October 10, 2017

The Arctic Trail – Kautokeino to Kilpisjärvi pt2 (gorges and waterfalls)

by backpackingbongos

The Arctic trail starts at Kautokeino in the far north of Norway and heads south for approximately 800 kilometres. It crosses into Finland and Sweden, finishing either in Kvikkjokk (Sweden) or Sulitjelma (Norway). To confuse things the trail has a different name in each of the countries through which it passes. In Norway it is called the Nordkalottruta, in Finland the Kalottireitti, and in Sweden the Nordkalottleden. In English it is simply called the Arctic Trail as the entire 800 kilometres are above of the Arctic Circle. Not to be confused with the Arctic Circle Trail, which is in Greenland!

Part one can be read here.

It took ages for the sun to reach the frozen tent, birch trees casting shadows over my pitch. It had been cold enough over night to turn water bottles and boots to ice. I dragged everything into the sun to allow the condensation to dry whilst I ate breakfast. The frost had finished off the insects of the previous evening, so it was nice to sit outside unmolested.

The trail that day was much easier to follow, first through birch trees and then climbing across low fells. I couldn’t have asked for better weather, cool and breezy and the bluest of blue skies.

The surrounding hills rose to around 600 metres and the landscape for a while reminded me of parts of the Grampians in Scotland. Once above the trees the path became firmer and for the first time it was actually possible to see it snaking off into the distance.

Sitting against a boulder, boots off and enjoying the sun I spotted a lone figure far down the trail. Initially I thought that it was a reindeer until I realised it was a biped with a long wooden pole. It looked strange at first as I had not seen another person hiking in the five days since leaving civilisation. As a self-confessed misanthropic hill walker I was surprised to find myself looking forward to having a brief conversation. It turned out to be a German guy who had walked the entire Nordkalottleden trail from Sulitjelma. With a tiny canvas backpack, checked shirt, Lundhags boots and wooden staff he looked like he had stepped straight out of the eighteenth century. He had walked the Nordkalottleden before and I was glad when he confirmed that the worst bit of the trail was behind me.

I asked if the DNT hut at Nedrefosshytta was locked and he confirmed that it was, a shame as I didn’t have the DNT key. He said that another German guy was a couple of kilometres ahead of me and was heading to the hut. He recommended staying the night as it was very comfortable and even had a sauna! He also let me know that there was a free hut before the DNT one that was meant to be good.

The trail began to descend back into the birch forest, with tantalising glimpses of the Reisadalen gorge and the mountains on its western side.

The map indicated the small hut just off the trail and close to the Luvddijdjohka river. I walked to the spot where it should have been and found nothing, even using my GPS to confirm my position. I walked in ever-widening circles and was just about to give up when I spotted a small structure at the bottom of a steep loose bank. I left my pack and went down to investigate. My nose confirmed what I thought it would be, I had found the privy, now just to find the hut.

Close to the river the vegetation was thick and jungle like. I walked towards the river and spotted a chimney poking out of what looked like a dense patch of trees, shrubs and grass.

I was expecting it to perhaps be a disused and overgrown Sami hut but when I walked round to the front I had a very pleasant surprise. It was like I had died and gone to hut heaven!

A stack of seasoned wood was in the open porch along with a new and sharp axe. The door was unlocked and the interior was both rustic and pristine. I was worried that I had entered someones private cabin, but a log book confirmed that it was available to anyone that can find it.

I set about unpacking and then lighting the stove which had been set by the previous occupants. It was a great opportunity to wash in hot water and wash and dry my trail stained and stinking clothes. The tiny hut was soon an explosion of kit, a mini sauna of dripping laundry.

Later as the sun was setting I climbed back up the steep bank to watch its descent behind the mountains. I stood for a while marvelling at the beauty and silence, my breath rising in the quickly cooling air.

I spent a while splitting wood after dinner, making sure that I replaced what I had used. I had to let the stove go out after going to bed as it was too efficient for the small cabin. I’m sure that it would be hugely appreciated when the temperatures drop to minus thirty in winter.

The lively river outside provided a noisy symphony to fall asleep to and I felt a bit restless wondering if someone would join me for the night. I woke and went outside after midnight for the loo and was treated to a small display of the northern lights.

It was great to put on clean clothes and pack dry kit the following morning. I made sure that the cabin was as I found it and walked back to the trail.

As I descended towards the Reisadalen the scenery became more dramatic, the trail beginning its long descent to the floor of the gorge. In the space of a few kilometres I went from sparse open forest and heath to being hemmed in by rock walls and thick vegetation. All the time I could hear the main river getting louder and louder.

