Finishing the recap of my 2016 journey on the Colorado Trail has taken a very long time. Much too long. This has largely come from a place of laziness or distraction, sometimes masquerading under the guise of "busyness." Still, there's also a sense of reluctant finality once the last punctuation has been committed. Fortunately, I wrote a lot of notes down immediately following the adventure, perhaps anticipating some of these inefficiencies. Days 1-5 are chronicled here and so we'll pick up where things left off...
I awoke, delighted that the tent had survived the previous night's windy maelstrom. Deconstructing my shelter was becoming instinctive and required less cognitive processing as my hands stuffed my quilt more efficiently in my pack. The day's miles began on railroad grade along tunnel gulch facing into the sun as it slowly rose on the horizon. The shoulders of the day, sunrise, and sunset were by far my favorite. Sunrises, and their promise of abundant daylight and time, offered a nice way to ease into the routine again. The first small milestone of the day came 10 miles in as the remainder of Collegiate West (CW) 4 was now completed with around 1500 ft up and 700 ft down.
CW3 Tincup Pass Rd to Cottonwood Pass TH 16 miles 4591 ft up and 3532 ft down. The entirety of this segment was all above 12,000 ft and offered grand views on slow, technical terrain. With no available streams, I scooped handfuls of snowmelt wherever possible. While a source of hydration, the snowfield also concealed trails and cairns resulting in some route-finding confusion. But after a couple of map rechecks, just as before, I resigned to trust my instincts and keep moving forward. Unless facing definitive evidence that I had made a mistake, there was no sense in worrying that I had.
CW2 Cottonwood Pass TH to Sheep Gulch ~18 miles 4,000 ft up and 5,500 ft down. Peaking forward to what lie ahead, I began to realize that I was getting very close to familiar territory and I found a renewed sense of hope and excitement. By tomorrow, I'd be on portions of the Leadville 100 trail! That evening, my goal was to push to get over Lake Ann pass by the end of the day so that I'd have all big climbs on this segment behind me. As the last rays of sunlight peered and then faded behind the horizon, I made it up and over Lake Ann Pass. A late day climb allowed me to chase the sun and push the horizon further away. This meant that while I had out wrung every speck of daylight and left nothing to waste, the quilt of darkness to would fall quickly upon the landscape. Now, descending the other side of the pass, I spotted a couple of tents illuminated by the glow of LEDs in the valley by the lake. Opting for privacy and a couple more tenths of a mile, I made it just below Lake Ann before setting up camp under the shine of my headlight.
Completed CW2 8 miles ~100 ft up and 1,000 ft down. Each night I would preview what the next day promised and briefly revisit those details in the morning. Today, names like "Winfield" promised the familiarity of an old friend. On the agenda today would be segments that had previously been explored when doing Nolan’s and Leadville. Having already seen the next 50 miles was supremely comforting as there'd be much less worry about route finding, at least for now.
CW1 Sheep Gulch to Twin Lakes 9.8 miles 2644 ft up and 3606 ft down. The segment travelled up and over Hope Pass which seemed much steeper than I remembered, now with over 300 miles on my legs. I encountered several groups of runners, presumably training for the Leadville 100. The CT differs from the Leadville route as it circumnavigates the southern, eastern, and northern parts of Twin Lakes rather than making a direct line to town on the western edge. It's during this circuitous route that the Collegiate East and Collegiate West routes merge, allowing for a unified CT rest of the way. Up until this point, I had quieted the impulses to connect with the world beyond one-way, outgoing SPOT updates. Even if I had the urge to send a text or check email, the remoteness of the trail and lack of wifi hotspots would’ve prevented it. Approaching Winfield and coming in closer proximity to civilization though, I realized that I might have cell service and decided to turn on my phone to check. I called my dad to wish him happy birthday and fortunately caught him for a couple minutes of conversation. With no phone charger, I kept the conversation short knowing that I needed at least enough battery life to communicate an extraction plan at the end of the trip. After speaking with my dad, and just before shutting off the phone, my friend Brian was now calling and happened to be in the area. Coincidentally, Tim Bergsten (PikesPeakSports.us) was in the area as well. They had both been separately following my progress through SPOT updates and had made independent trips to see me.
Partial Seg 11 8 miles ~2000 ft up, 900 ft down. The trail travelled around the southeast side before wrapping around and hugging the northern edge of Twin Lake. As it did so, shaded rolling paths gave way to sun baked stretches that wound through sage brush.
