Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Conundrum 2

This is the second of a two-post trip report for my trip to Conundrum hot springs. See part 1 here.

Since we had gone to bed early the night before, I had thoughts of getting up at 4AM to get into the (presumably) deserted hot springs and enjoy the stars and the sunrise. But when I woke up at 4AM it was very cold and dark and I remembered that mountain lions hunted at dawn and dusk. Didn't they? I would probably be eaten if I started wandering around by myself.

But we did eventually get up and go soak in the hot springs for a while, with a handful of strangers, who were talking about how beautiful the hike up to the pass was. So pretty soon we wanted to do it, and we got out and did it.

Traveling at a gentle pace, it took us about 3 hours to climb up to the pass. As we got higher and higher, some kinds of wildflowers would disappear and others appear. For a while the grass around us was a carpet of white, then it was yellow, red, and purple, then finally white and yellow-green. Even toward the very top, new flowers were appearing that we had not seen below 13,000'. There were many small creeks running down to the valley floor, where bears failed to roam among the shrubs. We saw no wildlife until we got up to the pass.

Looking down into the next valley, where more trails led to new and exciting destinations:

And back into the one we came from:

Storms were forming to the east, but they stayed there, allowing us to spend nearly an hour up at the pass. Afternoon storms are a regular thing in Colorado, and they can be severe, with both hail and copious lightning. In fact, the day we left for Conundrum, ten people had been struck by lightning at two sites in Colorado, though that's quite unusual -- since the year 2000, Colorado has averaged 13 injuries from lightning each year. On the way up to the hot springs we had gone by the trail to Electric Pass, highest trail pass in Colorado, and so named because of the number of strikes it gets.

Shortly after we got up to the pass, a marmot appeared on a high rock ledge, took a look at us, and then quickly scrambled down until it was 8 feet from us.

Despite its initial apparent interest in us, it then began to browse for a while, mostly ignoring us, and finally wandered along the ridgeline and headed up the next peak. At one point it was up on its hind legs, looking about. Just as I pressed the shutter button on my camera, it sat back down. So, this picture is not quite as majestic as it could have been.

We ate lunch while other hikers came up and down. One woman was talking about how she'd been up on some peak during a storm and could feel her hairs stand on end and her ears buzz. Hm. I think that would be a cool thing to experience, but I would be a fool to ever put myself in a situation where I could experience it.

After we got down off the pass, we stopped to put on more sunscreen and moleskin, and Kris and Erin caught up to us. They had taken their time getting ready for the hike and had also stopped partway for a nap.

I took this shot because landscapes are always better with human figures in them for scale.

I had asked Sarah if I could put her in my blog and she said yes. After she read an entry, she said, "When you asked if you could put me in your blog, I didn't know there were going to be so many pictures of me."

The hike to the hot springs, and onward up to Triangle Pass, was some of the best and most beautiful hiking I have done in my life. It is certainly the most beautiful place I have been in Colorado. I didn't know there were places like this -- if you have read the blog much you have heard me talk about how ugly the mountains around Denver are. Previous backpacking and hiking I've done in various ranges around CO has been full of dry pines baking in the sun while dust blows around. But this valley was lush and green and the wildflowers were like something out of a dream. Oddly, it made me like all of Colorado more, just to know this was here.

We got back to the campsite, had a snack, and went for a soak in the hot springs. Some rangers came by and asked everybody if they had their permits and poop bags. People were already drinking by then, one couple out of metal wine glasses. Most just had wine in bags or poured into nalgenes. Kris and Erin returned and joined us and it was a very social time.

Then it started to hail. The temperature quickly became extremely cold. No one wanted to get out. Everyone cowered down as low in the water as they could go, saying, "Ow! Ow!" But I did get out after a bit, because I had left some clothing out. I climbed back to our site and put it in the tent, and then came back to the logs by the hot springs where people put their stuff and covered up Sarah's clothes with her rain jacket. They were already a little wet.

