Smokebeard Hikes

CDT36 – 961 – Lake City

COVID UPDATE: Day 9 since symptoms appeared. I’m 95% symptom free, no fever, trying to get my legs back after laying in bed for 5 days. Still testing positive. I’m going to hold of hitching up to Gunnison until I’m not infectious.

Note: I did not HIKE to Lake City this quickly.  It was a combination of CDT, alternate routes, and hitching.  While climbing up from Wolf Creek Pass with Just Right and Pigpen, I felt something wrong, but assumed it was altitude.  I think it was, and also my nascent COVID infection brewing.

For those of you who have pledged charity support per mile, I will leave it up to you what this means. We already had to skip a big section in New Mexico because of fires.


I would like to thank all the people who have reached out with messages of support. Sitting alone in a hotel room for a week would have been completely miserable without the many unsolicited offers for grocery pick-up, food, the people who dropped off beers, the people who sent Instagrams DMs, and all the texts. At this point I don’t know if I can get back on the trail or not, but this has proved what Scout once said, that out here the default setting is “nice”.


Day 1 – Wolf Creek Pass

A bunch of us went out for beers and when the fancy Brew Pub would not serve us, we ended up at a dive bar where I think our entire bill came to about $12 . Something about $1.50 beers. We got back to the hotel, and Petr & Kate invited us to their room for a mini party. In classic hiker style this involved sitting on the floor, party snacks being Pringles in a bowl.

The morning was consumed by town chores including hitches to and from the grocery store, drinking of coffee, charging of phones and eating of cinnamon rolls. Walking east out of town I came across a bunch of other hikers with the same plan. Some of them I knew from the earlier mountain section, others were new. Through synchronicity, I met up with Just Right and Pigpen on the edge of town.  20 minutes later we were all in a pickup truck riding back up towards the pass.

Pigpen was going to take it slow for a couple of reasons. First was that he needed to get off the trail at Creede so that he could hitch to Denver to catch a plane back to England for a wedding. The second was that he had wiped out on a blowdown (big tree which had fallen across the trail) earlier and driven one of the broken branches deep into his shin. He was not walking anywhere quickly. After a few pictures at the Pass, we sprinted across the highway Frogger-style and began the climb up good old Colorado Trail 813, aka the CDT.  Early going was pretty easy, the trail was well laid out with a lot of switchbacks, but as we got farther from the road the number of blowdowns increased. The trail also started going higher and on the northeast side of the ridge so we ended up crossing long snowfields with no visible trail.  Plus the trail was weaving in and out of the trees, some fallen, so it was scrambling over snow drifts as well. Less than fun, and no way to avoid getting wet.

After a lot of bushwhacking and some glissading, along with some sketchy traverses, my feet (and rear end) were soaked. The original plan had been to do about 9 miles to a lake, but it was quickly apparent we weren’t going to get that far. Pigpen was nowhere in sight.

We trudged on for a bit once we got out of the snow fields, finding a spot that was mostly flat and not on the snow to camp.  Despite it being a short day we were happy to have made a good distance from the road. We both agreed it was nice to camp near someone for a change.  The plan for tomorrow was about 17 nikes, splitting the distance between here and Squaw Valley. Just Right had worked out a cutoff where we could drop down off the ridge, walk through some woods roads along a reservoir, then come back up the other side. She was planning to do closer to 20. There would still be plenty of high stuff, but it would cut off a day or so and make the overall carry to Lake City easier.  Since I had already bailed going into Pagosa (snowstorm) and we had missed the section in New Mexico, it’s not like we were still on the pure Trail anyway.

I wasn’t feeling great. It didn’t seem sinister at the time, I thought it was just altitude since we were at 11700. But I was definitely feeling something, shortness of breath and a lot of congestion. The first inklings of COVID.


Day 2 – the wind at 12500 feet

Out here I don’t sleep much past 6 in the morning. I was up and on the trail before 7. I heard Just Right hit snooze and roll over, so I was off. It took a bit of climbing but eventually the trail moved up on top of a windswept ridge. In the morning the wind wasn’t too bad, and it was really nice to be up out of the snow. I had put Ziplocs over my socks in case there were more snow crossings but after a while I pulled them out because my feet were sweating and getting wet anyway.

Way up on the ridge, out of the snow, the flowers were out and I ran into a couple of what I think are grouse.

The trail was good and even though it was close to the edge of the cliff it’s not like it was ever sketchy. After this set of cliffs the trail made a wide bend across a couple of miles of flat before crossing a saddle and then ascending a mountain almost to 13000. At least there were switchbacks at the top. That was a brutal climb for me, more COVID.

