|Brittle Prickly Pear cactus (Opuntia fragilis)|
Planning this walk had preoccupied me for more than a year but a trail is always different from the image built up reading books, maps and other people's blogs. One of my favourite bloggers said he never got his feet wet once on the trail. Each year is different in terms of frequency of storms, availability of water, prevalence of forest fires, snowpack on the high passes.
One could design a grading system for years which would describe my trip as Storms frequent, Water plentiful, Fires non existent and Snowpack not a problem. Yes my feet got wet. Maybe a category for bears and pine beetle should also be added. But I'll stop before I spoil the story.
A few things make me a little untypical of a CT hiker. I'm 63 yrs old but I did meet others my age just not many. I am not American, I didn't meet any other non Americans though I know there were a few. The Colorado Trail Foundation website lists two other hikers from the UK who completed the walk in 2014.
Big walks are becoming an annual event for me since recent retirement. I completed the 500 mile Pyrenean Traverse in 2012 and walked most of the GR5 in 2013.
I arrived in Denver about 8-00pm local time. It took a while to get out of the airport. I stopped briefly to note the hurricane shelter, I'd not seen one of those before. I had an unexpectedly friendly chat with the immigration officer, previous experience had prepared me for rudeness. His paliness was genuine. He hadn't heard of the Colorado Trail but was interested.
The next surprise was a $3 charge for a cash withdrawal from an ATM, surely just at the airport I wrongly surmised. The next was that the bus into Denver would only accept exact fare. I decided to take a taxi.
|My health and travel insurance from the|
British Mountaineering Council
I could see rows of great thunder head clouds where the Rockies should be. They weren't a surprise.
My hotel/ hostel provided further culture tremors (rather than shocks). A friendly reception gave me a key to a room. Every room on the floor had been kicked in and instead of having a replacement lock had a cage door installed over it. Shit I thought, that must be to keep the bears out, watch your valuables.
I was to excited to sleep immediately but woke in the night to hear friendly conversation and lovely music from somewhere not far away. I think it was shift workers having a break.
|Start of trail|
In the morning I approached the kitchen tentatively...bears you know, but soon fell into warm conversation and very strong coffee. I was mad keen to get on the trail though. I knew I had to make some token effort to say hello to this interesting (so I'm told) city but after breakfast in a diner near the mint (which I didn't visit) I got a train out towards Waterton Canyon. I made a series of silly mistakes resulting from not planning ahead how I was going to get to the trailhead. I hadn't bought groceries in Denver, thinking I could find somewhere along the line. I did but it involved city walking in the heat of the day and another taxi to the trailhead.
I reached Waterton Canyon about 2-00pm and it was hot as hell (so was I) and no shelter for six miles. Little black flies like houseflies were everywhere and I soon found out that they bite even through thin clothing. I found nothing interesting about those first miles but fell into conversation with some cyclists near the Strontia Springs dam. I impressed them with my stories of the Tour de France. It seemed incredible to them that only a few days earlier I could have been watching the race in a place called Europe.
|The trail is well marked.|
I hiked on a few miles more to Bear creek. There were three young people camped there already but they didn't mind me setting up nearby. They explained that I could follow the creek back to the reservoir and have a dip and a wash. I had read in blogs that bears had recently been a nuisance in this area and duly hung my food from a branch but nothing was going to disturb my sleep, not even the high jinx in the neighbouring tent.
No condensation in the tent, food still where I hung it. Silence from the neighbours so I took care not to disturb them though I felt odd about heading off without a farewell. Porridge for breakfast would become the norm. The guide book divides the Colorado trail into 28 segments. It is easy to think of these as day walks but they are not. They are routes between trailheads i.e. places where the trail crosses a road or track. Trailheads often have toilets, parking space and notice boards. Starting day 2 I had 8 more miles to go to complete segment 1, and I was hoping by the end of the day to have completed segment 2,, oh mice and men.
The next stop would be the South Platte River trailhead which looked like a popular spot. I crossed the river and sat down to enjoy lunch. A few distant rumbles of thunder were audible but no rain. Did I say no rain? The clear skies filled quickly and the archetypical afternoon storm that I had read about broke. I hunched under my umbrella and sat it out for a couple of hours. The next stretch was uphill for six miles with no campspot on the way. I got about a mile when the storm broke again with heavy hail and decided to retrace my steps to the trailhead where I could camp for the night. It was a wet slippery return.
I found the campsite and two tents already there. I put mine up in the rain and climbed in but the rain didn't last much longer and I got to meet my fellows who were two men of my age from Boston who were themselves walking the full trail.
