July 24 – Molas Pass to Black Rider Pass - 25 miles, 5,561 feet up, 4,688 feet down
After a day of rest, we were up at 5 am, sneaking out of the campsite in silence to not wake our neighbors. This would be an eventful day. We headed west from Molas Lake in the crisp dawn air, ascending through low brush and timber before reaching Molas Pass. The route continued to head west from the pass, traversing large hillsides with a very tall bush-like plant closing us in. We saw many sheep and massive vistas to the valleys in the south. The trail headed slightly north, and came as close as it would to the town of Telluride, which could be reached if one took a junction north on the Rico-Silverton Trail.
We were moving along at a good clip, about two hours into the day when I heard behind me somebody shout, "Vardamis!" Who could this be? Up came a mountain biker, and I quickly recognized him as Chris Barnhardt from my days back at the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Chris and his wife Jill were on the Trail Care Crew when I was the advocacy guy at IMBA, and it was quite a surprise to see him out here. He told us he was on a Western Spirit biking trip of the Colorado Trail from Molas Pass to Durango and was way ahead of his crew.
We chatted for a bit, before he headed on his way ahead of us. And thus began a long yoyo day with the seven Western Spirit mountain bikers. I won't say it was miserable, because they were very friendly, but it was a far cry from the relaxing, lose-yourself solitude of the Cochetopa Hills and San Juan Mountains. They would of course be faster on the downs, but on the uphills we were faster and on this day there were a lot of uphills. We also had a distinct advantage of being trail tested and fit, whereas most of them were coming from sea-level. Indeed out fitness is sky rocketing right now – I took my resting heart rate this morning and it clocked in at 40 beats per minute, which I believe is even less than it was when I was bike racing or nordic ski racing. There is simply no fitness substitute for hiking in the mountains all day, every day. I won't lie, there is a streak of competitiveness in Elaine and I, and I think we enjoyed showing these sometimes incredulous mountain bikers that, at least on the uphills, anything they could do on their $3,000 bikes we could just as well with our $100 pair of hiking shoes.
We topped out on the first big pass – it was a dramatic place with cliff rimmed sides – and dropped down the other side as a light rain began to fall. We passed a large Outward Bound-type group heading up the other side, undoubtably off on some memorable adventure that will hopefully launch many more. The rain continued to fall lightly as we snacked and watched the bikers pass. Then it was up again, where we repassed the bikers and began a gradual climb upwards towards something called Hotel Draw Road.
It was regular cluster of people now. In addition to the seven bikers, we passed numerous hikers and also discovered that we were being followed by two horseback riders. Horses are a particular issue on the trail, as they travel slightly faster than a hiker, but they also stop more often and soil the trail. In addition, Elaine is quite afraid of horses, so we were highly motivated to keep them behind us. Bottom line, the whole day kind of felt like we were in an adventure race.
As we reached the top of the next pass the skies really socked in. Towering thunderhead clouds shot straight up, yet for some reason the bikers were lingering on top of the flat, wide-open mesa. To be fair, they were mostly from the lowlands, but hadn't their guides warned them about the dangers of lightning? It was no time for small talk. We passed the bikers quickly and I'm glad we did. No sooner did we descend off the edge of the mesa into a tiny group of trees when we heard and felt the closest lightning boom yet – right behind us and on top of the mesa, with a delay from flash to boom of zero. The storm proceeded into a full-on delluge, and soon the road/trail we were on was flowing with rivulettes. Stella looked miserable and even with our rain gear on, we were getting wet. Hopefully those bikers behind us were OK. This was the heaviest rain we'd experienced since the Breckenridge day, and it was becoming clear the San Juan Mountains have a mind of their own regarding intense storms.
We happened upon a wonderful treat. The Western Spirt folks had a tent set up next to the trail, and my old friend Chris, being the first to arrive, offered for us to come under out of the rain and gave us a wonderful, piping hot cup of jasmine tea. It was a great piece of trail magic, as it delayed our continuation into the storm. Finally, after milking that cup of tea for all it was worth, we reluctantly said goodbye and headed back into the storm. We figured we'd see those bikers again soon enough, but in the end this would be the last contact we'd have with them for the remainder of the trip.
