Boulder Backroads

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CU XC Womens TeamAfter running 18 miles Saturday, I almost skipped running 10 miles with my friends this morning in lieu of sleeping in.  My legs were so heavy, dragging myself out of bed took real effort.  So glad I joined everyone though.  The Boulder backroads make for a gorgeous run.  And the morning air is starting to cool down with the approaching fall.

Six of us started out running together this morning from the Left Hand Trailhead on Neva Road.  Several cars and vans carrying the CU Men’s and Women’s Cross Country Teams pulled up just as we started.  A couple of the women quickly passed us on Oxford Road.  We estimated they were running at about a 7 minute per mile pace.  I talked to them later back at the trailhead and they said they were running under a 7 minute clip.  Imagine running that fast for even one mile.  These girls can maintain that for ten.  This picture shows some of their team smiling afterward.

We took a different route, turning onto Ouray Drive to run north up to Nelson Road.  Otherwise more of the CU Team would have passed us.  They kept to Oxford, which is also a pretty road.  I think Ouray Drive might have a bigger set of hills.  The girls in my group turned around after 4 miles for an 8 mile run.  Nelson Road is about 5.25 miles so us guys got in over ten.

My legs were weak on the hills.  Recovering from an 18 miler isn’t easy for a 52 year old.  I did have a massage yesterday though which helped.  I normally focus massages on my legs but I think my back benefited the most yesterday.  The increased distance lately has left it somewhat compressed.  I know visiting a physical therapist is all the rage nowadays but I’m a fan of massage.  I’ll take the more relaxed atmosphere over clinical any day.

My marathon training remains on schedule.  I’m confident already at this point I’ll be able to complete the Boulder Marathon in October.  It’s just a matter of how fast – or how slow.  I ran a 9 minute pace for my 18 miler yesterday.  I think it’s a fair estimate to say I’ll be able to run that pace for a full marathon.  I’d like to run an 8.5 minute pace but will totally be happy with 9 minutes.  Six more weeks of training.

Momentum and Miles

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ALSToday’s run was a hot one.  Hit 90° later in the afternoon.  I suspect the temperature during the three hours I was out there was in the upper 80s.  I drank 32 ounces of water.  That’s a large amount for me.  I might take some electrolytes along for tomorrow’s run.  I had to stop after 15 miles today because my legs were ready to cramp.  I was targeting 17 miles.  Wasn’t the day for it.  Great day though to take the ALS ice bucket challenge after the run.  It almost felt self-serving to cool off.  It doesn’t bother me that I had to walk in the final two miles.  I learned young to set goals high.  You might not reach them.  It’s better though to come close, even if that brings disappointment, than to reach shallower goals.  It was during my walk home I determined I would take the ALS ice bucket challenge.

I ran slow today too, the entire distance.  I felt a bit sluggish starting off but figured a little LSD wouldn’t hurt for today.  That’s running lingo for long, slow, distance.  There are benefits to putting in the miles regardless of pace.  Sometimes I’m even in the mood to run slow, and was today.  I generally prefer a fast run though.  I had a super fast eight miler on Thursday.  I hit the LoBo Trail right after a hard rain shower.  The cool air felt great.  I didn’t wear a watch but I knew I was running fast.  Felt awesome.  I even ran a half mile fartlek at an accelerated pace.  I did this after 4.5 miles when my legs were well warmed up.  I’d like to be able to get in a fast run like this once or twice a week.  Muscles have memory and mine remember running fast.  My workouts are on pace for the Boulder Marathon in October.  I’m gaining momentum as I log the miles.

Marathon Man

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Dallas White Rock Marathon 1978Lest you begin to think this is a hiking blog, I ran this weekend.  Two massive 15 and 12 mile runs on the LoBo Trail, Saturday and Sunday respectively.  I was confident on the distance because I ran this course a couple of months ago.  I was a little less certain on my ability to recover for a repeat attempt Sunday, but I felt fine.  No choice really.  The Boulder Marathon launches from the Res in less than two months.  Time to get into racing shape.

I’m pretty excited for this.  It will be my first race in seven months.  Missing the spring and summer racing season has been a disappointment.  Fortunately I ran Austin and Moab this winter.  I entered this year in great running shape.  It will be interesting to see if I can pick up where I left off.  I focused last weekend on strength training.  I followed it up this weekend with distance.  Hoping to maintain consistent eight mile runs from here on out with a bit of weights to avoid injury.  Long runs on weekends.

I know that first running a half marathon or 10K is a sensible approach for a post-surgery recovery.  That’s not how I think though.  I know I can run a half marathon.  I just did.  I could run a 10K with that catheter still tethered to my bladder.  A full marathon though is never certain.  I want my return to racing to be a celebration of sorts.  It needs to be a real challenge.

finishThe photo up top is of my first marathon.  I was 16 years old in my Junior year of high school.  I ran alongside my buddy Mike O’Neill – whom I recently went on a week-long backpacking trip with across the Continental Divide.  My first marathon is still one of the most difficult athletic feats I have ever accomplished.  This last photo is of my most recent marathon in Austin this winter.  My feet are off the ground in both pics!  Otherwise, there’s a good thirty-five pounds difference between the two photos.  I’ve run eight marathons in my lifetime.  Two as a teenager and six since.  Looking forward to number nine on October 5th.

jackOn a sad note, our beloved German Shepard passed away Tuesday.  Jack was a great dog, and a super companion to Brittany.  He was ferociously loyal but also a sweetheart.  Jack was never threatening to humans, although he looked the part sitting on the front porch.  He absolutely loved other dogs.  He wouldn’t fight them unless necessary.  When little dogs would bite at him, Jack would either ignore them or slap their head with his big paw.  Only twice did I see him attacked by large dogs and he defended himself well in those situations.  We are comforted knowing he lived a happy life, and well past the normal 10 to 11 years for a Shepard.  Jack, I know you are forever running in fields of mountain wildflowers at that big doggie ranch in the sky.

