Backpacking octogenarians | PostIndependent.com

Backpacking octogenarians

Sharon Sullivan
ssullivan@gjfreepress.com

When Marcia Bilbao decided after 30 years she could no longer mountain climb, she opted instead to hike eight weeks alone across Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail along with her dog, Molly.

Two years later, at age 64, Bilbao hiked the Pacific Crest Trail again.

"The first time was life-transforming," said Bilbao, a retired physician who practiced in Oregon, and later at the Veterans Administration in Grand Junction. "Especially for a woman, you find out how strong and capable you really are."

For the past 14 years, Bilbao, now 82, along with her husband David (Bill) Pilkenton, 81, have spent a good portion of their summers backpacking in Colorado and Wyoming wilderness areas. The couple met in 1996, married the following year and have spent most of their wedding anniversaries eating dinner in camp.

In August they returned from nine weeks of backpacking at 8,500- to 11,600-feet elevation in the Holy Cross Wilderness and adjacent Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness, south of the I-70 corridor between Eagle and Minturn, and in Wyoming in the Snowy Range of the Medicine Bow Mountains in the Medicine Bow National Forest.

Pilkenton is a former geologist — he loves rocks, birds and the outdoors. And at age 20, the West Virginia native hiked a segment of the Appalachian Trail — "so he was primed for backpacking in that way," Bilbao said.

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Their first backpacking trip together in 2000 was a one-week excursion on the Continental Divide Trail near Steamboat Springs.

"I wanted it to be how we spent our summers," Bilbao said.

"I warmed to the idea," Pilkenton said. "The idea was appealing to me and I liked the strengthening process that comes from exertion."

The following year they camped for three weeks. And most years since, they've gone to the mountains for seven or more weeks.

In 2013, the couple and their Australian shepherd, Jenny, spent nine weeks, from June 25 to Aug. 27, backpacking into different wilderness areas for a week at a time; then returning to their car and a quick overnight trip to town before driving to the next trailhead to begin another week of hiking and camping.

Pilkenton studies the maps, researches wilderness areas, and consults with Forest Service rangers to plan possible itineraries.

Bilbao plans and packs the food boxes, paying close attention to nutritional value of foods and measuring to the exact tablespoon so as not to carry an ounce more than necessary.

For the first five years of their backpacking, Pilkenton also consulted trail guide books. In 2005, however, they left the popular Continental Divide Trail to hike exclusively in designated wilderness — areas of which less has been written.

Guide books had directed them to campsites, told them where they could find running water, and even where to take a good photograph.

Solid blue lines on maps indicate permanent water sources, but that is not always the case, Pilkenton said.

There are no detailed guidebooks for designated wilderness, "so we kind of have to wing it," Pilkenton said.

"David is responsible for keeping us found, never lost. I make myself responsible for watching the weather," Bilbao said.

"Marcia is reading the sky," Pilkenton said.

on the trail

Anticipating monsoon rains most afternoons, Pilkenton and Bilbao drive on sometimes gnarly roads to the trailhead, then hike to the nearest water source and good place to camp that first night out. The goal is to set up the tent before it rains.

"We find a suitable hideaway, get the tent up and then it frequently rains," Bilbao said.

"We've gotten drenched setting up camp in the rain," Pilkenton said.

Pilkenton admits his tolerance for inclement weather has lessoned over the years, but "Marcia can handle anything," and "she's the one who keeps us going.

"It's a job keeping up with her," he said.

"Frequently, there are nice sheltering trees," Bilbao said. "There is plenty to watch and listen to. Ordinarily, the rain is not constant."

Bilbao duct-tapes two painters tarps together to create a 12-by-12 foot rainfly that keeps their tent dry and provides shelter for Jenny.

The second day is an "out and back" where they leave camp, hike up the trail a few miles to scope out a good place to camp for the following night. The third day they pack it up and move camp to the new spot.

Overall mileage covered has shortened over the years — "that's one of the adaptations," as we age, Pilkenton said with a wry grin.

Another "adaptation" is they no longer hike loop trails because they don't know what lies ahead. There could be fallen trees making the trail impassable, roily streams, or an expected water source might be found dry.

So instead they move camp two or three times each week, returning to the trailhead at the end of the week in the direction from which they came.

"At our age we cannot afford to hurt ourselves, especially me with a fake hip," said Bilbao, who had hip replacement surgery five years ago.

Their efforts are rewarded with gorgeous views in every direction — snow-fed waterfalls, wild pink roses, rocks from different geological periods, columbine flowers, evergreen trees spotted with iridescent hot pink buds on their way to becoming cones.

