What would you do if you had been married for several years and you could have a hall pass for a weekend? I cashed in all my chips to go backpacking by myself for the first time. Here’s a little report on pushing myself mentally and physically as I did a few segments on the Colorado Trail /Continental Divide Trail. 50 miles, one weekend, no companions.
I really love backpacking, but the funny thing is I’ve never been on a solo trip (perfect for someone blogging on BandofBackpackers.com). I’ve really enjoyed all the social backpacking we’ve done this summer, but I had been growing a little restless wanting to see what my limits were as far as time and distance on the trail. It took some negotiating and rethinking priorities, but eventually Lydia conceded that I could go out by myself for a weekend while she stayed in Denver to bring home the bacon (she’s a nurse and has to work every 3rd weekend…oh and I really like bacon). She thought the CT would be a good place for me to hike (rather than some more obscure spots I was thinking) as it is familiar, well marked, and the likelihood of me getting lost is about the same as me getting a real hall pass from marriage.
I’ll give a bit of a turn by turn chronological report below, but the real highlights of the trip were:
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the wilderness the last few years, but I’ve always had someone with me. It’s amazing how much of a difference it makes just knowing someone is right with you on the trail in that dark forest when you hear a crashing noise or in a nearby tent when something goes bump in the night. Starting at 7pm on Friday, it probably took until 7:00 am on Saturday until I finally relaxed enough to start enjoying the trip. 12 hours is a lot of time to be on edge and it felt great after that to know that I could easily do it again. It also makes me appreciate the awesome people that I hike with all the time.
The other area where I pushed myself was in the distance I did in one weekend, 50 miles, lots of elevation gain/lost (the CT guidebook says 9800 feet of elevation from the opposite direction), and at altitude (generally between 10 and 12,500 feet). I started at 7pm on Friday and finished at 5pm on Sunday. That means I hiked 50 miles in 46 hours which equates to 1.09 mph pace regardless of setting up camp, sleeping, eating, gathering water, bear bagging, talking to passing hikers, and pooping. That didn’t leave much time for catching my breath. The route was perfect for bailing early if necessary due to fatigue or emergency as I’d hit several busy trailheads, cross three highways, and could catch a bus from Copper Mountain ski resort. I didn’t bail early. I did almost 30 miles on Saturday. That meant getting up with the sun, hiking fast til it got hot, taking step after painful step up Kokomo Pass, then cruising on top of the divide into the evening. I crashed for the night, tired and sore, then got up the next morning and hiked again, stared up the mountain from Copper to Breckenridge, marched up about 2500 feet of elevation in 3 miles with military precision, and finished off the trail with plenty of time to walk around Breckenridge and Frisco for a few hours before Lydia could pick me up.
Scenery and Wildlife
A few years ago I gave up a lot to travel on a consulting project because I thought the project would be interesting (writing software for organ and tissue donation) and because I thought Colorado would be a great place to work/live (it is). At the time I was working in Dallas. It only took a few snowboarding trips (after 3 days you’ll be a pro) and one camping trip (RMNP with Lydia) to realize how lucky I’d be if I could live in this state. I made the decision to marry Lydia and talked her into moving away from her family in Houston to live with me in Colorado. Scenery like what I saw on this trip is why people move here. Oh, and I also had a moose pass right in front of me, not to mention colorful wildflowers, vibrant birds, cute chipmonks, fat & furry marmots, elk, and so many squirrels (amazing how much you see without dogs).
I ran into a lot of really cool people while I was hiking. I probably met over 20 CT (Colorado Trail) thru hikers including Traci, David, and Josie (the dog) from Conquering the Colorado Trail. Given that we only met a few thru hikers on our CT trip in ’09 I was surprised to see so many in one weekend. I was even more surprised to see so many traveling in packs and camping together. The second night I met Dave (trail adopter for the CT for the segment between Copper and Searle Pass), Bob (trail maintenance artist), and Tim (kid who brought the beer for them and it was Dale’s Pale Ale so you know he’s a good kid) who were backpacking and doing trail maintenance. When I finished my trip at the Gold Hill Trailhead, I hopped on a bus to Breckenridge and was immediately greeted by another thru hiker, Pete. He was stranded til Monday, and I was stranded until Lydia got off work at 7:15pm and could drive from Denver to Frisco, so we hung out for a couple hours just talking about the trail and backpacking light (he was a fan of Mike Clelland and Andrew Skurka as well). I’m rooting for him to finish the trail and get his Colorado Trail Ale from Carver’s in Durango (he’s thru hiking and going sober for the entire trip).
