August 31, 2010
Today’s Miles: 11.4
Total Miles: 428.8
Breakfast Elevation: 12,000
Dinner Elevation: 12,540
High Point: 12,980 ft
Yesterday’s high-altitude march through the wind and hail has me feeling drained.
It’s a clear, bright morning in camp, and I linger for much of it, thawing my bones.
I see the figures of two hikers on the trail high above. They’re too far away to catch any distinguishable features, but the pace and mannerisms tell me that it must be Ole and Meadow Bruiser. They may not even see me, way down at the bottom of this valley.
I finally pack and trudge up the steep slope to the trail.
The path follows this valley for three miles up and over an unnamed pass.
It’s a beautiful day.
The far side of the pass takes on a mild, gradual descent toward Cataract Lake.
It occurs to me that this would be a nice place to spend a night… but no regrets.
Beyond this small lake there’s a low point and a creek before beginning the next ascent. Here I take a rest for a snack and meet two backpackers going in the opposite direction, two young men.
“How far are we from Cataract Lake?”
“Oh, it’s right around the corner, no more than a half mile.”
“What’s it like that way, is the trail tough?”
This is always a tricky one to answer.
“Well it stays high, but it’s still up and down. How about coming from that way?”
“Same thing, up and down.”
The mountain air is crisp and cool, for perfect hiking weather.
The day is blissfully peaceful… I follow the winding path this way and that, through the earth’s curvature in a sort of trance.
The trail reaches a high point and rounds a bend with a new view. Again I’m struck by the area’s raw beauty. Around each corner there’s just more of the same – these tundra basins flanked by gently curving ridges, morphing into scree slopes crowned with rocky outcrops.
These mountains don’t vertically challenge the heavens so much as they’re just big and full of mass, agreeable with my first impression of the Colorado Rockies. What I didn’t expect is the sweeping unbroken leagues of distance among these highlands themselves, on a deceptively large scale.
It’s like I say about the Grand Canyon. Just looking at it, you can’t perceive the great big world down there. The same holds true where I walk now… there’s a great big world up here.
After contouring along a ridge for some time, the trail takes off across another basin.
It follows this pattern today with a sort of soothing rhythm.
The opposite ridge looks relatively close at hand, but this is an illusion.
Cairns of this size may seem unnecessary to some, but I think they’re fitting for the large landscape. More importantly, they can save lives in the fog, snow, and darkness.
I see a bright orange tent away in the distance. It stands out in this colorful valley, lit up in the evening light. My first impression is “Wow, what an amazing campsite.”
It’s relatively early, and I have time and energy to put in a few more miles.
There’s two people mingling in the vicinity of the tent, presumably going about their nightly camp chores.
I keep stride on the trail to pass their site, and Carol and I recognize each other at the same instant.
“Is that Duct Tape?”
It’s Carol and Richard, who I first met in Leadville… and then at Twin Lakes, and then in Salida. We never actually saw each other on the trail itself… until now. I’m invited to camp with them, and I mull it over for about 30 seconds before accepting.
a snippet of our view at dinner
We sit in the grass and cook our dinners together, catching up on all the news of the trail. They skipped Creede and went into Lake City. All our mutual friends are doing well, and it seems most everybody but me holed up and stayed put through yesterday’s foul weather. The scenery was great, but the elevation, exposure, and primarily the wind took their toll, as evidenced by my late start today and short mileage.
Closing in on the end of our trips, we’re beginning to count the days. We exchange contact information with an air that this is the last we’ll see each other. Instead of following the Continental Divide Trail to Pagosa Springs as originally planned, they’re heading for Durango and reorganizing logistics accordingly.
For once it’s going to be a clear, relatively mild night… bringing with it a sense of ease and relaxation.
It’s not long after sunset when the cold sends us diving for our sleeping bags with goodnights, goodbyes, and a flurry of zippers.