Days 21 to 25
Colorado Trail segments 15 to 18
Lowest altitude – 8,816 feet Highest altitude – 11,908 feet
Section distance – 63.7 miles Cumulative distance – 316.2 miles
Section ascent – 11,017 feet Cumulative ascent – 58,116 feet
Chuck dropped me right at the trailhead, he gave me lots of good information and refused to take my offer of money for fuel. Another CT thru hiker started at the same time as me but I soon lost him as he powered down the dirt road. It was to be a short eight mile day, however it was a continuous slog up hill with a heavy pack.
My pack was heavy as the plan was to walk a 105 mile section without any resupply points. I was aiming to do this in seven to eight days, which adds up to a lot of food! To add to the heavy pack I was aware that I would be entering some long dry sections before I got to Lake City. I have to admit that I had left Salida with a feeling of trepidation.
It was a Saturday so the trail was fairly busy as I headed up and into the forest, most folks however seemed to be going in the opposite direction, including a steady stream of mountain bikers.
As I got close to the last water source before the Continental Divide the weather changed, the sky became grey with spots of rain. I was getting near to the tree line so thought it prudent to pitch in case a storm rolled in. I found a grassy spot, literally a couple of feet from the trail itself. Mountain bikers continued to pass me through the afternoon, by evening the woods were silent.
I was up early to take advantage of the morning blue sky. A pattern had developed, warm sunny mornings followed by cool, cloudy and often stormy afternoons.
The views at the top of the Continental Divide at 11,908 feet were breathtaking, the peaks of the Rockies spread out in all directions.
The next couple of miles stayed high, sticking to the mountain ridge, winding around a few stunted pine at the very limit of the tree line. The clouds were quick to start rolling in that morning, high and exposed it would not be an ideal place to be during a storm. I was glad that I had cut the previous day short.
The morning had been peaceful but by the time I reached the one and only shelter on the entire trail the idyll was shattered. It was a Sunday and I was on a section that is extremely popular with mountain bikers. By midday I was having to step off the trail every couple of minutes to let groups of speeding cyclists pass. It was definitely clear that they thought they had right of way and I was expected to move, even if there was nowhere to move to. Parts of the trail were very narrow with steep drop-offs with nowhere for me to go. There is nothing more frightening than being weighed down by a pack and being faced with a speeding bike. A couple of times I was unable to get off the trail quick enough and found myself being clipped by handlebars. It was a very unpleasant section as I descended to the Marshall Pass Trailhead.
Once at the trailhead it was twelve miles to the next water source where I planned to camp for the night. I managed to fill my water bottles from a swampy creek that had an aroma of cow about it. I was extra careful so used my filter and gave it a good dose of Aquamira.
The twelve miles to Tank Seven Creek was a bit of a slog. Parts of the trail are accessible by motorbikes and sections through the forest were churned up.
It was with relief that I got my tent up that evening just as a light rain started, it had been a long and stressful eighteen mile day. My advice is not to do this section of trail at the weekend!
The sun the next morning made everything feel better. I was aware however that there would not be any reliable on trail water for the next fourteen miles. I filled my stomach close to bursting and set off with three litres to see me through the day. It was a pleasant morning as I climbed steadily through the forest. The stream of mountain bikers had been left behind, the only people I saw that morning were a pair of thru-bikers who were happy to stop and chat for a while.
In fact the whole morning was excellent until the incident with the dead cow. It was laying on the trail at the edge of the first Mesa. It had obviously died very recently as there were no flies and no smell. In fact it could have been sleeping if not for the fact that its udders had been surgically removed, a single entrail laying across its stomach. It was obvious that its death had not been caused by an animal, there was no sign of a struggle and the cut was clean and clinical. Alone in the wilds my mind put it down to either aliens or a sick pervert. Large predators roam these woods and it would soon be attracting them. I was glad to leave it behind and walk onto the grassy Mesa.
The trail stays high for a long time on this section, miles above 11,000 feet and at one point crossing a high point at 11,769 feet. As usual the weather began to break down during the early afternoon, dark clouds rolling in with a few spots of rain.
