CDT: THE ANNIVERSARY EDITION.
I enjoyed my two-night stay in Breckenridge but I looked forward to the incredible hiking that awaited me. The maps showed the trail on top of the Continental Divide, only sometimes dropping below the divide. And Grays Peak, a 14,270 foot peak would be my first Colorado “14er”. While at Twin Lakes a week ago I agreed to camp with my friends Nancy and Sandy at Herman Lake 13 miles past Grays Peak. But the most exciting day I looked forward to was July 8 when I would meet Cindy at Berthoud Pass and take two zero days at Nancy and Sandy’s cabin. I was not disappointed. Moreover, at Herman Lake I received the biggest surprise of the entire 82 days of this hike.
In order to reach Herman Lake on July 6 I planned the six days carefully. Throughout Colorado the challenging terrain of the Rockies has been a mystery to me until I actually get onto the trail to see how many miles I can cover each day. July 3, the day I left Breckenridge, was mildly challenging terrain despite the 4,700 feet of climbing required to cover the 19 miles I hiked. I was disappointed in one respect: I was also hiking the Colorado Trail (CT) near a major resort town on a holiday weekend…meaning many, many mountain bikes were on the CDT / CT. Dust Bunnie, another CDT hiker who caught up to me that day, counted 167 bikes during the day. As I hiked uphill to gain the high ridgetops, the bikers were speeding down the trail and rarely gave me the right-of-way as an uphill user of the trail. The mountain bikers clearly had the right to be on this part of the CDT, but it was not the quiet, remote experience I was accustomed to for the 1100 miles I have hiked since April 18.
Quite and remote would come the next day, July 4. In the morning the CDT and CT split into separate routes near Georgia Pass, with the CDT commencing a climb toward windy 12,853 foot Glacier Peak where I stopped for a rest to eat my latest favorite trail snack, Pringles! The trail bounced from one mountaintop to another: Whale Peak, Handcart Peak, Landslide Peak, Geneva Peak, Sullivan Mountain, Santa Fe Peak.
Along the way, while occasionally seeing nearby motorcycles, ATVs and jeeps using the old mining roads in these mountains, I reached the newest high point for the thru-hike on Geneva Peak (13,270 feet). I watched the sky carefully as thunderstorms and showers were forming nearby, and I did not want to be caught in a storm at such a high elevation. Despite getting very tired from the uphill & downhill nature of the trail, often on rocky, tedious trail, I kept moving ahead diligently.
I was happy to reach a turn downhill on the CDT where the route descended steeply two miles to Peru Creek, where I hoped to camp before beginning a long, six-mile ascent to Grays Peak the next day. But the descent began with a tricky passage between a rock face and a wall of snow with a melting cornice, followed by what looked a like steep, loose rock scree. It was about 6:00 pm, and I was really too tired to make such a risky descent. Instead, I chose a longer alternate on a road that switched backed down toward the village of Montezuma. This choice had a consequence, however. The alternate route added at least five miles to my previously planned destination, and it was unlikely I would have the stamina to reach my intended destination for the day. On the way downhill on the road, after hiking 17 miles in the challenging up & down terrain, I made camp near a stream and uncomfortably close to the road. It was my best option.
I spent time in my tent re-doing my plan. I had hiked 36 miles and ascended a total of 9,100 feet during the previous two days, July 3 and 4. I wanted to reach Herman Lake, 29 trail miles away, on July 6. And, I would climb the 14,270 foot Grays Peak on the way. But I needed some rest and refueling to tackle those miles and Grays Peak. On July 5 I limited my hiking to a 9.5 mile road-walk to camp near Peru Creek where I would begin the ascent to the ridgetop and Grays Peak very early in the morning of July 6. But this plan meant I would have to hike a total of 19 miles to reach my goal of Herman Lake, with the 14,270 Grays Peak along the way. Upon reaching camp in the early afternoon of July 5, I napped, carbo-loaded and drank lots of water so I would be energized for the long and exciting day that began at 5:30 am.
At Argentine Pass, roughly 13,000 feet, I was very happy to see two thru-hikers, Footprint and Lola (a married couple from Czech Republic) catch up to me. Footprint has lots of experience mountain climbing, and I am not ashamed to admit he was much more skilled than I am in identifying the correct path through some of the steep, rocky routes up and over the torturous peaks the CDT encountered along the top of the divide.
