As with previous years, this was a 3 day, 2 night backpacking trip in the Colorado backcountry, hosted by Fjällräven and their sister brands. This year felt like they are really hitting their groove with organization, distance, and difficulty, and I think it was overall the “best” one yet.
Erika came along this year as well, and we did a lot fewer training hikes because we knew the course was significantly shorter, had both been really active all year, and were generally just pretty confident. We were also busy getting organized to get married (which happened the week after the Classic!), and I was breaking in a new mountain bike, so we had some other things on our schedules 🙂 Nonetheless, we got in a few training hikes (or rides) at Table Mountain and Aldefer/Three Sisters.
This year’s course was significantly shorter than last year’s (thank god). I think the first day was probably too short to be honest, and it left a lot of time at the end of the day to just sit around and… drink too much. That’s partially because we had to start earlier than last year (apparently a requirement of the Forest Service), so the day was just over really early. Day 2 was pretty long, and pretty hard, but there was a lot of variability (compared to last year’s long, hot, exposed slog), so I quite enjoyed it by comparison. I was definitely tired by the end of it though. Day 3 was “all downhill” and quite easy, although it went on a lot longer than expected based on looking at the map quickly.
Here’s the entire course, again created on the wonderful Caltopo. Note that these paths are based on trail information stored in their database, so it’s not necessarily exactly where we hiked. One of my friends on the trail said Day 2 in particular was quite different, and actually came out at more like 14 miles. I’m looking forward to tracking this myself using my Garmin watch next year.
Day 1, June 27
We were heading up from Denver with my friend Michael, so we had to get a really early start. We arrived at Copper Mountain Resort by about 7am, so that we could get the last bus to the trailhead at 7:30. Once at Tennessee Pass, we got prepped, hit the trail, and made good time for the first day. From memory we got to Camp 1 by about 2pm. The last section (through Camp Hale) was pretty flat, dry, and exposed, plus we were just trudging along gravel roads, so not that great. The rest of the day was nice single-trail through forest though, which was beautiful. Camp was on the grounds of Nova Guides, a snowmobile/ATV rental company based out of Camp Hale. They had a nice (fishing) pond, green grass, and plenty of space for us to all set up camp (either together on the grass, or a bit more dispersed up the hillside, which is what we chose). Our friends Rene and Michelle even had an amazing surprise for us, having lugged in a small bottle of champagne to pre-celebrate our wedding!
9.4 mile hike (total of 15.66 miles for the day, per Fitbit)
+352′, -1,559′ elevation
Day 2, June 28
This was the long one, with all the elevation gain. Out of Camp Hale (early – we left at about 6:30am from memory), we wanted to try to clear the exposed valley floor before the sun got too high and hot. From there it was up, up, up, over Kokomo and Searle Passes, past Janet’s Cabin, and to Camp 2. We stopped for multiple lunches, had a photo shoot with one of the official photographers (it’s very awkward getting close-up video of each cheese and elk sausage), stopped to use the Grayl to get clean water, snapped a bunch of pictures from the amazing views, and trudged into Camp 2 pretty weary, but pretty happy.
12.8 mile hike (apparently more like 14.5 mile, total of 19.42 miles for the day)
+3,542′, -1,133′ elevation
Day 3, June 29
The last day was a bit of a sleep in, break camp, then head mostly-downhill to the Trekker’s Inn, finish line, and closing party. We managed to intercept an ATV taking some supplies up the trail and snag a beer on the way down, and there were even llamas at the closing party!
5.9 mile hike (total of 9.65 miles for the day)
+399′, -2,019′ elevation
We carried a small “passport” with us throughout the hike, which was used to keep track of us (stamped at each checkpoint/campsite), and also included a map. It had some details from Leave No Trace and info about sponsors as well.
As I mentioned earlier, I think this was the best organized/executed iteration of the USA Classic yet. Before going, I had sort of decided that it’d probably be my last for now, and that I’d go on my own backpacking adventures rather than do this again next year. After going again though, I’m reminded of the fun I have, the great people, and the sense of accomplishment that I think is different in a group setting than it would be on my own (or even with just a few close friends). If the timing works out again, I think you’ll probably see another of these posts from me again next year :).
