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.

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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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January 20, 2017

The Colorado Trail pt7 – Saguache Park Road to Spring Creek Pass

by backpackingbongos

Days 25 to 28

Colorado Trail segments 19 to 21

Lowest altitude – 9,527  feet    Highest altitude – 12,887 feet

Section distance –  41.2 miles    Cumulative distance – 357.4 miles

Section ascent – 8,459 feet    Cumulative ascent – 66,575  feet

The transition from Segment 18 to 19 simply involves turning off the dirt road and continuing along the trail. I was half way through a very long and hot day, my water supplies running low on this dry section.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I really enjoyed this part of the trail. It was the wide open grasslands and a real feeling of space. The narrow trail marched on into the distance, rising and falling through dry and shallow valleys. The sky dominates, a few fluffy clouds meant that I was fairly confident that it wouldn’t storm that afternoon. The only signs of life for a while was a lone fox crossing my path in the distance.

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Three miles later I was relieved to arrive at Van Tassel Gulch and a fenced in spring. I found a gap in the fence on the downstream side and filled my water bottles with cold and clear water. Bliss on such a hot day.

A steady climb of 600 feet through the forest was a cruel way to end a nineteen mile day. I stopped and chatted to a large group of day hikers who asked where I had walked from. There is a sense of pride in saying Denver, over 320 miles away.

Cochetopa creek is an oasis after the dry desert like landscape the trail had just passed through. It was a treat to see so much greenery and the silvery flash of water below.

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On the valley bottom I quickly pitched the tent on a bed of lush green grass. It really reminded me of camping back in the UK where we are not short of green pastures. It was a relief as the shadows began to lengthen, the heat of the day being replaced by a cool dampness.

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As I later lay in my tent I saw Miles arrive on the hill above. He took advantage of the view and pitched up high, I was far too tired to make the effort to communicate. I slept well, excited at the prospect of climbing high into the mountains again.

I packed up and was walking early the next morning with Miles for company. Miles does not need a separate trail name as Miles suits him very well, he can sure pack them in. His conversation and company was good but I have to admit that I struggled to keep pace with him that morning. The previous day I had left camp close to dawn whilst he set off very late in the morning. I pretty much walked all day with only a few short breaks, he would stop often to read his book. Despite that he only ended up an hour behind at the end of the day!

River crossings are not something you really have to worry about on the Colorado Trail, the bridges are generally very good. It just happens that the bridge over Cochetopa Creek was washed away and it is a reasonably large river. Being late in the season it was easy to cross with care in bare feet, although colder than expected.

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I walked with Miles for a couple of miles past the Eddiesville Trailhead, stopping at one point to howl back at the Coyotes. He was running out of food so had decided to put some big miles in to get to Lake City the following evening. Whilst he pushed on and disappeared into the distance I was happy to plod and take my time.

The Cochetopa Creek is your companion for many miles as you walk up this long valley, slowly gaining height. I started the day at 9,719 feet and ended it at 12,200 feet but was still contained within the valley. The landscape slowly changed, alternating between forest and some beautiful alpine meadows. The surrounding mountains gaining in stature the further up I got.

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I met Miles again, head in a book where the trail starts its ascent to the saddle below San Luis Peak. The weather had started to look threatening so he had decided to stop and wait to see if the storm threat cleared. It did soon after I arrived so he set off once again. Our paths did not cross again on the trail.

I had grand plans to summit the 14,019 foot San Luis Peak early the next morning, so decided to camp high that evening. I continued climbing to 12,220 feet and found a pitch surrounded by dwarf willow. It was slightly higher than my tent so I hoped that if a storm brewed I wouldn’t be a lightning magnet.

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No storm came but I did have a fright in the middle of the night when something large came crashing through the nearby undergrowth. It was probably only a deer but you end up with a vivid imagination when camping out in such a wild spot on your own.

I was up early to bag a 14’er but it was clear that a trip to the summit was not going to happen. The wind had picked up and cloud covered the higher peaks, spots of rain in the air. The wind really hit me on the 12,612 foot pass and I was worried about all the cloud swirling around. The views were pretty amazing though.

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The trail stayed high for the rest of the day, culminating in a 12,887 pass. It contoured along the slopes of some massive peaks, climbing up and over several saddles.

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All the time the cloud was building and at one point I watched as it formed in front of my eyes like tendrils of smoke from a boiling cauldron.

