CDT Journal: Into The Winds

Dense fog came rolling through the spires as we approached the top of the pass. Thick clouds, heavy with moisture, banked on top of each other, so close I could pull their damp woolen threads down around me. After a small snow climb followed by a bit of scrambling up (slightly unstable) rock, we were almost there – and none too soon.

Working our way up no name pass.

Having taken no more than a few steps down the other side of this nameless pass, thunder began crashing over us and the skies unleashed torrents of heavy rain. As we moved as quickly as we could beneath the towering Temple Peak along a sloping snowfield to Temple Lake, I thought to myself:

Welcome to the Wind River Range, Elaine!

South Pass City was a place of transition, for as we headed out of the small historical site, we were heading into the Wind River Range – a place I had been looking forward to seeing for a long time. Dan has spent a significant amount of time in the Winds, and as an employee at Neptune Mountaineering, I often helped people before their trips up here. But I had never been myself, and was very excited to be going there.

Heading out of South Pass City, closer to the mountains!

We camped not far off the north side of WY Highway 28, definitely feeling a bit shelled from the trek across the Great Divide Basin. I performed a short yoga sequence, with the hopes that it would help with some of my issues. Aside from coming out of Wyoming’s Red Desert with an infected toe, I was also just in a lot of pain. My elbows hurt, and my knees and hips hurt so bad that squatting to pee was a very painful experience.
It might look like typical hiker trash, but I cut this hole in my shoe intentionally, as my infected toe was swollen even it no longer fit in my shoe.

Of course, no matter how badly we wished it, we had not magically been transported to the Wind Rivers, and still had to hike through the transition zone. The desert and a mountain range with an impressive number of glaciers are really shockingly close in this part of the country. The next day was spent hiking through that transition zone. We would go through forests (with trees and undergrowth and brooks and everything!) only to be spit out on a sagebrush covered ridge.

The things that are green and growing!

But water was frequent enough and by afternoon we had passed into the Bridger Wilderness to camp next to Larsen Creek, where Dan, who brought along his Tenkara fishing rod, fished a bit and I did an extra long yoga session.

Dan enjoying some moments of peace on the river.

Tenkara and Hyperlite: all you need for the Wild Rivers.

Our next morning dawned overcast, with a ton of condensation clinging to the tent. Soon into our hiking morning we were rewarded with our first glimpse of a classic Wind River view. Little Sandy Lake sat nestled in a basin below us with great granite cliffs rising dramatically up behind, snow still clinging to the flanks of all. Laughing with the joy of being back in the mountains, we swooped down the trail to Little Sandy Creek, where we deviated from the trail. The official route went left while we went right, up towards those majestic peaks. That morning the clouds could not decide what to do, drifting heavily across the sky, followed by patchy sunshine, one moment of which we took advantage of to dry our tent and eat a snack.

With all this moisture come the mosquitos!

Such beautiful trail.

Soon we were by lake 10,800′ (which was still mostly frozen over) and planning our route over the pass to Temple Lake. As we crossed over amidst thunder, pelted by rain and some hail, Temple Lake proved to be just as incredible as the name implied. I had thought, when seeing Temple Lake on the map, that it must be a special place, and truly it was spectacular!

This is my temple.

Crouching under a rock outcropping to inhale another snack, the rain pummeled down and we stared in awe at the beauty surrounding us. Then it was up and moving again, down, down, down the valley to Big Sandy Lake where a bunch of people were coming in to fish, and then up another pass. Jackass Pass (so named because you cannot get a horse over it, as we were told by a passerby) turned out to be slower going than we thought, so we camped at North Lake, under the imposing shadow of War Bonnet Peak. I found myself crying. Not because I was in pain, or necessarily upset. We had been hiking for months, and now I was in a place that I wanted to stay. I had dropped our mileage down to 20 a day, but it felt like too much.
Impressive peak. War Bonnet Peak doing his name justice.

A little yoga at North Lake.

Stars popped out of the velvet night sky, surrounding War Bonnet. I found Polaris, as I have every night, and fell to sleep, enchanted by the Winds.

Some fun at North Lake.

War Bonnet puts on his colors for the morning.

The next morning was a finish up and over Jackass Pass down to Lonesome Lake, which sits surrounded by the Cirque of the Towers. It’s a popular place, though we only saw a tent and no people, and there’s no question of why! Giant cliff walls explode from the ground, rocketing up to the sky, drawing your eye up, up, up. Almost, my senses can’t even take it all in. We lay at Lonesome Lake, staring, staring, trying to make sense of it all. 

This is nonsense. How can a place be so…much?

Eventually the morning ticked on, and we had miles to make. So up we got, packs on backs, and began the huff up the creek bed. We distracted ourselves for a bit when we spotted a couple of climber on Pingora Peak. That’s true badass!

Pingora Peak is the towering peak behind me, lookers right.

Up Texas Pass.

Texas Pass.

On and up, ever up, up the creek bed, up snowfields, and then finally, up on Texas Pass. At Texas Lake, we ate, dried the tent, and watched a rock wren hop about, wondering what he was doing so high up. After snack it was down the valley for us, where we ran into a NOLS group.

Down to Texas Lake.

This triggered a conversation that lasted all down the valley until we rejoined the CDT, where Dan realized he had lost his knife. Reluctantly, we set our packs down and Dan headed back up the trail, looking hard, while I stayed with the packs (we both had nightmare visions of coming back to marmots having eaten our pack straps). After a while, Dan was forced to admit the knife was probably at Texas Lake, and was not going to go that far back. So we headed on, annoyed at our mistake. Usually when we take breaks, we inspect the area when we leave to make sure we aren’t leaving anything.

More thunder followed us, and then a massive storm, lighting flashing, thunder crashing, hail pummeling from the sky, forcing us to take shelter before we headed out exposed again up high. As we couched under a copse of trees, hands over ears, we screamed at each other, terrified by the storm, crazed laughter punctuating our shouts.

“Thor is very angry!” Dan yelled.

“It’s like a toddler is having a temper tantrum, except that toddler is Thor and his Mjolnir!” I shouted back.

