I was out of camp by around 6:00 am this morning, expecting that my luck avoiding the afternoon thunderstorms was bound to run out. A friendly but faster hiker passed me as I kept my slow but steady pace for the first 3 miles or so. Then I somehow irritated a swarm of bees that circled me for at least a mile down the trail. I think I was close to a jog before they finally let me go on what had to be my fastest mile on the whole trail. Thankfully I was spared any bee stings; I was a bit worried as my last bee sting in Mexico left me with a sports fan foam finger-sized hand for several days.
I hiked up over a small hill then down into the next drainage and found a nice spot for a break. I had been saving one of the those freeze-dried ice cream sandwiches, and this seemed the perfect time for this surprisingly tasty treat. Another hiker who had been doing the Collegiate Loop in the other direction stopped by for a visit, and shared with me the unwelcome news that he had crossed over 5 passes since the day before. My first two days in the Collegiates had just one big, hard climb each which was already about all I thought I could handle.
The trail eventually bottomed out around 10,000 feet I as reached small meadow then began hiking alongside the meadow into the woods. I wasn’t sure if it was the climbs from the past two days or my apprehension about all the passes ahead, but the relatively easy first 7-8 miles were a struggle today, and I found myself stopping for a break about anytime I could find a decent log to sit on. I had a little trouble finding the crossing across Texas Creek, and I felt bad as 3 friendly hikers had too squeeze by me as I sat on a log right alongside the trail. I finally got myself moving again and soon saw the same hikers stopped near a swifter crossing of the creek, rinsing out their clothes and taking a creek bath. They were 2 younger females and a male; I was a bit embarrassed and tried not to look at their near-nakedness as I stopped to fill some water. Thankfully they were all still friendly.
I started up the trail ahead of them and began another relentless climb up through the woods. Surprisingly I stayed ahead of the trio of hikers until we reached treeline. This clearing was filled with all colors of wildflowers and I thought of my friend Sally back in Steamboat who loved hiking through the wildflowers. The others finally caught up and passed me one-by-one, as they had spread out during the climb. I noticed the lead hiker was hiking on the balls of his feet as he seemed to spring up the climb, as he said, “up and up”.
It was early afternoon at this point, and the skies were turning grey. I could see the steeper climb up the saddle and began to hurry my pace. The rain was not yet heavy, but I could hear thunder and lightning was flashing on the horizon. The meadow towards the saddle was pretty much unprotected and I watched the 3 other hikers moving fast and further ahead of me. I was surprised to see 2 of them leave the ridge and dash back down into the meadow as one continued up. I was worried that maybe they knew something I didn’t, but I kept climbing up then onto the ridge as I could see the lightning getting closer and closer. I also noticed that my tired legs were not so tired anymore as my adrenaline kicked in. Once on the ridge I could see the cars and parking area on Cottonwood Pass below as the trail continued further along the windy ridgeline than I had hoped.
I made it down to the parking area, and was relieved that the rain never did get very heavy. There was a small lake and an established campsite below just below the parking area. I was a bit self conscious about setting up camp there with all the tourists looking over me from the viewing area above, so I ending up camping over the next small ridge and out of site. I was surprised to see no other hikers here; I thought they must have caught a hiker shuttle down to Buena Vista from the parking area. I vowed to be up super early the next morning to get over tomorrow’s 4 passes ahead of the next storm. I set my alarm for 2:30 am.