CT Stage 3 – Collegiate West

July 31

Miles hiked: 16.2
Total trip miles: 203.6

Rick picks us up in the morning as promised, and drives us to the Willis Gulch trailhead just off the road heading up to Independence Pass. We climb about 3 miles up to meet the CT at a junction at mile 4.3. Like I said, we weren’t about to hike on flatland all the way around the Twin Lakes reservoir just to get to mile 0.0 of the Collegiate West.

Somewhere before treeline I suddenly have a vision of my second pair of underwear, hanging to dry on the towel bar back in the Twin Lakes Inn. I have forgotten to put them in my pack! This is a catastrophe! I only have two pairs of underwear on this trip, and one of them is on my body. But wait a minute! All might not be lost. Rick is here, and he is going back to the land of UPS and post offices.

I keep checking my phone and finally there’s a weak signal. I phone the Inn. They check. Yes, my undies are there.

It’s hard to describe the look that crosses Rick’s face when I ask him if he minds terribly stopping by the Inn on his way home and fetching my underwear. But the guy’s a champ — he swallows his discomfort and agrees to mail the “package” to us at our motel in Lake City. I’m full of relief that I won’t have to wash and then immediately wear a single pair of underwear for the next three weeks.

That pesky detail taken care of, I fully enjoy the rest of the hike up Hope Pass. It’s a beautiful day, even though there are some iffy clouds piling up around Hope Peak. We run into a gnarly looking hiker coming in the other direction, a Continental Divide thru-hiker. He’s from New Zealand, trail name “Hurricane.” He tells us he hikes in the “high twenties” every day. He’s tanned, wiry, wearing completely beaten-up trail running shoes. A lot of CDT hikers ran into heavy snow early in the season, but he started late, in May, so he’s managed to hike South to North without a hitch.

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Above: Marc & Rick hiking up Hope Pass. Below: Marc and Rick on the pass. This pass is part of the legendary Leadville 100 ultra. Runners have to go up and over it not once, but twice. That’s a feat in itself, never mind the bit about running 100 miles.

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Here we part ways with Rick: he’ll head home by way of my underwear in Twin Lakes, and we’re heading down to the valley and then back up another, to Lake Ann.

UPDATE: here are a couple of pictures Rick took of us: one on Hope Pass, and one with us heading down the other side. Thanks, Rick!

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We cross paths with many trail runners on our way down the pass, and they all tell us they’re preparing for Leadville. I can’t imagine running on this trail, I think, as we clamber down the steep, rocky parts. Without my poles, I would surely have had many a face plant. We bottom out at Clear Creek and start a long hike up the valley. It’s gorgeous – lots of flowers, water, everything I love about Colorado hiking. But the clouds that have been piling up now decide to unleash their load. When we see a flat, slightly spongy spot just off the trail we decide it’s probably best to camp now rather than get chilled and wet. We snuggle into our bags and listen to the rain pattering on the tent. It’s cozy in here.

August 1

Miles hiked: 18.2
Total trip miles: 221.8

We’re up early and over Lake Ann Pass before the couple who camped there have taken their tent down. I kind of wish we had pushed on to camp at the lake, it looks awesome and our camp site last night was buggy and unremarkable.  We’re still pretty wary of thunderstorms, though, and Lake Ann seemed too high. Maybe we’re being overcautious.

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Lake Ann Pass

Down the other side of the pass we follow a long, easy trail that hugs the contours of the hill forever and ever, til we finally bottom out at Texas Creek. We run into another CTD thru-hiker, trail name “Frost,” who looks just as gnarly as Hurricane.

As we walk up the fabulous new trail that follows Texas Creek, it starts to sprinkle a bit, and we hear thunder in the distance. We’re safe down here so it doesn’t bother us much. We’re so grateful to be on this amazing trail and not the dirt road that was the CT up until last summer. We ford Texas Creek — SO glad I have my Crocs, they make creek fording a breeze —and make our way up again, towards Cottonwood Pass. I keep wanting to choose a campsite before the pass, before we go above timberline, because the clouds are still kind of ominous. I really don’t want to get struck by lightning. But Marc keeps plugging on, doggedly, determined. I’m not sure there will be water at the pass; there’s some mention of a puddle. Marc says we’re carrying enough water with us to cook both breakfast and dinner. Ever since our adventure at Tennessee Pass, he’s carried more water than I think we strictly need. I give in and we carry on.

