The Colorado Trail: Day 18
The Gods of the Trail look down and watch those of us who make our way across this terrain, and they seek to reward those who suffer arduous miles, brutal climbs, and show bravery in the face of uncertainty. Today was proof of that. The more suffering, the greater the reward. The more trepidation, the less glory.
Before saying much more about today, I want to note that my journal from yesterday quite sucked. It’s hard for me to write in a trail town; there are just too many distractions. As I was trying to write I was distracted by burgers, ice cream, WiFi, other hikers, girls, Facebook notifications, resupply packages, and all the stuff that I’m always inundated with in trail towns. It’s a love-hate relationship that I have with trail towns, but whenever I get back to the trail after a trail town, I’m glad to be back here and I find myself wishing that I’d spent less time in the town.
That being said, the burger in Twin Lakes was worth rush, rush, rushing for 20 miles to get to. I don’t know if I’ve ever had food truck food before last night, but if that’s what food truck food is always like, then sign me up! I hadn’t had a burger on trail prior to last night, but that was amazing! Two patties, topped with pulled pork, and a half order of sweet potato fries! It was really good stuff. And high quality ingredients to match. I can safely say that it was worth rushing into town before they closed just for that alone. Then of course I needed to pick up my resupply box, which I’m happy to say had arrived on time and in one piece. So while I repacked for this next segment I also ate a pint of ice cream and an ice cream sandwich. In retrospect however, I should have eaten a bit more, because the day that would follow would kick my ass, to put it lightly.
Yesterday was probably my biggest day on the trail up to that point, and the day prior was almost as strenuous. So I was tired at the end of last night when I made my way back to trail in the dark, set up tent, and went to sleep. I was exhausted. But I knew in the back of my head that today would be the third one in a row. You see, I’ve known for awhile now that there are two 14,000+ft tall mountains right north of Twin Lakes, and I’ve been planning on tagging both of them since they’re right off the Colorado Trail, but whenever I asked other hikers if it’s possible to get them both in a day, they always gave me a funny look, sort of shrugged their shoulders, and said something along the lines of, “...I mean, I guess it’s theoretically possible.” Today I understand why.
Mount Elbert and Mount Massive are the two highest points in the entire state of Colorado, making them the second and third highest peaks in the lower 48 United States behind Mount Whitney in California, which I submitted on my thru hike of the PCT in 2015. Even knowing that, my plan for today was as follows: Wake up early (after two long and arduous days already under my feet), climb up Mount Elbert first thing in the morning, but instead of slack packing it, I was going to bring all of my gear with full supplies to make it from Twin Lakes to Breckinridge, and then descend down the north side of the mountain. This would supposedly save me some time because it would cut off about 3 miles of the Colorado Trail rather than going up and down the same approach to Elbert. THEN, I’d hike the five miles along the Colorado Trail that lead to the Mount Massive trailhead, carry my bag up to 12,000 feet (tree line), and slack pack to the top and back down to the Colorado Trail.
As I write that now, I understand why people said that it would be “theoretically” possible, but not recommended.
When I woke up this morning it was literally my first day on trail that I felt sore and tired from the days prior. That wasn’t a good sign considering the miles I’d be covering today, but there wasn’t much that could be done about that suffice taking a couple of Advil before starting my hike. I was really discouraged last night though because when I checked the weather forecast, it said that there would likely be monsoon storms rolling in at 11am. So I didn’t really expect that I’d be able to get both peaks without storms putting a halt to my progress. Today actually marks four weeks to the day since I was struck by lightning in Sedona, Arizona (Long story, and I'll have to tell it at a later time if you haven’t already heard it), and I wasn’t about to get hit again. Once was enough, and a cat only has nine lives, so I didn’t want to or need to push my luck. So I figured that at the least I could get an early start today, storm the top of Elbert, then when/if storms came in and I had to cancel my ascent up Mount Massive, at least I could say that I summited the highest point in the state along my hike of the Colorado Trail.
So I started on the trail, got some water at the base of Mount Elbert (thank Christ I did too, because I expected there would be water along the Elbert trail and there was not a single drop!), and started up from there. I passed a couple of day hikers right off the bat, but about half way up I saw another 15 or so up ahead of me on their way up to the summit. I don’t like saying this, because it makes me feel like a dick, but it felt really good passing all of them so quickly considering the fact that I was carrying a fully loaded pack with 4 days of supplies that weighed around 45lbs while they were huffing and puffing and struggling with nothing but a bottle of water. It revalidated my desire to run an ultra marathon when this hike is said and done. Many of them even said as I passed by that my backpack seemed excessive, and it felt good to say, “yeah, it would be excessive for this climb, but I’ve been living out of this bad boy for the past 18 days and I still have 175 miles to go after this.”
