Madison has been trying to convince me to go on a backpacking excursion with her for a couple years now. And although I always enjoyed the outdoors, I never really camped growing up. It has just been in the last few years that I’ve become comfortable car camping and being away from the my daily comforts of a bed and shower to connect a little bit more fully with Mother Nature. The thought of carrying all of the necessities needed to camp on my back and taking to the trail really intimidated me. Not to mention, being out in the woods with wild things and unpredictable mountain weather and no plan B. Still, I agreed to it, and honestly, I was kind of excited to try it and learn new things from my badass wife.
In late May, we decided to go for it. Madison picked a trail just south of us in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, reasoning that it was a better idea to go south than north since it was still early in the season. The 6.5 mile trail would take us up to a beautiful group of alpine lakes. “I can even teach you how to fish!” she said. Oh good. More firsts for me.
With a trail picked out, we moved on to packing our bags. A tent, mini camping chairs, a cook set, dehydrated food, a water purifier, trail snacks, sleeping bags, dog food, extra layers, sleeping pads, water, and now, a fishing pole–it all had to go in these monstrous bags. Even with their size, I was surprised it all fit. Madi assured me they would comfortably sit on our backs as we walked up mountain trails. Yeah right, I thought. But I put a pack on, and sure enough, the weight sat close to my body, supported both by straps around my waist and my shoulders. It was about 30-35 lbs, but it felt pretty manageable.
We woke up early the next morning to drive to the trail head. We arrived a little before 9 am. It was still cool, but the bright Colorado sun was starting to heat up. Lucky for us, the trail began in the woods with some shade. Unlucky for us, we missed our first turn and reached a dead end about a half mile in. I guess we wanted to get some extra mileage. Working our way back, I admired how compact and secure my pack felt. The trail worked it’s way through a high meadow, climbed gently along a ridge, and then fell into a valley with a creek at the bottom. When we got to the creek crossing, our dog, Cooper, ran in to cool off, peed, and then dunked his head all the way under water. He’s a strange dog.
After the creek crossing, we meandered through the valley for a bit, stopping in the shade for a quick snack. Then the trail really started to climb. I leaned forward into my hiking poles with each step to try to keep that weight pushing me in the right direction. The pack was starting to get heavy. Time and gravity will do that, I suppose. Still, when I looked up from the trail, it was pretty easy to forget about the half campsite I was hauling. The pale bark of aspens highlighted the trajectory of the trail. In the distance, the rocky peaks of the Sangre de Cristos stood high and triumphant. Their size somehow made them look simultaneously only inches away and also a hundred miles from us. I looked back at Madi. She was down to just a sports bra and leggings with a pack that truly dwarfed her, holding the upper straps to stabilize her half of our campsite. “Wow, she’s tough,” I thought. Then I looked ahead to find Cooper, who was clearly living out his best dog daydream.
We had been hiking for hours, and we had yet to see another soul on the trail. Madison said it was what I would like most about backpacking. She was right. My time outside always feels more intimate when it’s just me, the ground, and the sky. Backpacking was already offering a deeper level of solitude and connection to the outdoors than even my longest, solo adventure runs.
Clouds started to gather above us or maybe we were just getting closer to them. Little drops of rain fell and cooled our skin. It was just a drizzle, and after climbing over 1500ft, it was actually a welcome, refreshing change. The rain was short lived, but it lasted long enough for me to think about how miserable this trip could be if it didn’t stop.
The switchbacks of the trail tightened, and we had to make our way over more technical terrain to keep going up. I looked down at my GPS watch, hoping this would be the last steep climb. I was getting tired. We all were. When we exited the canyon after stepping over another set of boulders, we were greeted by a cool breeze off the clear water of Lake of the Clouds. We made it.
There was one other couple up at the lake fishing. We continued on to the other lakes to scout out a camping spot. I was so excited to set down my pack, set up our tent, and eat some food. Madi took me down to the water to show me how to pump water through the filter. We filled up every one of our bottles so we could rehydrate and have plenty of water to cook with later. After setting up camp, we went back down to the lake to fish. Long story short, I learned how to cast, sort of, but I didn’t catch anything.
A bit later, the weather started to threaten again. We went into our tent to avoid getting wet. It was cooling down, and we knew that getting wet and cold would be a big back country mistake. Madi set up our little stove just outside the tent, and we made ramen. The rain, then hail, pelted our tent and thunder echoed off the surrounding peaks. So in our nylon shelter, we played Uno, ate our soup, thought happy thoughts, and tried to keep Cooper calm.
There was a little break in the rain, so we made our way up away from camp to hang our bear bag. Another first for me. I wouldn’t say it went smoothly, but we got it up and secured it with some boy scout knots and a big rock. Despite the fact that it was late May, there was a winter chill in the air at this elevation, making more sense of the snow that bordered the lake on which we decided to camp. I didn’t give it another thought, just zipped up my fleece, and we retired to our tent for the night.
After a physically grueling day of hiking nearly 8 miles and 2,400ft with 30 pound packs, I thought we would all sleep soundly and awake to a beautiful mountain sunrise. Well, I was half right.
The rain, hail, and thunder cycled throughout the night, and the temperature kept dropping. Between the continuous downpour, the explosions of thunder, the rustling of each of us to get comfortable or don another layer, and the anxiety of our dog, very little sleeping occurred. At some point early in the morning or late in the night, Madison and I looked at each other uncomfortable, sleepless, shivering, and agreed we would only be staying one night.
By sunrise the rain had stopped, but we woke to a fresh layer of frost coating the grass and tree stumps of our campsite. I grabbed my last two warm accessories: my stocking cap and a puffy, and I wandered down to the lake to appreciate the pink diffused light of sunrise as it shot up Cloud Peak. Back at camp, I set up our mini stove to heat up water for oatmeal, tea, and coffee. Man, did it feel good to drink and eat something warm. Madi agreed. Odd how we were searching for shade to cool down just a short 16 hours prior.
After tea and coffee, we packed up camp, true to our promise, and started hiking back down. We weren’t interested in seeing what the next 24 hours were going to bring. Still, even with the thunderstorms, cold, and an abbreviated trip, I loved my first experience backpacking. The Sangre de Cristos were magnificent. Madison was a hell of a guide and, much like in the real world, an invaluable companion. Cooper enjoyed his endless supply of sticks and surprisingly held it together during the storm. And even though I’m a novice backpacker at best, by the end of our hike, the weight of my pack felt a lot less like a burden and a lot more like an opportunity.