“We’re F*cked.” Tales from a Backcountry Trek.

“We’re fucked.”

“Really,” I asked, thinking that maybe my long-time friend and guide, Jeff, was just exaggerating the effect of the 8” of snow on the ground.

“Oh yeah. We’re fucked,” he repeated, but with an emphasis and look that let me know that, while I had asked he plan a trip that took me out of my comfort zone, we were now completely out of his.

But let’s start at the beginning. The very beginning.

Like so many before us, Jeff and I reconnected on Facebook. We were great friends back in junior high school and even high school, but lost touch shortly thereafter. When we first got back in touch, we decided to run a marathon together. So, we trained as virtual partners for nearly a year and both, injury-ridden, ran/walked/hobbled through the San Antonio Marathon two years ago. That was hard, but I needed something else. I needed something truly out of my comfort zones.

So, Jeff planned a snowshoe trip in the Colorado winter. I got sick – very sick – and that trip was canceled. Instead, we rescheduled. And Jeff suggested we do a 25-mile trek called the Maroon Four Pass around the famed Maroon Bells near Aspen, Colorado (which are rumored to be the most photographed peaks in the world). Four days of hiking, including ascending four passes at an altitude of 12,500 feet. We would sleep at an elevation of around 10,500. I’m in.

As it goes with the lives we live, wearing a variety of hats of all different shapes and sizes, planning the right time to go proved challenging. We settled on October 14-17, which might mean a little snow and cold nights, we concluded, but it shouldn’t be too bad.

I started training like a madman. Running. Rowing. Hiking. Walking. Anything. I’d throw on my 45-pound pack and walk Harley around Mill Valley. People thought I was weird. I just didn’t want blisters. Meanwhile, Jeff would send me “helpful” tips like, “Next time you climb up Tam, plug one nostril and only breathe through your mouth, so you’ll understand what 12,500 feet feels like,” or “Don’t zip up your tent because the bears will just slash it open anyway looking for food.” Ummm…thanks, pal. Much appreciated. Most people I told about my trip thought it sounded amazing and crazy. That about summed up my feelings, too. But, I was going to be ready.

Finally, after buying a ton of gear and training for months, it was time to go. And I was completely freaking out. Although the weather conditions were forecast to be great, there had been a bit of an early snowfall. Nobody could tell us exactly what that meant, other than the fact that we’d definitely see some snow.

I spent the first night acclimating to the altitude (and watching USC hammer CAL – much to the glee of Jeff, an ‘SC alum) at Jeff’s house. We got up early the following morning and were on our way. No shower. (NOTE: I should have taken a shower. Didn’t need to, of course, but since I wasn’t going to be anywhere near one for the next four days, it might have been nice.)

The drive to the trailhead from Jeff’s house is about four hours. It was a gorgeous drive filled with anticipation and excitement. We drove. We talked. We sat in silence. And, we stopped at Subway for a final carb-loading meal. Not sure I’ve ever had a sandwich that big. Not sure I ever want to eat a sandwich that big again. I kinda feel sick thinking about it right now, to be honest. Back in the car and an hour later we were ready to hit the trail.

The first day of hiking would be easy. No passes to climb. We just had to get a few hours in, find a nice place to camp, hang the bear bag and enjoy the symphony that is the wilderness. No problem.

We got off trail in the first 30 minutes of the hike.

It wasn’t necessarily a daunting start to the trip, as we knew the direction we needed to go, but our early off-trail experience certainly set the tone for the kind of adventure we were going to have. As we made our way around and through all kinds of dead, thorny brush, climbed over fields of rocks, mucked through mud and realized we were in for lots of snow, it was immediately apparent that this wasn’t going to be your average hike in the woods. But it was fun and the first day was easy.

We hiked for 3.5 hours until we found our first campsite for the night, hunkered down next to a creek and feasted on grilled chicken, ramen and chocolate. The bear bag was hung and the first day was in the books. The trip, nearly a year in the planning, had finally begun. The stars were indescribable. Our attempts to start a fire comical. Wearing heavy long johns, two fleece jackets, a snowboard jacket and three pairs of pants (long johns, fleece pants and rain pants), socks, down booties, gloves and a wool hat, while snuggled tightly in my zero degree sleeping bag inside my tent…I was warm.

