Thru-riding the Colorado Trail: Week Two

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I spent the summer of 2017 riding 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains with my partner Rich and three horses called Pinto, Pepper and Numero. I’ve been posting information about the trip online, as well as my trail diary, for anyone with an interest in the journey or backcountry horsemanship more generally. All my previous entries on this subject can be found here.

Our second week in the Rockies saw us hitting some serious elevation for the first time, reaching 11,874ft at Georgia Pass, and later 12,495ft at the crest of the Tenmile Range (for context, Ben Nevis stands at 4,411 ft). We also reached our first rest stop, the mountain town and ski resort Breckenridge, where we gave the horses a well-earned day off. I’d felt pushed to my limits during week one, so it was a welcome surprise to find it becoming easier in our second week as our sore muscles eased and we all – humans and horses both – began to hit our stride.

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Pictured: pausing to let the horses graze in a lush patch of grass – a good habit to get into when travelling long distance, as it help their stomachs adjust to a changing diet

Day eight: North fork of the Swan River to Gold Hill Trailhead, Breckenridge – 13.5 miles

Very cold night once again. Woke constantly. Tent smells very bad as now sleeping on sweaty saddle blankets, the two fleecy under-layers from the riding horses being particularly offensive (note to self: must wash when we get to Breckenridge, as not good for their skin to be in contact with that all day). Wrapped my down jacket round my legs too, inside the sleeping bag.

Prospect of Breckenridge, civilisation, tonight. This small mountain town, of which we know very little, has grown to almost mythological stature in our minds. It is where we will find all the solutions to all our annoying little problems so far, where we will finally be able to buy some lunch/snack food that doesn’t need cooking, and where we will eat fresh fruit and vegetables for the first time in a week.

Neither could face 4am alarm, finally rising at 5:30, though I suppose seeing a 5:30 start as a sinful lie-in is a victory of sorts. Away smoothly (though still v cold, departed in almost all the clothes I have with me: 2 pairs trousers, 2 tops, fleece, down jacket, waterproof, gloves). A terrible rope burn I got on my left hand before we’d even set off is still causing me a lot of pain, and the burned areas have come up as three enormous blisters across palm and ring finger, each filled with a thick clear liquid.

Pinto is back to being a riding horse, thank god, so we can move faster, but was very grumpy this morning, biting Rich twice in the same place on his leg while he fiddled with the cinch. (Both geldings came to us pulling threatening faces whenever we touch the girth area, so it’s difficult to tell if there is anything really wrong, or if it’s just a bad habit.  Certainly there are no visible marks or any heat in the saddle or girth area, and nothing but fiddling with the cinch knots seems to prompt this behaviour. We tightening the cinches extra slowly in case it’s the result of past rough handling.)

Steep climb from our lovely deep-grassed campground then a descent into the Breckenridge valley. Fabulous views, with sharpened snowtipped peaks rising beyond pineforest and wildflower meadows. Indian paintbrushes dipped in crimson, indigo, coral, thickets of harebells and tall golden flowers I couldn’t identify, mules ears and white froth-headed clouds of flora. Either oats or barley growing wild, which the horses couldn’t resist snatching the heads of while passing. Brilliant blue sky, vibrant. Totally, almost unnaturally, clear. Felt I was burning even through my long-sleeved top.

Numero as pack horse today, and I rode Pepper though often walked and took her bridle off and let her walk loose behind me. Trail grew busier as we descended towards the town. A mountain biker brought words that Janette and Audrey, the two women hikers we’d met on Georgia Pass, had found my hat and were carrying it down behind us. Oh joy. We left them a note on a fencepost, I hope they see it.

A series of extremely steep switchbacks above a residential area brought us right into a holiday village, where we rejoiced arriving at the town where we hoped to take our first rest day. However, a disheartening 90 minutes followed as we slogged through suburbs and up cul-de-sacs seeking someone with a pasture for the horses. Richard Johnson had cheerily advised us that he always arrived in Breckenridge without a plan and flagged down strangers to ask them for a place to stay. It sounded very airy and easy, although when we were there in person it did not seem at all like the right kind of town: these were all multi-million dollar ski chalets, left empty over the summer, with large and manicured gardens; not the sort of place we could casually leave three horses.

