Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Day 24: Colorado Trail Highs and Lows

September 17: I woke up to yet another beautiful morning! But as I expected, the temperatures inside the yurt were more-or-less the same as they were outside the yurt--a theory I tested when I stepped outside to pee. So I ate breakfast in my sleeping bag like I usually do, although this time I did it while sitting in a chair at a table so it was little more comfortable.

View from the yurt in the morning. It was a beautiful (but cold!) morning!

The trail climbed higher and higher, following the ridgelines like they were rolling hills that steadily increased in elevation with each rise. The weather started off cold and extremely windy--the windchill, no doubt, had to be below freezing for most of the day. In the sun, the cold temperatures were tolerable. In the shade--and it didn't take long before the first dark clouds obscured the sun--it was uncomfortably cold, so most of the day I wore an extra layer for warm and as a windbreak.

In the distance, I could see what looked like snow or hail falling. I'd never seen snow/hail falling from a distance before, but I knew that's what it had to be. It looked similar to rain with what looked like those wavy curtains hanging from the clouds--except being gray and dark like rain falling, it was a glimmering, bright white curtain.

When I saw the precipitation in the distance, I took a short break behind a large boulder as protection from the wind and hoped the storm cell would pass by and I'd continue on my merry way. It did precipitate--that weird graupel somewhere between snow and hail--but just for a bit. Then storm cell passed, and I continued on my way.

Late in the morning, I reached the highest point of the Colorado Trail at 13,270 feet (4045 m) above sea level. It was all downhill from here! Actually, it looked like anything but downhill. The immediate future looked downhill--a steep, brutal slope that looked more like I stood on the edge of a bottomless pit. The trail would drop a thousand feet towards Carson Saddle, then climb back up again to another 13,000-foot pass. It looked anything but flat!

I had little trouble identifying the highest point of the Colorado Trail!

I continued on, passing several people in ATVs on the dirt around near Carson Saddle. This area also had a lot of abandoned mines visible--which typically consisted of a collapsed, wooden structure and a suspiciously large pile of dirt with absolutely nothing growing no it. I could see them all over the hills and canyons. This had clearly been a hotbed of mining activity once upon a time, and I wondered what they mined and when it was active. I'd have to research it later....

The trail hit bottom at Carson Saddle then started heading uphill again which is when the weather really took a turn for the worse. Rain! Hail! Thunder! BOOM!

I didn't pull out my umbrella--as much as I would have loved to use it to protect myself from the rain, the wind was far too strong. When the rain turned to hail, the wind turned them into miniature bullets fired into my face. My face stung from the sideways hail, and I pulled out my buff and wrapped it around my head covering everything except my eyes and my nose. I put my sunglasses on to protect my eyes from the hail--I certainly didn't need it at this point to keep any sun out of my eyes!
Can you see the curtains of snow/hail in the distance? Unfortunately, it doesn't show up well in my photos, but you can kind of see it. A little.

In some respects, though, the hail--despite the painful sting if it struck bare skin--was a blessing. At least hail was cold and dry, unlike rain which is so very wet and cold. The windchill was miserable already, but it would have been far worse if there was wet to go with it.

Near the top of the pass, the storm cell passed by and the sun came out again. For a little while, at least. More ominous clouds were on the horizon.

Then the storm returned, but by the time I reached Cataract Lake, it had cleared up again. I'd covered almost 15 miles by 2:30 that afternoon and I was pleased with my progress, and given how early it was in the day, I decided to continue on.

I didn't make it more than a mile or mile and a half when another storm cell struck, and it was worse than anything else that came before it. Within a couple of minutes, I went from excellent visibility to being able to see no more than about four or five feet in any direction. Just white in every direction I looked, and this worried me as heavy flakes of snow swirled around violently. I needed to see where I was going. I wasn't familiar with this terrain. If the snow fell hard enough and fast enough and visibility was bad enough, I could easily loose the trail.

Even worse, I was still ascending UP towards another 13,000-foot pass that likely channeled the bad weather. This kind of weather was not a good time for taking risks or getting lost!

An old, abandoned mine. These scars were all over the hillsides and canyons by Carson Saddle!

I cursed in the wind. I had to go back. I had to turn around and backtrack. Back to Cataract Lake. I hate backtracking. I'd almost rather cut off a finger than have to backtrack, but it was, I knew, the smart thing to do. I cursed the weather gods again, and grudgingly turned around and headed back to Cataract Lake. Every step was another step away from my goal. Every step was wasted time, where I could have been resting, or enjoying a book on my Kindle.

And now it was snowing, with some of the snow starting to stick to the ground. I wanted to get camp set up before too much of it collected. I didn't want to camp on snow!

By the time I made it back to Cataract Lake, the storm cell had stopped and the sun even came out a little bit, but I had made my decision for the day--and anyhow, I could see more dark and ominous clouds on the horizon. Nope, I was done. Anyhow, after walking two or three miles round-trip and getting absolutely nowhere, it was too late in the day to reach the campsite I had been hoping to get to. Nope, I was definitely done for the day.

My problem, however, was that the area was so completely exposed. I didn't see any trees anywhere! Just a few small bushes that didn't grow more than waist-high. I decided to camp near those as at least a partial windbreak, and I could tie the low-end of my tarp (the end by my feet) to the bushes. It wouldn't be very high, but it was still better than staking it directly into the ground. It was a terrible place for a tarp, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances. If the weather had been nice, I'd rejoice at the wide-open skies and expansive views. In bad weather, a different adjective came to mind: exposed. It was such an exposed location. I looked for suitable boulders I might be able to camp behind for protection but found nothing. I examined my maps, looking at trail junctions I just passed thinking maybe I could find something down one of those side trails, but nothing in my topomap suggested it would be any better than what I had here. And, at least at this location, I had water from Cataract Lake.

