CT Day 24/CDT: Out of the Collegiates & Into the Rain

I was almost the last one out of camp this morning but still hoped to hike around 15 miles today as the Collegiate West route would rejoin the main Colorado Trail. I’d had a nice visit with my son Erik and my granddaughter Kya the day before at Monarch Pass, where they had met me with my resupply, and I was finding it difficult to get my head back onto the trail. I had hiked about a half mile and the last person out of camp hollered at me from behind, letting me know I had hiked passed the marked CT single track turn off the dirt road. I eventually would have realized from the Guthook app that I was off trail, but he probably saved me a mile or more of backtracking. I had almost gotten the trail name “Wrong Way” a couple days earlier and thought maybe that was fitting after all.

It was already an overcast Saturday morning, and a few mountain bikers were starting to pass me on this popular multi-use section of trail. I reached a point with cell service and give my wife Maria a quick check-in call. She’d had some COVID symptoms and I had encouraged her to got tested the day before. When I called Maria let me know she still didn’t feel well, and that she wouldn’t have her test result until Monday. I hiked on for about another mile and didn’t feel right about Maria, but was now out of cell range. I sat on the side of the trail for few minutes until another CT hiker walked past, and I shared my dilemma with this unknown but compassionate hiker. She told me I would know what to do. I continued on about another half mile uphill, thinking I would gain a cell signal on higher ground. When I still didn’t have service, I decided to hike back to Monarch where I could hitch back to Leadville to get my truck, then drive back to Steamboat to be with Maria. After backtracking to where I called Maria earlier, I called to let her know I was leaving trail. She insisted that no, she was already feeling a little better, she had plenty of food at home and friends that could help if needed, and she wanted me to go after my dream. Even though I had hiked an extra 3 miles or so, I felt much more at peace and I think it meant something to Maria to know that I was ready to leave trail for her.

By now it was starting to rain a bit I was soon sharing the trail with lots of weekend mountain bikers and even some dirt bikers. I hadn’t realized, but wasn’t surprised, that this super scenic Monarch Crest is a marquis trail for mountain bikers. I met a friendly trio of CT hikers around my age, and I assumed my level of experience, and hiked with them as the rain got heavier. We eventually reached the Green Creek shelter, the only shelter on the Colorado Trail. Some mountain bikers made room for us in the shelter, but I was surprised when my hiking companions carried on into the now pouring rain. I opted for the shelter, and paid close attention when one of the mountain bikers who was leading a tour shared the forecast of a near-record monsoon season to continue over the coming weeks. I waited in the shelter for probably an hour, and chatted a bit more with the young woman who I had talked to on-trail earlier that day about Maria. We hiked on separately as the rain let up; I don’t think she realized how much those bits of conversation helped me that day. I was happy to see her later in the San Juans, where she had gained the trail name Puff.

It was rough going the rest of the day, and I didn’t seem to be making much progress with my late start, back-tracking, and sitting out the rain in the shelter. I finally dragged myself into the Marshall Pass Trailhead after only 9 trail miles. I was relieved to see they had vault toilets and some nearby camping. There were three tents already set up, and I asked if they would mind if set up nearby. I was happy to see it was the three fellows I had I hiked with earlier, and they even invited me to come over at dinner time. It turned out that Speed had hiked the triple crown since retiring, Grasshopper had hiked the CDT, and all three had hiked the Colorado Trail multiple times. I gained some trail knowledge from those hikers that night, most importantly that the more experienced hikers were usually the most humble and welcoming to others. I went back to my tent that night with gratitude that I had ended the day with 9 miles.

CT Day 23/CDT: Monarch

My son was planning to meet me at the Monarch store at 11:00 am with my resupply. That was still 10 miles away, so I was once again up super early to make sure I arrived with plenty of time. There was 1500 feet in elevation gain over the first couple of miles. The trail went from a steep dirt trail to Hunt Lake to an even steeper climb up the rockslide. It was still dark by the time I reached the challenging rocky section, but I was in a happy mood to be seeing Erik and my granddaughter Kya. Plus I was almost through the Collegiate West and had gained both strength and confidence that I actually might be able to complete the Colorado Trail.

