Group Hike Dynamics

IMG_5852You know you’re onto something when the tiny voice inside your head keeps repeating, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

The truth is, I kind of knew what I was doing. Luke and I have hiked many times in unfamiliar places. But this time, I was in charge and taking six friends along for the ride.

It was our second day in Vail and the guys were out doing “guy things” like off-roading and shooting guns. I suggested the ladies do “lady things” like off-roading and hiking in the mountains. A quick Google search led me to Piney Lake, one of the area’s most scenic places. We decided to do Upper Piney Trail, a moderate five-mile hike with lake and mountain views. Best of all, a cascading waterfall marks the halfway point. I know from past experience that beautiful distractions always lessen the burden of walking uphill for extended periods of time.

We jumped into the rental KIA and bounced along nine miles of boulder-studded dirt road. One wrong turn and 45 minutes later, we arrived at the trailhead located near Piney Lake Ranch. We gathered for a group shot in front of the clear-blue lake with Mt. Powell framing in the background nicely. The day was warm and sunny. Everyone was smiling and excited. Things were off to a good start.

The trail was flat and easy-going as we walked past the lake. About a mile in, we entered the aspen forest and navigated a series of log bridge water crossings. The trail turned into switchbacks climbing up the side of the mountain. I tend to hike quickly, so when heavy breathing replaced conversation, I took this as a sign to slow down our pace. Emily was my pain barometer since she has no filter between her thoughts and her facial expressions. Whenever she looked unhappy, I’d stop the group for a quick break and remind them to look at the scenery rather than their shoes. Meanwhile, I kept a watchful eye on the looming storm clouds filling in our bluebird sky.

Our turnaround time was 3:15 p.m. Unfortunately, we reached it before making it to the waterfall. I could hear it in the distance, but couldn’t accurately gauge how far away it was, nor did I have a map of the area with me for reference. The group was tired, we had crossed some tricky terrain that would be down-right scary to cross back over if it started to rain, and thunder rolled in the distance. I made the decision to forgo seeing the waterfall and head back to the car. No one was happy with this decision and for a moment, I feared mutiny. I explained the dangers of hiking in unfamiliar places in unpredictable weather. But in all honesty, I no interest in turning a casual day hike into a death march. We were still acclimating to the high altitude and none of us were prepared to get caught in a storm, even if we were only a few miles from safety. Fortunately, my friends are a rational bunch and agreed to turn around.

As predicted, the weather took a turn for the worse. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped 15 degrees. Dirt whipped into our eyes and mouths as we hauled ass back to the ranch. We reached our car in record time. Once we were in the relative safety of the KIA, heaters blasting warm air onto our frozen fingers, I congratulated everyone on their effort. An acquaintance I had just met that day spent a lot of time complaining about how strenuous the hike was. Rather than let her wallow in her blistered self-pity, I pointed to a stand of aspens far in the distance and told her that’s how far we went. Her attitude immediately changed when she could see the result of her effort and she said, “Holy crap, I’m incredible!” She didn’t know she was capable of tackling that kind of distance in a single afternoon.

Just a group of ladies doing lady things, indeed.

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