Eventually we could continue, and we set up camp at Raid River, when I was so tired that I was tripping over every rock on the trail.

The following morning dawned straight up cold, and we hiked in our rain gear with mitts on for quite a while. The trail took us along a chain of lakes, one perfect alpine lake followed by another. How is it that one place can have such beauty?

Stopped to fish at Sandy Point Lake.

But as we neared Hat Pass, another high, exposed area, yet another thunderstorm rolled in. Instead of the whole song and dance of terror involved with that, we elected to head down to the Highline Trail, which stuck to a lower elevation, to feel safer as the thunder boomed over us. As evening fell, we found ourselves at Chain Lakes, and decided to stop.
Looking over the map for the next day’s travel, while holding my “food baby”.

The sun set as we cooked dinner under the raging sky, but hurried to bed as yet another thunderstorm crashed over us, so close we could no longer count the seconds between lightning and thunder. I fell asleep faster than Dan, pure exhaustion pulling me under.

When we awoke the next morning, there was a certain hurry to packing up, always brought on by the prospect of a town day. We hadn’t had a shower since Rawlins, and had hoped to take a dip in the lakes here in the Winds, but with the thunder storms, and a high amount of the lakes that we’d passed still having ice in them…it just hadn’t happened. And food. Our minds ever revolve around food, and today as we hiked, we let ourselves talk about food, a topic that is usually (but unofficially) off limits. We talked pizza, hamburgers, apples, orange juice, bananas.

A cold morning made colder when you get to start off with a “car wash”!

Saying goodbye to Chain Lakes for now.

It’s the Wind Rivers, and crossing rivers is the name of the game.

Soon, soon, we were at the trail head. No sooner had we stared trying to hitch, than a pickup pulled over. An awesome family sorted themselves around and squeezed us in. It turned out they had been hiking the CDT north of us, and we had a great time talking trail all the way to Pinedale.

At Photographer’s Point, a glimpse of the terrain to come.

CDT Journal: Crossing the Great American Desert

Let me tell you what walking 1,000 miles does to you. You have plenty of time to think; you have plenty of time to ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing. You have plenty of tests of your faith and conviction along the way. You have plenty of opportunities along the way to change your mind. To stop or to go back. A bunch of people along the way might tell you how crazy you are for doing what you are doing. Every day has its own test of faith and endurance. After awhile you just expect it, and when it shows up along the trail, you recognize it for what it is, and trudge on.

– Charles Decker: carried mail along the Pony Express and crossed the Continental Divide 49 times in the 1840’s, 50’s and 60’s. 

There are a million reasons to quit. More, if you really put your mind to it. Blisters. Illness. Boredom. Fatigue. Money. Hell, our dog died – nobody would say anything if we ended the hike for that reason alone, grieving. It would almost be the expected thing to do. Sometimes you have battles with yourself. Things like, “well, I know how to ski and bike, so this hiking thing is just for people who can’t do other sports.” It’s an easy out, a way to save face and be “better” than the trail. But deep down, you know that’s not true.  

Before leaving Rawlins, Wyoming on our four-plus day trek across the Great Divide Basin, we were anxious and pissy. We took an extra rest day, and sat around doing nothing. We needed the rest we told ourselves. Maybe we did. But really, deep down, I think we were just scared. 

We’d heard the horror stories of this part of the trail. Endless miles of nothing. Zero water. One hundred degree plus temperatures. The difficulties on this section of the trail extend beyond just the two dozen or so folks hiking the CDT this year. It’s historical. The Oregon, Mormon, California and Pony Express Trails ran through this area, smack dab where the CDT was taking us. Many people and animals died and countess hardships were sucummed to. We had 200 years of history staring in the face of our mid-July 120 mile crossing of the Great Basin, the Great American Desert, the Red Desert.

Before we departed Rawlins we got a message of encouragement from our friend Jill. Jill is the picture of endurance and persistence, a multi-time finisher of the Iditabike and Great Divide bike race. She wills herself to do things most can’t. She inspires Elaine and I. She comes from a heritage of people who cross the Mormon Trail, who struggled on it, who almost drowned in the Sweetwater River trying to make it to a better life. Her story stuck in my head, gave me something to think about. Because while there is a 200 year history of failure, there is also a 200 year history of persistence and overcoming the odds. It was a well-timed, perfect message. 

There is a certain consistency to the Basin that doesn’t lend itself well to blow-by-blow daily accounts. Like the terrain itself, the story is more flowing and melding. It’s a series of memories, both good and bad, of endless landscape, massive skies, thunderstorms and a place so wild it defies modern logic. 

Did we suffer? Absolutely. The heat – it was incessant. There was no escape. There are no trees in the Red Desert. We picked up two umbrella from the Dollar Store in Rawlins and they provided our only shade from the 100 degree heat and direct sun. Our pale nordic complexions scorched, blocked only by the clothes we wore and SPF 50. 

When we moved, the heat wasn’t so bad. Even walking at three miles per hour, there is something of a breeze created. When stopped, the heat clamped down like a vice, coating every inch of the body, oppressive, baking from above and below. The cracked ground, cacti, shrubs, a hollow shake of a rattle snake’s rattle betrayed the heat of the area. Sometimes the wind blew, and that wind was a welcome relief, a cause to smile and realize that at that we didn’t have it so bad. 

We both suffered in the heat but Elaine fared worse. She does not have desert feet. They swell and blister and explode. She is designed for cold places, and I suspect after this trip we will adventure almost entirely to places of high latitude or altitude. Sixty degree north sounds like a good future guideline! But in the Basin, her feet blistered, and her big toe blew up to such an extent that we had to cut holes in her shoe to accommodate the swelling. You do what you have to do to get the job done, to finish and see it through. She is, without a doubt, as tough as they come.  If her weakness is her feet in hot conditions, her strength is her fortitude and strength. The latter will win every time. 