There was a section where the trail is forced up above the river to traverse a loose and crumbling cliff face. Thankfully there were sections of wire bolted into the cliffs to give a handrail of sorts. With a large pack I found the going a bit hairy in places and didn’t dare let go and risk a photo. The trail then traversed some large scree slopes with big drops to the river below. None of this was particularly difficult but I did realise that I was on my own and a very long way from civilisation.

I was glad to see the wooden suspension bridge that would allow me to cross from the east to west side of the valley.

It was surprisingly bouncy and felt a long way above a particularly deep and dark section of river. I kept my eyes straight ahead and did not look down!

The DNT hut of Nedrefosshytta was firmly locked so I sat in the porch and had a snack after peering through all of the windows. It did look particularly plush inside and at around £15 a night looked to be very good value. When I return to Norway I’ll make sure that I join the DNT and obtain a key.

Just as I was leaving I met a French guy walking in the opposite direction. He was completing the trail in one go and gave me a few tips for the route ahead. He was travelling with a small pack and trailshoes and was quick to point out the trouble he had with snow earlier on in his hike. He said that his trailshoes had made crossing deep and steep snow difficult.

The highlight of a visit to Reisadalen is the Mollisfossen waterfall. This has a total drop of  269 metres (883 feet) and plunges over the cliffs of the canyon. I heard it long before I could see it as initially it is hidden by cliffs.

Sadly it is located on the other side of the river which is far too deep and strong to even attempt to cross. I had to be content to view it from a distance. Even so it was pretty impressive.

I had read of the difficulty of walking through Reisadalen due to the vegetation and possibility of the river flooding the path. I can imagine that this vegetation obscures the path early in the summer and it would be a tough bush whack to get through. However by September lots of feet had bashed a path through the tall ferns and it was mostly easy to follow. Thankfully it was dry as you would otherwise get absolutely soaked!

Easy walking was punctuated with sections of boulders that require careful footwork. These were slow and tiring and as the day progressed I was always on the look out for somewhere to sit.

Being a Friday there were a few boats going up and down the river, shuttling hikers (and dogs) up to Nedrefosshytta. An excellent way to travel deep into the National Park. With the river being low it looked like the boatmen were having difficulty in picking a route. They were travelling in long motorised canoes with plastic garden chairs for the passengers.

I had planned to stop and pitch at Sieimma with its locked hut, fireplaces and picnic area. However the area was a mess and full of rubbish so I decided to push on. Being Friday evening there was also the risk of folks coming later by boat.

I did wonder if I would regret carrying on as the path turned rocky again. After spotting a tent sized patch of flattened vegetation I did not hesitate to pitch. It was a beautiful spot underneath a big old pine tree, cliffs to the rear and the river in front.

A couple of boats passed after dark and later on there were a couple of what sounded like gun shots echoing down the valley. Apart from that it was a comfortable night, insect free and with the door of the tent left open.

Being close to a river and surrounded by vegetation I was expecting everything to be soaked by condensation in the morning. Strangely it was the driest morning of the whole trip, even the flysheet was bone dry. I got up knowing that the weather was forecast to break later that evening. The plan was to get as far as possible to shorten a high and exposed section the following day. I cooked and ate breakfast outside, not knowing that it would be the last time I would be able to do so on this trip. The weather was soon going to be a major factor, both in terms of safety and enjoyment.

I walked the final 10 kilometres to the dirt road at Saraelv, which my map marked as a settlement. My hope would be that there was a small cafe or somewhere to buy a coffee and some snacks. There was nothing! I had enough food but my appetite had increased and I wanted a little extra to satisfy the permanent hunger. It’s not easy carrying 12 days food and ensuring a full belly.

The trail follows the dirt road for a short distance before a sign points the way back into the mountains. Having dropped down to only 100 metres above sea level I knew that it would be an upwards slog. I stopped for a while at a very impressive waterfall and nervously crept to the edge of a terrifying drop to the river far below.

As I climbed higher pine made way for birch once more, yellow in their autumn glory. The landscape that I was in reminded me of the Scottish Highlands, but with the addition of trees on the lower slopes. With both countries having a similar climate (with Norway being even harsher) there is definite scope for re-wilding in Scotland. Instead we seem hell bent on destroying that landscape, the feeling of wildness disappearing at an alarming rate.

Above 500 metres the last of the trees were left behind and I plodded upwards under an increasingly leaden sky. Finding a place to pitch became increasingly difficult, the vegetation short but spiky.  A patch of relatively flat bilberry between two streams was adequate in the end, rocks being used to secure guy lines in the strengthening wind. I got my gear in the tent and went to fetch water just as the first spots of rain began to fall. The good weather on this trip was now behind me.

