The Worst Night: Colorado Trail Day 4
Day 4 – August 16
Waking up at the Butterfly House after my unplanned night off-trail, I knew immediately I made the right choice. My cough is still present, but it feels less chest-shaking, and it happens less often. I aim for a 10-mile day with minimal climbing to continue trying to minimize my altitude symptoms. Thankfully, with the 10 miles of CW5 that I am skipping, I won’t be going over 12,000 ft for another several days. I hope that’s enough time to recover and acclimate.
I also have a new challenge. Months ago, my good friend Jason and I coordinated a day that he would drive up from Denver in his camper van to meet me at the end of Segment 17. He is bringing my resupply and the opportunity to get a much-coveted shower – definitely things I do not want to miss. But our meeting spot is only about 45 miles away, and we are meeting in 5 days. His timing isn’t flexible, so I consider this a blessing from the universe. I am forced to slow down and take care of my aching low-lander lungs.
I get a ride to the Monarch at the Crest store from the hostel’s caretaker along with two other hikers. We are dropped off when the store opens at 8 am, and the other hikers immediately head out north on the Collegiate Loop. I head into the store and am led into a lovely back room they have set up for hikers. There’s even a curtain and wet wipes provided for a wipe down! I retrieve my resupply box and get my food together. I wander around the store, admiring their great selection, and order myself a smoothie. Before I know it, 2 hours have passed, and I realize I have a bit of hiking right at tree line that I want to hit before the afternoon storms roll in. I thank the workers as I head out – this spot is right on trail and a great set-up for hikers.
My First Real Storm
The first 5 miles of trail is uphill, and though it is a gradual climb, altitude has made me a slow climber. It will be close if I make it to the high point before the storms arrive. The climb is steady but makes me cough. I have to take it easy to try to nurse my symptoms. I curse myself for dawdling too much at the store. I’m not even sure where the time went! I was nearly vortexed, and it wasn’t even a town.
The clouds darken as the trees open up. For now, the clouds seem to be heading in a different direction, but that could change at any point. The trail winds along a ridgeline, slowly creeping closer to tree line.
Just as I re-enter a nice treed section, I hear thunder. It is close. I had been scanning the ground around me as a precaution and just passed a rare flat-ish spot. I back-track and immediately throw up my tent. It’s slanted and my backpack gets muddied in the process, but I get into the tent just as the storm starts in earnest. I barely have time to feel relief before the sun comes back out.
I sigh. All that effort for it to peter out after a couple drops of rain? I reach to unzip the tent to start taking it down, and the instant my fingers touch the zipper, the thunder returns. The storm and I play this game for over an hour, but it does end up becoming a fully-fledged thunderstorm. I actually get a little scared. I’m on a ridgeline, just barely protected by trees, and this seems like the kind of storm that hails. I don’t know how this tent would do with hail in this situation, but I have no alternative but to sit it out and wait. The hail never arrives, and the tent makes it through the downpour and wind unscathed.
On the CT Again
I pack up and head out, and shortly I am reunited with the official CT. The Collegiate West route, while extremely popular, is technically an alternate route. I have not touched the official CT since 2022 and it feels like a big milestone to make it here. As I marvel at this step, a couple of hikers climb up from the Collegiate East and I meet Icy Cheeks and Zora (dog), and Shawn.
Last year, I was gifted the trail name Bop, standing for Breezy Ocean Purple, due to my purple hair. I liked it, but it’s hard to enunciate and most people thought I introduced myself as “Bob.” A group of women that I hike with in Seattle helped me settle on Sailor for my potty-mouth when I hike uphill. I wasn’t sure which one I would go with when I got out here – maybe both! I reflexively introduce myself to these hikers as Sailor, and that sticks for the rest of the trail.
I run into Shawn and Icy Cheeks a little ways down the trail at a spring. I have plenty of water but stay to chat, and notice that Shawn has used a CNOC coupler to attach his Vecto directly to a water bottle. There is no way to accidentally knock your bottle over while filtering with that set-up. I brought the coupler for backwashing, but immediately fish it out of my bag to store with my filter. This will make my water filtering so much easier and I thank Shawn for the tip. Shawn has been hiking for the past 1.25 years on numerous long trails, so I sense that if I’m able to keep up with him, I’ll learn a thing or two from his trail wisdom.
Climb High, Sleep Low
I hike with my new trail buddies for a bit before Shawn blazes forward. Icy Cheeks wants to head to a ridge campsite marked in FarOut, but I have only one option for camping below 11,000. I say my goodbyes and check out my campsite. It’s near a trailhead, so there’s a pit toilet and parking, and lots of flat camping options.
