Backpacking Challenge in the Rockies

When the opportunity for a backpacking adventure in the Rocky Mountains arose, my thoughts raced back in time to when I hiked with a group of friends from Snowmass right outside of Aspen. My girlfriend had pointed to the peaks way out in the distance and said, “That’s where we’re going.”

I had laughed.

We had started in a dense forest and emerged above treeline. Several miles and thousands of feet in elevation later, we scrambled over boulders as big as Volkswagens straddling deep dark crevices between. Near our destination, we all took baby steps while sucking in the thin air. We were over two miles above sea level.

That night, we camped in an otherworldly atmosphere next to aptly named Moon Lake. Some of the campers woke early to climb a 14er, (a peak 14,000 feet above sea-level.) I was happy to get a few extra hours rest (I doubt that I slept), to build reserve energy and strength for the trip down. It had to be so much easier with gravity pulling and oxygen increasing with every step, right?

When we hit the boulder field again, I found it super challenging to scooch over those enormous rocks while wearing an exterior frame pack. The metal “feet” caught the rock and threw me off balance. A few times I steadied myself to catch my breath while gazing down at those gaping crevices. I breathed a lot easier once we entered the forest. When we reached the car, I dropped my enormous backpack and vowed to never go again. It was too hard.

On our way to a backpacking adventure

Decades later, I jumped at the opportunity to backpack to Sawtooth Mountain. What had changed? I’ve been weight training since March and figured I could carry twenty-five pounds a couple of miles. My husband, Danny, and daughter, Courtney, and I wouldn’t be in a race and we could rest on our way up. I looked forward to the challenge!

Danny had planned the trip. It would be a four-mile hike up to Coney Flats. Right.

“I can see Sawtooth from my house,” I said in a Palin-like voice as we packed up the truck. We would camp below its crest. It would be cool to see it all up close and personal after all the years of admiring it from afar.

When we arrived at Camp Dick to park the truck, Danny informed us that we would take a different route. We would hike six miles. Whoa! It was too late to back out now. What were two extra miles anyway? I could do it.

I picked up my pack, surprised by its weight. Large and unwieldy, I needed help putting it on. The climb would be steady but the final destination name, Coney Flats, relaxed me, somewhat. I figured the hike would flatten out.

A rocky climb

At first, we strode up the trail along with many young families. Watching little kids trucking on their short little legs inspired me to keep up a quick pace. After a couple of miles, my pack dug into my shoulders. It didn’t fit my body properly. I discovered that reaching behind and clasping my hands behind me lifted the bottom of the heavy pack above my shoulders.

Courtney and I resting after the first two miles.

Sawtooth adventure Susie and Courtney

Courtney used GPS and tracked our progress. We hiked two miles in forty-five minutes. At mile three, our pace slowed. I couldn’t wait to take off my pack and set up camp. Three more miles.

After another mile, we realized the bad news. It would take us another four miles to reach the summit. Eight miles to Coney Flats. EIGHT MILES! I’ve never been a quitter. I sighed and we continued to hike up the mountain path.

Backpacking Challenge in the Rockies

We crossed a river and hit a gravel mining road. It was hard to keep from slipping while navigating the treacherous, gravel, uphill climb. From there we thought the lake would be around the corner. Nope. We found the wilderness trailhead and then continued through a bog.

Sawtooth Danny and Courtney

When we made it to the sixth mile, Courtney gave us the bad news. We still had a long way to go. GAH! We zigzagged through the muck while swatting at various nasty pests. Finally, we hit solid ground and re-entered the forest.

A few day hikers traipsed down the trail toward us.

“How far is it to Coney Flats?” I asked. I was out of gas after hiking for four hours straight. I prayed he’d say it was around the corner. It had to be.

“About another hour,” said a young hiker.

NOOO!!! My pack felt like it held bricks instead of a sleeping bag, tent, and clothes.

The group passed and a young woman brought up the rear. She must have overheard her friend. “It’s only twenty minutes to the lake, but the river crossings are tough.”

“Thank God!” I could do this.

We marched on until the trail met the river. We had to cross it by walking over the trunk of a tree. I used a walking stick for balance. The second crossing wasn’t as bad.

tree crossing

The third was insane.

The rushing river was much wider. First, we had to step up onto a small fallen tree and balance on its trunk to cross the narrow part of the stream. I didn’t have the strength to push up on my weak left leg with the extra weight in my pack. I found a walking stick and finally stepped up. As I crossed the stream, I lost my balance. I plunged the stick into the water. It kept me upright. I made it. But the second was a forty foot crossing. Slow but sure we all made it across.

