I ended last year’s leg of the CO trail at Marshall Pass, and intended to pick up there for a walk to Spring Pass, a trip of some 80 miles - a 9 day hike at my pace. The Trail here follows the Divide (and the Continental Divide Trail) and thus is not well-watered and is exposed to thunderstorms. My plan was to hike mid-July before the springs dried up and the monsoon season started. Everything was in place - and then catastrophe struck at work. Our clinical director botched the FDA submission for our first product; he lost his job and so did our CEO - and I got both their jobs (in addition to the one I already had). No vacation for me! Instead I spent July and August frantically reassembling the submission and trying to keep any more wheels from coming off the bus.
I finally was able to leave for a week at the end of August - not long enough to make as long a trip as I'd like, but long enough to get high and wild for a while. I cut the first three days off my route, and planned to do the 50 miles between North Pass on Highway 114 to Spring Pass on Hwy 149.
This is real booger country, passing through the most remote sections of Saguache, Mineral and Hinsdale Counties. The three counties between them have a population of 7500 spread over 5200 square miles - a density of less than 1.5 humans per square mile, well under the 2/sq mi that is the demographic definition of wilderness.
As usual, I'd be hiking by myself as I prefer not to have to adapt to anyone else's pace or preferences. A bit selfish to be sure, but not having to look out for anyone else is part of my definition of a vacation. And I wouldn't be alone, but would be accompanied by my faithful Newfoundland dog Baloo.
This area is too far from my home in Boulder to ask my wife for a shuttle. I emailed the local fly shops and outfitters and found one (The Sportsman Outdoors & Fly Shop, owned by Kay and Tony Tarasewicz, http://www.lakecitysportsman.com/) that could drop my car at the end and shuttle me to the starting trailhead. I made the 6 hour drive from Boulder on Aug 27 and holed up at the Town Square Motor Lodge, an old fashioned motor court conveniently located in downtown Lake City. The weather was squally, but a rainbow broke out just as I headed across the street to the barbeque place.
At 8:30 the next morning I met up with Tony at the fly shop and we headed up to Spring pass to drop off my car. We loaded gear and dog in his Suburban and headed off on the 60 mile drive to North Pass on back roads. Not surprisingly, Tony has another source of income - he assesses aircraft that are changing hands all around the world. We had plenty of time to talk about that, fishing, and the generally sorry state of the country and the world as we bounced over the dirt roads of Cochetopa Park.
We finally arrived at the trailhead around 11 and it was time to start walking through the sagebrush valleys and pine and cedar groves of the Cochetopa Hills. My pack, with 3 liters of water, weighed in at 32 pounds, Baloo's pack, with 4 liters, was around 20.
A quarter mile up the trail we hit our first surprise - two coolers filled with ice and sodas. A note inside told the tale of a parched thru-hiker who got picked up by a delivery truck driver who volunteered some of his cargo for the refreshment of thirsty hikers. Although I don't actually like soda pop, this was too good an omen, and I sipped a grape soda as we headed up Pine Creek.
The CT guidebook describes this country as dry with many miles between watering holes. It is dead on. Although there was enough soil moisture in the gullies to support lush growth of grass and willows, there was nowhere more than a muddy trickle, often stomped into thick mud (and s**t) by cows.
We covered 9 miles the first day under clear skies and light winds, and camped among the willows lining Los Creek. Baloo blew through 3 of his 4L of water - he is very much a cold-weather animal and always at risk for overheating on summer hikes. This problem was to continue through successive days of intense high-altitude sunshine with little shade or water. After our dinner, the night was so brilliantly clear that I didn't bother with pitching the tent in order to enjoy the spectacle of a starry night so many miles from any city.
Of course I woke to rain just before dawn. It wasn't heavy enough to justify pitching the tent, and almost light anyway, so I just rolled up in my poncho/ground cloth and waited out the squall. I tried cooking breakfast in between showers (I hate a cold breakfast) but didn't quite make it, and started off good and damp in the wind and rain.
Although the wind was constant, the rain and clouds were not, and I was rewarded with a beautiful rainbow over Cochetopa Park, and glimpses of San Luis Peak covered in fresh snow.
The trail here is mostly jeep tracks, and we quickly fell into a hypnotic rhythm as we cruised over the rolling ridges below the Divide, enjoying expansive views over the park.
Every gully had a line of willows, but surface water was to be found only in scattered mucky puddles and trickles that even the dog disdained to drink. After 8 miles or so we turned up a gully, hiked up and over a ridge, and dropped down into the valley of Cochetopa Creek.
