Monday, August 31, 2009

The Colorado Trail: Day 11-14

Each morning since Bertha joined me, I would get out of bed and gingerly walked around for a minute. I always hoped that somehow she would have found something better to do than continue to pick on me. So far, though, Bertha was hanging around. Since she wasn't getting worse, I figured the best thing to do was keep moving forward.

Robyn and I were out of the cabin by 5:45 am. After thanking our coffee percolator for a well-cooked dinner the previous evening, we started the walk back up the road to the underpass on Hwy-91. While coming into Twin Lakes the previous day, we stuck our thumbs out trying to hitch hike the mile into town. Walking down a road with traffic whizzing by is not nearly as pleasant as walking through a flower-filled meadow or over the crest of a mountain pass. We had no luck the previous day, but that didn't deter us from trying on the way out of town.

Miraculously, the third car that came by stopped for us. However, after we drove off, he was so busy telling us about his plans to hike up Hope Pass that he drove right by the underpass and our trail. We asked him to stop, but he said he knew the trail was just a bit further up. After another 30 seconds, he pulled the car over, came to a stop, and let us out next to the power plant, oblivious to the fact he took us too far. We thanked him rather begrudgingly, turned around, and walked 15 minutes back towards Twin Lakes to begin our next segment.

The Colorado Trail around Twin Lakes nearly is just that. Robyn and I walked for more than an hour through sagebrush near the north edge of the west lake, then made a full 180 degree turn at the lake's outlet and headed back in the other direction on the other side of the lake. A circumnavigation of the lake looked likely, but we eventually turned uphill and headed up a nearby ridge.

Nearly every time we took a break, we could count on one thing. We could also count on that one thing every time we set up camp, or every time we had a meal. That one thing, actually, was more like a few hundred things. Mosquitoes. Robyn called them mozzies. They always seemed to be there. After hiking 23 miles and just wanting to enjoy the sunset, there they were. Bzzzzz. Bzzzzz. Bzzzzz. When we wanted to cool our feet off in a nice, peaceful mountain creek, there they were. Bzzzzz. Bzzzzz. Bzzzzz. We tried some lavender bug spray, but it only seemed to work when it was still wet. After drying, there they were. Bzzzzz. Bzzzzz. Bzzzzz. Several locals told us it was the worse mosquito season they had ever seen. There were times when we each felt as if our bodies were just one big bug bite.

After a steep downhill to Clear Creek, we began a series of climbs and descents while headed due south on the trail. We entered the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area, aptly named because the first men who climbed these peaks named them after their university alma matter. The trail gained 2700 feet in 4 miles to gain a ridge off of Waverly Mountain, abruptly dropped 1200 ft. in the next 1.5 miles, then climbed 1400 ft. in the following 2.5 miles to gain a ridge off Mount Harvard. The trail felt like a roller coaster. It was rather difficult to build a rhythm in our hiking because as soon as we would feel good going up, we would be cresting a ridge to head back down.

That evening, after 26 miles of hiking, we made it to Frenchman Creek where we had decided we were going to stop for the day. There was another backpacker camping along the creek already, but he encouraged Robyn and I to set up our camp nearby. We had a nice conversation with him, but were amazed to hear what he had to say.

The previous year he had hiked from Denver to Twin Lakes and this year he planned to hike from Twin Lakes to Silverton. We never did figure out why he wasn't trying to get to Durango to finish the whole trail. What astonished us, though, was the fact he was trying to cover his proposed route in 14 days in a single push without re-supplying. He was carrying 14 days worth of food in his pack! Robyn and I were trying to avoid carrying 3 days worth of food at a time because food is heavy. Most people count on eating two pounds of food per day, and that is if you pack well with calorie-dense food. We never did see his pack fully loaded, but we presumed there may have also been a kitchen sink and a small library stashed in there.