In the evening they take shelter in the tent where they take turns reading aloud to each other — often an adventure story or a historical novel. This summer, they read Tony Hillerman mysteries.

On Tuesday morning they hike back to the trailhead, drive to the nearest town, find a hotel, shower, do laundry, get gas, make repairs and pack and replenish food and their "trekking pharmacy."

Then they go out for dinner.

The next morning Pilkenton and Bilbao drive to a new trailhead to start another week of backpacking.

'Mountaineer's screwdriver'

Packing light is key when backpacking.

"Don't take — resist!" Bilbao reminds herself when tempted to bring a pair of earrings or a second pair of shoes.

A treat they do allow themselves is a late afternoon "mountaineer's screwdriver" (after the tent has been set up — "work before pleasure," quipped Pilkenton). The mountaineer's screwdriver is made with two tablespoons of instant Tang and one tablespoon of Everclear 100 percent grain alcohol that they mix with water or "preferably snow."

Everclear can also be used as an antiseptic, to clean, or to start a fire — so it's multipurpose, Bilbao added.

In January, Bilbao begins preparing and freezing food for the trip. Each week's worth of provisions is packed in separate boxes and placed in the car when it's time to go, ready to replenish packs after each outing.

Camp coffee is a mixture of instant coffee, a little chocolate, sugar and powdered soy milk. Breakfast is homemade granola, made with freeze-dried fruits, nuts and soy milk powder.

"Every week the granola is a different flavor, different grain, different nuts and fruit," Bilbao said.

There's trail mix for lunch — a different combination of nuts and dried fruit or vegetables each week.

And for supper, pesto salmon, beef teriyaki, or New Orleans-style rice with shrimp and ham are among the dozen or so different entrees Bilbao has prepared beforehand. She purchases freeze-dried meals and then adds spices, herbs and additional dried veggies to boost the flavor and nutritional value.

Intrepid hikers

Mary and Clee Sealing of Fruita were acquainted with Pilkenton and Bilbao, but were unaware of their backpacking trips until they received a homemade Christmas card from them one year. Bilbao and Pilkenton's annual Christmas letters are poetic and philosophical musings — which include photocopied pictures of their outdoor adventures.

Mary is 60 and Clee, 73. Both had backpacked before, both for pleasure and for their jobs with the U.S. Division of Wildlife. Although they often hike, it had been a decade since they had carried a backpack with all the camping gear.

"They gave us the spark we needed to get back on the trail," Mary Sealing said.

In 2007, the Sealings began a similar pattern of backpacking in for a week, returning to the car to replenish supplies and then back out for a few more days. They spent more than two weeks this summer backpacking in Colorado mountains.

"We saw a mountain lion this time, the first time ever," Sealing said. "We saw mountain goats south of Stoney Pass, and we see peregrine falcons every time we go.

"I can't imagine we won't do it for as long as we can."

Pilkenton and Bilbao have encountered various other intrepid hikers along the way, including a man packing barefoot across sharp volcanic rock, people with artificial hips, or a limp. And in 2002, they ran into a former student of Pilkenton's from the 1970s. (After his geology career, Pilkenton taught linguistics and foreign languages at then-Mesa State College.)

The only scary time this past summer was when they heard gunshots one afternoon. They suspected poachers.

They've also discovered interesting mountain towns along the way, sometimes coming across a celebration or event, as well as memorable cafes.

"The mountain communities have been fascinating," Pilkenton said.

Now back home in Grand Junction, camping gear has been cleaned, repaired and packed away until next season.

Pilkenton may have an easier time preparing next summer's itinerary. He's reviewing trails from previous trips.

"We'll pick up some of the old favorites," he said.

"Or, maybe we'll find something a little more challenging, in (Utah's) Uintas Wilderness."

Designated Wildernesses backpacked by David Pilkenton and Marcia Bilbao

1. Buffalo Peaks

2. Collegiate Peaks

3. Eagles Nest

4. Flat Tops

5. Fossil Ridge

6. Holy Cross

7. Indian Peak

8. La Garita

9. Lost Creek

10. Mount Massive

11. Mount Zirkel

12. Ptarmigan Peak

13. Raggeds

14. South San Juan

15. Troublesome Roadless Area

16. Uncompahgre

17. Weminuche

18. Wet Elks

19. Hunter-Frying Pan

Additionally, the couple has backpacked in all seven of the national forests in Colorado: Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison; Pike and San Isabel; Rio Grande; Roosevelt; Routt; San Juan; and White River.

They’ve backpacked on 16 of the 43 Continental Divide trails and six of the 20 Colorado Trail sections.