Sometimes Things Don't Go as Planned: Lessons Learned from My Most Challenging Hike (to date)

Originally Posted July 2020

Hey Everyone!

Good news, we survived our ambitious 4th of July hiking trip and had an amazing time!!! 🙌🏻

I should preface this post by stating that this was intended to be a very FULL weekend of hiking adventures. However, due to the weather (afternoon thunderstorms) each day and some unexpected trail conditions, we had to adjust the plan a little bit.

Our plan was to arrive Thursday night, complete our MEGA, EPIC, AMBITIOUS hike on Friday (when we were fresh), have a shorter hiking day on Saturday to rest and recover, and finish strong with a moderate yet GORGEOUS hike on Sunday before driving home.

My super ambitious hike was estimated to be between anywhere from 12-17 miles with well over 4,000 ft of elevation gain. The distance would ultimately depend on which trailhead we started from. This wasn't one single hike, but rather, I combined a few different hikes together for one epic loop of awesomeness! Before our trip, we researched the trails, looked at trail reports, checked out a variety of maps, consulted Google Earth 3D view for perspective, and we even found a YouTube video showing the entire stretch of dirt road up to the trailhead. We were very thorough in our research!

Also, we knew the weather forecasts showed afternoon thunderstorms, and we were prepared (mentally and physically) for those. This is pretty typical Colorado summer weather in July/Aug, sunny in the morning, afternoon thunderstorms, and then evening sunshine. That being said, it's difficult to predict exactly when the rain will come. The general rule of thumb is to make sure you're off the summit well before noon. This is a pretty easy rule to follow when you're completing a shorter or easier hike (OR you're just in much better shape than me, lol!). However, when you're planning a marathon-like hike with a lot of elevation gain, your hiking pace slows down pretty significantly.

So, we started out on Friday morning with the intention of getting to the trailhead around 6am and finishing between 1-2pm. Based on our pre-trip research, we were able to drive up a dirt road to a closer trailhead - this would shave off 4-4.5 miles roundtrip (RT) and 1300 ft of elevation gain. So instead of 16-17 miles and 4,000+ ft, we would only be hiking 12-13 miles and 2,800-3,000 ft. This is what we were prepared for.

Once we got to the lower trailhead, we started the ascent up the dirt road to the upper trailhead. At the very first switchback our plans were foiled by multiple LARGE potholes in the road. The video we had watched of the dirt road was taken from a dash cam and depicted the road to be completely driveable by my little Subaru. Unfortunately, that was not the reality when we got there. So, we backed up the car and headed back to the lower lot to reassess. The weather was overcast at 6am and we were not at all anticipating our 12 mile hike to turn into 16-17. We had been so excited to find a way to shave off those 4-4.5 miles, and we were not mentally prepared for the longer distance. So, we decided to switch our 1st and 2nd day hikes. We would come back mentally prepared tomorrow.

Our Friday Hike (intended for Saturday) was moderate difficulty, 5.6 miles RT and 1391 ft of elevation gain (starting around 10,700 and ending around 11,900). The first mile was fairly flat with almost all the elevation gain in the last mile and a half. Funnily enough, we felt like we were dragging up it. So, it seemed like a blessing that we didn't have to do 16-17 miles with 4,000 ft that day!

Since it was a shorter hike, we made it up to the lake while the skies were still relatively clear. We had a blast adventuring around the lake and competing to see who could find the best views!

Once the clouds and wind started rolling in, we decided to make our descent and head back into town for lunch. The nice part of the shorter hiking day was that it got us warmed up and excited for the longer hike on Saturday. Instead of trying to hike the morning after our arrival, this gave us an extra night to relax, settle in, and get a solid night's sleep before our attempt.

Onto Saturday morning - game time!

We were ready and pumped for our long hike! Since we had to start at the lowest trailhead, we had an initial 2 mile ascent with over 1300 ft of elevation gain just to reach the higher trailhead (located at the top of the falls - pictured to the right). I was relieved at first because 700 and 600 ft of gain per mile seemed like nothing; however, once we got started, I soon realized just how fatigued my body was. The first mile was very tiring for me; I don't know exactly why. It definitely felt far steeper than it was. The second mile on the road was nice and easy at 5-600 ft of gain. It felt like a nice stroll and was a good break. This led us all the way to the top of the falls and to the start of the upper trailhead. We were on pace (2 miles in with 6 more to go to reach our destination), the skies were clear, and we were feeling optimistic that the weather would stay in our favor!

Now, one of the things I have to mention is hiking pace. Our hope was to maintain a 30 min/mile pace overall (slightly slower on the up, slightly faster on the down). This would mean 8.5 hours of hiking with a finish time around 3pm. This is what we had intended. We DID end up with 8.5 hours of hiking for 16 miles, however, we didn't finish our hike until 7:30pm!

