Beautiful Colorado! Two 14’ers. 10 summits. Sketchy ridgeline scrambling. Epic views. Ski resort row. Fall colors everywhere. Snow in the mountains, again.
I got a taxi ride up to Berthoud Pass on US40 and was on trail by 8 a.m. Getting back to where I’d bailed from near Rollins Pass was going to be tough, so I decided to skip those 15 miles and get back on trail at an easier access point. Berthoud Pass was the site of Colorado’s first ski resort, Berthoud Pass Ski Area, it operated until 2002 but then ran into financial trouble and was dismantled. The pass is now a very popular backcountry touring area.
The morning started with a 1000 ft climb up into the Vasquez Wilderness Area. There were great views back down to Berthoud Pass and over to Winter Park Resort.
After a couple of miles of very windy ridgeline walking I summited my first of 3 peaks for the day, this one Stanley Mountain at 12,500 ft. The trail then dropped down to about 11,000 ft before starting a gradual ascent up a valley to my second peak of the day at 12,700 ft.
There’s a fair bit of trail traffic, day hikers and trail runners, through this area. A couple of guys passed me mid-morning and were interested to chat about the CDT. Why does everyone ask if i carry a tent and sleeping bag? Do I look like a crazy person? They really wanted to help me out, it was pretty funny… “Do you need some water?” No, covered, thank you. “Gloves?” No, got a few of those, thank you. “Socks?” No. “Food? We have lots of snacks?” Actually I just left Winter Park and have a full load of food right now, but thank you. I finally accepted an apple to make them feel better, ha! It was a delicious apple.
The next 7 miles were possibly my favorite of the whole trail so far! It followed a high ridge between the second and third peak I was summiting. 360 degree jagged Rocky Mountain BEAUTY. Wow. Such a fantastic inspiring day. I’m so happy to be in Colorado!
I summited the final peak at 13,200 ft around 4 p.m. Just below the summit a couple of mountain bikers came riding down the trail, wow, ballsy ride! They said they were really excited to be riding the divide, although apparently hadn’t been so excited a few minutes ago carrying their bikes through gale force winds over the rocky summit.
The descent was a gradual drop into Hermon Gulch, more dramatic views and the soft afternoon light was perfect. I set up camp at 11,500 ft in a bed of pine needles under the cover of some trees, should be a reasonable warm night given the elevation. Yay.
Today was like a vacation day, a trail-cation! I didn’t set an alarm and lingered in my tent until after 9 a.m! There was no point rushing because I wanted to camp under Grays and Torreys Peaks and the trailhead for those peaks was only 10 miles ahead. I suppose I could have summited them today, but they are 14’ers and I didn’t want to rush that or be on top in the late afternoon.
It was a beautiful sunny fall day, so the trail down Hermon Gulch was literally filled with every man and his dog. It was a nice walk though, I’m just not accustomed to seeing more than a couple of people a day, if that.
The trail dumped out into a large parking lot in an exit off I-70, a very busy interstate highway. I walked the frontage road briefly and crossed under the interstate to a bike path on the other side of the valley. Big beautiful paved bike path, but oddly in the 3 miles I was on it I saw no one.
The ‘trail’ then became a busy rocky road up to the Grays Peak trailhead. Busy in the opposite direction I was going, so no hitch, but plenty of car dust in my eyes.
I set up camp a half mile up the Grays Peak trail surrounded on 3 sides by tent height sage brush. I’d need the wind protection as it would be a chilly one up here at 11,600 ft without tree cover above me to trap any heat. I’d originally intended to go another mile up before camping, but that would have put me above 12,200 ft and that sounded pretty chilly.
I’d set up camp by 5. Weird! Day light, blue sky and day hikers still out. Not my usual m.o. It was actually really nice just sitting in camp looking at the view. And it was a gorgeous one! Kind of reminded me of being in Nepal, big peaks at the head of the valley and high altitude tundra winding its way up to them. There were also some old mining remains on the hill opposite me also, Colorado has lots of old mining remains.
I was in my tent by 6:30 so I decided to write my blog. I usually do it all when I get to town after a segment, but with the sun setting a little after 7 p.m. now its a good opportunity to get it done.