At one point, on Mt. Edwards, the “trail” followed a cat-walk merely a few feet wide with extensive and steep drop-off on both sides. Finally, the approach to Grays Peak was in front of us! Now, we just had to climb the remaining 700 feet to the top!
Footprint and Lola took the direct, steep route along the spire of the 14’er. I noticed an easier looking and well-graded trail that switch-backed to the summit, custom-made for this 62-year old hiker. This is the route hikers who climb Grays from the opposite valley use. Ironically, the three of us reached the summit at the same time. For me, reaching the top of Grays Peak took a lot of rest-stepping, pressure-breathing and patience. Along the way of achieving my first Colorado 14’er summit, I broke my personal elevation record of 13,829 feet on Dead Woman’s Pass along the Inca Trail in Peru. Best of all, this was the eighth wedding anniversary for my lovely wife, Cindy, and I. On the Grays Peak summit I opened an anniversary card Cindy added to my Breckenridge supply box and proudly wore a printed replica of our “Just Married” t-shirt logo.
I wasted little time to begin the long descent and journey to Herman Lake, about 13 miles. I had committed to that destination because Nancy and Sandy would be there, too. Having friends to camp on this important day was enough motivation to press on down a road, cycle path, across Interstate 70, and uphill 1600 feet for the final 3 miles to the lake. Columbine and other wildflowers colored the way toward what I knew would be a wild, lovely campsite in a snow-speckled cirque that surrounded a sparkling lake. It was those final few miles in the early evening when I felt the fatigue caused by 4,000 feet-plus I had already climbed that day.
I walked cross-country toward the lake using the Garmin to guide me to my destination. It was 8 pm, a full two hours later than I told Nancy and Sandy I had hoped to arrive, and they must have been a little worried. Before reaching the lakeside I saw a woman in the distance, walking toward me, wearing a blue jacket, and I assumed it Nancy but not totally certain because my evening distance vision is not so sharp. As we drew closer to each other, I heard her voice call out to me, and I squinted in an effort to confirm it was Nancy. But, but, it was NOT Nancy. The woman approaching me was CINDY! OMG! HAPPY ANNIVERSARY! WHAT A GIFT! My lovely wife has joined me on the CDT on our wedding anniversary! Cindy secretly flew in a couple of days earlier than I thought, and managed the 1,600 foot climb up the Herman Gulch Trail to Herman Lake carrying a full backpack! For a sea-level resident in Portland, it was no small effort for her to reach the 12,000 foot elevation with virtually no time to acclimate to the Rocky Mountains.
Although my reaction to the surprise visit by Cindy was delayed slightly by the tiredness I felt from hiking 19 miles and climbing over 6,000 feet (yes, I shattered my previous record by over 1,000 feet!). I quickly devoured the the rice and chicken dinner that Sandy had prepared, and Cindy gave me a more than generous share of a chocolate cake she packed in for us to help celebrate the happy occasion.
It took a few minutes and lots of calories, but it finally sunk in that I was with my lovely wife for the first time in 80 days, which also happens to be the half-way point in what I now estimate to be a 160-day journey on this very long trail.
Unfortunately, Nancy could not join us that day on Herman Lake, and Cindy and Sandy were great campsite companions in a beautiful setting. In the morning I enjoyed a more leisurely breakfast than I typically allowed myself when hiking alone. I would see Cindy just two days later at Berthoud Pass, plus two full zero days and Nancy and Sandy’s cabin. There was no hurry to end the Anniversary Edition of my CDT hike. Cindy and I kissed and hugged goodbye, reluctantly, as I started to hike back toward the CDT.
Those 13 hours we were together now seems surreal to me, an unexpected surprise that felt like the ultimate trail magic.
For a day and a half after the Anniversary camp I traversed the sometimes windy, scenic Continental Divide where I anticipated an arrival at Berthoud Pass on July 8. The winds on the divide were the strongest I felt in over 1,000 miles, and my hooded jacket prevented my glasses from being ripped off my face. However, I was more concerned with my entire body being blown off the trail and over a snowy cornice on the leeward side of the divide. I made a trail-side camp 1,400 feet below Vasquez Peak and 1,000 feet above the Henderson underground mining complex. The constant hum all night from the mine shaft ventilation system simply reminded me of the nearness I was to Berthoud Pass, and my two-day break from the high divide.
Follow my progress on a map: https://share.delorme.com/RogerCarpenter