After GQ posted his trip pics from Colorado last year, it was really easy for me to decide what my long backpacking destination would be in 2015. I posted Mission COLT and was lucky to have awesome people sign up for it. Unfortunately, Miles had to bail as the trip drew close. The trip was still awesome without him - it just would have been awesomer.
We all arrived in Salida few days early to acclimatize for the trip. Salida is a great town by the way - it offers a variety of things to do and the people are just great out there. We stayed in Simple Lodge which took really good care of us : big shout-out to Mac! It was awesome to hear stories of hikers, mountain-bikers, dirt-bikers and other adventurers dropping in the lodge. We had a couple of days in town : enough time to explore local mountains, mountain bike, watch movies, drink beer, eat pizza and ice cream. Time flew, and just like that, it was time to start the adventure!
Note : I probably will use the word beautiful/amazing/great/awesome too many times below. Well, that's how the trip was :-/
[u][b]D-1 - Highway 114 to Fenced Spring - 18 miles; "KEWL"[/b][/u]
Up at 5 AM, we got ready to meet Nathan, who arrived promptly at 6. He had graciously (Thanks again, Trevor for connecting us to him) volunteered to drop us at the trailhead for a little sum of money. We started off on the road amid clear skies, were treated with a good sunrise along the way. 90 minutes later, we were at the trailhead. We thanked Nathan again, took a group shot and hopped on the trail.
It was going to be a tough day not only because of 6.5 days of food that we were all carrying, but also because we had 3L of water each - the first day was going to be fairly dry. Oh, well. The weather was good when we started, the temps were probably mid-fifties and it was slowly warming up. Heavy D ran out of space in his pack - so carried peaches in a plastic bag in hand the entire day. At first we walked in open fields, but soon we dipped into the pines. It was mostly flat, but we could all feel the thin air on small climbs. We would be walking on old 4 by 4 roads the entire day. We paused just before Rd NN14 for a quick snack break and then continued.
The trail now started opening up treating us with views of the mountains in the distance. The skies were so blue - much bluer than east coast skies, I noticed. Around noon, we were treated with a wild-flower surrounded landscape view.
A few miles later, we took a generous lunch break. At this time, there were plenty of clouds in the sky - but none of them seemed harmful. So, we continued. The trail first followed a more-used road and then after getting off it, opened up broadly. We could see far in the distance. It was nice.
We finally neared our destination - right next to a large fenced area. Initially, we were uncertain if it would have enough water, but we gladly found that it did. Oh and there were tons of cows around the fence - and we saw some poop in the fenced area. So we decided to do the right thing : not think much about it. We camped after hiking a little further. It starting raining a little bit, but stopped soon after. After setting up, Dan got a fire going and we enjoyed a nice chat having our meals. It was a good start. Bed time was around 8 PM.
[u][b]D-2 - Fenced Spring to Stewart Creek Trail - 17 miles; "Aint nobody got time for that"[/b][/u]
Despite the cows mooing intermittently and coyotes howling occasionally in the night, we all slept well. We woke up at 5:30 with temps around 40 degrees. The moon was phasing out, it looked beautiful on a clear sky backdrop.
We started hiking around 6:30. A little ways on, we met a few CDT thru-hikers one of whom Faceplant recognized. These were the first people we encountered on the trail after meeting nobody the day before. We also ran into cows - we did meet them the day before. We passed a pond and then followed Cochetopa creek - which we would parallel all day long. Along the way, we encountered several moisture-laden flowers.
The sun was warming up the temps - it was pleasant hiking conditions. The trail did some ups and downs and then dropped down to where it crosses the creek. Man, the creek was pretty darn cold. Once on the other side, we took a snack break, enjoying the rocky area around. Despite the freezing cold water, Heavy D and Turbo decided to take a dip in it.