Well, today didn’t quite go as I’d planned. I could probably say the same for most days on the CDT though I suppose. Today I planned to summit Grays Peak, a 14’er (14,000 foot peak, there are 53 in Colorado), do a side-trip to Torreys Peak, another 14’er, then get back on-trail and walk along the ridge to Argentine Pass and then descend to Peru Creek. I only needed to get about 11 miles so I figured I had plenty of time to enjoy the sights up on the 14’ers, yay!
I summited Torreys Peak first at 14,274 ft. The trail was steep and rocky, but not at all technical, although with a backpack it was a pretty darn good workout. The weather was perfect: crisp air, blue sky and barely a cloud in the sky. The views from up top were really something, it hit me at that point just how big the Colorado Rockies are. Every other mountain range I’ve hiked through on the CDT seem to stretch a long way in length, but have a fairly narrow width, often with visible plains on one or both sides of the divide. From atop Torreys Peak, I was surrounded by big peaks as far as the eye could see in every direction, and with today’s perfect weather that was pretty far. Wow, wow, wow. It was also neat to see some of the ski resorts: Breckenridge, Keystone and the ridgeline behind Arapahoe Basin.
I traversed the saddle between Torreys and Grays, and summited my second 14’er for the day at 14,278 ft. It was great to be standing atop Grays Peak as it’s the highest point on the Continental Divide Trail. I’m really loving this stretch of the CDT. Even though it was a very similar view to Torreys, I stayed up there quite a while taking it all in, it was so breathtaking! Besides, I only had 6 miles to get to where I needed to camp and it was only noon, so why not take my time?
I left the summit of Grays ready to start a leisurely afternoon. For the first mile or so the trail followed the ridge down and up to Mount Edwards at 13,856 ft. Perhaps I should rephrase that, the waypoints for the trail follow the ridge, there wasn’t actually a trail, in fact I found myself scrambling with significant exposure along a knife edge ridge or traversing steep rocky slopes below the ridge. What the fuck CDT! It reminded me of the joke I’ve heard a few times since being out here: the CDT is just a joke hikers play on each other, you get out there and realize that there isn’t actually a trail. I don’t mind exposure or scrambling, if i’m on a rope or with a friend, but being up there on my own, wearing a backpack, in the afternoon and running low on water was just plain stupid. I got spooked more than a few times in places that were definitely no fall zones. It took me hours to go that mile. Occasionally a faint trail would appear, only to vanish again. I got stuck traversing around a ledge. I ran out of water. The day was getting late. There was no one anywhere around. Hello, high country 101. Stupid. I did what I always do when i get in a bit of a predicament mentally, I talk to myself, or today it was Trover talking to me inside my head. “Can you make one more move/step?” Yes. “Then do it”. Okay. “Hey! You did good, well done Kate!”. Thanks. “Can you make one more move/step?” Yes. “Then do it”. Okay. “Nice work, you’re doing well, you’re okay, you’re okay…” etc etc etc…
I realized towards the last 1/4 mile that the easiest route and where the faint tread was, occasionally, was right up on the knife edge, most of the ridge i’d been traversing around under the ridge, where there were also occasionally brief glimpses of tread. I googled this route afterwards and it seems that the knife edge is rated Class 2, but I can tell you that some of the sections traversing around under the ridge are absolutely Class 3– scrambling using all 4 limbs with exposure below. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I finally reached the summit of Mount Edwards at about 4 p.m. I was SO relieved to see that the descent to Argentine Pass was just a walk, yay! I don’t think my tired and dehydrated brain could have dealt with down-climbing a technical ridge. Whew. Under my exhaustion and relief was a slight sense of pride of achievement, it kicked my ass mentally, but I did it! Character building opportunity. There seem to be a lot of those on this trail. At what point does character get maxed out I wonder?
I cruised down the ridge to Argentine Pass to find a couple of jeeps parked. These mountains seem to be filled with jeep roads, just when you think you’re about as remote as you can get, you round a corner to find some jeeps or four wheelers on a gravel road in front of you. This was a very welcome surprise, I met a lovely couple from Denver who were up they were up there cruising around in their jeep. We talked a while about the CDT and the experience i’d just had traversing that ridge. And then they offered me some water! Yes! I was so dehydrated at this point that my thoughts were getting a little fuzzy. I’d found some snow drifts up on Mount Edwards and stuffed my water bottle full with snow, as the snow melted i’d drink the water, but it was slow coming and you need a lot of water at this elevation. I drank about a half liter and filled up my bottle with another half liter. Hydration! Felt so good. I could almost feel my brain turning back on. Lucky break.