The hail didn't last very long. Soon a steady rain began. It was still chilly out, and at the edge of the pool, where we were, the water wasn't all that hot. I hovered on the verge of shivering. Darkness began to gather and more and more hikers came up with their big packs, looking for a place to camp, though all the sites were taken. One pair of women were looking, unsuccessfully, for their friends. Their friends had the tents. Finally they just got in the hot springs. More people got in the hot springs. The rain wasn't stopping.

Sarah and I told each other that if there was lightning, we'd get out. It rained and rained. People were getting drunker. It was cold. All the clothing on the logs was soaked.

Finally we heard thunder, and I said, "That's it," and made myself get out into the cold air. I tied my wrap around me and began to run up the hill to the campsite, slipped and fell and stood up again with blood streaming from three places on my leg. I walked (more slowly) back to the hot springs to wash the mud off.

Despite being under her rain jacket, all of Sarah's clothes were now soaked. We climbed into the tent, piled the wet things in the vestibule, and got into the sleeping bags to warm up. It got dark. It was still raining. Kris and Erin hadn't come back yet. I fell asleep.

I awoke in total darkness. The people in the hot springs were drunkenly singing the star spangled banner at the top of their lungs.

At some point I got up, put my rain gear on, and went out to try to start the stove, but it wouldn't start. So we ate cheese and crackers for supper in the tent. Bears, kill us now! And we went back to sleep.

Sort of. I tossed and turned for most of the night because the ground felt very cold and hard, and also the tent was leaking near my head. And rockslides continued through the night, louder than before.

At 6AM, it was still raining. At 8AM, it was still raining. Finally lucid -- somewhat -- I discovered that the ground felt cold and hard because my air mattess had sprung a leak and was now flat. We had to get up. We had a 5+-hour hike and 4+-hour drive to get back to Denver. And it was never, ever going to stop raining. For the rest of our lives.

I had enough clothing for four layers on top and two on the bottom, but Sarah had very little that was dry, so I gave her two of my shirts and my fleece pants to wear under her rain gear. And got out of the tent and began to take the hammocks down. My hands soon became so cold that they wouldn't open or close, and they hurt like heck. It was in the 40s or 50s out. We stuffed everything into the packs wet and covered in dirt and pine needles. The trash bag I had been using as a pack cover I gave to Erin for use as a poncho, because her rain jacket was soaked through.

At 9:30 or so we were ready and set off. As we passed the hot springs, Erin and Kris stopped to warm their hands in the water. And I knelt down and put my fingertips in the water too, for a moment, until they started to throb with a searing pain that was so bad I felt it all the way up my arms. I gave up. They would have to warm up as I hiked.

We hiked down and down and crossed a couple streams by bridges or by balancing on rocks. One beautiful thing was to see the waterfalls streaming like silver threads down the cliffs all around us, clouds suspended just above. Then we came to this.

This had been a ford on the way up, which we had crossed by balancing on rocks and logs without getting our feet wet. Now it was a flooded forest with a swift channel rushing through the middle. As we stood there looking at it, other hikers came and stood until there were ten or so of us, talking about how to get across.

(I went to great lengths to get those photos -- at the time, my camera was packed in a ziploc bag inside a plastic grocery bag inside a cloth bag inside the bear canister in the main compartment of my pack.)

After about 20 minutes of discussion and trying some different things, we changed into our water shoes, unclipped the waist belts on our packs, held hands, and shuffled across sideways in a chain. The water wasn't as cold as I expected -- actually it felt nice, refreshing, though I'm not sure why that should be as it was already 50 degrees and raining. And I seemed to be the only one of that opinion. The water rushed up around my knees but footing on the bottom was pretty secure. I have always wanted to ford a river while backpacking! Not really, but I always wanted to have done it. Because then I would have that experience. Anyway, between the refreshingness of it and the teamwork and the novelty factor, it was one of my favorite parts of the trip.

I don't think anyone else felt the same way. (In the words of one of us: "We almost died!!")

And things went downhill from there -- with no more life-threatening situations to problem-solve, the rest of the hike was hours of putting one foot in front of the other in the rain. Stopping to eat snacks in the rain. Our M&Ms were pale and spotted. We could never stop for too long because we'd get too cold. It wasn't horrible, but it was a bit dreary. Around 1PM it stopped raining -- it had been going steady for about 18 hours -- and that was nice, for about 15 minutes. Until it started raining again.

