Joy vs. the Wilderness, part 2
If you read my last post, you know that I just returned from a 9 day hiking trip to the Colorado wilderness to raise money for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center (JWRC). It was a very successful Trek which, so far, has raised over $16,000 for JWRC… the most ever! I was very honored to have been asked, and it was an incredibly rewarding experience for both me and my 21 year old son, Jordan, who accompanied me.
That being said, holy cow.
Colorado kicked my ass.
When I agreed to go on this year’s Trek, I knew there would be a certain amount of training I would have to do to get in shape. Here’s how that went.
I was already doing a pretty intense yoga class on Wednesday nights, so I figured that counted for something. I also started swimming laps at the middle school last winter, eventually working my way up to 1000 yards without stopping (plus flip turns!). This was quite a feat for me, and something I hadn’t done since high school. When the session ended last spring, I was feeling pretty dang proud of myself.
Next, I joined the Fitbit Step Challenge at work. The goal was to average 10,000-12,000 steps per day for four weeks. This may seem pretty easy for most people, but not so for a marketing person who sits behind a desk for the better part (all part) of a day. Many times, I found myself having to get up before work to take the dog for a walk, or doing loops around my neighborhood after dinner, just to get my steps in.
About three weeks before the Trek, I decided walking wasn’t good enough. It was helping to break in my new hiking shoes, but I realized my legs needed to be stronger, so I decided to start running. Let me be clear on this… I am not a runner. In fact, I hate running. My plan was to work my way through the “Couch to 5K” app, but I soon realized there wasn’t enough time to cram that in before I left for the Trek. Instead, I made myself a fun 70s playlist, and with a little help from my friends — Rupert Holmes, Cheap Trick, Neil Diamond, and Glen Campbell — I managed to work my way up to two miles without stopping.
Bring on the Wilderness.
After arriving in Buena Vista, Colorado and camping the first night at Snowy Peaks Campround, we were ready for our first big hike. We packed up our tents, loaded our backpacks, and headed about 25 miles south to the town of Salida. We had heard there was a forest fire along Hayden Pass, so our Trek leader, Bill, wanted to check with the Ranger station in Salida to get an update.
As we pulled into Salida, we discovered an entire tent city that had been set up for firefighters who were arriving from all over the U.S. to help fight the forest fire. On that day, there also happened to be a press conference taking place at the Ranger station. It was just beginning as we pulled in, so I dug out my iPhone and joined the media throng while the others found a helpful Ranger to discuss a game plan and consider their options.
As I left the press conference to join the rest of the gang, I was fully prepared to hear that we might not be able to complete our backpacking excursion. No such luck. We were pressing on toward Westcliffe… toward the fire. The plan was to hike the Horn Creek Trail, and the Ranger had assured us we would be safe. Just don’t stop your car along the road from Salida to Westcliffe, he told us. No gawkers allowed.
I must say, for all the fuss and hullabaloo, it didn’t look like much of a forest fire to me. Granted there were helicopters with water buckets flying around, and Smoky the Bear even made an appearance at the press conference, but I couldn’t see any flames or even black smoke. There were plumes of white smoke coming off the mountains, and you could definitely smell smoke in the air, but as far as forest fires go, it didn’t seem imminently scary. All good. On to Westcliffe and the Horn Creek Trail.
When we arrived in Westcliffe, we had a little time to grab some lunch and look around, so I wandered into a little outfitter store and bought myself a pair of mountain-climber zip-off pants. It turns out they are all the rage in the mountains, and I was dying of heat in my black, lined wind pants. Another lesson learned.
As we pressed on to the trailhead at Horn Creek, I also learned we would need to help carry group items in our backpacks, along with what we already had packed. These items included food, pots, pans, etc.
Gulp. Was not prepared for that.
When we reached the trailhead, I got another lesson in lightening my backpack. Down vest… gone. Fuzzy tights… gone. Swimsuit… gone. Fork… gone. I was down to the bare essentials, and still my pack felt like a million pounds. We took a vote as to whether we should take ALL the group supplies with us at that moment, or come back down without packs the next day to retrieve the rest of the food. I voted to come back down the next day and even volunteered to do it… anything to make my current load a little lighter. I grabbed a roll of toilet paper from the group supplies, added it to my pack, and happily started on my way up the mountain.
I made it about half a city block and thought I was going to die.
At some point, when all I could do was just keep putting one foot in front of the other and hope my heart would not explode, I felt water dripping on me and couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. I kept thinking my water bottle was leaking, but to my utter amazement, I soon realized it was SWEAT. My own sweat. Who knew.
The other thing I was not prepared for (nor was anyone else) were the MOSQUITOS. They were crazy! Truly, I’ve never seen anything like it, not even in Minnesota. They were all over us at all times… so much so, that stopping for a rest was neither pleasant nor advised. Best to just keep moving… slow and steady… tortoise vs. hare.
For three miles and two hours straight, I kept putting one foot in front of the other and hoped I wouldn’t die. Somewhere along the way, we ran into some day hikers making their descent who told us there was a beautiful meadow just ahead. It was wide and grassy with wildflowers, and sat along a creek surrounded by aspens. It was all I could think about as I kept plodding along. Every time I turned a corner or came up over another rise, I searched for the Shangri-La Meadow. (As it turns out, the phrase “just up ahead” is a relative term for those super-fit hiker people… especially those that are heading downhill.)
We finally made it to the Shangri-La Meadow around 4:45 PM, and it truly was beautiful. We filled our water bottles at the creek, added iodine and neutralizer pills, then filled the cooking pots with water so our leader, Bill, could get the tea going.
“High tea” is a Wilderness Trek tradition that I really came to love. Every day after a strenuous hike, Bill would make us a big pot of tea… and every batch was a little different. Sometimes ginger, sometimes chamomile, sometimes who-knows-what. All I know is this… when you’re kind of dying and the thought of starting dinner is completely overwhelming, a little cup of tea goes a long way toward bolstering the spirit. Good tea makes good company. Another lesson learned.
Next, Bill and Amy made us homemade mac and cheese with chicken and spices mixed in. It was delicious. I was full, tired, and ready for bed. Because of the fire ban, we couldn’t have a campfire, so we all ended up rolling into our tents pretty early that night.
I went to bed feeling pretty proud that I had survived the first day’s hike. Little did I know the next day would be even harder… another three miles up the Horn Creek Trail, this time to 11,800 feet. And we still had to go back to get the rest of the food.