Water was not as big a problem as we thought it would be. A system of springs is well documented. Names like Immigrant Springs and Mormon Springs make it clear we are not the first to rely on these water sources between long stretches of dry. Beyond the springs, in an ironic twist, the oil and gas industry boom has helped the situation. As a compromise for drilling and because there is an infusion of cash, they have constructed out-of-place but heaven-sent reservoirs in the middle of the Basin. These “lakes” provide water and even a chance to swim and escape the heat, dust and sweat. Beach like? Not quite, but better than nothing.

Beyond the heat and water issues, the other challenge of the Basin is the sameness of the terrain. It’s often very flat, and the two-track trails we followed didn’t meander very often. On day two in fact, I don’t think the route did anything but go in a straight line deep into the horizon. Thank goodness for podcasts, audiobooks and music. 

I think there are two ways to approach sameness of terrain. Suffocate in the lack of stimulation or allow your mind and imagination to flow with it. To travel, to wander, to drift. It was here, on the endless plains of the Basin, that Elaine and I may well have come up with the idea for our future, a plan for prosperity and freedom and adventure, and I dare say it’s a good one. People talk about these epiphanies and life changing things that happen on the trail. Maybe you need the boring terrain, the almost zen meditative places, to make that happen. We had that in the Basin. To have quit and missed that would have been tragic. 

Scarier than the heat is the lack of coverage and protection in the Basin. When lightning storms roll in, and they did every day and night, there is nowhere to hide. It is essentially a gamble that you will not be in the place of the storm when it hits. And except for once, we were not. The storm that was came at midnight on the first night, and the seconds between flash and boom was under two. The world exploded and then fell dark till the next round.  We crouched on our sleeping mats in our tent, fingers over ears, and basically practiced faith, like the many who crossed before us and encountered the same fear. We lived, we were not electrocuted, and that’s a good thing. 

If we had not crossed the Great Divide Basin we would never have travelled in the exact footsteps of the emigrants who crossed this nation during the great western migration. As we approached South Pass, the California, Oregon, Mormon and Pony Express Trails merged into one distant two-track wagon route disappearing over the divide into the horizon. We camped directly on the trail for two nights, watching the sunset, feeling the coolness of the day finally take hold, the birds feeding on mosquitoes and black flies. The sage plains take on a beautiful life in the evening, the golden glow bathing the land, the crickets chirping, the coyotes howling. It’s easy to sit and imagine the excitement and hubbub 150 years ago, the sounds of wagons rolling, the calls of the pioneers, the tromp of mule and oxen. Today, it’s quiet, but you can’t help but feel deeply connected, part of something bigger. 

If we had not crossed the Great Divide Basin we would have never enjoyed the simple pleasures that only extreme conditions and hardship can make you appreciate.  The clear cold water at Mormon Springs defies belief, for it sits in the middle of the hot desert, and yet it quenches the thirst and tastes sweeter than any water I’ve had on the planet. Or sitting down for a burger in Atlantic City, at a place where gunslinger Calamity Jane used to haunt, enjoying the sensation on the taste buds of meat and cheese and other things unavailable in the land of dust and heat.

If we had not crossed the Great Divide Basin we would have never known the magic of wild horses. In the Basin, they thrive, huge herds of them thundering over the ground, making it rumble and come alive. It’s a disconcerting sensation to have a wild animal come TOWARDS us, but that’s exactly what wild horses do. There are sentinel guard horses, perhaps eight to ten strong, who turn, drop their head, and gallop directly at us. And then they stop, maybe 30 feet away, lined up in a row and stare our way. These are not tame horses, they are maginificent creatures, every fiber of muscle showing, their manes blowing in the wind. When we walk, they walk, creating a barrier between us and the main herd. This continues until we leave their valley, when they relax, go back to playing, running and making the entire earth shake like ancient Norse gods. The Basin may be where the deer and the antelope play – and we saw many of them – but it’s the wild horses who turn the land into magic.

Had we not crossed the Great Divide Basin we would have experienced none of these things. The memories of this place are ingrained in my mind as strongly as anyplace on the trail. Dread and fear became respect, awe, and maybe even a smidge of love for the land that tries, tests and then provides the ultimate reward. 

Thank you to all who contributed to the Care Packages and Donations fund. Your help means more to us than you can imagine. We would love to send postcards from our stops to contributors. Please click the “Contact” link and send us a good address and expect a regular stream of good old fashioned, handwritten, snail mail from the American west!

 July 15-17: Encampment to Rawlins, Wyoming

The Rocky Mountains extend from southern New Mexico all the way to northern British Columbia and Alberta. In the middle of that range, there is a chasm, a dividing line of sorts: the Great Divide Basin. That’s where we are on our journey right now. The Great Divide Basin is essentially a place in southern Wyoming where the divide splits, and on a map it looks a bit like the outline of a lemon. To the east of the basin, or on the Atlantic Rim, water flows east. Similarly, rain that falls west of the Pacific Rim flows into the Pacific.

In the middle is essentially a no-mans-land. Water flows neither east or west, instead dropping into some alkaline ponds, or more than likely, never falling at all. It’s the epicenter of the Great American Desert. It’s a dry and harsh place, devoid of life except for antelope, coyotes, mountain lions and thru-hikers.

While technically well south of the halfway mark of the Rockies, it’s fair to call the area south of the Great Divide Basin the southern Rockies and the area above the northern Rockies. The ecosystems change dramatically. Ecosystem analysis is beyond the scope of this blog, but on a simple layman’s terms, it’s easy to identify. Two of the main keystone predators, grizzly bears and grey wolves, do not exist in the south. They do in the north, however, staring in the first mountain range we’ll hit in about five day’s time, the Wind Rivers. Our arrival in the northern Rockies is one of the highlights of this trip, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves – we still have the Great Divide Basin to cross.

Folks have been crossing the Basin for centuries. It’s the lowest point in the Rocky Mountain chain, and was the main thoroughfare for the Oregon Trail and a whole host of other emigrant parties. There have been triumphs and disasters, and there is even a game, Oregon Trail, where players can die of such hardships like dysentery and snake bite in the Great Divide Basin.

