This is a story of choices. Some were good, some potentially deadly.
Necessity and Planning
After the first twelve months of fatherhood, I needed to pop the release valve. My wife had been able to get away for a long weekend in California for a bachelorette party. I hadn’t had an opportunity to get away for more than a half day for a ski tour. And, while I was exceptionally grateful both for the new addition to our lives and those few hours of touring, it wasn’t enough. I began planning.
I knew that I wanted to take a solo trip. I also knew that I wanted to test myself. At first, I wasn’t sure how that test would work. I’d probably figure it out later. Let’s begin with a location.
Colorado is home to vast swaths of wilderness. I wanted to be in one of them. I was also working with a limited timeframe, which knocked out some wilderness areas that are on my bucket list. Weminuche wasn’t going to happen. Really, the shorter the drive the better. It meant more time on the trail. I also wanted to avoid high alpine for reasons I can’t recall. Mount Evans Wilderness is closest to home, but most of the trails end at alpine lakes above treeline. And, we did that last year. James Peak – alpine and done that too. Each area was easy to eliminate. Only one option – Lost Creek.
Lost Creek is an oddball in Colorado. Sharp peaks puncture most of our wilderness. Lost Creek missed the memo and is instead inhabited by round domes of pink granite. It’s also one of the least-traveled wilderness areas in the state, despite its proximity to Denver. So, while it self-selected, it also seemed like an intriguing destination.
Lost Creek’s namesake is a small flow that dips into rockfalls and disappears underground as it meanders across the landscape. The area was, at one time, home to a misguided attempt to dam the creek for water storage. Remnants of that attempt – a pair of bunkhouses and some large machinery – rest in the wilderness, slowly deteriorating.
I began downloading USGS quads. I love USGS quads. I love that the government keeps every map the USGS has ever generated. I love perusing the same map drawn three times over the course of fifty years and seeing marked trails shift and disappear and reappear across the decades.
The route began to take shape and it was ambitious – a test of my ability to cover distance. It covered more than 50 miles from the Brookside/Payne Creek trailhead, touching almost every corner of the wilderness area. I spread the quads out on the conference table at the office. Lost Creek covers six quads north to south and four east to west. Then I stacked the older maps under the newer ones. I numbered each quad and drew a diagram on each page noting the order so I could reassemble them easily if needed. I traced the route with a highlighter.
Once I get into the woods, I rely primarily on Nat Geo Trails Illustrated maps. I picked one up at REI and traced the route a second time, this time in Sharpie. I tucked the Trails Illustrated map into an OpSack along with the USGS quads.
It’s important that people know where you are in the wilderness, especially if you’re going solo. So, I headed over to mapmyhike.com and traced the route a third time, electronically. This I shared with my wife and a few friends, just in case.
All this logistical planning was complete a month before the trip. So far, mostly good choices.
Packing and Adding a Challenge
With a week until go-time, I started organizing my gear. My pack is an REI Flash 45. It’s light, but not ultralight, and has a frame strong enough to provide some support. For shelter, I packed the Big Agnes Krumholtz we had in for testing, along with the entirety of its Goal Zero MTNGlo system. The Krumholtz alone is only one or two pounds heavier than my usual shelter selections, but adding the entire MTNGlo kit put another 2 pounds in my pack.
Sleeping duties were borne by my 15° Montbell UL Super Spiral down bag and Exped Synmat UL 7. Trail clothing consisted of a pair of Patagonia Strider Pro shorts (I’m in the old version) with Polygiene in the liner (fucking crucial!) and a Mountain Khakis Trail Creek shirt. I had a Patagonia Duckbill Trucker on my head and their Sun Mask around my neck – without a doubt, my favorite gaiter because, as far as I know, they’re the only ones that extend and widen the bottom so it actually covers the back of your neck without leaving a gap. I packed my GoLite Bitterroot down puffy and something – I forget what – to keep my legs from freezing at night. Shoes were an older model of Altra’s Superior trail running shoes and socks were some thin merino items from Sock Guy. A bit heavier than usual, but not bad.
Then I started loading my pack down with camera gear. That started with a Sony a6000 body. I couldn’t decide on which lens to bring, so I brought three, a 16-50, a 55-210, and a 30mm prime. I also grabbed a GoPro with an extension arm. Two extra batteries and chargers for both cameras ended up in the bag, along with a large Anker Powercore battery pack. Just for giggles, I strapped my MeFOTO Backpacker tripod under the top pouch of my pack. All of this was in addition to my phone, which, in theory, does all the things these other cameras do. Now I’ve added somewhere around 10 additional pounds to my pack.
Somewhere along the line, I decided to add a bit of a challenge to the trip: complete the entire hike while eating as few calories as possible. Why? I can’t tell you. Really. I don’t know where the idea came from or why I thought it was good. I didn’t completely skip packing food. I brought two dinners and a few Kind bars. Nowhere near what my body would consume over 50 miles of trails, even if the route was entirely downhill, which it was not.
Friday morning, I loaded up the car and drove south. From Evergreen, I passed through Conifer to 285 and turned west to Bailey. Despite one wrong turn, I was one of three cars in the Payne Creek trail head lot when I arrived around 8:30am.
With a pair of full water bottles and Vapur’s microfilter strapped to my shoulder strap, I’m guessing I headed out from the trailhead with a 45-pound pack. Poor decisions put me about 20 pounds heavier than my usual load. I know the math doesn’t add up.
Day One – 14 Miles of Ow
The first nine miles of trail leaving Brookside/Payne Creek are all uphill, gaining about 3600’. It wasn’t a particularly hard grade, but it was long and sustained. The trail meandered among some old logging roads, sometimes following them directly and other times switchbacking across the hillside while the road went straight up. There were no views to speak of. Just a lot of trees and a few clearings here and there where I could look across a valley to another mountain, also covered with trees. My pack was heavy, but it was carrying well, and it felt better as I transferred the weight of my water from my back to my belly.