I reached the Monarch Crest on the Continental Divide. I was literally astonished at the view in all directions, and so far I had this trail all to myself. As scenic as the trail had been to this point, this was easily the best I’d seen. There were deer walking the trail near the high point. I crossed a few CDT NOBOs as I followed the rolling hills along the divide, then passed some big rocks with a sign explaining that Native Americans would use the formations to hide then ambush and corner big game. Monarch Ski Area came into view and I saw another pair of deer cautiously looking my way.

I reached the crest of the ski area and was happy to see a picnic table waiting for me. I was making good time, so I took few minutes to take a snack break on the luxurious flat seats and table. I hiked on through the ski area to Old Monarch Pass Road, which had just reopened after an early summer project. I crossed a few more friendly CDT NOBOs then found the single track that brought me up and over the next hill to Highway 50 and the Monarch Store. These folks were super hiker friendly and directed me to their spacious “hiker corner” where I could drop my trash, leave my pack and charge my devices while I waited for my son to pick me up. I bought a soda first thing and ordered a sandwich in their little diner.

I rode with Erik down to Gunnison to pick his daughter and some fast food. It was a fun to ride back up to Monarch with them, but it was over too soon as I quickly unpacked my resupply box. I realized too late that I had forgotten to pack the right charging cable for my 2nd portable charger in my resupply box. It would be almost 100 miles until my next resupply, so I hung out most of the afternoon to charge up all my devices. I still hadn’t mastered the Guthook navigation app and appreciated some tips from a fellow CT hiker while I waited. I met lots of really friendly hikers that day in the hiker corner, but late in the afternoon they all filtered back onto the trail as the storm clouds rolled in. I was almost the last one out, and some others had let me know they might stop at the first campsite about 1.5 miles up the trail. As it turned out I left just in time to miss the worst of the storm, and the others were happy to share their campsite when I arrived. I had really enjoyed the camaraderie of my fellow hikers that day after hiking solo so much of the trail to this point. But I still felt in an odd funk after my first “nero” away from the trail.

CT Day 22/CDT: Rocky Trails & Wrong Turns (Tincup Pass Road to Boss Lake)

For once I had done all my camp chores the night before and got up with my new wake-up time: 2:30 am. I kept that alarm on my watch for the rest of the trail, although I often snoozed through it. To this day my alarm goes off at 2:30 am during my graveyard shifts at work, and now I smile almost every time I hear it. I needed to cover 18 miles today to leave myself and 10-mile hike to Monarch the next morning to meet my son Erik with a resupply box. I started my climb up the wooded switchbacks where I gained over 1000 feet in the first 3 miles. I was getting accustomed to being alone on trail in the dark early morning climbs. Not long ago I would have feared this spooky scenario, but now it was my special time with just me and the trail. As a reached tree line, the light of my headlamp showed me the willows and trees with this really pretty frosty glow on the tips of their branches. The dawn fog made this morning worthy of a scene in Lord of the Rings.

The sun rose as I reached the top of the the climb and I began to see some other hikers, mostly out on shorter backpacking trips. The wet spring and monsoon rains had this section of alpine terrain green and lush. I reached a steep descent to a wider trail where a railroad used to be, and I appreciated having a few easy miles ahead. There was an historic sign recognizing a failed test of a specially designed railroad snowplow in the 1880’s, that might make a fun movie. The trail continued on to a Jeep road then turned up into the woods on single track for the next climb.

