CDT 2021: Day 81, Herman Gulch to Chihuahua Gulch

Couldn't get much higher

OldTimer reaches the summit of Grays Peak

I hoped before the start of today our quota of good weather wasn't already used up. Yesterday's weather wasn't perfect, but at least the rain held off until late in the afternoon. The extra time allowed us to get closer to Grays Peak.

We figured we needed all the time we could get today. At 14,278 feet above sea level, extra time was needed to climb it and get down before there was a chance for a storm to arrive.

Grays Peak is not only the highest point on the CDT, it’s the highest point on all three Triple Crown trails.

As things worked out, we got the weather we needed to get over the top today, though just barely.

DateSaturday, July 3, 2021
WeatherClear early, gradually turning mostly cloudy; temperatures from the low-40s to mid-60s
Trail ConditionsA gradual descent, then a long and steep ascent, followed by a sketchy descent
Today's Miles15.6
Trip Miles1105.5

As planned, Top O', OldTimer, and I woke up at 4 a.m. There was a lot of condensation inside my tent, but I knew finding time to dry it out would be difficult. With 13 miles to go to reach the summit, we had little time to waste.

Dawn at Herman Gulch

We didn't eat breakfast to give us an earlier start and began hiking before 5 a.m.

The sky to the east was barely beginning to lighten when we set off. We had to wear our headlamps for the first few minutes on the trail.

Almost sunrise

The trail descended through Herman Gulch, following a stream that flowed down the middle. This is a popular destination for day-hikers, though it was too early to see any today. It was obvious why they enjoy hiking here. The terrain was easy to walk, and wildflowers were everywhere.

We didn't walk far before we began to see tents pitched between trees at the side of the trail. Considering how many thru-hikers we have been seeing lately, I figured most of these tents belonged to thru-hikers.

Top O' said he thought one of the tents belonged to Thirteen. He tried to call out to her but didn't hear a reply. He didn't want to shout too loudly and wake up everyone.

We were disappointed to learn later Top O' was right. Thirteen was camped there, and we missed seeing her.

Farther down the valley, Torreys Peak came into view. We couldn't yet see its neighbor, Grays Peak, from our angle.

Grays Peak was named for Asa Gray, who is sometimes called the Father of American Botany. He was the first person to hold a permanent professorship in botany at an American university.

Fittingly, Torreys Peak honors John Torrey, a botanist and chemist who was a long-time colleague of Gray.

Torreys is the 12th tallest mountain in Colorado, and Grays is the ninth tallest.

Alpenglow on Mount Sniktau

Moments before sunrise, Mount Sniktau stood like a beacon. Its 13,234-foot summit glowed bright orange.

Herman Gulch trailhead

After descending 2.5 miles, we arrived at a parking area near Interstate Highway 70. We stopped there to eat breakfast. The sun was above the mountains now, though we were still in the shadows of nearby mountains. That kept the temperature chilly.

Bakerville-Loveland Trail

After walking under the interstate, the trail followed a paved bike path called the Bakerville-Loveland Trail. It ran parallel with I-70 and next to Clear Creek. The trail is 4.9 miles in length. The CDT followed it for 3.1 miles before reaching Bakerville.

A small mining town with that name stood there in the 1860s. The trail turned and followed a gravel road to the trailhead for Grays and Torreys.

A footbridge at the trailhead at Stevens Gulch

We found many cars parked at the trailhead, which wasn't surprising considering how accessible the two 14ers were and the beautiful weather. Being so close to the interstate, this was an easy destination for Denver residents wanting to climb a 14er.

The weather was ideal for a climb. There was bright sunshine with just a few puffy clouds and little wind.

I should say, that's the way the weather started. Colorado being what it is, it would be unrealistic to expect the weather to stay that way the whole day. And of course, it didn't.

By this time, just past 9:30 a.m., we had already walked 9.5 miles. We stopped for a short yard sale, hoping to dry our gear without taking too much time. We didn't want to lose the sunny weather for our climb.

Leaving the parking area, the trail crossed a footbridge and entered Stevens Gulch, a wide and flat valley.

The trail leading to Torreys and Grays peaks

The trail continued on a well-maintained footpath. We passed more NOBO thru-hikers. As expected after seeing the parking lot, we also saw dozens of day-hikers on the trail.

One of the day-hikers was Sasquatch's girlfriend Lisa. She was walking her dog and had decided she wouldn't go all the way up. She told us Sasquatch planned to climb Torreys first and would wait for us on Grays.

The difference between thru-hikers and day-hikers can be striking at a location like this. Thru-hikers are usually dirty and smelly. We carry large packs, which hold what we need for several days on the trail.

Day-hikers, on the other hand, always seem to be shiny clean, even when they've been on the trail all day long. Many don't even bother to carry a day pack with rain gear and other essentials. They look ill-prepared, and I always find that worrisome.

