Upon leaving Cumbres Pass, hikers face the challenge of a larger than average snowpack that can pose heightened avalanche risk, steep traverses across open, unstable bowls, and tedious, tiresome post holing, all of which can drastically slow our pace and can make finding a dry, level camp difficult.
We also face the challenge, or should I say question, as to whether we want, or need, to continue toward that far, out-of-sight horizon. What could be a fun, exciting and relatively easy traverse between Summit and Montezuma Peaks at 7am, can turn into a nightmare by the late afternoon. I’ve met several strong, confident men who have been struck by fear across these Colorado slopes, so much so that some have chosen to slow their pace and take a week or two off, while others have come to terms with terminating their hike, and others hold on to the optimistic dream and will head north, to the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming, so as avoid the danger of this year’s snowpack.
I was fortunate to traverse the most intense slopes when the conditions were favorable, which is to say the snow was relatively post-hole free and the thunderstorms had yet to brew terror into the sky, but boy did I have a miserable time wading across these mountain meadows, where at times I was lucky to hike 1mph, the post-holes thigh deep. Snowshoes would have helped at times no doubt, but at other times, we we’re all vulnerable. I watched as one hiker struggled to free himself from his snowshoe, it buried at least three feet deep. I meanwhile cracked a Black Diamond Carbon Cork trekking pole in half, and then immediately stumbled into a rocky crevasse. And have I mentioned that I fell into the edge of a lake? It wasn’t even 10am when my body tried to scamper out of the frigid water, my thighs burning with pain. Shortly after that, to avoid a tricky traverse, I climbed down a cliff, the angle nearly vertical. The bonus was the ford at the bottom, which with only one trekking pole, I was very fortunate to keep my footing intack, the rage of runoff swift and michevious at my thighs.
It’s funny. I have flashbacks to 2011 when I hiked this trail for the first time. I was 27. I hiked the San Juan Mountains with four strong hikers. I hiked the miles and mountains north of that horse-shoe route completely solo. Why it’s funny is not because it’s actually funny, but more a disbelieving funny, in that what we encountered, and how driven or addicted to the challenge we were, there was no denying that the terrain was intense. The avalanche risk was intense. The creek crossings and snowmelt was intense. The solitude and hunger and any other form of deprivation was intense. Tomato, one of the guys I hiked with who also resides in Oregon, would talk about it later, admitting that we were crazy, that we placed ourselves into terrible risk, that at times, we can say we are lucky to be alive.
We took our hike for granted. We might have seen ourselves as invincible. We didn’t care what came in the way because our eyes were so locked on that out-of-sight horizon.
That was five years ago. And now, at 32, I can see that I don’t have that same drive.
As I hiked toward Wolf Creek Pass, I continued to wonder if it was possible to pull off the Calendar Triple Crown. Every day off, or zero, would prove restorative, and yet it ate away at me. Every day I didn’t make the miles I strived for, my mind stirred with stress. I am not a hiker who can pull off a 40-mile day. The biggest day I’ve ever hiked might be 33 miles. And that took all day, with few breaks, and as you can imagine, a stress load creeping toward exhaustion.
Five years ago I could push through the stress. But in the years between then and now, I’ve tried to address this anchor. For a long time, I wasn’t aware that stress was the culprit, as I thought my fluctuating mood was caused by a dozen other ailments. But knowing that stress is the root of my worry, I will no longer allow it to pull me down and tether me away from that happy, smiling wild-haired woman. Life is too short.
So I had a decision to make. And it wasn’t something I’d make overnight. As I turned off the Continental Divide Trail at Ellwood Pass to walk down a forest road, and as I trekked across the snowdrifts basking in the warm sunshine, I asked myself: Is it worth it? Is this dream of yours truly what you want? Need? Later, once beneath the snowline, a few trucks would pass me. Don’t accept a ride, I thought. Don’t compromise this hike unless, and until, you feel 100% certain you are ready to flip north…Or, as the idea had been toyed with, 100% sure I no longer had the heart for this trip at all. Although once an incredible dream, could I come to part with leaving the idea of the Calendar Triple Crown behind?