Thru-riding the Colorado Trail: Week Five

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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.

Week four had seen us hitting our stride and passing the 300 mile mark. Going into the fifth week on the trail, we’d never felt fitter, healthier or hungrier.

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Day 29: Cochetopa Creek to East Mineral Creek

Woke at 4am again as we’d batted around the idea of riding the 19.9 miles to Spring Creek Pass today, where we’re due to meet Pam Doverspike (the Colorado Trail expert and kindly trail angel who has offered to bring us our supplies for the next week). But in the end we hesitated, given the enormous elevation gains and losses, and the importance of hitting Snow Mesa (an enormous grassy plain, high in the sky) in fair weather. The afternoon lightning storms have alleviated somewhat, but are still present, and out on Snow Mesa there is nowhere to hide if a storm rolls in. John at Quarter Circle Ranch had underlined to us the danger – he said he’s been out in this high country and felt the hair on his head lifting up from the electrical charge in the air; horses are at particular risk, he says, because of their metal shoes.

So: caution, caution. After dithering in the tent, and looking out at the thick rind of frost that had formed on everything overnight, we decided to have an extra cat nap. Finally dragged out of our sleeping bags by the sound of snorting and cantering hooves – the horses careering around in their little corral, chasing poor Numero, who was shivery and looking rather sorry for himself. Let him out alone to graze in peace, and warm his back in the sun. It’s hard on them to keep condition – they get hot and sweaty in low elevations, so their coats have thinned out, but camping up high we see overnight temperatures well below freezing.

Fed, watered, and by then the sun’s ingress had finally reached our little dell and melted the frosted grass and tent. Still, Pepper was in unusually difficult mood, and wouldn’t stand still to be saddled. When I let her loose to graze she trotted away sharply and recrossed the stream, clearly just hoping for one accomplice in crime. Horsemanship quite simple really: keep everyone fed and warm. If you can’t manage that, they lose faith in your leadership, and quite right, really. Must keep morale high to get the best of them, and never show doubt… mutiny is only ever a day away.

Anyway, aside from shivers, the horses are in fine fettle – so muscled on their hindquarters they appear as statues carved from marble. Even little Pepper’s grass belly is reduced, although she’s very hardy. Numero a bit thin, despite double rations, and we’re coming to the end of our grain.

Short but extremely dramatic (landscape-wise) day on trail. Climbed to the saddle below San Luis Peak (14,014ft) which looked an extremely close and easy climb from the trail, then past a slope crowded with ‘hoodoos’ – figures carved of volcanic ash, jagged and uninviting – and expansive views to the south of beautifully marbled peaks and cliffs in red and grey. As we came over another saddle before the descent to San Luis Pass we had a break before an unexpectedly challenging climb back to 12,880ft and a steep gravelly drop off beyond. Numero at the rear with pack saddle, which always makes him grumpy.

Decided to camp after less than 8 miles in a lovely meadow set off the trail behind trees near East Mineral Creek. Easy day, in camp by 13:30, and a relaxed afternoon reading in the shade of the tent, watering the horses and applying hoof balm. All, including Pepper, appeased again. Storm came in on schedule around 3pm, but not too arduous. Hope to arrive at Spring Creek Pass by 11am tomorrow.

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Day 30: East Mineral Creek to Spring Creek Pass 

Amazing day that felt like two great days, one after the other. Rose in the pitch dark and all packed away before the sky even showed a tint of sunrise – we had to use a compass to figure out where we were meant to look. Watched a satellite in a slow curving swoop overhead until it disappeared beyond the hills. Then headed through steep ups, downs, in and out of the woods and the various Mineral Creeks’ drainages. Saw another moose with a calf at foot, very close through the trees, standing alone in a marshy area. The horses snorted at the strange smell, then shortly after Numero and Pepper took fright and I turned to spot a smallish, bear-sized bottom disappearing into the undergrowth.

