Thursday, August 11, 2016

Post-trip scoop: North Collegiates Loop

OK, so I already made three blog posts about this trip (onetwo and three); that was the narrative, with all its emotional ups and downs. Here's the nitty-gritty about the trails I hiked and the gear choices I made.

This 58-mile loop I pieced together in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness is definitely a good one for those looking to challenge themselves. While I did the loop in 4 days, there's nothing to prevent you stretching it out more (or even compressing it... though, yikes). You could also add a resupply or visit to Cottonwood Hot Springs into the trip. The loop incorporates three high passes and you can visit several nearby 14ers as well. It can definitely be made longer with side trips. Can it be made shorter? Only if you're willing to hike off-trail.

The loop can be found in its entirety on the Trails Illustrated topo map #148. (Note that the edition of this map currently in stores is inaccurate as to the current route of the Colorado Trail/Continental Divide Trail around the beginning of the Texas Creek section. All the trails that you need to hike for this loop are present and in the same locations as on the map, but the trail junction signs won't reflect the map in terms of what route the CT/CDT takes, which caused me a moment of confusion when I was out there.)

I chose to go counter-clockwise, leaving the most difficult climb for when my pack would be the lightest. I started at the Missouri Gulch trailhead. Head south out of Leadville, CO on Rt. 24. After you pass Granite, look for Rt. 390 on your right. The Missouri Gulch trailhead is well-marked on the left.

Symmetry in mountain and beaver lodge as seen from 1st roadwalk

From the parking lot, walk west on Rt. 390 until you come to the Sheep Gulch trailhead, about 1.7 miles. (This is one of two short sections of road-walk in the loop.) It's a short but steep climb up Sheep Gulch to get to the Colorado Trail/Continental Divide Trail, where you will turn west again. Though the forest here is very dry, when I went in late July there were plenty of small streams for water.

Furled gentian

The trail takes a left-hand turn and continues on a 4wd road, though I remember it being more trail-like than road-like... this becomes the Lake Ann Trail which, as it climbs, turns into one of the prettiest sections of the loop. Here you can make a side trip to climb 14er Huron Peak if desired. Lake Ann itself is one of the gems of the trip. Camping would be beautiful here in good weather; otherwise, there are spots lower on the trail. Lake Ann Pass is likewise one of the highlights of the trip.

Lake Ann

Over the pass, the trail descends into the forest for a good long time. When it finally reaches Texas Creek, make a left. Campsites are easy to find in the lower part of this valley. You will leave the CT/CDT here and continue until you see the sign for Browns Pass. Cross the creek and begin climbing. The area below Browns Pass is especially lovely, with a perfect little campsite among meadows of wildflowers. Views are awesome too.

Looking down Texas Creek valley from above treeline

Make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to finish the Browns Pass section before afternoon storms hit. The trail zigzags above treeline for a couple miles, crossing the Continental Divide three times and finally descending to Kroenke Lake. From the lake to the road, the trail is smooth and well-graded, pleasant walking. A side-trip to climb Mount Harvard could be made from here, though that would add another 11 miles.

Elephant heads from above

At the trailhead you'll need to just keep walking, down North Cottonwood Road, to pick up the Colorado Trail (Collegiate East). The road-walk turns beautiful quickly with towering aspen. Where the CT intersects the road, turn north. There won't be too much to break up the forest here, but occasional views out to Buena Vista and the pretty Harvard Lakes are nice. You'll cross the Frenchman Creek trail and eventually find yourself at the Pine Creek trail, where you'll be turning west into the last leg of the trip.

Old mining settlement along Pine Creek

The Pine Creek trail is largely exposed, with less shade than elsewhere on the loop. There are some interesting mining settlements here. You'll pass Bedrock Falls, which struck me as more of a rapids than a falls. Coming up into the Missouri Basin is awe-inspiring; the basin is massive and ringed by giant peaks. Here you could make side trips to climb 14ers Missouri, Belford or Oxford. Belford especially is appealing as it adds only half a mile and 1,000' of vertical gain to your trip.

I had planned to climb Belford originally but in the end chose not to, in order to finish my trip a day sooner. Either way, you'll be heading over killer 13,245' Elkhead Pass, one of the highest in the state. Take your time on the steep descent back to the car.

Trail conditions: A-
Certain sections were overgrown or oversteep and eroded, such as between the Continental Divide and Kroenke Lake, but most trails were well-groomed. There were no bridgeless river crossings.

Campsite & water availability: A-
There were many established sites with fire rings and logs to sit on, and outside of that the dryness of the forest and lack of undergrowth made it easy to find a place to lay down a tent. In late July at least, I rarely walked more than an hour without crossing a stream.

Views: B+
When there were views, they were stunners. High points include the Lake Ann Trail, Browns Pass area and Pine Creek/Missouri Basin. Outside of these, the forest was fairly enclosing and much of the loop is just a peaceful walk in the woods.

Wildflowers: C-
This area is very dry, and flowers are minimal. Exceptions included the Lake Ann trail, the section between the Texas Creek trail and Browns Pass, and around Kroenke Lake.

Solitude: B
It's certainly quieter out here than around Denver and Boulder, but I never went more than a few hours without seeing another person. It is fairly easy to find a place to camp where you'll have solitude.

Now for the gear! There were several items that were getting their first extensive trial on this trip.

Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL1 tent: A-
I do like this tent. I'm not in love with it, but it is what I wanted: light (about 2 pounds), easy to set up, and looks good in photos. I'm serious. The HV model was just introduced this year, with a redesign to give slightly more head/shoulder room and a more vertical door to prevent rain entry. I've had 9 or 10 nights in the tent now and it's only a hair slower to set up than a traditional dome tent. I thought I wouldn't like the front entry door, but I do. I don't find it any more awkward than side-entry, and there are some advantages... I can reach for my gear in the vestibule without having to sit up, and the vestibule itself, while small, is more pack-shaped than the traditional triangular vestibule. I love the 3 mesh pockets on the inside for organizing my junk at night. The tent does have kind of a coffinlike feel to it, and my shoulders brush the sides when I sit up, but it turns out that doesn't bother me too much.

