Pam and I drive past Western State College in Gunnison, my first time here, and make the right hand turn on Highway 135 toward Crested Butte. Cruising into town with Mt. Crested Butte off to our right, I look at Pam and say, “What the hell was I thinking? There is no way out of this place but up!”
Of course I knew this. When I signed up for the Grand Traverse 40 mile mountain trail running race a few months ago I saw that the first 17 miles were largely uphill; with miles 10-17 gaining altitude from 9300’ to 12,340’. Yet, on paper it always seems benign compared to literal feet on the ground. In total the race had about 7,000’ in elevation gain. For 20 miles from 15 to 35 it would never dip below 11,000’. It was a classic mountain trail running race. In the previous two years I had run four half marathon trail races and have done a large amount of backpacking. This year I have had eyes on running R2R2R in the Grand Canyon. My friend Mahting felt the Grand Traverse would be a good prep run for R2R2R.
The alarm starts singing at 4:20 am. The race starts at 6:00. As per my usual training I forego eating before the race. The glycogen stores are full. Eating now will just create digestive issues later. I have two cups of coffee and we’re off to Elk Avenue in Crested Butte. Along with Pam, are Mahting and his wife, Erika. Mahting suffered a foot issue a few weeks back so he is here as good friend and giver of race advice. He has finished various ultras and a 50 miler last year. It pains him to not be running today. Along with Erika, we have had some training runs together in the weeks before this.
There are a few things I wrestled with regarding equipment in the past week. Largely which shoes to wear, bringing along trekking poles and using a headlamp at the start. The sky is brightening and I don’t want to bring the headlamp for just the first 20 minutes or so. My three cohorts tell me it’s foolish to risk a fall and not using it. I go with the headlamp. I also opt for the trekking poles even though the majority of folks do not have them. I want something to help me keep pace on the steep climb to Star Pass. I go with an old set of shoes that already have 450 miles of wear on them and have a newer cushier pair in a drop bag at an aid station 23.5 miles into the race.
6:00 comes and the race is off. It is slightly downhill the first mile before turning into single track as we wind our way through aspen forest. I’m forced into a pace. Hundreds of runners line out and I have no choice but to follow. I feel like I am on a elementary school trip and we are in a line “indian file” jogging through the forest.
I’m not used to running in a line with so many people as 95% of my trail ventures have been solo this year. We’re maybe four or five miles into the race and I’m trying to watch the roots, rocks and things that might trip me up. We come along a slight downhill bend and I see barbed wire on the right edge of the trail. I think to myself, “Don’t fall on that” and immediately I am on the ground! Thankfully, I fall straight on the trail and I bounce up immediately knowing people are right behind me. I am dirty, cut up but have mostly just hurt my pride. From behind I hear “You’ve gotten your fall out of the way early, you’re good to go”.
The first aid station is at mile 9.5 and I’m slightly alarmed. The pace has been faster than I want, mainly because we’ve been on some forest service road and also because everybody is running really fast in my opinion. I have a pretty good idea of what kind of average pace I can maintain for the race. According to last year’s results it would have meant about 35th place overall. But I was running way faster than that pace and there were well over a hundred people in front of me, probably more. One of two things was happening. Either a lot of people were going to blow up, or because there were almost twice the entrants from the year before, there was greater depth to the field.
Mahting’s sage advice to me, which was also repeated by Erika numerous times was that in the early parts I needed to A) go slow and B) eat a lot. I cover the first 9 miles in about 1:36 and change, translating to a 10:43 pace. This is way too fast for this early considering how much elevation needs to be ascended. I’m slightly panicked but fill up my water, move some things in my pack and move on. The aid station has broken up the single file action and after just a short while I need to step off the trail anyway. Even with not eating before the race and usual morning rituals, there is some rumbling in my gut. Nature calls. I spend what I feel is too much time resolving this issue but am much better in the digestive area when I get back on the trail.
I finally put the trekking poles to use with the steeper trail ahead. For a while it is a mix between short jogs and power hiking. I begin leap frogging with a few runners and one is a young lady in a tutu. I remember seeing her in the first few miles. As she comes by me I say “I’m nicknaming you ‘The Bishop’. Think about that for a few hours and let me know when you figure it out.” Nothing like some older guy throwing riddles about in the midst of a high altitude endurance event. (After the race I saw her again and she had to ask her parents what I meant. She was overthinking it!)
The trail is now really steep and it is pure hiking at this point, with the exception of one person coming behind. A woman on the shorter side, light in weight and my age or a little better is actually jogging up the mountain toward the aid station and Star Pass. She goes by me and I never see her again the rest of the race. She is impressive!
I reach Star Pass, 17.5 miles into the race. This is what I consider my first of three phases of the race for me. I arrive here about 15 minutes later than I had hoped. But I’m happy to be here and at the highest point of the race. I strap my trekking poles to my pack, finished with them for the day. The first bit of downhill off the pass is still not easy. The trail is very rocky and it’s a shuffle going down. But now I’m mentally preparing for what I feel will be the hardest part of the race; undulating terrain for 17 more miles all between 11,000-12,300’. In fact we’ll hit 12,300’ two more times during this stretch.
I now begin to pull people back. My strength is the long haul. I’ve sacrificed all speed in my training for endurance, the ability to diesel along for many hours at a time. This is where a life of being an endurance athlete reaps benefits. I’ve ridden long miles on bikes, and covered long miles with a backpack. Now, I only need to keep moving forward, with a relatively light pack on my back.
The next aid station is at mile 23.5 and I’ve been contemplating whether I will change out my shoes and socks. Earlier on there were numerous creek crossings, with two of them in shin deep water. The wet terrain was now largely behind. When I get to the aid station I decide to switch out my shoes and socks; for no other reason than to have a few more minutes to sit down. I’ve now been gone for over five hours and it’s all becoming a blur. By placing a “drop bag” of things I might need, I am able to don the new footwear, leave my poles here and get rid of some other items like my headlamp and a base layer that I know I won’t need because the weather is absolutely perfect. I keep the rain shell in my bag just in case and finally get out of the aid station, probably having spent too much time here. I grab a handful of potato chips from the food table and power hike up the remaining bit to Taylor Pass.
