Heart of the Rockies (June 11-14)
June 11. I’m in the heart of the Rockies now, according to an informational sign I read today. There’s a nice ring to that. I’m glad, too, for the implication that I’ve made my way through the southern Rockies.
The morning was spent hiking up Chalk Creek Pass, up from a river valley, through conifer forest, then past a couple pretty lakes. I stopped on the pass to snack and talk with two women out for a trail run. Over the pass and on the other side was another pretty lake, Hancock Lake. I saw multiple fishermen.
These miles seemed less remote, with day hikers, fishermen, and frequently visible dirt roads crossing the mountains. The mountains also seem less steep and sheer here, with valleys visible not so far below, compared to looking way down at valleys from the south San Juans. Seeing others and walking unburdened by fear of heights added so much enjoyment to the day.
The afternoon was spent hiking up two more passes, over some large snow patches. My feet were soaked for the second half of the day. Small creeks hummed everywhere, trickling down from melted snow. Sometimes I broke through the snow and down into those creeks, with a splash.
I sank down into the snow quite often, post-holing. It was nothing dangerous, but often startling, and made for slow going. Sometimes I sank in as far as thigh level, then had to balance everything and pull myself up again. I modified my mileage goals for the day.
Nothing is a big deal though, compared to my first days in the San Juans. It’s annoying to hike in wet shoes or be startled by falling down in snow that won’t hold your weight anymore, but often not a safety hazard. And it was kind of neat to see these snow patches up here yet, hear all the fresh alpine water running directly from the source.
June 12. One pass today required a steep scramble up snow at the summit, it was kind of exhilarating. It’s always a play between thrill and fear, with a thin boundary line. It was nice to stay on the thrill side of the boundary this time.
The views were breathtaking from the top of this particular pass: many ranges, snow-patched mountains, the sun glowing on this mountainside while the others were shadowed by dark rain clouds above. Whispers of rain at times, fingers reaching down towards earth, but often visibly whisp-ing away into nothing.
June 13. This morning the trail descended a pretty valley, with Texas Creek winding through it, and beaver dams here and there. It was a wide, moist, boggy valley, a pretty habitat appearing mostly untouched by human activity.
Eventually I began the ascent toward Lake Ann Pass. I wondered what the pass would be like. I had read comments from previous hikers that this pass required snow equipment, but that was a few days previous. I was no longer carrying any snow gear. I hadn’t really enjoyed mountaineering, and had been ready to get rid of that extra weight, figuring I’d choose to skip around sketchy areas anyway.
A hiker passed me. I told him I was wondering what the pass would be like ahead, and he said, unconcerned, musingly, “There’s always a way, isn’t there?”
The trail wound through conifer forest, then advanced above treeline, switchbacking steeply up to the pass. As I began the more serious ascent of the pass, I was relieved to see only two snowy patches ahead.
The wind grew in intensity and the slope dropped steeply below. I started breaking at each curve in the switchback, both to catch my breath from the physical effort, and steel myself to hike through that wind to the next curve. It took my full concentration, to place each of my footsteps carefully and hike steady in the gusts. Not my favorite kind of hiking.
Finally I reached the top of the pass, feeling the full brunt of that wind rushing up the slope as I made final steps to the height of it. I sat atop the pass, and just had to laugh at the sight, with a sinking feeling in my stomach. The north facing slope was overlaid with a thick layet of snow. All I could see, from the top looking down, was a layer of horizontal snow covering the pass, then a sheer drop off ahead.
I sat for a minute to rest, then walked out to the edge. I laughed again, to see packed down steps in the snow, on a nearly vertical slope, leading down the pass. The steps were ladder-like. Below I could see Lake Ann, though I wasn’t able to see all the path between myself and the lake; who knew what other challenges lay in between.
I couldn’t imagine going down those steps. It made sense now that some comments called for hikers to have snow equipment to navigate this descent. I wondered, if you were descending the stairs, what would you hold on to with your hands, to keep from toppling over into the valley below?
I noted gravel/mud patches peeking through, adding to the already overwhelming challenge of that descent. The snow was melting. Were the steps firm? If a step gave, could you scrabble your way back to your feet, or would you fall down and down? If you made it to a gravel patch, how would you manage to stay upright on that, on such a steep slope?