I had chosen this tent over a TarpTent Notch because I didn't think I'd want to fuss with getting the pitch right on a trekking pole tent when I was at my most tired every day. Oh, why am I not in love with it? I'm not sure it's possible to be in love with a tent that makes you feel like you're in a coffin. But the weight : ease-of-use : cost balance was right for me, considering there was a 20% discount and REI dividend in the mix. So far,  I've been pleased with my decision.

I don't know if I'll use the tent forever. The problems that I had with my knees definitely made me renew my commitment to going light... and I enjoyed being outdoors for a week so much that I was finally thinking, maybe I'd actually enjoy just sleeping under a tarp. We'll see.

Homemade polycro tent footprint: A-
Since Big Agnes is staffed by crazy people who charge $60 for the footprint to my tent, I made one myself out of polycro, AKA window shrink-film, for about $1. This plastic is puncture-resistant. (It's not heat-resistant, obviously, so don't leave it in your car all day... like I did with the first one I made.) It works well and I'm definitely pleased with the cost and weight savings. It's just a little tricky sometimes to get it laid out because it wants to blow away even more than a traditional footprint. I did duct-tape some bungie to it so I could fasten it to the tent poles.

Darn Tough light hiker wool/poly blend crew socks: A+
Wow. I love these socks. Maybe I'm odd but I think they're my favorite piece of gear right now. So soft, not too hot during the day, warm at night, just cushiony enough so that I don't feel all the grit that gets in my shoes. They also don't stretch out of shape. Plus, Darn Tough has a warranty where if you manage to wear out their socks, they will send you another pair for free.

Pacerpoles trekking poles: A+
These poles definitely get the Gear MVP Award for the trip. Pacerpoles are a brand of trekking pole with an especially ergonomic grip, allowing you to get more thrust with less strain on your body. I relied heavily on these to get me and my aching knees down hills. I could put quite a bit of my weight on them and never experienced any hand or wrist strain. The company offers free shipping to the US and a free trial period; check 'em out.

Note that I'm still using my 1992 Camp Trails Catskill backpack, which could delicately be called bombproof. I'd review this pack, but pretty sure it went off the shelves some time ago. Nonetheless, I do want to mention that I finally had something break on it: the stitching connecting the hip stabilizer strap to the pack ripped, which is why my hipbelt looks asymmetrical in the pic. I stitched it back up, of course. I've been trying on packs but nothing is as comfortable as this one, so it could be a while.

Sawyer Mini filter: D
This thing crapped out on me on the trip. The flow rate slowed until it was almost impossible to get water through, and repeated backflushing didn't help. So, while I loved it up until now, I think I'm going to abandon it and try the higher-flow-rate Sawyer Squeeze.

Adidas Terrex Agravic trail runners: ???
I was kinda forced to hike in these when my boots started giving me trouble in the first 6 miles of the trip (I had to hitch back to my car and start over; see link to part one of the story at top). Despite my worries about the soles being too squishy and about twisting an ankle, they did awesome. Except that at the very end of the week, a couple of my toes went numb and my foot swelled up. The doctor said my toes are hypermobile and are going to want to bend up too much. Soooo... honestly, I loved the experience of backpacking in trail runners, but it's in question whether I can actually wear them without injury. I would like to try some of the things he mentioned (taping my toes, different insoles) before I go back to boots though.

Leukotape: A
I put some tape on problem spots on my feet the first day of the trip and it stayed on all four days. Great stuff. Hard to find in stores but you can order it online.

Wet Ones sensitive skin hand wipes: A
I'm used to washing with a bandana and some camp soap while on the trail, but for this trip I switched to twice-daily "wipe baths" on problem areas. It worked well. I tend to get breakouts on my hips and shoulders where the pack rests, and the problem was cut about 75% with the wipes.

And a bonus:

Oatmeal: D
Oh, my God. Instant oatmeal becomes completely gross when you're forced to eat it every day on the trail. Never again.

I've discovered I get especially sick of sweet stuff after a few days, which is not only surprising as I have a huge sweet tooth in everyday life, but also kinda sucks because it's the sweet stuff -- Clif bars, candy bars, etc. -- that's the most cheap and convenient. Jerky, nuts, and the few kinds of savory bars that exist are a lot more expensive, and I can't digest cheese... I guess I'm thankful to like peanut butter as much as I do. But if anyone has suggestions for fairly healthy savory snacks that won't break the bank, let me know.

I tried to have more variety in my food this year than I did on last year's trip, but I still kinda failed. For anyone planning a long-distance trip, I don't think I can possibly overstate how much variety matters.

Finally, a bit of news: today I got word that my surgeon had spoken with the insurance company and I'm now approved for surgery on the pinched nerve in my shoulder. I don't know when it will be yet but I know they're trying to get me in as soon as possible. That, along with the fact that I'm waiting for my foot to heal, might mean no adventures for a while. But since there's apparently some interest in my continuing to blog, I'd like to see what else I can come up with to keep you entertained. See you soon!

Friday, August 05, 2016

Rough Meditation

This story is a continuation. Click for Part 1 and Part 2.

It was 10pm and pitch black, and I couldn't find the campsite I was aiming for. All I could see in the glow of the headlamp was thick plant growth. I rounded a corner and my headlamp swept across logs... just logs, as far as I could see. It took me a moment to realize what I was looking at. I'm already at the logjam. I had overshot my intended campsite in the dark.

There was no way I was going to cross 100 tangled floating logs in the dark. I turned and went back down the trail, looking for anything that might be a campsite. In the end I threw down my tent on a flat spot right next to the trail. I took my bear canister 300' away, sat and ate a bar, singing between bites. I wanted the security of knowing my camp didn't smell like food.

Then I settled in my tent, singing "Edelweiss" to myself. It was comforting. But I was jumpier than usual, exhausted, and startled at every noise. I kept clapping my hands just in case it was a bear. I hoped there was no one camped nearby that I was scaring half to death. Morning couldn't come soon enough... and then it came too early, as I'd finally gotten to sleep and didn't want to wake up.

There was someone camped in another tiny flat spot just down the trail from me. I'm still wondering what time he got in and whether I drove him insane.

The logjam. Vaster than the picture really conveys, it has to be crossed to continue on the trail.

Packing up camp, I noticed my knees were swollen. In fact, I could barely bend them (peeing was a bit of a challenge). I was concerned about this -- I'd never had it happen before -- but they weren't too painful, so while I briefly pondered whether I should turn around, it wasn't much of a thought. They would loosen up as I walked.

