July 13 – C.T. near Harvard to Silver Prince Creek – 23 miles, 4,000 feet up, 5,300 feet down
I suppose if something were to go wrong, and I were the superstitious type, today would be the day. It's Friday the 13th and we're smack dab in the middle of the 13th segment of the trail. Well, I'm not superstitious but last night something almost did go very wrong.
Just as we were settling into a blissful night of sleep, we heard a massive cracking and smashing, not more than 50 yards from the tarp. It was a tree slamming to the earth. There was not a lick of wind, but because of the event that caused all the blowdown, there are a lot of trees that are still standing but are mortally wounded. It was scary. I got up and checked out all the surrounding trees to make sure a similar event wouldn't occur right where we were. I've worked with NOLS instructors who have been involved with fatalities – in other programs – because of this very reason. Fortunately everything looked good where we were.
Right after that Stella began peering into the woods with intent. What now? I turned on my headlamp, stared straight ahead into the night, and was relieved to see it was only a young buck deer walking gingerly, no more than 30 feet from our tarp, to the creek for an evening sip of water. Quite a start to the evening, but we slept soundly after that.
Dinner last night was excellent. Zesty tomato sauce was a much needed break from the endless stream of macaroni and cheese we've been eating. We dehydrated all of our dinners before the trip, but dehydrating takes time – essentially a day for a day of food. After a long day of work and getting home a 9 pm, we still had to prepare not only our dinner for that night but also our trip meal. As such, Annie's Mac and Cheese, which cooks quickly and was on sale at the market – four for $5 – ended up being the meal of choice. Indeed 75% of our meals have turned out to be Annie's Mac and Cheese. There is much to be said for variety. Indeed, zesty tomato sauce pasta felt like a vertitible delicacy.
Another interesting day today. We were up early again and enjoyed some incredibly fast, slightly downhill hiking past the northwoods-esque Harvard Lakes and eventually down to North Cottonwood Road. This was hero-hiking, easily four mile per hour hiking, and it was a nice breather after all the big climbs in the previous days. My favorite time of the day is, without a doubt, between 6 and 8 am. The air is cool and damp, the light reddish and warm, and trail mostly devoid of people. I like being wrapped up in my wool hoody, thumbs tucked into the thumb holes, listening to the rhythmic "click, click, click" of my poles on the trail, moving through the mountains in synch with Elaine, ticking off miles, while the world sleeps.
Our blissful ease did not last long. The trail on the other side of the road is known for two things: being one of the few homes in all of Colorado to the Boreal Toad, and being one of the hardest climbs and descents on the entire Colorado Trail. We didn't see the toads, but we certainly felt the climb. It was elevator shaft – 2,600 feet up in 2.5 miles to a ridge below Mount Yale. Elaine was having a bit of a rough go on this particular up, not because of any physical issue, but as a result of a cumulative mental effect of climbing four to five thousand feet each and every day. You can't let up…the mindset is everything. About halfway up though she turned it around and zipped to the top with her usual aplomb.
As challenging as the climb was, the descent back down the other side of the ridge was worse. Steep, loose, dry, seemingly endless. This was a strange section of the Colorado Trail, which is usually so well built. This section felt more like an erosion gully. Of course, the Colorado Trail is a constant work in progress. They are always building new sections, diverting less than optimal routes. Perhaps this segment below the ridge of Mount Yale is slated for a similar fate.
There was some good news though. Elaine's knee was feeling better. If ever there was a descent that was going to challenge it, this was the one. While the pain has not completely abated, it's improving and that is great news.
The Colorado Trail runs from Denver to Durango. While this is certainly an east-west route, it's also a north-south route. Today was the first day I noticed the fact that we're heading south. The hillside on the bottom of the descent was barren, devoid of water, full of cactus and hot. Grasshopper clicking hot. We were relieved to find a small creek at the bottom. We lounged in the shade for awhile, drank, ate and washed socks.
We both brought two pairs of socks each. While this may seem disgusting to some, it works. The process is simple. Wear a clean pair to hike. At the end of the day, when those are wet, sweaty and dirty, slip on the dry, clean pair for sleeping. The next morning, at the first convenient stream, wash the first pair and let them air dry on the pack all day. Repeat the process for a month. It works like a charm. You don't need much out here, or honestly, back at home either.
Today was a resupply day. We'd mailed ourselves a package to Cottonwood Hot Springs, a bit off the trail and down the road towards Buena Vista. We made our way east, eventually cutting off on Forest Road 344 (we think) to the highway. After an annoying two mile hike down the busy highway we made it to the springs. Our package was there safe and sound.
More lounging, dumping trash, eating food, emailing family and repacking with the resupply gear. There was a strange , warm pool next to us with albino, pirahna-like fish. We ordered a Dominoes Pizza from Buena Vista and ate it (size extra large) in about five minutes flat. The next section across Sargents Mesa and the eastern San Juans offered no outposts like this, so we decided to stock up while we could. The pizza wasn't great but after 12 days on the trail it really didn't matter.
We eventually dragged ourselves from the magnetic pull of the resupply. We headed straight up a steep hillside from the road and were back on the C.T. This is where I met the biking crew when I biked this trail back in 2004. The trail began a series of rolling undulations through aspens. Our plan was to hike till we met water, but water was a long time coming. We hiked a couple hours, bellies full of pizza, as thunderstorms raged in the San Luis Valley below. Just as we were getting concerned about the lack of water we found a small stream. In the nick of time too, as the storm was rolling towards us. We elected not to camp on an exposed ridge, opting instead for a tucked away campsite in a bed of Kinnickinnick. It's a cozy spot surrounded by aspens, just north of Silver Prince Creek at mile 223 of the trail.
Another solid day. Re-ration days are always more chaotic and time consuming, but we still managed to click off more than 20 miles today. It should be warmer tonight as we are camped just a shade over 10,000 feet.
I'm genuinely psyched for the next section of the trail. We're in the heart of it now and operating exceptionally well as a team. Our tarp set-up tonight was excellent – NOLS instructor quality and efficiency. We have a knack for getting these things up seconds before the deluge begins. I have an awesome, incredible wife – I'm a lucky guy for sure. She is really coming into her own out here as a skilled outdoors woman.
One thing that makes this trip challenging is the lack of support. My parents and sister are very helpful and a constant source of encouragement and love, but they are 1,000 and 2,000 miles away, respectively. There is zero support from her family despite them living in Colorado. If something goes wrong – equipment problems, a cache stolen, injury – we don't really have a support system to come meet us and provide help. As she said today, "there are no surprise milkshakes or words of encouragement waiting for us at the top of passes."
As such, if we pull this thing off, it will be a true accomplishment and something to be proud of.