We had asked a Ranger if there was much snow on the Four Pass Loop, as a pretty good storm had raged through a couple of weeks earlier. He said, calmly, “Maybe a little. You might have some problems on the passes.” Early in our second day of hiking, a day, which required us to climb not one, but two passes, Jeff and I found ourselves in thigh deep snow. Barely an hour into our day, our socks were wet and our feet were freezing. And that was the easy part.

It’s hard to describe what 12,500 feet looks like, much less feels like, when you’ve never seen anything like it up close. The “mountain” I trained on in Marin is called Mt. Tam(alpais). It’s a beautiful mountain filled with amazing trails, but it tops out at maybe 3,000 feet? I think? Maybe less. So, looking up at 12,500 is awe-inspiring. Having to hike up the 2,000 feet to get over the pass is daunting. Knowing you have to do it in snow is terrifying.

The climb up was slow. It was cold. And it was filled with missteps and visions of sliding all the way down. When I thought of this trek, I imagined what I find on my Mt. Tam training hikes. Big, beautiful switchbacks that blazed a gradual climb up the side of the mountain to the pass. We went up the face. With few switchbacks. And, frankly, because there was so much snow – very little trail. We followed in the footsteps that we could find. And did our best not to start an avalanche. At one point, after seeing me lose my footing, Jeff asked, “ Do you know how to self-stop?’ (Or something like that.) I had no clue. He explained how to jam my poles into the snow as hard as I could. In theory, this would stop my slide. I decided then to not have to try such an evasive maneuver.

When we neared the top of the first pass, the footprints stopped. WTF? We saw people go up here! How could there not be any prints in the snow to help us know where to go? The answer: Because you couldn’t walk this part. It was too steep. We literally found ourselves on our stomachs, 45-pound packs on our backs, crawling the last 20 feet to the top. But we made it.

The thing is…you don’t get to really enjoy the top of a pass very much. It’s windy. You look at the view for a second and get the hell out. The other thing is that going down 2,000 feet isn’t really much of a picnic either. This is something I NEVER considered in my preparations for the trek. Why should going down be HARDER? Is there a break in any of this? Does it EVER get easy? Not really so much. Not right now.

While going over the first pass (West Maroon Pass), I discovered a renewed understanding for what it means to be “in the moment.” It was on the way down that I tried to grab a quick glance at the valley below. It was, after all, breathtakingly beautiful. However, I didn’t actually stop moving when I tried to steal this glance. As my pole slipped, I followed and nearly ended up tumbling down the mountain. It would have been a faster way to get down to the valley, but I probably wouldn’t have been able to enjoy it much. You know…since I would have been dead and all. A valuable lesson about the moment: Either hike and pay attention to that. Or stop and look. No doing both. No arguments.

While there was a major feeling of victory about knocking the first pass off the list, we still had another pass to climb on this day. Our feet were still cold. I felt good, though. I felt like I was accomplishing something amazing. And, we were careful to stop and take lots of pictures. Funny thing about many of the pictures, though, is that they can’t really capture the grandeur. They can’t really capture the quest. As I look at them, I can remember what I was feeling at that moment. The images are more than a story, they represent a range of emotions from happiness to awe and pain to even anger (“We fucking have to get to WHERE? Damn.” I know EXACTLY which picture that is.).

As we climbed down that first pass, I learned that giving up elevation sucks. The more you drop…the more you just have to climb again. Each of our days would be filled with drops, climbs and drops again. We’d give up elevation by the thousands of feet only to have to make it up again. As we approached the second pass (the invitingly named Frigid Air Pass), I realized that this day was already harder than the marathon Jeff and I ran together. Missing were the thousands of people lining the streets cheering you on, or the other runners providing inspiring words of encouragement. Nope. Out here it was just Jeff and me.

