Day 56: June 18, 2019
Destination: Buena Vista, CO
Today’s Miles: 14.5
Start Location: Colorado Trail East Collegiate Loop Mile 34.5
Trip Miles: 919.9
Today was frustrating. In the morning I walked over a huge avalanche debris field. There was still a giant mound of snow and debris completely covering a large creek beside the trail. I crossed over it, looking at the barren strip of land that used to be a forest on the side of a mountain.
Ironically, where the Colorado Trail begins to climb up over 11,900 feet, the trailhead is called Avalanche Trailhead. In hindsight, I probably should have put more stock into that name, but at the time I just pushed on.
As I climbed I could see that there was not one, but five avalanches on the same mountainside across the road. They looked like big, barren chutes where trees had been flattened like matchsticks. It was unreal.
I kept climbing and was delighted that the trail was free of snow! Near the top, patches of snow appeared on the trail, but I could walk around or over most of them. This was better than I expected!
When I got to the top, everything changed. I walked into the snow and headed toward the north face to continue the trail down. It looked pretty snowy and I was post holing, so I put on my snowshoes. Ironically, at the time I was telling myself that I would just have to take them off soon when I hit dirt again.
I started over the mountain and down the other side. The first thing I noticed was there was only one set of tracks before me. They were older and didn’t seem to have sunk down into the snow as much. I made my way slowly down. The trail was not visible and the snow was very deep. My trekking poles were sinking up to the handles. The trail was incredibly steep. My guess is that it followed switchbacks over a steep grade and that is why I could not see a trail - it had all been buried in snow and angled out. The slope was at least 60 degrees, and worse in some places. My snowshoes struggled to handle the angle. I tried to traverse by facing into the mountain and up and just shuffling one snow shoe at a time, carefully digging in the crampon. Regardless, I was post holing badly, even with snowshoes, and trying to make my way down the steep slope was brutal. I grabbed trees and held on. I slipped at one point and started to slide down, but managed to stop. I needed my ice axe, but, not expecting this, I mailed it to Leadville. Even with an axe, it was a dodgy section at best. With every step I thought “just a little farther,” but then I got to where I could see better, and it wasn’t just a little farther. I looked at Guthook and I was still at the beginning of the descent! This was bad. I had probably spent 45 minutes trying to go two tenths of a mile. I knew the snow wasn’t safe. It was soft and deep and unstable. I also knew that this was only the first of two big climbs today, so I would have to do this twice. At one point I sank up to my waist on a slope of about 65 degrees, with my snowshoes on. I slid on my butt and grasped trees for support.
All of my alarm bells were going off, so I decided to turn back. This would normally be a very hard decision for me to make, but today, it was easy. The slope was clearly pretty dangerous, I didn’t have the tools I needed, and even if I did, it didn’t pass my safety standards. Also, I was alone. Getting back up was concerning me. The snow was so soft and I had come down steeply. I had to grapple my way up. Even where my snowshoe crampons could get a bite, sometimes the snow collapsed anyway. I post holed and fell my way up to the top. Just writing it down doesn’t bring it to life enough. I was pretty terrified, but I made it back up. Now what?
I took a few minutes back at the top of the mountain to take in what had just happened. That was way too sketchy for me. I wondered if other hikers were just blazing through that stuff. Regardless, my read of that descent was that it was a bad accident waiting to happen. I came out here for a challenge and I knew that might not always feel comfortable or enjoyable, but this was well beyond those things.
I had a small signal at the top of the mountain, so I checked my online maps and saw that the road at the trailhead actually also went straight into Buena Vista. I couldn’t see any other routes to keep me going north, so I headed back down the mountain to the road.
On the way I ran into another thru-hiker named Hawaii. I had not met her before. She was working on finishing her triple crown and said she had made it on the CDT to Monarch Pass, but bailed to the Colorado Trail hoping it was safer and more fun, like me. I told her how bad the north face was and that I had turned back. She decided to not bother climbing to the top and to walk the road into Buena Vista as well. She mentioned that she had a friend who had taken this route 6 days ago and hadn’t mentioned difficulty on the mountain. It made me wonder - am I just soft? I had only seen one pair of tracks. I suppose it’s possible that person had firmer snow conditions. Who knows - it didn’t matter at that point. Part of me wishes she had gotten to the top with me so that I could have seen another person’s reaction to it. That could have backfired though and pushed me to do something I didn’t need to be doing.
Hawaii headed off to Buena Vista while I hung back to filter water. It was raining at this point, and continued to rain off and on into Buena Vista. The road walk was a little over 9 miles. I got a room at the Lakeside Motel, which was expensive but the cheapest I could find.
I’m going to admit that today made me question what I’m doing out here. I know I can string together continuous footsteps for a thru-hike. I can find a way. But is it the thru-hike I want? Just when I think I won’t walk more roads instead of trail, I end up doing it. Today’s experience makes me wonder what my appetite will be for other north face areas over 11000 feet. Will I just walk roads all the way to Wyoming, and am I ok with that? All of these thoughts have been swirling in my head.
I definitely want the thru-hike. I’m also definitely not really happy with how Colorado has been going. When I hiked the AT, there were tough times for sure, but the stakes were much lower when it came to the hiking risks I faced. There’s hardly any elevation on the AT, which makes a huge difference. The snow is completely different. I never thought about quitting my thru-hike of the AT. I had my moments, but I always knew I would have to be dragged off the trail to stop.
Now, for the first time, if I’m honest I have been thinking about calling it. The snow is out of control here, which means I’ll likely have to continue to butcher up various road routes, etc. It’s been feeling less like a trail and more like I’m running from the trail. Hikers have scattered and dispersed in so many different directions that I was shocked to see Hawaii today. I’m largely just hiking alone, which is ok, but it’s nice to at least have people that I cross paths with when I’m kind of down on the route I have to take.
That all said, I’ve come this far, so in some ways calling it quits doesn’t feel like an option. I have to think about how I would feel if I did, and right now I know I wouldn’t feel good. I’m writing all of this because it probably sums up what a lot of others are going through right now as well. Story-telling and having fun are a big part of my journal posts, but lest you think I’m some kind of freak of nature that never gets down out here, now you know! I’m just another flawed human trying to decide what to do.
Right now my gut says to push on, so that’s the plan. Hawaii mentioned that there was a mountain bike alternate for the Colorado Trail that swings by Twin Lakes and goes into Leadville. I checked it out and it is at lower elevation, so I plan to take that. I think I can get as far north as Frisco with that plan. Where to go then? I have no idea. At that point I’ll be knocking down the door of the Rockies and there is a lot of elevation there. I can’t see the snow magically melting in two weeks, but maybe it will melt enough to be safe. I’ll just have to see.
Blasphemy rolled into town today. I warned him about the trail conditions so he wouldn’t have to backtrack like I did. I usually get out earlier than him, but I think he has to get off trail for some work stuff after Leadville anyway, so probably not a viable hiking partner to team up with for farther north. I’ll just have to cross that bridge when I come to it.
There have been a ton of storms lately too. Other hikers have messaged me about that as well. Sometimes they feel like rubbing salt in the wounds. When I was coming back down the mountain today, it bailed for about two minutes, as if to say “good riddance!” As much as we love to anthropomorphize nature and life though, it’s just what the mountain weather does.
So that’s that. That’s an honest assessment of where my head is. I can’t change things so I just have to accept them and decide what to do. Tomorrow I’ll wake up and start the mountain bike route and go from there. As the famous Stones song goes, you can’t always get what you want...but you might find you get what you need. I’m hoping there is some reason behind this craziness. I keep hanging in there....