As I reached treeline I saw some side-by-sides going up and down a steep, rocky trail that apparently just ended at the top of the hill. I reached some gentle rockslide switchbacks and stopped for lunch near where a creek crossed. As I continued up these seemingly endless switchbacks I thought it was interesting that a small lake below looked almost the same as it did when I passed by before lunch. Then a familiar fast, one-pole hiker crossed my path in the opposite direction. Yep, this was the same hiker that had passed me going the same direction yesterday – I had been hiking the wrong way since lunch. Thankfully I had only hiked about half a mile since, but back-tracking meant hiking an extra mile through the rockslide. I was surprisingly more amused than frustrated at my error, and was grateful that the one-pole hiker had passed me again.

I left the rockslide trail and hiked past Hancock Lake, and I could see the now familiar pattern of switchback trail up the side of the next saddle over Chalk Creek Pass. I made it up and over pretty easily, and found it was actually more challenging navigating the cairns across the next rockslide on the way down the other side. I met a fun CT hiker aptly called Mister Marvelous Mustache, and made the mistake of letting him know I didn’t yet have a trail name after telling him of my earlier navigation error. He then asked me, “Wanna be called Wrong Way?” I thought to myself that was probably fitting but politely declined this designation, and asked that we keep that conversation just between us. He told me about another hiker called Arrow who would draw an pointed line in the dirt showing his direction of travel whenever he took a break. That wasn’t a bad suggestion, and from that point on I pointed my trekking poles the right way down the trail whenever I stopped.

There was a nice campsite alongside a bridge at the bottom of the drainage, and another trail lead to the Butterfly Hostel. I met a friendly NOBO CDT hiker stopping for lunch at the bridge who let me know of the hard climb ahead. I soon discovered he had not exaggerated as I struggled up the hill towards Boss Lake. I finally had cell service once I reached the dam to make a quick video call with my wife Maria to show her the pretty lake and view, and I texted my son Erik to confirm I was on track to meet him at Monarch the next day. I hiked further up the hill, then down to a nice established campsite near a fast moving stream. It looked like I had the campsite all to myself, and was able to get my camp chores done and into my tent just as that afternoon’s rain started. I had hiked about 18 trail miles today, 19 total counting my wrong turn.

CT Day 21/CDT: Passes upon Passes (Cottonwood Pass to Tincup Pass Road)

It always seemed to take me longer than expected to get out if camp, and today was no exception. I’d had a close call with lightning on Cottonwood Pass the day before, so I set my alarm for 2:30 this morning to get a jump on today’s climbs. I didn’t get up with my alarm, and eventually took advantage of camping all alone by blasting Guns N Roses on my phone to get me motivated & out of my tent. I still had to I walk up the marshy shore of the small lake below the overlook to fill my CNOC bag , so I started out the day with wet shoes. The wooden fence lining the parking lot was handy to hang the bag and filter water into my bottles. Despite my early start, it was already well after 5:00 am – I could see that I needed to be more disciplined about doing all my camp chores like filtering water at night before going to sleep. It was a pretty steep climb up to the high point but I got there in time to see the dawn skyline over the the mountains behind the lake. It was really windy at the top, but previous hikers had built a little walled fort with the nearby rocks that offered with some protection. I had cell reception here and was able to make a quick check-in call with my wife Maria. I sat down with my pack without thinking about my one liter BeFree in my pack’s side pocket. As soon as I felt I was sitting on wet pants a realized my error – the sharp rocks had poked a hole in my BeFree bottle. Another lesson learned, I thought, as I left the little fort to hike on in the cold, windy morning with the bottom of my pack and seat of my pants soaking wet.

It was Wednesday and I needed to keep up my pace of at least 15 miles a day over today’s four climbs. I had arranged to meet my son Erik on Friday morning at Monarch Pass, and that was still more than 40 miles away. I was all alone for the first couple of miles and I had a pretty amazing view in every direction all to myself. The sun finally rose over a nearby peak overlooking some small lakes. The green terraced mountaintops looked like a fantasy golf course. I thought my childhood friend Kerry, who had made a career in the golf industry, might like to play a round here.

