Texas Tech student Jake Fisher takes on the Colorado Trail solo, proving you don’t need to be fearless to be a champion.
In the world of outdoor adventures, there are three types of fun.
In fact, there is a “fun scale” that classifies them. Type one is fun to do, and fun to remember. Like riding a roller coaster. Type two is not as fun in the moment, but fun to look back on. It's fulfilling. Type three is not fun in the moment and it's not even fun to look back on. It just makes for a fun story.
Texas Tech University senior Jake Fisher experienced all three types this summer. Fisher, a psychology major who taught for University Recreation's Outdoor Pursuits Center most of his college career, solo hiked 400 miles of the Colorado Trail from July 3 to Aug. 7.
Starting in Denver and finishing his journey in Durango, Fisher learned lessons that aren't taught in the classroom.
Fisher grew up in Dallas but gravitated toward leafy skylines rather than industrial ones.
“Growing up, I spent all day outside,” Fisher said. “My favorite memories were playing with my siblings and going down to the creek near our house and making little rafts we'd float downstream.”
Fisher preferred the outdoors to the classroom.
“I wasn't a good student,” Fisher said. “I always struggled academically, and I just didn't find school interesting. When it came time for college, my parents wanted me to do a little soul searching first, and I agreed it was a good idea.”
Fisher enrolled in a gap-year program from 2017-2018 and traveled to other parts of the world. He realized he did like learning, just not at a desk.
“I went to Palestine and learned about the conflict there,” Fisher said. “I also went to Tanzania and summited Mount Kilimanjaro and visited Rwanda and learned how they've rebuilt after the genocide.
“I grew a lot that year. Those experiences developed me culturally, spiritually and emotionally. When I came back to the U.S., I knew I wanted to go to college and keep learning.”
Fisher started college at Texas Tech in the fall of 2018.
“I wandered quite purposefully into the Outdoor Pursuits Center during my second week of school,” Fisher said. “I had always loved the outdoors; my gap year just drove that realization home for me. I had never felt as accomplished as I did on top of Kilimanjaro, so when I started college, I knew I wanted to find a way to prioritize my passion for the outdoors.”
Fisher was hired by the Outdoor Pursuits Center the spring semester of his first year and went on leadership candidate training (LCT) that summer.
“During training, Outdoor Pursuits takes you backpacking through the San Juan Mountains in Colorado for two weeks,” Fisher said. “The leaders purposefully make it really hard. They do it to build our confidence. Once you make it through those two weeks, you can handle anything on a trip you lead yourself.”
And it worked. After that trip, Fisher successfully led five trips of students the following two school years – until COVID-19 put a halt to things. By the time summer 2021 rolled around, Fisher was aching for another adventure.
He planned to do a trip in July after summer school ended; it was just a matter of where to go. Fisher had always dreamed of doing a solo hike but went back and forth on the idea. He figured with shorter trails, he could bring his pit-bull/lab mix, Skunk, so he wouldn't be totally alone. But a part of him wanted to do a longer trail.
“I've wanted to do a solo hike for some time now,” Fisher said. “But I wanted to make sure I was ready and experienced enough. The main thing holding me back was the finances, but if I'm being honest, it also scared the hell out of me. Even though I've done a lot of outdoor trips, being out there by yourself creates a lot of unknowns. The Colorado Trail was my ideal trip, but it's more than 400 miles and would take me over a month to hike.”
In the end, Fisher knew he'd regret not trying. So, with Skunk being watched after by his roommates, he started out on his adventure.
“I told my parents what I was doing the day I was driving to Denver,” Fisher said. “I told them, ‘If I don't come back at this time, call this person. If you have questions, call this person.' I tried to distance them from some of the scarier parts of what I was doing.
“In fact, my parents will likely learn quite a few things about my trip in this article.”
On July 3, Fisher started the Colorado Trail in Denver and made his way toward Breckenridge.
“I was relieved to meet other solo hikers along the trail,” he said. “We quickly learned to trust one another because we were all doing this crazy thing. So, while I was out there by myself, I knew if something happened, someone else would likely come along in a few hours.”
Fisher met two fellow hikers along the first stretch of the trail, and they all camped together at night.