I was hurting. I was miserable. I needed to stop quite a bit. I found that right around 11,700 feet that the altitude started to really affect me. Catching my breath became a chore. It was only the second day. We weren’t even at our second pass. What had I gotten myself into? Yes, I wanted out of my comfort zone, but THIS far out? What was I thinking? Two more days of this? There was no turning around and I wasn’t about to tell Jeff that I was in hell, but I did tell him that I needed him to will me up the mountain. “We’ll take it in sections.” This would not be the first time we used this mantra.

My hunch is that “Freezing My Fucking Ass Off Pass” wouldn’t fit on the maps. So, they went with “Frigid Air Pass.” It was an appropriate name. We snapped one picture and started down. In the snow. Again. Although there were no people tracks, we followed a trail of elk tracks. By “tracks,” I mean a combination of hoof prints and a prodigious amount of waste. I don’t know how many elk we were tracking, but the amount of poop and pee was impressive. Our warning calls of “poop” quickly ended, as there was just so much, no warning was needed. It was simply a constant.

The fact that the elk “paved” a trail for us, however, didn’t make the descent any easier. You see elk can do things that we can’t. Elk are apparently more confident, comfortable mountain climbers. Elk can bolt straight down the face of a mountain. We weren’t so fortunate. We knew, however, that if we could just get down that mountain and back into the trees (we were above the trees, not enough oxygen for them to survive), that we’d find a nice place to camp for the night. Jeff knew of a waterfall that we were going to camp above. Based on what he read, it was supposed to be beautiful.

We had been off the mountain for the better part of an hour and the waterfall was nowhere in sight. There was, however, a lake in my shoe. It was the only time that I really complained, “Jeff, I’m done.” I told him that we HAD to find a place to camp. I quite literally couldn’t take another step. We found a place. Dropped our packs and quickly got out of our boots and wet socks. Jeff picked up my boot and turned it over. There was our waterfall. I wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. I checked the time. We had hiked nearly seven and a half hours and we technically didn’t even make it where we wanted to go.

You want to camp near running water. This serves multiple purposes. For starters, it’s easy to get the water you need for cooking. You also use the water for cleaning. Most importantly, you need the water to fill up the two-liter water bladders that we drank each and every day. We were kind of close to water, but not close enough. That night, we didn’t cook. We drank the little bit of water we had left (precious little) and dined on avocado and bacon (that we had cooked before we left). And chocolate. Bless the chocolate. I think it was the best freaking meal I had ever eaten.

It wasn’t quite as cold, so I didn’t need the rain pants, but I still wore the other 100 layers, as I quickly fell to sleep. My famous last words were, “Well, tomorrow can’t nearly be as bad as today. There’s only one pass, right?” Jeff, not really feeling my need for him to lie to me responded, “Actually, tomorrow’s the hard day.” Thanks, Jeff. Much appreciated. But, I wasn’t taking that. “But there’s only one pass! I just mean psychologically, it’s easier, just have to get over that one pass. Right?” Jeff’s silence said everything. After what felt like an hour, but was probably only about 10 seconds, he said, “Sure. Let’s go with that.”

For the second night in a row, I didn’t sleep much. This time, though, I think it was because my hiking boots were in my sleeping bag. Jeff suggested that the warmth from the bag might help them dry. In the morning, I discovered that Jeff was wrong. But, the good news is that I can cross “sleep with wet, muddy hiking boots in my sleeping bag” off my bucket list.

We had to cook the next morning, so, in a moment of inspiration, I suggested that we eat by the water. That way, we only have to make one trip. Our creekside “restaurant” was beautiful, as we enjoyed our oatmeal and green tea (mine laced with Emergen-C). We ate in silence, but I imagine we were both thinking the same thing: Today’s gonna suck.

I don’t want to sound like the entire trip was torture, but it’s hard to describe it as “fun.” It was amazing and exhilarating and beautiful, but there was a price to pay to get to enjoy it. As we packed up camp, we knew we were in for a long day. In the snow.  As we started on our way to the third pass (Trailrider Pass), our feet were already wet. Jeff pointed out that it’s not called Trailhiker Pass or Trailwalker Pass, but Trailrider Pass. He assumed this meant that it was probably pretty tough. Again, Jeff…really? A little help here. Give me a hint of optimism.

