Backpacking San Luis Peak: 5 lessons from a women’s weekend on the trail

by Curt Donohue on August 8, 2010

I was recently invited to a women’s backpacking weekend with some of the gals from the San Juan Veterinary Clinic.  Within the group, we had six women and six dogs. Teresa Petterson and her three dogs were our fearless leaders, with Cheryl Stiles, Gretchen Lamb  Becky Sondergard, Jackie and myself never far behind.

It was the first time that I had been backpacking in 10 years and there was much for me to learn.  Our destination, San Luis Peak, is Colorado’s 51st highest peak and is located between Lake City and Creede, CO.  It is a Class One 12 mile round trip with a 3,600ft elevation gain starting from Stewart Creek Trailhead.

Me crossing a creek on San Luis Trail. It was a beautiful hike!

Me crossing a creek on San Luis Trail. It was a beautiful hike!

San Luis Peak is one of the easier peaks partly because there is a trail that goes all the way to the summit. Just be aware that most of that 3,600ft elevation gain occurs in the last 2 1/2 miles of the trail.  If you want to look at route and summiting information for San Luis peak you can learn about them by checking out the following sites: and

One of my favorite parts about backpacking is that it makes clear that experience is truly the best teacher.  The following are five of the biggest lessons that I learned about backpacking through my experiences on San Luis:

Lesson 1 – The 3 day pack that Curt bought 10 years ago is now considered a 5 day pack.

From the moment that I arrived to leave for our weekend, it was blatantly obvious that my pack was the biggest of the bunch and the heaviest.  Apparently there are these cool things called compression sacks and new sleeping bags that can compress down to the size of a basketball!  My sleeping bag took up about 1/3 of my pack and quickly became the bane of my existence.  Before the weekend was over I was nicknamed “The Leaning Tower of Pisa”. I’m sure you get the idea.

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Lesson 2 – When it comes to drinking alcohol, these girls talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.

Sorry girls…your secrets out!   At least there were three of us who came stocked with alcohol.  I had 12 tiny plastic bottles of mojito’s to share (two per person), and I came to loathe each and every one of those heavy suckers.  I begged everyone to drink them up and help to lighten my weight.  I think I unloaded a total of four – two of which were drunk by yours truly.  Lesson learned.

Me with one of the pups, and Gretchen, indulging in a beverage.

Me with one of the pups, and Gretchen, indulging in a beverage.

Lesson 3 – Check that your tent is waterproof before you take it backpacking – especially if you bought it from Wal-Mart.

This was a lesson that Jackie had the pleasure of experiencing for our educational purposes.  She borrowed a spare tent from Gretchen, who had purchased it from Wal-Mart.  We got our tents set up just in time for a 30-minute storm.  At the end of it, Jackie and her sleeping bag were soaked!  Fortunately, it cleared up just in time for us to get her dried out and moved into a drier tent before dark.

Lesson 4 – One week of exercise does not adequately prepare one for a 14er.

I can only speak for myself on this lesson because all of the girls on the trip were in great shape, whereas I had exercised for only one week before the trip and was not physically prepared for the summit. Lets just say that, of the 5 that attempted the summit, only 4 made it to the top.

Left to Right:  Cheryl Stiles, Gretchen Lamb, Teresa Petterson, Becky Sondergard.  Notice who's NOT in the picture!

Left to Right: Cheryl Stiles, Gretchen Lamb, Teresa Petterson, Becky Sondergard. Notice who's NOT in the picture!

Lesson 5 –   If you ever go hiking with “Sir” Bridger, stay out of his way.

Teresa Petterson’s 4 year old Great Swiss Mountain Dog had just pulled over 4,009 pounds in the regional and national weight pull for his breed, beating the previous all time record.  He had also just been presented with the Ambassador of the Breed award, so I decided to call him “Sir” Bridger.  He and Teresa also compete in skijor races together and this was his 10th 14er.  If he was not directly behind Teresa, who led our group up the mountain, he had no qualms about pushing past you to get there.

Tucker and "Sir" Bridger

Tucker and "Sir" Bridger

I had such a great weekend with these compassionate and very capable ladies and their dogs.  During the daytime, we worked our way through riverbeds, over fallen trees and up steep terrain.  At night, the puppies and dogs entertained us.   I learned that dehydrated chicken is really quite chewy when its cooked, that newer water pumps are much easier to use than the older ones, that Camelbacks are much nicer than Nalgene bottles when you’re hiking and that Smartwool socks really do wick the water away from your feet.

I learned one final lesson on the way back to Montrose, when the tire on Teresa’s vehicle went flat.  Not only is this group capable of backpacking and conquering 14ers, we can conquer flat tires as well.  Everybody in the group immediately took their places to assist.  Jackie took charge of the dogs, Teresa and Cheryl figured out how to get the tire out from under the car, Becky and Gretchen worked to clear and repack the trunk and I helped take the bolts off and remove the tire.  Once we got past the packed dirt blocking the tire key from doing its job, we had the spare tire on within 10 minutes.  We had just completed 3 days of backpacking together – flat tires, no problem!

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