The deep cold waters of the creek were a true joy after 2 days of dry and dusty hiking. Baloo reveled in the chance to wade and drink deep.
We hiked another mile up the valley, found a spot with some shelter from the wind, and called it a day. We'd met our first fellow hikers that day, thru hikers with Russian accents. They overtook us in a quest to reach Eddiesville, another 8 miles up the trail, and their next supply point. I cooked dinner - bangers and mash from Trail Kitchen - and turned in looking forward to 2 days of following this beautiful valley all the way to the Divide.
I awoke at midnight with a pounding headache and acute nausea. I had forgotten - as I seemingly do every year - that high altitudes and fatty foods do not mix well for me. I suppose that low oxygen levels result in incomplete ß-oxidation of fatty acids and the production of acetaldehyde rather than acetate as the fats are metabolized. The effect is similar to a massive hangover. I groaned in my bag until dawn, then finally got a few hours sleep.
I had planned to do some fishing that morning, but it was after 10 when I had finally slept off my sausage hangover and so it was time to hit the trail. The hiking was easy and the views were exceptional in this broad valley with its meandering stream and innumerable beaver ponds. I love following river valleys to their source - there is a story that slowly rolls out as grasslands give way to pines, pines to firs, and firs to tundra. The peaks of the Divide draw closer as we move up stream, cold austere sentinels that wall off the valley from the world beyond.
2 miles above Eddiesville it was time to call it a day, but a decent campsite could not be found. Where the valley was flat, it was almost treeless, offering no protection from the wind. The few wooded spots were overfavored by cows well beyond the point of habitability. We managed to find a semi-flat spot at the edge of the valley that required only a modest amount of cow-pie chucking to clear out a living space. My foul mood was softened by a slow beautiful sunset, and ended altogether by the sight of a moose trotting up valley.
I spent the next morning fishing the cutbanks and beaver ponds of Cochetopa Creek with my Tenkara Hane rod - perfectly suited for this kind of fishing. The brookies were small but lively, and I was glad I had packed my Tevas as I slogged through the bogs and sloughs. Or rather, glad that Baloo had packed them. His reward (and mine) - a lunch of trout slow-cooked to perfection on a bed of coals. We made a short day of hiking, 5 miles up the valley to the last camping spots below the saddle. The Cochetopa is so sheltered that treeline extends up to 11,800 feet here. With no cow droppings at this altitude, we found a beautiful campsite well situated to enjoy the last blazes of color on the surrounding peaks.
The next morning began our trek atop the Divide that would continue to trails' end. Baloo's paws were becoming a concern - he had a set of Ruffwear Barkin Boots which protected his paws but inflamed his dewclaws. Loosening them to relieve the irritation caused him to throw his boots on uphill pitches. I was getting pretty tired of taking them on and off, or hiking back to reclaim thrown boots.
We made the saddle along San Luis Peak in good time. My thoughts of climbing the summit were quashed by the poor condition of my furry pal's feet. Instead we bore ahead on the tundra roller coaster, a series of 600 - 1200 ft humps over and around the Spring Creek and Mineral Creek drainages.
The views of course were fabulous, alternating between the San Juans to the south and west, and the West Elks and Saguache to the north and east. The weather was fine and clear, with only light winds.
We made camp on the middle fork of Mineral Creek, and spent a pleasant hour chatting with Dirk, who was section hiking the Trail by loading his motorcycle into his pickup, dropping it trail's end, then driving back to the start point. My pleasure in the company and the fine campsite were tempered by concern for Baloo, who had become genuinely balky the last two miles. He was having trouble eating his dinner, always a cause for concern. Several days later, when his tongue began to peel, I realized the problem - hiking for days at high altitude with no shade or cloud cover, he had gotten a sunburn on his tongue!
That night I slept poorly, wondering if I had a broken down dog on my hands and trying to think how I could keep him going to trails end. In the morning I transferred his load to my pack, save for the water he would need to carry through another dry hike.
We started early, climbing up and over the saddle to the west fork of Mineral Creek, then grinding up the divide between the Gunnison and Rio Grande drainages.
We skirted the high rocky basin of Miners Creek, then rolled out on to the open expanses of Snow Mesa.
The pond on the east edge of the Mesa and the steam draining from it were to be the only water of the day. Welcome as it was, this water tasted a but too strongly of sheep s**t, even after filtering, for my tastes. We met a horseman headed north who was shocked to learn there was no water along the trail until the middle fork of Mineral Creek.