They went ahead of me in the morning and curiously I never saw them again. It is common on long trails to keep bumping into the same people, not because you are walking close behind or in front but because everyone takes occasional days off. Later in the walk I would get to know some hikers quite well through crisscrossing interactions in towns or campspots (even though they were much younger and faster than me) rather than walking together. My friends from Boston must have kept there heads down and moved speedily ahead, which was fine as I didn't like them.
|Heart leaved Arnica ( Arnica cordifolia)|
I was feeling the need to get a few miles under my belt. Today with the uphill ahead I was feeling the drag of my pack. Despite wishing to be a lightweight backpacker I never really achieved it. But I was starting to see some wildlife. The area, I was warned, would be bleak as there had been a large forest fire here but I think it was recovering well. Lots of old dead tree trunks but ground cover popping up. This was the only day on which I saw eagles. I saw deer and was scolded by a couple of kestrels. I had never heard of kestrels scolding humans. The path must have come close to their nest. I didn't understand what was happening at first but they started to swoop towards me calling. Reminded me of the behaviour of terns. I met a hiker coming the other way who told me of seeing a bear with her cub. He was carrying about 5 litres of water which surprised me. He was just entering a ten mile stretch without water that I was coming out of but two litres had seen me through.
It is always good to meet people coming the other way so you can ask about such issues as availability of water.
|Hooded ladies Tresses (Spiranthes romanzoffiana)|
I was coming up to a road near a fire station at Buffalo Creek. There is an outdoor tap on the wall at the back of the station where hikers top up. Another mile would see the end of segment 2. I sat under some trees to snack. I saw a creature I still don't know the name of, some sort of cricket/grasshopper that leaps very high making a wild clacking sound like a Chinese firecracker. It doesn't just leap up and down but seems to be able to give itself another spurt without landing. Its action is totally random and at times later in the walk I've nearly been hit by them. Well that piece of excitement over and along comes a runner. I had seen her earlier going the other way. She told me she was training for a 100 miler, not the Leadville 100 but another one. She had already completed four 100s. We discussed blisters and chafing which were starting to be significant issues for me.
I had another 8 miles to go to my planned stop and blisters were becoming a problem. The area I was passing through was reminiscent of Cornwall and its granite tors. Here was an abundance of large rounded granite structures. The weather broke again. No thunder this time, not for me anyway, though other areas were getting a pasting. It was well into the evening when I arrived at Cross Meadows campground. These campsites are like nothing you see in Britain. They are full of large trailers and campervans spread out over a large area of woodland. It looked like a major hike to find a reception. Fortunately the people I asked for directions invited me to camp on their patch. As this must have been a quarter of an acre I wasn't going to be in their way. Again I hung my food on a tree close to the bear-proof rubbish bins and slept well while the skies opened.
Everyone I met on my walk was scrupulous about filtering water from streams. The dreaded gardia seemed to stalk the trail. I carried chorline tabs but tended not to be worried about high up fast flowing streams unless there was clear evidence of livestock which there very rarely was. But hand hygiene didn't seem to have the same importance. None of the public toilets at trailheads or this campground had washing facilities.
My plan today was simple. Start slowly, rest a little, walk 5/6 miles to a spot near a creek near a road from which I could hitch into Bailey. I needed to get a grip on a few issues. I was carrying a heavy pack but didn't have the basic essentials to deal with chafing clothes and blisters. I'd bought food for a few days but I was going slower than hoped, partly because of the weather, and I was running out of oats and meths.
|Trail passes through a rifle range.|
Off I went about lunchtime, slowly up a river valley. I stopped by a nice deep pool for a wash and felt relaxed knowing I had stacks of time. The trail took me through a rifle range which, this being Sunday, was busy. I trusted they were all shooting in the other direction. I found the campspot mentioned in the guidebook and set up camp. The weather was glorious but the stream here was very low, but usable. I was the first to arrive of several people who would camp here that night so a sociable evening lay ahead.
The first was Brian. Brian was exhausted. He had just completed 22 miles and was carrying a very heavy pack. I think he was also suffering from the altitude, though we were only just above 8000ft. He was carrying a bear proof cannister for his food. I had considered getting one and decided against it on grounds of weight and cost but it was interesting to see one. I didn't meet anyone else using one. We talked about guns, immigration and the British NHS. He thought the NHS was under political control and you needed to be on good terms with your local politicians to get decent care. He was a true believer that the state was a necessary evil and only an armed citizenry could keep it in check. I really enjoyed Brian's company and was sorry not to bump into him again.
I was carrying a satellite beacon, as a safety precaution, which had a texting facility enabling me to send messages home and also to upload my position to Facebook for friends to see. There are a couple of brands popular with hikers. Brian carried one like mine and another hiker passing through our camp also had one. The other thing we had in common was that we were hiking solo. I don't think I met any solo hikers who weren't taking this precaution.