I couldn’t imagine myself stepping down that pass, I just had to stare and laugh at it for another minute. Then I sat and ate a snack and drank some water, and imagined descending back the way I had come. I didn’t like the thought of facing that wind again, but I couldn’t think of any good alternatives.
In a few minutes I started the descent. Fortunately the going was rather quick. I also could see some hikers heading up towards me, and looked forward to talking to them.
I also felt absolutely joyful, as if I had been given my life back again after a close call, to be coming down that mountain. Just as a thrill comes from getting away with something risky, I guess I got it in equal measure from refusing to take this particular risk.
I met the northbound hikers at a switchback curve. I told them what I had seen and showed them photos. I told them they probably would have to evaluate for themselves. They didn’t seem utterly shocked, even though one hiker also didn’t have snow equipment anymore. The other hiker told me, “We’ll keep you company if you want”, inviting me to come back up with them, but I told him that I had no desire to descend that pass.
I continued on my way and met an older hiker next. He seemed comfortable talking for a while, talking about the experience of being out here lately. I had to laugh at his matter-of-fact nonchalance sometimes. I told him about the snow steps, and he repeated after me, snow steps, as if he had seen that before. I told him how windy it was up on the pass, and he said, “Yeah, all that wind funnels through the pass with nothing to block it. Makes it nearly impossible to stand upright”. He seemed so grimly accepting, I laughed again. After a while we continued in our separate directions.
I approached two more hikers. It was quite the day for seeing other hikers, too bad they had been behind me all day. Even as I walked up, one made the “no go” sign at his neck, and called out, “Too sketchy up there?” I described the scene to them as well, and he remembered similar conditions last year at this pass. He said, “The first steps are scary, but then it gets better”. His friend offered me the use of her full-on crampons. I thought, my goodness, what kind of trail am I even on, that a hiker is led to carry full-on mountaineering crampons? I thanked her and said no, I don’t want to go down that pass. It wasn’t just a matter of not having the right equipment.
As I walked away, one hiker called out, “Discretion is the better part of valor”. I had to laugh at that a little.
But after meeting all these hikers who seemed somewhat likely to continue on, I couldn’t help thinking, what am I missing here? Am I the only one intimidated by a nearly vertical slope? Is my fear unreasonable?
I guess if I were to do it over, maybe I’d take a mountaineering course before hitting this trail. I imagine more snow experience and maybe even downhill skiing experience makes a big difference. Hikers with those experiences under their belts probably see these same sights differently than I do.
I backtracked, tired but hoping to get to a camp site back down in that Texas Creek river valley, likely with others camping nearby. I’d decided to backtrack for 16 miles to the closest pass, and try to think of a plan from there.
Storm clouds started thickening above and around. I was so relieved to see a familiar hiker approaching in the coming miles. I told him my story, and he told me that he had met a hiker a few miles ago who was also backtracking. I told him, that’s good to hear, and in spite of myself started to cry and told him, I see all these other hikers continuing on and I feel like a wimp sometimes.
This was the thoughtful, quiet hiker I had mentioned before. He was serious and kind, and looked away a minute, then said simply, “Have you ever heard of the Collegiate East trail?” Then he told me how I could get the map for it, that it would bring me to the town of Twin Lakes, at lower elevation, and I could get back on the CDT there.
It was really good to talk with him. Reassuring. When we parted, he said, “Good luck…to both of us. Sounds like I might need it.”
I made it down to the site by 9pm. I saw another tent nearby, someone on their phone seemingly watching a movie inside their tent, and slept really well that night, knowing someone was nearby.
My legs were so exhausted they jumped that night at first, like restless leg syndrome. It was a day of mixed emotions. Sometimes I think this is not the trail for me, not the trail for a peaceful nature moments- seeking hiker. But I hate to give up on it. I continue to want to see it all once, even if I have to skip parts of it here and there.
June 14. I woke up this morning by 0530 in spite of such a long day yesterday. Amazing how that happens sometimes.
