Mountain Passes and Moonlight Sonatas: Salida to Breckenridge

 

We left Salida on a hot, sunny day. Three hikers flushed out into the city – into the busy Monday streets – with a collective intention: Find a ride to Monarch Pass.

That’s where we’d get back on the trail.

As we walked down a neighborhood street, Delightful said “we might as well start hitching.” She put up her thumb. Israeli Tom and I followed suite. Within minutes, a young woman in a Subaru pulled over. “I can take you up to the highway,” she said, “but that’s as far as I’m going.”

We piled into her car.

The woman looked at Delightful, who was riding shotgun. “I’m looking for eggs,” the woman said. “I can’t find eggs anywhere.”

“Um,” Delightful scratched her head. “Have you tried the Safeway?”

“I don’t want those eggs,” the woman replied. “But don’t worry; I’ll find some.”

She let us out on the highway. We hitched and walked for about 20 minutes before another vehicle pulled over — a woman and her son in an F-250 towing an empty flatbed trailer.

“We can take you up to Poncha Springs,” the woman said, “but that’s as far as we’re going.”

She let us out at at the juncture of highways 50 and 285.  There was an establishment with a sign reading “IScream and Other Stuff.”

We set our bags on the floor, stared unhappily at the heatwaves coursing over the asphalt, stared longingly at the IScream Shop.

“Should we get ice cream or something?” I said.

“I think we should get ice cream,” Tom said.

So Delightful got an ice cream cone and Tom and I got milkshakes.

Then we went back to the hot business of hitching.

Standing on the side of the road, I said, “This is kind of a funny way to hitch, just standing here drinking milkshakes and stuff.”

Tom took a pull on his vanilla. “This is the only way to hitch,” he said.

Whaaa!?!?

We sat on the side of Highway 50 – which runs alongside the Arkansas River – for about an hour as all the busy Americans throttled by in their cars, trucks and SUVs.

“I’m beginning to lose my faith in humanity,” I told Tom.

“Maybe you could climb on my shoulders,” he said. “On the PCT, I got a few hitches doing that.”

“I don’t want to climb on your shoulders, Tom,” I said.

“Okay.”

Finally a guy named Dan pulled over. He wore his hair disheveled and a Despicable Me t-shirt with yellow Minions and letters reading “Whaaa?!?!”

Out of politeness, we tried to make small talk with Dan as he drove us to the pass. It turns out he was a rather taciturn fellow.

“Where you coming from, Dan?” Delightful asked.

“Denver.”

“What were you doing there?” I asked.

“Visiting family.”

“Did you have a good weekend?”

“It was all right.”

“Where you headed?”

“Gunnison.”

“What do you do in Gunnison?”

“I’m a night auditor.”

“Oh.”

When he dropped us off at Monarch Pass, I said, “Well, thanks for the ride, Dan. We were getting pretty desperate out there.”

“Some people just don’t understand that other people need rides,” he responded.

A regular old philosopher – that Dan. I can respect that.

A young Bodhisattva

We walked a ways up the trail. That’s where we found Chimichanga.

He was sitting in the shade of a pine tree, straight-backed and cross-legged, like a young bodhisattva.

“Muy buenos dias,” he called. “I just had the best hitch of my life. I’m half drunk right now.”

He smiled broadly, revealing teeth stained the color of plumb-red wine. On the ground beside him was a pair of red-and-yellow pears. Two bananas and a soppressata salami protruded from the top of his pack.

He launched into a story about how he hitched with a woman who worked as a traveling cheese salesperson. When he got in the car, she offered him some Dale’s Pale Ale and various types of cheeses. At the pass she asked him, “You want to hang out, drink some wine?”

And so they split a bottle of red wine.

“Then she just started giving me all this food,” Chimi said. “I have so much food right now.”

In his pack – in addition to the aforementioned items and a full load of trail food to get to Twin Lakes – he had a huge wheel of artisanal cheese and a hamburger.

“We can have a feast tonight,” he said. “I can’t carry all of this. We’ll dine like kings tonight.”

“Yeah, we can have a Viking feast,” I said. “I packed out a bag of cherries. I’ll contribute those. But let’s get to walking.”

And finally, after much adieu, we got on the trail.

Improvisational glissades

  

We pressed quickly into a forest that ran alongside the Monarch Pass Ski Resort. Afternoon thunderclouds swept over the Cochetopa Hills, trailing thin sheets of wispy virga – streaks of rain that hung in the distant atmosphere like gossamer-web theater curtains.

I began to notice moths rising from the forest soil – hundreds of moths that multiplied into thousands. They kicked up at our feet, flew erratically in the spaces between the pines, flitting to and fro like some sort of deranged circus act.

“This is wild,” Chimi said. “Try to follow one with your eyes. You can’t do it.”

“It’s almost hallucinatory,” I said.

“I just hope they eat mosquitoes,” Tom said.

After the rain came and got us wet, we climbed up above a cornice — a spot where snow packed up against the ledge of a ridge. Chimichanga sat down and ate his hamburger. Then we tried to find passage around the cornice, to no avail. I saw a relatively safe spot where other hikers had kicked steps down the snow. As I investigated, however, Chimichanga was making his way over the ledge. Suddenly, I heard Delightful scream, “Chimi!”

I turned and saw him slip and land on his butt and go sliding rapidly down the slope.

“I guess I’m glissading,” he said as he slid. And then he went crashing roughly into the boulders at the bottom. “Owww,” he said.

“I guess I found a way down.”

The trail from there climbed in and out of steep passes. We went through Tin Cup Pass. We cruised through the Collegiate Wilderness. We dropped into forests and took refuge under trees during rainstorms. We forded Texas Creek, taking a line through rapids, feeling the waters’ hydraulics surge steadily against our bodies.

