The Colorado Grind

Entering Silverton, I felt more rundown than I had going into Pagosa Springs. After not sleeping well the last time I was in town combined with a fresh week of exhausting snow travel, I was ready for a few days rest before setting off again. When Juice, Fastball, and I managed to secure a hitch after a 5 mile off-trail road walk down from Stony Pass, we had only intended to spend one night in the expensive ski town, but after securing a three-bed room at the Avon Hotel, fatigue hit us hard and a second night was agreed upon without much discussion.

16 June 2021 – How real hikers hitch out of town… By showing some leg

Spending time in town adds up. Between hotel stays, eating out (most lodgings don’t provide access to a stove or oven to cut costs) and resupplying, it’s easy to spend a few hundred dollars for a mere few days of comfort and relaxation. For the 700 miles I spent in New Mexico, I had taken only three zero days and three neros, reducing my expenses and resisting the temptation to become vortexed in town. Colorado, however, was a different beast and caused such a potent fatigue on my body and mind that extra time in town was a more ready temptation. Unfortunately, Colorado was also significantly more costly than New Mexico.

Including the few days of down time in Chama after I crossed the New Mexico/Colorado border (a decision made to rest up before entering the San Juan’s) I had already spent six zeros in Colorado. This was twice the number I had spent in New Mexico at not even a quarter of the mileage. Our two rest days in Silverton would push that to eight, but even with all the extra rest, I was still exhausted.

After two months of backpacking, I knew conditioning wasn’t a factor. My body had the endurance and strength to undertake the challenge of the Colorado mountains, but thru hiking pushes the body to its limits. Once we escaped the snow, I was hiking the same amount of mileage I was in New Mexico, but I was enduring triple the elevation gain/loss while carrying heavier snow gear at higher elevation. The simple fact was my body wasn’t able to recover fast enough.

The collective mood of the high route hikers through southern Colorado was “oof”. We all looked diminished, despite being fit and healthy just a few weeks prior in Chama. Our faces were becoming increasingly gaunt, our bodies slimmer, and legs leaner. Nearly all carried the characteristic shadows beneath our eyes as we pushed from trail town to trail town, seeking frantically a few hours of comfort in a soft bed between the hard, cold nights in the mountains. We were sore, hungry, and fatigued, but each of us red routers took this path for a reason. We wanted to test our limits in the San Juan’s and, although the lower routes tempted each of us, none of us regretted our decision. We were forever bonded for it, the few of us who dared to traverse the treacherously beautiful peaks of the southeast San Juan’s.

16 June 2021 – Our hitch out of Silverton: ORV convoy! Thanks Markansaw!

After a spectacular hitch from town on a Jeep/Toyota caravan back up to Stony Pass, we spent a few more days pushing to the next trail town of Lake City. We were caught in hail or rain storms nearly every day in between, a common occurrence in Colorado, but worrisome all the same. We hit the highest point on the Colorado Trail (the CDT and CT follow the same path for around 300 miles) as dense, dark clouds encroached upon the horizon. In fear of lightning, Juice set off from the barren high point after a short lunch, leaving Fastball and myself to take our obligatory pictures with the sign post.

“I think we’ll be fine…” I prematurely said to him, examining the clouds. A moment later, a fork of lightning cut across the sky and, as if struck ourselves, we set off rapidly after Juice.

17 June 2021 – Me at the highest point on the Colorado Trail!!!

With no place to go but forward, we pushed through the onslaught of hail to pitch our tents in the light drizzle of the aftermath of the storm. We were about 8 miles from the road that would take us to Lake City, our next resupply spot, and we were able to tackle the mileage by mid morning. It took Juice and myself, accompanied by a fellow hiker named IBTAT, about an hour to secure a hitch for the 17 miles into the little town where we were to meet Fastball. Upon getting service again as we rolled into town, my phone lit up with texts from Fastball:

“Do you want me to take a room?“

After he had been telling us for the past day that we would NOT get vortexed into town, by noon Fastball had personally secured us a room at the Silver Spur Motel. A popular hiker motel, nearly half the rooms were full of hiker trash airing out their gear and avoiding Juice’s rank socks that hung from the upper balcony.

