On Friday, I headed to work a little bit more loaded down than usual. While I was wearing my normal Friday business casual outfit, my car was loaded down with quite a few other clothing options: leggings, fleece pants, some long sleeve tees, a turtle neck, a fleece jacket, a rain jacket… and a sleeping bag and tent. I was embarking on my first solo camping/hiking expedition!
Kind of like when I ran my first marathon, it is weird to me to think that I would be so outdoorsy as to go solo camping. I always thought that was for the hardcore Bear Grylls types! But admittedly, my first foray into solo camping was going to be relatively tame. I was going for only about 18 hours, and I had packed a cooler of sandwich supplies and protein bars (and a beer) – no firemaking for me. I was planning to camp on the side of the road, as close to my car as I could safely be while still finding shelter under trees because of some overnight thunderstorms in the forecast. And, I was going to a mountain that I had been to before: Mount Sherman.
Readers who’ve been around since last year may remember my first attempt on Mount Sherman. It was August, but it was snowing on the mountain, and my friends and I hadn’t prepared for that kind of weather. With the cold making us miserable (and the limited visibility indicating that we probably wouldn’t get to see much at the summit), we turned around and quit about halfway up, vowing to come back another day. It should be noted that I was really happy with that decision at the time, and still have no regrets. But now that day to come back and try again was here, and I was going to be getting my revenge on the mountain by tackling it solo. I was so pumped!
Unfortunately, I spent the day before my expedition reading stories about how not just one but two groups of hikers had been struck by lightning on mountains the weekend before. Saturday morning was supposed to be fine for the climb, but I was kind of concerned about Friday night for my overnight. I pinged Heidi on gchat for advice and reassurance – is it safe to tent in a thunderstorm? (Answer: yes, as long as you’re under solid cover of trees so that you’re not the highest thing around.) And then after a pep talk from Adam, I plunged into the no-cell-service part of the mountains. I was on my own from here!
The gravel road to Mount Sherman from the main road was longer than I remembered it – 12 miles! It took a long time from that turnoff to get anywhere near the trailhead, and I kept my eyes peeled on the way to see where other people were choosing to camp. I headed all the way to the trailhead because I thought I remembered a forest there where I could pitch my tent, but it turns out there wasn’t any trees there; just some low brush. So I retreated back 20 minutes down the road to an area where I had seen a few other people parked and presumably camping. Okay, here I am – now what?
This was the first time I had pitched a tent by myself, and my tent was brand-spanking-new with the tags still on. I probably should have practiced setting it up at home, first, so I’d know what I was in for, but my backup plan was to sleep in the car so I figured it didn’t much matter if tenting didn’t work. The tent actually went up pretty easily in about 15 minutes (it took me longer than that to find a good place to put it!), but the problem came when I got my also-brand-new air mattress out of its box. It seems there is more than one type of attachment to hook up a pump to an air mattress, and mine didn’t fit! But I had teased Adam mercilessly about his cushy wussy air mattress when we went camping a few weeks ago, so now it was time for me to put up or shut up, and I just spread my sleeping bag on the floor of the tent. Not bad!
Heidi had warned me not to have any food in my tent, and I took that to an extreme, not even bringing any food in the vicinity of my tent. The last thing I wanted was to attract a bear in the middle of the night! Instead, I ate my gourmet sandwich-and-baby-carrots dinner in the car while reading my Kindle. In retrospect, I think that’s how I spent most of my trips to the lake with my family when I was a kid: in the car with a book. I was terrified of mosquito bites so pretty much anytime I wasn’t in the lake itself, I preferred to be holed up at the car yelling at anyone who opened the door and “let all the mosquitoes in.” I guess I have become a little bit more adventurous with age 🙂
After dinner, I didn’t have much else to do other than just head for my tent with my book – and I have to say, it was so incredibly relaxing to be off the grid and reading (albeit on an electronic device) with the splashes of a creek a hundred or so feet away. It was kind of cold in my tent, but I dressed in my hiking layers and then also threw a thick fleece blanket over the top of my sleeping bag. I was kind of cold when I went to bed, but by the middle of the night, I was kicking off layers of clothing. My sleeping bag definitely retains body heat!