A young couple from Denver arrived and set up. They were just out for a long weekend tramp and were useful for local knowledge and bear stories. I also found out at this stage that since I had started walking there had been two deaths and several injuries from lightning strikes in Colorado. The big storm I had stopped in two days previously had been lethal. I was warned, pay serious attention to storms above the treeline. I had grown up with the message 'don't shelter under trees in a storm'. The advice here was “make a bee line for the tree-line if caught out on a ridge”.
It was a short walk to a dirt road that led into the small town of Bailey about 8 miles from the trail. A dirt road with no noticable traffic on it. My guide book also suggested that Bailey was only good for 'gas station snacks” I wanted oats, bread, meths, coffee and especially vaseline.
After about ten minutes a car pulled up and offered me a lift. He took me in, told me the history of the town, fed me a few more bear stories, and directed me to the general store and the gas station. He said if I was ready to go back to the trail in 30 minutes he would take me back. I was going to have my shopping done and be back on the trail for 10.00 am.
If you ask for meths in Colorado you get funny looks. Denatured alcohol can be bought at chemists but on the trail hikers look for garages to buy Heet. Heet is pure methylated spirit which is added to the petrol tanks of sporty cars that, in freezing weather, get crystals in their carburettors. This comes in a yellow bottle. There are also red bottles of Heet for diesel vehicles but that is something else. In 30 minutes I did my shopping and fell in love with Bailey.
When my driver got me back to the trail there was another hiker trying to thumb a lift in and my driver turned around and went back to Bailey with him.
I walked 10 miles along the trail that day through Lost Creek Wilderness, another slow day. I found a spot with a mobile signal and phoned home. A few miles further on I caught up with the Denver couple (Dave and Michelle) I'd met the day before. They were going slower than me, I was glad somebody was, but I enjoyed walking with them. We broke through the tree-line to wonderful open meadow and set up camp in woody patch near the stream. This was the most beautiful spot I had yet seen on the trail. I hadn't learned to read the landscape properly yet and didn't appreciate that I was now in the beaver's territory. That winding stream, those ponds, the low willow scrub were the product of beavers. It is really something to be in a landscape shaped by a mammal other than man.
It was the flora and fauna of the Rockies that really told me I was far from home. There were many plants I had never seen before though a few that I had. Cranebills that I am familiar with in my back garden were common. I had never seen a humming bird before but one came right up to my face.
The paths for the first few days had been compacted granite gravel and hard as walking on a road. I was glad to be into wilder country.
Another curious thing I noticed. My water tube has a magnetic clip on it so that it can attached to my rucksack. Often it would trail on the ground when I sat down. I didn't mind but it was permanently covered in magnetic dust and gravel that it picked up. This would continue to be the case throughout the walk.
There was a big storm during the night.
|Mistmaiden (Romanzoffia sitchensis)|
I had a slow start as I had to take time to dry out my tent and sleeping bag. I also had a wash in the stream and washed my socks. I was now in the Six Mile Meadow. Six miles of beaver ponds and scrub willow taking me up to 11,000 feet. The morning was beautiful and once over the top was downhill zigzaging through woodland to a steam at the bottom. I tried having lunch here (near Long Gulch trailhead) but the flies were bad. I was now into segment 5. I was moving fairly steadily though had to stop a couple of times for hailstorms. Thunder was the music of the afternoon but I felt safe in woodland. However the ground started to rise again but by then the storms had passed. It was late when I stopped to camp at Rock Creek. It was a lovely little spot though not far from a house and there was a bit of rusty old metal rubbish nearby. I had got my tent up when another hiker came along, a hairy young man. We chatted for a bit. He was moving fast and aiming to complete the trail in 20 days. His pack was much lighter than mine but he was also carrying an umbrella, just like mine except that his was a Golite and mine was a Rohan though clearly off the same assembly line. He gave me his trail name, Macbeth, but declined my invitation to join me as he hoped to do another mile or two before stopping.
I actually saw a lot of Macbeth over the next few weeks as he took a week out of the hike. Although he was much faster than me we arrived in Durango within a day of each other and celebrated our achievement together
I packed my tent wet deciding to stop in some airy spot and dry it there. I often do this if the morning is dull or I'm in woodland where drying will be slow. Macbeth hadn't actually gone much further and I reached his camp while he was still packing though he soon overtook me and was off like a hare. Saw a Blue Jay.
I was heading towards Kinosha Pass. Kinosha Pass is the trailhead nearest to Jefferson, another possible resupply spot. Jefferson is South Park of irreverent cartoon fame though it consists of a cafe and a garage. It didn't take long to get a lift though I was sat in the back of a pickup with a couple of large dogs. I had brought an ereader with me and I think it was climbing into the pick that I broke the screen.
I ate a big lunch at the café but the selection of food to buy wasn't great. There were three other hikers there walking together. They were good company for an hour but had decided to camp by the store for the evening. One had used it as a post drop and asked his family to post him some AA batteries. They sent a box with about 100 batteries in it which he was going to be unable to use or carry so he was offering batteries to anyone who wanted them. I took 4 but don't think I used them.
