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.

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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’.

March 12, 2017

The Colorado Trail pt9 – Maggie Gulch trail to Molas Pass

by backpackingbongos

Days 31 & 32 (7th & 8th September 2016)

Colorado Trail segments 23 & 24

Lowest altitude – 8,918 feet    Highest altitude –  12,820 feet

Section distance – 23.5  miles    Cumulative distance – 410.7 miles

Section ascent – 3,475 feet    Cumulative ascent – 77,394  feet

Under clear skies the night was cold at 12,526 feet, the altitude meaning that sleep was fitful. The colour of the sky in the morning was spectacular, the deepest shade of blue. With excellent weather and such a stunning landscape it did not take much effort to get up and pack the tent. Colorado mornings are designed to get you up early.

The trail contours easily around Canby mountain and descends to the dirt road leading to Stony Pass. Although short, it was a bit of a trudge along the road to the pass, the heat already building. I was soon frequently seeking shade to rest in.

Although there was no traffic I was glad to leave the dirt road and join the trail again. It passed through an old mining area and then a couple of small muddy looking lakes.

A combination of heat and rapidly disintegrating trailshoes meant that I suddenly developed the first blister of the whole trail. I was thankful that I had managed to walk over 390 miles without a single one, but was also cursing that one had finally crept up on me. My shoes really were a mess, becoming more uncomfortable every mile I walked. I stopped and padded out the inside heel with duct tape and covered the blister. The last thing that I wanted was foot problems putting an end to my hike when I was so close to the end.

Further along the trail the air filled with the sound of sheep. It took me a while to work out where it was coming from but I eventually spotted a mass of white dots in the upper reaches of a valley below me. Coming from a country where the uplands are full of sheep the sound brought me a little closer to home. You can just about make out the dots below.

I then spotted a large white dog trotting along the trail towards me. It barked but thankfully left the trail and gave me a wide berth. I’m assuming that it is one of the dogs that looks after the sheep. Although a dog lover my heart was in my mouth for a while as it was a large hound!

Soon I was picking my jaw off of the floor as a line of serrated peaks that had been teasing me all morning finally revealed themselves. The range containing Arrow and Vestal peaks are amongst the biggest and baddest mountains that I have ever seen. Huge jagged walls of rock rise high into the sky. I detoured from the trail a bit, heading to a large cairn, dumped my pack and gawped for a long time. The view was so good I felt a bit giddy, it was what I had travelled all the way to Colorado for.

The next wow moment came at the Continental Divide at the head of Elk Creek. It’s one of the iconic views that you often see pictures of when researching the Colorado Trail. With its vastness in front of me I stood for a while with goosebumps and drunk it all in.

In the photo below you can only see the upper reaches of Elk Creek. I was standing at 12,619 feet and would have to descend all the way down to 8,918 feet at the Animas River. My knees were complaining before I had even started.

The switchbacks that wind their way down are brilliantly built and blend well into the hillside. It’s difficult to get a photo that shows their full extent. They make easy work of the steep decent and when on them you’re never really sure where they will take you next.

Down next to the clear and rushing creek the hills were a riot of colour as the vegetation was changing from green into various shades of yellow, orange and red.

The narrow path was soon squeezed below towering walls of rock and at one point it became a steep and loose scramble across unstable ground.

The upper section of Elk Creek before you enter the tree line is a magical world of rock and scree, a pinkish hue contrasting with the green pines. It really is magnificent and one of the most spectacular sections of the entire trail.

I wanted to camp around ten miles short of Molas Pass so that it would be a relatively easy walk the following day. I ended up stopping in an open grassy meadow surrounded by rocky peaks. Only a couple of people passed me later that evening and a pair of deer soon became comfortable with my presence, grazing close by.

The following morning I was up and packed long before the sun had chased away the shadows deep in Elk Creek. The surroundings became more verdant as the trail descended towards the Animas River. At a pond I stopped and chatted to a bow hunter, the season having just started. He had spent the night high above tracking Elk, however he was not successful and was now returning home. I’m not a big fan of hunting, however using a bow probably evens the odds over using a high-powered rifle. I can imagine that bow hunting takes a lot more skill to be successful.