The loveliness of the final hike up to Snowmass Lake made me glad I came. The lushness of the area around Aspen is unbelievable -- and it seemed even better than last year. Not only were there more flowers, they were gigantic. In the Collegiate Peaks there were occasional, dusty little bluebells up to my calf; here they were everywhere and up to my chest, with larkspur and cow parsnip as high as my head.

Snowmass Lake, at which I stayed only a moment; I had camped there two nights last year


I had chosen to do the loop in a clockwise direction, so I'd get the segment I'd already done last year "out of the way." That meant that Buckskin Pass, arguably the hardest pass, was up first. And by 10am, it was killing me. I'd had a hell of a time getting up the pass last year, but this year, ostensibly in better shape, I was having an even harder time. There was no "oomph" left in my legs. I had to accept that the 60-mile trek through the Collegiates had taken a lot out of me.

(By the way, the odd phenomenon I'd noticed last year was still happening, and it wowed me: as I climbed higher and higher, Snowmass Peak in the distance also seemed to grow with me, soaring higher with every step. In person it felt like a planet-scale optical illusion.)

I really struggled to get to the top. I told myself that once I made it I'd spend more than 2 minutes there -- last year I'd had to get down quickly due to a storm, and didn't get to relax and look around in the most visually stunning place on the hike. But when I arrived, the wind was blowing too hard to relax. I snapped a couple photos and headed down the other side even faster than I had the first time.

Snowmass is the double peak in the far distance. You can also barely see, below and to the right, the blue of Snowmass Lake where I'd been a few hours before. It's just awesome to be able to see how far you've walked.

Some goofball

Looking down the very steep east side of the pass

The east side of the pass seemed to go straight down beneath my feet, carpeted in red and yellow and green. The flowers blew my mind. I'd thought they were crazy last year, but this year it was otherworldly.

I began to descend, taking photos along the way. It didn't take long to realize that my optimism about my knees that morning was unfounded. Going down hurt. And they were swelling even more; my left knee was round, pudgy. Soon I was limping. I stopped, confusion and consternation bubbling up.

I didn't know what was going on. Obviously the back-to-back 18-mile days, and the race down the steep Missouri Gulch -- all of which had felt nearly pain-free when I did it -- had done some damage. But what exactly had been done, and what would make it better? I had no idea if this was a harmless, temporary bit of inflammation that would clear up as I walked, or if it was serious damage and I should be doing nothing other than elevating my legs and icing them.

Experimentally, I continued down the slope, just seeing if the pain would lessen as my knees got used to going downhill again. Unfortunately, it worsened. So, downhill maybe not so good. Still, there were only a few more miles of downhill, and then the terrain would be gentler for a while. I'm being a pussy, I thought. If I keep walking gently they'll probably loosen up, and I'll feel better tomorrow and even better the next day. I continued down the slope. Even worse.

But I loved these paintbrushes. Who hasn't felt like the odd one out?

I pulled over at a campsite (and my, do the campsites above Crater Lake have amazing views) and took an hour-long break, placing my hydration bladder, filled with ice-cold stream water, over my knees. But at hour's end, I felt no better. While still afraid I was being a wimp and giving up on something great "for no reason," I decided it was best to turn around. And so I hauled myself back up Buckskin, tears of fatigue and frustration forming in my eyes. I was crying. Again.

I was feeling pretty low when I heard a rock bounce down the steep eastern face, and I thought, that could be goats! I looked up: nothing.

And then I looked again.

High above me were a nanny goat and tiny kid, scampering over the sandstone. The nanny disappeared over the pass, but the kid came back and stood watching me. It called for its mother a few times in a high whistly voice.

I stared. I wanted to absorb everything about this goat: the way it moved on the rocks, what it was eating, how it interacted with its mom. I knew nothing about them. I tried to focus, despite the interrupting voice of the guy on top of the pass telling his buddy about how he worked from home in New Jersey.

The kid wandered so far away I could barely see it, so I turned to finish my climb up Buckskin. Soon, New Jersey Guy appeared at the top and yelled to me, "There's a goat over there!", pointing to where the trail continued.

I said, pointing, "I know, its kid is over there!"

Then I stepped up the final steps to the top of the pass, turning round the final corner -- and the nanny goat was RIGHT in front of me. Oops! The first thing I did was back a few steps away. The second was take out my camera. Holy wow!

After giving me an initial beady-eyed stare, the goat continued what it was doing. Which was wandering toward me. It got within ten feet of me and I got a little nervous and backed up. And it continued browsing like I wasn't even there.

If I hadn't turned around, I thought, I never would have seen them. Surely there's some consolation in that.

I watched the goat for about an hour, but mostly it kept its nose to the ground, feeding, and I started to get a little bored. I realized that if I got a move on I could be back at Snowmass Lake by 6, and make camp in daylight surrounded by lots of cheerful backpackers and mountaineers, instead of making camp in the dark somewhere alone.

But as I started walking, I noticed a funny thing. The swelling in my knees was gone. I could bend each of them almost to their usual limit. The pain was gone too. What was happening? It seemed unlikely that I'd just been blessed by magic mountain goats. I thought perhaps that my knees were healing all along, despite the earlier pain, and they'd continue to feel better as the hours went by. I filled with a firm sense of confidence inside, a deep conviction, utterly lacking earlier, that everything would be all right. I would be fine. I was going to do the Four-Pass Loop.

I set again off in the opposite direction, away from Snowmass, and walked my heart out.

OW. NOPE. Nope, nope, nope.

There was absolutely no denying it. This hike was not going to happen. And I didn't know now whether to continue steeply down to the nearest trailhead and somehow get a ride back to my car, or to go back the less-steep way I came. Faced with the uncertainties of trying to hitch a ride from the average Aspen resident, I decided on going back the way I came.

Alas, this time I'd made it even further down than before, thanks more to determination than sense. It was a long way back up to Buckskin. I looked way above my head in the orange evening light. The pass was beautiful, beautiful, almost unbelievably so, studded with red and gold and sheer as a wall, and I was wrung out. Somehow, I still wanted to climb it -- I think mostly because I knew I could.