3 days, 2 nights
28.1 mile hike (apparently probably closer to 30)
+4,275, -4,711 elevation
Note on numbers: distances and elevation are from Caltopo, so they’re based on the trail data they have available, for the specific trail that I’ve marked out (which is I think pretty accurate). Steps, calories, and “total distance” per day are from Fitbit, using a Fitbit Blaze throughout the hike.
This week, I’ve been roaming the Colorado wilderness with 250 of my closest/unknown friends, participating in the second annual Fjällräven Classic, USA. I participated in the inaugural event last year, which conveniently fell during my 3-month sabbatical from work. At the time, I said that no matter what else was going on, I would definitely be attending again in 2017. As promised, when the 2017 Classic was announced, I immediately grabbed tickets, and this time even talked Erika into going.
Even though I’m stubborn, and had already committed to going, seeing that the trek would be somewhere in the range of 35 miles this time gave me pause. Last time it was more like 22 miles, and although I felt like I handled that pretty easily, 35 was a big step up, and I wouldn’t have the advantage of being on sabbatical and already doing a lot of high-altitude camping/hiking leading up to it this year. After convincing Erika though, we both got our tickets, and accepted that we’d need to train for this, and take it pretty seriously if we wanted to make it through. We were right.
In the weeks leading up to the Classic, we went on a series of training hikes at as much elevation as we could conveniently get to, for as long as we could fit into our schedules. We hiked North Table Mountain, Aldefer/Three Sisters (a few times), and White Ranch Park. We started out just hiking, then added in a loaded pack (and sometimes an 11 lb chihuahua on top of that!) to get the full experience. Training was going well, but we had a 2 week trip to Europe in there (sea level, boooo!) that felt like a bit of a reset-button. We only got one more hike in after that (Three Sisters again), and then it was time for the real deal.
After going over and over our gear, refining and cutting and double-checking, on Wednesday morning it was time. We got up early, and drove to Copper Mountain which was to be the main staging point for this year’s event. Once there, we got registered and checked in, grabbed some breakfast, and had a look at some of the on-site pop-up shops/displays from the different brands involved. We picked up our registration kits (Passport to be stamped at checkpoints, re-usable trash bag, Grayl water filter, a canister of Primus propane) and when the time came, we lined up, loaded up, and rolled out on buses with everyone else to Montezuma, where we’d start our 3-day trek.
As it turned out, we actually unloaded the buses and started the hike from a random parking lot/space that I’d been to before, back in winter when I went snowshoeing one time. Now we were in early summer, so there was no snow, but there was plenty of snow-melt. We got unloaded, grabbed our packs, and hit the trail for a long, steady uphill that lasted for the first few solid hours. At the official start of the trek, we got our passport stamped, then picked up a few Clif bars and headed (quite literally) for the hills. Not too far in, we hit our first unofficial checkpoint, where we got a quick primer on how to use the Grayl. From there it was hours and hours (and approximately 4 miles) straight uphill to our first official checkpoint. We stopped for a cup of soup (chicken noodle or potato cheddar), grabbed some candy, and admired the epic views from the ridge we were trekking along. There was still a lot of ground to cover though, so we didn’t stay too long. A little further on from the checkpoint was the actual highest point for the day, and then it was a long, hard, grind downhill towards our campsite for the night. This downhill section was particularly brutal, since it was an ATV trail, with steep, eroded sides and a lot of loose rocks. Knees and toes were howling by the time we got down to camp in the afternoon.
There were two highlights on this section of the trail. First was a random encounter with an older couple and their ATV-riding Pomeranian. As we came around a corner, I had difficulty making sense of what I was seeing. Off the side of the trail, there was a fluff-ball of a Pomeranian, wearing goggles (nay, Doggles) sitting in the middle of a semi-circle of hikers, having its picture taken. Apparently it was the travel-buddy of the couple on the ATVs, and it loved to ride along in a harness whenever they went out on the trail. Next up was a moose-sighting; my first ever in the wild. Right after we dry-crossed a small river (yay log-crossings!), one of our fellow hikers signaled to us to come over, but keep quiet. When we got over to him, he pointed out a female moose just grazing off the side of the trail. They are such huge and interesting looking animals. I snapped a few pictures, but with the distance, lighting, and amount of vegetation in the way, you can barely even make out a brown patch.
