Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Colorado Trail - Molas Pass to Junction Creek Hike

I have for some time hoped to transition away from ultra running and more toward backpacking.  As I get older, it is just more difficult to be competitive in ultra running and my sciatic problems have only made it more difficult.  I also like the flexibility that backpacking gives you in that you can potentially thru hike almost unlimited trails and there is so much country to be seen whereas ultra trail running while beautiful is limited to a specific locale albeit sometimes 50 or 100 miles.

I also mourn the mainstreaming and popularity of ultra and trail running.  Lotteries, prize money and trail races with thousands of entries not to mention exorbitant entry fees have for me anyway, detracted from the simplicity of the sport.  Backpacking runs no risk of such commercialization and by its nature will always remain simple and purely an individual endeavor.

This is not to say of course that I won't still run ultras and I do love the sport but I do feel that this is a better and more appropriate endeavor as I get older.

The question remained of how to begin as a serious backpacker.  I am gearing up toward some thru hikes of the John Muir Trail (summer 2014) and the Colorado Trail (summer 2015) and who knows what trails will beckon after that.  I read extensively all summer and purchased some books about these trails and even did quite a bit of planning as if I were going to do a thru hike.  I hope that there are some people reading this blog who also want to get started and I hope that this blog will help inspire you.  I finally came to the realization that I had done all the preparation and planning that I could do.  The only thing lacking was to just go do it and experience it.

I could debate on whether a tent or tarp would work better.  Whether to carry a rain jacket or poncho or to carry a camelback or water bottles but until I just got out there and tried it, I would never know for sure what worked best.  Again, my purpose in writing this is to hopefully inspire others who have had similar dreams and plans for adventures and that is to tell you that you just have to go do it.  Just take off and do it and do not delay and do not let anything stop you once you are in the mountains and you will be so glad you went.

I had planned this last 75 miles of the Colorado Trail as a dress rehearsal for next summer's thru hike.  If things went well and I enjoyed myself, then I would do the JMT next summer.  I can tell you that my only regret now is that I just did not do this twenty years ago or at the very least, go for the thru hike this summer.  Now I sit here and write this and my summer is almost over and I have to wait an entire year to get back out there.  At least I got this much in and it was so much fun.
On the road out of Durango toward Silverton.

After a 15 hour drive, I arrived at Molas Pass outside of Silverton at 1 pm on Friday.  I had concerns about how I would get a ride back to my car and at first, I used this as an excuse not to go but as it turned out, it took less that 10 minutes to get a ride back to the car.  People in this area are used to backpackers and it is no problem.  My plan was to hike the rest of the day Friday, all day Saturday and hopefully get to Junction Creek by Sunday at noon.
Sign at Molas Pass Trailhead

As it turns out, this was the one mistake that I made.  As an ultra runner, I knew I could achieve those distances but there is NO REASON to make it so difficult.  I learned now on my thru hike to allow for much more time.  It is not an ultra race and there are no prescribed distances.  I learned that next time, I should just do what feels comfortable.  How nice it would have been to set up camp early and read a book or to take a nap at lunch time.  Instead, I had to hike continuously with barely time to eat or sleep.

So on my future thru hikes, I can count on 8 to 10 hour days and no more.  I also learned that as a rule of thumb, I can expect to hike anywhere from 3 to 4 miles per hour and for planning purposes, should always just presume 3.  That is good to know next year because I think I can expect 24 - 30 miles per day and that would be tough but comfortable so long as I do not try to do more than 10 hours in a day.  After eight hours, fatique really began to set in.

So here are the details of this trip for those who may be looking to do this section.  I had found a lot of good stuff on the internet about this section and a lot of information but wanted to reassure people new to the Colorado Trail that it really is great and that if you were like me and just kind of dreaming about it, then it is time to just get off your ass and do it.  I promise you will be so glad you did.
Excited to finally get under way.

As I left out of Molas Pass, the sun was already pretty hot and the trail climbed up and up for a ways.  On that 15 hour drive, I had told myself that if it was too intimidating, then I could always go out for a day, come back for a day and go home.  Once I hit the trail though I was almost giddy with excitement and I knew within two miles, that I would be going all the way to Durango.  The trail is mostly above tree line for the first many miles and I guess it was about ten miles in that I came to my first "aid station", a beautiful water fall area.  I do not know the exact distance because I did not have the data book.  Next time I will definitely have this with me because later a mtn biker showed me his data book and it is a must have especially for a thru hike.
Trail marker that is common above treeline.

With all my excitement, I moved along at a really good clip.  I didn't even stop for lunch but rather waited until about 5:30 after one particularly tough climb to have part of my dinner on top of a pass.  I had bought a footlong sub sandwich from the Subway in Durango and ate half of it and it was awesome.  That was a good idea so that I had good food at least on the first day.  Definitely remember the Subway to start my thru hikes every time.  I only took 10 to 15 minutes for lunch and moved on for another hour and a half.  That's when I came across the mtn biker who had the map.  He had been having really bad luck with flat tires and this was his third and he was out of repair materials.  Not much I could do for him unfortunately but he was able to tell me we were about 23 or 24 miles in.
Subway at 11,000 feet and miles from nowhere.

I hiked for another hour so I estimate that my distance for the first day was in the 26 - 28 range.  Should be no problem now to be in Durango on Sunday.  Question is just how early could I get there on Sunday so I could start my drive home.  Again, in hindsight, I should have just planned an extra day and then could have enjoyed the hike more.