For a couple of snow and ice-loving nords like Elaine and I the heat is downright intimidating. We love snow and cold and hate heat. I can honestly say we have not met another hiker out here with our preference of snow to heat. Our winter aplomb is damned useful in races like Expedition Amundsen, it helped us in the San Juans and I’m sure it will be valuable in late-September in Glacier. It is not an advantage when crossing the Great Divide Basin in July.

Us going into the heat is like sea level pro sports teams going to Denver. We get psyched out and start doing weird shit – like trying to sleep all day and then hike 40 straight miles at night from 6 pm to 8 am – to avoid the heat. It’s impractical, not overall efficient, but it does lead to good adventures and stories.

We left the tiny town of Encampment, Wyoming and caught a fairly quick lift up to the pass from a late rising oil well worker who was out for a Sunday cruise. We ran into another hiker on our hitch, a guy by the name of “Roswell,” wearing purple short shorts and a tank top. Roswell is hilarious and we like him instantly. Of course, Roswell loves the heat, is thrilled about crossing the basin and woudn’t be bummed in the least if he didn’t see another speck of snow. Lucky bastard. 

Before dropping into the desert we had to finish up the tail end of the southern Rockies. We climbed Bridger Peak, caught a final distant glance at Longs Peak to the east, and headed on our way. That first day was marked with inefficiency. Breaks too long, ill-timed trail magic and just a frustrating stecatto type day in an area where we wanted to be moving quickly. But we were feeling pretty good and decided we were going to hike all night that first night and see how far we got.

That plan worked well except for two things. First, hellacious deadfall. We’ve been relatively spoiled with clear trails from Highway 50 thru Colorado, but no more. The deadfall was every ten feet, requiring balance moves, high steps and straddles. Elaine ripped her skirt, I tore my shorts, and we were moving at about half a mile an hour for two hours.

Second, the CDT insists on taking the traveler up and down every last little ridge of the actual Continental Divide. See that nice trail half a mile down the valley following the pretty river? Nope. We’re going to keep you on this ridge, off trail, exposed to lightning, the sun, the wind and every undulation of the land, far from water, because this here is the Continental Divide Trail for crissake! I appreciate the purity of the trail, but it can be a bit maddening when trying to cover big miles. The good news: we’re getting really strong for ski season!

We ended up spending the night up on a ridge, as crossing deadfall in the dark seemed less than appealing. It was a beautiful night, a swooping bird dive bombing insects, a rosy sunset and then, the galaxies, the Milky Way, the heavens above.

We set the alarm for 4 am and were off at first light. As a final send-off, we collected water from a clear stream in an aspen grove, as a black bear foraged no more than 100 feet away from us. There was no drama or fear – just a couple mammals watering up for the day.

Onward. More deadfall and undulations, but by 8 am we crossed the very last rise of the southern Rocky Mountains. A cairn and an elk antler marked the lonely spot. Before us, vastness and nothingness. We descended into the void. And immediately, the temperature rose. We stopped for a water break, filled up with five liters each, hiked a few more miles to a resting stop, set up camp and waited for the day to cool. Our stopping locale was a little oasis in some bushes with a tiny stream and a culvert frequented by swallows. The stream had tiny fish and frogs and it was amazing to see, given the smallest of chance, how nature can take hold.

Setting up camp during the heat of the day and waiting for temperatures to drop is good in theory, but we suffered. What’s worse than hiking in extreme heat? Sitting in camp in extreme heat. I’m sure there are ways to keep a camp cool in the heat of the day, but we did a poor job. Despite venting our tent to the maximum, it was like a greenhouse, at times reaching 106 degrees inside. And herein lies the problem with night hiking – we are unable to rest during the day because it’s too hot. It worked for a day and a night, but over five days or more? I think we’d get too exhausted. Sleep is needed for recovery, plain and simple.

Despite about 20 minutes sleep each, we got through the day. We packed up camp and were off by 6:30 pm, the day still warm but much more comfortable. Storm clouds were building and there were more than a few “what now CDT?” glances shared by Elaine and I.

As we were heading out, a serendipitous moment. A VW van pulled up beside us to ask if we were OK. The driver inside looked at us incredulously and said, wait, are you the two hiking the CDT who I picked up on Rabbit Ears Pass? At first we didn’t believe it, and then it set in. This was the same gentleman who had given us a ride to Steamboat, the owner of the little independent ski resort in the Snowy Range. What are the odds? Bob and his wife Cindy have been out camping and mountain biking in Wyoming and just happened to be heading down this dusty, desolate road when we crossed paths again. It was awesome to see them and it started the night off right.

Spirits bolstered, we continued on. And then the light show began. The wind picked up and a light rain fell, and at the same time, the sun began to set. Combine wide open spaces, sunsets, a bit of rain and clouds, and you have a recipe for epic beauty. The sky began to light on fire in the west. Ahead, clouds erupted. To the east, a double rainbow formed. Humbleness, ecstasy, awe and reverence filled us – it was the most beautiful sky I’ve seen in my life, ever.

We continued on. Night came. Miles ticked by, a rhythmic walk along dirt road fueled by music, podcasts and audio books. Stars began emerging. And then the Milky Way, raging, from south to north, across the entire sky. All the while, following Naga, Polaris, the North Star. No other humans. Occasional silhouettes of antelope on ridges. Coyotes howling.

We’d get tired, stop, eat some food, catnap for five minutes, drink some Nuun caffeine drops, and continue on. Hour after hour. Midnight came and went. The stars moved, but ever on we went north, into the void. An occasional county road sign, a stream crossing, but really nothing but us walking across the Basin, the universe raging overhead.

Ten miles. Then 20. By the time the eastern horizon brightened slightly, 30. By the time the sun rose, 35. At this point exhaution set in. The feet hurt. We slept for 20 minutes, woke up feeling worse, and continued on, fearing the sun more than exhaustion. As we strode into the run-down desert oasis of Rawlins, crossed the old Union Pacific line and I-80, we had hiked 45 miles, which combined with the 14 we did in the morning made the tally for the day 59 miles. It was epically hard, epically beautiful, and 100%, absolutely, not sustainable.