The trail descended a bit, then rose up towards the next pass. A pair of hikers I had leap-frogged with the day before passed me again. We shared our respective war stories about dodging yesterday’s lightning storm on Cottonwood Pass and were happy we all all got through safely. The next two descents and climbs followed impressive trail built across large rockslide areas. One of the drainages bottomed out at some odd looking ponds surrounded by copper-colored rocks. I could see thunderstorms a few ridges away, and I was relieved that to see that I would be over my last pass for the day before they reached me. Towards the top of the last climb I met I met a hiker dressed in blue called Laker. Another fast moving hiker carrying just one pole squeezed past me as a took a break along the rockslide trail. I reminded myself that I needed to stop my bad habit of taking breaks right alongside the narrow trail as I began my final and longest descent of the day. It began to rain as I reached the woods into the Woodchopper Creek drainage, but I passed by a couple nice campsites to get my 15 miles in for the day. There were several established campsites at the bottom alongside the creek and Tincup Pass Road. I was liking this approach of getting up early and starting the day with a climb, then ending at the bottom of the last climb near a water source. The Colorado Trail seemed to be laid out nicely, usually but not always, to support this tactic.

CT Day 20/CDT: The Race up Cottonwood Pass

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.

CT Day 19/CDT: Lake Ann Pass

It was Monday morning and I needed to cover the next 70 miles of the Collegiates West up to Monarch by Friday morning, where I had arranged to meet my son with a resupply. That meant averaging at least 15 miles a day for the next four days to have a reasonably short hike Friday morning. I overslept this morning – working my overnight shift job in Steamboat Saturday night then hiking over Hope Pass Sunday had left me exhausted. I was lucky with weather Sunday but knew to expect thunderstorms about every afternoon during monsoon season in the Collegiates. I hurried out of camp feeling way behind on the day already.

I adjusted my pack a few times as I hiked down the trail, and within just a few minutes I broke my hip belt buckle. It took me too long to dig out my spare buckle and get it attached, but despite the lost time I was grateful that I had packed an extra. I was finally on my way again, and as I patted myself on the back for being prepared with that spare buckle, I saw a chubby cinnamon-colored bear dance across the trail not far ahead. In my laziness the night before I had skipped hanging my food, telling myself that bears probably didn’t come up to 11,500 feet looking for food. This bear seemed to want to let me know otherwise. A few days later I talked to another hiker who had seen a similar, or maybe the same, bear in this area. I think I learned something new from the trail about every day.

I descended to the the Sheep Gulch trailhead then started the climb back up through the woods. This was another long climb, and as I reached timberline the trail over Lake Ann Pass revealed itself just a little bit at a time. I could see the lake across a tundra meadow with few campers nearby. It just seemed to pristine to camp at, I thought, as I stayed on the trail an continued towards towards the saddle. I still couldn’t make out how I could get over that steep ridge but could eventually see a faint trail along the rim. It didn’t seem quite as exposed or steep as it looked from below, until I the trail turned to talus. This was my first hike up a talus slope; the trail was established but it wasn’t easy going or easy to follow. I made a couple wrong turns going up the wrong boulders, and it was usually harder going back down than it had been going up. The last of the ascent was back on a dirt trail, then I could take a minute look back at Lake Ann and the vast mountains behind it. I crossed paths with another hiker who responded with an odd grin when I warned him of the sketchy trail. As it turned out this had been a much smaller version of many, many sections of the Colorado Trail built through the talus in the Collegiates and later in the San Juans.

The hillsides along the trail were green and really pretty as I descended into the next drainage. I could see rain coming down in the valley below but thankfully saw no sign of lightening today. There was a final set up switchbacks on the way down, and I saw an established campsite alongside the creek below. The campsite was on the less traveled Gunnison Spur trail, right off the main trail. I thought I was all alone as I walked back to the creek crossing to get water for the night, until I was startled by the biggest white furry animal I had ever seen trotting down the trail. I was relieved to see the dog’s friendly owner emerge through the brush. I laughed at myself, wondering what other animal I thought this massive bright white dog could be. That was a fun ending to a 15-mile day with my second big climb through the Collegiates.

