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.
Trail miles: 18.0 (actually hiked 18.5)
Distance to Monarch: 10.2