Looking back

I went slow. And I noticed that the swelling in my knees and the pain disappeared again. I don't understand why, but my knees liked going up. Well, I wasn't going to fall for that old trick.

I was partly resigned to the climb, but mostly, strangely, joyous. I still got an endorphin rush from climbing with a pack on my back, even now. Somehow, it feels, has always felt, like what my body was made to do. And I was broke down and frustrated and terribly sad, but I was all of these things in one of the most beautiful spots on earth, a place I'd had the privilege of treading up and down and up and down for eight hours now. It was horrible and it was heavenly.

I didn't quite want to leave. I took a whole bunch of pictures of the paintbrushes, my favorite flowers, trying to capture all the colors in case I could never come back. Red, magenta, pink, orange, yellow, green, white, grey, blush...

And then I was at the top again. It was 6pm and shadows were getting long. I'd climbed Buckskin three times in one day and I didn't know whether I was foolish, stubborn, or determined. I took a bittersweet portrait at the top. At least I was getting to see the sunset from the top of a pass, a rarity for any backpacker.

But I was at 12,462' and the only way out was down. Now there would be no making camp in the warm daylight with other hikers at Snowmass Lake. Coming down the west side of Buckskin was misery... though less steep than the east side, it sure was steep enough, and I limped, cursing all the up-and-down I'd chosen to do that day. Why am I so clueless and indecisive??

I leaned heavily on my trekking poles. One step at a time.

I knew there were many campsites on the west side of Buckskin, but once again, as darkness fell, I couldn't find any of them. I went down switchback after switchback, thinking at each corner that this time, there'll be a campsite, and then I wouldn't see it. It was dark when I found one.

That night was the low point of my trip. I lay in my tent with my knees throbbing, thinking how stupid it was to have pushed so hard in the Collegiates, soaked for hours directly afterward in a hot springs when I really needed ice, not turned back at the first sign of infirmity, and, finally, chosen to come back over Buckskin instead of continuing down to the closer trailhead and thumbing for a ride. I didn't know whether I'd done permanent damage. And I didn't know how long it would take me to get out.

I wasn't in any danger... I wasn't injured injured, and I had plenty of food and water, and the Bells are crawling with people anyway. But I went to sleep with visions of misery in my head, of another day -- or two, considering how slow I was going -- of creeping downhill under a load of pain. Whatever it was, it would have to be done, and it didn't bear much thinking about. I would get it done.

I slept. For the first time in over a week, I slept eight hours and more. And as seems usually to be the case, everything was better in the light of morning.

My knees were in slightly better shape and I was able to walk at a respectable pace for most of the day. I even enjoyed myself for some of it. Have I told you the flowers are amazing up here? It seemed like there were billions of people on the trail, all of them asking me, "Did you just do Buckskin?" or variations of the same. I was honest with some of them. "Sort of. I hurt my knees and I had to turn around."

Two young women congratulated me on listening to my body. (I wasn't sure I had done such a great job of that.) I said, "Yeah, I did a 60-mile loop before this and I guess I just wore my knees out." Their jaws dropped.

"Wow. You are a badass," said one. "You inspire me." And hot damn, that just made my whole day. I don't believe I've ever been called a badass before. Then I realized I'd left my gloves a mile back and (foolishly, stubbornly) decided I wanted to go back to get them because I have such a hard time finding gloves that fit. So I did. It took an hour. Badass.

Ahead was the stretch I was most dreading, the steep section I had come up singing in the dark two nights before. It was exactly as bad as I feared and I winced down it at a snail's pace in the baking sun, praying every minute that the trail would flatten out around the next bend. This was now The Thing I Had To Get Through to get home. I turned my mind off. If I could finish this today, I would still have a day of vaction left...

When I couldn't take the pain anymore I let myself stop for a break. I sat down on a rock and had some flatbread and peanut butter. A man came up the trail toward me. He stopped and asked if I'd climbed Snowmass. I laughed. "No way," I said, flattered. As he passed on a cloud covered the sun and a breeze came up, and in that moment it was like all the weight dropped from me.

When I write my trip reports it's hard for me to tell, from the inside, whether I'm really painting a picture of beauty or of misery. It's hard to convey just how the latter makes the former. I was never, never so grateful for a word and a breeze as I was in that moment. It made me light and clear inside. I stood up and finished the rest of the steep section. There is no breeze like the breeze when you're struggling under a pack on a hot day, no taste like the first bite of dinner, and no ecstasy like the first shower after five days in the woods.

A new flower for me -- what could it be?

And a new orchid, Goodyera oblongifolia. I never would have spotted this if I hadn't happened to take a break right beside it.

I made it to the car around 4pm. I didn't want to go home; home wasn't a happy place lately. What I wanted was a nice flat stretch where I could walk easily and keep my knees from stiffening up. I looked at my maps. The flattest thing was the trail that winds around Twin Lakes, conveniently halfway between Aspen and home. That's where I would spend the night.

Somehow during my brief time in Aspen I'd forgiven my grudge against the dryness of the Collegiate Peaks area, and was actually looking forward to going back there. I was especially looking forward to it being easier to find a place to camp.

Back on the CT/CDT.

Hard to see, but it's a baby aspen growing in an old fire ring. Choose your metaphor.

The section of trail I'd picked surprised me by being truly beautiful. Little waves lapped on the shore of the Twin Lakes, the sound bringing me back to my Connecticut childhood. For once, there were no bugs.

I actually felt relaxed. I'd been coming to realize over the days that I was very much the same person in the backcountry that I was at home: always with my eye on the future, rushing through one thing so I could get to the next, better thing. And maybe we're all like that. The stunner was that, despite my early certainty that I wouldn't be having any epiphanies in the wilderness, I felt distinctly like a different person than when I'd set out a week ago.

For starters, I felt like I'd been out a month rather than just a week. I'd certainly had a month's worth of experiences. The emotional ups and downs were extreme. I felt like I'd been cored, hollowed out, and most of what was missing were fears.

The fear of having to find a new apartment and move all my belongings right after I have surgery.
Fear that I was being priced out of the city I love, and wouldn't find an apartment I could afford at all.
Fear of what it meant to be no good at my job.
Fear that if I followed my joy and spent more time on the trail and less in town, I'd never find love.