Booth Lake

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trailheadBrit joined us up in Vail last night.  That means a new hiking partner.  And Brit’s not afraid to take on the big ones.  We launch from the trailhead to Booth Lake by 8am.  This trail is easily the most recommended by the Concierge based on the conversations I overhear as I walk by.  And the trail guide suggests it’s a favorite of tourists.  Fit tourists anyway.  This puppy rises 3000 feet in four miles.

aspen and rockThe trail begins its steady 4.5 mile rise through old growth Aspen.  There is one other lone hiker who parks alongside us at the trailhead.  He starts out about five minutes ahead of us.  Brit quickly finds a rock.  We both agree it has a certain “Pride Rock” quality.  We encounter a trio of hikers descending.  They ask us if we are headed to the lake or just the falls – which are only about two miles up.  We respond with the lake and they say it’s well worth it.  Brittany leads most of the hike and holds a 29 minute pace the first mile.  The girl is in shape.  My legs have yet to recover from yesterday and I find myself struggling to keep pace.

treeThe Aspen yield to thick Spruce after an hour of hiking.  Brit finds this uprooted tree pretty cool.  Not sure if the picture captures it (you might need to click to enlarge it) but these split roots look awesome on the trail.  The trail is mostly dry but the steepness make it challenging anyway.  There is a bit of mud and several fun creek crossings.  Brit is happy she borrowed Ellie’s waterproof boots.

Booth FallsWe arrive at the falls after about two miles, or an hour, of hiking.  We suspect most hikers only make it this far.  The grade is challenging.  This photo captures one of the first set of falls.  A later set is much more dramatic but also more difficult to photograph with a live person in the picture.  The trail increases its slope after these falls and nice views open up behind us of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area above Vail Mountain.  After three miles, we begin to see the moraine in the Gore Range where this trail will ultimately lead us.  The slopes still hold snow.

meadowThe vegetation along the trail is lush.  We see many of the same flowers we saw along the Lost Lake Trail, but a million times more thick.  The trail alternates between forest trees and meadows.  We see a deer bound through one meadow so fast we’re not certain what it is at first.  Brit suggested that maybe it was being chased by a mountain lion.  We then both agree that we think mountain lions are nocturnal.  This is what one usually says to avoid thinking about the potential danger.  The most amazing of all the wildflowers we see is this Colorado Columbine.  Imagine fields of them.

Colorado ColumbineThis is a great hike for sightseeing.  We see a beaver super up close.  He has bark all over his lips.  We see a couple of weasels.  A second deer near the lake.  And then for the first time ever on a hike, we see a mountain goat.  So cool.  We expect the lake to only be a 4.1 mile hike and become a bit discouraged as we near the moraine and never see it.  We keep thinking it will be over the next rise.  After 4.5 miles, we see it and are amazed.

booth lakeAlpine lakes have a way of taking your breath away.  Not just from hiking up to 11,500 feet.  This one is so pristine and serene.  There is still snow hanging over the shores.  And the water is crystal clear.  There is no one else up here.  We take a good 15 minutes to enjoy it.  We leave sooner than we care to because rain clouds are forming.

We hike pass tons of others on their way up, mostly below the falls.  Some are headed to the lake and we encourage them.  We understand why most don’t make it past the falls.  That’s a great hike too, for sure.  Reaching the lake is likely too much for the average tourist.  We both feel special for being able to see it today.

Eagle’s Nest

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eagles nestI wore out my family yesterday.  The consensus for today’s hike is a ride up to Eagle’s Nest on the Eagle Bahn Gondola to hike the Fireweed Trail.  Sounds like a going-out-of-business sale at a dispensary.  I count a win for getting them out of their 500 count thread sheets and over-stuffed pillows before noon.  Perfect weather on top of Vail Mountain.  Full sun with a cool breeze.  Only a two mile loop, the Fireweed Trail might not be long enough to enjoy such a perfect day.

rope courseFireweed Trail is actually quite nice.  The sort of soft dirt and pine needles I love to run on.  We see several deer up close too.  We are all pleased with the hike but it is indeed too short.  We decide to stay in the area for some of the activities.  Ellie surprises me by going on the rope course.  I thought she would be too afraid.  She does well but it is extremely athletic and strenuous.  She has just enough strength afterward for a zip line.

zip lineI zip with Ellie – my first ever.  The guides are all supportive of me taking pictures, but also seem quite confident that I’ll drop my phone.  I don’t.  We finish the morning with lunch at the Bistro at Eagle Nest and return on the Gondola to Lions Head.  I decide on the drop down the mountain that I will return later to run back up.  The trails are chock full of mountain bikers.  They’ll have to yield for me.

sistasKaren and I lift some weights back at the hotel.  Then I return to Lions Head to run up the mountain.  Following the ski trail maps is like trying to use a phone book map for city streets.  Quite a bit of detail is missing and the drawings are only rough approximations.  The trail signage is possibly worse.  My uphill pace is slow enough that I actually can read a map.  This doesn’t help me much though given the poor quality of the maps and signage.  Still, I manage to nearly reach the top of the gondola run before I have to turn around from fatigue.  I take some of the steeper biker trails on my descent.

