In the Army after every training event we conducted a detailed After Action Review... these were often looked upon by the average soldier as a mere hassle since we all just wanted to finish and go party... But these reviews were critical to team growth in proficiency and future readiness. The AAR is basically a debrief of what happened and why! What did we do right and wrong?
So with that in mind this post will serve as our AAR for the recent CO hiking trip. My hope is to have this saved so I can review it prior to the next hiking trip... thereby learn from what did and did not work! I will review our entire trip to include itinerary and gear! So some of this will be relevant to you even if you don't plan to replicate our trip exactly but are planning to hike, camp or expedition yourself.
To start I will describe the big things then get into the weeds a bit with gear and technique. First- Pre-trip planning!
Our pre-trip planning was sound. We identified our locations to camp, trails to hike and gear needed quite well. The travel times proved accurate though we did hit some construction in the mountains near our initial destination adding 40 mins to our travel time. So in the future I will likely add 1 hr to anything google maps gives me for travel times.
Our biggest pre planning mistake was to not allocate enough time for this venture! Specifically time to rest after the drive and to acclimate to the altitude. We traveled all day on day 1... then at 0400 on day 2 hit the trail head for the Arapaho glacier trail! This was totally unrealistic as we found out! We came in bulletproof but were quickly humbled by the end of this first hike. We completed the hike but it totally drained our tanks!
So take away #1 for the planning phase- add a full 24-48 hrs for travel recovery and altitude acclimation before beginning any serious activities to the timeline. Its not that you "can't" do it... but will you "enjoy" doing it!
Now let's dig into some specifics around this trip. Our plan was to camp near the Arapaho Glacier trail head near Rainbow Lakes campground the first night (just northwest of Nederland CO). This particular campground is first come first served with no reservations. Arriving on a Tuesday we assumed there would be availability... but it was full. Our back up plan was to practice "dispersed camping" in the Arapaho National Forest near the trail head on Forest Service road 505. The 505 proved to be a serious "off road" adventure... this road was very serious no Subaru Forester pretenders would make it 50' down this road... it was a 4runner/jeep/UTV/ATV road only! So we left behind all the Subaru Forester pretenders and went in about a mile down the 505... it was so precarious I had the boys out walking ahead on foot and we often had to stop and build a strategy for each terrain approach... to the degree of even where each tire position needed to be. I was very pleased with the performance of our Toyota 4Runner TRD PRO. It took us a full hour to go about 1 mile into the backcountry on FS 505 traveling from north to south. Eventually we made it down to Dispersed Camping site #11. Site #11 turned out to be an excellent camping site! A babbling brook was close by and easily accessed for an amazing water source. And there was no one in the adjacent campsite 10 so we had very good privacy. For this trip we camped using the rooftop tent placed on our rooftop Bajarack... if you want to see our tent here is a link- https://amzn.to/2DU0TrO
Speaking of water... water is the #1 concern in the backcountry and my campsite selection. Never underestimate how much water even a single human needs each day... much less for 3 men! For camp use I love the Katadyn 6 L gravity feed filter. It is a great way to both collect water easily and then simply hang it in camp for a convenient, safe water supply. It is a camping must have. Here it is if you are interested- https://amzn.to/30Z1Zvd
For backpacking on foot I prefer to have the Katadyn hand pump water filter... most true backpackers don't like this model due to the size/weight and would rather have a sawyer in-line filter. But I prefer the hand pump for a couple of reasons. #1 the Sawyer inline filter is a ceramic filter which can crack... particularly if temps dip below freezing at night and you have some water inside the filter... you will not know it has cracked until your butt cracks wide open in your britches 24 hours later!!! #2 (as if #1 was not enough reason) with the inline filter your container is full of contaminated water... whereas everything I carry is filter by the hand pump as I put it into my containers. This keeps my bladders and water bottles clean on the inside. So for those two reasons I don't mind packing a little more weight. You can arrange the sawyer as a squeeze filter to put clean water into your containers... but why? You can buy the Katadyn backpacker here- https://amzn.to/2E5CgZa
We settled in for our first night at campsite 11... but due to the perilous drive in we knew it would take quite some time to drive back up to the trail head so we planned for a 4am wake up. For high altitude hikes it is imperative to get an early start- being above tree line when afternoon thunderstorms start is not fun. I also learned it is imperative to get an early start when making camp coffee on a percolator coffee pot! In the past I had just went with the instant coffee but decided since we were vehicle based I could opt up to the perc pot! It did take longer to make on our little Coleman classic 2 burner camp stove but..... OH MY.... it was such amazing coffee!!!! I used a simple Coleman percolator camping coffee pot and it was the best coffee ever! At home I use a French Press and fresh ground beans but this was every bit as good and reminded me of the coffee my Dad made every morning back in the day! Here is a link to that good old fashioned simple camping coffee pot- https://amzn.to/349Unb4
After some amazing coffee and a very careful commute in the dark back up the 505 we arrived at the Arapaho Glacier Trailhead at around 5am local time. We had no problem finding a great parking spot as there were maybe only 5 cars there... only one other car turned out to be actual hikers getting an early start on the trail that morning.. I surmise the other cars were left there overnight by the campers sleeping all around the trailhead. At the trail head I popped up my Alltrails app and we set off! If you do any hiking at all, even just simple day hiking, I would encourage you to download the Alltrails app and sign up for a Pro account. This will set you back about $20 a year but you get access to a plethora of maps and a very robust gps platform to use on the trail... along with a hiking community that is very active on the platform to share reviews, insights and tips for hiking trails. Check out Alltrails.com to learn more. I always carry a backup gps and a compass! But was impressed with how well the iphone8 worked with absolutely no cell signal for navigation using the Alltrails app and of course the maps I had downloaded... that is a critical step- download the maps first!
