Allow me to introduce you to an obsession that lasted 2 years...Collegiate Peaks Loop. It is a 162 miles circumnavigation around the peaks over 14,000 feet in Colorado mountains and is a part of Colorado trail. It is a loop formed in the middle of this hiking trail due to an option of being split into West and East part. The West part is higher and is a part of Continental Divide trail. The East is an original Colorado trail.
Now that we have this settled, I, of course, knew about it since I through-hiked Colorado Trail 2 years ago. At the time I was the first female to do it self-supported and in an amount of time that was respected enough to get into Fastest Known Time. (As a side note, this record, which was done in a way as a simple backpacking trip, with stopping relatively early, carrying heavy pack, and not going crazy with miles, read report here, has been not only broken, which even I could have done, but smashed, by a girl who's a Triple Crowner and is a new generation hiker with ultralight gear and moving through the night after the records). Last year, 2019, when we moved to CO, I felt I wanted to do a solo hike, because it seemed to have been my thing for the last 4 years, but we just moved, and I didn't want to go away for too long. Hiking in CO was appropriate, and I saw the newly established supported record for Collegiate Loop and thought: hmm, I can do it all by myself, wouldn't it be awesome to break supported while unsupported? (Another side note, this past summer this one, too, has been broken to a much more appropriate faster time).
Anyway, sounds selfish and obnoxious, but at the end of August, without much prep, I gave it a go. Well, read about it here with photo link, but in a nutshell, my Attempt #1 ended up at night 2 - I DNF'ed mainly due to PTSD of mountain lions encounters during Colorado Trail thru-hike, but legitimately, I had broken my one hiking pole (one can't push without two) and did something to my stomach that later lasted a few days. I thought I let it go, but this summer the idea was resurrected (the FKT still hasn't been done, not even supported was broken), and in July I had my attempt #2. Photos are here, but let me tell you, I miss my Pearl Izumi Shoes (which are no longer in production). I can run in just about anything, but backpacking big days - apparently not. My feet got blisters on the sides of both heels and at the balls of my feet, deep under calluses, and every step, as time gone on, was more painful to step on. I made it 2.5 days - two and half days, 2 nights, 48/37/21 miles, being relatively on track, but eventually gave up when came across a parking lot with 2 ladies going home. I felt weak in my mind, but again, looking back now, I totally made the right call. Doing the remainder of the miles wouldn't have been possible on those hobbling feet, not in the time I wanted, and I already began to compensate and affect other parts of my legs. I quit, and cried. And, two weeks later, I wanted to go again. Gosh, it became an obsession, that's all I could see in my mind! Poor Larry was pretty fed up (rightfully so), and I planned to drive myself, spend a night at the motel, and start at the different point. Which I did at the beginning of August...with this attempt #3 ending up before the first night fell. Photos are here, but in short, by the end of the day, in the last 9 miles out of 48, literally, I suddenly started to experience a severe pain in my back, and a lean, classic ultrarunning thing, which not only hurt, but freaked me out. The thing is, I have a condition, anterolisthesis, which is a slipped vertebra. Not a disk, a vertebra (L4). If progresses, it may cause spine cord being squeezed in the vertebra canal, and it is something one does not want. So, I came to a road crossing and flagged the first car, which actually stopped - and drove me back to my car. I thought, now, for sure, I am done with the loop.
God, having a mind that is driving your body is not a good thing. I am a month short of being 51, for Christ sake! But a week gone by, and I was occupied with going back. That is while I couldn't walk/stand?sit with the back pain! For real, that was so bad, my neighbors felt bad for me as I was slowly moving across the yard bent over! Yet dumb ideas are my specialty. Larry and I, in the mean time, planned our own backpacking trip in Wyoming (we wanted it for the whole year), and even that was in jeopardy. I barely recovered for it, and off we went. I need to write something about it, because it was fantastic (and the miles we did were 17/20/16/14/7, plus I got to sleep in, drink coffee, set up camp for the night by 5 pm and eat hot dinner!), but you can see photos here. Highlight of that 1 day though: in the early morning hours, before dawn, as I was going down the Fooses creek trail, I nearly stepped over a girls packing from the night sleep - on the trail itself. She said "sorry", I responded "no problem had done it myself", and as I walked, I was like: this is the girl who messaged me that she is going after my CT record! It's an appropriate time for her to be right there, and who else would sleep on the trail, to save time (not looking for a camping on the flat surface) but someone in a hurry? And her face looked familiar (from the photos). I messaged her once home, and next day she responded - yes! She, too, recognized me. We were both so into our thing that the split seconds those thoughts too to form put us apart, but how wild was that! Read her words here.
This brings us to now, and my attempt #4. I had never in my life gave something, anything at all, that many tries. This was it. Larry was to go visit his son (who's in college, in Lubbock) for a 3-day weekend, and I thought - what a great timing to go and not feel guilty about doing my own thing! (Feeling guilty is my specialty). I told him. He rolled his eyes. I cried a little. Tried to explain (really, it was dumb, but I had some kind of reasoning I can't even out in coherent words). He sighed and said whatever. Just do it, don't tell anyone, don't announce, make it even if it takes you 5 days, just damn finish this thing. Because, you see, after 3 attempts, going from different points, I, literally, was missing about 20 miles of the Loop! Wouldn't you be obsessed? Well, maybe not, but I was.
I set up my time off. I have to say, while I chose every time the days arbitrary due to how it was fitting my work and life schedule, I always managed to make it fall on Full Moon nights AND perfect no storms weather, which is single most important thing when hiking high mountains.
