Friday, July 31, 2009

CDT: Rocky Mountain High

I know now why John Denver sings about Rocky Mountain High. Never did the CDT dip below 8,000 feet in the state of Colorado. Rarely did it dip below 9,000 feet. The snowy peaks are magnificent and go on for miles.

I have never been so cold in the middle of the summer! Getting ready each morning is a matter of taking a deep breath and - as quickly as possible - unzipping the sleeping bag, changing into hiking clothes, packing up backpacks and the tent and starting hiking to get warm. I've been experimenting but haven't decided whether it's better to grab the hiking poles by the cold handles and begin stabbing them into the ground to shake some blood into my hands or to just keep my hands in my armpits and the poles under my arm until I've warmed up from the hiking. Reason asked one morning why we keep spending the summer in such cold places. "Well, we could spend the summer in 'Famously Hot' Columbia, SC, anytime if you wanna be hot!"

Approaching central Colorado, we began to see... people! So far, most of our encounters with people have been at roads and in towns. We met two day hikers in all of New Mexico. For several hundred miles in Colorado, however, the CDT is co-located with the well-traveled Colorado Trail which connects Denver to Durango. Several mornings on the CDT/CT, we met as many as twenty people before noon!

This was a nice change of pace, but became overwhelming the closer we came to Boulder and Denver. As the 4th of July approached, we neared a cluster of fourteeners. In Colorado-speak, these are mountain peaks that are 14,000 feet or higher. There are more than fifty such peaks in Colorado, and climbing them is a state sport. On July third, we rounded Mt. Elbert, the highest fourteener in the state. Exhausted hikers dragged themselves from its flanks in the early evening. One particularly unhappy looking family made for a great topic of conversation as we speculated upon the events of their climb.

I should note that, while climbing fourtneeners appears to be particularly annoying yuppie sport (ie, if Starbucks could post a barrista atop each peak they'd have no trouble), it is no easy task. While Denver is a mile-high city, its denizens are still only acclimated to around 5,000 feet. Boulder is just a little higher. The high altitude threshold is generally considered to be 8,000 feet, as this is where many people start to feel the effects of the thinning air. Breathing becomes more difficult, even for the very fit. Afternoon thunderstorms are also a danger, prompting early morning ascents.

Approaching Elbert's neighbor, Mt. Massive, Reason decided he'd climb it the next morning. We camped three miles below the summit and along the CDT, a perfect base camp. This being July 4th and there being two of the highest of the fourteeners in the area, we were in good company. The woods were filled with people, and I missed New Mexico's solitude.

Bright and early, Reason headed up Mt. Massive's approach trail. At six in the morning, streams of people followed the same. I waited below with most of our gear. At around 8:30, people began to descend. Who knows what time they started hiking. Reason jogged back down the trail at around nine with his signature grin. Being so well acclimatized - we'd been at an average of 11,000 feet for hundreds of miles - he practically ran past the other hikers who were huffing and puffing their way to the summit!

Feeling tired, I declined to join Reason for this summit. Colorado was wearing me out. Could it be the altitude? And at any rate, is it not enough to walk from Mexico to Canada? Do I have to climb the fourteeners on the way, too? Of course not, though I probably squandered the chance to summit Mt. Massive while being well-acclimatized. Oh well, I guess that will be something else to put on the life list for another time.

Perhaps the mileage is wearing me out. We've been aiming for 25 miles a day. Most days we meet that goal, though it has sometimes taken us over fourteen hours. The elevation change has been tough. We often climb and descend 2,000 and 3,000 feet at a clip only to do it over again two or three times a day. On our way up one such climb, we met a couple day-hiking down the trail. They were interested to hear about our journey, but as we told our story I realized that we had lost some of the sparkle of our enthusiasm. "I'm sorry, " I said. "Normally we're very excited about our hike. It's just that we are so tired!"

The relentless ups and downs were made more difficult by the steepness of the climbs. Once we left the heavily traveled Colorado Trail, we were once again in more remote areas. These areas are more difficult to access and, drawing fewer recreationists, are less of a priority to maintain. Some of the steep 12,000 foot passes seemed to us to have been maintained by elk. Every high mountain meadow and hanging garden seems to populated by a herd of grazing elk. The elk take the same passes we do to get from meadow to meadow, though on their four sturdy legs they can move straight up and down the mountains. On remote passes, the elk churn the crumbly soil into small slides, obliterating the hiking trail. The trail becomes a two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of situation.

