This Trail Could Kill Me – Colorado Trail Thru-Hike, Part 3
Feeling invincible is a luxury for the young. I rarely feared for my life as a crazy teenager doing stupid things. When I married at 21 and settled down to raise a family, I responsibly planned for the worst. I bought life insurance. I made a will. I wrote loving letters to my children, just in case.
In my pre-backpacking life as a suburban mom, death was a distant distraction, rarely encroaching on my blissful yet naïve existence. It never seemed to be coming for me.
Now at 57, backpacking on the Colorado Trail, I felt differently. “If I wasn’t careful,” came the dark thought, “this trail could kill me.”
Much of the trail was well-graded with gentle slopes and lovely meadow walks. But there was also the intense heat and long dry stretches which could lead to severe dehydration if a hiker wasn’t careful.
There were the mountains with their steep, narrow trails and miles of slippery scree. Those stretches took me down more than a few times, in spite of my cautious steps.
Wildlife, like moose, elk, bears, and even mountain lions could take a hiker out, too. It didn’t happen often, but it was a possibility, right?
Does Experience = Safety?
After logging thousands of miles thru-hiking, I was confident that my experience offered protection from danger. I scrambled up crazy rock climbs on the Appalachian Trail. I met moose and saw plenty of bears.
Here on the Colorado Trail, I carried water for many miles, making sure I stayed hydrated. I did my best to pick campsites without widow-makers – which wasn’t easy out here, where every other tree seemed to be dead.
Yet as I got closer to the Collegiate West, I began to wonder. Was I making the safe choice?
There was still plenty of snow on the ground in mid-July of this high snow year. That meant snow traverses and some were pretty dicey.
The trail seemed quiet, with not nearly as many hikers as I remembered seeing last year. A few weeks into my hike, I was feeling stronger and confident that I’d made it to Durango this year.
But I was also a little apprehensive and self-doubt crept in.
East or West?
I had always planned to take the Collegiate West (CW) when the trail split near Twin Lakes. It’s the route I chose last year and I was eager to complete it.
The CW is renowned for its high passes and scenic views. It is breathtaking and challenging, which is why it’s the route most CT thru-hikers choose. However, with lots of snow at higher elevations that promised to persist through most of the summer, many hikers were opting for the lower Collegiate East this year.
“Is tackling the more remote Collegiate West the right choice?” I wondered.
Lingering side effects from the Cipro I had been prescribed but was no longer taking were still wearing me down, leading to shorter days than I planned to hike. Instead of an average of 14-16 miles a day, I was often doing just 10-12. Was that enough to get through 85 miles of the remote CW without a resupply?
Doubting myself, I retreated to Leadville to think and rest.
After a few hours of studying the two routes more thoroughly, I decided to stick to my plan. I needed to go West to redeem myself, and I believed I could.
I would enjoy the long, lovely climb up to Hope Pass which was a brutal workout for my weary lungs last August. I’d conquer Lake Ann Pass, even though it scared the crap out of me before. (The steep snow cornice was “totally passable,” I was told).
When I reached Cottonwood Pass where my thru-hike attempt ended last year, I’d savor the accomplishment of repeating the first half of the trail. Then I would continue on, basking in the beauty of parts of the trail I had not yet hiked.
“Yes,” I told myself with excitement, “I’ll go West.”
Leaving Leadville and its 10,000’ elevation, I was ready to head higher. My friend Gunslinger and I struck out from the Mt. Massive trailhead, where we ended our slack pack the day before.
Today our packs were fully loaded, although we each saved a day of food by planning to stop in Twin Lakes. She was headed East while I would go West. After hiking together for a bit, we split up and when I reached the turnoff for Twin Lakes, she was somewhere behind me.
I carried on, heading into the tiny town where I chowed down on BBQ from Punky’s food truck. That was something I missed last year, as not much was open then. This year, I was in luck!
The friendly little market had the extra food I needed to round out my resupply. I went back and snagged some ice cream and a Gatorade as a final treat before heading into the mountains again.
I stopped in the visitor’s center to top off the charge on my electronics. The women working there wished me well, and I walked two miles down the highway to rejoin the trail.
From that moment, I was going up, up, up. The 1.75-mile side trail back to the CT was steep and challenging. It was getting late when I finally reached the Colorado Trail and I still needed to find a campsite. Exhausted from just 12.5 miles of hiking, I stopped at the first site I found.
In the morning I was up early to climb to the top of Hope Pass, and I felt great until I started hiking. My pace is usually about 2 miles an hour. Knowing this was a long climb, I mentally allowed myself a couple of hours to do the 3-miles uphill.
Within a few minutes, I knew I was having a “Jello Legs” morning. Some days every step up made my legs feel wobbly. My mind would say “Go,” and my legs would say, “No.”