The paper maps that I used on this segment are the red covered Norge-serien 10165 Guovdageaidnu and 10154 Reisadalen.

Whilst hiking I shared my route live on Social Hiking. That route can be found here and viewable on Google maps.

If you’re interested in following this route on an electronic topo map they are in order below. You can click to view them full size.

 

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September 24, 2017

The Arctic Trail – Kautokeino to Kilpisjärvi pt1 (marsh and forest)

by backpackingbongos

The Arctic trail starts at Kautokeino in the far north of Norway and heads south for approximately 800 kilometres. It crosses into Finland and Sweden, finishing either in Kvikkjokk (Sweden) or Sulitjelma (Norway). To confuse things the trail has a different name in each of the countries through which it passes. In Norway it is called the Nordkalottruta, in Finland the Kalottireitti, and in Sweden the Nordkalottleden. In English it is simply called the Arctic Trail as the entire 800 kilometres are above of the Arctic Circle. Not to be confused with the Arctic Circle Trail, which is in Greenland!

When researching this trail I found that there was little written in English. Hopefully this blog will be helpful for others planning a similar trip.

The plane was half empty when it landed in Alta at 11.00pm on a Friday night, most passengers had disembarked during the brief stopover in Tromsø. Alta is the second most northerly city in the world with more than 10,000 inhabitants. Waiting for my luggage in the tiny airport I watched the passengers wrap up warm and disappear into the dark and rainy night.

The last bus into town had long gone so I walked over to the empty taxi rank, wondering what to do. Thankfully a taxi pulled up within a few minutes. I passed the handwritten address to the driver for the Airbnb that I had booked, then marvelled at the speed at which the meter racked up the fare as we headed towards town.

There is something rather disorientating about arriving in a strange place late at night. Thankfully my host who was away for the weekend had sent me a video showing how to find and get into the apartment. Otherwise I fear I would have spent the night under a tree in the rain.

I was eager to check out my surroundings the following morning and have to say that I was blown away by the ‘city’ view from the decking outside.

I had planned a town day to get some final supplies including gas, and to double-check that a bus would get me to Kautokeino the following afternoon. Research at home showed that there was no direct service on a Sunday (and none on a Saturday) and that the connection that I needed was exactly zero minutes long. Emails to the bus company had been ignored, so I set off on the walk into town rather anxious and keen to get some definite information.

That anxiety was heightened further when I discovered the bus station was simply a weedy patch of gravel and the tourist information centre was closed for the weekend. There was an electronic board in the window showing the first bus I wanted, but no indication of the connecting service. It would be a case of turn up and see the following afternoon.

With gas and food for my stay in Alta procured I headed back to the apartment and made up some lunch for a short hike. My accommodation was located on the lower slopes of the 213 metre high Peak of Komsa. A myriad of paths lead to the rocky summit and a view that is out of proportion to its small stature.

The next day I had a long time kicking my heels, with check out from the apartment at midday and the bus at 16.05. Alta is not a Sunday town and the main street was pretty apocalyptic in its complete absence of life. Most of Alta’s shops are in a single shopping centre which was closed. I suppose that when you are 236 miles north of the Arctic circle and the sun does not rise for two continuous months, indoors is attractive!

I managed to waste a few hours by loitering on a bench and then going for a very expensive pizza,my bus anxiety growing.

When the bus arrived I was pleased that I managed to pronounce Kautokeino correctly and relieved that the bus driver would be driving the connecting bus. The journey went smoothly and when we arrived at Gievdneguoika (just a bridge) there was already a bus waiting on a lonely road in the absolute middle of nowhere. Passengers and luggage were swapped over and I finally relaxed on the final half hour into Kautokeino.

Before setting off to find the start of the trail I popped into the garage / service station in town for a snickers and a can of coke. It set me back just over £6. I was glad that my wallet was going to stay in my rucksack for the next twelve days. That rucksack was heavy, weighing just over 20kg. It contained everything that I would need for 12 days whilst crossing a large chunk of wild and remote terrain.

The actual trail starts a couple of kilometres out of town at a hand painted sign and a deteriorating information board. The information board appeared to suggest that I initially take a parallel route to the official one I had marked on my map. In retrospect I think that perhaps it meant don’t take the parallel route. I should have brushed up on my Norwegian.

Anyway the parallel route started off as a nice soft track through the birch trees. I realised that I was not going to get as far as I initially planned that first day. I had got the sunset times wrong and it was going to be dark earlier than I thought. The light was already fading under the leaden sky.

