When I was in high school I got a ton of shit for being a little eccentric. Like anyone else I’ve had the things that I nerd out over. When I was in elementry school I carried around a copy of the U.S. constitution. In middle school I was obsessed with musical theater, don’t tell anyone that was for a girl. In high school I fell madly in love with the outdoors. My love affair with the wild spaces of our planet started because of an almost disastrous trip to Indian Peaks and later was reaffirmed by my attendance on a 30 day long 126mi trek through Wyoming. This is the story of my first backpacking trip and the very cold morning that made me fall in love with wild places.
In 2006 and I was just barely 15 years old. I was an idiot in almost every imaginable way. I had no real grasp on the world and was altogether to opinionated for the amount of knowledge I possessed. I’d been a camper with a local summer camp called the Colorado Youth Program for the previous six years and loved my adventures with them, but by no means would I have considered myself an outdoor enthusiast at this point. I just enjoyed being outside like any other kid. Well through my connections at CYP I ended up hearing about this private school in Boulder, CO called Watershed. Watershed was an alternative high school and middle school with a focus on experiential learning. At the start of every new school year high school students ventured out into Boulder’s backyard, Indian Peaks Wilderness, for a 10 day backpacking and team building trip.
This was my very first backpacking trip and to say the least I really had no idea what I was doing, However, just like any 15 year old what I lack in know how and experience I made up for in over all enthusiasm and energy. Starting at Camp Dick off the Peak to Peak highway just outside of Colorado’s world famous Rocky Mountain National Park, our group of 10 high schoolers and two instructors/teachers took to the trail. The first few days we took a mellow route because believe it or not or instructors had quite the task of moving 10 high schoolers even 3.5 miles. Our first day was rather uneventful minus the occasional blister. We all got to bust out the whisper-light stoves for the first time in a backcountry context and I’m pretty sure at least one person lost some part of their eyebrows. (Wade?)
By the third day our ragtag crew had made it to the summit of Buchanan Pass, which I must point out is only 7.5mi away from Camp Dick. So to say the least things were moving slowly. The weather was spectacular the day we summited the pass. The skies were the kind of blue that Colorado is famous for. The wind was light and fast with a touch of winter. In early September we could not have picked better conditions to be moving over a nearly 10,000 foot pass. The mountains of Colorado are infamous for fast changing weather, dramatic drops in temperature, and unseasonable snowstorms. But none of this was on our minds as we crushed passed old mining shacks, piles of debris and mine tailings towards the top of the pass. Once there, we were still all in such a way we decided to detour off to the south and summit Saw-tooth Peak.
Saw-tooth Stands at about 12,300 feet and is one of the most unique shaped peaks in the IPW. It’s distinctive southern face cut the sky and stand in sharp contrast to the mellow slope that leads to the saddle and Buchanan pass. Pushing on down the west side of the pass our route started to turn us south towards the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. Moving around the cirque of peaks that comprises the Brainard basin our little troop headed even further south towards our end goal of the Fourth of July Trailhead.
With each passing day my level of competency rose and the skill set required be successful in the back country developed a little more. Towards day eight I was feeling pretty damn amazing. I’d meet and begun developing a lasting friendship with Axel Anderson, Devaki Douillard, and many more. Jason Kushner was our primary trip leader and his influence and enthusiasm about the outdoors remains one of the most impactful I’ve ever encountered.
So three days days before we are supposed to be picked up at the Fourth of July Trailhead our little band of school children heads up a steep west facing slope to what is known as Wheeler Basin. Wheeler Basin is a deep set glacially carved basin to the north west of Arapahoe Pass. This little slice of hell is always damp, always cold, and is where I really began to fall in love with wild places. Because it’s in Wheeler Basin that I did my first ever overnight solo. The very first time I spent a night alone in the woods. Now since that night I have spent probably over 100 nights alone in the woods, sometimes in a car other times just on the flat of my back. I’ve been out with motorcycles, with bikes, on foot but this is what started it all. The feeling you get when sleeping in solitude or rather the isolation of the woods is unlike any other. At times the feeling is oppressive as if the dark around you is pushing in on every single one of your senses. At other points it is beyond blissful in how calm it is. The experience is surreal.
But back to Wheeler Basin. Like I said, a little slice of hell. I woke up soaking wet. I’d picked a space underneath a boulder at the edge of a meadow but the soil there had been washed away by the swamp like conditions of the basin. During the night the moisture that accumulated on the outside of my bag was enough to be rung-out and collect .5L. Low lying area I’d selected was a cold sink and only increased the deep seated chill I was experiencing as I woke that morning. But from my perspective I was alive and well and I’d never felt that good waking up.
But waking up on the blue yet crisp morning was the starting point to a series of mistakes that per-usual lead to a place no one really wants to be. Upon waking up I packed my damp bag away per standard practice. I slipped on my boots, crammed my gear into my pack and headed towards the central camp location where we were all to meet up by 9am. We started cranking out breakfast and coffee which soon lead to packs back over our shoulders and the trail underfoot. We descended the nearly 1,000 foot just before 10:15 and on our way down the those blue skies turned gray.