The trail climbed up to stay above the creek. Behind us, we surveyed the view of the valley as the creek coiled itself like a snake. The flowers started appearing in more density making the landscape look scenic in places. We reached Eddiesville trailhead. It was time for a lunch break. When we resumed hiking, we saw that this trailhead was a popular car camping spot. There seemed to be no sign of thunderstorms, again. The scenery was back to awesome as we approached big mountains.
Around here, Pringles and Heavy D mentioned not feeling well. DOC gave both of them magical caffeine pills which reportedly worked very well. We walked on, gaining a lot of elevation, ultimately deciding to push for the furthest campsite at 11.7k ft. That would put us in a good position to summit San Luis Peak the next day. We ran into somebody called Rawah Ranger, who was a pretty big deal in the local area. We also happened to come across a bull-moose - first time a lot of us had seen one.
Our campsite was very beautiful - we could see the sun going down below the saddle of San Luis Peak. We could also see surrounding tall mountains - one of which was overcome by a dark cloud. We setup camp and made dinners. Heavy D choked down his last Chana Masala meal - swearing to buy that never again.
[u][b]D-3 Stewart Creek Trail to Middle Mineral Creek - 9 miles (+ ~2.5 miles out and back to San Luis Peak); "This town ain't big enough for the two of us"[/b][/u]
It rained upon us for majority of the night. When we woke up at 5 AM, we were surrounded by fog and it was drizzling lightly. Conditions didn't look great for us to summit San Luis Peak. I delayed our start time to 6:30 in hopes of weather clearing up by the time we reach the top. When we reached San Luis Saddle, I quickly setup my tent as conditions were cold and hypothermic. When all of us got there, Pringles decided that she didn't want to risk her health by going to San Luis. The remaining 5 of us decided to proceed leaving our packs behind. Still in the fog, slowly and gradually we climbed the steep, rocky trail to the top. One could really feel the very thin air. I felt like I was Darth Vader on those climbs because of my breathing sounds. It took us just about 50 minutes to cover a mere distance of 1.3 miles. Despite no views, we were joyous at the top to make it to a 14k summit. We took celebratory shots.
The clouds parted for a little bit giving us a glimpse of what the views could be. We headed back as the weather started clearing more and more. Back at the saddle, we took in the views on the other side. We could clearly see our path long ways ahead - it was time to get used to this.
The scale of the mountains was now bigger than before. And with the greenery around them, the views were mesmerizing all the time. We reached the other saddle and relished more views on top of it. The trail descended and then there was a fairly big tough climb. When we finally got to San Luis Pass, dark clouds seemed to be looming so I made a decision to seek cover in nearby trees. We had lunch and as it was still not raining, we dried our gear. A little while later conditions seemed good, so we got back on the trail. We had a big 1,000 ft climb ahead of us - we took our time to do that. More views awaited us at the top.
We then descended, encountering pikas and marmots for the first time on the trip here. We would see many of these later. We filled some water at East Mineral Creek and then blasted off to the campsite. Taking in another scenic flower-laden landscape, we descended our way to our campsite - Middle Mineral Creek.
We dried our gear further as it was bright and sunny. Bradley, who was hiking the CT, caught up with us and set camp nearby. It was nice to run into him. We made a fire and had dinner. It was the end of an Epic day.
[u][b]D-4 Middle Mineral Creek to campsite after Yurt - 19 miles "Yo mama so fat she sat on an iPhone and turned it into an iPad"[/b][/u]
It rained again in the night, but not for long. We were up at 5 and on the trail at 6. The skies were back to being all clear and really blue. As we climbed up, we saw magical clouds dancing around us.
It was really great to hike early everyday - one could see the sun spraying its light on the mountains; clouds were bonus today. We soaked it all in. The trail went around a pass overlooking into a deep valley with clouds below us. It was breathtaking.
We now landed into flat lush-green playground - Snow Mesa. It is amazing how far it spreads - you could really not see it end. We made good speed on this and converged at our meeting point for the day - Spring Creek Pass. We dried our gear, had our lunches and said goodbye to Bradley, who headed to Lake City to resupply one final time. At this point, it was sunny and just as usual, clouds were rolling in - but they appeared innocent. We resumed hiking after a long break. Off the 4x4 roads, we launched ourselves on top of Jarosa Mesa and were rewarded by the beauty again.