Now for the details of the trip in case anyone would like to retrace my steps, or part of the trip since you can always cut out earlier. If you don’t have an awesome wife like I do who will drop you off and pick you up, I’d suggest driving two cars. Drop one off at the trailhead for segment 6 (Gold Hill) or 7 (Copper, there are easy places to camp right there by this one along highway 91) and take the other one on to Timberline Lake Trailhead at the end of Turquoise Lake.
Would you ever go backpacking alone? How have you pushed yourself beyond your comfort zone? Leave a message in the comments below!
Lydia picked me up from work a little after 4pm. We were celebrating New Fiscal Year’s Eve (our fiscal year ends in June) at work with drinks and apps. So I got to down a Ranger IPA (perfect) and hit the road. We stopped for SmashBurger in Dillon for my last meal and made it to Timberline Lake TH on the CT at about 6:30. I said goodbye to Lydia as she gave me her final warnings (something to the effect if you die on the trail I’m going to kill you) and headed north on the CT. Immediately I saw llamas.
I was a bit nervous and hiked pretty quickly. I made it about 4 miles and started setting up camp about 8:30 just past treeline. I was surprised to find that the bugs were really out given I wasn’t very close to water. Since I was using just the fast fly setup for my Big Agnes Seedhouse UL tent I had to wear my bug headnet. I didn’t sleep super awesome due to all the bugs and noise and was kind of startled when I woke up early in the morning and there was dead silence, made you feel like something was around that all the bugs were afraid of.
I set my alarm for 5:15am so I could get an early start. I was able to hit the trail about 20 minutes later after tearing down my shelter and picking up my bear bag. It was a little creepy early in the morning through the Holy Cross Wilderness, so I moved pretty quickly. I met a couple with their dogs (one had to be leashed kind of like us with Charger while the other roamed free like Frisco) who lived in a house nearby. I thought about how awesome it would be to be able to walk out your door onto a trail you could take for 500 miles (CT) or over 2000 miles (CDT). By 9am I made it to Tennessee Pass (completing segment 9). I started to see a grip of people at this point. A lot of day hikers, my first thru hikers, and several mountain bikers (that scared the crap out of me as they sped right up to me to pass).
After crossing hwy 24 I met Traci, David, and Josie from Conquering the Colorado Trail. They were a really nice couple, enjoyed hearing about their trip thus far, talking dogs on the CT (Josie was eating dehydrated dog food), and wished them well. Pretty soon I could hear godawful noises as I got close to Camp Hale. There were a bunch of sheep grazing. I was really glad to reach Camp Hale as I was out of water at that point and I was burning a lot of calories.
I stopped for lunch at Cataract Falls. I remember when Lydia, Adrianna, Nick, and I came by the falls I thought how it would have made an awesome shower for thru hikers. I considered it briefly, but started by soaking my tired feet. I realized pretty quickly that even a brief shower would chill you to the bone as the water was ice cold. I ate my lunch on the bench right by the falls. I thought I might take a nap in the afternoon, but there wasn’t much shade, the bugs were bothering me, and Kokomo Pass was looming around the corner with clouds coming in.
As I started up Kokomo Pass I met several day hikers. One couple made my day/trip by being flabbergasted that my pack had everything I needed to go out over night. She said they used to carry 45 pound packs backpacking. I told her mine weighed 10 pounds without food and water, maybe 15 pounds at the time. The rest of the pass kicked my butt. It was stinking hot and a lot of uphill after I had already done a bunch of miles, but I finally made it up and got to enjoy the views. I was admiring the views between Kokomo and Searle Pass when I met Adam, another thru hiker. He said he had camped with a group of people for a few days and was heading on so he could make it to Leadville to resupply.
