Thursday, August 28, 2014

Collegiate West: Day 6, Paying Homage to My Feet


              A few weeks ago, I came around a bend on the Colorado Trail and the busyness of Monarch Pass opened up before me. Six days earlier, my wife Helene dropped me off at Twin Lakes, seventy seven mountain miles north of my destination, Monarch Pass, which was now a quarter mile down the trail. Helene
was down there – I could see her crossing the highway to meet me. I had been out backpacking a new stretch of the Colorado Trail, Collegiate West, to raise funds for the Nature education programs for a not-for-profit environmental education center that I started 15 years ago. When I left, I was up to $114/mile in donations and pledges. With the new trail being 80 miles, I was closing in on $10,000 raised so far!

            As I hiked those last steps down the trail, a huge sense of gratitude filled me. For one, I was so thankful for Helene, who did lots of driving to get me where I needed to be and then pick me up as planned. I was also feeling much appreciation for all of the donors who believed in the cause of Nature education, and in me, to give some of their hard-earned dollars towards this effort. Without them, it would have just been a long backpack through some of Colorado’s beautiful, but challenging, high country. 

            I was also feeling a healthy dose of gratitude for my almost six-decade old body. I suppose that throwing an extra 30 pounds on my back and hitting that mountain trail could be considered something above and beyond the call of duty for a body that’s been around this long.   For sure, I was feeling a bit weary on those final rocky steps, having just hiked a few 15+ mile days of up-and-down hiking over several 12,500+ ridges. But I still felt pretty darn good. Especially, my feet!

            When it comes to backpacking, I am of the belief that, after a mind that will make wise decisions, the most important pieces of equipment for a safe, successful and enjoyable backpacking trek are happy feet! The feet are where my body meets the ground, up close and personal. A nice fitting backpack, the right clothes, staying well hydrated and protected from the sun and rain and wind – all of that and everything else takes place on the foundation of – my feet.

            I have all too much experience knowing how a bad blister or two, or shoes that are poorly matched, can wreak havoc on a hiking adventure that otherwise would have been a most pleasurable experience. Admittedly, it has taken me quite a few years, and a fair handful of painful backpacking adventures, to figure out what my feet needed to be happy.

            After a visit to a knowledgeable pedorthist – someone who knows how to assess a pair of feet and what kind of footwear those feet need – gone are the stiff high-top boots that took 100 miles to break in, gone are the special liner socks, gone are the special ways of lacing and tying.I now wear a quality pair of waterproof, low-top trail shoes with excellent sole support, a good-fitting pair of non-cotton socks, and a pair of low gators to keep small rocks and forest debris out of my shoes. With this simple lower extremity wardrobe, my feet have been happy backpackers ever since. Nearly 500 miles on the original Colorado Trail and only one blister (due to tiny pebble that got into my shoe – after that the gators became a part of my backpacking apparel).  

            But there is more to my happy feet than the fine looking duds I put on them. The right footwear, no matter how right they may be, will not make an unhealthy foot healthy. I also attribute the well-being of my feet to the regular yoga routine that I have made a part of my life. I am no yoga expert, mind you – I couldn’t tell you the difference between Dhanurasana and Dadasana – I could hardly pronounce them, let alone tell you what they are. But, I probably do them, along with several other basic yoga poses most days, and I am convinced that doing them has contributed much to the making of my happy feet.

            And so, I bow to you, my feet (I think bowing like that is called Uttanasana) for taking me across mountain meadows, up steep mountain trails, quickly across open alpine ridges when the clouds began to rumble, over gnarly talus fields and slippery slopes of scree, and for doing all of this and more with hardly an ache, a hot spot, or a sore toe. I have enormous gratitude for you, my feet! Thank you for all you do to make my fund-raising backpacks, and everything else I do on you, such a success. 


            I actually still have a few more miles to go to officially complete this specific fund-raising hike. The Collegiate West trail continues another five miles beyond Monarch Pass, climbing up to almost 12,000’, where it meets the original Colorado Trail for another 8.5 miles out to a road. So, I will be back out there in a few days on that mountain trail, completing my hike for Nature education on my happy and oh-so-appreciated feet!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Collegiate West: Day 5

With Chalk Creek Pass ten miles away, I want to be sure that I am up and over the pass before any storms have the chance to build, so I am up early, cooking breakfast and breaking camp in the dark. I click off my head lamp just as I start hiking, enjoying the transition from night to day. 

After a long series of switchbacks up a heavily treed mountainside, I break out of the trees into another glorious Colorado morning. A couple of Forest Service employees that I ran into the evening before told me they had seen a moose up here, so I have my eyes open for a moose!

 Do you see a moose? Neither do I! But it sure is pretty up here, and there's a couple of deer!

