For those of you that follow what I’m up to, it was recently that time of year again where I join my siblings for a week-long trek along the Colorado Trail! We just completed the 6th year of backpacking (I joined a little late and made up sections I missed), and are now over 300 miles through the 485 mile trail. Just a few more years to go to be able to say we have completed the entire trail together.
Being in Texas, most people don’t know what The Colorado Trail is, maybe they’ve heard of some of the other major hiking trails around North America, but this one is more significant than people realize. Sure, 500 miles isn’t as long as some of the other trails that are in the thousands. But there is something to be said for the altitude and difficulty of this one in comparison to some of the others. It’s not easy, and it’s not just because most of us live at or near sea level… It’s rocky, it’s steep, it’s high altitude for days at a time. Regardless, being a Texan, I’m pretty proud to say that I’m completing this trail, and especially with family.
This hike started with my brother Robbie, wanting to hike 40 miles of the trail for his 40th birthday. We weren’t all able to join in, jobs at the time or kids, but after a couple years of it, we were all able to join in and be a part of it. It has been a painful adventure, and a mentally challenging task at times. But after now being 6 years into it myself, I can say there are way less moments of questioning, “Why the hell am I doing this to myself?!”. We have all learned things to do, or not do. We have learned how to train and strengthen better for the climbs and altitude. We have learned how to eliminate blisters… This one took a few years for some of us. Although the terrain has gotten more difficult the further into the trail we get, we have all gotten stronger, physically and mentally. And we have learned what equipment works better, and learned to save weight and hike more efficiently. We definitely aren’t pros at this yet, but for a group that only tackles this once a year for 3-5 days at a time, I would say we’re doing pretty good!
I’ve mentioned the rocky terrain, and altitude, which sounds tough obviously. But I have to say, there aren’t too many words or pictures that can truly explain what these challenges are like when dealing with them first hand. To give you an idea, this year’s hike was spent mostly above 11,000 feet in elevation, our first night on the mountain we were sleeping at like 11,200 feet. Sure that sounds like nothing compared to how high airplanes fly in the sky. But in reality, sleeping that high, you have about 7% less oxygen than you do in DFW… So it’s harder to breath, and it’s noticeable. Anybody who spends time at higher elevation knows that it gets harder and harder for your body to sleep the higher you get. So not only is it tougher to just breath while walking around that high, you don’t sleep very good. So as exhausted as you may be from a day of hiking the mountains, you can only hope to get a few hours of solid sleep, then you spend the next several hours just rolling around wishing you could fall back asleep! And that’s even taking sleep aids… These are the moments when you question why are you doing this? But aside from high elevation, it’s simply just rough terrain. These aren’t heavily travelled paths, these are rough back-country trails. They were cut by someone years ago, and the only wear and tear they get is the light traffic they get from people like us. Sometimes the trail is nice and soft with just dirt, other times it is loose rocks that are like a pile of baseballs. You can’t just walk, you’re stepping on uneven terrain that moves and rolls under your feet with every step. So people think it’s just backpacking along a path, but really it’s a constant battle sometimes just to walk a straight line and not roll your ankle or slip and fall! And picture walking up that same pile of baseballs while ascending and descending thousands of feet of elevation throughout each day! It’s exhausting just thinking about it.
Some of the other challenges of a trail like this that people don’t realize, this is true backpacking, not “glamping”. The only food and items you have are what you carry on your back. The only water to drink sometimes, is what you carry on your back. And the best case, you have creeks or streams that you can pull water from and filter to drink and cook with. There are no water faucets out here… Aside from the water, that means things like clothing you only have what you carry. We used to bring changes of clothes… Now I’m down to one outfit I wear the whole time, and extra socks and an extra pair of underwear. That’s it. So we try to judge the weather, but it’s hard to judge. We always go in summer because the trail isn’t passable in winter time. But when you get that high in the mountains, you just don’t know what the weather will do. This year was nice and warm starting out during the day. But at night the temperatures drop, a lot. And by the last two nights the temperature dropped into the 30’s! I personally wasn’t planning on that, so waking up to frost on our tents and 39 degrees, I had every item of clothing I brought with me layered on! And I was still shivering… Again, one of those moments that makes you question why you’re putting yourself through this.
But in the end, the positives outweigh the negatives. Although there are moments you feel like crying, you feel like quitting, and you question your months of training and start to feel like you failed yourself and didn’t try hard enough… The payoff always ends up being worth it. Muscles recover. Blisters will heal. Discomfort and lack of sleep can be made up when you return home. The reality is, by putting yourself through all of these things to accomplish something like The Colorado Trail, you will see things that most will never see. You can make it onto a list of people who have pushed and suffered to complete a task that most will never even attempt and many that try to, will not complete it. Mix that in with some amazing family time, that as adults, we probably wouldn’t be getting together as we all have different lives and families in separate cities and states. It’s a great thing to be a part of, it will be a great accomplishment to say we did it. The pain is worth the rewards.