Things have really stretched out now with the participants. I can see just a few people ahead of me and the vistas are long. Where is everybody? I climb the pass with two others and we begin a “shuffle” down the other side. I am with a guy and a girl, the guy commenting that his stomach is in a bad way. I leave them behind and have two men in front of me for the next five miles. They are only a few minutes ahead of me most of the way until we arrive at the next aid station at 28.5 miles. They get in and out ahead of me and a younger guy arrives just before I leave, as I had passed him a mile or so before. I wolf down half a dozen slices of watermelon before departing and this is the best tasting thing I’ve had all day. My fuel has consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the first five hours and now I’ve switched to stroop waffles and gels.
A half mile out of this aid station I realize that I have foregone hourly stretching during the race. I stop, doing some horse stretches, deep squats and twist my lower back while opening my shoulders. This feels soooooo good. When I begin running again I feel anew! On a rocky downhill section my legs feel really stable and I motor by one of the two men that had been just in front of me for the previous six miles or so.
The other of the two is ahead of me on a long climb shortly thereafter and he and I link up with about nine miles to go. I spend more time with him than anybody else all day. Before the race I had looked at the registrants and the majority of runners were younger than me. I roughly figured that I was probably one of the 20 oldest in a race of 226 registrants. This is slightly unusual because in the world of ultrarunning there are more and more people over 50 running these longer distances. My new friend John tells me about a young lady of probably 20 or so that he saw vomiting after about 15 miles. “Those of us that are older tend to do better in these ultras. We’ve experienced a lot of “suck” in our lives. So this doesn’t seem that bad”, he says.
Interestingly I had thought about this a few miles before catching John. I was far enough into the race to make an evaluation on the effort required to finish. My assessment was that while it was challenging it was not the hardest thing I had ever done physically. When compared with emotional challenges I have had in my life, it was a piece of cake. It was mainly about patience, good sense, proper fueling and perseverance. I had coined my own mantra for the day. JKM, or Just Keep Moving. As long as I moved in a forward motion it would eventually be over.
John and I worked well together and with about six miles to go a number of people popped into view. Most of them were walking and none of them looked well. There was one sitting just off the trail, head in his hands. A kid of about 19 was walking and not having a good time of it. I could now “smell the barn” and began to jog up a slight hill. I passed two more guys, one of which was holding his hip and visually limping along. All of this motivated me as I picked up the pace.
Since I’ve been a teenager I’ve always been a racer. And I’ve learned over the years how to become a good finisher. I found a true stride for the first time in 34 miles and opened up the throttle. I flew into the last aid station with one thing in mind, Coca-Cola. The gentleman at the aid station exclaimed, “It’s a 35 mile warm up and a 5 mile race”. I drank some coke, filled my 500ml bottle with the same and set off flying down the mountain. The final five miles dropped 3200’ zig zagging on single track down the Aspen ski hills. The first mile after the aid station was through dark timber, on soft peat trail. Emotion began to well up inside of me as I began sobbing thinking about my son, Ben, my wife, Pam, Mahting, Erika and a host of others that had been more intimately involved in helping me prepare for this race.
I began to catch people all the way down the mountain as I ebbed in and out of this crazy emotion that would rise in my throat and then subside. Finally with a mile to go, I was caught by a young man and I followed him in to the finish. I saw Pam holding her phone for a picture as I crossed the line. I stumbled for a bit and then fell on the grass, fairly exhausted but feeling more emotion than I have in any other endurance event I’ve ever done. The race did require an intense amount of concentration and it was a relief to relax. In the end I was correct in the fact that the field held an incredible amount of depth. I ended up being 90th across the line. The same finishing time a year before would have yielded 34th place. I remain in awe of how fast people can move across high mountains on a trail run. It is a testament to the high level of fitness people maintain. In short, it’s just pretty damn cool to be a part of it.
- Notes on my training plan in the months leading up to the event for those that find that interesting.
Having been an endurance athlete most of my life, I have experience about how my body works. However, it has taken three years to adapt to being a runner from having been a lifelong cyclist. About ten years ago I began practicing yoga, but never maintained the practice during summer months. Last November I took yoga up again and have maintained the practice all summer for the first time in my life. Yoga played a huge part in me finishing this race.
I ran throughout the spring building an aerobic base, running maybe 2-3 times a week. In mid June I did a four day backpack trip then took one week completely off before more specific training for this race. I used a very rough plan over 13 weeks to prepare for this race, mostly in 2-3 week blocks and largely going off perception of how my body felt. I do not use a heart rate monitor while running but go by perceived rate of exertion. I did this race wholly “by feel” as my Garmin watch battery won’t last for nearly ten hours. I tracked my race using the Strava app on my phone which I looked at periodically throughout the race.
My totals and averages of activity over the 13 weeks leading up to the race and including the race were as follows. I ran three days a week only four times during the 13 weeks. I consumed roughly 225-250 calories per hour during the whole of the event. I ate one last gel with 5.5 miles to go and finished it out on Coca-Cola. I never came close to bonking.
- 312 miles of total running
- 24 miles per week average running
- 2 runs per week average
- My highest week was 36.8 miles of running three weeks out from the race
- My longest run was also that week and was 28 miles and just under 7 hours
- 167 miles of total hiking
- 12.84 miles per week average hiking (this is a bit skewed b/c the backpack trip was 84 miles in four days) which was week 2 of the 13 weeks
- 35 days of yoga
- Average of 2.7 days a week of yoga
- Link to Strava Data
I uncharacteristically took my time getting ready to head off to set up camp for a short archery deer hunt on Friday morning. Awakening at my usual time of 4:30, I did my journaling, walked the dogs with my wife, Pam, and then made myself breakfast. Just before 7:00 I was on the road to the Roosevelt National Forest.
As I pulled into the huge parking lot my Subaru Forester was the only vehicle. I took advantage of the toilet, strapped my Mathews Switchback bow to my backpack and hit the trail. I had supplies for three nights, but for some reason I wasn’t itching to hunt like I typically am. The season started tomorrow morning.
Walking the two and a half miles back to where I would set up camp I took in the scenery with two different views of the big mountain where the elk like to play. Perhaps that was why I wasn’t more excited for the hunt. I was unsuccessful in drawing an elk tag for the second year in a row for this area. Since I am running a 40 mile mountain trail race in one week I didn’t want to pack deep in to the area where I’ll hunt elk (9 miles one way) so I am hunting deer on this trip. There are far more elk high in this area ranging from 9500’ in elevation to 11,500’. The last two years I’ve hunted deer lower, but it is warm there and tends to have more people milling about in the areas. This would hopefully be quieter and a little more remote.
