Audrey “Glowstick” Payne poses on the Colorado Trail near San Luis Peak. Credit: Natalie “Ibex” Parker

As I finished the last dregs of my English breakfast tea, regretting that I no longer had a warm mug to cradle to my chest on this chilly afternoon, a distant rumble jolted me awake from my daydream. My friends, Dori and Ibex, and I were seated on a treeless overlook halfway up a pass about 12,000 feet above sea level. This section of the Colorado Trail, north of the Creede and Lake City jump-off at Spring Creek Pass, was particularly exposed. Hikers remain above treeline for miles, vulnerable to the elements and especially the lightning brought by the afternoon thunderstorms that regularly pass through the mountains. We were no exception.

This was an especially stormy day during an especially stormy summer. We had arisen before dawn, crossing Cochetopa Creek, the deepest, swiftest body of water of the entire trek, in the dark so that we could bag San Luis Peak, a 14,000-footer only a half mile off the Colorado Trail, before the storms were due. But alas, as we passed it by, the peak was shrouded in a thick, ominous fog. We dared not ascend it. Instead, we continued southbound, the call of the town food we’d surely overstuff ourselves on in Lake City the next day calling our names. 

Passing the peak by, though, did not omit the day’s dangers. We had several high passes to amble over in this section and we had to do our best to time them right, when the blue sky briefly peaked out from behind the dark clouds filling the sky. We were snacking halfway up a pass that topped out at almost 13,000 feet when the thunder began to boom once again. “We’d better get a move on,” I said. Ibex hurriedly packed her things. In typical Dori fashion, Dori kept sipping his tea, unbothered.

There was nowhere around us to take cover, so Ibex and I began marching uphill, intent on getting over the pass before the storm reached us. Dori slowly began to pack his things. “Let’s go, Dori!” I called. “This could be bad.”

Natalie “Ibex” Parker meanders down the Colorado Trail on a stormy day. Credit: Audrey Payne

As I climbed higher and higher up the pass, the thunder boomed louder as it came closer and closer. Cold rain began as a sprinkle and was soon pelting my face beneath the brim of my hat. I began to sense a little electricity in the air as my frizzy hair got even frizzier. I looked around, searching for any place to take cover and wait out the storm, but there was nothing but dirt, rock, and some low-laying mountain shrubs about. I pushed on harder, thankful for the rock-hard muscle that had taken over my thighs in the previous weeks as I hiked across the state from Waterton Canyon near Denver. 

The wind began to howl, bringing in a pea soup of mist with it. I could no longer see Ibex ahead of me, though as I turned around, I could see Dori about a quarter mile behind me. I gasped for breath as I practically ran up the pass, knowing that I was in serious danger of being struck by lightning if it arrived before I could descend down the other side. I pushed my body harder than I ever had before in my life, determined that this wouldn’t be my last day. I knew a campsite and more hot tea waited in the valley below, and I wasn’t going to be left behind as Ibex crossed over the pass. 

After multiple false summits and what seemed like hours but was probably really only about 15 minutes, I finally found myself descending. I could barely see five feet in front of my face, but I picked up the pace again as the trail began to wind back down the pass. I gave myself a little pep talk as I coaxed myself on through the mist. 

Finally, the fog began to clear as I reached the valley. I stopped for a breather on a boulder just off to the side of the trail, letting the sunshine now peaking through the clouds to warm my face as I listened to the pikas “meep!” as they came out from their hidey holes. I spotted Ibex setting up her tent under a clump of widowmakers in a clearing just ahead. Dori finally ambled up behind me, “beautiful day, eh?”

I’d made it through another day on the Colorado Trail, but the night would bring its own dangers. 

The gang sets up camp under a clump of widowmakers, the only shelter for miles around. Credit: Audrey “Glowstick” Payne”

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