Twig Adventures

CDT/CT Bonus 2022: Grays Peak, Argentine Spine, & Searle and Kokomo Passes to Leadville.

September 15-20, Thursday- Monday
Day 1: Hermit Gulch TH to Grays and Torreys TH, 6.7 miles, 1600′ gain, Elevation 11,245′
Day 2: Grays and Torreys TH to Webster Pass, 17.5 miles, 7100′ gain, 6500′ loss, Elevation 11,500′
Day 3: Webster Pass to bench near Blair Witch Trail, just before Breckenridge, 24 miles, 3900′ gain, 6300′ loss
Day 4: 5 miles into Breckenridge on the road, then 1 mile outside of Copper Mt ski resort.
Day 5: Copper Mt to Tennessee Pass, 22 miles, 4000′ gain, 3700′ loss
Day 6: Leadville to Denver via car

This is trip report of a hike I did with my friend Suvi, who I first met on the PCT in 2018. This year she was hiking the CDT southbound. My pit-stop in Colorado after the PNT just happened to align perfectly for a hiker reunion. This was actually our 3rd this year. Suvi visited me in Miami twice over the spring. She was working as a flight attendant and had several layovers. We had a great time going kayaking on Virginia Key and hiking in Big Cypress National Preserve on the Florida Trail. Suvi’s a very accomplished hiker and adventure guide, having completed the Te Araroa, PCT, several European routes, half of the Himalayan High Route, and now the CDT. She’s from Finland and of course can speak like 5 languages perfectly. I’m very honored to be her friend and share in her adventures.

Incidentally, Suvi’s also friends with Anna and Tuomas, two other Finnish hikers that I met and traveled with on Te Araroa. While it would be rather ignorant to assume that ever Finnish person knows each other, the long-distance hiking community in Finland is pretty small, so of course they know each other! Suvi is perhaps the most famous Finnish long-distance hiker and has a pretty active following on social media, check her out at @suvisadventures. I also want to say CONGRATS to her for earning a new trail name while on the the CDT: Spacegoat. Earlier versions didn’t really fit and you’ll notice I still have a hard time not just calling her Suvi, which is a beautiful name meaning Summer in Finnish.

Now onto the trip! Since I first hiked the CDT in 2019, I’d always wanted to repeat the stretch from I-70 to Breckenridge, which I recalled as one of the most difficult parts of the CDT, in terms of elevation and exposed open ridge hiking. Besides incorporating the highpoint of the CDT, 14,278 Grays Peak, this section also takes a hiker over multiple 13ers and remains above 10-11k feet for most of the section. I’d followed the standard CDT route the time before (which leaves the ridgelines for a bit to head down into the valley towards Montezuma), so this was a good opportunity to take the Argentine Spine alternate…which means staying above treeline on exposed ridges for over 25 miles! I knew that if I ever did this section again, I’d need to be in good shape. Coming off the heels of a 1200 mile thru-hike and climb up Mt. Baker seemed to fit this bill, plus I’ve climbed enough 14er’s by this point (26) to be fairly certain of what I’m in for.

Day 1: I met Suvi in Denver mid-day on a Thursday. She’d spent several days off trail with her friend and he’d kindly offered to drive us west on I-70 to the trailhead. We started in the afternoon but only planned to go as far as the Grays/Torrey trailhead parking lot…a nice warm-up. We walked down the easy bike path paralleling the interstate, immersed in conversation. We had a lot to catch up on since we’d last hung out. So much had happened over the summer and I enjoyed hearing about her adventures on the CDT. She’d been able to hike the first couple hundred miles with our mutual friend Skybird, who was another of our 2018 PCT SOBO alums. Sadly, I’d just missed Skybird as she passed through CO…she was already making her way through the San Juans by this point!

We easily made it up the approach road and found the trailhead pretty quiet. A few vehicles were parked and only one passed us on the road. Compared to my previous early morning hike on August 26th, 2019, when something like 40 cars had driven past me on a Sunday, all on their way to bag some 14er’s…it’s a very popular CO thang. I usually hate to camp at a popular trailhead like this but we certainly didn’t want to go much further, as we would need to camp in the cold, tree-less alpine meadows…no thanks. We found some lovey spots under the nearby conifers and as a testament to finding the perfect spot, I discovered 2 beers just sitting out in the open…trail magic! We put them in the nearby creek to chill while set up camp and ate our dinners. Then we settled in for a cold night…did I mention that my summer kit from the PNT was WAY too minimal for this high elevation shoulder season hike? Well, it’s what I had with me at the time so it’s what I went with. It didn’t bode well that it had snowed that past few nights and was still snowing on the peak. We could see the snow from the trailhead and also talked to a hiker on his way back, who reported that there were several inches on the trail. We prayed to the Trail Gods for good weather. So far, it was a great start to this trip!