Here is my backup GPS- https://amzn.to/2Y2PnBx
The hike on the Arapaho Glacier Trail certainly earned its "HARD" rating as listed at Alltrails! We earned every foot of the 3,638 ft elevation gain along this path for sure! It started off fairly gentle in the tree line but as soon as we broke up above the treeline it took on another character. Above the treeline the trail became very rocky... rocks filled the trail ranging from pebbles up to basketball sized! I almost did not take my trekking poles since I was packing only about 10 lbs in my daypack including 2 L of water. But it is a good thing I used trekking poles... on at least 3 occasions I had a rock roll under my foot which would have thrown me on the ground and/or injured my ankle had I not had a secure plant via strategic trekking pole use! Along with the companionship of a billion lose rocks we were also greeted with a roaring jet stream of unrelenting winds!
For my water carry I used a single Nalgene bottle along with my internal bladder bag. I love the Nalgene 32oz bottles and use them everyday at home for my water! In hindsight I should have brought an additional bottle on this hike.. I was running low by the end. Here is my favorite water bottle! - https://amzn.to/30XovVa
We successfully made it up to the Arapaho Glacier by around 10 am, we paused for pictures and to take it all in for maybe 20 mins. We would have stayed longer but the winds were ferocious. We decided not to summit South Arapaho Peak even though we were at the base of the rock scramble up. It would have been only another 400 ft... but due to the vicious winds we decided to head back down. Before we turned back down I handed the car keys to the boys as I knew they would beat me back! And the race was on!
On our hike back down I was way behind the boys again but was constantly engaged by all the entertaining characters on the trail! When I say "entertaining" let me break that down a bit.. one of the best characters I ran across was totally by chance... she was perched atop a downed tree approximately 50' off the trail in the timber...I only happened to see her as I was scanning the woods for tasty wildlife. Anyway there she sat about 20 ft up atop a blown down pine tree... sitting indian style/cross legged deep in meditation. I stopped and was unable to break my stare... I knew I shouldn't stare and should just go on my merry way. But I just couldn't turn away. She was looking directly at me but seemed to be in a deep state of meditation. Time stood still..... I am not really sure how long this backcountry stare off lasted. I tried to raise my hand and do a half-ass wave but... It's like I had entered a hazy, dreamy realm, my body was weak and I felt weightless.... please understand by this time I was back down below the tree line and though likely still suffering some hypoxia I was also likely inhaling large quantities of Marijuana smoke rafting up through the timber from the campers below! So I would not argue some level of impairment on my part played a factor in this rather bizarre encounter. During the stare off I had fleeting moments and visions of me riding around the mountains with this sirene in a Subaru Forester eating vegan snacks, drinking soy and wearing Patagonia clothes on our way to a rural area to gather up bibles for a book burning later planned at the UCBoulder campus. As I was unloading double arm fulls of bibles from the back hatch of the Subaru Forester......Finally.... the sound of flute music broke me out of the trance... and I realized this sirene had started playing the flute without ever breaking eye contact with me! This non-binary somewhat female looking flautist had almost reeled me in! For a brief moment I was in the hipster leftist realm! Breaking free I ran full speed down the trail until the flute music drifted away...probably 100 yards before I stopped! In the Colorado backcountry hearing banjos is not the concern... it's flute music!
I swear to God... and this is no shit.... 2 days later when I was back in good cell service a fucking Subaru Forester ad popped up on my phone! Freaky!
Though rattled by this encounter I soldiered on down the trail and then came upon two hipster girls festooned in dreads and a variety of tats on their way up... one of which turned out to be very flirtatious. The flirty one asked me "how much further to the glacier?" Not realizing her flirty motives yet I really did not even know how to answer the question as the glacier was many miles away and uphill from this point! Basically I told her... "Well we are a 1/2 mile up the trail...maybe... and the trail is 7 miles to the glacier... so I would guess you have about 6 1/2 miles to go!" I then pulled up my Alltrails map app and the flirty girl got really interested, sliding in close to view the screen... I finally realized what was going on when her very frustrated friend reminded Ms. Flirty they both had the alltrailsapp and maps too. We all had a good laugh and once again I was back on my descent!
