Written by Isabel Emsfeld and Nick Van Besien
A white Short bus pulls down a dirt road, signifying the end of our first expedition, 12 days backpacking in the Sawatch Mountains of Colorado. All 8 students and 2 leaders excited for the entry to the front country (aka, opposite of back country). The drive down dirt roads all too similar to the same ride that dropped off 10 strangers at the South Elbert trailhead that felt like forever ago.
The first three days consisted of climbing up in elevation with unfamiliar packs filled to the brim and learning new skills from campsite to campsite. Emily and Alex, our instructors, taught us everything from what a topographic map looked like to how to cook on a whisper lite stove. Our hiking time was spent getting to know each other, all while trying to breath the thin air. On the 4th day day, we woke to a thick coating of snow. With 8 inches, by our guess, of a fine white powder coating everything, our kitchens were hard to find. We finally got our camps broken down and headed off on a day that would later be referred to as “The epic day.” We travel in small groups of 4 students and an Instructor. I, personally, was in the second and the only thing that resembled the Colorado trail were the footsteps of the group before pushing their way through an endless field of snow capped evergreens. Entranced by the forest, we quickly lost our bearing. With our unpracticed navigation skills, we finally found a trail blaze and headed towards an “X” marked on the map labeled Mount Massive. The day only got harder as we got to the Highline Trail as snow kept falling and the depth climbing over a foot. Fresh fallen trees made the hike feel like we were exploring untraveled land. Five o’clock rolled around and my group was losing steam, as thoughts of camping without the other half of the group creeped into the back of our brains. By a miracle we found the camp site with our group awaiting us with hot water. Relieved to finally be at camp, we crashed early and slept in. Day five was the opposite in every way. We sat around the beautiful still ponds at the bottom of Mount Massive, with our gear sprawled out to dry out in the warm sun and perfectly clear blue skies. The heat from the sun made it felt like a beach day, only with snow instead of sand; it was the day we needed. Day six, we packed camp, strengthened by our “epic day,” hiked away from Mount Massive and reached our camp site on a saddle overlooking Leadville. With civilization so close, we longed for the comforts of home. Any homesickness was blown away the beauty of the sun rising over the Mosquito Mountains. Entranced by the view, we almost missed our packs on time to hike to a trailhead to replenish supplies.
Strolling down the mountain covered in snow, we arrive to the glorious sight of fresh food, Chris, and MUFFINS! Aftera mad dash to the treats, we sorted through our stinky trash and group gear. We then followed Chris to go rock climbing in the great “Douglass City”- a not so thriving metropolis. Remains of the once-was mining village were strewn about the snow, but still we trudged on to set up camp, and finally, on to the rocks! We climbed, learned, and laughed. Two of our own made it up a particularly treacherous, slippery climb- but we all had a blast climbing up to see a breathtaking view of Mount Massive. After a long day, complete with fresh food for dinner, we all went to bed happy.
The next day was an exciting whirlwind of hiking along snow-covered roads, up steep boulder fields, and alongside creeks off the trail. It looked like we were walking in a winter wonderland- a beautiful forest covered in a layer of fresh powder. In high spirits, we sang “Frosty the Snowman” and “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”. Once again, we found ourselves moving camp. But along the way, we got to climb Galena mountain. We dumped our packs, and had a pleasant 1,000 ft. jaunt up to the peak, finally getting about 13,000 ft.. We all slept well that night…
We then had our last “full” hiking day- the day started and ended with some tricky navigation,but each group rose to the occasion and found our campsite. Turns out the Colorado Trail has changed quite a bit in the past 20 years. It was also Leo’s birthday!! We enjoyed a beautiful red velvet and candy corn cake made by Emily and Alex. We sat in a circle under the starry sky, eating and enjoying the lovely views.
The next day was our rest day, and we woke up to the nice surprise of- you guessed it- more snow! But we weren’t deterred. We had an intense discussion about land ethics and wilderness. Then, we had a pizza party! Cheesy, gooey pizza hit the spot. We woke early the next morning and hiked to meet Chris. Once again, the white van rolled up, this time signaling the end of our amazing journey.
After de-issue, and debriefing our trip, we drove to a lodge- our home for the 3 days. We were greeted with steaming High Mountain Pies (one can never eat too much pizza!). We called our families and friends, were stunned by the TV, and slept blissfully in a bed that wasn’t covered in snow or dirt!