Sleep did not come well. While dry, the dampness of the Cochetopa Creek was severely affecting my ability to remain warm. Most of my gear was working well, but this whole year I have had a challenging time staying warm outside on cold days. I would be grabbing a silk liner I had placed in my resupply box to help on colder nights.
I relented against trying to sleep and began to pack up in the dark. Getting out of an even somewhat warm sleeping bag is akin to jumping into cold water. The first thing I always do is roll up my sleeping pad. “If you want to get warm, start working” was my daily morning mantra. Because I was up early, I went ahead and made a cup of coffee while I gathered everything together. I was out of camp at 5:00 and walking through wet willows in my rain jacket and pants to avoid getting wet first thing in the morning.
Walking before first light on a trail that I have never traversed leads to anticipation of what the dawning of the day will bring. I am like a child at Christmas as the sky slowly brightens revealing what is hidden behind nature’s veil.
As the day brightens I’m surprised to not see any wildlife with exception of a single doe a few hundred yards off feeding in willows. I crest the saddle and 14,014′ high San Luis Peak rises above me, an easily attainable 14er if one is inclined to scale it. Indeed I can see a figure on its peak, arms spread wide and a shrill cry lets loose from the silhouetted body.
I am amazed by the huge bowl that is now in front of me and I begin to descend into an amazing area. Again, I scan for wildlife but do not see any until I round further across toward the next saddle and then spot what at first, I think are elk, but as I take the time to sneak over an edge to get a better look I realize they are mule deer, with some beautiful large bucks in the group.
Each time I cross over a pass or a saddle and get new views I try to determine what route I will be taking. Often, there are numerous trails, not just the Colorado Trail, so it can be a game, guessing how I might traverse the landscape in front of me. At times, I am disappointed that, yes, the trail is going to go straight up that steep mountain, and at others, I am relieved that it bends around a contour shoulder.
The sun plays back and forth on the mountains, lighting up an eastern facing side but then as I cross over the saddle and descend down the west side I get to see the sun crest another hillside and a brand new light display play out in front of me.
I cross over into another area that dips down into more willows; shrubs that flirt with treeline. As I come around a bend in the trail I meet a woman standing and brushing out her hair. She is the first person I’ve come across that I can talk to today. We stand and chat; she is hiking the full length of the trail. “I’m not a hiker, I’m not a backpacker, but I’m out here doing my best.” I inform her that since she has now traveled over 300+ plus miles she qualifies as both of those things and she is doing a phenomenal job. She tells me she is enjoying meeting friends along the trail and seeing all that it has to offer. She hails from Albuquerque.
I cross San Luis Pass, the official end of segment 20 and immediately begin segment 21 without much fanfare. I find a nice new sign that is posted paying tribute to a group of volunteers that have helped to maintain this section of trail. I shall like to note here that the Colorado Trail is a non-profit foundation that is maintained by and large by volunteers and teams of volunteers that raise money, maintain trails, survey needs and generally make it a wonderful place to trek. Many individuals “adopt” sections of trail that are maintained with a group of others to keep it passable and in good shape. It is an amazing movement to support the nearly 500 mile trail.
The day is filled with ups and downs, literally, ups and downs. I climb a side of a mountain to see another huge mountain in front of me. It is now quite exposed a lot of the time but I dip down into timber, walking through dark forest, seeing more deer and crossing creeks before climbing sharply, sometimes on switchbacks to gain more ground. In the back of my mind I am aware of the passing time and do not want to arrive at Snow Mesa, a long relatively, open, exposed mesa, too late in the afternoon. It will take a few hours to cross and I do not wish to dance with thunderstorms today.
I dip into the forest once more from the tundra. I see a tent that is set up in a really nice spot. I stop and gaze over by the campsite. The tent is zipped up and I don’t see any movement. At 9:30 in the morning it seems late for a backpacker to still be in camp. However, the archery hunting season will begin in the last week of August, so I think that it could also be someone camping up here and scouting for the upcoming hunting season. I refrain from shouting hello and continue westward.
I go down to a creek and immediately uphill again. This is one segment of the trail that I am seeing more downed trees and I have to navigate walking around them as many hikers have done before or crawling over top of them. The trail turns up again and I ready myself for yet another hill climb. Behind me, where I just came from, howls begin to emit from coyotes. It’s hard to tell how many, but it is enough that it sends a chill up my spine. When you don’t see anybody for a long time, then a seemingly vacant tent, followed by eerie coyote howls, the mind begins to play interesting games. The sounds of the mountains fascinate me.
Shortly thereafter I meet some northbound hikers, a pair of young women who just got on the trail where I will be getting off today. I give them some insight into water, trail conditions, etc and then make my way up to the saddle.
It continues on this way and I am entertained throughout my journey today by repeated sightings of deer. Some of the ascents are steep enough that they require switchbacks and the degree of incline and higher altitude requires me to knock it out in “chunks”, stopping to catch my breath and recover before laboring on. The “saddles” that I am crossing are at elevations such as 11,857′, climb to “saddle” 12,247′, climb to “top of climb” 12,772′ and “begin descent”. After this last high point I begin the long crossing toward Snow Mesa and then across it, now 7.2 miles from the road and where I will get picked up for my zero day.
The last seven miles of the day becomes a grind,plain and simple. I have pushed hard the last three days with the objective of getting off the trail to enjoy a nice rest day. In my excitement I realize that I did not drink quite enough water and should have stopped to eate something hot. But I also did not want to get caught up in a storm; and that sums up life on the trail. Many think it is just a walk in the park, with all day to look at puffy, white clouds, reflect on life and solve the world’s problems. But, in reality, at least for me and also others I have met over the years there is indeed stress. The biggest one, for most, is the threat of storms and avoiding them. The other is water and gauging water stops and needs accordingly.
Today, I lost some focus on that need and nutrition. Now, I labor a bit to get to the end of the segment. I come to one last place on Snow Mesa where I can filter water and I do so for the remaining hike out.
As I get to the edge of Snow Mesa it is now a two mile drop losing elevation in order to get to Highway 149. I drop about 1200 feet in the last two miles and notice immediately that it is much warmer below 12,000 feet. After sitting at the pass for a bit, my wife, Pam and her sister and our great niece and her friend pick me up to head in to Lake City.
I am beat, tired, hungry and thirsty. I’m not great company, but enjoy my first shower in four days and eating at an outdoor restaurant. Back in the little cottage we have rented, I watch Law and Order SUV and pass out after an episode. It is a good sleep.
Day 4 mileage – 21.1
Day 4 elevation gained – 5,068′
Total trip mileage – 106
Total elevation gained – 16,859′