July 9 – Searle Pass to the Holy Cross Wilderness – 23.7 miles, 3,681 feet up, 4,134 feet down
We decided to wake up at 5 am to catch up on miles lost on the Breckenridge day. Can we get to Twin Lakes in two days? We headed up Searle again at 5:30 am surrounded by fog. It was a most spectacular morning up there. We saw our first ever "white rainbow" and watched deep clouds in the valley below as the fog burned off. It was one of the most magical moments of my life, and it made us both quite glad we didn't attempt the pass last night. It was sort of like nature said – you made a good decision, you've been perservering through some stuff…you deserve a reward. Looking back now, this morning's beauty was a turning point of positivity that we carried with us for the remainder of the trip.
Early in the morning we passed an old man – probably 70 or so – with a huge frame pack, clad in a thick down coat. He looked as happy as a Ptarmagin on the tundra. He was on a much looser schedule than us and had seen much – beavers, moose, bear. Higher up we passed a girl from Georgia who was amazed by the mist and the "white rainbow." As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of southern folk on this trip. Nothing wrong with that, but it would be great if more Coloradoans would experience it. It sometimes seems like the locals are so into things like mountain biking and hiking 14ers and skiing and such that we have forgotten the simple act of strapping on a pack and going for a long, long hike. I suppose it's not as sexy, and there are no Red Bull commercials for hiking, but you see so much.
We headed up over Kokimo Pass, a place I had been years ago when I did my first ever hut trip. From this vantage point there are views of the ugly Climax Mine, a molybdenum mine that is now a certified Superfund site. This land will not recover in my lifetime of course, and will likely be effected for a millenium-plus. I read recently about a mining proposal up in Alaska called the Pebble Mine. It's a massive gold mine proposal in a beautiful area south of Lake Clark National Park. Part of the concern is how the tailing will effect the salmon habitat below the mine. The mining company of course has a solution – they will have a "permanent" diversion that will be manned by humans. The diversion will not work without humans, but the mining company has assured the locals it will be permanent, and will keep the toxic materials from the pristine salmon waters. They promise, long after all the gold is mined from the Pebble Mine, after the profits have dried up, that they will still have crew of people up there deep in the Alaskan mountains to ensure that the salmon streams remain pristine. Indeed, long after humanity has evaporated and the age of humans ends, the mining company will STILL have a crew up there diverting those tailings from the salmon streams. Call me crazy, but I'm skeptical.
I suppose the point is, when we say something is trashed for a millenium, we may as well say forever. At some point in time, we do too much damage. I suppose when the techtonic plates erupt and the world explodes and the glaciers return, the slate will be wiped clean, so I'm being overly dramatic saying "forever." I'd prefer a little honesty though. Simply tell the people, "well, the issue of toxic tailings in the stream won't be a problem anymore once a three mile thick sheet of ice coats the mine site and the salmon stream. The next Ice Age is right around the corner folks!"
Keep it calm Dan. This is a blog about a nice trip on the Colorado Trail. Nobody wants to hear your opinions. The problem is, underneath the calm exterior is a raging fire inside, a burning anger about how consistently we choose to put human needs over the needs of our planet. It's enough to drive somebody mad. Look, we need to stop mining the land to the point where it can't recover. We need to stop logging old growth trees. We need to stop shooting creatures we don't like, eliminating them to the point of extinction. We need to find better ways. We need to stop trashing the last pristine Wilderness areas on our planet.
OK, back to the trail. We continued on a long descent down to Camp Hale, the site of the 10th Mountain Division's training back in World War II. Elaine's knee hurt significantly, but instead of being reactive we just sort of accepted that it was a reality and it wasn't something that was going to stop us. It wasn't ligament damage – it was simply tendonitis. It wasn't going to cause permanent damage, it wouldn't cause us to even miss one day of skiing this coming winter. It's something she decided she could deal with – this was important. A little bit more wildlife here…some birds of prey and a massive, fat rabbit that may end up lunch for one of those birds of prey.
