Colorado has been beating me harder than a cowboy beats a rented mule.
Vomiting six times in 12 hours at 11,500 feet in a snowstorm
A few hours after going through snowy Cumbres Pass, near the southern border of Colorado, I started feeling ill. My 30-pound pack, loaded with crampons, ice axe, and warmer clothes, felt like it was 60 pounds. I finally did something I rarely do: sit down and take a break. Within minutes I felt so nauseous that I threw up on the snow.
I’ve had Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) before and this wasn’t it because I didn’t have a headache. I got up and stubbornly started walking like a zombie again.
And hour later I vomited again.
Menacing clouds formed all around and the temperature started to drop below freezing. The wind picked up. I fell to my knees and threw up again.
“This is stupid,” I thought.
Although I prefer to hike until sunset, my nausea was making me an inefficient walker. So I set up my tarp near a meadow that was relatively snow free. I woke up every couple of hours to vomit some more, mostly just saliva and water at this point. I probably had food poisoning in Chama, New Mexico. I ended up throwing up six times.
I woke up the next day and couldn’t recognize my campsite. A foot of snow had fallen overnight and was continuing to accumulate. My Mountain Laurel Designs tarp was sagging as heavy snow tried to bury it.
My stomach was still unsettled; I didn’t feel like eating. I packed up and pushed on into the storm.
There’s a fine line between stubbornness and stupidity, and I frequently cross that line. In fact, I spend most of my time on the stupid side.
The snow finally stopped falling that afternoon. I ran into two snowmobilers. One just looked at me, looked at the ground, and shook his head.
“Unbelievable,” he mumbled to himself about three times.
He couldn’t believe that someone was daring to cross Colorado’s Continental Divide in May. He couldn’t believe that someone could be that stupid. I assured him that I was!
With those two snowmobilers, the tally of people I’ve seen on the CDT is now three. (The other person was a day hiker in the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico.)
Losing my maps in the middle of nowhere
After bagging a 13,000 foot peak in the Weminuche Wilderness, which had several cornices and signs of avalanches, I glissaded (slid on my butt) down the mountain. When I got up one of my maps was blowing in the wind. It had fallen out of my backpack. I ran after it, stomping in the snow, and finally caught it after five minutes of chasing. I was smiling as I went to put it away with my other maps. Then my smile vanished.
The other maps weren’t there.
They had all blown away. I scanned the snow-filled mountain, hoping to see them, but they were gone forever. Around me were rows upon rows of snow covered mountains. And I had little idea where I was.
Deep in my backpack I had a Colorado state map.
Wise Saying of the Month: Don’t try navigating through craggy snow-filled mountains with a state map.
Looking at the state map, I guessed that Lake City was basically north of where I was. I looked north and spotted a drainage that headed down. Taking it would probably be smarter than attempting to follow the Divide east since I wouldn’t be certain where it went. For once I did the smart thing.
I followed the drainage until the sun set. I camped having no clue where I was. The next day I got up early to continue following it down. Eventually, I ran into a forest service road, which took me to a paved road, which took me to the charming small town called Lake City.
The San Juans kicked my butt and drained my energy. I was lucky to find the Cataract trail that led me to Cottonwood Creek and out of the San Juans safely. However, Colorado was just getting started in beating me to a pulp.
Sinking in snow
Someone who thru-hiked the CDT twice advised me to bring crampons for the month of May. I did. However, the snow is soft, so my crampons have been useless deadweight. I should have brought snowshoes instead. At times I have been literally swimming in snow. It feels like I’m sinking into icy quicksand. I’ve been up to my neck in snow, desperately trying to climb out of the icy grave.
One day it was particularly bad and I screamed profanities so loudly that it echoed across the mountain and probably even made the bears and mountain lions shudder. I was angry for the first time in over a decade. The CDT, unlike any other trail, finally broke me.
