Thru-riding the Colorado Trail: Week Three

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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 previous entries on this subject can be found here.

By the end of the second week we had adjusted to the rhythms of life on the trail, and felt our relationships with the horses – and our collective relationship, as a herd – solidify. By now we didn’t like to be out of sight of one another for more than a few minutes, a psychological quirk which worked to our advantage: no need to lead the packhorse, unless dealing with rare road crossings, as he or she would simply run loose beside us like a dog. (More here on the use of packhorses.)

Week three would be a section marked by steep gains and losses in elevation as we passed through the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness – skirting a prominent group of ’14-ers’ (mountains of >14,000ft), and enjoying some of the most beautiful vistas we’d yet seen. As we reached our half-way point, I also received some bad news from home, which shook me deeply.

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Day 15: Halfmoon Creek to Twin Lakes – 6 miles (+ 2 on foot for Rich)

We needed to restock on food before heading into the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, so the horses got a half day (and so did I, staying at camp to watch them while Rich hiked a mile to the township of Twin Lakes and back).

Left our perfect campspot at Halfmoon Creek rather reluctantly and tried Numero as a loose packhorse for the first time. He’s the last to be tested, as he has been the least trustworthy of the three, but he did very well, trotting to catch up when required. Then, rather stressfully, we found ourselves in the midst of another running race, this time the world-famous Leadville 100, an ultra-marathon of 100 miles. The runners were extremely impressive, already into hour 8 and showing little signs of tiredness, but there were dozens of them, all running in the same direction along narrow paths through very dense pine and aspen forest.

It took an age, as we kept stopping to let groups past, although the geldings were very good about it. (Pepper was a nightmare, constantly taking the opportunity of being parked in a tight spot to threaten poor Numero, who I had back on the lead rope, snapping at him like a turtle or backing into him. I am strict with her, and tell her off, but she starts again the second she thinks I’m distracted.)

In the heat, and with the irritation of the race, I was feeling dizzy and ill by the time our paths diverged near Twin Lakes and we found a spot to stop by a small waterfall. Got the fence up so the horses could relax all afternoon among the silver aspens (silky white // cathedral pillars // dappled light), and Rich headed towards the village where there is a post office and shop.

He hopes to order new boots by mail to Mount Princeton, 60 miles from here, which is the next settlement we’ll come across. His have been falling apart since the torrential downpours of the first week. For the last few days the weather has been much improved, the thunderstorms are fewer and briefer. It has made a huge difference to morale, and to health – cuts and scrapes heal much quicker. When its wet, skin problems seem to develop spontaneously (cracks opening between toes and in sensitive folds) as if our bodies are dissolving.

I retired to the tent to cool down, but when I pulled my boot off discovered that the blister I’d been complaining of the day before was now purple, swollen like a ping pong ball and pulsing. Very painful to the touch. My headache must be due to some kind of infection – washed it with purified water and sprayed it with antiseptic powder. Spent the afternoon with bare feet, to let it dry out and that seems to have made an impact.

If I must be ill, it’s a good day for it. I can spend the rest of the afternoon reading and repairing assorted broken items and listening to the horses clambering over fallen logs.

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Pictured: a golden sea of sweetclover and cinquefoil on the northern shore of the Twin Lakes

Day 16: Twin Lakes to Clear Creek – 16 miles

Gilded, sunlit day. Woke up feeling liberated from the gloom that set in yesterday with my headache and hung around into the evening. Made an early, dry start, and left the aspen forest and its shimmering sounds of the sea, crossed under a road (it wasn’t busy, but we avoided crossing it anyway by riding through a storm drain) and emerged on the shore of the Twin Lakes, which was a gorgeous spot in the sunlight, with dusty mountains rising up beyond and stretching layer upon layer into the far distance. Lake surface perfectly still.

Trotted through sagebush and rabbitbrush, fragrant in the heat, and another golden-flowered, dry polleny bloom which I tentatively identify as sweet clover, which the horses are wild for. They were fresh and energetic after the short day yesterday, and had plenty of grazing yesterday afternoon as we moved their corral twice before bed. Pinto is especially keen to be on the move, if R dismounts and drops his rein he tends to storm off up the trail without us. Rich and Pinto make a lovely pair now, and Numero very much feels mine. He has mellowed now he knows what to expect, as is much more calm and willing. Though I think him a little thin, perhaps we can source some more grain to supplement his diet when we stop at Mount Princeton.