In any case, we lucked out – we’d spotted what looked like agricultural buildings from the hillside opposite, scrambled across a (six-lane) highway without incident, and took a sideroad up the hill towards it. It was just was I’d hoped for: utterly charming, an old fashioned barn and rustic buck-and-rail fencing; there was a modern stable block and indoor arena too, and a series of paddocks, but apparently no horses or stablehands. I hammered on the door of a nearby house as the heavens opened and a wonderful woman called Mindy Armstrong answered, quite taken aback to find us huddling on her doorstep seeking shelter.

Her last horse had died the previous year, she said, and she was about ready to sell up and go. But sure, we could keep the horses there for a couple of nights to give them a rest. She and her partner Greg then set about making our horses at home – dropping round to a neighbours to fetch hay and making us a cup of coffee. We agreed that we’d spend two nights in town as we resupplied, returning regularly via the (free) local bus, to check on the horses during their rest day. So we are very lucky, and – despite ourselves – we have to admit that Richard Johnson was right: no plan turned out to be quite a good plan indeed.

While settling the horses, Mindy eyed our tired and grimy faces and ordered us to leave her to it: go get a pizza and a beer, she said, and so we did. Arrived in Breckenridge (a pretty, pastel-painted impression of smalltown America, like a grown-up’s Disneyland) was both relieving and overwhelming. We stumbled into an Italian bistro and ordered a ludicrous amount of food, a feast we could not even make a dent in, then stumbled to a hotel room with our doggy bags of cold pizza and bruschetta. A bed! A bath! A television! Scenes of unbelievable luxury.

Had a bath. Shaved my legs and cleaned my myriad cuts, including the rope burn. Already they are looking much better – nothing had seemed to be healing, as nothing was ever clean or dry for more than a couple of minutes at a time, and I am always knocking the scabs off them while lugging buckets and tying ropes. Still felt very keyed up and emotional, hard to put my finger on why – but: 100 miles down! Just 390 left to go.

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Pictured: rest day in Breckenridge

Day nine: zero day, Breckenridge

Rest and recovery day for all of us. R did our laundry as I returned to the stables to let the horses out to graze and check them over. Fixed assorted things with my repair kit as they flicked their tails in the sun. Then, joy of joys, met Janette and Audrey, who brought me my missing hat! What with the lift from Richard Johnson, the free tarp gifted to us by a hiker, the stabling courtesy of Mindy, and the returned hat, I am feeling quite overcome by the generosity of others.

(Saying that: a new worry – yesterday, and then again today, I spotted Pepper standing in the field with blood running from one nostril. Very brief in both instances, but deeply alarming. It is not uncommon in horses working hard, but must keep an eye on it, in case it indicates she can’t stand the pace. A surprise, as she’s been the hardiest and most reliable of all three so far.)

Bought groceries and fuel (learned that yellow HEET, a type of antifreeze fuel additive available in US petrol stations, can be used in alcohol stoves like our Trangia), went for a swim (so clean, so fresh) and then banged into the hiking couple Courtney and Dan again, and went for an early-evening drink. Pleased to find we had become minor trail celebrities, the thru-hikers having followed our hoofprints for days and being keen to find out what it was like to travel with horses – the miles are easier, I think we’ve agreed, but the chores far more arduous. So: we get up earlier and finish later, but uphills are easier for us the horses are good at that and stride up quickly, carrying us on their backs. Downhills the same for all of us, as we tend to walk to protect the horses’ joints. (I think we have the better deal, as we also have the extra company. Some hikers travel with dogs, but they often suffer from bleeding paws and have to stop early.)

In bed after 9pm, blinking sleepily: past our bedtime these days.

Day ten: Gold Hill trailhead to Miners Creek – 4.8 miles

A very short day so as to extend our rest day, but make a start on the huge climb towards the crest of the Tenmile Range, our first time over the 12,000ft mark. Didn’t get up until 7am, though had nightmares that Pepper’s nosebleeds were down to a brain haemorrhage. I had forgotten about the constant worrying about horses in one’s care. Is this what it’s like being a mother? Manhandled all our new food and clean clothes/saddlecloths back to Mindy’s where we thanked them profusely before heading onwards. All in, Breckenridge was an expensive stop-off, given our very limited budget, but I think a necessary one. I feel like a new person, and the horses seem raring to go.

Left around news and came just less than five miles into the hills so has to get back into trail mode and save us some climbing tomorrow, when we’ll rise to the ridgeline of the Ten Mile Range. Walked quarter of a mile through the July wildfire burn zone, a black crater in the forest. It was caused by hikers leaving glowing embers in a campfire; a lesson for us all.