Unfortunately, the weather took a turn a little earlier than we had anticipated. The weather was showing 40-50% chance of rain/thunderstorms after 12pm. Based on our plan, we would've been off the highest ridge (13,000 ft) and 1.5 hours into our return by the time the rain came in. This would mean we would've been back around treeline with trees and forest around us if needed; important protection in a thunderstorm. Sadly, our pace was a little slower than intended due to an accidental detour (the trail split and we thought it would connect back to the road... it did not) which caused some bushwhacking and navigating through the alpine tundra. And instead of the alpine tundra being a relatively open and flat basin; it had steeper level changes and gullies we hadn't anticipated navigating around. So, we had to course-correct and find the best way back to the trail given our current position on the map. This ate up a decent amount of time and put us behind schedule. Instead of being at our furthest destination at 10:30am with clear weather, we were still about 2 miles away from our end goal with storms quickly rolling in.

Luckily, I knew there was a cabin for hikers in the final 2 mile stretch towards our goal. It started to lightly hail (very small) when we were about 100-150 yards away from the cabin. We pulled up the hoods on our ponchos and booked it towards the shelter. We arrived around 10:30am and ended up waiting out the first storm for about 2 hours. We kept an eye on the clouds and looked for a reasonable clearing to make our final 2 mile push to our destination.

This is where our next trail obstacle came into play. The small gulley we needed to climb up to reach the next lake area was still covered in snow. We opted out of taking our microspikes this trip since it seemed like all the snow was melted around this time. Unfortunately, since we were hiking a less popular trail, we had no information about this final section of the hike aside from what we saw on maps and Google Earth. Even if we had spikes, it seemed too perilous to attempt to trek up the snow; the risk of falling through into the creek below was way to high. So, we had to decide if it was worth it to scout the area and hope for a passable route OR if it was better to throw in the towel all together and start the descent without seeing any of the sights we hoped for.

After some discussion, we decided to check it out and see if we could find a safe way up the gulley. The skies were temporarily clear, the rain stopped, and we found a route that would allow us to keep off of the snow. By the time we made it up to the first lake, we had about 10 minutes for pictures (see below) before the clouds rolled back in. At this point, we were sitting around 12,600-12,800 ft. We still had one final ridge (about 400 ft) to climb over to get to our end goal.

However, with the clouds around us darkening and the movement looking as though they would travel right over us, we decided to scout for a place to take shelter from the incoming storm. We found a nice boulder with an overhang and decided to build rock wall around it for a little added protection (pictured below).

Since another wave of storms appeared to be rolling in, we decided to shelter down, eat our PB and banana sandwiches, and wait it out.

While it sprinkled on us and we heard thunder a couple of times, the storm seemed to move around the basin we were in. But instead of passing overhead, it just kind of sat outside of the basin and orbited around it.

This was another moment of truth for us. Should we give up and head back down with only 400 ft of elevation and maybe 400 yards of distance left? We had come so far and endured so much, it seemed like a huge waste of effort to turn around now. You can even see the ridge we ended up climbing over in the picture to the left.

We ended up waiting another 1-1.5 hours before deciding to go for it. The thunder seemed to pass and it just seemed like it was going to stay cloudy and rainy. It wasn't anything oppressive, just a light drizzle with occasional winds. So, we decided to take on the ridge! This was the scariest part for me because of the rocky shale we were traveling over. You can see the snow remaining on the ridge. We had to climb around the snow to access a small trail that led to the crest of the ridge. Meanwhile, the rocks were unstable, it was cold, wet, and windy, and our ponchos kept obstructing our view of our feet. We kept moving slowly, stopped when the winds picked up, and tried our best to pull our ponchos out of the way. It was difficult to hear each other because of the wind and our hoods. Despite the difficulty of the terrain, we managed to climb up and over the ridge to view the lake on the other side!

We were expecting bright blue waters and an epic overlooking view of the lake, but we only caught a sliver of the dark blue waters. We had initially planned to hike all the way down to the lake, but with the unpredictable weather and current rain, we snapped a quick photo from the top of the ridge and headed back down.

By the time we made it back to our previous cabin refuge, the sky was clear and the sun was out. We had just missed our beautiful view of the lake by about 30 minutes!!! But it was already about 3:30pm at this point and we weren't willing to wait any longer at 13,000 ft with only a rock shelter to keep us safe. In a way, it's a shame to think that if we had stayed up there 20-30 minutes longer and headed all the way to the final lake, we would've caught it at the perfect time. But, we decided to play it safe and turn back as soon as we got the view we came for - even if it wasn't at all spectacular.