But soon we were steadily gaining height and emerging above treeline, curving around a peak so obscure it is only known by a number (12813) to reach a grand vista, although in truth this whole section had the most remarkable visions of mountains and mesas unfolding all around in layers of tan and slate grey and sandstone pink and a far-off mountain blue. (A Rebecca Solnitt blue, “the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in.”)

Crossed through a number of rockfall and shattered rock chutes, making our way slowly but sturdily, pausing for a breather and to move the rugs under the pack saddle at a turn off just before Snow Mesa, which turned out to be a vast, fairly flat and grassy plateau that the trail cut across for 3.3 miles, the sun hot and the wind ruffling the grass, and the sky so blue it had a black look to it, when staring straight up.

A longed-for opportunity to gallop after so many days slogging up and sliding down gradients you’d rather ski down; Pepper as pack horse alternately swerving in and out, putting on spurts then suddenly slowing to buck-kick at Numero in excitement. Dropped of the edge of the mesa (and lost sight of views to the range to the south, still patched with snow from the previous year) and down a precipitous and extremely rocky path that soon wound into pine wood interspersed with alpine meadows, impossibly picturesque after the austere grandeur of the plateau.

Rushed down switchbacks after catching sight of a highway – Spring Creek Pass! The trailhead turned out to be a big parking area with fire rings, and Pam was already there, along with two friends, three horses and the most enormous ‘rig’ (a pick up with living quarters mounted on the back, then a four-horse box pulled behind – her ‘diamonds,’ as she calls them). A real professional looking outfit – one could camp in style, miles from anywhere, for a long time with all this. Her horses in very nice condition, with beautiful tooled saddles, two chestnuts and a very striking mouse-dun called Monty.

How funny to finally meet Pam after weeks of texting. Of course, I knew her at once. We got the horses tied up, and served them flakes of hay from the trailer, offered them water, then settled down in camp chairs and were served fruit salad, then frittata, fried bread and jam, a drink of milk and then a margarita for me and a beer for Rich. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted food so good. Heaven.

We spent hours discussing the trail, and then Courtney and Dan – the couple we’d leapfrogged in the first week on trail – turned up unexpectedly and joined us for a while. Pam and friends mounted up and went for a ride while we picked out groceries from a huge bag she’d brought us as promised (how wonderful to be road-supported, even if only for one day!), then on their return she talked us through the technical difficulties we’d face on the trail in the coming days – most ominously a series of switchbacks they’ve dubbed ‘Panic Peak,’ which they described in toe-curlingly terrifying detail. (Rochelle, one of her friends, said she had to take a Xanax before doing it on horseback.)

Initially they planned to leave that evening, and we’d planned to get back on trail, but all so jolly we all stayed on, got the paddock set up on a grassy slope above the trailhead, then sat down to a Pam-cooked feast. Prawns and dip as appetiser, with margaritas and beer, then chicken enchiladas with salad, sour cream and spanish rice, then ‘strawberry shortcake’ (small sponges with fresh strawberries and cream) and ice cream. Two passing thru-hikers were spotted and ushered into the party, true trail angel behaviour. We were so stuffed with good fresh food our bodies didn’t know how to cope, I felt quite light headed.

Then bed, a full and contented sleep with promise of pancakes for breakfast. A delightful day full of food, and a bag of grain to keep the horses going a few more days.

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Day 31: Spring Creek Pass to valley of the yurt 

Up and dressed for 6am huckleberry pancakes at Pam’s quarters. (Berries and melon and yoghurt and proper coffee!) Her group rather sleepy as one of their horses had banged around all night and broken their horsebox door, but Sharon and Rochelle managed to fix it with a mallet. Waved them off, the horses still munching on Pam’s hay.

Tacked, mounted, then rose onto the rock-strewn moonscape of Jarosa Mesa where all the rocks were steel grey and pumice-like, scattered. Tricky footing, but we weren’t in a rush. Having made it to Spring Creek Pass by Labor Day weekend as advised by Rich, we now have time to play with, and can afford to take it easy over our last fortnight, enjoy ourselves. No point in getting to Durango too early, as the horses can’t get picked up until the 16th.

