Leaving Grand Lake last week there were so many questions I didn't have answers to still left on the table. Every question I had was concerning weather, and with storm after storm on the forecast, I truthfully wasn't sure what was going to happen or when it would happen for that matter. Nonetheless, we left town with beautiful weather ahead of us and the CDT would lead us back into the mountains.
For the first 10 or so miles of the day out of Grand Lake the trail skirts the edges of the clear blue water along the lake. With snowy peaks off in the distance, I immediately had an odd feeling in my stomach. Uneasy, yet confident. I couldn't shake it, it was impossible to get rid of no matter what I tried to do to distract myself. Instead of mentioning anything, we just kept hiking. I wasn't even sure what I would have said or how I would have described the feelings I was experiencing, so what was the point?
After we finally hit Monarch Lake Campground, a little marker point along the trail, we only had one climb left to get back to 10,000' where we would camp for the night. As we trekked along the trail, James Peak was looming in the distance directly ahead of us. Not only is it a massive mountain that towers above most around it, but it was shrouded in clouds with more than enough white powder on the peaks to instill a bit of nervousness.
The trail immediately ascends about 2,000' in a little less than 3 miles making for a fairly steep and arduous climb. Nothing AT like, but steep nonetheless. Slowly but surely as we ascended, the snow started to appear along the edges of the trail and on the tops of the evergreens. The temperature dropped simultaneously as my stomach started to drop. I knew that the weather was going to shift. As soon as we set up camp, I knew we were in for a wicked section of trail coming up. I knew this was a turning point in the trip. The snow was early and unexpected, but honestly, there was no way we could have been ready for what was approaching.
After a short dinner and social interaction with everyone, we all went to bed as the sun set and prepared for the cold that was to ensue. I packed my water filter into my quilt, threw all my electronics down to the end as well, put my hood up and fell into a deep sleep as the condensation inside my tent began to freeze.
I slept through the night without waking up, and when the alarms went off at 6:00 to get up, everyone in our camp stared to shift and move and groan. It was frigid outside. The water had froze, the ice in my tent was beginning to crack, and I knew it was going to be a day to remember.
The first few miles flew by in an instant. A couple of inches of snow created a white blanket on the trail, and honestly; it was stunning. I was enthralled that there was snow on the trail. It was absolutely gorgeous and unrivaled beauty since I was in the Smokies last year on the AT. There's something extremely comforting about hearing the crunch of snow and ice beneath your feet in the early morning on trail.
The entire rest of the day was going to be above treeline, ascending to 13,200' and then following a ridgeline along 3 other 13k', leaving us completely exposed. When we left Grand Lake we had good weather on the forecast for a few days. The first part of the morning and early afternoon was beautiful. Blue skies contrasted the white trail with massive peaks and ridge lines in the background. Colorado provides some of the most insane views possible especially once you break tree line.
The fun really began when we started the trek up to Devils Thumb. The snow began to get deeper as I climbed and climbed. It soon transitioned from hiking to post holing, which is sinking into the snow with each step, sometimes up to your knees or higher. I decided to traverse the climb instead of going straight up, and with each labored step there was risk of stepping into a slot or crevasse created by the rocks beneath the snow. I was about a mile ahead of everyone at this point and as I looked back towards where I came, I could see Red Bass standing in just as much awe as I was in.
As I skirted the mountain and the ridge line, the snow began to get deeper in the drifts, and the weather started to move in. I could see a whirlwind of clouds circling above the peaks and on the ridge line. I picked up the pace as much as I could without risking my ankles, but eventually, the ridgeline was engulfed in a cloud of gray and white. The visibility dropped to 15ft as I continued up and over the pass. The snow was supposed to begin around the 4:00 p.m mark on the ridge, there was more snow in the forecast for the next few days, and it didn't appear to be moving out anytime soon.
The thing is with Colorado weather is that it's entirely unpredictable. The storm cycles move in so quickly and it's hard to tell when and where the storm will hit until it's almost too late. Luckily, we had an option for a bail out before the weather got too bad on the ridge. This was going to be our second bailout within a 5 day stretch, something I never wanted to happen or thought would happen. I figured the snow wouldn't hit for another few weeks. I was prepared for the cold. I have layers. I have the appropriate gear. But there's not much you can do to prepare for feet of snow on the Divide. With wind chills pushing the temperature well below 20 degrees every night and feet of precipitation, it's a recipe for disaster.
I eventually arrived at Rollins Pass, 7 miles before we even summited James Peak. White out conditions and an approaching storm lay in the distance and when Red Bass finally arrived at the Pass as well, we made the decision to bail down to Winter Park to wait out the storm. Stomper arrived not too much longer and we got a ride in the back of a pick up down to town.
At this point, there was an overwhelming feeling of disappointment and defeat amongst all of us as we rocked and bounced our way into town in the pickup. We knew that there was going to be a decision that had to be made by the time the storm passed. I decided to make that decision a little bit easier by going into Denver to hang out with Pokey and Lupine with Merlin and Hummingbird.
