The Day I Decided Not to Quit…Yet: Colorado Trail Day 15
Day 15 – August 27
I managed to sleep through the night. I even slept decently well, in spite of everything that happened yesterday. The crash after the adrenaline dump likely helped. It is no longer raining, and hasn’t been for much of the night. But it rained enough yesterday that is still quite damp outside.
And it is quite damp inside my tent. My clothes, piled in the corner of the tent, seem as wet as they were when I removed them. This single-walled tent has never been good about condensation, but this morning water is dripping down the walls. My quilt is damp, but thankfully only on the outside. The footbox is actually drier than the rest of the quilt – I suspect the hot water bottle (still warm in the morning!) helped. I will never let anyone shame me for carrying my little Nalgene again.
I poke at the pile of soaked hiking clothes, trying to figure out what to do. The pants still are so wet I can wring them out. Jeff, getting ready in his tent next to mine, tries to convince me to just wear the wet clothes, saying that my body heat will dry them as I hike. It is 6 am and quite cold out. There is frost on the ground.
I decide to hike in my sleeping clothes. I would strongly prefer not to do this, as I want those clothes to stay dry. Sweating in them certainly won’t help with that, but I don’t think I have a choice. I can’t bear to put on dripping wet clothes when there is frost on the ground.
Reluctant Forward Movement
I break down camp and carefully attach my wet clothes to the outside of my pack, hoping the sun will help them dry when it appears. I stand in the corner of the campsite as Jeff packs up, just staring at the trail ahead. Going left leads me back to Lake City and to a life where I am less likely to face the possibility of lightning on a day-to-day basis. Right leads me onwards down the Colorado Trail, to the high point and beyond, to adventures unknown and possibly even scarier than yesterday.
Slowly, reluctantly, I turn right, and head up the trail. Some might call this bravery or facing your fears. Honestly, I continue on the CT because that was the default plan. I can’t quite bear to make a decision yet, so I keep doing what I already had planned to do. Besides, I know I can bail as soon as I get to Silverton in three days, if I want to.
It is freezing cold, and the sun’s rays have not yet reached this side of the mountain. As I slowly start the day’s long climb, I cross paths with the first ultramarathoner of the day. This time, they are running from the other way, heading to the finish. They have clearly been running all night through the wet and cold. I try to find comfort in that; I was in a tent all night. What a luxury compared to their journey.
Climbing Physically and Emotionally
The trail climbs seven miles from where I camped to the highest point on the entire Colorado Trail. It also feels as though I am climbing over the most difficult mental and emotional hurdle of my entire journey. I feel defeated from the near-miss with lightning and the feeling of the cold seeping in yesterday. In my head, I keep repeating: “I feel broken. Yesterday broke me.”
I am absolutely not in the moment this morning. One of the things I love about hiking, and especially long-distance hiking, is that it forces me into the moment. But not today. I keep hiking around corners to vast, sweeping views and I cannot focus on them. I force myself to take pictures only out of habit, so I take far fewer pictures than I ordinarily would.
Climbing generally makes me a little cranky, and this one seems to go on forever. It is beautiful, but strangely repetitive. Every time I round a bend, it seems like someone hit CTRL-V and copied what I saw around the last bend. Ahead of me there is always another flat-topped mountain across a valley. I climb over it, descend, round another valley, and there it is again. Every time it is a little steeper.
Around yet another bend with yet another beautiful mountain to climb ahead, I come across an ultramarathoner slowly running towards me. The runners continue to be courteous in sharing the trail, even in their exhaustion. As I step aside for this one, they say “Good job!”
“Awesome job to you!” I return. “I don’t even know how far you have come, but I know it is incredible!”
They pause for a breath. “I have gone 73 miles.”
My mind is blown. I have only gone about 13 total miles since yesterday. They have run nearly 6 times that. “Amazing! You are almost there!”
They look me dead in the eye. The look of emptiness is almost the same as the bikepacker from Segment 16 who told me he was broken. “Sure, but I still have over a marathon left.”
I don’t have a response to that. They are right, and it puts my day in perspective. I wish them the best and we continue our separate ways.
