I slept in for a while. I could hear trucks passing on the road, but my tent was somehow in the shade (because it was a very cloudy day, it turned out) and I was the perfect temperature, and I just didn’t want to get up. And I no urgent need to either. It was 10am by the time I packed up and left camp.
Weather wise, it was a perfectly average day. The kind of day where when the sun shined it was way too hot to have my winter coat on, but it shined less than half the time. And when the wind blew, it was way too cold to have my coat off, but it only blew half the time. Later in the afternoon, I removed the inner lining from my coat and just wore the shell for the first time ever. It was the perfect balance until the sun set and it was way too cold. Indeed, although it didn’t feel like it at bed time, it was set to be the coldest night of the week.
Just after leaving camp, I passed Big Eddy Boat Pull-Out along the Rio Chama. I popped down to use the privy even though I was not in desperate need yet, thinking to save myself some time later in the day for bigger miles. That would not work out as planned. I also relieved myself of what little bit of trash I had generated that morning in the trash cans there. Never pass up an opportunity to lighten your load, no matter by how little.
As I walked up the road into the canyon to meet the CDT, I noticed my nose was a bit stuffy and runny and felt weird. Sure, the air was cold and drier than I was recently used to, but it felt an awful lot like I was sick. My throat also felt a little sore, though perhaps only in that “snored all night in dry air” sort of way. It was like having mild cold symptoms that could have come about without the cold.
A couple of hours in, I joined the trail by crossing Skull Bridge over the Rio Chama. I soon left the road that crossed it for a much less maintained road that went up the canyon of the Canada Gurule. I stopped shortly after at a spring-fed cattle trough that supplied the easiest to collect water I expected to see all day. I had to tiptoe around the edge of a trampled-down pool day surrounded it to get to the flowing pipe without getting my feet wet.
Just south of here, the trail left the road through a narrow turnstile. So narrow that it ripped the mesh on the side of my brand new pack as I squeezed through. But I was headed into a wilderness area and the cattle weren’t welcome. Nor were any vehicles. The trail became a single track.
I ended up having to stop before lunch time due to gastrointestinal distress, and I went ahead and had lunch right after since it was time by then anyway. This was reason the second (after the late start) for my short mileage this day. Also, it fed into my belief that I must be sick, though again, it could have just been something I ate the previous day.
The next bit of trail was just following alongside the Canada Gurule for a mile or so, jumping back and forth across the little stream every hundred feet. It was not much of creek, just a little bit of clear flow over a flat sandy bottom. But soon, the trail turned off of this easy climb and started switching back and forth to climb straight up the side of the adjacent ridge to get to a road that ran along the edge of the Mesa del Camino to the Canada Camino cut.
As soon as I reached this road, I had to peel off for yet more gastrointestinal relief. I don’t know what was tearing me up inside, but I lost another hour here including the ensuing snack break, and it was getting pretty late in the afternoon. I had disassembled my jacket immediately after the climb up here, and I started getting cold as I walked down the road.
It was already past sunset when I reached the turnoff that left the road to climb up onto the top of Mesa del Camino, and I passed up a lot of great camping to do it. I had wanted to stop at 7, but there was no good camping from there until I was all the way on top, right up to the edge of the mesa.
It was 7:30 when I reached that beautiful flat area, pine straw strewn under tall pines next to the road that ran along the top. It wasn’t hard to find a good place to pitch a tent, though I did have to clear a lot of pine cones. I cooked dinner in the vestibule with coyotes yipping in the distance. The moon was bright and the temperature was supposed to drop, but it was all quite comfortable until I feel asleep.
So I said I had a plan to get out of the snow and cold. Consultation of weather reports showed that temperatures on trail in Colorado were bound to be in the teens every night for the foreseeable future. My equipment isn’t even suited to keep me comfortable at those temperatures as evidenced by recent experience on the trail.
Besides which, I’m tired of all the extra hassle engendered by the cold and snow, some of which I have not described and will be the subject of a future post most likely.
Anyway, I only have a couple more weeks of time I can spend hiking this year, so I might as well do it on a section of trail that isn’t quite so cold. Checking the weather for New Mexico showed that nightly temperatures there would be at least five degrees warmer at similar elevations, and more than that lower down, which, on average, I would be. In particular, I could do a section north of where I had left off in June that would still shave off a bit of trail left to do next year and also be under 12000 feet the whole way, not to mention be largely snow-free.
After Six made us eggs for breakfast, I got everything packed for air transport, and we took some final photos, Mama started driving us to the airport around 9:30 to get her rental car dropped off about 10:30. That all went just fine, even with the wrong turn and the refueling stop.
From there, we took the bus to the terminal, checked bags, went through security, and headed to the Delta Sky Club to await our flights. We both boarded in the 1pm hours, so we had several hours to enjoy the buffet and open bar.
The rest of the day included two short hop flights with limited service (with a short layover in SLC) and a long, expensive Lyft ride from Albuquerque to Santa Fe right to my hotel. I had originally planned to take the train, but the train I had thought would be running was no longer listed by Google Maps by the time I arrived. So I did arrive sooner than planned but spent a lot more money.
As soon as I dropped my stuff in my room, I walked over to the nearby Walmart and got food for dinner and breakfast for two nights and mornings. I spent the rest of the night just watching TV and eating until sleep.
Day 162: Santa Fe
I had plenty of food in the fridge from my Walmart visit to do breakfast, so I had no reason to leave my room until 10am when REI opened.
I was nowhere near REI, but it turned out there was a bus stop right in front of my hotel that would take me out to the area where the REI was for only a dollar and it left every half hour.
So I got to REI in the 12 o’clock hour and returned my backpack and boots. (I accidentally gave them my head net because I forgot to remove it from the pocket, but I also accidentally kept the day pack that comes with the backpack, so I guess I came out ahead.) I got a different pack, a Deuter, that had far fewer pockets and would be a little bit more difficult to pack in an organized way. Moreover, it didn’t even have a bottle holster, but I hoped that it would not break on me the same way the Baltoro always did. The boots I got were Merrell snow boots that should be able to not tear up when caked with snow. I also wanted to do a Darn Tough sock exchange, but neither the REI nor any other Darn Tough retailer in the city did that. I got a new can of stove fuel, some hand warmers, and some gear tape, then went to lunch.
The Second Street Brewery was right around the corner and had a great chile stew and an “alien burger” that also featured chiles. I caught the bus back to my hotel just before 3.
