Into the wild, Colorado-style: Maddison Welch gets more adventure than he bargained for
By Katie Scarvey
“Have you seen ‘Into the Wild’?” When people hear that Maddison Welch started hiking the Colorado Trail in September, that’s one of the first things they typically ask him, referring to the movie about Christopher McCandless’ ill-fated solo wilderness adventure.
Like McCandless, Maddison heard more than a few folks call him crazy for hiking the trail by himself in September.
The Colorado Trail is a challenging 500-mile stretch of footpaths from Denver to Durango, snaking through eight mountain ranges, six rivers and five national forests. Because the mountains of Colorado start to get winter weather in September, through hikers typically take on the trail in the summer.
Taking a break from Cape Fear Community College and his landscaping job in Wilmington, Maddison, who is the son of Harry and Terri Welch, started his hike in Denver on Sept. 10. He’d hoped to start a month earlier but was delayed by a shortage of funds.
Shortly after he got on the trail, Maddison found out that people were right about how bad the weather would be.
“There were only two nights of the whole trip that it didn’t snow or rain,” he says.
The very first night, he experienced a hailstorm.
Almost immediately, he realized that his summer tent was too open to the elements and was not going to be watertight.
“I think I had two dry nights the whole trip,” he said.
Madison has a philosophic outlook on the bad weather. All the rain and snow, he says, “added to the excitement.” And a little fear as well.
One day, Maddison had hiked 18 miles, all uphill. He found himself in the middle of a blizzard, and after setting up camp for the night, snow and hail started pounding his tent. He realized that if he stayed at such a high elevation, the snow would quickly accumulate to the point where he would not be able to see the trail .
So he packed up and continued on until nightfall, for another two and a half hours or so, despite his fatigue. He descended about 1,000 feet in elevation, where the snow accumulation would be less.
He put his clothing out to dry before he slept; the next morning it had all frozen.
Although snow was still falling and it was freezing cold, Madison donned his only other set of clothing ó shorts and a tee shirt. Topped by a waterproof poncho, he hiked in those for the next 20-odd miles.
How did he avoid hypothermia? “I don’t know,” he says. “That’s a good question.”
Although that experience was the scariest he had on the trail, Maddison says it was also his favorite ó and that was partly because he didn’t know how it was going to turn out.
“It’s a good adrenaline rush,” he says. “Better than any roller coaster or movie.”
He saw only a handful of people on the trail during the three weeks he was out there, including a weather forecaster named Tim Tongue, with whom he hiked for several days. The weather knowledge that Tim shared helped Maddison decide that he needed to pack up and continue hiking during that snowstorm ó in retrospect a very good call, since if he hadn’t, he would probably have lost the trail and been put into a potentially life-threatening situation.
Other than Tim, he had very little contact with anyone on the trail, although when he left the trail to resupply, he met many supportive townspeople ó even though they thought he was a bit crazy.
He saw a lot of wildlife, including two brown bears and a black bear.
His mom, Terri, remembers Maddison calling her on his cellphone from the trail and hearing “the strangest sound” in the background.
Maddison told her that he’d call her back. When he hadn’t called after a half hour, Terri was worried.
“I just knew it was a bear, and those were going to be his last words,” she said.
Maddison finally called, and told his mom that what she’d heard was an elk bugling ó an elk call heard during rutting season.
Terri says that when she did get to talk to Maddison, he always seemed enthused and upbeat ó never fearful. (For her part, Terri was anxious but understanding of her son’s need for adventure.)
One night, he pitched his tent closer to a stream than he knew was wise ó about 20 feet. He awoke to a “swap, swap” sound ó like rocks being dropped in the stream, he says. It was so cold that night that he’d cooked inside his tent, which he knew could attract bears.
He heard something approaching his tent ó which turned out to be a bear ó so he took a spoon and started hitting his cooking pot, making as much of a racket as he could.
“I didn’t get much sleep the rest of the night,” he says.
(Maddison’s attitude toward wild animals may be a little different than the average person’s, since he grew up with real tigers and other wild critters in the Welch family ó but that’s a whole other story).
Hikers expect to be wary of bears, but worrying about the intentions of people on the trail hadn’t really crossed Maddison’s mind, until he got to the town of Bailey to resupply. A woman with the local search and rescue team who was giving him a ride told him that four or five people on the trail had been reported missing, and that one of those had been found ó dead, of blunt force injury to the head.
That gave Maddison pause, but he continued on.
Near Breckinridge, he learned that someone wearing a hockey mask had attacked two hikers with a knife on the trail near the town he was headed for.
That also made him a little uneasy (the attacker has since been caught), but he didn’t leave the trail. Fortunately, he did not come across any living thing ó man nor beast ó who truly wished him ill.
Although Madison says he isn’t anti-social by nature, he had no problem being alone for most of the three weeks.
“It really puts you to the test,” he says. “It’s a good feeling, going solo. There’s something spiritual about it.”
“You’re very in touch with yourself. You don’t feel alone out there.”
He liked the feeling, he says, of not knowing what was around the next turn.
One thing that surprised him was how physically grueling the hiking was, and what a strain it put on his body. “It’s like a workout that never ends,” he says. Part of the challenge was getting used to exercising at such a high altitude. It took him about five days to get adjusted to breathing, he said.
“It’s a test of endurance ó man against nature. And the fiercer the conditions, the more exciting.”
Without much body fat to spare before the trip, Maddison says he probably lost about 10 pounds on the trail ó and dreamed of pizza and burgers. He ate a lot of tuna, noodles, protein bars, beef jerky and Snickers bars.
While the food may have gotten monotonous, the scenery didn’t.
“You’d see a landscape and it would just be overwhelming. When I found a place that was really majestic, I took a little time to enjoy it.” Still, he had to keep forging ahead, especially since he was trying to beat the rapidly arriving winter weather.
Ultimately, the weather proved too much. About halfway through his 500-mile hike, at an elevation of 11,600 feet, he hit lots of snow ó two feet of it, which obscured the trail to the point that he couldn’t continue hiking. Using his GPS, he made his way for the closest town, which took him several days.
His three-week experience on the trail, Maddison says, gave him a lot of self-confidence and made his world a bigger place ó and he plans to keep expanding it.
“I can’t imagine what the rest of the world offers,” he says. “It got me in touch with what matters in life. You don’t need things ó material stuff doesn’t make you happy.”
Since he’s been home with his parents this past week, he finds he doesn’t like being inside ó he craves the outdoors and has broken his addiction to the Internet. Although on track to get a business degree, he says that when he returns to school he’d like to take some religion courses, and he hopes to eventually find a job that will allow him to see the world ó while helping the world. He’s planning to hike the Appalachian Trail next year, and Terri and Harry are scheming to experience some of it with him.
“Our plan is to follow him in a Winnebago and meet up at different trail heads. It will allow us to experience a little of what he’s done,” she says.