In the place these voices used to occupy was silence. They were gone -- if just for now. I realized that in walking almost a hundred miles in the wilderness I'd been undergoing my own private meditation retreat. I felt older too, in a good way, if that makes sense. Just a few days ago in Pine Creek I had believed my vacation a wash, blighted by poor choices; now I was overwhelmingly glad I'd done it. I slept near the shore of the lake, glancing at the clear sky and deciding to leave the fly off my tent. If it rained, well, I'd only have made another mistake.

I woke up at 2am. It was raining.

I was sprayed with a fine mist as the drops spattered through the mesh. I looked up again at the perfectly clear sky and all its stars -- Colorado! -- and went back to sleep. I woke again at 6, a split second before I recognized the clacking of trekking poles. A thru-hiker was passing by under purple dawn skies.

Twin Lakes at sunrise

There was a really lovely historical site out there. The building was unlocked and open to exploration, with a note to please latch the door when you leave.

Oh, Smokey.

On the trail that day I experienced again a phenomenon I'd been noticing that, before this trip, I'd only heard about. I'd read from thru-hiker accounts that after enough time in the woods, you stop noticing your own smell, and your nose becomes much more sensitive to the artificial scents of shampoo and deodorant. Now, all the day hikers and trail runners I was passing reeked of perfume. I could still smell them a minute after they'd passed. And another thing I'd never had happen before: I saw that the skin over my hipbones was getting thicker from so many miles with the pack. What do you know?

Hope Mountain is the rounded one peeking out at left.

I walked out as far as the turn-off for Hope Pass -- on the other side of which was where I first started, a week and forever ago -- and then turned for home.

I said a while back that I would speak about the CT & CDT, and now I will. The Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail are two of the country's "long trails," or trails over 100 miles. They share the same path for a good ways in Colorado. While the CDT is about 3,100 miles, stretching from Canada to Mexico across the spine of the continent, the CT is "only" 486, from Denver to Durango. Both trails, along with other popular long trails such as the Appalachian Trail, have a culture of "thru-hiking" in which backpackers strive to complete the whole trail at a go. It's a friendly community with its own history, vocabularity, traditions. I love this.

And I love this sign:

There's a lot going on here. At this junction, the Colorado Trail does the splits. Both are official routes: either you can take the easier, less scenic route to the east, or the more dangerous, visually impactful route to the west. They rejoin some 80 miles later. (The CDT officially follows the western route.) The Collegiate West lingers above treeline for stretches of up to 20 miles at a time, leaving hikers exposed to Colorado's notorious lightning storms.

There was a slip of paper at the top of the sign.

I got West, for the record.

When I came back through this part of the trail, there was a young couple having a lunch of hot ramen. I spoke with them for a while. They were struggling to decide which way to go.

"We have until lunch is over to decide," said the young man. "We know West is supposed to be prettier, but we're from Seattle and we're really afraid of lightning. The weather isn't supposed to be very good the next few days."

"Did you flip the coin?"

"Yeah," said the young woman. "We flipped it three times and got West each time."

I'm afraid I subtly encouraged them to go West, because that's the way I want to go. My heart was burning already with the desire to get back to the trail as soon as I could. My legs wanted to walk. I wanted to be out here with these people, doing what I loved. I wanted to keep going.

I was only a few minutes further down the trail when I ran into another thru-hiking couple. I didn't want to go home, so I made them stop and talk with me. Their trail names -- a thru-hiker tradition -- were Blue and Forrest Gump (AKA Sarah and Drew). They had hiked the Appalachian Trail last year and were looking for something a little less all-consuming for this year, so they chose the Colorado Trail.

I asked if they were going Collegiate East or West. They said they didn't know when they were planning that West was supposed to be more beautiful, and had sent their resupply boxes to the east side. I told them where to get off for Cottonwood Hot Springs. Then I realized that though I'd been talking with people all week, I hadn't taken a proper picture of another human being the entire time. So here they are.

I forgot to ask the story of how they got their trail names. But y'all, look at how their arms are linked! 2,000+ miles together and they're still on speaking terms.

I very much want to do this. I don't know what's going to happen. Stepping off the trail means heading back into a world of uncertainty, and it seems too much right now to wish for. In my real life, all of this year has been The Thing I Have To Get Through, and it's time to put my head down again and get back to getting through it. (As I write this my knees are still in pain, I have two numb toes that I acquired toward the end of the trip from who knows what, and my right arm is going numb as well from the pinched nerve. I await more news from the doctor. Hang in there, body.)

I was returning with dread, but also with joy for everything I had just done and wanted to do. They were both fierce in my heart.

I wanted to write all this because I had to hike alone, and there was no one to go through it with me. Now you have gone through it with me. Also, because it was beautiful.

I pulled out of Twin Lakes in search of another root beer and a gas-station hot dog. Clouds were forming over the mountains, true to the forecast. Thunder rolled. I thought about the couple with the ramen and Blue and Forrest and whoever else might be out there, and hoped they would all be well.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Dehydration and disillusionment

This story is a continuation. To read the previous episode, visit

I no longer felt like an impostor in a heavy pack from the 90s, but like the real thing. I did know what I was doing!

That night, I managed to dump beef stew into my clothing, just before bed. In bear country.

The beef stew was my only freeze-dried dinner. I used to eat these more in the past, but since I'd discovered it was easy to make your own instant-cook dinners out of potato flakes or microwavable rice in a ziploc, I'd pretty much stopped buying the name-brand offerings. I'd brought only one on this trip, for a treat and some variety. These dinners cook best if you keep them insulated while they rehydrate, and I'd always done that by closing the seal on the bag and carefully placing it in between my insulation layers and my rainjacket. Well.

There I was, sitting on a log doing some chores when I thought, Wow, I can really smell that stew. Then I thought, Hm, I can really smell that stew. Like, more than I should be able to. And I opened up my jacket and yes, my friends, the package had leaked: the outside of my down hoody and the inside of my rain jacket were both covered in brown slime, peas, and tiny cubic chunks of carrot and potato. It was approximately 8pm and the sun would be down soon.

Using my in-line Sawyer as a gravity filter... yes, I know really the filter should be toward the drinking end of the tube.

(Interestingly, and unbeknownst to me, my shampoo had also quietly unsealed itself in the car and was slowly leaking out of my holey toiletries bag and onto my clean clothes.)

