This past weekend I went on one helluva an adventure. I knew it would be an interesting trip for a multitude of reasons but I had no idea just how much I’d learn about myself and others when I started out on what was supposed to be an 10-ish hour wilderness trek around the frontcountry/slackcountry just southwest of Denver. Luckily the first 10 hours of the day were everything I expected…it wasn’t until after the sunset that reality started beating me over the head with one lesson after another. I will probably share those lessons later, for now let’s focus on the fun that comes with a day of bushwhacking in the mountains!
I met a group of friends + strangers at a snowy trailhead near the South Platte River and by 8:30am we were headed up the trail with packs full of food, water, a course map and other basic trail essentials. We followed the trail for about 200 feet before we headed up, up, up…
The rest of the day was spent hiking up and down mountains from one peak to another. At the top of each peak we stashed a book that would act as a checkpoint in an upcoming orienteering that is a Barkley Marathons knockoff. I decided to tag along for this little [ha!] adventure to help the race director set up the course and get a little time on my feet in the wilderness. We were placing books 7-13, the first 6 had been placed the weekend before when I was busy hut trippin’ with navigationally challenged friends!
We formed a single file line as we made the slow trek up the side of a ravine to the drop spot for the first book. Thanks to Colorado’s weird interpretation of “spring” we were plowing through a fresh layer of heavy, wet snow that often topped out near our knees. The adventure had officially begun! We dropped the first book at the top of the peak then pulled out our maps before continuing on toward an elusive property line. Turns out “property line” means different things to different people [was it the blue paint on a lonely tree or a broken barbed wire fence a few hundred feet west? I still don’t know…] but our scattered group eventually found it’s way down another ravine and to the edge of a deep mountain lake.
Up next was a slow, technical scramble up a rocky peak to the northeast. From the lake shore it looked steep but scramble-able until we worked our way above the thick shrubs and realized the top of this peak was all rocks. And not easy to navigate scree and boulders…cliffs of rocks that would start out gentle than suddenly become vertical. Well, this was going to get interesting…
Slowly but surely we made our way up and around the peak. There was a lot of “ooh, this looks passable…*scramble*scramble*…nope, nevermind…*downclimb*downclimb*…” so our going was really slow! We eventually worked our way around to the eastern side of the peak and found a short gully to quickly bushwhack up. In the middle of the day with sunlight and good weather it was kind of fun to have to truly route-find our way along the mountainside; it’ll get even more interesting during the race when everyone hits this section after dark!
On the next stretch of trekking it became very obvious that I seriously suck at snowy descents! The guys took off skater sliding + butt sliding down the snow. While I did my best to keep up they were out of sight in less than 10 minutes. Luckily there were snowy tracks to follow, until there weren’t.
We finally caught up with the guys again…as they were stripped down and sun bathing on the opposite side of a fast, deep river. Fantastic! We pulled off our extra layers, hiked our packs up as high as possible and plunged into the river. Holy hell, it was cold! I stood about knee-deep while Kim waded across and the water was bearable but as soon as I started across and the frigid water hit my waist my body freaked out. I forgot how to breathe and struggled to keep my footing. The moment I left the water my body bounced back and the warm sun kept me from even feeling chilled. I’ve never been in water like that before and its effect on my body was incredible! This is another section of the race that will get interesting for the runners in the dark…
Up until this point we were following the prescribed race route but the next two books would be placed out of race day order. The deep snow had slowed us down enough that it wasn’t feasible to make the trek out to the most remote book [the RD would place it during the week] so we eyed up the path of least resistance for the next two books. The first, just east of the Colorado Trail, was a rather easy scramble and the second, west of the Colorado Trail, was slightly snowier scramble.
As we headed up to the final peak/book setting dark clouds with rumbling thunder rolled up. Welcome to Colorado’s version of spring…where an impromptu snow storm comes with lightning and thunder! Luckily it never got windy and the storm moved through quickly. Even so, it was a reminder that we were a long way from the trailhead with a cold, dark night ahead of us so we needed to really focus on moving toward our cars.
After placing the final book we started a rocky bushwhack down the mountainside toward a drainage creek that would lead us to the mountain lake we had been skirting around all day. From here we would try to follow the shoreline around to the main tributary where we hoped to come upon an old fishing road.
Unfortunately this plan was foiled just before the sunset when it became obvious the shoreline cliffed out [at the top of an impassable cliff]. If the lake were anything but an extremely deep mountain lake we probably could have skirted below the cliff with little more than wet feet but the lake bottom literally disappeared less than a foot from the shore…our only option was to pull out extra layers + headlamps and start the slow, tedious climb up a snowy, rocky slope that ranged from 25-45+ degrees [for reference, going up a 45 degree slope is like crawling hands-and-knees straight up…I do NOT recommend it without ropes!].
This was where the adventure got interesting…and not in a good way. The group got split up, the temperatures dropped to freezing and below [27 degrees when I arrived at my car] and it started to rain/snow. It was not fun but Kim and I [alone with no idea where the rest of the group was at this point] were so in the moment and focused on survival we truly did not have time to be miserable. At the end of the day [night, really] we all survived with Kim and I returning to the trailhead just before 3am, tired and cold. Luckily we had both packed more than enough food + layers to survive the extra 8 hours in the wilderness, along with the basic essentials to stay warm if we did have to stop moving.
It was not a good situation to be in and I do take some responsibility for not putting my foot down earlier in the afternoon when I was uncomfortable with the route that was chosen and the lack of communication…that’s one of the many lessons I learned this past weekend. However, at the end of the day, I was physically prepared to survive the night in the cold, snowy wilderness if absolutely necessary [I will never, ever feel silly leaving the trailhead with a pack that seems “too full” according to on-lookers!] and I am extremely proud of how both Kim and I handled the situations we ended up in.
We kept our heads on straight, we talked each other through rough patches and we discussed all of our options as a cohesive team. That part of the adventure was awesome…and that is why I really like roaming the mountains, you never know what you’ll learn about yourself, newfound friends or people you though you knew. The results aren’t always pretty but if you live to tell the story you did something right!