The trail passed between two lakes so I filled my water bottles, hood up to avoid the mosquitos that were keen on a meal. I then headed back along the trail a short distance to a flat patch of mossy ground that I had spotted. Suitable pitches can be difficult to find north of the Arctic Circle. The ground is either rock, bog or tough prickly vegetation. You have to forget about the lush grassy pitches of the UK.

It’s only when my tent is first pitched and my gear laid out that I start to relax on a long backpacking trip. When I realise that I have not forgotten anything and the stress of getting to the start of the trail is over.

Although in early September the nights are quickly drawing in, dawn still comes early in the Arctic. I woke to clear blue skies and a chill in the air. I sat and ate breakfast outside the tent, waiting for the condensation to dry before packing it away.

The track continued to give easy walking and the sound of traffic on the road into Kautokeino began to fade. At regular intervals I checked my position on both the map and on my GPS, pleased that this ‘alternative’ route was so straightforward. I began to hope that the whole route would be a nice stroll in the park.

The track slowly started to fade and I realised that it had not connected with the official route as it should have done. Using my GPS I set off into a tangle of birch and undergrowth on a mission to get back on track. I found exactly where the trail should have been but there was no sign of it on the ground. I navigated through dense vegetation on the line of the trail, cursing and wondering where it had gone. This continued for some time as I came to an open marshy section, the trail nowhere to be seen. I squelched my way across, occasionally backtracking to avoid particularly deep or wobbly sections. Slow moving streams would be particularly boggy and difficult to approach.

I got to the other side of the shallow valley and was relieved to climb onto firmer, drier ground. Although this meant getting tangled in vegetation once again. With a heavy pack, surprisingly warm weather and biting insects I was already wondering if I’d bit off more than I could chew.

And then suddenly I came across the narrowest of paths, red blazes of paint on the trees. An intermittent trail to follow increased my confidence and quickened my pace. The rest of the day was spent frequently losing this trail as it wound its way through bog, marsh and forest. The worst section was a combination of marsh and forest, the trail being a knee deep ordeal of stinking black bog. One small stream was just a little too wide to jump across. It looked to be only a few inches deep so I walked across, sinking to my thighs in the swamp hidden beneath. I walked in wet undies for the rest of the day.

The trail once again became a firm track as higher ground was reached and it wound its way towards the 528 metre summit of Goaskinvarri.

This small summit was the first time that I was able to appreciate the sheer scale of the landscape that I was in. In some ways the view was more impressive than an array of jagged peaks. There was literally nothing as far as the eye could see, just a vista of forest, lakes and low fell. I imagined what it would be like during a mid winter storm in such an open and exposed place.

After another section of wet ground I decided to pitch early after spotting another soft and flat area of deep moss and lichen. It was beautiful being at the edge of the forest, the trees a golden yellow, open fells rising above a brightly coloured marsh. The insects were out but not too troublesome and they all dissapeared during the cool Arctic evening.

I woke just after midnight and popped my head out of the tent to see my first ever show of the Northern lights. A wisp of green was pulsating overhead, coming and going like it was blowing in the wind. I wish that I had got up and set up the camera. Instead I took some snaps on my mobile and was soon asleep again. The trail had taken its toll.

The following morning I got creative with the route. The Arctic Trail (Nordkalottruta) heads towards the road and then does a loop around the hamlet of Čunovuohppi and a hut with the fabulous name of Madam Bongos. I however had noticed an unmarked trail on the map that instead would take me over some low fells and rejoin the route. I was keen to get up high again rather than flounder through boggy forest.

It turned out to be a good decision as a clear path led across a crisp landscape with fantastic views under the clearest blue skies imaginable.

As I rejoined the trail (after spending an hour looking for it) I noticed what I had found strange over the past couple of days. The skies were completely empty, there were no planes or helicopters. Just the sound of the wind and my own footsteps.

Later that day I found out that although devoid of hikers this area is the work place of the Sami people. I met four in total on huge quad bikes out checking their reindeer and the reindeer fences. They were all friendly, stopping to see what I was up to and where I was heading. One explained that one side of the fence was the winter grazing ground whilst the other was for summer. The reindeer would soon be swapping sides.

The rest of the day was thankfully spent above the tree line, which this far north is 450 metres. A series of quad bike tracks led easily across the hills and I passed an eerily quiet Sami settlement, a collection of small cabins and the ubiquitous rotting caravan.

I pitched a bit higher that night, just above 500 metres. The wind was cold and strong and the tent pegs struggled to get a good purchase in the thin soil. Several large rocks had to be deployed to keep the tent attached to the ground. It was a great evening sitting snug in my tiny tent listening to the wind and watching the moon rise.

