Cold Front and Fresh Snow

bliss

A little snow on the Eldora nordic trails makes for some nice classic skiing.

We finally got our Greenland application out just the other day. That’s been a major weight, so it’s nice to have it signed, sealed and delivered. We’ll see what happens. I do worry we don’t have enough requisite polar experience to be accepted for an independent expedition, in which case we’ll have to reevaluate our timeline. We’ll know soon enough. If we get permission, it’ll be time to buckle down and get to work, because there is much preparation to do.

This has been one of the slower starts to winter in many years in the Front Range of Colorado. Of course, there have some memorably bad years, the winter of 2011-12 coming to mind, and before that, the drought years of the 2000s. Beyond the lack of snow, it’s been very warm, most days soaring well over freezing and perhaps one or two days where nighttime temperatures dropped below zero. Certainly global warming plays a role, but a larger factor is the jet stream is sitting just to the north of us. We’re missing the brunt of the action and the cold is having a hard time settling in.

frontrange

Front Range Snotel Graph. We’re sitting at 90%. Not bad.

That’s at 8,800 feet above sea level, right next to the Continental Divide. Just a few miles east and 500 feet lower, in Nederland, there is virtually no snow. Meanwhile, Boulder has been downright balmy. It’s a stark contrast from last year, where December and January were like a scene out of the Shining movie, snow piling up in copious amounts on a daily basis. There was so much snow we had to park our cars a half-mile from home and ski home with groceries.

We’re actually better off than most of the state. Down south, in the San Juans, the picture is grim.

SanJuan

A much worse story down south in the San Juans, where they are at 34% of average. 

It could be an ugly summer down there if this continues. As we learned hiking and skiing thru it this summer, southern Colorado is a tinderbox of dead, beetle killed trees. If I were hiking the CDT this summer, I would definitely go north, at least if things continue this way. Best to get thru the state before things possibly burn up.

We’ve managed our winter decently well thus far given the snow restraints. Thank goodness for Eldora, the nordic center and uphill travel. We’ve spent a lot of time on manmade snow there this winter, only recently getting out more on natural surfaces. That’s been a nice change of pace.

There is a drainage near our home that I’ve been eyeing for a nice backcountry cross country ski “trail” for some time now. It has all the desired factors – generally north-facing, sheltered from the wind and a bit away from the main travel routes. The Little Raven and CMC trails are fantastic nordic touring options, but it would be wonderful to have a bit more. So yesterday we headed out into the forest and did some exploring.

woods

Good woods.

As is always the case on exploratory days, there was a fair bit of futzing around, making wrong turns and getting stuck in deadfall. I carry a small hatchet on days like these to try to break thru and create something decently passable. Bottom line though – the route could be a good one. There were moments during the two hour ski where we thought, this could be really good. Another good sign – there were moose tracks. I find if animals use an area, it’s probably a good human route too. Numerous times on the CDT we lost the trail, followed a game path, and found a better way. Animals are not dumb. It’s an area of mysterious woods, full of creaking old trees, freshly sprouted firs and deep, deep snow. It has a feeling of good forest. I think we’ll explore it some more.

frost

The best days are the ones where you can see your breath and you get home from the woods just as it’s getting dark. 

 

Summer of the Bear

Gallery

It was the summer of the bear. We saw eight black bears (Ursus Americanus) on our Continental Divide Trail trip: one each in the Gila Wilderness (NM), San Juan Mountains (NM), Cochetopa Hills (CO), Never Summer Mountains (CO) and a … Continue reading

Touring Around the Fires

 

Several days before Helena, I was multitasking. Between making dinner, purifying water, and writing in my journal I got thirsty and grabbed a water bottle. Gulp, gulp, gulp – and then I paused, a mouthful of water still in my mouth, eyes staring at the bottle. Damn. This was the bottle I was getting ready to purify. I leaned over, spitting out my mouthful of water, spitting, spitting. I stared at the puddle of water slowly seeping into the ground. Well.

 

Now I’m not sure if that mistake was what caused the nausea, or if simply breathing smoke for weeks on end caused it, but for this whole section, I’ve had a moderate constant queasiness. The most depressing thing is a burger doesn’t even sound good!

