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Day 1 on the Colorado Trail

Looking back now, I cannot stop laughing at our mishaps

I took six days off work and planned to spend it backpacking the Colorado Trail.  I wanted to hike as far and see as much of the wilderness and trail as I possibly could. I packed up the car early Thursday morning and Riley and I were on the road by 8 am. I decided to start hiking at Segment 9, at Tennessee Pass Trailhead, 9 miles off the 24W Junction right before you enter Leadville. My daily goal for Riley and I was to hike 10 miles a day, and would adjust or slow down if we needed to. I loaded both of our packs with the gear that we would need for the next six days, food, sleeping bag, tent, water filter, stove, warm clothes, headlamp, and extra batteries. We took off on the trail with the sun shining upon us, our packs weighted down and our spirits high.

The first five miles were relatively easy, we cruised through the forest and had the trail to ourselves. I was so excited to be on another adventure, exploring the area in a new way. As we followed the white triangle Colorado Trail signs through the woods Riley discovered a small pond to our left, just as a furry brown martin ran across the desolate trail. Throughout the day I was timing myself to keep track of our pace and by the afternoon we were averaging just over two miles an hour which is pretty good for the both of us considering we were carrying heavy packs.

We entered the Holy Cross Wilderness at 6.7 miles into our day. We stopped to grab a permit from the box and was immediately stricken by the beauty of the surrounding snowcapped mountains, the green meadows, blooming flowers, and the sound of a stream in the distance. However, almost instantly the mosquitos doubled in quantity. The temperature was 75 degrees and I was carrying a 40-pound pack uphill, there was no way I could wear a thick long-sleeve shirt to keep the mosquitos at bay. I had to continue to trudge along in my tank top being eaten alive by the now swarm of 100 hungry mosquitos. Of all the gear that I had remembered to bring, the compass, sunscreen, toilet paper, a small bottle of whiskey, extra matches, bug spray was the one thing that I had forgotten and immediately regretted. There was no chance that I could stop even to take a break or to catch my breath the mosquitos were just too adamant and too malicious, so we continued and barely stopped for 2 miles.

I knew that we were going to run into or had a high possibility of encountering snowfields and some patches of snow along the trail. The elevation ranges from 10,000 feet to just shy of 12,000 feet within the Holy Cross Wilderness and it was still early season. We encountered patches of snow almost immediately as we gained in elevation carrying our heavy packs and all alone in the wilderness. As we progressed uphill through the snow and still engulfed by mosquitos I began to think to myself, “Why am I doing this?” I think every hiker has that thought when they reach a strenuous part of the trail or when the conditions may not be optimal. But then you take a deep breath and shake off the pessimistic thoughts and tell yourself that you can do this and that the hard part will be over soon. Little did I know at the time it had just begun for me and was going to continue for the next four hours.

Within the Holy Cross Wilderness, the white trail signs become tree markings with one small marking on top and a larger rectangle marking underneath. As we continued on the trail I would search for these markers to make sure that we were still on course as sometimes I had to get off the trail to bypass the snow. As we approached the high point at 11,702 feet I came across a snow field that stopped me dead in my tracks. I could see one tree sign straight up the hill in front of me but no clear path and nothing else to let me know where the trail was headed after that. I stood there for five minutes looking for a footprint of a person who had previously trudged through the snowfield, a tree sign, or a row of rocks lining the edge of the trail telling me that it’s a switch back and that I’ll need to climb straight up. Instead of meandering trying to find the trail that potentially could end up nowhere and run the risk of getting lost, I decided my best option would be to drop my pack, fashion a walking stick from a tree branch and make my way through the snow in each logical direction. I began searching to my left hundreds of feet and then hiking straight up the steep slope and still could not find any tree signs or any tracks and then the nervousness began to settle in. I’ve had a lot of experience hiking in Colorado and in high elevations but the snow is a completely different story if you can’t find the trail. I knew I had two options at this point, to find a dry patch where I could set up camp for the night and reassess in the morning as we were just shy of 9 miles and had been trudging through the snow for the past 2 miles. Riley and I were tired and it was 5:00 pm in the evening with night arriving around 8:30 pm. My second option was to continue searching. One thing I have learned through all my hiking and experience in the mountains is not to get cocky and to keep my ego in check. As confident as I was in my ability I knew that the smart thing to do was not to push it and to be better safe than sorry. If I needed to camp and hike back out the next morning then that’s what I needed to do. I decided one last try on a new area that I hadn’t searched yet, up the hill and off to my right just in case it was a switch back. I left my pack at the bottom of the hill grabbed my stick and bushwhacked through the trees straight up to the right of where I thought possibly the trail might be headed. I climbed over a downed tree and a lot of brush but I popped up on a dry area right on top of the trail and I immediately smiled and said thank god I found it. I descended back down the hill to grab my pack and Riley and I were back on our way.

We came up to the high point at 8.8 miles into Segment 9 and I took a sigh of relief that I was on dry ground again. Little did I know, one more mile ahead I had another tricky snowfield to maneuver through. We began to gradually descend and at this point I knew within the next hour that I would need to find a place to stop and set up camp. We proceeded on the trail and stopped to talk to a couple hikers headed in the opposite direction. At about 6:30 pm we began to climb again and reentered a huge snowfield directly in our path. Again, I had difficulty finding the trail. I followed previous tracks from a hiker I had passed, but the path he had taken didn’t make any sense to me the more I followed it. There were no tree signs to be found and here I was again…potentially lost. I dropped my pack after 10 minutes of no luck and began exploring every which way I could logically think that the trail would go. I hiked down the hill and back up, still nothing. Frustrated and exhausted at this point, in addition to the lower half of my body soaking wet from trudging through the snow I sat down to gather my thoughts. Again, I kept thinking I’ll have to find a dry patch and pitch a tent to reassess in the morning or try searching one more time. Keeping my head clear I decided one more search farther away and a little farther up the incline. I took off and headed in that direction, after a few minutes I spotted a dry patch of land and to my luck a tiny section of the trail had revealed itself. We made it through the snow and I told myself the first feasible open dry area I would stop to set up camp. It was now after 7:00 pm and through all this the mosquitos had never let up, at this point I’m cursing at them as they continually swarm my head. I find a dry spot to set up my tent around the next corner and decided to conserve my water supply and melt snow to use for my dehydrated dinner. As the snow melts I chuck my pack into my tent as fast as I can to prevent the mass of amounts of mosquitos getting inside.  

Riley and I finished eating dinner and because of the obnoxious mosquitos I planned to sit inside my tent to watch the sunset. I unzipped the door and discovered a pool of water on the left side of my tent. I realized in the hurry of throwing my pack into the tent I hadn’t flipped the lock on my camelbak hose and the weight from my pack had allowed the hose to remain open and completely drain out into my tent. As soon as I realized what had happened, I yelled “Are you kidding me?!” I then had to empty the tent, lift it up and get the water out then put everything back in. Now the tent is full of mosquitos and I have a half-wet tent. In addition, I didn’t have any water for Riley and I to drink. I just wanted today to be over. I climbed in, zipped up and the two-handed mosquito killing began. Mentality and physically exhausted I barely managed to stay awake for the sunset, I caught a glimpse through the netting of my tent as Riley and I passed out for the night ready to start the next day in better conditions.

I sure did learn a lot that first day, and looking back on it now I cannot stop laughing. It was quite the adventure. The first day on the trail can present problems or kinks that need to be worked out. I will never forget to not pack the bug spray again on my next trek on the Colorado Trail and I can promise for the rest of my trip I remembered to flip the lock on my camelback hose.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Kalli Hawkins

Adventure | Conservation | Education