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).
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.