After an hour I arrived at the area I had surveyed on the map for decent camping. I didn’t have water at my site but a five minute walk farther down the trail gave me access to fresh water. I went about pitching my tent and found the spot ideal. I was far enough off the trail that no hikers would notice my camp, but if you knew where to look you could see it from the trail. While in timber, 99% of hikers never look more than a few feet in front of them, so I was confident my biggest concern would be errant bears in the area. Even though I was seven miles as the crow flies from where this incident happened earlier this year and the culprit had been dispatched of.
After filtering enough water for this day and the next morning I went back and took a few shots with my bow at a stump to make sure nothing got knocked out of whack on the hike in. I found a suitable dried out stump that would stop my designated practice broadhead but not damage it. I was walking about eating some Fritos Scoops when I set up the stump. Needing a small aiming point I wedged a Scoop into the stump and walked about 25 yards away. As I surveyed the target, a camp robber came flying onto the stump. The Clark’s Nutcracker proceeded to steal my Frito and fly away! I had to laugh out loud at how these birds will find a camp within minutes knowing that people mean easy food. They are noisy birds and make a regular racket in the forest. Fortunately, I brought along a two inch orange dot for this very purpose. After shooting a bit, my long shot at 35 yards landed just a few inches to the right.
By now it was mid morning and I gathered my pack, some food and other items to hike to where I’d be hunting for a little scouting. I was forced to make my camp outside of a specific perimeter which meant my area for the morning hunt would be a 2 1/2 to 3 mile hike from where I slept. I wanted to do a dry run and check the area again. After an hour’s walk I was at treeline and sitting in a spot where I had seen three mule deer bucks a week ago, one a very nice 4×4 and quite large. But it was now midday and nothing was about that I could see. Not a worry, because tomorrow was when I wanted to see game. I headed back toward my camp but this time headed over the mountain and bushwhacked versus the road I had come up on.
That is what separates this kind of trip from a trail backpacking trip. While backpacking, the trail is not always easy but it is always a trail. Scouting to hunt and hunting involve miles across backcountry; off trail and in rough country. Areas can be steep, so steep you can reach out and touch the mountain in front of you. Deadfall typically is everywhere and makes it difficult to walk a straight line. On this trip, my clothes were constantly sticky with sap from limber pines and got on everything. Once above tree line, steps have to be chosen carefully so rocks don’t dislodge and trap a leg or worse. Backpacking is tiring, but predictable. Backcountry hunting is hard work and exhausting and mentally draining at times. But the physical nature is much more intense than trail backpacking; at least in my opinion.
I soon was in an area where I had written a post from a week ago. I sat for a while, now late afternoon, and after glassing an area that I knew contained elk, and hoping to also see deer, nothing seemed about. Hmmm…maybe everything moved to a different area. Large game animals move about in patterns and don’t always just stick to one area, hence the challenge of hunting them. It was approaching 5:30 and I decided to begin moving back to camp to make myself some dinner before dark.
I stood up, donned my pack and began to slowly walk. I hadn’t moved much when I heard animals. Only elk make so much noise. There was some gentle mewing which sounded like a calf or cow. I turned my attention down the mountain where it seemed like the elk were at. Then I heard what sounded like antlers banging into branches and clacking about. I was positioned in a very small opening with none of the Limber Pines or Englemann Spruce right by me. I caught movement to my right and saw antlers flash and elk moving toward me. I quickly crouched down to make myself invisible or at least as small as possible! Pulling my camera out I hoped to capture the unfolding scene. The elk were moving and feeding at the same time, heads down, intent on ingesting calories. One bull was on his way to where he would cross right in front of me. He finally cleared a tree where he saw me and stopped on a dime. Guess what? I was not invisible! Thus began the staredown as I pressed the shutter on my camera. I was operating on the fly, not being able to make adjustments, just trying to get as many shots of him as possible. He had five points on his right beam and four on his left, the top point on that side not splitting like the right did and he qualified as a “raghorn”.
As we had our little staredown another bull was on a path where he would walk right into me. But he, too, saw things were not as they should be on this stroll to their feeding
ground. He now was directly off to my right and I gently turned the camera toward him to snap off some shots.
Meanwhile three more bulls were milling about behind bull #1, two were small raghorns and another was still in the velvet with small spikes that split up high and he was probably a one and a half year old, mabye two and a half.
After a few minutes they decided I was out of the ordinary enough to warrant heading back to where they came from. Bull #2 actually wheeled a bit and was more spooked than bull #1. Likely, he had caught my scent.
After they left I heard two barks and decided the exciting event of the last few minutes was now just a memory. I sort of sat there, gathered myself and allowed my adrenaline to settle back down. Again I heard some gentle mewing and knocking of antlers below me. I slowly proceeded ahead and was able to look down into a large park, about 400 yards long running up the mountain in an east/west fashion. Down below were the five elk, they had not fled the area but merely circled lower to get to their feeding ground. I now recognized the different racks and viewed them through the binoculars. As I checked them out, more bulls now came into view. One had an either broken or misformed right main branch, another seemed to be a nicer 5×5 and a two more small bulls. This group of four headed into a slightly different area. So near as I could tell I had nine bulls within a few hundred yards of me. I was literally surrounded by elk, which is an incredible experience in the wild. It is one thing to see the elk bugle at Rocky Mountain National Park but to have a 15-20 yard encounter with a bull elk is someting different altogether. It is a treat, an experience to treasure, and something that doesn’t happen when you walk on designated hiking trails. Below is a slideshow of Bull #1.
With the wind blowing up the mountain I was happy the elk were not disturbed. I would not be hunting them tomorrow but somebody might be (however, I doubted this) and I felt it prudent to sneak out of there without them getting bumped out of the area.
While finishing up watching them (it is difficult to break away from such magnificence!) I heard a few snorts. My mind was so intent on the elk that I didn’t weigh its significance. While elk will bellow, bugle, mew, bark and are very vocal, they do not snort. Deer snort. As I looked up I saw a small mule deer buck bounding back across the large meadow toward the dark timber. I am sure he did not see or hear me, but he may have been bothered by all of the bulls. I watched as he bounded lightly across the grassy meadow in the evening light. So…this would be an okay area for deer as well. However, I was already set on spending the morning up higher.
