As the Starbucks VIA coffee boots up your system in the blackness of the 5am forest, the headlamp from a tall, fit runner darts past you and Tumbleweed onto segment 11 of the Colorado Trail. This is the very first time you are not the morning trail blazers. You suspect this injures Tumbleweed’s pride more than yours’. And as you take a rest to adjust your gear choices and admire the rising sun after a half mile, another large group of hikers plus a single hiker pass you on the trail. Hikers clearly want to summit Mt. Elbert early before lightening moves in. It’s ironic given your 5:30am start is the earliest your feet have ever hit the trail, and yet for the first time also so many others are racing ahead of you.
The Mt. Elbert junction comes a little bit later than you expect per the Trail Guidebook. Apparently some previous trails are closed for repair, but it comes at about the 1.5 mile point. The steepness of the trail is totally in your face. You quickly pass the groups that previously passed you a mile earlier. You made the call to leave the trekking poles behind and wonder now if you’ll need them for this climb. Maybe it’s no steeper and aggressive than Mt. Massive, but your expectations were set for a more gradual approach based on descriptions of this being a gentle trail.
Those descriptions must be referring to the south approach and not this north trail. You’ll descend on the south trail so that’s probably a good thing for your knees if the downhill is more moderate. You appreciate how this trail tries to help with numerous switchbacks, especially above treeline. But there’s just no way to sugarcoat climbing 4500 feet in five miles. In fact, this entire trail presents you with a total elevation gain of 6500 feet – and a drop of 7600 feet. Those extremes are almost hard to believe considering how much flat trail there is. The peak though is as awe inspiring as yesterday’s Mt. Massive. Similar views accept you are also looking into the backside (western slopes) cliffs of Mt Massive. One difference is the trail today has many more hikers on it. You can see that. Given the choice no doubt hikers choose the tallest peak over the second tallest. You’re mixed on whether you like so many other hikers. You like seeing people but you don’t necessarily want to hike alongside others for miles on end. Flatulence in front of Tumbleweed isn’t so much of an issue. You crossed that barrier. But complete strangers?
You are apparently mistaken about the southern trail being less steep than the northern route. You keep expecting the slope to flatten during your descent but it never does. Not until you reach the junction with the CT do your legs get some relief from the pounding. Tumbleweed expresses his relief by giving the trail sign a big smooch. You sort of understand where he’s coming from. You don’t ask questions, you just take the pictures.
At around 9 miles now, the trail still continues downward but at a much less steep grade. This encourages Tumbleweed to try some running. You pick up your pace over the next mile or two but keep it conservative since this hike will extend over 26 miles. Actually, you don’t know that and believe it will be 29 miles. And to your horror, you run out of water after 17 miles. This is just after crossing the Twin Lakes dam – which is part of a 4 mile Bataan death march around the Twin Lakes under a glaring sun. You maintain a strong 16 minute per mile pace around the lake in an attempt to reach the shade of the trees on the far side. Not only do you deplete your water in the process, but the trees aren’t as thick as they are green and the heat and sun remain issues. You’re not exactly concerned about heat stroke, but it’s becoming clear you might finish this hike fairly dehydrated. You announce your intentions to drink from the next strong running creek you come across. These have been prevalent throughout the CT given the above average snow pack this year.
You almost begin to feel stupid. Cheated even. Where are the damned creeks? For whatever reason, the ridge beyond Twin Lakes is dry as a bone. A little desperation begins to creep into your mind, let in by the heat. You see some weak streams and are able to soak your shirt. These brooks aren’t strong enough to trust drinking from but the wet shirt helps cool down your core. It’s unfortunate you’re so hot and thirsty. You’d run much more of these last miles otherwise. Instead you walk to conserve strength. Tumbleweed talks about maintaining a zen state to keep from sweating. You wonder if they taught that in his search and rescue training. He lived on the West Coast then. Right now you’d welcome some merciful cool sweat.
You slog onward. And then the trail does bestow mercy upon you. You expect the trail distance to be 29 miles. This is uncertain because of the new route up to Mt. Elbert. But you cross a ridge around 25 miles and suddenly see Tumbleweed’s car parked down at the Clear Creek Trail Head. Incredible. You just finished talking about possibly completing the hike in 12 hours and now you see it’s possible you might finish in 11 hours. Tumbleweed takes this to heart and begins a mad dash down the hill. You can’t be certain of the remaining distance as you can’t see the length of all the switchbacks leading down to the trail head. It turns out to be just over a mile. You run all of it in about a 10 minute mile pace – which is screaming fast for rocky trail running. The distance turns out to be 26.2 miles – a marathon. Oddly enough, your overall pace matches yesterday’s hike exactly at 25.05 minutes per mile. Your actual moving pace is under 20 minutes per mile – or 3 miles per hour which is essentially normal walking pace. Pretty impressive for having climbed up Colorado’s tallest peak.
You need to catch your breath after this sprint, but otherwise pack up and drive away as soon as possible for food and drinks. As part of the car shuffle, you have to stop near Twin Lakes to pick up the cooler you stashed for drinks. This puts you on Hwy 82, the highway to Aspen, and you decide to try eating at the Twin Lakes Village General Store. Turns out their restaurant is closed but you are so hungry you microwave their frozen enchiladas. This is not the best course for dinner, but the most expedient. Along with some waters and cans of Coors, you sit outside by the highway to refuel. This was an epic weekend. Climbing Colorado’s two highest peaks was not a primary objective but an accomplishment that added greatly to the experience. One more weekend of hiking and you’ll be halfway complete with the Colorado Trail.