Exposed Ridgelines and Scary Weather

I was up and out of camp earlier than normal, and soon arrived at Highway 34. The consensus in the FarOut comments was that permits were necessary for day-hiking the CDT or Tonahutu Creek cutoff in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). However, there was some confusion in the comments, and no guidance on the CDTC website. The closures and alerts page has since been updated, but it doesn’t mention that permits need to be picked up in person. Kawuneeche Visitor Center is a four-mile roundtrip for NOBOs, and a six-mile roundtrip for SOBOs.

I decided to bypass RMNP, and road-walked to Grand Lake while enjoying the (temporarily) dry weather. At Mountain Market, I bought a five-day resupply, organized my food on the picnic table outside, charged my phone, and chatted to flip-flopper “Lucky Hat”. In less than two hours, I was back on trail. Walking south instead of east, the mostly flat, easy trail was a welcome change from steep terrain. The scenery along the Colorado River was distractingly pretty, and even four hours of rain followed by pesky mosquitoes at Arapaho Bay couldn’t dampen my spirits. That night, I camped at Monarch Lake, unaware that my toughest four days on the CDT would begin in the morning.

James Peak

I passed a young bull moose as I was leaving camp, and quickly dispatched the first climb of the day. The weather was partly cloudy but non-threatening, and the parking lot at Junco Lake Trailhead was full. Pretty soon, I started meeting the earliest of the Saturday-morning hikers as they returned from the Devil’s Thumb. I climbed through an area that had burned just a few weeks earlier, and where the crowds turned left, I turned right.

The trail worked its way south along an alpine-tundra ridgeline for the next 10 miles. The view to the west was uninterrupted, to the east, it looked like thick, fluffy cloud had been poured into the valley until it was full to the brim. A westerly breeze prevented the cloud from spilling over onto the CDT.

Vulnerable to the fickle Colorado weather once again, I hurried to Rollins Pass. There, the path disappears, and my progress slowed as I navigated five miles of cairns and marker posts. When the breeze faltered, the eastern cloudbank overflowed, and it was difficult to spot the next marker through the mist. The rough, left-to-right slope also gave me a blister on the outside of my left heel. It was a minor annoyance that I delayed dealing with until camp.

An alpine-tundra ridgeline and a partially cloudy sky.

Looking back towards Rollins Pass.

The final climb to the summit of James Peak was extremely steep, and the sun was setting by the time I reached the top. I descended into the cloud as daylight faded, and it was dark when I eventually reached a suitable place to camp. At an elevation of 11,811 feet, the campsite beat my previous best (Guitar Lake, Sierra Nevada) by 300 feet. The new record would only last a day.

Mount Nystrom

After a big descent to the Fall River, I spent the rest of the morning climbing back out of the valley. Just before noon, I arrived at the summit of Mount Flora, where several day hikers were admiring the view. I made my way down the busy trail to Berthoud Pass, cheated death while crossing Highway 40, and climbed above treeline once again. In a few more miles, the day hikers petered out, and only the sounds of nature remained. Well, nature and the nearby Henderson mine. The constant, low-frequency hum emanating from the facility was pretty loud by the time I completed my last, steep descent of the day.

The final climb was fairly gentle to begin with, and steep towards the end. Clouds rolled in when I was less than a mile from the summit, but there was no thunder, no wind, and only a few quick, light showers. Still, I noticed the ominous weather at the other end of the valley and decided to camp before it arrived.

The north-south ridgeline at the top of the climb was exposed to the elements, and almost five miles long. In good weather, it was an ideal place to camp. If the weather turned bad, spending the night would be a terrible idea. I descended almost 100 feet to a small patch of level ground. In a thunderstorm, it was marginally safer than the ridge, but still highly exposed, especially to westerly winds. It was the best I could do.

Fortunately, the clouds dissipated, the air remained still, and by sunset, conditions were perfect. It wasn’t a particularly cold night, and I slept well at 12,521 feet.

Clouds at sunset, from an exposed ridgeline.

The ridgeline south of Mount Nystrom.

Grays Peak

Warm sun, very little wind, and a ridge walk with long-range views. It was a great start to the day. A few miles later, the CDT dropped into Herman Gulch and joined a trail which was obviously popular. Near the trailhead, I spoke to a pair of local hikers and mentioned that I’d be summiting Grays Peak later that day. They both had anecdotes about people who’d been struck by lightning, yet it didn’t come across as scaremongering. They seemed genuinely concerned about my safety. I thanked them for the advice and went on my way.

Beyond the trailhead, I crossed under the I-70, and walked east along a paved, slightly downhill section of trail. With my autopilot engaged, I used my phone for some lightning research. I wasn’t surprised to learn that my odds of being struck in any given year are about one in a million. I was surprised to learn that Florida and Texas have more annual lightning deaths than Colorado.

At the end of the paved trail, I turned right and started climbing the dirt road leading to Grays Peak trailhead. About an hour later, I was on trail, and swimming against the tide of descending hikers. One of them relayed the information he’d been given about leaving the summit before 2:00 p.m. Again, the advice seemed to come from a place of genuine concern. As I continued the ascent, I kept an eye on the passing clouds.

The trail is steep but well maintained, and I reached the summit at 4:15 p.m. Grays and Torreys were the only peaks still in the clear. Every other mountain in the vicinity had thick, threatening clouds parked on top of it.

