Posts tagged ‘backpacking’

September 24, 2017

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

by backpackingbongos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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.