On Tuesday, September first, in the evening after work, I drove myself to the Princeton Trailhead. I had started from there twice, but this time I decided to go opposite direction, Clockwise. I couldn't bear to go same way and see same things and be affected by previous miles!!! I slept in my car (thanks Subaru!) quite comfortably, just that full moon was shining into me. So, 3:24 am off I went...(heads up, photos here).
It was a downhill start on the road for nearly 5 miles, and it was a good start - I didn't even have a headlamp on under the full moon and with easy footing. The thing about doing it in September are long nights and shorter day light. Me being paranoid about wild life (a.k.a. mountain lions, which I have 9 encounters now) is not pairing well with night hiking, but I got better this summer about it. I figured I haven't being attacked yet, they don't really care, just curious cats, and I wear a few lights all over me, like a walking Christmas tree, to let them know I am not a good food option. Plus this particular time I decided to take music for the dark morning hours (from 4 to 6 am) to distract myself from listening to the night silence and being too aware of each noise. It worked!
At 6:10 I could turn all this illumination off. Miles clicked so fast and uneventful, I was at mile 30 hiking my huge climb up Fooses creek to the Continental Divide split. Here's where I took my first break, for real, 9 hrs and 40 min into my day. Crazy! Just tells you how I felt. It was the first time I took my pack off! I also made a commitment to soak my feet at least once daily, and this is what I did, spending a total of 15 min. So, my daily breaks were one - 15 min. Ha. That's not something I would do with a hiking partner, right? ;) I made it up (the climb was as long as I remembered) and took a turn West.
After reaching Monarch Pass and crossing the road, this was that 20 mile section I did not see, although technically the first few miles of it was through the top of Monarch ski resorts - and we skied it so many times! Of course it all looked differed and weird. And then the Big Climb of the day, my first 12,500 footer, at the end of the day, with 45 miles on my feet, fierce wind (and I mean it) having picked up knocking me off, hard breathing, and nowhere to stop. I knew that if I go past Monarch ski area, I am committed to go to Hunt lake, some 47.5 miles day 1, due to no flat sheltered spot and no water. I pushed on. Gosh, it was kind of brutal and fugly - I really hate life above 11,000, with rock and no green stuff growing - but I turned a corner and began my descend. I have no idea how, but I made it, exactly by 7:30 pm, as the daylight started fading, and set my tent at the first good spot by the lake. (By the way, if you scroll through the photos on computer and not the phone, I had made comments to each photo, so it's easy to navigate).
I always sleep pitifully in a tent, but I was not afraid anymore, just restless. I have alarm set at 3:30 am, and by 3:55 I am off for another day. It was a frosty morning! I continued on this section I didn't know, and by sunrise I got to the top of my second "over 12,000 feet" top - and first of 7 big climbs for the day. In fact, this was "high country day", pretty much the WHOLE TIME being spent above 12,000 feet. It is hard work to hike up high. And a lot of rock, scree, and again, not my favorite views. As a side note, those 20 miles, besides the views from the first peak in the morning? Weren't technically worthy the return, if it wasn't for the loop completion.
I got to the Alpine Tunnel trailhead, a point at which I quit in my attempt #2, longest previous (July of this year), and gave it a finger. After that, I had seeing every step already, and it was a known territory all over again. I prepared for the High Country ahead, took my warm clothes off, and inhaled a deep breath. Damn it had to be done or else...
See the photos in the album, but it was just that: work. And it felt like it was, while being very hard, was flowing rather well. I was making the miles click, re-calculating along the way, yet trying to spend a lot of time looking around. Besides soaking my feet daily, I also vowed to doze myself with cold water whenever I can, soak my bandanna and drink a lot (I carried one 0.75 L bottle and I filled it at EVERY creek - which I knew by heart location of - and I only used my second spare bottle for the night fill, saving weight, and because I don't use filters or other devices, the filling every creek thing went fast). Again, see photos with comments for the day, but it was a hot and hard earned day for me.
I gave Cottonwood Pass a finger, too - my DNF point for the attempt #1. This was my "minimum for the day" spot this time. As I was preparing, I had some mileage in my head for "depending how the day goes". An absolute minimum to reach, a "would love to be further along", and a "dreaming is wild" point. Jumping ahead, let me tell you, EVERY DAY I was making the "dream"! I will never be able to explain how or why, but when things fall together, they do. I had no injuries, no crazy things. Just achy feet and shoulders after about 20 miles or so, and a full recovery overnight, like nothing happened.
I dropped over Cottownwood pass road, and pushed on. There was plenty of water and camping spots (and my 2 moose sighting), but I pressed on for that "dream point" at Tejas creek crossing, and I made it before the sun went down! Because, while I made peace of hiking in the dark hours of the morning, I absolutely refuse to do so in the evening darkness. The tent goes up while I can still see. It's a must for me, for normality. I am NOT after ambitious goals, the thing has to remain being semi-regular hiking. 39.9 miles for the day - holy shit, it is HUGE for the high country! Never in my wild dream! Satisfied is not a word I would use.
Day 3 - another 4 am start. I had only 2 of the 12,600 feet passes, but both I dreaded. They knock my teeth out every damn time. Lake Ann Pass and Hope Pass. It's just hard, no matter how you put it, though in-between there is a section of about 6 miles of relatively flat hiking (by mountain standards). This was the day I stopped for 15 min and soaked my feet/cooled myself off not once, but 3 times! I even once washed my shirt and put it on, yet it lasted a mere few minutes before drying up. It was hot and getting hotter, seems to be a story of this attempt. I recognized, thankfully, that taking care of myself was more important than those minutes I spent for it.