I made my way straight down the mountain, mentally making a note how much easier it is to drop down in a line 856 vertical feet in the distance of six tenths of a mile. Hiking back up that way is much, much slower, especially off trail!
I arrived in camp at dusk, having just enough light to heat water for dinner. I donned my headlamp to go filter water. This is my least favorite part of the backcountry hunting solo experience; doing all the camp chores in the dark. The best hunting is at first and last light, often meaning 16 hours away from camp if one is covering ground looking for game. Naps help but I never am able to sleep for more than 20 minutes during the day. This is where having a buddy along would be a lot of fun. Instead, I crawled in my tent and never even opened my book on my phone. I shot a satellite text to Pam that I was safe for the night and made sure the alarm was set for 4:00am. It was before 9:00 as I fell asleep after an adventurous first day.
- Friday, 18 August 2017
- Niwot Ridge Biosphere Reserve, Roosevelt NF, Boulder County, Colorado
- Time 1324
- Elevation – 11,016’
- Blue skies, warm temperatures, high friendly clouds
As I look to my left and north I see Niwot Mountain, 11,471’ high. A saddle runs southwest of the peak to another peak that is unnamed, yet is higher than Niwot standing 11,557’ above sea level. Running southeast of the saddle is a drainage that becomes Fourmile Creek and I am sitting on the south side of the drainage looking down into it. As the crow flies, the peak of Niwot Mountain is .7 of a mile away on a 26 degree bearing. That perplexes me because it seems that it should be slightly northwest, but later as I look at a map I see I was tricked by the terrain.
I first made my way to this mountain in the fall of 1991, coming from the southeast, miles away and walking largely off trail. In recent weeks I have re-familiarized myself with the area, one day running completely around the mountain. Today, I have come two and a half miles on trail and then another mile or so up and a thousand feet higher. Surprisingly, the direct ascent up the mountain was not too difficult, but it was necessary to take frequent breaks in order to allow my breathing to catch up to my pace.
I’m here in the area looking for a place to camp next weekend and waiting for game to start moving about. The wind blows upon my back, but also swirls as the minutes pass. The mountain, mostly bathed in sunlight, occasionally becomes shrouded in cloud cover; big, puffy white clouds pose no threat to me as I flirt with the treeline and tundra.
I realize that my left forearm and my pants are sticky with pine resin. I battle the residue on my arm and then grab some dirt, form a fine dust and rub it over the annoying spot. Problem resolved! Back on August 1st I had glassed (used binoculars from a distance) the mountain from two miles away and saw 14 elk grazing on the mountainside. As I sit on the ground the musky smell of elk permeates the area as it mixes with the scent of pine. I regret not having my tree guide with me as I look at the different fir trees. I do know, however, that my very pokey next door neighbor is a juniper. Aspen shoots no more than a foot high grace the hillside along with willows that are knee high, a favorite food for elk and especially moose. A few Engelmann Spruce stand tall and upright but are outumbered by the dominant scrubby and bent Limber Pines. I walk over to get some close up photos for positive identification later (I was initially wrong on the spruce and pine). The Limber Pine has needles in clusters of five. The Engelmann needles grow individually directly off the branches. There is so much I do not know about the flora of Colorado. Each year I try to learn more, but I think I forget more than I learn. Below are close ups of the Engelmann Spruce, left, and Limber Pine, right.
I’m enjoying this time just at treeline, where the high alpine forest turns to tundra. The breeze changes and I’m overwhelmed by a pungent whiff of elk. The tundra holds delicate grasses and plants. The elk have come high to feed on the most tender of plants that contain the highest nutrients. Close by is a pine branch
that has been battered by a bull elk, who are just weeks away from the magical time of year when they will begin to bugle, establishing dominance in the herd and the right to breed the cows of their harem.
Wildflowers still bloom here. Yellow sedum grows by me as well as blue harebell. A raucous Gray Jay screams out at 33 minutes into the hour. They are abundant here and rather noisy at times. White yarrow also dots the landscape.
I observe a tiny sparrow alight on a branch fifteen yards away. Through the binoculars I see the wind ruffle his feathers and hairdo, creating a tiny mohawk courtesy of the local stylist, Mother Nature. He is there for maybe a minute before flying away. Big fat flies buzz around my knees but don’t really bother me.
The hour begins to tick down quietly. The afternoon drawing longer, shadows creating a different canvas across the vast, large drainage. It’s peaceful here this afternoon, a welcome break from the many violent storms and rain that have been prevalent over the past weeks. White billowy clouds pass easily overhead, no threat at this time to change the current serene landscape high in the tundra.
- Friday, 11 August 2017
- Bald Mountain, Boulder County, Colorado
- Time 1017
- Elevation – 9,031’
- Warm, sunshine, clouds, and inversion below
After a long hiatus from sitting still for an hour, I am back. Spring came, the world outside came alive and I needed to be moving. I’ve spent much of my time this summer on the move, covering many miles in the mountains, running, hiking, backpacking. In a few weeks the activity will become a dichotomy. On Labor Day weekend I will be running a one day mountain trail race called the Grand Traverse, 40 miles of high country running from Crested Butte to Aspen. During the month of September I will also be spending a number of nights in the backcountry pursuing Mule Deer and Elk during the archery season. Hunting is a part of me and has been for most of my life. There are many opinions on it, but it is where I found my first connections to the wilderness. It involves immense amounts of time not moving, being still, listening and tuned in to creatures that move at a very slow pace, slower than the human race and in turn completely tuned in to their surroundings. I think I’ll share the experience of being outside, vulnerable and alone during those times in September. So I invite you to stay tuned for that. It will not be a story of a harvest as much as a story of the experience of pursuing something elusive.
This morning, however, I am sitting on Bald Mountain facing east looking at Sugarloaf Mountain. I drove up out of a cloudy, foggy Boulder and rose above the inversion. This is a strange area. In all directions I can see residences of people that live in the hills above Boulder. To them, I am sure they feel like they are “getting away” from the city. But in short order, one crosses many different roads in this area. It is busy with campers, hikers, locals, transients and a weird existence where they all come together. I don’t find much comfort here because man has imposed so much of himself into this area that it doesn’t seem wild, only weird. Behind the mountain to the southwest is a huge scar from a wildfire that was caused by an out of town transient visitor last summer that had to have a campfire. Many are drawn to this area because Colorado has become a land of milk and honey, or, weed and edibles.