When we finally got to the parking lot, Kris weighed our packs with her fish scale again, and they weighed the same as when we started, despite our having eaten almost all our food. Waterlogged tents and clothes (and the bags of poop) are heavy!

And that was it. In the end, one of my top trips of all time.

Later I heard stories about things that happened after I'd gone to bed in the rain, of people passing out drunk in the hot springs and needing to be dragged out lest they drown themselves. Between the weather and the drugs and alcohol I'm surprised I haven't heard of people dying there over the years... it is popular, and becoming moreso. The forest service is now considering limiting the number of permits to visit the site. I encourage you to visit, but your visit may not be like mine -- it may be much more boring, or much more hazardous. I feel I got just enough of both the beauty and the wildness of the wilderness, myself.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Conundrum 1

We had another backpacking trip a couple weeks ago, to Conundrum Hot Springs outside of Aspen. It is about a nine-mile uphill hike to the hot springs. As soon as we got to the trailhead on Thursday afternoon, it started raining.

And here we are. We walked for a while and we saw a bear. It was up on the hillside. I don't have a picture of it, because when I glanced up it disappeared behind a bush. This is the first bear I have seen while hiking. It wasn't scary. It was far away and obviously afraid of us.

Then it started to pour. You need to put rain gear on when that happens, because what if it never stops? And night falls and your one outfit of clothes is soaked.

Of course, the rain did stop shortly after we got into full rain gear, and I took many pictures as we hiked on.

It was one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever been on. There were so many aspen, wildflowers, butterflies, and jagged mountain ridges. Also, there was a moose.

By the time we got to Silver Dollar Pond, maybe 6 miles in, we were getting tired.

There was much discussion about whether to camp now, or to try to make it up to the actual campsites near the hot springs. I was in favor of the latter. I hate the idea of being done with supper before dark. What are you going to do between supper and bedtime, sit around and talk?? Boring.

We watched the sun set on the mountains as we continued to hike.

We kept walking. We hiked for about 7 hours. Shortly after darkness fell, we came upon some paths. These turned out to be the unmarked sites where you could have campfires, but we didn't know this at the time, and so kept hiking, the trail continuing up steeply in the dark.

Some of us were very tired, and possibly actually asleep by this time. It was pitch black when we finally came to a sign with a map showing the locations of the official campsites, with a little trail leading off close by to campsites 1, then 2, then 3. They were still 1/4 mile from the hot springs, further away than we had wanted to camp, but the ground in front of us seemed increasingly vertical and rocky and even I was running out of motivation to continue.

We found the little trail we'd seen on the map and immediately ran into a sign for campsite 3.

"What happened to campsite 1?"

"Maybe the map is wrong. Maybe campsite 2 and 1 are after this."

I explored further down the trail. It seemed to peter out in the woods. Campsite 3 was very slanted and looked like it would be unpleasant to camp on. Also, someone had left stuff there. Were they coming back later to set up camp? We kept looking around for sites 1 and 2 in the total darkness. No luck. We thought we were going crazy.

And so we returned to the main trail and hiked up, up, up to site 4, which turned out to have a flat area just big enough to fit 2 tents. It was right on the edge of a precipice that, in the dim light of our headlamps, appeared to fall away several thousand feet or more to the rushing cataract of Conundrum Creek at the bottom.

As soon as we stopped hiking and generating body heat it began to feel very cold, because it was very cold. The others set up the tents while I boiled our bratwurst. Everyone thanked me for making supper. What! They were wrestling with freezing-cold metal tent poles while I huddled over a hot stove.

The next morning, the first thing I did when I got up was look over the precipice.

It's hard to tell from this picture, but it was in fact about a 50' sheer drop to the creek. Thankfully, none of us sleepwalks.

And we began to get ready for our day.

Erin and Kris display the Restop 2, which is some kind of bag-in-bag system for carting your human waste back to the trailhead. These are available free at the parking lot and are strongly encouraged, as the hot springs area is heavily used and we do not, after all, want to go soaking in bacteria-laden waters.

