Oh town mornings on a true zero! Sleeping in. Blogging in bed. Making a perfect toasted breakfast bagel with hummus, spinach and artfully arranged avocado. The joy of cotton clothes and walking around in a ridiculous town outfit that consists of the following: white flowered dress worn as a skirt; marine conservation t-shirt; and men’s fruit of the loom boxer briefs size large, pulled brand new from a package in the hiker box. All the girls are wearing them these days. There’s a bit of a back up with the laundry, you see, and we have tired of sitting around commando in skirts among the city crowd.
The red rain jacket, dirty ursack purse and new sunglasses help add to the ridiculousness of it all as we drool over new hiking clothes at the the mountain sport store and rummage through thrift shops (where Steph tries to convince me to buy leather chaps, a bargain at $40, by insisting they are light weight since they don’t cover your butt).
I buy my resupply from Safeway, (just three easy blocks from the Simple Hostel = best trail town ever) where I find vegan cream cheese and organic tortilla chips and instant re-fried beans to pack out. And a pint of dairy free Ben and Jerrys and fresh veggies to eat in.We have grand plans with CDT friends, Glimmer and Arcade, and 14er hiker Gazelle: my first time paying Cards Against Humanity. Which turns out to be equal parts offensive and hilarious, and to go oh so very well with beer and new friends and a pint of ice cream.
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.
I wake at 5:31 exactly, despite my best effort to sleep in and staying up past hiker midnight tending the laundry. I slept in my freshly washed hiking shirt last night but it’s stinking already. After five days and a good wash. The shirt is not the only thing back to hiker normal, I think, as I totter out of bed on sore feet. Hiker hobble, it’s been so long! It takes us hours to rally and fully extract ourselves from the soft (and so flat!) cocoon of bed. We spend a relaxing morning trading stories and chatting with our kind hosts Len and Chris who have had some impressive adventures of their own via motorcycle, bicycle and on foot. Len also happens to be a talented scroll cut artist and shows us some of his work and the tiniest saws I have ever seen. Len and Chris so many thanks!
Then back around Lake Dillon to town. I asked about the big body of water last night, having spied it through the trees for much of the way down yesterday. Lake Dillon, you see, is really a reservoir. And so I take a quick plunge into local water politics, because the lovely snow-melt is all Denver’s water. Locals don’t get to drink it and they aren’t even allowed to swim in it. Except stand up paddle boarding is OK. But what if you fall in? I don’t know?
I buy food for the next leg at Whole Foods. Best. Resupply. Ever. I tour the aisles with pack on my back getting embarrassingly excited about Brussel sprout snacks and new flavors of kettle chips (on sale!). Then off to our hostel in the free bus (seriously, this area is amazing for hikers!).
The Bivvi hostel is up on a hill just outside town, as clean luxurious as advertised and full of hikers. Erin is here too and we finally get to meet. There’s some more sorting of food and gear and then we hop in the bus to head to town for dinner.
The bus pulls in with a man running after it. At first I think he’s just late, but then he starts shouting strings of curse words in front of kids and everyone. Something about the driver not stopping (at a non-stop). He blocks the doors, refuses to move insists on talking the to driver’s supervisor. The driver stays calm calls in an “alpha male” and promises that his “supervisor” will be there in a few minutes. At this point we cut our losses and get off the bus. As we are walking, three cop cars go screaming up the hill sirens on. I do think the “supervisor” my come bearing handcuffs. We decide to try our luck at hitching on the way (so we can make it back for fireworks). Erin gets a car to pull over and the couple can take the three of us to town. It turns out the driver is a pastor. “I only picked you up because you’re girls,” he admits.