It was really hot by the time I reached the Animas River. I had filled my water bottle prior to this as the river had become heavily polluted during a recent mine spill. It was running clear and clean but had previously been heavily discoloured. I thought it best not to chance drinking it. It is however a really idyllic valley, running along its length is the Durango to Silverton steam railway.

In the heat the two thousand feet ascent to Molas Pass nearly finished me off. Initially the trail goes up cruelly steep switchbacks through the forest. At one point I could hear a steam train far below me make its way towards Silverton. I passed a few people heading down for a picnic with a plan to walk back afterwards. I couldn’t comprehend wanting to go both down and then back up in one day!

As the trail evened out I detoured for a couple of hundred metres to a waterfall. There I removed my shoes and soaked my feet in the freezing cold water. I filtered plenty of water to get me to Molas Pass.

It felt like it took forever, toiling in the heat to get to the pass. I could hear the traffic from a long way off but it never appeared to get any closer. As soon as I hit the road I stuck my thumb out, keen to get into Silverton for a cold sugary drink and a large pizza. Thankfully it only took ten minutes to get a lift.

Zero Day seven – Silverton (9th September 2016)

I really enjoyed my time in Silverton. I checked into the Blair Street Hostel where I had booked a private room in advance. It was a great base from which to explore this laid back tourist town. The weather was excellent so I enjoyed wandering about taking in the sights and sitting on shady verandas to fill my face with food. The most important task was to find some replacement footwear to get me to Durango, the ones that I had been wearing were ready for the bin. I lucked out and got a pair of Merrell Moabs for $70 in an end of season sale. I was relieved that I had found something that I knew would be suitable to finish in. I did my laundry at a nearby RV park and managed to do a full resupply at the store in town. I could have happily ambled around Silverton for a few days, but was eager to get back and finish the Colorado Trail. I was about to set out on the final leg.

March 5, 2017

Kicking back in Kerala

by backpackingbongos

Every now and then Mrs Bongo takes me off to a far-flung exotic place where I am strapped to a sun lounger and force-fed spicy food. There I pretend that I would rather be on a cold and windswept hill, alone and shivering, looking for a sodden spot to pitch my tent.

A cheap flight took us to Kerala in India and couple of beach towns which we last visited on long backpacking trips 13 and 18 years ago. One of these was Varkala, which on our last visit was a string of bamboo huts along the cliff top. It is now a concrete jungle strung along the cliff top. The traveller vibe still remains, although nowadays that vibe is yoga and smoothies rather than cheap drugs and booze. Even the backpacking scene has become gentrified.

India has both rapidly modernised and remained in the past since our backpacking days. Just about everyone is staring at the screen of a smartphone, even whilst weaving their rickshaw through the chaotic traffic. Domestic tourists now heavily outweigh foreign tourists as people have more disposable income. Posh cars jostle for space with battered three wheelers and painted trucks belching fumes. However out in the sticks India remains as timeless and beautiful as ever.

Some photos taken away from the tourist spots:

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Goats, auto-rickshaw and the usual piles of rubbish.

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Fishing boats and mosque at the Muslim end of the village of Vizhinjam, half an hour walk from Kovalam.

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Fisherman carrying the motor from his boat at the end of the day.

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Mosque in Vizhinjam village.

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Fishing boats in the Christian part of Vizhinjam village. This side of the village was much busier.

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Fish market, I asked if I could take some close up photos but got a very firm no!

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Big Jesus overlooking the harbour. I think that the women thought I was taking a photo of them as they stood and posed for me!

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Jesus and crisps taken from the church at the top of the hill in Vizhinjam.

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We escaped the coast for a couple of nights and headed inland to Neyyar Dam. There is a tiny little temple on a rocky hill overlooking the surrounding forest.

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The hill is literally a giant rock with a few steps cut into it and handrails to lead the way. Some sections were very steep.

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Neyyar dam holds back a very large reservoir with some wild surrounding forest. Being India you are not allowed to simply wander into the wilds which is a bit of a shame. Anyway it was far too hot to do very much.