When I looked at my pack, which had a base weight (weight minus food and water) of about 10 pounds, I felt very good about following a lightweight backpacking philosophy. Our backpacks were made by the company GoLite and weighed less than 2 pounds each. I normally just use a tarp for shelter, but on this trip we brought a very lightweight tent, mainly to protect ourselves from mosquitoes. My sleep system consisted of a one pound sleeping quilt rated to 20 degrees Fahrenheit and a Ridge Rest sleeping pad (which I had cut up earlier to make padding for our shoulder straps - it was working exrememly well). Robyn had a light, down sleeping bag and a short Therm-a-Rest self inflating pad, together weighing about 3 pounds. We carried aqua mira water purifying drops to avoid the weight and hassle of a water filter and ponchos to keep us dry in the rain rather than full rain gear. For warmth, Robyn brought a GoLite down jacket along with a mid-weight fleece and long underwear. I only brought long underwear and a lightweight hooded fleece. When I got cold in the evenings, I either draped my sleeping quit over me or went to bed. Both of us were wearing lightweight synthetic socks and running shoes.

Being a bit of a gear head paid off while we were on the trail. Even though we were both having aches and pains, we were moving well. In fact, we were several miles ahead of our itinerary. The following day, our 12th on the trail, began with 6.5 miles of downhill to the North Cottonwood Creek, then climbed 1600 ft. in 3.5 miles to a ridge off Mt. Yale. The views south along the spine of the Sawatch Range and the Collegiate Peaks were unbelievable. Our roller coaster continued as we descended 2800 ft. in the next 3.3 miles.

After a quick snack at North Cottonwood Creek and passing Rest Stop, the CDT hiker we met earlier below Kokomo Pass, the trail rolled along for the next dozen or so miles in a southeasterly direction. The wildflowers continued to be amazing and the clear skies overhead were a welcome sight. By 3:30 pm, we had covered 24 miles and decided to continue on until reaching Chalk Creek. Earlier in the day we had seen several trail registers where Keith had signed in and left us notes wishing us good luck. We knew he was ahead of us, but not exactly sure how far. Robyn and I both hoped we would eventually catch him so we could share more stories.

The last 6 miles of the day were on roads. There was a dirt road for about a mile, then we walked a paved road with moderate traffic for about 4 miles. Those 4 miles felt like 10. The views were not great, cars were whizzing by, and grass seeds kept sticking into my socks when I walked on the dirt just off the highway. This road walk was a major low point for both of us so far. It didn't help that it was the last sixth of our first 30 mile day. Bertha was especially sore on the pavement, probably exaggerated by the fact we were both ready for a nice horizontal rest.

Mt. Princeton Hot Springs is a big draw for backpackers on this section of the Colorado Trail. Robyn and I have never been big fans of hot springs in general, though, so we kept walking until we turned off the black top onto CR-291. As we passed a family playing frisbee in their backyards, a huge swarm of mosquitoes that must have been programmed to attack thru-hikers swarmed around us. Even though it was still quite warm out, we both frantically put on our long pants and fleece tops. Robyn put on her head net and I pulled my hood as far over my forehead as I could. We continued moving forward, but at a speed closer to a run than a saunter.

The family playing frisbee only 100 meters from us seemed to be enjoying the evening, not engaged in full-on battle with the mozzies like we were. The children didn't even have shirts on! We figured they must have been covered in 100% DEET, something Robyn and I both try to avoid. Since it is a neurotoxin, we both would prefer to wear long clothing to protect ourselves from mozzies rather than apply that to the largest organ in our body.

Shortly after, we made it to the Chalk Creek Trailhead. We opened the Forest Service trail register and found, to our surprise, that Keith and Tom had not signed in yet. In the course of the day, we had managed to pass their last stopping point. Robyn and I both figured he had stopped right here and would be passing through in the morning.

We were correct. At 6:15 am, while we were taking our tent down, we saw Keith and Tom walking towards us on the trail. The four of us chatted for a few minutes about the past few days and what our upcoming plans were. Only 21 miles lay between us and U.S. Hwy-50 where we all were going to head down to Salida. While Robyn and I planned to take the next day completely off, Tom and Keith would keep pushing on.

