Lessons Learned: San Juan Mountain Hike


Looking across the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

I cut short my hike by one day. The scenery on the Colorado Trail was spectacular, but I simply was running too far behind schedule to make it to my pickup spot on the fourth day and there were no real options in between (aside from hitchhiking from one other place).


Looking south towards Arrow and Vestal Peaks as I descended the Colorado Trail.

So, on the third day, I hopped on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. I got lucky since I arrived at the rail flag stop at Elk Park about five minutes before the train arrived. My parents picked me up in Durango that evening.


Taking the train to Durango. The Animas River is on the left.

There were two major flaws with my planning that caused me to end the hike early:

1) I underestimated the effects of altitude. Coming from sea level, I should have spent at least an extra 24 hours at higher altitudes before starting the hike. On day one, I started at 10,900 feet and went as high as 13,271 feet (4,045 meters). As expected, there were many ups and downs over that 19-mile, 12-hour hiking day. The repeated ascents with a large pack on were very draining. The next day was spent entirely between 12,000 and 13,000 feet. Needless to say, I was winded. Severely. At these altitudes, you’re getting about one-third less oxygen per breath, according to this chart.

Plus, I had a killer headache that pulsed in my head for most of days one and two and didn’t go away on day three until I dropped below 10,000 feet. The headache severely affected my ability to sleep and caused me to undereat. I ate far less than expected and, despite my cozy sleeping bag/pad, I doubt I slept more than four hours each of the two nights on the trail.


The morning after my second night on the trail. A couple miles south of Stony Pass.

Adding to the problem: I didn’t pack enough headache relief. There were only three tablets in my bottle of ibuprofen.

As a point of comparison, on my hike in the French Alps, the highest point I reached was about 9,200 feet (2800 meters).

2) I didn’t build in any buffer time and I overestimated what I could do. Even if I can do a certain distance in a certain amount of time, it doesn’t mean I should plan on it. Next time, I need to be more conservative in my planning. If I exceed expectations, great. If I don’t, then I’ve built in a cushion.

One of the main problems with this hike were the razor-thin margins I gave myself. The plan was to get picked up at 6pm today and wake up tomorrow at 3:30am to drive an hour and a half to the airport to catch a 7am flight. I’m glad I have this day now to rest and hang out with my parents.

As I worked out the math in my mind on the hike, I simply knew it was going to be impossible for me to make up my growing mileage deficit. I wasn’t hiking as far fast enough because I was going slower than I estimated and I was hiking fewer hours than estimated.

Day Mileage Goal Mileage Achieved Accumulated Mileage Achieved Accumulated Mileage Deficit Hour Goal Hour Achieved Actual Miles/Hour
1 22.9 18.9 18.9 4 12 12 1.6
2 25.4 16.3 35.2 13.1 14 11 1.48
3 25.9 13.3 48.5 25.7 14 7.5 1.8
4 17.3 N/A 48.5 43 10 N/A N/A

Had I not hopped on a train, I could have hiked at least another four hours on day three, but my average hourly mileage would have declined because I would have had to go uphill again back up to 11,000 feet (on day three I descended from over 12,000 feet to around 9,000 feet).

I have no regrets about this hike or my decisions. Although I made mistakes in my planning, I responded appropriately once I knew I couldn’t make my goals. The bigger mistake would have been to press on without adjusting. This is also why these trips are important: each time you do them, you learn new lessons.

More pictures to come…



Trying out my fisheye lens on my iPhone.


Sheep looking down on me as the morning sun rises.

Sheep looking down on me as the morning sun rises.



Highest point on the Colorado Trail. 13,271 feet.

Highest point on the Colorado Trail. 13,271 feet.


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Cataract Lake.

Cataract Lake.

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The Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail overlap for a while.

The Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail overlap for a while.


Glancing northeast towards Spring Creek on the first morning.

Glancing northeast towards Spring Creek on the first morning.


Using the wide angle lens.

Using the wide angle lens.


Abandoned mining site.

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Planning for four long days on the Colorado Trail

Early next week, I’ll start my hike in the southern part of the Colorado Trail in the San Juan Mountains. The roughly 90-mile hike will last four days and three nights and will take me from the remote town of Lake City to Rico. However, if I’m hiking substantially faster than expected, I’ll tack on an additional 35-40 miles and go all the way to Durango.

I’ll also need to adapt quickly to the high altitude. On the first day of the hike, I plan to hit the CT’s high point at 13,271 feet. I will have only been in Colorado for two days, coming from sea level in Washington, D.C.

It will be somewhat of a challenge, although it’s a far cry from the logistical hurdles people face in other more remote situations. Figuring out my route, my schedule, what to bring and what to leave behind, etc are all very important.  While the challenge of planning may sound boring to some, it can one of the most rewarding parts of long-distance trekking for me.

Think about it this way: Hiking is not technically difficult like climbing or mountaineering can be. And while it can be exhausting and requires some strength and endurance, most reasonably in-shape people can hike a moderate distance with a pack on (assuming they packed light – a major assumption) for at least a few days. The real key to success is planning.

What I’m doing is far from impossible. While most thru-hikers do the CT in four to six weeks, the record for completing the entire CT unsupported (carrying your own stuff) — all 485 miles of it — is 10 days, 19 hours! So my 90 mile stretch, or the longer option of 125-130 miles, is eminently doable in 4 days.