Pokey and Lupine are two of my best friends from the trail last year, and they were nice enough to host us and take us to Red Rocks to see Fleet Foxes. Being able to spend time with my Trail family was something I had been looking forward to immensely. Not only that but for Merlin and Hummingbird to meet them and hang out was even more of a treat.
These long distance hiking trails have a funny way of connecting people who would never have the opportunity of meeting. It's a magical experience for two trails to connect people, especially people who have so much in common.
After our little stint in Denver and Boulder, we got dropped back off in Winter Park for one last night as a group before we split up. At the time though, we had no idea that our group was going to be splitting up so it was a normal night for us.
The following morning was a whirlwind of emotions with a tough decision looming over my head. Red Bass, Merlin and Hummingbird were planning on road walking out of Winter Park, therefore missing sections of the CDT. Mayor and Stomper were planning on hitching ahead to get south of the weather hopefully. Myself you ask? I wasn't sure.
I couldn't bring myself to road walk through one of the most beautiful and incredible sections of the CDT just because of weather, but also, the CDT wasn't safe to hike alone or even with a group for that matter. It wasn't hiking, it was closer to mountaineering. I also didn't feel okay with the decision to skip ahead and completely miss out on Colorado as a whole. I was at a loss for words on what I would do and why I would do it. All I could continue to think about was how much I wanted to hike the trail. Not the road.
I wanted to experience everything that the CDT had to offer in its fullest, and to skip ahead or road walk around, I felt like I would be doing myself an injustice if I chose either of those options. The CDT has become such an important part of my life already. It's become part of me. The people, the wildlife, the mountains, and most importantly, the ability it's given me to overcome obstacles have made such a huge impact on me. I want to finish this trail in its intended fashion. I want to see and feel the CDT for what it is, not for what it HAS to be because of a circumstance that was unforeseen.
Im not sure if I made the decision to leave the CDT for any specific reason. It felt right, and it still feels right as I'm on my way to the start of the Long Trail.
Speaking of which, I'm in a car right now with Scooter and Wankles, two of my good buds who I met last year on the AT. They have had plans to hike the LT for a little while now and have been attempting to convince me to join them. As I was in the Basin of Wyoming, I couldn't have fathomed the weather that moved in, and I most certainly couldn't have imagined myself getting off of the CDT due to said weather, then hopping on a plane to Philly. That's exactly what happened though. After our group split up, I sat around Winter Park for a day at a coffee shop and contemplated what I really wanted out of the CDT and truthfully, life. Hiking these long trails sometimes feels like a direct metaphor for life.
I didn't come out to the CDT to endure it, I came out there to enjoy my time and push my limits. I wanted to experience everything that the five states had to offer in their most true form. The weather came at an inopportune time, but it was out of my control, as are most things out here on these trails. I decided to make the decision that would ultimately make me the happiest. That decision has led me to where I am now, in Vermont, starting the Long Trail tomorrow at the Northern Terminus at the Canada/US border.
I have some ideas of what I will do after this trail is over, but I'm not completely positive yet. I already miss all of my friends that I met on the CDT, and really, that trail is so immensely beautiful that it's hard not to want to return to it immediately. After the LT I think I'm leaving myself with two options; either fly to NM and finish the trail with my friends and hike all of New Mexico, or fly to Arizona and start the Arizona Trail southbound, just north of the Grand Canyon.
Like I said, I'm not sure of the decision that I'll make, but whatever I choose will be an adventure. It's a liberating feeling freeing yourself of any specific obligations. I felt obligated to finish the CDT. I felt like it was becoming a routine to an extent, and once the weather hit, it unmotivated me. It took any momentum that I thought I had and threw it out the window. It completely exhausted all of my will and desire to continue hiking the CDT just to finish a trail. I often question my own motives for long distance hiking and my decisions in general, but I'll never question my search for happiness.
If you're not happy with what you're doing or where your life is taking you, do something about it. Be true to yourself, which is what I struggled with the entire day before I flew out. It took a lot of guts for me to admit to myself that I was done with the CDT for the time being.
I've never had a dilemma like that in my entire life. That felt like by far the toughest decision I've ever had to make. For some reason I felt like I had an obligation to someone, or something other than myself, which wasn't the case. I finally gave in to the sinking feeling in my stomach, and all of a sudden it made sense.
I've struggled in the past with admitting truths to myself. It's hard to go against the grain and what your head tells you. I think it's of the utmost importance to follow your heart in those types of situations. I think it's important to not only follow your heart, but use your head in the same situation to mitigate and rationalize. It's tough to realize that some things weren't what they seemed or what they could have been.
Anyways, I'll start the Long Trail at the Canadian Border tomorrow morning. We don't have plans to fly through the trail. We want to experience the fall foliage in the best season imaginable. I personally have been dreaming of the North East for the last month on the CDT. I miss the woods. I miss the green tunnel.
I miss the Appalachian Trail, plain and simple.
Although I won't be on the AT for long, I'll be home. These woods that I'm about to enter feel more like home than anywhere else I've been and I can't ever see that changing.
The CDT was everything I could have asked for and more, and like I said, I'll be back for it, but until then, back to the woods I go.