M.A. Van Wey Travel & Photo

The Colorado Trail, pt 3
October 23, 2009, 1:21 pm
Filed under: Hiking/Backpacking | Tags: , , , , , ,


The night after our resupply in Breck, below the Ten Mile range, we had our first campsite flood.  The site had been used quite a bit, and as a result the dirt was packed down hard as cement under our tarp.  When a midnight rainstorm ripped through the woods, the water simply ran over the surface instead of soaking into the ground.  We woke up with little rivers of rainwater washing under our ground cloth.  Down sleeping bags don’t like to get wet, in fact they’re pretty much useless if they do, so we scrambled around in the dark trying to dig a moat around our bags to keep the water off.  Eventually we secured the perimeter, but the paranoia of getting our bags wet kept us from sleeping well.

In the morning we packed up all our wet gear, with the weather already threatening more rain, and marched up to the top of the mountain range.  The trail insisted on taking us on the most direct route up the mountains, foregoing the usual switch back method.  This means we were practically crawling up the steep slopes at times, very very slowly.  Marmots and Pika’s were chirping at us all the way up, and by the time we crested the summit the wind was howling tremendously.  The views were spectacular 360 degrees clear around.  We hustled our way over the pass and down the other side, just as absurdly steep as the ascent.  Half way down our knees were in such bad shape we stopped and had a lunch of Advil.  The trail leveled out in another valley and then began the climb up Copper Mountain.  We literally walked right through the ski resort village of Copper, stopping to eat a disappointing burger at a pub along the way.  We failed to find our planned campsite along the ski runs, so we ended up hiking through the dark until we came across a completely unsuitable patch of ground and called it a day.

More climbing and beautiful mountain passes as we followed the trail further towards Twin Lakes, our next resupply.  We peaked Copper Mountain at Searle Pass and again at Kokomo Pass, where we met a bunch of mountain bikers on some of the gnarliest stretch of trail.  Walking this uneven, rocky slate is hard enough, but riding a bike up it seems ludicrous.  Apparently the trails along this stretch of Rockies are famous for downhill riding and I imagine you have to be in top condition to keep from killing yourself.  Here the trail finally eased up a bit, descending into a large valley and slightly less steep terrain.  An especially curious baby deer stopped at stared at us for the longest time after his parents darted off.  We stopped along the trail and stared back, wondering how long he would just stand there staring.  Alas he had more patience than us, so we kept walking down the trail.  Along the way we met a fellow and his black lab who were thru-hiking the trail.  We would come to learn quite a bit about the trail from him.

A cold night camping below some waterfalls and then we were passing through Camp Hale, an old military complex tucked away in the valley and mountain sides here.  The US Army’s 10th Mountain Division was trained here leading up to WWII and beyond, and it was even used by the CIA as a covert training ground for Tibetan rebels in the late 60’s.  Now it is decommissioned and all that is left is concrete foundations and a massive concrete bunker built into the valley floor.  Apparently the valley is still littered with unexploded ordnance, so there are restrictions about wandering off the trails.

As we followed the contours of the hills we crossed a major highway and stumbled upon a big gray rubbbermaid container sitting under a tree along the trial.  On the lid was written “For Long Distance Hikers of the Colorado Trail”.  Pulling the lid off, we found inside a veritable feast of everything a hungry/thirsty backpacker could want: Moonpies, Cheetos, Oreos, soda, Advil, Tums, first aid gear, fuel, and even more candy and snacks.  We had our fill of healthy whole-grain crap, what we were craving was exactly this kind of junk.  There was a logbook included, with entries that dated back for several hiking seasons.  Apparently this little bit of “trail magic” was put here by a long time thru-hiker and proprietor of the Leadville Hostel, Wild Bill.  This was a huge moral boosting event for us, on a day where we were both feeling the emotional and physical wear from the trail.  We came across a couple more of these “trail angels” along the way, each one always being a heaven-send for us.  In fact, and I’ll explain this in more detail later, one of the most profound experiences from this trek was the generosity and kindness bestowed upon us from complete strangers.  The reward from discovering these treats was far greater than you could imagine from a pack of moonpies.

As we bounded down the trail with our heads full of sugar, we came across the remnants of the charcoal kilns (called coking ovens) that were used in the late 19th century to supply the booming industry of Denver and surrounding areas.  In fact, the entire area had been clear-cut to create that charcoal, a pretty sad site back then I bet.  Now the mountains have grown back their forests and you would have a hard time seeing that anything had ever been developed there.  Further along we came across a very strange sight, a hand-made wooden bench swing right off the side of the trail, and a painted sign pointing to the “Continental Divide Cabin”.  Our curiosity was piqued, so we followed the trail up and over a hill to a series of newly erected cabins and other structures.  Apparently it was one of the many 10th Mountain Division huts that are built and maintained through that part of the Rockies for people to rent for days or weeks.  There were locks on the doors so we turned around, but not without taking a rinse in the outdoor shower.  We enjoyed a view from that swinging bench all the way out to Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive, the second and third tallest mountains in the lower 48 states.  The mountains were far away by sight, but surprisingly by the end of the following day we were camping right below them.


The Colorado Trail, pt 2
October 5, 2009, 7:00 am
Filed under: Hiking/Backpacking | Tags: , , , , , ,

After being dropped off at the trail above Bailey, fully restocked and gung-ho ready to go, Jennifer and I made tracks.  Speaking of tracks, we both recently got sucked into an addictive Canadian reality show called Mantracker, essentially pitting 2 cowboy trackers against 2 hapless “prey” in a cat-and-mouse chase through the woods.  We soaked up a few episodes while on R&R, and now back on the trail we found ourselves analyzing every track and scuff we came across.  Was this a dog or a coyote? Notice the toe-kick of this print, he must have been moving fast!  We were shameless.