By now daylight was fading. We continued to climb uphill. When would we arrive at Coney of Flatness? We had been walking for five hours. My pack felt like it weighed fifty pounds.

After another half hour, my legs hit a wall of exhaustion. I remembered my personal trainer, Sam, who recently competed in a Half Iron Man. He said that when you become a mouth breather, your body has used all of its energy. I fought that impulse and made myself breathe through my nose.

Sawtooth

Soon the forest broke open to a beautiful meadow. I stopped to take pictures and rest. It couldn’t be far now.

As we hiked up a knoll, Courtney hooted and hollered.

“Thank the Lord,” I said.

We had made it to Coney Flats after six hours and eight miles of hiking. It wasn’t flat at all. There was a campsite at the top. As Danny and I climbed up the hill Courtney strode down the other side. “The lake is right below us!”

I glanced up at the sun. We had about fifteen minutes to set up camp before it set behind Sawtooth. A cold breeze picked up and we hustled. Just after we staked our tents, I found a much nicer and protected site out of the prevailing wind. The tents flew behind Danny and Courtney like kites as they picked their way down the narrow trail. We set up camp a second time.

Coney Flats at Sawtooth

By the time we made dinner, it was dark.

All night long, I heard little animals foraging around our campsite. I slept for about two hours. The next morning, we enjoyed the early morning sunshine. We ate breakfast, then hiked down to the lake to filter water for the trek back home.

Coney Flats Lake

We were the only people around. It felt good to breathe fresh air and stretch sore muscles. We broke camp and packed up. My backpack seemed a ton heavier the second day.

Enjoying the elixir of the gods with an elfish grin.

Susie at Sawtooth

Just like my last backpacking trip, the hike took half the time on the way down. We entered the parking lot just as rain fell in huge drops.

Danny, Courtney, and I hit the road and talked about the trip.

“I would definitely backpack again, but only if we cut down on the miles. Sixteen in less than twenty-four hours was way too much.” We all agreed on that.

I reflected on what had changed for me. I had grown up camping and had missed the quiet solitude, being outdoors, and exploring a new area. When I backpacked years ago, I didn’t need to challenge myself. I was young with nothing to prove. If I didn’t feel like doing something, I didn’t do it.

After going through a heart ablation, breast cancer, and a partial knee replacement, I wanted to prove to myself that I had completely recovered and in some ways, was in better shape than the last time I backpacked. Challenging myself built confidence. Perseverance prevailed. Next year, I’ll plan the trip.

Click for more adventures on the Wild Ride.

Related posts:

Hiking Chautauqua: Slip Sliding Away!

The Moose is Loose!

Are You Adventurous? Take the Quiz!

Have you ever backpacked? Have you pushed yourself out of your comfort zone? Have you been to Colorado?

68 thoughts on “Backpacking Challenge in the Rockies

  1. This was great reading and photos too. Those Heart Ablations are not fun. My ex mother in law had several. My new site is up should you care to visit, just the same as the old really!

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  2. Way to go Susie! Sounds like a daunting treck at best, however, glorious with your family beside you and solitude surrounding you. I bet the pictures were gorgeous and the memories amazing!

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    • Thanks so much, Emily!
      It was, but you’re right. My family kept me going! Funny thing. We did a six-mile hike (total) without packs the weekend before. We sat down at a restaurant afterward and had a hard time standing up again. We were so stiff! Because we woke up and hiked 8 miles again, recovery wasn’t so bad other than being super tired.
      I did have a hard time choosing photos, there were so many.!

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  3. All I kept thinking of as I read your account was – GRIZZLIES! Then as I read on and your pack was getting heavier, I thought if it were me and a grizzly came along just then I’d say, “Would you mind starting your meal on the backpack and lighten my load?”

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  4. Congratulations! When my daughter and I did a long strenuous day hike in Zion NP, I pushed myself well beyond what I thought I was capable of. The sense of accomplishment was gratifying but the memories I made that day with my daughter were the best. Nothing like beautiful scenery and making memories with loved ones. Now to plan the next trip!