Pepper is most mysterious, quite standoffish and private in her doings, does not like to drink while she’s being watched (unlike the geldings, who will come and gulp straight from a bucket in my arms). One must lay it down and turn one’s back, or better yet retreat to the tent and leave her to it. She is nervous of people, though extremely hardy and uncomplaining. My only real complaint is her increasingly territorial behaviour – she must travel in second place, ahead of Numero, and will dash forward to slot into place and bash him out of the way if he attempts to overtake. But it is quite sweet to see her showing some spirit, and not being totally retiring.

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Pictured: Taking the horses through a storm drain to avoid a road

Crossed the dam and found where the trail branches (hikers can choose the Collegiate West or Collegiate East routes – the eastern route being the one better suited to horses). Dropped down above a private ranch to Clear Creek Valley, which is dry and dusty, and appears very like Nevada – wide spaced shrubs, the bald pate of the ground showing through. Little grazing in this area, but we found a good spot next to the creek. The horses seem happy to eat what little bunchgrass there is, plus sagebush. Wonderfully aromatic, and plenty of dust for satisfying rolls, they are spending as much time on the ground as they are eating. Fascinated by the sapphire-blue jays [Stellar’s Jays] that frequent this spot, curious and gregarious, with black mohawks.

Took the opportunity of the deep water to bathe, wash hair and some clothes. Then a dinner of mac+cheese, apples, chocolate and red wine(!) which Rich found a carton of in Twin Lakes. Discussed how contented we have been feeling, far from normal worries; even money worries (which are very real) seem distant and abstract, unimportant in comparison to our immediate requirements of staying healthy and on the road.

Speaking of health, my heel still very painful, blueish purple around the original blister. Worse, while removing a piece of wood wedged in Pepper’s front hoof she heaved from my grip and – accidentally – struck me right on the sore spot. Hopped around and shrieked. It’s certainly still infected, but swelling is decreased. Healing does seem very slow on the road – the rope burn (two weeks on) is no longer open or painful, but very much still visible, with one fingertip wholly scabbed over.

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Pictured: Pinto in Clear Creek Valley

Day 17: Clear Creek to Harvard Lakes – 14.9 miles – SOLAR ECLIPSE

Dark, glowering day, spent attempting to avoid thunderstorms. Started bright in gorgeous Nevada-like valley, getting away around 07:00 and launched ourselves up the first of two hard climbs, rising 2000ft in the space of 5 miles, before dropping down to repeat the trick. V steep through dense pines, though made it to a lovely grassy glade where a hummingbird appeared at my elbow and hovered alongside us for several steps. A fitting way to celebrate passing the 200 mile mark.

Passed what would have been a lovely horse campsite at Pine Creek, 6 miles in, but far too early to stop. We forded the creek, which was very deep and cold, and were soaked from the ankles down. By the time we were approaching the top of the second ridge, the clouds had drawn in and thunder threatened, echoing down the valley, and the light had taken on a strange, menacing aspect: dark and eerie, yet the sun still bright enough to cast shadows. It felt like looking through polarising sunglasses.

Both grew nervous, as it felt as if we might be riding straight into an electrical storm, and we were already above treeline. (Scattered tree skeletons // blackened, tarnished silver // some still living but scarred along one side // or felled, twisted, roots upturned). Very spooky, but thunder now seemed to recede. As we turned up a steep switchback I spotted it: what appeared to be an extremely bright crescent moon shining through a gauze of clouds. Suddenly realised we were looking at a near-total eclipse, hence the eerie light. And perfect timing, it must have been at its zenith, the cloud cover allowing us to view it with naked eyes.

From our vantage point we could see a rainstorm sweeping the opposite side of the valley, opaque as a dustcloud, a curtain being drawn across the land. It finally caught up with us on the descent, low and relentless and dispiriting as we passed through a creepy, perfectly uniform pine forest: each tree exactly the same height, perhaps the same age, and not at all tall, seeming to come to points not far above our heads. It was apparently a natural forest, but there was absolutely no under-foliage, only a thick carpet of rusted pine needles. Big steel-grey boulders, rounded like foreheads, showed through here and there. The track twisting and rising or falling so that I quickly lost sight of Rich, Pinto and Pepper. Had a sudden stab of fear, and Numero must have felt it too for he suddenly whinnied very loudly and we broke into a run, me on foot leading, until we caught the others. It had been a very long time since we’d seen anyone else.

