CT Day 18: Lake City to trail junction with lake at mi 380.6. Hiked 22.8 miles (+1 extra mile...) (elev: 12,214 ft)
I had a hard time falling asleep because I started itching my legs and discovering new bites and became paranoid that there were bed bugs in my bed. I got up and got in my sleeping bag and slept in my liner/bag because I knew my bag was treated with permethrin. Eventually I was able to fall asleep and I probably got about 5 hours of sleep. I woke up before my alarm and started getting ready before everyone else woke up. I took a hot morning shower which felt amazing. We left the hostel at about 7:00 and walked to the outfitter to catch our morning shuttle to the trail.
Nick, our shuttle driver was such a polite darling and gave us a nice 30 minute breakdown of what is going on with the pine beetle, climate change, local politics, etc.
We hit the trail at 7:45. At some point Bean ended up way ahead of me and Red Stripe. The two of us chatted and hiked together for about 6 miles on double track Jeep road. We later realized we had accidentally gotten off trail and Bean estimates we probably added a mile to our morning. We were grateful for a healthy mixture of sun and cloud coverage.
When we got to the water source we regrouped with Bean who had been worried that we were ahead of her. She, too, had stayed on the Jeep road and gotten off trail and added mileage and thought we had passed her during that point so she ran ahead to the water source trying to catch us.
As we left the water source (around 11:30 am), we knew the afternoon had storms in store for us. The clouds were ominous and turning dark and we were heading up in elevation. Today we would reach the highest point on the entire trail at 13,200 ft! Everything above 12k ft is above tree line which is a pretty bad place to be when there is thunder, lightning and hail.
We stuck together for most of the big climb (so we could at least see each other). The views were spectacular and it was a pretty incredible sight. The top of the steep part of our big climb was rocky, snowy and quite steep. All around us we were surrounded by storms and the chorus of thunder was an epic soundtrack to such a staggering climb.
We quickly changed at the top into rain jackets and continued on. I wished I had taken the extra minute to put on my puffy jacket and gloves/mittens as well because I was freeeeeezing. It was so windy on the ridge and I hiked right behind Red Stripe to attempt to draft off of her. I’m not sure it made much of a difference because the wind seemed to be blowing from multiple directions.
Then the rain started and it quickly turned to hail. We decided we shouldn’t continue going up to the highest point on trail in this weather and as we descended into a saddle we decided to set up the tent.
We all agreed it would be best to get out of the rain and hail and that there wasn’t thunder and lightning close by so the tent poles would be ok. We quickly found a spot that wasn’t directly in the saddle and was slightly sheltered. We grabbed Bean’s tent since she keeps it on the outside. I grabbed my sleeping pad and the three of us set up her tent and staked down the rainfly pretty quickly. I threw my sleeping pad inside and the three of us sat in there huddled up. We grabbed our packs and brought them into the vestibule area and I immediately put on additional layers. We then decided it would be a good time to have a hearty snack. With our body heat and being sheltered from the wind it was probably a good 10 degrees warmer inside the tent than outside but we were all wet and pretty frozen! Our bare legs had goosebumps all over as we hugged our knees and just waited.
We waited in the tent for probably 1.5 hours. It was 3:15 when we finally decided the rain had let up enough and we were no longer in the thick of it. The sound of thunder had grown more distant and on one side of the saddle you could see a view and the other side was in a total cloud.
We packed up Bean’s soaking wet tent and quickly started climbing. I climbed as fast as I could to get my heart rate up so I could warm up my core temperature as best I could.
The climb didn’t take too long and before we knew it we were at the highest point on trail! We didn’t have the dance party we planned because it was bitter cold and we were in a cloud so we needed to keep moving.
We began descending and the single track trail joined an OHV road for a while which made for a quick descent. We finally reached the water source and I ate a bar. The weather was still wet and dripping on us and droplets were dripping from the hood of my rain jacket. The views were absolutely phenomenal but my hands were in mitten prison and there was no sacrificing my hand warmth and semi dry state for some photos. We kept moving.
We had one more big mountain to climb up and over. As we were climbing, Red Stripe and I froze as we saw two very large moose in the valley. Their racks were incredible. They looked slightly different from the moose we had seen earlier on. They kind of looked like reindeer.
We kept climbing and spent no time at the top and began descending with the mission to get to our camp spot (“trail junction by a lake”). We passed two trail junctions next to lakes, but Bean wasn’t there so I kept going. Finally we saw her setting up her tent and we quickly found two more spots next to her and set up with the mission to get warm and dry ASAP. We pulled back a flap of our vestibules and cooked from our tents so we could be warm and out of the drizzle.
I decided to eat my mushroom risotto because it would be easier to deal with eating out of a bag rather than cooking in my pot. I could also use the warm bag to heat up various body parts as I waited for it to cook. The down side is that it took 30 minutes to make al dente risotto. It takes longer to cook at altitude, plus the air temperature was in the low 40s. I regretted making something that took so long to make!