After descending Searle Pass I got a look at Janet’s Cabin, which looks like such a sweet hut, would love to visit in the winter. I decided to go ahead and have my dinner at Guller Creek right above Janet’s where the wildflowers are always amazing. Another thru hiker came up to get some water and said they were camped around the ridge. For dinner I was eating PB&J as I had strategically decided to only eat meals where I had to heat water at lunch during the middle of the day so I could rest more (thus allowing me to hike more early and late when the temps are awesome). I was pretty tired at this point and I had just managed to leave a message for Lydia (can’t believe I had signal at Searle Pass). I was thinking about settling down at this point. I wasn’t sure if I should join the group of campers (would that be rude?) or camp across the trail up a hill from them that looked good but was in site of their camp (would that be more rude?), so I ended up just waving and continuing down the trail. At this point it was getting later and all the spots I was finding had lots of downed trees. Given Nick’s experience (tree fell within 4 feet of his tent) a few weeks ago and remembering Lydia’s warning (certain death), I decided to keep cruising.
I made it to where the trail evens out along the creek. Just as I came to a hill with a bench I saw 3 guys and they asked if I was looking for a spot to camp. I said yep and that I thought I’d just settle right there. They said I could join them, but I was pretty beat and said I’d be fine right there. I quickly set up my shelter and they came over to talk. It ended up the first guy was Dave and he had adopted this segment of the trail. The next guy Bob (I think that’s right) was an older gentleman that looked familiar (from CT photos or holiday parties) and was known for doing lots of trail maintenance. The third guy, Tim, was a younger kid and was doing trail maintenance. They drank their Dale’s Pale Ales and we talked for a bit. They asked how the trail was on the way down from Searle Pass as they were headed up there the next morning to do some work. I eventually broke off to bear bag and unpack. A little before 9 I jumped in the tent and ended up falling asleep because I was so tired from hiking about 30 miles that day. I also hadn’t drank enough water, because I hadn’t yet used the bathroom for the evening and never got up during the night. I could hear Dave and Bob talking about Cutthroat trout and where to catch them. I almost got up to join the conversation as I knew every lake they were talking about (Tuhare Lakes, Treasure Vault, Missouri Lakes, 7 Sisters), but I just crashed.
The alarm went off at 5:15 on Sunday morning, so I packed everything up, got my bear bag, and left before I saw Dave, Bob, and Tim stir. I followed the creek for several miles going in towards Copper Mountain. I wasn’t quite as fast this morning as a little pain alternated between my hips, knees, and steady discomfort presented itself in my feet. It seemed to take a lot longer to get to Copper than I would have thought. But I did have a moose cross my path and I met several more thru hikers. Generally I was amazed at the size of their packs (large). One couple had a dog that greeted me like Frisco (loud barking) to the point we couldn’t really have a conversation and I had to leave so there would be peace. Another group was across the creek and as I walked by I happened to see the girl was changing (oops).
As I entered Copper I got spooked by a lady that came up behind me while I was filling my water bladder. She was wearing race gear, but it seemed to take her 30 seconds to cross the creek. She said she was from Houston and doing a half marathon on the mountain. I met another young couple thru hiking and they (among others) warned me that I was in for a big climb up to Breck and that I should try to get there early before any storms came in. I was starting to prepare mentally for the hill that awaited me and knew that it would be hot when I would be hiking it.
I stopped just past Copper as I entered segment 7 (14 miles to go at 10am). I rested my feet, hydrated, checked the map for water sources, and made up my mind to just tear up the mountain and go for it. I looked at my watch and drank a sip of water every 10 minutes, ate a Stinger Energy Chew every 30 minutes, and hiked mostly non-stop (except to fill up on water) up the pass.
As I was reaching the pass and enjoying the extra wind high up that was cooling me off I could see clouds all around. I pushed on and over the pass, stopping briefly to take pics and a video of the panoramic view. On the other side I ran into several people on their way up. One was a thru hiker that was slackpacking (he had taken the bus and his pack over to Copper and was now hiking up with no pack and just a bottle of water).
