The Collegiate Loop winds for 161 miles through some of the most dramatic points of the Sawatch Range in Colorado Rockies. The trail combines sections of the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail and traces the hulking shoulders of a dozen fourteeners along its route. No part of the trail dips below 8,000 feet and much of it is well above 12,000 feet; hiking the entire loop requires gaining some 50,000 feet in elevation. Typically, a fit hiker will complete the loop in two weeks without any major mishaps. It is a serious undertaking for a serious hiker.
It’s a much more serious undertaking when you can’t see the trail in front of you, look at a map, observe the topography, or read a compass heading. 50-year-old Trevor Thomas overcame all of those challenges, however, when he finished the loop last August in only 13 days. Thomas is a completely blind hiker. “I’m the proverbial ‘blind as a bat,'” he told me. “That hike for me was like playing the world’s highest-stakes game of connect the dots.”
Though he couldn’t see the trail, his trusted hiking partner could, an affable yellow labrador guide dog named Lulu. Together, the two of them form a formidable navigation team. “I’m the big picture guy,” Thomas said. “She fills in the blanks.” While this was Lulu’s first big thru-hike, Thomas is a seasoned vet.
Hiking as wilderness therapy for the blind
Incredibly, Thomas didn’t begin hiking seriously until he’d lost his sight about 13 years ago to macular degeneration. Thomas, who lives in North Carolina, grew up spending lots of time outside, usually riding on or in something fast—skis, mountain bikes, cars, speedy boats. He’d never been particularly interested in the glacially paced, relatively speaking, world of long-distance hikes until he lost his vision. When he was re-learning how to walk as a blind man shortly after losing his sight, he begged the specialists he worked with to get him outside. They sought out local trails so Thomas could practice walking on uneven terrain, and as a kind of wilderness therapy. “I felt alive again on the trails,” Thomas said.
Shortly after he’d gone blind, he visited an outdoors store to buy hiking poles for use on city sidewalks and urban trails. The salesperson, either displaying a shocking lack of tact and empathy, or sensing Thomas was up for a significant challenge, regaled Thomas with exciting tales of his recent hike of the AT.
The conversation sparked a light in Thomas’ soul, a place grown understandably dark since his vision deteriorated. He decided in the store he too would hike the AT. Walking, especially over months and thousands of miles, wasn’t so tame after all. Thomas embarked on the AT in spring, 2008. It took him six months, but he hiked all 2,200 miles, learning a hell of a lot about himself and hiking blind, in the process. Thomas had to figure out how to use equipment not designed for easy use by a blind person. He’d practice setting up a tent by feel in his parent’s backyard. Learning to operate a backpacking stove alone was an adventure.
And that’s nothing compared to learning to navigate.
For Thomas, everything is based on touch, on feel, on hearing. He uses dead reckoning by counting steps to mark his process on a mental map. He’ll get down on the trail and run the dirt through his fingers, touch rocks to determine changes in topography, feel his skin tighten in a cool breeze, hear or even smell when he’s close to water. Thomas knows how many paces he walks in a mile, how long it should take to reach a trail junction, what kinds of rocks and vegetation will mark the point at which he’s reached the junction, and will imagine what it will all feel like, with every sense except sight, once he’s arrived.
“Each mile on the trail represented 4 or 5 hours of research,” Thomas said of his Collegiate Loop hike.
Even then, in a rugged alpine environment, Thomas can’t always predict every little detail. That’s where a guide dog comes in. Thomas tried to hike the Colorado Trail by himself in 2011, but after 125 miles he threw in the towel. It was too dangerous, too difficult without an aid who could see to help him navigate unanticipated trail issues. A guide dog would be ideal, he figured.
Training guide dogs for the trail
Thomas contacted Guide Dogs for the Blind, in San Rafael, California, and eventually adopted their trainee, Tennille. Guide Dogs for the Blind doesn’t train dogs for hiking, but they were able to teach Thomas how to train Tennille himself. Six months of patient work later, Thomas and Tennille were an unstoppable team. For the next few years, they tackled 10,000 miles of trails. The PCT. The John Muir Trail. Thomas took Tennille to the Colorado Trail and they finished that too, the trail that pushed him to adopt a trail dog in the first place.
In 2017, Tennille retired and Thomas took on Lulu as a pupil.
Nine months of training later entirely in the relatively sedate mountains near North Carolina, they took their first steps together on the Collegiate Loop. “Taking her to 10,000 feet and then trying to explain to her how long this is going to last, that was fun. It was hard to explain to her, and I knew she had concerns,” Thomas said. “She had her reservations when we were out there, but the cool thing is that she knew she was going to do it because that’s what I asked her to do. It’s just pure devotion.” Friends of Thomas’ who are also accomplished dog trainers and hikers helped him with trail research and descriptions and helped set aside times and places to meet in order to check on Lulu’s health.
Thomas uses a length of climbing rope as a leash and when he encounters an obstacle that he’s planned for, he’ll make sure Lulu is alert and ready to help them around it. If the obstacle is unexpected, he trusts Lulu to make the correct navigational decision to overcome it. It’s a partnership based on trust.
“My job is to make sure we’re both safe and healthy,” Thomas said. “She provides our visual information.”
“This might sound crazy,” Thomas said, “but I consider myself fortunate, I really do. Getting along in the world is 80 percent visual. No, I can’t see what other hikers can, but I get to rely on other senses that round things out; it’s a multi-faceted system of sensation. I hike these trails for a tremendous sense of accomplishment. I’ll continue hiking until the day I die.”