July 17, 2017
Miles: 32 (!)
Trail Mile: 326
Segment 17 Mile 11.1 to Segment 19 Mile 9.7
The forest is half alive this morning instead of half dead. The trail is finally cruiser. And mostly downhill. Amazing what a good night’s sleep and morning sunshine can do to banish zombie-moods.
I continue along the last stretch of ridge, and then the single-track becomes dirt road for almost the entire day. Unlike the many small ups and downs that actually added up to serious elevation change yesterday, today truly has little elevation gain and loss, at least for mountain hiking. Just before noon, two hikers going the other direction tell me there’s trail magic in seven miles. Trail Magic! I plug in and march on, challenging myself not to stop until I get there. Over gentle hills, across stinking creeks thick with cow poop, along ranch roads all the way. Just as the day is really heating up, I come across a cow skull with sharpie announcing: “Trail Magic 1.2 miles.” I realize that this also marks my first 20 by 2 (twenty miles before 2pm) of the trail. Woot!
And 1.2 miles later, under a tall tree in the middle of the driest, sunniest stretch of trail, a truck and a tent. It’s Trail Angel Apple with a cooler full of iced-cold Gatorade on this hot, dry stretch. And he has fresh water too for hikers to swap out their cow-piss creek sludge. The ‘water’ that was covered in enough flies to make anyone who thought it was simply ‘muddy’ reconsider.
After a two hour break, Steph, who has caught up as she does, and I head out into, yes, another round of thunderstorms. Though we miss the worst of the rain, I am majorly spooked by a stretch of walking in a wide open field under thunderclouds. And even if lightening is striking a mile away, that is still waaay too close for my scared heart.
But we pass through without getting zapped, and celebrate by heading for our stretch goal – the creek and a 30 mile day. But the steady drizzle makes exposed campsites look unappealing, and the tease of sunshine up the valley lures us on. But everything else seems even worse. Too rocky. Too grassy. Too knee deep in cow pies (not exaggerating). Too far from the water. And that, is how you end up with a 32 mile day. Camped just shy of the ford (too wet!), feet tingling with the effort, but no worse for the wear.
July 16, 2017
Trail Mile: 293
Segment 16 Mile 4.1 to Segment 17 Mile 11.1
I hear the engine first, then a voice yelling over the machine noise: “There are tents down there!” I retrieve my phone from the pile of clothing and electronics attempting to pass as a ‘pillow’ under my head. It’s 5:45am. So much for the whole walking miles past the trail head camping area to escape weekend noises. But so it goes, with motorcycles allowed and so many access points, and at least I am awake in time to see the sunrise and grateful to have survived without any stormy mishaps in the night (Steph later tells me that the storm circled and circled, keeping her up for hours. I have no memory of this).Today was a day of plodding along, of easy miles that felt hard, of walking like zombies through a half-dead forest. Sections 16 and 17 fall in the beetle belt – the rust belt for trees – where more evergreens stand dead than alive. In sections that are newly-dead orange-red needles coat the trail; in those longer-gone, a thick coating of chartreuse lichen gives the appearance of green branches. The trees suffer, but the forest is still alive with birdsong.We are at lower elevations all day, wandering up and down among the skeletons, with only a few glimpses of distant hills from the odd bald spot along the ridge. With few views for entertainment, I take up listening and hear:
Birds that sound like bicycles
Bicycles that make no sounds at all
A cat fight
A bird of doubt whose mocking call “don’t think you can make it” accompanies me all the way up a long uphill
So many motorcycles that I can’t listen to music for fear of being run over from behind. I am passed by:
A large herd of cows
It’s quite the experiment in multi-use trail life, and I am still not exactly a fan. The dirt bike riders are the worst. Or they seem that way. It’s so hard to tell how friendly they are beneath their plastic armor of helmets and goggles and breastplates; and it’s impossible to chat unless they stop and turn off engines. Mostly I find myself leaping off the trail out of the way, somewhat annoyed.
But not as annoyed as the mountain bikers who are mostly mountain bike pushers today. Trail that looked cruiser on the maps turned out to be much rocks. And as a foot-dragging zombie walker, I tripped over every single one for 22 miles. Every [stab]. Single [kick]. Rock [stumble].
I’m having lunch at a trail junction, when Steph catches me. We pack up and start hiking, but neither of use is feeling it. So we stop for a nap at the next trail junction which is an impressive .1 miles later. Post-nap I’m not doing much better. The dead trees become the drowsy poppy field outside emerald city. So tired I can’t keep my eyes open. I look ahead, close my eyes for five steps, look ahead… until I decide I should probably just sit down. “I know what people mean when they say they are thinking of nothing,” says Steph, who while physically more awake, is not faring much better mentally.
As with most ridges, today’s are dry, thanks to water’s pesky tendency to run downhill and the whole ridges being on top of things thing. My drowsiness is likely the result of my lazy reluctance to carry more water. The same laziness leads me to skip the next water: a lake, inconveniently located far down from the ridge, as is a pesky tendency of lakes. The next (and only for today) water source after the lake is a creek my notes helpfully describe as “50% cow pee.” But to my zombie-brain diluted urine seems more appealing than a one mile detour off trail.