Did I mention the wind? Oh, you probably just couldn't hear me above it! Many days we walked on the spine of the Divide, leaning hard into the wind that threatened to push us over the edge. If ever the wind relented, we'd lose our balance! We had to shout to get one another's attention. It was a tough call as to whether or not being shaded by our big dorky sunhats made up for being slapped in the face by their oversized brims and being choked by their chinstraps. Heavy wind meant that any weather was being blown away (I'm sure there's a better meteorological explanation), so we'd take it over rain any day!

While Colorado is beautiful, I must say that I felt overwhelmingly exposed. I don't really like that feeling. Being among snowy peaks that seem to go on for miles in every direction was awesome in the truest sense of the word. But part of me yearned to just get down. I scanned the guidebook each night, searching for any mention of lower elevations. "I think I like being among the mountains, rather than being on top of them," I confided to Reason. Sacrilege? Feels like it. This is my first trip to Colorado and I have the privilege of hiking the high peaks. Not many people get the chance to spend weeks at a time hiking in the Colorado mountains. It isn't that I don't appreciate the opportunity, it's just that I prefer lower elevations. I wouldn't trade this hike for the world, but I'm looking forward to the warmer and lower Wyoming desert!

One distinction of the high peaks that I really enjoyed was the large population of athletes, endurance athletes in particular. Outside of Leadville, CO, we encountered people hustling up and down mountains and trails. The first such athlete was moving so quickly and with such intensity that we didn't dare interfere with his feat. The second athlete was all too glad to stop and chat. She explained that she was training for the Leadville 100, a 100 mile ultramarathon in late August that traces part of the CDT. We'd just ascended a steep 2,500 plus feet to Hope Pass and were now on our way down. "The first time I attempted this pass, I was scared to death by the difficulty! Now I tackle it every chance I get," she explained. I began to feel rather puny. We hike around 25 miles a day on a full day and it takes between about 8 and 14 hours. The winning record for the Leadville 100 and its more than 15,000 feet of elevation change is just under 16 hours!

We began to get excited - here's an endurance sport we could do on the weekends. It might solve that dilemma of wanting to settle down and still keep moving. The closer we got to Leadville, the more trail runners we met. These folks were moving fast and we didn't want to interfere with their training, so between runners we'd think of questions and try and ask each runner one or two. I was inspired, but couldn't stop thinking about the burn of lactic acid and how on earth a trail runner avoids twisting an ankle. I guess I'll just have to see for myself one day!

The Leadville Hostel stoked our interest even further. At 10,152 feet, Leadville is America's highest incorporated town. It was once also home to the unsinkable Molly Brown of Titanic fame. The elevation makes Leadville an attractive place for athletes to train. Training at altitude seems to be one the few legal performance enhancements remaining to athletes. That and caffeine. At higher altitudes, the body learns to adapt to the lower levels of oxygen by increasing its numbers of the red blood cells which carry oxygen to the lungs and muscles. When the athlete returns to lower altitudes, he has a greater capacity to use oxygen.

The Leadville Hostel was full of endurance cyclists and runners who were living there for the summer. We met ultra runner Matt Mahoney. He kind of laughed when I asked about sleeping or resting during the potential 60 hours of the Leadville 100. "You never want to sit down during the race," he said, "because you'll never get started again!"

That evening we tried to watch a DVD about the Badwater race from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney. The badly scratched disc wouldn't accommodate us, but it excited us even more! It featured a man who trains to endure the heat of Death Valley by positioning the exhaust of his dryer so that its heat pours onto his treadmill!

To top it all off, we met David Horton on our way out of town! The hostel owner shuttled us to the trail head at Tennessee Pass. Once there, we saw "Go Horton!" written in the sand and met a young runner who was waiting for his professor. Do you mean THE David Horton - the trail runner? Indeed he did, and was startled that we knew about Horton. Of course we know! He holds the supported speed record for the PCT.

This year, Horton attempted to set the speed record for the Colorado Trail. As the hostel shuttle drove away, Horton's crew pulled up. Headed by a previous CT speed record holder, the crew set out a chair, several pairs of shoes and socks, a tiny racing pack full of energy gel and water bottles, and various other items that Horton might need. We didn't know how far off Horton was, but we decided to stick around and watch him in action! Judging by the Cherry Garcia ice cream that a third crew vehicle delivered, we knew he'd come running through shortly. It was a thrill to talk with the crew about their own trail running experiences and about helping out "Horty".

Soon enough, Horty rounded the bend. He sat in the chair for all of a minute, changing his shoes and socks and swapping out his pack. I was touched that he took the time to shake our hands and wish us luck on our own hike. And then he was off again, Cherry Garcia and spoon in hand! Every second counts when setting a record, and it was very kind of Horton to take the time to talk with us.

On we continued, remembering all over again how wonderful it is to be on the trail and how lucky we are to have the chance!

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