After dropping my purchases in my room, I left to walk to the day’s main event. I had a ticket for an interactive art exhibit just around the corner called Meow Wolf: House of Eternal Return.
I can’t really explain what an incredible experience this was, but I’ll give the encyclopedia definition that won’t capture the half of it: It’s an art exhibition in a repurposed bowling alley, but it’s not like a museum. Or rather, it is to art what interactive science museums for kids are to science/technology. It’s an intricate two-level maze of a space, all dark except for the light generated by the pieces themselves. Sometimes a wall or a nook is dedicated to a specific collection, sometimes an entire room is a single installation. Maybe a floor to ceiling mural, maybe a set of puzzles to be solved by guests, maybe a guest-controlled dance party. Maybe even just the architecture and furniture of the room itself is the art. And all of this is tied back to a central hub, the titular house, and the narrative and lore presented within it and throughout the other spaces. I spent at least two of the four hours there just reading or watching videos of the lore, and there is much more online I could go back to to dive in even further. But I did manage to visit every space and see almost every artwork and audiovisual presentation throughout. It will surely stick with me for a while.
Anyway, after hours in the dark squeezing past strangers, it was strange to see that it was still light out when I finished, though it was dusk and the sun was nearly gone. I walked back to the hotel, getting accosted by a homeless man trying to sell me Bluetooth headphones on the way. I just dropped in to check what I should buy for my resupply, and it turned out it was only a handful of things, as what I had brought with me from Colorado was almost all I needed to get me the few days from Ghost Ranch to Cuba.
Since I was there, I decided to just go ahead and eat supper. Hot Pockets again, only now I opened the beer I had taken from the Delta lounge. I didn’t have a bottle opener (the downside of no longer having the knife I lost in Steamboat), so I just broke the top of the bottle off trying to remove it on the edge of the granite counter around the bathroom sink.
I went back out to Walmart in the last hour before it closed. It took less than 15 minutes to get in and out with the five or so items I needed. I went back to my room, too tired to do the blog work I was behind on, and immediately got ready for bed. This time I slept without even bothering to close the blackout curtains.
Day 163: FS 151 near Rio Chama
The schedule for the 190 bus to Chama showed that it ran at 11:20am from Espanola Transit Center, but Google didn’t seem to think it ran until 5:50pm. (It turned out that midday service had been suspended until that very day.)
The matter was moot though. After a nice relaxing bath, breakfast, two cups of coffee, and other self-care, and then spending an hour figuring out how to pack all my stuff in the new pack, it was already past 10am, and there was no way I could get to Espanola in time.
I took the one dollar bus up to the government district of Santa Fe, a spartan sort of area south of the cool part of town. I found my way to the transit hub there and saw that I had three hours to waste until the next free bus to Espanola.
I spent that time at a very European style southwestern cafe called Cafecito. They were very inviting and told me I could sit there on the patio all day without ordering anything else (after I had finished my empanadas and salad) if I wanted. I ordered some banana bread anyway. With only thirty minutes until my bus, I walked back over to the transit center.
There were a couple of people there waiting for the same bus. One very talkative and opinionated Latino guy wanted to try on my pack and take pictures with it, which was fine. When we all got to Espanola an hour later, I ended up taking his recommendation for where to go for dinner.
I had another 3 hours until the free bus toward Chama left, you see, so I might as well spend it eating a good hearty supper too. Espanola seemed like kind of a sketchy wasteland, where all the businesses were surrounded by high fences topped by razor wire that they could close up at night. But La Cucina was actually an incredible Mexican restaurant. I got seated next to a power outlet so I could work on the blog and get my phone fully charged while I ate. The free chips and salsa were both some of the best I’ve ever gotten at a restaurant, and they served me a steak practically drowned in beans and chiles and cheese and corn. It was the pure New Mexican Cuisine experience. And then they also just threw in a sopaipilla for free. I can’t recommend going to that town unless you happen to be connecting busses there like me, but if you ever find yourself there, I do recommend that restaurant.
Anyway, the Chama bus came pretty late, like 6pm, but it made the trip faster than scheduled. I got the driver to save me thirty minutes of walking down the highway by dropping me across from FS 151 instead of the official stop at the Ghost Ranch turnoff. In the last half-hour of the ride, I went ahead and got out my headlamp because the sun would be set by the time I got started hiking, but my Steelstik repair job broke on me. So I had to spend that time getting out the putty and fashioning and new repair and then repacking everything before we got there.
Anyway, I stepped off the bus at 7pm, watched it drive away, crossed the highway, and set off down the forest service road. Right away, I saw a van parked in an area to the left and someone tending a small campfire and was slowly tempted to join him. But I had decided I would get in some reasonable amount of hiking and would not stop until 8pm.
When the road came near the Rio Chama and turned to follow it, winding up into Obama Canyon, I turned off into a little side road cul de sac that was flat and had two well-used fire pits right next to each other. Clearly a popular campsite. Even though the ground was so hard I had to pound my stakes in with a rock and bent one doing so.
I did a bit of blogging and then watched the first episode of Squid Game. I had downloaded it for one of the flights down and they had been so short I hadn’t gotten around to it. I got to sleep by 11 or so and slept very well. A long day of doing very little besides spending money, but at least it was on food and not a two hour Lyft ride.
I woke up at 5am, and the room had cooled off considerably. I had already prepared a day pack the night before, but other than the usual morning routine, I packed up a good deal of my regular backpack as well. I had been thinking of going to the lodge for breakfast when it opened at 6, but after doing my best to clean up after myself, it was already 7. I noticed there were some eggs in the fridge and decided to make my own breakfast instead to save time. So I had a couple of fries eggs and a couple of glasses of pumpkin cider along with some of my snacks and another apple, and hot the road.
Well, first I had to bother Shane to unlock his car because I’d forgotten my sunglasses in them the night before. But it was around 8 when I set off up the road.
The climb back up the hill to the trail was quick and easy, as was the climb up through the woods to Boss Lake, a strange artificial lake resulting from mining operations. Now it is just a destination for catch and release fishing because it’s stocked with greenback cutthroats.
I took a nice break in the sun on the steep climb out of that area, suddenly remembering that I had forgotten to put on sunscreen that morning. I didn’t want to be in the shade because it was brutally cold, and it wasn’t really an option anyway. But I did have my spikes with me and it was time to put them on. Just a mile or so above that point, I came out into the open and it became impossible to see where the trail went.