We’ve lounged in Rawlins for 36 hours. Slept lots, eaten a bunch of Thai buffet and come up with a strategy for the next five days required to get to South Pass. We’re going to hike in the day and try to manage the heat. Up early, lots of water, a good break from noon to 3 pm, and be smart. We bought a couple umbrellas at the dollar store for shade. We’re going to try and embrace it, relish it. If those 1800’s pioneers could do it, so can we.

I think we’ll be offline for ten days or so. South Pass City is just a visitors center, and then we enter the Wind River Range. We’ll come out in Pinedale, the halfway point of the Winds, for a shower, night in town, good dinner and a little blogging. We’re entering the heart of it now. If the San Juans were the crux, this is the second crux of the journey. Physically strong, mentally stronger in the days ahead.

On a side note, through much prodding from friends and family, I’ve finally added a “Care Packages and Donations” button on the menu on top of this blog. I’ve always resisted it because I think it’s a bit tacky and if you are able bodied enough to go on a hike you are perfectly capable of working. That said, I suppose these words and photos have some value and five months is a long time to be away from work. We’ll add gear reviews to these tales as well. We want to offer some value to any donations through these words and images – it goes against the fabric of who we are to take something for nothing in return. So if you so desire, the “Care Packages and Donations” button is there.

Enough said on that. Happy trails and thanks for reading!

CDT hike July 11-14 – Steamboat to Encampment, Wyoming

There are few things better than falling into a deep sleep with the sound of a light rain pitter-pattering on top of the tent, the chirping of frogs echoing off the forest from a nearby lake. Before bed, while brushing teeth, our headlamps betrayed a pair of glowing eyes off in the forest, looking our way. They were white eyes, not the red color of a predator, probably a deer or an elk, and they darted away after a second or two. Elaine and I were deep in northern Colorado’s Zirkel Wilderness, and this type of experience is exactly why we decided to hike the Continental Divide Trail, far from the chaos of society, in deep wild country.

The hike from Steamboat to the tiny northern Wyoming town of Encampment is significant for a few reasons. First, it crosses into a new state, and that’s always an exciting accomplishment, especially on a trail where it only happens three times (four if you count the Idaho/Montana border). It’s also the stage that crosses the halfway mark of the 3,050 mile trail, in far northern Colorado. While we still have a long way to go, there is something mentally good about being on the downward half. 

Beyond borders and miles, this is a section of trail we’ve been looking forward to. Far northern Colorado is new ground for us, and places like the Zirkel Wilderness get much less traffic than the rest of our state. And southern Wyoming – well, that’s practically frontier country, a great unknown. That’s exciting, and that sense of discovery had us ready to hike.

Our good friend Britt took us up Rabbit Ears Pass after a lazy morning start, and it wasn’t long before we entered a land of perfect Colorado wildflowers. They are starting to peak, and the impact on the smell senses is as potent and pleasant as it is visually. The forest and meadows feel alive, blooming and buzzing with insects and hummingbirds. This is a popular area for hiking and mountain biking for Steamboat residents, but everybody was in a good mood, offering a friendly hello.

We continued on, paying a visit and drinking a coca-cola courtesy of a trail angel “Crazy Joe.” Trail angels are basically folks who hang out in the woods helping hikers. A popular phenomenon on the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, they have been few and far between on the CDT. Crazy Joe has lived out of his truck for the past three years and enjoys spending time in the woods and helping hikers. We chatted for 15 minutes, thanked him, and headed north. 

A common complaint about Colorado is that there is no water in our state. That’s not exactly true. Consider the area between Rabbit Ears Pass and the Zirkel Mountains. Water abounds. Perfect lakes dot this heavily wooded plateau, and indeed it feels more like Minnesota than the Rocky Mountains. The Colorado lake country is serene and has that perfect feel that only deep, water clad forests have. 

We encountered a Boy Scout troop out camping and fishing, and I couldn’t help but be brought back to some of my own experiences as a youth. My very first backpacking trip was in Nordmarka. We backpacked to a lake, set up camp, caught a trout that we ate for dinner and slept in a blue pup tent. It happened in country not unlike that found in Colorado’s lake country.

FUTURE TRIP IDEA: Mountain bike up Buffalo Pass. Ride CDT East to Rabbit Ears. Bring food and gear for a couple nights. Bring Tenkara rods and fire starter. Fish and have fires. Go in the deep autumn. Loop back to Steamboat. If you are lucky, it snows an inch or two and you get first tracks.

It started to rain. We hiked on, hoods up, past the lakes as the rain beat down. Thunder clapped overhead, but since we were in the trees we were not worried. That changed a bit as we crossed under some massive power lines, buzzing and crackling as the rain hit their high voltage wires, but soon we were back in the woods, and the rain slackened. 

We crossed Buffalo Pass and entered the Zirkel Wilderness. You can’t help but enter Wilderness and feel a jolt of excitement…it is the purest land we have. While I disagree with some of the policies, like a complete blanket ban on bicycles, I appreciate Wilderness for its success in preserving some of our nation’s finest places from development. The Zirkel Wilderness was one of the first areas given such designation, a testament to its value even in the late-1960s. 

The land rose steadily as the damp night turned crisper. Clouds hung over peaks in all directions, and deer and elk scattered about as we continued on across valleys and late lingering snow drifts, alone, not another human in site. It was getting late, so we set up camp on a rise above a perfect little lake with frogs raising a ruckus. Just as we got camp set up for the night, the rain began again, and it was one of the most soothing, contented sleeps I’ve had in years. 

The next morning was cooler still. The frogs were quiet and a mist hung over the land. We shook the cobwebs out, pulled camp and gradually worked our way up something called Lost Ranger Peak. We ran into a couple other thru-hikers and hiked with them for a bit before continuing on our way. Nice folks, but I think our agendas were a little different. Not better or worse, just different. 

