Friday, March 18, 2022

Day 68: A brutal end to the day....

June 27: The weather forecast predicted decent weather in the morning and early afternoon but that rain and thunderstorms would strike late in the afternoon, so I planned to hit the trail early and hopefully knock out about 20 miles of hiking before the storm hit.

Out of Monarch Pass, the trail ran through this ski area.

I wanted to get a particularly early start, but I still needed to hitch a ride back to the trail. I thought about trying to leave as early as 5:00am, but I doubted there would be much traffic and who would pick me up when it was still dark outside? As much as I wanted an early start, there was no sense standing around in the cold for a couple of hours with no traffic driving by.

So I waited until about sunrise before heading out. I walked up to a busy junction where Highway 285 crossed Highway 50 and set my pack down to wait. I didn't stick out my thumb just yet, but only because there weren't any cars going by.

It was tempting just to take another zero day. Evenstar was expecting to get into town today, and Pez was already in town, but I had already had one zero day and this area is just expensive. Nope, can't let the grass be growing under my feet!

Every couple of minutes, a vehicle or two would drive by and I would dutifully stick out my thumb. Most of the time, they continued down Highway 285 (I was trying to get up Highway 50), but I'd stick out my thumb anyhow just in case they were planning to turn up toward Monarch Pass. I worried it might take awhile to get a ride given the low level of traffic this early in the morning, but fortunately, I only had to wait about 15 minutes before a truck pulled over and the driver asked where I was headed. "Monarch Pass," I answered.

"Hop in," he told me. "Just throw your pack in the back." I threw my pack in the back of the pick-up truck and got into the backseat of the vehicle which was occupied by two people: two mountain bikers on their way to Monarch Pass. They planned to do a long ride from Monarch Pass down to.... well, I'm not sure where, but they would follow a long section of the CDT. 

They told me that they had actually passed me earlier but had driven to the end of their bike ride to drop off another vehicle and had planned to pick me up on the way to Monarch Pass if I was still there trying to get a ride. So they had originally come with two vehicles and could make a largely downhill, one-way trip on their mountain bikes. Sweet!

At the pass, I thanked them for the ride and we parted ways. They were still pulling their mountain bikes out of their truck and getting set up while I headed across the highway and up the CDT.

The trail climbed steeply out of Monarch Pass, the skies were overcast and the thin air was cold, but there was no rain for which I was grateful. I pushed myself hard, wanting to knock out the 20-or-so miles I had wanted to get done before any storms arrived, but it was exhausting with my pack filled to the brim with food and water.

Near the high point of the day, the skies cleared up a bit and I got a bit of cheerful sunshine. It was great hiking weather, albeit a bit chilly! =)

It didn't last very long, however, and the clouds soon returned. The trail descended quite a bit, then started climbing toward the next pass--the second of the two passes I had hoped to get over today. I was about 20 seconds from the top when I heard the first thunder. Shoot! Of course! Wait until I'm at the high point! It was a very exposed location at the top of the pass--but at least it wasn't the top of a mountain. All the same, I wasn't particularly comfortable with this location in the thunderstorm. So close to the top.... I pushed onward.

Typically I like to take a break at the top of a pass. Admire the views, rest a bit, take some photos. I didn't stop this time, however, not in a thunderstorm. I wanted to descend the other side as quickly as possible!

The thunder only lasted about 15 minutes before taking a short rest, which gave me enough time to descend below tree level before the thunderstorm gained some steam and picked up again.

The trail had descended to an old railroad line that's now a hiking trail. I was excited about that--a rail-to-trail line is always flat, wide and easy! They're wonderful for walking, and I could move quickly. And I had no fear of lightning being down on these lower slopes surrounded by trees.

Soon hail started falling. A heavy hail, that begin to pile up on the trail like snow. I pulled out my umbrella and pushed onward. Near the trailhead for the rail-to-trail line, it warned that camping wasn't allowed in that area so my plan was to find somewhere to camp near the end of the rail-to-trail section a couple of miles away. At this point, I would have been happy to stop anywhere. I had made it over the two passes that I wanted to complete today and now that the weather was turning bad, I planned to stop at the first good site I could find. I just had to find the good site....