Soon after we left the bikers, the rain temporarily abated, so we stopped to eat for the first time in hours. No sooner did we take our first bite than we saw the two horseback riders heading up the trail, no more than a couple hundred yards behind us. It was frustrating. We hopped up, and continued on the trail to Blackhawk Pass. Our goal for the day was something called Straight Creek. Straight Creek was the last water source for 20 miles until Taylor Lake, and as we had hoped to finish two days from today, we saw it as an important goal.
We continued powering up the trail. The rain and lightning began again in earnest, this time harder and even more socked in than before. The trail hugged a ridgeline, a scary place to be in a big lightning storm. The trail began to turn into a gooey mess of clay and running water. We were darting between open sections, finding temporary refuge in trees, before repeating the process. All the while, lightning sparkled and rain drenched. We passed a large group of young hikers, hunkered down under tarps. We should have followed suit.
In retrospect, we were not making good decision here. There were a couple things going on. First, we had a long way to go to Durango and were hellbent on getting to Straight Creek to achieve our mileagee goal. Second, we'd been in a practical race mode all day, first with the bikers and now with the horseback riders, and we were essentially letting them dictate our pace. Finally, I think we were a little over-confident. We'd passed numerous crossing late in the day, many with the threat of lightning, but had managed to get through just fine.
We took a right turn off the slick road onto a narrow trail and what we hoped would be the final push. It was miserable going, but because we were moving quickly we were at least warm. As we popped out of some trees and crested a ridge we saw a double lightning strike directly ahead of us, no more than 1/10th of a mile. That snapped us out of our foolishness. We rapidly dropped off the trail, down a steep hillside, into a cluster of trees and waited for the storm to subside. We started getting cold, and I noticed Elaine beginning to shiver appreciably. As we shivered in the rain, we saw the two horseman, with black horses, wearing black leather and black hats, continue along the trail above us as the lightning cracked and the rain poured. I decided we were being chased by insane horseman – indeed who would ride over a pass, on top of a horse with a lightning storm directly on top of them? It was surreal and scary at the same time.
Enough of the horseman – we had our own issues to deal with. We were getting to that critical point where it might be getting impossible to get ourselves out of a potential hypothermic situation. We sprung to action. We got up, headed down further and were blessed to find a relatively flat, sheltered location with a little creek (rain induced or not) running past it. While the lightning crashed, we used our three weeks of experience to pitch a stout tarp. We stripped out of of our soaking clothes, hopped under the tarp, put on dry long johns and a wool top, inflated our mattresses and crawled deep into our slightly damp sleeping bags, shivering profusely. Stella huddled under a sheltered tree and the rain continued to pour down even stronger than before. Lightning was exploding all around us. We snacked on some gummy bears and then both fell into a deep sleep, despite the pounding storm. I suppose there was some finality to it all: we had done all we could, and if the lightning was going to get us, we might as well enjoy a good nap first.
I woke up an hour later, the rain still pounding down, the lightning still crashing. Realizing we still had a long way to go in the next few days, and that food and energy would be an absolute necessity in getting there, I shifted around in my bag, grabbed the fuel, food and stove, and managed to cook dinner and hot tea all from the comfort of my bag. Elaine's wake-up call was hot cup of tea followed by mac and cheese. We both snuck out for a little bathroom break, Elaine filled the water bottles and Stella – despite being drenched – curled into the sleeping bags with us. She was shivering, and being the softies that we are, we decided to let her into our bags. It worked well, as her warmth offset any ill-effects of her wetness.
It appears the Colorado Trail will not just give it to us without a fight. We're getting a final test. I have to wonder if some of our detractors back home are sitting with a voodoo doll and a map of the San Juans and placing pins in, eliciting massive lightning strikes and pounding rains. A good trick indeed, but it won't make us fail.