Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Day 21: It was the best of nights, it was the worst of nights....

September 14: As the title suggests, it was the best of nights. I got those great Milky Way photos and the stars twinkled brightly all night long. As dawn approached, one particularly brilliant star rose and it was obvious that it was far too bright to be a star. Probably Venus. I pulled out my camera and took a photo, along with the nearly full moon that was also rising. It was a wonderful sunrise! The only downside was that without the cloud cover, the night was the coldest so far I had had on the trail and some of the water in my bottles had partially frozen.

Sunrise is imminent! (The bright spot at the top is actually the moon that's been way overexposed. The bright dot just to the left the tree is the one I suspected was Venus. Plus a few of the brighter stars were visible when I took this photo.

The day's hike was relatively flat for the most part, going through cattle country. Visibility was excellent for much of the day since the cattle ranches were wide open swaths of prairies--but the trail still stayed above 9,000 feet all day. I stopped for lunch on top of the one hill I had to climb--a piddling thing that involved about a 600-foot climb. The air was still chilly, and clouds started rolling in. I took a break in the open, hoping the sun might come out and warm me up a bit--which it did, then almost immediately started raining lightly.

Figuring the rain was coming from a single, large cloud, I threw my tarp over myself like a blanket and decided to wait it out. The rain picked up, but then the tone of the rain changed and I look out from under the tarp to notice it was hailing. And that the sun was still out. Nature hates me.

I hung out a bit longer, and about 20 minutes after it started, the rain and hail stopped and the sun come out. I let the tarp dry out for another 10 minutes before packing it up and hitting the trail. More of the clouds on the horizon looked like they might have rain. I wanted to use the break in weather to get as much distance on as I could before the next storm cloud flew by.

An hour or two later, the rain returned--which invited its friends: hail, thunder and lightning.

At this point on the trail, there were no trees around and dark, ominous clouds as far as the eye could see. This storm looked like it was going to settle in, and I pulled out my umbrella and pushed on. I had to be careful with the umbrella, though, because small wind gusts kept wanting to blow it inside out and fought with it the entire time. It was only the second time on this hike I had to pull out the umbrella for rain.

A little to my surprise, the rain did stop after about 20 minutes, and another 20 minutes the sun come out again. The weather certainly was fickle out here!

You know its raining when my umbrella shows up in a photo!

I reached Cochetopa Creek in the mid-afternoon. It's not a big creek, although it's among one of the bigger ones along the Colorado Trail--certainly not the biggest, but bigger than most of the trickles that the trail passes--so I was a little surprised when I realized that there was no bridge across it. It looked like someone had created a small makeshift one at some point, but it had washed out. I was going to have to ford the creek. I wasn't really excited about getting my feet soaked, but I saw no way around it. *grumbling*

I took a short break by the creek, filled up with water, then prepared to dunk my feet as I waded knee-deep across the creek.

The crossing went by without a hitch, and I continued following the valley that carried the creek upstream.

Cochetopa Creek and where I had to ford my first creek of the trail!
The weird thing about this creek and the valley, it was clearly uphill. Water flows downhill, after all, and I was hiking upstream so I had to be hiking uphill. But like I said before, most of the day the trail was remarkably flat, and this section of my topo map looked completely flat.

But looking up the valley, I would have sworn and bet good money that I was walking downhill. For several miles, it felt like I was going downhill, it looked like I was going downhill, and I couldn't really quite figure out why. I might have written off the elevation profile in my guidebook as being "obviously" wrong here--guidebooks aren't 100% accurate, after all--but following the creek upstream confirmed that I had to be going uphill.

My brain was going crazy with the inconsistency. I couldn't capture the effect in my photos, though. In my photos, they all look like I'm going uphill. It's a weird effect, but I guess you'll have to visit the place to see it for yourself!

Late in the afternoon, the started sprinkling again, but it stopped and the sun came out as I approached the Eddiesville Trailhead. I was also pleased to discover a wonderful outhouse there that was well-stocked with toilet paper, didn't smell at all, and was absolutely spotless. I couldn't go by without stopping for the other break.... =)

I didn't linger, though, because the next wave of dark clouds was rolling in and I wanted to set up camp before it struck. My destination was another mile and a half up the trail.

Home, sweet home for the night. Or so I thought....

My destination, unfortunately, turned out to be a meadow. I definitely needed to set up my tarp, but that's hard to do with one trekking pole and no trees around, and I thought about heading up to the treeline, but that area was quite steep and would be difficult to not roll down the hill during the night. So I had to decide--the flat, treeless meadow at a site that was clearly used regularly for camping, or on the steep slopes with the trees?

