CT Day 14: Eye on the Sky

July 12
Miles: 25
Total: 251

CW3 Mile 7.3 to end of CW4

It’s morning high on the Collegiate West, with surprisingly lush meadows of flowers swaying in unison to the gentle breeze. Sharp snow-streaked peaks behind, and bubbling creeklets below. To use John Muir’s favorite adjective: it’s glorious.

I’m walking along peacefully, maybe a touch drunk on unfiltered snowmelt, when SHRIEEEEK! I’ve tripped the marmot intruder alarm and the warning reverberates across the basin. Such a loud sound from my cheeky, waddling alpine companions. There are gentler squee! squeaks! from the tiny bunny-with-mouse-ears pika-friends too, but there are much harder to spot among the rocks.

The trail makes lots of ups and downs, continuing along one side of the divide, then crossing to the other before leading back below the tree line. The clouds generously allow my passage, though I keep turning back to make sure nothing dark is sneaking up behind my back. I’m getting lunch-hangry and struggling up the (totally gentle) hill when I hear a big crash in the bushes. It sounds bear sized but then even tiny deer are elephants when you’re alone. But this is no Bambi: I’ve startled a mama moose who dashes into the willows with baby in tow and then, with just her head poking out proceeds to stare me down. Hard. Ears locked in my general direction.

There’s a mama moose in there (I swear!) and baby too.
Except the lunch spot I’m struggling toward is just up the trail where the creek crosses the exact same meadow. I’m already on thunder watch, and now angry mama moose watch too. But hunger generally outdoes fear, so I gingerly cross the meadow and plant myself in the middle of a tree fortress to block any moose stampedes. So far so good. But as soon as I unpack my lunch it promptly starts hailing.

I catch Steph (who passed by my moose-proof lunch spot without seeing me) in the late afternoon. She wants to power on to the end of the segment to be close to town. I want to cross one more pass and then camp, but the conditions have been so, so good today. The thunderstorms have stayed on other ridges and as we start the last big climb of the day, there’s even a nice patch of blue sky to the west. Of course the last, late miles are much tougher than the rest. We descend a super rocky drainage, navigating from cairn to cairn across ankle-testing rockslides. This is not the cruiser downhill we were hoping for. We do our best to hurry down a path slippery with the orange-dead needles of thousands of beetle-kill trees. The shaky, branch-dropping skeleton forest ensures safe camp options are practically nonexistent.

As always, I’ve had one eye on the sky and though I say nothing I can see low clouds heavy with rain pouring over the ridge to fill the valley where we are headed. Just one Mile to go. A few drops fall. I have a bad feeling and stop to put on my rain jacket and stow my phone. A few minutes later and we are walking through a torrential downpour. A twenty-five Mile day without incident and it dumps on us a mile from camp? Seriously Colorado?!

It’s after 8pm and getting dark and we are absolutely sopping wet when we arrive at the Boss Lake trailhead where there is supposedly camping. And I assume a lake. And maybe even people with RVs who will take pity on us or at least let us use their big tent shelters for cooking. And offer us hot beverages and kind words.

But there’s nothing there. No RVs. No Lake. Just a sign, and deep puddles where there should be campsites. Water pouring down from above, pooling up from below. We finally set up tents on a path/patch of not completely swamped ground near the river. It is still pouring down. I peel off my wet layers, put on my thankfully dry sleep clothes and burrow into a down sleeping bag that is doing its best to loft in this incredible dampness. Dry(er), for the moment, I suddenly become acutely aware of the roar of the too-close Arkansas river, and doze off wondering how close it is to flooding its banks.  Worrying about Steph who is camped closer than me, and who, I later learned was so tired she just assumed her air mattress would keep her afloat, and drifted off to sleep with that (infalted) confidence.
 