We crossed the divide at a pass near Lake Ann, topping out at an expansive view of Sanford Basin. To our south was an enormous cirque, a place where an ancient glacier sat and wallowed and ground a throne befitting a giant king. Now that the glacier has melted away, it left behind the blunted end to a valley where streams and waterfalls feed into forests. The forests’ trees fell away into the basin before climbing again in a vast serape up the slopes to the shoulders of more mountains, where they stopped at timberline, as if in deference to the peaks’ rocky heads.

“Climbing to a ridge crest is like getting a birthday present,” Chimi said. “You’re like, ‘What’s it gonna be? What’s it gonna be?’ And then you get to the top – ” he trailed off. “I just wasn’t expecting this.”

 Then came our final climb ahead of Twin Lakes, a 2,500-foot ascent over Hope Pass, which is itself a saddle between Hope and Quail mountains.

As we neared treeline, I pulled over in a shady spot to pant. Chimichanga approached.

“Taking a breather?” he said.

“Yup.”

“That’s cool. We’re in no hurry. I’m feeling good, though. I’ve got some pump-up jams on.”

“Word.”

“I’m gonna press on.”

“Word.”

I gathered some strength and followed, climbing and smiling and feeling good. I thought about how wonderful it is to throw yourself against a mountain like this.

What a joy it is to be young and lithe in a great American wilderness.

And I thought also about how life and love and youth and friendship and vitality — all of it is here — all of it is bound up in the embrace of this great, long trip — and all of it is magnified, now, in the throes of this intensive climb.

Approaching the saddle, the crest, the crescendo, I could feel it all: the valley laid out behind me, the rushing coulee to my left flank, the Collegiate Peaks, the Cochetopas, the San Juans, the San Pedros; all the ranges clear back to New Mexico — where we passed through deserts and river canyons — all those miles stretching back to the Mexican border; and I thought also about how I am in the middle. So much of this journey remains ahead: Twin Lakes and Copper Mountain and Breckenridge – immediately, yes – but also so much more: Wyoming and Idaho and Montana.

And beyond?

My whole life is ahead of me.

 At the top I threw down my poles and beat my chest and threw my hands in the air. A cairn with tattered Tibetan prayer flags flailed in the gusting winds. 

Standing in that saddle, I looked ahead, and it might be weird to say, but I felt like a young man poised on the brink of the rest of his life.

Chimichanga said, “That was a doozie of a climb. I was about to stop, then John Denver ‘Rocky Mountain High’ came on, and I just powered through to the top.”

And I said: “John Denver is your pump-up music?”

Delightful made it to the top and cheered, then we hung out for a while, taking photos. A mountain goat descended Quail Mountain and passed within 30 yards of us.

  

A Mountain Above the Rest

We camped that night near the shore of Twin Lakes and resupplied the next day before moving out again. My brother Clent drove up from Denver along with our friend Rey. We woke the next morning to bag Elbert.

  

At 14,440, Elbert is the tallest mountain in the Rockies and the second tallest peak in the continental United States.

On the way up, I cajoled the city boys, saying, “C’mon now, boys — let’s get to that next rock. This mountain ain’t gonna climb itself.”

They put up a fine effort, and we all made it to the top by midday.

As we neared the summit, Clent said, “Here it is: The first 14er of my Colorado career.”

“It’s a good one to have notched on your belt,” I said. “Wait — did you say first?”

“Yup.”

“Your first 14er is the tallest in Colorado,” I said. “You started at the top.”

My brother looked at me with solemnity. “I don’t play games, Chilton.”

…Well, okay then, Mr. James Bond…

 Delightful departed for Leadville that evening. Chimichanga and I pressed big miles past Tennessee Pass and into Copper Mountain. I hiked my first 30-mile day during this stretch.

Moonwalking into Breck

As we left Copper, a full moon was in the forecast. We decided to night-hike over Tenmile Range – home to Breckenridge ski resort – using the moon as a spotlight.

We set our alarms for 1 a.m., made coffee, packed our tents, and broke for treeline. The moon rode low and to the east for most of the night, casting a wide wash of pale light over the alpine tundra. In the talus it felt like we were walking on an alien planet. A slight breeze, but the mountain was utterly silent. Our eyes adjusted quickly, and we followed the trail with ease.

At the top we circumnavigated a long cornice. Then we sat above a cliff, quivering in the cold, drank coffee, and awaited dawn. Thunderheads hung over the mountains between us and Denver. Purple lightning forked through clouds that were collapsing into the mountains ringing Breckenridge – a town asleep in the valley’s crease. “Quasi una fantasia.” The sounds of serenity, like in the Piano Sonata No. 14. The Moonlight Sonata.

At daybreak, light came gradually, turning the sky gray-blue, then illuminating it in hues of orange, yellow and red.

“Everything that ever happened lead up to this moment,” Chimi said.

“Everything that’s happening in the universe is happening right now – at this exact moment,” I said.

“At this moment,” he said.

“And now – at this moment.”

In Frisco we stayed with family friends: Colleen, John, Bob and Tinsey. (Apologies if I misspelled a name!) We sat on their porch and in the kitchen and talked for a long time about everything in the whole wide world before eating a satisfying meal of spaghetti and turning in for the night. Everyone had a great time. Thanks for the hospitality!

Clent drove me down to Denver where I spent the Fourth of July with friends.

After what’s been a long but good break, I’m getting back on the trail today, going from Breckenridge over Grays and Torreys peaks, skipping Winter Park, and heading straight for Grand Lake. That’s 130 miles. Chimichanga left yesterday. I am somewhat behind schedule and need to make up time, so will be walking fast.

(Once again I am indebted to Chimi for many of the photos in this post.)

Scenes From the Trail:

  

                  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Backpacking.

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