So, half days all round! Passed the Colorado Trail Friends’ yurt around 1pm, and set up in the wide golden valley below where there are small freshwater springs – more a series of gravel-bottomed puddles, really, but fit for purpose. Then three thru-hikers turned up, Rowan, Tim and Lorisha, initially just stopping to filter water, but ended up setting up camp and we had another social evening sitting on logs in the lowering dusk. While out checking on the horses before bed I heard coyotes again, yowling and snapping and hollering – very unnerving, though all else beautiful rose gold and deepening blues and purples all around. Huge full moon illuminating everything by bed time – almost daylight bright. Bed after 9pm for the first time in a while.

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Day 32: Valley of the yurt to Carson ghost town

Nervous early start (4:30am) as tackling Pam’s Panic Peak, with a cereal bar for breakfast as we are running out of fuel for our stove. Up in dark, v frosty again, under a rippling mother of pearl sunrise. Lorisha, Tim and Rowan just packing up as we rode out of camp, though T&L very competitive and caught us up five miles in shortly after Panic Peak, which was actually fine – rough and scrabbly switchbacks, but causing our calm horses no serious issues. Having been primed for problems, I was psyched out by a broken pack saddle lying abandoned on a rock close to the start of the climb – the remains of what must have been a nasty fall for some poor animal – but Rich was v confident, even excited, by the prospect and right enough we ascended without delay.

Highest section of trail lay beyond, around 13,500ft, with incredible views of the Grenadiers and San Juan ranges to our right. From there, less than two miles to Carson Saddle, on some very slidy dust roads, and we took a detour to the abandoned mining village of Carson, a ghost town where the old timber buildings have been preserved. We stored our tack and equipment in the old stable block, which still has the original stalls and hay racks.

Very hot afternoon, with no storm, and realised we’d left our new bag of cereal bars behind at the last campsite. When heat abated, got up to fetch water for horses (Numero is always thirsty, I’ll miss him meeting my arrival with a throaty whicker of welcome, even a whinny / we’ll miss them all terribly) and saw three moose descend into the marshy area where they splashed happily and grazed. They saw us watching but were not at all alarmed. Horses wary, perked up with heads aloft and backs arched, snorting, but I banged around and promised to protect them, until they went back to grazing).

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Day 33: Carson to Pole Creek

Very cold last night and sleep very disturbed, but as we planned another short 10-mile day today we slept in til 6, when it was light but there was no direct sun into our north-facing valley, so everything still under frost. Feel the winter approaching closer every day. A short panic when he couldn’t find the bear bag, and we thought our food supplies had been stolen by an animal overnight. We were camping on the edge of woodland thick with red currants, which had seemed delightful yesterday, but in the dark hungry hours of the morning seemed only a bear risk. False alarm, and Rich made us double porridge rations to make up for it but we’re out of coffee and milk powder.

Cold fingered pack up, then just as we were tacking up we had another fright as another moose arrived on the scene, a lone male which splashed through the pool, drawing attention of the horses (Pinto: rolling his eyes, snorting loudly and lifting his tail to leave towers of territorial droppings, a stress response of some kind). I did some banging about again, but if anything it seemed to attract the moose’s curiosity and it advanced, at first casually, still grazing off and on and latterly more aggressive. The horses were in uproar – the pack saddle was hanging off Pinto, half done up as he swung around in fright making exaggerated snorting noises, then a series of mini rears as the moose approached. Numero was still loose, and doing similarly. Rich was a tower of strength, staying very calm and quiet, and had the idea of hiding behind the stableblock, which was a stroke of genius – the moose seemed to lose interest once we passed out of eyeshot, ignoring Numero who was still running around, panicked and helpless. The moose wandered into a thicket of bushes to the south, although it took a while for the horses – particularly the geldings – to calm down, they were besides themselves, shaking and sweating, fixated on the spot where the moose was last seen. Suddenly three horses to two people seemed unworkable, they wouldn’t stand still, but somehow we got the packs on and the saddlebags secured and walked back up to Carson Saddle and out of moose land.