The trail started a mixed bag out of Helena – some beautiful trail, some old forest service roads, and some straight ups and downs. It wouldn’t be the Continental Divide Trail any other way!

The gang’s all here!

We reached Dana Spring – I guess in the springtime there is water coming from an actual pipe, but this late in the season, it’s reduced to a puddle about 3′ down at the bottom of a metal tube. But the puddle provided water for all.

The water…I think I can reach it.

Most of the group stayed and cooked dinner there, as it was a fair stretch until the next water source, but Dan and I headed off (one of my favorite times of the day is dinner, and I don’t like to spoil it by having to hike afterwards). Almost immediately thunder and lightning rolled in. A brisk rain fell – the first since my birthday – but with the lightning and the wind ripping around, we wondered if this storm would do more harm than good.

Light rain – the first for us in a month.

Wind became the story of this section – battering us as we climbed up and down barren ridges, snapping backpack straps across our faces, and whipping dust into our eyes.

The wind howled all night long, whistling through the trees, and causing Dan and I to constantly peer about for a dreaded orange glow, wondering if a lightning strike fire was being whipped into a frenzy up the ridge towards us.

No tree fell on us, and no fire came roaring up the ridge, but that morning dawned on us groggy from lack of sleep. So it was off and at it again. Up and down dry, dusty, and now windy ridges, my stomach gurgled and moaned the whole way. I tried downing water, wondering if I was dehydrated. Most of our food was unappetizing, but I forced it down, as my body hadn’t started rejecting it.

Getting beat up by the wind.

This section would be a 28 mile stretch without water, except that there are some locals that stash water at two of the passes, so the day became dictated by the water at these passes.

We lunched at Stemple Pass, hiding in the trees, and watching folks drive by on the ATVs. The outhouse had a trash can, which we all delighted throwing our trash in. Moose, Dumpling and Wolfman’s dog, proved he was not pure lab by turning up his nose at every treat offered.

Lunch for all – except Moose. Moose has no time for such things.

After a somewhat blistering pace set to Flesher Pass (during which my stomach totally rebelled and required me to sit and try to quell it), we arrived in time for dinner for most.

Before the sky exploded.

Once again, Dan and I went on, stopping 8 miles from Highway 200 and Roger’s Pass, where the trail north of which was closed.

The sky exploded.

A raging sunset trumpeted the end of the day, and the wind howled.

Yet another night of terrible sleep with the buffeting wind found both of us dragging. Everyone passed us as we lagged out of bed. Finally, we were packed and ready to go. Most of the trail miles were on exposed ridge, where we were blasted by the wind all morning.

Autumn – it’s coming!

About 1/4 mile of beautiful trail, with red touched underbrush and aspens just turning golden graced us before we were dumped out on highway 200. And there the road walk began.

Yep, it’s closed, just in case you had any doubts.

For me, there’s not much to do on road walks but plug in the phone and zone out. It’s 38 miles to Augusta, and there was no way I was doing it without music. I had thought that we would have to walk 200 all the way to I-15, but a FS guy pulled over and told us about highway 435, a gravel road we could cut onto earlier. As we tramped down the highway, we watched huge smoke plumes billow up, sometimes even seeing the flames. It’s no wonder they don’t want us back there.

Gutpunch and his parent pulled over, giving us each a Mountain Dew – an appreciated sugar buzz. We just squeezed through on the road, as apparently they closed 200 for a bit after we passed through.

Yes, please and thank you!

As seen on highway 435

Another encounter with another FS guy gave us cold water (amazing!), and the goal to sleep under the bridge at Dearborn Creek. The chatter of the creek, and the absence of wind meant the first good night of sleep in a while.

The next morning was a 20 mile walk into Augusta.

Morning on the road.

Once again, it was plug in the earbuds and go. Just as we were nearing town a truck full of hikers pulled over. It was everyone – Sherpa, Wolfman, Dumpling, Moose, Lumber, and Moment. They were heading up to Benchmark – we’ll be behind them for the rest of the hike now. That’s how this trail works, there are so many decisions to be made, especially in the face of all the closures due to fire, and we may never see them again. But it was fun hiking with them for a few days!

Once in Augusta, we started weighing our options. The Bob Marshall Wilderness was open North of Benchmark (with a detour), but we still wanted our continuous footpath. This left one option: a 31 mile road walk from Augusta to Benchmark.