We make it back in time to watch the fireworks from the hostel balcony where it’s all spring break 2017 with beer and a BBQ and bros in a hot tub. There are many CDT hikers around, stuck in a town vortex (did I mention that it is really nice here?). I invest way to much energy tonight making decisions about microspikes and hiking out tomorrow (it is so nice here! But weather and time…). The CDT hikers convince me to send home my microspikes, though the Colorado Trail Foundation still lists some upcoming segments as “impassible” because of snow. Am I as tough as a CDT hiker? Find out soon!
Finally, the forest relinquishes control of the landscape and we are truly above the treeline heading toward Georgia pass. This is why I hike. This is why I wake up at 5am. Snow patches brighten shady creases and hollows, but the trail itself is all clear. I am reminded most of Sonora Pass green slopes and snow splotches, with patches of trees. Today we finally reach the divide, sharing paths with the continental divide trail (CDT), that like the PCT stretches from Mexico to Canada. But today is also a day divided, geography echoing my mood. A tale of two hills.
We snap photos on the pass just as a big dark cloud hides the morning sun. Clouds have moved in even faster today than the day before. It’s not even 8am. Still it is glorious up here and, mentally, Breckenridge, our first resupply, is all downhill from the pass.
But there’s the minor detail of a 1,200 foot climb. Not especially massive, but between pushing for town and pushing the last four days for fun it becomes a significant hurdle. Elevation is so strange. When I’m feeling strong I haven’t noticed at all. But when anything is a bit off high elevation is all like “oh, you wanna go up there? Fine. But do you really need oxygen? And here are some thunderclouds and raindrops 4 U. MmmmK?
A quarter of the way up and my relatively empty pack seems full of rocks, my legs are lead. Even the metaphors are hard. At one point the long switchbacks angle just right to make it feel as if we are walking uphill toward the pass again! Then the rain falls in fat drops just insistently enough to require repacking my pack. And then stops 2 minutes later. The weather in these Colorado mountains goes from sweaty hot to shivering cold in a single puff of cloud.
This is a head down keep plodding situation. Except, as the day goes on I am increasingly interrupted by mountain bikers. I want to listen to music but would probably get run over. Then there are so many bikers it’s impossible to get a rhythm going. I find myself on narrow switchbacks, almost constantly stepping aside as they zoom by. They far outnumber the hikers we see today. Some are incredibly polite, announcing their presence and group size and wishing us good hikes. Others not so much. Steph is convinced one guy, rushing downward with music blasting was actually aiming for us. Finally I have LTE phone service and can check on possible rooms for tonight. We have reservations for tomorrow but have arrived a day early on a busy weekend. If the bikers are any indication town must be packed. And Sour Patch has zoomed ahead so now we are only splitting 2 ways. It seems the whole town is booked up for the holiday, or at least the bits of town that can be yours for under $300 a night. What to do? We are only 7.2 miles from the road and it’s not even 2pm. The only other option seems to be camping at the last sites before town which appear to be under the power lines. In beetle kill forest. By the Blair Witch trail?!?!
As a last hope, Steph posts to the women of the CT Facebook page on the chance that someone in Breckenridge wants to split a room with us, before resigning ourself to another night out. But showers! And food that doesn’t required added water! So close. And so out of reach.
And then, like magic, we have an offer of a spare room with friends of a Facebook friend, Len and Chris. Steph steels herself up to call Len. It’s always a bit intimidating to call a complete stranger to ask for a favor, especially one that involves staying in their house. “Hi, I’m Stephanie I got your number from Betty Cook?” She begins. “I don’t know any Betty Cook” comes the reply. Her face freezes, in deer-headlights mode. But of course it is all a joke. And we are most welcome. Then there are a few last miles out and a free bus to town, where we wander the isles of the grocery store scoping out resupply options before mulling over dinner food possibilities. Len kindly picks us up from the grocery store and takes us on a mini tour of nearby Frisco, with an adorable single Main Street tucked right against the mountains all decked out in flags for the holiday.
