“Am I the slowest person you’ve ever had on an all day hike?” I ask hiking guide Andy Gosiak as I drag my weary ass up the final half-mile trail.
“No, but you win the prize for worst footwear,” he replies.
OK, I get it now - purple sparkly Converse are not the most appropriate shoes to wear on a 17 mile hike. The massive blisters I have this morning are testament to that.
But I made it, sore feet and all. I’ve never walked 17 miles in my life (I think that’s around 25km for you folk Down Under) ... let alone in shoes designed for walking around a shopping mall, not a rocky trail through a forest.
And I gotta tell you, very blister and aching muscle (of which there are also a few!) was worth it - the Seven Brothers Lakes in the Cloud Peak Wilderness is one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever visited, and the all-day hike one of the highlights of my stay at Paradise Ranch.
Shoes aside, everything else about the day was perfect. The weather was divine - blue sky, cool breeze, moderate temperature; while fellow hikers Jeff and Cari were intelligent and entertaining companions (not to mention extremely patient with my old-woman hobbling!)
And while Andy is a brilliant, enthusiastic and informative guide, the man is a serious freak - half man half mountain goat (new nickname, Pan!), with boundless energy and more stamina than a man half his age. Mind you, this is someone who runs marathons without training ... and he has done the Seven Brothers hike 61 times, giving him a considerable head-start over us first timers. Only Clay’s dog Jake can give him a run for his money in the fitness stakes - those two really are peas in a pod (both in terms of goofiness as well as energy.)
Heading off from Hunter Corral around 9.30am, the going is fairly easy for the first few miles, a steady uphill trail past The Waterfall and up an established road to Soldier Park, before entering Cloud Peak Wilderness, where no motorised vehicles are allowed. Easy peasy, I’m thinking. And certainly no complaints from an aesthetic perspective, with every corner revealing a spectacular new vista of bubbling creeks, aspen groves and meadows backed by the dramatic grey peaks of the Big Horns.
(..and this is just the start of all the f-ing beauty!)
(Jake and I entering the Wilderness)
(I'm starting to drop behind already)
After around eight miles and a series of fairly challenging switchbacks up a mountain trail, we finally arrive at the first of the Brothers, a sparkling lake so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes. But there’s no time to linger - man-goat Andy wants to get us to the final lake by 2pm, so we forge up the final mile along a piney trail, past crazy-beautiful vista after vista of the gorgeous azure lakes, sparkling in the sun.
(first of the Seven Brothers)
(Brother 3, or is it 4?)
It’s not until we reach the seventh brother that we are able to drink in all the beauty, however. And what a spot. Surrounded by sheer cliffs on three sides, we sit on a sandy strip - yes, an actual beach! - on the one accessible shore to eat our lunch; Jake and Andy wade into the glacial water thigh deep to cool off, before Jeff strips off and throws himself into the deep end in a fine impersonation of James Bond. Soaking my by now weary feet in the icy water is enough for me - though at this point, I’m fairly proud of the way my pathetic shoes have held up.
(Not a bad lunch spot!)
(Jeff's James Bond impersonation)
The real test is on the downhill run, however - and I’m afraid that’s an epic fail. The trail back through the pine burn is rough, rocky and interminably steep, and I drop further and further behind my companions as I pick my way carefully over the treacherous ground. By the time we reach Buffalo Park and the final few miles, I’m in a world of pain, hobbling like an 80-year-old and ridiculously footsore.
Cari admits that she, too, is suffering, with every step across the open meadow an effort. Somehow she has a better way of hiding her pain than me, though ...
At the completion of our 17 mile marathon, however, is the promise of a margarita and a soak in the hot tub ... and that’s what keeps me stepping out over that last painful mile.
Never have I been so grateful to climb into the back seat of Suburban at Hunter Corral. But what a sense of achievement - I pushed myself beyond my limits, and managed to set a record for the stupidest footwear on an all-day hike to boot. That’s what I call as awesome achievement!