The trail early the next day stayed high, leading to the 600 metre summit of Rivkkos. The first thing that drew my eye was the large Ráisjávri lake just within Reisa National Park. The Arctic trail (Nordkalottruta) would follow the shoreline before heading towards the gorge for which it is known. On the horizon I could see the snow capped peaks of Halti which I would cross the following week.

The one manmade intrusion into this part of the trail is a powerline that cuts through the wilds in an unnaturally straight line. Thankfully it is a double wooden pole version rather than the steel monstrosities of home. Most of the time you can’t really see it but there are sections when the trail crosses it.

Along the eastern shore of Ráisjávri it provides a good handrail, although this did not stop me losing the path yet again in a mire and tangle of undergrowth.

Losing the path meant that I did come across an atmospherically dilapidated hut in the forest. Complete with rotting furniture and curtains it was straight out of a horror movie.

There are a few cabins around Ráisjávri but no one was at home, the only sign of life being a smokehouse giving off a wonderful smokey / fishy aroma. I would have happily have purchased an arctic char to go with dinner that night.

Shortly after passing the locked cabin at Ráisjávrihytta I crossed the boggiest bog that I have ever experienced. It wasn’t just boggy but bordering on dangerous. The whole area had been churned up by quad bikes so was a quaking, black oozing mess. Matting has been laid on top on some sections but there is nothing to secure it to. I wouldn’t be surprised if people haven’t sunk there without trace. At least there was a deep, wide and freezing cold river to cross before getting mucky again.

After the bogs of doom the ground became drier and a series of quad bike tracks over stony ground were followed. The end of Ráisjávri was passed and the scenery began to open up, hills rising to the north.

There was one more river to cross that day, the ritual of taking off boots and socks and putting on a pair of sandals. The water cold enough to make you gasp. I was never hard enough to go for a proper dip.

I found a well used pitch close to the river, the surrounding trees even more yellow than ever. It was cold enough that night to freeze the platypus bottles solid along with anything else left in the open porch.

The paper map that I used on this segment is the red covered Norge-serien 10165 Guovdageaidnu.

Whilst hiking I shared my route live on Social Hiking. That route can be found here and viewable on Google maps.

If you’re interested in following this route on an electronic topo map they are in order below. You can click to view them full size.

September 22, 2017

The Colorado Trail – article in Outdoor Enthusiast magazine

by backpackingbongos

Apologies that there have been a few months of silence here at Bongo towers. It appears that I have lost my blogging mojo somewhat. I’ve been out and about lots during this time but simply could not be bothered to write about it!

One thing I have written is an article on last years hike on the Colorado Trail. Outdoor Enthusiast can be read online for free by clicking the picture.

May 2, 2017

Ben Klibreck and a bothy night

by backpackingbongos

Over the years I have ended up planning to climb Ben Klibreck during the dark end of Autumn. This has never been a very good tactic, as I end up sitting in the van on the road below thinking ‘Perhaps not today’. This is usually due to a big cap of cloud cloaking its summit or a gale rocking the van.

The 27th November 2016 once again saw me sitting in the van on the road below the mountain. However for once the russet moorland grasses were lit by a low sun sitting in a wintry blue sky. After a long journey even Reuben was enthusiastic about leaving his warm comfortable seat and heading into the Highland chill.

The day was short so I decided that the route would be by the standard Munro baggers path. This was boggy and slippery until firm ground was reached on Cnoc Sgriodain. As is usual in the Northern Highlands the higher ground often gives much easier conditions underfoot. The lower slopes are usually a tangle of heather or tussocks, peat sucking at your boots.

A fine path contours the slopes below Creag an Lochan and my eye was soon drawn to the wild and empty land to the west. It’s a huge vista with barely any influence of man visible. It truly is magnificent.

One of the reasons why I have been so eager to climb Ben Klibreck the last few years is because of the imminent Creag Riabhach Wind Farm. This will see twenty two wind turbines up to 125 metres (410 feet) high, on the ground in the middle distance. If it finally gets built it will decimate this stunning part of Scotland, unnecessary industrialisation of a very wild area.

By the time I had averted my gaze and gained the ridge proper the clouds were rolling in, seemingly appearing from nowhere. However I suspect that they had been hiding on the other side of the mountain all along.

It was cold on the summit and the clouds obscured the view, I was enclosed in a damp and windy world, visibility down to a few metres. I had been using the app Routebuddy on my phone as a convenient pocket sized map. Unfortunately the cold immediately killed the iPhone battery as I was taking some photos on it. Luckily I always carry a paper map as back up, but where was my compass? I then saw it in my mind, safely sitting in the pocket of my backpacking sack that I would be using later that evening. I had forgotten to swap it between sacks as the day before I had been backpacking. The perils of doing a trip that mixes both day walks and backpacking routes!