The trail dropped precipitously to Camp Hale, a massive flat valley ringed by huge mountains. It meandered to a nice waterfall where we snacked. We spent a good deal of time discussing U.S. war policies, World War II motivations, Camp Hale and such. The bunkers down there of course elicit such discussion. I'm deeply impressed by the 10th Mountain boys, and while I'm sure there is some truth to the opinion that the motives of World War II are idealized and the lack of media back in those days has allowed a single message and opinion to be delived, especially in comparision to say Vietnam or the Iraq War. Despite this, I remain impressed. Going straight up a mountainside at night, hanging off ropes on some remote cliff in Italy, while getting shot at requires a fortitude that I can only dream of. I like to think if I were alive then I would have signed up for the outfit. I'd like to think that if I were alive back then I would have had the courage to put myself on the sharp end of that stick.
We began a gradual climb up to Tennessee Pass. Suddenly the world was quiet – we had left the crowds of the Front Range behind. We rounded a bend and experienced our second "Trail Magic." We've been reading quite a few accounts of long distance trail hikes and had heard about Trail Magic. Essentially, it is random acts of kindness designed to make a thru-hikers life a little easier. On trails like the Appalachian Trail it's quite rampant. (the Appalachian Trail sounds like, at times, going back to college. It's a huge community. While not necessarily a solitairy Wilderness experience it sounds…well…fun). On the Pacific Crest Trail, less Trail Magic, and on the Colorado Trail and the queen bee of them all, the Continental Divide Trail, quite rare. Nevertheless, this was an exception. It was quite simple – a cooler filled with sodas, chips and first aid gear, with a note telling thru-hikers this was for them, free of cost. I enjoyed a Hansen's Cream Soda and a bag of Cheetos. Good stuff.
We saw a number of hikers heading north, and it was easy to recognize them as thru-hikers. For one thing, they looked lean and fast. For another, their packs were much smaller than the weekenders. That's the interesting thing about thru hikers – the further you go, the smaller your pack gets. The goal of thru hiking is walking, and as such you're willing to sacrifice some camping luxuries to move more efficiently. Case in point – if I'm heading to the Indian Peaks Wilderness for an overnight, I'll bring my spacious pyramid shelter. If I'm hiking 500 miles, I'm bringing a lighter tarp. The tarp is less comfortable and harder to set up, but it does the job, and more importantly, when decisions like these are made for each and every item, it transforms a pack from an object of burden to a svelte extension of the body.
We had apparently hit a wave of northbound hikers on the Continental Divide Trail. There is a finite time period when you can do these trails – when it's not too hot in the desert, when there isn't snow in the mountains, when you can finish before winter strikes – and on this day the wave happened to be right where we were. I won't lie, the CDT speaks to us. Hell, they all do. Elaine has a dream, a goal, to hike the big three…the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and the trail that runs a stone's throw from the home she grew up in, the Continental Divide Trail, and she wants to share that experience with me. It seems like a lot of hiking, and it is…at a fast pace exactly one year's worth to do all three (you can't do all three in one year…research "Donner Party" for reasons why…you spread it out over three years.) Then again, what's a year? If I look back and think about years sort of wasted, and then think about how fulfilling it would be to do something of this magnitude, I get excited. Of course, this needs to be a sustainable operation, funds are not unlimited, not even close, but it's a dream that deserves acknowledgement and hopefully more.
The trail winded into lodgepole forests, crossing creeks and various old jeep roads. This is a popular area with winter cross country skiers and the heart of the 10th Mountain Division hut system, the crown jewel of Colorado's winter backcountry network. I have skied some of these trails, and they are exceptional. The trail routed past the Continental Divide Cabin, a place where I took the ski team back in January 2008. It was a good trip, but it was actually right before this adventure that I first became aware that Elaine was having some pretty serious struggles with her health. It felt like a victory to pass this location some 40 months later, not just having improved from those issues, but to have blown them to smitherines and render them non-existent.
We entered into the Holy Cross Wilderness and gunned it up a last climb to creek coming off Galena Mountain. It had been a great day, and it was time to camp. We cooked dinner, and fell into a content sleep. The momentum felt like it had shifted in our way and the trail ahead was ours. More importantly, the trail was starting to feel like home.