Hoped to camp by Harvard Lakes, but the spot seemed off, wrong somehow. There was a patch of acid-green reeds – a dried-out pond, really, still sticky with mud – which the horses were willing to eat, but we had to push through a thicket to reach it, and I wondered if eating only that would be good for their stomachs. R was very twitchy, feeling it unsuitable, so we pushed on another half mile to a small stream and made do with a rather messy stand of aspens, all fallen trunks and marginal grazing, with hardly enough room for the tent between decaying logs. Both of us still inexplicably spooked by the silent forest and midday darkness of earlier.

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Day 18: Harvard Lakes to South Cottonwood Creek – 12.1 miles

Late up this morning, 05:30 or 06:00 after clicking snooze repeatedly, but leapt up when R shouted that Pinto was not in the corral. God knows how he escaped, as it was still standing, though not electrified. Must have jumped, or clambered over using some of these fallen trees. He could have been out for hours – I last checked on them at 1am – but hadn’t gone far, so the panic was over very quickly.

Then, more drama: while putting the pack saddle on Numero he pulled back and the thin elegant aspen I’d tied him to suddenly lifted from the ground, plucked from its roots and came away wholesale like a telegraph pole. He was very composed, considering, and R managed to nip in and detach him before he charged off, narrowly avoiding been a major disaster. But after I’d retied him to a live tree and praised him for his stoicism, in what seemed a very belated consequence, he suddenly panicked and leapt backwards trying to break away from the new tree. R and I both jumped out of the way, then when his alarm seemed to subside R darted forward and tried to undo the knot (oh dear: if only we’d used baler twine). Then Numero did another huge lunge backwards, coming right onto his haunches and attempting to rear, swinging round and knocking us both to the ground.

I assumed one or both of us were seriously hurt, but somehow – miraculously – neither were. Then I got an opportunity to free Numero and he plunged forwards before stopping to quietly graze only a few yards away. It was a very unnerving turn of events and we were very lucky to come away unharmed. Though shaken. I then led Numero for the first mile, expecting more fireworks, but it seemed to be over as suddenly as it had begun.

My heel has finally healed enough for me to put my riding books back on (I’ve been wearing my camp shoes for the last few days), though it still looks like it might need to be drained. Yeuch.

Set off, via a trailhead at Silver Creek marking the beginning of segment 13, then began a brutally steep climb: from 9,430ft to 11,890ft over three miles. Mount Yale to our west. Numero got a bit panicked by the gradient, rushing and barging, but calmed down once we got him wedged between Pinto and Pepper (who very grumpily took up the rear). Reached the top then started shinning down again on a very slippy shingly path to the Avalanche trailhead, a nerve-racking drop off to our right. I fell twice, but the horses managed without drama. Stopped to correct a slipping pack saddle twice.

Passed pretty Rainbow lake and arrived here at South Cottonwood Creek, where we made an executive decision to stop – last water for another 4.2 miles – as it’s been a hard day despite the low mileage. Rather thin grazing though, so we let them loose for as long as possible. A brief colic scare, as Numero was lying and rolling, lying and standing, then kicking and pawing and generally looking morose. However he seems to have perked up again now and is grazing again, thank god.

Tomorrow we will reach Mount Princeton, a small resort by a natural hot springs, where we have arranged to stay at Deer Valley Ranch, “Colorado’s premier Christian family dude ranch.” I very much hope to arrange a farrier to fit the horses new shoes while we are there, and that that won’t cause a big hold up. Trying not to let the uncertainty fill me with gloom – this must be one of my biggest lessons so far on this journey: do what you can, but also try to trust that things will themselves work out. Perhaps I can absorb a sunnier outlook and faith from the good people of Deer Valley Ranch.

Nice to have another night listening to the creak. Birdsong too, and saw another hummingbird at Middle Cottonwood Creek: green and jewel like, perfectly formed, so busy. Squirrels and chipmunks everywhere here, like a Disney dream sequence.

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Day 19: South Cottonwood Creek to Deer Valley Ranch

Woke this morning to find a lone male hiker had arrived in the dark and was sleeping on the ground, in the open, apparently wrapped in his tent. He looked so like a corpse that I actually sneaked up to check he was breathing as I collected in the electric fence. We were up far before him, but as we were still tacking up he stood, refilled his bottle from the creek and was off before we’d even said good morning. Quite different to our 2hr+ morning route.

Anyway, we only had 11 miles or so to do today, past Mt Princeton hot springs and a mile beyond to the ranch and a day off. All quite flat and problem free until we turned onto a packed dirt road and tried to get Pepper, our pack pony for the day, back under control. I usually ride and lead on roads, so attached her to a long lead rope, but as she has become obsessed with getting in front of Numero (flattening her ears to her skull like a cat // snapping in ugly fashion //barging by, packs banging) it prove problematic. To begin with this behaviour was amusing, as she’s otherwise so docile, but its suddenly started getting out of hand. This time she dashed by but tripped and took all the skin off her knees and the tip of her nose.

