CT Day 17: The (Thunder) Crack of Noon

July 17th
Miles: 15
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).

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CT Day 15: Lost at Ski, Salida Bound

July 13
Miles: 11
Total: 262

CW 5 Mile 0 to Monarch Pass

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.

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.
 

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.
 

CT Day 11: Smiles, Not Miles

July 9
Miles: 12.1
Trail: 189

Collegiate West 5.6
Segment 11 Mile 7.2-13.7; to Collegiate West 1 Mile 5.6

At check out time I leave our cozy home and take up my post out front of the the general store. I’ve spent a lazy morning blogging in bed and plan to make today a true nero – hiking “near zero” miles. Steph has hiked in and piles of other hikers are here too: Quentin and Balaji from back on night 2; Whiskers and Flower from night 3. And, I’m super excited because there’s word that Bad Camper is hiking with Motown and other PCT 2015 friends and that they should arrive today. I’ve spent the last few days staring hopefully at tall northbound hikers, but alas, No Bad Camper.

We eat food from the hiker box, roasting in the sun waiting for phones to charge. I chase the shade, settling for a tiny square beside the gas pump, that I only later realize has been hilariously named:

I carefully construct a lunch of double hiker box tuna in a hiker box tortilla with hiker box ketchup. I take a bite and instantly regret not checking out the restaurant or barbecue truck.

Is unbelievably hot for 9,200, but when friends fail to walk out of the actual woods, Steph and I head out into the heat, getting a ride to the road crossing in the back of a pickup truck. We’re following the official CT here, a stretch that many shortcut because the trail makes a massive elongated side loop, circumnavigating the lakes. We are on the sunny, dry side, all shadeless and sage, and it feels like the desert. A few miles in, I’m feeling woozy from the heat, and spy a stand up paddle boarder gliding peacefully out on the lake. Am I hallucinating? But then there’s a side trail to a sandy bit of beach between the reeds and a family is there playing in the water. I drop my pack, offer “smiles not miles as explanation,” and dive into instant relief from overheating. We sit on the beach, chatting with the family, and, amazingly are offered use of the paddle board if we want to try (!). Of course I say yes and manage a little spin without falling in, massive peaks as backdrop.

Refreshed and amused, the next miles fly by: across the dam that raises the lake levels in the 1970s; past countless perfect lakeside campsites. We take a tiny detour to a historic site, expecting some derelict building remnants, and can’t believe what is there: Fancy log houses, a six-sided outhouse, and a whole hotel in various stages of restoration. The house is open to visitors, though no one is there. We wander the rooms and marvel at the woodwork.

It’s later now but we do want to conquer at least some of the infamous hill that is Hope Pass, with its gazillion feet of elevation gain in four short (by seemingly interminable miles). It’s like climbing mount Elbert minus the views and with full resupply. On a jeep “road” which is basically the worst trail ever: straight up, washed out and rocky.

Finally there are campsites meadowside. But it is creepy here in the darkening woods, with tin cans and TP scattered here and there. And once I set up, I notice a massive pile of moose poop beside my tent, and worry I have camped on a large animal superhighway. I half wake in the night to a stampede of heavy footsteps, moose or bear at a run heavy, that stomp to a walk as if they are making an unexpected detour around the strange structure that has sprouted on their path. In the morning there’s no sign of night visitors, just the echoes of feet in the night ringing in my head.

CT Day 10: Elbert is My Shasta

July 8th
Miles: 4.1 CT + 7 for Elbert 
Trail Mile 176.5 

Way back in May, I made mid-June plans to Climb mount Shasta with PCT friends Shuffles and Dribbles. But a storm blew in, dumping 7″ of fresh snow on our “Avalanche Gulch” route (how safe), and plunging temperatures at the peak into the single digits Fahrenheit. Too much for summer gear and novice skills that were already going to be stretched to the limit.

But today I get a chance at a 14er (14,000 foot peak) redemption. I wake in the almost dark, with the mountain looming more than 4,000 feet above. The trick in Colorado is to make it up and off the summit before a thunderstorm rolls in. This is usually around noon, but a man on the way up tells me the storms are predicted to be ahead of schedule today. Well. At least I got started before sunrise. I load my pack with water at the very bottom. Though there’s still a bit of snow melting somewhere up there, the trail appears to follow dry ridges up and down. Laden with liquid I join the steady stream of peak baggers; runners in short shorts and little water vests; parents with toddlers on backs and older children in tow; day hikers with their tiny hydration packs and bright clean clothes; and bros with camo backpacks that charge ahead and then take a sit down break every few hundred feet. I look like a crazy lady in my dirty-stinky hiker shirt and giant tattered pack. but I do pass most of them (except the runners!) so they can only judge so much! Pass I might, but hardly with flying colors. This trail is steep! Most of the gain is in just a few miles (3,800 feet in 3.5 Miles), the air growing scarcer with each step. There are few switchbacks, mostly it is just up. Near the top, loose scree slides out underfoot just when you are in most need of solid ground. 

One foot in front of the other, and eventually you run out of up and hit the top. Woot! After some victory photos, I have a brief conversation with a woman in a running vest who turns out to be a) pianist Amy Briggs and b) someone who knows my friend Erika. Giant peak. Small world. 

As I am basking at the summit the few white puffy clouds have become thick and grey. Sheets of rain are falling in the far side of the valley, and dark clouds have snuck up behind Elbert too. Time to go. I hauled my pack all the way to the top up the North trail (cursing my stupidity all the way) and as reward can now hike out the South trail for new scenery and to land closer to Twin Lakes (congratulating myself all the way for the same reason). The North trail is much more pleasant with fewer people and more switchbacks, especially near the top where you need them most. I trot back down toward the forest, grasshopper wings (legs?) clicking madly like the ignition to a gas stove as they leap about the grassy meadows. I stop among them to rest my knees and take in more of the view. At the Twin Lakes store I find my resupply box and a vitamin water and hiker box treats. I conspire to share a room for the night with a CDT hiker German Mormon. The catch is that there’s only one bed and GM is a dude I’ve known for about five minutes. “Well I will take it until 2am and then we can swap,” he jokes. “Like sailors on a submarine” I giggle. Except we think this is so funny we decide to do it.

The room is in a massive old farmhouse, with narrow stairs and a dark wood paneled parlor. Occupying another room are two more German CDT hikers, the kind and generous Walkabout and Skipper. The house has a kitchen with a mishmash of new and old stoves and furniture and spices (mostly old) where I eat hiker box rice and lentils from ancient chipped china. The rice is organic but also the kind you reheat in the plastic pouch. It seems like these might cancel each other out? There are fifteen identical packages in the free box at the store. Who left them? Why did they have so many? 

Just as I gag down the last of the (bland, plasticy) lentils, Walkabout starts chopping potatoes with a vengeance, admitting he is a professional chef and has bought far too much food for dinner. I sit at the kitchen table, basking in the smell of frying onions and potatoes. German Mormon has found a piano to play piano in the other room, Simon and Garfunkel. And somehow accommodations for the night become a family home, if only for a little while.