We continued climbing, and eventually made it to the top of Lost Ranger, glad to finally be on a mountain not named “Bald,” “Baldy,” “Old Bald,” or the like. We pulled out our tent to dry, and disaster almost struck as a brisk wind suddenly picked up, nearly sending our $600 Hilleberg tent hurtling over a cliff into Wolverine Basin. A blend on quickness and sheer dumb luck ensured we caught the tent and didn’t jam our bare feet on the rocky ground. Rookie mistake that we will not make again.

Other than that episode, it was a lazy lunch, gazing at distant peaks, soaking up the sun and enjoying the moment. We enjoyed it so much that we barely noticed the building thunderheads. Finally, as a dark cloud passed overhead, we ended our laze and headed down the mountain. Not a second too soon, as lightning started crashing on the peak we’d occupied ten minutes earlier. Soon we were dashing across a high plateau, racing the thunder, getting pelted by rain, kicking ourselves for not paying better attention. Fortunately the trail started to drop, and soon we were back in the woods, hiking in the rain in a our cocoon of forest safety. 

After that, the day rolled on like a dream, miles ticking off as we meandered thru forest and valleys. We crossed thru massive forest fire relics, along creek beds and valleys straight out of a western movie. We camped next to a river and an old jeep road, celebrating crossing the trail’s halfway mark and looking forward to entering Wyoming.

The next day turned into a sleeper challenge. There are days where the profile involves long climbs and high 13,000 foot passes. Those days are easier than what we ended up with – an endless series of steep ups and downs all the way to the Colorado border and beyond. The morning was the best, the trail meandering thru a valley with a heavy dew on plants and trees. After that, it was simply a 5,000 vertical up day of endless 200 to 300 foot climbs and drops. These were moto trails, and while fun on a two-stroke they are challenging to hike because they are so steep and loose. I kept telling myself it was great nordic ski training, and indeed my quad muscles burned by the end.

The day was not all suffering. After all, we crossed the Wyoming border. I couldn’t help but look back with pride on what we accomplished and enjoyed in our home state of Colorado. Elaine and I became the first people ever to ski the San Juan entire loop as part of a thru hike. We felt the love from friends and family. We experienced the stunning beauty of Colorado lake country. And of course, there is sadness too. Our partner in crime and family member Stella was alive when we entered Colorado. When we left, six weeks later, she was not. This creates a deep sadness in us that hopefully time and wilderness will help heal.

As we approached the end of the day we saw a massive elk, huge antlers and strong build. May he survive the upcoming hunting season, and if he dies, I hope he dies with dignity and is able to face east to make peace with the maker. 

We entered a new Wilderness area, the Huston Wilderess, an area I didn’t even know existed. This land is full of red quartz rock, lots of deadfall and feels very, very wild. We set up camp, tired from the roller coaster day, too tired to care that we were camped on a somewhat exposed ridge and that thunder was echoing far off in the distance. 

The next morning came, and we were thankful the lightning avoided us during the night. It was a 14 mile hike to the road to Encampment, and we enjoyed the magic of the Huston Wilderness, the meadows, the perfectly clear creeks, the hovering packs of butterflies, the absolute quiet and solitude. If I were a rock climber I would come here, the corse rocks looking inviting and challenging. 

We intentionally slowed down, enjoyed the land, took photos, relished it. We are not on this hike to compete or have our pace dictated by others. That’s why we ski race all winter – to feed that competitive urge. That’s not why we hike. If I ever become one of those hiker just counting miles, staring at Guthooks and not having any idea where I am, kick me. We’d rather emulate John Muir instead of Scott Jurek on this hike, plain and simple. 

The first car heading east from Battle Pass took us to Encampment, a small cowboy town far from the crowds of Colorado. This is the real west – the place where we ate dinner has a bear trap in the restaurant, the lady at the thrift store hates the forest service for killing the towns economy by ending logging and the gal at the post office left work to hand deliver a late arriving package to us. 

If all of Wyoming is like this, we’re in good shape.

CDT July 6-10 Grand Lake to Steamboat Springs, Colorado: Electric ridges, cold valleys and the real west.

As the rain abated we left Grand Lake and headed into Rocky Mountain National Park. Grand Lake is a rustic, kitschy town with carved bear statues, wooden boardwalks and no shortage of visitors. National Parks are our nation’s gems, and they sure do attract the crowds. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable stop before our trek to Steamboat.

The trail soon entered the park and we enjoyed one of the smoothest sections of trail of the entire trip. Despite living quite close, Elaine and I have spent almost no time on this western side of the park. It’s much more lush and remote than the east side. The mosquitoes are out in force, a phenomenon that I suspect will only increase through the Wind River Mountains.

One of the interesting phenomenons of outdoor life in 2017 is how social media makes it possible to “know” people even though you have not met them in real life. Such was the case when Leslie came bounding down the trail in the other direction. Leslie is somebody who Elaine and I have been following on social media for some time. She is a bad ass endurance athlete from Banff who is spending the summer hiking the CDT. With a hoot and holler we said hello and chatted for awhile. Leslie hiked down from South Pass, Wyoming, and unlike our somewhat stubborn and arguably questionable strategy to continue north through all conditions, Leslie is hiking sections of trail when they are in good condition. Her goal is to have an enjoyable – and still very challenging – summer of hiking. It was very cool to meet her.

We parted ways, headed up over a pass, and descended to Trail Ridge Road. There was a traffic jam as hundreds of motorists watched a moose and her calf. It struck me that we humans are incredibly nature starved. In a way it’s a sad reflection, but it’s encouraging. At least there is hope…the fascination with the wild hasn’t been driven from us completely. 

We crossed the Colorado River at sunset, a golden sheen reflecting off her headwaters as the mountains turned blood red. For all the traffic, National Parks are beautiful. We headed west across a valley and camped right outside the park’s border in the Never Summer Wilderness. Camping inside the park requires a permit and bear canister – we had neither. We slept soundly as night settled in.