20 June 2021 – Heading north with Click!

Two days after leaving Lake City, we hit the junction for the Creede Alternative, one of the low route options. For me, it was exciting to think we might reconnect with hikers we hadn’t seen since Pagosa Springs or sooner. Unfortunately however, most of our companions who had chosen the low route were well ahead of us, having avoided the slower terrain and negated roughly 80 miles of trail. Feeling like we were lagging behind, we began to push for 20+ mile days, waking early in the morning and ending in early evening. Nearly every day, I fell asleep promptly after eating my dinner, absolutely wiped from a long day of hiking.

The push to Salida was a hundred mile stretch with spectacular scenery and nearly 35,000 ft of elevation change. To make matters worse, my shoes were falling apart. Last time I had received new shoes was Pie Town, over six hundred miles back. My Altra Olympus 4s were sporting long slits as the top mesh pulled away from the sole and internally they had broken down so profusely that some days I felt as if I was getting shin splints. Unsure they would reach Lake City in time, I had sent a new pair to the hostel in Salida. Now all I had to do was make it there.

20 June 2021 – Click, me, and Season Pass on top of San Luis, my first 14er!

Our snow squad trio had picked up a few additional hikers after Lake City. After summiting San Luis Mountain together, my first fourteener and his fifteenth, Click joined us with his namesake camera for the push to Salida. Season Pass, who had shared a room with us in Lake City and who I had hiked most of the first snow stretch with, also joined us most days. Despite sleeping in, we would see Season Pass sporadically throughout the day then lose him around mid-afternoon only to find his tent beside ours come the next morning. The five of us joined forces to crank out the next leg of the journey.

We ended up doing some big days together: 21 miles with near 10,200ft elevation gain/loss, 24 miles with 6,000ft of elevation change, 23 miles with 8,600ft, to end with 22 miles of 7,300ft elevation change. Every day I rolled into camp around 6:00 PM, set up my tent, blew up my sleeping pad, cooked a hot meal only to exhausted my choke it down, before promptly falling asleep to Harry Potter on audiobook. I wasn’t writing in my journal. We weren’t chatting in camp. Most days we barely had the energy to even mumble plans for the next day to each other before retreating into our sleeping bags.

21 June 2021 – This wasn’t my thousand mile point, but on the official CDT route it is so I had to take a picture

We awoke at 5:00/5:30 AM and hiked for about 12 hours each day. On our longest day of 24 miles, we spent nearly the entire day in the sun crossing great fields of golden grass. When we at last arrived in camp, I was stiff, sore, and exhausted. A can of pop I had found as trail magic exploded in my pack when I dropped it heavily onto the ground, dousing everything in my outside pouch with lemon-lime soda. At some point after arriving in camp, I lost my buff, an item of clothing I used every single day on trail to keep my ears warm, my yeti trail runner hat from blowing off my head, or to protect my neck from the sun. I had packed out hot chocolate, but after boiling the water and adding the powder, I found an ant had crawled into my cook pot and died from being, apparently, boiled alive. I fished it out and did my best not to imagine stray ant legs in the bottom of my pot as I drank the rest of it. My feet were aching from blown out shoes, my knees were sore, and I was ready for a rest… but I wouldn’t trade a moment of it.

Despite how exhausted and worn out I was, I couldn’t help but to stop and marvel at the exquisite beauty of the trail. For long stretches of the day, Juice and I would chat about this and that, sharing music and blasting it as we walked down empty dirt roads. For bursts during the day, I would feel my legs grow suddenly alive beneath me and I would crush out mileage with explosions of energy. We started days with icy river crossings, climbed my first 14,000+ ft mountain (San Luis), and received trail magic from passing vehicles. We started the Collegiate West mountain range instead of surrendering to the low route option, and climbed above tree line for days in picturesque landscapes full of Colorado wildflowers, crystal clear alpine lakes, and … an abundance of rain.