Thankfully the return simply involved retracing my steps, it would have involved a lot of effort to actually get lost. As I picked up the narrow path once again the mist started to thin. Silhouettes of nearby hills started to drift in and out of view, the hidden sun providing a backlight.

Suddenly the mist parted like a curtain and I was treated to a very special sunset.

It was an amazing way to end a day on a mountain, however it is a strange feeling to have night come so early. It was dark around 3.30pm when I finally got back to the van, the sun would not rise until nearly 9am the following morning. It was going to be a long period of darkness.

I drove a few miles north across empty moors, a lack of lighting from houses or buildings a bit disconcerting. The roads were empty, the verges quickly eaten up by the inky darkness. There was absolutely nothing out there.

I initially missed the rough layby and had to double back. With no moon it was absolutely pitch black outside, the sort of darkness where you can’t tell your arse from your elbow. I relied on technology to pinpoint my exact location. My backpack was already packed and ready to go, heavy with coal and kindling. A few steps away from the van and it was gone.

I have to say that I panicked when I got to where I thought the bridge was and saw that it was not there. Thankfully after walking up and down the banks of the river by headtorch I found what I was looking for. The walk along the north shore of Loch Loyal gave me a handrail for navigation. The only sound was the crunch of gravel under my boots, the only thing to see was the red light I had attached to Reuben’s collar.

I finally approached the building with apprehension, would there be smoke in the chimney and candle light in the window? All was dark, cold and silent when I arrived at the door. The metal latch seemed loud, all there was inside was the faint ghost of woodsmoke. The bothy was empty and currently mine alone.

I bagged a small snug room for myself and Reuben, there was still the possibility of other visitors so I did not want to spread out in the main room. Candles were lit and the fuel I had carried in was soon filling the lum with fire and smoke. Dinner was cooked and cans of beer opened, Reuben snoring on his mat. For me a perfect evening.

With no moon and zero light pollution I kept popping out to see if the Northern Lights would make an appearance. They did not but the sky was full of a billion stars.

Bed time was early, Reuben and I tucked away in the wood panelled snug, the door shut against anything that may go bump in the night, secured against the bothy ghosts.

Nothing did go bump in the night and many hours later I was outside before dawn having a look at the previously hidden surroundings. The bothy is located in a magical spot.

With no facilities at the bothy I did the ritual walk of shame with the spade far away from both the building and water source. I was soon packed up, ensuring all litter was packed out, the fireplace clean and the floor swept. I was once again crunching along the gravel beach of Loch loyal, the sun finally rising for another short day. Onwards to my next adventure in the far north.

Achnanclach bothy is maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association. Full details can be found here, including the bothy code. Basically don’t be a dick, respect the building and other users, carry out your rubbish and any you find, don’t shit near the building or water source, don’t visit in big groups, leave fuel for others. Pretty simple really.

March 21, 2017

The Colorado Trail pt10 – Molas pass to Durango

by backpackingbongos

Days 33 to 37 (10th to 14th September 2016)

Colorado Trail segments 25 to 28

Lowest altitude – 6,983 feet    Highest altitude –  12,500 feet

Section distance –  73.9 miles    Cumulative distance – 484.6 miles

Section ascent – 11,709 feet    Cumulative ascent – 89,103  feet

There was frost on the cars outside the Blair Street hostel when I left not long after dawn. Silverton was still in shadow as I walked down the main street to the petrol station on the outskirts of town. Traffic was light and I was not having much luck with the few vehicles that passed. It was cold standing there in my shorts and showing a bit of leg was perhaps having a negative effect. I got talking to a local guy who was putting up some election posters across the road. He took pity on me and ran me to the top of Molas pass in his pickup.

It was good to get on the trail early and I was soon passing Little Molas Lake. It looked rather splendid under the deep blue sky.

The first few miles that morning was the busiest section of trail I had walked on for a while. Good weather on a Saturday had brought out the day trippers. The area was also rather crowded with various hunters coming and going from the trailhead. Being from the UK it was a surreal sight seeing loads of men in full camo lurking in the woods. They had obviously gone to great expense to buy all the gear and looked like they were about to be shipped off to a war zone. Their ‘uniform’ was then topped off with orange caps and bibs, which understandably means they don’t accidentally shoot each other. Obviously a good idea with so many guns about but surely that then defeats all that camo?

Gun shots filled the air for a few miles. I think that if I was furry and had four legs I would have left the area. I enjoyed my trip to the States greatly but I left completely baffled with regards to the obsession with guns.