I also wondered what kind of cell phone reception there was on the trail.  There was actually very little but every now and then you could get a strong signal.  I had checked several times throughout the day while taking pictures and there was no signal.  Then toward the end of this first day of hiking after a nearby thunder shower, there was a beautiful rainbow.  So I stopped and took a picture and low and behold, I had full service and so I placed one last good night phone call to my wife Suzanne.

I found a nice camping spot amongst the trees but with a nice view as well.  I stopped hiking at 8:20 pm which was just enough time to set up my camp and eat the second half of my sub sandwich.  I also carried two 16 oz Heineken beers, one for each night on the trail.  It was of course shaken pretty good but I was glad I brought it along because it was great to have that moment to just watch as the forest grew darker and enjoy that beer.  I was also comforted throughout the weekend by the fact that if I ran out of water, at least I had 32 oz of beer.

Money can't buy this room with a view.
I was in bed shortly after nine.  The night was cold and at times very windy.  But when the wind was not blowing, it was so quiet.  It was very peaceful.  Of course I did not sleep well, nor did I expect to.  I would lie on my back for about thirty minutes until it became uncomfortable and then turn on my side for thirty minutes and repeat.  I definitely would not want to bring a mattress pad as they seem to cumbersome for lightweight backpacking but I have read good things about the portable blow up mattresses and may have to look into that.

I awoke around 6 am and allowed myself a 10 minute snooze.  Then packed up my stuff and was on the trail by 6:36 am.  I was meticulous about checking my time to keep an idea of how far I had gone because I do not own a Garmin or GPS.  Next time it would be nice to have enough time that I just left the watch at home and broke camp whenever I felt like it.
Morning sunrise on my hike.

After a mile or two I was able to refill the water bottles and mixed some Gatorade powder with it.  I was worried that I did not have enough calories so the Gatorade would help with both calories and hydration.  I did not filter the water or use tablets because others had reported no problems.  If I do get sick in a week or two, I will be sure to post it here.  If I do not post anything then it must have been okay.

Another correction I would make would be to drink more water.  There is a 20 mile stretch without water that I encountered that afternoon and I became pretty parched.  As you can see from the pictures, the views were just incredible and the Colorado Trail combines with what is called the Highline Trail.  This was a little confusing at first because I was worried I may have taken a wrong turn.  But it was not the case and overall, the trail was very easy to follow.  The Highline Trail portion is above treeline and on an exposed ridge and is absolutely gorgeous.  At times the trail would go along a ridge with steep drops on both sides but never so narrow as to be afraid.
Toward the end of the Highline Trail portion.

Thankfully there was never any lightning near me although there was some sleet for about 15 minutes on this part of the trail.  Luckily thunder and lightning stayed off in the distance.  I used to also be very afraid of lightning and being in the mountains.  I've done enough mountain trail races to know how quickly the weather can change in the mountains.  But once again, I overcame this fear and realized that at anytime, I could be off that ridge and in safety within minutes.  Probably more to fear from a car accident than the trail.

Below is a video clip from the ridge at a time when I was trying to figure out just exactly how the trail was going to lead out of the mountains and into Durango.  It didn't seem as though there was a pass to go through and there really wasn't.  The Highline Trail just stayed up high as the name implies.

Finally the trail descended down to a lake and then there is only 21 miles left.  I hit this spot at about 3:00 in the afternoon.  I began to think that if a I really hustled, I could make Durango before dark.  However, I then wondered what I would do if I did get to Durango early.  I could go to the hostel but I had no clean clothes or shoes etc.  So I thought I may as well just get within five miles and then set up camp.

As it turned out, that last 10 miles was extremely difficult.  I had thought that the major climbs were over but there was one more big climb and I was dehydrated and in need of calories.  I kept telling myself that when I got to the top of this climb I would take a break and eat dinner.  Half way up the climb and with no end in sight, I finally just stopped and had dinner in the middle of the trail because the mountainside was too steep to eat elsewhere.  I was really whipped at this point.

But amazingly, after 15 minutes and about 500 calories (I ate a cold pre-packaged microwave dinner - this one was swedish meatballs and it was disgusting), I felt much better!!  I had just let myself get too weak and so I will have to remember on the thru hike to not exhaust myself so much.  Once at the top of this mtn, I knew it was all downhill to Durango and about ten miles.  So I did another four miles or so and then set up camp.

I met a lot of different people on my trip.  Mostly day hikers.  There were a few backpackers including an older gentlemen from Belgium with who I shared a camping spot this second night.  He was doing the same section but he was taking seven days to do it and was loving every bit of it.  He had also done a lot of hiking on other parts of the Colorado Trail.  I only met two thru hikers.  A young couple from Virginia.  I congratulated them and told them my plans for doing JMT and the Colorado Trail.  They were very relaxed and seemed almost disappointed that they were near the end.

After another prepackaged cold dinner, I drank my Heineken and went to bed.  It rained off and on through the night and the next morning it was still raining.  My thoughts were on how miserable it would be to pack in the rain and finish the last six miles or so.  But I thought I needed to go anyway and so be it.  So I came out of the tent at about 6:15 am and the rain had just stopped!  What luck.
Morning Day 3

I packed up my things and wished my Belgian friend good luck and down I went into Durango.  I had zero problems hitching a ride into town and then another back to Silverton.  I drove back to Durango and had a great couple of beers and burger at the Balcony Cafe in downtown Durango.
It never tasted so good in downtown Durango.

What an awesome trip!  But now I have to wait all the way until next July to do my thru hike!  Looks like ultra trail running to keep me in shape until then.  Thanks for reading an I welcome comments, suggestions and tips from more experienced backpackers.

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