26 June 2021 – Walking through the rain north

After spending a day in Salida to rest and resupply, Juice, IB TAT, and I got a ride from a fan of IB TAT’s popular YouTube channel back to Monarch Pass, where Juice and I had hitched to town with Season Pass. Fast Ball and Click had left town before us and we were due to meet them at Boss Lake, ten miles from the highway. Climbing over Monarch Ski Resort, the sky opened up and whipped us with fierce winds as we scrambled above tree line following the spine of the mountains.

In the next stretch stood the Collegiate West mountain range, an 83 mile section of 19,800 ft of elevation gain. Full of fourteeners, alpine lakes, and beautiful vistas, Juice had me eager to experience this stretch of trail. She had hiked the Colorado Trail the year before, but had taken the Collegiate East, the lower and less exposed route alternative. The high route promised beautiful trails and her excitement was infectious. We joined Fastball in camp the evening out of Salida, who was camped a little ways off trail with a pair of hikers we had met frequently in town: X-Ray and Two Speed. IB TAT stayed with us at Boss Lake as well, and we all set out together the next morning.

26 June 2021 – When you’re this high in the mountains you feel you can practically touch the clouds, especially when it’s raining all day

It rained nearly all day. The weather started clear when I set out at 6:30 AM, but after an hour or so of hiking, a light drizzle began to fall that persisted in infrequent intervals throughout the day. Climbing above tree line over saddles, through grassy fields, and skirting the tops of treeless mountains, my hope to be able to dry out my tent and sleeping bag, which became damp every night it rained, faded. It wasn’t until I began the steep descent into a valley where I at last entered the trees again and the sun peaked its face out from behind the persistent clouds. For one fleeting hour as I climbed down into the valley, the sun shone through the trees, but I had yet to catch up with my hiking companions, so I didn’t stop to dry my gear. When I caught up to IB TAT and Season Pass, who had missed the turn off for our camp the night before, a drizzle had started again and I sat at the base of my final 1,500 ft climb of the day filtering water beneath my umbrella as rain pelted from the sky. Wet, cold, and ready to be done for the day, I packed up my gravity water filter and began climbing up the mountain after the pair. Halfway up, I looked up to see IB TAT walking back down.

“They’re all coming back down,” he informed me, hardly slowing his step. “It’s a fucking blizzard up there.”

“Oh-okay!” I shrugged, looking up through the trees.

I followed his descent down. It was already 4:00 PM and we had been skeptical of the conditions once we returned to above 12,000 ft. There was no tree cover on the ridge above, which was known for its spectacular views, and a blizzard with all of us sporting wet gear was a no-go. Two Speed and X-Ray were close behind us and not long after Juice emerged from the trees into the valley.

“Were you thinking of camping here?” She asked me when she arrived.

“Yeah, there’s a spot we’re all at across the road.”

“Perfect!”

Fastball, Click, and Season Pass were considering pushing on despite their wet gear and foul conditions. The rain had receded in the valley and blue skies even opened above the crest of the climb, but there were dark clouds in the distance that threatened a quick return of rain. Our thoughts on the weather, we set up our tents and spread out our gear in the momentary sunlight. IB TAT went to check the valley streams for fish and I was chatting with Juice, when we heard a car stop on the forest road next to our campsite. Curious I looked around.

Walking slowly through the trees was a moose… No two moose… No three bull moose were walking in the woods directly behind our campsite! I had never seen a moose before! Frantically excited, I whipped out my phone and began to record the encounter. They were heading toward the streams in the valley below our campsite and I followed their progress. Realizing they were heading right toward IB TAT, I called out to him.

26 June 2021 – MOOOOSE!!! At a safe distance

“IB TAT! There’s moose!” I called pointing.

“What?!” Came his reply across the valley.

“Moose!”

“Deer?”

“MOOSE!”

“Oh shit!” He had at last spotted them.

They were indeed headed his way and he began heading back across the field to get out of their way. The collection of us hikers spent a moment watching the three bulls munch on the dewy grass of the river valley, but soon was forced to retreat into our tents as those imposing rain clouds at last returned and brought with them a bout of hail that pelted our tents sharply.

“I hope the guys are alright…” I said over the noise to Juice.

The guys would be all right ultimately, but the pictures showed their tents covered in a light layer of snow and they endured a frosty night. After camping a few miles north of us, it would be a few weeks before we would see them again.

