The Darkest Hike

Last weekend, Trotsky and I set out to do a five mile hike. But, as it seems too often happens to me in Colorado, Apple maps failed to take me to the trailhead. When it claimed we had arrived, there was nothing there. At that point, I was out of range of any cell tower, so I decided to head to a trail that I knew was in the area and that I hadn’t hiked yet. It was a 7.6 mile loop and though it was already 3pm and sunset was at 5:21, dog and I are fast hikers. I decided to go for it.

Happy pup at the bottom of the valley, before he knew what we were in for

We had completed the first three miles by 3:51 and though we knew we’d still be hiking at dusk, we were confident in our ability to finish well before real dark. Just shy of four miles, we passed two mountain bikers who were ill-prepared to ride on the alternating thick-mud-here/slick-ice-there trail. They walked slowly as they dragged their bikes, and Trotz and I soon left them far behind. Then we reached the Crescent Meadow parking lot, which meant we had about two miles to go. And that’s where it all went wrong.

Well, to be quite honest, that wasn’t where it all went wrong. It was wrong from the beginning. Let me point out what I have in my hiking kit, which was at home:

  • two high-powered mini flashlights and a head lamp
  • life straw
  • hunting knife and several multitools
  • mylar emergency blanket
  • hand warmers
  • a portable charger for my cell phone
  • nanospikes for hiking on ice
  • a jingle bell for the dog to warn wildlife
  • large assortment of hats, gloves, and scarves

Now let me point out what I had brought with me on this hike:

  • water
  • power bar, string cheese, and dog treats
  • a cell phone where there was no cell service

I had no cold weather gear at all because it had been 49 degrees and partly sunny when we started, and I’m obviously an idiot who somehow, in ten and a half years in Colorado, still hasn’t mastered the one, basic, essential rule – always bring all your stuff with you every time no matter what. I have started hikes at 85 degrees and been caught in a freezing hailstorm 40 minutes later in nothing but a tank top and shorts. I have been driving across the state in 60 degree, sunny weather and an hour later been stuck in a blizzard and unable to drive. You’d think I’d learn. You’d think.

I will also admit that I have a habit of being a bit reckless in my hiking, and it’s kind of amazing nothing has gone horribly wrong before this. For example, when hiking across the Dolomites, I took a wrong turn out of my hut on the second day. When I saw a trail marker sign that didn’t correspond to the trail I was looking for, I decided to just take a random route instead of backtracking literally less than 1,000 feet to start over and look for the sign I missed. The result was that my friend and I hiked about eight miles in the wrong direction. Then we ended up having to hitchhike with a lovely German family to get back somewhere close to where our hut reservation was for that night.

Another time, when planning to hike to the top of the 14,000+ foot Mt. Quandary, because it’s the simplest Class 1 type of 14er, I failed to realize there were several different routes. I had actually chosen the Difficult Class 2 route. About two-thirds of the way in, my friend and I were the only hikers left, and the route to the summit was covered in snow. We plowed ahead and summitted just fine, but then we got lost on the way down because high winds had blown snow over our footprints. We ended up hopping down massive rocks on a boulder field. Once we started jumping down, we were stuck on that boulder field because there was no way for us to climb back up without climbing equipment. We could see our trail way out in the distance, so we just hoped to not get stuck in a rock slide before we could make it there. Really not smart.

But I was with the same friend during both of these incidents, so maybe it was all her fault. Maybe not.

The lovely view from the apparently unofficial trail leading to the Crescent Meadow parking lot.

Anyway, back to the Crescent Meadow parking lot. As we approached it, I saw people hiking out of the forest toward the parking lot, so I assumed they were leaving the trail. I turned into the direction they had just come from. Shortly after, the trail split with no sign indicating which way the loop was. The two trails looked about the same in terms of usage. I thought that I had to head north to reach my parking lot, so that’s the trail I chose. I could have hiked out less than five minutes to the Crescent Meadow parking lot to look at the map and verify, but oh no, not me. That’s not how I roll.

I went up a steep incline and at the top, the trail was covered in snow. I could still see human and dog footprints, though, so I thought I was on the right track. Trotsky and I went along the trail, but the snow cover got thicker and we were heading straight westbound, definitely not the right way. I got freaked out when the trail became hard to see because of snow cover and decided to turn all the way back around and take the other path at the fork. That trail, it turned out, was not much better. It was very narrow and seemed seldom used. But we were heading towards Boulder (southeast) and for some stupid reason I thought that was better than west, even though the parking lot was north.

We hiked along until we came to a small footbridge that connected to another trail. I turned straight eastbound and we hiked some more until, to my horror, some of the landscape started to look familiar. And then I realized it was where we had hiked after we passed the walking mountain bikers. It was 5:15 and we were back on part of the trail we had already hiked and had over four miles to get back to the car. We were on the trail, at least, so I knew we’d get to our destination eventually, but now we’d gone about eight miles and Trotsky is twelve years old. He was dragging and we had a lot of uphill to contend with.

I looked at my phone. The battery was at 46 percent and dropping fast because of the cold, even though it was on both airplane mode and low power mode.  But at least the clouds had rolled in thick. They reflected the light from Boulder and bounced it back down onto the snow, which enabled me to see the trail pretty well, even through the thick trees. If it had been a clear night, I don’t know how much help the waning crescent moon would have been.

So trail and light were okay. But a primal fear remained that made me push my dog to his absolute limit. Mountain lions. I have a deep, irrational fear of being eaten by a puma. I feel like it’s going to happen and I started to see glints of light, like eyes, out in the woods around every turn. So I sang and talked loudly about anything that came to mind. I pushed that my dog to move more than he’s ever been pushed in his life several miles on an iced-over trail, up out of the valley. He’s got a heart of steel. I don’t know how he kept up, but he did. I kept him very close to me too, not wanting him to lag behind like a weak fawn, perfect for a snack.

It’s a bizarre feeling to see all of Boulder below, safe and happy, and to see the lights from the homes scattered in the hills all around you, but to have no idea what might be twenty feet behind you, about to pounce and make you its dinner. It was terrifying to be out there alone.

Looking out at Boulder at 6:16 PM. Still about a mile to get back to the car.

We finally climbed out of the valley and hit the plateau, although the trail still inclined slightly upward. By then it was really dark, and the trail was rocky and uneven. Furthermore, that part of the trail was exposed to the sun all day, which meant the snow had melted, so there was no more reflection to guide me. My phone power was at 12 percent, and I wanted to preserve it just in case. Also, I figured the flashlight on it would only last a few minutes, and I didn’t want my eyes to get used to that aide only to lose it again. Poor Trotz was dog-tired anyway, so we moved frustratingly slowly. I can run an 8:30 mile, but this last mile took almost a half hour.

I was ecstatic when we reached the seven mile sign. Barely over a half mile to go. I face-planted once, the perfect opportunity for a big cat to jump. But none did, and some time later, I saw sweeping headlights. I didn’t know who it was, but someone else was in the parking lot and, more importantly, the parking lot was close. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t see anything by that point. It was so dark that I didn’t even see the fence marking the trail entrance until we were about twenty feet away from it.

We drove down Flagstaff Mountain, zipping past houses and dozens of cars at the many tourist viewpoints overlooking the city. There were so many people around. It was disconcerting to be so close to so many people, and to be perfectly safe, when moments before, I literally thought I might become prey to an apex predator. And, yes, while there have only been two fatal mountain lion attacks in this area in the last 30 years, the monsters are out there. I’ve seen their caches several times on hikes. If you don’t believe me, apparently you missed this viral news story about a mountain lion incident that happened less than two days after my hike.

6 thoughts on “The Darkest Hike

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