“I met a guy named Baron who was from Philadelphia and a woman named Mary from Asheville, North Carolina,” Fisher said. “Mary had done this kind of hiking before, but Baron was pretty new to it. I was shocked he was taking on a trail of this magnitude alone.”
Baron made it clear he was worried about running into wildlife. But Fisher explained animals shouldn't be his biggest concern.
“In Outdoor Pursuits, they teach you to prioritize realistic dangers,” Fisher said. “Lightning is actually at the top of the list. A storm can roll in quickly and when you're above the tree line, that lightning is headed toward you and your trekking pole first.
“If you survive the lightning, then I would worry about injuries, other people and proper water purification. If all of that is fine, then you can worry about wild animals.”
As Fisher and his new friends closed in on Breckenridge, he didn't know he'd be facing one of those dangers soon.
Fisher and his crew stopped in Breckenridge for a day to rest.
“It's common for hikers to stop in towns along the Colorado Trail,” Fisher said. “You do get a few ‘through-hikers' as we call them, who will do the whole thing off-grid, but most hikers will take the opportunity to check their phones, sleep on a real bed for the night and get a meal that's not canned.”
However, some hikers get “vortexed.”
“That's when a hiker starts wasting too much time in town,” Fisher said. “Basically, they get comfortable and forget about their schedule, if they're even on one.”
Baron ended up being vortexed. Jake tried to push him along with little luck.
“Mary had taken off a day earlier because she was hiking much quicker than either of us,” Fisher said. “I wanted to continue with Baron, but it was clear I wanted to keep a pace that was much quicker than his.”
Fisher got back on the trail alone.
From there, he headed toward Leadville. This section of the trail is only 30 miles, but it takes hikers around multiple peaks, including Mount Lincoln, which gets as high as 14,300 feet.
“I never really met anyone on this stretch that I wanted to hike with,” Fisher said. “I talked to some people here and there, but most of the time I was on my own.”
One apparently sunny afternoon, Fisher found himself hiking above the tree line.
“I should have planned that day better, but I was trying to make up some of the time I lost in Breckenridge, so I risked hiking at an elevation I knew better than to be at during that time of day,” Fisher said.
When the sky suddenly turned dark and the marmots stopped chirping, Fisher knew he was in trouble.
“It quickly started pouring rain and hailing,” Fisher said. “I looked around to see what I could use for shelter and there was literally nothing. I panicked.”
There were trees below him, but the slope was a steep 500-foot descent and there were loose rocks and mud everywhere. Running downhill would likely result in a broken leg, and Fisher knew the odds of outrunning lightning were not good anyways.
“I paused to consider my options,” Fisher said. “I knew running downhill would be a bad decision. In training, I learned one bad decision makes it easier to make another bad decision. We call it the bad decision train. Once it gets rolling, it's hard to stop.”
At this point, Fisher noticed a shrub and knew it was his best option.
“I just got all my gear under me and tried to get as low as I could,” Fisher said. “I was literally trembling. I knew I could be killed.”
Squatting under the bush provided Fisher some time to reflect.
“Earlier that day, I had talked with some other hikers. They were going up above the tree line during the afternoon and said it would be fine. One man was older and said he had 30 years of backwoods experience.
“I started questioning what I knew. This guy seemed experienced, so I thought ‘Maybe it's not as dangerous as I thought it was.'”
Fisher began to loathe that man as he sat shaking under the shrub that was his only barrier from electrocution. As he was waiting for the storm to pass, Fisher heard something nearby. Looking up, it was the same man and some of his hiking companions.
“I shouted out to him and asked him what the hell they were doing,” Fisher said. “I asked why they weren't trying to shelter from the lightning.”
The man said he had lived long enough, and while there was reason for concern, there wasn't reason to be afraid.
Fisher pondered the quasi-poetic response before realizing these hikers were a little more prepared for the end of their lives than he was.
“But I learned something that day,” Fisher said. “After that, I decided I was only listening to myself from then on. It was tempting to look at others on the trail who seemed older or more experienced, but I realized I needed to listen to my own intuition.
“Maybe for that crazy man, being caught in a lightning storm was a comfortable situation. But for me, it wasn't. Just because someone else was comfortable with a risk didn't mean I had to be.”