CT Day 18/CDT: Hope in the Collegiates

July 18 had been locked into my calendar for months. I had somehow managed to section hike the first 185 miles of the Colorado Trail over most of my weekends since early May, and starting today I had 3 weeks to hike the last 300 miles of the trail to Durango. All those section hikes and vehicle shuttles had turned out to be an oddly fun logistical challenge and I hoped had left me in good enough hiking shape for the first big climb up Hope Pass as I started into the Collegiates West.

I worked my graveyard job as usual on Saturday night, then on Sunday morning I drove straight from work to my son’s house in Leadville. Erik drove me to Twin Lakes, and I think he read a bit of doubt behind my excitement. He confidently let me know, “you got this dad” as I unloaded my backpack, then I was on my way. A few weeks earlier I had hiked to the junction of the the Collegiates West & East routes on the scenic side of Twin Lakes, so at least the first 1.5 miles was familiar. I had decided to take the Collegiates West alternate that follows the CDT, with its reputation for sweeping views. It also gains about 2000 feet more in elevation than its East counterpart that features more hiking through the woods.

Collegiates West Segment 1 (CW1) starts out meandering though the woods past Twin Lakes reservoir for the first 3-4 miles. Then comes Hope Pass which gains 3600 feet over 4 miles and peaks out above 12,500 feet. I had read and watched lots of hikers’ commentary that Hope Pass is a beast of a climb, and it seemed a bit daunting leading up to today. Earlier in the trail I had done a pretty steep climb up the Tenmile Range from Miners Creek and a long climb up Searle Pass, but this would be both steep and long. I had also been worried about thunderstorms with my late Sunday morning start but thankfully today I got a break in the weather.

The climb was not easy and I only saw a handful of other hikers. I passed a family of fit-looking day hikers, and it was big boost for my confidence when I charged past them carrying my backpack loaded with 5 days’ provisions. When I approached treeline I could finally see the ridge of the pass. I still had some climbing ahead, but the CT Databook had let me know there was camping and water just a mile beyond the high point. I could hear some campers enjoying the scenic lake on the way up. A pair of hikers doing the Collegiate Loop passed as I approached the ridgeline. I wondered why they had slowed down, then I saw marmot along the trail that didn’t seem to be bothered by hikers. I noticed I had cell service so I made a quick video call with my wife Maria to share the scene and the nearby marmot with her.

It felt pretty cool the reach the saddle – I had climbed the infamous Hope Pass! The sign post was absent the prayer flags I had seen in other pictures, but the view of the mountains ahead was a far better alter. The climb down the other side was just as steep but I did find the expected campsite and water not far below. I had hiked 10 miles the first day, but that wasn’t bad with my late start and big climb. I was nearly through CW1 and had gained ton of confidence.

CT Days 16-17/CDT: A New Family Tradition at Tennessee Pass

Last winter I had mentioned to my son my scheme to thru-hike the Colorado Trail. I wanted to shuttle vehicles over 9 separate section hikes on my weekends starting in May to cover the first 185 miles to Twin Lakes, rhen finish the trail to Durango over a 3-week stretch. Erik had me bring my planning materials on my next visit to see what I was up to. After we went over my super-detailed, ever-changing spreadsheet he replied with, “DO IT” and stuck the print-out to his refrigerator. From that point he was all-in supporting this adventure. It helped that Segments 8, 9, 10, & 11 all have trailheads near Leadville, and his house there became our little command center where I left my spare gear, a resupply, and my old Dodge pickup when I was on-trail. Erik shuttled me between a bunch of trailheads and would meet me with my resupply at Monarch Pass as I finished the Collegiates West. His constant encouragement and belief that I could do this is what really made the difference, and I never would have completed the trail without him. But the best part was that Erik wanted to join me on trail for his ever first backpacking trip on Segment 9 at Tennessee Pass.