Though I wasn't crazy about being coated in stew in bear country, I wasn't afraid either; the honest truth is that we all smell like food all the time to bears, whether or not we can actually see the food on our bodies. But we get bits of food and drink and sweet-smelling toiletries on our clothing and skin throughout the day. Our packs smell like food. Our breath smells like food. (One might even argue that we are all, inside our skins, effectively stew.) And I wasn't alone here; there were several groups camped just a stone's throw away, so if a bear wandered in we could hopefully scare him off together. I would wash as much of the soup out of my clothes as I could and not worry about it.

While I wasn't afraid, I was annoyed and demoralized; I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep, but now I had to stay up another half-hour wiping and scrubbing and wringing. And I felt like a fool. The thing I had always done -- insulating food packages in my clothes -- suddenly seemed like something only a total idiot would do. And this was the third major thing that had gone wrong on the trip so far: first was the shoes, and second was my filter.

I'd been using a Sawyer Mini, one of the lightest filtering solutions. In the picture above, it's the blue-and-black cartridge below the bladder. I'd heard some people complain about their Minis, saying the flow rate inevitably got too slow and the filter too annoying to use, but I'd never experienced it -- until now. Though I'd backflushed the filter a couple times on this trip already, it wouldn't clear up, and water was barely coming through.

It wasn't a life-threatening situation -- I had iodine tablets, and could also boil water if I chose (and drinking straight from a stream won't necessarily make you sick) -- but I had let it result in something not so great. Because I had the filter in-line on my bladder, I was sucking water through it, and only a little was coming through with each pull. This meant, er, I had to suck longer and harder, but I guess despite my efforts I just didn't drink nearly as much as I usually do. And the urination situation was not great that evening. I knew I had to do a much better job the next day of getting enough water into my body, for my kidneys' sake. In the picture above, I had set up the bladder so that gravity would slowly force the water through the filter and into my bottle while I was doing camp chores, and then I could drink freely from the bottle and let it refill.

Cold morning at Frenchman Creek

The next morning I woke up in a bad mood. All of a sudden it didn't seem fun anymore -- the dry, half-dead forest, endless chores of packing and unpacking and cleaning, cold nights and mornings, being out here alone. It's so hard. Why am I doing this, when I could be having a hot shower and hanging out with my friends? Something easy? I got out of my tent. The morning was a cold one. A part of me was happy, though, since that meant I got to keep my down hoody on -- usually, I make myself take it off before I leave camp since I know I'll be hot after 20 minutes of hiking.

And the bad mood didn't last long. Morning is the best part of the day for me on the trail. It's so silent and peaceful and a wonderful temperature for hiking. When 9am hits, the day is "ruined" already -- hot and crowded with day-hikers. (Of course, it's still better than any day at the office!)

Fireweed in the morning light

I hiked from 6 to 9am without seeing anyone. It was blissful. I wished it could have lasted even longer, but a dozen noisy members of a youth group from Minnesota were climbing up toward me.

I think when people imagine me going backpacking alone they imagine that I will literally be alone in the wilderness, but in fact that three hours was the longest I went all week without seeing other people.

By 10 the magic and the good mood of the early morning had already faded. I had reached Pine Creek valley and the sun was beating down. Here I would leave the Colorado Trail and its community of friendly thru-hikers for the last time, turning west into an area where I'd likely only encounter climbers bent on bagging as many 14ers in a weekend as they could. I sat down heavily in the shade by the creek and, whether it was physical discomfort or frustration or loneliness or just exhuastion, felt tears come into my eyes.

I was tired and sad. I'd wanted to spend this week with others, sharing fellowship with friends or members of my hiking Meetup group, but once again this year it proved difficult to corral people who had the time or fitness level for a such a trip, or even one half the length. The people who did this sort of thing were out there -- they had been streaming past one by one and two by two any time I was on the Colorado Trail -- and I wanted to be with them.

I got up after an hour of moping and snacking and walked to the signpost where my trail turned off. It was there that I spotted a brilliant blue gentian -- the first I'd seen in days. Why here when they weren't at Kroenke Lake or Texas Creek? It's a mystery why flowers grow just where they do. I actually laughed.

Coming down the trail toward me was a thru-hiker. I don't know how, but it was usually possible to tell at a glance who was out there for the summer and who just for the weekend. It was a multitude of things, I think. A purposeful stride, open gaze, certain cliched thru-hiker gear items like Smart Water bottles, or just that they looked comfortable in their own skin and under their packs. This fellow stopped when he got to me and we talked for a while. He was from Tennessee and yes, was trying to hike the whole Colorado Trail.

Another thing about thru-hikers: they were more likely to be alone. I think most that I met were hiking with a buddy or partner, but many were alone, including one woman I had spoken to the day before. "Sorry for my off-key singing," she said as she approached from the north. "I do that whenever it gets a little too quiet on the trail."

"I do too," I said.

She looked like she'd just gotten out of college. I asked if she was a thru-hiker. "Trying to be," she replied. She seemed to still be a little uncertain about the trail and being out there alone, though I admire her more for it. When we parted I looked behind me and saw she had a sign stuck to the back of her colorful pack:


I wished I'd taken a picture. You'll have to settle for the guy above instead.

Resigned to some loneliness, I turned left and headed up Pine Creek valley.

Looking at the map before the trip, it had sounded wonderfully cool and shady. To be brief: it wasn't. It was gloriously open, which can be wonderful under the right circumstances, but it was a terribly hot and cloudless day by that point. I humped my way up the trail thinking, where are the pines??

A couple hours in, I was growing more seriously depressed. The trail was pure dust. The grass around me was dead, with a handful of dying flowers sprinkled in. This wasn't what I had come for. In fact, most of the landscape of the Collegiate Peaks had been a disappointment up close. Aside from a couple sections, it looked like it had had the life baked out of it. All year I'd been waiting to get away on my July trip into the cool heart of the mountains and see real green and rushing streams and meadow after meadow of wildflowers, and there had been very little of that. And I was bitter.

I'd had my mishaps and was feeling a bit beaten, and now there wasn't even a blooming flower to balance out the bad. At this point I thought, well, vacation's a wash for this year. That's just the way it is. I picked a place and it was the wrong place and things went wrong and it wasn't fun. The promise of that first night headed to Lake Ann won't pan out. I'll finish up and head back to my miserable life and try again next year.