After crossing a 4-way junction, we passed a sheep infested area - apparently managed by a herder with his dog.
One final climb and we were on our descent to the campsite. From an open, exposed area, we walked into the woods - DOC posed his yellow t-shirt which seemed to blend well with the surroundings.
We reached the yurt. Upon learning that two people were staying there and the fact that it could take only upto six people, I decided to camp in the woods ahead. The water seemed tricky with its brown color, but in the end we all survived. We made a campfire again today, and just as we finished our dinners, it started pouring down hard forcing us to head to bed really early at 7. I figured everybody could use some extra rest after the long day.
[u][b]D-5 Yurt to Cataract Creek - 14 miles "Candy Ass"[/b][/u]
Wake up at 5:30 and on the trail at 6:30. It was nice to see the sunlight gleaming on the plants near the campsite.
We started climbing towards the ridge - today the trail was supposed to be really high up touching 13k ft. Once we got really high up, we saw the mighty San Juans on our right. I happened to be hiking with DOC, Heavy D and Faceplant here - we took a pic with the San Juans in the background.
The trail climbed further offering more views of the mountains and a large lake in the distance. We reached the highest point on the CT at 13.3k ft. We celebrated and then descended to Carson Saddle Road, again treated with many views of the San Juans. We dried our gear and had lunch near an old abandoned mining area. When we resumed, we ran into a group of ladies who asked for some directions. We then savored the beautiful views of Lost Trail Creek Valley.
We climbed to the ridge listening to interesting conversations between Heavy D and DOC. Some clouds in the distance looked really nasty, we saw flashes of lightening. They seemed far away for now though. From here, it was a short descent to Cataract Creek - our campsite. We got to the campsite, pitched our shelters, gathered water.
Soon after, it started raining hard upon us. And then it started hailing.
And then thunderstorms boomed. I think Turbo caught some videos of that storm from his tent - it will be interesting to see. The thunderstorms first started coming closer, but eventually moved away. It rained for 2 hours or so and just like that, it stopped. Heck, there was even an awesome rainbow outside. Complete U-turn. We all came out and had a nice dinner together. Pringles claimed that Heavy D's cascadias were women's shoes. Everyone was in great spirits. Soon, we were off to bed.
[b][u]D-6 Cataract Creek to Elk Creek - 20 miles "Give me a Hell Yeah"[/u][/b]
I happened to wake up the night before and saw the starlit sky. I could even see the Milky Way with naked eyes. I gave a shot at some star pics. The next morning, we were on the trail at 6. As we left behind Cataract Creek, we turned around to catch magnificent light from the sky reflecting upon the creek. It was surreal.
As per our usual routine, we climbed to the ridges. The skies were clear and blue. We passed through yellow flowers around us which was pretty appealing especially in the wake of sunrise.
This was going to be a tough, but rewarding day where we would climb up and down a lot of mountains. We passed some lakes on top of mountains. On one of our major descents just before Stony Pass, we saw more vivid wildflower landscapes. I tried to take it all in.
We saw marmots as we edged closer to Stony Pass, our meeting point of the today. We performed our rituals : drying gear and having lunch. Pringles mentioned that she was feeling pretty feverish and briefly considered bailing here. After taking some medication, she started feeling better and continued on! We walked on until the trail started descending to Cunningham Gulch. The trail was about to transform from green, lush grasslands laden with wildflowers to rocks for a short amount of time.
We zig-zagged our way down and hopped on the rocky land. After taking a short break, we continued and got to the CDT cutoff eventually. So far CT and CDT had remained the same on our trip, but it was here that they separated. We said goodbye to CDT and headed to the top of Elk Creek Trail not entirely knowing what was ahead of us. We got to the top and stared at the valley below. On our right, were soft, green grasslands with a lake on top. On our left were tall, mighty rocky mountains. In the middle was our trail going down very gradually, via multiple switchbacks, through beautiful, colorful flowers. It was unreal. I was blown off my feet. It was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen.