I said a thousand thank you’s to my new friends and started down the trail (yes, one appeared finally) to Peru Creek 3 miles below. Part way along a mountain goat rounded the corner in front of me, headed my way. It stopped and looked at me. I stopped and looked at it. It was a standoff. I moved a few yards forwards. It moved a few yards forward. I moved. It moved. I decided to get out of its way by climbing up the scree field above me a little. It slowly passed me and continued along the trail.
I finally made it to Peru Creek and sat on a rock and drank water like it was going out of fashion. Stuffed full of water and feeling much more like myself, I started down the gravel road that was the ‘trail’ for the next 3 or so miles. I walked by many old mining remains. Mining has been a huge part of Colorado’s economic history, in fact in the late 1800s through the early 20th century it was its main economic engine. I’m not sure what metals used to be mined in this area, but the gold rush certainly struck in this part of the Rockies.
Abandoned industry, dismantled railroad infrastructure, heart of the Rockies, am I in a Ayn Rand novel, who is John Galt anyway? I was looking, but didn’t find any gold. Oh well, I guess i’ll need to go back to work after this adventure after-all.
I woke up early because I needed to get in 22 miles today. It was 22 miles to my next water source and 22 miles of terrain up high above treeline. 22 miles isn’t much vs how I was pacing in Montanaho and Wyoming, so, as long as I got an early start I should have been fine. Maybe I should rephrase that, so long as I got an early start and the CDT doesn’t screw me over again, I should have been fine.
The CDT screwed me over again.
I was up at 5 a.m. and on the trail by 6:30. Even when I try to get going early, it just takes me a while somehow. I want to download an audio book about the difference between morning and evening people, i’m NOT a morning person, i want to understand more about why i’m a hundred times more tuned in and productive at the end of the day. Anyway, so the morning, it takes me about 3o minutes inside my tent: dressing, breakfast..; then 30 minutes outside: break-down tent, pack my pack, bathroom, teeth etc; 15 minutes of dynamic stretching so my annoying body doesn’t protest with a random pulled muscle of some kind; and then finally 15 minutes of miscellaneous fiddling… I need to tighten my shoe laces. Did I start my GPS? I should put my warm gloves on. I should loosen my shoe laces. Do I need to pee again? I should take my warm gloves off and put on my sungloves. I should tighten my shoes laces just a little more. How far to my first water source? Then always after my pack is on, did I really start my GPS? And then….. finally… like the wind… okay, maybe a slight breeze… i’m off. 6:30 is a pretty good time to be moving because the sun doesn’t rise until closer to 7 a.m. now. The days are short. Winter is coming. Anyway, on with the story…
The only water today was a stream i’d cross twice in 1 and then 1.5 miles, and it would be the last before a 20 miles high altitude waterless stretch. The ‘trail’ was a steep rocky jeep road for a few miles so I decided that I would walk out of camp with only a half liter and fill up at the stream. Well, I got to the first stream crossing and it was dry as a bone. I was furious, argh!!!!! I looked at my maps and there were 3 streams that supposedly fed into a creek that the trail passed near to about a half mile back, I bush-wacked my way through the forest to these other streams and they were all dry. I couldn’t continue without more water, so down I went, back down the steep rocky road a half mile. Furious. I ‘cameled up’ at the creek, or tried to, the water was so steeped in metal mining runoff that it was almost undrinkable. Argh, it was so bad. I drank as much as I could and then carried out 2.5 liters for the day. Back up the steep rocky trail to where I had been half an hour ago, then onwards. Half a mile later I came to the waypoint for the second instance of the dry stream and it was flowing! Oh my god CDT, I hate you so much sometimes! An extra mile of steep up/down on rocky jeep roads for nothing, and on a day I needed to get my miles. The water here was no better, but I forced myself to drink as much as I could.