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Our bungalow near Neyyar was very secluded and we got visited by a large troupe of monkeys one afternoon.

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Colourful rickshaw in the evening light.

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Cooking up a treat outside a temple.

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Balloon man pulling a pose!

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Temple snacks.

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Kathakali dancer inside the Manthara temple near Varkala.

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Temple elephant.

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Waiting for the temple procession.

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No idea what this chap was selling inside the temple. People were buying these bundles of herbs though!

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We were lucky to visit the Manthara temple during the Shivaratra festival. The temple was crowded with people to watch this giant tower be carried round the temple three times. Hundreds of men were involved and it was both awe-inspiring and a bit frightening. There was the possibility for lots of people to get crushed in the scrum!

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Sunset from the cliffs above Varkala beach.

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Lifeguards on Varkala beach. Their job is basically blowing their whistle at people in the sea and waving a red flag. It was pretty random when they would do this.

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Sun and cloud at Varkala beach.

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Sign opposite a restaurant.

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February 5, 2017

The Colorado Trail pt8 – Spring Creek Pass to Maggie Gulch Trail

by backpackingbongos

Zero day six – Lake City.

The first thing that the cafe owner said to me was, ‘Well you’re not from Texas’. During the weekend I was in town it felt like the whole of Texas had decamped en-mass and were staying in Lake City. It turned out that there was an ATV festival and the main street was full of weird and wonderful mud splattered off-road vehicles. At times it was like an alternative Mad Max, where the cast were very well fed.

I enjoyed Lake City, it has a rough and ready charm, a million miles away from places like Frisco which can feel just a bit too shiny. The food was different too, a southern influence such as fried Catfish, which I decided I liked a lot.

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Although in town I was reminded that I was still in bear country, the bins being bear proof. I had been following a Colorado Trail Facebook page on the walk, and it was on the outskirts of town where a thru-hiker had her rucksack stolen from outside her tent. It turned out that the culprit was a tagged young bear. Luckily the pack was found in a nearby creek.

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I had lucked out on accommodation, managing to bag a one bedroom ‘apartment’ via Airbnb. It was pretty rustic but nice and clean and much cheaper than the local hotels. It was good to have my own kitchen, a great way to save a bit of money. Within a couple of hours the place was strewn with damp gear, whilst I headed out for supplies to get me across the next section of trail.

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One thing that I have to point out with regards to Lake City is cost. The small store is well stocked and had everything I needed to resupply for the four days it would take me to get to Silverton. It just hurt a bit when the small basket of groceries cost over $70!

My major worry however were my shoes, the previous 357 miles of trail had been tough on them. The mesh had split and the inner heel was wearing away. The local outfitter only had really heavy boots so I had no choice but to hope that they would last until I got into Silverton.

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Town was quiet when I left at dawn on the Monday. I walked to the outskirts to find a spot suitable to hitch from. Luckily it only took half an hour to get a lift from a local out for a drive. He was great company as the road climbed back into the mountains, conversation easy. It was only when at Spring Creek Pass whilst he was helping me get my pack out of the boot that I noticed the gun and ammo strapped to his chest. Something that you would never see in the UK!

Days 29 & 30

Colorado Trail segments 22 & 23

Lowest altitude – 10,908 feet  feet    Highest altitude – 13,271 feet

Section distance –  29.8 miles    Cumulative distance – 387.2 miles

Section ascent – 7,344 feet    Cumulative ascent – 73,919  feet

A few cyclists passed me close to the trailhead and then I was on my own for the next eighteen miles of this long high altitude day. I had made sure that I had left Lake City with plenty of water as it would be nearly nine miles before I found a reliable trickle. After climbing out of the trees the trail passed across the rocky Jarosa Mesa, a real feeling of space on this wide open landscape.