The main burn zone was totally blackened. Charred logs jutting from burnt earth. An on the outside, where flames had licked/temperatures had risen, the trees were rust-orange, baked dry by the fire. The little stream traversing the area already green with regrowth however. We carried around six flakes of hay from Mindy’s, wrapped in a tarp, and were glad we had, as the ground at Miner’s Creek was very rocky – not much grazing otherwise. The hay should stay any midnight rebellions.

In tent now. Only 18:15. Nice to have some time to relax, though I’ve still got pommel bags to sew before dark. We are much cheered by the rest, and keen to get going on to the next hundred miles. So much still to do, and still seems far from a foregone conclusion that we will make it to the end. The journey is too long to think about all at once; we just have to say, okay, we’ll do 15 miles tomorrow, then again the next day, and see how it adds up. The first week was so hard in so many ways. I was deeply frightened on the night of the electrical storm, and during the subsequent horse escape. But we got through, and I think we made good decisions, cautious decisions.

The hardest thing, I think, has been decision-making. All the way through we’ve had to choose: okay, stop here or keep going? is this hairless patch a problem? can we get the horses safely across this road, or bridge? There have been so many decisions to make when we simply didn’t know what was the most sensible thing to do. And the responsibility for their safety weighs very heavily on me. But we keep on. Fingers crossed all will be well.

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Pictured: Atop the Ten Mile Range, with Pepper (ridden), Numero (grazing) and Pinto (far right)

Day 11: Miner’s Creek to Janet’s Cabin – 17.2 miles

Woke shivering at 4am and listened to Rich moving around in the dark. I finally emerged, diva-like, at 4:30 after he had shovelled a bowl of porridge through the tent door. Everything soaked overnight. Packed up and started on the climb to the top of the Ten Mile Range. Very steep and bare and rocky, the horses slithering up in parts, leaping in others, but we were rewarded by a clear (cold) and thunder-and-lightning free traverse of the ridge far above the treeline. Heard what I assumed to be eagle chicks, but now realise must be marmots – fluffy beaver lookalikes which sound alarm calls like squeeze toys. Came along the crest past the tops of what must be ski runs in the winter, and avalanche warning signs. Still patches now in mid-August.

Descended very through tundra (floral // lilac // gold) and then pine forest. So steep forced to walk whole way, and pack saddle twice slid forwards, off the saddle blankets and onto Numero’s bare shoulders. Stopped to reposition saddle and packs, but not before the ropes had bitten in on one side, leaving a two-pointed cut on his left side just above the elbow. Feel terrible about it, as he’d been grumpy about being packhorse from the start, and it had been a hard day for him, gaining around 2,500ft to the crest, descending around 3,000ft then gaining another thousand or more. Into segment eight of the trail, through the outskirts of Copper Mountain, an upmarket ski resort, where the trail crossed a golf course and a disc golf course, ducked under a series of ski lifts, then finally headed back into the woods and peace.

Struck up a conversation with a lone hiker, Marty. We kept crossing paths, as we were riding around the same pace as his speedy hiking, and just as we were preparing to stop for the night he reappeared and offered us his spare reservation at Janet’s Cabin, a mountain hut run by a not-for-profit aimed at experienced backcountry skiiers and hikers. Sounded delightful, another wonderful trail-magic surprise, so we agreed on the proviso that there would be room for the horses by the cabin – I don’t like to be out of eyeshot.

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Pictured: Janet’s Cabin, a happy surprise just below the trail at Searle Pass

The cabin was quite remarkable, not a ‘hut’ at all but a three-storey log structure with propane-fuelled hobs, a compost toiler, lights powered by solar panels, and a big woodburning stove in the middle. The horses we put up in the garden, not quite ideal, a bit too sloped, but they seemed happy enough. Numero was so tired he lay down immediately on arrival and attempted to graze from a reclining position. A group of retired outdoors enthusiasts were staying and quite rowdy, and delighted to see the horses. Marty was around 70 but hiked 1000 miles through the Himalayas only two years ago.

Now lying peacefully in our bunks listening to our elders partying downstairs. It’s not even 8:30pm. What has become of us? The horses are visible through the window from my bed, dark shapes shifting in the gloaming. It reassures me be able to see them.

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Pictured: Rich and Pinto on the approach to Searle Pass (not pictured: thousands of marmots, sounding the alarm)

Day 12: Janet’s Cabin to Mitchell Creek – 14.3 miles

Today we passed the 140 mile mark. Did our sums and both feel the six week target is certainly achievable at this rate. We could move faster, but given the steep gradients and the amount of rainfall, this seems a good pace.