My lift back to the pass was with a man installing solar panels. He explained the system was very popular on outlying farms where mains electricity would be very expensive to install.
|Rain droplets have frozen over night on my rucksack cover.|
He dropped me at the pass where another hiker, in a silly hat, asked me how easy it had been to hitch into Jefferson. Americans don't mind silly hats as long as they are light and keep the sun off. In my experience French hikers by contrast like to wear very smart hats... just saying. I told him it was easy and headed off. He had seemed little agitated and I left him to it. But, as with Macbeth, RJ (as he was known) was someone I would get to know well and become fond of.
I walked another 6 miles and camped by Jefferson Creek. I had passed Deadman's Creek deciding the name was uninviting. I noted in my journal that this was a very uncomfortable night comparable to another uncomfortable night I had spent on the Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye, but the memory of it is gone other than that in the morning the rain cover on my rucksack was covered in frozen droplets.
Today was to take me up to 11,874 feet, at Georgia Pass the highest point yet. It was a long slow haul and I was in need of a bit more oxygen than available. I was passed by two others on the way up. The first was Eric who I met again at the top. The other was a guy who offered to trade dope for food. I wasn't interested in his dope but offered him some food but he said he would wait for me at the top. He didn't.
Eric was an economics professor who was trying to do the trail at speed. However he acquired a knee injury and had to drop out the next day at Breckenridge. He walked most of the next day in pain.
The views at Georgia Pass are magnificent. I was starting to develop side effects of the altitude, getting a dark cluster of spots in the vision of my right eye. This was quite distracting but it passed in 3 or 4 days.
It was a long decent from Georgia Pass taking us down below 10,000 feet again. There was a good campspot at Swan river. This was an area where parties came out to play with their all terrain vehicles. I lit a fire and had a pleasant evening. Two other hikers camping in hammocks set up near by and lit a bigger fire and the sound of revellers carried on through the night. It was fine by me.
Eric had gone ahead coming off the pass but his knee injury slowed him down and we camped in the same area.
|My Guyot from Georgia Pass|
|Colorado Colombine (Aquilegia coerulea)|
We had about 13 miles to go to reach the Breckenridge trailhead where a free bus will take you into town. On the way there we would complete the first 100 miles of the Colorado Trail and climb another 1200' hill. The decent to the highway was horrible leading to a RV camp. I'd not seen an RV yet.
I had come to see wilderness and although I enjoyed the human scale of places like Bailey and Jefferson I didn't want to stand on a busy highway waiting for a bus. Eric had contacted his parents who were picking him up in Breckenridge so I left him at the side of the road and headed back to the trail.
The area around Breckenridge suffers appallingly from pine beetle. Dead trees are everywhere collapsed at awkward angles as the heart is eaten out of them. The damage across Colorado is phenomenal. Millions of trees along the sides of a wide valley will be dead. The thin lodgepole pine is often left standing waiting for the fire which will clear the forest. Larger trees twist and buckle. You can lie in your tent at night and hear trees fall. Some of the camp-spots listed in the guidebooks are unusable either from the fear of falling trees or because the ground is criss-crossed with fallen trees making it difficult to put up a tent.
This was a damp summer which had two major advantages. The first that there was water in streams that might normally be dry at this time of year and second that the massive fires that will eventually clear all this dead wood are delayed a little bit longer.
Dead trees mean few birds and fewer mammals. The living woodlands full of jays, woodpeckers and squirrels and chipmonks, abuzz with moths, are wonderful. The dead are just dead.
I had another 1000 feet to climb before descending into the valley I would camp in. I camped by a small stream in a lifeless and depressing wood. The only signs of movement were the dots in front of my eyes.
|Dead lodgepole pine|
I was infected by the bleakness of the place when I rose. Porridge and off but a few hundred yards I met Bibs who had camped further along the stream. I hadn't noticed her arrival. She was another speedy hiker and with a 2500' ascent to Tenmile ridge I wasn't going to try to keep up with her. It was a long haul up to the ridge. Human contact blew away the dead forest blues.
I met a family group near the ridge. One Deb was walking the whole trail and the others were accompanying her on a day hike. They had a sweet little dog with them. They steamed off ahead of me but I would see Deb again. Coming the other way I met a group of three women about my own age. They were Coloradoans walking much of the trail. One was a Trail Angel, Addy. It is the privilege of Trail Angels to allocate trail names and she named me 'Mr Oddity'.