Unfortunately, I knew this because I didn’t sleep really perfectly. I had sent my tent up on a spot that wasn’t terribly great – a bit of a slope, and there was a big rock right in the middle. (I had figured I’d be on an air mattress and it wouldn’t matter.) But while it would have been terrible with two people in the tent, it was actually okay with just me because I could position myself on a diagonal and therefore have my feet kind of pointing downhill, with the rock in the small of my back. Like lumbar support! The sleeping position was actually not bad at all, but I was a little nervous about spending the night in a tent by myself, and was a pretty light sleeper as a result. The rain would wake me up – was that thunder in the distance? The noises would wake me up – was that an animal or some vagabond coming after me? I wasn’t too freaked out but I definitely wasn’t sleeping perfectly. Next time, I will for sure be bringing pepper spray to make myself feel a little bit safer.
But I woke up for good a few minutes before my alarm at 5:30am, and then quickly got ready to hike in the pre-dawn light. My tent broke down surprisingly quickly, and I was in the car and ready to go only about 20 minutes after my alarm. I then drove to the trailhead where I learned that a 6am start is late – so many cars were already there with their hikers probably halfway up the mountain! A few cars still had tents pitched by them, right at the trailhead, and I noted that in case I ever come back again. Meanwhile, with the sun having just crested the horizon, I was ready to begin my hike.
I had printed some papers of maps and instructions, but I was surprised to find that I remembered exactly where to go from my trip to Mount Sherman last year. The hike begins heading up a dirt road, which you will see ahead of you and think “piece of cake.” Then you will start walking up it and realize “oh my god I have no lung capacity at 11,000 feet.” It seems that living in Colorado for a year hasn’t helped my athletic ability at altitude one bit… more on that to come.
About a quarter mile in, the road splits: one way goes forward, the other curves to the right. As I had done with Vanessa and Mike, I kept heading straight ahead. But about a quarter mile further, as I got ready to cross a big slippery field of snow/ice, I saw a whole bunch of people way off in the distance, who had taken the right turn. So apparently that was the way I was supposed to go? Crap. Oh well – this was the way I had gone the last time, so I knew it would get me to the main trail sometime. Onward!
After crossing the snow field, it was time to head up a pretty steep scree (rock) field – you can kind of see it rising on the diagonal in the picture above. It was a very narrow single-track trail, and it was really steep. I was a little bit worried I would fall here and go tumbling down the mountain, though the hiking itself wasn’t technically difficult. I worried a little bit about the fact that no one was anywhere near me – part of the reason I had the courage to go hike a 14er by myself is that I knew there would be plenty of other hikers around in case of absolute emergency.
But by taking my time and choosing my footfalls carefully, I was able to make it to the top of the scree field – and just past the old mine, my trail joined the trail that all the other hikers were using. I was now also about a quarter of the way up to the top. Hooray!
The next part was easy… or at least as easy as hiking at 12,800 feet can be. I had a little bit of a downhill before some winding rollers would gradually take me up to the saddle of Mount Sherman and Mount Sheridan. Before I could get there, though, I had to navigate a cornice of snow that was again icy and slippery. I tried to dig my boots in as best as I could, but damn – I really should have brought spikes for this, or at least poles! Instead of trying to go up the way-too-smooth slope right on the cornice, I instead did my best to follow the trail of footprints six inches to the right of that. They were too big to match my stride, and they were iced over themselves, but it was preferable to going up the whole thing on my hands and knees! I slipped just once, close to the top, but luckily didn’t slide all the way back down. But I made a mental note to myself to find out if other hikers had a different route to get down, because I didn’t want to have to cross that again.