But I am literally above all of this. It feels great to sit back directly on the damp ground. My butt gets a little wet, but today it’s sunny and summertime. I’ll dry out quickly. The breeze is soft, the sun warm. Insects buzz about, birds chirp and grasshoppers flutter and buzz about like dying helicopters. An insect I cannot identify goes ‘tick, tick’. A cacophony of flying bugs creates a chorus of music here in this meadow atop the mountain.
The hillside is gorgeous. Tall grasses tickle my arms. Mountain Mahogany lies off to my left and slightly uphill. Butterflies flit about, one being an American Lady, who upon
inspection of a photo, later reveals that it has been battered about here on the mountain. There are various wildflowers including dwarf lupine and asters. Berries are also close by and reminds me that the bears of the mountains are entering into hyperphagia, a period where they consume up to 20,000 calories a day in preparation to fatten up before hibernation in the winter. As berries ripen they will feast on them and be happier than Yogi Bear at a pick-a-nic!
Sinister clouds begin to form behind me to the west, rolling in from the Continental Divide. It is the monsoon season and while on the front range we do not experience the deluges like they do in the deeper San Juan mountains, we have had some heavy rains in the previous days. An inversion remains below me in the Boulder Valley and I sit in sunshine between the threatening high clouds above and the oppression of higher humidity below. Cooler air blows up from the valley below me.
It’s now 10:59 and I realize that everything is moving quickly and I have not stopped enough in the past months to see all that is happening around me! Summer is fleeting and it leaves a sad pit in my heart. There is now immense calm on the mountainside and it seems a storm is imminent. Voices carry up to me from below, either hikers, locals or campers. Tiny raindrops begin to dot my pants at 11:04.
As I finish out my hour I’m thankful for the time here. It is a new place and one I wanted to check out. Yet, I doubt that I will come back here anytime soon. The views are fantastic, but there is too much actiivty for my liking. Perhaps I’ll bring a friend back for a winter hike, but in summer, the high country calls to me more. I desire places where the air is thinner, the weather a bit more unpredictable and the solitude easier to find.
Thursday, August 10th, 2017 – 5:10am
The pen feels especially good in my hand these days. The ink flows easily to the paper and is smooth compared to the scratchiness of the fountain pen. The Bic Ultra Round Stic Grip, a "cheap" pen bought in a multi pack does a better job. For more than a year I have been forcing the issue with the fountain pen, a gift from Wilson, my father-in-law. Sentimental reasons contribute to my attachment of the the pen as well as nostalgia and a connection to the "old ways" of doing things.
I would take the fountain pen apart, clean it, allow it to dry and the load a new cartridge into it. The pen never was happy with this particular paper from this journal, an exact replica of the journal I received from Wilson during Christmas of 2015. For a time I had a journal with paper that had a sheen and the ink moved more freely along those pages.
I glance now at the blue and silver Cross pen, picking it up, its touch cool to my thumb and forefinger, the surface temperature also the same as the room temperature which has cooled from the night air. I uncap it to write and I am pleased as ink flows, but by the fifth word it ceases to finish the task. I give it chance upon chance, a shake, a twist, a squeeze of the cartridge, taking it apart and putting it back together again. At times it has made an outright mess of my journal, a big blue blob masquerading as a Rorschach ink spot.
We hold on to imperfect things in our lives. Giving perhaps so many second chances we lose track of the times we pardon. Perhaps these become boundaries and the pen burns us repeatedly. I don't know. I'm a big believer in second chances even if they become exponential. I want to see the pen succeed, but sometimes the "cheap one" performs better and might win the job in the long run.
I’ve done this trip enough times in the last three years that I can almost do it in my sleep. The ritual goes like this; set the alarm for 3:30, out the driveway by 4:00 and hiking from the trailhead at first light just after 5:00 during this time of year.
When I first began making my way back into the reaches of Indian Peaks Wilderness west of Arapaho Pass I would have trouble sleeping. Last night I awoke only once at 1:30 and looked at the clock, toyed with the idea of leaving early but quickly went back to my slumber.
Part of the restlessness is the nature of the trip. The first three miles gain in elevation from 10,100′ to 11,900′, so it’s a gasper right out of the parking lot. The trail is fair enough and the views are phenomenal. This time of year if you know where to look and have good binoculars you can see elk feeding at dawn above timber line on the high ridges to the south. This morning I could see three elk silhouettes with the naked eye and my binoculars revealed they were three bulls hanging out in a “bachelor group”.
However, the stopping and looking at wildlife extends the trip to the Continental Divide at Arapaho Pass. So I make my way west and up, now fully exposed to the wind on the ridge top, but not so cold as to stop and put on my light wool gloves. I make my way 1,000′ down in elevation switching back and forth on the trail until I am down into the area of Caribou Lake. The trail has been snow free to this point, but wet off and on. Because this area is notoriously wet I have worn boots today. I rarely do this anymore choosing to do most of my hiking in Altra Lone Peak trail runners. Very light, very comfortable and quick on the tread. However, during my archery elk hunting trips last year my feet were wet for five days straight on two separate occasions, thus the need to go with waterproof footwear. Today is a trial run of the Gore-Tex boots, yes waterproof, but much heavier and very clunky.
As I move north of Caribou Lake I now head off trail through the swampy, grassy meadow area. I’m heading to a shortcut that the elk use that I discovered two years ago. However, there are still heavy snow fields here and I see that the elk have not used this route as of yet. We had very heavy snows in May and it has made it difficult for summer to fully shine through. Once I navigate my way to the bottom of the draw I see a set of elk tracks that seem rather large. They could be moose, but I think they are elk because the tracks go higher in the direction I am moving. The elk has left behind two large cloven hoof marks with dew claws dotting directly behind. It seems that maybe two elk moved through the area.
I know exactly the route the elk take and it also provides me with the easiest way to a little spot that rests higher above the dark timber. I note that quite a few trees have fallen since last fall as I pick my way up the mountain. As I come closer to an area that the elk “play” in during the warmer summer temperatures I slow my pace more out of habit than really expecting to see any elk in the area. As I peek out into a small meadow that is typically a bog in the summer I see that it is completely covered in snow and frozen over. There are two lines of tracks moving through the area, but it looks like one elk came and went and the tracks are frozen hard in the snow.