By mid-afternoon, another day where I didn’t really have time for lunch, I was pretty tired out. Making things worse was the fact that the wind picked up to the point where sometimes I had to lay down in the trail or risk being blown over. Literally.

The day ended a little earlier than I had planned. I got to a saddle before another big climb around dinner time. The wind was howling so I descended maybe less than a half mile off the ridge behind a group of little twisted trees. I found a flat spot to pitch my tent although it was really just wedged in between two rocks. Picture laying down on the ground with a bowling ball on either side of you and you’ll get an idea of the kind of campsite I had. If I laid in just the right spot it was flat. I was definitely feeling crappier at the end of the day, a combination of altitude, too little food, and of course COVID.

Day 3 – Knife Edge and the snowstorm

Woke up after a terrible night sleep in the wind with a raging sore throat. I attributed it to the wind. At this point my nose was running pretty constantly. And without getting too graphic, there was a lot of blood. But once again the views were epic, and the trail pretty good. Breakfast, Tylenol, Sudafed, and caffeine made things a little better. By mid-afternoon my feet were wet again. Lots of slushy traverses. The microspikes don’t really help on snow, they fill up with slush and then you’re just walking on smooth platform shoes. The jury is out nut I think I’m bouncing them ahead. They weigh close to a pound, and they’re spiky and dirty so I attach them to the outside of my pack, which isn’t great for balance.

The geographic highlight of the day was something called the Knife Edge. I have been on knife edges before, typically it’s a section of trail where the ground falls away sharply on either side. I wasn’t too worried, because it’s never as bad as one might imagine. A 10 foot wide path, with a 100 foot drop on either side can be called a “knife edge”. It sounds scary, but do you ever randomly fly up into the air and then fall 10 feet away? No.

However today I ran into a fellow walking what I considered the wrong way, South. He introduced himself as Darkweb, and told me that the traverse of the Knife Edge was impossible. He was hiking back on the trail all the way to the point where you would pick up the Creede cut off. I think he was just done with snowy traverses and high altitude stuff. We had been getting whacked by cold weather and snow a lot. Later someone mentioned that he didn’t have an ax or spikes. Rather than backtrack 22 miles, I decided to press on and see how bad it really was. You never know how hard something is until you are right there.

It was pretty bad. Here the Knife Edge was not a tightrope walk along a spine. Here the trail followed a ridge to the east, and then cut sharply across the north side of that ridge which was extremely steep, bordering vertical. The picture below does not do it justice but if you squint you can kind of see in the upper left portion where the trail starts to move across the face of the rock. (Photo taken from the bottom of the cliff). It’s not so much the trail itself but the consequence of what happens if you slip. Figuring that someone else must have solved this problem already I stopped and looked around. Sure enough there was a little herd path down to the bottom of the valley. The nice thing about being high and above tree line and in snow fields is that everything is pretty much visible in a straight line to everything else. Outside of the effort it takes to do the scrambling, you pretty much can walk from point A to point B.

Down I went. The trail disintegrated into a scree slope and there was a lot of slipping and sliding and rock hopping and semi acrobatic climbing involved. Slowly but surely I made my way along the valley floor and then bushwhacked up through a lot of scrub until I reach the trail again. It was not particularly elegant but I did also did not fall off the ridge and die.

Looking up into the storm I ended up camping in

Once I got back onto the trail I made much better time but it was already close to 5. The scramble around the cliff had taken more time than I anticipated. Looking ahead I saw nothing but clouds and snow. There were two more climbs above 12000 before I reached the Squaw Valley cutoff and I did not want to do them in these conditions. On either side of the saddle there was a lake and trees. I went down on the leeward side of the saddle and found a spot in the bushes. At this point the wind was howling and it was extremely difficult to get my tent up without it blowing away. I was really afraid that I would either tear the tent or break a pole. I sat in the lee of the bushes while the wind howled and tge snow fell, and when it stopped I would try to put up the tent. That seemed to only inspire the wind to return with greater ferocity. Eventually I got the tent staked and enough heavy things in it so that it would not blow away while I was putting it together. After that I dove into the tent and then spent the next 12 hours alternately sleeping and holding the tent against the force of the wind. Highlight of the night – thunderstorms, except I was IN the storm. Second highlight of the night – around 3am the coyotes started up, despite the wind. I told myself they were just coyotes – and I’m 99% sure they were.

The night totally sucked. I was also feeling really poorly at this point despite having made an extra salty dinner to soothe my sore throat, cough, and perpetually running nose. Spent most if the night shivering in my quilt, despite wearing my base layer, clothes, and down jacket. And telling myself – you CHOSE to be here.