Day 2: We were up bright and early, mainly because we’re in the thru-hiker groove but also because one should always get an early start on a 14er. We only had 3.6 miles and 3k’ to the top but a really big day after this first bump. Also, we were awoken by motors and lots of car doors slamming starting around 3 am. I knew well to expect this, so I slept with my earplugs in. Still, there’s only so much activity one can take before getting swept up by the summit excitement. We set off on the trail in the dark and began passing scores of day hikers. We stopped about a mile in to fill up our water bottles at the last creek, unsure of when we’d see water again (turns out, not until the very end of the day)…so we grabbed 3 liters each. We actually had to go back a little ways because the creek ended sooner than our notes indicated. Good thing we made this extra effort!

The rest of the climb was pretty easy. It’s one of the most well-graded trails up a 14er, with lots of mellow switchbacks. Most people hike up to the saddle, climb Torreys, and then follow the ridge back to Grays for a double whammy. I’d already done this before and Suvi wasn’t that interested in peak bagging (14ers don’t mean much to a person that goes by the metric system AND has also been to the Himalayas). So we went straight to the top of Grays…which was a short portion of trail that I’d bypassed the time before so yay, I ticked-off some more red-line (official CDT) miles! It was beautiful but somewhat cold and windy at the top. We stopped long enough to take pictures and eat a snack, but that was it. We also met another couple who where were thru-hiking…their packs and minimal clothing were an obvious give-away. I was equally under-dressed for the conditions…so I just kept moving!

We descended quickly on the ridge towards Mt Edwards, dropping about 500′ and then regaining it. I was careful to follow the correct ridge (learned from the experience of following the wrong ridge for a bit years before) and we were quickly on top Mt Edwards at 13,817’…almost another 14er for the day. Actually, we stayed above 13,000′ for about 6 miles by taking the Argentine Spine Alternate. I was too timid to take this alternate before but this day, I was ready for it! I was happy not to drop all the way down into the valley and perhaps hike a little less distance, but it was not easier! We did a lot of little up and downs along the 6 mile alternate and it took us a very long time. My lungs were burning by the time we got past Argentine Peak and took an early lunch break where a powerline crossed the ridge. We found shelter from the wind behind an old mining cabin but it was still quite cold. Though the day had started crystal clear, dark clouds were now on the horizon. The forecast had called for a chance of thunderstorms and snow…not good.

We pressed on, playing hopscotch with the other couple and passing a few mountain goats, which are very common but not native to this area. Spacegoat was excited to see her relatives, though. We huffed and puffed our way up and down so many ridge tops, I lost count. I was a lot of fun and we saw many mining relics…historical trash as POD of the Trail Show likes to call it. Like her, I’m not a fan of the terrible scars left behind from such a long history of mineral extraction, not to mention all the heavy metals that are still polluting the watersheds…it makes me worried about the water I was drinking from the valleys below. Speaking of water, the clouds kept getting darker and more ominous…I was pretty sure we were in for some precipitation in one form or the other. Up this high, you almost always get snow and/or hail. On the last climb, suddenly the visibility went to near zero and we were pelted with hard sleet. I put on every article of clothing and just pushed through it. This certainly wasn’t what I’d bargained for but it didn’t worry me much. After an hour or so, the squall passed and the sun came out for the rest of the day. Gotta love the crazy Colorado weather!

Finally back on the main CDT route, we went up and over a few more 13ers (Sullivan and Geneva peaks), staying above 13k for another 3 miles. Boy, was this an ambitious day! But we needed to press on all the way to Webster Pass, both for the lack of water and limited camping options. I wanted nothing more than to drop a thousand feet by the end. Luckily, Webster pass afforded us the perfect opportunity to drop a mile into the nearby valley to find a creek and nice campsites under the trees. We even had the option of following a different mining road back to the ridge, so we didn’t have to retrace our steps. The only bad thing about the site was some tainted water…the ponds and creeks were all lined with a scary red color and tasted of iron…what other metals might be lurking, who knows. Not like we had much of a choice, though. What a spectacular day!

The view from Webster Pass..we walked along this entire ridge line!

Day 3: It was cold overnight but not as cold as I feared. My 30 degree quilt was just enough…thank you trees! The next morning, we were treated to a fabulous sunrise and more historical trash…a cool old mining cabin! We wound our way on the mining road up to the ridge to rejoin the CDT about 2 miles from where we’d left it at Webster Pass. Our detour worked out perfectly. At the next pass, we were delighted to see 3 moose! They spotted us from far away and galloped down into the valley, disappearing into the willows. It’s amazing how such large animals can hide so easily. We dropped a little off to the other side to collect some water from a puddle under a snowbank. This source had been a gushing stream last time I visited but was disappointing this late in the season. I had to collect some from a small drip off the snow and it was a little silty. Still, the water tasted better than the metallic water in the other valley. We took a little break to enjoy the stunning views and gorgeous day.