I pull my pack off my back and am glad to put the 18 pounder on the ground. It’s heavier than necessary but I was liberal with throwing things into it, so that I could get some light “training” with the heavier boots instead of the usual light trail runners and a running pack. I pull out a trail camera which operates on a motion sensor that I will place over the area. It will be a while before the elk frequent this area, but I want it in place so I don’t have to worry about it. Last summer, I had hundreds of images and video of elk playing in the swampy area, typically on rainy days.
The one drawback to this area is the distance required to get here. I’m now six miles from the car and it’s been a haul to get here; and that was taking a bushwhack shortcut. The advantage to it being so remote is that I rarely see anyone once I am off the trail. In fact, where I am at right now, I have never seen another human, which is why the elk like the area.
I get the camera set and having felt fatigued from the beginning of the hike I decide to begin to make my way back to the car. I drop off the mountain eventually gaining the Arapaho Creek trail. It still holds plenty of snow and there are a few old boot tracks on the trail. I pick my way along the trail climbing back up to Caribou Lake and meet my first person of the morning. We greet each other and I begin the hike back up to the Continental Divide.
It’s a nice walk back and I now encounter more hikers making their way in. Numerous folks ask me about trail conditions, how far I went and just what time did I start? I’m back at the car just before noon. Seven hours, 12 miles and time to get home and catch a well deserved afternoon nap before turning on the switch to give a massage this evening to a client. Business has been slow this year; not so great for paying bills but great for enjoying the mountains and beauty of Colorado! I’ll always enjoy the latter!
I sleep in a little bit compared to yesterday. I leave myself enough time to have TWO cups of coffee before I pack up and hit the trail. By 6:10 I’m off and the sun is shining brightly. I have a finishing point in mind today and estimate it will take me 22-24 miles to get there. There is also the prospect of a short side trip to Refrigerator Gulch, one of the main attractions of Lost Creek Wilderness. However, I had a hard time incorporating it into my intended route, so I hope to skirt down to check it out.
The views early in the crisp morning air are fantastic. My body feels pretty good after the long day yesterday and in about a mile I am at a trail junction and heading south. Shortly thereafter I take a left and up on the Lark Park Trail, a route that I was on with my son Ben just over a year ago. I miss him immensely as he has just gone off to boot camp with the US Navy. He dominates many of my thoughts during this trip.
A few hours into my morning and I stop in Lake Park for some food and a chance to relax. I’m pretty tired after just five miles and as I sit upon a log I feel as though I could take a nice long nap. I snap some photos with my phone and keep moving along. Shortly thereafter I’m doing my deep breathing at nearly 11,000′ when I look to my right and see two young women having breakfast on a log. We chat for a bit and then I continue on.
I sense that with today being Friday I will see many people coming into the area for the weekend, especially since I will be heading to the extreme southeast trailhead, Goose Creek trailhead, which is one of the most popular entry points for the Wilderness area. I’m not sure why it is so popular because it is not particularly easy to get to and requires driving through almost 25 miles of burnt out forest from the Hayman Fire in 2002, which at the time was the largest fire in the history of the state, burning 138,000 acres.
Sure enough as I move from the Lake Park Trail to Hankins Pass Trail heading east and down, down, down I come across many people heading into the forest for the weekend. With 11 miles underfoot I find a wonderfully shady area by Goose Creek just before noon to have some lunch, filter water and wash up.
As I gather my things to move on, the sun is now high and it is warm. I opt for a long sleeved button shirt which has UV protection to keep me cool. I have my goofy hat which covers my neck and I head up the trail, tick-tocking along as my trekking poles tap out a metronomic rhythm on the trail.
The trail is gloriously wide, with nary a rock and rises gently along Goose Creek. After just a mile or so it meanders away from the creek and I begin to get some views of the granite domes which are the signature landmarks of the southern part of Lost Creek Wilderness. The trail steepens at times and then falls away, only to rise again over the miles. The weekenders that were ahead of me begin to come back quickly and it motivates me as I motor along. Day hikers come the other way along with occasional backpackers. I have never been on this trail and while I have read so much about it I confess that I am underwhelmed. The views from within the steep canyon are not as spectacular as those I have seen from above on different trails overlooking the rock formations.
Farther along, the trail becomes narrower, steeper and rockier. I begin to pay the piper now for my ego fueling me along earlier. I’m beat and my left shoulder is taking a beating from my pack. I stop along the trail, check my GPS app to see where I am and find I’m not far from a trail junction. I re-don my pack and make it the short way to the next spot where there is another backpacker and two dogs.
He left the same day that I did and is doing a popular loop of Lake Park, McCurdy Park and back Goose Creek. We sit for a while and talk about our different treks and wait for his friend, who is climbing up to where we are from Refrigerator Gulch. His gentleman arrives and I know that he is 60 years old because the friend told me so. He comes over to sit down, big gray beard, cutoff Carhartt type pants, old cotton T-shirt and an aluminum external frame pack with his tent rolled up inside his foam sleeping pad strapped on the bottom and a sleeping bag strapped to the top. “That is a classic pack” I tell him.
“Yeah”, he replies, “I think I got this back in the mid 60’s”. We commence to talk about anything under the sun. The younger of the two pulls out a ceramic pipe and asks me if I smoke. I tell him no and he and the older guy pass the weed pipe back and forth. It’s life in the backcountry, there is no judgement. Everybody has walked a long way regardless of miles traveled and the atmosphere is one of relaxation and not caring about the little shit of the world. It is paradise.
I fill them in on the trail where they are going and offer suggestions for camp and available water. They are appreciative of the information and we part ways. I head north and climb up for another mile before heading down the other side and out of the Tarryall Mountains toward Wigwam Creek. I had been in that area one other time about four years ago and knew of a nice camping area by the creek where I could take a nap, filter water and make my final one mile push up toward a saddle to camp for the night. I had decided against checking out Refrigerator Gulch, leaving that for another trip in the future.
Dragging myself along the trail I come to the campsite I had in mind and find two people sleeping on logs where I had envisioned myself resting! Goldilocks and Goldilocks Jr fill my space. I dejectedly walk past and see the trail heading up and north where I will need to go. However, I need to filter water so I turn around to head back to the creek, seeing that one of the two is now sitting up. It is a woman and she says hello and asks if I know where she is at.