Aside from the runners, there are also quite a few bikepackers out on the trail today. These ones are also courteous in sharing the trail. I am passed by one with bright orange bags as I make my way to the next climb. His bags remind me of my husband, who is an orange-loving bikepacker.
I follow the cyclist up what I think might be the toughest climb of nearly the whole trail. It is thankfully short, but incredibly steep, even with switchbacks. There is a point when I need to use my hands to scramble up steep, gravelly rock. I can feel the weight of the wet clothes and tent in my pack. I am living up to my trail name, as every time I reach a switchback, I turn to see what is ahead and loudly exclaim: “F***! You have got to be kidding me.”
After one such switchback, I look up to see the orange-bagged biker at the switchback immediately above me. We make eye contact after my dirty-mouthed tirade, and we both start laughing. I am again given perspective: at least I am not pushing my fully-loaded bike up these rocks. I say it again: bikers have the hardest job on the CT.
To the High Point and Beyond
After what feels like endless climbing, I finally turn and see a sign marker ahead of me. I have made it to the high point of the Colorado Trail!
I feel the endorphin boost of finishing a tough climb. I drop my pack and immediately start pulling out all of my wet items to dry in the sun. Scout, Sonic, and Little Red are already here doing the same. Jeff joins shortly and follows suit. I love the Colorado sun. In only 20 minutes, most of my items are dry. I change into my dry, sun-warmed hiking clothes and feel as though things are looking up for the day.
Facing the Storm Again
After lunch and packing up, I head down the hill. Almost immediately, I hit a Jeep road and see ATVs almost at the CT high point. It is quite jarring to feel as if you are in the middle of the wilderness, at the top of the world, and then see that others drove there. I wave to the ATVs as they pass and study the clouds overhead.
It is now afternoon, which means the potential for afternoon thunderstorms – again. I am only nearing treeline one time today, and then I won’t see it again for two days. As I near the lowest point, I see a tent ahead for the ultramarathon. The runners came all the way up and over the CT high point and beyond, clear to the next pass. What a beast of a race!
The trail continues on to the lowest point, a beautifully flowing stream. I have made it to Segment 23! I barely have time to celebrate this when I notice how much darker the clouds have become. The clouds seem to be coming from the pass I need to climb over next. I am nearly out of water, so I take this opportunity to stop, gather water, and pull myself together. As I filter, a clap of thunder rings out from the clouds. It is farther away than it was yesterday, and I don’t see the accompanying lightning, but I jump all the same. I can’t help it – tears spring to my eyes.
Seeing the potential storm sends me on a downward spiral. I get out my Garmin and message my husband:
“I am so miserable. Yesterday and this morning broke me. I don’t know the last time I was this unhappy… Everyone is faster than me, so they outrun the storms. I can’t. There is another storm cloud and I just can’t do it. The only reason I would finish is so I can close this chapter and never hike again.”
I should have turned around this morning. I keep thinking that over and over again. When I was convincing myself yesterday’s close call was an anomaly, I still felt shaken but could imagine getting past it. With these new clouds gathering as I am again about to breach treeline, I cannot handle the thought of yet another storm.
As I am deep in my emotional pain cave, the trio of Scout, Sonic, and Little Red come by. Sonic stops to grab water as the rest continue ahead, and she notices my face. (I have zero poker face.) She asks if I am okay. I am not. Instead of responding, I burst into tears.
She looks ahead and observes that the clouds have cleared from the pass and are moving in another direction. Blue skies are visible. She says she is continuing on to catch up with her group, but suggests I wait for Jeff to attempt the pass, who is just behind. I agree.
Meanwhile, my husband messages me words of support, and lets me know the next couple of days of weather look much better. I try to take deep breaths. It is hard to see past the gathering clouds of fear to the clearing skies overhead.
Anxiety is Loud
Jeff comes around the bend shortly and grabs water. Together, we sit and eat a snack. He immediately sees I am emotional about the passing storm and agrees to tackle the upcoming pass together. He gets to work distracting me and making jokes as we hike. We see four moose eating in the willows across the river valley, pikas running across the trail collecting their greenery, and marmots squeaking as we pass. The good company, fun wildlife, and clearing skies help my mood, but I still can’t squash the doomsday feeling.