The jeep road came to a dead-end at the end of a valley surrounded by cliffs and steep slopes. I saw a CDT sign headed up the slope to an abandoned mine, but the trail dead-ended into the mine. The waypoints seemed to go straight up a cliff. Arrghhhhh, seriously CDT. I studied my maps. The other map set showed an alternate jeep road-walk up a different drainage the next one over and if I could get up to that ridge I would intersect with it. There is a saying in mountaineering, ‘don’t go up anything you can’t get down’, well, I was about to go up something I most certainly couldn’t get down, but I was positive that once on top I would be able to walk the ridge and intersect that jeep road. I scrambled on all fours up a steep slope to gain that ridge, there was some foliage growing on the slope which provided some good foot and hand holds interspersed with loose dirt patches which provided none. I talked to myself the whole way up, one slow move after the other until I finally made it. Mentally drained I collapsed in a pile when I gained the ridge. I hate the CDT sometimes. Why is this the official route??? Not many people take this route, most take a short-cut via Silverthorne because it saves a lot of miles, but I wanted to hike Grays/Torreys and so am on this route. While it’s merely annoying when the trail doesn’t exist, when the trail doesn’t exist and the terrain requires all fours to traverse I lose my nerve a little. I kind of felt like the trail was beating me up today again, and it was only early. How am I going to make 22 miles today if it just took me hours to go a few miles? Argh.
I got to the road without issue and continued up to the Divide. The trail looked to traverse the divide all day. One summit, two, three, four… loose footing, barely a trail, a little scrambling here and there. I spent all day talking to myself. By 2 p.m. i’d only gone 8 miles and I knew I had to reassess my plan. Would the next 12 miles be more of the same? Storm clouds were moving in. I would need to camp up here without water tonight because I wasn’t going to make it off the ridge before nightfall. I still could barely bring myself to drink the metalic water I was carrying. I would be a half day behind and low on food. But most of all, I was mentally beat, the CDT kicked my ass the last 24 hours. I was at a low point of the ridge, Wheeler Pass. It had a jeep road that ran down the drainage and eventually would dump me down to a town called Montezuma. I made the decision to bail down to town. I was really happy with my decision but felt completely demotivated by the fact I pretty much walked the valley under the ridge that i’d spent all day traversing. I stopped drinking water, town was within reach and I wasn’t going to drink another drop of this evil tasting stuff. The jeep road eventally turned into a dirt road and the dirt road eventually turned into a town road. I don’t know how far I walked today, but a car eventually came along and picked me up as I was coming into Montezuma and took me to a brew pub in Dillon. The lady was from Ohio or somewhere and was completely at a loss to understand how or why I was doing what I was doing. She thought I was a crazy person.
My friend Hojo, who I’d run into on-trail up in Wyoming a month ago, lives at Keystone Resort and came to collect my exhausted-self from the pub. I stayed with him for a couple of nights before getting back on the trail. Thank you Hojo for letting me stay, running me around town to collect my USPS packages and the tour of Silverthorne, Dillon, Breckenridge, Frisco and Keystone!!! As I watched the rain fall the next day I felt zero remorse for not being up on the Divide still.
I got back on-trail at Breckenridge. I spent some time looking at the maps on my day off yesterday. I suspect the official CDT that i’d come down from yesterday doesn’t get traveled too often. Most CDT hikers it seems take the lower elevation alternate that goes via Silverthorne as it saves a bunch of miles. There was still a 12 mile stretch of ridge walking on the trail I came down from and not being sure if it was more scrambling etc, I opted to skip it, call me a whimp, but that stretch would be a little safer with a hiking buddy.
The hike out of the Breckenridge valley was a nice gradual climb up to the ridge in the Tenmile Range. I gained the ridge between Peaks 5 and 6, which afforded great views of Breckenridge town and ski resort to the east and Copper Mountain Ski Resort to the west. I’m loving walking through ski resort country and seeing all of these resorts from this new perspective! I sat on top for a while and took in the views. Massive shout out to Marjie from Dynastar, she baked me some delicious cookies which I picked up in Breckenridge and enjoyed on top of this ridge. Thanks Marjie!!! It was a nice break from Clif and Luna bars!