The weather forecast was clear for a change and I had mentioned to Erik that he might be more comfortable hiking in shorts and trail runners. He was pretty open to my suggestions when it came to what gear to carry, but he made it his hike when he showed up wearing Carhartt jeans & his electrical hazard boots.

We dropped his Jeep at the Timberline Lake Trailhead and drove my pickup back to Tennessee Pass near the 10th Mountain Division Memorial. We were starting in the early evening and only had to cover about 2.5 miles that night. It starts out as a nice trail winding through the woods with some gentle ups & downs. I assumed that the taller than usual trail markers must mean this is a popular route in the winter as well. We found a nice campsite just beyond a bridge-covered creek. Erik has been 4-wheeling in these hills for years and he recognized the Jeep trail just past our campsite as Wurts Ditch road. Most of the forests on the CT were not ideal for bear hangs, so I tied my Ursack to a tree trunk far enough away from camp after dinner. It had been a really fun evening hiking & chatting in the woods.

We had about 11 miles left to the Timberline Lake trailhead, and the climbs were much steeper than I had expected. I’d already been backpacking almost every week for the past two months and felt like I was in pretty good hiking shape, but Erik led most of the way on his first time out. We had fun visiting with some other CT hikers who were also not loving today’s climbs. We met an interesting CDT hiker who had deferred last year’s hike for the pandemic, but used that time to cache his resupplies across 4 states. I was surprised I hadn’t heard of Porcupine Lake when we saw how pretty and secluded it was.

We could finally see familiar Turquoise Lake then descended down to the trailhead where we had left Erik’s Jeep. This was my last segment to complete between Denver and Twin Lakes, and the following Sunday I planned to start into the the Collegiates and beyond to hike the final 300 miles. But after Segment 9 the trail had already far exceeded any of my expectations.

CT Days 14-15/CDT: The Other Kokomo

I started this trip on July 6 to avoid the holiday crowds, and had stayed with my son in Leadville the night before. I left my truck at Erik’s house and caught the Lake County Link shuttle to Copper at 5:30 am. My plan this trip was to complete the 25 miles from Copper Mountain to Tennessee Pass in 2 days. I knew that most of the 4400 feet of total elevation gain would be on the first day and it helped to get an early start. The bus dropped me off near Copper and I hiked back to where the CT connected along Highway 91.

The trail then passes just above the base of the ski area, where a resort employee directed me the way to follow the the trail as it climbed southwest towards Guller Creek. I passed a friendly bunch of day hikers that knew the way better much than me. From the creek I got a glimpse of the climb that lied ahead up Searle Pass and Elk Ridge.

There were a few mountain bikers out today, and several let me know the view up ahead would easily make the climb worth it. The trail gains 2400 feet over 12 miles, not steep but a relentless climb. There was pretty run-off creek flowing down Searle Pass along the way. A friend had told me about a hut trip he had taken to Janet’s cabin, and it looked like pretty special place looking down from the pass. I finally made it up over Elk Ridge and despite the wind I took a few minutes to enjoy the views all around me. Even the Climax mine with it’s filtering ponds and Highway 91 in the distance added to the scene. Now, whenever I drive over Fremont Pass, I can look up from the highway towards this notch I passed through that day and remember what it was like to be all the way up there.

The trail followed along a grassy ridge to the top of Kokomo Pass. I was all alone at this point, and like many hikers before me I couldn’t help but sing that Beach Boys song out loud as I approached the sign. La Playa Brujas near Mazatlan, where I took my wife Maria on our first beach vacation, is my Kokomo. But it was cool to visit a real place called that too.