In spite of the short hike to start the day, I’m totally spent now.  I learn that Brit has arrived once I return to the hotel.  She plans to do a massive hike with me tomorrow.  We finish tonight with pizza at the Blue Moose.  Spent and stuffed.

Lost Lake

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lost lakeVail is one of my favorite Colorado mountain towns.  Although it’s been a few years, we come here often.  Usually for spring break.  The last time we visited on our wedding anniversary (August 1st) was in 2007 for our twentieth.  We typically stay here at the Vail Cascade in West Vail.  Summer traffic was heavy and the drive up took nearly twice as long as normal.  Since we arrived late, we dined in the hotel restaurant – Atwater.  Super nice eatery though.  I had one of the best steak dinners ever for a restaurant.  I’m fairly critical on sirloin because usually I cook a better steak at home.  Not this time.  We sleep with the balcony door open to hear the rushing creek.

viewWe start Saturday morning off with an aggressive 6.6 mile hike to Lost Lake.  I know about this trail from the Concierge who not only has trail maps, she has hiked the trails.  We access the trailhead off the North Frontage Road at Red Sandstone Road #700.  This road begins paved through a neighborhood of switchbacks for 1.7 miles.  It then turns to dirt but is easy to navigate with a low-profile, two-wheel drive car.  We follow the dirt road for 2.7 miles to a Y intersection and steer left, following the #700 sign.  The trailhead is another 3.9 miles up this road.  Very well marked and easy to find.

flowersThe mountain meadow flowers are in full bloom.  We see Mountain Harebell, Aspen Daisy, and a yellow flower that I’m uncertain about.  I think it’s Lambs Tongue Groundsel.  This trail is rated one of the easiest to navigate as the elevation gain is minimal – just a little over 900 feet.  I expect to see more hikers but we don’t encounter any until we reach the lake.  There was only one other car at the trailhead so this makes sense.  There is a second trailhead though a half mile beyond the lake.  It requires 4WD, plus it would make for too short of a hike.  At least for us.

Lost LakeThe lake is stunning.  Perfectly blue.  Ellie fearlessly bushwhacks around the shore to take pictures of some Lilly Pads.  We rest a bit finding this spot so serene.  A fisherman casts his fly and tells us this lake normally has some good cutthroat trout.  They aren’t biting today though, he says because the dragonflies are hatching.

Our return to the trailhead runs us into scores of late day hikers.  Families headed out after lunch.  There are now nine cars parked at the trailhead.  Many more pass us as we head back down to Vail.  Gorgeous first day hike.  Looking forward to Sunday.

Ouzel Falls

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Wild Basin TrailheadI return to the Wild Basin section of Rocky Mountain National Park this morning.  This time with Karen.  We drive two miles beyond the ranger station and Sandbeach Lake Trailhead to the Wild Basin Trailhead.  Tons of parking and good camp sites along the way.  This trailhead has nice facilities and ample parking, but is also quite packed.  The guidebook states the hike to Ouzel Falls is the most popular route in all of Wild Basin.  I now believe it.  Still, it’s like Bill Bryson’s description of the Appalachian Trail in his book, A Walk in the Woods.  No matter how many people visit the trail, they spread out and it never feels crowded.

Copeland FallsThis trail is popular for several reasons.  The trail is fairly pedestrian – well maintained with an obtainable elevation gain.  The guidebook rates it suitable for families.  The rushing creeks and spectacular falls are stunning.  Plentiful camping sites reward backpackers on their trek to Thunder Lake.  And then there are some nice views of the south side of both Mount Meeker and Longs Peak.  This photo of me sitting on a log is at Copeland Falls which is only a half mile beyond the trailhead.

Calypso FallsThis second set of falls is nearly as impressive as Ouzel.  These are Calypso Falls rising behind us in this photo.  It’s apparent some families are only walking to Copeland Falls.  Calypso is about two miles past the trailhead and would make a satisfying turn-around point.  We witness a little girl, maybe seven years old, get scolded by her father for climbing a rock.  Seriously, drive Trail Ridge Road if you don’t want to get out of your car and walk about.  Although that’s a great road to get out and climb some rocks too.

Ouzel FallsWe hear the roar of rushing water flowing over Ouzel Falls well before we arrive.  This site is 2.7 miles from the trailhead and not at all difficult for a short day hike.  We are almost meandering and it only takes us 90 minutes.  We see this really cool looking bird that I believe is a Steller’s Jay.  We are looking for the Water Ouzel – or American Dipper – for which the creek and falls are named, but don’t see any.  We don’t climb up too close for better views of the falls.  Quite a few people are on the trail spur and Karen’s not a big fan of bushwhacking.  We can’t go beyond this point either as the bridge is washed out.  There’s an alternate, in fact much shorter, route for backpackers headed to Thunder Lake; so the bridge is not an issue.