So the following day, we were out of bed and on the road by 5:30. We left everything in town except what we thought we would need for the day – our first experience with slackpacking. We had been told to get out early to catch the hunters going up, but there was no traffic. As we walked along, sometimes stopping (I absolutely don’t want to walk more than I have to) but moving because the morning was so brisk, 6:30 came around. A red Prius drove by, not even slowing down. Just as we were deciding to go back to bed, two guys in a truck pulled over. They were up from Great Falls, were just driving around for the day, and agreed to drive us up to Benchmark. We were lucky they stopped – the whole day we saw one other vehicle come up that way.

The leaves, they are a changing!

The first half of the road walk was much more pleasant than I thought it would be. The road had wound up into the mountains, and we followed along a gravel road, shaded by trees and with a creek right by us. But after 16 miles we were kicked into the rolling dusty valley, and it was back to the trusted headphones.

Would you pick up this guy if you saw him hitchhiking?

Finally, just as the predicted storm began rolling in, the first drops of rain falling from the sky, we arrived back at Augusta. Mission accomplished: we still had our continuous footpath.

Another blazing sun. Hopefully this storm cycle will dampen this.

Out of the Winds

Sometimes, even after a full zero, it’s still tough. The infected blister I got in the Red Desert didn’t heal (shockingly) in one day. But options are low, and mostly the option is forward, northward, ever onwards. So despite green puss and a toe still too swollen to fit in my shoe, we finished up town chores and headed out to hitch a ride.

Part of the town chores involved picking up mail, one of those boxes being our Lucky Bums skis. Dan and I have skied at least once a month since October of 2010. We weren’t about to let that streak die just because of a five month hike. So, after scouring the interweb, we picked these skis, little kids skis (I think they have a weight limit of 80 lbs) with plastic strap-on bindings. With them strapped to my pack, they garnered a fair amount of attention. A gentleman approached us as we stuck out our thumbs as yet another massive truck went whizzing by.

“Those skis?” He asks. I laugh and explain the story, and next thing you know, he’s giving us a ride up to the trail head. Turns out this guy skied for the US Nordic Team from ’76-’84 – quite the long career. We had a lot to chat about as we headed up, picking up TennesSteve (whom we haven’t seen since Chama) along the way.

Soon, we were strapping on our packs, saying goodbye to our ride, and diving back into the woods.


The Winds had a high snow year, and things are still melting out.

The toe, the toe, the damned toe! It’s such a tiny thing, but it was being a beastly little thing, and my speed was limited. We debated going over Knapsack Col on the way up – we had 11 miles to make the decision. The information on it was surprisingly differing: at the Great Outdoor Shop in Pinedale, they told us that a group with crampons and ice axes couldn’t get over it, and a thru-hiker in front of us said another thru-hiker did it with no gear, no problem. Which of the two extremes was true?


Little skis, big mountains.


Heading into Titcomb Basin

Of course, we decided to do it, and so took the turn to Titcomb Basin. As we climbed slowly, once again we were surrounded by the immense Wind River mountains. Some of the tallest peaks in the state towered high over great blue lakes, and finally we stopped, finding one dry spot amongst the swampy tundra to set up.


Titcomb Basin is popular, but we had this whole area to ourselves.


What’s for dinner?

Before drifting off to sleep, the same incredible thunderstorms that we’ve been having at night hit, great violet bolts of lightning shooting across the sky and thunder cracking so hard you could imagine the stone giants tossing boulders around. But the deep exhaustion runs so deep in a thru-hiker that sleep won out before long.


Titcomb Basin in the morning

Up and out of camp the next morning, excited to see Knapsack Col. Soon we hit snow, but it was east facing, and so softened early, and huge sun cups pocked the surface, so traction was easy.


Things warmed up fast.


The last push before the top.

Up and up and up, slipping between two gigantic peaks, and then, one last push to the top, where we met TennesSteve again. We laughed and took pictures before heading down the other side – we saw some lower-angle snow down low that maybe wasn’t as sun cupped.


Happy we took the alternate.

