All was quiet except for a steady breeze and the crackle of the small fire. It was a nice nook to set up camp. The trees were thinning and there was just enough room for a tent and a fire. About the only flat area we had seen since we started the long arduous climb up the Colorado Trail a few miles back.
I inched closer to the fire, the chill of night started to seep through my damp clothes. Rain gear was strewn about, for about 8 miles the skies opened up on us. Drenched to the core is never a fun way to start off 32 miles, but we endured. Looking up I could see the shadows of the fire dancing against the trees, beyond that the first stars were starting to twinkle. Despite the picturesque scene something just didn’t quite feel right.
“Do you have an uneasy feeling?” I broke the silence.
“Yeah, something just doesn’t feel right.” Squirrel replied. We pondered for a moment, taking in the beauty of the night unfolding around us.
For how comfortable I feel in nature I couldn’t shake this feeling that I shouldn’t be there. We had a long two days ahead of us. I gave a shiver and scuffed the ground with my feet.
“Well…?” Squirrel shifted uneasily onto his right foot. I could tell he had been favoring it since mile 6. A few weeks back he had rolled his ankle while carrying climbing gear and ropes. It hadn’t really felt right since.
We both shrugged, buried the fire, and headed into our tent. I tried to shut my eyes and relax, but my mind was racing. Every little creak from the swaying trees felt like Mother Nature was crying out that we weren’t meant to be here. Not here. Not now. Somehow I managed to drift off and catch some sleep.
The next morning the feeling was gone, birds were chirping and the early morning sun felt warm and inviting. Squirrel rolled over and groaned. Over night the altitude had caused his ankle to swell up. Knowing we had 12+ miles ahead of us over a pass and a high ridge that day and another 8+ the next we knew that it wasn’t going to happen.
We decided to turn around. You don’t call the shots out here. You listen to yourself, your gut, and your body or you can end up in a heap of trouble. A hurt ankle has no business walking 32 miles up and over 11,500′ passes with a fully weighted bag. Of course, in true fashion, it was a fantastically beautiful day. As we headed back down the valley we couldn’t help but look back disappointed at the pass we failed to meet. Defeated and deflated we headed home.
That’s how it goes on the mountain sometimes. You can’t always conquer. As beautiful as it may be, it’s a wild place and you are but a visitor. Don’t worry though, we weren’t about to give up on the segment that easily. The following year, as soon as the snow melted, we returned for another go.
The Second Attempt
The thought of repeating the first 9 miles for a third time was out of the question. As our luck would have it, our friends had just bought a Jeep and there happened to be a Jeep road close enough to mile 9. We told them we wanted to hit the trail by 7am. My motto in the mountains is always: “start early.” In order to make it work we needed to drive our car to the end of the segment in Breckenridge and then drive all the way to Georgia Pass up Michigan Creek Road. If you’re headed there I’d recommend a high clearance vehicle. Logistically, this meant our friends needed to meet at our house at 3am. You know you’ve got amazing friends if they’re willing to meet you at 3am to shuttle a car and drive up a mountain pass just for kicks.
After a few jokes and a stretch from the long car ride we heaved our packs onto our backs and set out. The Colorado Trail meets the Continental Divide Trail here and the two stay married for over 300 miles.
The day only got better from there. The views were breathtaking. The morning light danced whimsically amongst the mountain tops and wildflowers. We hardly saw anyone until well after mid-day, which is shocking considering the area is well trafficked in spots. Just below Georgia Pass there were fabulous campsites almost every few minutes. However we had 14 long, hard miles ahead of us.
The Colorado Trail is no joke. It’s approximately 486 miles and divided into 28 segments. A majority of the trail is over 10,000′ and there are endless numbers of steep climbs (gaining 1,500-2,000 vertical feet over a couple of miles). With a weighted pack on your back this is no easy task.
The Day Wore On
Every time I backpack I always hit a point where I ask myself why the hell do I do this for fun? It’s hot, it’s tiring, you sweat, you’re moving slow, and at times it feels as if you are on never-ending uphill or (even worse) downhill grind. By the time we hit mile 11 that’s where I was at. It had become brutally hot, exposed, 10,000+ feet high, and we were on the final push over the second pass of the day. Even the dog wasn’t having it, she kept skipping off the trail and sitting down in what little shade she could find about scrubby pines. All three of us were going through water quickly, and we had both filled up water bottles as well as our Osprey bladders.
Soon we crested the pass. But that means that the real challenge begins. No matter what they say downhill is harder. It’s tougher on your knees, feet, and body. Any well seasoned hiker or backpacker will tell you it’s more dangerous. It’s tougher on the dog’s feet too (see my post about protecting your pooch’s precious paws here).
The Final Struggle
By the time we got to camp I had my pace down to a slow shuffle, I passed Squirrel and mumbled “I’ll see you at camp, if my feet stop moving, they won’t start again.” We hobbled into what is easily the most beautiful camp site we had seen on the trail. A small cluster of trees provided lots of protection and just outside was a sprawling valley with peaks on either side of us. It was worth all of the effort ten times over.
We set up camp and realized that we were getting low on water. We ventured out to where we figured there was, according to the pocket guide, a seasonal stream. Colorado had gotten a lot of snow and rain. All of the other seasonal streams were flowing, this one was mis-marked. There was no stream. Defeated and beat up we knew we were going to be waking up a little dehydrated the next morning.
Despite the water situation we were in good spirits, it was so stunningly beautiful. We sat on a log enjoying the view and the golden hour. But exhaustion took over quickly once the sun went behind the mountain. I had the best night’s sleep of my mountain life.
Fully rested we struck out the next day with the urgent need for water. The air was crisp and the scenery amazing. We crossed paths with a fellow backpacker who said there was a seasonal stream about a mile and half down the trail. When we arrived to the trickle of water it was like coming across an olympic pool sized oasis in the desert. Shortly after our water break we encountered a moose which was a pleasant surprise.
Soon, the trees broke on the trail and we were welcomed by a beautiful view overlooking Breckenridge. The trail ends with a series of tough switchbacks, jogs through a neighborhood, then crosses a highway to the parking lot where Segment 7 begins. We gave a few hoots and whoops as we let down the tail gate of the truck and kicked our shoes off (always leave flip flops in the car). Our victory was short lived as we examined Segment 7in front of us. It climbs steeply back out of the valley and follows a ridge on the 10 Mile Range for several miles before dipping down towards Copper Mountain. That chapter has yet to be written. Judging by its size and difficulty it will grant us pain, beauty, and satisfaction all the same.
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