I wasn’t sure If the problem was a lack of nutrition (surely, I wasn’t eating enough), fatigue, lack of conditioning, or something else. Maybe it was a reaction to the preservatives in some of my backpacking meals?
Whatever the cause, it was a nagging problem that ate away at my confidence. Jello Legs had the power to make me question everything, from my ability to do this hike to my sanity in even trying it.
Take It Slow
The optimistic side of my brain countered by giving me resounding permission to “take it slow” and “enjoy the views.” I did.
It took me almost 4 hours to make that climb. I stopped frequently to soak in the amazing views. It was wonderful, but I still needed to make time. After a long snack break at the top, I headed purposefully downhill.
A day hiker passed and exclaimed with glee, “You’re the fifth solo female hiker I’ve seen today!” That made me smile, feeling empowered. “Go girls!” I thought.
Later, near the end of a treacherous mile and 1,000’ downhill on steep, sandy scree, she passed me again just in time to see me fall for the second time that day. I cursed loudly, then slowly got up and dusted myself off. I was smarting from a scraped and bloody shin and I didn’t feel so strong anymore.
Finally, the trail leveled out and I carried on, knowing there was a welcoming campsite waiting just a few miles ahead.
Lake Ann Pass
In the morning I had a 6-mile hike just to get to Lake Ann Pass, so I got up before the sun, planning to arrive at the pass by 11 or 12. That would be ideal timing to hike over the intimidating snow cornice, which I had been dreading for months.
In preparation, my dinner the night before was a hearty Mushroom Risotto to ensure my body was well-fueled. It paid off. My legs felt strong and I hiked to the pass in good time, passing a few hikers (or being passed) as I went.
One NOBO hiker gave me great beta on the cornice, telling me what to expect and how to approach it. That was invaluable, assuaging my fears while also increasing my anxiety. Could I do it?
I approached the turn-off for the side trail to Lake Ann, a stunning alpine lake, and decided not to stop. I wanted to cross the cornice before it got too slushy. Instead, I hiked up and found a little flat spot where I could have a quick lunch break before crossing a large rock fall and then up to the top of the pass.
What If I Fall?
As I sat, my fear got the better of me. I had only seen a few hikers that morning and now I was alone on the mountain. “What if I fall?” I worried. Or worse, “What if I fell and DIED??”
It would be much smarter and safer to do this with a buddy, but I didn’t have one.
Instead, I prayed. I recorded a video for my YouTube channel, Joyful Rambler. I wasn’t feeling joyful at all. Gazing at the imposing cornice from a distance, it felt like Mt. Everest.
I was flat-out scared.
The power of “what if” was overwhelming even though in my heart I believed I could make it. I tearfully recorded a “goodbye” video for family and friends, packed up my food bag, and started my climb.
When I got closer to the pass, I saw a small group of hikers trying to come down. One man was at the bottom, catching the packs of the other two as they dropped them before working their way down the snowy slope backwards.
The trail to reach the base of the cornice was a little hard to follow and I bushwhacked a short section when I couldn’t find a switchback. The trio soon passed me and the woman, clearly shaken, stopped to warn me, “That is VERY dangerous!”
I’m Doing This
Well aware of the danger, I picked my way up to the edge of the snow. I could now see the steps other hikers had pressed into the slope. At my feet was a patch of melting snow, too slushy for me. On my left was a short path, 3-4 steps approaching laterally to join the uphill footfalls to the top.
Utterly alone, I looked around, assessing the situation, I grabbed my phone and recorded more video, “If I fall, these rocks will stop me,” and noted. “I won’t go all the way down the mountain.”
It would still hurt, of course, and maybe result in some serious injuries, but at least I wouldn’t be tumbling thousands of feet down!
“I’m doing this,” I told myself as if there was a choice and stepped forward, starting with the lateral path. As I turned and started up the cornice, I wedged my trekking poles into the deep snow and said out loud, “Here’s a step…” as I slammed my foot into the slope once, then twice, making sure my footing was secure.
“Here’s a step…” Now breathe.
“Here’s a step…” Don’t look down.
“Here’s a step…” That’s good.
“Here’s a step…” You’re doing it.
“Here’s a step…” I just might make it.
“Here’s a step…” The top is in view.
On I went, not counting my steps but praying with each one.
Finally, I was at the top. Just a couple more steps and I’d be on the flat, hard-packed snow that led to the rocky summit.
“One, two, three….”
I was here, and I didn’t fall! Halleluiah!
I’m N0t Dead Yet
In my elation, I stepped forward too quickly and slipped, but the snow beneath me was level and I quickly caught myself. It was a good reminder to not let my guard down.
At the summit, I celebrated solo before heading downhill again. What an accomplishment! I was proud of myself for digging deep into my meager reserve of courage to find the tenacity I needed to get here. I faced my fears and prevailed.
Maybe this trail could kill me, but I wouldn’t let it. Not today, anyway.
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