I spent the week backpacking from the ghost town of Winfield to the Hancock Pass Trailhead. Fifty, high-altitude miles along the Continental Divide Trail that broke me down to the basics and renewed my soul. I’m tempted to begin by saying that I was nowhere near fit enough for this trek, but I made it so apparently I was. The physical effort in hauling a forty-pound pack up and down thousands of alpine vertical feet was as purifying for my soul as were the unending views of heaven. Imagine walking through hell with a view of heaven that squelches the heat of the fires. That was my experience, backpacking southbound through the Collegiates on the CDT. As indicated by the trail signs, this section of the CDT is joined by the western loop of the Colorado Trail.
I set out with two buddies. George, pictured here, and Rob, who has through-hiked the PCT and AT and served as our uber-experienced trail guide. Outside of hiking, we belong to a writers’ group, submitting monthly short stories to a blog on the deep web. Much of our talk was on storylines. One of my goals was to refocus on my third novel. George, Rob and trail all contributed to advancing my novel’s outline.
From our Winfield campsite at 10,226 feet, we marched 6.5 miles to summit Lake Ann Pass, a two thousand foot climb to 12,590 feet. This was difficult for me and perhaps the hardest effort of our six days on the trail. I knew this climb would give me a sense of my ability to survive the full excursion. I was thinking of the physical stress of carrying a forty-pound pack at high-altitude though. I didn’t consider the technical challenges. There is still heavy snow on the north side of Lake Ann Pass. Rob determined through early scouting that we would not require ice axes, but trekking poles and perhaps micro-spikes were advisable.
The cornice in this photo above is the pass. The snow was soft enough that micro-spikes were not needed. My challenge was a stretch of quicksand-like sludge that I nearly drowned in. I tried to crawl through the gravel, full of snowmelt, and failed miserably. Each step induced a rock slide that threatened to carry me down the mountain. I was trying to reach some stable rocks but was so exhausted from trying to swim through this mix of rock and water that I didn’t have the strength to stand back up once reaching them. I then turned my head to find the trail and determined I could possibly make the snow patch on the far side of the quicksand with a strong, one-hop leap. That hop wouldn’t provide any traction on the flowing rock, but I’d have to trust my momentum. Learning to trust my momentum would become an important tool over the next several days of obstacles. My leap landed me on solid snow and I made it to the top of the pass, where Rob was patiently waiting. That’s Lake Ann below him and Mount Huron in the background.
I knew the rest of the day would be downhill and I now had some trail confidence. I didn’t know if my body could take a second day, but I knew the subsequent downhill was in my wheelhouse. As would become our pattern, we took a substantial break at the top of the pass to recover our strength. That’s Taylor Park Reservoir in the background below. Our path was to cross the valley toward the left of this photo, across the Illinois and Texas Creeks.
After eleven miles and ten hours, we ended the night camping on the Illinois Creek. There was no campfire and I’m not sure I made it to nightfall. I was happy with my PackitGourmet dehydrated camp dinner. Highly recommended.
I was concerned about my ability to recover for day two, but I woke up fresh and ready to continue our hike. Our pattern was to wake up at 5:30 am and hit the trail by 7. I think it helped my legs that we didn’t have any big climbs until later in the day when we finished on Cottonwood Pass.
I discovered on day two that since beginning this hike, I’d had zero thoughts on work. I wasn’t even counting the days, let alone thinking about returning back to a normal life. Vacation days are always good but this trail was the perfect remedy for a past year and a half of what I believe had been the most stressful of my life. I’m sure it was difficult for many people with Covid-19, but mine had other life events that had me at the bottom of the emotional scale.
The act of hiking a trail like this is so involved. My entire mind was focused 100% on my footfalls. It was hard to daydream. Planting each foot in front of the other was almost like playing a mindless video game. I put some thought into moving my Cyan story forward. It’s a mystery and I thought up how I’ll have my heroine interview suspects and add depth to the characters. But mostly I was just watching my footfalls for ten hours each day. The trail was like a mind eraser, like hitting the reset button on life. I’m ready now for what comes next.
The trail did take its toll on my legs. On my entire body. I was never fully confident the first two days that I could finish. I’d suggested we park one of our cars at the half way point on Cottonwood Pass. Doing so would allow us to carry less supplies, resulting in a lighter pack, but it would also mean more time shuffling cars between trailheads. I was voted down, so I was committed.
Ample rest after long stretches and big climbs is what saved me. We developed a pattern of taking a couple of long breaks during the day. Naptime essentially. Usually with awesome views.
I would see George often updating his trip notes, or reading.
I think Rob was often praying that we didn’t die on his watch.
We camped after our second day on the trail on Cottonwood Pass. George was too tired for dinner and missed this sunset that his tent was pitched perfectly to view.
I found day three to be the toughest. We were now hiking above tree line for most of the day. The trail was gorgeous, interweaving us from pass to saddle to pass, offering views of new basins that could only be viewed by backpacking into the remote forest of the Collegiates.
Trudging through snow fields was always exhausting. I suspect my biggest issue was that, even when in better shape, I don’t do well above 12,000 feet. And we were almost always above 12,000 feet. I get mild altitude sickness, light-headed and nauseated.
Rob was in his element though. Backpacking in these conditions is hard. The climbs at altitude for 10-hour days fatigue the body. Hiking food generally sucks. And the ground makes for a hard bed. But Rob was born to be on the trail.
I could also see how George found solace in the mountains. Sitting on the earth at a spot you could only backpack to and taking in the vistas brings peace to any soul who will venture.
George took on the responsibility of team map reader. He kept us to about ten miles per day, but more importantly, he targeted campsites that appeared to offer water and a flat spot for our tents. Early in the season yet, we found ample flowing water, even above tree line. In many cases, we drank directly from the headwaters, with snow melt bubbling up from the rocks like God’s water springs.
I don’t know that the fourth day ever dropped below tree line. We took generous breaks to rest and I turned my photo-taking to the views during those hiking intermissions.
Above, I laid among alpine flowers at 12,000 feet. And below, a bit closer to tree line, more of the same.
Sitting in high-mountain meadows was so amazing. I felt as if I could hear the wind blow through each tree. I would see the tree tops move first, then hear the wind, followed by feeling the cool breeze hit my dry, hot skin. I sensed how the mountain forests filtered the carbon from the planet’s air.
George found us another perfect camping site with comfortable ground and flowing water near Tincup Pass. We expected to reach our trailhead destination the next day.
George led us through the final mountain meadows and passes to Hancock Pass Trailhead.
Finishing the trail a day early, we spent yet another day climbing Mount Yale. I was too dizzy at 14,000 feet that I rested on the saddle while George and Rob scurried up the pile of rocks that formed the peak. A storm blew in with hard sleet, blinding us during our descent. Maybe the worst weather we had the entire week. We encountered several ladies running this trail, leaving me in awe with their form as they bounded the rocks like ballerinas. Just when you think you’ve accomplished something amazing, someone else comes by making it look easy.
But it wasn’t easy. It was so satisfyingly hard. Those mountains and the trail cleansed my soul unlike any vacation I’ve ever taken before. My button has been reset and I’m ready for what comes next.