I’m super tired when we finally reach Cottonwood Pass, and pretty grumpy. It seems like Marc wants to go on forever, but I know from the App that from here on in we’re above timberline for many miles so I put my foot down. Down below the pass there is a small pond and a few scraggly trees. We head down and find a flattish spot that’s kind of sheltered. We can still see the dirt road climbing up the pass from the northwest, which I’m not crazy about, but there you have it. Another unremarkable campsite. Finding a suitable bear bag branch in this scrubby stuff will be a challenge. I wonder if bears would even bother coming up this high. The pickings are pretty slim.

We have developed a routine by now for the end of the day. It’s nothing we actually agreed on, but it just sort of happened, and then solidified. We set the tent up together, and then I get all our sleeping gear and crawl in and blow up the air mattresses (thermarest neoair x-lite, wonderful dreamy things that I would not exchange for anything, ever), unpack the sleeping bags and blow up our litlte exped pillows. Headlamps and phones in the tent pocket over our heads. Long underwear laid out and ready on top of the bags. Down jackets unpacked (we’ve been wearing them inside our sleeping bags at night, because it’s cold out here). While I’m doing this, Marc puts a pot of water on to boil for tea and fixes us a little “apero” (that’s Swiss for aperitif) from our orange-flavored Ultima electrolyte powder. While the tea is brewing, he assembles our dinner and cooks it for a few minutes, then puts it in the cozy where it sits for the 10-15 minutes it takes us to drink the tea. We eat our dinner, have a few bits of candied ginger for dessert, then Marc does the washing up while I assemble all the food and put it in the bear bag. We brush our teeth and then in goes the toiletries, last thing, and we’re ready to hang the bag.

Here’s how we hang the bag: First, you have to find a high enough, decent branch that won’t break under the weight of the bag and isn’t so close to the trunk of the tree that the bear could easily just climb up, reach out and snag it. Then you throw a little bag full of rocks attached by carabiner to a long piece of cord over that branch. After 2 or 3 failed attempts, your partner with the bum shoulder claims he can do it better than you can, and he fails another 2 or 3 times. It’s not that easy, is it? Eventually one of you succeeds, gloats a bit, and then you retrieve the rock bag, attach the bear bag to the carabiner and haul it up. The cord then gets wrapped tightly around the trunk or some other nearby solid structure, and you hope for the best. God forbid you find something in the tent that should have gone in the bag. I’m sure that many of the bags we hung wouldn’t have foiled a really resourceful bear. But you have to think of mice and marmots, too.  I don’t want to carry all that food for miles on end just to end up feeding it to some hungry marmot.

We both crawl in the tent, even though it’s still light out, and get into our long johns and our sleeping bags. Typically I’d turn on the Kindle and read the guidebook description of what the next section has in store for us, but it doesn’t cover the Collegiate West. Marc sets his watch alarm for 5:20. The rain has held off so far, but as we fall asleep we hear some sprinkles on the tent.

August 2

Miles hiked: 17.4
Total trip miles: 239.2

Today we’re up above timberline for 14 straight miles, up and down over 5 passes. We start by climbing up to a beautiful ridge.

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As you can see from the picture, the sky is not unequivocally friendly. As we’re nearing the last pass, after many miles of hiking, it really starts to look threatening, and we turn on the turbo. Think of it as interval training, Marc says cheerfully. It’s not like we’ve been dillydallying all day. On the pass before this one, we had blown by three weekend backpackers like Ferraris overtaking Fiats. (I even thought they were going the other direction for a while, we had reeled them in so fast!)  But somehow I find an extra gear, push into my poles and notch up the effort. My mantras are cycling at warp speed in my head.

Finally we’re at the top. But the trail doesn’t go downhill! There’s a long traverse across a rock slide to negotiate before the trail finally starts heading down to the Chalk Creek valley. So far the skies haven’t unleashed anything — no lightning, no rain — and we feel lucky. We take a much-needed break just below timberline, but we don’t linger at the creek at the bottom of the valley, where we’ve seen a bunch of ATVs gathered and heard shots ringing out. Is it some kind of rifle range?

As we head uphill (again!), we cross paths with some horseback riders coming down. Although we’ve been following horse tracks for a long time, this is our first equestrian encounter. The riders are friendly, but tired and wearing wet rain gear. And indeed, there’s thunder in the not-so-far distance.

