Sunday, October 15, 2017

Change of Plans: Colorado Trail 2017 (August 2, 2017)

Moosie in the San Luis Valley

Cumbres Pass New Mexico/Colorado border
While staying at the hostel in Salida for two nights, Moosie and I solidified our change in plans. We had been discussing the idea of leaving the Colorado Trail and hitch hiking down to the New Mexico/Colorado border at Cumbres Pass. There we would jump on to the Continental Divide Trail, and hike north for two weeks where we would rejoin the Colorado Trail at Molas Pass, and then finish the trail in Durango. The reason for this was simple. We had both already hiked the section south of Monarch Pass on the CDT in 2013. Hiking trail we had already done was not as exciting, and that was the simple truth. By flipping down to Cumbres Pass, we would have three weeks of new trail to hike. Not only that, we would be hiking through the majestic San Juan mountain range, a place Moosie and I had to walk around  in 2013 due to snow. This change in plans breathed new life into our CT hike, and I was exited to see what was next.

Hitching 120 miles to Cumbres Pass also presented a unique challenge. In some ways, I would recommend a hitch hiking adventure to anyone, in other ways I wouldn't. It took Moosie and I eight separate rides to reach our destination, and all day. All of our rides were unique and special, an interesting cross section of America. It felt like the world was at our finger tips, a flash of true freedom. We could go anywhere we wanted. On the other hand, there is an element of risk. It is an experiment in faith. I guess everything works out until one day it doesn't. In our case, everything worked out. Our shortest wait time was probably 3 minutes, our longest an hour and a half. We reached Cumbres Pass an hour before sunset.

That evening, Moosie and I set up camp with views into New Mexico. I had flashbacks to 2013 while we set up camp. The section south of here was a particularly tough one for me back in 2013. Same grey skies, but thankfully 30 degrees warmer this time around. We were in the San Juans. Our change in plans had become a reality. It felt great to be off the CT and on the CDT. I felt very thankful for safe hitches. I was excited for new trail...

Salida, Colorado

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Colorado Trail 2017: Cottonwood Pass to Monarch Pass (Collegiate West) July 28 to August 1, 2017

Buena Vista sunset

Mountain goats

Soggy campsite

Wet pants, a daily occurance

Ancient bristlecone pine

Pre-historic hunting walls used by Native Americans as early as 3,000 BC to AD 1800.

Monarch Pass
One hiker Moosie and I met in Silverton, CO compared the trail to an ex-lover: "When you get home, eventually all the pain and suffering disappears and all you remember is the good times," she said.
As I sit here on the couch drinking coffee, warm, dry and sheltered, the pain and suffering already is a distant memory.

When Moosie and I were getting ready to leave Buena Vista on July 28th, we had just ordered our breakfast at a local carry out place and were sitting on picnic benches next to an older couple. We struck up a quick conversation. The older gentleman commented, "I envy you guys, but I don't envy you." He didn't elaborate on the meaning behind that comment, but it rung through my ears the rest of the hike. I think that comment sums up thru hiking for me. Although we get to witness some extraordinary scenery around America, there is a price to be paid. The highs are high, and the lows are low.

Moosie and I hitched a ride up to Cottonwood Pass from Buena Vista and were picked up by a family who obviously were struggling to make ends meet. They refused to drop us off anywhere but the top of the mountain, and drove us the whole 20 miles to the pass. The trail always puts on full display the kindness and generosity of strangers from all walks of life. Once Moosie and I reached the top, another woman approached us and had recently purchased a two night stay at the hostel in Salida, which happened to be our next destination in four days. She could not use her reservation, so she gave it to us instead. Trail magic.

Soon, storms descended on Cottonwood Pass and the handful of tourists that were gathered there, jumped into their cars and drove down the mountain. Moosie and I had to hike up into the mountains, and soon had to make decisions again to avoid lightning. This once again was the theme for the rest of the day as the trail remained above tree line. That night, it really rained hard. I woke up in the middle of the night and it seemed as though my tent had holes in it. Drops of water began splashing all over my exposed face and all over my sleeping bag and gear. This seemed like a worse case scenario. Cold, wet, and dark, and there was nothing I could do to stop the water from splashing in the tent. At one point, I actually opened my umbrella inside my tent to try and keep my upper body and upper portion of my sleeping bag dry. Since I was using a new tent, I did not know its limitations or its quirks and this event shattered my confidence in it, and really stressed me out for a time. (This event occurred a couple more times during the hike. Eventually, I was able to figure out that it wasn't rain splashing through my tent. It was actually the condensation from inside my tent that was splashing down on me once the rain fell hard enough on the outside. I had a pack towel I used to wipe down the inside of my tent on rainy nights, which seemed to relieve the problem, and my confidence in the tent was restored.)

Part of the stress was the unknown. Moosie and I did not know how long it was going to rain and the weather in the mountains seemed to do its own thing. We had a limited amount of food and a fixed amount of miles to hike to the next town. All of our gear was wet, and the rain continued falling hard until mid morning. There was stress to pack up in the rain and risk getting all of our gear even more saturated, or wait until it stopped. Despite the stress, I believe Moosie and I made pretty good decisions throughout the hike, with luck too. I was amazed how many times we grabbed a short window of decent weather to either pack up, dry gear out, hike over a pass, or set up camp, and have it work out to our benefit.

