July 21 – Worm Lake to Stony Pass – 9 miles, 2,152 feet up, 1,890 feet down
Today was the roughest day of the trip thus far for Elaine and I. Both of us are feeling very fatigued from the past five hard days, and essentially both our bodies broke down on the same day.
I will say our alarm clock this morning was exceptional – a nearby pack of coyotes howling up a storm. Alas, that may have been the highlight of the morning. We noticed the fatigue right off the bat, on the first climb of the day. The route was strange, with lots of steep up and down over the tundra with no rhythm. There was almost no trail, as the route instead traversed the tundra, following a series of rock cairns. When you're feeling lousy, this is probably the worst type of terrain you can encounter. Long uphills allow some sort of rhythm, long downhills are fairly easy…steep up and down just beats you up.
Moving slowly, we entered and area called Cuba Gulch. Cuba Gulch is one of the most spectacular basins I've ever seen, surrounded by steep, ringed, grey mountains on all sides. I must look up and research the area north and west of Cuba Gulch – I believe sort of in the zone of the 14er Handies Peak – as these mountains are the finest in all of Colorado. Snow patches dot the landscape, the most we've seen on the trip yet. Winter up here must be of epic proportions. These are the biggest mountains in the state, if not in height, than certainly in vertical rise.
Cuba Gulch is home to many elk. There are multiple herds up valley and across the river to the west. What I would give for the uphill stamina of those elk! They are highly aware creatures…they sense us from at least a mile out and they don't linger. I suspect these instincts protect them well from the hunter's shot gun.
We were both suffering and stopped many times to rest. I think there are a number of factors behind our fatigue. We've had five big days in a row, averaging 25 miles plus. We haven't dropped below 12,000 feet in the past three days, and being at altitude seems to accelerate our appetites to an extreme level. We're not getting enough food – 1.4 pounds per day worked fine for the first couple of week, but in the future we'll need to up this for the third week, maybe to somewhere in the 1.7 pounds per day area. We both have an extreme craving for a burger…really fat of any kind for that matter.
Finally, we have not had a rest day since the trip started 20 days ago. I think one day off would do wonders for us, and in our reads of trail accounts from other hikers, this is very standard practice. Every hiking account I read calls for a town day every 7 to 10 days or so where folks rest up, eat copious amounts of fresh food, sleep, do laundry, etc. Because we're a bit nervous about hitch hiking with Stella, we haven't had one of these days yet. We're paying the price today. The human body needs rest at times.
In the end, we didn't even quite make it to Stony Pass. The skies were storming up rapidly, although honestly we've come to expect that from the San Juans and had we been feeling better we would have certainly continued. We decided to make camp around noon in a steep valley a little short of Stony Pass near a tiny brook. We'd hoped to be in a less exposed area with less risk of lightning strike, but protected areas seem to be non-existent in this stretch of the trail. Setting up camp was a slow motion effort, but once we managed that we spent the afternoon lounging, eating and washing. We're fortunate we are ahead of schedule, can take a ten mile day, and still be in good shape. The key now is just resting and giving our bodies a break.
It's not a bad thing, being bone tired. It's interesting to see what the body can do when it's in this state, and it absolutely becomes a game of mind over matter. Most Americans have a cush life – three square meals a day, temperature controlled homes and offices, jobs where you can sit all day long. Yet I'm not sure this is a good thing. There is research out there showing that the average human brain has shrunk a significant amount in the past 200 years, basically since the start of the industrial revolution.
There's something about roaming in the mountains that makes you think constantly, because there are always decisions to make. I would argue the thru-hiker uses his or her brain more, on average than a student at an Ivy League school. Certainly the Ivy Leaguer has to have a solid grasp on the sciences, on literature and a bevy of other subjects, but living itself doesn't take much brain power. The thru-hiker has to constantly make calculation of progress during the day, read maps, evaluate the skies, scan the landscape for hazards and make decisions that always determine success or failure, and in extreme cases life or death.
It rained off an on all afternoon and evening as we lounged in the tarp. As day settled into night, we heard strange whining sounds in the distance. What was it? I've certainly never heard that sound coming from an elk. Here's hoping for renewed strength tomorrow.