuvenate me. I am now ready to face the rest of the day.
We round a wide bend in the trail to find ourselves on a Jeep road again. This is surprising after hiking all day on beautiful singletrack, but it is temporary. This dirt road climbs steeply for a quarter of a mile before the trail splits off into Segment 24. This road leads into Silverton, so if I really wanted to, I could completely bypass the next segment and go straight into town. But I don’t want to. Segment 24 is what I have been looking forward to the entire hike. The famous view from the top of the Elk Creek drainage is one I absolutely do not want to miss.
I do hate the steep grade of the Jeep road until the segment’s start, though. A pick-up truck slowly drives pass and I very nearly flag it down and ask for a ride to the top, but I hold back. What difference does this couple hundred feet make in the context of today? I do wish they had donuts or pizza, though.
As I turn into Segment 24, the trail starts with a descent. I am pleased – six climbs done! But then it quickly starts climbing again. I check the map. No, this climb is split into two. Sigh. It is going to be a long afternoon.
I have been doing remarkably well to this point, but as the sixth climb of the day drags out, with numerous false summits, I start to lose my patience. As seems to be required on this trail, I start to cry when I hit the third false summit and see yet more to climb. But I force myself to stop and breathe. You got this! I tell myself. You have come so far. Only 2.5 climbs to go.
As I start the descent after Climb #6, I find that I have the trail to myself. I can see BP and Breezy a mile or two ahead, starting the next climb. Jeff stopped a ways back to take some trail videos, and everyone else is either way ahead or way behind. I am alone. I am able to go the pace I want up and down the climbs, and truthfully, that is exactly what I need right now. Today is asking too much of my body for me to do anything other than the exact pace it requires.
With my solo stretch of trail, I find some new momentum on the descent. I can see the trail stretched out ahead for quite a ways. I have completed 75% of the climbs for today and feel a boost from the accomplishment. The ground is dappled with sun and shade from the puffs of clouds in the sky. It is afternoon, but there isn’t a storm cloud in sight. I feel strangely elated. My legs lead the way, flying down the trail.
I smile to myself. This – this is what I wanted thru-hiking to be! This is why I decided to hike this trail.
The seventh climb is steeper than the last but manageable. I find a slow, comfortable pace and manage to make my way up. I have refound my ability to maximize my granny gear and climb without stopping. Halfway up, I run into BP and Breezy just finishing a break. They are faster than me, so I let them start ahead of me. They stay about .1 – .2 ahead of me for the rest of the day and provide a nice motivation for me to keep up.
Magic Power Mode
Before I know it, I am passing the spot I had originally planned to camp in this segment, before I decided to try to catch the train. A series of high altitude ponds provide lovely flat camping areas with water access. I see a couple of campers already getting set up, and I know many others will join before the day is over. But not me. This was my back-up in case I couldn’t physically continue, but I don’t need it.
I have found some amazing mind-over-matter ability in this last stretch of the day. I am somehow hiking the fastest I have all day. Partly to get to camp faster, sure, but also partly because my body is just leading the way. It can go faster, so it is. I have never experienced this before. I actually feel stronger now than I did this morning.
But my feet are a bit of a different story. They are tired. They feel every mile. All day, I have negotiated with my body. Three more climbs. Two more climbs. One more climb, I tell her. Now these comments are directed at my feet. You have come very far. We are so close. I promise to take care of you as soon as we get there. It is a strange mind game, but it works.
Bye Bye, CDT
One. More. Climb. I keep repeating this myself. I am a strange combination of exhausted and elated, sore and energized. Looking up just as Climb #8 begins, I see the sign indicating the separation of the Continental Divide Trail and Colorado Trail. We have shared trail for the last 300+ miles. I have been on the CDT for my entire 2023 journey, in fact. But now, we part ways.
Last climb. This is the last climb. Deep breaths. You have been a total superstar today. This last bit is nothing. You are stronger than you ever thought. You can DO THIS!
I see another sign up ahead, indicating another trail split. Off the right, I start to see hints of a huge canyon below with mountains above. Slowly, it comes into view as I reach the split. This is the view I have been looking forward to the entire trail, and it does not disappoint. The trail seems to dive off a cliff into a canyon, with sharp, ragged peaks surrounding it. The colors are unreal: reds, green, blues, blacks, whites. It feels as though I am at the edge of the world.
I feel almost drunk with gratitude as I begin the descent. No more climbing. I can see my planned campsite just ahead, at the edge of the plateau below. I have been gifted with this view, one that at times I wondered if I ever would see. Halfway down the descent, the clouds part and the sun fully illuminates the landscape, and I think I might cry of joy.
Two days ago, after the scary storm, I asked myself why would anyone put themselves through this? This is why.
This is why I face lightning, rain, hail, and all the aches and pains: to see, feel and be one with the things I could never see any other way.
I feel intimately, uniquely connected with nature and Colorado, my beloved but estranged home state, in a way I never have before.
I have done much harder things in the last three days alone than I ever would have thought myself capable of even two years ago. It feels like pride, joy, pain, and exhaustion are crashing in on me as I giddily sob my way down the Elk Creek descent.
The End of the Longest Day
I was a little worried about doing this steep descent at the very end of a long day – my knees have never been the best. (Being a competitive gymnast will do that.) But this descent is incredible, at least at first. 28 perfectly graded switchbacks guide me down the slope. I would be faster, but I keep staring at the view ahead. This place is unreal.
I make it to the end of the switchbacks and follow the baby Elk Creek just a few hundred yards before a turn-off to an old mining cabin. The cabin itself has fallen, but just above it is a lovely flat camping area, and that is my goal.
Just as the cabin comes into view, my body realizes we have neared the end. She begins to shut down. It is amazing, actually. I promised my feet we would go this far and no further, and they have taken me just that far. No further. 20 feet from the cabin, my legs begin to shuffle. My feet ache. I begin to limp. I laugh out loud, talking to myself. “Ok, body, I get it. I promise. We are done for today.”
I set up camp, gather water, and eat dinner. From my camp, I have an excellent view of the switchbacks. I keep watch while I eat to see if Jeff appears over the ridge. He wanted to make it this far, but his IT band was bothering him this morning. I suspect he stopped at an earlier campsite. I am sad we have separated ways, but grateful for the time we had.
That is the funny thing about hiking companions on a hike like this. You can make through so much together, and then one day you just don’t see them again for the rest of the hike. I am just glad we shared trail for the time we did.
As I use my cork massage ball to nurse my aching feet, I reflect on the success of the day. Today was a mini-version of the entire hike, in a way. I set an enormous goal for myself when I decided to hike this trail. Today, I set a hard goal to hike the most miles and elevation I ever had, and I did it.
Because the goal was so challenging but still achievable, I had no choice but to visualize it in a new way. I couldn’t let old habits take over. Instead, today served as an unexpected reset. I changed how I talk to myself and my body. I changed what I believe my limits are. And I achieved something that brings me so much pride in my mental and physical strength.
I fall asleep easily and quickly, physically drained but emotionally renewed. More is possible than I ever thought.
Trail miles hiked: 18.3
4023 gain/ 4093 descent
Campsite elevation: 12,001
7.2 miles into Segment 24
174.6 miles since Day 1
399.1 trail miles from Denver
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