To Tincup Pass and the Ultrahumans

We’ve made it over Cottonwood Pass, and it will be dark soon so we really need to find a place to camp. We find a less-than-ideal spot up here at 12,000 feet, and Rob and Ed have their tents up in a jiffy and are starting dinner. They have an obscene amount of energy.

Me, I am standing in some scrub, looking at the ground. I can’t decide whether it is flatter and more rock-free here, or in an identical spot ten feet away. I shuffle over to the other spot, and spend five minutes staring at it. Then I shuffle back to the first spot and stare some more. I am too tired to decide.

After a while of standing there, I see Rob silently considering me. Rob and Ed are eating dinner now. Rob is fairly inscrutable, but I believe I can hear him thinking “is this fucker getting ready to die on me? That’s going to complicate the rest of the hike.” Imagining what Rob is thinking is one of my favorite pastimes when I hike with him.

I finally decide that one spot is as good as another, silently pitch my tent and crawl inside. I stare at the ceiling, hear Ed say “hey George, you have to see this sunset!,” and Rob asks “are you going to eat?” I say “yeah, in a minute.” I know they are looking out for me. I am unconscious in two minutes.

I was fine the next morning–well, fine enough. The stretch from Cottonwood Pass south to Tincup Pass, about 16 miles in all, is the best of Collegiates West. It is all above tree line–12 to 13,000 feet–and the views are stunning.

There are still a few snow fields to traverse; the one below is at Sanford Saddle. Early in the morning, the surface is frozen solid, so you want to hit it once it has warmed a bit so your boots get a grip, but not warmed so much that you sink through. I bought micro-spikes for an ice crossing years ago, and have so far carried them across many miles of beautiful mountain scenery without ever using them. I intend to continue avoiding the need to use them; who wants to cross an ice field where a slip will send you sliding . . . downhill? Like, way downhill.

That snow is deceptive, all nice and smooth like that. But most of it is covering scree and boulders, and occasionally you’d step in the footprint in front of you and sink up to your crotch. Sinking up to your crotch is exhausting, and so you soon find yourself pretending that you are crossing eggshells: plant your foot gently, shift your weight onto it gradually, wait to fall through, and then when you don’t you take your next step.

In five days, we met no one travelling south like us on the Colorado Trail (CT), but we met wave after wave of amazing people hiking the 3,000 mile Continental Divide Trail (CDT) northbound. We had been unable to start our southbound trip sooner because of snow in Lake Ann Pass, and they had been halted by snow in the passes south of us in the San Juan Mountains. They’d each walked perhaps 1,000 miles so far, alone or with varying temporary partners, but had bunched up waiting. When the high passes opened, it was like opening the corral. We’d cross perhaps 20 a day, energetic, enthusiastic, and very happy to be doing what they were doing. Rob, who has thru-hiked both the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail (his wife won’t let him thru-hike the CDT. “Enough’s enough!” I also enjoy imagining what Sue says to Rob), remarked that thru-hikers were a different breed now from when he had hiked his thousands of miles: highly trained, incredibly fit, true “world-class athletes.” Three thousand miles is a long way to walk, and we knew that only a small percentage (about 150 complete the thru-hike each year) would actually make it all the way to Chief Mountain Canadian Customs Post, but these amazing people had already hiked a third of the way and were to a person enthusiastic to keep walking. Well, except that one guy–he was cooked. We talked to this tired, down guy a bit, and after we’d parted I said “I don’t think that one is going to make it” to general agreement.

Collegiates West, Day 2, In Which I Invoke the Mid-Day Nap Rule

I awoke the next morning to find my tent full of water, soaking my one pair of pants and shirt. This is not the first time I’ve woken up to find water standing snuggly in my tent as though it were a plastic bag holding a goldfish. Thusly I spent the cold morning breaking camp in my underwear while my clothes dried and Rob and Ed went out of their way to make no comment.

The first couple of days at altitude are hard for me, and I worried that I might slow the pace for my two Colorado-based friends. Ed is a natural athlete–an athlete who by his own repeated appraisal needs to lose about 30 pounds. You look at him, looking at his pronounced belly, and you can see him thinking “how did this happen to me?” But Ed gets up in the morning like a puppy, all energy and enthusiasm. I have never known anyone who pushes themselves as hard as Ed did every day on this trip. Rob however is truly unique, the single person I know most attuned to backpacking high mountain trails. He makes it look like he is not even trying, which in this case was probably true.

So Ed took off–BOOM, gone. Then Rob would be back there behind me, and he’d disappear for a while, but suddenly there he’d be again, literally strolling along like he was just going out for the mail. I suspect that my slower pace had allowed him to occasionally veer off the trail and follow his whimsy, perhaps summitting 14,003 foot Huron Peak unnoticed as Ed and I made our way forward. It was a good feeling, knowing that these two were looking out for me by cradling me between them.