I could figure out what it did by looking at the map and then look for gaps in the bushes and trees going up the side of the ridge to a higher plateau. But once up there (after a brief stop to watch a mouse or vole scurry across the snow too fast to video), there were hardly enough bushes to make this possible. I saw generally where I needed to go and found my way there, finding my way back onto the trail once the next ridge climb started and I needed the switchbacks to make progress. It was in this climb that clods of snow first started building up in my spikes.
I soon reached the top of the pass and the powerful cold wind that was coming across the ridge. I wouldn’t be out of it for the next few miles.
While I was walking down the center of the ridge, the snow was thin. The wind had brought it in from the side at speed, so it was only on the right side of big rocks or piled up behind them where the wind eddied out. But when I came around the side of Bald Mountain, things got sketchy. The trail was already a bit difficult from just being a traverse across a pile of boulders, but because I was on the windward side of the mountain, the snow had also tended to collect in deep drifts that frequently filled up the trail cut up to the height of the surrounding rocks. It was slow going for that half mile, all the while being directly blasted by that cold wind.
Once I was on the other side of that peak and back on the ridge, I got to go downhill, the snow stopped being so deep, and the boulders weren’t quite so annoying. However, I had sent my mom a text saying I expected to finish at 3, and after all that struggling to find the trail and slogging through the snow, it was clear I wasn’t going to make that prediction. A mile later, I found a little mostly wind-protected nook at the far northern edge of the ski resort (I reckon), and finally stopped for another snack break, the first in many hours thanks to not wanting to stand still in that cold wind.
A mile or so later, I finally came up on the ski lift putting me squarely in the Monarch ski resort, and the map said it was two miles to Monarch Pass. It was 2:40, so I sent a text predicting 3:40 arrival. Also, I was fed up with the clods of snow forming under my heels in the spikes, so I removed them.
The next two miles were not that bad aside from the snow, all roadwalk and mostly downhill. I could see the highway below. But as I came down to the pass, a problem became apparent. The highway wasn’t going through the pass. I looked at the map and saw I had misread it. I had measured the distance to Old Monarch Pass, where I had just arrived. Monarch Pass was another two miles on. I sent another text predicting 4:40.
Fortunately, those last two miles were a lot easier. They went around the side of the last mountain, down in the forest the whole time, and the trees mostly prevented the trail from getting shoe-deep in snow. I got down to Monarch Pass even before 4:30.
Mama was waiting there, walking down to meet me at the edge of the turnoff for the pictures. She had been worried because there was no cell service at the pass, so she didn’t get any of my updates.
Anyway, we went into the Monarch Crest store for my late lunch: something they called a chili dog, but was actually a huge bowl of chili with a hot dog at the bottom of it. Also some cheesy popcorn and a root beer (of course) and some glazed pecans for the road. It was after 5 when we finally came back down to the Butterfly House.
Since I was mostly packed up, it didn’t take long to get my pack together and ready to go. But there were other things that needed doing, like donating to the hostel for all they had given me and getting all the pictures Mama and I wanted. Shane was there for all of this and may have been in more than one of those photos…
Anyway, we finally got on the road before 6, headed back for a free night’s stay at Six and Dangerpants’ condo again. Why? Because I was tired of the cold and done with Colorado. But more about the plan we had put together in the next post. For now, suffice it to say we were both flying out the next afternoon and needed to be in Denver.
We picked the long way there, a three hour trip, just so we could see Leadville (and, incidentally, many of the other places I had hiked through a week or so before). We would be seeing it all in the dark, of course, because sunset was already beginning when we started out.
On the way, we stopped at a convenience store at which I acquired a coffee and an energy drink. It was a hard day of hiking, as mentioned, my face was already showing signs of the sun exposure, and I’d done it all on only 5 hours of sleep. I was exhausted, but I’m not so rude as to fall asleep in the passenger seat. I was going to make it all the way and be friendly on arrival too.
We arrived around 9pm as announced. Six and Dangerpants had two beds in two rooms made up for us. The apartment was now decorated for Halloween and they had just finished watching a suitably scary movie on TV. So we sat in the den and chatted foot a while as I slowly faded into a sleepy stupor. I called it a night at 10pm and went downstairs to sleep on the air bed. It seemed to have a slow leak, so I had to inflate it again before using it, but the slow loss of air was still able to sustain me until morning.
Trail miles: 10.7 (actually about two miles more than that)
I boiled my water one more time at 6am to give myself enough warmth to get through packing up, leaving using it to make breakfast until after everything was packed.
And both One Day and I struggled mightily to get packed. It was the coldest morning we’d seen, easily down into the teens. Everything was frozen. Despite having done our best to get the ice off our boots, they were still frozen perfectly solid and nearly impossible to put on. One Day sounded like she was giving birth to twins with the effort of getting hers on. And the she was able to go use the bathroom in the time it took me to get just one on. Even though we started packing at the same time, all the struggle and dealing with the frost and wet stuff from sleeping on frozen ground surrounded by snow, and only making breakfast after all that, meant I left camp like five minutes later than her.
A hundred yards out of camp, I seriously bit it when both feet shot out from under me. There was a flat layer of ice hidden under a thin layer of snow. I was walking in One Day’s footprints, but for some reason, it didn’t bring her down. When I caught her collecting water at the next stream crossing, she said she had noticed the ice and slipped on it slightly.
Less than a mile later, we accidentally passed the turnoff for the CDT and kept on the railroad grade until it reached the river. We decided to backtrack instead of connecting back on the nearby road and there it was, clearly marked if we had not been so distracted chatting to examine the signpost we had passed and the area around it.
The next couple of miles was a long climb through the woods, then a lot of working through snow over rock slides. I never bothered to put on spikes. It slowed me somewhat in the thick snow on the climb, but it helped me when I was hopping from rock to rock in the road I crossed and in the rock slide areas. A couple of miles later, I came down to the edge of Hancock Lake, realizing that the whole climb and descent I had just done had been kind of pointless, as there had been a gently graded road right up the center of the valley from the trailhead we had backtracked near.