I knew that getting to the top of Elbert with my pack was going to be a challenge, but I don’t know if I fully conceptualized exactly how hard it was going to be. It was among the most physically demanding things that I’ve ever done in my life, and was certainly the hardest challenge that I've faced on the Colorado Trail. It absolutely killed me. Getting to a 14,000 foot peak at all is hard, but to add that much weight on my back, and the fact that the last two days kicked my ass so hard, it really was a struggle. But I made it no less, and it was absolutely, completely, and entirely worthwhile!
I probably only spent five minutes up there taking a couple of pictures, because first off I was only wearing running shorts and a t-shirt, and secondly, I wanted to try to see if I could push my luck and get up Mount Massive before the sunset. I could actually see Mount Massive from the peak of Elbert, and when I asked some people about it, they were shocked that I would consider summiting both in a day. Some of them remarked that it looked like storms were rolling in and that I needed to be careful of lightning, to which I told them that I was hit exactly four weeks ago, so statistically it’s pretty unlikely that I get hit again on the four week anniversary. Flawed logic maybe, but it makes for a good joke when you’re up on a mountain with total strangers.
It hurt me to admit to myself how exhausted I was when I got to the base of Elbert. I was struggling in every sense of the word, and it was about five miles to the trail head of Mount Massive. I knew that it was going to be a stretch to get up there considering my condition, but I still wanted to try. Honestly, a very big part of me was hoping that thunder storms would roll in. If that happened then I could turn around and blame God for it. I couldn’t regret failing to make it up Massive if it was out of my control, but if there was no rain, then I at least had to try, so I spent about twenty minutes by a river at the trailhead of Massive trying to rehydrate, and making a batch of what has become my favorite trail fuel: Hemp seed powder mixed with honey and some water (I like adding coconut oil too, but I didn’t bring any on this segment). It looks absolutely disgusting, but its the most clean burning fuel that I have found on this thru hike.
After lunch by the river I started up the Mount Massive trail, hoping and praying for rain so that I could have an excuse to turn back short, but the rain never came, so I dropped my bag and hung it from a tree at around 12,000 feet and slack packed up from there. My pace was painfully slow, but steady.
At around 13,000 feet I ran into two hikers who warned me that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the top because they had just been run off by mountain goats. A part of me thought that they were lying, but sure as hell, when I made it about 500 feet higher in elevation there were goats all over the place. Of course that would be the case since I left my nice camera down with my pack at 12,000ft, but at least I had my phone with me. I got a few decent shots with that, but it would have been amazing to have my zoom lens with me then. They didn’t run me off the trail, and honestly I don’t think that they minded me being there much at all.
The elevation combined with having hiked Elbert and the two days leading up to today being so heavy all made it hard to get up that last thousand feet, but I was able to get it done. The Gods of the Colorado Trial shined down on me today. They kept the skies from throwing lighting bolts, they gave me the strength to reach both summits, they gave me cool mountain goats to hang out with, and they got me back down in one piece.
I couldn’t believe at the end of the day when I checked my mileage and saw that I had covered just over 24 miles. Considering the climb (I literally gained 9,103ft of elevation today!) and the terrain and the fact that I only got to slack pack that top segment of Massive, I didn’t think that I’d be able to even break 20, but my legs are strong by this point in the trail, and I would have gone about three miles farther, but I found this ideal campsite beside a nice creek. It wasn’t that I care about having drinking water (although that’s nice too), but I needed to clean my clothes and I needed to clean myself! I haven’t showered since Salida, and I smell like it too. So I set up camp early, bathed in the river, cleaned my clothes (God I hope that they dry by daybreak tomorrow) and even managed to get a workout in while I was waiting for dinner to rehydrate.
Oh! One mistake that I did make on this segment... and I should know better by now... but I didn’t bring enough food. I brought enough food to get me from Twin Lakes to Breckinridge (my next resupply), but I forgot to factor in the detours up both of those mountains today which together make up almost 20 additional miles. And of course while I was climbing them, I was burning through food like toilet paper in a bonfire, so I am going to be too short on food to get to Breckinridge. But there is a godsend! There is a small lodge/general store/inn/restaurant just off the trail in 45 miles from here (Breckinridge is 61 miles away), so I can stop in there to get some supplies on that last day. I told you the Gods of the Trail area looking out for me.
Anyways, if anyone ever asks if it’s possible to get to the top of Mount Elbert and Mount Massive in the same day, you can go ahead and let them know that it is indeed possible, but you probably shouldn’t recommend it.
Lots of love, and I’ll write again soon. Hopefully tomorrow is a little less eventful because I need a quiet day after what I’ve been through the last three days.