The time of year has come and gone again. That amazing time of year where I get with some of my family and go backpacking through the mountains in Colorado. This annual trip may seem simply like a vacation on the surface to most. But to me, it’s a necessary trip, it’s become part of my life and a part of my mental health throughout the year.
What started as just a good excuse to take a trip with my siblings, has become much more than that over the years. Sure, hiking through the woods seems like something people do all the time. But taking part in such a large trek that spans many years from start to finish quickly changes a lot within you.
First off, year one of joining this hike, everything was underestimated. I thought I was in decent physical shape… I was not. I thought I knew what type of shoes to wear, I did not. I thought I knew how to pack for several consecutive days/nights of hiking, I did not. I thought I knew what food to take backpacking, I did not. Basically everything going into year one I thought I knew, I was wrong. I thought occasionally working out, and hiking around my neighborhood with some weights in my pack would prepare me for climbing in the mountains, but that was a slap in the face the first hill we went up at 9,000 feet. Growing up I was always taught to wear hiking Boots with wool socks and liner socks to protect your feet and ankles and to keep from getting blisters… Day one of the first year, multiple blisters. (For the record I think it was year 4 before I finally figured out my shoes and socks to stop getting blisters). Packing gear and clothing, I thought I needed different clothes for each day, and multiple options for warmth. And by day 2 that first year, I realized we aren’t bathing, why do I need 3 different shirts to wear, I’m going to smell no matter what! Something else I grew up learning, that you eat backpacking food and certain dry foods when backpacking. My stomach told me by day 2 of that first year that those were poor choices.
So after finishing the first year of this adventure, it was obvious that I was going to need to put more effort into everything about this trip. From my training to the thought I put into every piece of gear. And that initiated the change in thought around this annual vacation. That first year made a lot of the basics stick out and need immediate attention. But when you analyzing something you’re doing, you don’t just look at one aspect, you start to look at everything. So those first year learnings took several years to work through and get to a current result. To sum those up quickly, I started with a 50+ pound backpack, and now am under 30 pounds. I wear Salomon racing trail running shoes with Darn Tough socks, and have no blisters any more. I pack normal foods and snacks that I eat at home for the most part, and my stomach is much happier. And I train year round to keep my fitness level as high as I can to tackle the miles and altitude we reach.
With every year of experience on the trail and hiking with family, you gain more knowledge. But with that experience also comes new challenges that show their face. If you think hiking high up in the mountains with a group of 5 people all different ages up to 11 years apart, with different skill levels and fitness levels is a simple thing, you are wrong. We are all different, even though family and siblings, we are very different physically and mentally. We all walk different speeds, we all have different strengths on the trail, and we all have different reasons and motivations in our heads for doing this. We started this out as a family, but not as a team. Sure we all helped each other, we are family that loves each other. But we naturally started out focused on our selves and trying to get through it all. And what you quickly realize in this situation is that we all have different struggles, and we all have different weaknesses. So part of this whole learning curve is learning that about each other, and learning how to work with and through those differences, as a team. So on top of learning how to not get blisters or get sick from food on the trail, we all quickly realized we had other things we had to learn too. And we’ve come a long ways since the beginning.
Our family all gets along, and when I say that I’m not just being nice about it, we truly enjoy being around each other. But that doesn’t solve all of your problems when tackling a challenge like this. You still have to exercise patience, understanding and compromise with each other, even when you may be physically and mentally exhausted. Which is something that takes practice, just like getting out there and running and climbing hills to train for this hike. So this trip has definitely sent me home each year with more to think about, more to prepare for and more to train for than I ever realized. It has made me work on myself in many different ways. It has helped me become stronger and healthier, which is a huge benefit to my home life and my ability to keep active with my kids. It has given me a chance each year to reset and clear my head, get away from the typical city-life burdens of constantly being on the go, living in an online world, having to do things the same every day. It has made me realize some strengths within myself that I can transfer and relate to other parts of my life and relationships. I believe it has helped me be better at a lot of things. And what’s funny is I tell people all the time that I don’t just love backpacking…
Ask my siblings, I hate sleeping on the ground, I hate the food, it’s exhausting climbing thousands of feet in elevation day after day. I don’t just sit at home and wish I was laying in my solo tent on a tiny inflatable mattress, freezing cold and getting only a few hours of sleep at night… That is not my dream vacation. But I do love the challenge, and I do love the family time and the benefits I get and can bring home from taking this trip.
This year’s trip took a turn, and to be honest, it was bound to happen at some point due to this being such a physically demanding task. We had plans of making up a couple segments for one person, then all merging to complete our new segments of the trail for the year. We had it all planned out, we had our backpacks packed, our food ready to go, our plan for transport in and out of the remote areas, we were set. But leading up to the final days before it all began, our Support Crew “Cookie” and “Possum” were having their own struggles, one of them becoming sick which also jeopardized the other since they were traveling together. Then day 1 of the makeup segments someone was having serious back issues, and they knew it would end in a very bad situation which could in-turn put us in a bad situation on the trail where we would have to carry someone all the way out or get medical support which isn’t easy out there. So stack that on top of 2 others fighting some existing injuries and issues, and our team wasn’t looking too strong this year. So a tough decision had to be made to call off the original plans, with several people going home early.