After the moose we continued on down, down, down the trail, then hit a large stone quarry/dumping ground of some sort, before turning up a dirt road and heading for our day one camp site. It was unfortunately a pretty uninspiring place to camp (the largest field of mulch you’ve ever seen), but I can totally understand the need to keep the impact of that many people to a minimum, and making it vehicle-accessible for being able to provide amenities like port-a-loos (plush) and bringing in loads of beer! We got in pretty early (maybe 3pm?) so we picked up some cool giveaways (a Morakniv Eldris, Primus plate and cutlery set), grabbed some delicious snacks from chef Kyle Mendenhall (repeat appearance from last year) and a few beers from 10 Barrel Brewing, then set up our tent for the night. That afternoon, we dangled our weary feet in the river, and then spent some time at the Morakniv tent carving Swedish Dala horses (#moracarve). Erika managed to slice 2 of her fingers open (ouch! And lots of blood), but the cuts weren’t actually that bad, and she was a trooper. As the sun got lower, the fire pits were lit, a band played, and we had more food from Mendenhall (delicious, pre-prepared portions of different types of stew, in our case, lamb). Eventually we rolled off to bed with the best intentions of getting up and started early in the morning.
On day 2, it somehow took us almost 2 hours from waking up to getting going. On the upside, there was freshly-brewed Ozo coffee to get us moving, so we were well-caffeinated for the hike ahead. It turned out that we really needed it, because it was going to be a very long day (see below for numbers). We had to double-back a bit on a section that we’d hiked the day before, then we connected up with the official Colorado Trail for the rest of the day, and in fact the rest of the trip. We stopped a few miles in to cook and eat some breakfast, but other than that it was mostly a long slog to get through the many miles for the day.
This was the longest day, clocking in at around 16 miles of trekking. It also involved a ton of elevation gain (around 3,000′ up and down), plus a lot of the trail was out in the open, and it was hot. Oh, and there wasn’t much water along the trail, so we had to carry most of our own. Oof. Highlights were definitely some of the views on the long descent towards checkpoint 2, and then the amazing views out over Breckenridge right at the switchbacks to get down to town level. Sitting at the small lake right at the edge of town there wasn’t half bad either. After crossing Highway 9 (thanks for the crossing assistance State Troopers!), we were given the option of unloading our backpacks before finishing up the last couple of miles. We opted to carry our own, and headed off for the final ~2 miles of uphill, in to our campsite for the night.
This time the campsite was a little more “wild”, although it was still on a heavily-cleared hill, with a lot of fallen trees, rocks, etc. We found a spot in amongst a small grove of trees, along with a bunch of other people (lots of Big Agnes tents), and set up camp. Then it was time to hang out and chat with other folks, grab a beer, hear a short knife seminar from Johan Skullman (a.k.a. The Man in the Fjällräven Shirt), and then debrief on the last day’s plan. This is where we got a bit of a “shock talk”, and anyone who wasn’t feeling really confident was pretty strongly advised not to complete the full hike on day 3. I think there had been a number of people pulling out, and struggling with the course (especially with the altitude) at this point, and day 3 promised to be pretty demanding.
Did I mention I’m stubborn? So I of course decided to go ahead and do the full hike on day 3, despite warnings etc. I’m glad I did. Erika decided not to, since the talk of postholing through snow in particular turned her off. I got up at 4:30 am so that I could get a 5:30 start, to avoid melting snow/ice, and get to the other end by a reasonable time. I unloaded a lot of my gear (staff provided a shuttle to get things to the end of the trek), and completed the hike carrying basically just water and granola bars. After starting out with a bit of a group, I mostly hiked with Jack again (who I trekked most of a full day last year with), and we got through it without too much trouble. It was certainly steep; both up and down. There was definitely snow (more like ice). It was long. It was hot at times. Some parts of the ascent really took the breath out of you. The descent was long and steep. But the views were totally worth it. Absolutely epic views in both directions from Tenmile Range. Pictures don’t remotely do the views justice.