The last few miles of the day followed this old rail-to-trail system. You can see the hail started to collect at this point, but it hadn't gotten very bad. Not yet, at least....

I passed a few Colorado Trail thru-hikers heading southbound along the route. Until now, I typically only saw one or two of them in a day, but today it seemed like I passed a half-dozen of them. They were starting to get thicker! One of the hikers I found curled nearly in a fetal position under a tree with a bright red raincoat trying to stay out of the hail. He didn't look particularly comfortable, but told me he was fine and hoping for a break in the weather before looking for a place to camp. I wished him well and told him about potential campsites further in his direction, and he told me that there was space to camp near where the CDT left the rail-to-trail section. Sweet!

The hike became brutally cold as the hail continued. I walked quickly both to get to camp sooner and just to help keep me a bit warmer.

I finally reached the end of the rail-to-trail section where the CDT turned off and went up a steep hillside. Looking around, I didn't see any great places to camp. The ground was completely covered with hail, and the only flat place to set up camp was directly on the rail-to-trail which is compacted ground that's difficult to drive stakes into. Plus, the trees were too far off the trail to use them effectively for setting up my tarp. It was not an ideal situation.

But continuing further up the trail seemed like a bad idea as well. The steep slope led to higher and more-exposed locations. According to my maps, it would rise about 500 feet and cross over two more exposed passes.

So I reluctantly tried to make the best of a bad situation and began to set up camp right there on a pullout of the rail-to-trail. There was a tree I could use to anchor one end of my tarp, but I struggled to get the stake on the other side to hold my tarp up.

And the hail on the ground was problematic. It had turned into the consistency of a slushy, miserably cold and wet. Both of which were major problems for me since my groundsheet was no longer waterproof and I had no pad to sleep on.

This might be my worst night on the trail....

It might surprise you, but not having a waterproof groundsheet generally wasn't a big problem for me--even when it rains--because there's typically not much water on the ground between the surface of the ground and my groundsheet. My groundsheet would get wet, but it didn't get soaked. It was a minor inconvenience when I set up camp on wet ground, but once the tarp was up so new water wasn't being added to the ground and my body heat could work its magic, I'd often wake up the morning completely dry.

But this slushy-like hail just pooled water. Ice-cold water, no less! The hail that did melt couldn't drain properly since it was held in place by the unmelted hail. And without even a pad to sleep on, there was no way for me to escape it. It was a miserably cold and wet night.

I did throw pull out a couple of extra small trash bags I carried which I laid out under me like a groundsheet, and threw my pack over it for a little insulation, but it was miserable. Absolutely and utterly miserable. In hindsight, I wished I had stopped to set up camp somewhere near the trailhead--even if it was technically not allowed. If only I had managed to set up camp before the hail, I'd be totally fine. Stupid hail!

The thick layer of hail had formed a slushy-like substance that I was in absolutely no way prepared to sleep on! It would be the main cause for a miserable night in camp.

I was surprised when a few other hikers passed me a bit later in camp: Cramps, Blitz, and the hiking duo of Tick and Tock. I figured they'd probably set up camp somewhere nearby, but they all pushed onward, up to higher and more exposed locations. Where did they plan to camp?! I didn't know, but it wasn't my problem. =)

The hail and rain finally stopped shortly after I set up camp, but it was still brutally cold out and I had no way to keep dry and toasty warm camped on a slushy. So I spent most of the evening rubbing my hands together and shivering while trying to stay warm. Argh!

How can a day start so well and end so poorly?!

Occasionally, I still had to pass over small patches of snow across the trail, but none of them were particularly scary or problematic.

Bear Lake


This was the pass where I started hearing lightning mere seconds before reaching the top!

Then a brief window of nice weather shortly after descending the other side.

And then the hail started in earnest....

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