I was hiking with Manparty, Lush, and Captain. We had tentatively adopted the name of "Team Mountain Turtle," due to our habit of literally crawling up mountainsides from time to time. We had just passed the highway that leads into the town of Winter Park Colorado. It was probably one of the brightest, cloud free days of the entire hike. The countryside shimmered under the bright light and warm air. This was the Colorado that I remembered and loved. We had a goal to reach Herman Gulch along highway 70 by 10:00 the following morning. Lush had invited Captain and I to join her and Manparty at her friend's house in Glenwood Springs for the weekend. We had many more miles to hike to reach our destination. Most of those miles would also be above tree line along the Divide. It was an ambitious goal, one that would require a long night hike, but definitely doable. We all accepted the challenge.
Just as the sun was setting, we decided a route that would cut several miles off the official CDT, but would be a steep alternate just before a mountain called Vasquez Peak. The first peak of the "short cut" looked particularly daunting, jutting straight up in the air for the last 50 feet or so. We wanted to get up and over it before dark. We took a short break just below the peak on a saddle, snacked up, and were ready to go.
Team Mountain Turtle began crawling up the mountain side in typical slow motion like fashion. After a few minutes, a beautiful full moon rose over the horizon behind us. We tried our best to follow the cairns to the top, although there only seemed to be a few. It appeared that we would have to ultimately pick the best route on our own. Everything went smoothly until the last 50 feet.
Manparty led the way and found a route over some huge boulders on the left side of the mountain.
"I wouldn't advise this route," Manparty yelled from above. "It's really sketchy!"
Captain took a route along the right side of the mountain. Not hearing Manparty's advice from above, Captain chimed in,
"This route is really sketchy! You might be able to make it if you take your packs off. My feet are dangling over the abyss at the moment!"
It was dark and a feeling of fear shot through my body. It was extremely steep where Lush and I were standing and from the sounds of it, none of the routes were ideal. I attempted to take a route straight up and over. As I climbed over a few huge boulders, there were several other boulders sticking out towards me at an angle which gave me the sensation that they were trying to push me backwards off the mountain. Since it was so steep, it made me really nervous.
"Lush, I don't think this is an option either," I yelled down. "The rocks seem to want to push me backwards!"
I climbed down and could tell Lush was now also nervous. We decided to head to left and do our best to take Manparty's route. Dangling my legs over the abyss did not sound at all appealing.
Once we reached the left side of the mountain, it did not look so bad. Manparty yelled down to us,
"Try to stay as far left as you can, and don't take the path that has all the loose rocks and scree!"
For me, it was too late, I had already committed to the route Manparty had just warned us against. Lush followed the directions and was soon on the summit in no time. I quickly found myself stuck. The mountain seemed so steep, and in the dark, it appeared that if I lost my footing, I would fall backwards into the dark. I couldn't move and noticed that all the rocks that I grabbed quickly broke off in my hands. A shiver of terror soon took hold.
"Throw up your hiking sticks as far as you can and climb towards them!" Manparty yelled form above.
I followed his instructions and literally had one more box sized rock to grab a hold of. I said a quick prayer and held my breath as I put all of my weight on the only rock available. Thankfully, the rock held, and I quickly scrambled up to the top where Manparty, Captain, and Lush were waiting. We made it back to the Divide!
The rest of the night felt pretty surreal. We had several peaks to climb and descend throughout the night, thankfully none as challenging as the first. We turned our headlamps off and walked in the soft light of the moon. Pieces of quarts rock sparkled like glitter in several places along the trail in the dark. We walked along the Divide in quiet contemplation.
By 2:00 am, we reached Jones Pass, about 10 miles from highway 70. We would have to be hiking by 6:00 am in order to make it in time to meet Lush's friend at Herman Gulch. It was extremely windy and cold. I barely slept as my sleep was interrupted by wind gusts smashing into my loose tarp, and dreams of taking erroneous steps on steep boulder fields and falling.
We were hiking by 6:00 am. The miles clicked by like clockwork. Before we knew it, we were standing in the parking area at Herman Gulch along highway 70 at 10:00 am on the dot. Mission accomplished. It was sunny and warm, and the four of us soaked in the sun while we awaited Lush's friend to arrive. We spent a fantastic weekend relaxing in Glenwood Springs. On Sunday, a storm arrived. Local news was reporting snow in the mountains. One reporter was standing along the highway in Herman Gulch and we watched as snowflakes fell all around the reporter. Monday morning, we received a ride back to the Divide with Lush's friend's boyfriend. There was snow all over the peaks above 9,000 feet. As I looked out the car window at all of the snow I received a text from Raffle, who was several days ahead in Leadville. It read:
The hour of reckoning is upon us!