August 13, 2010
Today’s Miles: 17.1
Total Miles: 190.2
Breakfast Elevation: 10,820 ft
Dinner Elevation: 10,520 ft
High Point: 14,433 ft
I sleep late this morning, lingering in my tent. After climbing my first Colorado Fourteener yesterday, I’m not exactly in a hurry to get up and do it again. Twice I hear groups of hikers chatting as they pass my tent, unaware of my incognito location.
It’s another relatively late start, and I encounter a lot of other hikers on the trail. The sky is clear, and this must be the 14er “crowds” that I’d heard about. Today is Friday, and not even officially the weekend yet.
The parking lot at Halfmoon Creek Road is packed, and I begin to see even more hikers. A group going the opposite direction is led by the same ultra-runner guide with the water-jug pickup truck that I met the day before yesterday. We recognize each other instantly.
“Hey, you’re making good time!” he says – the exact same thing he said to me at our last meeting.
That’s funny, considering I only covered 4 official CT miles yesterday. I get the impression everybody makes good time.
This is true, I always make “good time” when I’m on the trail. The days and hours of my life feel more condensed, whether I hike 30 miles in a day or zero. Or to steal the quote from Robert Pirsig:
We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with the emphasis on “good” rather than on “time”
We have a brief, pleasant conversation regardless, with the positive vibe of old friends that coincidentally meet on a trail, even though it’s only been two days.
Here I leave the official CT again, and turn on to the North Elbert Trail. My full backpack is coming with me again today, because I plan to take a different route down from the summit.
I see someone about once every ten minutes – so many hikers. All have the same comments:
“Beautiful day! Perfect day for it! Can’t ask for any better than this!” and it’s true.
The sky is clear and blue and the views are stunning. There’s a bit of wind, but that’s to be expected. The wind isn’t nearly as strong as it was yesterday.
That water looks delicious, doesn’t it?
So many people comment on my full overnight backpack. In fact, I don’t meet anyone else carrying one.
“Spending the night up there?” they say.
A day or two ago I had considered it, camping on top of Mount Elbert for a sunset and sunrise. It appeals to my romantic side, an opportunity to fully experiencing nature in a way that calls to all of us that go to the mountains.
But after yesterday… no. Cold. Windy. Waterless.
These high Colorado mountains are a lot cooler than I expected, and often downright cold. I left the Grand Canyon in July to go someplace nice and cool for the rest of the summer, and I got what I asked for! Cold!
The barrage of inquiries from strangers about camping at the top piques something in my brain… maybe it’s just the simple repetition of it, but I sense there’s something else at work here. I should be camping on top… but I don’t want to, for reasons of comfort and practicality. Typically when on a long backpacking trip, I laugh in the face of comfort and practicality, sleeping on the peaks and roaring at the wind and doing as much marrow sucking as can be digested.
But something begins to shape up differently for me on this solo hike of the Colorado Trail, a subtle change in attitude that I can’t quite put my finger on. If you’re one of the three people that has followed my other trips, maybe you’ve noticed a change in tone as well.
Of course every trip is different, but there’s something going on with my attitude here. It may just be part of the character of The Colorado Trail, how it has its way on a solo thru-hiker. The CT has been around for awhile, and plenty of folks do it as one trip, but in the hiking community you don’t hear very much about the quality of the trail and the experience as a whole, as something to get out and do… not as much as you’d expect. Maybe I’m on to something here, maybe not. I’m still figuring it out for myself, as I put this trip into words as a cohesive journal on the internet.
Anyway this is all self indulgent, but why not. It’s a journal and I’m not forcing anyone to read it.
Back to Mount Elbert.
Progress is slow at altitude with the full weight of my pack.
The scenery is amazing, but when the trail is laid out so clearly before you, it can feel like it takes forever to get anywhere.
I guess that’s what false summits are for. There’s plenty of them.
The marmots and pica are everywhere too – the marmots and their bumbled scurrying.
People’s comments begin to include unsolicited, encouraging descriptions of how much farther I have to go the top. They’re proud of their accomplishment, and want to help enable me to feel the same. My favorites are the ones with huge smiles on their faces, even at rest and still going uphill. It’s so easy to see that this is an exciting day for so many, that they’ll be riding on the adrenaline of their first mountain for weeks and months and years to come.
I really don’t mind seeing all these people today. I had my glorious mountain of solitude yesterday, and it’s been awful quiet in the wood for these past two weeks.