That doesn’t mean there wasn’t hiking! A couple of us still did one of the make-up segments the first day. But then we headed back closer to Denver to help this person make up a few other missing segments, which 2 others joined back in for one of those. So in the end I still hiked 5 days and 53 miles with my sister Suzie, but we only had to camp on the trail 2 nights out of that. A younger me may have been upset that the 4 segments we completed this year are ones I had already done, in fact 3 of them I had to make-up solo because I wanted to catch-up and didn’t think anyone else would be making them up later! But I don’t care. The reality is, I got to go spend time in mountains, I got to put my training to use on the trail, I got to eat the food I bought for the trip, and I got my uncomfortable and freezing cold nights in my tent… So it’s a win in my book. When you hike a trail this long, a lot of it starts to look the same until you drastically change the terrain, but it’s not like I remember every detail from hiking some of these segments 3-5 years ago. A couple of landmarks were memorable, but a lot of it still felt new. And we also hiked most of it the opposite direction from how I had hiked it previously. So one could say, it was a whole new experience anyways. Just because I have hiked them before doesn’t mean they were any easier either. We still had days with 3000 feet of climbing up throughout the day, and battles with maps and directions that slowed us down and wore us out. It was still very difficult to accomplish, just like any other year, it just happens to be that I’ve already checked these off my list towards completing the entire trail.
In 7-8 years this has been the first year where the hike basically got paused as a whole, but it was bound to happen at some point. Truly it’s pretty amazing we’ve made it that far without injury or sickness holding us back, especially if you look at the medical history of this group… geez. But again, all part of the learning process of this whole experience. Just when you think you have figured things out, you realize there is still more to learn in a trek like this with 5 adults coming from different lives. So we all came home again this year with more to learn, more to think about, more to prepare for on the next time around. Maybe these experiences show us things we like about ourselves, and maybe they show us things we don’t like about ourselves. But the point is that we’re learning about ourselves, and that helps us have the ability to get better, stronger, and more prepared for this hike, and the rest of our lives.
So I hope you enjoy some of the photos I have been taking along this trail. I haven’t gone back yet to look at these same segments the first time I hiked them to see if my pictures are the same, but I imagine there will be some similar pictures both times. Maybe this time they are better than last time? Either way, I am dedicated to continuing that part of my goal with hiking this trail, which is to capture it all on camera. I know I’m not the first person to hike this trail, and I won’t be the last. And with current phone technology, everyone out there has the ability to take snapshots of the scenery as they hike it. The pride I am putting into this achievement is that I have been fully committed to carrying a full-frame camera the entire length of the trail. My camera bag weighs 7.5 pounds. In the backpacking world, that’s a lot of weight! I could be carrying an almost 20 pound backpack if I dropped the camera. But as a photographer, I can’t help it. I won’t necessarily see these sights again in my life, I won’t see the same crooked tree trunks, or the same flow of water down some rocks, so I couldn’t live with myself knowing I could miss out on capturing these sights with a real camera. And after 7 years of hiking this trail, I still have yet to see someone with a full-frame camera. I’ve seen a couple day hikers with small DSLR’s, but nobody out segment or through-hiking with anything like that. Which tells me, there’s not a lot of us carrying that extra weight to do it. I know I’m not the first, but I at least have to be one of the few, and that’s something I’m proud of. Plus, the quality of the images I’ll have of this entire trail will be exceptional and print-worthy. I have already filled my home with many large prints over the years, and some of my family has as well. So it has been worth the extra weight, and I will continue to carry it until I am done.
If you’re curious what I carry on the trail that equals 7.5 pounds worth of camera, I’ll gladly share that secret. I have kept this to an absolute minimal amount of weight, because every ounce counts when you have to carry everything on your back out on the trail. My typical camera that I shoot with when I do portraits, weights about 10 pounds for a point of reference. But my current setup is a Nikon Z8 body with a Z series 50mm 1.8 lens. I carried 2 extra batteries just in case since I can’t charge on the trail. And I carry a Manfrotto mini trip-pod for group photos and those long exposure shots of flowing water. All of that is stuffed into a LowePro Toploader camera case that I clip to my chest straps where I can also put my little stuffed animals I take for the kids, and I keep my cell phone in there because the GPS signal from that is what geotags the photos in my camera when I take them. Pretty simple really. I learned after the first year that simple was better. Sure I could have gotten better pictures of wildlife and landmarks with a zoom lens, but that’s a lot of weight to carry and then the inconvenience of switching lenses in a very dirty, wet, freezing environment. So I picked my favorite lens, a 50mm. And I’ve learned techniques over the years to do things like shoot panoramic pictures and stitch them together on the computer when I get back home. So improvising on the trail can help fill in some of the gaps in equipment.
I hope you enjoy seeing the pictures I capture along the trail, and I hope you enjoy hearing about some of the background details of the trip. I love getting to take this trip every year, and I love the time it has given me with family that I know we wouldn’t be getting without this. It helps me talk to my brother and sisters that much more throughout the year and has helped what was already a good relationship with all of them become even better. I can’t wait for next year…. except the freezing cold, the sleeping on the ground, the eating and all the elevation!