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  5. I’ve only gone backpacking twice–1.6 miles in from the dock on South Manitou Island was my first. (My mom said it was three, but maybe it’s 1.6 if you hike in on the road and not the board trail?) The second time was a little shorter–maps tells me it was about a mile to the backpacking campground in Ludington State Park, but that’s a rough estimate based on where I set the pin for the DNR station. (You have to park your car at the ranger station, walk through one of the regular campgrounds and up the service road for the lighthouse to get there.) Bet you would’ve loved such simplicity!

    My mom, however, has hiked Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (not as easy as it sounds!) and did the Grand Canyon rim to rim in…three days? And most people take four or more? So she’s the hiking queen.

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  6. Nice work! Sounds like an amazing trip… I’ve lived in Northern Colorado for the past 6 years and have yet to backpack in RMNP. Backpacking can be a real struggle, but I’ve always found that it’s worth it in the end, especially on trips that cause you to push yourself physically and mentally. Cheers to more backpacking trips in your future!!

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      • I know… weekends in the summer and early fall can be really overwhelming in RMNP! Winter is my favorite time of year to explore the park.

        I’ve taken a few weekend trips in the Rawah Wilderness area. It’s really secluded — you should definitely go if you haven’t been! I also did some backpacking in California last year and this past summer completed (most of ) the John Muir Trail. My backpacking career is mostly rooted in CA. I need to get out more in CO!

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  7. That was a great description of your adventure: you made me walk every step with you! It seemed so much in sync with Mother Nature. The sunset as you made it to the top, the fat drops of rain as you set feet on flatlands below. Congratulations, may you take a thousand more trips like that.

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  8. SUSIE!!! This was great! I really like the pic of you you drinking that morning coffee, smiling … you call it your “elfish grin,” but I think it’s more of a Namaste grin. While reading this I was reminded of the book Wild, where this woman (Cheryl Strayed) hikes some crazy trail for days on her own … it’s all about the journey and reflection. I’m so glad you did this and you spent time afterward replaying the highlights of the journey with your family. I’m also glad you used a walking stick on the intense passage, I need one of those just for walking the streets. What a great experience! Sounds like we might add this as a Sandbox List Adventure … when they’re out of the sandbox of course 🙂 THANKS for sharing the postcards of what looked like a great WildRider Adventure.

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    • Thanks so much, Guat!
      It was hard, but we made it. You would love it. Love the sandbox list idea!!!
      I saw the movie, Wild, and listened to an interview. Cheryl is an amazing writer and badass woman. She started out with an enormous pack!!
      Thanks for reading. 🙂 We’re on our way to Maine. Craziest year ever!

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  9. Great post, I love the mountains. It is always a surprise how uncomfortable carrying a pack is I’m not sure it’s possible to get used to it! Most of my backpacking has been done on a bike and panniers are much more comfortable as they don’t hurt your shoulders (though not sure my legs would agree to the comfort part!). I would love to go over to the USA and do some proper hiking, our mountains over here in the UK are not the same! I love a micro adventure and waking up in the morning to fresh air and sunshine is just the best. 🙂 As we enter winter over here my screensaver is a picture of my little tent in the sunshine as a constant reminder that one day the sun will come out again and adventures await!

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    • Love your screensaver! It’s a lot of weight to support when a body isn’t used to it. I haven’t been on a camping bike trip but some of my friends have flown to Europe and had a blast! I’ll add that to my bucket list. Thanks for reading!

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          • Belgium and the Netherlands are flat and have excellent bike path networks across them. France is great for cycling with the French being huge cycle fans and therefore respectful of cyclists, plus is flat in the North with the alps further South and a huge variation of terrain to keep it interesting in between. The alps are amazing, so beautiful and straddling Italy, France, Switzerland and Austria you can continually cross borders in one ride! One of the things on my bucket list is that I am gradually hoping to cycle round the world in stages. My next leg is the South of France across Spain to Portugal then then taking on the USA. It might take a life time to achieve but a great way to get out and see the world.

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  11. I read parts of this to my husband and he said, “I want to do that!” We hiked a 14er a year ago now and it scared me. But, I just ran a crazy trail run, too. Both things, like your backpacking trip tested my limits. And the moment I finished I thought, I never want to do that again. But then, a few days later, in both cases, I’ve had that itch to try again. You’re quite an inspiration, Susie!

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  12. Such an achievement you should be very proud. We visited Nederland, Colorado years ago, but the kids were too small to hike far and then it snowed. Thus summer we went to the Canadian Rockies and really enjoyed some day hikes along the Icefields Parkway. When we got to the top I felt I should be singing ‘The Hills Are Alive With The Sound Of Music.’ Definitely God’s own country.

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