More Snow, and it’s July

Day 10 started clear and cool, staying sunny all day. The next section of trail also climbed well over to well over 12,000 feet, so it was going to be another day with snow. The Colorado Trail website had listed the previous 2 sections as passable. Today’s section was listed as heavy snow; not a word about passable. Climbing out of the Copper Mountain ski resort, I spotted snow at an elevation of 10,400; not a good sign. However, some grouse and deer gave me something else to think about.

Soon there was a repeat of the last two hikes with ridges of snow that had to be climbed over or plowed through. It was looking like a long day until I hit tree line, where there was a surprising absence of heavy snow. The occasional snow field was crusted over enough, that, at least for the moment, I could walk over rather than post hole. A couple snowfields did get the heart rate up in that large creeks disappeared into them. I knew if the snow gave way and dropped me into the creek, it would not be pretty.

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By the time I reached the first pass at nearly 12,000 feet, I was ready for an early lunch. Sitting on some rubble enjoying yet another jaw dropping landscape I had the feeling I was not alone. One by one, marmots began popping out of the rocks all around me. Startle one and you’ll know why they have the endearing nickname of “whistle pig.”

Whistle pig

Whistle pig

Afternoon brought more snowfields to cross. It is amazing to me how quickly the tundra Wildflowers follow the melting snow. There were often blooming flowers when there had to be snow just a day or two before. After over three miles above 12,000 feet, the trail finally headed down to a more reasonable 10,000 feet where I set up my tent alongside a rushing stream.

A couple hours later, who shows up but Golden and Wildflower. The had started their day about 2 miles behind me and I didn’t expect them to catch up. They are some serious hikers.

For dinner, Golden told me she had a bunch of scrambled eggs from the hostel they stayed in two nights ago and offered me some. “They’re green!” I replied when I spotted her offering. “That’s the avocado,” she stated. “It also has some vegetarian ham in it too.”

From somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind I remembered that I should not and could not eat green eggs and ham so I declined the offer.

Day 11 is clear all day. I thought I heard a bear in camp during the night, but apparently it was Golden finding out that green eggs and ham wasn’t a good idea for her either. She and Wildflower are planning on hitching a ride into Leadville for food of a different color. I’m planning on a 20 mile day and so pack up and head out early.

Much of the trail is on old Forest Service roads, so it’s a tad boring, but the miles are easy. Along the way, an older couple walk towards me and ask about so side trails. I am not much help, but show them my maps. After a short “domestic” they turn around and start hiking with me, back the way they came. They were pretty interesting to talk to and were the stereotypical couple that had been together so long they began to resemble each other. They talked alike, dressed somewhat the same and even had matching sideburns.

The easy miles ended abruptly when I got to the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. In a mile I climbed close to 1,000 feet and was back over 11,000. I had hoped because I remained a bit lower than yesterday, that there’d be no snow to contend with. Man was I ever wrong. It was back to plowing through drifts and post holing. Despite having waterproof shoes, there was no way to avoid wet feet for 3 of the last 4 days, and it was starting to take a toll. I stopped a couple times to attempt to dry my socks in the sun, but eventually ended up taping over some blisters with duct tape. That actually helped quite a bit. After 20 miles for the day though, I was pretty much worn out. I set up camp near a small pond, but still at an elevation of 11,000 feet. Sky’s still clear. There’s snow by the campsite. It’s going to be a cold night.

7-4 photo

Frisco

Day 7 dawned clear and cool. I had 13 miles to reach the end of Section 6 where’s there’s a bus stop and a ride to the towns of Breckenridge and Frisco. I had a hotel room reserved in Frisco, but still have some walking to do first. Almost immediately there were more jaw dropping views. A mountain biker rode up and asked if I were a thru-hiker. A yes answer brought a pronouncement that the next section of the trail had 20 feet of snow on it. He then began to quiz me about local history and politics. Despite answering every question with, “I wouldn’t know. I’m from Cincinnati,” the interrogation continued. Eventually I changed my answer to, “have a good ride,” and moved on.

Over the next few miles I met a few other hikers coming the other way. All asked if I were a thru-hiker. Apparently it was becoming obvious. I wonder, was it the confident walk? The filling out of the neck beard? The smell? Hmmm.