Sleeping in the wide river valley of Texas Creek was nice. I heard birds in the evening and the morning, and what sounded like elk, startled, heavy-hooved in the morning.
It was nice to walk toward a few northbound thru hikers, on my way back to Cottonwood Pass. I didn’t know any of them. Their reactions were different- one younger athletic hiker barely looked at me, one friendlier hiker did a click the poles together greeting as I walked by, one hiker stood aside and let me pass, since I was hiking uphill. It was nice to see other hikers out, remember I’m not as alone as I often feel, although all the hikers I met were men, and none really paused a minute to chat.
Sometimes I theorize that this trail has more of a serious, competitive feel because of the high ratio of men to women. My guess would be 3:1. It makes me appreciate what more women seem to add to a hiking trail, the attitude/culture. It all depends on who you meet, and maybe these hikers were less talkative because of me heading southbound, they figured they wouldn’t ever see me again. Still, a short conversation would have been nice.
The climb up to Cottonwood pass became increasingly chilly and windy. Heavy dark grey wool clouds hovered everywhere, over most of the peaks, the peaks themselves ominous grey rock. I looked to the east and worried that the mountains in that direction didn’t look any better.
Everything was tougher in the wind. The last mile the wind buffeted my hat again and again as I approached the pass. And buffeted me. It was really disheartening, made the hiking tougher and made me anxious. These overcast hours, every day lately. Sometimes it felt so overwhelming and exhausting.
I made it to the parking area/trailhead at Cottonwood Pass and attempted to hitch from a few cars, including one leaving the parking area. No luck. It was so windy, I started hiking down the windy highway, hoping to get to lower elevation and away from it. I can’t imagine what it was like for those hikers I met, who were probably going to hike up Lake Ann Pass on this same day.
I hiked a few miles. It felt pretty good to hike a long descent, after gritting my teeth in the howling wind and struggling up the pass all morning. The wind lasted a long time, but thankfully eventually the clouds seemed to clear, at least for me, down a few thousand feet. I wonder what it was like up there the rest of the day.
It wasn’t a great road for hitching, with no shoulder and so curvy. I stopped and ate a bagel, cheese and salami sandwich, changed into dry socks on one parking area pull off. I wished a car would stop and offer me a ride. I saw there was a campground within a 5 mile walk. I decided to hike there and hope they had wifi, so I could download a map for the Collegiate East trail.
On the way, I saw an older man walking slowly, studying trees, walking towards his truck. I approached him and asked him if he knew if Collegiate Peaks campground had wifi. He said no. He asked where I was going. I said I guess down to the town of Buena Vista then, and he offered me a ride.
He was very kind. I thought it was pretty neat that he’d go up to the pass just to check on a few things, like wildflowers, the trees. He lived locally, and told me the names of a few flowers.
I told him my story and he told me that the Collegiate East trail should be less snowy, then showed me the trail parking area and where I’d pick it up. He dropped me off at the local gear store then.
In the store, an employee helped me find a trail map, agreeing that it would be a less snowy trail.
It was surreal to be in town, down in the desert, see comfortable shoppers crowding restaurants, shopping, sunny skies above. When I was dropped at the gear shop, a man eating called out, wow, what are you hiking? Wow, that’s so awesome!! I felt so harried and weather-worn, it didn’t feel particularly awesome at the moment. But down here, most had no idea that it was a windy, fearful day up in the Rockies, for any hikers up there.
I went to the library next. Someone at the library exclaimed over how nice it was all day, the perfect day, she’d loved being outside. What a different experience. I was glad to be down here, out of that wind.
Later, a kind couple noticed me walking towards the edge of town and asked if I needed a ride back up the mountain. They dropped me at a campground near the start of the Collegiate East trail.
It was a nice campground. I met a woman camping there who was headed up to hike a 14er the next morning. We shared stories of hiking past trails, and our current adventures.
I ended the day relieved to have figured out a safer plan for moving forward. Sometimes I feel disheartened, to think that I’m turning away from passes or summits that others are hiking over without such concern, but deep down I believe it’s right and more character-building, to turn away from what crosses my boundaries, than most other things I’ve done out here.
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