By 9 p.m. I was at 12,000 feet and the darkness and frigid air enveloped me. Wet and tired, I was desperate for a suitable campsite. I trudged through the waist high snow until I got down to the tree line. The slope was steep. With my ice axe, I carved a mini-ledge. I wouldn’t be able to set up my tarp. I knew it would be a miserable night.
My body heat melted the snow around me and the wetness seeped into my down sleeping bag. I woke up every hour, shivering and I moved vigorously to generate body heat. Starting a fire would have been hard with few trees and with everything covered in snow. Instead, I toughed it out and anxiously waited for the sun to rise so I could get moving again.
I was nearly done with the San Juan Mountains. And I was so done with its 10 feet of snow pack.
However, I refused to give up. I put my wet socks and frozen boots back on, and headed straight for the highest peak in the area.
Almost getting struck by lightning
I promised myself that no matter how much snow I had to face, I would tackle my first 14er on the CDT: San Luis Peak, a 14,014 foot mountain. It’s not officially part of the CDT, but it’s right next to do it, so I couldn’t resist. I was still frustrated with the soft snow and my angry mood compelled me to conquer that stupid peak.
As I climbed above tree line, a thunderstorm gathered. Curiously, it started snowing/hailing simultaneously. It’s weird to have thunder and snowfall at the same time, but in Colorado anything is possible.
As I approached the summit, thunderclouds and lightning were nearby, but not directly over me. I dropped my backpack and sprinted the final 500 feet to the summit.
As soon as I reached the top of the mountain, I immediately heard a buzzing sound. Even stranger, I felt static electricity on the top of my skull. It felt like someone had a tiny stun gun and was firing it on the top of my head. It was a subtle electrical shock and sent shivers down my spine.
“Wait, I've read about this!” I thought.
Lightning strike survivors say this is what happens immediately before the bolt strikes. Electrostatic energy builds around you, your hair starts to rise, and then BLAM!
At temperatures of 28,000 °C (four times hotter than the Sun’s surface) and a charge between 100 million to 1 billion volts, it’s amazing that anyone can survive a lightning strike. The best hope of surviving the electrocution is to have someone nearby to perform CPR. Otherwise, you’re dead.
I looked around. Surprisingly, nobody was around.
The buzzing and static shock on my head continued to build. I stopped pondering the marvels of lightning storms, I jumped off the summit, and scrambled 10 meters down the mountain and crouched down, ready for the blast. I was:
- On my toes (to minimize the amount of my body touching the ground, which can conduct the electricity. Often the electricity will travel along the surface of the ground for a significant distance. Many people who are “struck” by lightning are not hit directly by the main lightning channel, but are hammered by the “side flash” as it travels along the surface of the ground, especially if the ground is wet).
- Putting my hands on my ears and closing my eyes (sight and hearing injuries are very common among lightning strike victims)
- Holding my breath (some people have been seriously injured when they breathe in the superheated air that surrounds and expands out from a lightning bolt)
Within one minute, the sky lit up and a second later the roar of thunder exploded in my eardrums.
I opened my eyes.
“Ha!” I yelled, “You missed, Zeus!”
Now comes the stupid part.
I was disappointed that I didn’t have a Kodak moment on the summit, so I sprinted back to the summit to take a quick picture. I figured that it would take at least a minute for the static electricity to build again and for Thor to unload again.
At the top I snapped two crappy photos and then noticed a tube that contained some papers that folks sign to indicate that they made it to the top. I picked up the tube, was tempted to sign it, but thought that I shouldn’t push my Mr. Magoo luck. I ran down the mountain, retrieved my backpack, and looked for a way down the snowy slopes. Thunder boomed behind me.
While I was still above the tree line, the snow started falling hard. The lightning and thunder intensified. I couldn’t get down fast enough.
There was only one risky option to get below the tree line fast. I took it. I glissaded down the steep slope to take an express way down the mountain. I dropped over 1,000 feet in less than a minute, clutching my ice axe in case I lost control. It was fun and got me to the tree line just in time to witness the lightning tearing open the sky.
