The trail was steep out of Monarch Pass Road as it always was when we returned to a pass on a paved road from town. We hiked down to road passes and up to trail passes. The trail passes are just that much higher overall.
Our day off in Salida had been wonderful as we had gotten to town just at the start of the FIBArk (First in Boating the Arkansas) festival. Music, food, art and days of kayak and raft competitions. The techno music had gone late into the night and Nancy and I were both tired as we trudged up hill.
We were hiking with Silver and Ranger, and no, their trail names don’t refer to the Lone Ranger and his horse. They both acquired them separately but are friends from Florida who are hiking together. Silver is a triple crowner who has hiked each of the three great National Scenic Trails, the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide, and Ranger will earn his triple when he finishes this hike of the CDT. You tend to meet really accomplished hikers on this trail, the toughest of the three. It’s sort of the PhD of hiking in America. Few start it as their first long hike.
When we reached the crest we were confronted by explanatory signs. Without them we would have just walked by the lines of jumbled rock on that hillside above 12,000 feet. We were standing in the middle of the Monarch Pass Game Drive. Here, 5,000 years ago people had constructed an elaborate series of stone walls and ambush pits. It had been used as recently at the 200AD.
As early as the snows would let them, the women and children carefully drove whole herds of animals up from the lower canyons to this high pass. If they didn’t spook the animals, the stone walls funneled them past the ambush pits, from which the hunters would surprise them.
Here we were, straight out of a plastic boat and techno music festival, standing in the center of a Paleolithic site, the beginning of a technology that would eventually make that plastic boat possible. It was a jarring counterpoint.
Throughout the day we passed the remains of log cabins and mining claims that filled in the time span. Rolling over the tundra covered Divide and then into the lower forests we camped along a jeep road in the trees that night.
The next morning, Silver and Ranger took off fifteen minutes before Nancy and I and that was the last we saw of them for days. Within a mile, Nancy and I had missed a turn and climbed a horrible, rocky and rutted road in the wrong direction. We climbed a useless mile before we discovered our mistake and had to backtrack, but that was enough of a head start for them to leave us far behind.
One harrowing bit came when we reached a high unnamed pass in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. A long bench of snow covered the trail and when I walked to the edge, I found it an undercut cornice. It was straight down to a rocky scree slope and no easy way over the rocks on either side. Edging our way over the loose talus and boulders on the left, we finally made it, but it was one of the scariest sections of trail so far. Nancy sang the “Nobody died song” when we made it down.
After a really hard day mostly over bad jeep roads we camped not far from an old mining camp littered with the splintered remains of log cabins and iron equipment. Night had fallen and I was about to fall asleep when I heard the distinctive click, click, click, of hiking poles on the old road. I could see the silhouette of a person with a very big backpack and called out, “Who goes there?”
With a laugh and a cry of relief, Lina announced herself. We invited her to pitch her tent and she told us she had been stalking us for over a month, since meeting us at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.
Lina is a twenty-five year old Marine Architect from Hamburg Germany who had one of the biggest packs any of us had ever seen. She was equipped for an Everest expedition and how she carried that sixty pound beast a thousand miles from the Mexican Border is beyond me. She’s strong as an ox.
She had set out across the Weminuche Wilderness with others but just couldn’t keep up. So she had finished that section alone, with only one day of absolute desperation when she found herself lost for eight hours. She thought that hiking with Nancy and I, the elders on trail, she’d have people traveling at her speed, so she’d been making long days to catch up with us.
When we hiked together the next day through the old and partially preserved ghost town of Winfield, she realized that even us old folks hiked at a fast pace. She’s great and fun to hike with, but she needed to loose some pack weight.
Lina adopted us as second parents and stuck with us from then on. Hiking on the slopes of Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado and Mt. Massive, we made it to Leadville, the highest incorporated town in America and home to the world famous Leadville 100 race through the mountains here. Without the race excitement however, the town was a bit lackluster.
Best of all however was that we were met at Tennessee Pass by Nancy’s dear friend Beth and her big floppy dog. She lives outside Denver and became our trail angel off and on for the next few weeks. We all shared a flee bitten motel room, as the hostel was full, and were awakened to a loud drunken fight just below us. Who wanted the divorce more was a bit of a question, but the slamming of doors and boozy screaming went on for quite a while.
That next morning we “exploded” Lina’s pack, going through every item and persuaded her to ship much of what she was carrying back to Germany or up trail so she could retrieve it at some point if she really needed it. This was the first of several “explosions” over the next few weeks and Lina’s speed has came up with each go round. Now if we could only convince her to ship her expedition style pack home she’d become a true ultra lighter. It weighs over 7.5 pounds, the weight of all gear carried by some thru hikers today. New shoes were in order too.
The idea of ultra light gear and speed hiking long trails is a particularly American phenomenon and is a direct outgrowth of the long trails Congress has created here. We have some of the only companies in the world creating 6 and 8 ounce tents and 12 ounce packs. And we’re some of the only long distance hikers who almost exclusively use tennis shoes and light trail runners to go thousands of miles.
We picked up Brooks again in Leadville and all caught a ride to the pass with Beth for our final leg to Copper Mountain Ski Resort and an easy bike trail to Frisco. Hiking past more beaver dams and ponds, we finally made it to the resort and several beckoning restaurants. Lina went into the first sports bar there and found the Germany versus Greece soccer game in full swing. She came out screaming and we all ate there and watched as her team won.
Down an easy bike trail was the town of Frisco, full of winter ski money, lovely restaurants and trendy gear shops, I still liked it. It was a more upscale Leadville and the setting, in the folds of high mountains on the shore of Dillon Lake, is beautiful.
That evening we hooked up with Northern Strider and his wife V, who had come down from Quebec to hike a few weeks with him. Strider is tall and big and could easily be misidentified with the Strider of the Tolkien books. They were accompanied by Wild Boar, a young woman who had hiked the AT with Strider, and her two young children and as with all thru hikers I’ve met on this trail, she was fun, intelligent and fascinating.
Colorado has kicked all our butts so far and the bike trail and easy town were just what the doctor ordered. The trail from here has an official path over Greys and Torreys, two 14,000 footers, or an alternative on the old CDT beginning on the Ptarmigan Trail out of Silverthorne. The problem for two old tired hikers is that both paths constitute the hardest stretches of the entire CDT. There’s no easy way around.
Thank God my wife Katie is flying in for a few days of vacation with me in Breckenridge. I need a break.
"I will follow my instincts, and be myself for good or ill."
If you would like to follow our daily journals, Google: Postholer.com/Shroomer, Postholer.com/Nancy or Postholer.com/Dirt Monger. An interactive map of the CDT on the bottom right of our journal pages will show you our current GPS Spot location. View it through Google earth and you can see where we’re camped for that night. You can follow Brooks Wilson’s trail journal at www.brooksmapped.blogspot.com