Woke 05:00 warm and dry in the cabin with no tents to take down, though still somehow didn’t get going until 07:00. All the group staying at the cabin came out to wave us off, singing ‘Happy Trails’ and ‘Til We Meet Again’ as we made a shambolic exit, Pepper forcing her way through a bush, and then wrapping the lead rope around a tree too for good measure. ‘Be safe,’ Marty told us, rather doubtfully.

But momentum is all. Once we got onto the trail, they stopped arsing around and just go on with it. We were already very close to Searle Pass (heavy droplets of dew glistening in the heads of the grass // long, low shafts of morning light) and then a short climb to Elk Ridge and drop to Kokomo Pass. It snowed last night on the higher ground, a light dusting of icing sugar, which vanished as the day wore on. (Scree sweeping across the path in chutes // freeze-thaw fragments, sharp edged // marmots squealing, squeezing, impossible to count.)

Hands much improved since Breckenridge, especially the rope burn blisters which are sinking back into skin. Lips very sore, however, in the dry air – so much so it’s difficult to form the right sounds when speaking.

Descending from Kokomo, the tundra filled with bright tropical coloured flowers, coral and pale green, like unripe lemons. Frothed lime clusters and pink dots. Songbirds trilling, the omnipresent marmots and lower down chipmunks and squirrels. Down through shady woods (still a chill in the air, breath billowing up in clouds) and paused to eat peanuts and dates in the long grass.

 

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Pictured: Pinto and me at Kokomo Pass

Crossed through an area we had been warned about, in the vicinity of the old Camp Hale site, where unexploded munitions are thought to be hidden in the ground surrounding the trail (the trail itself, and several yards on either side, having been cleared). I hadn’t thought to much about it, but was disconcerted to come across a gang of official-looking workmen in tabards with metal detectors and a ‘road closed’ sign blocking our path. We nervously sidestepped it and trotted on, trying not to think about it, and dodged the dozens of fluoro-pink flags which we found marking our path at regular intervals.  Passed a row of empty concrete bunkers, once home to the 10th Mountain Regiment, and made it back into the woods without incident or explosion.

Camped on a grassy slope overlooking Mitchell Creek and the surrounding marsh. Perfect, except quite a long and soggy tramp to fill the horses’ buckets (we filled them once together, then when they were drained in seconds R went again, heroic Aquarius, bringer of water). Arrived early – around 14:30, a relaxing evening in a pretty spot.

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Pictured: R and Pepper in the Holy Creek Wilderness

Day 13: Mitchell Creek to Timberline Lake Trailhead – 15.5 miles

A day that started rather lovely but became rather long and exhausting by close of play. Up at 05:00 to find tents frozen on the outside and thick coating of white frost on everything. In the dark it seemed too much to bear, as had spent the whole night wakeful and shivering. So R took the initiative this time and announced we should sleep longer, as the horses seemed to be quite happily snoozing still.

So, another 90 mins in bed, until things had started to defrost, and I took my turn making the porridge and the tea so that R could rise at 07:00 with the sun. Soon warmed up and made a start by around 10, which always feels leisurely and nice at the time but comes back to bite you within a few hours. Trying to anticipate this, we set off at a fair clip, trotting along the forestry tracks, but suddenly found ourselves moving upstream against a running race. Pinto was packhorse, as it’s only fair that as the biggest and strongest he must take a turn, but with Pepper in the lead we travel painfully slowly.

Finally split off from the race route at Tennessee Pass and headed into the woods. Our aim was to finish segment nine in one day, but found it very steep and difficult going. Rose and rose on rocky path, into Holy Cross Wilderness, in thick evergreen forest with little undergrowth, apart from a low pink-tinged shrub that looks a lot like the Scottish blaeberry bush. Finally topped out at around 11,500ft near two high alpine lakes, Porcupine Lakes, backed by craggy mountains, where we paused for lunch. V picturesque (lily pads // tangle of greenery leaning over the edge) but it was already nearing 14:00 and we had the same distance still to go again. R, a very understated person, said he was finding it ‘quite gruelling’ – sounded like a warning to me.

Very slow going on downhill route, not much for horses to eat still, then a succession of things went wrong. My saddle was squint, so I had to stop and straighten it. (I can’t say Western saddles with their weight and breastplates and fiddly leather ties have endeared themselves to me – what a faff when things go wrong, very time consuming.) Then, having done that, I immediately noticed the pack saddle had slid right back and the pads had slid so that the ropes were resting against his skin. So, off it comes, and back on again. Box hitch retied. (Getting faster, but still it takes around 15 minutes to do the hitch alone, and more if they are messing around.)