I cooked dinner, cleaned my dishes, brushed my teeth and settled in for a long night with my Kindle.

That only lasted for an hour before the next storm cell blew in, dropping more snow and graupel with winds whipping around. Fortunately, I set my tarp up correctly this time and the wind hit the side of the tarp rather than entering in through the front, but it was wild enough that stray gusts still sometimes blew in so I plugged the hole with my umbrella anyhow. I couldn't read comfortably while the storm was blowing, so I just shivered as night descended and hoped it wouldn't last long.

It lasted for an hour or so before calming down, by which time I was ready to hit the sack and fall into a deep sleep.

It was only later that I realized those bones must have come from a thru-hiker that tried to continue on past Cataract Lake... but didn't make it!

I barely fell asleep, though, before another storm hit. Snow started piling up out the tarp, and although I was uncomfortably cold and shivering like crazy, at least I stayed dry. It wasn't half as bad as that miserable night on the trail three nights ago. Miserable, but only a second-place miserable. My gear wasn't designed to handle these cold temperatures! Heck, I didn't even carry a sleeping pad!

The storm passed by, and I looked outside and could see the stars twinkling again. Thank goodness! I could get some sleep now!

But no.... yet a third storm blew through. I cursed the weather gods again. "Why won't you let me sleep?!" The temperatures continued to plummet as the night progressed, and I shivered uncontrollably. "What the hell am I doing out here anyhow?" I imagined the yurt from last night. Oh, what I'd give to be in the yurt right then. Why did I camp out in awful weather, then camp in a yurt on a beautiful, clear night? It seemed so unfair....

Eventually the storm passed, and I peeked out at the growing pile of snow outside and the stars twinkling--just before yet another storm cell arrived.

Jesus Christ! Seriously? Again?! How many more of these would there be?!

I could feel the weight of the snow piling up on my tarp, and I poked at it from underneath feeling a good chunk of it side off the side.

At some point during the night, I stopped shivering--which worried me. I remembered reading that people suffering from hypothermia--they first shiver to stay warm, but after their body temperature drops below a certain level, they start feeling warm again. You'll hear stories about people dying from exposure after taking off most of their clothes. They weren't committing suicide, though--their bodies were so screwed up that they thought they were hot and took off their clothes.

And while I had been miserable, shivering--I figured as long as I felt cold and miserable and was shivering, I was actually okay. So I grew a little concerned about myself when I stopped shivering. I didn't feel cold anymore. Was that a sign that I had gotten too cold? How could I know? What if my body temperature had fallen too low? What's the best way to warm it up?

But on the other hand, it also occurred to me that I was being entirely too rational for someone who was dying of hypothermia! Don't those people start losing their ability to speak coherently and think objectively? It seemed to me like those symptoms didn't apply. Or maybe.... I was just imagining that I was thinking clearly and speaking coherently? After all, don't crazy people usually think they're entirely rational and sane?

Even though I wasn't shivering, I did still feel cold. That had to be good, right? Maybe my body was just too tired of shivering to keep shivering? I was slowly driving myself crazy trying to figure out if I was crazy.

The forth storm finally passed by, and the stars once again came out and twinkled. They were absolutely beautiful and it occurred to me that I could get some absolutely awesome astrophotos. But it was too friggin' cold. I wasn't going to stick one finger outside of my sleeping bag if I didn't have to.

No, I decided, I wasn't dying of hypothermia. Maybe I wasn't shivering, but I was still cold and as far as I could tell, thinking perfectly rationally. What I was, however, was extremely tired. It was well after midnight at this point and finally.... I started drifting off, exhausted, and the last thought I remember having before falling asleep was hoping that I would wake up in the morning. I probably would. I certainly hoped so, at least. =)

I will admit, the scenery in this second half the trail is much better than the first half! But it's also a lot higher and more exposed... just as the weather was getting colder and nasty! In hindsight, I probably would have enjoyed this trail more if I hiked from Durango to Denver instead.

White-tailed Ptarmigan

I practically stepped on these birds before I knew they were there because they blended in with the rocks so well! It wasn't until they moved by running away from me that I noticed them. But fortunately, they didn't run far and I had time to pull out my fancy camera with the zoom lens to get those two other close-up photos.
See those white "curtains" under the clouds near the left? Yep, snow/hail/graupel! Coming my way!

At long last, I finally got a photo of a marmot on this trip! This wasn't the first one I had seen, but it was the first one I'd been able to pull out my fancy camera in time to get a good shot of!
A fresh dusting of snow had clearly hit those mountains....

Cataract Lake--and would unexpectedly become my home for the night!

1 comment:

Mary said...

I learned a new word!!!! Thanks, Ryan! This day's entry really makes me REALLY want to avoid camping at all costs. I already felt this way due to a weekend backpacking trip in 1976 but four freezing storms in one night really cements my love of high-end hotels.

Graupel - Drizzle (Freezing drizzle)

Graupel (German pronunciation: [ˈɡʁaʊpəl]; English: /ˈɡraʊpəl/), also called soft hail or snow pellets,[1] is precipitation that forms when supercooled water droplets are collected and freeze on falling snowflakes, forming 2–5 mm (0.08–0.20 in) balls of rime. Crystals that exhibit frozen droplets on their surfaces are often referred to as rimed. When this process continues so that the shape of the original snow crystal is no longer identifiable, the resulting crystal is referred to as graupel.