A group of four women dressed in yoga outfits spent most of their time taking photos of themselves, most likely for Instagram. They only got about halfway up the mountain before turning around. That was probably just as well because they didn't look ready for a change in the weather.

Grays and Torreys peaks

When you've already walked 1,100 miles with a 30-pound backpack and you're about to climb a 14,000-foot mountain, it's natural to feel somehow superior to the day-hikers. That attitude gets a reality check, though, when you see a nine-year-old girl skipping along as she climbs the same mountain as you.

More clouds started to accumulate above us as the trail began to make a steeper climb. Though still in good shape, the trail was now mostly covered with rocks.

I passed a maintenance crew along the way up. They were shoring up one side of the trail by stacking rocks along the side.

Top O' walks ahead

OT stayed at the trailhead to talk to some day-hikers when Top O' and I first started. I fell behind Top O' after the first mile or so and couldn't stay with him the rest of the way.

A mountain goat and a view of Torreys Peak

The climb didn't get steep until the end near the summit. When it did, I had to slow my pace. Although I had been feeling well at 12,000 and 13,000 feet the last few days, the thinner air at 14,000 feet affected me today, and I had to take several short breaks.

I didn't have trouble breathing, though I could only go about 30 yards before needing to take another quick break. I wondered if maybe my problem was a calorie deficiency, so I stopped to eat a snack bar. That helped me get to the top.

A mountain goat grazes

Without a doubt, the climb wasn't effortless for me like it was for the mountain goats grazing at the upper reaches of the climb.

I've seen mountain goats up close before, and I have been intrigued by these unusual animals. My first encounter with them was many years ago on a backpacking trip in the Chicago Basin of the San Juan Mountains.

Mountain goats are only native to western North America. Most of their range is north of here, from the Rockies in Montana to the Cascades, and into the Yukon and southern edge of Alaska. They almost always live at 13,000 feet and higher, and they are the largest animals living year-round in alpine regions.

They usually live 12 to 15 years. Nearly all of a mountain goat's day is spent grazing. Their climbing ability and agility are amazing to watch. It's hard for me to comprehend how they can graze on the side of nearly vertical slopes.

A curious marmot

Marmots also lived on this mountain. They are said to be the largest hibernating mammal. Though some bears will sometimes hibernate, as a species, they don't do that consistently.

Unlike the marmots I saw yesterday, the ones on this mountain seemed to be more relaxed around humans and didn't see me as a threat.

Torreys Peak

The trail split as it approached a saddle between Torreys and Grays. Another trail crossed the saddle to connect the summits. Most hikers use that when they want to "bag" two 14ers in one trip. I looked to see if I could find Sasquatch on Torreys or if he was making his way to Grays, but I couldn’t pick him out.

It didn't seem wise for Top O', OT, and me to attempt to climb both peaks today. Because of our extra mileage to get here, we couldn't start the climb early enough in the day. It was best to stick with climbing Grays and staying on the CDT.

OldTimer is climbing to the top of Grays Peak

As the top of Grays came into view, I turned to look back at the valley below me. I saw OT was catching up. The time was approaching 1 p.m. Nearly all of the day-hikers who had made it to the top had already turned to go back down.

A view from the summit of Grays Peak

There were many more clouds in the sky now, and some looked like they could bring rain. For the moment, however, I didn't see any reason to be concerned. There were no active storms in sight.

Sasquatch was at the top with Top O' when I got there. OT arrived a few minutes later. Three day-hikers, plus a thru-hiker named Carrot, were also there. He was not the same hiker named Carrot I met on the PCT.

Sasquatch gave me a fuel canister I had asked him to bring. I wasn't sure I would have enough fuel to get to our next resupply stop, so I asked him a couple of days ago to bring it when he said he might meet us here.

Sasquatch, OldTimer, Top O', and Gravity

We took a group photo at the top. Just before snapping the photo, one of the day-hikers handed OT a handmade sign he carried up. Signs with the name of the mountain and its elevation are something of a tradition of climbing 14ers.

Three mountain goats at the summit of Grays Peak

More mountain goats strolled by as we began to consider how we wanted to descend. Remembering the rule of thumb for climbing Colorado mountains, which is to get off the peaks by 2 p.m., there was no time to waste. It was already a few minutes past 1 p.m., and we knew we needed to leave as soon as possible.

As we scanned the sky again, we realized how urgent that situation had become. Rainstorms now appeared in three different directions.

We had two options to consider. One was to follow a ridge that went over Mount Edwards. This was the official route of the CDT for the next 2.6 miles. From there, we could descend to lower ground or stay high on the ridge and follow an alternate called the Argentine Spine.

Considering the appearance of the sky, staying exposed above 13,000 feet for even a few minutes longer didn't seem like a wise choice.