Neck beard isn't that thick yet. Must be the smell

Neck beard isn’t that thick yet. Must be the smell

There were still 8 miles to go when I spotted Frisco down in a pretty valley, but it was enough to pick up the pace. My main obstacle, besides the distance, was walking through areas where the pine bark beetle infestation is being treated. By treated, I mean every tree for acres is cut down and chipped up. When walking these stretches, plan on needing sunscreen.

Luck was on my side as a bus and I arrived at the stop at the exact same time. Not ten minutes later I was checking into the Snowshoe Inn on Main Street in Frisco. It’s the perfect location, right at a bus stop and within 100 yards of a Laundromat, the Backcountry Brewery and the Silverheels Bar and Grill (spring for the crab stuffed trout).

My brother Dan drove down and we planned to take advantage of the great bus service to day hike or “slack pack” (walk without my tent, sleeping bag, etc) the next section.

Day 8. Cloudy and cold. The worst hike ever. Dan and I planned to get started early on my Slack Pack of Section 8. We grabbed a quick breakfast at the only place open in Frisco at 6 am, (Starbucks) and drove up to Copper Ski Resort, where the section ended. Because this 14 mile section crossed the Ten Mile Mountain Range near the end, we decided to hike it backwards. This gave us the benefit of tackling the tough, uphill climb first, while we were fresh, and also get us out of the higher elevations earlier, in case of afternoon thunderstorms.

The hike started at nearly 10,000 feet and immediately began an unrelenting climb from there. We were heading for 12,500 feet, the highest of the trip so far and the trail appeared to be in a hurry to get us there. As we climbed in altitude, the breeze picked up as well. The occasional glimpse of the mountaintops looked intimidating. After about 3 miles, we broke past tree line and lost our protection against the ever strengthening wind. On nearly every day of the trip to this point, early morning clouds would quickly dissipate, but not today. No sun to warm us up.

For the last two miles before the high point, the area is considered to be tundra. Nothing of any size can grow in the harsh environment so there in no protection from the elements. I was getting hungry and thirsty, but there was no way it was worth stopping. The temperature was down around freezing and the wind had to be at least 50 mph. We looked like a scene from the Weather Channel’s Storm Report. The only positive to the situation was there was little snow to deal with. It had all been blown off the mountain.

Eventually we were able to reach the high point and just enough beyond to get a little protection from the wind. Though we had good enough warm clothing, neither of us had brought gloves (it was nearly July) and our hands were suffering. Dan’s shoe became untied, and he was unable to take care of it. My hands were a little better and so I was able to tie it for him. It did take several tries to get my zipper back up after taking a leak, however. Thankfully Dan didn’t have to go, because there would be no help forthcoming.

The other good news was that I figured out where all the snow went. It had been blown off the other side of the mountain. We were going to have to descend through a winter wonderland.

The trail began dropping by being cut at an angle into the steep mountainside. Large areas were covered by snowfields that alternated between icy (think bobsled run) and soft enough to drop into it crotch deep. Needless to say, progress was slow. In spots where the trail was covered, we also had to guess where it actually was, and look to pick it up at the next clear area.

Yep, that's the trail

Yep, that’s the trail

Eventually we made it to tree line, where things should get better, but not today. The snow covered everything, so there was no way to know where the trail was. The many meltwater creeks were running underneath the snow, so there was the added possibility of dropping through the snow into some mighty chilly water.

There were some footprints in this softer snow, so we followed those for a while; until they stopped. That was a bad feeling. The final fall back was my GPS, on which I had downloaded some waypoints of the trail. The next waypoint was a half mile away, so we just plowed in that general direction until we were close to it. The next waypoint was another half mile away so we repeated the process. By then there were some bare spots on the ground and we picked up the trail again. Once Dan got all the ice out his shoes, we were merrily strolling down the trail, only 6 miles to go. The sun even came out!

Just so things wouldn’t be too easy, with about two miles to go, we

hi

Eventually, the trail starts to reappear

Eventually, the trail starts to reappear

t another area where all the trees had been cut to fight the pine bark beetle. The work had decimated the trail and once again we were cross country orienteering with the GPS.

Once we made the bus stop it was straight to the Backcountry Brewery. I’m taking tomorrow off!

Up to the Divide

Day 5 started cool and cloudy. After the tough day yesterday I was hoping for more of a “bluebird” day. Ten miles was all I was shooting for. After a short climb, I was at the bottom of another wide valley. The views were great and I was soon in a huge grove of Aspen, image

packed full of Wildflowers and even bluebirds. The sky cleared to a beautiful deep blue. My foot and ankle were both behaving. As I approached Kenosha Pass, the views of the snow covered peaks in the distance just kept getting better and better. The scene was so beautiful, it would take your breath away. It was that or the fact I was at over 10,000 feet.