I took a break at an old mining settlement, where I saw this little whorl of stones half-hidden in the grass. I walked it as if it were a labyrinth, and back out, and then stared around me at the same grass and withered buds.

The chinks of the log mining cabin were covered with flattened tin cans. Say what you will about its natural beauty, or lack thereof (I just did!), the Collegiate Peaks area certainly isn't lacking in history.

And I kept walking, because what else was there to do? A half-hour later I smiled when I spotted some wild strawberries ready to be picked.

Finally a live columbine (with friend!)

In the hottest part of the afternoon I indulged in a little bath at a bend in the creek that was hidden from the trail. It was too cold to get all the way in, but I splashed water over myself, scaring the trout. It was a pain, the rocks were sharp, and it took way too long to get it done and get dressed again, but I was still glad I'd done it. You can't just go through life year after year without taking your clothes off and getting in a creek once in a while. You can't.

By late afternoon I was finally approaching the upper reaches of the valley. I'd originally meant to stop here for the night. In the early morning I'd break camp and march up steep Mount Belford and then down to the car. But there was still light left, and maybe if I camped just a little closer, I'd have an easier climb tomorrow... so I kept walking. And walking.

I was in the Missouri Basin. I'd never seen anything like it. It was massive, many times the size of any alpine basin I'd visited, and ringed by 14,000' peaks.

Feet photo for Mom

It's impossible to illustrate the scale of the place with a photo. While still sore about the dead grass and flowers, I was beginning to feel impressed. The weather was pretty fine, still hot and windy now but not threatening to storm anytime soon, and I could have camped there above treeline with that amazing view all around me. But I was beginning to have thoughts.

If I skip Mount Belford and just keep hiking, they went, I can get back to my car and hit Cottonwood Hot Springs tonight. And I'll still have a few days of vacation left. Tomorrow I can go to Aspen just over the pass and see some real green, and real flowers.

Mount Belford was supposed to be the crowning triumph of my trip. On the fifth day of hiking, with a heavy backpacking pack, I'd muscle up to summit my first 14er, silently thumbing my nose at all those who were climbing it with a light day pack after a good night's sleep in a hotel.

But, you know what? 14ers aren't my thing. Wildflowers are. And I was sorely missing the color green.

There was some green, of course, and patches of stunted flowers here and there, as you see. I'll allow that some of it wasn't half bad.

Ahead of me was still Elkhead Pass, one of the highest in Colorado (the second-highest, in fact, on this Wikipedia page of same) and certainly the highest one I'd ever tried to climb. In the picture above, it's the lowest spot in the wall in front of me, and it looks so short! It would be another two hours before I was on top of it.

I was moving so damn slow. I don't know how much was exhaustion and how much the high altitude, but I could only take a few steps before I'd have to stop. There wasn't much to think about. Just one foot in front of the other slowly, for a long time. And then I was at the top: 13,245'.

Looking over the pass. The saddle in the middle distance is Hope Pass, at the bottom of which I first hopped on the trail with ill-fated boots.

Evening would come on soon but for now it was still hot as the blazes. Thanks to the shifting orientation of the trail, the sun had been precisely on my left all afternoon, and would continue. I was barely keeping ahead of having my left arm burnt to a crisp by repeatedly slathering on sunscreen. It was a relief to finally descend below treeline and get out of the sun for the first time in hours.

I still had a long way to go. It was 3,500' of vertical drop from the pass to my car, most of it on very steep trail. I was fixated now on the idea of making it to Cottonwood Hot Springs for an evening soak. No, I didn't want to wait till morning; by the time the place opened at 8am tomorrow it'd already be hot in Buena Vista. I wanted to soak in the cool evening air. It was going to be tough, though, as I'd read that they closed at 10pm, and it would be a stretch to make it to my car by 8.

I practically ran.

Though I've always been a bit clumsy on trail, twisting an ankle at least twice per hike (no, I'm not exaggerating), I didn't stumble once in the two hours I was racing down the trail. I was focused. And though it'd been a long day, my body now felt fine -- no aches and pains, no sore knees. I was flying.

One of the blissfully less-steep sections of the Missouri Gulch Trail

Still, not fast enough. When I burst onto the road, I wasn't finished yet. There was the dreaded road-walk. And I knew I wouldn't make it unless I could get a ride.

There was no one around. It was wednesday, dead mid-week.

Still, I picked up the pace, striking out hopefully through the dust. After half an hour, I heard wheels, turned around and stuck my thumb out. She stopped. It was a nice woman who was driving up and down the road looking for a friend who was supposed to be camping in the region. She told me to hop in. My car was safe and sound where I left it, and I turned and spontaneously opened my arms to this near-stranger for a hug, then stopped, embarrassed. She hugged me anyway.

I raced to Cottonwood Hot Springs. They didn't have any tent sites left, but I paid to soak, and took a long shower beforehand, washing out my trail clothing. I discovered at this time that my shampoo had emptied itself into my toiletries bag. Thinking the damage minimal, I rinsed the bag out and went to go soak.

It was dark at the pools. I found a quiet niche and lay on my back, watching the stars and fading in and out of sleep. While I was pleased to be here and proud of myself for doing another 18-mile day to make it, completing a loop that turned out to be about 60 miles with the boot-sponsored backtracking, I was really too tired to properly enjoy it. Plus, my legs were getting wobbly. At one point I tried to take the stairs into another pool and when my legs decided to stop supporting me I collapsed into it, laughing.

I did enjoy the hot springs after a manner, especially the slightly eerie feeling of not knowing what the place where I lay actually looked like, seeing little but the stars above and being half-in and half-out of sleep all evening. The pools were in fact open till midnight, and I exited only just before, heading to get dressed and then discovering that the shampoo was in fact all over the inside of my clothes bag.


I was up after midnight washing everything out. The shampoo was ridiculously frothy and tenacious. But if I was heading back into bear country tomorrow -- and the Maroon Bells - Snowmass Wilderness is definitely bear country -- I didn't want anything on me to reek of fruity, flowery shampoo. While I scrubbed, staff members wandered in and out of the locker rooms impatiently, wondering when they could close up.