Mount MeekerWe return without stopping at all the sites.  Many more families are headed up – even though it is now lunch time and rain clouds are forming.  Besides the water features, several spots along the trail open up for nice views of the south side of Mount Meeker and Long’s Peak.  You might have to click on this photo to see it well enough.  The peak above my hat is Mount Meeker.  To its left is Longs Peak.  From our house in Longmont both peaks have the traditional triangle peaks.  And in fact are termed the Twin Peaks.  From this southern view you can see the flat top of Long’s Peak.  Karen has a dance audition in a couple of weekends and I think I might target that date to bring the girls up here.  This is one of those hikes that everyone in the family will love.  It’s 45 minutes from town.  Get your family up here.

Sandbeach Lake

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trailheadI wake up the girls at 6:30am this morning because they want me to.  We’re headed up to the Wild Basin area in Rocky Mountain National Park for a massive hike to Sandbeach Lake.  Surprisingly, we’re out the door shortly after 7am.  We stop by Big Daddy’s Bagels for something to start our engines before leaving the neighborhood and reach the trailhead by 8am.

rockThe girls climb the first big rock they see.  Brit’s been doing this ever since she saw Lion King as a three year old.  Ellie can’t pass up a good rock either.  She might wish she had because moments after this shot she slipped and slid down, scraping her leg.  She toughs it out though and doesn’t cry.  She toughs out a lot today because not only is our target lake 4.5 miles away from the trailhead, the entire trail is uphill.  Rarely is it overly steep, but uphill at altitude is never easy.

campsiteNice trail for the family and we see several.  We see at least three groups of hikers returning from having camped out at the lake.  Others are returning because they simply started before us.  Smart as today is hot.  There are several camp sites like this one along the way with access to water from a small but strong running stream.  We find this camp sign ironic as the girl’s Uncle Steve has played at the Hole-in-the-Wall on Guadalupe in Austin a million times over the last thirty years.  We figure this camp site is a tribute to that dive bar.

creek crossingThe entire hike is in the trees with only a few spots for views of the valley or Continental Divide.  This is probably a good thing as the temperature soars well above 90° today.  We take advantage of several creek crossings to cool off.  Ellie is emboldened by her water-proof hiking boots and wades into deeper water than us to cool off.  Brit and I can’t believe her feet remain dry.  She pushes the boundaries often drowning her bootlaces.  My RMNP trail guidebook suggests there are some downhill segments, but no down slopes ever present themselves for more than 20 yards in length.  This is a long, hot, uphill slog.

lake signEllie’s patience wears thin as she discovers this trail will never go downhill until we turn around.  I learn later from my Garmin that we climbed nonstop 2000 feet in elevation over 4.5 miles.  Brit brilliantly provides Ellie a chocolate chip cookie (what do you pack for trail food?) and this enables Ellie to pull through for the final stretch.  Then the lake presents itself through the trees.  Even Ellie is wowed and says the hike is worth it.  Sandbeach Lake is one of Rocky Mountain National Park’s biggest and deepest mountain lakes.  The water is as clear as the sky.

brit n dadThe lake was dammed around 1900 to provide drinking water for our town – Longmont.  The dam was dismantled in the ’80s and returned to its natural state, once again displaying the sandy beach for which it is named.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a sandy beach on a high-altitude mountain lake before.  Sandbeach Lake offers stunning views of close-by peaks to the north and the Continental Divide to the west.  You can almost watch water run off the moraine on the northern peaks to a waterfall flowing into the lake.  The sound of flowing water is peaceful; this beach no doubt makes for a great camp site.

meeker park trailThis is only one trail of many in the Wild Basin area of RMNP.  The trails sit south of Mount Meeker, many leading to lakes and waterfalls.  Our plans are to return each weekend that we can this summer to explore the other trails.  The trailheads are less than an hour from our front door, just north of Allenspark, CO.  We stopped in that little mountain haven on our return for a cold beverage.  We later lunched at Lyons Fork in Lyons.  Nice Sunday.

Alpine Tunnel

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TunnelOur final morning begins with a short hike, couple of miles maybe, back to the trailhead and La Plata’s truck.  We lighten up our packs since we won’t need tents or sleeping bags for today’s hike.  We then set out on our first northbound direction toward the Alpine Tunnel.  This is what remains of an old rail line that supplied miners back in the day.  The trail itself actually follows the old tracks, although only a few timbers remain.

DCIM41[N3862354W10635535T40D992EAH0DBB84]There is a surprising amount of snow on the trail.  Probably because the trail appears to be on the east side of a hill.  And we are just under treeline as you can see in this photo.  Each of us brought along our trekking poles in case we need them, which we do later.  Initially though this trail, following an old railroad grade, is fairly pedestrian.  Discounting the extreme altitude.

Alpine TunnelWe also brought along head lamps thinking we would need them to walk through the tunnel.  We were wrong.  That’s the east portal of the tunnel behind us.  Nowhere are there any signs or clues that the tunnel has been caved in for years.  Maybe the west side is open but we don’t go there.  Instead we hike up over the ridge to Tunnel Lake.  This is where the trail becomes challenging.  Snowfields are quite large.  One forces us to bushwhack across a boulder field which is arguably more dangerous, albeit quicker to navigate.

Alpine Tunnel LakeMike and I turn around at this lake while La Plata sprints a few minutes further to capture the pass as part of his CDT quest.  Maybe Mike is trying to get to DIA early for his flight but he leads the return at such a torrid pace I am unable to keep up.  He must have gotten in shape on this trip.