It was pretty much all downhill from hear to camp. I passed Cataract Falls, then some more friendly CDT NOBOs and my first bikepackers of the summer. A trail crew that had been clearing some deadfall and passed me on their way back to the trail head. One of the younger crew members offered me his granola bar – nothing spectacular but I happily accepted my first bit of trail magic. There were several nice established campsites to choose from along the creek so it was an easy end to the day.

The next morning I covered the last 10 miles in about 4 hours, a pretty good pace for me. A fellow CT hiker named Chris joined me for a couple miles leading up to Camp Hale and shared a story of some the the heroics of the 10th Mountain Division. The barracks there were dug into the turf and seemed to go on endlessly. I obeyed the sign to not leave the trail as there could be some unexploded munitions nearby. There was a clear, almost haunting feeling as I passed by Camp Hale, that I was walking through hallowed ground.

I visited with a few more CT hikers as we passed the old coke ovens near the Tennessee Pass Trailhead. It was fun to visit with Snackbox, who had made some really helpful CT Youtube videos, as I reached the parking lot. I can’t even remember the last time I hitchhiked before this, but I was happily surprised it took me only 10-15 minutes to get a ride back to Leadville. Ironically a former AT hiker just passing through on his way to Texas picked me up – he seemed to think I was homeless at first. In the moment, that didn’t feel like such a bad thing.

CT Days 10-13/CDT: Finally into the High Country (Kenosha Pass to Copper Mountain)

I completed Segments 1-5 on the Colorado Trail over a few weekends in May and early June. Then I skipped ahead to hike Segments 10 and 11 up to around CT mile 185 while waiting for the snow to melt in Segments 6 and 7. Georgia Pass and the Tenmile Range were now accessible so my plan for this trip was to hike both segments from Kenosha Pass to Copper Mountain. I worked my graveyard job Sunday night as usual, then drove to Goldhill Trailhead to meet my shuttler Erica. This was her third time shuttling me this spring, and I while I was happy to see Erica and her family again I was a little sad this would be my last shuttle trip with her. I had been watching the weather closely and knew a thunderstorm was due to hit early in the afternoon.

Erica dropped me at Kenosha Pass and not long after starting my hike nature called me to do some business off trail. I had spotted a tree far enough away from the trail to use as a landmark, but when I finished I spent probably 20 minutes finding my way back to the trail. I was still pretty new at this; my Guthook app let me know the trail was close by but I just couldn’t see the it. From that point on whenever I walked off-trail I took a quick compass bearing of my direction of travel off-trail from my Instinct watch, and also pointed my poles back towards the trail when I stopped. I was a bit frustrated knowing I was short on time with the impending storm. I had hoped to hike at least 10 miles that day, but only made it around 6 miles to Jefferson Creek when the rain started. The rain got heavy right as I crossed the road, and I decided to make camp at the next decent site. I found a established spot right away and thankfully stopped there as the rain continued for several hours that afternoon. I was especially happy to have stopped when I could hear thunder and see the lightning flashing up the hillside on the next day’s climb. Thankfully my Xmid tent kept me dry overnight.

The skies cleared a bit overnight and I started out before daylight the next morning to try and make up some miles. I had to cover 46 miles over 4 days / 3 nights, plus a planned side trip to Breck. While I made the right choice to set up camp ahead of a pretty big storm on the first night after just 6 miles, I would need to hike at least 20 miles today to stay on track. Up to this point I had never carried a backpack more that 14-15 miles in a day.

I could see some fresh snow higher up on the trail as I started towards Georgia Pass. Not far up the trail I passed a few other hikers still in camp drying out their tents from yesterday’s storm. I had heard them passing my camp during the storm late in the afternoon before while I was already cozied up inside my tent. I had to climb about 2000 feet over the first 6 miles, but I was excited finally get to Georgia Pass and kept a good pace that morning. I leap-frogged with a handful of other friendly CT thru-hikers along the way which seemed to help with the climbs. It looked as if I was still ahead of the CT bubble. As I reached Georgia Pass I was rewarding with the view of South Park behind me and the Gore Range ahead of me as the trail turned north towards Breckenridge and connected with the Continental Divide Trail.