We were out the next morning at 6:30 am, up a trail alongside a rushing creek, and then up, up, up. The climb up to Bowen Pass was a steady and at times steep 3,000 foot effort. Our heads were down, so we were quite startled when we glanced up for a second and saw five moose staring at us from about 30 feet away. Moose can be moody beasts, and they are basically blind, so Elaine gave a friendly “hey moose!” to let them know we were around. It seemed to work – they stared our way intently but made no bluff or charge as we continued up the trail.

The Never Summer Range is one of Colorado’s less visited mountain ranges, and it feels wild. I’ve skied here a few times, but for me it’s relatively unknown. We entered a perfect alpine valley, full of columbines, forget-me-nots, sky pilots, bluebells and Indian paintbrush. One advantage of our delays – we are certainly enjoying peak wildflower season.

The pass rose up in front of us, and the final steps onto the divide required a bit of snow navigation. This snow was easy – consolidated, full of steps and fun. The trail meandered on the other side of the pass with a few snow patches here and there but nothing too bad. The days of slogging through the hip deep San Juan snow are officially done.

It’s been an incredibly dry June and early July, so rain is a welcome sight. Since we were below tree line it was with enjoyment that we tossed on our raincoats and hiked for a couple hours as a thunderstorm boomed overhead and the rain beat down. Thunderstorms above timberline are terrifying because they can kill you. That said, there are few things I like better than hiking, running or mountain biking in the protected woods as rain and thunder pelt down. It’s insular and allows for silent, comfortable contemplation.

We had a decision to make: take a longer but smoother jeep road with little climbing or head straight up and over Parkview Mountain. We hemmed and hawed a bit, but in the end decided to take the mountain route. We would not make it up and over that night, instead climbing rapidly to a flatish spot on the mountain’s shoulder for a morning up-and-over summit bid. The mosquitoes were voracious, and I remembered why I learned to bike uphill fast as a teenager in Vermont – if you didn’t, you’d get ravaged by bugs. We found an acceptable campsite, tossed on clothing to keep the bugs at bay, set up the shelter and holed up for the night. We slept well as the day was big – about 6,000 vertical feet of climbing.

The next morning’s wake up stimulant was not coffee, but a 1,500 foot climb straight uphill to the top of Parkview Mountain. Oh what a view from the top – indeed one of the finest I’ve seen in all of Colorado. To the east, the mighty peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park (highlighted by 14er Longs Peak), the Rawah Mountains, and our home range the Indian Peaks. To the south, the Front Range icons – Torreys, Evans, the Mosquito Range. Further over the distinct features of Holy Cross rose, and way off in the distance one could make out the Elk Range, Castle Peak and Capitol Peak. To the west, the Gore Range stretched out, and beyond, the Flat Tops. and then, to the north, our destination, the Zirkel Range, the Snowy Range in Wyoming and the great western desert.

Parkview Mountain is the biggest peak in the Rabbit Ears Range and because it sits in the middle of everything, you can see more peaks from this mountain than just about anywhere. Perhaps this is why a fire lookout was constructed on top of it back in the 1950’s. This aging concrete structure is full of hiker graffiti inside, some rude, some challenging, but mostly just celebrating the moment of being up there. Our friends Hilary and Dan hiked the CDT back in 2015, and it was great to see their autograph inside the building. We added ours for posterity sake, for future generations of CDT hikers to enjoy and mock!

As is always the case in thru hiking, there were miles to make. This was an up-and-down day flowing along the ridge of the Continental Divide, almost all above timberline, which made the fact that thunder clouds were building rapidly disconcerting. Just as we were about to begin a six-mile long ridge above timberline, things came to a head and the sky was exploding. Not much you can do in these situations except for set up camp in the woods and wait for the storm to pass. No trail is worth dying for, and besides, afternoon naps in the rain are enjoyable! The storm lasted three hours, so we hastened out of camp at 5 pm and moved spryly up over the mountains to the next island of forest.

Had the storm not hit, we would not have had the chance to camp in one of the coolest – literally – mountain valleys in Colorado. This valley felt different, mossy, full of lush green surface vegetation with a surprisingly crisp temperature, especially since the day was so warm. Snow lingered at 9,500 feet, something we have not seen in about a month in the rest of the state. A beautiful creek meandered through the valley, and as we set up camp on a bed of kinnikinnick plants, we realized we’d stumbled onto a gem of a place. Fraser and Gunnison are renowned for being the coldest spots in Colorado, but if were to bet, I suspect this particular valley deep in the Rabbit Ear Range is colder. As an owl hooted into the night, we tucked into our sleeping bags and fell into a content slumber, the first really since Stella passed. The energy of this place made it felt like she was there.

Our cold theory was given more evidence as the next morning the creek actually had frozen ice on the surface. This seems unusual since we are in the midst of a July heat wave. Filling water bottles was a chilly, ski hat, puffy jacket affair. Soon we climbed and the cold abated. The logging roads, rolling hills and lush vegetation reminded me of the Vermont hills of my childhood, deep woods, working woods full of sap lines and sawdust.

Elaine told me many hikers struggle with the fact that the CDT is in fact a mish-mash of trails and roads. They struggle with bikes and motos being allowed in places, a far cry from the pristine purity of the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail. And I get it – who wouldn’t want to follow a 2,000-plus mile trail of pure, undistracted nature.

But I also think this highlights a problem with a concept of “wild” places in this country. It’s all or nothing. We designate the iconic zones as Wilderness and then wax poetically from the cities about how we need to protect the land. We think of humans and Wilderness as separate. I think this is a mistake.

The CDT is a real working trail through western America. It’s a complete experience of nature and man interacting and living together – some good, some bad. Like anything in life, moderation is key. Mining and logging are part of the Rocky Mountains. Mines that decapitate entire mountains, like the Molybdenum mines in Leadville and Empire are, in my opinion, too destructive. We need to find that happy balance. Utilize, protect…don’t destroy.