The trail does a big high level traverse of the valley before reaching a saddle between two peaks.

I crossed a high pass and took to the switchbacks on the other side. It was hot under that gin clear sky and shade was at a premium. I eventually found a stand of pine, removed my shoes and socks and lay out my tyvek groundsheet. It was good to lounge in the shade for half an hour, watching groups of hikers and mountain bikers go past.

Camp that night was about a hundred metres from the trail. It took me a while to find an area that was both flat and not either covered in vegetation or stones. One of the benefits of having a small tent is that you can squeeze it into some small spots.

The following day it looked like the weather was about to turn, the blue skies replaced by a grey haze. I was passing through a landscape that would not look out of place in a western. High meadows, pine forest and huge rocky peaks on the horizon. I just needed a cowboy to trot past to complete the picture.

The trail was magical as it weaved its way around various ridge lines. My reverie however was shattered by the whine of trail bikes, something that always seem out of place in such wild areas. The sound soon grew louder and a pair passed, leaving me in a cloud of fumes. I’m almost certain that the section of trail that I was on was not open to motorised vehicles. They were gone but I could hear them for ages as they made their way up to Blackhawk pass.

As I approached the pass I had my eye on the weather as the afternoon clouds were beginning to build. It would be far too early to stop for the night so I continued, hoping for the best.

There was some interesting geology at the top of the pass with bands of red rock. I could make out lines of showers nearby so did not hang around for long.

With the risk of storms I decided to pitch in the forest, picking what looked like a flat and well used site below the trail. Perception can be deceptive though as the site was far from flat. I managed to get an acceptable pitch but once the tent was up I found myself being physically and verbally assualted. I had obviously entered the territory of a very determined and antisocial squirrel. Whenever I was out of my tent I would be showered with pine cones, the air filled with squirrel obscenities.

The assault continued the following morning whilst I packed my gear away. Thankfully my hat deflected most of the pine cones, although the language the squirrel used was obscene.

I filled up my water bottles and drank a litre as the databook said that the next reliable water source was at Taylor Lake, 22 miles away.  I knew that it was unlikely that I would get that far in one day, it would also mean crossing the high point of the Indian Trail ridge late in the afternoon. That is one section where you really don’t want to get caught in a storm. My only hope was a seasonal spring 15 miles away. Most water sources during the previous weeks had been running so I set off with my fingers crossed.

The weather broke down early and I spent a terrified half hour crouched in the woods, too afraid to move through a short treeless section of trail. Thunder and lightning were directly overhead and hail battered the hood of my jacket. At one point I thought it had finished and got up to move on, only for another huge crash of thunder to stop me in my tracks.

The storm passed leaving cloud and rain in its wake, a damp misty afternoon was spent walking through the woods.

The trail was liberally covered in what looked like bear scat, full of berries. I never got to see one on the entire trail but judging by the amount of bear shit on the trail it was likely a bear saw me at some point.

Late that afternoon I began to look out for the seasonal spring, my fingers crossed that it would be running. The databook is a little ambiguous about the exact spot. However at around mile 454.4 along a side trail on the left (over a fallen tree) I found a trickle coming from a marshy area. I ended up scrambling down a rocky slope for a bit as the trickle was easier to collect in my platypus. There was plenty of camping nearby, although no one shared my campsite that evening.

Since leaving Molas pass I had been crossing paths with a dad, his daughter and her friend. They were easily identifiable from a distance due to the bear bell that they were carrying. I soon hated the sound of that bear bell, the silence of the woods disturbed by a constant jingle jangle. As I was setting up camp I heard the familiar sound on the zig zags above me, so I did my best wolf howl. I heard them stop and one of them ask, ‘what was that?’. ‘A coyote’, came an answer. ‘It must be very sick’, I heard another say. I need to work on my inner wolf.

The weather continued to be grey and cloudy the following morning as I climbed higher into the forest. Where the forest cleared I saw banks of cloud swirling around the surrounding peaks, the odd shaft of sunlight penetrating the gloom.

I finally rose above the tree line high on Indian Trail Ridge. At first the ridge is wide and grassy, the trail winding its way through patches of stunted pine. Banks of cloud was rising and falling in the large void to my left.

The trail gained the ridge and swapped to the other side, the view opening up as the last wisps of cloud finally drifted away.

Finally the trees were left behind, the trail climbing ever higher, a sweeping ridge in front and behind me. A stone cairn was perched gracefully on the end of a big drop down to the forest below. I could have sat there for hours transfixed by the vista surrounding me. There was a huge sense of space and height on Indian Trail ridge.