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CT Day 13 Weathered

July 11
Miles: 21
Trail Mile: 226

CW2 Mile 11.9 to CW3 Mile 7.3

Today we weathered a storm, and are beginning to feel a bit weathered ourselves. The clouds arrived early or stayed late, but either way it’s not the clear morning sky I was hoping for. A bit of a late start and I can’t find my groove, stopping in the first miles for multiple costume changes, to pick up dropped trekking poles. To dig a hole. Combine my clumsiness with multiple (very easy) creek fords and hello wet feet. I manage to fall in not one, but two creeks today. Most impressively I brace myself for a grand leap across a narrow channel, jump and land, thinking I’ve made it. Only to slide off the bank into a thigh deep pool. While wearing my wind pants.

Texas creek is the ‘big’ ford of this section, possibly of the trail (mostly the CT has amazing bridges, for the bikers maybe?). It’s not particularly intimidating, just a resign yourself to wet shoes and get across situation. It’s over my knees skirt-deep, and certainly flowing but not especially cold or fast.The real challenge is what comes after: miles of fallen trees to play over-under-around, just in case I wasn’t already feeling slow today.

I crawl under one, thinking I will fit only to have my pack snag a branch. Unable to go forward or back, I try down only to end up stuck lying on the ground in the dirt. I have to sheepishly take my pack off to extract myself. 

Even without the extra leg lifts, dirt baths, an detours the climb through the forest would be a true slog. But slog long enough and the trees relent, until there’s more meadow and all views. I perch on the last ridge before the highway to enjoy lunch with a view and wait for Steph (who wasn’t feeling the best today either), watching dark clouds trailing rain traverse the sky behind me. By the time we are at the road, there’s thunder and the deepest darkest blue-grey clouds have again settled up where we need to go. But this time we are already above the treeline, at Cottonwood Pass, a parking lot on the continental divide. The expanse of pavement offers no shelter, and the trail promises to stay above the treeline for the next seven miles along the divide. Which happens to be exactly where the storm is angrily perched.

So with lightening striking, we drop below the ridge to sit under some small trees and hope it all passes soon. Except the clouds seem to be stuck circling the divide. The thunder grows more distant and then with a flash it is closer again. We reevaluate our spot and decide it will do. The rain comes down with a vengeance. Then hail. We shiver under our scraps of plastic ground sheet, rain finding ways to trickle down my back. We sit counting between flashes and booms until it is right on top of us with one great FLASHCRACK and then the rain eases and thunder seems mostly to be behind us, if still too close for my comfort. We wait a little longer until we’ve spent a hour and a half huddled in plastic wrap under dripping shrubbery.

We chat with an older couple back at the parking lot (the woman hiked the PCT in 1986!), who offer us a ride to Buena Vista to dry out. But the sky is a bit brighter now and after much debate, we decide to head on rather than lose a day. It’s only 43 miles to a Salida zero and the important things are still dry.

Up on the divide snowfields still hide some switchbacks, bootsteps now filled with hail. There’s some rock scrambling to get around, slippery with the rain, but nothing scary compared to yesterday. The sky stays grey, but the views still go on and on in both directions.

The trail climbs over the divide one last time before the faint promise of “possible” campsites (after a guidebook warning not to try to camp in this section). I’m so excited I follow footsteps waaay down what think is the trail, but isn’t. I trudge through the damp valley of my stupidity, through flooded meadows and across small streams, soaking my shoes anew, until I have climbed back up to the trail feeling terrible for dragging Steph through my mistake while simulraneously admiring the dramatic evening light.We poke around rocks and trees and melting snow patches until a magic cairn Steph spots leads us to a cozy spot under some trees. Just as I settle in my tent, I hear the first few gentle drops. I am too tired to worry about lightening, and fall asleep to the clatter of rain.

CT Day 12: A Pass Beyond Hope

 July 10
Miles: 16.1
Trail Mile: 205

CW1 Mile 5.6 to CW2 Mile 11.9

Kick. Jab. Jab. Step. I kick another step into the soft snow, burry my poles deep and inch closer to the top of the cornice. Don’t look down, don’t look down, I repeat to myself. But it doesn’t really matter; I know what lurks just a (mis)step away: a vertical wall of snow that drops right off onto the steep, steep rocky slopes of Lake Ann Pass. There can be no mistakes here.