About an hour into the hike, we found the waterfall. It was spectacular. Camped at the base of this fall were a couple of elk hunters and their horses. Now we knew why those elk were crapping themselves – people were shooting at them. Makes perfect sense now. While talking to these hunters, I had two thoughts: 1) Let’s stop talking, we’re wasting precious time and 2) I really wish we were wearing bright orange. I didn’t know we were going to encounter hunters.

They were nice, though. Even took a picture for us. Sorta wondered if that was going to be the one posted on the news when our bodies were discovered.

We turned down the hunters’ coffee offer and scurried on our way along a muddy trail that was totally torn up by the horses. And, it turns out that horses crap a lot too. Wonder what their excuse is, though. Nobody was shooting at them.

As Jeff and I drove to the trailhead from which we departed, he mentioned (for the first time EVER) that we might have to take off our clothes and carry our packs over our heads across a creek or two. Without a hint of humor, I said, “I’m glad you never mentioned that to me before now. That may have been a deal breaker.” He smirked, “You don’t think I know that?” Bastard.

After leaving the hunters, we came to our first creek crossing challenge. It wasn’t deep enough to have to disrobe, but I knew that there was no way I was wading across barefoot. We looked up and down the creek in order to find a way across until I saw a beaver damn. No turning back. I walked across a creek on a freaking beaver damn. There’s some movie with Eddie Murphy or Richard Pryor where they exclaim, “I’m a goddamn mountain man!” Jeff and I used this for occasions like traversing a creek on a beaver damn. Truth is…I felt a little badass.

That feeling didn’t last long.

Shortly after walking across the creek (did I mention we did this on a beaver damn?), we came upon another hunter. He was in the process of packing out 90 pounds of elk that he had killed and field dressed. The remaining 90-120 pounds were hanging in a tree (that HIS WIFE would come and pick up the next day – don’t really have the words for my thoughts on that). This guy was a stud. He RAN the Four Pass “three or four times a summer.” He also told us a few things that scared the elk poop out of both Jeff and me:

1)   He said, “It’s a little late to be doing the Four Pass isn’t it?” Meaning, he thought it was a little cold/wintery. We assured him that we were prepared.

2)   He said, “Going down Buckskin Pass (our fourth and final pass) will be challenging. I’ve never done that with a pack on.”

3)   He said, “There’s a little something coming in tonight. Maybe 6-8 inches.”

We assured him again that we were good to go and tried to convince ourselves that we knew about the “snow flurry” that might greet us overnight. No worries, dude. We’re covered.

We set out on our way and few hundred yards up the trail, the dude carrying the 90-pounds of elk, PLUS his camping stuff (“I’ve got about 120 pounds in here”) went flying past us. He stopped. “I didn’t mean to make it sound so bleak. I’m sure you guys will be fine.” Jeff then asked him if the mountain in front of us was Trailrider Pass and the REAL goddamn mountain man, barely restraining his laughter, chuckled, “Oh no. That’s the false pass. The real one is behind it. Another 700 feet higher.” Sweet.

We started climbing through a grove of bare aspen trees (which were beautiful in their own right). We walked up this “false pass” on a carpet of dead, brown leaves. We were discouraged. Jeff’s blister was killing him. Mine was starting and, not knowing whose woods these were, we had miles to go before we sleep…miles to go before we sleep (with apologies to Robert Frost).  But we did make it up that False Pass. The view from the top was spectacular. Snowmass Peak stood proudly in front of us, and way across what looked like a HUGE valley next to the peak was Trailrider Pass. We could just make out the trail – switchbacks! – from our vantage point. We had been hiking for three-plus hours and we weren’t anywhere near our destination. I told Jeff, “There’s no fucking way that’s where we’re going.” He replied, “That’s where we’re going.”

Once again, we descended first. I really hated that. As we got to the bottom of the pass, we started the climb. “One section at a time.” We climbed fifty feet and stopped to drink. We climbed 100 and stopped to drink. This went on and on. We kept stopping on the tiny ledge that separated us from being on the mountain and off the mountain to look back to remind ourselves that we were, in fact, making progress. Snowmass Peak was getting closer. We were almost over Trailrider Pass. And, by getting there, we were rewarded with an amazing view of Snowmass Lake, our home for the night.