I met Bibs again at the top and we walked down the other side to Copper Mountain, a ski resort, where we had lunch together. It was larger and busier than I expected. She was young and chatty and talked about things I knew nothing of, like baseball. We carried on for another 6 miles where I stopped to camp. She ploughed on and our paths didn't cross again
|Towards Kokomo Pass|
Between Searle Pass and Kokomo Pass popular with mountain bikers
|Common red paintbrush (Castilleja miniata|
Today starts with a long hike to up above 12000' to Searle Pass, Elk Ridge and Kokomo Pass. The area is not to distant from Breckenridge and is popular with mountain bikers. The path stays above the tree line for quite a few miles but thankfully there were no storms. Though it rained heavily in the evening. This was a glorious day with bright sunlight and expanding vistas and plentiful water stops.
This was another spot popular with cyclists and at the top some of them were showing signs of oxygen deprivation as they were day trippers out from the towns rather than long distance travellers getting acclimatised to the altitude.
I met Addy and her companions again at Kokomo Pass. And walked with them to a camp spot at a creek. This was back down at 10,000', below the tree-line. It was still early afternoon but they had decided to set up camp. I gave my feet a good chilling soak in the creek and played my whistle for a while before setting off again.
|Addy, a Van Morrison fan|
The path takes you through the old Camp Hale military camp, used to train mountain commandos during World War 2. I expected it to be a bit more interesting than it was. Here the path started to climb again and it started to rain. I walked another couple of miles to a campspot. There was a tent already in place so I called to the occupant asking if they minded me setting up beside them. It turn out to be Deb who said she would be glad of the company.
The rain eventually ceased and we lit a fire and yarned well after nightfall.
My plan was to take a day out in Leadville to rest a little and get my laundry done. Deb and I walked together to Tennessee Pass. The day was heating up. We parted there I standing at the side of the road thumbing a lift and Deb starting off on segment 9 into Holy Cross wilderness.
It wasn't long before someone stopped. This was a gentleman in a fairly posh car who didn't quite understand that I was walking to Durango and was offering to take detours to get me closer to my destination. He described himself as an entrepreneur and talked about the opportunities presented by the legalisation of marijuana in Colorado.
He dropped me at the tourist office in Leadville and drove off. In the office I realised I'd left my walking poles in the car. Walking up the street I met my entrepreneur walking towards me with my poles. He had spotted them in the car and turned around.
I found my way to the hostel though not before another driver stopped and gave me advice about camping spots, cigars and oral sex. This was an interesting town.
I LOVED Leadville hostel. No-one hiking the CT should miss this stop. It was very homely with BB King music playing continuously. The hostel owner was very helpful though just a little prickly. He went through a routine of explaining the rules and facilities to every visitor and you could imagine him getting fed up. I could dry out my sleeping bag in the yard. I could borrow town clothes while putting everything in the wash and I could borrow a bicycle for getting around town.
RJ turned up as did the two hammockers. There were a few interesting characters staying at the hostel and I was tempted to stay another day but resisted.
The town had lots to see and buy but one of the benefits of hiking is that it is easy to resist the temptation to buy anything you are going to have to carry. I dined at the Golden Burro, a lovely spot. My only comment is that a salad that is mostly cheese and ham shouldn't really be called a salad.
Leadville ouses history. The town is not 200 years old but mining here has transformed the landscape mostly by hand. Fortunes were made and lost. Life was cheap and the history of misery and exploitation can't be romanticed. Jesse James passed through. I couldn't look at the spoil heaps without seeing the thousand of human ants who broke their lives here.
I had a long chat in the dorm with a young man of 18 who had decided to abandon the trail. I wasn't sure whether to console him and tell him he was doing the right thing or to try to encourage him to continue. He said sure people would be impressed if he walked the 500 miles but people were impressed anyway that he had walked more than 140 miles.
|Leadville railway station in the evening light.|
I got a lift to Safeways early with an interesting evangelist who was vigorously campaigning against divorce. His car was covered in posters describing divorce as adultery. He was very helpful to me and despite being totally at odds with his beliefs I found him congenial company. I don't think he was trying to convert me so he was spared the disappointment of failure.
|Anti divorce campaign car.|
Over breakfast I talked to a resident who was doing genealogical research. He had found an ancestor called Daniel Malone who left West Meath for Virginia in 1642. There is a story behind that somewhere.
We returned to the hostel where I packed up. I walked out the road to hitch a lift back to Tennessee Pass. The day was getting very hot. A woman and young child gave me a lift. I enjoyed their company and they were in much more straightened circumstances than me so I regretted not offering generous payment for the lift. It is amazing how much you can get to know of someone in a short lift.
At Tennessee Pass I found a box of trail magic. Trail magic is food and drink left by the side of the trail by some good person for the benefit of hikers. This particular box, I found out, was kept supplied by Leadville Hostel. RJ got a lift from the hostel to the pass by the owner coming out to restock the box. If I hadn't been impatient to leave I'd have had a lift with him.