A few days later, Fisher arrived, uncharred, in Leadville, where he met up with his friend Michael, who would join him for a few days.
“My buddy came up from Texas Tech and hiked with me from Leadville to Twin Lakes,” Fisher said. “I loved having the company, but at times, I think he resented what he got himself into.”
The two friends summited Mount Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado, during this stretch of the journey.
“After being on my own for almost two weeks, it was great to have Michael along,” Fisher said.
After going their separate ways in Twin Lakes, Fisher found it difficult transitioning back to being solo again.
“I started on the Collegiate Pass, which is considered to be one of the most challenging parts of the Colorado Trail,” Fisher said. “Hikers have two options when they get to this pass, they can take it east or west. Both will put you out around Buena Vista.
There are long stretches on the west pass where you're above treeline and after what I just went through, I was not doing that again.”
Fisher took the east pass, resulting in isolation most of the way.
“Most hikers went west, so there were three or four days where I didn't see anyone,” Fisher said. “It was kind of cool, but also scary. I did have a spot device with me in case of emergencies, but I didn't want to have to use it.”
Fisher was booking it through the Collegiate Pass. Falling behind the schedule he wanted to be on, he woke up at 3 a.m. for a few days to try to catch up and avoid bad weather.
As he neared Buena Vista on the 16th day of his trek, Fisher was exhausted.
“I had a few more miles to go and was really struggling physically and mentally,” Fisher said. “So, I thumbed it. I had never hitchhiked before, but when it's just you and you have no transportation other than your own two feet, it begins to seem more appealing.”
Fisher was picked up by a family with a child and a dog. He joined their van ride to Mount Princeton, where he accompanied them to a hot spring and took a day to relax. From there, they dropped him off in Salida.
“I kind of just joined these strangers on their family vacation,” Fisher laughed. “But they were so nice. In fact, everyone I came across on my journey was really kind.”
Even after a day at the hot spring, Fisher was tired and thinking of calling it quits.
“I was exhausted and still had so far to go,” he said. “I had already done 200 miles, so I was tempted to just hitch a ride back to Denver. But before I started the hike, I had told myself I would not quit on a bad day. And I had been having a series of bad days. So, I decided to take a few days off and then reassess.”
Fisher had set out to hike 15 miles a day, a goal he was finding not only challenging, but some days impossible due to the elements.
“I started with this strict plan of what I had to do and had the expectation that I needed to finish every inch of this trail,” Fisher said. “According to my plan, I was failing. So, I was feeling really down.”
That's when Fisher found a hostel to stay in.
“A hostel might be too generous,” Fisher said. “It was some guy's garage and there were just a bunch of us on air mattresses.”
While the “hostel” may not have been much to look at, Fisher met people there who turned the tide of his trip.
“There was a married couple – Ben and Eve – from Israel,” Fisher said. “They had come over for the summer to hike and just had this totally different way of looking at things.”
Ben and Eve were not on a schedule as much as they were having an experience; one that caught Fisher's attention.
“They also were musical, and so am I, so we started jamming together,” Fisher said. “Soon, they were teaching me to dance. They were just amazing and so much fun to be around.”
One evening, as Fisher was telling them of his frustrations, Ben chimed in with some wisdom.
“He told me, ‘Don't be married to your plans,'” Fisher remembered. “He knew I was trying to have a through-hiker mentality, when maybe that wasn't the kind of experience I really wanted – or needed.”
Ben and Eve reminded Fisher that the point of this whole trip was having fun. And yes, some days might be type two or three fun, but Fisher realized he hadn't had much type-one fun at all.
And he intended to change that.
In the interest of having more fun and making it to Silverton to meet his friend, Ian, who was going to finish the last stretch of the hike with him, Fisher decided to skip cow country.
“I decided I did not have to hike every inch of that trail to have a great experience,” Fisher said. “So, I put my new-found hitchhiking skills to work and got dropped off where Highway 114 intersects with the trail.”
From there, he walked a few days through flat country then passed through the La Granita Wilderness. He turned south and passed by San Luis Peak, a 14,000-foot mountain that is popular with climbers. After the peak, Fisher went over the snow mesa, which is 10 miles of rolling hills at 12,500 feet and then summited the Colorado Trail high point.
