Joel Reichenberger: Revealing walk in the woods

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Joel Reichenberger

Steamboat Pilot & Today sports reporter and photographer Joel Reichenberger can be reached at 871-4253 or jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Joel here.

— Even for people who know and love Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, there are wonderful and astonishing things to be found.

That’s the lesson Sherry Benson said she and five of her now-closest friends took away from the seed of an idea that turned into a 15-month quest to hike all 485.8 miles of the Colorado Trail.

“We were all in awe,” said Benson, already an active hiker in the region. “When you get out in the wilderness, when you see it and breathe it and live it, it becomes a whole different experience that’s phenomenal.”

The trek started as Benson was wrapping up another large and popular hike with a friend. While she hiked Devil’s Causeway with Mary Ellen Shaughnessy, the discussion turned to the Colorado Trail, which winds through the mountains from Denver to Durango.

That led to phone calls to other friends and the start of a massive planning process that required finding free time for all of the women. They met and hiked for a week at a time, spending a total of 39 days on the trail.

They had great moments.

Seven women started the adventure, but one had to withdraw after last summer.

Among the remaining six, each came with or developed a skill that proved vital to the trip.

Benson kept the journal and took the photos.

Shaughnessy did much of the exhaustive planning and became adept with a GPS receiver and a map.

Marilyn Palmer, having hiked the trail a decade ago, brought an important institutional know­ledge.

Louise McLeod, at 69 years old, was the group’s old, wise one. Sue Swain brought knowledge of first aid and a forestry background. Monique Mustard, camping for the first time, brought a beginner’s enthusiasm and a sag wagon driver in her husband.

They had scary moments.

“One day it was storming, thunder and lightning, and we were ready to cross a 2-mile ridge,” Benson said. “Our survival skills came out at that point. We were huddling under a tree, which wasn’t a great idea, and getting very cold. So we sat down with our space blankets, got warm and waited until there was a little blip of blue in the sky. Then we ran. We high-tailed our butts for the whole 2 miles, and we made it.”

The trip started in May 2009, and the group finished the last leg early this month.

On the first leg, some of them barely knew each other. Now they’re close, having had what they say was an unforgettable experience.

The women, from 55 to 69 years old, already are thinking of their next big adventure. There’s a ton of trails left in Colorado, including the Continental Divide Trail, which they saw nearly 70 percent of on the Colorado Trail. Or, there’s a potential climb of Mount Rainier in Washington.

Whatever’s next, they’re confident they can handle it.

“It was such a commitment; we all had trepidations as to whether or not we could do it,” Benson said. “We didn’t know what was in store. But we’re all very active and athletic. The motivation was there because it was so darn beautiful and we had so many great experiences. That’s what kept us going.”

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