Last week in the far north of Scotland the sun rose at 8.46am and set at 3.31pm. The extended periods of darkness almost became meditative as the moonless nights swallowed the land. Bothies were my refuge; a fire, candles and the beam of my head torch pushing the darkness away. When dawn finally came the light was soft, the sun when visible low on the horizon.
Backpacking in mid November is a lottery where the odds are stacked against you. The forecast for last weekend was not very promising to say the least. The weather map had a big blob of blue over the country with fat wind arrows arriving from the South West. Despite this I just HAD to get out and HAD to wild camp. Sometimes I get an itch that must be scratched. A small patch of Wales sorted the itch out nicely and I came back a happier person with peat stains on my trousers.
This is a land of contrasts, high distinctive moorland, the fringes scarred by industry. It’s best to take the landscape as it comes, warts and all. The brutal decay was just as fascinating as the beauty.
I have lost my writing jazz at the moment so this trip report will take the form of a few snaps taken on my phone. Reuben proved himself to be a good model in this instance, as well as excellent company.
Zero day three – Leadville
I really enjoyed my stay in Leadville. Although obviously touristy it does have a certain old world charm. Its claim to fame is being the highest incorporated city in the United States at 10,152 feet, that is certainly high! I managed to pick an excellent Airbnb which had the luxury of a comfy private room but the vibe of a laid back hostel. It was full of an interesting mix of thru-hikers, including a couple doing the CDT, alongside mountain bikers and runners. The owner allowed the use of his bike to get to the supermarket, which as usual is out of town. Although acclimatised to hiking my lungs were not quite equipped to deal with the exertion of peddling. I overdid it and arrived at the store with my head and lungs feeling like they were going to explode.
During a long backpacking trip I dream of pizza when eating ramen and couscous day after day. It’s something that I rarely eat at home, perhaps my body needs all that fat from the cheese when on the trail. High Mountain Pies satisfied that particular craving whilst in Leadville. Highly recommended if you are ever up that way.
Days 13 to 17
Colorado Trail segments 9 to 13
Lowest altitude – 8,916 feet Highest altitude – 11,889 feet
Section distance – 73.3 miles Cumulative distance – 215.9 miles
Section ascent – 15,552 feet Cumulative ascent – 41,255 feet
It was suggested that I set off out of town early to try to thumb a lift back up Tennessee Pass. That way I would be able to get a ride with locals commuting to work. The suggestion appeared to pay off as one of the first vehicles stopped. They were from a nearby town and were heading to pick their daughter up from Denver airport. As the scenery passed and we chatted away I had a feeling that all was not right. The scenery appeared to be slightly different from when I travelled into town. I was horrified to learn that we were heading up another pass in the wrong direction. It turned out that they did not know the road that Tennessee pass was on whilst I assumed that they did! Thankfully they turned round back towards town and and took me up the correct pass, adding a chunk to their journey. It was with some relief that I put on my pack and continued along the trail.
The first part of the day was spent passing through Idyllic meadows en-route to the Porcupine Lakes. The trail gained height slowly and easily. As this section of trail passes through both the Holy Cross and Mount Massive Wilderness areas there is no worry about being mown down by a speeding mountain biker.
Close to the lakes the trees began to thin out giving great views of the surrounding rocky peaks.
It was magnificent being so high above the valley, a thick blanket of trees below filling the horizon. The trail itself was pure magic as it traversed the hillside. However, this section above tree line had me nervous as clouds had been building all morning.
In life fears are usually unfounded, however in Colorado my fear of storms was usually grounded in reality. The one that afternoon came in quickly and left a legacy of rain that lasted for hours. It arrived just as I reached the shelter of the trees, rumbles of thunder filling the air. As I descended I would pass large open areas which I would quickly scurry across like a mouse. The storm was slow-moving and I stood and watched for a while whilst white curtains of cloud tracked down a nearby valley. The white was hail and I could see it settling on the ground on the opposite hillside. It was soon battering me.
The booms of thunder only lasted an hour or so but the rain continued, cold and soaking. That evening it was a case of pitching my tent, collecting water and then diving for cover and not going outside again until the following morning. When morning did come I made a futile effort of drying out my wet gear, something that does not happen quickly in a damp forest.
