You have further to drive this morning than previous segments, so you’re out the door by 4:30am and headed toward Breckenridge. You were up late the night before, but have all your gear set to go. You hope it’s all your gear. There’s much more of it for segment 6 as you plan to camp over night to complete the full 34 mile segment over the Memorial Day weekend. And you take along your snowshoes expecting to need them. You could view the Georgia Pass from your run on segment 5 last weekend, so you know there’s a good amount of snow – at least up high.
About a mile out, you realize you forgot your driving instructions. You decide to keep on because you’re fairly certain you remember the directions well enough. You know of course how to get to Breck and you just need to find the turn to the left off Hwy 9 at a traffic light. There aren’t that many traffic lights between Dillon and Breck – you’ll know it when you see it. You have a banana for the drive, but also stop at McDonalds 10 miles from your house for a large coffee and Breakfast McMuffin. Mickey Ds makes a decent brew. In Dillon, with your coffee nearly empty, you drop into Safeway to use the facilities. Feeling obligated, you purchase a couple of glazed donuts. You ask the cashier if she knows the turnoff to the trail head at the North Fork of Swan River. Your understanding is it should be at a light a few miles south toward Breck. She doesn’t hike but says yes in fact Swan River Road is just a few miles down the highway. Excellent.
Swan River Road sounds right, but you discover it’s the wrong road as it simply circles around the south end of Lake Dillon and dead ends at Hwy 6 after about 4 miles. Dammit. You turn around and head further south. The next light shows Tiger Road. That’s it. You drive 10 or so miles before you see Tumbleweed’s car parked at a campsite. He says he couldn’t go any further down the road to the trail head because it’s blocked by snow, but that you could easily walk it. Okay. You shuffle gear between cars and drive to Kenosha Pass to begin the longest segment of the Colorado Trail.
The trail begins winding through Aspen groves and would make for some good running, but you quickly discover it’s too difficult to run carrying snowshoes. Tumbleweed’s shoes are attached to his hip pack and will bounce against his legs if he runs, while yours’ are poking out the top of your back pack and would fall out with too aggressive a pace. That’s fine as this will be a long trek and you figure you might need to reserve your strength. You enjoy spectacular views along the hike and encounter your first fellow hikers – a couple perhaps in their 50s or 60s – after about a mile. They’re returning as they were spooked by some shooters up the trail firing weapons in a dangerous manner across the open meadow. You proceed cautiously. The campers appear to be taking a break from their morning shooting session. Various weapons, from hand guns to a crossbow are scattered about their campsite. To each their own.
Within two or three miles, you remove your gators and tights as the day has warmed up tremendously. You apply sunscreen generously and hike the remainder of the trail in shorts. Mounds of snow cover the trail at random, infrequent spots. You see this within the first mile and a half but they are easy to negotiate with your trail running shoes. After 3.5 miles you’re climbing the second hill but it doesn’t affect your pace since you’re not running. You meetup with a wild dog shortly after crossing Deadman Creek. He doesn’t appear dangerous as he drags half a frayed leather leash attached to his collar. You throw him some salami and continue onward. Around 5 miles you cross paths with another hiker with two Labs who has started toward Kenosha Pass from the Jefferson Lake Road trail head. He tells you he first went the other direction but encountered too much snow to continue. Hmm.
You’re not surprised then when at 7 miles you’re forced to strap on your snowshoes. You find it interesting that having only first snowshoed this winter for recreation, you’re now using your gear because you have to. Garmin lets you know that your pace has slowed from roughly 3 miles an hour – typical walking speed – to under 1.5 miles per hour. Not only have you donned snowshoes, but you are now climbing up to Georgia Pass and the Continental Divide. Four hours have passed at the 3 mph pace, and now you’ve slowed to half speed. This is going to be a long day – easily 10 hours.
Long doesn’t begin to describe how difficult this segment becomes after donning snowshoes. There’s nothing recreational about this snowshoe adventure and the reason is the snow. This is horribly bad snow. The texture of it, while icy, is as soft as Dairy Queen ice cream. Your shoes constantly post hole up to your crotch. By 10 miles, the snow is easily 6 feet deep and three or four times you post hole into buried evergreen saplings. The first time this happens, you’re able to extract yourself by digging down to the back of your shoe and pulling it out. The other times you’re in a position with your other leg above the hole to where you’re unable to reach your trapped foot with your hand. You discover the best method, really your only hope, is to dig out the snow from your trapped snowshoe with Tumbleweed’s trekking pole. He lent you one of his poles after your first such episode. Having your foot trapped under the snow like this is a near panic event. You learn what it is like for avalanche victims wherein the snow immediately hardens into ice after you crash through and without tools or help, you’d be stuck for good. You gain respect for the snow with this experience.
