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About 5 weeks ago, I accepted Matt and Jess's invitation to head up to Janet's Cabin
for three days and two nights of winter wonderland. The timing looked to be a bit tight, but doable. We'd leave early in the morning after my last final in night school. This trip would be coming on the heels of my first successful winter ascent
and I couldn't wait to get back into Colorado's backcountry. At the time, I had no idea this "moderate hike" would prove to be one of the most challenging and most emotional trips of my adult life.
As Thursday approached, I prayed for snow and then got caught up in finals, finishing my last one at 9:30 pm on Wednesday night. I should have gone straight home and packed immediately but I stopped by Harpo's for a drink or two with classmates and then Old C's for one more with close friends. A trip to the gear warehouse of Mom and Dad and a last minute midnight run for groceries before back to Westminster for an hour of work. I crawled into bed at 1:45a.m. and then back out at 5:45a.m. to pack.photo Brian Miller
The forecast called for high winds and deep snows. After a quick breakfast and a morning fraught with delay after delay, the group finally got to Copper Mountain only to find that the lift we needed wasn't running. Our 11am start was the latest I have ever begun a serious hike, and before we'd even left Copper, I'd already snapped at the group to hurry up. Fortunately for us, a few awesome employees ferried us up the slopes on snowmobiles, eventually dropping us off along the Colorado Trail where we began the climb: 5.5 miles and 1,800 vertical feet up to Janet's Cabin, a massive 3,000 square foot cabin perched on the eastern slope of the Continental Divide. In getting such a late start, we completely disregarded the 10th Mountain Division Hut website, which advises would-be climbers to "estimate one mile per hour and an additional hour for every thousand feet of vertical gain." According to them, it should have taken us nearly 7.5 hours to get to the cabin.
The late start proved to be only the first of many challenges our inexperienced group faced. The next was unfamiliarity with gear. Of the seven people in our group, only one of us brought our own gear. The other six, myself included, cobbled together a hodgepodge of borrowed or rented skis and snowshoes.
Large snowflakes began to fall as we headed down the trail. Molly, one of the girls on the trip, struggled right from the start. She had never been on skis of any kind before, and had elected to borrow someone's very skinny cross country skis. She gutted it out but she moved at a snails pace and fell a lot. I had trouble with my rig too. A few hours before my Wednesday final, I'd rented AT Touring skis and skins from Neptune Mountaineering, and had nodded my way through an explanation of how to use the unique bindings. On the trail though, I kept stepping out of my bindings and plunging into at times waist deep snow. Annoyed and worried about the late start, I shuffled along, putting as little torque as possible on the front clasps.
As we made our way up this valley, the temperature dropped into the teens, the headwind more than doubled, and huge snowflakes turned daylight to white out. We were able to follow the well marked trail but couldn't see much else. Matt and I decided to hike as quickly as possible to the cabin, drop our packs and come back for the group, which we had worked to outdistance.
I was tired but absolutely loving the gnarly weather! Head down, hood up, Matt and I climbed quickly, stopping only to gasp for air and grab handfuls of pepperoni, which I had shoved in my jacket. We had worked up a sweat and were losing a lot of moisture from our steamy breath but neither of us thought to drink from our water bottles, which were quickly freezing.
When we estimated that we were an hour from the cabin, Matt dropped his pack and headed back to help the group. I told him that I'd take my pack up to the cabin and then come back for his. Warm, but starting to feel poorly (I now realize from dehydration) I still managed to pass the last few members of another group before climbing the very steep last 1/4 mile up to the cabins. I set my pack down, took a quick swallow of slushy water, and headed down to get the other pack. Unbeknownst to me, I dropped one of the skins on the short descent.photo Brian Miller
I headed back down the valley, stopping to encourage the rest of the group as I met them straggling up. Another girl had dropped her pack so someone else would be coming down as well. The group still had the steepest part of the climb ahead of them but I focused on how close distance-wise they were. Matt mentioned hot tea in his pack as I passed him but I misunderstood, thinking that he meant only that we'd brew some when we got to the cabin. He actually had a thermos full of hot tea sitting right in the top, which I never bothered to look for.
It took me a lot longer to reach Matt's pack than I had expected. The loss of a skin coincided with me having increased difficulty staying in my bindings. As I shouldered Matt's pack, I started to feel dizzy. I reached for his water but found both bottles frozen. The extra weight of Matt's pack and my increased clumsiness meant that I began stepping out of my ski about once every ten steps. Each time this happened, the pack would drive my leg deep into the soft snow. I'd then balance carefully on my one remaining ski and do a one-legged press (pack and all) to get my foot back above snow. Then I'd balance a while until I could get the binding back on, take another ten steps, and repeat.
At this point, I realized that attempting to cross-country ski for the first time up 8.5 miles all above 10,000 feet with no water and on four hours of sleep might have been a bit ambitious. All this coupled with the "malfunctioning gear" made me incredibly tired. Every time I slipped out of the binding and plunged again into the snow, I'd think about how easy it would be to take my pack off and go to sleep in the snow.
Night began to fall. I tried setting 30 foot goals for myself but repeatedly failed to travel even 15. I passed Molly's pack in the snow and excitedly looked for water but found only an empty bottle. Slumped over, head on my poles, I felt frustrated, exhausted, nauseous, and woozy. I began singing to myself, making up lyrics to urge me forward. I told myself repeatedly aloud, "I'm being tested. I'm being tested..." When that failed, I started screaming and shouting expletives as loud as I could. I cursed my decision to try cross country skis. Finally I took the pack off and laid down under some tall pines.
But as I lay there panting, I knew there was absolutely no chance of me failing. I knew I was close to the cabin and that as a last resort, I could ditch the skis and the pack and climb the last half mile unencumbered.
I'd come so far and I wanted very badly to finish. If I didn't carry the pack up, someone else would have to. I gave myself two minutes and then began again. As I peered into the twilight, I saw two people approaching! Matt and Brian had come back for Molly's pack. They brought my other skin and a bottle of warm water. I chugged the bottle and rested while they put my skin back on. The water helped clear my thoughts. For the first time, I wondered if my ski issues might be attributable to user error. I started pulling on the bindings and SNAP!, a lever locked into place. OMFG, Are you serious?? I just hiked seven freaking miles without locking my bindings in?!
But as I kicked myself, I realized that now I'd be able to go much faster. The water helped immensely. I still struggled, but the nausea and light-headedness dissipated. Relative to my earlier pace, I fairly flew up the rest of the way. 25 minutes later, more tired than I can truly ever remember being, I opened the door to the cabin, sat down, and started crying.