I am grateful to walk over and sit down as I throw my pack to the ground. It seems that she and her now also awake friend headed on the wrong trail the previous evening and were not quite where they thought they were. I get them oriented and we laugh about heading down wrong paths for I have done the same with friends and family in the past.
Eventually they move on for a late day hike and I filter my water and hump it up one mile to my camp, giving me 22 for the day and stop at a splendid little spot I remember from years ago, albeit fairly busy with mosquitoes this evening. It is the end of what ended up being much more of a grind than I had anticipated; however, quite normal after the big day yesterday. Tomorrow will be my last day and should be pretty easy heading out.
As the mosquitoes attack the netting of my tent while I read after dinner, I am grateful for the bug net and not having opted for a tarp tent years ago. Again, my eyes are shut before natures lays the sun down to set for the day.
I sleep like I typically do in the backcountry. Waking up through the night as I turn from one side to the other. At one point the intensely bright moon wakes me as if someone is shining a flashlight in my face. Unless it is raining heavily I always sleep with the fly open so I can stargaze when I awake at night. Later, my phone begins its gentle crescendo at 4:00 waking me from my slumber in Craig Park.
Today is my birthday and I’ll celebrate 52 years hanging about in this world. I’ve backpacked and hiked many 20+ mile days but I have never done a 30 miler. Today will be the day I go for that goal; in fact I’ve decided to make it a 52 kilometer day which converts to 32.5 miles.
I heat water for one cup of coffee under my headlamp, tear down camp quickly and am on the trail at 4:50. I have to navigate some snow as I move through the dark timber and one puddle I come to has a skin of ice on it, verifying freezing temperatures I experienced during the night.
In the first hour I am treated to a beautiful expanse at 11,600′ of open terrain dotted by rocky hills. The sun shines so as to cast long shadows from my lanky frame. As I cross the park on a trail that is marked by posts dotting the way I begin to drop down in elevation. I look on the horizon and make out one, then two elk feeding in the early shadows. They are fairly distant and I can just make out six or eight as the impending sun makes it difficult to discern the shapes of the large grazers.
The day will consist of time on new trail and trail I have traversed times before. I keep dropping in elevation and see a camper parked in a small clearing by Rock Creek. I’ve come six miles and dropped down to 9700′. A gentleman is outside and we stop and chat for awhile. He comments that his furnace in his camper was non-functional and asks if I felt that it was very cold last night. He inquires about the weight of my pack, my route, etc. I tell him of where I came from and he indicates that that is where he will go explore today. I’m only a few hours into my day but I haven’t had a human encounter since 1:30 the previous afternoon and as I make my way onward, with a marathon yet ahead of me, my spirits are lifted by the brief visit.
I hit the junction with the Colorado Trail heading east. Previously I have come the opposite way with my friend Jamie and a different time two years ago with Pam. I recognize the trail well and know landmarks which tell me where I am on the trail. In an area surrounded by Bristlecone Pines I see a group of four dainty orchids a step off the tread. I drop to the ground, pack still on my back and begin taking photos of the Calypso Bulbosa,
commonly called Calypso Orchid or Fairy Slipper. Two years prior when here with Pam I had stopped and photographed these same four flowers. Each year, they rise and flower after heavy winter snows. Lying just one literal step off the trail they are a prime example of what LNT or Leave No Trace is all about. And if I get a little preachy and political forgive me. As a visitor to this dedicated Wilderness area I agree to abide by the guidelines that have been established to protect this area. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law in 1964. You can read in the link above what those regulations are, but Wilderness in conjunction with Leave No Trace means you leave it as you found it or in even better shape, i.e. taking out trash you find. If I had picked these orchids two years prior, they would not have been here for me and hundreds of hikers on the Colorado Trail to enjoy this year. Theoretically I could bring a grandchild here 20 years from now to see these same flowers! Taking care of our environment is not a “today” table item. It’s not even a “lifetime” table item. It is a philosophy and responsibility that spans generations, centuries and millenia. I think there are certain high ranking politicians in our country that fail to understand the scope of this concept. I choose to leave the beautiful, delicate Fairy Slippers as they are. Not just for my fellow American visitors that may come across this spot but for my fellow man of all nations who visit this area and might enjoy it. We must come together as a world of people to preserve our planet as we enjoy it, during our miniscule period of time in the scope of personal history before our physical bodies become a part of it.
Before noon I come to the west end of Lost Park and the North Fork of Lost Creek. I lose my pack and sit up against a tree to have an extended break. I’ve covered half of my distance for the day. I’m on schedule to finish before sunset as long as my body does not rebel. I eat some cheese, pumpernickel bread, sausage and head down the trail.
Lost Park is another long narrow park, just like Craig Park of the previous day. I’m looking forward to losing 700′ of elevation over the next nearly six miles. I estimate I’ll get to the east end of Lost Park in the neighborhood of 3:00 and have roughly 22 miles under my belt for the day. But the trek through here is a disappointing drag. The sun is shining on my pack causing me to be hot and sweaty. I maintain my fluid intake so as to not become dehydrated beyond repair later in the day. I eventually pop out on the east side and filter some more water for the last 10 1/2 miles.
As I regain the tread, now heading south on the Brookside-McCurdy trail I am off the CT and back onto brand new trail, making things a little more interesting again. I stop to answer a question another backpacker has. He is an older gentleman with a yellow lab by his side. The dog is sleeping soundly. The man has his tent pitched and we trade information about routes, where we have camped, where we are going and stories about the wilderness and those who have perished here! As we chat, I envy him. He is done for the day and relaxing at a lovely little spot. I am having to move 2,000′ higher into the late evening and possible changes in weather. However, the potential regret of not finishing out this day as I have planned, outweighs the temptation of company for the remainder of the day.
Over the next miles I pass established campsite after established campsite. One group numbers over a dozen teenagers with adults mixed in. A bit later, there are the bearded 20-30 somethings with their tarp tents. In a bit, the trail pitches so sharply upward that after 28 miles in my legs I am forced to count 100 steps and then stop to regain my breath. I am approaching the area of Bison Peak and the trail tops out at 11,800′ and it is a steep pitch.
