Colorado, you cruel and beautiful beast. 

I’m nearly out of Colorado and I am running late. It’s hard to chastise myself too hard about this as, had I not taken exactly the course of action and days off that I did, I would have hit the snow too early and either had some massive mishap or had to retreat and skip some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever walked through. This seems like a good deal to me, even if it does mean potentially getting snowed on in Montana. 

The last few weeks have been breathtaking, so much so I would actually gladly turn around right now and walk them in the other direction. The landscape, the sky, the rivers, the storms and the trail all seem to have been amped up to insane proportions – everything just got a whole lot bigger. From the moment we separated from the Colorado Trail, a 484 mile route from Denver to Durango, this has been the case.  Glorious, green mountain ridges undulate and stretch in every direction, wild animals and wildflowers abound, pristine lakes and alpine meadows surprise and delight and the climbs (oh the climbs!) have stretched upwards into oblivion. 

My legs feel amazing… Mostly. Some days they power under me like two great locomotives, not bothered about up or down, just raring to move me through this landscape. Right now, for example, I have just finished walking 26 miles and am propped up on a log in a meadow waiting for my hiking companions whom I haven’t seen since I left camp this morning, I have been waiting here for an hour and I could well be here for another. I felt so good all day that I barely stopped for a break, other than to get water and quickly wolf down a sandwich, as a result I got massively ahead. Despite this marathon day, I honestly don’t feel tired. I am 13 miles to a road and a town and feel like I could easily walk that distance right now, the terrain would suit it, it’s mostly flat or down hill. 

However, all of this can change instaneously. Some days (or rather some parts of some days) you just cannot get yourself moving. You know those days? We all get them I am sure, but where as you at home might just be mildly underperfroming at work, being a little grumpy and off with food servers or flagrantly ignoring your children’s cries for attention, I am up at around thirteen thousand feet in either blasting sun, hail or soul-numbing rain, with the equivalent weight of a medium sized toddler on my back, trying to haul myself up and over some rocky/grassy extrusion and then safely descend the other side. Add to this the excitement of an imminent, or indeed present, lightning storm and you can see how I might struggle.  Whether this is because of diet, sleep, fluctuations in the earth’s gravity or just plain lethargy is at this point unknown. 

I have fourteen-hundred miles left to hike, I guess I best get to it. 

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The wrong way down

I got to the top of the downclimb where I’d last seen Motown disappear over the edge, her final remark being “when I said it’s okay, I meant it looks do-able…” quite what that meant i had no idea. It had taken me a while to get to where she’d begun descending the cliff we had found ourselves perched upon and as I neared the edge I was initially pleased to see her still on the rock but at the same time horrified at what she was attempting – a 40ft vertical downclimb with a loose and awful runout into an impossibly steep gully that ended some 1500ft below, mellower ground being off to the right and not necessarily in the fall line.

I felt massively responsible, it was my route choice that had lead us to this spot. We’d had some luck hiking the actual divide to get onto snow free high ground and, aside from a steep and exciting rock scramble onto a knife edge ridge, we were feeling pleased with ourselves for creating alternative routes through the San Juans and avoiding excessive danger on banked snow. 

That luck had evidently now run out and we’d come unstuck descending from the divide to Squaw Pass, both the map and GPS failing to note the steepness of the terrain on the western flank of this mountain. One side was totally vertical for some 1000ft, the other (that we were descending) was not many degrees off 50*. 

As I peered over the edge I smiled and asked if she was okay, she grunted something back to me about always wanting to try rock climbing and continued her descent. This is not somewhere I’d have chosen to go down but, as she was nearly at the bottom I guess I had to follow suit. 

I was wearing my Scarpa mountain boots and, not for the first time since packing them out, i was very pleased to be carrying their excessive weight and size. By the time I started descending Motown was already at the bottom and was already calling words of encouragement for foot placements, I managed the first few moves with ease but them came stuck some 10ft above the ground. I decided to jettison my pack into a bush below and, in doing so, knocked Motown’s pack from its perch and sent it cartwheeling down the mountain. It bounced and rolled, tommahawking down the mountain before it flew in several high and graceful arcs, eventually smashing into a car sized boulder, her axe making an enormous “kerFLUNK!” sound as it hit. I’m sure it only took fractions of a second but it felt like we were watching that pack fall for an age. I’m sure it felt much worse for Motown.

Free of my pack and keen to redeem myself by finding her various possessions that had flown in every direction I finished off the downclimb and focused and scrambling down to her pack some 50ft below. It was remarkably unharmed by its journey. Water bottles and clif bars located, we high fived, took photos and began the next stage of our descent. We were still seemingly right on top of our destination with no clear way down except through some impenetrable woodland and snowfields to the north.

Needless to say we eventually made it down and after spending the next hour and a half sliding and smashing our way through snow and prickly brush and even scrambling down a gorge and descending another cliff by way of a fallen tree we emerged onto the valley floor, extatic to see some actual trail and open ground. We had just taken three hours to cover only two miles. We were exhausted, bleeding, sweaty and resolutely FILTHY. 
We walked down to the river Squaw and spent a happy hour dipping ourselves into the freezing river and taking advantage of the now late afternoon sun to do a little laundry, every now and then one of us remarking on the stupidity of the descent we’d taken, the mountain looking wholly unclimable from where we’d descended. 

As we lay there in the sun, a 400lb brown bear silently walked out of the woods and began to cross the meadow some 100ft down the valley. It looked like a juvinile, maybe 3 or 4 years old, it had a deeply tan coat that was almost orange in color. As we were down wind of it it was completely unaware of our presence but it began to run as it got out into the open ground. There was a playfulness to its movements, almost like it was running for pleasure rather than fear, it bounded through the water and, after inspecting a few bushes for early season berries, it made it’s way up the slope and into the woods, easily climbing over the jumble of dead trees that seems to litter every forest here.

 I watched it into the woods until I could see it no more. I was dirty, hungry, exhausted and still a long way from the trail, having just completed what I hope to be one of the gnarlyest and toughest descents of my life. Despite all of this, in that moment I was as contented and happy as I could ever be, knowing that had I not been through all of that to be at this exact place at this exact time, I would never have been able to watch the bear.

Bizarrely, that’s a deal I would take time and time again. Hiking is hard. At times it’s f!@#*ing hard. The highs can be precipitously high and the lows cavernously low and sometimes you can experience many such moments in a day. I have laid down under the stars and experienced such joy that i almost contemplated ending my life as in that moment I was unable to perceive ever being so happy again, I have hiked across ridges laughing with tears of joy streaming down my face at the sheer overwhelming  beauty of the world. I have also sat on a rock and cried like a child after stubbing a toe, I have literally smashed trekking poles to pieces and I have screamed at the trees until my throat was raw. Although you might think that on these days it’s not worth it, trust me when i say it’s ALWAYS worth it. I suppose that’s the reason I am out here, to experience life at its most raw and unfiltered, in all it’s precipitous highs and cavernous lows. If the balance ever tips the other way you can bank that I will be on the first plane home but as long as there is air in my lungs and strength in my legs, I think will keep at this for some time to come…