Bailing Off Our First Thru Hike
This summer, I attempted to hike 567 miles on the Colorado Trail (CT) with my three year old Pyrenees mix, Indy. After years of backpacking together and training all winter, I was confident we could walk from Denver to Durango. I packed Indy’s Ruffwear Approach pack with dehydrated food, a bowl, musher’s wax, first aid, and a foam sleeping pad before we took our first steps at the Indian Creek Trailhead (the official start of the CT is a protected bighorn sheep area, so we began here). It was a slightly overcast afternoon, and we were full of joy.
Backpacking has been our favorite activity together since I took Indy on his first overnight at one years old. He’s the best backpacking buddy I’ve ever had. He keeps on my heels when hiking, has unmatched navigation skills, makes finding trail friends a breeze, and as a large breed, he keeps me warm on cold mountain nights. I had this beautiful vision of our month on trail full of joy and bonding, finishing the trail side-by-side, and starting our aspirations for bigger, longer trips together. But Colorado had a different plan for us.
After walking 12 miles, our first night was spent cooling off and playing in the South Platte river and prepping for our early morning. At 5 am, we began to make our way through a waterless burn area, and stopped when the temperature began to rise. We rested in the shade of a local fire station and refilled our water at the spigot. This was the start of a heatwave that passed through Colorado. My first hints of doubt started to arise as we continued on, stopping every quarter mile to rest in the shade. Our pre-planned resupply didn’t provide flexibility around slowing down.
Before starting the trail, focusing on paw care and getting Indy enough calories to sustain 20 mile days for a month were my biggest concerns. But planning dehydrated food with added toppers and reapplying Musher’s were nothing compared to keeping a 100-pound, thick coated Great Pyrenees mix cool in 90 degree weather. Despite his frequent bad choice in nap location, I trusted that Indy knew his limits best and let him take the reins in deciding how long of a break he needed.
We were tested emotionally and physically for the next 153 miles. Every morning, we woke up at 4:30 am to attempt 15 miles before the heat set in. Our mid-day naps were planned at beautiful rivers and shady trees, but more often than not, the heat came unexpectedly early and Indy wandered off trail into a cool patch of dirt in the shade of a bush. By 5 or 6 pm, the heat broke, giving us a chance to hike the remainder of our planned miles, before making camp in the dark. Our system worked well, even though it only provided time for 5 hours of sleep and no socialization with fellow thru hikers. Indy’s energy was also zapped by the heat.
Approximately 90 miles into the CT, Indy unexpectedly laid in a bush after a wonderful 10 mile morning and there we sat for 6 hours. We ran out of water after an hour, and we were out of food due to a re-supply mixup. Just a quarter mile from a beautiful wide stream surrounded by towering cottonwoods and flat comfortable shade, I begged Indy to move. We needed water. I needed shade. I felt my lips cracking and my head spinning. I felt hopeless and horrible for bringing my best friend into this situation. As the golden light of sunset swept over the trail, Indy emerged from his resting place to make the slow walk down to the water. Bawling my eyes out trailside, fellow thru hikers began gifting me packets of chicken and tuna as they hiked past to help get Indy to our next box in Breckenridge.
With no affordable dog friendly accommodations in Breck, we grabbed our fresh box of human food and dehydrated kibble from the post office before hitting the pet store to find a pair of dog booties to protect Indy’s paws from the scorching pavement in town. Little did I know, this was the nail in the coffin for Indy’s thru hike.
Indy had to run my errands with me which involved walking a mile on hot sidewalks. His paws cracked by the time we crawled into my tent on the trail that night. I felt paralyzed. I wanted this so badly. Indy loved being out here. I didn’t have anyone I knew who could watch him and having subleased my apartment, I didn’t have anywhere we could live till mid-August (our anticipated finish date). Maybe his paws would heal with some low mile days? Maybe I could find someone to take him for a few days of rest? Maybe just a little TLC and our goal would still be in reach?
Our pace slowed down to 15 miles a day and by the time we reached Twin Lakes, 175 miles into our hike. I had found a friend in Leadville to take him for a week while I completed the Collegiate Loop. Just a week, I told myself and him, and then his paws would be healed and we would finish the remainder of the trail together. But 7 days later, I looked at my sweet boy still hobbling. The cracks were just barely closing. Crying, I texted everyone I knew and made a game plan for his care while I finished the CT alone. Seeing him sit at the Monarch trailhead with my boyfriend as I walked on was the hardest part of the trail but it was the right decision. Indy wasn’t going to finish his first thru hike.
Despite my dreams of our bigger hikes getting a little rocked, I learned a lot:
- Some dogs (like Indy) are better suited for early spring and fall hikes when the weather is cooler.
- Plan and pack to do less daily miles than you actually think you will to allow for flexibility and plenty of food.
- Never forget your musher’s wax.
- It’s better to stop early at a perfect rest spot than be forced to stop in a less than ideal spot.
- Trail angels will sometimes watch your dog for a night if there’s nowhere to stay in town.
- Everyone loves a dog in a backpack.
- Always, always, always have a pair of dog boots handy.
It took 6 weeks for Indy’s paws to fully heal with lots of rest and musher’s wax. As soon as he seemed ready, we went on a handful of short backpacking trips together after I crossed the CT finish line. Even with cutting his thru-hike short, his endurance and speed is better than ever before. And after learning from our failure, I’ve got a good feeling Indy will claim his title of thru-hiker in the near future.