And seriously, what a week.  Every day was simply amazing but at the same time, the week was totally exhausting.  We are all ready to return home to our families, while talking about our next hike.  La Plata wants to train us with some snow and ice skills.  Mike wants to get his three boys up here.  I want a shower.  We clean up again at the Mount Princeton Hot Springs which is located on the drive off this mountain.  Three hours later I drop off Mike at DIA.  There most definitely will be a next time.

Cottonwood Pass

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Cottonwood PassThe Cottonwood Pass segment of trail had me more excited than any other during our planning phase because it begins at over 12,000 feet and stays there.  It snakes back and forth between peaks from the east to west to east sides of the Continental Divide.  Of course, with this season’s deep snow pack, it’s questionable how much of the trail will be passable.  Almost immediately, we find ourselves bushwhacking off trail around glacial snow fields.

snow packWe plow over the easier snow fields, as Mike demonstrates here.  It’s early morning so we don’t post-hole into soft snow.  We do have to dig our boots into the snow pack though to gain our footing.  This is a slow process.  Fortunately there aren’t too many of these snow fields to navigate.  It’s cloudy with strong winds.  We suspect a storm is moving in so we keep a strong pace.  Atop the first big hill we find a man-made wind break and tuck in behind the rocks for a spell.  You find these rock walls on top of peaks occasionally.

wind screenWe turn around after an hour or so once the trail becomes too buried under snow.  We rush back at an even faster clip to beat the storm.  Not that it’s raining or lightening, but because the wind is brutal – easily a sustained 25 mph.  It’s almost comical when we pass another hiker, seemingly from some Monty Python skit, with a net chasing alpine butterflies.  Seriously.  Our hike south of Cottonwood Pass was short by our standards, but presented us with some spectacular views.  I intend to return to this trailhead someday.  We’re not done though.  We move on to our next trail – Hancock Lake.

Hancock LakeFor this destination, we pass through BV again on our way south.  This might actually have been the day we lunch at K’s Diner.  I think I said it was yesterday in my previous blog post.  The days are starting to run together in my memory.  Next time I’ll take notes.  I generally use my photos for a digital record.  Unfortunately I didn’t take as many pics these days.  I did get some of Mike’s pics this week though after he shared them on dropbox.

We scout a decent camping site along the trail up to Hancock Lake and snag it by dropping off our packs.  The lake and Hancock Pass are not that far up the trail.  Mike stops at the lake while I follow La Plata to the base of the pass.  He’s running and I finally give up to rest at the bottom.  La Plata is trying to hit a good point, such as the top of the pass, because he will return later from the south to hike there again from Monarch Pass.  This is part of his goal to complete the entire Continental Divide Trail in sections.

campfireThis is our last night camping.  La Plata builds his most admirable flame of the week.  This site isn’t as devoid of dry wood as most.  We recount our experiences from the week.  Climbing a peak.  Water rustling.  Skinny dipping.  Post-holing in snow.  La Plata and I are so incredulous of Mike’s determination to tough out this altitude.  We consider our favorite gear.  I have several; my hiking boots, my puffy jacket, my sleeping pad and my water purifier.  All winners.  At 11,000 feet, the temperature cools down dramatically with the dropping sun so we retire to our tents with the coming darkness.  Tomorrow will be our last hike, to the Alpine Tunnel.

Tincup Pass

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Mirror LakeWe sleep in to almost 5:40 this morning.  Today is a recovery day.  We breakfast again at the Roosters Crow Cafe because it was that good the first time.  I keep it light and only order one plate this time around.

First stop after breakfast is the Mount Princeton Hot Springs near Nathrop – a few minutes south of BV.  This hotel and spa is located along Chalk Creek and sits only two miles east of the eastern loop of the Colorado Trail.  Once there we acquire day passes to the spa.  First order of business is a shower and shave.  This spa is a little oasis in the wild.  We receive big fluffy towels and robes, razors and combs, and libations.  After we clean up, we spend the morning lounging in multiple hot springs of various temperatures and drinking Bloody Marys.  The bartender runs them through a juicer which we don’t exactly approve of, but drink willingly anyway.  Mike and I schedule treatments for mid afternoon while La Plata does laundry.

tincup passAfter a late lunch we drive back over Cottonwood Pass, leaving my car at the trailhead on top and take La Plata’s four wheel drive truck down into Tin Cup.  We camp along Mirror Lake for a continuation of our epic adventure.  The first photo above is of our early morning rise with the trail off to the left of the lake and Tincup Pass in the background.  This photo is at the top of the pass, but we’re not yet done climbing.

ascentWe could stop here but instead determine to mount our first peak of the trip.  It’s unnamed but rises north of the pass another 1100 feet. The jaunt to the pass itself was about three miles and took us only an hour bearing lighter packs.  The climb up this unnamed peak is less than a mile but takes nearly another hour due to a steep slope.

Mike leads us to the top and the views are impressive.  This is the Continental Divide and we can see both sides.  Crested Butte fifty miles to the west.  Aspen’s Maroon Belles to the north.  God’s country everywhere.  At over 12,000 feet, possibly heaven.  The descent is tough on the quads and knees but quick.  I leverage my trekking poles for stability.  We reach Mirror Lake in another hour and this completes our shortest day to date.  We head back over Cottonwood Pass Road for lunch at K’s Burger joint in BV.  We run some errands and actually I forget what all we did for the afternoon.