Mount Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado at 14,440 feet dominated the view for much of the following day. Once again the thunder clouds gathered in the afternoon, the summit being hidden from view by swirling mists. At times it reminded me of the Scottish Highlands on a wet summers day. The blue Colorado skies were beginning to feel a long way away.
After passing the Mount Massive Trailhead the Colorado Trail joined the Mount Elbert Trail for a while. Despite the weather there were still quite a few folks coming down from the summit. It was only an hour or so to sunset so they must have been up there during the thunder and lightning. One couple said they had heavy snow on the summit. It was a bit like watching people descend from Snowdon; jeans, street trainers, leather jackets etc. When folks asked me where I had walked from, they appeared very taken aback when I said Denver!
Another night was spent on a damp forest floor, flat and comfortable for sleeping but having an inner tent full of pine needles soon gets old.
I was excited the following morning and up and packed early. The reason for the excitement was the prospect of a hiker friendly store very close to the trail. Four miles later I took a narrow and occasionally ill-defined side trail that led straight down to Twin Lakes, situated on CO Highway 82.
The store was a bit of an oasis and I did a mini re-supply to supplement the food that I had carried from Leadville. I then sat for an hour outside in the sun stuffing myself on fizzy drinks, coffee, ice cream and crisps. A few other thru-hikers were also hanging out. This included Brenden and Skylar who were also doing the Colorado Trail and had started around the same time as me. There was also a pair of older hikers who were completing the CDT after being snowed off the previous year. Sadly the restaurant was not due to open for a few hours so the meal I was looking forward to did not materialise.
I left the others to enjoy beer in the sun whilst I set off down the highway alone. It was probably only a couple of miles to pick up the official trail again where it crosses the road. However it was very hot that afternoon and the straight as an arrow road seemed to go on for eternity.
There then followed one of my least favourite sections of trail as it wound its way along the north shore of the huge lake. I had stupidly forgotten to fill my water bottle at the store or purchase some Coke as planned. I was gasping as I plodded along the endless dusty trail through sagebrush with no shade.
By the time I reached the dam I felt ready to collapse, the toilet blocks that I had passed did not have any taps or water. I decided that I would not be able to make it the five or so miles to the next water listed in the data book. In the end I took water straight from the large murky lake and hoped my water filter would do its job.
The south shore means decision time with regards to the trail. It’s where it splits and you have the choice of the Collegiate East or Collegiate West. The western route is the newest segment of the trail and takes a spectacular route mostly above tree line. I decided to take the Collegiate East route, which although has nearly the same amount of climbing is much more sheltered from the weather. The storms during the last couple of days had made me nervous about being high and exposed. My goal at that point was simply to go the distance.
I passed an enthusiastic young man who told me that none of the creeks until the next trailhead were flowing, and that I should fill up at the lake. This I duly did and staggered off up the switchbacks with six litres in my pack. My knees were buckling under all that weight.
Once again I camped on the dirt floor in the forest, this time on dry dust rather than pine needles. My tent was beginning to look rather shabby.
The next morning I was quietly swearing at the enthusiastic young man I passed the previous evening. It turned out that a couple of the creaks still had trickles of water. The backbreaking walk to camp had been totally unnecessary. Another mile and I could have camped next to fresh running water.
I woke to a beautifully clear and sunny morning with not a cloud in the sky. That day the trail was to show just how cruel it could be. Under an increasingly hot sun I walked dusty tracks and trails with a carpet of crickets hopping in front on me whilst their larger brethren span in the air making loud clacking sounds.
The trail descended and descended into a deep valley, dry and parched, the ground sparsely covered in vegetation, the odd cactus poking its head out of the dust. It was far too hot and bright.
The trail dropped me all the way down to 8,916 feet which in itself was cruel due to the heat. The cruelest thing however was that I now had to climb back up to 11,845 feet to the spot where I wanted to camp.
After crossing Clear Creek it was up, up and up to gain a ridge from Waverley Mountain at 11,653. At the top I met up with Brenden and Skylar for a while before descending again. The sting in the tail involved a 1,200 foot descent to 10,430 feet before the final climb to 11,845 feet. The whole thing during a sixteen mile day was totally exhausting. I soon regretted not being on the higher Collegiate West route, which once high stays high.