I have never been as certain about anything as the feeling that I never want to hike again after this. This kind of false certainty has happened before with anxiety, only to pass, but I don’t – and can’t – put that together now. I cannot even remember why I even started hiking before this trail. Part of the motivation to complete the CT was to help face my fears, but after the lightning yesterday, my anxiety has completely taken the reins. I am just along for the ride.
These negative thoughts and longing for safety are not my thoughts, but rather my anxiety trying to take charge. I don’t realize it for weeks, but the lightning yesterday triggered an anxiety attack that would take a while to overcome.
As I climb, I deeply wish I had turned back this morning. Because I didn’t, I now have no choice but to move forward. If I can push forward to Silverton, the next town, it will be easier to leave from there. Deep down, somewhere, I know these intrusive thoughts are a product of fear, not my true feelings. It is just hard to see that in the moment.
Summitting My Fears
We make it to the top of the pass, and the skies have cleared. The dark clouds have moved to the east and it is a clear, bright day ahead. The dark clouds have not yet cleared my mind, though. Poor Jeff. I do my best to keep my negativity to myself, but it spills out. I tell him I can’t help but think I never want to hike again. Ever positive, he tries to find ways to help me see the good in the journey. I don’t show it, but it helps.
Shortly after the pass, we can see Cataract Lake ahead, our camping destination. There are already a few tents set up. It looks idyllic, and for the first time since the lightning, I feel excited. Jeff stops to take some video of the trail, and I press forward to the lake.
I arrive at the small lake near Cataract Lake, and am greeted by Scout, Sonic, and Little Red. They saved me a spot. Scout immediately congratulates me for overcoming my fears. In the real world, that might feel patronizing, but here on trail it feels supportive and warm. I feel seen and understood.
I set up my tent near the lake, and shortly Jeff arrives to set his up. We are next to Scout, Sonic, and Little Red. On the other side are Blueberry Pie and Old School, cousins from North Carolina hiking the trail together. There are other tents (including YetToBe, who I met in Segment 20) at the other end of the small lake, and a tent or two already set up down at the large Cataract Lake. It is already quite a gathering, and soon BP and Breezy arrive, followed by others throughout the afternoon and evening. The highlight is that the llamas join us, passing in a train to camp at the larger lake.
The sun is out, my things are dry, the company is superb, and I am able to eat a full meal and then some. I feel warmed to the core and comforted by the camaraderie of others who uniquely understand what my dilemma has been the last 24 hours. Now, I feel more settled. I faced the storm this afternoon and it passed, as they typically do. I faced the storm yesterday and did the best I could to protect myself and get to safety. Things have turned out OK every time. I know how to protect myself.
I still am apprehensive about weather, especially because I am still above the trees for at least the next day. But I know that people successfully complete this part of the trail every year. There are plenty of low points and places to find safety, whatever the weather might throw at me. I decide to not quit…yet. Instead, I will hike to Silverton in two days and decide then. I want to finish. I really do, but I also want to feel safe and for my heart to be in it. This is too difficult of a journey if my heart is not in it.
To make sure I am making the best of this, I officially decide to take the train into Silverton. This is an optional detour that involves taking a side trail and flagging down the Durango-to-Silverton train in the middle of the wilderness. It sounds unique and exciting. This means, though, that tomorrow will need to be as long of a day as possible to make sure I can get to the train stop, over 25 miles from here, by 11:00 am the next day.
I feel determined, excited, and resolved, and it is bringing me back to myself. It can be easy to get caught up in the day-to-day – wake up, break down camp, eat, hike, get water, hike, eat, hike, etc… It is important to find ways to reconnect and make the journey, and the trail, my own. I fall asleep determined, nervous, and ready for what the next day might bring.
Trail miles hiked: 14.2
3110 gain/ 2670 descent
Campsite elevation: 12,216
5.5 miles into Segment 23
156.3 miles since Day 1
380.8 trail miles from Denver
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