Collegiate West Part 3 - Big Day, Big Views, Big Climbs

July 8, 2020

Destination: N. Fork Chalk Creek Today's Miles: 22.80

Start Location: Texas Creek Trip Miles: 224.60

My alarm piercing the darkness was the first thing I noticed followed quickly by the biting cold air on my face. Reaching for my watch to check the temperature - it said 38 degrees but felt colder as I unfolded myself from the undeniable warmth of my bag. There was no time to spare, today was going to be a big day.

The first twenty minutes on the trail was guided by headlamps slicing through the chilly pre-dawn. We turned them off as we ran across the hikers from yesterday camped a bit off-trail, everyone still nestled snug in their bags. I thought of the woman in the orange suit who looked so completely wore out the evening before. Would she would finish the Collegiate West as intended? I was hopeful for her but had my doubts.

The trail mirrored Texas Creek for a of couple miles, it was a pleasant section until we had to take our shoes off to cross the creek. We’ve become spoiled by the overabundance of bridges along the trail. It was light out but the sun was not yet on us and the ridiculous attempt at a log ‘bridge’ someone placed across the creek was both inadequate and glazed with a solid sheet of ice. There was no option. I took my shoes and socks of, quickly as I could and crossed the creek barefoot. Just about then a dog started barking from the other side of the creek. Looks like we caught up to the dog people.

Soon enough we were across, dried off and continuing on, passing the dog people's camp. Once across the creek the trail didn’t waste any time climbing and we spent the next couple of hours making our way up to Cottonwood Pass. We would gain over 1,800 vertical feet before reaching the pass from Texas Creek - and this was just the beginning of our day!

It feels strange being around a highway and people after days in the woods where everything moves so much slower. Cottonwood Pass had a steady stream of traffic, finding a gap we crossed the blacktop and noticed a couple of RV’s parked in the pull-out. It was hard not to think of all the good food they must have inside just waiting to be eaten, sadly no one invited us in.

A number of people were hiking up the trail from the parking area, it was easy to notice their clean scent and appearance. We passed a couple thru hikers on their way down, spoke briefly about their looking forward to some rest and a hamburger in Buena Vista.

It didn’t take long to summit the first high point of section 3 at just over 12,500 feet. The dog people had finally come into sight, beginning their ascent below. There was one small snow field to get across but it gave us no trouble. Once over the top we descended for the next mile or so before beginning our next ascent. This pattern repeated itself 5 times throughout the day, each time dropping then climbing above 12.5K. What a day.

By the time we passed the second high point of the day we’d left the day hikers behind. We began a long, flowing downhill section with a fair sized snowfield to cross. The wind was becoming increasingly intense and I put on my rain jacket for protection and having the hood over my hat was the best way to keep it on my head! One trade-off was that I couldn’t see much of the sprawling view to my right - it was all but impossible to turn my head to the right into the wind.

The next up and over was significant. There were some switchbacks but the wide, groomed trail had turned into a goat path, interesting geology and the long drop-off below captivated my attention equally. The words of Insane-o-man kept repeating over and over in my head ‘ walk with purpose, walk with purpose, walk with purpose...’ Stubbing a toe here would lead to an ugly fall.

I was taking my time and when I caught up to Aaron waiting on a bit of a wide spot he commented ‘at least if we fall right here we won’t die,’ his words mirroring my thoughts exactly (as they often do...).

We made it to the top, the wind howling mercilessly through the saddle. Not wasting any time we ducked off the other side meeting head-on the largest snowfield of the day blocking our path to the trail below. It was a tense few moments as we dug in our heels as securely as we could into the slippery snow. We were following the tracks of the dog people who had passed us before reaching the top of the ridge.

There were several snow and mud obstacles we had to work our way around but soon enough we were making good time on the downhill stretch. The dog people had stopped for a break so we paused long enough to say hi and before departing we introduced ourselves, they are Matthew and Michelle from Los Alamos, NM. The dog’s name is Cayenne. The only other hiker we saw reminded me of Santa Clause because of his flowing gray beard. He was northbound on the CDT hailing from Mesa, AZ. He cheerfully gave us the rundown of what lay ahead, advising that there was an easy wrap around followed by two more passes to climb before dropping into Chalk Creek.

It felt empty on the trail compared to the Twin Lakes area. Crowds had thinned and people were scarce but the dog people - or should I say Matthew and Michelle - were one constant. We stopped for water before the next climb when they caught us again. Chatting briefly before taking off in the lead, I prefer when they are in front to watch their ascent and see where the trail goes. Plus, I find it encouraging if I can see someone else make it, somehow it gives me confidence I can make it too…

The second to last up-and-over conjured thoughts of Lord Of the Rings. Steep steps cut straight into the mountain substituted for switchbacks and the wind blowing so strong it felt like it would sweep us off the mountain. During a particularly strong blast I clung to a large rock for several minutes before gathering the courage to continue. It was intense.

The wind did not taper a lick and about the only good thing I can say about the weather is there were no storms brewing. There was one more mountain to climb and it was the tallest - just shy of 12.9K. Weary legs somehow got us to the top but the long descent would challenge us further still. The trail was no more than a steep goat path with a large section passing through a massive rockslide. It was steep and scary and I was glad to put it behind me.

Once we reached the lower saddle, the drop into Chalk Creek went smooth. It was a long way down, and steep, but the many switchbacks eased the burden. We were so tired it seemed to take forever and when we reached the road we felt done. But we weren’t done because we still had to find a place to camp.

Wearily we followed the trail up the creek almost ½ mile looking for any suitable flat spot to pitch our tent but found other tents occupying every spot - most likely north bounders staging for the big up-and-over tomorrow. Back to the road we went, following it down a little before hearing a familiar bark. It was Cayenne, Matthew and Michelle. They had gotten down not long before us and were happy to share their small camp spot with us.

It was far from ideal but we found a somewhat flat little hole in the trees about 50 feet away and collapsed into the tent. We didn’t cook dinner, just ate a few bars and were happy not to be moving. We made it all the way across the high section 3 and were relieved to have it behind us.

I have never hiked a day that could rival today's challenging climbs and views.