I am “fitter” than Ed, but I take the “slow but steady wins the race” view of hiking and life in general. Ed however starts fast, but then there is a noticeable crash as the day progresses, and slowly Ed doubts his stamina. I am familiar with this, being 62, and so I introduced my hiking partners to the Mid-Day Nap Rule: “it is hot, and we’re going to find a flat spot in the shade and take a nap until the sun is lower and it cools off a little.” So Rob reluctantly humored me, and Ed seemed grateful, and curling up on some shaded pine needles mid-day became our custom for the rest of the trip.

It was still hot after our nap. You have to wrap your mind around the fact that even though you may be sitting next to a bank of snow, the UV light is quite strong up high, and you may not be sweating much but you are surely baking from the inside out. You feel “hot,” but the heat is all inside of you, and trying obstinately to come out. And so we paused again next to a small stream a few miles before our big climb of the day, up and over Cottonwood Pass.

I don’t know what came over me sitting next to that stream–the need to be alone, the desire to get it over with, maybe just wanting to prove something to myself. But after a brief rest, I raised myself up and started walking, without saying a word to Rob and Ed. I’d look back occasionally to see if they were back there; they weren’t, but I knew they’d be coming. When I got to the base of the big climb up over the pass, I said “that doesn’t look so bad,” looked back and saw Rob and Ed coming over a rise, raised an arm in affirmation, and took off up the climb.

Hiking alone, I’ve gotten discouraged as each step became a shuffle, reduced from a 30″ stride speaking power to a perhaps 20″ step that said “I am old, and tired, and I should not be here.” But I roared up and over Cottonwood Pass. I was so very happy at the top, because each pass is a marker, a tangible symbol that you have done something significant. Rob was not far behind, and I will admit to a certain sense of awe as I realized that even Rob had needed to reach down deeper to come over the top. And then finally Ed, beautiful Ed, coming up to the top, not looking up at all as I’d said “smile for the picture!,” willing himself to get there. And then Ed paused and said “you brought us all over the top!”

Within an hour I’d be standing exhausted in the dark, too tired to even decide where to place my tent, much less to actually pitch it. But at that moment, I felt quite good.

Collegiates West, Day 1, Out of Austin and Over Lake Ann Pass

Ed Mahoney picked me up at the Denver airport and drove us several hours west to meet Rob Graham, who was waiting for us at the Hancock trailhead, which is close to absolutely nothing, and where we intended to finish our 50-mile or so hike in Colorado’s Collegiate Range. This generosity amazed me, that Ed would pick me up and drive me all the way out there, and have cold fruit juice and beer in a cooler in his car just in case. And that Rob would be there, in the middle of nowhere, waiting on us just so we could leave Ed’s car at our terminus and drive Rob’s several more hours north to the start of our hike near Sheep Gulch.

I normally hike alone, so this trip was different for me. Rob and Ed allowed me to turn my brain off. They may have preferred that I leave it on, but bless them I just turned it off and let them do all the heavy organizational lifting. Me, I walked. Day One I asked “which way?” and that was about it for me. When we first started talking about this trip, I’d ask for details, try and decipher what might actually happen as opposed to what Rob and Ed said was going to happen, but I eventually decided that there were too many unknowns to be certain that Rob would not simply get us killed, and I surrendered myself up to all that was possible.

I don’t remember much of that first day’s hike up and over Lake Ann Pass. We followed Clear Creek’s South Fork past Huron Peak, past the Three Apostles, and things only began to climb as we passed Lake Ann.

The picture above was taken as I stood on what is called a cornice of snow. A cornice of snow is what you have in a high pass, where the snow hasn’t melted yet and the wind has created a sort of overhanging wave of snow that you really can’t get around or over. That cornice had made Lake Ann pass unpassable up until just the prior week, but Rob had “scouted” the route earlier that week (that means that Rob drove 243 miles each way from his home in Durango and then hiked 20 miles or so roundtrip just to look at the pass and decide that the three of us would be able to get over it in a week. Rob really likes to hike). That’s Rob in the yellow shirt, and Ed in the blue. Ed is very satisfied to be alive.

Rob basically ran up the corniche and was first over the top, followed by Ed. But Ed hit a spot just beneath the melting snow that had turned the underlying ground into a sort of slippery mix of rock and dirt, and Ed was ominously and inexorably moving from a vertical to a horizontal position. As for myself, although I had appreciated enormously Ed’s companionship and general good humor, I was directly beneath him, and so moved slightly to the left where the footing seemed firmer, and where I would not impede his apparently inevitable fall. As Ed struggled–undoubtedly picturing his wife, his two beautiful daughters, his upcoming grandchild which he would now never meet–I looked up and saw Rob evaluating the situation. I would like to think that Rob was rapidly analyzing how best to come to Ed’s aid, but I’m pretty sure he was thinking something along the lines of “let’s see what happens. It really comes down to how Ed takes the first bounce once he starts to fall.”

The safe side of Lake Ann Pass

But Ed didn’t fall. I did not see Rob’s expression change from evaluation to relief–perhaps only a mild loss of interest–and we continued on and down the other side.

Ed, considering his past and evaluating his future now that he has again cheated death.