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At San Luis pass bands of rain moved in and it was on with my waterproofs, then head down for a climb over another saddle. I have to admit that I felt vulnerable being so high above the tree line with nowhere to shelter if a storm rolled in. The walking itself however remained easy. It was that part of the hike where I was feeling fit and my body was fully acclimatised to activity at over 12,000 feet.

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The weather cleared just in time for the descent into one of the most stunning parts of the trail up until that point. Huge cliffs rose above a high sheltered valley, the trail descending through Alpine meadows. It was a real ‘wow’ moment.

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It was barely past 2.00pm when I came to a spot where I could not resist the temptation to camp. With such unpredictable weather I also decided that it would be foolish to continue and tackle the infamous Snow Mesa that afternoon. It was a section of trail that I was really looking forward to but with a healthy dose of trepidation.

The Enan was pitched in hot sunshine and gear that was damp from the previous night soon dried. There were a couple of established fire pits nearby and I was keen to have the first campfire of the trip. There had been a fire ban the previous few weeks which had even influenced my choice of stove. The alcohol stove that I had purchased especially for the trip had to be replaced at the last-minute by my trusty Jetboil. Any stove in a fire ban area has to have an on / off valve and alcohol as a fuel source was off-limits.

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I spent a couple of hours that afternoon foraging the surrounding forest for fallen branches, collecting a small pile of wood. The romantic idyll of sitting high in the mountains, the smell of wood smoke and a huge sky full of stars was about to be realised.

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And then the storm broke. I’m not too proud to admit that I nearly shit myself. One minute it was a hot and sunny afternoon, the next all hell had broken loose. The thunder made the ground shake, probably amplified due to the surrounding high cliffs. The sky became dark and angry and the hail pummelled the tent until it was a deafening roar. It was the sort of storm that would be impressive and exciting viewed from the safety of solid walls. Alone in the woods it was terrifying. Then as quickly as it arrived it was gone, my pile of wood soggy and dripping. I never did have a fire during the whole of the trip.

It was damp the following morning, a hint of Autumn in the air and foliage as I made my way through the forest.

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I was in the trees for a couple of miles before climbing above 12,000 feet, the trail would not drop below this height for the next eight miles.

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The trail rose to 12,785 feet, slopes plunging many hundreds of feet into the valley below. Huge chalk coloured cliffs rose out of the trees and the flat featureless Snow Mesa filled the middle distance.

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The trail gave a fantastic high level promenade, once again contouring around some big peaks, a mixture of grassland and scree covered slopes.

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Snow Mesa was breathtaking, once again the scale of the landscape was hard for someone from the UK to get their head around. It undulates around the 12,300 foot contour and there are zero places to shelter from the weather. It’s the sort of pace that I could happily stride across for days. If the weather was predictable.

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The reason why Snow Mesa filled me with trepidation was its reputation for storms and the subsequent lack of shelter. As I was crossing I noticed the clouds above me were building. The blue skies and friendly white fluffy clouds were being replaced by a mass of dark moodiness. It’s almost like they sensed my fear.

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Twice the heavens opened with heavy showers of hail, twice I made myself as small as possible in shallow ditches. Thankfully the storm never arrived, although a cold and steady rain did. As I crossed the final part of Snow Mesa I was engulfed in mist and felt very sorry for the couple who were heading in the direction from which I had come.

The descent into a rocky valley led me back into the trees where I passed a guy and his llama. It looked like a fine way to carry your gear into the hills.

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I arrived at Spring Creek Pass filled with the anticipation of getting into Lake City and filling my face with food. I had spent seven nights on the trail since leaving Salida and the prospect of a shower and soft bed was also appealing. Sadly my hope of getting a quick ride into town was dashed as car after car passed without stopping. Spring Creek Pass does not have a reputation of getting an easy ride and I was finding reality in that reputation. I would put on an extra big smile for the folks turning out of the parking area but I failed there as well. One guy nearly hit another car in his desperate bid to avoid eye contact. Another guy alone in a huge car said that he did not have enough room! The best moment however was reserved for when a vehicle travelling in the opposite direction stopped. What happened next is a bit of a surreal blur. I found myself standing holding the hands of two strangers at the side of the road whilst they prayed that I would find Jesus on the trail. They then insisted that I take $30 before they drove off. That would never happen in the UK! I have a feeling that perhaps they thought I was homeless.

I was finally rescued after standing there for three and a half hours by a couple of locals and their dog who were returning to their pick up truck. I often found that all the best people in the States had a dog with them. Not only did they take me the seventeen miles into lake City, they bought me a late lunch. I was very grateful to be in town.

January 8, 2017

Video – Moments on the Colorado Trail

by backpackingbongos