One thing we remind ourselves while hiking every year, as we look around at some of the sights, it’s easy to snap a picture of what we see. But some of the sights, as you stand in front of them first-hand, you already know that a picture will never do justice to what you’re seeing with your own eyes. I snap the pictures anyways, but I know they will not portray just how grand the view really is. It often times makes something that looks incredible, look just mediocre. So although I can capture some great images while I’m out there, the true reward of the pictures I take, is the memory it triggers in my own mind of what it looked like first-hand. And as someone that is out there hiking it myself, I get that privilege to remember how amazing it was when I was there. For all of those who can’t or won’t attempt to see it first-hand, that’s why I carry the extra 6 pounds of weight on my chest. Hoping to try and give a glimpse of what this trail passes by along it’s winding path.
For anyone interested in what I carry on the trail, when every ounce of weight counts, I can explain my gear pretty easily for you. Since my first year, I decided if I was going to be in the mountains with the opportunity to capture amazing views and sights, I needed to carry a real camera. Even though extra weight is a bad thing when backpacking, I knew it was important to me to have a real camera to capture everything I could. Most people wouldn’t carry anything that isn’t a necessity, especially an extra 6 pounds! But to me, it’s a necessity. I learned quickly that I had to keep it minimal. My first year I carried two lenses. But found myself not taking the time to switch them out, or simply not wanting to because of the physical struggle I was going through at the time and potential damage or dirt getting into things. So by the second year, I decided to simplify drastically. I carry one camera, one extra battery, and a single lens. A year or two ago I added a mini tripod to the list, because we were seeing enough waterfalls and creeks that are best captured with a longer exposure, that the addition of a tripod made it much easier and more successful at capturing those. All of that is loaded into a top-loading camera bag that is clipped onto my chest straps to make it readily available at any point in time. But the camera is a full-frame DSLR (currently a Nikon D850). And my go-to lens is a fixed 50mm lens. Although I can’t get a close enough view of wildlife off in the distance, I realized that the wider views were more important. And a non-zoom lens would be safer and easier to protect out in the wild like this. If you know enough about lenses, you probably know that a 50mm lens isn’t really wide enough to get wide-angle shots of a whole canyon or mountain. But, with a lot of practice, I have gotten really good and consistent at taking multiple exposures with this fixed lens, that can later be stitched together on the computer to put together a full panoramic view! The other critical piece of gear that goes along with the camera is my cell phone. Again, extra weight that really isn’t necessary. Except my Nikon D850 can use the GPS on my phone to geotag all of my images. So for the last few years I have been able to just snap pics and have them tagged as I shoot with the exact location along the trail. Previously, if I found a favorite shot when I got home, I could match the time stamp from the photo to my GPS watch data and find where I was when I took it… A painful process, but it was at least one way for me to pinpoint where my shots came from. That’s the basics of what I use to capture the images you see along the trail. Really a pretty simple setup, but I’ve had to learn how to work with the simplicity so that I’m not carrying extra weight, but also not missing a shot or a magnificent view because I didn’t bring the right thing!
That gives you a little overview of what the trail is like, and how I capture the images that I do. But a special addition to our whole experience this year, that we have never had before, was the addition of our parents being a part of it! This trail is long, and it runs through the middle of nowhere between Denver and Durango Colorado. It can take a full day sometimes just to get to the start of the trail and get our vehicles situated. So we talked to my parents and got them to help out. They helped us shuttle cars around this year, which saved us a ton of time just getting to the trailheads and off the trail at the end. But with that, they were able to meet us a few times along the hike. To make things even better, they had two dinners planned to be cooked for us. If you’ve never done any backpacking, you don’t know the joy of trail food… notice my sarcasm. So a fresh-cooked meal is amazing after a full day of hiking. Unfortunately, weather was a factor the first night my parents came to meet us, and the best they could do was drop off the supplies and equipment for us to make dinner ourselves. This was still a major treat to have fresh food to eat! But we missed out getting to see our parents and spend the evening with them. The next dinner worked out, and they were able to make us dinner and help us resupply on water and food for the remainder of the trip. And to make it even sweeter, they hung around the rest of the evening with us at our camp, and got to meet several more hikers that were passing through, and gave out plenty of snacks and drinks to these other hikers. It seems so simple, but having a friendly face (and for us our parents) along the trail and different food or snacks and even clean water can make you feel very refreshed. It was an amazing treat for us this year, hopefully they can take part next year! I know my parents are proud of all of us for doing this together, and even more proud that we all get along and enjoy this time together. But I am so glad they go to be a part of it with us this time. It made this year’s hike a little extra special for us.
So until 2023… I’ll be training and preparing for another difficult week of hiking high up in the mountains in Colorado. It’s mentally refreshing, and physically exhausting. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world!