Our very first expedition began with nine of us and our three instructors climbing into a van towing a trailer full of heavy packs. We took a short drive through Leadville and got dropped off on the side of the highway. As soon as we stepped out of the van, we all took a moment to look around at the towering mountains surrounding us. After a few short classes such as sun protection and how to put on our packs, we were off! The group energy was high; everyone was excited, curious, but also a bit anxious about the eighteen days of backpacking that stood before us all. The mountains welcomed us into our expedition with a thunderstorm, which soon changed to hail, so we had to take shelter in a comforting patch of spruce trees.
Thankfully, the weather cleared up within an hour and we continued on to our first campsite. The next day, we had a steep hike up to the top of a ridge, and the views from the top were completely worth the challenging trek. From there we followed the ridgeline and were able to summit Buckeye Peak, where we could see many of the other mountains we were headed to in the following days. We settled down near the beautiful clear, blue waters of Buckeye Lake for the following two nights. We had a few more fun days hiking off trail, then continued to follow the winding Colorado Trail through valleys, over creeks, and switch-backing up and down peaks. Although hiking off trail was an amazing adventure, it was also fun to have short conversations with through hikers of the CO trail about what their experience had been like.
Halfway through our trip, the instructors surprised us with a layover day on the top of Bald Eagle Mountain which was very exciting both because we were tired from carrying all the new food from our re-ration, and the outlook onto Mount Massive and the mountains surrounding it were breathtaking. Two days later, we awoke in the dark, early hours of the morning, put on our headlamps, purified our water bottles, and began the climb under the stars up to the summit of Mount Massive. To our surprise, another HMI expedition group was at the top! After sharing stories with them and all having a celebratory Milky Way, we made our way down feeling very happy and accomplished.
Towards the end of the trip, we drove forty-five minutes to Pine Creek to begin trail work. We hiked along the creek for five miles until we reached our basecamp where we would stay for the rest of the expedition doing some trail work. After we accomplished rerouting part of the trail, clearing the trail, and making it wider for horses, we were able to use our three remaining days to take amazing day hikes through vibrantly colored aspen groves to the still waters of Rainbow Lake and the summit of Waverly Mountain where we finished up our academics for the expedition. Our group learned many beneficial skills, created great friendships, and experienced unforgettable hikes during our 18 days in the backcountry.
We began our 18-day expedition at the trailhead, Angel of Shavano, which is along the Colorado Trail. Our group consisted of ten students and three instructors, and we all made it back in one piece! Within a couple days, our group became super close and we were all able open up to each other, laugh together, cry together, and learn from each other. When you go days at a time without seeing any other people besides the occasional hunter, 4-wheel drivers, or groups of hikers, I guess that’s what happens.
We learned how to cook several meals the backcountry way with a tiny stove, pot, and fry bake. Some of the food included oatmeal, cheesy bagels, beans and rice, mac and cheese, quesadillas, burritos, hash browns, pizza, orzo, couscous, brownies, and hummus. One night we even had a group talent show! From baton twirling and singing to a Crazy Creek performance it provided much entertainment; we also spent several evenings playing intense games. Each night as a group we would lay under the sky and enjoy the stars and constellations. One night we slept underneath the beautiful stars and a record of six shooting stars were seen that night!
In these 18 days together, we hiked multiple 12-13,000-foot ridges, covered about 75 miles of land, gained nearly 27,000 feet of altitude, summited the 14,000-foot Mount Yale, hiked through many forests filled with pines, aspens, and spruces, walked past stunning lakes, and through many rivers and streams, all with everything we needed for 18 days on our backs. On day 11 when we reached the summit of Yale, we were amazed to see all the land we had covered on our own feet. No cars, buses, trains, or bikes, just ourselves. The elevation, as well as the steepness of many climbs, was enough for anyone to doubt their strength physically and mentally. Summiting Yale was one of the hardest things many of us had ever done, and that made it all the much better once we reached the cairn at the summit. There were a few other long days, during which we hiked many miles, gained several thousand feet of elevation, and were weighed down by our backpacks that challenged each of us.
We completed readings, discussions, and written reflections for the majority of our classes. Some days our entire day would be dedicated to school work. These days we’d stay at the same campsite for two nights. We also did trail work on the Collegiate Peaks Trail that goes up to Columbia. We cut back bushes, cut down trees, closed down social trails, and spent five hours dismantling 35 campfires within a two-mile radius. For trail work we worked six hours for two days and carried tools up and back down four miles of the trail.
Despite the challenges we overcame, we all made it to the final day and enjoyed our time hiking the scenic trails of Colorado. On the last day, we struggled to say goodbye to the mountains and re-enter civilization, but once on campus we were all happy for showers, different meals, and more friends. We walked away with lessons learned, new recipes, new friendships, a successful first expedition under our belts, and many amazing memories from our trip.