Some mean looking storm clouds were getting closer and I decided to get off the ridge. It started raining right as I hit the tree-line, good timing! Not that i’m worried about rain, it’s more the threat of lightening that I worry about. Anyway, the trail dropped down the west side of the Tenmile Range, crossed a highway and then traversed the lower mountain at Copper Mountain. Rumor of a pizza shop in the Copper village had made its way through the hiker community and it sounds like I was the 3rd hiker of the day to stop through and eat pizza. Ha, Colorado is so awesome, I only left town that morning and 14 short miles later I was back in town eating pizza. I ate half and carried the rest out with me for lunch the next day. I camped in a grove of trees on the lower mountain, I think somewhere near the Easy Feelin’ ski run.
I woke early and was moving by about 7 a.m. It was overcast and cool, and as the trail crossed over ski runs, under chairlifts and by snow guns I couldn’t help but feel excited that ski season is right around the corner. Wait, aren’t I still out here hiking, why am I excited about going skiing? Every mountain gals dilemma this time of year.
The trail climbed gradually through the Guller Creek valley and up to Searle Pass at 12,000 ft over about 10 miles, nice and cruisy. I had my eye on the sky though, even early in the day there were storm clouds brewing. After Searle Pass the trail stayed up high for a few miles until it reached Kokymo Pass. This stretch was really scenic, but wow it was super windy, the kind of wind that knocks you off the trail when it gusts. There’s been a lot of strong wind up on these ridges in Colorado actually, more the norm than not.
It started snowing about a mile after I dropped off the ridge and kept up lightly the rest of the day. There I was hiking along in my down gloves and jacket wondering where summer went, maybe it is time for ski thoughts after all?
I walked through the historic Camp Hale when I hit the bottom on the valley. Camp Hale was home to the 10th Mountain Division, the division of the US Army that specialized in combat in alpine environments. They trained troops there between 1942 and 1945 and at its peak housed 15,000 soldiers. The camp closed in 1945. Interestingly the CIA secretly trained a few hundred Tibetan guerillas there between 1959 and 1965, but spread a rumor that they were doing nuclear testing on the site to mask the secret, sounds a bit like a Hollywood movie, but that’s actually what went down here. All that remains now are warning signs about unexploded land mines and asbestos zones and a concrete barracks. With the cold wind and snow falling, it kind of felt like I was somewhere up on the Tibetan Plateau.
I set up camp in a forest near to Tennessee Pass at about 10,400ft. I had to brush away snow from the ground before pitching my tent, it’s going to be a cold one! The snow was still falling and it was really cold, so I crawled into my sleeping bag and ate dinner in my tent. The highlight of the meal was more Marjie cookies, yum!
Okay, officially the coldest night on the trail so far. Even with my new tent, capilene layers and my down socks, gloves and jacket on, I was cold. I woke up every couple of hours, rubbed my feet to get blood flowing down to them again, ate some more cheese and took another swig of whiskey. Brrrr.
The walk out to Tennessee Pass and Highway 24 was very easy, a good thing because it took a solid mile for my feet to really thaw out. I spent some time at the pass as there was a 10th Mountain Division memorial there that I was interested to look at. The 10th recruited heavily from within the National Ski Patrol when it was formed. I thought it was awesome that they had a reputation as being a bunch of bad-asses, as quoted by a Major at the end of the attack in Northern France, “this Viking battalion is the only infantry outfit tanks have trouble keeping up with”. Ha, that’s our ski patrollers! After the war, Aspen, Vail and A-Basin were all founded by 10th veterans. What a ballsy, hard working and talented bunch.
There is more snow in the forecast, so I figure it’s a good opportunity to head to town. Unfortunately my knee is still bugging me, the Prednisone helped while it was in my system but quickly wore off, so I’m going to take a few days off to get a cortisone shot. I’m not ready to be done hiking quite yet.
Funnily enough, there was a small ski resort at the pass, Ski Cooper. Cooper is one of the oldest ski resorts in Colorado, opening in 1941. This segment truly has been ski resort row… Winter Park, Berthoud Pass, Loveland, A-Basin, Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper and Cooper. In fact in hitching back to Silverthorne later in the day my first ride got me to Vail village. Is it a coincidence that it’s starting to snow? Is it already the start of ski season or can I keep hiking for a while longer? I may look into jumping down to New Mexico if the weather pattern stays unsettled, stay tuned!
Thanks for reading.