Our other option was to follow an alternate shown in Jonathan Ley's map. It began in a descent directly from the summit, following a route down to Horseshoe Basin. Ley's notes said there was a faint trail and was a good alternate in bad weather.

Going down Grays Peak the wrong way

We agreed this was our best, safest option, but we didn't see anything that looked like a faint trail. Without wanting to delay our descent, we decided to go down the scree slope and hope we eventually found the trail.

There was a serious flaw in this decision, though we couldn't see that at the time. In the photo I took at the start of our descent, you can see a ridge to the left. That was where we were supposed to go. Probably because of our haste and unclear information on Ley's map, we didn't see we needed to go at least 100 yards to the east before beginning the descent.

Looking up to Grays Peak

The route we took went straight down more than 1,000 feet of treacherously loose scree and gravel. Each footstep I took included a slide downward of six to twelve inches.

Once we began our descent, there was no way to reverse our direction. Climbing would have been all but impossible. In one spot, I had to stop and wait for the ground to settle. I wasn't getting any traction at all, and I feared I might slide uncontrollably or begin to tumble.

A faint trail

Going down the first 1,000 feet took more than an hour, but we finally reached some solid ground where the ridge started to level a little. We even found a trail here and wondered if it was the one mentioned in Ley's comments. It wasn't because we weren't where we thought we were, though we didn't yet know that.

We stopped on some rocks to eat lunch. I also spread out my quilt again because it didn't get fully dried when we stopped this morning at the trailhead.

A distant storm

We only stayed about 20 minutes, however. The ridge we were on, still at about 13,000 feet, was exposed. Though we were no longer at the summit, we weren't completely safe from a storm. Two large ones passed by to the right of us and another one appeared farther away on our left.

Maybe the height of Torreys and Grays caused this, but the storms we saw had apparently bypassed us. We had no way to see if others were following behind.

A mine pit

We continued to follow the trail we had found on the ridge. It ended at a hole, and we figured we were on an old prospector's trail. The hole may have been a collapsed mine or just a prospecting dig site.

Now we had another decision to make. We still needed to get down from the ridge and into the valley, but what was the fastest and safest route?

Descending to Ruby Gulch

Top O' decided to continue to the far end of the ridge and descend from there. OT and I weren't comfortable with that. After several minutes of looking at the slope, we decided only one way made sense for us.

The next 1,000 feet down was similar to the first. The slope was steep and covered in loose soil and chiprock. I fell three times, though not in a dangerous tumble. One fall was hard on some rocks, and I tore holes in my rain pants. I fell hard on my knees another time.

I may have been stumbling because I was getting tired.

Crossing Ruby Gulch

The slope eventually leveled to an easier grade and the ground was covered in low grass. When I had time to look at the map again, I saw that we were in Ruby Gulch.

Ruby and Cooper mountains stood ahead of us. If we had followed Ley's route correctly, we would have been on the other side of them.

Despite being surrounded by storms, only a few drops of rain fell on us. I'm not sure how we got so lucky, considering what the sky looked like when we started down.

We hadn't seen Top O' since we split. When I caught up to OT again at 4 p.m., we were a little worried something had happened to him on the slope.

Ruins of a mine in Ruby Gulch

We headed to a narrow creek that ran through the valley. We found the scattered ruins of an old mine there.

To our relief, we also found Top O'.

Looking up at the ridge from Grays Peak

Looking up from the creek gave another perspective on what a crazy, slippery descent we had just made.

Walking in Ruby Gulch

Now that we were sure where we were and realized the wrong route we had taken, we could figure out where to go to get back on the CDT. We found a trail on the map that would lead us there. That route turned out to be an old Jeep road.

More rain clouds in the distance

There wasn't any reason to hurry and find a campsite today because the storms had passed us. If one popped up now, we were well below the treeline. Although some rain could still be seen in the distance, the clouds directly around us were beginning to break up, and we even saw a little sunshine.

We followed the old road to Chihuahua Gulch and found a trail there, just as the map showed.

A small stream in Chihuahua Gulch

We stayed on the trail until 5:15 p.m. when we decided we were done for the day. An excellent spot for a campsite appeared soon after that. We found it on a narrow strip of ground between a small stream and a creek.

A creek in Chihuahua Gulch

The water in the creek was running fast. It was like camping next to a white noise machine, which was perfect for sleeping, though probably unnecessary considering how exhausted we were.

We failed to see Thirteen today, and that was unfortunate. Otherwise, I had to chalk up this as an excellent day. How could it not be? We climbed to above 14,000 feet and didn't fall off. We also didn't get hit by lightning.

This had been a day of much good luck, though our skill and effort shouldn't be discounted. We didn't realize it then, but our luck was about to change.

It would soon get even better, and with no effort at all on our part. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Spent the last year
Rocky Mountain Way
Couldn't get much higher
Out to pasture
Think it's safe to say
Time to open fire


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.