The thick pine forests eventually thinned out to open meadows and pasture as we climbed higher into the hills, where we frequently camped among cow pies and their makers.  On a couple occasions through this stretch we were forced to use water of questionable quality, although my nifty Steripen anhailated (hopefully) the undesirables in it.  Through this stretch we also learned a very important lesson about the fluid-dynamics of cold air.  Even at lower elevations, valleys tend to channel the coldest air from the mountains, the result is the coldest air sits in the bottom of the valley, and much warmer air sits just above it on the sides and ridges.  By far the coldest nights were spent camped along a stream or river in a valley, frequently awaking with ice covering our tarp and bags.

We continued working our way to the first major pass of the trip, Kenosha Pass.  In hindsight, this pass was incredibly easy and the view was pretty, but not that breathtaking.  However we had no idea what lay ahead nor how absurdly steep and exposed future passes would get, so as we topped out on this one we were quite proud of ourselves.  To add to the excitement, we were buzzed by a military plane running low-altitude exercises through the valley.  I’m not an expert on planes, but I think it was a C-130, which look pretty massive when they’re bearing down on you just 75 feet above your head at full speed.  Just close enough to give the pilot a salute with eye-contact.  The scenery kept getting better, from golden rolling hills of pasture to huge stands of aspens as we hit the pass.  The largest and prettiest aspen groves of the whole trip were on top of Kenosha.  Straight black & white trunks as far as you could see, shooting up into a canopy of flourescent green that cast a glowing, dappled shade on the ground.  The sound of aspen leaves rustling in the wind is incredibly soothing, like the sound of a fall wind blowing piles of leaves down your street, or like the sound of a distant stream full of little waterfalls and cascades.  These little oasis of warm, soft light and seductive whispers were always appreciated along our trip; we often stopped in these groves to watch and listen, and surely felt rejuvenated afterwards.

The trail carried us higher across more passes, each higher than the last.  Georgia Pass was our first taste of the alpine tundra, an ecosystem that exists above treeline and below massive amounts of snow most of the year.  Some of the oldest living organisms in the world live here, the bristle cone pines.  A stumpy, gnarly little tree that doesn’t reveal it’s secret longevity at first glance.  Wildflowers were always blooming when we climbed the passes, a gentle reward for the exertion.  Marmots were ubiquitous at these elevations as well, always signaling our arrival to their friends with a sharp chirp.  Another cute and fuzzy mammal that often joined the marmot’s chorus was the pika.  A member of the rabbit family, it resembles a guinea pig with big ears, or a big mouse.  They also announced our arrival with an even cuter whistle/chirp/sigh.  Their sounds became so familiar through the trip that it almost became background noise.  Although I still pointed and laughed every time I saw one of the marmots shuffling down the trail away from us, a big mass of fat and fur and tail flopping around until it was safely parked under a rock.

Now about 70 miles into the trail, we were approaching our first official resupply, Breckenridge.  Before we left for the trail, we strategically planned out our meals for the next 4 weeks.  We shopped around and loaded up with what we thought would be hearty, health, easy to cook food.  We ended up with a lot of granola, jerky, oatmeal, muesli, coffee, sugar, dried milk, lentils, brown rice, quinoa, Annie’s mac & cheese (mmmm), mashed potatoes, pepperoni, salami, dried veggies, bullion cubes, tang, and tuna.  We divvied this up into 4 boxes, one per resupply point along the trail.  Then we mailed these boxes to the post offices in the respective towns for “general delivery”, which essentially means you’re mailing it for pickup at the post office.  This way we saved a lot of time and hassle (and money) when we arrived in town, with all our food ready to go.  This worked rather well, although a few items we shipped didn’t make it across, namely the salami which arrived bearing new and foreboding colors.

We arrived in Breckendridge early, where we promptly set about rounding up food and supplies, then treated ourselves to an epic meal.  We heard rumors of an italian place with calzones that were as big as your thigh, each big enough for several people.  Considering our appetite and trail dreams of greasy cheesy pizza, this was a no brainer.  Our expectations were soundly met, the calzone was massive and delicious, and the two of us barely put one away.  I still managed to have room for a  caesar salad and a cannoli.  This was the beginning of a trend for me; after every resupply I would gorge myself silly on rich food, eating epic proportions and managing to make room for every course.  What followed was a form of food euphoria, a drunken stupor of bliss and giddiness with frequent attacks of the giggles.  Even 3 weeks after the trail I still get this euphoria after eating a big meal; it’s as though the trail opened up a level of food appreciation I’ve never known before.  Before setting back out on the trail, we resolved to get ourselves a pair of trekking poles.  We had debated the idea before we left Denver, but decided it was probably just an unneccessary accessory for gear-obsessed hikers.  By the time we got to Breck we were using whittled wooden poles, having realized the benefits on your feet, knees, and arms from using them.  Each pole relieves about 10 lbs of impact from your leg each step you take.  Compounded over hundreds of miles, this is a huge amount of impact.  We were sold on the idea, and wanted to upgrade from our sticks.  We browsed a couple shops in Breck and found that the cheapest poles were a hundred bucks (Breck is a cute, but touristy and ritzy mountain resort town), so we caught a bus up to a neighboring, more blue-collar town with a Walmart and found a pair of cheapo poles which would carry us all the way to Durango.

The bus took us back down to the trail, and after another few miles and several rolled ankles later (for some reason I forgot how to walk, maybe a result of the calzone) we set up camp at the base of what turned out to be the hardest mountain pass of the trip, the Ten Mile Range.