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Soon enough, we find ourselves sitting at the bar in the Deerhammer Distillery on Main Street – which is also Cottonwood Pass Road.  Lenny serves us their products paired with stories.  We learn that whiskey begins as beer mash, but is then distilled.  We first drink Whitewater Whiskey which is, well, white.  Or clear to be more exact.  There is no color because it spends very little time aging in an oak cask.  We follow this up with a more traditional oak-aged whiskey.  A single malt named Down Time.  Our final tasting is of a gin distilled over very unique botanicals.  With this knowledge of their stock, we order more Bloody Marys fueled with Deerhammer Gin.

Deerhammer DistilleryAfter happy hour, we cross the street to dine at the Asian Palate.  La Plata and I have been here before.  The three of us sit at the sushi bar to interact with the chef.  He relates to us how the finer dining scene in the Arkansas River Valley has pushed north from Salida into BV and might one day reach Leadville.  He’s a Vail transplant.  We eat our fill while mapping out a strategy for backpacking the next two days.  Our plan is for more day hikes like today.  The benefit being we are able to leave heavier gear like our tents and sleeping bags in the car.  Our packs will easily weigh less than half their original weight, and in fact do.  Before dusk, we ride back up Cottonwood Pass Road and find a nice camp spot at a trailhead to an older CDT trail route.  We’re learning our way around the Collegiates.  Tomorrow, we plan to begin from Cottonwood Pass and hike south as far as the snow allows.

 

Collegiates Three Day Loop

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Clear Creek ReservoirI wake up at what becomes our typical morning rise – 5:30am.  Mike is already up and packing his gear.  He’s fresh and ready for another day.  I monitor his breakfast to ensure he eats plenty because today will be a Bataan 16 mile march.  The altitude and amount of climbing should be less strenuous but that distance carting a 35 pound pack isn’t trivial.  The plan is to carve out a mini 3 day loop from the 160 mile overall Collegiates loop.  Our original plan had been to hike southbound down the western loop but the snowpack changed that yesterday.  And we obtained reports from other northbound thru-hikers that other segments were impassable as well.

Today begins with a 6 mile stretch on a jeep road that follows Clear Creek down to its reservoir.  We pass through Winfield, an old mining town – ghost town now – that sits unattended as a walk through museum of sorts.  Pretty cool.  The museum signs tell stories of water feuds and killings.  About the time we discover we’re low on water ourselves, the creek becomes fenced in by a local ranch with no trespassing signs that warn of prosecution.  This is funny at first in light of the Winfield stories, but we actually are running low on water and have a full day’s hike in front of us.

aspen groveOur experience hiking this segment of the east Collegiates Loop in 2011 suggest we might not find much water.  That was later in the year and the creeks should be running strong now, but do we risk it?  We find a good spot to jump the fence and rehydrate our camelbaks on the private ranch land.  Let them shoot us.  This is a health and safety issue.  We quickly reach the trailhead to the CT after this resupply and launch up a sizable hill.  The first photo above shows us on this climb with Clear Creek Reservoir and the private ranch below us in the background.  The top of the ridge has us enter countless aspen groves like the one pictured here.  Turns out there were a couple of strong running streams once we crested the ridge.

above Twin LakesFortunately the final ten miles on the eastern loop are mostly in the trees because today is hot.  And we take advantage of every water source we encounter.  We’re nearly giddy with relief once we spot the Twin Lakes coming down from a ridge.  Sixteen miles with heavy packs, up and down massive hills, at altitude, is tough.

skinny dipEven La Plata, the trail master, is exhausted.  He revives himself by skinny dipping in the Twin Lakes.  Likely as unauthorized as our water rustling earlier in the day.  Mike and I soak our feet.  We’re true trail trash by now.  About the only thing we haven’t done is frequent respectable dining establishments with three days of sweat and trail dirt in our clothes and hair.  We do that next.

eddylineFrom the Twin Lakes trailhead, we drive 20 minutes south to BV – our newly adopted mountain town that serves as base camp.  We dine at Eddyline Brewery and not one of us thinks to clean up in the restroom.  Too much hiking in the sun makes you stupid.  Total trail trash.  Eddyline, as well as a micro brewery, is essentially a pizza and burger joint.  I don’t recommend ordering a steak, it’s not their specialty.  We’re all satiated with food and beer by the time we leave.  We cross the street and stealth camp along the Arkansas River.  Tomorrow will be a rest and recovery day at the Mount Princeton Hot Springs.

Lake Ann Loop

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Clear CreekWe slept hard and woke up refreshed around 5:30am.  You would expect we slept well given our previous day’s activites, but I found it surprising.  My experience camping on the cold, hard ground is that I’m typically up every hour peeing in the woods.  Mike and I both credit our incredibly comfy REI sleeping pads.  Mine is the REI insulated air Stratus model.  It weighs less than 1.5 pounds and compresses to almost nothing inside my pack.  It’s just wrong that most pads are larger and heavier than sleeping bags.  I highly recommend this blow-up air pad.

map readingSipping our camp coffee, we recounted our previous day’s activities and assessed the corporeal damage.  Our encounter near Twin Lakes yesterday with a young girl running harnessed to a pony had by now taken on mythological proportions in our memories.  She looked 16 but might have been a 20-something elite runner.  She was physically bound in leather straps to a pony and running behind it similar to the sport of skijoring.  This morning she was a nymph traveling by unicorn.  The affects of fatigue and coffee at altitude.  My legs felt totally refreshed today but my shoulders are bruised from the weight of the pack.  My right shoulder has a burn from sliding off and on the shoulder strap.  Mike and I are both ready to join Rob though on yet another massive hike up yet another mountain pass.

