Unprepared & Unexpected: A Cautionary Tale from the Colonel Bob Trail
Happy Halloween! We hope that everybody has had fun decorating their yards, and is looking forward to trick or treating with their little ones. This time of year makes us think of some of the fun spooky campfire stories that put us on the edge of our seats while we roast marshmallows.
As riveting as these frightening tales can be, we find comfort in the serene beauty of the outdoors. At the same time, mother nature is a novel mystery that can be ripe with unforgiving twists and turns if not navigated properly! Take it from my two best friends and I, who decided to take on the tenaciously arduous Colonel Bob Trail back in the summer of 2020 with meager supplies, food, water or daylight. Thankfully we all made it out okay, but it’s surely an experience that I’ll never forget - one that took us from a riveting outdoor escapade to a barebones survival situation.
Never Start Late!
My friends Devin, Ayden and I set out on a week-long road trip relying on first-come first-serve campsites in Olympic National Park. The first few nights were spent at Sol Duc Campground, right next to a peaceful river to explore, roaring throughout the night. Following that, we stayed at the Hoh Rainforest Campground, right beside another tranquil slow-flowing river. The water was a popular pit stop for large families of elk who stopped to hydrate before re-entering the thick woods. Here, we enjoyed a rigorous 2.5 mile incline loop hike just a few miles west of the campsite. Our last stop, where we spent the most time, was Kalaloch Beach Campground. Due to some reservation rigamarole that I won’t bore you with, we had to switch campsites each day, lugging our supplies from one site to the next. We were grateful to have sites available to us, but next time, let's just say I’ll be in charge of logistics. Because of this, we weren’t able to get to the Colonel Bob trailhead until about 2:30 PM on a sweaty 85-degree day.
Colonel Bob Trail
Colonel Bob Wilderness probably won’t ring any bells unless you’re a Quinalt local, or live close to Olympic National Park. The trail is a little over 15.6 miles round-trip, and tops out at about a 5,400 ft elevation gain. Only after this hike did I learn that it’s a popular backpacking trail. Which, in hindsight, sounds much more enjoyable than attempting to soldier the bulk of the incline switchbacks in one day. And there was no shortage of them.
The trail immediately pits you against vicious inclines with rough, jagged terrain that’s mostly overgrown. Not watching your step meant a very easy rolled ankle or worse. Couple that with several blowdowns that forced us to fully mantle rotting trees. Trucking on, I tried to pay close attention to the mile markers. We were still a bit beat down from the hike near Hoh Rainforest two days prior, but figured we were young healthy dudes who could make it happen.
I quickly reached a point where I realized that energy conservation would be critical, as I’d foolishly only packed one bottle of water and a couple protein bars. Dehydration was a very real concern.
About a third of the way through the journey, we took our third resting break at the Mulkey Shelter, a popular overnight shelter for backpackers. In the shelter were many inscribed signatures dating decades back. It’s always cool to revel in the longstanding history of these unique points of interest nestled deep in the outdoors. We were two and a half miles from the summit, and morale was low. The hike became less and less a joyous immersion in nature, but more of an uncertain feat to push through. We’d come this far however, and were determined to see the peak.
As dusk inched closer and closer, we’d come to terms with the fact that we’d be taking on a good portion of the way back at night - an unnerving thought given our fatigue and the harsh terrain.
The Final Stretch
Those last two miles were a straight up incline grind, ones that prompted a rest break about every 20 or so minutes. Large stoney stairs blazed our thighs, but we were so close. Foolish pride would prevent us from tucking tail and turning back, but that’d have been better than spending a minute longer on that rough trail, risking injury or worse.
As we reached the top of the Colonel Bob Trail peak, the clouds began to roll in and the sun was beginning to set. We caught a couple stunning views as clouds broke and made way for sight-lines, but needless to say we weren’t catching a break that day. It was hard to enjoy the views knowing that we had seven and a half miles back to go, and that it’d be dark within the hour. We rushed our relishing of the peak and started our way back down at 8:30 PM.
Descent into Darkness
In the midst of the campsite switch earlier that day, I’d forgotten to pack my headlamp. Devin brought his, but I had to rely on my phone flashlight - which thankfully had ample battery and illumination on the trail. Though, shining light on the trail didn’t do much as the brush had overgrown so thickly you could barely see your feet. We were constantly catching ourselves from slipping off hidden drop falls.
At this point I was fearful. I fantasized about being back in my cozy tent, or slumped in my camp chair around the fire. I reminisced about the times my water bottle was full, sloshing and bonking icy water within. Dehydration was surely starting to set in and fatigue was through the roof for all of us. If one of us got hurt this far out in the dark, it would’ve been a nightmare.
We begged to see mile markers, assuring ourselves that we’d passed this marker or that marker, only to pass them an hour or so later.
All of sudden, Devin, who was leading us, stopped dead in his tracks. The trail was a dead end. We’d taken a wrong turn on one of the switchbacks. Luckily we only had to retrace our steps for about five minutes before recognizing the correct turn from earlier that day. The darkness didn’t make it easy, though. We continued to second guess ourselves, but trudged on.
Devin came to a halt again 30 minutes later. Another wrong turn at a switch back spitting us out at another. I wrestled with the terrifying thought that we may have to sleep out here, but quickly dismissed it. Thankfully this correction was only a couple hundred feet back up the trail. Realizing we were on the right track for good this time, we pushed on.
Seeing the 2-mile marker inspired hope but also demoralized us. Two more miles in the darkness on this unforgiving landscape, legs wobbling and mouths bone dry. We hauled in silence in full survival mode, longing for the respite of sweet leathery car seats and the water jugs that awaited us in the trunk.
Gazing ahead, I recognized the flat incline stretch from the first few hundred yards near the start of the trailhead. Ayden clicked his car keys and the heavenly blink of distant headlights shone through the silhouettes of branches and brush. None of us had the breath to sigh with relief.
We got to the car, sipped water as vigorously as one could, and started the engine.
The next day we had the most beautifully sublime clear-skied day on Kalaloch Beach, walking along the coast and taking naps in the sun. It was the perfect reward for our trials and tribulations from the day before.
My friends and I have always been avid outdoorsmen, but needless to say that day on the Colonel Bob Trail, we got a little cocky. Things could’ve gone way worse, and none of us will ever underestimate the importance of preparation. Everything from food, water, supplies and more.
Amidst the discomfort my legs felt, I was lucky enough to brave the experience in my American Backcountry moisture-wicking tee. I was able to stay cool and breezy on that hot summer day, and that little bit of extra comfort was every bit necessary for morale on the trail!