We headed west across the Mesa, as unique a bit of topography as I think I've ever encountered. At 12,000 feet it is utterly exposed. Our problem that day was the intense sunshine, but that was far preferable to being caught out in a thunderstorm. The views out across the Rio Grande headwaters to the Weminuche were endless and amazing.
A bored sheepherder galloped out from his camp for some small talk as we neared the western rim of the Mesa. Unlike most sheep grazing areas, this one was in good shape, not at all pounded to dust like so many others. All the more surprising considering the fragility of the soil and the shortness of the growing season.
We hit the rim and headed down to Spring pass and the car. Baloo was played and was getting no relief from the sun as we climbed down the west-facing slope in the late afternoon of another cloudless day. My attempts to reason with him and explain that a nice cool creek was waiting for him at the bottom were to no avail and he had to be leashed for the last mile. Many shade breaks later, we made the road and the creek, and he got to plunge in and cool off. A stop in Lake City to order pulled pork sandwiches for us both went far in mending our relationship.
Summary - between the altitude, dryness and exposure, this is one of the most challenging sections of the Trail. There are many stretches that would be pure terror and downright unsafe in thunderstorm season (late Jul. - Aug). However, the Cochetopa Valley is a true gem, worth a visit in its own right. And if you enjoy 50-mile views, you will find them in abundance.
Gear notes - of course every expedition must have a few new items to try out. The main additions to my gear list this year were the Ti-Tri Inferno stove, an iPod Touch and Brunton Freedom solar charger.
The potential advantages of wood-burning stoves are obvious - no need to lug fuel, and no danger of running out. My first woodburner, a Stratus, was a big disappointment because of poor performance at high altitude. Based on the collective experience of the BPL community, both the Bush Buddy and Ti-Tri stoves seemed like plausible answers, the Ti-Tri having the attraction of multi-fuel capability. I contacted Rand Lindsley at Trail Designs to hear if he could vouch for the performance of his stove at altitude. Although he could not definitively speak to its high-el performance, he was willing to put together a custom kit for me in return for my test feedback.
I had planned to do a well-controlled study, but the work-related disasters alluded to above robbed me of my weekends, so I have not kept up my end of the bargain. However, I can vouch that the stove (with Inferno insert) performs very well at altitudes up to 11,800 feet. Unlike the Stratus, I had no trouble keeping a good flame going, regardless of altitude. The stove is small, and so requires small fuel - 1/4 to 1/2 inch sticks work best. As a result, the fire will burn down in 1 - 2 minutes and so must be fed more or less constantly. But it boiled water just about as fast as my Trangia alcohol stove, which it replaced. It is also possible, with some care, to keep it going at a simmer for cooking stews or pancakes, but it does take some practice to manage this. Of course the stove and pot get sooty, but this is just part of the deal with burning wood.
I did bring the alcohol stove and ~100 ml of ethanol. It also performed very well, boiling water quickly despite a stiff breeze. It is a beer can stove and is pretty fragile - I managed to partly mush it the second time I used it, but it still works fine. However, I might try using my Trangia inside it, both for the sturdiness, and for the additional flame control.
All in all, I am fully satisfied with the Inferno. It is well-designed, well-made, and incredibly light and compact.
There is a lot to be said for an iPod Touch or iPhone on the trail. There are excellent apps for birdwatching (iBird in particular), and flower and plant identification. It can be used as a journal, although 1-finger typing is quite a bit slower than handwriting, and it has a camera now. It's also possible to download maps, but given the size of the screen and the possibility of running out of charge, I would never rely on this for any serious navigation. And of course it plays music, although I can't bring myself to listen to electronically produced sounds in the wilderness. But the real justification for taking the iPod/iPhone along is that it is a pretty good reading device, and replaces the 2 or 3 paperbacks I would bring on a trip of this length. At 4.5 oz, the weight savings over several paperbacks (at 10 - 14 oz each) is considerable, as is the savings in bulk. Being self-lit, it is much easier to read an iPod in your sleeping bag at night than a book, and much more comfortable to hold. However, it is not much account as firestarter or emergency TP.
Some of the weight savings are given back in batteries or chargers. I brought a Brunton Freedom solar charger along, instead of batteries. At 5.5 oz and 6" x 3" it is fairly compact and lightweight. By lashing it to the side (not top, which would have been better) of my pack, I was able to keep my iPod and my GPS logger charged, while keeping the charger itself at steady-state. However, I had ideal conditions - few trees and cloudless days. A good guess would be that I was generating 600-700 mAh charge per day. The unit is well-designed, somewhat ruggedized and does about as much charging as can be expected from a 2 x 4 inch photovoltaic panel.