My Head’s Not In It
It’s time to go again…
I’m learning that town is turning out to be unhelpful. Though it’s really fun to go into town and relax, and a nice bed and shower are awesome and restful, every time I get back on trail after a town, it completely restarts my momentum. And so, like every single stop before now, when me and Phoenix were dropped off at the Interlaken Trailhead, all I wanted to do was go back to Leadville. I sighed, resigned myself to the trail, to this commitment I’d made to myself, and took my first steps into the Collegiates.
Hi! If you’re just now jumping in, the CT splits at Twin Lakes into two options: Collegiate East and Collegiate West. These are better thought of as the Collegiate Low and Collegiate High routes. Because it was such a high snow year, we felt it was pushing the envelope just a bit to try the Collegiate West in late June, especially with a 40 foot ice wall on Lake Ann Pass. So, even though the Collegiate East route is generally hated on by thru hikers, we took it to avoid the extreme snow of the higher elevations.
(To read more about the differences between the Collegiate East and Collegiate West routes, check out this comparison.)
But first, some personal history:
Twin Lakes is a popular area for outdoor tourism, because of its easy access to some of the highest peaks in the Lower 48. A couple years before this now, I had my first experience with backpacking, thru-hiking, and mountaineering in this place, on this trail.
The scene was 2021, and I, a high school sophomore, went with my church youth group on a weeklong guided trip with Wilderness Expeditions (from Salida, shout out, they were awesome!), starting at this trailhead and hiking into Big Willis Gulch over a couple days, then up to the summit of Rinker Peak (13,783 feet). This was one of my first real backpacking trips, certainly the first experience I’d had in Colorado, made all the better by awesome guides and my friends hiking with me.
As I hiked the same trail for a few miles as I had as a kid a few years before, I felt pangs of loneliness and, for the first time yet, homesickness. What was I doing out here? I should be at home, with the people I love, not on my own out here. Even when I turned uphill, and left the Collegiate West route, and my old footsteps, behind me, the feelings continued, and the entire rest of my day was a struggle. Thankfully, I had service for much of the day, and so I called most everyone I knew, and talked it out. I used an entire power cycle that day, but I didn’t care… it was what it took to get through the day. Fast forward to dinner, I had a massive climb up to the top of the east ridge of Mt. Oxford, where I met Phoenix to set up camp. The ridge was windy and a bit exposed, but still made for good camping among the aspens.
And so began the cycle…
One of the major complaints CT and CDT hikers have about Collegiate East is that it’s “boring”, “repetitive”, “dry and dusty”, and generally “not as epic”. I’d agree with these generalizations for the most part. However, the description that the Collegiate East route is “repetitive” describes it perfectly. The cycle of this trail goes a bit like this:
- Start in a valley, usually with a road and trailhead, sometimes with a campground. Has a roaring stream fed by the snowmelt from the high mountains, so I’d fill up my water bottles before the upcoming climb. Most of these had reservoirs downstream as well.
- Take a long, but gradual SOBO climb up to a high eastern ridge of one of the 14ers near the trail (going SOBO: Oxford, Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, Antero, Shavano/Tabeguache). We usually camped at the apex of these ridges, and there were (usually) springs nearby. These climbs kind of felt like they got you nowhere, because you never really get above treeline, except at Mt. Yale.
- The descents are much much steeper, and have the best views in the East. Seriously, these descents were knee crunching but so so pretty because of how sheer they are. Usually pretty hot and dusty though, because they are south facing.
- And we’re back to the valley, with roads and trailheads and (hopefully) a pit toilet. Trail magic? These would be awesome spots, but we were among the first thru hikers so no one had set up here yet.
Some assorted highlight moments:
- Camping near Mt. Yale, on the top of its east ridge, was gorgeous with the alpenglow on the mountains. There’s also a little .25 mile sidetrail, with insane panoramic views of the valleys, Mt. Yale, and BV.
- Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, with its snobby rich tourists, did not appreciate our company. But hey, the cheap gas station pizza, ice cream, and recharging our devices was fun! What wasn’t fun was the sketchy roadwalk to get there and out. Thankfully, we got a hitch from a kind local couple through the last 2 ½ miles, but if you’re reading this CTF, this section definitely needs some redirection. Even just a sidewalk or a new trail next to the road would be better than almost getting murdered by every car coming off of Mt. Princeton.
- Day 16, HALFWAY POINT! I made a little rock marker on the side of the trail, and took a picture with it after lunch. It was emotional for me, because I didn’t believe that I could ever make it this far, but here I was. Thinking about the change in landscape I’d seen since Waterton blew my mind. And yet, I was only 243.2 miles in! There was still so much to see.
And so, I found myself at Monarch Pass.
…Seeking a hitch with a few other hikers I’d met along the way. I’d made it! It was time for Salida, and the July 4 celebrations. But that story will have to wait for another time.
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