You drive up to the mountains Friday afternoon, along with the rest of Denver for the 4th of July weekend. At times, it’s an uphill parking lot, especially around Idaho Springs. It occurs to you that maybe you should have taken Hwy 285, but you reach Tumbleweed at Tennessee Pass, on Hwy 24 near Leadville, just a little after 6pm. The traffic only adds about 30 minutes to your drive.
You leave Tumbleweed’s car at this trail head and drive to Copper Mountain to setup camp. You find a nice spot near the rushing snow melt of Ten Mile Creek. The parking lot is huge, it appears to be for overflow parking for Copper. This is very near tomorrow’s trail start at the Wheeler Trail bridge. Once you’ve pitched your tents, you head across Hwy 91 to Copper Mountain for dinner. You quaff a Guinness at a nice pub on the pond, but select Tucker’s Tavern for dinner based on the recommendation of some locals. You’re not disappointed. Tucker’s serves Henke’s beef from Paxton, Nebraska and you award them a puerco pibil for their ribeye. The guitar player/singer outside added to the atmosphere.
You retire early, and if that doesn’t reveal your age you get up sometime during the night to pee. As you step outside your tent, you gaze upward at the night sky. Nearly two miles up in the blackness of the forest, the stars are amazingly bright. If you were to leave home tomorrow morning, this view right now would make the trip worth it. Tomorrow morning is announced by Tumbleweed as he strolls by your tent to say it’s 4:35am and he’s headed down to the car to brew some coffee. Had he only stated the time, you’d have ignore him like the beep from your iPhone announcing a tweet. But he also mentioned something about coffee. So after a few minutes of deconstructing his complex sentence, you roll out of bed, tear down your tent, and pack it down to the car. 25 miles and snow require an early start.
The best news of the day came yesterday afternoon when Tumbleweed encountered some through hikers who’d just completed segment 8 without snowshoes or trekking poles. They report snow, but say it’s hard enough to walk over. So you leave the snowshoes in the car and gear up in shorts, gators and two shirts to warm you until the sun is up. But the sun never rises in Copper Mountain, it crests over the Ten Mile Range. A mile into the hike, headed west, you sight this sun crest as a reflection in the eyes of an eastbound smiling girl wearing a knit skull cap and walking her dog. She is the trail spirit Aurora. The beauty of the CT never ends.
You climb across the slopes of Copper Mountain and at 7 miles encounter snow. Your La Sportiva trail running shoes and REI gators are more than a match for the packed snow. Even above treeline where you must cross sizable fields of snow, you rarely post hole your trekking pole let alone a leg. This is passable. You reach Searle Pass at 10 miles and cross Elk Ridge to Kokomo Pass. The views here are among the best of the CT to date. All you see are snow-capped mountain peaks in your 360° vista. It’s not an original thought but you feel literally on top of the world.
The tall trail posts along Elk Ridge are visible, but Tumbleweed consults with Garmin way points to guide you through some questionable spots. You’re delighted to discover that since earlier through hikers bushwhacked their way across the tundra, you’re still blazing some of this trail as your shoes leave the first tracks in the snow. After your own bushwhacking experience over Georgia Pass, you appreciate Garmin way points.
The difference in the texture of the snow is worth mentioning. Above treeline are countless small seas of snow with rippling waves that fully support your weight. It’s even stronger near the rocky beaches, whereas two weeks ago the edges were slushy and sloppy. No doubt your early start is affording you this still hard surface. The sky is cloudless and your skin already burning from the sun. Two hikers you spotted about 30 minutes behind you seem to drop back on their pace. You suspect the snow is already softer by the time they reach it and it’s slowing them down.
As if they ever stood a chance at catching you. Tumbleweed notes your plans to begin running down from Kokomo Pass and begins to trot the start of your third 10K in this 40K hike. Having only walked the first half of today’s hike, you have the strength to run downhill. The pace is best described by “dancing” as you negotiate foot placement among the rocks. You rely upon the trekking poles first as caution and later for support as your knees begin to weaken. You run most of these 6 miles downhill but begin walking before it flattens. Your knees aren’t in pain so much as you lose confidence in their ability to withstand any more pounding.
Once in the flats, you recover your strength by walking. Tumbleweed clears some of winter’s damage of downed trees from the trail. You’re surprised to encounter so few hikers/bikers on the trail given this is a holiday weekend. The only other hiker was an older woman with a shepherd mix named Rainbow whom you passed by after Kokomo Pass. At 16 miles, where Tumbleweed stashed refreshments Friday afternoon, you’re deluged by a clockwork orange of droogs on RTVs, filling the air with dirt from the gravel road they’ve commandeered. The flats are further burdened with a scorching sun that taps out your energy and lengthens the last few miles. And while not overly steep, the final 10K is measurably uphill. Enough so that your legs feel it. And your feet, having been slammed on the downhill, are now tender and you’re thinking of reaching the car to sit down.
But there are more odd sights along the way. The 10th Mountain Division litters the trail with huts and other WWII paraphernalia. You don’t know what to make of this monolithic cement structure, but recognize other huts and the coking ovens. You recall the history of this fighting crew that lost up to 25% of its forces battling the Germans in the Italian Alps. They prepared for battle in paradise.
You’re as tired as you’ve been on any of the CT segments after you reach the trail head. While certainly not as brutal as crossing Georgia Pass, you credit an unrelenting sun for your complete exhaustion. You change into comfortable clothes, shuffle cars and head to Leadville for a meal. You consider driving another few miles to the trail head to setup your tents, but after hiking 25 miles in 10 hours, the need to refuel is paramount.
Dinner at the Golden Burro was fair, although not close to your expectations. You’ve enjoyed some really unforgettable gastronomical experiences on the prior 7 segments of the CT, so your foodie bar is set high. Perhaps as important as the food is you prefer a locally brewed tap beer. Is that too much to expect in Colorado? No, it isn’t. But that’s fine. You buy some chips and a 20 ounce PBR while gassing up your car on the drive back to the trail head. You pitch your tent with noticeably less precision than the night before. You’re tired. Tumbleweed announces it’s camper’s midnight at 9pm and you pass out ’till morning.