Top O', OldTimer, and I have now been hiking in Colorado for two weeks. Although we've occasionally climbed to 10,000 feet and higher, we haven't remained consistently above that height.
The climb we started two days ago took us from Monarch Lake at 8,380 feet to Arapaho Pass at nearly 12,000 feet. Our campsite last night was at 10,844 feet, and from now on, we will hike and camp above 10,000 feet for nearly all of our remaining miles in Colorado.
|Date||Monday, June 28, 2021|
|Weather||Mostly cloudy, with several periods of rain, sleet, and thunderstorms; temperatures from low-40s to low-50s|
|Trail Conditions||A steep climb with snow and talus, gradual ups and downs above the treeline, and a dirt road|
It's exciting to hike at high elevations. The views are unbeatable, but they don't come easy. Sure, breathing is harder, but that's not my biggest concern. The weather is a greater challenge because it changes quickly, and you may not have a place to go for cover.
There's a general rule for climbing mountains in Colorado: Get off the mountaintop by 2 p.m. That's when thunderstorms with lightning are most likely to form.
Of course, it's not always practical or desirable for thru-hikers to quit at 2 p.m. If we stopped hiking every day at 2 p.m., we'd have difficulty keeping up our miles-per-day average. That's not a trivial concern when we're trying to finish before winter weather sets in.
Rain continued to fall for much of last night. It finally stopped this morning at sunrise. Everything I owned felt damp when I woke up. The temperature also felt colder.
By the time we were ready to leave camp, clouds were beginning to break up.
After missing out on a chance to dry out my gear yesterday, I hoped that could happen later today. It looked like this was going to be a beautiful day as we climbed from Jasper Lake toward Devil's Thumb Park.
We were going up a trail also named Devil's Thumb, and we would soon pass a lake of the same name. It went up 500 feet of elevation in the first 1.2 miles.
The park, lake, and trail take their name from a jagged rock outcropping that stood out like a church spire. It jutted from a mountain on the imaginary line of the Continental Divide.
After passing the lake and then a small pond, I could see ahead to where we were about to make a steep climb. I was apprehensive at first about where the trail was going. We were in for some trouble if it continued straight ahead because the entire slope was covered in snow.
The trail took us through a patch of low shrubs growing close to the trail. They were still wet from last night's rain, and Top O' joked we were walking through a car wash.
The trail then made a turn that I wasn't able to see before. There, I found OldTimer had stopped for a short break. I could also see that the trail wasn't going up the snow slope after all. It was headed to a gap that wasn't visible before because a small peak blocked the view.
By now, the trail was climbing much more steeply. Its route led us to a gap next to the small peak, where it turned to climb some more.
Top O' was far ahead of OT and me. He appeared as a small dot climbing to the next gap.
I paused to look back in the direction we had come. Devil's Thumb Lake was now a half-mile away.
A thick layer of low-hanging clouds was moving in as we climbed. Perhaps I had been too optimistic about sunshine to dry out our gear, I thought.
When we got close to the top of the gap, OT and I realized the route to the other side was blocked by snow. We couldn't go around to the left of it because a dangerous cornice hung on the ridge's edge. We would have to go to the right, either by swinging wide enough to be clear of the cornice, or take a farther route around and climb over talus rocks.
We elected to take the snow route, where there were footprints to follow. We assumed Top O' had already gone this way. By now, visibility had diminished to mere yards, and we couldn't tell for sure which way he went or how far ahead of us he was.
We soon saw that our route across the snow was a mistake. The rocks would have been faster, though by now we were committed to climbing on the snow. We pushed slowly up, kicking with each footstep to dig in for better traction.
Visibility wasn't much better after we made it over the pass and off the snow drift. Only a light crust of ice and snow remained, and we could see the trail, though not much else. A gusty wind made it difficult to stay on the narrow footpath as we walked.
Top O' had stopped to wait for us on the other side of the gap, which was near where the Devil's Thumb Trail intersected with the CDT.
We didn't have to continue far before the trail descended below the cloud layer.
I was glad to be back on the CDT and hoped we wouldn't need to take another alternate for a while. Even though it is completely acceptable to take alternate routes on this trail, it somehow feels more legitimate when I'm on the "official" route. This is probably a carry-over from the Appalachian Trail's ethic of passing every white blaze.
The trail kept us above the treeline all morning. At about 10:30 a.m., the clouds to our west began to break up, and I could see several thousand feet down into the valley below.
The Winter Park ski resort was in that direction. I stopped when I saw that because I guessed there might be cell service here. There was, and I was able to catch up on some messages.
One person I replied to was Sasquatch. He texted that he might cut short his hike in South Dakota. If so, he could help us resupply when we got farther south near Interstate Highway 70.
The clouds never completely broke up, and at times, they looked as if they might drop some rain. I didn't see anything that looked like an imminent storm, but I kept my eyes up and remained alert to the possibility.
The trail took us out of Indian Peaks Wilderness and down to Rollins Pass, where we arrived at 11:45 a.m.
Although a large information sign was posted at the pass, it didn't look like many people would make it up the rugged gravel road to read it. We only saw some people on UTVs and a group of mountain bike riders. The sign, however, was a convenient place to hang our wet tents and other gear to dry.
The signs described some of the extensive history of this pass. Located at an elevation of 11,676 feet, it's remarkable that anyone thought a place so high and remote could be a passable route across the Continental Divide, but many people did.