The five of us from the valley, Two Speed, X-Ray, IB TAT, Juice and myself, climbed up to alpine zone the following morning, but hardly saw the spectacular views that our guide informed us were there. Unlucky for us, the mountain tops were covered in clouds, but the sun was making a valiant yet fleeting effort to fight them off. On the second pass, we stopped for a moment to blanket the saddle in our gear in the hopes of drying it in the dwindling sun. Unlucky for us, the mountain tops were covered in clouds and they descended upon our little “yard sale” as fog as soon as we had laid out our tents and sleeping bags. Quickly repacking, we descended into a shallow valley and then back up over the following pass.

27 June 2021 – X-Ray and Two Speed at one of our “spectacular” views

The day was full of climbs like this: skirting along the side of mountains, climbing up and over passes, and clambering down into high elevation, alpine valleys. In mid-afternoon, as Juice and I were climbing yet another peak, it began to hail. The wind forced the pellet-size bits of ice sideways and they stung the sides of my head and exposed skin as they struck me relentlessly. However, just as the day before, it did not last long, though the return of foul weather continue to threaten on the horizon. When lightning at last cracked across the sky in late afternoon, we were on the long descent into another river valley, below 11,000 ft feet and tree line, as safe as we could be under the circumstances.

We had two big climbs the following day: Lake Ann Pass and Hope Pass. The trail report suggested Lake Ann Pass still had snow on its northern side and we were wondering what we were getting into. Many of those who have gone before us had used micro-spikes and/or ice axes to descend into the opposite valley, but we had sent our snow gear home in Salida and we hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. After a 3,500 ft climb out of the river valley we had camped in, we arrived at the 12,500 ft pass late-morning and assessed the route. There was indeed snow on the northern side, but fortunately, as a weekend backpacker demonstrated for us, there was a way to get around it by sliding down on the loose dirt and gravel that coated the side of the mountains, negating the need for snow gear.

28 June 2021 – Me, Juice, Two Speed, IB TAT, and X-Ray atop Lake Ann Pass

The rest of the day was significantly easier, and in the afternoon I got one of my rare bursts of stamina and pushed ahead of the pack to join the leader, Two Speed, as we approached the second saddle, Hope Pass. The valley the trail cut through was bursting with life and apparently highly popular, as we found many weekend and day hikers among those on trail. A gentle downward slope for most of the afternoon, the climb to Hope Pass from Sheep Gulch was a 2,300 ft ascent over two miles, and we made it about halfway up before it began to rain again. Having spent most my energy speeding across the valley, I was the last to arrive in camp as the rain drenched my shoulders. We had planned to make a group decision at the campsite halfway up the climb if we were going to stay there or carry on. The sudden return of rain made the decision for us.

“Great group decision, y’all. Thanks for including me in it,” I chided them playfully, hardly put out stopping early.

29 June 2021 – Two Speed, Juice, X-Ray, Me, and IB TAT atop Hope Pass

It continued to drizzle that night but come morning the rain had relented and we received some beautiful views of Mt Elbert, the tallest mountain in Colorado at 14,433 ft, and the surrounding valley full of lakes and the tiny town of Twin Lakes, our next resupply point. We arrived in town by 9:30 AM after wading across the icy cold Lake Creek. With no place to stay in town except for an overpriced hotel, we spent the day relaxing next to the general store and hiked out that afternoon to the base of Mt Elbert. IB TAT had received a hitch to Leadville, leaving our group, but the remaining four of us, Juice, X-Ray, Two Speed and I, had decided to diverge off the CDT obtain the summit.

29 June 2021 – Me crossing Lake Creek

We reached the peak after an hour and a half climb from our campsite just below tree line, and were gifted with spectacular views. It appeared as if we were walking above the clouds as we slowly trudged up the mountainside and the sunrise was such a sight. Mt Elbert was my second fourteener, but it drew out my desire to summit every 14,000+ ft mountain in the United States. After taking our obligatory pictures, we made our descent from the windy peak, crossing paths with day hikers, who were surging up to the summit in masses.

30 June 2021 – Two Speed, X-Ray, me, and Juice on top of Mt Elbert