You learn a great deal from snowshoeing in these conditions. The trail is of course buried and CT trail signs are infrequent. Tumbleweed teaches you how to read trail blazes on the trees. These are patches of bark stripped from trees in a specific pattern so that you know it is man-made and purposeful rather than simple tree disease. The patch is on both sides of the tree so that you can see it approaching in either direction. This picture shows one such trail blaze above a CT sign. The trail blazes are frequent enough to keep you on the trail if you go slow enough to search for them. But by 10 miles these markers are buried under the snow and you lose the trail entirely. Tumbleweed has been using his topo map and Garmin waypoints but missed one and you’re forced to head up to tree line in order to find the trail over to the pass. The climb is brutal and eventually leads you to a point above the pass where you gaze down upon it and a spectacular 360° view of the eastern plains, Keystone ski runs to the north, and 13,297 foot Mount Guyot to the south, captured in the picture below.
You’ve covered 13.5 miles in 8 hours as you head down to the pass. You’re exhausted but excited to reach the Continental Divide. You want a picture of the big sign you’ve seen in other pictures, but don’t find it. Presumably it’s buried in snow. You do bend down to get a pic of a small sign that is nearly buried too. You spot a fox crossing the Divide and take some video upon reaching this truly fantastic panorama. The snow is melting seemingly on the exact spot of the Divide and running down the western slope of the trail – the absolute head waters of the Swan River.
It takes another 3 hours to get down to the North Fork Swan River trail head. The trail runs along a ridge near the pass, but it’s nearly impassable with deep snow drifts, so Tumbleweed guides you down a steeper path by Garmin waypoints. A little too steep and your thighs burn until you’re at the point of collapse. You suffer from waves of nausea whenever you stop to rest. While your fatigue requires eating, you’re too sick to swallow anything. You can barely drink without vomiting and your stomach begins to cramp. Tumbleweed’s reliance on the waypoints ignored the topo map and you discover you need to climb back up to the ridge. The downward trek left you completely spent, so you’re not certain you can. You keep moving forward – one slow step after another. The climb is indescribably painful and leaves you whimpering from distress and the uncertainty of completing the trail before nightfall.
The snow never diminishes and Tumbleweed navigates you down entirely by Garmin waypoints. You fall often from weakness but finally you reach the Middle Fork Swan River trail head. You determine to walk the Tiger Road back to your car from here rather than climb the final ridge over to the North Fork trail head. About the same distance either way, but the flat road will be measurably quicker. Your logic is that you won’t be able to complete the trail before nightfall and you’re totally too weak anyway. The road lies across the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Swan River. This is likely a dribble during the summer, but at this time of spring it’s gushing with snow melt. You find a suitable crossing and Tumbleweed leads by falling and drowning both feet and half his body into the icy water. He warns you to not trust the tree branches, so you hold them more aggressively and skip across the water successfully. This is jump one, another branch of the river remains. That one requires you to jump through two bushes and Tumbleweed fairs much better, although dipping an already soaked foot into the stream. You measure your jump carefully and reach the ground on the far side. Except that this ground is actually an ice patch which collapses back into the river. You flail your arms for the branches to keep from falling straight back into a bath of glacially cold water. Both feet are under with the rest of your body bent at the knees parallel to and inches above the river. Fear gives you the strength to pull yourself up by the branches seized in your fists. Your feet have been sacrificed and you accept their fate of a cold and wet 2 mile walk to the car, almost distracted by the thought of your evident upper body strength.
You decide not to hike – snowshoe – the remaining trail tomorrow. There are sufficient reasons from your fatigue and wet shoes to having something left for the Bolder Boulder on Monday, but the primary reason is you’d be an idiot to hike through such miserable snow after what you experienced today. You understand why other hikers are waiting until later in June. You walk another two miles in soaked shoes (you can only expect so much of Gore-Tex), still strapped in snowshoes, back to your car, and reach it as the sun falls below the mountain peaks after over 11 hours and 20 miles. You make plans to meet back at the trail post in this picture in about three weeks when you can be certain the snow has sufficiently melted into the Swan River. You eat one of the most satisfying double cheese burgers in memory at Empire Burger in Breck – a place you’ll return to for sure. Tumbleweed shuffles you back to your car at Kenosha Pass and you recount the suffering of today’s epic expedition. You both learned a great deal about hiking in Colorado before the snow melt. You drive away leaving Tumbleweed to camp on the pass and surprise Karen by arriving home early.