The ensuing moments were filled with hilarity as we strapped the tiny wooden kids skis to our feet (clearly the binding was meant for kids, too, as Dan’s feet barely fit) and skittered around the snow, out of control and off balance, but laughing our heads off. TennesSteve walked by telling us he’d rather keep his streak of non-broken bones. Good point.


Not trying to pursue broken bones

But there were miles to be made, so down, down the valley we swept, past Peak Lake (complete with rock slide to scramble around without falling into the icy depths), over Cube Pass, and down, down, eventually hitting the official CDT again.


The trail around Peak Lake appears to have been taken out


The beauty of the Winds

I poked the trail with my trekking pole when we reached it – a habit I’ve picked up whenever we take an alternate or end up off trail somehow, I jab the trail with my pole when we come back, emphasizing in my mind that we are “back”.


Into the woods


The Green River quickly becomes quite large.

The trail wound through beautiful forest, deep and green and mosquito infested. So infested with mosquitoes that when we set up camp along the Green River, we quickly barred ourselves inside our tent, feeling ever grateful for having a tent with a screen.

Walking along the Green River the next morning was incredible. This hike is full of those moments: I look forward so much to Knapsack Col, and then this little section captures me by surprise with its beauty.


The sections that surprise you.
Getting dumped into sagebrush land.

Soon we were dumped away from the Green River, heading up Gunsight Pass, back in sagebrush land. Both of us, a little traumatized from the Red Desert, rushed past, giving the poor sagebrush some serious side-eye. I don’t trust it. This is not a section that is talked about by hikers, I know not what to expect. Do we go back into the desert? But the land only teases us. The expanses of sagebrush seem like they will go on forever, but we make it to the oasis of Lake of the Woods, which shockingly is not a mosquito nightmare, where we hear our first loon of the trip, and drift to sleep listening to that enchanting call.


Lake of the Woods was enchanting.

North, I think. We’ve walked to The North. I’m feeling a difference here. The bite in the cold, just a little bit, the call of the loon, the track of a wolf print, the shift in Polaris as I stare skywards in the evening. It’s higher in the sky than it was when we started. Much higher.


This wolf print was as big as my whole hand spread out.

Dense fog rolls in that night, and we hike through it most of the morning. Afternoon finds us lucky with no thunderstorms as we bounce along a ridge we will learn burned four years ago.

Charred trees, black skeletons, stand stark against the bright blue sky and a true riot of wildflowers erupt in a flurry of colors at their bases. It is beautiful. Life. Death. The Cycle. We walk back, click click click with our trekking poles.


Fireweed, some of the first plants to come back. They help keep the soil stable while more plants grow.


Hiker hunger: when you find a Snickers on the ground, you smile and eat it.

The next morning is resupply day! We are picking up a package at Brooks Lake Lodge, and we have no idea what to expect. We hear there is nothing there. You cannot eat. I don’t know how this works, as it’s a place people stay (for $350/night, minimum 3 night stay!) and people usually have to eat.


Oh, hello.

We arrive early afternoon, packs light at the end of a ration. Donna, the nice lady at the desk finds two of our boxes, but not our box with my shoes and more food. We sit down outside and explode our packs, trying to do so in a contained sort of way, while we set the wheels in motion trying to find this box. UPS tell us they delivered the package three days ago. Someone else helps Donna search for the package, and I ask somebody else if I can buy food. I’m met with a crisp no. Finally, because I may be a bit of a freak and want to see things for myself, I ask Donna if I can help look, and we find our box. Happy, we sit back down.


Resupply at Brooks Lake Lodge

I have a slightly shameful moment of begging. I’m hungry. I know Dan is too, but he won’t say anything.

“Is there any way there is any food I can buy here?” I ask Donna. (I may or may have embellished it into true begging.)

Before long, Dan and I each had a bowl of strawberry rhubarb crumble with whipped cream. Slightly embarrassed from my begging, but pleased with the results, none the less, I cherished that bowl of dessert more than just about anything.

It came time to leave, so we packed everything into our bags again, said our goodbyes to Donna, and headed up the trail.

Leaving Brooks Lake Lodge.


Nothing like the moon on the lake and a fire.

We didn’t make it that far, as soon we came to Upper Brooks Lake, and the peacefulness of the area captured us, pulling us in until we set up camp and made a small fire, watching the full moon rise above the mountains.