After I descended the pass I came across I guy with three girls. I wasn’t quite sure what they were up to, but found out soon that they were going to slide down a snowbank. I watched as the guy did it first (digging his feet in to stop himself). Next, one of the girls went and she almost didn’t make the connection that she had to dig her feet in to top before hitting the rocks. I went on down and found a shady spot where I could have lunch and rest for a bit for the final push. At this point I felt like I had too much food. I was definitely going to have leftovers from the trip, not a bad thing except it meant I carried too much weight for the entire trip. Probably a pound and a half too much as I just wasn’t that hungry while hiking all day.
On the way down I stopped at the last creek to wash the sweat stains off my shirt (pointless I’d find out an hour later). I’m bummed as I hiked shirtless to air dry my shirt it caught on a tree branch and put small hole near the wrist. At this point it was pretty depressing as well as the entire area was being logged. So many trees were cut down to try to stem the beetle kill. It also made for a very hot last few miles. At one point a couple mountain biking passed me up. Then we were going uphill and I passed them up and didn’t see them again until the bus stop, felt pretty good to out hike some mountain bikers.
When I reached Goldhill (50 miles from where I started), I decided to take the bus into Breck since it was 5pm and Lydia doesn’t normally get off until 7:30 and she had at least an hour and a half drive. As I hopped on the bus, a guy saw my pack and asked if I was thru hiking. I took a seat next to him and told him I just finished a few segments and was going to kill some time until my ride got there. His name was Pete and he was killing time because the post office was closed for the weekend and he had to wait until Monday to pick up his resupply package. We quickly started talking about the trail and about gear. He said he was using a sheet of Tyvek for a ground cloth under his bivy and wanted to see if he could pick up a footprint. We found the only outdoor store in Breck, Mountain Outfitters and looked through their selection, but they only had really big foot prints. At that point I offered to let him borrow mine for the rest of his trip, but he declined saying he’d be too worried he’d tear it up. We sat out by the creek in the shade and talked until I realized I should catch the bus to Frisco.
In Frisco I walked around (yeah definitely got a couple miles in after the 50 mile hike) looking for a gift for Lydia, but most of the shops were closed. I finally picked up some fudge (s’more’s flavored) knowing that it wasn’t near enough to pay her back for my hall pass and for driving back and forth to the mountains to drop me off and pick me up…but at least it was something.
I then decided to go to Prost for dinner. With a description of fine beers and sausages I figured it was worth a try since I’ve been to the Backcountry Brewery many times. There was a guy playing live music outside and I grabbed a seat on the patio as the weather was finally cooling down. I had an elk jalapeno sausage, German potato salad, and the Houblon Chouffe (a hopped tripple – floral and high in alcohol). The food was good and the beers fine enough for my taste, but the service was a bit slow so I ended up leaving to walk along the creek.
Lydia picked me up shortly and we drove back to Denver.
I made a few changes to my gear since I was alone and planned on hiking a lot of miles.
I took my cellphone this time so I could at least call Lydia when I got done with the trip. As it ended up I was able to call her 2 times along the way!
I took a 2 liter platypus bladder with a hose and an extra half liter bottle. I normally take two one liter bottles which work great, especially when Lydia is there to grab them out of my pack and hand them to me. Since I was by myself it was great to not have to take off my pack to get a drink. I used the half liter bottle exclusively for Nuun and Scratch Labs drink mix.
I used my Nightlight torso pad from Gossamer Gear for the first time. It really wasn’t that uncomfortable so it’s a sacrifice in weight I’d make again. The second night I was so tired I probably could have slept on a rock and it wouldn’t have mattered.
I did take my Benchmade Knife and I actually used it to cut moleskin for blisters on my feet. I didn’t take scissors, which would have been easier to use than the knife.
I didn’t take the mug/bowl for my Trail Designs Caldera Cone Foster’s Keg can cook set. I just put rubber bands to hold everything together and was very careful not to set my pack on the keg can.
Nick recently finished a bottle of Sriracha and I used that as my denatured alcohol fuel bottle. It was great! It didn’t leak, it was light, and it was much easier to pour.