The sun was getting low in the sky as I crested the Mount Harvard ridge and came to a home-made sign on the trail. I have to say that it made me smile and feel rather pleased with myself.
With the sun setting I started to feel a bit nervous being out on my own, I began to imagine Mountain Lions shadowing me, ready to take me down when I least expected it.
A small trickle amongst dwarf willow saw to my water needs and I found a sheltered pitch on the tree line. I fell asleep happy with the knowledge that two hundred miles were now behind me.
I woke and got up at dawn after a rather disturbed night. Something had been shuffling round my tent during the early hours, occasionally pinging the tent guys. I kept poking my head out, shining my torch and wildly shouting into the dark night. There in the cold of light of day as I unzipped the tent was a rabbit. The wild beast of the night being smaller than expected.
It was great to start the day so high with weather so good. Hills rolled off into the distance, their wooded slopes hazy in the early morning air.
One of the highlights that day were the Harvard Lakes. It was still and quiet and I had my fingers crossed that I would spot a moose standing at the shallow waters edge. Alas it was not to be.
Once again I was crossing the grain of the land, the trail either going up or down hill, never flat for long enough to get into a good stride. The trail dropped down to the North Cottonwood Creek Road and another hot section.
From the County Road it is less than seven miles to the Avalanche Trailhead where I would be able to head into town to resupply. Unfortunately a ridge on Mount Yale stood in the way and it was a tough 2,400 foot climb followed by a similar descent. The scenery helped with the pain though.
The final descent to the trailhead is steep, culminating in a series of zig zags. I spotted a couple and their dog below and decided to put into action my getting a lift plan. This involved walking as fast as I could to catch them up, spending a few minutes chatting with them, befriending their dog, and then setting off at top speed down the trail. By the time they had got to their car and driven onto the road I was already standing there with my thumb out and a smile on my face. The plan worked and I was quickly on my way to Buena Vista. The reason they picked me up was because their dog liked me, which apparently means I am a good person.
Zero day two – Frisco
Walking through the streets of Frisco I was struck by just how strong the sun was. The sky was the deepest blue that I have ever seen, the lack of humidity plus the altitude gave it an unreal quality. Although the air temperature was only around 21C I could almost feel my skin sizzle and it was impossible to see without sunglasses. A far cry from the grey and damp UK.
Frisco itself also has an unreal quality to it. It felt like the set of the Stepford wives had been transported into the Rocky Mountains, everything seemed a little too perfect. It was squeaky clean and its inhabitants / visitors were slim and tanned with dazzling white teeth. A far cry from the loud, brash and overweight image of Americans that I had in my head. There was a good pick of bland and overpriced restaurants to choose from, so I spent a good proportion of my time in town filling my face. Despite my negativity in this post I still enjoyed the place in a Disneyesque sort of way.
The main reason for a Zero day on top of food and rest is to resupply. One thing that I have noticed in small American towns is that there are usually no grocery stores in the centre. They also lack corner shops so you can’t even pop out for a packet of crisps and a mars bar on a whim. Resupply in Frisco involved a long hot walk to the out-of-town Safeway. I did however come back with a reasonable haul for the three days it would take me to get to Leadville.
Days 10 to 12
Colorado Trail segments 7 & 8
Lowest altitude – 9,197 feet Highest altitude – 12,495 feet
Section distance – 38.2 miles Cumulative distance – 142.6 miles
Section ascent – 8,091 feet Cumulative ascent – 25,703 feet
Getting out of Frisco is a dream. You simply hop on a bus and remember to get off at the right stop. I was back on the trail not long after dawn, the shaded areas of grass covered in frost. The first section of trail that day was a bit of a chore, a series of switchbacks through an area of dead forest with the roar of traffic from the highway below. However after cresting and descending a minor ridge I was back in the wilds again, the mountains ahead piercing a deep blue sky.
I had a realisation early that day that I was suddenly feeling fit. My pack was around 16kg and I was climbing hills above 10,000ft. Yet the hiking was beginning to feel more and more effortless. With over a hundred miles behind me a more positive mindset was creeping in, I might just get to Durango!
