What a Crazy Day! Colorado Trail Thru-Hike, Part 5

Crystal-clear bluebird skies heralded the start of another beautiful day on the Colorado Trail, perfect for crossing Cottonwood Pass.

Monsoon season was here and the afternoon might very well bring storms like those that put an early end to my hiking yesterday. There was no time to worry about that now. This morning was glorious, and I needed to get moving.

My spirit soared with the thought that today would be the day I strode past the spot where my thru-hike attempt ended last summer. Cottonwood Pass was just three miles ahead and relatively easy hiking.

Last year when I did this stretch, I was practically sprinting through endless thunderstorms, soaking wet, to meet Andy. I was running late and freezing cold, full of conflicting emotions about my decision to leave the trail.

It was justified, I knew, because I had been sick with a stubborn respiratory virus for weeks. Hiking even on a flat trail was hard. Uphill climbs made my lungs scream. I wasn’t having fun and my time was running out.

I chose to end my hike knowing I could return to try again this summer, but it still hurt feeling as if I had failed.

A Major Milestone

Ever since that day, and with every step of this thru-hike attempt, I yearned to reach the top of Cottonwood Pass and, at least in my mind, redeem myself. This milestone would open up a “new” hike.

Constantly comparing this year to last took the joy out of hiking. Thinking about where I camped, what the trail was like, and how the weather played out had gotten old fast.

Once the replay was over, I would get to tread on new stretches of the Colorado Trail, savoring new experiences and making new memories.

I yearned for the thrill of discovery, and I was more than ready to get on with the trail.

Cottonwood Pass

It didn’t take me long to hike up to the pass, and then down to the parking lot. I walked towards the trail on the other side and the sign greeted me, welcoming me to parts unknown.

Tears welled up in my eyes as I dropped my pack against the split rail fence. Tourists mingled while a family on summer vacation gathered around the sign for a photo.

“Would you mind taking one of me,” I asked, trying to hide my emotions. The mother obliged as I cracked an awkward smile. She handed me back my phone and I turned away, overcome with emotions I didn’t quite understand.

I sat on the lower rung of the fence and pulled out a snack. I felt silly sitting here crying and didn’t fully grasp where the tears were coming from.

Hadn’t I just made it to the place I could reach last year? Shouldn’t I be jumping for joy?

A man stepped out of his car and inquired whether I was thru-hiking. “That’s the plan,” I replied and promptly lost it, my voice breaking as a cascade of tears flooded down my cheeks.

“Are you ok,” he asked with concern.

I told him my story, and miraculously, he understood. He was a trail maintainer on a different section and hadn’t done the whole trail. Not yet, at least. But he knew the pain and joy and sorrow and triumph that come with backpacking challenging trails.

The talk did me a world of good. Those pent-up emotions needed to break free into the world, liberating me to hike on with a lighter heart. Soon we said goodbye. I hoisted my pack and headed up the trail.

Where’s the Trail?

Before long I was weaving my way up a long series of switchbacks toward the high point of the section at 12,558’. It was only .9 miles from the parking lot and about 400’ up, so it wasn’t intimidating on paper. Looking ahead, however, I didn’t like what I saw.

There was a large, steep snowbank blanketing the trail just below the top of the climb. On either side, rocks of various sizes were embedded in soft soil. Like at Lake Ann pass, there was a path of footprints leading up the slope.

Should I go around, or up?

First. I tried climbing up just to the right of the snow, but the dirt and rocks didn’t feel stable. It was a long way down, and I didn’t want to fall. After a few steps, I backtracked. I’d follow the path through the snow.

This patch was almost more scary than the cornice at Lake Ann. It wasn’t as steep, but the drop-off below was much further down. A fall here could be catastrophic. With the lower angle, the climb was a semi-crawl – I wasn’t on my hands and knees, and I wasn’t standing, either.

Step by step I worked my way to the top of the traverse, only to realize I couldn’t see the trail. There was no level place to stand, no path on either side of me, or above.

Nowhere to Go But Up

I was baffled, “Which way did people go?” Naturally, I was alone, as I seemed to be for every scary challenge on this trek. I looked to my right again, then my left. There was nowhere to go but up.

Adrenaline kicked in as I began to scramble up the rocky soil I had just rejected as unsafe to climb. I had no choice now. I grabbed rocks and pulled myself up, hand over fist, thanking God that I had done at least a little rock climbing.

“Trust your feet,” I told myself.

My hands gripped rocks and my heart jumped when they shifted. “What if they come loose?” I pushed the thought away. Finally, I reached a good-sized boulder and leaned precariously against it, looking down at a lake that seemed to be at least 2,000 feet below.

I turned and looked up and could see what seemed to be the top just above me. One final push and I’d be there.

Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to continue ascending not thinking about how far my poor body would fall if I didn’t make it. I moved quickly once I saw the flat tundra, pulling myself up to stand and then running a few to safety.

My body collapsed on the ground in relief and I cried for the second time that day.

I did it! I didn’t fall. I didn’t die.

It was beautiful on that flat high point, and I sat for a while gathering my thoughts. “What a death-defying climb,” I thought.

My amazement that I had survived was tempered by thoughts that every other hiker going this way had crossed that traverse, too. Most likely, they had better luck than I did keeping track of the trail!

Trail Magic

When it was time for me to hike on, it still took me a minute to find the trail. Eventually, I did and as I wound my way around the edge mountain on a narrow trail flanked by a steep drop-off, a group of young boys passed me with no packs on.

They were having fun and moving fast, making me think how lucky they were to be young, strong, and healthy.  A little ways ahead they stopped at a flattish overlook above Lost Lake. Soon two women and a man passed me and joined the group.

Moving slowly and still recovering my wits from my crazy climb, I arrived as they were all enjoying a break. Clearly, they were tourists and would be heading back to their car, so I struck up a conversation hoping to yogi a little water. (This was a long dry stretch.)

In no time flat, I made new friends, and they became freshly minted trail angels. The mom has seven boys – only five were with her today. Her father and sister rounded out the happy clan. They shared water first, then offered a Gatorade.

I accepted, on the condition that I could transfer it to my bottle and let them carry the empty container back with them. “No problem,” the grandfather said.

Next, I was offered a clementine. No fruit has ever tasted sweeter, I’m sure! Finally, as they turned to go back to the parking lot, I was gifted a bag of ginger snaps that must have come straight from heaven.

The Trail Provides

That trail magic made me feel reborn as the residual stress of the death-defying snow traverse faded. I would always wonder about which way I should have gone but didn’t. (Later in my hike I would meet others who had the same problem in that spot. After sharing stories, I didn’t feel quite so inept.)

I marveled at how the adage that “the trail provides” seems to provide itself on every long-distance hike I tackle. Today, it provided me with an epic challenge and then rewarded me with the perfect trail magic for that moment.

It was a scary day capped with joy. I was feeling strong and thrilled to be alive. I did something I didn’t think I could do, and I had moved beyond the scope of my prior thru-hike attempt.

The Collegiate West sure was turning out to be an eventful choice, and I still had miles to go.

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