A mile or so later, we reach a very small stream, and I act on a hunch and follow a faint trail leading off to the left. Sure enough, it leads to an awesome campsite! There’s even a little table constructed out of logs and a plank! I make a mental note to pay better attention to faint trails near streams in the future. A good campsite is a beautiful thing.

Rain is threatening so we quickly set up the tent and get our gear inside. By some miracle it holds off while we eat dinner and hang the bear bag. We climb inside the tent and within minutes — seconds? — the rain starts. We’re cozy and dry! It’s so great to listen to the rain. I go to sleep hoping the morning will dawn sunny, because we’re heading back up above timberline again.

August 3

Miles hiked: 17.5
Total trip mileage: 256.7

Morning doesn’t dawn sunny. It’s a bit misty, with sprinkles, and cold. I deal with the breakfast dishes and the tent poles because Marc’s fingers have gone totally white. We head uphill again, above timberline, over yet another pass. It looks like moose or elk country and I keep an eye out but don’t see anything.

After a while the trail heads downhill on an old railroad bed. It’s an easy hike, the grade is gentle and the trail smooth. It’s not really raining, just the occasional sprinkle. Several groups of dayhikers pass us in the opposite direction, and as we reach the bottom of Chalk Creek canyon there are signs describing the mining train that once climbed this grade, and the wintertime challenges it encountered. There was one bend in the track that was notorious for wrecking trains. It amazes me the lengths people would go to and the hardships they would endure just to extract silver ore from the earth.

At Chalk Creek the lovely new singletrack trail section is definitely over. Several ATVs buzz by as we hike up the dirt road. Judging from the vehicles’ occupants, this appears to be a family activity. We cross paths with a northbound hiker who is doing his bit to keep things sane by chucking real estate signs off the side of the road into the bushes. (Unlike most of the CT, there is private property abutting the trail here).

At the end of the road there’s a lovely lake. This is where all these ATVers are going — up here to fish. They’re standing around in waders, casting. We follow one of them as he skirts the lake to find the perfect spot at the far end. Then we leave them all behind and climb up Chalk Creek Pass (12,105′), on turbo once again since the sky is looking ominous. Burn the greaseI Marc chirps. Sigh. Down the other side and below timberline, we can once again relax.

Our plan for today is to exit the trail at the Boss Lake reservoir and head out to highway 50 to the Monarch Mountain Lodge. According to PMags, it’s only 2 miles off the trail. Then the following day we’ll climb back up to the trail and hike up to Monarch Pass, where our resupply box will be waiting for us.

As we hike along I’ve been mulling it over, though. Maybe it would be better to camp tonight, then go to the pass, get our box, hitch the five miles down to the lodge, and then back up the next morning. Number one, I know that in the box is a pair of brand new running shoes that I don’t need, and I’d like to mail them on to my mom rather than carry them on to Lake City. I figure I can talk someone at the lodge into mailing them for me, if there’s no post office nearby. And number two, the idea of hiking downhill to the lodge and then back uphill afterwards, and then continuing on uphill to the pass, just makes me tired. I’d like to get all the uphill hiking done, and then take a night off.

Marc, however, has made up his mind. LIke a moose in the trail, he won’t be budged. I try to argue my point, but he’s adamant. We’re going to the lodge tonight. Is there something I don’t know? True, we don’t have any dinners left. But we do have an extra bag of oatmeal! I finally give up. We climb up to Boss Lake and then head down the steep, rocky road to the highway.

At the bottom, our road ends in a T intersection. Right or left? I have no idea. We head right. At a parking area near the highway we ask some people if they know where the lodge is, and they tell us it’s back down the road the other way.  We should have gone left. We turn around and head back. We walk for what seems like forever, until we intersect another road, take a right, and there’s the lodge, right across the highway from a snowmobile rental place.

We check in, getting a triple-A discount on a king room. When I ask about the restaurant, Alex the clerk informs me that it’s closed on Mondays. Anything else nearby? I ask. No, not until Salida. Oh well. We can catch up on our e-mail. Alex grimaces again. The wifi is down, has been for a week. We discover that there’s certain spot in the middle of the lobby where we get a cell phone signal and we check our e-mail there. Alex offers to ask the manager if we can perhaps get a beer even though the restaurant is closed. Oh please!  we beg. A beer would be just the thing!