The next few miles were plagued with mosquitos. I met Jim who was hoping to get to Lake City but running out of time. He had climbed, over the years, all the 14000ers in Colorado. RJ caught us up and we eventually set up camp together at the high point around 11500'. We had looked at a spot near a Porcupine Lakes but the mozzies were intolerable. As the light started to go we could see distant lightning but could not here thunder. It was quite magical after a glorious sunset. Jim recited a poem and I played a couple of tunes on my whistle. Shooting stars confirmed the evening to be a good one.
|I managed to photograph this moth at|
the point of take off from my leg
RJ stormed ahead today planning to get up Mount Elbert. Jim and I started together talking about the supermarket retail business until he decided he need to move more quickly. I don't think it had anything to do with the conversation. The weather broke badly in the afternoon with hailstones the size of marbles. I made it to Mount Massive trailhead, where a large Moose deer grazed close to my tent. I had done about 18 miles which was good for a day disturbed by hail showers. On the way down to the trailhead I met a man walking with his son, maybe 12 years old, walking up. They were heading to a campspot to spend the night before climbing Mount Massive in the morning. The boy already had a nasty graze on his forehead from slipping crossing a stream. I asked him if he had damaged the rock he hit but neither her or his dad appreciated the joke. I do hope they bagged their peak.
The two mountains, Massive and Elbert tower over this stretch of the trail towards Twin Lakes. I still had a mind to climb one or two of the great 14000ers but was finding the job of walking the trail satisfying enough.
|RJ or as he calls himself now Dr No|
At Twin Lakes the trail divides in two providing a variant route (Collegiate West) for 82 miles through the Collegiate peaks. This is a wilder and more remote route than the traditional route which most hikers still use. I had been debating with myself for a while as to whether or not to go this way. I was a little frightened. This route would take be up above the tree-line for many miles. As dangerous storms were a reality I couldn't ignore and resupply points fewer and further between I was slow to opt for this route. But had I come to Colorado to settle for second best? What likelihood I would ever be back.
you can see how it got its name.
I headed off for Twin Lakes for a restaurant lunch and hopefully buy food and fuel for a few days. I met John who was in training for the Leadville 100, probably the premier cross country race in the world. He had a few more scary lightning tales. Lightning had definitely replaced bears as the biggest hazard. After lunch RJ moseyed into town and we had a beer with a couple of other hikers. We were all thinking Collegiate West but I was planning a little shortcut. I saw no point in walking the long around the lakes to get to the trail to Hope Pass when I could join it more quickly going in the other direction. For the others following the route according to the book was important. So we parted. Having sat in blazing sunshine enjoying a beer half an hour earlier I was now in another downpour with lighting burning the sky like an arc welder.
Determination had set in and threats from the thunder god were not going to turn me around.
It was a long 3500' climb to Hope Pass. It was pissing down and the ground was rough. I decided to stop at Avalanche Meadow at about 11000'. I met a couple of rangers who were looking for a group of English people who were late in returning from a day hike. Then I bumped into an English man who was looking for a route back to the trailhead. I set him straight.
By the time I reached Avalanche meadow the rain had stopped and I set up camp. Near to where I camped was an old grave (I assume it was real), a long overgrown pile of stones with an improvised cross on it tied with a strand of leather. Yes I was in the Wild West.
|Grave at Avalanche Meadow.|
|The Collegiate Peaks from Hope Pass|
18 miles today over Hope Pass (in bright sunshine) and Lake Ann Pass (in a thunder storm). Fantastic views of Mount Hope, Mount Huron and the Three Apostles and a long valley walk before a brutal climb to Lake Ann Pass and a further four miles to anywhere suitable for camping.
|CDTer with Mount Hope in the background.|
The climb to Hope Pass from Avalanche meadow was glorious on gentle switchbacks. I met a guy at the top coming the other way on the Continental Divide Trail, typical of CDTers over 60 and lean as a stick. I got his picture but don't remember his name.
I found the climb up to Lake Ann Pass (12588') quite a struggle. I was very tempted to stop at the lake where camping would have been simple rather than climb a further 800' up a bouldery slope. The path through the scree wasn't clear as a couple of the switchbacks were concealed by snowpack. About halfway up the slope a thunder storm came in very quickly. It was short but nasty and right on top of my head. I don't think I have ever been closer to lightning strikes. I was in exactly the situation that I should have been trying hardest to avoid.
I didn't know at the time but RJ had reached the lake and set up camp while I was on the scree. He found the experience of the storm frightening enough from there.
I crossed the pass watching the storm move on. I was left in bright clear air with the setting sun bringing out the full texture of the landscape and helping me dry off.
