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...

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Colorado Trail 2017: Segment 9-11 (Leadville to Twin Lakes) July 22-24

Moosie and I hitched a ride out of Leadville around noon on July 22nd. Our ride out of town was from another hiker who was living out of his vehicle after hiking the PCT and AT and had just returned from a trip to South America. He drove us back up to Tennessee Pass where Moosie and I resumed our hike south.

Once again, I fell into the trappings of trying to remember where I was back in 2013 on the CDT. The trail looked very unfamiliar at this point, as we traveled mostly through forests towards Mt. Massive and Mt Elbert, Colorado's highest peak. Mt. Massive Wilderness had some nice big trees and mosquitoes became more present.

Moosie and I were planning to meet her trail friends "Swiss Miss" and "Very Fit" who were driving around Colorado backpacking and peak bagging. The plan was to meet them and possibly hike Mt. Massive or Elbert on the 24th. Miraculously, we arrived at our meeting point exactly on time, and a couple more minutes later, Swiss Miss and Very Fit came walking down the dirt and road and we walked together back to their campsite below Mt. Elbert. It was a nice evening hanging out, eating pizza, and sharing trail stories. Moosie had hiked with Swiss Miss and Very Fit on the PCT and CDT. Later that night while discussing plans, Swiss Miss and Very Fit decided they needed to take a break from hiking so they bailed on the plan to hike Massive or Elbert. They did, however, offer to slack pack Moosie and I to Twin Lakes. "Slack packing" is when someone offers to drive the majority of your gear for you to a pickup spot so you only have to carry a day pack with water and food. I had never slack packed before, felt a little weird about it, but eventually caved in. Moosie and I decided to take them up on their offer and slack pack up and over Mt. Elbert on the 24th.

Mt. Elbert is Colorado's highest peak at 14,443 feet. Moosie and I both had a score to settle with Elbert. On the CDT back 2013, Moosie and her hiking friends the Sobo Hobo's (including Swiss Miss and Very Fit) were denied the summit when they were caught in a snow storm a couple thousand feet from the top. When I was on the CDT in 2013, I was several days behind the Sobo Hobos. I managed to summit but misread my maps and took the wrong trail down which eventually resulted in the most terrifying decent/bushwhack of my life. At one point I thought I was going to get stuck on a cliff side and have to call for help. Thankfully I managed to get down sliding down an avalanche shoot.

This time, on the 24th (my 40th birthday no less) Moosie and I left Swiss Miss and Very Fit and began hiking up the Mt. Elbert trail. We started a little late and were probably among the last of the hikers to begin a push for the summit for the day. I was definitely a little uncomfortable with this, especially since weather had been so volatile up to this point. It seemed crucial to get up and down before the thunderstorms rolled in. As we were hiking I was feeling pretty good for the most part, did not notice any issues with altitude. Moosie seemed to be struggling a bit with altitude as we got higher and I wasn't sure whether we were going to reach the summit in time as clouds started rolling in. However, Moosie kept pushing at a strong, steady pace and soon we were passing other hikers who were not in ideal shape. When we were 3/4ths of the way up, a steady stream of hikers were already on their way down. We continued to climb and watch the gathering clouds. Incredibly, the clouds began to dissipate a bit. Views were incredible the higher we climbed. The beautiful purple flower called "sky pilot" made an appearance. The flower only grows in the highest summits of Colorado and the Sierra Nevada in California. Small snow fields also could be seen here and there. Finally, around noon, Moosie and I reached the summit. Amazingly, the sun came out, and the air was perfectly calm. There were probably about ten of us on the summit together. An hour earlier, I would have bet there were probably dozens on the summit. Moosie and I got a quick picture, soaked in the sights, and ate a quick snack. We did not want to linger long, knowing the volatility of the weather in these mountains. By 12:30, most of us were heading down off the mountain. I realized the mistake I had made on my descent in 2013 and was relieved to be on the correct trail this time around. Wildflowers were vibrant once again, views continued to be breathtaking. This time storm clouds thickened and rumbles of thunder could be heard. By this time, Moosie and I were safely descending and heading towards Twin Lakes where we were going to meet Swiss Miss and Very Fit with our backpacks.

It took a long time to finally reach the bottom. We descended through some fantastic Engleman spruce forest, then through aspen, then through Ponderosa and finally down to the road to Twin Lakes. There Swiss Miss and Very Fit met us with our packs. After saying goodbye, Moosie and I enjoyed the company of other CT hikers hanging out in front of the Twin Lakes store. Loitering is what we do best in these situations, and several of us enjoyed a beer and snacks from the store. Moosie and I had both settled our score with Elbert. We agreed next to once again tackle the rugged and scenic Collegiate West route which was coming up the next few days...