“I was feeling a lot better,” Fisher said. “I was meeting people along the way and wasn't feeling as stressed about my schedule and being on time to meet up with Ian.”
The next day, after summiting the highest point of the trail, Fisher was camping at an elevation of 12,500 feet and wanted to get lower quickly so he wouldn't be caught in another storm.
“I woke up at 4 a.m. to get an early start and get below tree line,” Fisher said. “I took a path that went around Cataract Lake. I knew hiking before dawn meant higher chances of running into wildlife, but I decided I rather deal with animals than be caught in another storm.”
As Fisher finally got to the lake, he saw quite a few other hikers walking around. He started to go say hello when he noticed a few shapes in the distance.
“I realized there were four bull moose and one female coming toward the lake,” Fisher said. “Moose may not sound all that intimidating, but they are actually one of the last animals you want to encounter in the wild. They will charge hikers, and one hit from their antlers can kill you.”
Fisher began to put distance between himself and the wildlife, which meant moving in the opposite direction of the trail.
“The moose were blocking the trailhead I needed to access. But there was no way I was getting close to five moose.”
He decided to wait things out for a few minutes to see if the animals would move on. Rather, other hikers started trying to access the trail and the moose began to charge them. Fisher kept moving away, but at that moment, two of the bulls split off from the others and began to walk toward him.
“It was then that I decided I'd just be taking a detour,” Fisher said.
Fisher needed to go west into Silverton but was forced onto a trail that went east, to avoid the moose.
Fisher planned to reconnect to the Colorado Trail, which according to his map, he could do a few miles up. So he began looking for the marker. A few miles passed, and no trail marker. A few more miles, still nothing. Fisher wondered if he had missed it, but the Colorado Trail is well marked.
“I was probably a good five miles off the trail by the time I realized I was lost,” Fisher said. “I even met a hiker who gave me directions, but I think he was as lost as I was.”
Fisher tried to turn back and follow the river, knowing the water would take him west, but it was the rainy time of year so there were mudslides along the banks.
“I was knee deep in mud and water trying to get back to where I needed to be,” Fisher said. “It was a total mess.”
Fisher eventually came out on a road where a few bow hunters gave him a ride into the nearest town.
“I ended up in Lake City, which was not part of my route at all,” Fisher said. “I went to a restaurant and got a cup of coffee to warm up. I sat there trying to figure out the best way to remedy the day's detour.”
Fisher was wearing a Texas Tech hat, and two older gentlemen came over and started talking to him.
“Their names were Paul Hall and Bill Harper, and they were Texas Tech alumni,” Fisher said. “They had seen my hat and wanted to meet a fellow Red Raider.”
Bill recently retired from managing the call center for Covenant Medical Center and Paul runs his own pattern and mold shop where he builds tools for various foundries. Both alumni now have children studying at Texas Tech.
“It was so random running into them in this small town in the middle of nowhere. They were off-roading in their jeeps and invited me along. I had been planning to hike to Silverton, but off-roading at 13,000 feet sounded like too much fun to pass up.”
So, the three new friends hit the road.
End of the Road
After a few thrilling days climbing over precipices in a jeep, Fisher finally made it to Silverton.
“I parted ways with Paul and Bill after exchanging numbers and promising to stay in touch,” Fisher said. “They were the nicest guys, and it was really cool to run into other Texas Tech folk.”
At that point, Fisher met up with his friend Ian and the two headed to Durango.
“That last stretch was a blast,” Fisher said. “It was just perfect hiking weather, we had great conversation and it was nice to finish the trail on a high note.
“By the end of the trail, I had gained confidence in myself, but not necessarily in the way I thought I would. I had set out with certain expectations and had to adjust them, but I learned to trust myself in the process, and that turned out to be even more valuable. Learning to trust yourself is important, but to do that, you've got to go through some things with yourself. You don't get there without hardship, or type three fun, as we say.”
Through-hikers might debate whether the hike was done the “right” way. But Fisher did the hike the way that was right for him. Just like some hikers get vortexed into a town, anyone can be vortexed into their own plans and perspectives.
“I discovered new perspectives and met new people,” Fisher said. “That was way more fulfilling than hitting every point on the map.”