Collegiate West Part 5 - High Peaks and High Wind

July 10, 2020

Destination: Monarch Pass Today's Miles: 10

Start Location: Boss Lake Trip Miles: 251.20

I noticed the wind blowing in earnest shortly after midnight. I kept waiting for it to die down but the ‘whop, whop, whop’ of the tent vestibule near my ear continued until dawn - and beyond.

It was a town day so there was the reward of food, shower and flat bed looming ahead plus we only had to cover about 10 miles creating the illusion of an easy day. Just the opposite, it turned out to be one of my scariest days on the trail to date.

The trail out of Boss Lake was originally a two-track road and continued with the theme of straight up rather than switching back. That ended after a mile or so when we reached Hunt Lake. Not as big as Boss Lake it struck me as a quintessential mountain lake.

Just above Hunt Lake we ran into a couple wrapping up their camp. They said this was their last day on the trail, they were only doing the Collegiate West and would finish later in the day at Fooses Creek. It made me wonder how I will feel when it's my last day on the trail.

The two-track became a single track and we began gaining elevation quickly. We stopped, pulling off some layers when the couple from below passed us heading for the top. A half-mile later we were dwarfed beneath the top of the ridge. The wind was blowing hard, very hard.

It was steep but thankfully a few switchbacks eased our ascent. The wind, on the other hand, was no help at all, snatching my breath away every time we switched back into it. The wind was making it hard to breathe and once we crested the ridge it was making it equally hard to stand.

I could see the thin wisp of a trail crossing the long saddle in front of us then continuing (Lord of the Rings style) side-hilling across a steep and rocky mountain. Fear rose through my stomach into my chest. I did not want to be here on this windy mountain. Not even a little bit.

Approaching a small rock outcropping I yelled ahead for Aaron to stop. I HAD to put my rain jacket on, the wind was so strong and cold my ear was killing me. It was tough but I hunkered down and got the job done. Looking up Aaron was braced, head down in a 3-point stance leaning hard into the wind.

I couldn’t help wondering how hard the wind had to gust to sweep me off the mountain. What scared me more was the prospect of not knowing the answer until it’s too late. I thought briefly about crawling, discarded the idea. Bracing into the wind (and my fear) I set out behind Aaron - walking with purpose.

I convinced myself briefly that crossing the exposed saddle would be the worst part and crossing the steep mountainside would be more protected. Wrong. It was just as bad - if not worse.

Taking some comfort knowing the couple in front of us made it safely across we could do little more than continue. After skirting beneath the top of Bald Mountain (12,856’) we landed on a long ridge and made our way down and across towards Monarch Ski Area.

The wind did not let up but we were no longer as high or as exposed. This was not the first time I found myself thankful for the decision to go with ‘real’ rain gear rather than the cheaper Frogg Togg option.

There was a point of interest where low rock walls became visible called the Monarch Pass Game Drive and according to the signage was:

“A complex structure built and used by prehistoric hunting groups. Radiocarbon dating and projectile point styles suggest the drive was used for thousands of years (perhaps 3000 BC to AD 1800).”

We pressed on, continuing our way above and around the ski runs seeing more and more people hiking and running. It was just touching on noon as we began making our final descent to the highway at the top of Monarch Pass.

The noise was assaulting and so was the smell. Exhaust fumes were choking us out as a steady stream of cars, trucks and RV’s roared by us over the pass. Life sure had gone and got itself busy.

Working our way the short distance up the highway to the gift shop we were taking off our packs when brother Mike pulled up. Perfect timing. Mike has been such a huge help and we were happy to see him. We ran into the gift shop for a bag of chips and a couple of sodas before taking off for two well earned days of rest in Salida.