Red Stripe and Bean were long finished while I sat there with my hot bag of food warming me up in sections quietly sitting and waiting for my dinner. I heard very loud splashing in the lake nearby. It sounded like a huge animal or person swimming. The slashing got louder and continued and I just kept thinking that it was way too cold for a person to be swimming (there are a few tents nearby, but a person might die if they swam...). I then alerted Bean and Red Stripe and they hadn’t heard it. Bean said she thought it was me (getting water maybe?). Then Bean heard grunting and decided to look out of her tent and there were 4 giant and majestic moose RIGHT at our campsite about 20 feet from our tents on the trail! It was so incredible! We all poked our heads out and watched them in awe.
Since this is the highest elevation we’ve slept at and the wet and cold temperature was already so low, Bean suggested we sleep with our water filters. I really hope it doesn’t dip below freezing. I think my clothes and sleep gear are barely warm enough to handle upper 30s.
CT Day 19: Trail junction with lake at mi 380.6 to campsite at Elk Creek mi 405.1. Hiked 24.5 miles (elev: 9,167 ft)
Last night I got the best sleep I’ve had thus far on this trail. It was also our coldest night as the temperature got below 35 degrees but not quite freezing. I had a headband, my fleece hat and then my buff around my neck and pulled over the top of my head, double pants, shirt, thermal long sleeve shirt, and puffy jacket on, plus sleep socks. I had my sleeping bag liner and sleeping bag cinched up all the way so I had a very small hole from which to breathe. I wore ear plugs and felt like I was in a different universe.
All of a sudden I woke up and my alarm had been going off for 10 minutes! I had my ear plugs in and was so sound asleep that I didn’t even hear it.
Once I got up to pee I needed to pack up quickly because I was getting colder by the minute. My tent and rainfly were soaked so I wiped the fly down with my chamois, squeezing out tons of water as I wiped. I had gloves and mitten liners on, but my hands were still so cold.
There is absolutely nothing like putting on cold wet socks when it’s 40 degrees outside. Nothing in the world compares to that awful feeling. It doesn’t last too long, eventually you don’t really notice it and your feet sort of lose feeling, but that initial shock is unlike anything else. Then cold wet shoes on top of that just adds icing to the experience.
I had a tough time packing up my tent in the cold. I was so cold and everything was wet and my hands just could barely shove my wet tent and rainfly into the stuff sack. I had an even harder time getting my poles in the pole sack. By this time Bean and Red Stripe had already hit the trail. It was way too cold for anyone to stick around and wait.
I eventually hit the trail and figured I would stop at a stream in the first 30 mins or so to get water to make my Soylent. About half a mile into the walk I passed a tent and a head popped out. A hiker (who we later got to know throughout the day named Jack Rabbit) said “wow! You guys are smart getting such an early start!” I was surprised to see a head pop out the tent to greet me so we chatted for a brief minute, then I continued on.
At a stream about 1 mile in I stopped to drink my Soylent and just sit. I fiddled with my layers and then noticed that the girls were totally out of sight.
I had a lovely walk all to myself all morning. The views were so spectacular, but my hands were quarantined to mitten and glove world I didn’t take too many pictures.
Eventually I caught Red Stripe and we sort of stuck together all morning taking breaks here and there until we got to the creek at 9 miles in. Bean had announced first thing this morning as she left camp that she didn’t intend to stop until she got to that spot so she could dry everything out.
When we got there we put out our tents, shoes, socks and anything else that was still wet from the day before and just as we did the sun came out. I was starting to worry that we would get rained on at our break spot as there was a storm behind us and some very dark clouds that became progressively darker and closer to us during our break. Bean left and wanted to have her lunch in 4 more miles, but Red Stripe and I were enjoying the sunshine and had an early lunch. I was worried the afternoon would be stormy and thus not amenable to sitting around having lunch so I took my time at this break spot.
Just as we started to get nervous about how close the dark clouds were, Red Stripe and I packed up and started hiking. Then the clouds seemed to change directions and were no longer in range to be a threat to us. We had a mixture of cloud coverage and sunshine for the rest of the afternoon!
We met up with Bean where she had lunch at a water source and I tended to a hot spot on my heel (which was pretty raw and tender due to the wet sock situation all morning). The girls left and I stayed behind messing with it, then decided to use my sleep socks since they were dry and give it a try. Jack Rabbit came by and we chatted before he, too, hiked on. He has hiked most of the PCT.
I hiked alone for the remainder of the very exposed ridge above tree line for the rest of the afternoon. It was chilly enough that I had my buff around my neck and my gloves on the entire time. I felt a little tired all afternoon, but remembered that this was my last full day and tried to really enjoy it.