Onwards down v steep hill, in usual formation. R in front walking Pinto, fastest, Pepper in middle, jealously guarding her spot, and poor old short-striding Numero way out back. Usually with me for company, as I like to keep track of where he is. He can keep up much better on the flat and on hills, where he trots and jogs at intervals, but on the downhills he gets very left behind. I got off to stretch my legs, and within a few minutes he stopped suddenly and I looked back to find the big saddle slipped right under his belly again. Thank god for such a calm horse. He must have been blowing out when I recinched it before, and in any case he seems to be an awkward shape for saddles.

Anyway. We got it sorted. Very frustrating and slow though – R seemed glum and silent. ‘I’m at my maximum,’ he said. I, rattled, mumbled an apology. ‘Don’t be sorry,’ he said. I just thought you should know.’ Eek. It was 5pm so getting very late, with rainclouds grumbling overhead. We kept putting on our waterproofs for sudden showers then, sweating, crawling out of them again in time for it to start spit-spattering again.

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Pictured: Pepper tries to convince us to call it a half day near Porcupine Lakes

I started looking for campsites, earlier than planned, but nothing suitable. A mile short of the trailhead, a huge fallen tree had come across the path, with a small path clambered over it by nimble hikers with no horses. No hope of jumping it, and both branches and roots a mass of limbs poking into the dense forest. No obvious way round, the trees were growing so close together. R attempted one way round, but Pinto refused – not like him. Then I wandered off into the bushes with Numero, to look for an alternative, only to find tree after tree downs like pick up sticks. Then a panicked shout from behind: Pinto, following, had wedged himself and the packs in a clump of trees, with a broken stump, shard-like, jutting right under his belly.

He could move neither forwards nor backwards, and kept straining against the trunks with a panicked look in his eye. We ran to get the packs off and he managed to slither through without hurting himself. Then, swearing and cursing, we broke off branches and managed to get Pepper through R’s first choice route. Just like the Gudy Gaskell Bridge: once she was over, the others followed quietly. Tough little mare. But both of our nerves all shot to pieces.

Finally reached trailhead in the twilight. By this time, I had absorbed some of the strain and R was somehow reinvigorated. A nearby area was lush and wet, and I insisted we camp there – would have been difficult to get the horses past it in any case, as they were gorging themselves silly on grass grown gloriously long and silky and a luminous green. Then we happened on fire circles set back a little bit in a copse, and a very good flat tent footprint which had been recently occupied, the grass flattened. Strange how these traces of other humans can make a place feel safe.

Long day. But we made it.

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Pictured: The horses grab an opportunity to relax at our beautiful campsite by Halfmoon Creek

Day 14: Timberline Creek Trailhead to Halfmoon Creek – 13.1 miles

Excellent day after yesterday’s frustration. Up and away in good time and Pinto back in the lead (always a pleasure). Me on Numero, who I now find to be very sweet – he is still bullied by the other two, and has come to look to me for protection from the others.

Warm, sunny morning, and through ground rising to 11,300ft and falling away again, it never felt steep. Through the Mt Massive Wilderness, pausing in a fragrant spot to graze, where every mouthful sent up a fresh green scent. (Fungi raising their heads between the blades of grass // fly agarics // crimson and mustard toadstools in marshmallow textures // one, tan brown, like expanding foam, grown up in clumps like Polyfilla // puffballs big as cricket balls, oddly mottled // occasionally: a dark slimy brown)

Easy day, a ride of 13 miles that felt done as soon as we began. What a difference. Then, close to the trailhead marking the start of segment 11, we came across the most perfect campsite by the wide and fast-flowing Halfmoon Creek. Horses very happy – let them all loose for a while, and they were happy to hang around the camp and drink deep from the creek.

Turned in early using our new stay-warm system: bottom layer the pack saddle pad (which is huge), then thermarests, then sleeping bags, then the fleecey saddle pads on top. Heavy, but they keep the heat in. Slept warm last night, so we’re okay as long as the saddle pads remain dry. Finally the rope burn has healed – a huge relief. My heel rather sore on the left side, a blister from walking so far in my riding boots, otherwise only minor aches and pains – minor enough to be drowned out by an overarching sense of healthiness and happiness and general wellbeing.

 

to be continued

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