The 52 hikes that changed me

Fifty-two hikes; one for every week of the year. Something about keeping track of them appealed to me. I had moved to Colorado two years earlier and had slowly been learning how to navigate the trails, the elevation and the beauty of my new home. I had joined several hiking groups and had been hiking as often as possible, but I wasn’t keeping track of them. This challenge had a sense of purpose to it, so I plunked down my $12, downloaded their spreadsheet and looked forward to January 1st, when I would be allowed to begin.

As it turned out, Colorado was experiencing a true Indian summer for the month of January and I completed a whooping 12 hikes before the “real” winter weather arrived. My birthday was in February and I received the best gift a girl on a hiking mission could ask for, an America the Beautiful Annual Parks Pass. I am very lucky to live a mere 45 miles away from the majestic Rocky Mountain National Park and I could not wait to start exploring it. Between the 355 miles of trails at RMNP and the 155 miles of trails that make up the Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP), I had plenty to keep me busy.

By the middle of March, I had already put a sizable dent in my hiking goal, 24 to be exact, but on the morning of March 21, that was all about to change. It started out as any other post-snowstorm day with bluebird skies and over two feet of fresh snow. My friend Maria and I got up early to re-visit a favorite trail called Green Mountain West. One of the little known facts about hiking in Colorado is that the best hiking happens in the winter. There are less people on the trials and the mountains look even more beautiful when they are covered in snow.

I had my spikes on, but accidentally left my poles in the car. We made it to the top quickly and could not stop marveling at the beauty of the snow-covered tree branches and hoarfrost. Growing up in Texas, snow was an infrequent occurrence, so the beauty of a snowy mountain still makes me feel like an excited kid. We stayed up at the top longer than usual, soaking up the sun, enjoying a little picnic and taking happy photos. As we headed down, I began to wish I had gone back to the car to retrieve my trekking poles. The sun was starting to melt the snow and other hikers were packing it down creating slick spots of ice. I am usually the biggest advocate for wearing spikes, and yet I had taken mine off early in the hike and had forgotten to put them back on.

I was only a few steps down when I let a guy pass me. He was fearless and basically skied down the slippery spots. Maybe I was overly worried about the snowy rocks or maybe there was some death ice hiding under the snow. All I know is that one minute I was slowly stepping down and the next moment, I was on my back, sliding down the mountain. The moment I slipped, I felt my leg turn in an unnatural direction and heard my left knee pop. I hugged my knee to my chest and for a few seconds, I just laid there, unsure what to do.

We were over two miles away from the trailhead and the narrow trail was still stacked with fresh snow, making it impossible to slide or crawl down. With no cell service, and no way to get down on my own, I started to panic. Maria was doing her best to help, but neither of us had a cell signal and the short winter day was getting colder. I started shivering uncontrollably, one of the first signs of hypothermia. Thankfully, another group of hikers came along, and they did have service so they let us call 911 with their phone.

Before that day, I had never heard of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group. Today, I will never forget them. In less than an hour, they hiked the two miles up the mountain to reach me, created a pulley system and slowly rolled me down the hill on a makeshift one-wheeled stretcher. I was embarrassed to be such a burden, especially to these complete strangers, whom I later discovered were all volunteers. I don’t remember any of their names, but I remember the kindness in their eyes as they patiently plowed through the snow to take me to safety. I am in awe of them and forever grateful for their service.

Needless to say, the next six weeks, I did zero hikes. An MRI showed three partial tears in the acl, mcl and medial meniscus. The next few months were a blur. I saw a total of three different orthopedic doctors and started physical therapy, but I was still in pain. In spite of this, I kept hiking. My hikes became significantly shorter and easier, but I discovered that if I kept my knee brace on tight, used my poles and chose low elevation trails, I could still hike. It was the only thing that kept me going.

By this point, I had completed 41 hikes, but I knew that if I wanted to be able to get back to hiking 14ers and long distance backpacking trips, surgery was my only option. I needed a meniscectomy to trim the torn portion of my medial meniscus. Recovery time for this type of surgery is typically six weeks, but my doctor told me I would be able to start hiking sooner if I was willing to let my knee heal. Sitting on the couch for two weeks watching the walrus face on my knee shrink was excruciating, but it was worth it.

My walrus knee!

Those first few hikes after my surgery were scary. I wasn’t sure if I should be doing any of it, but I simply could not stay away. My inner need to explore was stronger than my fear. One of my favorite hikes during this recovery time was at The Great Sand Dunes. Armed with my trekking poles and an unstoppable determination, I arrived early, intent on watching the sun rise from the highest dune I could reach.

Hiking on sand is challenging regardless when both knees are healthy, so I went extra slow in order to be safe. Every time I looked up at the mountain of sand in front of me, I would begin doubt myself. That’s when I decided to keep my gaze low and directly in front of me, taking one small step at a time. Before I knew it, I was looking out over a vast sea of sand, and when I looked down, I could hardly believe how far I had come. It was higher than I ever expected I could go and it felt amazing. It was the first of many small victories.

Each day that followed, resulted in a little more healing and a little more hiking. Fall was in full bloom and I was able to witness it with longer and more difficult hikes. Some hikes began in the darkness before dawn and some were guided by the light of a full moon. Six months after my injury, I completed my 52nd hike, and it was a giant load off of my shoulders.

I arrived early at RMNP in order to beat the timed-entry reservations in place because of Covid. It was still pitch dark and I had chosen to hike alone for my final hike of the challenge. I kept waiting for daylight, but it was slow to come so I finally just put on my headlamp and started toward Bierdstat Lake. It was cold, but the aspen were waving their golden leaves in support and I was rewarded with an extraordinary sunrise rising over the clouds. When I made it to the lake, there was no one else in sight. It was one of those rare moments that I had come to cherish on this journey. I sat down on a rock to rest and watch the sun shine touch the mountain tops. A very tame duck came up to welcome me and look for handouts. We sat there together in the cold and the quiet, enjoying the brief silence.

I’ve been looking through all the hundreds of photos that I took during my hikes and I love how they take me back there in an instant. I got to hike to so many beautiful places, and with all the bizarre things that have already happened this year, I feel lucky that I got to see them at all. Between this injury, Covid and the massive fires that damaged trails I only recently discovered, the world is nothing like it was when I began this journey. I had no idea so much would or could change in such a short amount of time.

The people I have met along the way have been an extra added bonus. I’ve made new friends, I’ve reconnected with old ones and I’ve met strangers who share this deep love for nature. I know this experience, this injury and healing from it has changed me. When I began, I knew I could do it, I just didn’t expect so many obstacles to appear on my path.

My challenge to anyone reading these words is this. If you can walk among the pine trees and smell the clean cool air of the mountains, then do it. Take the photos, all 4,000 of them if need be. You can always delete them, but you can’t re-capture a missed moment in time. Hike the hikes, lose the sleep and watch the sun rise and set. Hike a 14er, backpack alone, hike in the dark or just challenge yourself to do the things that scare you.. You never know who will be inspired by your strength and your example. By following your own passions, you give others permission to follow theirs.

Hikes 1 – 8
Hikes 9 – 17
Hikes 18 – 26
Hikes 27 – 35
Hikes 36 – 44
Hikes 45 – 52