I saw a surprising number of NOBO CDT hikers that day. These folks were my new idols, and it was cool how they seemed as excited for me on my CT hike as I was for them on their CDT journey. I imagined this is what a mite hockey player must feel like when they get to play a game during intermission at an NHL game, and get high fives from their heroes as they leave the ice. I stopped for a long lunch at the Swan River after about 13 miles and filtered water to carry over the next 9-mile dry section. The trail gains about 1000 feet over the next two miles towards Keystone. There was another unexpected climb after that through a beetle kill area. I visited with nice pair of CDT hikers called Fire Hazard & Spider Monkey alongside the trail while they contemplated whether to carry on that afternoon towards Grays Peak, the only 14er on the CDT, in the wake of yesterday’s big thunderstorm.

I had done my first 20-plus mile day, but still had another mile left to reach the next water. I felt ok, but some much younger fast-moving CDT hikers let me know I didn’t look so great. One thankfully followed up with “just another half hour to go, you got this!”. I finally crossed a marshy gully with a little creek trickling just enough to fill up my CNOC. It was fun to see “100” written out on some nearby stones. The CT Databook let me know there was a nearby campsite on the ridge ahead, and I was grateful when some others already camped there pointed me to a flat spot nearby. I was close to overjoyed to have covered 22 miles, by far my longest day on-trail so far. The miles plus the vibe I had gotten from CDT hikers and my fellow CT hikers that day had me feeling like maybe I belonged here after all.

I had a pretty easy 4-mile hike the next morning towards my truck at the Goldhill Trailhead. I had left myself a couple cold sodas in my Yeti and was more than ready for one. I drove to Breck for a big breakfast, then headed back to Goldhill to begin Segment 7. I needed to cover an additional 5 miles with around 1500 elevation gain to camp by Miner’s Creek. I passed a couple more CDT hikers along the way and met one who even carried a Mariposa backpack just like mine; it seemed like most of the CDT hikers carried the higher-end Hyperlite. I kind of laughed at myself as I realized I was sizing up the hikers I met by the gear they carried. In the weeks to come I would learn that a hiker’s gear or even the size & shape of the hiker had little to do with their ability or past experience on-trail. I reached my campsite in the early afternoon and again got lucky getting set-up and inside my tent just ahead of the next thunderstorm.

I had left myself 8 miles to go on Wednesday to finish out this trip, with a 2000 foot climb up & over the Tenmile range in the first 3 miles. I struggled as the trail relentlessly continued up through woods. I could see some jagged high peaks ahead and wondered how I could ever get over. As I got closer to treeline the route became more clear, and there were even some scenic stepping stones to help me up the first peak.

I could then see Breck down below as continued up toward the top of the ski area. This was not easy hiking, but the worst was behind me and the views were simply spectacular. I met a woman hiking with her dog as I crossed over the Tenmile range who had been hiking between Copper and Breck daily every hiking season for the past 20 years. The trail wound its way though a rocky field on the ridge, and I wondered where the hikers on the next higher peak were headed. As I started down I saw one of them sprinting hard down the steep hillside with a hang glider on his back then take off, somehow managing to avoid dragging his body on the ground by a foot or less.

As hard as the climb up had been, the descent down towards Copper seemed longer and steeper. I didn’t envy the CDT NOBOs I crossed on their way up. I was surprised to see CT hiker called Springer I had met in the last segment who had decided to flip over to Copper and hike back towards Breck. I finally made it down to Highway 91 and walked across towards Copper to take the free Summit Stage back to Goldhill. I’ve driven over Fremont Pass dozens of times to visit my son in Leadville; I often looked up that crazy steep mountainside wondering how CT hikers could possibly make it up & over. Now I knew.