By 11am the ground was being peppered with the white flakes of falling snow quickly turning the trail muddy and slick. The 4mi route we had planned to Caribou Lake that day took much longer than our anticipated time due to constant stopping to warm up fingers and toes or to patch blisters from wet feet. Our feet were very wet. In fact at one point near the end of our slog I slipt off a small foot bridge and was quickly ankle deep in freezing creek water. Anticipating camp within the next hour I was not terribly worried.
Within 15 minutes my opinion had changed. Even moving at a steady pace the cold began to profoundly change my attitude. I was experiencing the wonders of a non-freezing cold injury. Which help to facilitate my introduction with mild hypothermia. And by 5pm mild hypothermia was far from a stranger in our midst. I was one of three students dealing with at least one form of cold related issue. One student, Dan Silverman a dear friend and now high experienced outdoorsman, experienced the far more serious moderate hypothermia in which his core body temperature plummeted to around 95 degrees fahrenheit. This is not joke. These conditions are no laughing matter nor are the consequences if cold is not dealt with effectively. Since we were in no position to evacuate Dan, or myself for that matter, our instructors decided to warm Dan up in the field and keep an eye on me.
We pitched our tarps, set up our sleeping bags and built wind barriers out of our packs to block the gusts that were careening off of Arapahoe pass. The snow was flying and the dark that pressed in around the side of the tarp were complete. The only audible sound over that of the wind, was the sound of my breathing inside of my sleeping bag and the rustle of the trash bag that my sleeping bag was tucked into. Its was right around 8:30 or 9 when Jason and our other leader brought by cups of warm soup made on their stove. Everyone of the kids was tucked into sleeping bags, save for maybe Axel our rather hearty and experienced friend.
As pathetic as it sounds I remember spending a good part of that night wishing that we would be evacuated by helicopter, that someone would come and help us. But no one did come. Nor should they. We were fine realistically. What you don’t realize when you’re 15 is just how bad things actually can get. Because for most 15 year old kids, bad these days has been for the most part removed from traditional experience. It’s hard to be pushed to any form of an end. The way the world is constructed we are protected from anything. The cold, the hard, the wilderness. It is kept at bay by warm houses, bright screens, and fossil fuels. To pick up someone who has spent their entire life in the middle of the cozy world and plop them into the middle of a real blizzard with no real clue about what their doing, well that’s a recipe to push a 15 year old further than they have been before.
Dan was pushed pretty hard that night. Moderate hypothermia usually means prompt evacuation from the field and exhaustive measures to reheat the victim. To slip from moderate to severe hypothermia is a huge deal and usually requires the skill and the equipment that can only be found in hospitals. As the crew was less than a four mile hike out of the backcountry; he received new hot water bottle every couple of hours, he was monitored closely and given totally new and dry clothes. He wasn’t left alone that night.
I heated up pretty quickly once I made it into my bag and had a single bowl of soup. Falling asleep though was tough though. I kept rolling around on my bad under the tarp, wind howling through the blackness. Snow would occasionally blow through our tarp covering or bags in a light dry powder that was mostly harmless. My real lesson though was yet to come. You see, in my haste to get into a warm sleeping bag I stripped my wet clothes off and tossed them right next to my bag with no consideration of the circumstances. I didn’t think about where I left my boots or my coat. Nor did I even consider what to do with my only remaining pair of socks. So the reality I woke up to the next morning was not a pretty one.
From our location at Caribou Lake we had just over a 4.5mi hike out to the fourth of July Trailhead. And much like in the photo below, our route was totally covered in snow. The storm from the night before only left two or three inches. However,with the aid of previous storms and the wind wrecked landscape made for snow drifts that were just about 4ft deep on the trail up and over the pass. That morning I woke up to find my jacket frozen to the ground, my boots hardly malleable enough to move the laces, my socks so frozen that I could have snapped them. I had dry camp shoes, a pair of cotton socks, board shorts, a tee-shirt and a very frozen coat. First thing in the morning Axel put my coat on and started the process of thawing the arms. Better a wet coat than nothing in my current condition.
My boots and socks were so frozen I opted to hike out in my camp shoes, a pair of Vans, and cotton socks. I stuffed everything haphazardly into my pack knowing full well this was the last iteration of its packing for this trip. We headed for the pass watching the snow blown trail disappear in a myriad of switchbacks. Knee deep in loose and flaky powder we slogged up the pass. Once on the summit of Arapahoe Pass and knowing that there was only a 3 mile down hill to our vans there was an immediate feeling of relief. And that down hill flew by. By the time we made it to the parking lot it might have well been our first day on the trail. The level of enthusiasm about being picked up was tangible.
And that is it. We made it out. No one lost any toes. No one died. No one really needed to be evacuated. We made a ton of mistakes, but that’s the basis for greatness mistakes that you can learn from. Whether they are yours or the errors of friends, family, or stories from others pay attention. Because cold feet are hard to hike with.