I took a walk down to the edge of the frozen lake and then right across the surface. It was already solid and thick. I went along the edge until I met one of the inflows. I was collecting water and trying to filter it (I kept the hose and filter in my pocket) when One Day caught up already wearing her spikes. When the water still wouldn’t flow through the hose (just moments out in the cold had been enough for it to develop enough frost to slow the flow to a thin trickle), One Day let me use a couple drops of her bleach. It meant I had to wait 20-30 minutes to drink the water, but that wouldn’t end up being an issue.
She left ahead of me while I put on my spikes for the big climb ahead, and I chased her all the way up the next pass. She was several hundred yards ahead of me at first, but I gained as quickly as I could. I cut the first switchback on the pass climb while she did not. This put me only a dozen feet behind her as she came over the top. She did cut all the other switchbacks though and put on a burst of speed on the descent. By the time I came over the top, I couldn’t see her anymore. Indeed, I even lost her footprints for a moment. I had to consult the map to find the trail. I soon found her tracks again and saw she was taking as direct a path down as possible regardless of the trail. I did my best to do the same.
I caught her again picking her way through a giant pile of rocks near another lake. I decided to go a lot faster than was advisable for that section of trail when wearing spikes. Spikes make walking on rocks so much harder than usual, and I did fall on a rolling rock at one point. I caught myself mostly in snow and didn’t get injured at all. Anyway, I passed One Day and took the lead for the rest of the descent to the Boss Lake Parking Area.
At this point, One Day was flip-flopping on whether to continue the next ten miles to Monarch Pass, but I was already dead-set on taking the road into Monarch. But I was hungry and there were no restaurants serving lunch in Monarch, so I sat with One Day in the sun and ate lunch while she decided. Eventually, she decided to go down to Monarch with me, hoping to get in touch with a trail angel who had agreed to take her to Salida to a house to stay for free. I tried to swing us a ride from a guy driving a truck passing by, but he wasn’t headed that way.
We walked the road together, passing a huge family out for a day trip, a walk to Boss Lake. As we descended, the snow disappeared. Below 10k feet in elevation, the road was completely clear of snow and just covered with leaves from the not-yet-barren aspens. Off came the spikes.
After One Day took a short break alone, I led the way for the last mile or so, heading along the high road above Monarch all the way to the Butterfly House. Just a minute or two before I arrived, an intense snow/hailstorm started and One Day caught up to me. We entered the hostel together.
There was no cell service in town, but the Butterfly House had wifi. Only my phone was capable of wifi calling, so I lent it to One Day to call the trail angel. Meanwhile, I picked some loaner clothes off the shelves on the wall, drew a glass of beer from the tap by the sink, and headed to the shower.
I took a long hot shower while some ruckus ensued outside. Lex, girlfriend of Shane who owns the hostel, and a temporary live-in carpenter Alec had come in. She was cleaning up and chatting with One Day, and he arrived just as I finished my shower to get the fire started.
Alec was moving out and his stuff was everywhere, including in the washer and dryer. But we worked it out and I got my clothes started. Meanwhile, One Day walked over to the Monarch Mountain Lodge to meet the trail angel and head to Salida.
While I warmed by the stove, Alec and Lex discussed which of Alex’s clothes he would take and which he would leave on the loaner shelf after the dryer had shrunk so many of them. I ate a bunch of stuff from the communal food, including an apple, a bag of chocolate chips, a layman MRE with pop tarts, a soft cracker with jelly, and a tootsie roll.
Later, Shane came in and said they were all going over to the lodge for dinner and offered a ride. I put my clothes in the dryer and joined them in my ridiculous loaner clothes. Shane and Lex and I had to run through the frozen air between snowstorms to get from the car to the entrance. We found Alec inside with a burger already. He stuck around and played a round of Gravitas with us while he finished eating, but left to go pack some more. The rest of us ate burger/chicken parmigiana sandwich/pizza (me) and drank a beer, then went down to have a dip in the hot tub, but it was closed for repairs to the deck, so we went home. I carried back half the pizza and ate it on the couch in front of the stove. I also ate the last of the MRE (beef ravioli), changed into my clothes out of the crazy purple pants, hung a bunch of stuff to dry from lines near the stove, and shoved every last piece of firewood that had been brought in into the stove.
I put my sleeping bag out on an air mattress on the second floor above the stove where the heat would rise to warm me all night. It was probably in the high seventies up there when I went to sleep at midnight.
Trail miles: 10.2 (actual distance about 2 miles further)
I woke at 5 and was very cold, so I boiled the water in my water bag again and put it back in my sleeping bag. This made me want to go back to sleep, but I knew that wouldn’t fly. There were miles to hike.
The getting ready challenge I saved for last was putting on my boots, which were still ice-coated and had frozen stiff. I tucked some chemical hand warmers in my socks and wore both pairs of socks. I sat on the boots and flexed them with my hands (with a great deal of effort) then put each foot in until my entire body weight caused enough flex to let my foot slide in. The laces were a formality at this point because the shoes could not be tightened. The hand warmers in my socks effectively kept the tops of my toes warm, but the sides and bottoms were as cold as ever.
I packed my tent up still covered in frost. With the temps still below freezing, I had no other choice. I went ahead and put my microspikes on before hiking out.
One Day was there too, of course, but she was struggling with many issues beyond the temperature-related ones (but those as well). She was not even close to ready to go when I was.
I mentioned yesterday a choice between two official CDT routes. One was the Colorado Trail route, the ridge we had been following. The alternative was the Mirror Lake route. Having gotten a weather forecast and seen the wind speed and cloud coverage numbers, I decided I would be a lot happier with the route I had not taken.
So I started bushwhacking straight down the ridge. It was not too difficult. There were some steep snow banks but I could get down them without sliding. There were some blowdowns, but I could avoid them by heading towards the center of the gulch where the creek was and more of the trees were standing. At one or another point a branch grabbed my foot and tried to trip me before snapping free. A branch popped up out of the snow between my legs and tripped me, but I came down soft in the snow. I scared up one of the snowshoe hares whose tracks had given me ideas about the path to take as I came down.
When the gulch started narrowing out and getting steep, I climbed out of it and back onto the open ridge. By now, it was a nice gently-graded forest with very few snags and mostly wide open easy descent. I was surely near the bottom and my boots had finally thawed and gone pliable. In fact, one felt funny, with too much pressure on one side.