Lake Ann Pass isn’t even our first pass of the day. We went over Hope Pass early this morning, back when the skies were clear and the snow patches at non-lethal angles. Hope Pass was incredible, with strings of prayer flags and an incredible reveal of snowy peaks as you walk over the top.


 It also has to be one of the steepest climbs on the Colorado Trail, thankfully we had the fortitude to drag ourselves halfway up last night. This didn’t exactly help with the down-side, but the views were new and kept opening up into ever more striking vistas. Lake Ann, then, is the pass beyond Hope. And, with a significant cornice lingering at the top – a steep wall of overhanging snow blocking the way – it is the number one reason people are still skipping the Collegiate West Route for the lower, easier East option. Based on the number of hikers we saw today (none doing a CT thru), the steep snow is enough to keep most people away. Even the CDT hikers seemed scarce.

But as we near Lake Ann, the clouds do their usual noon thing with the sound of the sky-furniture being rearranged upstairs. So we alternate between walking slowly, and hiding from the intermittent rain, hoping the storm will blow over soon so we can get over the pass while the snow is at its midday safest-soft (we would need our microspikes that we sent home for morning ice). But the dark clouds refuse to move on, instead settling right on top of the pass and grumbling their discontent for hours on end, as if they too can’t figure out how to navigate the obstacle. 

Finally, the thunder seems distant enough to pop out above the tree line. I still want to attempt the pass, but am hesitant about the conditions. There’s an optipn to climb around the snow, but surely the rocks are wet and slippery from the rain? And the cliffs look as treacherous as the snow, and for much longer. Just as I really begin to worry about what to do, a CDT hiker comes our way, the first and only person we’ve met whose been over Lake Ann Pass today. He assures us that the snow is soft and sticky and that we will be fine. “But an older CDT hiker told me, one slip and I would die,” counters Steph (true story. He also seemed shocked that she would even attempt such a feat in a skirt). “You won’t slip” assures the CDT hiker and that is that.

Though the pass and associated nerves are looming, we can’t resist mini-side trip to Lake Ann proper. Snow and green and rock reflections swirl together on the surface, like marble, following is up the slope. 

Lake Ann Pass with lingering cornice (the overhanging snow bank up on the saddle)

It would be such a lovely place to camp, but neither of us can stand the idea of spending so long with the intimidating pass in plain view. I go first, taking charge of route finding and mentally break the pass into manageable challenges: to the end of the obvious trail; across the rock field; up to the cairn; across the safe snow; up the switchbacks. These all become, achievable, quite safe, and even fun tasks. Except in the end, the cornice remains. The path over the snow is obvious at this point, as we were told. Good steps have been kicked in, though they have melted quickly with the warm weather. And, in line with the accounts of those who were not inclined to downplay the risk (thank you Walkabout and Skipper!), the way is treacherous and exposed.

The first section is the steepest, like climbing a ladder made of snow. A third of the way up I stifle a minor panic, calm my self into continuing up the almost-vertical slope with the realization that going down would be worse than forward. The pass is doable with my intro snow skills, trail runners and hiking poles, but it is no joke. 

The second section is far less steep, but traverses the very edge of the drop off. I am so focused time seems irrelevant, I can’t even hear Steph following my steps. I’m somewhere beyond fear. It’s just me and this snowbank in the sky. Kick. Jab. Jab. Step. For five minutes? For thirty minutes? Forever? Until I am over the top and off the other side back on dry ground. We dance around the top of the pass chanting “We didn’t die! We’re not dead!”. Not dying, of course, is on top of my daily to do list. Just as photos always downplay the angles of slopes (and none were taken where it was most dangerous), today’s miles cannot possibly reflect the actual accomplishment. Of two massive passes, of conquering fears, of traversing the magical land that is the Collegiate West with almost no one else around.