I was much less cozy and I didn’t sleep well, but it was a nice morning, so I got on the trail by 8 feeling a bit sleepy.
I had forgotten to make my breakfast mix, so I stopped just an hour in to do that. I had reached the low point for the day. It would be nearly all climbing from there.
After a long difficult climb for just under two miles, I stopped in a sunny spot and gathered some more water to filter. I was headed up onto the ridge and didn’t expect to pass any water sources for a while. I also had good internet service and some important messages to send. Also, I needed to check the weather. A cloud was blocking the sun suddenly and letting the cold wind up the hill freeze me.
It said there would be thunderstorms in the 4 and 5 o’clock hours. I didn’t want to still be on the ridge at that time. So I tossed out what was left to filter and got going immediately.
I saw clouds thundering and raining out over the valley, but nothing on me. Then there were some clouds lightly and hardly noticeably sprinkling on me. Around this time, I stepped on a rock wrong and face-planted. But I’ve fallen under weight enough times now that I was able to let my body ragdoll and spread out the impact and didn’t even get a single cut on my knees or bruise on my hands.
The rain started to pick up, so I stopped to put on my coat and Packa. I should have put on my gloves too because my fingertips were soon in great pain as the wind got stronger and cooler and the rain became hail. I was now in a full-on thunder hailstorm with lightning not far away and I was on an exposed ridge.
It turned out I was looking at the weather report for Grand Lake even though I was now much closer to Winter Park and the weather system had to pass me to get to either of those places. Thus, the 4pm storm was passing me before 2pm.
The hail let up as I made the final descent into Rollins Pass, but it started up again, complete with more thunder, as soon as I got to the road. The trail was following the ridge back up, but I had no desire to be up there if the next storm was even worse. I took the road following the old railroad grade down the side of the ridge. It was only barely descending and was littered even to this day with old railroad hardware, but more importantly it was soaking wet and puddled from the melting hail. And the ongoing drizzle.
Just before the road reached the trail back up to Rogers Pass near the deteriorating old trestle, there was a blocked side road into an area where people frequently camped. I had been going almost four hours without a snack or a break, and this seemed like a perfect place to rectify that. I pitched my tent under a Douglas fir where it had kept the ground free of hail and pushed my pack in front of me as I crawled inside. I spent 2 hours in there, not just eating lunch but also putting on all my cold weather layers (except the hat) and making a repair to my Packa. When I was done, the rain had let up.
I hiked out again at 6 in full winter gear and headlamp and soon reached the Rogers Pass Trail, which climbed back up to the ridge I had left at nearly as gentle grade as the road had come down. I ascended into the cloudbank hugging the top of the ridge as the sun set. When it finally got so dark I needed the headlamp, I couldn’t see more than a dozen feet in front of me through the fog.
The trail was easy enough to follow, though. I turned off onto the Ute Trail just below the top of the ridge, and for the next hour, I walked just below the ridgeline with a towering cliff of rocks to my left and nothing dropping away below me on the left. The ridge and the trail got steadily steeper as they got closer to the steep northern face of James Peak. The mist also got thicker and more rain-like.
I had estimated I could make it to the top of the peak by 9pm, but when I started the intensely steep climb toward the top of the ridge and the start of the side trail to the peak, I found myself losing a lot of steam. Even with the continuous cold misty wind, I was getting overheated in my many layers. I stopped to get some more energy and cool off. While I took that short break, that rain falling through the fog turned into bits of snow or tiny hail. It looked like this last bit of climbing, less than a mile, was going to be miserable.
To make matters worse, the trail seemed to disappear as I continued. I was basically guessing and hoping I didn’t miss the turn. Visibility was way down.
Then a low rock wall loomed out of the mist. Someone had built a wind-protected campsite right in the middle of the ridge. I stepped inside to check it out, and a mouse immediately emerged to check out the light. It scurried back down its burrow when I stepped toward it. It was almost 9pm already and the weather promised only to get worse, so I gave in and pitched my tent in the midst of the three-sided wind barrier.
I climbed fully dressed into my sleeping bag before cooking supper in the vestibule. The mouse didn’t come to bother me while cooking like the overly bold one at the similar campsite outside of Tehachapi. When I packed everything up to sleep around 10:30, anything not under my tent was covered with a thin layer of hail-snow. Sleep just after 11.
Trail miles: 13.5
Distance to Frisco: 102.9 miles