We had about a 15-minute hike up to the hot springs, where a couple people were soaking. There is one main pool and 2-3 smaller pools; I have read that the main pool is about 98 degrees, found that the smaller pools were cooler. Based on what I saw over the next few days, the main pool can fit 20 or so seated people in relative comfort, and 40+ drunken people with looser boundaries.

And it is beautiful.

You can see the bubbles where the hot water is coming in. The center of the pool was hottest, and difficult to stand for long if it was also sunny out. Sarah and I relaxed for a long time in the lukewarmish upper pool, which was the right temperature when the sun was out. It was partly shaded and we had it to ourselves, which was lovely, even if it was mucky. I thought I would get bored, but I guess soaking in an alpine valley at 11,200' with 360 degree views is different from soaking in the basement of Indian Hot Springs - after two hours of not doing much but just lying there and looking, I still felt like I could stay there the rest of the day.

Meanwhile, Kris and Erin had begun investigating the campsites that were available right near the springs, and eventually decided to pack up our lower camp and move up to them. So Sarah and I would follow... sometime. We got chilly eventually and moved to the main pool, which was by then unoccupied. It was very luxurious.

But we thought we had better pack up and re-set-up camp before the usual afternoon storms hit, so we hiked back down to site 4 and packed up, checking out an old forest service cabin along the way.

I have since read that this cabin -- a former ranger post they no longer have money to staff -- was until recently still roofed. It provided a shelter from the occasional bad hailstorms that shredded tents, piled up six inches of hail and turned summer back into winter for a day and a half. But this is a wilderness area and the forest service has decided to take the roof off and let the structure fall apart, so that the area may conform better to its wilderness designation.

We were lucky enough to be able to set up our new camp in site 8, which is on a little promontory just above the hot springs. ( I would recommend that, if anyone else is inspired enough to take a similar trip, you camp in a meadow around mile 5 or 6 the first night, then arrive at the hot springs between 9 and 2 the next day, to be able to get a site there.) Here is Sarah coming up the final stretch to site 8:

After I took this, she said, "Oh, you're not taking a picture of me climbing up the hill, are you?" I think she thought she looked droppy and exhausted. So I said, "I'll take another one without you in it." Here is a picture without Sarah in it; please only look at this picture.

With the hot springs in the middle-left. Below is the view from our site, looking out over the valley:

After we re-set-up our tent there were people in the hot springs, and, having been spoiled by our solo experience earlier, we decided to refrain and spent some time just... I forget, actually. Possibly we lay in hammocks and had wine and cheese. No, really. Kris had brought a bag of wine and Sarah had brought some fromage de chevre avec herbs de Provence, or something. We ate and drank and played cards. It was warm when the sun was out but rather chilly without it.

There were rockslides happening on a fairly continuous basis down the naked slopes of the mountain to the east of us. This was exciting to me. We all know that mountains erode, and they do so over geologic time. But geologic time includes now. It was a unique but impossible-to-mistake sound, both a porcelain-like tinkling and a deep rumbling at the same time. Sometimes I could see the cobbles and boulders bouncing down. They were far away from us, but still, just 100 feet away were some large boulders that had made it all the way down, bouncing over the piles of scree and over the fields of bush and scattered tree as well. How often did a boulder make it that far? Who knows?

As the day grew later, more and more people began to gather in the hot springs. It was friday night.

Before sunset, we walked about the hot springs area so I could get some shots of the wildflowers.

When the sun disappeared, I turned back to get a shot of Erin and Kris, just returned from soaking, getting things ready for dinner up at the campsite.

It became way too cold all too quickly, and by the time supper was ready my fingers were almost too frozen to eat it. We looked down upon the hot springs and contemplated having a nighttime dip -- some people were talking about a meteor shower -- but the noisy crowd down there with drinks in hand seemed obnoxious to me, and so Sarah and I decided to go to bed.

In the second and final installment, you will read all about our day hike to Triangle Pass, soaking in the hot springs during a hail storm, and having to ford a raging river to get back to the car. Stay tuned!