August 14, 2010
Today’s Miles: 12
Total Miles: 202.2
Breakfast Elevation: 10,520 ft
Dinner Elevation: 10,000 ft
High Point: 12,500 ft
It’s a joy to begin the day among the aspen trees.
The Twin Lakes are visible as the trail winds steadily downhill.
I meet a young couple here among the sage and Ponderosa Pine.
“Does this trail go to Mount Elbert?” the girl asks.
“It does, but it’s a long way up.”
“Oh good, so this will get us there… all the roads are closed because of the stupid bike race. We wasted so much time driving around it this morning.”
Ah, the Leadville 100 bicycle race. Today is Saturday, after all, I’ve just remembered.
The couple is gung-ho and I wish them well.
I reach the trail crossing of Colorado Route 82, and walk a mile along the road to the very small town of Twin Lakes. The town consists of a handful of historic buildings, housing a cafe and a gas station… and that’s about it.
The proximity to the CT and CDT makes the place a popular trail stop, but there really isn’t much here.
At the General Store I get some Cokes and snacks and sit out front to enjoy the morning, watching the idle traffic come and go. There’s a parking lot across the street for a number of local trailheads.
A guy on a dirt bike pulls up to the gas station with a good camera. He’s doing photography for one of the mountain bike teams in the race. Sounds like a good gig.
Another guy next door sets up his crafts for sale in front of a small gallery.
Packs of motorcycles cruise by, on their summer vacation tours. Some stop, meet others, talk of their routes and rides, and move on. It’s a nice scene.
I’m all packed and ready to get back on the trail when Richard and Carol show up. These are the two CDT section hikers that I met back at the Leadville Hostel. It’s great to bump into “colleagues” with so much in common, and I can’t help but stay a while longer, talking with them and swapping experiences.
They pick up their pre-planned maildrop packages, and we backpackers make our own contribution to the Colorado Saturday scene. They sort through their boxes, and we eat and drink and spread out the maps.
Today I’ll be leaving the official Colorado Trail for the popular Hope Pass / Missouri Gulch bypass. The bypass follows a portion of the Continental Divide Trail. It goes higher near big 14,000 foot mountains, whereas the CT stays low and in the trees. The bypass should be better and more scenic.
Richard and Carol are going the same way for a short while, until the CDT branches off slightly to the west.
It seems as though there’s a problem with the approach to Hope Pass, because of a recently washed out bridge over Lake Creek. Carol shares some great information about an alternate way she learned from a USFS employee just moments ago, involving a gauge station crossing.
I walk the road out of Twin Lakes to the washed out bridge at the Willis Gulch Trailhead.
Are we having an adventure yet?
So that’s the bridge. At first glance it still appears passable, despite the strict Forest Service warnings not to set foot on it. I consider putting on my best Indiana Jones face and braving the crossing, but one short section of the bridge looks quite unstable.
The best option is the crossing at the gauge station, only a short distance down the road.
While standing dumbfounded at the broken bridge, I meet a lone day hiker and strike up a conversation. Turns out that he’s from Lake Havasu City, Arizona, and has a passion for seeking out and photographing ancient rock art of the Southwest – pictographs and petroglyphs and such. We have a great talk about the mesas and ruins and red rock canyons and obscure dirt roads in the deserts of Arizona and Utah.
The “creek” carves an unexpected, refreshingly roaring canyon.
Aslan is on the move.
The path leads uphill to Aspenland.
A soft breeze inspires thousands of leaves to flicker and dance in the filtered sunlight, with a perfect rhythm and sound that no camera can capture.
The way to Hope Pass follows a stream up Little Willis Gulch.
I meet a lot of day hikers on their way back down the mountain. One man is jogging back and forth over a 50 yard stretch of trail set at an incline. Only one thing can drive a man to do such a thing.
“Are you doing the Leadville 100?” I ask.
So today is the Leadville 100 mountain bike race, but next Saturday is the Leadville 100 Trail Run, which has had me in complete awe since I first read an article about it in Outside Magazine, probably a decade ago. It’s a 100-mile ultra marathon over a course that’s predominantly over 10,000 feet in elevation. The crux is here at Hope Pass, and here this man is familiarizing himself with it.
I go on about how what he’s doing next week is mind-boggling to me, despite (Or maybe because of) my backpacking and running experience. This will be his first time running Leadville.
“Well first you do a marathon, then a 30 miler, then a 50 miler…”
As he says this, he stares through my head with a crazed look in his eye – jogging in place like a fanatical personal trainer.
The creek is inviting on this sunny afternoon, and I take a long break.
Few things encompass the backpacking experience quite like washing up in a creek on a sunny day. I hang my shirt and bandanas in a tree and bask in the bright warmth.
There’s less people farther up the trail.
…and then none at all
Hope Pass is high and windy.
I have enough water to camp anywhere I like, but continue over the pass and down the south side of the ridge.
Late in the evening I meet a lone old man with hiking poles. He’s moving up the mountain at a brisk pace.
He breaks the solitude in a magical way. It’s as though this were a wildlife sighting, and not a human being at all. He’s full of rapid questions, visibly running numbers behind discerning eyes.
“How long is the Colorado Trail? …uh-huh. And when did you start? How long do you think it would take someone to run its length, with van support? …20 days?”
His name is Ernest. He’s also preparing for the Leadville 100. He’s done it before, multiple times. He looks to be about 60 years old, and is attempting to do 10 one-hundred mile races within a single calendar year, and says that there’s only one other man of his age that’s done such a thing.
Listening to him speak is like having a friendly chat with a tornado. I’m treated to rapid-fire tales of traveling this way and that, back and forth across the country like a pinball from one race to another. He makes the guy I met earlier in the day sound like a child. His friends and colleagues were the subject of the book Born to Run living and training at Copper Canyon, Mexico, running barefoot up and down the deepest canyon in the world. Ernest is considering meeting them there this winter.
I shake his hand. I take his picture. I’m so nervous putting a camera in this guy’s face that it’s out of focus.
He continues up to the pass, and I go on limping down the south side.
About a week ago my right foot started hurting me, and now the pain is excruciating.
It’s been bothering me for quite a few days, but I didn’t care to mention it until now. There’s pain at the end of every step when I bend back my second toe, or when the sole of my foot lands on sharp rock. The trail on this descent is rough and rocky – not nearly as forgiving as the majority of the Colorado Trail. I feel as though it goes on forever.
At last the terrain levels out, and I find a comfortable campsite near the valley floor. I’ve had a good, sociable, full day, and it’s an exceedingly pleasant evening. I sit on a log and prepare a meal of herb and butter flavored rice with salmon.
Ernest returns from the pass and comes by my camp, again launching into an oratory onslaught of his races and travel to and from everywhere… purchasing a motorcycle in New Mexico to ride to the next race in Grand Teton… “But I didn’t do well in that one,” because he arrived the morning of the race and slept the previous night along the side of the road on a pile of woodchips or something. He’s found an ear for his obsessive single-minded life and I love it.
As he strides away into the twilight I once again say it’s been a pleasure. “To me, guys like you are better than all those pro basketball players and baseball players that get millions of dollars…”
I guess he liked that last comment – ten minutes later I see a headlamp walking back from the trailhead, with a bag full of spare food in hand.
Now this is real, unsolicited trail magic – another one of those moments that defines a thru-hiking experience. Imagine meeting Lance Armstrong while you’re backpacking on the trail, and he returns to your camp to give you some of his extra instant mashed potatoes.
I take a Mountain Dew and some bananas, and wish Ernest well in the race for the third and final time.