Walking down it, I was first very happy, but near the bottom, I felt a little sadness creeping in. It was all going to end tomorrow. I had been into the trail so much for the past 6 days that it became a little hard to accept that we would complete our trip tomorrow and be out. Just like that.
Anyways, we soldiered on, continually treated by views of the rocks on the left. The trail dipped below tree line and after a steep descent, we had a campsite all to ourselves. We pitched shelter, most of us took quick baths. Dinners were had and then we were off to sleep. The weather had been great all day and it did not even rain later in the night. It was a perfect day!
[u][b]D-7 Elk Creek to Molas Lake - 10 miles "Sssupp Bruhhh?"[/b][/u]
I woke up again the night before to capture star shots with some success. The night sky was again so beautiful.
Up at 5:30, on the trail at 6:30. We descended along Elk Creek which became louder as we went along. The trail was often rocky in this area. At some point, we ran into 4-5 cow mooses. Not wanting to confront them, we walked around the trail - we managed to escape their wrath. We arrived at a pond which was still and offered a nice reflection.
Further along, we crossed the railway tracks (the train from Silverton to Durango travels on the very same tracks) and walked across a bridge crossing over Animas river. This was the base of a 1,000 ft. gradual climb. In the initial parts of the climb, we caught views of the beautiful valley behind us.
Once at the top, the terrain became flat before climbing again towards Molas Lake. I ran into DOC, Faceplant, Pringles and Turbo here. We waited for Heavy D to catch-up and head together to the end. There was a bit of delay as Heavy D ended up straying off the trail, but we eventually located him. We all walked further on the CT until the turnoff to the parking area came. It was time to say goodbye to CT - our home for the past 7 days.
Hitching a ride didn't turn out to be easy peasy, but we ultimately found somebody who dropped us in Silverton. We gorged on food, took showers, had beer and whiskies, and headed home in a couple of days.
All-in-all, I had a fantastic time on the trail. To walk among such mountains with such great company - I call myself very lucky for that. And we had such great weather compared to how the other group fared last year - I am really grateful for that. The everyday rhythm on the trail - pack, walk, setup camp, eat, sleep - I was in it so deep, that it was really weird to be in town after. It took some adjusting to. It just made me realize how much I want to backpack more and longer.
To GQ and others from the trip last year : Thanks a lot for all the help in planning - It was much easier to organize this trip after learning from your experience.
To my comrades who joined me on this trip : thanks a lot your company. I certainly had a ton of fun in your company, the trip would really not have been so awesome without you. Thank you for making Mission COLT a success, everyone. Please feel free to add on your experience in your own words below.
P.S. The trailnames we gave to Heavy D still bring a big smile on my face : Feast Mode, Sir-feasts-a-lot, Popeye (hint : he used to put a ton of Olive Oil in his food), D-Light, Chana Masala.
P.P.S. In case you are wondering about the phrases, DOC and Heavy D were teaching me those to make me more Americanized. :)
Beautiful/amazing/great/awesome trip report, B.A.! Your photographs are phenomenal.
Rahwah Ranger - "I don't like to brag, but I'm a pretty big deal." Thank you for organizing and leading a great, fun trip. Eeyore, I do have to take partial credit for the weather even though my Luck o' the Irish is not as powerful as your "It looks like we're in for some nasty weather, I guess."
Excellent trip report! A pleasure to read! I like "Feast Mode," BTW.
DOC - Thanks! The Rawah Ranger comment reminds of the guy we met on last day. He asked if I knew an Indian "Spiritiual Rapper" called Nemo Patel, who was really "wise for his age". Oh my my. "Well oil beef hooked"
Thanks, U-turn. Ironically, it was Heavy D who came up with Feast Mode :)