Kenosha Pass

Kenosha Pass

The trail eventually drops to the pass at a Forest Service campground. I got to eat lunch at a real picnic table! There was even an indoor toilet. I didn’t really need it, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to lighten my load in comfort.

The guidebook stated there was water available in the area, but I couldn’t find any. No way they meant the pond I walked by. Since there were only 3 more miles to cover to reach a campsite next to a stream, I decided to head on with about 6 ounces of water left on me.

After a mile of climbing, I was draining the bottle when a woman walked up with a small pack. In response to her question, I mentioned hiking the Colorado Trail. She was very interested and asked quite a few questions. One question I ask her was if there was any water closer than 2 miles. “Why none I’m aware of,” she stated while she pulled a full liter of bottled water out of her pack, broke the seal and took a big slug.

That was my cue to cut the conversation short and knock out the last 2 miles. Thunderclouds were building fast over the nearby peaks and it started looking like it would be a photo finish with the rain. Luckily, because of cutting the conversation short, there was just enough time to set up camp, filter some water and be ready to nap through the storm. 75 miles down, 410 to go.

DAY 6. Started out cold and clear. At 6 am I started hiking. In 3 miles there was a creek which would be my last chance for water for 11 miles which included a 2,000 foot climb to the Continental Divide. Just breaking camp at the creek were 2 other Thru-hikers, Golden and Wildflower.

Golden was in her early twenties and Wildflower her 50s (?) but both were accomplished backpackers, having thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail the year before. We leapfrogged each other up the long grind as the snow capped mountains I had been seeing for days got dramatically closer. About halfway up (11,000 ft) we began seeing small piles of snow.

By the time we broke above tree line, the piles were no longer small. Long ridges of deep snow blocked the trail and required detours. Luckily, the windswept saddle between two peaks, where we were headed, was free of much snow. Once we reached the divide, the view was unbelievable. It was cold, windy and a hell of a hike to get there, but well worth the price of admission. Little did we know at that point though, that the price for the view was going to be higher than we had already paid.

Closing in on the Divide

Closing in on the Divide

After several pictures, including celebratory Selfies, it was time to start down the west side of the divide. It quickly became evident that getting back down would not be a walk in the park (even though that’s what it was). The trail at that point dropped very little and was cut into the steep mountainside. As we continued, the snow ridges became deeper and more numerous. Each ridge had to be hiked around, over or through, none of which were good options. Several times I was on top of a 4 to 6 foot tall ridge when the crusty surface would give way and be instantly ass deep in snow, otherwise known as post holeing. Some of the ridges ended with a wall of snow that just had to be ridden down. It was hard enough work that I stayed warm just wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

After a mile or so, we were exhausted and stopped for lunch. Wildflower sat against a tree and I noticed a good size gash in her leg. As she mopped up the blood she talked about how her “country club” friends didn’t understand why she liked backpacking so much. “That’s true,” I remarked, “Some people just don’t appreciate how much fun it is to be laying in the snow, on the side of a mountain, bleeding.”

Snow on the trail

Snow on the trail

Eventually, the ridges got smaller and further apart and hiking became normal again. We exchanged small talk and at one point Golden asked what music I would use if I was creating a sound track for the trail. I mentioned Bob Seger (Roll Me Away), Stephen Stills (Colorado) and of course a big helping of John Denver. That was one of those moments when you realize how far apart experiences are across generations. “Who’s John Denver?”

I had actually downloaded several John Denver songs for this very trip, and Golden got to hear Rocky Mountain High and a few others for the first time while actually high up in the Rockies. She said she really liked him, but may have been just been being polite. Hard to tell. We definitely agreed that the views mean much more when you have to earn them like we did today.

Eventually we got low enough to reach running water and replenish our water supplies. Golden and Wildflower were on a mission to put in more miles to make it into the town of Breckinridge early tomorrow. I was beat from the day’s workout, pulled into the first good looking camp spot and bid them farewell for now. Apparently though, I’ve set my tent up too close to a squirrel’s abode for his liking. As I’m writing this in my sleeping bag, he’s standing just outside the tent chattering at me. Could be a long night.