I looked down to find that the spikes on my right foot were all twisted to the right, but worse, there was no traction on my left boot at all. I hadn’t even noticed it was missing. But I wasn’t going to hike on without it, it being a very expensive piece of gear. And thanks to the snowstorm the previous evening, I had left a very clear trail of footprints all the way down the mountain. So, I dropped my pack, took off my warm hat, and started retracing steps back up the mountain.
Luckily for me, One Day had decided to follow my trail down the mountain, had found my spikes near the top of my descent path, put it on, and met me coming up after only 15 minutes of climbing. Hurray.
Looking back, I realized that the tree that had grabbed my foot way back when had actually ripped the whole traction device right off my boot, but my boot had been so frozen solid I hadn’t even felt a difference, and had furthermore attributed the occasional slippage of my left foot on my descent to very slippery patches of fresh snow.
In any event, when I led One Day back to my pack (letting her keep the traction on), we were only a hundred yards or so away from the Mirror Lake trail. I took the lead again, at first climbing up to a ridge opposite the one we had descended, where the high tail trail was visible and completely shrouded in a cloud, meaning there would have been no good views from the high route (the only reason to prefer that route with its three major climbs). I took a break near the high point of the section, just before it came over a shoulder and descended into Garden Basin because I was starving. The chill wind coming over the ridge made me glad I would not be on exposed trail all day.
An hour or so later, I reached the Garden Basin Trailhead and walked right into the privy. One Day arrived just after me. I had a nice lunch inside the warm privy out of the wind, and then we hiked out together.
After passing Mirror Lake, we began the long but fairly gentle climb walking the road up to Tincup Pass. It took a couple of hours, and the sun chose that moment to come out, forcing us to stop and remove layers of clothing to avoid overheating.
When we reached the top of the pass and got our pictures with the sign, the wind was whipping over it and so cold I stopped to put my coat back on. I caught up with One Day a little ways down the hill and we shortcutted a 0.3 mile switchback by dress going straight down the hill between the bushes.
Frankly, in spite of the frozen winds on the exposed ridge the night before, we were now having fun.
Two miles later, the road crossed the Colorado Trail and we turned aside to start climbing endless switchbacks to get on the side of the divide again. We stopped at treeline to get some water out of a stream as we had a lot less elevation to gain, then went out into the snow. I was following now, taking tiny fast steps in One Day’s prints, and we both had our traction on.
We came over a shoulder, the penultimate high point of the day, and into a wide snowy basin crossed by dozens of tiny streams. Some of them made wide ice shelfs under the snow where they spread out at the trail, essentially making traps to wet our feet. Not that the ice melting on our boots and leaking in wasn’t already dampening them, but we didn’t notice that because it was warm by the time it seeped in.
The sun was also setting under a new cloud layer. The golden hour light on the peaks below us and behind us made for several photo stops. Then, I took the lead again, and I didn’t have the energy to break snow on the actual trail, so I walked in the grass and rocks beside it. I also got my headlamp in place and started climbing the last big climb of the day over another shoulder. It wasn’t extremely steep, but it was the end of the day, and it was by far the most difficult climb so far in terms of trail conditions.
One Day said, while looking up at it, it looked like a “chill pass,” but coming over the top it became clear it was more chilly than chill. It was yet another potent and cold wind. We started down into the basin in the other side as quickly as possible. One Day wanted to push for the start of the next day’s first climb so as to make it all the way to Monarch Pass the next day. I thought that was a crazy goal, but I was willing to night hike to get her there.
Unfortunately, the next basin wasn’t nice enough to be all downhill the whole way, and my broken pack was not the most comfortable thing to wear for hours on end. Once we came past the frozen surface of Tunnel Lake, we had 1.5 miles of breaking snow over rolling trail up to another saddle before the descent could start in earnest. That section felt like it was going on for hours with my pack twisting at my shoulder and causing pain from the left side of my neck all the way down to a stabbing pain in the muscle near my spine. I had to let One Day take the lead for the last of it.
When we finally reached the final descent at the saddle, I was pretty much exhausted, but I could pick up some speed on the descent because of the rocks on the edge of the switchbacks to avoid slogging through the snow. So I took the lead again. Down through the rock slide we came, and in mere minutes, we arrived on a huge flat, clearly human engineered plateau.
It was an old railroad grade, and we needed to go along it for another mile before we crossed the many water sources. My shoulder was killing me and I was moving a lot slower than level ground should mandate. For reference, it had been a solid three hours or more since I had last taken off the pack at the top of a long intense climb, and when I did, I had seen stars at the edge of my vision from the effort of lifting 50 pounds.
But I was able to distract myself from the pain and exhaustion by admiring the tracks in the snow ahead, which looked a lot like they had been made by a human running in a strange way. At times taking two steps and then a long hop landing on the same leg and at other times skipping. When the tracks turned and went up (or down) a steep rock wall, I concluded they must belong to some sort of animal because the only human that could have made them would surely have to be insane.
Anyway, a few minutes that felt like hours later, we started crossing small streams, and One Day stopped to collect some water. I still had the liter or two in my pack that I had grabbed three hours earlier, having only drank a liter on the way up to the chilly pass. As the air was below freezing since the sun had set, it was difficult to keep water out for drinking because it would freeze.
As she knew I was in pain, One Day agreed to stop a little short now that she had water. Anywhere around was a perfectly fine place to camp because the bed was so level, but we found a small platform below the trail at the edge of the grade where it dropped off and arranged our tents side by side. We did our best to beat the snow and ice off our boots before taking them off, but we knew it was a lost cause. We just wanted to be in our tents as quickly as possible.
I tried to filter the water I brought, but there was frost in the hose. There was even some slush on the outside of the filter that had been submerged the whole night, but I’m pretty sure the filter itself hadn’t frozen at all. Either way, it didn’t matter. The water was clear enough, and I was going to be boiling it anyway.
The foot box of my sleeping bag was still damp when I stuck my bare feet in there with my wet socks. I was making it worse by putting my ice-crusted snow pants in there too. One Day said it was better to remove outer layers before getting in the bag to make it easier for body heat to warm up the bag, but I believe that it’s better to have more layers. I felt fairly comfortable with the temperature when I first started cooking, but then One Day and I noticed a few minutes later that it felt like the temperature had suddenly dropped. Maybe it was just our bodies winding down and making less heat.
Anyway, it very rapidly felt much colder than it had been the previous night. Fully layered and fully wrapped in the sleeping bag, there was still a chill. I boiled the full pot of water I had left over after dinner and put it in my water bag and then under my coat so to go to sleep.