2000 feet below us.

Seriously? Come on! A little help here! Couldn’t it be like “right there?”

There was no trail down from the Pass. We were, again, going to be making tracks. And, we were again in thigh deep snow heading straight down a mountain. We were tired. At one point, we saw where the trail actually was and decided against following it – shortest distance between two points being a straight line and all…

Bad decision.

The trail stayed high. Our guess that it was going to drop down and our straight line would meet up with it was proven false. We could climb back up behind us and walk around? Or, Jeff suggested, we could climb up the face of that rock in front of us. We decided to climb up the face of the rock. Only, it wasn’t really a rock. It was shale. Every step brought some kind of slippage. Every step brought falling rock. Every step brought me saying goodbye. There were times before this part of the rock climbing adventure when I thought I might not make it. But, they were nothing like the sheer terror I was feeling with each step. Before I left, I joked to my business partner, via text, “You should hear from me on Monday afternoon. If not…it’s been fun.” I was convinced that he was going to live with that. It’s been fun.

But, I had earlier learned my lesson about the moment and the importance of staying in it. If I were going to live through this climb, I needed to focus. Not sure I’ve ever focused harder. If I were going to die right here and now, it wasn’t going to be because I did something stupid while I wasn’t paying attention. I made it to the top. My heart was in my throat. Jeff and I agreed, “Maybe we should have stayed on the trail.” We had been descending for an hour and we still had another thousand feet to go to the promised land of Snowmass Lake.

We were done talking for a while. We weren’t mad. We simply couldn’t speak. We didn’t have the energy. The snow was getting deeper. At one point Jeff’s entire leg fell through the powder. “Oh that’s deep.” We couldn’t help but laugh. Deliriously. What else could we do? Every segment of this adventure was longer and made more challenging by the fact that “there might be some snow” (as the Ranger had told us). We had to laugh. There wasn’t any other choice, really.

Then we got to the lake. Finally. And to say it was magnificent would be an understatement. To say that I’d never seen anything like it wouldn’t do it justice. I was, I’m perfectly sure, the most beautiful setting I’ve ever seen. Snowmass Peak rose 3,000 feet straight out of the far side of the lake. We both dropped our packs and just stared in awe. We were able to look up and see where we had descended down the mountain in the deep snow. Goddamn mountain man!

The fact that there were two other backpackers there was kind of a bummer. This kind of beauty deserved to be enjoyed with no distractions. If we were surprised that they were there, however, we were more surprised to learn that, as darkness descended, that they were on their way out. We thought they were crazy, but we were happy to see them go.

After they left, Jeff and I agreed that it wouldn’t make sense to camp in the open space overlooking the lake and instead opted for the cover of some trees. The wind was whipping off the lake pretty good and the trees would help minimize the power and potential damage it might do. Besides, and although unspoken, we both wondered about “the little something” that might be coming in later in the night. For now, though, we weren’t going to worry about such things. We had dinner to prepare. We had spirituality to ponder. And we had the rewards of this setting to enjoy.

We ate.

We smoked a cigar.

We sat in silence.

And we went to bed.

The wind wouldn’t let me sleep and just before two in the morning, I turned on my headlamp to see the first flakes starting to fall. The moon lit up the lake and peak and I woke up Jeff. We promised each other early in the hike that if something appeared to be indescribable, we’d wake each other up. This was the first time in the trip it had happened. The snow was starting. Then the hail came. Then more snow. And more hail. I willed myself to sleep. At 6:30, Jeff and I both woke up to the six to eight inches of snow that the real goddamn mountain man had promised. I climbed out of my tent.  And that’s when Jeff looked at me, “We’re fucked.”

The sound of the snow and hail pounding on my tent kept me up all night and created a certain level of heart-racing anxiety, but Jeff’s next words practically had me hyperventilating. “We need to start thinking about how we’re going to manage this and really think about how important it is to get home tomorrow.”