We ate a quick snack and removed some layers at the cabin before heading all the way back down. We had clear skies and sunshine until the last mile back, and magical views of a different sort. We had an overcast final mile back along the road until we reached the car. Starving and ready to relax, we ordered food on our way back to the car so that we could pick it up on the way back to our lodging. Our adventure was supposed to be 12 miles (if the road was passable), 2,800-3,000 ft, and 7 hours. Instead, it turned into 16 miles, 13 hours (4-4.5 hours waiting out storms and deciding what to do), and 4,000+ ft of elevation gain.

The hardest thing for me was that this was a bucket list hike. We had been talking about this trip for the last 3 years, and we had been hoping for epic views. I had intended to see three beautiful alpine lakes on this custom route I pieced together, and we were hoping to time it perfectly with wildflower season. While we did get some wildflowers, we were a little early for the peak season. Instead of blue skies and sunshine, we got thunderstorms and overcast skies. Instead of three alpine lakes, we saw one and a quarter. We only caught a sliver of the main event, and what we saw was certainly nothing impressive.

While the final lake views were somewhat of a letdown, I couldn't help but feel a huge sense of accomplishment and pride. I had set a goal of completing this hike or dying while trying, and I did it. When other people turned around that day, we persevered. When it looked like there was no way through, we found/made our own way. When things didn't go as planned, we kept our spirits high, stayed optimistic, and worked together. We never panicked, we took action. We remained in control at all times and still had an epic adventure!

Lessons Learned:

  1. Always bring microspikes in the early season unless absolutely certain the trails are completely clear. You never know when there'll be a snow field to cross!

  2. Ponchos are the best investment EVER! Ponchos are great insulators in addition to keeping the water off! While we were waiting in our rock shelter, I was fully decked out in a long sleeve shirt, vest, down jacket, and fleece gloves. I still had an extra fleece in my pack (that I didn't need) and a hat, so I was good on layers. But I was amazed at how much warmth the poncho provided. In the past, I used a waterproof jacket as opposed to a poncho and this just took up a lot of space in my pack and added extra weight. Ponchos are small, lightweight, and versatile. They can be used to create a makeshift shelter, they cover more body surface area than a jacket alone, and they're incredibly great value for their cost. I got mine at Walmart for $10 the day before we left.

  3. Travel with someone you can trust your life with! Luckily this is a no-brainer for me and pretty easy since my adventure buddy is the one person I absolutely trust. We alternated good ideas for navigating the trail, we worked together and supported one another, and we are both very prepared and evenly matched. Nothing tests a relationship more than adversity and potentially life-threatening situations; so it's essential to adventure with someone you know you can trust in those situations. This was a great validation that we work well together even in the most challenging times.

  4. Meat sticks make everything better! I don't really have anything to elaborate on here, it's just true, haha! They're one of my essential snacks on a hike!

  5. Plan for the worst and hope for the best! Luckily, this was the approach and mindset I had going in. I expected thunderstorms and torrential rain, so it was a relief when it turned out to only be a few drizzles. Also, I knew there was a cabin we could shelter in, but I had no idea it was as nice as it turned out to be! This was a great surprise! By keeping my expectations in check (low?), I ended up with a lot of pleasant surprises instead of a lot of letdowns.

  6. Allow enough time to sleep after a long hike. This is going to vary for each individual. 5 miles might be long for some people, while 10 miles might seem short to others. After our long hiking day, we had a moderate 8-9 mile hike the next day that we ended up skipping because we needed more sleep. If everything had gone according to plan, we would've completed the long hike on Friday, rested on Saturday, and completed the moderate hike on Sunday. Unfortunately, a lot of things had to change last minute to accommodate the weather and road conditions. Since we finished this hike so late in the day, there was no way we were going to bed early enough to recover for a long hike the next day. But this is good information to keep in mind for future planning!

  7. There can still be magic even when things don't work out as planned; you just need to be open to finding it!

  8. Remain flexible and always have some backup plans. You never know what's going to happen. You might have the best plan in the world, but no plan is ever immune to disruption. Stay flexible and willing to adjust. Remember, the tree that doesn't bend, breaks. Flow around the obstacles, don't stress just find another way forward. It also helps to have a few back up plans in mind from the get go. Even if it's predicted to be sunny, have a plan and gear for rain. Plan for traffic, for restaurants to be closed, for a lack of parking. It's always good to have a few options in mind during a trip so that you can redirect quickly if need be. This keeps you mentally and physically prepared to pivot at a moment's notice without losing momentum or becoming disheartened. There's nothing worse than feeling disappointed during an adventure, so it's very helpful to frame your mind in such a way that avoids disappointment, prepares you for anything (within reason), and stays open and adaptable.

Be prepared, make smart decisions, trust your instincts, keep good company, look for the bright side, and remain flexible. You are stronger than you realize and can accomplish more than you know! Stay safe and adventure wisely!

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