May 14, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Olivia Hahnemann-Gilber | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian
It was Thursday of block break at around 2 p.m., and we had just reached the destination of Sky Pond in Estes Park, Colo. A group of Colorado College students and I had embarked on a beginner backpacking trip in Oct. 2020 and had completed our first short hike.
The trek had been tiring, yet fun and relaxed; we played games, had engaging conversations, and admired the beauty of our natural surroundings.
Cold, hungry, and exhilarated, we set up our tents and feasted on some fancy camping delicacies
— freeze-dried mac & cheese and cliff bars.
Sitting inside of our tent, we snuggled up in our sleeping bags and tried to get warm. The entire hike had been cold and windy, and most of us had unfortunately neglected to pack extra layers.
Clearly, we are all very skilled and experienced in the backpacking sphere.
Nonetheless, we spent a cozy hour innocently playing cards, chatting, and absolutely inhaling our mac & cheese.
We eventually left the tent to explore our surroundings. Our camp was situated close to Sky Pond behind a hill of rock which helped to protect us from the wind, yet partially obstructed our view of the previously traversed side of the mountain.
We did not mind, though — our surroundings were shockingly beautiful, and we were overjoyed to be so close to nature. As we walked around close to our campsite, we felt calm and fortunate to be amidst Colorado’s mountainous scenery.
However, as I left the tent and looked around, an immediate feeling of dread overcame me: An enormous cloud of black smoke appeared to be quickly approaching us.
Confused, terrified, and uneducated about the mechanics of wildfires, we assumed that the fires had already destroyed the area around the foot of the mountain and that they would quickly make their way up to our spot.
We all froze and looked to Soren Gessner ’23, the only experienced backpacker on the trip; when he began to show small signs of doubt, panic completely overtook our group.
At first, we considered leaving all of our belongings at the top of the mountain and running down. However, we eventually came to the consensus that keeping our food, water, and shelter with us could be a good idea.
“Then, we packed the tent quicker than I could imagine. I didn’t even know that I knew how to take down a tent and pack it … it turns out that was a skill I had,” Brian DeLong ’23 said.
As we frantically packed our belongings for what seemed to be about 12 hours (in reality, we packed for maybe three minutes), adrenaline flooded our bodies and thoughts raced through our minds.
When asked about her thoughts while packing, Amelia Allen ’23 recalls, “I was convinced I was going to die. In the moment, I was thinking about my family finding out I died and thinking, ‘Amelia is such an idiot.’”
She was not alone — when debriefing about the experience later that evening, I learned that most of us, at least for a few moments, had presumed that death was upon us.
However, soon after beginning our hectic descent, we began to realize how incredibly wrong we were.
“I’m really glad we brought our stuff because about 10 minutes into rushing back down, we saw another group of people calmly ascending the mountain,” Allen said.
Upon noticing this group, we partially allowed ourselves to calm down.
We continued to walk, now with slightly less haste, and faced a comical realization: the smoke had appeared to be so close to us because the hill of rocks had been blocking our view of the horizon.
After moving to a position with a more extensive view, we saw that the smoke was remarkably far away. What we thought would be our last moments of life was actually an ironic misconstruing of the situation.
The moral of the story: Just because you can see the smoke from wildfires does not mean that you should assume impending doom. Additionally, when planning your outdoor excursions in the coming months, be sure that you keep track of where wildfires may be located.