The high point was nothing. The trail simply flattened out for a bit and then unceremoniously dropped steeply into a valley. Two downhill miles brought me to the Colorado Trail, Segment 4. It was now early afternoon and, for the first time, I started seeing people. Lots of people. And cows.
From here, the trail became a cruise down the North Fork Lost Creek valley. I put in another few miles and trudged into the Rolling Creek campground around 4pm. With 7 hours of movement behind me, I’d covered just about 14 miles. I also had not eaten a thing.
As I refilled my water bottles in the creek, I weighed my options. One the one hand, my plan had me putting another four miles in before the end of the day, sleeping somewhere on the Brookside-McCurdy trail near Bison Peak. On the other hand, I felt done.
I set up the Krumholtz and decided to call it for the day. My legs did not feel good at all. I cooked both dinners, thinking two things: 1) not eating was stupid and 2) maybe, just maybe, I could sleep it off while digesting the food and be somewhat recovered in the morning. I plugged in the battery chargers and got things powered up for the next day while I tried to read a bit from one of Erik Larson’s books. His writing usually sucks me in and keeps my attention for hours. I was passed out before 7pm.
Day Two – Bailing and Hitchhiking
When I woke up the next morning, the tent was covered in frost, inside and out. I spent some time taking pictures for the Krumholtz review while waiting for the sun to peek out over the ridge so I could dry the tent fly. All the while, I was paying particular attention to how my legs felt. They weren’t 100%, but they felt better. I was also out of dinners.
After packing up, I set off down the trail. The Lost Fork campground was a mile away with water and a decent toilet. I do some good thinking on the toilet and it was nice to be able to wipe. Lost Fork represented a fork in the trail, nominally, literally, and figuratively. From there, I could continue on the planned route and try to make up the miles I hadn’t covered on day 1. I could also cut across the wilderness on the Wigwam trail and shorten the trip by about eight miles. As much as I hate bailing, it seemed like the right thing to do.
The Wigwam trail slices Lost Creek Wilderness almost in half, cutting through the gorgeous Wigwam Creek valley. For the first time, I got to see the granite domes for which Lost Creek is famous. The trail was relatively smooth and flat, and I wound up hiking with a couple of guys who were setting a nice pace on their way to fishing and camping on one of the spur trails. Those miles went by quickly.
The bailout route took me to the Rolling Creek trail, which was a part of the original route as well. Rolling Creek sounds bucolic and pleasant. It’s not. I hadn’t given it much thought while planning, but it turns out Rolling Creek is the steepest trail in the entirety of the Lost Creek Wilderness, gaining 1150’ of elevation in about 1.5 miles. The trail stumbles over awkwardly sized rocks, fallen branches, and crooked roots. I’d take about ten paces and rest, the lack of sugars in my bloodstream catching up to me constantly. It took me over an hour to move that 1.5 miles.
At the top, I no longer felt good about cutting miles off the route. Now, I was worried about whether my legs would carry me back to my car. I had covered 12 miles but was still 15 miles from getting back to the Brookside/Payne Creek trailhead.
Sitting at the top of Rolling Creek trail wasn’t going to help and downhill is easier than up. I could at least make it to the Rolling Creek trailhead. The north side of Rolling Creek trail actually runs along Rolling Creek and crosses some of its tributary springs and brooks. I stopped to refill water and take some pictures. Farther down the trail, I found wild raspberry bushes and picked them as I walked.
On the way down, I ran into a couple of hikers. They looked a bit out of place, wearing street clothes and gym shoes. We struck up a conversation. They were New Yorkers and Polish immigrants – him a cab driver, her a teacher in Brooklyn. They owned a small vacation home in Bailey and spent a month in Colorado every summer, exploring the mountains. They had driven in to the Rolling Creek trailhead and hiked up the trail a few miles to see what they could see. I wowed them with my Polish vocabulary, which consists of one word – cześć. This was my opportunity.
As we hiked, I asked if there was any way they could shuttle me back to my car. Sure. No problem. It’s on the way.
Oh. Yes. Thank you.
We chatted a bit more as we drove down some Forest Service roads toward civilization. COMBA, our local mountain bike association, was doing trail work on the very southwest corner of the Buffalo Creek Recreation Area and had signs posted along the road directing volunteers. They do good work.
We drove through Bailey and turned onto the same road where I’d started the day before. As we pulled into the parking lot, I sighed to myself. You’re stupid and you’re lucky, Dave. Let’s not do this again.
Live and Learn
A planned 50 miles turned in about 31. Two nights turned into one. Was I ever in real danger? Who knows. It didn’t feel good and not in an “oh, this is uncomfortable” sort of way. I’ve felt discomfort before. I’ve walked most of the marathon segment of an Ironman because my feet were covered in blood blisters. That was uncomfortable. This was a body running on fumes, struggling to process enough reserve fuel to keep moving.
My gear selections were fine. It wasn’t that I chose the wrong pieces. The basic kit worked well – shorts were comfortable, shirt was light and provided adequate sun protection, shoes and socks kept my feet in good shape, tent kept me dry, and sleep system kept me warm and comfortable. Rather, I packed way too much. I’m always the one asking companions “do you really need that?” Funny how on a solo trip, I failed to ask myself the same question.
If there’s a lesson here, it’s certainly not to avoid challenges. But it may be to choose challenges where success is not the only option and where failure doesn’t come with such dire consequences. I’ll be packing fewer cameras and more food next time around.