I slept fairly well for a few hours, but I woke up at 3 am feeling chilly. The water bag was body temperature. I convinced myself to get out of my sleeping bag and boil it again just so I could get those last few hours of sleep.
I was awake by 5 and started packing by 6. One Day and I were both ready to roll out at the same time a bit after 7, but we would not be together most of the day.
She stopped to collect water at the first water source, having used the last of hers at breakfast, but I had plenty and pushed ahead. Within the hour, the call of nature sent me off the trail and into the woods above it. She passed me soon thereafter. When I returned to the trail, I was a solo hiker again.
Within the hour, the snow started to fall. The morning had been nice and clear, but the day didn’t feel like waiting around on its promised nasty weather. I stopped to put on my Packa. But the snow was sticking to my gloves, so I stopped again shortly thereafter to get out my glove shells.
The snow started and stopped several times during the next two hours until I finally descended to the junction between the low route and the high route. The high route was considered more scenic and was the official CDT route while the low route was considered safer in bad weather, and the weather wasn’t great.
But the snow was just a light dusting when it happened and the sun did occasionally deign to shine through the clouds. One Day had indicated the high route was her preference and I agreed, so I didn’t hesitate to head that direction. I did hesitate, but it was only to take a snack break and not related to deciding which way to go.
A few miles up the trail, One Day came running up behind me asking if I’d seen her note. She had flip-flopped on going high or low several times and eventually come back to the high route. We hiked together for a bit, then stopped at the Texas Creek crossing, where I wanted to make a drink and take off my coat for the big climb ahead. I told One Day to keep hiking, then saw nothing but her footprints for the rest of the day.
It was a serious climb. Not particularly steep, but always up. The sun sort of came out a little after two, so I stopped on a rock sort of in it for lunch.
Around 4, I came out of the trees into the shadow of a ridge where a cold wind was gusting. I surmounted the ridge and came out into the direct sun and the direct contact of that intense West wind.
I descended into the Cottonwood Pass parking area where there was a small pond just down the hill. I fetched some water from it, then got a picture with the sign from some women hiking down a short summit trail for day hikers.
The snow in the trail became thicker beyond this point. Although I skipped the day hike summit, I had to summit the much taller peak behind it to get onto the high ridge of the Sawatch Range that is the Continental Divide.
Although the signs said don’t cut the switchbacks, the snow was so deep in the trail that it was much easier to climb straight up the rocks and ignore the trail. It was still a long climb, but when I reached the top I had a great view of the dark clouds that had finally reached me.
Down onto the ridge I went as the world became whiter. Though I had a couple of hours of sunlight to work with, I could not see the sun. I was being pelted by bits of ice on my right side as long as I was on the west side or top of the ridge. I thought I would get some relief when the trail switched to the east side, but there was some wind there too, coming up from below or down from above. And it was another long climb when I was already tired.
I could see from her footprints that One Day had put on microspikes. I had not. I seemed to be doing fine without them, and putting them on meant standing in that cold wind with one less layer on while I got them out of my pack. The prints became clearer as I came up onto the windswept ridge again. Parts of the next mile and a half were completely blasted by wind. There were no views. Just a light fog.
I had originally been planning to stop at a supposed wind-protected campsite at the next major shoulder of the mountain, but it seemed very unlikely that wind protection could do anything about this wind as long as I was on the western slope. I was thinking about going on another three miles back over the ridge and down below treeline on the eastern side. Then I heard One Day coughing down in the trees where I had been thinking of stopping. I called out to her and she confirmed the wind was actually calm down in those trees.
So we set up tents right behind trees. It wasn’t perfectly flat or anything, but it wasn’t particularly lumpy under the snow either. We cooked in our tents and settled in for a cold night, me by filling my water bag with boiling water and slipping it under my coat inside my bag. As I was doing all the boiling of water for supper and my hot water bag, snow kept blowing in under my rainfly and into my tent. There was no way to keep it out without closing the flap, but I needed to keep the flap out of the way of the stove. So I just kept brushing it back into the vestibule.
The snow kept coming. I was warm and comfortable for the moment, but several inches of accumulation meant a miserably slow hike the next day. But there was nothing to be done. I had food for several more days. I just needed to go 28 more miles. It could be done.
I got out of my tent to fetch my phone around 5:30. First, I wiped frost off the inner ceiling of my tent with my towel. Everything was covered with frozen dew. A combination of the cold night, the humidity guaranteed by the lake, and the lack of a breeze behind Bill’s fence ensured that the world had been coated in a layer of glitter that sparkled in my headlamp. It was still very cold.
I returned to my bag to work on the blog until the 6am alarm, then started packing up. One Day was clearly doing the same. I had a series of crises as I packed, things I couldn’t locate. The most pressing of these was my wallet. As we were both packing up our tents, Bob came around to meet us with two hot cups of coffee in hand and invited us in for breakfast. One Day went first, having finished packing first. When I realized my wallet was in my shorts pocket under my pants but twisted around to my crotch in a place where multiple self-patdowns could not feel it, I could happily finish packing and head inside myself.
Bob had microwaveable breakfast burritos and sandwiches pulled from his store freezer case. We chatted in his kitchen and did some minor prep for hiking for an hour or so. He was a very affable guy and never ran out of stories. After two breakfast sandwiches and a yogurt apiece washed down by the coffee, we tore ourselves away from Motu’s cuteness to head out to the trail.
The official trail went all the way around the lakes, an extra 11 miles or so. But we had seen what the other end of the lakes looked like from the truck the night before and had no issues with cutting off that extra mileage by going around the near side of the lake, a connection of only a mile. The downside of that route was a wide river ford requiring us to get our feet wet ankle deep in cold water on a cold but fortunately sunny morning.
I took the opportunity to take off my pants on the near side and put my towel on the outside of my pack to dry and make some orange immunity drink on the far side. One Day was much quicker about the whole process and headed up the trail some fifteen minutes before I did.
The next bit of trail was a relentless four mile climb up a steep gulch to Hope Pass. Including a long break two hours in in a sunny field for lots of snacks, it took me three hours. The last bit was an exposed and snowy climb, but again I could do it by climbing straight up the rocky, grassy bits and ignoring the official trail, this time even without microspikes. There was another couple out for a day hike to the pass that I passed on the way up, and also One Day had waited in the blustery windy cold at the top for fifteen minutes to hand me some chips and get her photos with the view. We all four wound up in the pass together with lots of photos being taken all around.
