The West Collegiates
This post is a long one.
There were a ton of wildfires when we started our hike, and hiking into Twin Lakes was our first real evidence of it. The wildfire happened to be a ways away, and the wind blew it into the valley. Smoke filled the entire area and haze hung over the lakes, discoloring everything with a strange yellow hue.
We took a small side trail down the rockiest loosest trail ever known to mankind, and walked straight into the town of Twin Lakes, Colorado. We hung out in the tiny little town shop, ate ice cream, and resupplied for the next section–the West Collegiates. We decided to go this route instead of the East Collegiates, since we’d heard how spectacular the Westside was. Also, the guy running the shop definitely was a Bigfoot Believer. Ask him about it.
After several hours, we decided to hitch a mile up the road back to the trail instead of struggling back up the loose rocky bullshit we’d come down just to hike a mile to the exact same point. (Purists, you can suck it.) (Just kidding, hike your own hike.) Getting a hitch took a shockingly long time, even with plenty of traffic about.
Finally, we succeeded. It was hot and exposed in the sage fields, so we took a dip in the lake, and then were greeted by a super sweet chick who’d just gotten off the PCT. She’d broken her foot at about mile 500 while running down the mountain. Obviously upset at having to get off trail, she decided to travel around Colorado, living out of her car and doing 14er’s as her foot healed. (Badass, much?!) She trail magicked us with fruit and beer (BEER! I LOVE BEER!) and hung out until we decided we needed to hike on.
As we hiked we could barely see the mountains on the other side of the lake for all the smoke, and it looked like golden hour even though it was only 4 o’ clock. I could pretty much look directly at the sun, it was so shrouded out by smoke. I soaked my buff and had it over my face so I could breathe a little better. Without it, I could smell the smoke like a campfire.
Finally, we took the trail that led us to the West Collegiates. And what followed was the longest, most never ending, grueling LITERAL uphill battle I had faced so far. My body was depleted. Mouse, one of my trail mates, turned on his heavy metal music to get him up the hill, but unfortunately that shit just doesn’t work on me.
Eventually, after taking about 1800 breaks every 10 or so steps, we arrived at an open field filled with purple flowers, and made camp.
The following week was unreal. The West Collegiate mountains took me on a journey that took me a long time to process. Talk about emotional highs and lows! I can say, without a doubt, that the West Collegiates are the hardest hiking I have ever done.
We spent most days above 12,000ft, forcing us to do big 20 milers to get up and then back down into treeline by the end of the day. I think a couple of times, we went over 5 or 6 passes in a single day, which is one of those impossible-until-you-do-it sort of feats. There was some spectacular stuff along the way, and it was painful, and hard. At the end of each day, sitting around camp, we’d just look around at one another, breathe a heavy sigh, and say “what a day…”
Then there were the thunderstorms. Everyday between 2 and 4 pm, the clouds billow up and thunderstorms appear like clockwork. I started taking notice of when these clouds would appear. (Seriously, they seemed to come out of nowhere!) I’d first notice these tiny little harmless clouds of fluff around 11 am, and slowly as the hours went by, they grow and grow, seemingly from the inside, until they were the stuff of my nightmares.
I am what one might call a lightning alarmist. At the first sound of rumbling, the tiniest temblor or vibration in the air, I am like a deer in the headlights. I stop all motion and stare as hard as I can at where the thunder came from, as if that will adequately gauge the level of danger I’m in. I met so many other hikers who seemed fearless in the face of Zeus, but someone told me Colorado was #1 in lightning struck hikers (this is false, by the way), and someone else told me about their mountain biker friend who died from lightning (sad, but a rarity when considering all the mountain bikers) and the fear just stuck.
The West Collegiates forced me to deal with this.
As we approached the pass (which pass? Its hard to say. There were a lot of them), thunder started rumbling, so we dropped down to wait it out. We got a little rain and hail, and hunkered down under a rainfly for about an hour, then continued onward and upward. Climbing passes and seeing storms from far away is way better than being in them up close.
We’d come up to the top of these passes, and I’d pop over the top expecting to see a road on the other side. Or a power line. Or a cabin. Something. Anything. But no. The West Collegiates are OUT THERE. Pass after pass, not a single sign of humanity, or civilization. It was heavenly, and humbling, and definitely made me think about how long it would take if I got hurt. (Step carefully, my friends.)
Finally, we exited the West Collegiates. It was relieving, as we’d literally eaten all our food. All of it. But the trail nearing the road was filled with day hikers (I guess it was a weekend) that gave us snack bars and trail mix. The world is filled with trail angels!!! We were also informed of a burrito joint in Salida, where we would take several zeroes (accidentally) and fall in love with the town itself.
But that’s for another post. 🙂