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.
- 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.