Descending from one open grassy area I could hear the slow chug-chug of an engine behind me. I have to admit that I was a bit put out at the intrusion into the wilderness. It also took an age for the vehicle in question to catch me up. It turned out to be a local cowboy of antique age riding a quad bike. He looked like he had stepped straight out of a movie, wide-brimmed cowboy hat, a face of wrinkles, lips and chin stained by chewing tobacco. He asked if I had seen a black cow and I told him of the dead cow I had passed earlier. He soon continued on, the old cowboy on what looked like a sit on lawnmower. I wish that I had had the guts to ask for a photograph.
It was just before the highest section of the day where I thought I was going to die. The storm rolled in quickly and hung just to the right side of the ridge, for what felt like forever. The only thing in my favour was that the ridge was wooded, so the odds of a direct hit from lightening was evened out a bit. I cowered by some low bushes as the hail pummelled me and the thunder fought its battle overhead. Twice I thought it had stopped so I started hiking again, only for the storm to start raging.
The storm eventually stopped but the rain continued for the rest of the day and late into the night. A cold steady rain that soaked me to the skin. I was really counting on Razor Creek to be flowing so that I could pitch for the night. If not I would have to go to bed thirsty as there was no way I would make the extra nine miles to Lujan Creek.
Razor Creek was ‘just’ trickling and it took a while to fill my bottles. Luckily there was no cow activity which I had read can pollute this water source. A good grassy pitch was found nearby.
Later that night came the Stephen King like experience of the trip. In the distance I could hear the slow chugging of an engine. This got closer and closer, finally descended into the valley where I was camped. It was obviously the cowboy still out looking for his cow. However it was nearly midnight and it was tipping down with rain. It felt just a bit creepy. I turned off my torch and put my head in my sleeping bag, hoping that he would not come over and murder me.
The skies cleared during the night, the temperature plummeting and freezing my soaking wet gear solid. It was not fun getting out of the tent and pulling on frozen trailshoes and walking through frozen grass.
I set off loaded up again with water to pass through another section of trail where water is either scarce or contaminated with cows. I passed through cow pastures, slowly stripping off and drying my wet gear under an increasingly hot sun. After a mentally tough previous day I was happy to put in a short twelve miles when I came to a large grassy area close to Pine creek.
It was at Pine Creek where I had my first sociable night at camp. Miles turned up a couple of hours later, pitching nearby. He had just finished school and was taking time out before going to college. He had started out in a group of four but his mates quickly bailed on him, leaving him to continue alone. I don’t think that I would have had the mental fortitude to have continued a journey like this on my own when I was his age.
My plan was to hike nineteen miles the following day so I was up at dawn, everything once again coated in thick frost. I left Miles sleeping in his tent, possible plans made to meet up again later that day.
The next section of trail drops as low as 9,366 feet and enters an area that to me felt like semi desert. Under a cloudless sky the temperature soon soared, with little shelter I was glad of my hat and a plentiful supply of suncream. Just to make the heat a little bit more challenging it was also another dry section, cows making any available water undrinkable.
Despite the hot and thirsty hiking I enjoyed this section immensely. There was a sense of space that is hard to get your head around when you live in the crowded UK. The undulating grasslands spread out into the distance, broken up by the odd clump of trees.
I set my sights on one such clump in the distance. It was my goal to not stop until I got there, the reward would be my lunch, some shade and half a litre of water. I was just a speck moving through the landscape and it felt like it took forever to get there. When I eventually did I spread damp gear out on the ground and retreated into the shade.
After lunch I had no choice but to go back out into the searing afternoon heat, shelter becoming more and more sparse. I hit a dirt road, following it towards the distant mountains. The few pickup’s that passed left a trail of dust in their wake.
Segment eighteen ends in the middle of nowhere, space to park a couple of cars next to the dirt road, the nearest town a long drive away. I turned my back on the road and continued along the trail. I had another three days before I could head into town.