At 1am I was beyond exhausted, searching for a place to camp on the dirt roads outside town. I finally found a place on National Forest land to pull over and conk out in the passenger's seat.

Alpine fireweed (?), only slightly withered, from the hike down from Elkhead Pass

I didn't set my alarm, but the elusive 8 hours of sleep I'd been unsuccessfully seeking all week still failed to materialize, the sun pouring through my front windshield in the morning. I looked around. I'd parked right next to where the Colorado Trail crossed the road, a ways south of where I was last on it. I wondered if anyone I'd met on the trail had passed by while I was asleep.

It was thursday; I didn't have to be back at work until monday. Four days. Hey, you know what's a great four-day loop outside of Aspen? Why, the Four-Pass Loop. One of Colorado's most beautiful and most famous trips. I'd done a section of it last year, but I was waiting to return until I could gather companions. I didn't want to be in the most beautiful place in the state and have no one to turn to and say, "Wow, look at that!"

However, the way things stood... My hand was growing weaker by the week; even now it was difficult to grasp the zipper pull well enough to close up my jacket. It was withering like the flowers I'd seen in the Missouri Basin. And though I was going to be having surgery, it wasn't a sure thing that the surgery would fix it; there was even some small chance it would make things worse. In short, I didn't know where I would be in a year, a decade, or whenever I could find friends to do this with me.

Was it really so bad to experience great beauty alone?

A vista from last year's trip in the Maroon Bells - Snowmass Wilderness

Flexing my hand open and closed, I decided to do it. But that meant I had to get moving. I had to buy a new filter and maps and rent a bear canister. I rued the expense -- I already had the right map as well as a bear canister at home -- but it didn't make sense to drive back to Denver, and anyway, I'd spent nothing other than gas money on my trip so far. Was $60 really too much to spend on a week-long vacation? I know from experience that bear canisters always seem to be the first things out of stock at outdoor stores; true to form, the Buena Vista and Leadville shops were all out. I called the shop in Aspen. They had them, and I was on.

I also really needed a cold Dr. Pepper.

The Dr. Pepper was a little easier to secure than the bear canister. Unfortunately, when I opened it, it exploded all over me and the inside of the car.

I gave a big sigh. In so many ways, this was just not my trip. I pulled over at a gas station to re-wash my formerly shampooey clothing and the passenger compartment. But I was feeling committed now and excited about getting onto the Four-Pass Loop. I was really going to do it! The trip I'd been reading and dreaming about for years, always thinking I'd never be in good enough shape for it. My back-to-back 18-mile days had convinced me otherwise pretty well.

I headed over Independence Pass to Aspen. When I arrived in town to pick up the bear canister, I saw I finally had T-Mobile service again. And I had a voicemail. Against my better judgment -- I was on "vacation"! -- I listened to it.

The insurance company had denied my surgery.

My heart went cold and heavy. I pulled the car over and listened to the message again. I tried calling the doctor's office back, but no one answered. Tears were coming to my eyes for a third time this week. What part of permanently-losing-use-of-my-right-hand made this an elective procedure? Surely there was some mistake... but right now, I was tormented with visions of everything I would lose -- was losing, moment by moment -- as my hand withered. I wanted to race back to Denver and get the whole thing straightened out.

In the end, I pointed my car again toward the trailhead. I felt hollow inside, and wanted to cry a lot more than I had. My God, this year! But if I couldn't enjoy great beauty with a light heart, I could still take comfort from it with a heavy one. It didn't seem like the worst idea in the world to hike back into the wilderness for a few more days. Heaven knows, the ability to set one foot in front of the other on the trail now seemed the only thing in my life I had control over.

When I finally pulled up to the National Forest ranger station, they told me that overnight parking was full. (The loop has gotten quite popular in recent years.) I'd have to enter via another trailhead, adding 10 miles to my trip. Fine. I could do it. Though it would mean hiking into the dark, and I'd told myself I was going to be stopping by 6pm from now on and actually get 8 hours' sleep.

But I really wanted to do this, and what's one more night of pushing?

It was about 6pm when I was finally able to start. The moment I stepped onto the Maroon-Snowmass trail, I took a great, deep breath. Everywhere around me was green. It was rich and lush, a thick understory beneath bone-white aspen. I immediately felt better. The trail itself was red from the eroding sandstone, and patches of colorful flowers peeked on either side. Though it was getting dark, I was happy.

Hello, friend

Sunset on sandstone

I don't particularly like hiking in the dark unless it's a deliberate night hike, done with friends on a trail chosen for its safety, and I especially don't like having to make camp in the dark when I don't even know what my surroundings look like. But I was resigned to this because for me to do 36 miles and four 12,000' passes in just over three days was going to involve some hiking in the dark, and I'd rather get it out of the way first thing. Besides, I knew this trail. I'd taken it last year and I knew the locations of the very few campsites there were, carved out of the thick understory. There was a particular one I wanted to make it to before I crashed for the night.

I hit the steep part of the trail as it turned dark enough for me to need my headlamp. Rocks and roots loomed out of the darkness. This wasn't much fun now, and it wasn't going to be much fun till morning. This was now The Thing I Had To Get Through in order to get to the good stuff. As it became completely dark, I began to sing and didn't stop.

I sang everything I could think of, back to back. A random song would pop into my head and then I'd sing all the rest of that artist's songs that I could remember. There was a lot of Simon & Garfunkel (though not I Am A Rock, nor Sound of Silence). There was a little Arlo Guthrie and maybe some Joni Mitchell. I refused to let fears creep into my head, instead filling up the space with music. It was a challenge because I was moving steeply uphill, but I'd sing one verse, breathe heavily for a bit, then sing the next. Lawdy, I sang and sang.

I know I don't make the same choices other people make. I can't think of a single one of my friends who would have done this, or at least not my female friends. And really, was I afraid? I was what I usually am when alone in the woods in the dark: highly alert and a bit uneasy, but not filled with fear. Aspects of it were pleasant. I do love to sing, and I definitely loved how great the finally cool air felt, and how gorgeous the stars were. The forest was silent. In all it was a moment of great wonder and beauty, and spookiness.

Yeah, I did that.

And now it was 10pm and pitch black, and I couldn't find the campsite I was aiming for. All I could see in the glow of the headlamp was thick plant growth.

Stay tuned!!