July 22, 2022 started with me cresting the daunting Lake Ann Pass and crying with the joy of the view and accomplishment (still my favorite view of the trail). It ended with me hiking emotionally into the sunset as I decided to prematurely end my Colorado Trail thru-hike attempt just short of halfway.
August 2023 begins in a similar emotional rollercoaster as I find myself quickly reshuffling start dates and resupply plans when my husband gets injured and can no longer join me for the first couple nights of my return to trail. (He’s OK, just unable to hike at the level needed for the Collegiate West.) Even so, I find myself growing more and more excited to return to hike my home state, and more and more in disbelief that I am actually returning to try this again.
In early 2022, I had just left a ten-year career voluntarily and found myself without a full time job. My mother had a recent dementia diagnosis – likely Alzheimer’s – and my mental health had taken a dive. I was navigating a (re)diagnosis of Bipolar II. I felt, unsurprisingly, a little aimless. So I decided to set a wild goal for a myself, something so extreme from anything I’d done before that I would be forced to work hard towards it and, ideally, find myself in the process.
Sure, I’d backpacked before. Still, I was attracted to the idea of the long trail, of being alone with my thoughts and the terrifyingly beautiful wilderness for days at a time. I wanted the freedom from feeling tethered to my phone. On previous backpacking trips, I had especially loved that each day was full of small accomplishments: finally cresting the big climb, filtering your own water, making food with the tiny stove you carried on your back, the rhythmic sound of your breath as you take each step. Even more importantly, I wanted to face my fears head-on. Twenty years earlier, I’d developed a phobia of wild animals, particularly those you might see in the woods: bears, cougars, etc. I wanted to stop anxiety from controlling my life.
I live in Seattle, but grew up in Colorado, and it is still near and dear to my heart. So it was fitting that I decided to hike the Colorado Trail in the Summer of 2022.
The Colorado Trail is 486 miles from Littleton (southwest of Denver) to Durango in the southwestern corner of the state. It runs roughly southwest/northeast, but most hikers (and FarOut) refer to it as Sobo (southbound) or Nobo (northbound). Most hike the trail Sobo/southwest because of the proximity to Denver (and the airport and outfitters) as well as the more gradual elevation gain. I grew up in the Denver/Boulder area, so it made sense to hike Sobo and get to see my mother and local friends before I started my journey.
The First Attempt
For the first time in my adult life, I was able to consistently train for something. Previously, I’d go through bouts of going to the gym regularly only to drop off for weeks or months. I went to the gym because popular opinion taught me to stay fit to be attractive to others, but this depended on the belief that something was wrong with me and my body. That never sat well with me. This time, I was training because I had a difficult goal. That made all the difference.
I showed up to the northeastern Colorado Trail trailhead at Waterton Canyon on July 4, 2022 in the best shape I’d ever been as an adult. What I didn’t expect was how much my Colorado-raised (but sea level-dwelling) body would struggle with the altitude and especially how it dampened my appetite. After 2.5 weeks of substantial calorie deficit – I lost 15 lbs in 2.5 weeks – I wasn’t able to continue. I made the difficult decision to listen to my body and get off trail.
I was devastated, but leaving was the right call. In addition to the substantial calorie deficit, I also developed plantar fasciitis. It was so painful I didn’t believe it could be plantar fasciitis. It felt like a stress fracture in the back of my heel. At the end of each hiking day, I would take my shoes off to let my feet breathe. The instant my feet were released from their shoe prison, they would ache so deeply I would cry. I had so many issues that when I saw my podiatrist, we didn’t have time to cover every problem! I now have custom insoles (ugh $$$), special sleeping socks, and new shoes.
A Second (Half) Attempt
The instant I stepped off trail, I started planning my return. Part of me was tempted to start from the beginning again and try another full thru hike. Ultimately, though, I just want to hike the whole trail. That’s more important to me than hiking it all in one try. If I successfully finish the trail this year, I can come back another year to attempt to hike the whole thing. Plus, I can’t wait to hike in the San Juan Mountains and I get there sooner this way!
Thus, I will be starting my CT 2023 hike at Cottonwood Pass, where I left off. I have 260+ miles remaining and quite a lot of elevation gain yet to hike. I will be starting right in the middle of the Collegiate West alternate (also part of the Continental Divide Trail/CDT), and I admit I am a little apprehensive to jump right in without 200+ miles of trail legs to carry me. But I trained even better than I did last year and can feel the difference already. I have a detailed food plan and alarms set on my watch to remind me to eat. I’ve lightened my load with a new tent, new pack, and (hopefully) new attitude.
I am not the fastest hiker, or the most positive, or the most ultralight, but I am as ready as I can be. I can do hard things; I know because I already have.
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