As we scurried to break camp, a painstaking process that included eating, packing and filling up our water bladders, the snow continued to fall. And fall. And fall some more. Any tracks that the hikers who left the night before might have left were long covered. Any trace of the trail somewhat difficult to find. We were really out in the wilderness on our own. We each had our driver’s license with us, “So, they can identify our bodies in the spring,” Jeff joked back at the trailhead. Didn’t seem as funny now. “If it’s like this down here, the Pass probably has blizzard-like, whiteout conditions.” Awesome. We started to think about how much food we had and how long we could survive on it in case we had to wait it all out.

“By the way, did you hear that bear last night?” I thought I had heard a growling sound, but between Jeff and my snoring, I wasn’t sure. “Was that a bear?” Jeff said he thought it came through our camp and then got in the lake for a swim. I heard the same thing, but wasn’t about to go look at the time. Any evidence/bear prints (which we had seen early in the hike), were covered by the snow. We’ll never know for sure.

The first part of the hike away from Snowmass Lake was manageable and flat/descending. We figured that regardless of the conditions, we could at least make progress toward our final destination. The snow actually stopped at one point. The sun broke through. Even Jeff felt optimistic. It didn’t last. And although the trail out was manageable, the number of challenging climbs over, around and even under trees that had fallen across our path got old fast. We were marching as fast as we could until we came to a river. This one four times the size of the creek we had previously crossed.

Another beaver damn. This one, covered in slippery snow.

How the fuck was I going to do this? It was the first time on the entire trip where I thought I might actually lose my composure. So far, in every difficult situation, I had managed to stay calm. I had managed to channel my inner Nike and “just do it.” This time, as I stood in the middle of the river, knowing that one bad step would result in being soaked, or worse, I just wanted to cry. Why the hell did I agree to do this? What the fuck was so wrong with my comfort zone, anyway.

Once we got to the other side, we took pictures, congratulated each other and started marching again. Thirty minutes later, Jeff realized something was terribly wrong. The sun was at our back. It should be in front of us. The river to our left should be on the right. We were on the wrong trail. Somewhere we missed the right turn that would take us up and over Buckskin Pass.

We were out of options. Tired and hurting, we decided we would continue down the path we were on. It would drop us at the Snowmass trailhead at which time we would walk to Snowmass Village and take a cab back to our car at the Maroon Bells trailhead. That was our plan. We were relieved, frankly. Jeff confided that he was genuinely afraid that we were going to die in the snow on Buckskin Pass. I was glad he kept this to himself. I think we were both kind of disappointed not to do the Four Pass. After all that’s what we came here to do! But, the decision not to do it wasn’t ultimately made by us. It was made for us.

We got into a discussion about God. Jeff explained that there were too many instances in his life when things like this – some kind of “divine intervention” – happened. Too many times, he had planned one thing and something unexplained detoured him to a better result. I talked about believing in some kind of Universe. Some kind of spiritual feeling that doesn’t necessarily guide my decisions, but there’s certainly an awareness I have for it. We got quiet. We were on our way home, and we knew we’d get there safely. Frankly, we didn’t care what we called our beliefs at this point, we were just happy that we were going to see our families and friends again.

A month or so before the trip, we decided that we’d stay at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen after the trek. We wanted to pamper ourselves a bit after three nights and four days in the woods. As fun as it was to pee on trees wherever we wanted, a clean bathroom sounded kind of cool. A hot shower even better. And a big steak…the best. As we walked toward the trailhead, all I could think about was the Hotel Jerome.

We were damn near feeling euphoric when we came upon a group of young hunters heading out to pick up their kill. “How far is it to the trailhead?” They told us it was about three or three and a half miles. Cool. Jeff and I both thought, no problem. An hour. And then Jeff asked, “How far is the walk to town?” Our young hunter friends then had another kill – our spirits – when they replied, “Oh, you don’t walk to town. That’s like a 20-minute drive through farmland, up and over a mountain…” I stopped listening as they explained the rest of the way.

