When we woke up this morning, all cozy in our sleeping bags, we had no idea how cold it had turned overnight. The temperature on my watch read 32.5 degrees, and, when I step outside to make coffee I find that there are ice crystals on the tent fly. This is not the first time on this trip that we’ve camped low in a valley, so we have come to expect that it will be colder down here. But this is certainly the coldest morning on the CT by far!
Hats and gloves keep us functioning as we pack up our bags. We are eager to get walking and build some heat to restore feeling to our fingers. As we walk up the valley following the Cochetopa Creek, we encounter several cows either grazing or staring us down. Dodging fresh cow pies keeps us alert.
We are happy when we can finally see the sun cresting the ridge to our left, and we hike energetically toward the first patch of sunlight to bask in its warmth.
Along the creek, I spot a pair of belted kingfishers perched above the water. They chatter loudly to each other as they make brief flights in search of food and then return to the same perch. We also see a red-tailed hawk soaring across the valley from perch to perch.
Before long, we have to cross the creek. There is a make shift bridge that does not look reliable or steady, and our Guthook app notes say that it frequently washes out. The current is swift, but the creek is not more than ankle to calf deep at the point we would cross. The problem is that the water is cold, and we are too!
After observing a young hiker walk quickly and easily across the rickety log (oh, to be so young and uninhibited again!), I decide to give it a try and make it across successfully by going slowly and keeping my center of gravity low and using my poles to steady me.
Alison takes one look and decides to ford the creek and get a free foot washing out of the deal. She makes it across easily and reports that the water wasn’t even all that cold.
We filter water while drying out the tent fly (by now a daily routine in Colorado monsoon season) and then set off on our merry way, having shed some layers of clothing.
We hike up a short, steep section of trail to a viewpoint above the creek. From there, we continue on a catwalk high above the creek below. We pass more cows along the trail before officially entering La Garita Wilderness.
It’s actually getting quite hot now, and it’s not even 10 am, so we stop for a break in the shade to strip down further. Two young hikers walk up and join us, so we kick up a conversation.
Chris and Bartel are from Montana and have a unique approach to traveling through and living in the outdoors. They are trained in outdoor survival techniques and have learned how to forage for food and survive in tough conditions carrying very little in the way of gear or clothing. Their backpacks are barely bigger than day packs and have us green with envy. They make most of their own food, including dehydrated vegetables, potatoes and wild game jerky that they make from the scraps of meat they get from the butcher shop where they both work in the winter. They supplement their food from home with greens and berries they find along the trail. These two are true-life Bear Grylls backpackers!
Just then, Kendra and Scott walk up. They decided to dry out their tent before leaving camp. We discover that Kendra is trained as a chef and has a degree in integrative health. They also dehydrate their own food and are thinking of starting a business around the idea. It’s interesting to think about the different ways hikers solve the problem of calories and nutrition on the trail. We tend to go for the easy store-bought route, but there are lots of other options out there.
It’s also fascinating to see the different styles/types of hikers you find on the CT. They range from weekend warriors and segment hikers (some of whom have been attacking the trail for years, segment by segment) to thru-hikers attempting the whole trail in one shot.
Thru-hikers range in speed from those taking their time (two months or so) to super hikers who aim to hike 20+ miles per day. These folks hike fast with their heads down and headphones plugged in, eating as they walk and stopping rarely for a long conversation, often walking late into the evening sometimes past dark. Some of them even cowboy camp to save the time of setting up and taking down a tent.
We fall somewhere inbetween but decidedly toward the slower side. We are willing to hike long distances (and this section from Salida to Creede certainly shows that), but we also want to take our time to photograph the scenery, watch the animals and talk with fellow hikers. Still, meeting Bartel and Chris reminds us that, in every type of activity, there are always those who take the sport to an extreme we’ve never considered!
By the time we move on, the skies are starting to turn gray, much sooner in the day than usual. Little do we know, this will be the forecast for the day. We make it to the end of Segment 19 without rain and stop while it’s sunny to dry out the tent and grab an early lunch. My legs are tired from yesterday’s 22-miler, and I can’t seem to muster the energy I would like. But we’ve gotten good at putting one foot in front of the other and not getting too preoccupied by how our legs feel or how much farther we have to go.
As we continue to follow the Cochetopa Creek bending around the valley, the clouds darken, and the rain starts to spit. Soon we don rain gear once again and keep marching ahead. For the rest of the afternoon we hike a gentle incline in on-again off-again rain and wind. As soon as we take our hoods down, it starts up again, never very strong, but enough to soak our shoes and socks. It doesn’t help that this section of trail is especially overgrown with various plants and grasses which we constantly brush up against.
Of course, just as we start to climb at a steeper grade toward the saddle below San Luis Peak the sun burns through the clouds and begins to heat us up. We are certainly not complaining, but it is a little ironic. We fill up our water bottles one last time before making the final push up to the saddle.
Our intention is to camp just below the saddle because our book describes “excellent camping” in the alpine meadows. As we hike through dense clumps of willow bushes that encroach on the trail so much that it is sometimes difficult to see the trail beneath our feet, we grow increasingly skeptical that we will find a flat area to pitch the tent. The willows are so thick here that we feel like we are walking through a giant corn maze.
We get practically all the way to the saddle, and, wouldn’t you know it, the skies start to darken again. So we hastily choose the flattest area we can find. Alison puts up the tent while I get the water boiling for dinner.
We quickly get out of our wet shoes and socks and put on warm clothes. With thunder growing louder, we scramble to put everything under the tent fly and make it in ourselves just as the rain hits. It’s grovel at first, then rain, wind, thunder, lightning, and falling temperatures.
When we peek outside during a break in the rain, we see clouds quickly descending all around us. Within a minute we have lost sight of the mountains down the valley and are completely enshrouded by cloud.
At least for now the thunderstorms have moved off to the valley below, and the wind has died down. Let’s hope it stays that way as our tent has little in the way of protection from the elements up here at 12,600 feet!
Day 28 Stats
Starting Point: Cochetopa Creek, mile 323.8
End Point: Saddle below San Luis Peak, mile 339
Segments: 19 & 20
Date on Trail: July 28, 2018