Here’s the 90-mile route, including the breakaway point from the CT, where I’ll hike a road on the southern side of Blackhawk Mountain towards Highway 145 where my parents will pick me up just south of Rico and about 45 minutes north of their home in Dolores:

My calculations of the time necessary to complete the trail are a bit more conservative than Google’s. Google Maps thinks it would take 30 hours to hike this route, so it’s assuming about 3 miles an hour. I doubt it takes into account how elevation changes and pack weight slow someone down. My estimate is closer to 50 hours, assuming slightly less than 2 miles an hour, and I think that will be audacious.

Here’s my daily CT route plan — if I can more or less hold to it, I’ll make it:

 Date Start End Distance (miles) Hiking time Avg speed/hour
8/31/2014 Segment 22 – Spring Creek Pass Trailhead Segment 23 – Junction with Cataract Lake Trail 22.9 12 hours 1.9
9/1/2014 Segment 23 – Junction with Cataract Lake Trail Segment 24 – Cross bridge over Animas River 25.4 14 hours 1.9
9/2/2014 Segment 24 – Cross bridge over Animas River Segment 25 – Bolam Pass Rd 25.9 14 hours 1.9
9/3/2014 Segment 25 – Bolam Pass Rd Roberts Creek pickup spot 17.3 10 hours 1.8
91.5 50 hours

Normally I wouldn’t cram so much in so few days, but this is just about the only route that really makes sense given how far my parents have to drive to drop me off initially, the limited number of accessible roads that intersect this part of the CT, and the fact that I need to arrive in Los Angeles on Thursday, September 4th for a wedding.

51BA6SVP8DLIt’s unfortunate I won’t have another day or two on the trail. There are some fourteeners near the CT that I could summit if I had extra time.  I picked up this highly relevant used book at Second Story Books a few months ago, but I’ll have to wait until my next trip out to Colorado.

The last time I hiked at least this long continuously in a mountainous area was in the French Alps in June/July 2012 on the Grande Randonnée Cinq, or GR5. I learned a lot on that month-long 400 mile hike and, since then, my equipment and approach have improved.

In particular, my new pack is lighter. My new sleeping bag and pad are no lighter than my old ones, but far superior. The extremely lightweight Big Agnes UL2 tent I recently bought will be a vast improvement over my makeshift shelter I used in France where I stretched a rain fly staked the ground over my trekking poles.

In particular, the tent will be better in storms. As in the Alps, storms are unpredictable in the Rockies and are to be expected, regardless of what weather forecasts predict several days out or even the day of. (An aside: Far more than bears or mountain lions, lightning is one of the things that worries me the most. Although deaths from it are unusual, two died from lightning in Rocky Mountain National Park this summer.)

I still have those poles I used in France and will be using them on this hike, along with Salomon trail runners that are still holding up well.

Weight management, as always, is a challenge, especially in this situation. I don’t plan, nor do I have time or the opportunity, to do any resupplying during the four days. Even though it’s not the longest period of time (the Apollo 11 mission took 8 days!), everything needs to be on my back, except for all the water I need. I can refill my hydration bladder, which holds up to three liters. According to the pocket-sized Colorado Trail Databook, there are many places, such as streams and lakes, where I can get more.

What will really pack on the weight is the need to have enough food to sustain me. As I’m leaving my tiny Snowpeak stove behind in order to hold pack weight down, my food choices will be limited.

I’m not a calorie counter in everyday life, but on a longer hike (more than two days) with no possibility of easy resupply on the route, it’s worth thinking ahead a little bit. This is doubly important because I’ll be hiking long days in the mountains with a pack on. I splurged on Clif bars at my local Safeway since they were on sale and I bought some energy gels and tablets at a nearby REI because they were similarly marked down. The dry sausage, Pop Tarts, Hershey’s hazelnut chocolate (a Nutella clone) should mix it up a little. I plan on buying some dehydrated fruit and some cheese in Colorado.

Calories Fat (g) Protein (g) Carbs (g)
18 oz Italian dry sausage 1800 115 162 18
3 Clif crunchy peanut butter bars 750 18 33 123
2 Clif cool mint chocolate bars 500 10 20 86
1 Clif chocolate chip bar 240 5 10 44
1 Clif coconut chocolate chip bar 240 6 10 43
1 Clif chocolate chip peanut crunch bars 250 7 10 41
2 Clif white chocolate macadamia nut bars 520 14 18 82
13 oz Hershey’s chocolate w/ hazelnut 2000 120 20 210
4 Pop Tarts – frosted strawberry 800 20 8 152
2 PowerGel energy packets 220 0 0 52
1 GU Energy Gels – vanilla bean 100 0 0 22
1 GU Energy Gels – chocolate peanut butter 100 2 1 20
10 Nuun Energy tabs (dissolve in water) 80 0 0 30
7600 317 292 923

As you can see, with the food I have, I’ll average around 1900 calories each day for four days. I’ll also eat breakfast in Lake City before the trip starts and dinner in Dolores on the last day of the hike.

Still, at least this caloric calculator states I should be consuming 2700-2800 calories a day. While it may seem like I’m gorging with the Hershey’s hazelnut chocolate, with 10-14 hours of hiking each day, I’ll be operating at a caloric deficit.

Aside from the Colorado Trail Foundation’s website, which I’ve linked to several places above, a good resource has been the Down the Trail blog by Jamie Campos. Others have posted great information as well.

© 2014 Nick Schwellenbach

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