Then we started the descent of the other side. It was very steep. I had to ride the brakes until I could imagine my knees emitting a burnt rubber smell. One Day let me get ahead but soon caught me and blew past. A lighter pack meant she could safely maintain a higher speed. It took an entire hour just to reach the junction where we stopped descending like mad and turned onto a roughly level trail. And just a mile into that One Day stopped by a creek for lunch, so I stopped too just a bit ahead. We had a nice lunch separately and finished at the same time.
I led the way for the next five miles or so until the tank was empty. There was a cold wind p picking up in the afternoon, but the sun was still shining. Nonetheless, I stopped on a rock in a shady forest area to have a long snack and drink break and slowly lost my warmth. After about 20 minutes, I was packing up to go on and One Day caught up and passed me.
I would go on to chase her until well after sundown. I may have gotten close on the long climb up to Lake Ann Pass, but I had to stop at the last water crossing before the pass to get water for supper and breakfast because we would not pass water again that night. I couldn’t see her until I was on the final exposed snow and rock climb up to the pass. Once I got into the thick of it, she shouted something down to me. She had paused to put on microspikes and a headlamp. I realized I would need to do the same.
I caught up to her at the top of the pass by climbing straight up the rocks as I am wont to do while she had slogged through the snow following all the trail’s switchbacks. We found the trail down the other side and set out into the next valley by our own headlamps. She led at first, and got a lead when we stopped to take off our traction because I took the opportunity to also put on a coat. Nonetheless, I caught her up in a few minutes and then passed her. I was being much less cautious with the descent than her. I didn’t mind the snow or rocks in it–I was just happy it was not so steep I had to grind my knees to keep from running away down the hill.
I stayed ahead for the entire remainder of the descent. It was after 8 when we were finally at the lowest elevation we could feasibly reach that night and started looking for camping. We settled for a slightly sloped and rocky but mostly free of snow patch of ground just below the trail within the next tenth of a mile and hurried to get to bed. We were not expecting such a nice sunny day the next day.
Because I had taken so long to get to sleep the previous night, I could sleep in until 6:30, put on my shoes, grab my already packed day bag, and start climbing. Of course, I forgot to pack my microspikes, so I had to go back for those. But One Day and I were climbing Elbert by a little after 7.
It was a four-mile trail or so, 2500 foot climb. We reached treeline around 9 and stopped to put on the microspikes. There were at least six people breaking trail ahead of us, but we caught up to them. One guy (who you’ll see in the video) was walking up in shorts with his girlfriend, but she got fed up with the snow very early and turned around and he forged ahead, leaving the trail and climbing straight up onto the ridge.
One Day and I were wondering if he was crazy at first. Not only was he climbing in shorts (and even I had learned my lesson on that front, opting to wear my snow pants this time), but he was choosing his own path while the group in front of him steadfastly plowed footprints into the ankle- or even sometimes knee-deep snow.
He wasn’t just crazy or stubborn though. He was determined and knew exactly what he was doing, and soon was rushing well ahead of the crowd. One Day and I followed suit, abandoning the trail and shortcutting its switchbacks on the rocks. It wasn’t long before we caught up to the group sticking to the trail. They said they wanted us to go ahead and break trail for them. We went ahead, but we had already decided the official route was a sucker’s game in the snow. We immediately started right up the spine of the ridge, staying in the rocks and visible grasses wherever possible.
Shorts Guy stopped to put on leggings under his shorts, further proving he was actually well prepared for this climb. He lost some of his massive lead in doing so, and even more by actually following the switchbacks. One Day and I cut straight across all of them using our microspikes to full advantage.
I soon caught up to the man and led him way off trail, which had ran all the way around the side of the southern slope in one very long switchback. I just kept going straight up the side of the hill, staying in the visible rocks and out of the blank white snowfields. It was no easy exercise to climb straight up the side of the mountain, and I had to take frequent breaks to huff and puff in the oxygen-poor high atmosphere. I gained a significant lead by emptying the fuel tank. I found a nice sitting boulder at around 13800 feet up and downed most of the rest of my breakfast protein shake. Shorts Guy caught up and we started out again together, still climbing straight up the slope in the rocks.
I pulled way ahead of Shorts Guy again, leveraging my microspike advantage. It actually got somewhat easier to climb closer to the top. Elbert is a fairly gently sloped mountain compared to some others, and the upper reaches had more shallow snow among rocks and fewer deep snowdrifts.
Of the people I had seen, I was the first to arrive at the summit. Shorts Guy came up just a couple of minutes later, and One Day came up a while after that. We took photos for each other all around, and Shorts Guy celebrated by cracking open and sharing a bag of peanut M&Ms, which, no joke, said “Congrats on that thing you did” on the bag.
After all that, I sat down on a rock inside the wind shelter and went thrive quite a few snacks myself and made an orange immunity drink. One Day and I stayed there long enough to see some of the clouds pass away and some views open up. We stayed as long as my increasingly frozen toes would permit. Then we set off finding our own ways back down the mountain.
I wanted to stick to the trail on the way back. Deeper snow is actually much easier to walk in when descending quickly because you can take giant steps without worrying about the impact on knees: the snow cushions each foot fall. A thousand feet down, I crossed paths with the same guys who had wanted us to go ahead and break trail for them, still steadfastly post-holing up the official route. They weren’t that far from the top, but stomping uphill in deep snow is so slow, I thought they might still be 30 minutes away.
Just beyond them, the trail leveled out significantly, even climbing slightly. So, I abandoned it and went straight down the middle of some deep and steep snowfields. I rejoined the trail around where One Day and I had first left it. She caught me a few minutes later, having cut off even one more section of trail by coming straight down the ridge where the trail used to run before the reroute.
The rest of the way back to our campsite looked a lot like the reverse of our climb. We took off our microspikes at treeline. We stopped for several pictures along the way now that the sun had moved to not being right in the middle of the shot. We finally found our campsite just like we had left it and went inside our tents to get ready for the continuation of our day. It was a lot 1:30, and I wanted to be packed and fed by 3 at the latest.
I started by removing my extra layers of clothes and packing up the stuff inside my tent. By the time I was packing up my tent, items scattered everywhere around my pack, One Day had eaten lunch and completely packed, ready to head out. So she went on without me.