Across the Twin Lakes dam, I spotted a figure who appeared to be waiting for me. Tim Bergsten! He shot a couple of photos insisting that I continue but would catch up with me a little further down the trail. Minutes after, Brian and his dog Tux were coming towards me and they would me for a mile or so. The surprise of seeing these friends, and the incredible coincidence that the timing worked out the way it did offered a huge emotional lift for me. Just before crossing Highway 82 towards the Mt. Elbert trailhead, I stopped for a quick update with Tim while empty my shoes under a shady pine. I couldn’t express how comforting their presence was but it led to one of the salient themes of the trip. Friendly faces and someone to talk to mean so much!
Bidding adieu to my friends, my thoughts settled on extrapolating my pace and identifying potential targets for a stopping point around nightfall. Just miles away from the Mt. Elbert trailhead, I spotted an unopened jerky stick lying across the trail. After only a couple of microseconds of debating, I picked up the cylindrical meat treasure and devoured it immediately. Just doing my part to clean up litter.
Seg 10 mount massive trailhead to timberline trailhead 13.1 miles 2676 ft up and 2690 ft down. The trail wound through thick Aspen forrest as a group of teenagers were setting up camp in an adjacent field. At dinner time at the Timberline Trailhead, I parked myself briefly on a rock to slice open a meaty summer sausage with my trekking pole. Continuing on, my legs and jowls moved in sync as I gnawed my dinner along the climb
Seg 9 timberline to tennessee pass 2 miles 1000 ft up. Tree cover caused dusk to settle in quicker than usual. I arrived at a saddle and dry tent site, deciding that this was better than continuing on and dropping further down towards Porcupine lakes where condensation and bugs were certain. My choice of campsite successfully eliminated any moisture issues, however the number and aggression of the mosquitos I encountered while setting up camp was infuriating.
Completed seg 9 11 miles 2000 ft up and 2627 ft down. I awoke, pleased to find that bug netting had prevented the vampirish insects from breaching my shelter, but fearing that any exposed flesh had no chance to survive unscathed while packing up. Despite concealing every inch of skin, the winged hunger would not be denied and I learned that the knit of polyester tights was not impervious to bites. For the first and only time on the trip, I needed some music to change my mindset. I turned on my phone for a couple minutes of angry music in response to the bloodshed.
Seg 8 Tennesee Pass to Copper 25.4 miles 3810 ft up and 4417 ft down. Once moving again, the bugs were no longer a concern. I passed camp Hale which I didn’t know much about, but have since learned that it was constructed in 1942 as an Army training facility for the 10th Mountain Division. A cool piece of history. The climbs kept coming but I sought comfort in the narrative I told myself: that these would be the last big pushes before a gentle finish. Rising above treeline again, the route ascended grassy terrain on Kokomo pass, and expanse of orange wildflowers stirred me to start crooning the “kokomo song” The line between happiness and delirium was now unquestionably blurred.
Descending towards Copper Ski Resort, my final resupply point, I came across a thru hiker who had settled on the side of the trail. As I approached, he asked ‘Are you Brandon?’ The travelers’s name was Jon and he was tending to a fresh nosebleed. We chatted for a couple of minutes about schedules, logistics as I learned Jon was going for an unsupported record, heading the opposite southbound (see Jon's video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vk6CrWJdRto) After the brief stop, we wished each other well and continued in our opposite directions. Earlier in the trip, I had bouts of paranoia that someone was chasing me, but my fears, unsurprisingly, all proved unfounded. I still wasn't being chased. Jon was heading the opposite direction and was taking a different route on the Eastern Collegiate path. I began to realize that whatever sense of competition I was feeling arose entirely from within. No one, other than myself, really cared how many miles I covered each day. And I began to question how much that mattered. I wanted to challenge myself, but comparing my efforts to those of others meant less and less as the trip went on. Still, seeing a fellow hiker, knowing there was someone else out there managing the solitude and perhaps stepping in my exact steps (and I in his) put more pep in my legs. With more kindling in my fire, I was eager for the last days ahead.