Mr. Magoo luck at its finest
Although I felt safe in the trees, I was soaking wet from the glissade and my sleeping bag was still wet from the previous miserable night. I didn’t have a chance to dry it out and now, with the snow falling and the temperature dropping, I had little hope of drying out. As evening descended, I followed a creek down the mountain until it opened up to a meadow and then I couldn’t believe my eyes.
A massive log cabin stood in a meadow. Wet and cold, I hopefully tried the knob of the cabin door. It opened!
The cabin was enormous, capable of sleeping a dozen on its mezzanine floor. Most importantly, it had a wood stove! I quickly made a warm fire, shed my clothes, dried my sleeping bag, curled up with some hunting magazines and had one of the happiest nights of my life.
Sure, I was blatantly trespassing, but I would happily go to jail for this. It was so worth it.
I later realized that in my rush to get off the chaotic mountaintop I had followed the wrong drainage down the mountain. I should have been one valley over. However, had I navigated correctly, I would have never run across this oasis in the storm. The takeaway: it pays to be an incompetent navigator.
When I left, I made sure to leave no trace. I swept the ground and cleaned all the counters. I kissed the floor and said goodbye.
Two suns in Colorado
About 80 percent of solar systems have more than one sun. Indeed, binary star systems are the norm in our Milky Way Galaxy. Our single star system is somewhat unusual. In fact, Jupiter was supposed to be our second star, but our Sun was a hog and took most of the surrounding matter. Even though Jupiter emits more light than it absorbs, poor Jupiter is still the little star that couldn’t.
High in the mountains of Colorado in mid-May, I feel like I’m living in a dual star system. When Zeus isn’t flinging thunderbolts at me, one star hits me from above and the other hits me from below, off of the snow. I’m getting battered by UV all day and I’m caking on the high powered sunscreen.
Passing the 1,000 mile mark
I’m now at Monarch Pass, which means I’ve walked 1,000 miles. That makes me feel pretty good until I realize that I have 4,800 miles to go.
The Monarch Mountain Lodge learned about my milestone and treated me to a free night stay (see details below).
Colorado has been the toughest backpacking I’ve ever done. I’m barely halfway through the state. Somehow I’m still alive. I think the saying goes: Whatever doesn’t kill me now, will only kill me later.
I expect the conditions to improve. The snow is melting fast and the temperatures are going up (it’s still below freezing at night). Surprisingly my body hasn’t gone on strike yet, so I hope to press through the Rocky Mountain National Park and eventually get to Wyoming before the end of May.
In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy the hot tub, sauna, game rooms at the Monarch Mountain Lodge. Notice that I’m NOT going to use the fitness room.
Sponsor Spotlight: Monarch Mountain Lodge
The Monarch Mountain Lodge, located just 6 miles down from the Continental Divide, holds packages for CDT Hikers, free of charge. Whenever a private company does this I like to splurge at their facility, as a thank you. Usually this means I buy stuff at their store or eat like a pig at their restaurant.
However, when the Lodge’s Owner, Theresa, found out about my crazy yo-yo hike, she offered to put me up in a room for free. Now that’s trail magic!
The Lodge is a place to indulge yourself. It has:
Restaurant & Lounge - Indoor Pool - 2 Outdoor Hot Tubs - Sauna - Fitness Room - Basketball & Racquetball Courts - Game Rooms - Direct TV - Guest Laundry - Conference Rooms - 99 Rooms - Suites - Efficiencies - Pet Rooms - WI-FI
Although the Lodge can’t give everyone the same generous deal I got, their summer and fall specials are unbelievable.
My favorite is the 5 night special, for only $195. That works to $39/night. Pretty awesome considering you get the above amenities and glorious CDT hiking nearby.
They also have a 6-day Family Camp for $1095. It includes rafting, horse back riding, boat tour, tram ride, and gold panning!
Finally, they have the Raft & Stay package, which starts at $78/person.
Please visit: The Monarch Mountain Lodge