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.