Day 4 – Squaw Valley and Colorado Rt 149

I was up by 5 and on the trail by 6. My water bottles had frozen in my tent. This made me feel slightly better, I wasn’t just being cold and wimpy if it was cold enough for my water to freeze. I figure the temps outside dropped to the teens. Also, my quilt is rated for 20F. Thats the “you wont die” temperature, not the “you will be comfortable ” temperature.

The trail climbed out of the saddle along a pretty steep ridge topped with about a ten-foot high snow cornice. I ended up using my fingers like claws to dig in and help scrabble my way up to the top of the snow before getting to the much easier stone and gravel path at the top. Despite it being freezing and despite me feeling like crap, I could not help but notice how beautiful everything was. By about 7 the wind had died and I was walking alone along the top of the world.

By 9 or so the temperature (at least in the sun) has risen to the point where my water was melted. I stopped at this little alpine lake for second breakfast. First breakfast have been two handfuls of granola. While I indulged, another hiker came up. It was Lemon Hope, who I met the day before. First words out of his mouth were “that was a spicy traverse”. He had camped just before the Knife Edge and then done it first thing in the morning. Smart, because the snow was hard and crunchy and provided better footing. Despite that, he said it took him three hours and he fell down the ridge and had to self arrest with his axe once. No thanks.

After breakfast if there was another climb up above 12, and then the long gradual descent to Squaw Valley began. After a while the trail turn to mud, there was enough moisture in the air to actually smell the grass, and the trail moved back into the pine trees. It was a welcome change from the high and dry ridge. Just before lunch I reached the Squaw Valley cutoff and left the CDT.

Old school blazed on the tree

Over the next two hours I worked my way down Squaw Valley along what I think is the original or old CDT. The blazes are very distinct. In the valley I saw a mother and baby moose grazing. This was already better then walking the ridge. By now I was not feeling great, so there were quite a few short breaks for water and M&Ms.

I got down to a public campground by about 4 and had a sort of second lunch. It was deserted. This was the last day of Memorial Day weekend so I didn’t expect much in the way of car traffic. I started walking the dirt road towards the highway. I did end up getting a hitch, two actually. One drove me a few miles so that I didn’t have to make a climb up a hill. The second drove me all the way out to the highway and then a little bit north towards Lake City. Then those folks had to make a turn and go elsewhere leaving me to hitch the rest of the way. I would later learn that this county is the least populated county in the lower 48, so in retrospect it’s no surprise that I stood on the road for over three hours without getting a ride.

Day 5 – Lake City and the COVID

Empty roads.

Another cold, uncomfortable, shivering night, this time camped in the bushes along the highway. At least there was a stream. And I got to see a herd of elk graze, complete with one if them making that cool elk bugling sound. I was back out on the road before dawn, hoping to catch the early commuters if they existed. They didn’t.

After almost two hours the second car drove by and thankfully picked me up. The people were really cool and drop me off at the only open diner / coffee / internet place in town. A place called Chillin. It’s an interesting little place. It looks like the children or grandchildren of the owners would come in for breakfast before school. There was also a poster on the wall that read “You know it’s bad when white people protest other white people for being white people”. I sucked down a quick burrito and coffee while talking to a couple of other hikers. I don’t recall their names and I will never see them again as they mentioned that their desert pace was 35 miles per day and their mountain pace is over 25.

I probably shouldn’t have gone to the diner, but after walking around the town for a while and picking up my mail I started to feel really crappy. I found that there was a health department office in town and swung by for a COVID test. In the time it took me to use their bathroom it had already come back positive. In the words of the guy testing me, “it lit right up”. They told me I had to quarantine for 5 days starting that day, so I went to the RV park where they had campsites kind of separated from everything else for twenty bucks. The RV people were really cool about the whole thing.

After two nights on the ground and not feeling any better I made another pass through the cabins and lodges in town. I found a place that had three nights open and took it. Tracy at the Alpine Moose Lodge was awesome. I spent the next three days taking hot showers, naps and binging Netflix. Then I stayed for 2 more.

So here I sit in Lake City, a cool little town. Expensive and boring (if you’re not allowed in restaurants), but the Library has good Internet that reaches outside. I’ve seen 10 other hikers here, including some I hadn’t seen since day3 (Arrow and Guru). Others were more recent companions. Most had done the whole Red Line, one fellow, Teva, was injured, his calves wrapped in bandages, from “an icy glissade”. He was heading to Salida for some R&R.

So what now? Mixed information on when you stop being contagious. I don’t feel great, so it’s not like I’d hike today anyway. The plan is to be not-contagious, and hitch the 2 hours up to Gunnison. Then hitch east to another pass where it’s 40 miles to Salida, at much lower elevation. I’ll see what impact being sick has had, or continues to have, and go from there. This ain’t over.

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