On the climb towards the Ten Mile Range the trail passes through some beautiful grassy meadows. The short-cropped grass was almost calling me to pitch my tent. I somehow managed to resist.
The Colorado Trail climbs and climbs and climbs during this section en route to crest the Ten Mile Range between Peaks 5 and 6, at an altitude of 12,495 feet.
Once on the ridge I was struck with how similar the mountains looked to some of the Scottish Munro’s. However the big difference here is that the mountains are at least 10,000ft higher.
I found a sheltered spot in which to eat lunch and was kept entertained by a nearby yellow-bellied marmot that was whistling and keeping an eye on me. A Colorado Chipmunk was seeing how close it could get to me in the hope that I might drop a crumb. I think if I had turned my back it would have been straight in my pack looking for food.
The trail follows the ridge for a while and I came across the following sign that made me chuckle a bit.
Ten minutes later I was no longer chuckling when I stumbled and fell, my knee taking the brunt. I dusted myself off and gingerly hobbled to a nearby stream to clean off the blood and grit. A squirt of alcohol hand gel stung a bit but I was satisfied that the wound was clean.
Amongst the beauty of this part of Colorado are patches of ugliness. Directly below me lay the Copper Mountain ski resort and a very busy highway. The large rectangle area of land in the photo below is a car park that would take thousands of cars. I would be passing through Copper Mountain the following day.
Until then I still had the beauty of the mountains to enjoy and a long 2,500 foot descent.
I hadn’t really decided where I would spend that night. As I hit Colorado Highway 91 the databook said that camping was prohibited for the next four miles. I decided to carry on and see what the options were. In the end I found a nice flat spot in the forest close to a creek, just after a sign stating that I was on National Forest land. I took that to mean that camping should be ok. Although close to the resort and the busy highway the night was reasonably quiet, a small ridge in front of me blocking out the noise.
The following morning the trail led me right across the edge of the resort. I had thought about stopping for a second breakfast but was keen to get back into the mountains again. Within a few miles I was back in paradise.
It was a long and hot climb to Searle Pass at 12,043 feet. The trail was busy with Mountain bikers but they were all really friendly and chatty. I kept leapfrogging one group, showing that foot travel in these mountains can sometimes be just as quick as on two wheels. That’s on the uphill though, I was pretty envious to see them whizz back down the single track.
Once over Searle Pass there is a long section all above 12,000 feet that would be very exposed if any storms rolled in. I was lucky to cross it in perfect conditions and it was a section that I enjoyed immensely. In parts it reminded me of the Moine Mhor, a high Arctic plateau in the Cairngorms.
Kokomo was the last of the three 12,000ft passes before the trail descended into the headwaters of Cataract Creek. I was very tempted to camp at the tree line but something in my head told me to descend lower. In the end I found a great grassy clearing in the forest at 11,078 feet. I arrived feeling really hot and bothered and I found myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable. I forced down my evening meal but was immediately sick. I spent an hour or so laying in the shade, willing the sun to go down so I could get in my tent and go to sleep. A combination of altitude, sun and dehydration had caught me out for the first time.
Later that evening I was joined by a father and his young son who were walking as far as the Princeton Hot Springs. They were good company, until the chill of dusk sent me into my tent and sleeping bag.
There was another frost the following morning and I managed to be up and packed before the sun had risen above the surrounding steep mountains. It was a long descent through the forest until I found myself walking through sagebrush in a low and hot valley at just 9,300 feet. It’s amazing how in Colorado you can be in high Alpine meadows and then a few hours later in near desert conditions.
The final six miles to Tennessee Pass on US Highway 24 were long and hot. For some reason I had expected to arrive at the road, stick out my thumb and immediately be whisked into Leadville. In reality it did not work that way. I arrived at the road thirsty after running out of water and stood at the side of the road for an eternity whilst vehicles whizzed on by. The main problem is the geography of Tennessee Pass. It’s at the crest of a steep hill, right after a bend. By the time drivers have spotted you they don’t have time to make a decision whether to pick you up, they have passed and gone around another bend.
In the end salvation came in the form of a local man driving down from the nearby ski resort. He was kind enough to drop me right at the door of my Airbnb in Leadville.