I decided to go with the treeless meadow. Strictly speaking, the side of the tarp by my feet can hang low to the ground. It's only near my head that I need a bit more room which is where I used my trekking pole to hold up the tarp. I got the tarp up and myself tucked inside before the next rain started.

Which is when a hard rain started to fall, and I was very glad to be under a tarp this time. Unfortunately, the wind also picked up and blew directly into the one open side of my tarp blowing the rain water directly under the tarp! Argh! I opened my umbrella to plug the hole, but I had to constantly hold the umbrella in place so the wind wouldn't blow it askew and allow the rain to get in. It was an annoying position to be in, but the alternative would be to get up and change the direction the open side of the tarp faced--which I had no intention of doing in the driving rain.

But fortunately, the rain stopped after about a half hour and I closed the umbrella and cooked up dinner under the protection of the tarp. Life was good!

The sun soon set and that's when things took a real turn for the worse. A torrential downpour started and the wind wiped itself into a frenzy. In hindsight, I wished I had rotated the direction of the tarp during the lull in storms, but thinking it would only go for a half hour or so before settling down again, I didn't bother.

I plugged the hole at the end of my tarp with my umbrella, but the wind was so strong it was actually blowing rain around the edges of it under the tarp anyhow. I lowered the front of the tarp to give it a smaller opening and less headroom, but nothing I did could stop all of the rain this time from getting to me. It blocked most of the rain, but the wind was too strong and the open end of the tarp facing in the absolutely worst position possible.

After sunset, temperatures plunged and the wind and rain grew even more furious and I started shivering. I couldn't do anything but try to hold the umbrella in place and wait out the half hour until there was another lull in the weather--but the lull never came.

Nine o'clock came and went, and I could feel the water seeping into my down sleeping bag. Down is a terrible insulator when it gets wet, and it was getting wet and the cold seeped deeper into my bones and I shivered uncontrollably.

Ten o'clock came and went, and I started questioning the wisdom of being out there. I could have been nice and warm at home in Seattle instead of in this horrible storm slowly freezing to death.

Eleven o'clock came and went, and I wondered why the storm kept going. They've never lasted this long before! Life sucked.

At midnight, my tarp whipped in the wind-driven rain that gave no hint of slowing, and I started worrying about the structural integrity of the tarp.Would the wind pull out the stakes and blow it away? Would the wind rip it to shreds? If I lost that tarp, it could cost me my life. I needed a Plan B. What should I do if things got worse? I remembered that outhouse I passed a mile and half back. I'd go there. Just leave all my stuff here, and start hiking back to that outhouse. Why didn't I just set up camp in the outhouse that afternoon? God, what I wouldn't have given to be camped in that outhouse right then. You know it's bad when camping in an outhouse seems like a luxury. I'd have given it a 5-star Yelp review. "Best outhouse ever. Saved my life. Literally."

One o'clock came and went, and the fury of the storm continued. I was getting exhausted from the shivering and immensely uncomfortable still holding the umbrella in place. I felt like that flimsy umbrella was the only thing keeping me alive anymore. I prayed that the storm would break by morning. Surely it had to break by morning. Every single friggin' morning on the trail is always bright and sunny. I couldn't fall asleep either. I had to keep holding the umbrella in place, and I had to stay awake shivering so I didn't freeze to death in my sleep. It's the night that would never end. If there's a hell, I was in it. Why the hell was I even out here? I hate hiking. (Obviously, I don't--most of the time--but times like this make me question my hobbies!) My sleeping bag was soaked and it was extraordinarily cold out. I wasn't going to die here, though. No, I'd walk to the outhouse to die first.

And... finally.... at some point just before 2:00, the rain finally stopped. It was a gradual shift and I didn't immediately realize it as the rain and wind tapered off. Maybe I didn't notice at first just because I was so tired and exhausted and not thinking clearly, but at one point, I realized that the rain sounded like the lightest of sprinkles and the wind wasn't whipping the tarp so hard anymore. I hoped and prayed that meant the storm was finally coming to an end. Please! Please! Let this be the end of it! I've suffered enough!

Another long 15 minutes went by before I stopped hearing rain on the tarp anymore, and without the rain, I finally closed the umbrella and tucked myself fully into my sleeping bag, tucked into a fetal position, wrapping my arms tightly around myself and rubbing my arms trying to get warm.

And finally, I drifted off into an uncomfortable, cold sleep. Stupid trail.

Sunrise on the trail! 'Twas a beautiful morning! Spirits were high! Life was good!

