Finishing the Colorado segment of the Continental Divide Trail
As Jennifer Roach would tell it, she wandered into Colorado from the Midwest in the 1980s, found the mountains and never looked back. Along with climbing all of the thirteeners and fourteeners in Colorado, her most recent accomplishments include hiking the Colorado portion of the Continental Divide Trail. We asked Jennifer about that experience and much more.
What first drew you to Colorado?
Like a lot of circumstances and end results in my life, my move to Colorado just sort of happened. I was 27, my marital status was changing and so was I. Living in central Illinois held no interest and no future, so I took a chance and moved with a couple of friends. My original plan was to move all the way to Seattle, only stopping in Denver for a brief stay. Thirty-seven years later, I’m still here.
Tell us about your most recent long-distance hikes in Colorado.
The summer of 2017 was primarily devoted to hiking the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) through Colorado. This adds up to 740 miles. The entire CDT, border to border, was far too much for me, and I wanted to be in a situation where I could be close to my home base (and closer to my husband and his resupply magic). I started at the Wyoming border on June 30 with three women friends, all good hikers, climbers and runners. One by one, they all had to leave with other commitments, and by the time I reached Berthoud Pass, I was hiking alone.
How long did it take you to complete the CDT?
With a 10-day hiatus in the middle of August to rest, recover and travel up to Wyoming to view the eclipse, I didn’t reach the New Mexico border until Sept. 12. It was 75 total days of effort — walking and zero days combined.
What were some of your most memorable sights or experiences on the trail?
As the miles rolled past, one by one, I watched the scenery and the season change. From the snowy Zirkels to the high and dry South San Juan Wilderness, I saw incredible samples of Colorado beauty. The vistas were as vast as the miles stretching before me. With each mile under my boots, I loved it more and more. The San Juans hold a special place for me. Lots of excitement there. Some danger, too. And a lot of work to follow the CDT through them. It is tough country for the inexperienced. I did not hesitate. I went for it.
What were the biggest struggles you faced along the way?
One of my biggest struggles was holding up under daily endeavors to “keep on keepin’ on.” Carrying a backpack for 740 miles can be very unforgiving on the body, especially when that body is 60+ years old. I had to take the CDT in small chunks, and I tried to keep my daily mileages between 15–18. That is a lightweight hiker talking here; most of these CDT thru-hikers are doing 25–30 miles per day. Admittedly, I was carrying more weight than I should have been.
I would say weather was another constant struggle. Outrunning an approaching thunderstorm is tough, but it has to be expected. I had so many of these issues to contend with, and I’m happy to say I always managed to be safe and (mostly) dry. One of the worst moments was being pummeled by five separate storms near San Luis Peak. A lightning strike hit so close to me that I whimpered. I just had to keep walking. That’s what you do.
You’ve also summited every peak in Colorado over 13,000 feet. What have been some of the most rewarding Colorado mountains to climb?
I always love the peaks that are remote, obscure and not often climbed. Although the thirteeners are getting more sought after by mountaineers, there are some that are just not summited as much as the others. So, you will understand why I chose some of these as my most memorable thirteeners: North Gold Dust Peak, Peak Z (in the Gore Range), Tabor Peak, The Heisspitz and West Needle Peak.
Shall I go on and on? The best part about all this peak-bagging mania is that I have had a partner in my life who enjoys it as much as I do. My husband, Gerry Roach, is the best person to ever enter my life. Sharing many mountaineering adventures with him has been extraordinary. I can’t fathom being alone on many of those wonderful peaks. How lucky I am to have found him and climbed with him goes beyond words. He is my life partner.
By the way, for every interesting thirteener that fits my little list of favorites above, there is a twelver to match it. And then there are all those eleveners. And so on down the scale. Colorado is full of marvelous peaks, many of them wild and remote. Seeking them, planning the climb and then finally doing the climb is all part of the fun. As my mountaineering buddy Jack always says to me when I tell him about my next peak I want to do: “Go do it, Jennifer.”
As an ultra runner, you’ve completed the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run multiple times. What is it that drives you to take on these huge challenges?
There was a period in my life when I got very interested in ultra running. Now, just so you know, I’m a lousy runner. If all those ultra runners were cars, the runners around me were Alpha Romeros and I was a Nash Rambler.
I got into it late and struggled at the back for most of it. But what drew me to ultra running was the endurance part of it. I was able to push through 50- and 100-mile events because I could endure for hours on end — go all night, keep walking, keep trotting, never stopping. I never spent a lot of time in the aid stations, either. But I always had a constant battle with meeting cutoff times, and I did DNF (Did Not Finish) at some races. I found it degrading to DNF and earn a free trip to the finish line in somebody’s truck. As a result, I researched races that I had a chance of finishing, that had lenient cutoffs or no cutoffs at all.
I am proud to say that I finished Hardrock 100 three times and another time unofficially. Four times around the Hardrock course will make a believer out of any aspiring ultra runner that the Hardrock 100 is the toughest course in the US. Over 33,000 feet of gain?! Really?!
Everyone has a moment in the sun. Mine was “kissing the rock” the last time in 2010. My neck was bent at such an awkward angle that I could no longer look straight ahead so I sort of banged into the Rock. I had been following my husband’s feet through a long, dark night. Gerry never let me down, patiently pacing me through every turn. I had less than two minutes to spare. Miracle.
What is it that you feel sets Colorado apart, or makes it such a special place?
I guess if I said that Colorado is better than any of the other Western states like Nevada or New Mexico or California, I would be doing those other states an injustice. But I can say for sure that Colorado is wonderful because it has so many beautiful mountain ranges, lakes, rivers, grasslands and canyons, and all dotted with towns and cities that embody the Western spirit.
I can say with assurance that being a Colorado non-native (I’m originally from Chicago) led me to explore the mountains of all the other Western states. I have climbed the high point of every county in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada. I have completed the fabled list of 99 peaks set aside by the Desert Peak Section of the Sierra Club. Gerry and I have climbed countless other peaks in all of the Western states, a feat of passion we have been following for 20 years. And we aren’t done yet, folks.
What’s next for you — climbing another peak, tackling another long-distance trail?
Gee, I thought you’d never ask! OK, now I can reveal that I am planning to do another section of the CDT this year. I chose New Mexico. It is going to be quite different from the Colorado epic. This will be another sojourn, one that involves deserts, and some mountains, too. I normally don’t want to talk about a peak I am planning to climb until after I have climbed it, but I think it is OK to mention this future goal.
My thought is to do this long-distance hike now and not wait another year. It’s not getting any easier, so I guess I had better get busy and get after it. Otherwise, I’ll be grousing about it when I’m a little old lady in her rocking chair. (Not a good visual.)
I think this endurance walking and hiking has now taken the place of the ultra running. Recently, I haven’t had the drive to run 50 miles. Signing up for a race that whips me to make a time cutoff doesn’t appeal at all. But walking 50 miles on my own still turns me on. Weird, huh?
Not weird at all! What advice would you give to others who are interested in doing the same in Colorado?
Goals of climbing mountains, running ultras or hiking long-distance trails are all a bit alike. Think of a toddler learning to climb stairs. Clamber up your first step and stare up at all the others above you. Daunting. But all you have to do is climb up to the next step, gain some experience and then start up for the next one. Find your love and your passion and follow it. Climb those steps. They will lead you to amazing places.