At the edge of the ridge where the trail dips down into a gorge Jackrabbit was hanging out. I’m glad he was there because it might have been easy to miss the turn as the trail continued straight up a hill also. I began my descent down the switchbacks and then found Red Stripe on a steep and rocky section. She was worried we might be off trail because her GPS was showing we were off, but I double checked and we were indeed on trail.
We continued on and I picked up the pace as I needed to poop but needed to get to tree line to do so. Once I hit tree line I found a nice pine tree grove on a steep slant with the most amazing view to dig a cat hole and take care of business. Digging cat holes has been way easier in Colorado’s pine tree forests than on the Appalachian Trail.
Halfway through the descent I took a break by a stream and ate a Bobo’s bar. I lit some incense and waited for Red Stripe because we hadn’t really made a plan for how far to go and where to camp for the night. We decided about 1-2 miles before the Animas river at the very bottom of the valley would be sufficient.
After that point we found Bean filtering water at the next stream, quickly exchanged camping plans but the mosquitoes were so terrible I had to keep moving.
My thighs were stinging and I realized I got sunburnt on my legs today! After 17 days out here and not ever putting sunscreen on my legs they burned today. So bizarre.
Then we had two pretty huge fields of avalanche debris to climb through. It reminded me of the Mahoosic Notch in Maine, kind of like a jungle gym. Luckily someone had tied little flags on the trees marking a path for us which made the experience much easier because there wasn’t any route finding.
I finally got to a beautiful campsite with only one tent set up and asked a young couple if they wouldn’t mind sharing a spot with some hikers. The guy, PT was so nice - he offered to help me! I’ve never had someone offer to help make dinner or set up my tent for me! I told him I was fine and mostly just didn’t even know how to respond to such a kind gesture! Then he offered to get me some water and I let him fill my bottle for me. Wow.
Red Stripe and Bean showed up while I was setting up my tent and they quickly set theirs up too and we started cooking dinner. Then Jack Rabbit joined us for dinner but he planned to camp further down the trail.
I don’t know how we managed to have such a perfect camp site with a rushing creek right nearby, and no bugs!
I got in my tent and rubbed Tea Tree oil on my sunburnt legs. Not sure if it helped, but it was the only thing I had.
We dropped so much in elevation and were at 9k ft. The temperature was warmer and the environment so full of life. We had spent many miles above tree line where marmots, pica, mice, and flowers live. Snowmelt streams and muddy marshes and boulder fields made up the harsh terrain. What a contrast from the wooded pine tree forest with streams and creeks, deer and even other people. It was a Saturday, so there were a lot of weekend-ers camping and hiking.
CT Day 19.25: Elk Creek mi 405.1 to Molas Pass mi 411.1 (Silverton). Hiked 6 miles
I woke up later than both Bean and Red Stripe and was slow to pack up. I figured I would catch them on the downhill, but bathroom breaks were slow and I was just slow that morning. I dragged on the steep uphill and dragged even more on the flat section. It was misty and wet out and I felt sleepy. I realized I had been having caffeine the last few days and I didn't this day because I figured 6 miles hardly even counted as a hike, but I think it took me a while to wake up.
Eventually Jack Rabbit caught up to me and passed me. Once he passed me I decided I wasn't going to get dropped and kept him in eye sight, picking up the pace some to keep up.
I felt a pang of sadness that my hike out here was over until I could come back out and finish it. I was in a groove now and didn't feel ready to go home. I think that may have contributed to my pokey pace that morning. I also think I had assumed 6 miles would be over in the blink of an eye, but there was still a challenging climb after Animas river out of the valley and 6 miles is still a few hours of hiking.
Eventually we got to Molas Pass and Bean and Red Stripe were waiting for me in the parking lot. Now we were 4 dirty hikers that needed to hitch in the drizzly rain. The hitch would be a little bit more tough. I had no qualms about asking people in the parking lot and eventually got us a ride in a covered pick up truck. Red Stripe and I rode inside while Bean and Jack Rabbit were in the back.
We dropped off Red Stripe to catch her Craigslist Ride share back to her car in Gunnison, and then Bean, Jack Rabbit and I got vegan breakfast burritos. After checking in with our phones and eating and washing out hands, we all parted ways. Bean to the store to resupply, Jack Rabbit to the hostel to meet friends and take the rest of the day off, and I walked down Main St. toward the end of town hoping I could hitch a ride to Durango (1 hour away). The first car stopped and it was a young couple headed that way! I was nervous at first to try hitching solo (especially such a LONG distance, but I trusted my instincts to choose my ride wisely.
Hiking these 411 miles has been one of the most empowering experiences of my life. I feel like a brand new person. I feel like a Jackie I haven't met yet is emerging and its really exciting. My confidence has been repaired and restored in a lot of facets and I feel like I had a lot of time to check in with myself and tune in to my thoughts and feelings in a really gentle and mindful way. I can't wait to get back out and finish this beautiful trail!