Better Days on the Horizon (Salida to Grand Lake)

After three days of gorging on copious amounts of food, everyone was extremely well fed and rested. However, three days is a long time to not be moving, so we were all chomping at the bit to hit the trail again.

The most difficult sections of trail were behind us at this point, but Colorado has proven to be relentless. Just after you finish one climb, there are three more behind it and regardless of how much flat or downhill you have in a day, all you remember are the arduous climbs. The reward on it all is that every single day looks like a background picture on your desktop.

Cheetah, a fellow thru-hiker whom we met in Silver City raved about the Collegiate West route when we ran into him again in Silverton. There is a road walk alternate taking you around this section that is allegedly a much easier walk, but Cheetah's persuasion convinced us to hike the more difficult trail. We could not be happier with this decision, as I know most of us came out the north end feeling like that was some of the coolest terrain we have ever seen or hiked. The mountains appeared to be mounds of clay crafted by God itself. I feel the snow really makes all the difference with aesthetics. Although I guarantee these mountains are majestic completely melted, the snow just really makes everything pop. Once finishing this notorious section, we were convinced the trail was going to begin taking it easy on us... boy, were we wrong.

The trail did start dipping us down below tree line, but just as this happened, so did the mosquito hatch. Not a lot of things irritate me on trail as much a bugs do, and according to locals this year is one of the worst they can remember. Essentially, we were going to have to deal with "the suck" one way or the other.

As we continued our route to Twin Lakes, many obstacles arose each day. At one point I found myself sliding down the side of a ravine for roughly fifty feet and my failed effort at self-arrest with my trekking poles left said poles stuck in the snow 3/4 of the way up the slide. I dropped my pack on dry ground and did my best Spider-Man impression climbing on all fours up the wall to retrieve my walking sticks. I then slid down again back to safety and fortunately nothing was lost and I was not hurt. Lake Ann Pass presented a pretty mean cornice on the north side of the mountain and the descent down the ravine was nerve wracking to say the least. Just after we get up and over this formidable feature, the trail leads us to one of our steeper climbs as of yet. Ascending 2,400 feet in just 2.4 miles, Hope Pass proved to be one of the more draining climbs Colorado had to offer. On top of all of this, temperatures were reaching upwards of eighty degrees and as you might imagine, altitude increases sunburn risk. Then I would wake up in the morning with my tent covered in frost, because temperatures were dipping below freezing at night. This state has been quite the mental battle.

When I strolled into Twin Lakes, I was greeted by some familiar faces. My buddies, AJ and Party Saver, whom I had not seen in quite some time, were sitting next to a food truck ready to welcome me with open arms. When it was all said and done, there were at least ten of us thru-hikers sitting in front of some random museum next to a food truck having a very Appalachian Trail-like evening. The vibe was amazing and I remember thinking to myself on many occasions how I wish every night were the same. Needless to say, it was a reprieve I needed before we proceeded taking on even more treacherous terrain.

I was actually having trouble deciding whether I was going to climb Mt. Elbert or not, because it was not actually on the trail. I may or may not have a had a few whiskey shots the night before and initially had decided against going up... I should probably also let you know that Mt. Elbert is the tallest mountain in the Rockies. Fortunately for me, Bones and Egg Rolls were very keen on hitting the summit. After loafing around town until about 10:00am, enough time had passed for my hangover to subside and my motivation to build. I was not sure if I would ever be back to Twin Lakes and the weather was permitting a safe go at it. In the end, I was more than pleased with my decision to join the guys on our side mission.

The hike up was actually quite pleasant. The trail was rather gradual for how enormous the mountain was. If it were not for the 60 MPH winds, this probably would have been a relatively easy climb. However, the wind was whipping and was taking the oxygen with it. Snow was the only other thing standing between us and the summit. One mile from the peak, we had to begin devising our own route, because the actual trail was covered. Despite the howling wind, we were able to spend some time on the top due to some nice rock forts previous hikers had built. The views were absolutely stunning and I would be kicking myself had I decided to walk around Elbert.

The side trip wound up putting us a little behind schedule, because it was such a massive climb and it was also off trail. Technically, we only made around 12 miles on the actual CDT that day, so the next few days we put the hammer down. Every day from here to Keystone was over 20 miles, including back-to-back marathon days into town at 27 miles and finally a 34 mile day into town. Corey, Bones and Egg Rolls good friend from back home, invited us to stay at his place for a few nights and it turned out to be some of the funnest nights on trail.

After spending five nights of extreme relaxation, dancing at the club and exploring the surrounding towns, it was time for us to head into a section that we were told was one of the most difficult in all of Colorado. Before I continue, let me say a huge thanks to Corey for allowing us to take up his living room space and for certain stinking up the joint.

Up until Webster Pass, the trail mostly skirted mountains, lead you up and over passes and and followed ridge walks. That would change instantly as we ascended a nameless summit on our way to Grays Peak (the tallest point on the entire CDT). All of a sudden the trail is taking us up and over every peak in site, some had names and others did not. Mt. Edwards was one of the more notable summits we climbed and it was the gate to Grays Peak, the only 14,000 foot mountain on the official route.

The climb up Grays was one of the more intense experiences I have encountered. The "trail" was a sketchy spine walk that had no actual footpath and steep drop offs on either side. The final mile to the top had to be the steepest mile yet and I could only move at a snails pace as I plugged away at the mountain. To my surprise, when I arrived at the summit, there were many people hanging out up top. The mystery was quickly solved, as I scoped out the north side of the mountain and noticed an extremely well maintained trail that lead down to a parking lot. It turns out that Grays is one of the more popular 14,000 footers and I began to get the sense that the trail was about to become more friendly.

Large mountains still stood between us and Wyoming, but the trail itself really began to mellow out. The climb up Mt. Flora really did not slow us down and the views were breathtaking. James Peak was another easy climb that lead us into a land that I can only describe as Narnia-esque. There was a prodigious waterfall splitting two mountains landing in a beautiful lake beneath. Sadly, some rough thunderstorms would roll in while we were above tree line, causing me to cut my time spent on the mountain very short. I literally sprinted down the opposite side of the peak and continued to hike vigorously until the storm clouds dissipated. The next day would be by far the easiest hiking in all of Colorado.

Everything was downhill and flat, literally the opposite of what we had been doing and once again we had a friend of Bones waiting for us to provide some magic. Chops, a fellow '14 AT thru-hiker picked us up on trail and paid for us to stay at a really nice campground on the lake. He and a friend of us bought an enormous amount of food for us, for Chops knows what the hunger is really like. I don't remember any point on trail where I ate healthier than this evening. For hours I did not stop eating strawberries, grapes, carrots, blueberries, salad, and bananas amongst other various fruits and vegetables. Oh yeah... there were big juicy burgers involved as well with fried egg and pepper jack cheese. I think it is safe to say that we have been spoiled and extremely lucky the last couple of months. Thank you again for everything, Ryan!!

After another evening of being pampered hikers, we found ourselves in the very touristy town of Grand Lake. I really enjoyed the town, but things were a little pricier than I would like. It made it very easy to continue down trail and make our final push to Wyoming. I will be very much looking forward to writing my next blog, because it will mean we finally finished the 800 miles of Colorado and miles will start to fly by much more easily... so stay tuned!

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