I have expansive views in all directions and the wind has nothing to stop it here above treeline. As I huff and puff to crest into the high meadow I am amazed by the sight. It is beautiful. An area big enough to host numerous soccer fields fills the scene marked by huge granite domes. I make a mental note that this will be an area to come back and bring others to enjoy this site.
It is now just a 5k until I am done for the day. My whole attitude begins to shift and I am elated that while my head is pounding a bit and my left shoulder is aggravated from my pack, my legs are relatively fantastic. The lower body has held up tremendously and I begin to try and estimate where I will finish for the day. I now begin to enter the Ghost Forest of the Wilderness. Over 100 years ago a forest fire burned through this high mountain area. The trees, while dead from the fire, remain as burned out sentries standing guard over this stark, exposed, eerily pleasant area in the waning daylight hours of my birthday. The trail ribbons its way ahead of me and I can see it peeking in and out of the landscape disappearing over the knolls.I think about the significance of these dead trees. Over 100 years old, still standing, still evident of a century of history, having survived season after season, high winds and all that nature has to offer. How much longer will they be here? 100 years after I am gone will my life remain so tall and gracious for the world to see?
As I tick down the final steps of my day, my phone chirps indicating that I have cellular service. I have just a few tenths of a mile to walk until I cross my “finish line” and I can make camp for the day. I pull out my phone and call Pam and amazingly she answers! I am elated! We talk as I finish out my day and it is the perfect gift on my birthday. As I talk to her, after having walked for 14 hours and 32 1/2 miles I am physically and emotionally spent and I profess my love to her like we are childhood sweethearts. As I say goodbye and wend my way forth looking for a spot to camp, I am nearly in tears. Emotion of family and the relationship to my wife and my son overcomes me. I finish my day a little more complete than when I began it back in the darkness of Craig Park before dawn.
Wednesday, 14 June 2017
Four of the last six years I have gone backpacking during my birthday which is June 15th. It began in 2012 after one of my best friends passed away that spring. I missed the following year and I missed last year. If my birthday falls on any day except Wednesday I shut my business down for a long weekend and make anywhere between a three and five day trip of it.
This year, I had blocked out the time but didn’t have any big plans or a spot picked out to venture to. A lot has to do with how much snow remains in the high country and typically mid June still holds much snow above 11,000 feet in the mountains of Colorado. However, the Lost Creek Wilderness missed the big May storms of this year so it became an eligible area for a four day trip.
Because I was going solo it also allowed me to chase some backcountry goals that are better pursued alone, versus having another being succumb to my crazy ideas of fun. The Saturday before I did a 15 mile trail run up into the Platte River Mountains to see if the hills held much snow on the north facing slopes. As luck would have it, there were only a few patches of snow and as I dropped into the area of Craig Park between the Platte River and Kenosha Mountains it was blissful. I had decided on my loop.
I’ve always been an endurance athlete with some years-long breaks over the past nearly 40 years. Since I began backpacking I also began running and trail running to complement the off trail experience. Last October I picked up a dropped yoga practice from the past decade and have had a nice balance of yoga and trail running this spring. I had not donned a 20-30 pound pack yet this year but felt confident in my base fitness. The fact that I’ve spent over 50 nights sleeping in the wilderness over the previous two years, I felt that my body and muscle memory would serve me well. So, I decided to go big for my 52nd birthday trip.
I had one massage to give on Wednesday morning and had packed my bag the previous day. At 11:00am I headed south on highway 285 to Bailey, Colorado. I parked at the Payne Creek Trailhead and hit the trail shortly after noon. It was pleasantly warm as I headed south and up with my beginning elevation of just over 8,000’
It felt good to just walk and not be running. Albeit my long trail runs have been at three and a half hours and this would be a four day trip using most of the light each day. The north part of the wilderness goes from drier areas through mountain timber and after just a mile and a half I came to four younger people having lunch at a creek crossing. “Where you headed for the night?” I asked them.
They looked about at each other and one young lady replied “We’re not really sure”. With four of them, hopefully they had the resources to figure it out and not need help. Last year I invested in a DeLorme Inreach satellite device of which the big selling point for me is the the ability to satellite text to my wife or friends and also to throw up an SOS if an emergency should ever occur. In addition I leave a map with my wife of my intended route and also leave the same information with an experienced friend that knows how to come help if I don’t return on time. When I left the parking lot I sent out a text to both of them that said, “I’m parked here (with GPS coordinates) and off on my trip!”
I hiked steadily until reaching the saddle of the mountain 3,000’ higher from my departure point and then descended 500’ into Craig Park. Craig Park is a park or “meadow” that is roughly 1,000 feet wide that runs in a NW/SE direction for about six miles. Craig Creek runs right through it and it is surrounded by marshy areas with occasional beaver dams and potentillas on the upper edges. The Platte River mountains rise to the north of the park about 1,000’ up and the Kenosha Mountains are south and slightly higher at 1,500’ above the park. Small peaks of both ranges rise and fall on either side of the valley. It is a beautiful area that is not well traveled by evidence of the scant trail running through it. The trail was narrow enough as I hiked northwest that potentilla scraped my calves and after a bit I collapsed my trekking poles because they kept getting caught on the shrubs along the trail.
I walked for a few more hours until I arrived at the upper reaches of the park. I still had daylight left but did not want to drop down into the dark timbered forest. Even though I would be sleeping at 11,500’ it would be warmer higher and drier. I was camped well away from the creek and I had filtered water a mile or so back, so I had plenty to cook with and begin my day the next morning.
I quickly pitched my tent even though there was no looming bad weather. It’s a habit that is hard to change. Nobody likes putting up a shelter in the rain and it is always the first priority once the decision to stop has been made. Rain and hail is not a horrible thing if you are warm and dry. But…once wet it can be uncomfortable and downright dangerous in the high country.
I had climbed about 3,500’ for the day, trekked 12.6 miles and my pack would only get lighter now from my beginning weight of 32.5 pounds. I made myself dinner and as I brushed my teeth a short distance from the tent I saw some elk feeding on the opposite hillside. After sauntering a little closer for a better look I headed back to my campsite and was in my bag and looking at the stars with my fly drawn back on my little tent. I set the alarm for 4:00 in the morning. I wanted an early start to what would be the longest single day of backpacking in my life. Everything was in place, I just had to execute tomorrow.