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It is only the thin air that alerts you to the fact that you are hiking above 12,000ft when crossing these grassy plains. Then suddenly you come to the edge and the world is laid out below your feet. There are all sorts of superlatives that I could use to describe the view and how I felt when I reached the edge of that world. I felt deliriously happy, a huge grin on my face which was simultaneously being battered by the wind and baked by the sun. I’m not afraid to say that I pulled my head back and howled as loudly as I could into the wind.

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I was high both literally and emotionally and I was only going getting higher as the trail climbed along the ridge. I could see it disappearing up the steep rocky nose of the mountain in front of me. It appeared to be impossibly steep.

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At the top I once again found myself walking across wide open grasslands. The landscape was truly immense, it really is hard to put into words the sense of scale. I felt tiny under the deep blue skies that day.

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As I reached the highest point on the trail at 13,271 feet I was glad that the skies had remained blue all day. There really would not be anywhere to hide if a storm blew in. I counted my blessings and hugged the sign.

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From the highest point there is a steep descent of a thousand feet to the historic mining area of Carson Saddle. The shadows were beginning to lengthen and my legs tired after walking seventeen miles from Spring Creek Pass. I was keen to find somewhere to pitch but I wanted to get away from the various jeep roads at Carson Saddle.

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I continued on into a beautiful valley, following the trail for a mile until I found a rough campsite next to a stand of pine trees. It was on a bit of a slope and the ground was lumpy but I was far too tired to push on any further. Even if I had the energy it would soon be dark, the sun was already turning the highest peaks a shade of orange.

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It was a strangely warm night considering the elevation, I was camped at 11,885 feet and the night should have been cold. I was woken at around 4am by rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightning. Worryingly this was still going on at 7am when I got up and started to pack. Typically it waited until I was out of the tent before it started to rain but the dense pines provided shelter whilst I sorted out my rucksack.

It was one of those mornings where I was in and out of my waterproofs every few minutes. I passed a pair of very heavily laden men from Texas who were not very keen on conversation. They were moving so slowly that they were soon a couple of dots in the distance.

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The weather broke down with alarming speed. The temperature plummeted and the rain showers were replaced by snow. It happened so suddenly that I did not have time to put on trousers, instead I pulled on waterproofs over my shorts. The wind picked up, blowing curtains of snow up the valley, the surrounding mountains becoming hidden in the murk. I took shelter for a while in a thicket of dwarf willow, pulling a warm fleece and gloves out of my pack. It was fun but my main worry was lightning following the sudden snow shower.

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I hurried across the 12,919 foot pass, dropping into the Pole Creek drainage area. The view ahead was both impressive and daunting, especially with the prospect of remaining above 12,000ft for the next twenty miles. The snow eased but the sky ahead remained dark and angry, giving the mountains an ominous air.

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It was after passing Cataract Lake when the snow started again in earnest, this time big fat flakes that quickly settled on both the ground and me. Being in trail shoes my feet were soon freezing, along with my legs, still clad in shorts underneath my waterproofs.

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I did think about pitching my tent and calling it a day but I decided that I would be warmer by continuing walking. It was another steady climb up onto another saddle, this time at 12,909 feet.

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Eventually the snow shower passed, patches of blue amongst the ragged clouds. A combination of snow and sun was pretty spectacular.

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Another snow shower quickly rattled through, the trail wet with melting snow, too cold to stop for a break and some food.

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Finally the sun came out and stayed out. It was not long before I was able to walk in shorts and t-shirt again. I was constantly amazed at how quickly the weather changed on the Colorado Rockies and how the temperature would fluctuate.

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The trail that afternoon was a joy, taking me to 12,982 feet on a high point of a ridge. I was in marmot country and the air was full of their whistles. I was glad that the cloud and snow had retreated as the landscape in all directions was absolutely fantastic. Apart from the trail there was no sign of human presence to be seen.

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By mid afternoon I found a grassy patch just below the trail, a cold clear spring nearby. Sheltered from the wind it was great to laze in the tent and read my kindle. These mountains are so big that it did not feel like I was camped at 12,526 feet, the highest on the whole trek. I did not feel ill camped at that altitude but it did affect my sleep and I found myself restless in the night, the sleep I did have punctured by weird dreams. Most importantly I was spared any storms.

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