The dormant ski lifts overhead engendered excitement and signaled that I had arrived at the Copper Mountain Resort. I made my way through the village and located McCoy’s Mountain Market where I had shipped my last food cache. After the last peanut butter resupply fiasco, I had little hope that I’d find much utility in my pre-shipped packages. Opening my box to find greasy bags confirmed my suspicions and I immediately scoured the market for replacement calories. The lady at the checkout, Cameron, was very helpful and steered me towards the good stuff. Among my bounty were an obnoxious number of candy bars, pop tarts, some trail mix, and a french salami ringing up to a grand total of $55. Walking away with food that was excessively glutenous and embarrassingly deficient in nutrients, I found my dietary standards were being overruled by a need to reimburse my body for the calorie IOU's it had written for the past week. Surely all this sugar, fat, and preservatives would fuel me for the last me the final 115 miles.
Seg 7 Copper to Gold Hill. 9 miles 3000 ft up and 3000 ft down. After downing a bag and a half of trail mix before leaving the resort, I pressed on and crossed I-91 to traverse the Tenmile range at sunset. On the approach, a bike packing couple was making their southbound journey and I wished them well. The trail diverged and faded at times in the alpine tundra and I wasn’t clear exactly which peak would lead me down. But patches of saluting Black Eyed Susan’s, swaying in the breeze, reminded me to just appreciate the now. The trail ultimately descended towards Frisco/Breckenridge between peak 5 and 6 and the waning daylight made the path seem rockier and more technical than it was. Originally, I wanted to get closer to town but worried about finding a vacant camping site so close to a trailhead. Now walking in darkness, I settled for a soft, pine needle bed in a beetle kill area a couple miles before the end of the segment. The miles were starting to accumulate on my body. Millions of steps on uneven terrain with the added weight on my back was challenging my stabilizers like never before. In addition to achy hips, tender peroneals on the outside of my shins and ankles were becoming more noticeable. Though uncomfortable, I reminded myself that this was the kind of experience and sensations that I was searching for.
Completed Segment 7 Copper to Gold Hill 3 miles 600 ft down. Browsing the guidebook, I realized that by the end of the day, I’d have less than 100 miles to go. The end was near! This marked the start of what felt like the home stretch. There would be mo more resupply points. No more towns to go through. Only a couple mountain passes remained. As the body settled into moving again, I noted that my left adductors were feeling worked from the previous evening. The tendency to want to compensate was hard to fight as these muscles no longer were helping with hip extension and were creating a constant, low level ache. It wasn’t strained, it just just not firing like it should. My guess was it presented after subconsciously trying to eek out a longer stride to make up for my achy right ankle. Rehab options on the trail were limited to nonexistent and I didn’t want to, nor think it warranted stopping. Instead, I fashioned a compression garment from two arm sleeves tied together. The pressure provided some support and proprioception, and thankfully helped reduce pain.
Segment 6 Gold Hill to Kenosha Pass 32.7 miles 5968 ft up and 5196 ft down. On the climb to Kenosha, I found a mocha hazelnut picky bar on the trail that I suspected had been unintentionally dropped by a couple of mountain bikers that had just passed. Fortune smiled again! I crossed the North Fork Swan River camping area and began climb to Georgia Pass, the last named pass of the northbound journey. Though the climbs were still long, the grade was milder than it had been earlier in the trip. At the top of the pass, I scooped handfuls of snow at top to maintain hydration. The long, gradual descent was that perfect grade where the legs were amenable to opening up and sustaining a gentle run. Now, less than 75 miles remained!
Seg 5 Kenosha Pass to Long Gulch 14.6 miles 2055 ft up and 1858 ft down.
More familiar territory awaited as I had scouted the eastern portion of this section in training. Additionally, a surge of energy came from seeing groups of hikers clustered together to camp in fields, providing further evidence that I was approaching the start of their journey and my terminus. After crossing one of the camps, one hiker asked if I was “Speedy”. Apparently my friend Sean, who had done a Leadville-to-Durango/Leadville-to-Denver trip was a couple days ahead and had been telling folks about me. With the realization that I was close to the end, and that this could be my last night, I wondered if I had enough for push through. If I could keep moving through the night, and finish early the next day. Maintaining my slow but steady progress, perhaps I could avoid setting up camp. I devised a plan to stop for 5 minutes every three hours, beginning at 6 pm, to catch some brief cat-naps along the way until sunrise. In my head, the plan worked well, but making this push proved more difficult than I had planned. Still, I stuck to the schedule and at 9 pm, sat on the trail to eat a salty French salami from my last resupply. The fatty, savory meat stick was hands down, the best meal on the trail! I was optimistic that with milder terrain and the end approaching, my plan would work and I could get to Denver without another sleep. Unfortunately, new levels of fatigue set in soon after, and as night fell, the trail hallucinations and strange deja vu set in. Though I had scouted this particular stretch of trail before and should have been familiar with it, I was getting disoriented. I’d see a rock or a tree and then minutes later, see the same rock or tree. On the climb up to Long Gulch with limited light from the headlamp and dense forrest, I had no real visual reference of how much further there was to go. I questioned whether I had somehow stood up after my 5 minute rest period and somehow turned to hike the other way. What if I was hiking back towards Durango?! It was all so confusing and frustrating, but I reminded myself to have confidence and patience. There was no certain evidence that I had made a mistake yet. I just needed to continue going forward. To be patient.
