The Day I Almost Quit: Colorado Trail Day 14
Day 14 – August 26
My day begins still in Lake City. I have a leisurely morning planned since the shuttle doesn’t leave until noon from the Hiker Center. I know other hikers were planning to hitch in this morning, but I have not ever hitched. I’m not comfortable starting alone, especially when the shuttle is such a comfortable alternative.
Instead, I head to the Lake City Bakery for breakfast and to get my dinner, a delicious-smelling sausage roll. The baker wraps it in a paper bag for me, which I immediately put into the mesh pocket of my backpack, looking forward to dinner. I also stop by the post office to mail a few items home.
Once back at the Hiker Center to await the shuttle, I notice there is a solid group of hikers – including Jeff! Jeff and I hiked a good chunk of Segment 21 together, and I regretted my decision not to press forward and camp with him and John on Snow Mesa. I had thought he was going to hitch earlier this morning, but he has decided to take a slower morning.
Once on the shuttle, I also meet Scout, Sonic, and Little Red. Little Red and Sonic are a mother/daughter duo hiking the trail, and they have been hiking with Scout since early on, and have stuck together. I love the way the trail brings people together.
Who Puts an Ultramarathon Here?
It is a Saturday, and when the shuttle pulls into the Spring Creek Pass trailhead lot at 12:30 pm, the lot is pretty full. Even more, there is an ultramarathon happening right now on trail – the Creede 100. I recall seeing some flags on Snow Mesa that must have been set up for this. I wonder how far we will share the trail and am excited to see how many runners there are.
Once off the shuttle, Jeff and I start hiking right away. The trail slowly climbs for the next 15 miles until the high point of the Colorado Trail. At times it will get steeper, but to start it is a pretty doable grade and a meandering trail. It is afternoon, and there are some ominous clouds, but I am not too concerned. I am only planning on hiking 9 miles to a good camping spot. I won’t be going above treeline until tomorrow morning. However, once on the trail, I realize the trail weaves in and out of the trees. We are still below treeline, but there are plenty of open meadows, and lots of sweeping views to what awaits us tomorrow.
Within a few miles, Scout, Sonic, and Little Red pass us. We know they are aiming for the same camping area and I look forward to catching up later. Runners are also passing us with some regularity, but they are fairly spread out. It is the first day of the two-day ultra race, but we must be somewhere in the middle of the course. They are so courteous – calling out to us when they are behind us to let us know they are coming up, and always saying “Good job!” when they see our packs. It is a pleasant trail-sharing experience.
My First Real Hail On Trail
Just over halfway to camp, the clouds start to spit. Jeff and I quickly don our rain jackets. Almost without warning, the rain turns to hail. I pause under a tree, not sure if I should venture into the open meadow ahead. But the hail is small and soft, and Jeff hikes on, unconcerned. I decide I would rather be with another hiker in case this becomes a real storm. There is no thunder or lightning, but in these mountains, anything can happen.
It hails for a surprisingly long time, but it continues to get smaller and softer until it returns to rain. And then, as if it was never gone, the sun appears to dry us. We quickly warm up, but I leave my rain jacket on. The clouds are still dark and I don’t trust them.
The grade is easy, so I can look around and enjoy the hike and the company easily. We talk about everything while hiking along, and it is so nice to have company after hiking solo nearly the whole trail. I came here to challenge myself alone, but I don’t always want to be solo. This is a nice change.
As we hike, we keep noticing distinctive hoof-prints in the mud ahead of us. They look too big to be deer, so we assume it is a moose. But the hoof-prints appear on the trail for a few miles. That doesn’t seem right for a moose, especially during an ultramarathon.
As we approach our hard climb of the day, I can see the trail on the climb ahead and notice a bright blue fabric. At first I think it is a backpack, but it is too wide and long. As I get closer, I see them clearer: llamas! There are several llamas about half a mile ahead, one with a bright blue blanket across its back. That explains the hoof-prints! I love that this trail is used by hikers, bikers, and equestrians, including pack animals.
The Storm Returns
As the climb increases, I stop watching the llamas and focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Jeff stops to take some photos, so I get a little ahead. Scout, Sonic, and Little Red disappear over the crest of the hill, shortly followed by the llamas and their handlers. I focus on my breathing, but am pulled out of my focus by a few drops of rain.
I look up. Those clouds are much, much darker than earlier. I was so distracted by hoof-prints that I completely missed this change. That or it happened very quickly. Both are possible.
I pull up my hood and scope out the scene ahead. I am very nearly to the crest of this hill. The trail here is at the edge of treeline, but is about to dive back into the trees. I am not the highest thing on this hill that I can see, but there are only willow bushes – no trees. I haven’t heard thunder yet, so I aim to get over the hill as quickly as possible. We are only a mile or so from camp.
Meanwhile, ultramarathoners continue to slowly run past me. I have just been passed by yet another when thunder cracks immediately above me. Simultaneously, I see lightning strike down the hill ahead. I see exactly where it hits. It hits an altitude below where I am now, and far too close. There is a specific sound that thunder makes when it is so close, and it is deafening. It sounds like the heavens being ripped open above me and stops me dead in my tracks.
Reacting and Running
Instinct kicks in after the initial shock wears off. I dive into a nearby willow bush. Tossing my pack aside, I try to balance on my toes, grateful I practiced the “lightning stance” before I started the CT. I pause and try to breathe, but that’s difficult. I am already crying. (If I’m not between a 3-to-6 on a 1-to-10 mood scale, I’m crying.)
I don’t hear more thunder at the moment. I don’t feel electricity or hear buzzing, which are signs of potential incoming lightning. But, they are not the only signs. Most bewilderingly, ultramarathoners continue to pass on the trail, completely unmoved by this event. The runner in front of me didn’t even flinch when the thunder hit. The racers must be in the their full runner-zombie mode at this point.
