In 2011 I attempted to thru-hike the Colorado Trail (CT). I got about 409 miles from Denver to Molas Pass then had to bail out because of an ankle injury. This fall I realized that if I wanted too I could arrange to go back and finish what I'd started.
I decided to start from Durango and hike back up to Molas Pass. It would have been cool to start where I'd left off at Molas Pass but going the opposite direction gave me more time to acclimatize to the high elevation.
Durango to Junction Creek
I ended up getting a late start but this wasn't a huge worry. My mileage goals were modest for the first day because I wanted to camp relatively low to ensure I didn't ruin the trip by getting altitude sickness the first night.
The trail basically followed Junction Creek up a valley to the edge of the San Juan Mountains.
I made camp at about 9000 ft. by Junction Creek
Junction Creek to Orphan Butte area
I knew I'd have a lot of above timberline hiking so I started well before dawn in hopes of beating any afternoon thunderstorms. I hiked up the dark valley listening to Elk bugling
After the sun came up it started to rain.
The rain stopped but the clouds stayed and were a concern as I headed up higher.
I hiked past Cumberland Mountain in the fog.
Things cleared up a bit as I reached Kennebec Pass.
As I passed Taylor Lake I reached the big decision point of the trip. If I climbed up onto Indian Trail Ridge I'd be committing myself to spending the afternoon above timberline on a day when the weather forecast was for rain and thunderstorms all day long. I'd be above timberline on other days but then the forecast was much better.
I quickly sized up my options.
1. I was NOT going to camp by Taylor Lake and wait for conditions to improve. Camping on a winding alpine ridge under a 5 by 9 foot tarp just wasn't going to be much fun.
2. I could take alternative trails and loop back to Durango. This would be a fun trip but I would not finish the trail.
3. I could take my chances and go on.
I decided to take my chances and go as far as I could. If things looked bad from the ridge above the lake I'd turn around.
From the top things looked okay. I knew conditions can fast in the mountains but today I felt safe going on. Today I figured it was cool enough that thunderstorms (at least bad ones) were unlikely to form. The clouds seemed thin (i.e. not thunderheads), and there wan't much wind. So on I went.
Several times the trail would lead up onto a really exposed section with no good options for getting down in a hurry. Each time I'd do a gut check and continue on.
One thing this section did was convince me that my decision to bail on the trip the year before was absolutely right. If I'd continued on I would have been hobbling over this very rough terrain with a bad ankle in the middle of several nasty storms that hit after I quit the trail.
I was very pleasantly surprised when the trail began to dip down below the treeline a bit earlier then I'd expected. The map made it appear that the open ridge was about 10 miles long. Actually the trial went back into the trees after about 5 miles but the forest was interspersed with a lot of meadows so the map showed the ridge as open, even though there was plenty of shelter there.
I hiked through the rain then camped a bit early during a break in the weather. I wanted to stop while I was still fairly dry.
I ended the day very happy with my progress. After Indian Trail Ridge I didn't anticipate any obstacles that would prevent me from finishing the trail. This was just as well because there were also no good bail out options if I wanted to quit.
Orphan Butte Area to Cascade Creek
I got up and was hiking just as the sun came up. For a number of miles the trail followed a forested ridge line. There were enough breaks in the forest however that the scenery was surprisingly good for such a low elevation.
In the afternoon the trail began to climb up to Blackhawk Pass. It was cloudy again but since it wasn't a long stretch above timberline I just foraged ahead.
The views from the pass were nice but hail forced me to head down quickly.
After the pass I kept hiking quickly, hoping to make as much distance as possible this day.
The trail followed the ridge line and looped around the base of Hermosa Peak right at treeline.
It was hard to keep moving with all the great views.
I thought about camping at Bolam Pass but I decided to hike over another ridge before stopping for the day.
The sunset behind me was very nice.
After two hours of weary hiking in the dark I finally found a spot to camp. I decided I really, really needed a better headlamp (or two as Andrew Skurka uses) to make night hiking easier.
The benefit of this extra hiking was that it set me up for a more leisurely last day on the trail. I wanted plenty of time to enjoy the final section before Molas Pass.
Cascade Creek to Molas Pass
I woke up to a cold frosty morning and began hiking with my layers all on.
The trail followed the edge of the valley then headed up a drainage towards Rolling Pass. Looking back I could see the area I'd been hiking in since the night before.
The views from Rolling Pass and the basin on the other side of it were probably the best of the trip. I sat down for a leisurely lunch and soaked in the scenery.
From Rolling Pass the trail was mostly downhill to Molas Pass with no real obstacles. I hiked fast at times. In a sense the trip was over. With no real challenges ahead the adventure of the trip was over. At other times I slowed down, reluctant to end a trip that in some ways had been going since last year.
I chatted with a couple mountain bikers who took my picture. They were envious of what I was doing. It was a reminder of how fortunate I was that I could be out doing a trip like this.
Finally the highway came into view and the trip was over. This completed the journey I'd started last year. I was very grateful for what I'd been able to do. I learned a lot about hiking but also about myself on both trips. Now there was nothing left to do but give thanks, grab some fatty food and head back home.
Absaroka Pack - I used this in 2011 and 2012. There are a couple dry sections on the CT that force you to carry extra water. I figured my pack was over 20 pounds often enough that a slightly heavier pack with a frame was worth it.
La Sportiva X-Country trail runners - I used these for part of the 2011 trip and all of the 2012 finish. They are minimalist but my feet didn't get too beat. I loved the aggressive lugs on the sole. The denser mesh kept out dirt better then other shoes.
5x9 foot MYOG Tarp - It kept me dry but it was too small to lay out my gear under when it was raining. I plan on replacing it with something a bit bigger eventually.
Gators - I bought these based on Andrew Skurka's book. They seemed to keep my feet a bit cleaner but the glue on velcro didn't stick to the slick mesh on my shoes very well.
Thermarest Prolite Short - Well worth a few extra ounces for a comfortable nights sleep.
BPL 240 Quilt - Kept me warm and the snythetic insulation was nice since it would have been hard to dry down out with so many overcast days.
Equinox Bivy - I realized it was leaking right before the trip so I used it in combination with a plastic ground cloth. Its nice for controlling quilt drafts but the leaky bottom is a problem. I doubt coating it will last long. I'm thinking I may cut the bottom off and replace it with something a bit heavier and more durable.
North Face Raincoat - After some long days in the rain in 2011 I got an 11.5 oz Northface raincoat to replace my Golite Virga (7.5 oz). The extra weight gave me a much nicer hood, pit zips and a more breathable fabric. This was really nice because on some days it would drizzly off and on for long periods of time and taking your rain gear on and off wan't practical. I felt like a stayed lot drier but not using my trekking poles during the rain so water wasn't working its way up my arms.