Seg 4 (partial) Long Gulch to Rolling Creek Trailhead 7 miles 1300 ft up and 1000 ft down.
Escaping the cover of the trees for a starry sky, the trail now led to a frigid valley that followed the North Fork of Lost Creek. Now I was certain of where I was and knew that the gradual downhill would be a great place to move without hesitation. I could move with confidence and speed. At least I could have if it it weren't for the 20 pairs of luminescent eyes in front of me, now blocking trail. Under the soft glow of the moonlight, it soon became evident that the eyes belonged to cows. Cows who silently stared and, I suspected, were not happy to be woken up in the middle of the night by a bipedal intruder. Opting to avoid conflict, I left the trail to bushwhack through willows and brush and returned to the trail to resume my midnight stroll. Only, I didn’t go more than a quarter mile before coming across another group of cows. Once again, I exited to the south of the trail, dropping by the river and began turning north to pick up the single track again until i realized that I hadn’t quite clear the pack. Now, with menacing, glowing eyes from behind and in front of me, the only thing to do was to continue thrashing through brush. At this moment, I became aware that even the brush wasn’t safe. There, low in the bushes were yet more glowing orbs. Apparently that's where the calves were sleeping and by unknowingly approaching them, I was further unsettling the herd. Lots of angry mooing followed and I began fearing that if I accidentally ventured too close, I’d surely be trampled. After three or four cattle clusters, and passing no less than 100 cows in total, I finally cleared the bovine blockade, but could hear echoes from their menacing moos for quite a way. I was certain that the cows were calling to their brethren alerting them of my presence and mobilizing them for my trampling. Fortunately, that never happened. But coming down from that brief adrenaline high, my mind shifted to the fact that it was really cold. I wasn’t moving fast enough to produce sufficient body heat heat and needed to add layers. Wearing everything I had, the only additional layer I could don was the space blanket I had used for a ground cover. Encasing myself in the mylar shield was useful in retaining some body heat but I realized how ridiculous this looked. To a bystander, this shiny, walking baked potato wrapped in aluminum foil would surely come across as an alien life form. Now instead of crushed by cow, I was certain my demise would come from being shot in a case of mistaken identity. With 4-5 hours of dropping temperatures ahead of me, and my mind deteriorating to new levels of anxiety and paranoia, I ultimately decided it was best to rest until daybreak. I found a satisfactorily flat spot at the base of the tree to get some rest. In an ill-conceived effort to save time, I sandwiched myself between space blanket and quilt, but opted to leave the tarp tent and sleeping pad packed. This was a very poor decision. Not only did I stop longer than I had wanted, but the rest I gained was of very poor quality as I tossed and turned until the sun came up. After this sufficiently restless and uncomfortable sleep, I was ready to be done.
The last 14 hours and 28 minutes
Finished Segment 4. 10 miles
I awoke, confused, and with gear scattered all around. It looked like an animal had scavenged through my stuff but it was the result of my thrashing. I vaguely recall taking off my watch and throwing it into the brush, but fortunately found it the next morning under layers of quilt and pine needles. After a quick calculation of the distance remaining (~50 miles), I ate a calculated breakfast of trail mix and pop tarts, saving just enough snacks for one more day. I reminded myself that "almost done isn’t done" and while I was beyond excited that this would be the last day, I knew that in order to sleep in my bed tonight, a lot or work and a long way to go remained.
Segment 3 Rolling Creek to Little Scraggy. 12.2 miles
This segment was another familiar stretch that I had done with my dog Charlie in training. But being familiar with the trail, instead of comforting, made the anticipation of wanting it to be over much worse. It seemed to stretch on forever as I encountered more bouts of trail deja vu. I cursed my friend Charlie Nuttleman who adopted maintenance of this section, unreasonably accusing him for making it seem much longer than 12 miles. This stretch was popular with mountain bikers and I became bitter after seeing them all look so damn fresh and happy. Anticipation can be better than realization, but it can also be more torturous.