Once we got down from there, we hit our final checkpoint, where we were treated to bacon and pancakes with lingonberry jam. So delicious. That’s where I met up with Erika again, and then we completed the final ~1.5 miles together. That last little section for some reason was really rough, after feeling like we’d finished at the last checkpoint. Probably also because of the blisters. Rolling in to the finish line was glorious though, and we were greeted with cheers, a medal, a t-shirt, and lots and lots of food, beer, and music. Later that night, we even got an advanced screening of the official trip video, which was already well under way. After that, we crashed early (stayed at Copper Mountain), and then on Saturday morning we made our way back to reality, and back to Denver to recover.
I wore my FitbitBlaze the entire time, and here is what it says about each day. Note that this includes any and all walking around at camp, calories burned while sleeping, etc.
Day One: 34,498 steps, 17.17 miles, 5,376 calories burned.
Day Two: 44,969 steps, 22.38 miles, 6,079 calories burned.
Day Three: 42,701 steps, 21.25 miles, 5,743 calories burned.
Total over three days: 122,168 steps, 60.8 miles (97.8 km), 17,198 calories burned.
Here’s a map I put together using the amazing Caltopo (absolutely love that thing!). I tried to tweak things to reflect the trails we actually took, although I might be off in some places. Below it is a screenshot showing the elevation profile of each day as well 😱 (you can get an interactive version of that through the Caltopo site).
According to the data Caltopo can generate, the route was:
Day One: 10.35 miles, +3,037′, -2,302′ (elevation gain/loss).
Day Two: 16.14 miles, +2,859′, -3,043′.
Day Three: 13 miles, +3,567′, -3,322′.
Total over three days: 39.49 miles (63.6 km), +9,463′, -8,667′.
This year’s Classic was quite different to last year’s. It felt much better organized (better trail markings, more coordinated efforts, better map, more facilities, everyone just seemed to know what was going on), but things like trail mileage were still pretty far out, and giving people an opt-out on the last day felt a bit weird. The event hopefully had less negative impact on the environment (port-a-loos, not really wild camping, etc), but that meant a bit less of a real backcountry experience. The people were amazing as always (met some new friends, re-connected with those from last year). The hike itself was a lot longer and harder. I survived, but I got some ugly blisters on the last day. I was exhausted. I know it would have been really hard for some people (especially those coming from sea-level), and that doesn’t really feel like what they’re going for on the Classic. Erika was bummed that she didn’t come on the last day’s hike, and I do think she’d have made it. I don’t know if I could have done it with my full pack, or if I had, how much longer it would have taken me. The free stuff this year was a nice surprise (especially the Morakniv Eldris!), although I was a little sad not to get the fabric patch like last year (was looking forward to sewing it onto my backpack with the other one). I’m very glad to get a Grayl to replace the one I lost from last year; they’re a really impressive little device.
Overall, the Classic was really well organized, and is an amazing event. I’ll be signing up again next year, and hopefully seeing a lot of the same people from the first one. This trip has also inspired me to look at backpacking some more of the Colorado Trail with Erika, since it’s absolutely beautiful, and seems pretty accessible for the most part. For now, it’s time to relax and recover a bit, let my blisters heal… then probably go climb a 14er or something.
On Sunday, Erika and I went on a training hike, to start getting into shape for the Fjallraven Classic. This year it’s over 30 miles of backpacking within 3 days, and we’re both a bit nervous about being able to keep up the pace! We went up to White Ranch Park, and ended up hiking about 8 miles (Belcher Hill, Longhorn, Shorthorn, Longhorn, Whippletree, Belcher Hill), with roughly 20lb packs. We went pretty slow, but I think we did OK considering it was our first longer (and loaded) hike of the season. We’ll definitely need to get a few more in between now and the end of June, along with a bunch of basic walking/hiking training as well. The elevation (10,000 ft+) for the Classic is going to be rough, even for us Mile-Highers.
According to Fitbit, I did just over 21,000 steps and burned 4,500 calories. My heart rate peaked up around 140bpm briefly.
At the Fjällräven Classic, I was a little smitten with the Kajka 75 backpack which I saw a bunch of people carrying around. As it turned out, we got a discount as participants in the Classic, so a few days later I found myself the proud new owner of a Kajka, and in need of a backpacking trip to “break it in”. Since I was still on sabbatical, it was just a matter of picking a location, packing up my gear and heading out.