I had 1500' of decent and a 4 mile hike to reach my intended camp-spot. As I went on the paths were rutted by trail bikers and my campsite was barely suitable and offered no views or pleasure. I just got the tent up in the last light of the evening and went quickly to sleep.
|Coming down from Lake Ann Pass|
The amazing thing about adrenalin is that it works. I can be stumbling along under the weight of my pack feeling I can't go much further when something happens to give me a fright, maybe just a stumble. Then I'm off with renewed energy hardly knowing I have a pack on my pack.
I packed up quickly and walked a short distance to a point where I could be cheered by the rising sun. I brewed up and had breakfast there and managed to get my tent dry. The trails for the nest few miles were grim as this was an area used by trail bikes. Often the trail was so rutted I had to walk off if for safety. I only met one rider though and despite warnings I had heard about riders being hostile to walkers I saw no sign of this.
|Elephant's head Lousewort (Pedicularis greenlandica)|
After about 5 miles the trail signs started to disagree with my book. The little gem of a guidebook that everyone uses is the Colorado Trail Data Book. This is small and very well designed but you do need to make sure you have the most up to date version as the route can change year to year. I did have the latest version but a newer one was needed to account for the most recent change. Alongside the data book I was using a gps loaded with waypoints downloaded from the Colorado Trail Foundation website. Other hikers I met were using an app on their Iphones. An idiosyncrasy of the data book is that the waypoints in the data book are not the same as the waypoints you download. At this point my waypoints were right and my databook was wrong and would be for a good few miles.
However, let it be said that the new route is a big improvement. It is six miles uphill from the turn-off to Cottonwood Pass. I was worried about water. I wanted to camp as close to the pass as I could but near a stream. On the way up I met an interesting group coming down, a man two young girls (say 10 and 12 yrs) and two dogs. They told me they had walked from the Mexican border along the CDT. I don't know whether to be sceptical or amazed. But they were able to reassure me there was plenty of water ahead.
|View from Cottonwood|
I crossed a couple of streams but set up camp at the next not wanting to risk going much higher. I was at the tree line. There was a suitable spot so I stopped and put up my tent though it was still early evening. No sooner was my tent up than I heard a voice and along comes RJ. I invited him to join me but he wanted to go a bit higher and look for a better spot. He found one about a half mile further on so I packed up and joined him. It was an ideal site. We lit a fire.
|RJ on Cottonwood summit|
I headed off first in the morning but RJ caught me at Cottonwood Pass. There was a road at the pass and a number of cars parked. The weather was wonderful and we enjoyed a leisurely walk to the peak at at about 12500' and took some photographs. We were both nervous about the weather realising that we would be on or near the ridge for the whole day and subject to whatever the weather threw at us. We could see the early signs of building cumuli. Further along we met a woman on her own with her tent spread out to dry. We stopped to chat and told her we didn't want to stop to long. She had a bad knee and could only walk slowly. She was walking with a friend who had gone on ahead but would be waiting for her. They had walked from Twin Lakes and were going to Monarch Crest following the Collegiate West route.
We carried on and about a mile further on met the other woman. We strode on briskly. I could keep up a good pace with RJ until we hit an incline and then it was my heavy pack as much as my age that slowed me down.
|Refuge from a storm|
The path started to switchback up to a pass rising to 12800'. I would never become so acclimatised that I was unaffected by this altitude and my progress was slow. I could hear the first rumbles of thunder as a storm cloud started to grow overhead. I carried on up watching the cloud drift away. But the cloud was growing faster than it was drifting and was over my head when I reached the pass. Great views but no lime to linger for pictures. RJ had probably gained a mile on me by now but waited for me at the shoulder of Mt Kreutzer.
We sat for a while snacking and watching the build up of thunderheads. There were two distinct stormclouds which looked as though they could eventually merge and we speculated on what that would mean. It didn't take long to find out.
|Seeds of the storm|
It was raining heavily as we set off along a very stony path in a barren landscape. Again RJ pulled ahead and I was doubting the wisdom of trying to cross the next pass. Lightning flashes were happening every few seconds and I could see bolts hitting the ridge above me. I became obsessive about counting the seconds between flashes and thunderclaps.
I rounded a bend near some bushes and heard RJ call me. He was crouched in the bushes for shelter. I joined him. We sat on his mat and cowered under my umbrella considering what our next move should be and wondering what was happening with the women we had met.
Soon we couldn't discern a time gap between the lightning strikes and the thunder and decided to make a b-line downhill in the hope of getting to some trees. We got absolutely soaked but found a spot and in pouring rain got our tents up. To much excitement. And we had only done 9 miles which would mean running low on supplies.
The weather still looked a bit uncertain in the morning but we packed up and made our way back uphill to the trail. Our target for the day was to get to St Elmo for resupply. St Elmo is an old ghost town where a general store and B+B have been reopened. The first ridge over a shoulder of Emma Burr mountain would take us back up to 12800'. We met another CDTer on top and stopped for a chat. RJ ploughed on but I decided to stop in this airy place to dry out my tent and sleeping bag. I saw no point in carrying unwanted water.