Excitement, trepidation, and exhilaration were just a few of the many emotions the ten of us were feeling before leaving the HMI campus, in which we were just starting to feel comfortable. However, after only a few days into the trip the entire group began feeling extremely content and grateful that we were able to spend such a protracted amount of time in the magnificent mountains of Colorado. We were all astonished by the beauty the peaks, passes, valleys, and massifs that we were climbing had to offer. Through all the ups and downs, deep nightly Circles, and constant conversation, we soon realized we had formed a special bond within our group.
About a week into our trip, we set up base camp, where we would spend four days doing trail work on the gargantuan mountain, La Plata. It was an enjoyable break from carrying our backpacks and allowed us to rest our sore backs, legs, and hips. On our final day at base camp, we arose at 3:20 AM to finally climb the mountain we have put our blood, sweat, and tears into the last three days. A wrong turn misled the group off the trail and up a treacherous path, where we only had the light of our headlamps and the multitude of stars to guide us. We finally reached our first false summit just in time to watch the sun rise over the mountains across the bowl (also a perfect opportunity for a photoshoot). After passing false summit after false summit, we finally reached the top! The views were out of this world and the entire experience was incredible.
Our trip continued along the Colorado trail and the highline trail, alongside both Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive. We occasionally came across abandoned mining cabins that dated back to the 1800’s-1900’s. These fascinating historical structures appeared as if they were just recently deserted with tin cans scattered along the property and even decrepit mining tools. On one of our last days, we stopped in a ghost town called Douglas City which we learned used to house miners that worked on the notorious Hagerman Tunnel in the late 1800’s. We were able to appreciate the brilliance of this tunnel during our evening Circle while watching the sun set over the mountains. We had a challenging last day of hiking across the Continental Divide, but the thoughts of a layover day and tasty food kept us pushing forward. Overall, this expedition was a marvelous experience; we all learned so much about ourselves and our potential. We are thrilled to travel to the canyons in a month to do it all over again.
We just arrived back on campus after an unbelievable 18 days in the backcountry, living off of only what we could carry on our backs. Several days into the expedition, we did our first alpine start, meaning that we began hiking under the stars to summit Mt. Huron and watch the sunrise from 14,003 feet above sea level. For the majority of us, this was our first alpine start, along with our first time summiting a fourteener! The view from above was without a doubt worth the 2:30am wake up. As the sun rose above the mountains, we gathered in a circle, had hot chocolate which was then followed by a Snickers bar. It was truly one of the most stunning moments.
As our expedition went on, we learned more and more about each other and became closer every day. We also got to hike over Hope Pass which was a part of the route of the Leadville 100, an endurance race that took place just a couple weeks prior. We could not believe that the participants would run all the way up and over the difficult pass, not once, but twice! We were able to witness the beautiful view from the top, and bump into another expedition group on our way down! Overall, our expedition was filled with incredible views, laughter, and great people.
One morning, our expedition group decided we wanted to wake up at 3:30 a.m. to summit Mt. Massive, the second highest mountain in Colorado (many people reluctantly did so). At 4am, we started our trek up the mountain by trying to navigate our way through the solemn darkness to the Mt. Massive Trail. We hiked for about 45 minutes still below tree line, everything draped in the darkness of the night, where only the faint figures of the trees could be seen. As we exited the forest and we could see stars embellish the sky. We turned off our headlamps so we could see the stars better and we kept tripping every other step because our attention was on search for a shooting star. As we continued on, we could see the lights of the booming metropolis of Leadville.
The trek continued lethargically inspired and then at about 6:30am, we took a moment to watch the sun rise over the mountains in the background. The hike itself was fulfilling indeed, as we later reached the peak, yet it is surpassed in my memory to hiking under the stars.
My favorite meal on expedition was couscous with chocolate chips (although that received a lot of adversity among my tarp mates). A note of advice: couscous with chocolate chips is very tasty, but do not melt a few Snickers bars and put it in the couscous, that is too far. Often, after a long hike or an arduous day our group would play some games, and I found that those were not only entertaining, but also reflective and calming as it definitely eased the mood. When I wanted to be more contemplative in solitude, I would find a place to sit with my thoughts and read or write, preferably with a view of the mountains or amidst the changing Aspens. I found that I missed mostly the little things like music, watching movies, Goldfish and Pretzels, etc.
I also really appreciated doing trail work for four days, as that was something I had never done. On the first day, I thought nothing of it I was just stacking some rocks, but as hikers passed us on their way up or down many of them incessantly thanked us for our work; it was very rewarding. The entire experience of backpacking for 18 days was rather bizarre and I did not think I would enjoy it as much as I did. I became much more in tune with myself and my thoughts, my expedition group, and other forms of life as well.