I am debating my options when Jeff catches up. He calls out, concerned, “Are you OK? Did you see that?” The sight of a friendly face makes me cry harder. I can’t quite respond.
We both watch the runners pass, undeterred, and decide to make a run for it. Like many of the hills and mountaintops in this part of the San Juans, the trail is flat here before it begins its descent. I might ordinarily appreciate this chance for continued views, but today it is quite frustrating.
My memory here gets a little spotty, likely a result of the fight-or-flight response. I remember the flat trail, and then I remember suddenly being halfway downhill in a full downpour. I don’t remember when the rain started in earnest. The trail is a river. Not a trickle, but completely full of water. My shoes are sopping and squishy. I am nearly running with my full resupply. At some point I realize I never zipped up my rain jacket, and I am soaked through. There is not a part of me that is dry, even under my hood.
Just Get to Camp
We reach the edge of a clearing, about to leave the trees to cross a meadow below the CT Yurt. Our camp is just on the other side. I stop and look at Jeff, “We don’t want to be in that clearing if lightning strikes.” (Side note: found out later that lightning had just struck here in front of Scout, so this instinct was 100% correct.) We pause. It feels strange to be stopped when everything for the last 20 minutes was a blur of movement, adrenaline, and rain.
Thankfully, the rain starts to let up, if temporarily. We run across the field and make it back into the trees. And now I have a new concern: cold. Stopping for those 5 minutes was enough for my body temperature to drop and I now realize how wet I am. Even moving across the meadow, I am still ice cold. The lightning certainly scared me, but this fear is different. If my pack liner didn’t keep my important things dry, I might be in very real trouble.
I desperately want to be inside a tent and getting warm. We beeline for the first open spot I see, but have to move a couple of times when we realize some places are already claimed. We run until we find the next spot that will fit both our tents, and I set up my tent in record time.
The Cold and the Wet
Once inside my tent, I hold my breath as I determine the status of everything inside my pack. Everything on the outside of my pack is drenched, including my sausage roll inside the paper bag. It has basically disintegrated inside the mesh pocket. I am too cold to be upset, but it is sad to lose a delicious first-day-out-of-town meal like that.
Blessedly, inside my pack is mostly dry, including the things outside of the pack liner. I have a nylofume pack liner that I use to protect the things that must stay dry: quilt, sleeping clothes, sleeping pad. But even outside of that, things are pretty dry. I am grateful for my Gossamer Gear Mariposa and its surprising water resistance. But it might be time to reconsider whether I should be carrying a pack cover. I decided not to bring it to save the 2.5 oz, but would rather have that than the many more ounces of water my items are soaked in right now.
I change into dry clothes, but doing this inside my tent means everything inside is now wet. My clothes are sopping – I can literally wring out my pants. I quickly change and balance my dry quilt on my pad, careful not to let it touch the wet tent floor.
The Calm After the Storm?
Finally drier and warmer, I cook my dinner in my vestibule for the first time ever. I am careful to zip it open to let out the fumes, but it is still pouring. Dinner is just a simple ramen, and the warm noodle broth is the most delicious thing I can imagine. I also carry a small Nalgene with me on trail (not ultralight at all, I know). It is to shake up the smoothies I drink, but tonight it serves a greater purpose. I fill it with hot water and put it in the foot of my quilt. It is absolute luxury, warming my bones and my soul.
`With the adrenaline wearing off, I try to evaluate what happened today. I am shaken to my core, and not just from the shivering. So much of the trail today was exposed, even though we were below treeline for most of it. It didn’t really matter where I was. The lightning struck below me. Perhaps if I was a faster hiker, I might have already been to safety, but I can’t think of anything else I could have done differently. And I cannot get past seeing the runners just continuing to slowly pass us, not flinching from the danger.
Considering My Options
It feels difficult to make the right decisions out here. I could have tried to set up my tent at the top of the hill, but it would have been an exposed and risky place to do so. Getting into the trees and to camp was the best plan for my safety. This means, though, that even just hiking out here is a perpetual risk. I knew that when I started, but I saw it first hand today. Lightning can happen anywhere, any time, with little warning. Hikers can do everything “right” and still be unsafe.
I feel sick to my stomach. I spend most of the evening highly aware that I am only 9 miles from the trailhead. It would be so easy to turn back in the morning and head back to Lake City. I do not have to put myself through this. Why does anyone put themselves through this?
The lightning and the bone-chilling cold were far more terrifying to me than the sketchy car I saw at camp in Segment 15. That was certainly the scariest night I have had on trail, but this is a new kind of fear. If my pack liner had failed, I could be actively at risk for hypothermia right now.
I try to remember how I recovered from that scary night. I knew it was an anomaly, and found positivity the next day that carried me forward. Rain clouds and thunder on trail are not new to me, and this is the first time I have been this close to the lightning. It is an anomaly, but it clearly can and will happen. My pack liner could have failed, but it did not. I am safe and dry. I just cannot forget the feeling of the cold setting in.
To try to shake off the negativity, I focus on gratitude. I am deeply grateful for having the fortune to hike with Jeff today. He jumped into action when he saw how shaken I was and helped calm me down and bring me to safety. The lightning and cold have me shaken, but his kindness is what I try to focus on now.
The warm dinner, Nalgene, and gratitude are improving my mood, but I can’t quite lose the pit in my stomach. I eventually fall asleep, still uncertain of what to do the next morning.
Trail miles hiked: 8.8
1773 gain/ 940 descent
Campsite elevation: 11,700
8.8 miles into Segment 22
142.1 miles since Day 1
366.6 trail miles from Denver
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