I came across Colorado’s Wild Areas, which has a nice summary of a few backpacking loops. The Eaglesemeare / Surprise Lake Loop one looked perfect for what I wanted, so after a little more reading and planning, I was off on Wednesday morning to hit the trail. I got started a bit late (about 9am), so wasn’t on the trail there until about 11am.
Since I was going to end up there, I parked at the Surprise Trailhead, then hiked around to the Eaglesemeare Trailhead and entered the trail there (main backpacking hike is the red line on the map above). It’s a pretty long, steady climb up to the lakes (CalTopo tells me it’s about 1800 feet of elevation, over 4.3 miles distance). Once there, I stopped and cooked up some lunch and had a bit of a break. I fished for a little bit, since I was seeing some small rises, but didn’t catch anything. The lake was so clear that I could actually see some little fish doing the rising, and they were tiny.
Once I was fed and rested, it was time to head off again, down from Eaglesmeare and through the valley towards Tipperary Lake, and beyond. Once I got rolling, I decided that I wanted to make it to the trail that leads to Upper Cataract, and hit the small river that runs down near that for my camp. That gave me some water, and a good starting point for the morning.
In the morning I got up and broke down camp, then stashed my main pack, and took just the “brain” (top bit) as a day-pack, for a quick hike up to Upper Cataract and Cat Lakes (blue line on the map). I took my rod and gear and had a shot at some fishing up there as well, but again, no luck. It was absolutely gorgeous at Upper Cataract, especially on the small meadow on the west side of the lake. I think I’d like to get back up there and camp right up at the lake at some point.
With my morning hike in the bag, I was back down to the main trail, and reunited with my pack. I got everything sorted back out again, and then it was time to hit the mainly-downhill trail back to my truck. Along the way is Surprise Lake (another beautiful alpine lake), which looks like it’s seen a lot of campers over time (big worn out area near it/the trail. I kept on rolling all the way down, and was off the trail and into Silverthorne/Dillon in time for a late lunch, then back home before dinner time.
In amongst all of my own trips during my sabbatical, I was flipping through Outside Magazine (a really great periodical, BTW) and saw an ad for something called the “Fjällräven Classic“. As the page linked indicates, it was to be a 20 mile backpacking trip, spaced over 3 days (2 “half” days and a full day, and apparently ended up being more like 22 miles), chaperoned by the lovely folks at Fjällräven. I thought that sounded interesting, and almost flipped the page, when I realized that it was in Colorado, and during my sabbatical. Fate? I don’t believe in that, but it was a pretty neat coincidence which I wasn’t about to let slide.
After making sure it’d fit in with some other plans, and debating if I was really up to hiking that far in 3 days (I’d never actively hiked that far in a single trip), I took the plunge and signed up. A few weeks later and I was getting up well before the crack of dawn and heading (conveniently) to my nearest train station which was the Denver shuttle pick up point. There, I loaded up with about 50 other people (there were another 2 buses coming from other locations) and we embarked on the long bus ride up to State Forest State Park (the worst-named State Park, ever).
We were greeted with a registration area, mini Fjällräven shop, last minute supplies like stove fuel, and some delicious breakfast and bag-lunches from local chef, Kyle Mendenhall. During registration, we were kitted out very, very well. We got a trucker cap of our choice, a t-shirt, a custom scarf/Buff, a ski-cap/beanie, enough Mountain House food to more than cover the weekend, a small “passport” (included trip details, and was used at check-points to keep track of everyone), a custom trash bag (nice water-proof draw-string bag, to help us LNT) and a Grayl to cover our clean-water needs. So much stuff! This meant some adjustments to our packs to fit everything in, then we were ready to roll.
With 120+ hikers participating, the plan was to leave in separate waves. Since I’m an eager-beaver, I jumped in line to leave as part of the first group. We got a few words from Carl from the Fjällräven mothership, an official welcome from Fjällräven US folks, a shotgun salute, and then we were on our way!