Jeff and I, needing something to believe in, hoped against hope that we’d find someone at the trailhead to give us a ride to Snowmass Village. So, we put our heads down and practically ran toward the trailhead. Aspen leaves once again covered the path, but this time, they were yellow and gold. Jeff said, “It’s like the yellow brick road.” I told him I hoped so. We’d already encountered the Wicked Witch in the form of the storm. I was ready to find the Wizard.

When we came up on the trailhead, we were encouraged to find cars. We dropped our packs, nursed our hurts and waited. After 30 minutes, we were still sitting alone. We could have been walking toward Snowmass Village during that time. At least we’d be closer. We decided to start walking. Our chances of seeing other cars were better if we were mobile, we reasoned.

And see a car, we did. Just as we got to the main road, we waved down a guy and his family in a Subaru wagon. We asked him how to get to Snowmass Village. We explained, briefly, what had happened and what we were trying to do. And, as his wife was telling us to go up this road, around the switchbacks, over the hill, past a stop sign…she stopped. “Why don’t we just drive you?” Jeff and I protested (sort of), “Oh, we could never,” “You have your family,” and other things we didn’t really believe. The driver’s wife, mother (or mother in law) and dog hopped out of the car. “Take them, honey, we’ll meet you at the trailhead.” We continued with all of the “are you sures?” we could muster while practically diving into the car and before long, Alan, the snowboard-instructor-in-the-winter/photographer-in-the-off-season, was driving us to Snowmass Village. He told us that we could catch a bus that would take us to Aspen and then we could hitchhike up to where our car was. We told him that we didn’t have any money and we’d just take a cab and then give the driver a credit card. Alan offered to pay for our bus.

Who IS this guy?

I told him that we would only consider such an option if he gave me his address so we could pay him back. Alan said, “Everyone up here has ‘been there.’ Don’t worry about it.”

In the end, we decided to take a cab. At that point, we wanted one more thing to worry about – the cab. Not three: two buses and a successful hitch. We climbed out of Alan’s car, thanked him 100 times, and watched as he drove away. As horrible as the storm was, our brief experience with Alan was the exact opposite. I didn’t need my faith in humanity restored, as I tend to think pretty well of most people, but it did remind me just how great humans can be to one another. Talk about your unexpected interactions from the planning of this trek.

Our cab driver was equally cool, and we got back to our car and to the Hotel Jerome right on schedule, just as originally planned. Maybe with a different route, but that doesn’t matter. We were safe. We hiked for four days. Mission accomplished.

There’s a whole lot of time spent with your thoughts out on a 25-mile (or something like that), four-day and three-night backcountry backpacking trip. As someone who tends to get stuck in his head in every day living, I was roaming all kinds of mental space in the wilderness. It’s too easy to use this experience to talk about perspective. I’m not sure I gained any new perspective, but this trek certainly affirmed the perspective that I already had. It reassured some things I already knew (which I’ll probably write about another time).

I know that people will ask me if “it was fun.” And, like I wrote previously, I can’t say that it was. It was, however, absolutely amazing. Intense. Incredible. The size and beauty of the wilderness was literally breathtaking. The stars were limitless. The mix of snow, rocks, trees, leaves, animal tracks, clouds and water created the kind of mixed media art that only nature can create. Seeing that and experiencing that is wonderful. Life changing. Fun? Not sure about fun. I did, however, learn more about my own capabilities and capacity for overcoming physical challenges and stress than I ever have. And, yes, I was certainly taken out of my comfort zone.

The morning after the Jerome, as Jeff drove me back to the Denver airport, he said, “I’ve always wanted to climb Mt. Whitney from from the backside on the Muir Trail.”

Can’t wait.

11 thoughts on ““We’re F*cked.” Tales from a Backcountry Trek.

  1. Nicely done. The writing I mean. As for the deciding not to stick to the trail, well that’s a lesson you should have learned 20 years ago in the Grand Canyon. So glad you lived to tell the tale.

  2. The bigger problem was that there was no trail most of the time. I told the Grand Canyon story as we were enjoying our steaks after the trek. Never forget you collapsing the bed, the tiles falling off the shower wall and the greatest hamburgers of all time.

  3. I think your memory is questionable, ’cause I’m SURE that “hotel” was five star. Well compared to sleeping on frozen dirt.

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