However, I could not remain still for more than a couple of minutes as a huge storm cloud was building in front of my very eyes. There is something unnerving about staring at such a beast when its base is lower than you. In all directions towers of white clouds were reaching into what now was blue sky. It was time to move on, and quickly.

At one point Indian Trail ridge becomes a narrow rocky arete with a small conical peak to cross.

Although perhaps one of the most thrilling sections of the entire trail, I was relieved to finally start the descent from Indian Trail ridge towards Taylor lake. In the afternoon sun it was like a glistening jewel on the plateau below. It’s a steep rocky descent and I started to feel a little bit tired after the excitement of the ridge.

Down at the lake I could sense the weather building so I pushed on rather than stop for lunch as planned. I only managed to put in a short distance before the storm broke. As the thunder rumbled and the hail started I was thankful that I had descended in time.

It felt a bit weird passing vehicles parked at the Kennebec trailhead, although it is only a jeep road. I hunkered down nearby in some bushes to shelter from the weather to have lunch before the last proper pass on the trail, Kennebec pass at 11,700 feet. The weather cleared for me at the top giving clear views towards the end of my hike, now only twenty one miles away. It felt a bit strange knowing that the rest of the hike would be in the forest rather than high in the mountains.

However the trail did not let me easily slip away from the mountains. I first had to cross a long and steep section of talus. I slowly inched my way along the narrow trail, a slip would send me sliding hundreds of feet down the steep and loose slopes. There was nothing to hold onto for balance and the dry gravel underfoot does not help you get much of a grip. The photo below shows the trail back towards Kennebec pass.

The rest of the afternoon was spent descending endless switchbacks in the forest, the sky clouding over with spots of rain. I have to admit that I soon found it a bit of a chore as the trail wound its way down and around the steep forested slopes. I had thought about camping near the bridge at junction creek but the bear bell gang had just pitched. I’m sure that they would have been fine company but I really fancied spending the last night on the trail alone.

The next spot that I had identified had also been taken so I found myself continuing even further, after that I simply could not find anywhere to pitch my tent. I collected some water and continued hiking. The light began to fade and I still could not find anywhere to camp. On and on I walked into the darkness, a purpose in my stride. I kept thinking there must be somewhere suitable to pitch a tent. In the pitch black of night a big storm rolled in, lightning flashed around me, the wind picking up to a roar, the trees shaking and groaning. In the lashing rain all I could see was the tunnel of light from my head torch. I continued to pound the sodden trail, I almost felt like I could not stop! Finally after a 23 mile day I could not continue any further. I kicked a couple of cow pats off the only flat bit of ground I could find and pitched my tent. It was gone 9pm and I was soaked and hungry. Not the best way to end the last full day on the Colorado Trail.

The last morning on the trail involved packing a wet tent into a wet pack whilst wearing wet clothes and shoes. I set off down the wet trail and back into the wet forest.

I soon came to the viewpoint of Gudy’s rest, named after the founder of the Colorado Trail. It was occupied by the couple and their dog who were pitched at the last campsite I had passed the previous evening. We discussed the storm and they said that the wind had ripped down their shelter just as they had settled down for the night. The trail is ready to give you a good battering when you least expect it.

After they left I sat on my own for a while, contemplating the trail behind me. I was now keen to finish, eat pizza and check into a hotel.

The final four miles felt much longer and I passed a few day hikers heading into the hills. When you have been in the woods for weeks you notice how perfumed non thru-hikers are. The smell of detergent and deodorant can be smelt from a mile off. I’m sure that they thought the opposite of me in my trail stained clothing.

In true Colorado fashion I ended up racing a storm to the finish line. The sky darkened and thunder rumbled overhead, it was far too warm to put on my waterproof jacket so I just got wet instead. I managed to get a quick snap of the trailhead sign and then set about trying to calm an anxious dog that had obviously run off from its owner. It had come running down the trail as the thunder started and headed directly for a parked car. It then ran back up the trail and back to the car. I managed to coax it over and talked to it gently until its frantic owner arrived. She said that the dog had been spooked by the storm and had run off. For my good deed I got offered a lift into Durango just as a heavy downpour started. Result!

Throughout the hike I found that an English accent opens a few doors when in the States. People are often keen to stop and chat and find out about the UK. I have forgotten the woman’s name but she was thrilled to meet someone from England. She gave me a tour of Durango, showed me where my hotel was and dropped me outside what she considered to be the best pizza place in town.

The pizza was good and the beer was even better. As I sat there dazed and confused a guy asked me if I had just finished the Trail. I said that I had and asked how he knew. His reply was, ‘I can see it in your eyes, you’re still in the woods’.