We all took a while to calm down, and it didn’t help having Pinto as pack horse  – the other two are terribly slow in lead, dragging their feet. Pepper has an annoying evasive habit of weaving on and off the path when she is put up front, very frustrating.

Took another detour off trail, on Pam’s advice, to avoid a 30 mile section above treeline, following the old path of the Colorado Trail along Pole Creek. I thought I’d coped well with the early stress, but the adrenaline caught up with me, and I arrived at lunch spot 11.4 miles in, in a foul mood and overheating under direct sun. Having dropped down to lower elevation, the temperatures have jumped. Ate lunch in near silence, all horses tied up as still very restless and unwilling to quietly graze, so we decided to push on towards the unpromisingly named ‘Bear Town,’ another abandoned settlement.

Cloud drew in, but no rain – very muggy and uncomfortable – and we plodded on. Now camped on a flat cowy expanse a mile or so short of Bear Town. Glad we persevered, morale has recovered, and now lying listening to the sound of elk on the hill above, an eerie, high-pitched whistling scream. Too dark to write more.

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Day 34: Pole Creek to Little Molas Lake

The moose obviously made a deep impression on the horses as we had another bit of trouble this morning while packing up due, ludicrously, to the arrival of a lone black cow approaching us on the flat grassy enclave as part of its normal morning toilette and finding us in the way. This set Pinto off snorting and arching and creating towering piles of droppings and staring out the harmless cow. He and Pepper were saddled and had been grazing loose, but then we had to tie her up to a bushy to keep him close – he was trotting around fretfully trying to get some kind of trouble going.

Luckily Numero, pack horse today, was little bothered, so we managed to get moving despite all the daftness, though it was a little fraught. We continued passed Beartown (nothing much to see of the old township), and joined the Continental Divide Trail which led us back above treeline, the ground now marbled with green and yellow and brown vegetation. We rode past old mines carved into the rock and a tiny lone cabin below greying snow patches. Remarkable views from the top of the ridge as we came down the weaving switchbacks – dozens of them – into the Elk Creek gorge – cliffs rising up on one side, and the clamlike edge of the plateau holding deep pools.

I was nervous of this section, as the path had been described to us as having a “dizzying” drop off one side, although like Panic Peak we managed it without drama. The worst was getting Numero and his wide load past an overhanging rock wall on a gravelly, slippy path. I was nervous he’d bash the packs against the rock and panic, but he was stoic and we just kept dropping down and down.

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Following the narrow gauge railway line

Another moose darted out in front of us while trotting along a soft forest path, then saw another three on the opposite shore of a beaver-dammed pond or lake in front of a remarkable backdrop of sheer quartzite peaks – Arrow and Vestal. We were running out of fuel and food so pushed on for a strenuous 18 mile day of extreme elevation changes: after we hit the bottom of our steep descent, we crossed (and briefly followed) a narrow gauge railway line then immediately commenced an arduous climb up again towards Molas Pass.

Spotted mule deer in a high meadow and an osprey with a fish in its talons over Big Molas Lake before crossing the road to Silverton and setting up camp on the edge of Little Molas Lake, surely one of our best campsites yet. (Golden light on the crags // chiaroscuro effect // still, silver surface of the lake // flat pasture with heavy headed grass)  Horses a little sunburnt (as am I),  and running rather low on essentials – perfect timing for a day off. We’re ahead of schedule too.

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Day 35: Little Molas Lake 

Rest day, and a fun day full of friends. (New friends! Trail friends!) Took turns to hitch into Silverton, a beautiful old fashioned mountain town with dirt streets and old wooden bars. Drank proper coffee then while buying groceries banged into Dan and Courtney again, and invited them to join us for s’mores later. Then on return I found Tim and Lorisha had reappeared and camped next to us at Little Molas Lake. Lovely night – a glimpse of normality after weeks of concentration – and when I went down to check on the horses last thing, tipsy after two beers, I found all three flat out asleep on the grass and felt my heart clench with love for them.

 

to be continued

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