If the crow looks like it's shaped a little oddly, it's because I snapped this photo JUST as the bird took off from its perch on the fence post. Pure luck that I got it just as it was taking off!
Much of the day was hiking through cattle country.
Look at how flat this area is! You'd never think this was taken in the mountains at over 9,000 feet above sea level!
Not a lot of trees around for protection from the elements either.
Looks like someone created a DIY cattle guard made out of fence posts!
I think this is used to load cattle into and off of trucks.

This looks like a fine place to take a lunch break, right? =)
Except for the rain and hail!
But it was just a passing storm and I let my tarp dry out before putting it away again.

If the sign is upside-down, does that mean we're supposed to leave the gate closed? =) (The other side of the sign--visible to people coming from the other direction--says to keep the gate closed, so I'm guessing that it's supposed to stay closed.)
The swath of dead trees--when there were trees at all--continued all day today. (Although the beetle infestation doesn't seem to affect the aspen--just the large, mature evergreens.)
I couldn't have known it when I took this photo, but later that night I'd be wishing I had stopped and camped in this outhouse! Life would have so much better if only I had camped in the outhouse. *sigh*
So simple, and yet so effective.... Did you know that barbed-wire was only invented in the 1860s and perfected in the 1870s? Native Americans called it "the Devils rope." History of Barbed-Wire--it's quite interesting!

Monday, November 27, 2017

Day 20: A long, tough slog

September 13: As normal, I woke up to another clear, sunny day. Also as normal, I got on the trail and hiking at around 7:00. The two hunters I shared a camp with left maybe a half hour before me, and they drove their motorbikes up the trail and out of view.

Sunrise at Baldy Lake

I checked my guidebook to see what to expect of the trail coming up. I had a half-mile, couple of hundred feet climb back to the trail from Baldy Lake which was no surprise since I had to walk off trail the evening before to get here. The trail stayed in a narrow elevation range, with about half a dozen high points to get over. The first half of the day looked a bit rugged while the second half of the day looked fairly flat. The next reliable water source was about 4 or 5 miles away, but then there wouldn't be anymore for another 9 miles and after that nothing for another 9 miles. Not too bad. I shouldn't have to carry more than about a liter of water at any given time. Maybe a liter and a half later in the day after it warms up and I sweat more.

I had still had two liters of water left over after breakfast and dumped out half of it as unnecessary. No reason to carry anymore weight than I really needed! I'll fill a large 3-liter container with water when I first arrive at camp so I don't have to keep going back and forth multiple times for water. I'll take far more water than I need, then dump out whatever extra I have when I'm ready to leave in the morning.

And I packed up and hit the trail.

A couple of miles in, I passed the two motorbikes of the hunters I camped with, but the hunters were nowhere to be seen. I figured they couldn't be too far away, though. Somewhere off trail, looking to bag their elk.

Motorbikes of the two hunters I shared a camp with last night, but the hunters were nowhere to be seen.

And after four or five miles, I arrived at Razor Creek where I was shocked and horrified to discover that the creek was dry! You saw this coming, didn't you, when I mentioned pouring out the "unnecessary" liter of water that morning? I never talk about doing that even though it happens pretty much every morning, but today--I did! Because it's relevant! =)

I was angry at my guidebook, which promised "reliable" water at Razor Creek. This was a particularly bad place for this to happen as well since the next reliable water source was another NINE miles up the trail, and the day was already warming up. I probably wouldn't die hiking nine miles with the tiny little bit of water still in my water bottle, but I'd be miserably thirsty by the time I reached the next water.

Maybe five minutes before reaching the creek, I had passed a small puddle of water trapped in the crevice of a boulder and I thought about going back for that. The puddle looked like it had been maybe 6 inches deep and a foot around--I could get water out of that, although it would mean backtracking a little bit. But the water had looked pretty nasty too--I skipped by it for the fresh water of Razor Creek. But as they say, beggars can't be choosers!

There was a trail junction at Razor Creek. The Colorado Trail touches the creek then bounces off immediately and heads to higher elevations, but another side trail follows the length of the creek and I wondered if maybe water was flowing further downstream. I really didn't like the idea of hiking perhaps several miles along the creek with no guarantee of finding water, though.

But there was a hunter nearby, and I asked him about water. Maybe he would know where to find some nearby water. We chatted for several minutes, but in terms of water, he didn't know of anything nearby--just that Razor Creek was dry, but he offered to give me some of his water.

