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.