I left maybe 30 or 40 minutes later, after finishing an packing and finding a nice spot in the sun to eat my lunch at my usual pace. Then I headed down the trail and turned south at a much speedier pace.
Along the way, I called Bob at the Twin Lakes General Store to find out when they closed. After 4:30 that day, he’d be closed until the next weekend, but he’d get my box out and ready for when I arrived. I figured 4:30 was an absolutely doable deadline.
Even after a wrong turn or two, resulting in a fifteen minute off-trail diversion (which scored me some nice photos of beaver ponds) it still seemed like I would make it with time to spare.
Thirty minutes later, I came to the Twin Lakes Village turnoff, which carried me a mile around the side of the hill to a road leading a mile straight down to town. Near the bottom, I met someone trying to drive a car up that rough, steep, rocky dirt road. A car full of dogs with a half-flat front tire, Minnesota plates, and no backup camera. The driver rolled down the window to ask about a place to turn around. There were none just ahead, so I assisted in directing the effort to reverse down the hill to the wide lot at the bottom. I could spare the five extra minutes that took.
I made it to the general store with fifteen minutes to spare. One Day was outside, saying she was headed to the restaurant across the street to reserve a table for us. My box was there behind the counter, guarded by a sleeping golden retriever named Motu. I grabbed some treats from the store. Bob rung me up and gave me a bag. My plan at that point was to walk to the other end of the lake to Win Mar Cabins for the night, where laundry and showers were available. I woke Motu pulling my box from behind the counter. I carried everything outside and dropped it next to my pack, then joined One Day in the restaurant.
It was a very expensive meal, but it was very good. Smoked Buffalo wings with celery, carrots, and blue cheese. A chicken caesar salad with actual anchovy on. A nice local beer to go with the root beer I had brought in from the store. I learned over dinner that One Day was not interested in going around the lake. But she did say she would be willing to sleep at the Win Mar bunkhouse if she got a ride there.
Back in front of the store, I started packing up my resupply, and it turned out to be way more than I could carry. Of the things I had extra, I gave One Day as much as she wanted, then tossed the rest back in the box to go in the store’s hiker box. Bob came around while the packing process was underway, and after arranging for him to take the surplus resupply and trash into the store (though it was closed), he offered us a ride out to Win Mar since we had been unable to get them on the phone.
So we scrambled to get our packs together and in the back of his truck when he pulled around. We hopped into the cab with him and Motu. He drove us out to Win Mar to find it completely closed up. So he turned around and drove us back to town and offered to let us camp in the backyard of the store. Since laundry and showers and warm beds were completely off the table, we accepted.
The backyard was a mess and full of stuff, including plenty of dog bombs. But one area seemed less beloved of the dogs, and we set up tents there in such a way that we could chat across our open vestibules from the comfort of our sleeping bags. We had a little party with the chips and cider I bought and the candy from my resupply I couldn’t fit in my pack.
When the chips and cider ran out, I zipped myself in and called Mom. Then, I worked on the blog as well as the weak cell service would allow and watched videos and such until my phone battery was nearly dead. I got up one last time to plug it into the outlet on the side of the building, then finally turned in. It was after eleven.
It was a cold morning and I had no interest in going out into it. I started moving around at 7, shaking the snow off the tent, but One Day and I didn’t leave camp until 9:30. We went 2.5 miles down the trail to the Mt. Massive junction, passing a group of guys on the way. The last guy didn’t seem to even know where they were headed. Then we turned and started climbing. Just a little ways up, we went off trail, picked out the gear we’d need for the day, and hung our packs from trees to wait for us at the bottom.
It was kind of a nice morning at first. Some sun, mostly clouds. Once we got above treeline, the snow started getting deeper and more slippery, so we stopped to put on our spikes. We met a couple coming down who said they had no summitted. They had turned around because of the snow.
We met another crowd of guys on the slope once the snow got deep. They were the same guys from before. They had just missed the junction, turned around, and passed us while we were stashing our packs. We took the lead, but we soon left the trail, choosing to climb up the side of the ridge because the snow has drifted so deeply in the trail.
It was cold enough already, but then the sun started to go away and the wind picked up. Blinding, chilling gusts of 30 mph or more. I had elected to climb with bare knees based on the weather predictions and the temperatures at lower elevations, and soon my legs were coated with ice.
We pushed through the wind and up the slope, and when we reached the saddle between Massive’s two peaks, the wind was torrential and constant. It was only a half mile and 500 feet of climb to the peak, but the rest of the way was a rocky, icy ridge traverse, and we did not feel safe trying to climb that whole being battered by wind occasionally gusting hard enough to knock us down if we were off balance and not leaning into it.
We took some photos and came back down, sticking to the snowy trail this time, moving much faster. Even so, we hadn’t even come down a half mile when it started snowing. It snowed all the way down the trail to where we left our stuff, so at my suggestion, we set up our tents and ate our lunches inside. And because we bothered to set up tents, it stopped snowing pretty quickly.
It was well after three when we came down down from our aborted attempt to summit Massive, and it was about 5 when we set out down the trail again at high speed. After a mile or so, we reached the river and had to stop to de-layer because the hiking had warmed us up. There were a bunch of heavy machines in the parking lot, so I sat in the cozy seat of one of those to change.
We chose to take the road a half mile down to the North Elbert Trailhead, and received the bounteous fortune of a dumpster in the nearby campground, so we paused again to dump our trash. Then, I set out up the hill from the trailhead at the highest speed I could manage. I put on some music to propel me. The sun was setting but I had my headlamp on. An hour into the section, I had to turn it on. Although my socks had been slowly drying from the snowmelt moisture, I had the misfortune of slipping off a log while crossing a creek, but I didn’t let it slow me down. These socks are perpetually moist anyway.
Sooner than I expected, I reached the junction for the South Mt. Elbert Trail. I started climbing. Shortly into this climb, I saw some yellow dots close to the ground reflecting my headlamp. Putting on the high beam, I learned it was a red fox (see video).
When the trail started leveling out, I started looking for campsites. One Day caught up and helped me look. There was nothing truly flat around, but we managed to make do. In fact, my spot behind a tree was actually quite flat if not quite wide enough to erect my tent properly.
I had a lot to do before I could climb into my sleeping bag abs start cooking supper, including filtering water. It was after 10 by the time I could lie down and eleven before I slept.