trail signsWe set out again following La Plata along a comparatively flatter trail that traces the contours of the south fork of Clear Creek as it rises towards its headwaters in Lake Ann.  We have our trail legs under us today and our pace begins strong.  I made adjustments to my backpack during the first hour of yesterday’s hike and the better fit mitigates that weighty beast of burden.  The weather is ideal for hiking and even our southern compadre wears shorts today, and in fact every day.

shirtlessWe meet several other hikers today, including northbound thru-hikers.  These are hikers who begin the CDT at the Mexico border and continue onward to Canada.  We are considered section hikers ourselves.  One such group of NoBo thru-hikers is a family of two athletic parents and a young girl no more than 12 years old.  They relate their experience traversing Lake Ann Pass.  A large snow field sits on the north side of the pass and they were required to glacade down – sliding on their bottoms using an ice ax like a rudder for control.  A twelve year old did this!  Amazing!

creek crossingWe consider the possibility that we might not be able to cross Lake Ann Pass.  Final determination requires closer inspection so we continue our trek onward.  We face a number of challenges on our way up to Lake Ann.  Creek crossings are savagely perilous.  I’m thankful for my waterproof boots.  Snow pack across the trail increases as we approach Lake Ann above 11,000 feet.  This reduces our pace to well under one mile per hour.  Mike learns what a momentum killer it is to post-hole up to his crotch in freezing snow.  Two days earlier he was basting in the 90° heat of Austin, Texas.

CT SignAs we near Lake Ann, our progress slows to a crawl.  We vote for La Plata to drop his pack and sprint up the rest of the way to scope out the possibility of us navigating the snow field atop the pass.  Mike and I sit down to rest.  La Plata returns 15 minutes later to report that we don’t stand a chance of crossing the pass.  We don’t have the gear or quite frankly the skills and any attempt would be reckless.  Way to early in this epic hike to kill ourselves on day two.  Instead we map out plan B, deciding to make a loop out of returning to our car at Twin Lakes via the eastern loop of the Colorado Trail.  We can’t reach that tonight but will hike a jeep road in the morning across the valley.  It will be long at 16 miles but also below treeline, compensating the effort.  La Plata and I are evasive in our responses to Mike when he queries us on the distance.

IMG_4025Today’s hike isn’t finished yet as we have several miles to backtrack and then hike up the trail that would lead to Mt. Huron.  We have incredible views of the three Apostles all day, which are in the background of the fourth photo in this blog post.  The temperature drops and it rains on our descent.  This evolves into rather heavy snow, more than yesterday.  Not so much as to obscure the trail but we found ourselves gearing up with rain protection on our return.

campOnce we reach a 4WD jeep road, we begin to discover choice camp sites.  We desire one with ready access to water and stop once we find that.  Mike retires to his tent without dinner.  He may have experienced some altitude sickness today which makes it difficult to eat or drink.  He misses out on our first campfire.  We figure he’ll feel better once he stops hurting.  We’ll check on him if he wakes up in the morning.

Hope Pass

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Punkys DinerTogether with two friends, Mike and Rob whom I have known for 38 years, I set out last weekend to hike the Collegiates Western Loop of the Colorado Trail, where it follows the Continental Divide Trail west of Buena Vista.  We met up in BV for BBQ at Punky’s Diner.  Very tasty.  Afterward we camped off Cottonwood Road since we were parking one of the cars here in the middle of our planned route.  In the morning we ate breakfast at the Roosters Crow Cafe and began our southbound trek just north of BV at Twin Lakes.

Mt ElbertThe Twin Lakes are perched at 9200 feet off Hwy 24 and 82.  We parked at the trailhead on the east side of the lakes and hiked the East Collegiate Loop CT well over a mile before reaching the intersection with the CDT and West Collegiate Loop.  This newly designated trail runs for about three miles relatively flat and then rises through Little Willis Gulch over the next four miles to 12,540 feet, peaking at Hope Pass between Mt. Hope and Quail Mountain. I am pictured here with Rob aside the Twin Lakes with Colorado’s highest peak, Mount Elbert, in the background.

scrambleCarrying a 35 pound backpack, the 16% grade up to Hope Pass was exhausting.  Despite the cool mountain morning air, I sweat profusely.  I rethink my decision to not whack off my hair before this excursion.  My three months of preparing for this effort consisted mostly of recovering from my surgery in early April.  Walking, then running, and pelvic floor exercises.  Man, I should have performed more leg weights and run some hills.  My travails are nothing though compared to Mikes’.

tree climbMike weighed 280 pounds when he committed to join us in early April.  He lost a little over 40 pounds in his three months of training.  Essentially, Mike was carting two additional backpacks in body weight than me up this hill.  I wasn’t sure if this hike would be possible for Mike.  Boy was I wrong.  America’s Biggest Loser could not have pulled off what Mike accomplished.  Averaging one mile per hour, Mike completed 12 miles in 12 hours at two miles of altitude.  His FitBit reported his progress in terms of stair steps but otherwise lost its ability to accurately record the extreme results.

impassThe trail over Hope Pass was buried under impassable snow.  Rob lead us in a path that bushwhacked around the snow field. The Colorado Facebook page warned hikers that the Western Loop was still impassable due to such snow fields.  With Rob, trail name La Plata, we were undeterred and ultimately reached the summit.