So instead of hunkering down all dusty and sad under the power lines in the haunted half-dead woods, we are all cozy and ever so grateful in plush robes, waiting for our laundry with the comfiest beds awaiting. We were offered our own separate rooms, but perhaps inspired by the Giggle Twins, thought sharing a room with twin beds like sisters would be more fun.
After yesterday’s unplanned almost-marathon we have a lazy morning stopping to chat with all kinds of hikers hoping to find our bubble or even better, a potential trail family of cool people doing similar miles. Those with smaller packs are definite contenders and we see tons of ULA today. Except they are all going in to town in a few miles and we are not. Bummer.
The second half of segment 5 continues to impress. We curve up and around a series of hills that alternate between forest shade and grassy Meadows with stunning views of the still-snowy continental divide which we will finally reach tomorrow.
The morning is hot though and most of the day is up. So instead of breaking at Kenosha pass (other than to make excellent use of the pit toilets), we head on to get more elevation out of the way before the real heat of the afternoon. The trail seems to follow some old train tracks (this was a major obligatory passage point for three railways back in the day), and we have so much fun walking them we veer off trail for a few minutes. Oops.But the main factor shaping today, aside from yesterday’s big efforts, is the impending Georgia Pass. Doing twenty miles today would land us exactly at the top, above the tree line at 12,000 feet. Not exactly a safe place to camp in a thunderstorm. Luckily, a women headed north confirms camping at mile 9.4 a) exists b) has water and c) is below the tree line. “Just turn left at the moose bones,” she explains, as if that’s a perfectly normal set of directions.
And of course the thunder clouds are gathering. By the time we stop for lunch among the aspen at the pretty Guernsey creek, the sky has darkened, the wind kicked up and all signs point to a downpour. A local car camper (with a massive tent-shelter we were admittedly hoping he would offer us to hide under) assured us that he though it would all blow over without raining on us. I have to admit I was rather skeptical, but he was right! After a few tiny sprinkles the sky lightened and was well. Even better, we soon meet two cool hikers, both from Texas which gives me hope for my move next month. There’s Jesse who is hiking with his sweet lab-collie mix Juniper who massively makes me miss my dog Onyx. And there’s Sour Patch, a compete bad ass Appalachian Trail hiker who is out here pulling 30 mile days with a pack that weighs twice as much as mine. Here we are feeling like we are crushing it and she started at day later! I am seriously impressed. We join forces, talking our way through what can be slumpy afternoon miles, winding up forest slopes until we all decide to stop just this side of the pass. Partly because the dark clouds are still hovering and there’s thunder in the not-so-distance. Partly because it sets us up well for tomorrow to camp just short of Breckenridge instead of spending more money on accommodations in town. And partly because of the great company. Though I am feeling pretty strong still, getting to camp before 5 is a welcome luxury after a series of long days. So there are seven humans and one dog at camp tonight and while we are all generally getting along fabulously there are lot of different styles converging here. Take for example the range of food storage strategies: sleep with (2); bear piñata (2 sharing one bag); ursacks tied properly to tree but not hung (2) and opsack in an ursack in a dry bag hung in tree (1). This last woman admitted that she spent the last week hanging a bear canister (!!!) in a tree (!!!). Despite this incredible caution said woman sprayed her tent and the ground around it with about a half can of flowery scented bug spray that proceeded to waft all over my tent. This all reminded me of a time in girl guides when one person convinced the other girls to smear deodorant all over their tents to repel bears (when scented products can attract bears as much as food LOL).
Still, much awesome conversation at camp tonight. There’s a pair of hikers, The Giggle Twins, who are absolutely hilarious in all the right ways. The have some chlorophyll powder they have been eating straight to help combat the elevation but it turns their lips dark green. I totally assumed they were awesome goth hikers, when they are awesome feminist apothecaries. They were so excited that Jesse was just behind us, they ran down the trail to meet him and insisted he camp here with the ladies. And he did. Hopefully because this is a rad group of interesting, energetic folks and not just because it’s the last water this side of the pass.