I was quite primed in what to do, as a vet friend had warned me beforehand this was the most likely injury, and that I must irrigate the wound immediate to get the grit out. I sprayed all the water in my platypus over her knees, which immediately started to drip blood frighteningly down her cannon bones. She didn’t seem lame, though, or too worried, so I switched horses so I might ride Pinto and lead her, and we continued towards the stables.

Then, because disasters seem always to attract other disasters, Numero’s saddle did another 180º trick again, just as we reached the tarmac road, with cars coming by and directly opposite a field full of unknown and stirred up horses. Rich grappled with the flipped saddle, righted it but was reluctant to get on again after that (although I’m certain it is the weight and self-righting nature of a rider is what keeps it straight). Anyway – both of us very hot and flustered as we slogged through the midday heat along a metalled road for the first time in weeks.

Arriving at the ranch was a joy however: Dave and Shannon Johnson, the owners, were delightful company, and Zack their head wrangler took a look at Pepper’s knees immediately and pronounced them not too serious, despite their gory appearance, and loaned us some betadine and ointment. Horses were offered hay and water and put up in huge looseboxes (though Pepper would rather have been jammed in together with Pinto, I think, as she stayed watching him longingly and ignoring her hayrack).

We were accommodated in a pretty log cabin by the barn, far bigger than our needs, and we had a swim in their pool, which is heated by the natural hot springs, admiring the amazing backdrop of Chalk Cliffs (which are in fact granite, dissolved to white clay by the springs). So delighted to be here, and such a relief to get a second opinion of Pepper’s injury. The only worry remaining is farriery; none of the local blacksmiths can come in time. We must press on and hope we find someone soon.

 

Day 20: zero day, Deer Valley Ranch

While at Deer Valley Ranch, I received some awful news from home. My cousin, Zoë Smith, had died at the age of 45 after a long struggle with cancer. I saw her in hospital in London shortly before leaving for America, and I am very grateful that I took that last opportunity to see her and to speak to her. Her alma mater, UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture, published a very moving obituary, describing her as “one of The Bartlett’s irrepressible creative rebels. Her work was loaded with attitude, provocation, skill, beauty, and excitement… Zoë was one of a handful of individuals who operated as a defining force for their generation.” The Architects Journal has also gathered together a number of tributes. She was wild and brilliant, and I’ll miss her always.

 

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Day 21: Deer Valley Ranch to Squaw Creek – 14.7 miles

We have left Deer Valley Ranch after a sad and unsettling rest day. Mum insisted I must continue with our journey, that Zoë would have told me to keep going; with three horses under my care, and no date yet set for the funeral, I also don’t know what else to do. Still, I don’t know if it is the right decision.

We started around 9am this morning, and made unnecessarily hard going of the day’s distance, covering only 14 miles but under a relentless sun. Didn’t reach Squaw Creek until 4pm, with Rich feeling very ill and nauseous. He fears altitude sickness, but I’m fairly certain it is heat exhaustion: his forehead was clammy and cool, and he fell asleep immediately in the shade as soon as he dismounted, got up an hour or so later to be sick, and has since improved. I set up camp largely by myself as the horses free grazed.

The packs are very heavy, as yesterday a member of staff at the ranch drove us to the town of Salida, where we replenished supplies, with the expectation of disappearing back into the hills for well over a week. However, I was upset and distracted and now realise we have forgotten a number of important items. Will have to figure out what to do.

Now carrying a bag of grain for the geldings’ benefit (they have both lost weight), but at 40lb it adds almost 50% to our pack’s mass. Pinto is carrying the packs as he’s big and strong, but it makes progress very slow. Even for him it is heavy: at one point he tipped onto his knees, and I panicked in case he tore his knees open too, like Pepper, but he has only a tiny cut. Still, he felt a bit sorry for himself and let me take his head in my arms.

Must go offer them water. Squaw Creek was dry, so we clumsily carried water in the expandable water containers for a half mile. Will pour now into buckets which should keep them going until tomorrow. Rich is sleeping again now. I hope he will be recovered by morning.

We passed the half way point today, both in terms of distance and in time. So: we must do all of this, all over again. It seems simple and impossible at the same time. Lonely this evening, and far from home.

 

to be continued

 

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