Initially, I feel good about this option, but as it becomes clear I will be camping here alone, I become more wary. It breaks one of my few solo campsite rules: don’t camp next to a road. The human element is the scariest part of hiking alone. This is a dirt road, but clearly a well-traveled one. There’s even a warning in FarOut of a suspicious van seen near here. I am torn between needing to manage my altitude issues by sleeping low and trying to determine if this spot is safe. I decide to stay and just hope another hiker joins, but that never happens.
While I’m eating dinner, I notice I’m near a large marshy area. And right there, also eating his dinner, is another enormous bull moose. This one is farther away, but I am conscious to try to avoid being in his line of sight. Still, it feels pretty amazing to be eating dinner along with a moose.
As I’m packing my Ursack to hang it, I notice a light down the road. It’s not moving. I wonder if it’s a light in a snowmobile cabin I know is down the road. Suddenly, the light starts moving. Headlights on a car. The car moves slowly down the road towards the campground. I instinctively zip up my vestibule to hide before they get here. It’s clear I’m camping alone, but I don’t want them to know I’m also a solo woman.
The car drives by and keeps going around a bend out of sight. I breathe a sigh of relief and go to tie up my Ursack. While finishing the last of my camp chores, the car suddenly comes back around the bend. This time, there’s nothing I can do. They see me in plain sight. I dive for the tent, but I don’t think I made it in time. The car slows suddenly. It pauses for an uncomfortably long time before driving off.
I evaluate my options. That was weird and creepy. It’s quickly getting dark. The next campsite is over a mile uphill. There was cougar scat very near here. I can move and hike in the dark – something I’m simply uncomfortable doing alone – or I can stay here and wait for that sketchy car to return. I have nothing to fight with, just a small knife and my Garmin SOS button.
Maybe, I think, they were looking for camping spots and that’s why they slowed. Maybe they saw me dive for the tent and it freaked them out. Perhaps they were considering stopping for the pit toilet and changed their mind. Or maybe they are serial killers or rapists who will return for me later. (Unlikely, I hope, but I can’t rule it out completely.)
I burst into tears. All of my options are terrible, but I’m already here. I decide to stay put.
The Worst Night
I sleep with my Garmin and knife in the kangaroo pocket of my fleece. I’m able to fall asleep but am wide awake at midnight when a car pulls up. I hear voices and doors slamming, but then it takes off. At 3 am, I’m again awakened by a car. This one parks on the road right by the camping area, instead of the actual parking area, so they are much closer to my tent. I see headlamps bouncing in my direction. I suck in my breath and put my knife in one hand and Garmin in the other, finger hovering over the SOS. Garmin isn’t going to save me if something bad happens here, but at least they’ll know to look for me.
I hold my breath and watch the headlamps bounce. I hear car doors open and shut, and hear the beep of the car lock. And then unlock. Then more doors. And then more beeping. I slowly realize that if they were coming for me, they wouldn’t be so loud. Eventually, the door lock beeps for the last time and there is silence. They were hikers or bikers and they went another way. I finally fall back to sleep. When I leave my camp the next morning, that car is nowhere to be found.
While I had other scary moments during my hike of the Colorado Trail, I was never more scared for my safety and of the human element than this night. I learned a lot of lessons, and there are several things I would do differently if faced with this scenario again.
1. I have a hard and fast rule about not camping alone near roads for a reason, but I let my concern over my altitude symptoms overrule my general judgment. Camping a couple miles farther and a few hundred feet higher wouldn’t have been as bad for altitude symptoms as this terrible night’s sleep was for my overall wellbeing. I was calibrated too much on my “below 11,000 feet” rule without considering other factors.
2. Even if I set up camp near the road initially, once I saw the creepy car I absolutely should have packed up and moved. In my head, hiking alone in the dark after seeing cougar scat very nearby was equal to the sketchy car. The reality is that I saw several day old scat, so I had no idea how close a cougar actually was, but the car was a very real and present danger that should have taken priority.
3. Listen to your gut! I started having doubts about the campsite as soon as I set up and saw a few cars go by. If I’d listened to my gut, I could have moved well before the sun set and avoided much of the worries that made that decision so difficult.
Being a solo woman hiker comes with all kinds of worries that are separate from just the hike itself. I prepared carefully for how to be safe alone, and then starting prioritizing other things once I developed some altitude issues. In hindsight, I could have dealt properly with my altitude issues while also considering my safety as a solo woman hiker. I am so glad nothing worse happened – and statistically, it wasn’t likely to. Still, I am grateful for the reminder to trust my instincts and prioritize my safety.
Day 4 Stats
Trail miles hiked: 10.8
1275 gain/ 1770 descent
Campsite elevation: 10,800 ft
.2 miles from the end of Segment 15
43.4 miles since Day 1
267.4 trail miles from Denver
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