A mostly cloudy sky casts shadows into a deep valley.

Looking north from Grays Peak.

Decisions, decisions

I put on my jacket and took a few photos, then reached into my pocket and pressed the “Stop” button on my MP3 player. In the event of nearby thunder, I wanted to know where it was coming from. It was time to assess my options.

  1. Turn around. Descend immediately, camp, and continue tomorrow. The safest option, but it would put me behind schedule. And I do like sticking to the schedule.
  2. Continue. The CDT follows an exposed ridgeline for 2.5 miles and starts to descend at Argentine Pass. After that, the lightning risk diminishes.

In bad weather, summits and mountain passes are risky, but walking a ridge is even more so. It would take at least an hour to reach Argentine Pass, and I didn’t like the look of things over there. The valley on the far side of the pass was full of cloud, and only the prevailing wind was preventing the pass itself from being engulfed. Mount Edwards, sticking up from the ridgeline around the halfway point, would also slow me down. It wasn’t a big climb, but it did look rough and narrow.

I weighed the odds again before coming to a decision. Then, I mentally pushed all of my poker chips to the center of the table and set off in the direction of Mount Edwards.

Some background info

Several years ago, two friends and I hiked up Borah Peak. There’s a short section that requires some scrambling, but we all made it across “Chickenout Ridge” with no problems. We’d been at the summit for a while when the air around us started to fizz and hiss. The fizzing seemed to originate from cameras and cellphones, the hissing came from the rock beneath our feet. Matt and I wondered if it was something to do with air pressure and turned to Michael to ask his opinion. Michael, the only one of us with hair, didn’t need to say a word. His full head of hair was standing on end, and it signaled exactly what was happening. We left the summit in a hurry.

All three of us had failed to grasp the significance of the only cloud in an otherwise empty sky. The cloud that approached stealthily from the west and passed slowly overhead. An innocent-looking, football-stadium-sized cloud that looked like it belonged in a kid’s painting. It definitely wasn’t the towering cumulonimbus that I associate with thunderstorms, yet it had accumulated a significant charge.

Chickenout Ridge II

At the lowest point in the saddle, just as the 300-foot climb to Mount Edwards started, the trail disappeared. To my right, a steep, slippery slope. To my left, an extremely steep, slippery slope. Directly in front, a rocky scramble. I veered right.

It took less than ten minutes of slipping and sliding before I remembered my lesson from Chickenout Ridge. Choosing a line close to the top of the ridge would result in the safest, fastest progress. I scrambled back up to the top of the knife-edge, and straight into a damp, gray, airborne wall that had drifted in from the north. Then I heard something that also reminded me of that day on Borah. It wasn’t a loud noise, but it was nearby.


It sounded like a cartoon character receiving an electric shock, but I immediately understood its significance. The air was starting to break down under high voltage. I turned and fled.

I’d descended about 150 vertical feet when the first hailstones began to rain down. A few seconds later came the boom of thunder in the adjacent valley. I turned my back to the hail, assumed the lightning safety position, and waited. The first thought to cross my mind wasn’t much help.

“This is bad. This is very, very bad.”

Then, somewhat distracted by the occasional rumble of thunder and the frequent crack of hailstones hitting the back of my head, I assessed my options again.

  1. Wait. I had no idea how long this storm would last, or if there were more to come. It would be dark in less than three hours, and I’d travelled less than a mile of ridgeline.
  2. Bail. This seemed like the safer bet.

Unplanned descent

Not that it was a great option. The southern flank of the ridge was steep, and the loose surface was held in place by a thin, patchy carpet of vegetation. Slippery when dry, it was now covered in a layer of small, icy marbles. I descended very carefully and at an angle: halfway between straight down and straight across. As an added benefit, this direction pointed me towards the end of a dirt road in the valley below. The hail stopped after about 30 minutes, and I watched the curtain of precipitation recede to the southeast.

Run-off had cut deep channels through the sheer band of rock at the base of the mountain, so my concerns about getting cliffed out were unfounded. In the drainage channels, I sank into scree up to my shins. There was little danger of sliding, and it was the easiest part of the descent, even if it resulted in boots full of dirt.

Finally, I passed the remains of a mine, and met up with the dirt road I’d spotted from above. It was only a mile back to the CDT, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. All I needed now was water and somewhere to camp.

Peru Creek didn’t look drinkable. Everything below its high-water mark was stained white, which I guessed was due to the proximity of several mines. I found a small, clean sidestream, collected water, and rejoined the CDT. Under a clearing sky, and breathing easy once more, I suddenly remembered my MP3 player. It was still in “Shuffle” mode, and my earbuds were still in place. I pressed “Play” and waited to hear which song was up next.

Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler.”

A mostly clear sky and a tree-lined valley in shadow at the end of the day.

Nearing camp, looking up at the Argentine Spine.

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Comments 1

  • Michael O'Tuel : Jan 31st

    Richard, great narratives! You richly describe your trail experiences quite well, even the fear invoking occasions, such as ridgeline travel during possible exposure to lightening. I am an experienced hiker and outdoorsman and did not realize until reading about your lightening encounters that a single cloud can be very ominous in what it can produce. Another lightning subtly is the range and scope of ground strikes. A bolt can electrify the almost perfect substrate for electric conduction underfoot for large distances away from the actual strike. I hope you continue to hike and share your experiences. Some of the best narratives on The Trek! Take care 2Spirits


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