I share stories of success in adventuring, and offer tips on how to do things right, but what about all the times that things didn’t go right, and what I learned from that? Lessons learned the hard way, tend to sink in the deepest.
My mom owned a property in Collbran, Colorado, on the edge of the Grand Mesa, a large expanse of National forest, surrounded by BLM land, and intersected by countless mountain roads and trails. Between the ages of 19 and 21, I spent a lot of time visiting the area, and having my first adventure experiences there. Most of them were positive, with trail rides and 4wheeler rides, but there were a few close calls in the mix.
I had brought my best friend from Missouri, out to see the Colorado mountains for the first time. We were 19yrs old. We borrowed my mom’s truck, and headed up the road on to the mesa. It was dry when we left, but had started snowing as we went up in elevation, and by the time we made it to the top we were dealing with white out snow, that was quickly piling up on the roads. I was not afraid to drive in the snow, and we were in an F350 truck that could get us through anything (I thought), so we continued on, and it eventually stopped snowing, though it was winter wonderland everywhere. We drove around for a few hours, and ended up on a single lane road, with a wall up on the left, and a drop off on the right. I had the truck in 4wheel drive, but noticed it seemed to be having trouble on the completely snow-covered roads. As we headed up the hill on this narrow road, suddenly the truck started sliding backwards, diagonally towards the drop off. The breaks did nothing, and we were 3 inches from the edge, at the point that I was about to open the door and jump out, when it finally came to a stop. We had no cell service, no food, a little bit of water, and very little in the way of emergency gear. I wasn’t even sure where we were at, because we hadn’t brought maps with us.
Just before we had gotten to this bend in the road, I saw a fox cross the road and run up the steep wall to our left. Moments after I turned the truck off, as we figured out what to do, two vehicles came around the bend. These were the first vehicles we had seen in three hours. A group of men had been in the area hunting fox, and were heading to town because they had a dead battery in one of the vehicles, that they needed to replace. These men would end up using their vehicles to pull our truck up from where it was at, and then would drive the truck to safety and dry pavement, on our last stretch home. It turned out, the 4wheel drive in the truck had not been working. We were very very lucky to have crossed paths with these men.
On another trip, to Black Canyon of the Gunnison, myself, my brother, and the above-mentioned friend, set out for a back country hike in to the canyon. There was no trail, and instead we were bouldering through a steep stretch of canyon. After getting a ways out, and running out of water, we decided it was time to head back. But, we couldn’t figure out where we came up from. At one point I had lowered myself down a route I thought was right, only to find myself dangling off the edge of a long way down drop off. We searched for hours in desperation, before finally recognizing a piece of water bottle trash, that I had remembered spotting on the way up. We found the way back down, and got out just before a storm came through. We were dehydrated, and hungry, but safe. Never go into the backcountry unprepared.
I wrote a separate blog story (How Tate Wanagi became Lakota Cole), about the horse I had fall down the side of a mountain in State Forest State Park, in Colorado. He survived, and we got extremely lucky, but I learned to never head out without survival gear and flashlights.
I got lost on horseback a few times, one of which included a four-hour detour with no water for the horses, and ending up having to cut a fence, in order to find trail again.
I had several close calls when summiting Colorado’s 14ers, the 58 mountains with elevations higher than 14,000ft elevation. When my brother and I planned to do Mount of the Holy Cross, we were looking at taking a loop trail from Half Moon Pass. When I looked at the map, I saw that there were four points on the map, that were at 13,000ft elevation. I thought ‘easy, just get up to 13,000ft, and follow the trail around to the 14,000ft summit’. Actually, the 13,000ft markers indicated mountains that would also need to be summited along the way around. So, that day, we summited four 13ers and a 14er. We were on the trail for 20 hours, and up for over 25 by the time the day was through. Learned how to read maps correctly!
Another 14er, Handies Peak, we ended up off trail, climbing through some Class 4 stuff. My brother saved my life that day when he pulled me up from a rock I had been dangling from. When I did Columbia and Harvard, with a friend, we would have ran out of water, and almost had to descend to the wrong side of the summit, if it hadn’t been for a couple of nice guys that we ran in to, who not only shared the water, but also let us follow them as we found the correct route to the summit of Columbia. 14ers are no joke, and you really have to make sure you study the route closely to know exactly how to navigate, how much time it will take, and that you have enough water. I take extreme care when planning solo summits, having learned much from these early experiences. I made my 33rd 14er summit in the summer of 2019, after doing 5 solo that summer.
I sprained an ankle coming down from Mnt Antero, a Colorado 14er, and found that hiking on a sprained ankle is doable, but am grateful I had a wrap and pain medication. Was a slow and painful hike down. Another time I was mountain biking with the kids, and crashed my bike, spraining that same ankle, along with bruising a palm and knee, and cuts and scrapes to the knee and elbow. Used that handy first aid kit, and was grateful we were close to the trailhead.
I have been getting lost on trails since my trail riding days as a kid, and fortunately have finally gotten a grasp on that, because there is nothing more anxiety producing then being out in the woods and having no idea where you are at, or where you left the trail. Lots of back tracking means lots of extra miles and hours. I am grateful for the new navigation technology, and am always extra careful to constantly be paying attention to the trail. Horses and dogs are actually really good at staying on trail, but when left to my own devices… thank goodness for alltrails.com, or the 14ers.com app’s for the phone. I also study maps big time, before I hit the trail, so that I know what landmarks I should be following. For example, I will take note that I will follow the right side of the creek, and then cross over twice, before heading up a slope. Studying maps also tells you things like knowing what sections of the trail will be uphill and what will be down hill. Map reading can be fun, and helps you have a better connection with the terrain you are trekking through.
My friends make fun of me, when adventuring, because my pack is often heavier than others, and I always have everything that could be needed. But, because of my prior close calls, I am always prepared, even when it is just a day hike. My pack always has my first aid kit and survival gear, including fire starting tools, water purification tablets, rattle snake kit, pain meds and Benadryl, ace bandage, a knife, duct tape, a small saw, my Spot emergency beacon, a head lamp, and a battery pack. I always have rain gear if it might rain, layers, in case I have to stay out overnight, mace, incase there is an animal encounter, my water filter, for refilling water, and a days-worth of food and hydration powder. If I am climbing mountains, I will also bring a tarp for a shelter. When backpacking, I add my tent, cook set, and hygiene and toiletry items. When I travel in other countries, I bring my first aid kit. You just never know what could happen, and being prepared for anything helps keep the hiccups along the way from turning in to emergencies.