I was now at 13,150 feet, and there were some gorgeous views back behind the saddle. I also got cell phone reception starting here! So I put in a quick call to Adam to let him know that I had survived the night camping and was now in the middle of my hike. Always best to have someone know exactly where I am and what my ETA is! The saddle was incredibly flat and it seemed I was across it in no time – so it was then time to hang up the phone save my breath for the climb ahead. I was nowhere near done yet!
This part got really tough for me. I just do not do well at altitude, and while I had been keeping a pretty good pace up until about 13,000 feet, from here on out it was rough. Tons of hikers were passing me, including little kids, but I focused on the fact that I was doing better than last time in that my vision wasn’t going partially black as my body threatened to pass out. This time, there was no near-fainting, but I definitely still had a really tough time breathing. I focused on the game I feel like I always have to play when I hike 14ers: see if I can go twenty steps without taking break. I’m pathetic!
But it worked, because I was making steady progress up the mountain. I was now right around where my friends and I had quit last time, and rather than make me wish that I had just done it then, I was so glad that I was instead getting to do it now. It was the most beautiful blue sky day ever, and I was thoroughly enjoying the beautiful views as I ascended.
About halfway up the southwest ridge, the trail turned to… ridge. It was now time to do a bit of scrambling to get to the top! It was incredibly windy up here, and my face and fingers were really cold, but I was otherwise fairly appropriately dressed. I took advantage of a few rock piles on the east side of the mountain to provide some shelter from the wind while the sun also warmed me up a bit. But I mostly tried to just keep moving quickly – I wanted to summit soon, and then get down to lower elevation!
Despite my difficulty breathing and the nasty wind, this was one of my favorite parts of the hike. While most of the hike had been just kind of a really steep walk, this final ridge crest had you needing to figure out the best path for your hands and feet in order to proceed, and I appreciated the little bit of a challenge. Plus, it turned out that while that snowcap wasn’t quite the summit, it was the start of a quarter mile almost-flat ridge that led for an easy final stretch to the actual summit. I did it!
It had taken me two hours and fifteen minutes to ascend, which I was pretty proud of. I had thought I’d be incredibly slow because of how much I wheeze at altitude, but that’s actually a fairly average summit time.
That said, it didn’t come easy – I called Adam at the summit and he later told me that I sounded incredibly out of it and altitude sick to where if I hadn’t already been at the top, he would have told me to turn around and come down. But the coming down was actually really easy, and I made it in exactly an hour, with some pictures along the way.
I wouldn’t say that the process of climbing Sherman was a ton of fun – I was wiped out while hiking at altitude! But it wasn’t a bad time, and the feeling of accomplishment when I reached the top was absolutely amazing. Furthermore, I’m really proud of myself that I managed to do this whole adventure solo… and still make it back home by 1pm on a Saturday and have the whole weekend ahead of me! (Okay, let’s ignore the not-so-adventurous fact that I spent most of it sitting at my computer desk catching up on work.) I didn’t regret not completing Mount Sherman the last time, even though it was admittedly in large part because I wasn’t having fun and just plain didn’t feel like doing it if it was going to be miserable. But this time, I had stuck it out through the tough part and conquered the summit – and I had done it all on my own!
I think if I were to plan a trip like this again, it would have been nice to have company for the camping part. I really like hiking by myself because I can go at exactly my own pace (especially when it’s at altitude and Laura-pace is about half of everyone else’s pace). But it would have been fun the night before to sit around a fire, crack a beer, and tell stories, rather than just holing up in my tent hoping a bear didn’t come eat me 🙂 The peace and quiet was nice, but I think I would have preferred to have my solo time on the hike while enjoying the company of others back at camp. Now I know for next time!
However, I love knowing that I can camp and hike by myself if I so choose. Hear me roar! Perhaps to some people that’s not a big deal, but I am really proud of myself for being adventurous enough to try this. It’s been about 16 months that I moved to Colorado from New York City, and I still don’t really consider myself outdoorsy or a mountain girl… but perhaps it’s time I started to rethink those labels and start being confident enough to apply them to myself.