The Hunter at Razor Creek. Speaking of which, why is it hunters always wear camo, but then put on a bright orange coat that covers it? Doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose of wearing camo in the first place? I'd really like to meet a hunter just wearing regular outdoor gear! =)

"Are you sure you don't need it?" I said. I really didn't want to leave him in a bad spot. "There is that tiny, stagnant puddle I could go back to. Obviously, it's not ideal, but I'm not going to die or anything."

But he assured me he'd be fine. He was only going to be out there for a few more hours and was heading home that afternoon. He could give me about a liter of a liter.

A liter!!!

I needed enough to get me through about nine miles of rugged terrain on an increasingly hot day. I would have preferred a couple of liters, but a liter of clean, fresh water was a godsend!

We chatted a bit more. He too was hunting elk, although he confessed that he really wasn't interested in the actual hunting. He was there for the camaraderie with his friends. I didn't see any of his friends around at the time, though, so there didn't appear to be much camaraderie going on. Except with me. =)

I joked that he shouldn't let his friends know that. They might not want to go hunting with him again if they knew he really wasn't interested in shooting anything. =)

Eventually, I thanked the man for the extra water and continued along the trail.

The only people I saw all day were hunters. I didn't see a single hiker or biker the entire day. Was I alone on the trail now?

The trail wasn't particularly difficult in itself today, but the limited water, hot weather and too-heavy pack took its toll on me. My pace slowed and my feet ached and I can't say that I really enjoyed the day.

Late in the afternoon, the trail followed dirt roads for quite a few miles. I don't mind the trail following little-used dirt roads since they tended to be a lot flatter than normal trail and didn't have to worry about brush overgrowing the trail and scratching at me, so I followed dirt roads for a few hours the last half of the day. But there was little shade and the sun bore down relentlessly.

I wound up camping near Los Creek, arriving at about 6:30 after nearly 12 hours of hiking. I covered 23 miles in 57,896 steps according to my Fitbit--it was my longest day on the trail so far, and I was exhausted.

One thing that didn't happen--afternoon thunderstorms. The skies stayed cleared all day, much to my surprise. Which was brutal on the long road walks where there wasn't shade to keep me cool, but it also meant I had absolutely no qualms about cowboy camping in an open field. I hated setting up my tarp and loved cowboy camping, and this was the first time in a week I could cowboy camp. It was my first time I cowboy camped on the trail with a wide, unobstructed view of the night-time sky. I wanted to see the stars in all their glory far away from city lights!

After eating dinner, brushing my teeth, and reading a little, darkness descended and the stars came out. Beautiful, countless stars--and the Milky Way streaked across the sky. I knew it was time to do a little more astrophotography! I was carrying this ridiculously big and heavy camera, and it was time to get more use out of it! And all from the comfort of my sleeping bag. =)

I used my pack and stove and other items to rest the camera on for the long duration photos I knew I'd be taking. (I didn't carry a tripod, after all, but I still had to aim the camera and keep it steady.) I took lots of photos in the manual mode with a lot of trial and error. I still wasn't sure what the best combination of settings would be for a great photo. So I changed the ISO speeds, shutter speeds, and aperture, taking mental notes about how the photo would change each time I changed one of those settings. I opened the aperture as wide as possible--obviously I needed as much light as possible to get into the camera. The Milky Way looked considerably improved when I moved the ISO speed from 100 to 400, so I bumped it up again and again until it hit 6400 and the Milky Way just popped of the photo! I started with a long 30-second exposure, but the sky actually looked a bit too overexposed and eventually dialed it down to 15 seconds where I finally got my best photos of the night. And later, I could try adjusting it with photo-editing software as needed, but it really wasn't needed! (But it didn't stop me from trying. I did increase the contrast a bit, but that was it.)

I tried getting two different photos--one pointed toward the horizon where the Milky Way was brightest and the silhouette of trees would show on the horizon, and a second one straight up where it might look like one was flying through space and time itself. =) I could see the dust clouds blocking parts of the Milky Way. It was awesome, and I fell asleep with a huge smile on my face. The day was a long, tough slog, but moments like this make the hardships worth it.

And the road walking begins.... the vast majority of it was unshaded and under the brutal sun!

The trail even followed alongside Highway 114 for a brief awhile!
I totally didn't bring tire chains. I hope that cause me problems!
Lujan Creek turned out to be the only water source to be found along the trail today.

I made it to camp just as the sun set behind the mountain!
View looking straight up from my campsite. Not only is the Milky Way visible, but so is the dust that makes the dark regions within it!
But this might be my favorite photo of the entire trip! The Milky Way was brightest at the horizon--it almost looks like there's a forest fire burning behind those trees! And the dramatic silhouette of the trees in front of it is a nice touch! =)