Big Mountains, Big Miles and Big Challenges

July 21, 2020

Destination: Elk Creek Today's Miles: 23.80

Start Location: Lost Trail Creek Trip Miles: 395.60

The alarm went off at the earliest time yet but I was already awake. A mouse was crawling on my backpack. I can’t say why, maybe I heard it but for some reason I opened my eyes, looked at my backpack and saw a mouse sitting on top of it.

I may have overreacted just a little...quickly sitting up I started beating at my backpack through the mesh door of the tent. The mouse scurried off but I was creeped out about him coming back and chewing through some vital part of my pack - or that he already had. Unzipping the mesh door I grabbed my pack and tucked it down by my feet.

The commotion woke Aaron, I told him about the mouse and he followed suit pulling his pack inside tucking it by his feet. That was at 1 o’clock. We never really got to sleep after that, the alarm went off at 2 and we were on the trail at 3:15. It may seem ridiculously early but we had two choices; hike a long day or camp high, fully exposed on a mountain with limited water sources. We chose to hike a long day.

I like hiking in the dark. It’s cool, there is little chance of rain and usually there’s no wind. I like how it feels, you use different senses and your focus is narrowed to your immediate surroundings. Instead of always looking ahead at where the trail is going it makes me appreciate where I am in the moment, taking everything as it comes. Plus, we have the trail to ourselves - we’ve never run into another person hiking before daylight. It’s our superpower.

Our goal was to reach Cataract Lake before daylight, about 4 miles ahead. That would put us within striking distance of Elk Creek, another 18 miles in our future. Hopefully making it before any electrical storms, the earlier we got across the high peaks - the better.

It was a quiet climb to the top of the ridge following Lost Trail Creek to its birthplace, and very warm. We couldn’t see the views but we could sense the presence of the mountains, their inky blackness blotting out the many stars in the sky. Down the other side of the saddle we flowed, gravity carrying us to Cataract Lake.

It took a second to make out what we were seeing, yes, they were tents. I counted 10, it was just starting to get light enough to see but not quite light enough to turn off our headlamps.

We left the lake behind as the early dawn began reflecting the mountains on the mirrored surface of the lake. Climbing once again towards the top of the next ridge we saw one cow elk. The trail was wrapping around the peak to our right before dropping down the other side. Just then the sun made an appearance on the rock wall high above.

The trail cut a path through the emerald green hillside as we made our descent, just then we saw a herd of elk browsing below. Cows, calves and one decent size bull unanimously took flight after a nosy cow warned of our approach. We stopped momentarily marveling at their glistening coats and graceful beauty.

We dropped down only to climb again - oh the redundancies of hiking. We were getting a little break, the next climb was relatively easy with one small steep stretch. After reaching the saddle we began side-hilling for quite a ways dropping into Cuba Gulch.

Every inch of every mile is a feast for the eyes. The vibrant green rolling tundra framed by towering peaks seemed to go on forever and ever. Every second was filled with such extreme views that I thought I may never recover. How does one go back to ‘normal’ life after a constant barrage of such beauty and grandeur?

Noticing a tent tucked in the bushes we thought it looked like our friend Coco‘s but there was no sign of movement. Further towards the top of the ridge we heard shrieking voices and saw people playing in the snow. Professor Fantastic and his female companions, no doubt.

The noisy group disappeared over the top as we made our way towards where they had been. This is where we got passed for the first time of the day, a thirty-something man who muttered something about trying to beat the storms as he passed by.

We took our first short break of the day after dropping down the other side and were passed again, this time by two men who said they were going to camp at mile 403 (on Elk Creek). It wasn't a long break and while gathering our packs I noticed a silhouette popping up on the ridge behind us. More Cataract Lake campers are catching up.

Like a yo-yo we went up and down, up and down all day long. Climbing up then climbing down anywhere from 100 feet to 1000 feet - or more. It was a very dramatic day and rivaled only by possibly section 3 on the collegiate west route. The views were dynamic and the colorful wildflowers blanketing the grassy hillsides is a work of fine art. We were spellbound.

Skirting around Canby Mountain towards Stony Pass I began hearing strange noises, like a whisper of many faint voices far away. Soon enough the mystery was solved, rounding a bend I saw hundreds of white dots on the carpet of green grass across the gulch. It was sheep, hundreds of them - maybe even a thousand. I marveled at how they moved as a herd, flowing over the contours of the land like a river.

We crossed Stony Pass Road at the exact time a whole parade of UTVs came bouncing down the mountain. We didn’t have much choice other than step aside and yield as they passed. All were friendly and waved, there must have been more than a dozen. It was a short road walk and soon we were crossing the head of the meadow where the sheep were, headwaters of the mighty Rio Grande.

It was crazy how much we went up and down almost reaching 13,000 feet several times today. The weather held until we crossed Stony Pass where we noticed the sky beginning to look bruised. It wouldn’t be long before it rained but we were down to the last couple of large climbs - the second being a ‘double bump’.

Working our way up the first of the remaining climbs our friend Coco caught up to us - it had been his tent we passed! We stopped for a few minutes filling in the blanks of Lake City, we told him about eating at The Climb and he told us about the war vet who picked him up hitchhiking back to Spring Creek Pass. The man took Coco to his house where they visited and became friends.

The bruise in the sky continued growing so we said goodbye, we would see each other down the trail.

There was a bit of rain but no lightning (some off in the distance) so we took a calculated risk continuing across the remainder of the Continental Divide. The wind was picking up and the rain was coming at us from the side. We must have looked funny with our umbrellas sticking straight out to our side to protect us rather than above our heads.

We passed a tent just off the trail as a head popped out of the doorway - not a full head, just a face, as if peeking out from behind the curtain in a play to survey the audience. She was checking the weather and told us she decided to shelter here from the storm. We never broke stride during the short exchange.

We’ve been looking forward to the Elk Creek portion of the trail for a long time but I didn’t realize how steep the descent would be. It was scary and I was hyperventilating a little topped off by a few heart palpations. There were 27 switchbacks in perhaps a quarter of a vertical mile. The trail was not cut into the steep hillside but laid on top with small pea gravel for footing. It was steep and I didn’t want to look down. Walk with purpose, walk with purpose, walk with purpose filled my mind.

I hope I don’t ever have to do that stretch again. Maybe it’s because it was late in the day or maybe it’s because I was tired that I have such a poor opinion of this hill. It was pretty gnarly.

We had gone over 20 hard miles and were anxious to find a place to camp. Little did we know there were a couple large obstacles yet to overcome. I heard about the Elk Creek avalanches earlier in the year but didn’t think too much of it at the time.

Wow. Now standing in front of the tangled mass it looked a pile of precariously placed pick-up sticks with no discernable way through. Climbing over, under and through the mess it took us considerable time to get across this man-eating jungle gym. Looking down it was 50 feet to the ground below, I did not like it, not at all.

Two avalanche debris fields later we crossed a side stream and came upon some camping opportunities. Choosing a flat spot tucked in the trees a little off the trail we set up camp. Not long after 'Tats' and his little buddy came down the trail. We spoke briefly about potential camp spots and they decided to backtrack across the side drainage.

Two guys we also camped with last night came by a short time later and asked if we minded if they set their tent up in the clearing. Not at all we told them. Soon after we were settled in for the night.