One man is literally on all fours, crawling up the rocks between intervals of lying on the ground. His wife seems to be doing slightly better. Even if they manage to keep going at their current pace, it would be a very long, dangerous day and night for them. He’s showing signs of elevation sickness, so I and a few others convince them to turn around.
The views get better with each step, as the trail transitions exclusively to jumbles of rock. Soon I’m riding high as well. I just look around like, “Holy smokes, this is up there.”
Finally the summit is within sight. That’s it.
There’s a group of four at the peak when I arrive, but they leave within a few moments.
I have the top of Colorado all to myself.
…well, almost. 🙂
The summit register is filled with entries – overflowing with them. Elbert’s World sure includes a lot of people. I don’t even bother signing it, making better use of my time with a Snickers and peanut butter.
Soon a man and his two sons turn the corner.
He sees me and stops.
“Is that the top?” he asks.
“Oh thank God.”
I shoot a couple of group photos for them, and take my leave.
the ridge to the south – the Black Cloud Trail
In plotting my fun couple of days off the CT in the Collegiate Peaks area, I’d looked at a trail on the map leading from the top of Mount Elbert called the Black Cloud Trail.
It appears to take a most direct, scenic route to the south in the direction I want to go toward Hope Pass.
So it’s my desired way, bypassing Twin Lakes. There’s only a faint trail along the ridge, but the route is self-evident to start.
looking back north, at the slopes of Mount Elbert
Later upon seeing these photos, a friend makes a comment simply stating “The Marmot Whisperer.”
Haha I love that. Marmots are awesome. I could be a marmot. For all I know, this furry guy is the reincarnate soul of John Muir or Ed Abbey or Randy Morgenson or any other kindred spirit, really.
This is the Colorado I’d imagined.
Here in this saddle I find myself rather confused. There’s no trail. I scour the area back and forth, and there isn’t the smallest cairn or inkling of a path. There’s a smidgen of water, however, and again comes the fleeting notion of spending the night up here.
No… best to move on.
So much for this Black Cloud Trail. Rather than continue this way and attempt to navigate the route, I choose to go back and descend via the South Elbert Trail. This trail departs from the summit, so I’ll have to backtrack up to the peak to join it.
…but that would involve climbing back up 500 feet from this saddle, and I don’t like the sound of that in this thin air. Daylight is also becoming a commodity at this point, and the climb would be slow.
Instead I embark on a brilliant shortcut to join the South Elbert Trail at my current elevation, hopping directly along this large mountainside rock field.
“This must be what the Sierra High Route is like,” I think to myself.
Fun fun fun!
Eventually I hit pay dirt and join the trail, just in time to meet a pair of hikers coming down from the summit. They can only be described as an elderly couple.
They appear to be strong hikers, and in love with the day. Kindred spirits.
With my folly on the Black Cloud Trail, it occurs to me to ask if they know of it.
“Are you familiar with these trails?” I ask the man.
There’s the briefest moment where he looks out to the horizon with a knowing smirk, a quick flash where I imagine the flurry of thoughts of all the days and years he’s spent in these mountains… every turn in the woods and alpine wildflower and cloudburst… every marmot by name.
But the only reply is a slightly drawn out “Yes,” with the accompanied nodding of the head. That’s all there is to say at such an inquiry, after all – yes I’m familiar.
From their reply I gather that the Black Cloud “Trail” is indeed more of a route that leads to a network of old mining roads. The woman says I made a good choice in returning this way.
Soon I overtake a man still going up the mountain with his three young daughters. They’re all stopped for a break – wondering how far is to the top, and how long I think it will take them to reach it. The elderly couple catches up, and after evaluating that they have enough flashlights and such, the three of us convince them to turn around and go back down.
The woman is great with the young girls (Two are younger than ten), telling them that they’ve done a great job and it’s nothing to be ashamed of, how so many turned around sooner than this, etc.
I’m in great mood on the descent as the shadows grow long.
The walking is of course all downhill and easy.
Most unexpectedly there’s an outstanding forest of aspen before rejoining the Colorado Trail.
It’s sublime and silent and beautiful, and the perfect way to finish off this day.
Soon I reach a stream near a jeep road where I make camp.
It’s already after sunset, and I have my dinner of teriyaki noodles and tuna in the complete darkness. The headlamps of the older couple pass my camp, with the man and his daughters close by, all in good spirit.
I sleep among aspen trees for the very first time.