Beneath this hillside is what remains of the Alpine Tunnel, a narrow gauge railroad tunnel constructed in the early 1880s. It was in use until 1910 when it was closed due to damage. It has since been sealed off. It was the first railroad tunnel constructed through the Continental Divide in Colorado, and remains the highest railroad tunnel and longest narrow gauge tunnel in North America. 

The old railroad grade makes for some easy hiking...

...but this jeep road that climbs out of the old town of Hancock is no fun to hike on!

As I am filtering some drinking water, I look back down the valley at Hancock Lake and the Chalk Creek drainage. This water eventually flows past Mount Princeton Hot Springs. A most perfect scene!

With the pass behind me, I am now hiking along the Middle Fork of the South Arkansas River. 

An America robin and the Colorado Trail decal both pointing the way - go left.

 I make it to Hunt Lake and my highest campsite at nearly 11,500'. The sky decides to rain lightly on and off as the day ends, and the mosquitoes are a mighty force, so I am tucked in pretty early after a long 17-mile day.

Collegiate West: Days 3 & 4

            Sunshine, bird song, blue skies, cool air, beauty all around me, oatmeal, waiting to dry out the tent fly, mosquitoes just thinking about getting started, and some howling coyotes. These are a few words to describe the start of this glorious morning. A few miles of easy hiking brings me to Texas Creek. No rocks, bridge, or logs to cross on – so off with my hiking shoes and on with my sandals, backpack straps undone, and I slowly make my away across. Once again, I am grateful for my trekking poles. The water is cold, and my feet are aching by the time I make it across. Now begins the four mile climb to Cottonwood Pass.
           I just passed this invisible boundary. Steadily working my way up towards Cottonwood Pass, I left the perpetual sounds of Texas Creek behind and entered into a forest that is, at this moment, completely silent, save for the sounds of my breathing and footsteps. I pause and savor the magic of this place. Massive spruce and fir trees, a forest floor littered with trees in various stages of decay, the happy flower heads of heartleaf arnica. Within moments, the silence is broken by the squawk of a Clark’s nutcracker, eventually followed by the alarm of a pine squirrel. But for a moment, I was mesmerized by the absolute silence of this ancient forest.

            After a pleasant night at Cottonwood Hot Springs last night, I am back on the trail early under a gray sky that looks like it could go either way – sunshine or rain. The wind is strong, so I don some warmer headwear and find a quick pace. I meet a Dad and two older sons as I work my way up towards a 12,800’ ridge. They’ve been out for a few days and will end their adventure where I started mine this morning. Like me, they are wanting to get their miles in before afternoon thunderstorms bring the threat of lightning. I make it to the ridge and stop to enjoy a morning snack and the sunshine that has won out over the morning gray.

I make my way across several stretches of snow, move through a garden of rocks, some the size of buses, and begin another climb to another 12,800’ ridge. Today is turning into one of those days of up and down, up and down. The trail climbs to a high ridge, then drops a couple thousand feet or more into drainage, then back up again.
            I work my way down into the Morgan’s Gulch drainage and notice a marmot on a rock just off the trail. It is just sitting there in the sun, looking happy and well fed, gazing out over so much mountain beauty. What a life! My friend Scott Smith told me once that he’d like to come back to this world as a marmot. Looking at this happy marmat, I can see why.
            Another 12,800’ ridge behind me, and I am working my way towards what will be my last climb of the day. Fortunately, the trail does not appear to drop down as far; from this vantage point, it roughly contours at around 12,600’ before a more gentle approach to the day’s final ridge. As I pass through a lovely stretch of trail lined with blue wildflowers – whipple penstemons, I believe – I notice that a gray cloud up there is beginning to grow into something a bit more ominous looking. Before each ridge today, I was closely watching the sky for any potential for storms. I know how quickly a thunderstorm can build up here, and this exposed alpine landscape, with cover a good long way away, is no place to be when lightning is in the air. Before climbing each ridge, I concluded that the clouds were pretty benign before I headed up and over.

            But this cloud looks different. I decide to kick up the pace and now feel like I am in a race with that cloud, both of us heading for that last ridge. I move through a long stretch of scree, where the potential for a fall goes way up. “OK, take it nice and careful here. You are tired, you want to beat that storm, but a fall right now would definitely be bad news.”  With these words from my inner coach, I make it to the high point and begin down a long series of switchbacks, still well above timberline, down towards Chalk Creek. A clap of thunder – not loud, but thunder just the same – keeps me moving, as the race is not over yet.
            Finally in the trees, I take a sit-down break and then resume, much more slowly, the last mile or so and a place to camp for the night. As I take off my pack for the last time, I calculate that I covered just over 16 miles today. That sleeping bag is sure going to feel good tonight!