Onward. This was a long day of road walking. There isn’t much to say about road walking except for that it is hard on the body and miles tick off easily. I listened to a lot of podcasts, books and music on the 31-mile jeep road, dirt road and paved road walk to Rabbit Ears Pass. We saw large herds of cattle, met a nice older couple out for a bike ride and went headlong into a steady stream of traffic heading back to the Front Range after a weekend in Steamboat. That’s one thing we won’t miss about Colorado – the crowds. It’s noticeably more busy than New Mexico, and I suspect that will hold true as we venture into Wyoming. We camped 100 feet from the highway, near Bruce’s Trail where we go for early season nordic ski training, sometimes as early as mid- October in good year, meaning we could be back soon! This part of Colorado gets some of the earliest, reliable snow in the entire state.

This morning we hitched for a ride and got picked up by the owner of Snowy Range Ski Resort, a small independently owned ski area in southern Wyoming. The most expensive lift ticket they sell is $45, compared to the $185 ticket at Steamboat. We lamented climate change, corporate ski areas and beetle kill together. He was a great guy, a real gem of a human to meet on our final approach to Steamboat.

This evening was spent with our friend Britt. Britt, Elaine and I used to work together at Neptune Mountaineering. Britt was/is an elite ultra-distance runner, and was something of a celebrity in runner crazed, ultra-competitive Boulder.  Britt got fed up with the Boulder scene and has gravitated towards something more real and better for her. As we sat chatting under the July sky, watching her boyfriend’s softball team play under the Howelson Hill lights as the sun set over the plains to the west…well, she very well might be onto something. This place feels real. Steamboat is a resort tourist town, but unlike Boulder, the tourists leave, and out of the woodwork comes a community of people making an honest living in a small town like many others across this great country.  Steamboat is a goood place, one we will keep on our future list. Britt is a gem of a human being and it made us feel good to see her happy and content.

We’ve loaded up with food, sent cold weather gear ahead and are ready to continue on tomorrow morning. The next time this is updated, we’ll be in Wyoming, beyond the halfway mark, heading towards the Great Divide Basin. The Basin is legendary with western travel. The Oregon Trail used to cut across it, and stories of fame and fortune are balanced with dire tales of suffering, hardship and death. It is our sincere goal to be in the former group. Northward, we continue!

CDT July 5-6: Eldora to Grand Lake

My wife Elaine and I have been hiking the Continental Divide Trail, beginning way back in early April from the Mexican border. Our final destination is the Canadian border in Glacier National Park. We’ve hiked about 1,500 miles so far through a wide variety of terrain, ranging from scorching desert near the Mexican border to snowy peaks in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. It’s been a true adventure, with rattle snakes, dangerous mountain traverses over avalanching slopes, chest deep river crossings, animal encounters and all the things you’d expect from a long hike (and sometimes ski) on the highest trail on the North American continent. 

And yet, it’s been the unexpected things that have caused us the most anguish and delay. Specifically, while hiking on the trail, our Alaskan Husky Stella – who stayed with a good friend during this adventure – passed away. She died one day before we got home, the decision to euthanize or not conveyed over a Delorme satellite device with 150 character messages. Bottom line, it sucked, and we’ve been struggling greatly to continue. On the flip side Stella loved a good adventure and would not have wanted us to quit. With the help of some good friends and family, we continue.

We’ve accumulated two books of notes for the first half of the trip for a future book, and it’s a story chalk full of adventure. During our break, however, Elaine got me this little Zagg pocket keyboard, so for the journey north from home to Canada, we’ll keep a public blog. So here goes.

Our journey up and over the divide from home to the western side of the divide was made a lot easier thanks to Elaine’s mom Carol accompanying us on the way. Heavy hearts were eased by good conversation, pretty views and a phenomenal lunch of fancy Whole Foods meat and cheeses. It felt downright classy snacking on the scrumptious foods while gazing at the Indian Peaks. 

Views are hard to rate, but I have to say the vistas the Indian Peaks are better than just about anywhere on the CDT, perhaps the Needles and Grendalier district of the San Juans excepted. Our home mountains are glacier carved and dramatic, our forests healthier, our lakes bluer than those found further south. Sometimes you have to travel far and wide to discover home is as good or better than most places. 

We said goodbye to Elaine’s mom and headed down the valley towards Monarch Lake. After a few miles we were in new terrain for the first time in more than 600 miles. We hiked the CDT back in 2015 from Wolf Creek to home and the repeat of the same route led to a bit of “here we go again.” It’s better to do new terrain on an adventure this long – the freshness and anticipation of what’s around the corner pulls you along.  We followed Arapaho Creek down a glacial valley through pine forests and towering peaks. Technically speaking this route is an alternate of the CDT though I don’t know why because it’s higher and likely prettier than the beetle killed forests a few miles to the west. 

We arrived at Monarch Lake, an artificial lake created back in the 1910s to float logs from a sawmill down to the railroad in Granby. Further still we reached Lake Grandby, a massive reservoir and the first in a series of many rapes of the Colorado River. Barely five miles into its existence, and the Colorado River is human impacted. 

We passed through a tiny community of cabins and had a nice conversation with a gentleman Richard who told us the history of the area, including how the government put Mackinaw fish in Grand Lake which killed all the trout. He is spending the week in his cabin here to avoid the Estes Park crowds – can’t blame him a bit. He also told us about a secret campsite on the lake in a forbidden camping zone which we made note of as the day was rapidly ending. Onward we went through some designated campgrounds, full of RVs with generators and folks grilling yummy smelling food.  

A bit further on we found the campsite tucked behind a rock. It was small, and our tent couldn’t have been more than 2 feet from the lake itself, but it worked. Took an evening swim, wrote a little and did our best to fend off missing the dog but also allowing that sadness to exist because it’s important. 

This morning the hike continued looping around the reservoir. We moved in an out of the Indian Peaks and Rocky Mountain National Park, all the while circling the eastern side of Lake Granby for 12 miles. Deer and moose abound. A muggy day has turned into cool thunderstorms. We picked up our re-ration and as we enjoy a burger and shake at Dairy King the rain falls down. Spirits are OK, but waves of sadness are heavy. We’re keeping our heads down and moving forward. Next stop, Steamboat, but not before a foray into the Never Summer Range and Rabbit Ears Pass.