An Ultralight Backpacking Adventure
By Steve Gillman
I was in Colorado about twelve years ago, hiking in the Weminuche
Wilderness Area, when the snow came. Maybe I should have been
more specific when I asked the sky to stop the rain. It was only
my second day out of Silverton, where the locals told me it rains
(or snows) every day in August. I made a note to myself to do
a little research next time. Then I made a note to myself to
try to find the trail. I was lost again.
I had come to the San Juan Mountains in Colorado to try out
all my new lightweight gear for seven days hiking in the San
Juans. I had about sixteen pounds on my back, total. I was using
an ultralight tarp for a shelter, and a very light down sleeping
bag, which I knew would leave me cold if I got it wet. I had
survived the first night of rain and stayed dry, but now I was
above the trees, lost in the rolling tundra, unable to pick out
the trail under several inches of snow. But it was beautiful.
The mountains suddenly appeared all around at every break in
Hiking Becomes Climbing
Eventually I stumbled down into the trees, and then back up
to the tundra, where I found myself on the map. The sun even
came out, and everywhere there were white mountain tops rising
up out of the green. Mountain goats somehow played on the cliffs
without falling. It was a beautiful day for an hour or two. Then
the rain returned, as it did every single night of the trip.
The morning of the fourth day, I was hiking before it was
light, on my way up Mount Eolus (14,083 feet). One of the things
I love about backpacking in Colorado, is hiking up above 14,000
feet without the necessity of climbing gear. "Walk-ups"
they are referred to, but they may require a bit more than hiking.
The "catwalk" on the way to the top of Eolus, for example,
is easy hiking, if it is easy for you to walk a two-to-three
feet wide edge, with a drop to your death on either side of you.
I also made it up Sunlight Peak (14,059 feet) later. That
one requires a leap across a thousand foot drop to get to the
summit rock. An easy jump, though. I was chased off by a thunderstorm,
and didn't get to go up nearby Windom Peak. The next day, I found
my way to the train tracks of the Silverton-Durango train (there
were no roads out there), and took the train to Silverton to
re-supply. I still had three more days in Colorado, hiking in
Hiking with Lightning
I was in one of the most beautiful parts of Colorado, hiking
above tree-line along Silver Creek. After buying some food in
Silverton, I had immediately hitched a couple rides to get up
to The American Valley. A rainy night and a trip over the top
of Handies Peak (14,048 feet), and I was looking at another storm.
My Frogg Toggs rainwear had turned out to be one of my best investments.
A couple came down from the ridge, and warned me that their
hair had been standing on end, and their aluminum trekking poles
were buzzing. There might be a bit too much electricity in the
air to go higher. I set up the tarp and waited out the rain with
a book. After an hour, the sun almost came out, so I quickly
stuffed the wet tarp in the mesh pocket of my pack, and headed
up Red Cloud Peak (14,034 feet) with my twelve-pound load.
I went over the top of Redcloud and to the summit of Sunshine
Peak. Yet another Colorado thunderstorm came, and chased me along
the ridge, and back over Redcloud. Hiking became jogging, and
I was really appreciating my running shoes and light backpack.
I made it to the trees about the time it started raining. The
thunder echoed in the mountains all around me. It rained all
night, of course.
Lessons Learned Hiking in Colorado
I will be in Colorado hiking and backpacking again. It is
one of the most beautiful places I know. I will also go lightweight
again. It was wonderful to carry my pack easily up the mountains,
and be free to descend by any route available, because I always
had everything with me. My balance was better with the light
load, and I was hiking up to 22 miles per day (110 miles total)
without one blister. I won't bring $7 running shoes next time
though. They almost fell apart. Staying dry, which I did well,
was as much technique as it was good equipment. I was very careful
when I was backpacking in Colorado (at least with my equipment
The backpack I used, which I take hiking everywhere now, was
a GoLite Breeze. It weighs only 13 ounces, and
has mesh outer pockets, which worked well for storing my often-wet
tarp. It is frame less, but with my folded-up sleeping pad for
a frame, it was very comfortable.
My Western Mountaineering sleeping bag weighs
only 17 ounces, and has never left me cold yet. It is a down
bag, and seems very fragile, but I have used it for years, in
several countries and all climates, and it still looks almost
Frogg Toggs are sold at most golf course pro
shops. You will think their rainwear is too papery when you first
see it, but I have taken it on trips up glaciers and through
woods, and it really is waterproof and breathable. It's
also less expensive than almost any waterproof /breathable rainwear
Colorado has great hiking and backpacking opportunities. Just
be prepared for rain (and snow) if you go to the San Juans in