When anyone asks me what is the most important piece of gear for real backcountry hiking? I give them 2 answers- SOCKS and UNDERWEAR. Screw that up and you will be in for a world of discomfort! In suburbia you can get away with the 12 pack socks sold in a large ziplock bags at the big box stores... as well as the Fruity Loomy undergarments... but if you ever wear either on any sort of serious hike you will be very regretful! Once I learned this I literally threw away all my cheap socks and underwear... I would buy one pair of the good ones each pay period until I was at a point I could throw out all the cheap ones. Plus the good ones have lifetime warranties and literally last for years... whereas the cheap ones are in constant need of replacement. And once you get the expensive socks you do not end up with lots of mismatched pairs.. you will be very vigilant not to lose a sock! So my daily wear is also my backcountry wear... here are links to my favs-
Darn Tough socks-
ExOfficio give-N-go boxer/briefs
Once back at the trail head we embarked on part 2 of our trip- Mt. Elbert and Halfmoon Creek near Leadville CO. As we left the backcountry we decided to stop off in Nederland to grab a burger for lunch... we stopped in town at a sportsbar looking joint and ordered lunch.... Our rather ordinary lunch cost us just over $100! So lesson learned here for the After Action Review... avoid CO hipster towns if possible!
The drive to Leadville was about 2 1/2 hours, most of which was on I70 west... a road we knew very well by this point! But the mountains were beautiful and we got into Leadville around 5pm. Our goal was to venture out into the San Isabel National Forest to set up camp somewhere near the Mt. Elbert trail head. With a goal of climbing Elbert on our last day. This area is just southwest of Leadville and has tons of gorgeous high altitude lakes. We drove out on Forest Service rd 110 (Halfmoon rd) which sort of runs between Mt Massive and Mt Elbert along Halfmoon Creek. We observed folks dispersed camping all along the creek as we traveled southwest on 110. Finally we arrived at the designated camping area called Halfmoon West Campground. There was a self-service pay station and hand pitcher pump at the entrance.... we took a ride through and found a very secluded site with its own private privy! So we decided to stake our claim! Our camp spot was site #15 and we were the only ones in that area!
We settled in for our second night and enjoyed rapidly cooling temperatures as a beautiful sunset got cranked up. For our last day we had planned to summit Mt Elbert the second highest mountain in the lower 48... but we were still smoked from the glacier hike the first day!
So we opted to have a relaxing morning in camp with great coffee, deer sausage, eggs and keto pancakes! Everything was a hit... except the keto pancakes... which were somewhat like eating cardboard and sand. However just as we were trying to decide what to do with the leftover pancakes a gray jay showed up begging for food! So we set up a little bird feeding station at our camp table and enjoyed the gray jay show for the next hour! Gray Jays love keto pancakes!
After the bird show we packed up camp and decided to go check out Emerald Lake, which was just up FS rd 110. This small lake offers excellent trout fishing and features a nice trail around the lake. At this point I need to say.... the Halfmoon Valley area was gorgeous and I hated to leave it... I am definitely hoping to return to this area for a much longer camping venture! After some time enjoying Emerald lake we headed back into Leadville as we had an Airbnb scheduled for our final night in CO.
Our Airbnb was called "Inn the Clouds Hostel"... it was a set up best for CDT thru hikers and backpackers but our room contained 5 very comfy beds and our own full bath. It was a very comfy way to finish off our adventure. Our host advised us to check out the Mineral Belt Trail which is a paved 11 mile trail encircling Leadville. Designed primarily for mountain bikes this gentle trail provides a tour of the incredible mining history and industry which the town was founded on. Mining shafts, chutes, hoppers and various other mining infrastructure artifacts from the mid 1800s were everywhere and in incredibly great condition. Interpretive signage along the way described each feature and provide photos of the site as it appeared in the 1800s... it was all very fascinating. We hiked about 3 miles on the trail but if we had more time I would certainly bike the entire 11 mile loop. A bike shop in town (Life Cycles) provides daily $25 bike rentals.
For our evening meal we grabbed a large carnivore pizza at "High Mountain Pies"...Highly recommend... we spent about $30 on supper in Leadville. Leadville is becoming touristy but still holds onto its blue collar mining roots and the people in this town were all very friendly and easy going... hikers and hunters alike would feel welcomed. Still a very nice town and I would certainly like to go back. I would say Leadville is exactly the opposite of Vale!
The following morning we woke at 5am and were back on our way to the land of sunflowers by 6am. It was a fun trip and a great way to end our summer... our only mistake was to make it too short... next time it will be a 7 day venture.
Watch the vlog here! --