Snowbound on the CDT

When Dad arrived at Elwood Pass for our 28th meetup, I quipped that his CDT hike was at risk of being overshadowed by my four-wheelin’ adventure. I’d arrived not 10 minutes before he appeared, having spent a good 2 hours “crawling” up to the pass, the whole time in low range, four-wheel drive. Two times on the way I had to pull over, park, and walk the “road” ahead to figure out how to negotiate the steep and rocky obstacles, one of which I couldn’t surmount until my 3rd attempt. Given what I’ve driven through, it’s astounding that I had yet to puncture or otherwise destroy a tire on this journey. We planned to camp there, but it was only 2pm—Dad had slackpacked 17.3 miles from Wolf Creek Pass—and he wanted to keep going. His next segment was a long 50.4 miles, and if he could chip away at it, the following 3 days would be that much easier. So he resupplied in a flash, switched to backpacking mode, and I got back in the Jeep, winding my way on dirt roads to our last meetup in Colorado.

La Jeep on the road to Elwood Pass
The road to Elwood Pass

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Resupply in the San Juans

The 82.2 miles of trail between Stony Pass and Wolf Creek Pass far exceeded Dad’s desired max of 45 miles (or 3 days) between meetups. It would require hiking for 5 or 6 days in the notoriously difficult San Juan Mountains, while weighed down with 5 or 6 days of food. To put it mildly, the prospect of this terrified him. You’d think by now it would be “old hat” for a man who has thru-hiked both the PCT and the AT, but as he frequently confesses, “I have a deep-rooted fear of the unknown.” He also admits that our schedule of meetups has “spoiled” him—not necessarily that it’s made him “soft”, but that seeing a familiar face so frequently has helped him stay motivated. Since I couldn’t accompany him the whole way (I’ve got a Jeep, a wolf, and a cabbage…), I came up with a 5-day plan to meet in the “middle”.

Day 1: Departing Stony Pass, Dad hiked southbound, while I drove ahead to Wolf Creek Pass (and spent the night there).

La Jeep on the road heading down from Stony Pass
The road heading down from Stony Pass

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Goodbye Colorado Trail

Even though I had a whole day to myself at Spring Creek Pass (before our 23rd meetup), I felt an obligation to stick around for any Colorado Trail thru-hikers. What I hadn’t accounted for, was that many were resupplying in nearby Lake City and returning to trail after having binged in town. I’d still offer soda when they jumped out of their hitches, but the look they made was always a pained, “Oh, please, no…” with hand on belly. The next morning I took leave of my post and headed up to meet Dad on his way in. I reached him after about 3 miles, augmented his morning snack with a can of Squirt, and then we continued down the trail together. Colorado’s summer monsoons had spontaneously returned the prior two nights, so I opted to cook up burgers for lunch while the midday skies were clear. The decision was prescient, as that night a thunderstorm swept in and unleashed a barrage of pea-sized hail—which we observed from within the Jeep, pelting Dad’s tent for about an hour. It passed, dusky skies followed, and I managed a quick dinner of hotdogs and haloumi.

Following Dad on Snow Mesa, north of Spring Creek Pass
Following Dad to Spring Creek Pass

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Colorado Trail Magic

The first come, first served campsite I snagged near Twin Lakes, Colorado (just as the previous occupants were packing up) not only happened to be located right off the CDT (perfect for our 17th meetup), it was also right next to the “South Elbert Trailhead”. A Forest Service webpage described the trail leading up to Mount Elbert as “a great route and a relatively easy hike for someone in reasonable physical condition.” It wasn’t until I read through to the bottom of the page that I discovered that “Mount Elbert is Colorado’s highest peak and the second highest peak in the lower 48 states” (after Mount Whitney of course, which I summitted with my brother at the end of the JMT). At this point my curiosity meter had swung from “might check out” to “must do”. Given my late start—it was noon—I treated the hike as reconnaissance for the following day, but the farther I got, the more I wanted to keep going. The weather held, and I reached the summit around 3:30pm, after climbing over 4,800 feet. Dad arrived the next afternoon in good spirits, we made carnitas tacos for dinner, and then, ominously, ash from a nearby forest fire started falling from the sky.

Justin at the summit of Mount Elbert
On top of Mount Elbert

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From the CDT to the CT

I was hiking with Dad when we finally learned how to pronounce Berthoud Pass. A backpacking family of 5 informed us with a chuckle, “It’s BIRTH-ed”. The next day, after hiking back to the Jeep while Dad continued onward, I drove ahead to Berthoud Pass, essentially a parking lot at 11,307 feet that would become my home for the next three nights. The following morning, the day Dad was set to arrive for our 13th meetup, I hiked from the parking lot up to Mount Flora—at 13,146 feet, it was a strenuous climb. I went over the top and nestled myself within a rocky windbreak to wait for Dad. He showed up not 15 minutes later, much appreciating the soda I brought, and then we both hiked up to the peak and all the way down to the parking lot. For lunch I whipped up something Dad deemed “casserole-esque”: roasted chicken with rice bound together with one of his poblano corn chowder backpacker meals. (I think he has one set aside in hopes of a repeat performance!) After 26 days on the trail, Dad decided that the following day would be his first zero, so that we could meet up with old friends Casey, Kyle, and their son Tam who drove up from Denver for a short dayhike and picnic. As they placated Tam with the promise of ice cream on the way home, I cribbed the idea and suggested the same for Dad, which we expanded to include a take-out BBQ lunch in Winter Park, not to mention a brief respite from the trail and the busy Berthoud Pass parking lot.

Justin and Brian (aka Tartan) meet up with Casey, Kyle, and Tam
Friends are the best reason to take a zero day!

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