I went for a hike in Colorado with 250 new friends. Seriously.
It's called the Fjällräven Classic, and it’s not a walk in the park. The three-day trekking experience tested my emotional and physical limits.
And if you haven’t heard of Fjällräven, you’ve been living under a slab of sandstone.
Popular in Europe since 1960, Fjällräven is a Swedish brand of high-quality outdoor apparel and gear, and it’s taking America by storm. I’m willing to bet you’ve probably unknowingly seen Fjällräven’s most popular and fashionable daypack, the Kånken, on the backs of friends, family and strangers alike.
I first learned of the Fjällräven Classic in January at the Winter Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, Utah. I saw a little flyer that said, “Join us for three days and two nights of backpacking at the Fjällräven Classic.”
Loving the outdoors as I do, I inquired about the event with a Zappos brand rep, and five months later I was in Copper Mountain, Colorado gearing up for an intense 40+ mile backpacking experience!
The Fjällräven Classic concept is simple: “to encourage and enable more people to get out and enjoy trekking.” The expedition was created in 2005 by the company’s founder, Åke Nordin, as a trekking experience in Sweden and now has three more sister-like annual events in Denmark, Hong Kong and the United States.
Though I went alone to the event, I was never alone.
On the shuttle from Denver International Airport to Copper Mountain I met eight strangers who would become my friends and teammates for the trek. We’d spend the next three days encouraging, supporting and pushing each other to complete each day’s section of trail.
The goal of this summer’s Classic was to hike for three days and two nights carrying everything you needed to survive comfortably; food, water, shelter, warm clothes and cooking gear in your backpack. I was ready for the challenge.
Day 1: Sensory Overload
The trek started in the tiny historic mining town of Montezuma. At 10,300 feet, our lungs were already feeling the burn as we the ascended straight up the Colorado Trail for 2,000 feet until we hit the high alpine ridge of the Continental Divide.
The line of 250 trekkers was starting to spread out as we topped out at 12,600 feet that afternoon. From the ridge, we had spectacular views of Colorado’s high alpine and a few of its 14,000-foot peaks including Grays, Torreys and Mount of the Holy Cross. Our descent would be a long, winding path through a dense lodgepole pine forest until we reached our campsite.
In total, we hiked more than 15 miles on the first day. Legs aching from the descent, shoulders sore from heavy packs, we excitedly hit the group campsite just before dusk. Fjällräven had graciously set up an amazing evening experience which included a food tent, beer and wine tent and live bluegrass music.
Spirits were high around the campfire as we toasted to our adventure and recounted the day’s highlights. Eerie howls could be heard coming from the dark forest. We later learned that the howling was coming from a nearby sled dog operation. We all rested easier knowing a hungry wolf pack didn't surround our site.
Day 2: The Stress Test
The day ahead would consist of a gorgeous, but brutal, 16-mile hike over portions of Segment 6 of the Colorado Trail. Ultimately, it would separate those who would finish the entire Classic and those who would take the easy way out the following morning.
We enjoyed warm temperatures, spectacular views and single epic track through the rolling aspen and pine forests of the Front Range. It was here on Day 2 that I left the comfort of my hiking buddies to occasionally hike alone and sometimes hike with the other 200+ adventurers from 20 countries and 20 states.
You could pause for a bit on the trail until a new group came by, introduce yourself and enjoy their stories for the next mile or two. Some trekkers, like me, were attending for the first time, and others were seasoned veterans who had attended multiple Classics around the world. Folks were on the trek for so many different and unique personal and professional reasons.
On this night, the mood was dramatically different at camp. Folks were tired and exhausted. There would be no libations nor live music. This was a real backcountry campsite. Trekkers were expected to set up their tents and cook for themselves.
Just before dark, we gathered for a huge team meeting where the guides briefed us on the following day’s route and safety protocol.
Day 3 would be another strenuous 15-mile hike crossing the Ten Mile Range over a 12,500-foot pass along Segment 7 of the Colorado Trail. Many parts of the trail would be steep, rocky and snow covered.
As the weary crowd dispersed, many folks were nervously talking amongst their groups about whether or not to attempt the trek. As I lay in my tent that night, so many crazy thoughts entered my head.
Can I make it? Am I strong enough? Will I fail? Will I hate myself for not attempting it? Am I happy with the 30 miles I've hiked so far? Is the funny-looking blister on my toe getting better or worse? Does “completing” the trip mean more than completing the physical Classic itself?
Day 3: Eleventh-Hour Decision
It’s the morning of Day 3; I didn’t sleep. I think I stayed awake all night pondering these questions. Around 4 a.m. I started to hear the early birds getting up to start their adventure. I reluctantly rolled over in my sleeping bag and stayed in my tent. I had decided to end my journey early and hike out two miles to the bus.
I had let my indecisiveness and doubts keep me up so long that I hadn’t gotten enough rest. But the feeling of failure passed as quickly as the dew dried on my tent in the early morning sunlight.
I was pleasantly surprised to find four of my shuttle bus trekking mates sitting outside their tents heating water for coffee. They had decided to bail too for various reasons. Excitedly, we knew that meant three of our shuttle bus mates were on the trail attempting to complete the strenuous hike and the entire 45-mile Fjällräven Classic.
We would continue to be their support staff by sending them positive vibes over the cool mountain air wavelengths. We couldn’t wait to get to the finish line to see all of the finishers meet up at the after-party in Copper Mountain Ski Resort.
After a short hike to the bus, we were on our way to the after-party. At the finish line, we were stoked to see more than half of the participants complete the 45-mile Classic. For some trekkers it had been easy; for others, it was a monumental accomplishment. But what mattered most was that we were all be there, together, at the end.
Around 1 p.m., our three strongest shuttle bus trekking mates arrived at the base of Copper Mountain. They were overjoyed to see us five hiding behind a beer keg waiting to surprise them with copious amounts of beers. Celebrations and more libations ensued.
We gathered around the stage en masse for one last afternoon of live music and catered cuisine. It was a chance to take our boots and packs off, rest our weary feet and backs and recount our favorite memories of the trip. The Classic had been challenging for all. Each one of us had a different experience – either emotionally or physically or both.
As a competitive person, do I wish I had made the entire trek? Heck, yes. But for me, my trip’s reward ended up being about making new friends more than accomplishing the mileage.
Will I do it again next year? You bet. Training starts now! I want to thank the Fjällräven team for delivering an outstanding trekking adventure. I would rate my overall experience as five stars.
Our friends at Fjällräven spared no expense on safety, food, transportation and expertise. But what I am most thankful for is that the Fjällräven team brought together so many passionate individuals who were so excited to challenge themselves in the backcountry. The positive energy that was created along the way was powerful, memorable and contagious. It’s something that I will be craving until next summer.
Want to join me in summer 2018? The Fjällräven Classic is open to the public, but spaces are limited. Click here to sign up!