The trail rolled up an down for most of the day, reaching its high point while intersecting the Mount Shavano Trail at 9880 ft. None of us even considered going up this fourteener that climbs 4300 ft. in 3.5 miles. Instead, we all were focused on Salida. Robyn and I talked about food most of the afternoon. In particular, we talked about pizza and just how much of it we planned to eat. Even though we were eating well on the trail, there was just no way to keep up with the calories expended when hiking 25 miles per day and sleeping outside. The town was near and we were feeling its pull.

For most of the day, Robyn and I hiked separate from Keith and Tom. However, we frequently took breaks and the two of them would catch us and we would all talk in good humor. The company and camaraderie was appreciated. At one point in the day, just before we had lunch around 11:30, we came upon a couple who had a llama hauling their gear for them. I had seen seen pictures of llamas in the backcountry before, but this was the first time I got to see it. It looked like slow going though, since the llama stopped frequently and didn't move much faster than one mile per hour.

By the end of the day, Bertha we actually beginning to show her first signs of improvement. I could walk and think about other things than my shin for the first time in 5 days. However, Fred and Nigel were bothering Robyn and her calves began to tighten up. She was forced to a shuffle as we crested the final hill and dropped down to Hwy-50. This was the most worried I was about her so far. I knew we had a zero day coming up and she had been dealing with other aches and pains, but the next section of the trail covered some very remote, inaccessible mountains. The only thing we could do was see if some down time and lots of pizza would help.

When we made it down to the highway, I stuck my thumb out to the passing cars. There was no chance we were going to walk the 13 miles to Salida on a major road. Fifteen or twenty cars passed right by. After Keith and Tom walked towards us across the highway, Keith told me to get out the way. He said Robyn should be the one with her thumb out trying to get a ride. Not surprisingly, he was right. The first car that passed pulled over and picked us up. We all laughed and again wished each other good luck. This time it seemed rather unlikely we would cross paths again since they would be 20 miles ahead of us after our upcoming day of rest. Tom's wife was on her to pick them up and take them into town. Keith hoped to find us after we told him we would be staying at the Simple Hostel in Salida.

Unbelievably, the family that picked us up was staying at the hostel. Charlie and Melinda and their son were in town for a few days before heading back to the east coast where he was a teacher in Massachusetts. They were incredibly friendly and courteous; none of them even mentioned anything about how bad we must have smelled.

After making it to town and checking into the hostel for one night, Robyn and I went to the outdoor shop in town to buy some new socks. In addition, Robyn bought a pair of Superfeet insoles, something I already had in my shoes. We both hoped that they may help silence Fred, Norman and Normalena and her calves that were just now starting to relax. Later, we had our pizza - one large each. There were only two or three slices left over, and I ended up eating those two hours later while using the computer at the hostel. We had a great stay overnight, falling asleep before 10 pm.

The following day was spent moving as little as possible. The beer festival was in town, but unfortunately that meant the hostel had no room for us. I found a place to stay back up near the trailhead called the Monarch Mountain Lodge. The owners of the hostel, feeling bad that they had to turn us away, actually drove Robyn and I the 15 miles up the mountain to the lodge. It was incredibly generous. We were bummed to leave their hostel and would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Salida.

We spent that afternoon napping and watching movies. Robyn did a load of laundry, but had no spare clothes so she waked around the hotel in her down jacket and bath towel asking random people if they had any spare quarters for the washing machine. It was a sight to see. Keith said he always wanted to anchor time on days off. Robyn and I both felt that way. While we loved being on the trail, taking a day off our feet felt so good. Soon it would be morning, and we would begin heading towards the San Juan Mountains which many hikers had told us would be the most scenic and most challenging of the entire trail.


  1. Morgan - I had no idea you guys were hurting at all... Whenever I had an ache of pain I let the world know about. You guys just suffer in silence! And you still made amazing time. (not that that's what it's all about!)
    Really enjoying your account of the trip. The video clips are a super addition!

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