Pretty quickly, the first group (me included) got off to a bit of a rough start. There was some confusion at the first checkpoint (which was also at the first/only real turn on the trek), and we went off in what turned out to be the wrong direction (going in reverse around the loop we were supposed to hike). With all the excitement of getting people started, it took a while for them to realize where we’d gone, and then to come and get everyone, so we’d actually hiked almost 3 miles by the time they caught up to us in a Polaris/ATV thing. Since I had ended up at the very front, I became the very last (along with Zach and Jack) to get picked up. By that time, we were getting rained on, and had of course sent our packs ahead… with our rain gear. We got hustled back to the first checkpoint to wait out some of the rain, and managed to score a beer or 2 and some snacks while we waited. The plan was to take us to roughly where we should have been if we’d hiked about the same distance, but in the right direction (rather than just dropping us back to the back, and having us try to “catch up”). Since they could only access the trail at certain points, that meant I got dropped off a little before Checkpoint 2, and then continued on from there. At that checkpoint we were served up some Swedish Fish and hot potato/cheese soup, which helped stave off the chill from hiking in alternating rain and hail (mountain weather is crazy).
Eventually, after what felt like “up” forever, we reached the lake which marked the end of day one’s hiking. There was some doubt and debate based on the trail markings, but it turned out we were in fact in the right place, so we set up camp (tent city!) in a beautiful alpine meadow, and explored Jewel Lake. It was quite an experience camping in such a remote place, with so many other people nearby, who were all on the same journey. I didn’t know if I was going to like it, but it turned out that it was really cool. We were treated to a pretty awesome sunset, some nifty mist, and then a really chilly, frosty night (someone later suggested it was as low as about 25 degrees). Since we were close to a running water source, we were easily able to use our newly acquired Grayl water bottles with inline filters to get fresh, clean water. I’m really bummed that mine somehow went missing in amongst the shuffle on the bus ride home, so now I don’t have it to use on future hikes.
After a chilly night’s sleep, it was up and off for another full day of hiking. This was another day that felt like mostly uphill. A big, long, slow climb up an alpine valley, towards a saddle that had some amazing views of Kelly Lake, which was technically our destination for that day. At a checkpoint along the way, we were greeted with more Swedish Fish, beef jerky and other snacks. At Kelly Lake we were greeted with a happy hour that included some bourbon, more Swedish Fish, snacks and general merriment.
Since we reached Kelly early, and since there really wasn’t that much room to camp there, a lot of us continued down the trail to spread out over the next 2 miles or so, into another valley of meadows and creeks and amazing views. By the time the sun was falling, someone had started a fire in an existing fire ring (ssshhhhh), and the evening was spent passing around flasks and gourmet chocolate, listening to a very acoustic set from 2 of the talented guys from Kind Hearted Stranger, who were to be playing at the closing party tomorrow.
This night was also frosty, although not as cold as the previous one (about 1,000ft lower elevation definitely helps). In the morning I was up and joining the line of folks heading out towards the end of our journey. This last day was (thankfully!) pretty much all downhill, and we made pretty quick work of it. There was another checkpoint, this time with trail-side pancakes (!!), lingonberry and elderberry juice and more snacks. From there we were into an area of the park that had been devastated by mountain pine beetle, and so a lot of it had been cleared to try to prevent spread, and reduce fire risk. It was a bit of a bummer to end our otherwise-gorgeous trek with a lot of time spent amongst that, but we did get to pass through an Aspen grove, and at that point there was a lot of good conversation happening anyway, so I can’t really complain.
Back at base camp we were awarded a small medal for finishing, received a neat commemorative clothing-patch, and were treated to more music by the full lineup of Kind Hearted Strangers. There was also a much-needed and anticipated, massive spread from chef Mendenhall. Campfire-cooked trout, delicious steak, vegetables, and peach cobbler for dessert. Fantastic.
After a few hours of amazing food, amazing music, and reminiscing with a group of amazing people, it was time to load back onto our bus and head back to reality. I had a really great time, and will definitely make a space in my calendar next year for this event again. It is such a unique and fun way of experiencing the outdoors, even if doing it with so many other folks isn’t normally my thing as far as wilderness experiences go. A huge thank you to the folks at Fjällräven for organizing, Human Movement for event coordination, Kyle Mendenhall (and crew), plus Mountain House for the meals, and Grayl for the excellent water bottle. Looking forward to next time.