That being said, this was a tough section for us. One night, we had our latest hiking day of the trip. We could not find camping to save our lives and ended up setting up camp on a sloping knob around 10:30pm. Sometimes you end up having to night hike, even when you don't want to.

Highlights of this section were the wildlife sightings and the beautiful mountain vistas, particularly before Monarch Pass. We saw a herd of mountain goats on a misty mountainside, lots of picas, marmots, a weasel, and high alpine bird. The morning we reached Monarch Pass, we woke up to a blue bird morning and had a glorious morning hike. We passed an ancient stone wall used by Native Americans to hunt elk. Those people were truly bad ass mountain men and women. We reached Monarch Pass on August 1, a place of memories. This spot included some poignant times on the CDT when I was hiking with Manparty, Lush, and Captain back in 2013. It was also the spot where the hose in my car popped off when I was driving back home from California in 2015 and leaked anti freeze all over the parking lot, thinking I was going to have to get towed off the mountain. Now Moosie and I were hitching down to Salida to regroup and resupply for a couple days at the hostel, thanks to the generosity of the stranger we met on Cottonwood Pass four days earlier.

Moosie and I were also contemplating making a drastic change to our hiking plans. We had a couple days to figure it out...

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Colorado Trail 2017: Twin Lakes to Cottonwood Pass (Collegiate West) July 25-27

Timing was the theme for the next couple days on the Colorado Trail. Moosie and I left the Twin Lakes area the morning of the 25th. Soon we were climbing through some lush, tall forest in Little Willis Gulch, gradually making our way towards Hope Pass. Obviously, the higher we climbed, the colder it became. The later we hiked, the greater risk of getting caught in storms became. Sometimes on the Colorado Trail, we could time our high elevation hiking to hit it before the storms. Other times, we had to just embrace what came our way at the time.

Just beneath Hope Pass, we walked through some big spruce forest. The beetle kill had not arrived to this area yet. Storm clouds threatened, and Moosie and I had to make the call to get up and over the pass before the lightning arrived. Just as we reached the pass, we had time for a quick photo and then the downpours and thunder and lightning arrived. We quickly began our descent in the cold, driving rain. It was an uncomfortable afternoon hiking wet, but that night a hot dinner and hot chocolate were just what the doctor ordered. Moosie and I had to eat inside our tents before the next batch of heavy rain arrived after sunset.

The next day was more of the same. This time, we had Lake Anne Pass to worry about. We wanted to get up and over that one before the daily thunderstorms arrived. The morning was damp, we arrived just below the pass around lunchtime. There was a small snowfield still remaining at the very top. Moosie and I watched a couple of hikers cautiously hike across the steep snowfield while eating our lunch several hundred feet below. After finishing our lunch, we began our ascent and watched the clouds carefully. Several north bounders and one south bounder also passed through at this time and we watched each one maneuver the snowfield. One south bounder slipped and fell completely on his back and thankfully did not slide down into the rocks below the snowfield. By the time Moosie and I reached the top, we hiked across the snow with mangled footholds from the other hikers. Thankfully, we made it across safely and enjoyed the incredible views from the top. It appeared that the rain was also going to hold off temporarily.

After enjoying a nice afternoon of hiking, Moosie and I found a campsite in a meadow along Texas Creek. That evening we were treated to an incredible light show, a great sunset, followed by a crescent moon flanked by giant cumulus clouds flashing with lightning as the sky darkened and the stars came out.

The next morning, we woke up in the wet meadow and had several miles to hike to reach Cottonwood Pass, where we were hoping to hitch a ride 20 miles down the mountain to the town of Buena Vista. This next seven or eight miles of trail was going to be new trail for Moosie and I, as the CDT was rerouted here. The first several miles were tough, as we had to navigate around dozens of blow downs, trees that had fallen across the trail. Once we reached the higher elevations and the trees began to thin out, we hiked into one of the most beautiful areas of the entire trail in my opinion. We enjoyed bright, crisp sunshine, white fluffy clouds, and magnificent mountain views. The rocks were bright, almost Sierra like. Again, Moosie and I were concerned about thunder storms as we approached Cottonwood Pass, but they did not materialize once we reached the pass. We were presented with a different dilemma however. The road over Cottonwood Pass was closed, and had been for several years. This was not the case when we hiked the CDT in 2013. This meant there was no traffic driving over the mountain, which also meant no hitching options to get to Buena Vista. There was a small parking area at the pass where folks from Buena Vista could drive up and see the area. There were a handful of cars in the lot and a couple of people standing around. The first couple I approached and asked for a ride down the mountain declined, and said they were only going part way down. Moosie asked another elderly couple from South Carolina if we could get a ride with them and thankfully they agreed, otherwise we would have been SOL for the day.

The kind couple drove us down to Buena Vista and even arranged a ride for us back to the pass the next day with a friend of theirs if we needed it. Moosie and I were glad to be out of the rain, and to resupply for the next stretch of trail...