This seemingly abandoned lodge is huge, a relic of the days when Monarch Mountain was a popular ski destination. The whole place is slightly shabby, highly 70s in decor, but at least our room up on the 7th floor is clean. Marc takes our wet tent down to the parking area and hangs it on a fence to dry out while I investigate the laundry room. I get some extra quarters from Alex, load our laundry into a washing machine, and push in the quarters. Nothing. I try again, until it’s eaten $3 in quarters. Up to the lobby. Alex calls in reinforcements, who conclude that the change hasn’t been emptied, it’s overloaded, and there is no way I can run a load of laundry in any of the machines. I get the $3 back (in bills, which are lighter), and do our laundry in the bathtub. I’m amazed by the sheer amount of dirt that a pair of socks can hold. Even after five rinsings the water doesn’t run clear.

All our clothing is draped around the room, and the tent is dry and back in its stuff sack, when the mother of all storms descends upon the lodge. Wind, lashing rain, hail. Maybe Marc does have some psychic ability after all. I am so grateful we’re not out camping in this!

The manager lets us into the bar and while we’re drinking beer and learning about the recent renaissance of the lodge, which is currently owned by a pair of NYC investors, a posse of middle-aged midwestern motorcyclers files in. After exchanging a few wildlife sighting stories with them, we go back to our room and cook our second-to-last oatmeal breakfast on our stove.

August 4

Miles hiked: 17.4
Total trip miles: 274.1

As we leave the lodge around 7:00, bellies full of oatmeal, I catch a bit of the weather on the TV in the lobby: Mount Elbert trailhead closed due to gale force winds. Hmmm.

I have ascertained that the best way to get back to the CT is by going straight up the road across from the lodge, which meets the trail at the place where it crosses the middle fork of the South Arkansas River. I’d rather climb up to Boss Lake on the trail and not the nasty, rocky dirt road we took yesterday. It’s shorter, too, by at least a couple of miles.

We climb and climb, past Boss Lake, past Hunt Lake, past another small lake. The wind up here is howling! While we’re still in scrubby trees we stop and put on our rain shells. Once we’re up on the ridge at 12,500′, the meaning of “gale force” begins to sink in. We lean into the wind, using our poles to stabilize ourselves. Clouds form, rear up, and then dissipate over the ridge as the wind roars by. An eagle flashes up just over my head and is carried off in the current, totally motionless as it surfs the wave.

There is no one up here but us and the eagle. Our hands are freezing, and we stop and put on gloves and mittens so we can keep hold of our poles. Now we understand why poles have straps. After about an hour of this, we finally turn the corner and see a spot that’s out of the wind. We huddle there for a few minutes, eating nuts and recovering. It drains you, that kind of wind. We head back out into it and down to the Monarch ski area. It’s less intense the lower we go, which is a relief.

We’re still alone as we hike through the ski area and around to Monarch Pass. We can see the road below us as we hike, and it looks like traffic has been stopped. We wonder if it’s too windy at the top for the semi trucks. (Turns out it’s just construction.)

At the store on Monarch Pass we buy a bowl of chili and an ice cream at the snack bar, and then get our resupply box and head over to the designated corner of the store to sort it all out. I explain the dilemma of the unwanted running shoes to the lady at the counter, and she offers to mail them to mom for $16. I’m ecstatic! What nice people! We thank them profusely, unload our unwanted stuff into the hiker box (we didn’t need the razor, extra toothpaste, batteries, rice cakes, and eye drops), and head back out.

Mountain bikers love the trail along Monarch Ridge, and I can see why: it’s well-maintained, not too steep, and the views are stunning.
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We step off the trail to let a group of dirt bikers go by, but otherwise the miles fly by as we hike this beautiful trail. It’s all between 11,500 and 12,000′, following the ridge of the continental divide. There are some scrubby trees, and lots of snags that look like they’ve been hit by lightning. Good thing we did this today and not yesterday in the epic storm we missed while holed up eating oatmeal in the lodge.

Pretty soon we reach the spot where the trail meets back up with the main CT. Our Collegiate West hike is over — we can now use the guidebook again! It has been a wonderful hike and we are so happy to have experienced all this high country without getting hit by lightning.

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We hike another 2.8 miles down to a “shelter”, which doesn’t particularly appeal to us, but there’s a great flat spot nearby and a stream a quarter mile down another trail. In a burst of energy I cart our 6L water tank down to the stream and back while Marc blows up the air mattresses. His pack is heavy again after our resupply, poor guy. We see another hiker go by, but he doesn’t come over to talk to us.

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