I end up walking 14 miles on a liter and bit. I’ve done worse in the SoCal desert (or better, depending on your perspective). I enter the cow-pee drainage with trepidation and am relieved not too see any cows relieving themselves. Or any cows at all for that matter. With nary a fresh cow pie in site, I grab water and am chatting with hiker-friends from Salida, when Arcade and Glimmer show up. We find a family-sized campsite a bit further down the trail, and set up for the night. Just as I’m boiling water for dinner the first drops fall. It’s really a matter of when, not if around here. Luckily, for today at least, tents are pitched, camp chores are done and my teeth brushed before it really starts coming down, quieting inter-tent conversations.
Trail Mile: 271
CW5 Mile 10.8 to Segment 16 Mile 4.1
In the morning, peak-bagger-hiker and ever so generous trail angel Gazelle kindly drives us all the way back up to the pass – so many thanks, friend! Instead of hiking, we make excuses to go into the gift shop next to the tourist gondola that promises superlative views (to ‘return’ borrowed banana chips to the hikers box) where we stand around eating even more treats from the hiker box that has been much replenished since our last visit (Epic bison bars!). But then it is time to go. To hike. To face the weather. It is also noon.Walking away from town feels like walking into a dark cloud. Partly because we ARE walking into a dark cloud. I watch as a cartoon perfect bolt of lightening strikes the ridge where the trail continues about a mile away. We chill at a campsite with an easy descent path if needed, to give the storm a few minutes to move on. Or at least to give myself a moment to summon the courage to walk toward electric danger yet again.Despite the full packs and storm dodging, the walking is easy today. No massive passes, just a lot of very pleasant ridge walking some up high with views, some through forest carpeted in yellow sunflowers. We finish the last few miles of the Collegiate West option so worth it, even with the cornice to scale and the weather bombs. Today, at where the two trails reconverge, we stand completely content, having stayed up high where we can gaze down upon the ascent those on the Collegiate East have to make back up to these scenic ridges.This stretch of trail has been incredibly busy with mountain bikers, and then motorbike and signs of horses, each fresher than the last, joining the mix. So many different kinds of users somehow coexisting on these trail – though I have trouble imagining how horses and motorcycles manage crossing on narrow path.
At the next trail head we meet the horse people. Actual thru-riders who I can ask thousands of miles worth of questions about how, exactly that works. But all my tired thru-hiker dreams of having a pack animal (horses! llamas! goats!) to take the weight is quickly shattered by the realities the responsibilities that come with caring for creatures other than yourself. “It’s like traveling with six children,” the horse people explain.Avoiding the trailhead parking on a summer Saturday night, we head to the next water. Which turns out to be way down a side trail off the the divide, hundreds of feet below. Trying to save time and make camp before the incoming thunderstorm arrives, we attempt to fill up at a small stream part way down. But it is an uncooperative trickle. Flowing slower than my sawyer mini-filter and far less clear.
We run back up the hill, not quite enough not quite clear water in tow, to pitch tents against the fat rain drops. The storm passes nearby, assaulting ridges just beyond ours. I am a totally nervous camper. Under too big a tree, too close to an open space, too close to a ridge. Making matters worse, the tree and most of its neighbors are dead. So here I am, far too exposed with nowhere to go and widow-makers all around (notice all the dead branch silhouettes in the photo below).
Though the rain stops in the night (and we are not swept away in a flash flood), we wake to incredible dampness in the narrow canyon too close to the river. And there’s only more dampness to confront: damp clothes, wet packs, soaked shoes. I put this off, if only temporarily, cooking hot soup for breakfast from the comfort of my relatively dry sleeping bag.
It’s only 11 miles to town and the promise of showers and laundry and dry everything. But of course the divide stands in between and here I am all soggy at the bottom. So on go the cold, wet clothes and soggy shoes, which warm up somewhat as I climb the steep hill, past lakes (Lakes!) until I am again walking right on the continental divide following a pleasantly crooked path past old looking stone cairns covered in lichens. Much of the way down is a ridge walk. Which is pretty much my favorite, views on both sides, until the trail deposits me on the dirt roads of an off season ski resort. The roads are a maze and there are no signs. I tried up a steep, steep road, double checking my phone all the way only to get to the top and find out I was walking up a black diamond run.
I drain my phone batteries using GPS to navigate, wondering what happened to Steph who was right behind me until she isn’t. I later learn that she did some steep bonus miles, lost at the ski resort (her phone GPS hasn’t been working).
On and on, the trail seems to go, winding full circles around unnecessary mountains. I hike to see amazing views, but sometimes nothing is more amazing than rounding the bend to see a giant parking lot and a weathered mid century modern rest stop- gift shop.Inside, near dusty taxidermy porcupines, stone arrowheads and other curiosities, there’s a hiker box tucked in a corner. A giant air freshener has been strategically placed, synthetic floral aromas doing serious competition with hiker stench.
We score a ride to town with the second person we acost, a father from Leadville out mountain biking with his young sons. He deposits us near the hostel in Salida (though it is out of his way – thank you again!), which is rumored to be hiker friendly. But the big NO glows orange on the vacancy sign. Out faces droop in such sadness, but we go in anyway to see if they have space for tomorrow.
But they are so hiker friendly we can sleep on the floor for cheap and there’s bunk space for tomorrow. So much happiness. And Glimmer and Arcade are here!
We don crazy town outfits from the loaner clothes pile and hit up the grocery store. Finally, two weeks later, we make the eggs and veggies we dreamed up way back on day one.
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.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.
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.
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.
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.