Hope Pass SummitThis was Mike’s first such summit, but only the first of many passes and saddles that lie before us.  Despite our initial qualms, La Plata and I put our doubts aside about Mike’s ability to hike this trail with the unrelenting demonstration of will power required to mount this pass.  For Mike, the views reinforced his commitment and confidence to continue forward.

descentWe were then presented with a steeply dropping trail on the south side of the pass, three miles through switchbacks along Sheep Gulch – down into Clear Creek which lays between 9800 and 10,000 feet.  It’s beyond me how runners of the Leadville 100 run over this pass in both directions as part of that storied ultra.  The four mile ascent, nine miles total for the day, left us with very little strength for the descent.  Our trekking poles kept us steady despite fatigued knees and burning thighs.  Eventually, after a grueling plummet down Sheep Gulch, we reached a restful spot to make camp.

Sheep Gulch THWe took stock of our accomplished day as we setup our tents and replenished our water supplies.  Mike and I were both quite pleased with some of our recent purchases – namely our Patagonia puff jackets and Salomon hiker boots.  Mike was mixed on his collapsible trekking poles – they can be an irritating burden at times.  And he didn’t care for the Epic protein bars although I absolutely loved them.  200 calories of tasty meat.  Yum.  Ending the day exhausted, there would be no campfire.  I’m not sure we even made it to campers midnight – 9pm.  We retired early and prepared for day two which would include another 12,000 foot pass above Lake Ann.

Collegiates West Loop

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mt-princeton-coloradoI leave for the airport in another hour or two.  I will pick Mike up this morning from under the Southwest Air Arrivals sign at DIA.  His Southwest Flight 4316 from Austin arrives at 10:15am and he should be standing there by 11am.

I’ll bring along a photo album of my 500 mile Colorado Trail hike with Rob from three summers prior for Mike to peruse on the drive to Buena Vista.  We’ll take Hwy 285 which I find more scenic than I-70.  The two routes are equidistant.  I plan to begin telling tales of the danger and pain that Mike can expect over the next week of backpacking.  For instance, I’ll inform him, “Trailheads invariably reside along creek beds so that, regardless of direction, you begin hiking uphill.  Your calves go numb after a half hour and never really thaw out the rest of the day.  Whatever remains of your burning thighs is completely shredded on the subsequent thirty minute downhill.  All you will think about for the next eleven hours is dinner to refuel your unsustainable calorie burn.”  Mike will no doubt attempt to change the subject but I’ll maintain this dialog the entire three hour drive to BV.  I’ll watch for the color to drain from his face when he spots the massive 14ers that will dominate our windshield coming down out of the canyon into BV.  I’ll tell him these are the foothills to where we’ll be backpacking on the Continental Divide Trail further west.  If Mike begins to feign altitude sickness, I’ll change the topic to dinner.  “Want to do Sushi tonight?  There’s a place on East Main Street called Asian Palate.  They pour a wicked Saketini.”

Unicoi GapI would of course only treat a good friend so poorly.  I met Mike in 1976.  Both our families recently relocated to Texas for jobs.  Mine from Iowa.  Mike’s dad worked for IBM and they moved down from Poughkeepsie.  Nearly everyone’s parents worked for IBM in our high school as IBM was turning off the lights in their New York factories and joining the sunbelt, tech crowd in Austin.  We first met on the football team.  Then basketball.  Then track.  We both realized we weren’t big enough for Texas football and joined the cross country team our sophomore year.  Running turned out to be our sport as we lead our team to State our senior year.  Making state in Texas is like making global in smaller states.

Mike went on to UT but later joined me at Texas State to run Cross Country for a year.  I believe he double-majored in either accounting or finance and information systems.  Mike, Rob and I got into triathlons after college for maybe a year or two and trained together.  Mike soon married, had kids and moved to Atlanta for a job.  We went twenty years without seeing each other until my firm acquired an Atlanta cyber security company and I began to travel there.

We hook up with Rob (trail name La Plata until he completes the CDT) in BV.  La Plata has solo through-hiked both the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Appalachian Trail (AT).  He section-hiked the Colorado Trail (CT) with me over a six month period in 2011.  This new 80 mile section of the CT that we intend to backpack coincides with the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) along the western side of the Collegiates, so La Plata is killing two birds with one stone.  He’ll hike the section south of Monarch Pass earlier today while Mike and I are driving.

CT and CDTRob moved to Texas his junior year, meeting Mike and me during our sophomore year – on the cross country team.  Both of Rob’s parents were IBMers.  Ironically, I’m the only one of us three to work for IBM now.  Perhaps not so ironic.  La Plata was an intense hiker even back then.  We nick-named him Trail Master during one of our storied camping trips to Pedernales Falls.  La Plata obtained his EE from UT and worked a few years for Lockheed before going back for a masters in education in physical fitness.  He married, moved around a bit – Seattle, then Portland – before settling in Colorado.  We’ve been hiking together since.  We always would say, “We need Mike to join us.”

Mike and I will find La Plata somewhere in BV.  We’ll shuffle his car to the trailhead atop Cottonwood Pass and descend back down to BV for dinner.  Mike and I will have lunched earlier on the road trip in Baily at Coney Island.  La Plata has a stealth camp setup near the Arkansas River where we plan to ensconce for the night.  Sunday, we’ll head for the Twin Lakes trailhead to launch an epic backpacking excursion.

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