Segment 2 Little Scraggy to South Platte.
Segment 2 arrived and the thought of finishing was becoming more tangible. In 2014, I joined my friend Harsha in cowboy/indian themed costumes for this stretch as we accompanied Scott Jaime on his supported record breaking northbound trip. Still, in my current state of mind, I found some navigational details like the detour to the firehouse for water frustratingly confusing. At this point, the trail was hot and exposed with lots of rolling climbs before it dropped down to the Platte River. I was still tired from last night’s shivering and with 28 miles remaining now, I found it hard to shake my grumpy state of mind.
But, as the trail began to drop towards the river, my suffering intensified to the point of numbness. This was without a doubt my lowest low on the trip. After hours spent feeling bad, I had been depleted of all emotion. No longer excited, or angry, or tired, or hungry, or in pain. My body and mind was devoid Desire for anything. Four hundred and fifty miles of foot travel had led to this divine moment as feelings and thoughts melted away. Though breathing and moving, I was otherwise blank, empty, and detached though also somehow entirely present in the processes involved. I realized that this was Flow like I had never experienced before, but I feared bringing awareness to my state too much would cause it to vanish. To me, it was like visualizing one of those magic eye pictures or trying to hold water in my hands. If I thought too much about it or tried to desperately old onto the experience, it would surely dissolve. Quickly, I decided that the best way to remain in this state was to not acknowledge it, but to just let it happen. A great sense of power came over me. Not corruptive power over others, but power that arose from a complete connection between my body, mind, and soul. To say this experience was the most profound high of the trip would be an understatement. It fueled my arms and legs as they pistoned, driving my trekking poles and shoe dug into the dirt. I was moving fast, strong, and was indefatigable.
Segment 1:South Platte to Waterton Canyon 16.8 miles 2239 ft up and 2830 ft down.
Finally reaching the Platte River, I squatted to fill my bottle. I came across more and more groups just beginning their trip. I reflected on all the terrain I had covered and saw this final segment, with an early climb and then long gradual descent to Waterton Canyon Trailhead as the victory lap. There was no need to push the climb too hard, I just needed to get to the top. Climbing switchbacks, the trail eventually leveled for a while before the final descent. I spotted raspberries budding on the side of the trail and stopped to pluck handfuls wherever I could. Strangely, after spending so much time on the trail and looking forward to sleeping in my bed tonight, I was now moving unhurriedly. Perhaps there was some aspect of this simple, stripped down way of living that I was reluctant to give up. I ate the last of the food that had which consisted of a couple of Baby Bell cheese spheres. Once reaching Waterton Rd, I knew the last 6 miles of flat to gradual downhill would lead me through the mouth of the canyon to the end of the trail. Before the trip, I envisioned running those last 6 miles effortlessly with a smile on my face. But in actuality, anything more than a walk was daunting. I alternated between walking and shuffling until the final 2 miles when my body acquiesced to my spirit's demands. Gradually, I picked up speed and could feel that my journey was complete.
At the Waterton Canyon Trailhead, I was greeted by Tim, Alex, Brian and later by Karen and Dan. Celebratory bubbles were shared and my friends begrudgingly obliged to my invitation to check out my feet (I hadn’t taken my socks off in a couple days). After 9 days, 14 hours, and 28 minutes and 485 miles of foot travel, it felt great to have no more trail segments ahead and no more reasons to move!
Happy! (photo: Alex Nichols)
Processing this experience has been an endeavor that has lasted over 9 months, and continues to this day. The technical skills I learned like setting up a shelter and planning a self-supported trip are valuable lessons, but it's the development of the soft skills that I think I cherish most. Lessons like the benefits of leaning into discomfort, seeking the conditions that scare me to allow for an honest appraisal of why they are frightening, making decisions with confidence while not acquiescing to anxieties, and recognizing that I am not my thoughts. These nuggets of wisdom are the tings that will be most worthwhile to store in my backpack as I navigate through this adventure on the Life trail. And although the abundant time for self-reflexion on the Colorado Trail meshed well with my propensity for introversion, I also realized that I really, really love people!
Storytelling with Pikes Peak Sports at the end.