When the club started in 1919, it consisted of 23 women and 12 men. One hundred years later, it has more than 700 members.
The Four Pass Loop Hike outside Aspen, Colo., takes backpackers through alpine meadows, rocky scree, scrub and spruce forest — and some spectacular views. The Maroon Bells, two 14,000- foot peaks, put on a purple-tinged show for trekkers of the 28-mile trail.
But high-elevation terrain is also prone to fickle weather. In fall 2017, Katherine Feldmann (Bio’20) experienced this when she helped lead eight CU Boulder Hiking Club members on the hike. “We had four seasons over four passes in two days,” she said.
Many on the trip were new to hiking at 12,500 feet in a snowstorm, and “there was a lot of hesitation and uncertainty,” said Feldmann, now a club officer. She talked to hikers coming down the upcoming pass to assess conditions on the other side, concluding the team could get across safely. She encouraged everyone to push onward.
By the end of the trip, one of the students told Feldmann that the hike was the “craziest, most incredible thing he had done,” Feldmann said. “It pushed people’s boundaries to the point where they understood ‘Yeah, I can do this — I’m not limited by my past experiences.’”
And that, in essence, is the mission of the Hiking Club, which turned 100 this year. Today, the club has about 700 paying members and an email list of more than 3,000. A group of about 20 officers takes turns planning and leading day hikes and overnight trips each weekend during the school year. The club also guides longer excursions during fall and spring breaks.
After a week, I had made lifelong friends. The experience of finding my place was incredible.
The club started in 1919 with 35 charter members. An early constitution says the group’s purpose is “to stimulate an enjoyment of the out-of-door life in the mountains of Boulder, and to establish an organization of true comradeship and recreational activities.” Old photos show groups of up to about 50 people — including women, who were members from the start — hiking up Sunshine Canyon, Arapahoe Peak and Longs Peak.
Even without today’s high-tech fabrics and gear, the club made some challenging ascents. At least one ended in tragedy: In December 1946, club member Jeanette Martin slipped on an icy descent from Navajo Peak, pulling her two companions down with her as they were all tied into a rope. Martin died. The two others were hospitalized but survived. In the 1980s, a Hiking Club team completed the Maroon Bells traverse, which follows a sheer ridgeline between 14,000-foot peaks, requiring technical climbing and route-finding skills.
Club outings are less risky these days, and most officers have some level of medical training. “In the past couple years we’ve really transitioned from a small organization where the same few members go on trips every weekend to a big community,” said Katherine Halama (EnvSt’20), another club officer. “We want everyone to have the chance to participate.”
Costs, gear and know-how can prohibit students from getting into hiking and backpacking. Many freshmen lack cars to even get to trailheads. The Hiking Club provides transportation, free gear rentals, and experienced leaders to get students outside, no matter their resources. It also provides a sense of community for its members. That’s why Jason Chalmers (ChemEngr’20) joined. He moved to Boulder as a freshman from Ohio and had few friends in town. Over his first spring break, he went on a club trip to Escalante National Monument in Utah, where the group trekked through canyons, waded across rivers and gazed at the star-strewn desert sky.
“After literally a week of spending time with people, I had made lifelong friends,” he said. “That whole experience of finding my place was incredible.”
In our print edition, this story appears under the title "Finding Your Place in Nature." Comment on this story? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Glenn Asakawa and CU Boulder Heritage Center