Paleoindians and Native Americans were the first to use the pass. They built rock walls near here, which they used for centuries to ambush the bighorn sheep and elk they drove into the pass during hunts.
The first recorded crossing by white settlers in a wagon train was in 1862. Three years later, a man named John Quincy Adams Rollins began leading Mormons over the pass. He received a charter in 1866 to build a 40-mile toll road over the pass that now bears his name. The road wasn't completed until 1873.
Union Pacific Railroad also wanted to construct a route over the pass, but after surveyors were nearly killed in a freak snowstorm, the railroad abandoned that plan in favor of a route through Wyoming.
After eating lunch and chatting with some mountain bike riders, we prepared to pack and leave. By now, the sky was turning ugly again.
We left Rollins Pass at 12:30 p.m. The CDT went directly along the top edge of the ridge. Considering the look of the sky and the time of day, this seemed like a risky way to go. We knew from the map that the trail would remain at the top of the ridge until after cresting James Peak. That was more than eight miles away.
Fortunately for us, we could follow a gravel road that continued in the same direction as the trail but remained below the ridgeline. The road could allow us to keep going without being fully exposed if a storm came our way.
A line of scattered lumber was spread for a long distance along the road. It looked like the haphazard remnants of a road made of lumber. I later learned that was close to the reason the lumber was here, but wasn't the full, fascinating story.
A Denver banker named David Moffat wanted to bore a 2.6-mile long tunnel under Rogers Pass. Temporary tracks for his Denver Northwestern and Pacific Railroad were laid to help in the construction, and that route eventually became the gravel road we were walking.
Trains followed the tracks to a small town called Corona, which was located at Rollins Pass. This wasn't just any railroad, however. It was one of the highest ever built in North America without a cog track.
Sections of the track near the top were completely covered by a wooden structure. The snowshed was to keep the track open in winter, though snowstorms would still sometimes blow it shut. A telegraph office, shops, and a cafe in Corona were also protected by the wooden snowshed.
The town was started in 1904 when the digging of Moffat Tunnel began. The digging continued until 1928 when the tunnel was finally completed.
A brick hotel was later built at Corona for tourists who came up in the summer. The business failed during the Depression, and only the foundation remains.
The train tracks were abandoned and removed in the 1930s. The lumber piled alongside the gravel road is all that is left of the snowshed.
Moffat Tunnel is still used today for trains.
The road took us past Mt. Epworth and Deadman's Lake. Winter Park ski runs and the valley below could be seen beyond them. These were occasional distractions as I mostly kept my eyes on the clouds.
We were a little safer than being on top of the ridge, but we didn't have much cover if a storm popped up.
By 1 p.m., dark clouds began to build behind Mt. Epworth. Thunder occasionally rumbled from them.
The road was descending, and I could see trees ahead, so I knew if we had to bail out and find protection from lightning, we soon could. It was only a question of how quickly the storm behind us would reach us.
When we arrived at an old railroad trestle at Rifle Sight Notch at 1:45 p.m., we could now find tree cover if we needed it. The storm hadn't arrived yet, but it wasn't fading, either.
Some maps show this location as Riflesight Notch.
The trestle is one of the last remaining structures from the railroad that ran up to Corona and Rollins Pass. A tunnel was also here below the trestle, but it collapsed soon after the rail line was abandoned. When trains were running, a corkscrew loop created by the trestle and tunnel made it possible for them to climb to the top.
Although the thunderstorm wasn't closing in on us as quickly as we first thought, we had a decision to make and little time to make it. We had to decide how much farther we were willing to go today.
We knew that from Rifle Sight Notch, the road would begin to climb and take us above the treeline. There was no question that rain was approaching, and lightning was likely to come with it.
Top O', OldTimer, and I agreed our hiking day was about done. We weren't going to outrun the storm, and trying to climb James Peak with it approaching was foolhardy. Our only sensible option was to find a spot to camp and try to set up before the storm arrived.
The road wasn't maintained past Rifle Sight Notch, and that was good for us. We didn't have to be concerned about being run over by UTVs.
There was no flat ground anywhere except on the road, so we just needed to look for a spot suitable for our tents. We found it less than a mile up from the trestle at about 2 p.m.
While we were setting up our tents, a hiker name Cayman came down the road. He was going northbound and had left the trail for the same reason we had. We told him he wouldn't be able to get far before going above the treeline again, but he elected to keep walking instead of camping with us.
We found water in a stream near the road, though we had to make a steep descent to reach it.
The storm didn't arrive until 3:45 p.m., but it packed a pretty good punch when it did with lightning, rain, and hail. If we had kept walking, it would have hit us about when we would be crossing the summit of James Peak.
No one regretted our decision to put off the climb until tomorrow.
More rain followed later in the evening, and snow began to fall at 8 p.m. Soon after that, a stake pulled up from my tent, and I had to go outside in the wet snow to reset it.
A little more than eight miles isn't the kind of mileage I usually want to hike in a day unless it's a nero day leading in or out of a town. We didn't walk much farther than that yesterday.
I expect we will have more short mileage days like this while we're in Colorado. We're at the mercy of the weather. All we can do is watch the sky and stay smart.
You walk and talk and move around in circles
Your friends telling you you are doing fine
You can't see that snowball as it hurtles
Through the shattered membranes of your mind
If I could talk to you for just one minute
Then you would know what it is I am getting at
But there again your head's got nothing in it
By the way, you left without your hat
I'm walking in the wind, looking at the sky
Hanging on a breeze and wondering why, why