I took the next stage at a stroll trying to relax and enjoy the mountains rather than churn up miles and the gap between these ridges was wonderful. But once over the second ridge I had a drop of about 2000' taking me well below the tree line and onto a dirt track where I hoped to pick up a lift to St Elmo. There were a few things wrong with this plan. Firstly there was very little traffic apart from ATVs. In fact I had stumbled into a ATV convention. Secondly the only food available in St Elmo was hot coffee and bars of chocolate. But the gods were watching.
After about 30 mins a vehicle did stop and offer me a lift. This was a couple out from Denver on a weekend of ATVing though their vehicle doubled up as a 4 wheel drive. The road was a mess and the ride very bumby. They gave me a bag of trail mix and told me some lightning stories though I now had enough of my own. When I got into St Elmo I met RJ and the two women we had met on the trail. RJ had renamed the one with the bad knee as 'Wounded Knee'. They had had a rough time in the storm and decided to abandon the walk. They had arranged for a lift to pick them up and take them home.
They also gave us their spare food and there was lots of it and it was good. So despite St Elmo being absolutely the wrong place to go to resupply we walked out well stocked.
|RJ with Wounded Knee and her friend.|
We had a very cheery time chatting with our new friends while they waited for their lift. But soon RJ and I had to go back to the trail. RJ went first. I followed about 30mins later by which time the rain had started again. I didn't get a lift on that road despite being passed many times so ended up walking 4 miles back to the trail in the pissing rain but guess who has got an umbrella. I noticed that I was walking much more strongly at this lower altitude.
I got to the trailhead, found a very good camp-spot and set up camp. No sign of RJ but I was sure I hadn't seen the last of him.
Something twanged one of my guy lines during the night and I started to reconsider bears.
RJ contemplating an easier way of getting to Durango
Dank horrible low mist. I wondered how long this bad weather was going to continue so I texted home and asked my partner to check out the weather forecast for this area. The reply came back;-
Thun storms for 7 days except wed when rain likely all day.
Not very encouraging.
I set off uphill into the mist hoping it was going uphill to, it was. I climbed about 2000'. Eventually the path started to follow on old mining railway track downhill all the way to a trailhead eight miles from my start. The rain came in heavy again but I set off slowly. There was another high pass coming up at Chalk creek and I was nervous of crossing it in uncertain weather. I met a camper at Hancock lake. He had set up his tent not expecting to go any further. We talked for a while and the mist on the pass lifted. I decided to go. I got over without the feared storm sneaking up on me and proceeded down the other side. The walk downhill was unpleasantly wet but the path eventually turned into a track and I came upon two log cabins. I looked in the first on wondering if it would make accomodation for the night though I had ideally planned to walk another few miles to Boss Lake reservoir.
The cabins were a mess but in the second one I found RJ huddled in his sleeping bag trying to get warm. He had gone uphill from the trailhead the day before and had a cold miserable night. He was now very tired and very cold. I decided to set up nearby. I didn't fancy a cabin and put my tent up, though a night in a cabin would have been more comfortable, shit I'm a hiker.
I fed RJ cups of tea and we chatted into the evening. By morning he was in flying form again.
RJ and I set off together but he broke ahead on climb to the top of Bald Mountain past Boss Lake. This was a 2000' climb by a very beautiful route that wound about a bit and past further lakes levelling out for a time before throwing another steep ascent at me. It was a tiring climb.
Once up the path stayed up above 11000' for 12 miles. Much of this was along a ridge with fantastic views which included the views of building storm clouds. I felt nervous in such an exposed position and didn't linger though the opportunities for photography were enticing. The drama of the sky was as picturesque as the landscape.
The path eventually leads to the Monarch Pass ski resort and again meanders around the resort rather than offering a direct route. This is not an interesting part of the trail.
I was still carrying a wet tent but it wasn't until I got close to the highway that I felt comfortable about stopping to dry it. The threatened storm hadn't materialised and the sky was now bright.
After drying the tent and having a bite to eat I followed the trail to the highway and found a suitable spot from which to hitch a lift. It hadn't been part of my plan to go to Salida. I thought it just to far from the trail at 22 miles but there was another 100 miles of trail to Lake City which was my next resupply point.
After a while a magnificently large and shiny cattle truck pulled up and offered me a lift. The driver was a Mormon who explained to me that he had passed a hiker a little way back up the road and felt bad about missing an opportunity to do a good deed. He believed there was a purpose in our meeting and told me much about himself, his family and recently deceased father who had been the same age as me. He dropped me in the middle of Salida. I asked for directions to the hostel which was about 10 mins walk from where I was dropped.
When I got there that bad penny, RJ, was checking in and for a moment it looked as though he had got the last bunk.