Then we were in for a real treat, as 5 mountain goats (2 moms and 3 kids) came down the ridge and walked right up to us. I had to put my trekking pole out to convince one of them not to get any closer! I’m sure they were either after a hand-out or our pee, probably both. Spacegoat was beyond delighted by our animal encounters but I was wary of the sharp little horns these burly mountain goats sport. Sill, what a joy to see them so close. And no, we did NOT feed them! Actually, I hear these sheep are hunted later in the season, so I’m surprised they acted so tame around us. I guess we didn’t appear very threatening.

We did our last climb over 13k’ to Whale peak, then dropped for the remainder of the day. We joined the Colorado Trail at Georgia Pass. I’d stood in awe and reverence at this point on my very first thru-hike, back in 2017. I could barely fathom how intense and intimidating the CDT seemed back them, heading up into the unknown along the higher ridges. I could have never guessed how far I’d come in 5 years…I’d just easily hiked this crazy stretch for a second time and had 10 long distance hikes under my belt! I sure caught the bug from that first trail.

The rest of the day was really chill. We took a long lunch break at the first stream (Middle Fork Swan River, one of my former campsites on the CDT) and I got to reminiscence about all the times I’d passed through this stretch of trail…this was my 4th time (CT17, CDT19, Sectionhike20, Sectionhike22). The trail was pretty quiet for a Saturday. We only saw a few mountain bikers go by and no backpackers. We gathered water at the last stream a few miles before camping on the side of a hill with a great view and a random bench! It was perfect for eating dinner and relaxing. We had our last animal encounter of the day as a very sneaky fox circled us several times, trying to steal our dinners. It got way too close and I had to chase after it waving my trekking pole. We were only a few miles from the outskirts of town, so it’s no surprise that it’s habituated. Hopefully it learns to be a little more fearful of humans before it gets hurt or worse. After watching a beautiful sunset with my very good friend, I settled in for a much warmer night, glad to be lower in elevation. What a perfect couple days it had been.

Day 4: We headed out early, excited for Second Breakfast in town! We walked a few minutes down to a junction, where we deiced to take the Blair Witch Trail out to the valley road, saving ourselves a little PUD on the remainder of the main trail. This worked out great because we got to use the port-a-potty at the trailhead and check out an old mining dredge. We passed by the campsite of a bike packer who had unwisely pitched his tent in a sage field, i.e. cold sink. Everything was covered in frost, including his bike and tent. Less than a quarter of mile above where we had camped in the trees, the temp only got to 44F! I avoid camping in such open fields like the plague! It’s all about the trees for me.

Speaking of trees, we also passed by a GIANT bull moose in one of the fields. He was just far enough away as to feel safe for viewing. That brought our moose count up to 4 for the trip. I never used to see moose outside of Rocky Mt National Park and the San Juans, but they seem to be everywhere in CO now. Shortly we were at the bus stop, just in time to catch the free bus into Breckenridge. We hit a cafe for a beefy breakfast and then Safeway for more snacking and resupply. I didn’t have much of a plan for continuing on after this but the prospect of getting another Melly in Leadville was luring me forward…more on this in a bit. Since I’d already hiked the upcoming 10 Mile range section twice, I decided to take the free bus over to Copper Mt Ski Resort instead of doing the 15 mile hike. It’s a beautiful stretch but I was feeling lazy and hungry. I offered to take Suvi’s pack, or at least as much of her stuff as she could get by without for the day, but she declined. We grabbed the bus to Frisco and Suvi was back on the trail along the way by noon. I got off in Frisco and immediately ran into several thru-hikers. I recognized them by their scruffy appearance, small packs, and the fact that they were hanging in front of a convenience store. Actually, it was the woman wearing a Jolly Gear shirt that first gave a call out to me, so I guess I looked similarly hiker-trashy. We went over to the town park to eat lunch and trade stories. I feel bad now that I forgot their names.

A few hours later, I made it to Copper Mt resort, where I screwed around smartly waiting for Suvi. I bought her a drink for later and explored all the nooks and crannies of the nearly dead resort. I found a really nice hide-away on a couch near a conference room, where I started to conspire about stealth camping for the night. Suvi made her way into town just after most everything had closed. We considered getting really expensive pizza at a restaurant but then relented. I was still full from earlier. At least she got to enjoy a cold drink. We met the cold-camp bikepacker guy eating a whole pizza by himself. We teased him for his campsite selection and then learned that it had only been his second day on trail…no wonder, he was still really new to this. He said he woke to the low 20’s! We bid him farewell and on the way out, I showed Suvi my little ticket-taker conference room stealth camp. It would have probably been fine but Suvi knew there was no way she could get a good night’s rest in there, worrying about someone finding us. So we walked a mile down the trail and found a great spot out of the way. Truth be told, it was a much better prospect than indoors. There was white noise from the nearby I-70 but the camp was warm and dry, and totally legit. I was so happy to be on trail, hanging out with Suvi.

Day 5: I woke up really excited again for this day. I knew we’d be going over one of my favorite sections: Searle and Kokomo Passes! We had perfect weather once again, unlike my first time, where monsoon thunderstorms had been threatening much of the day. The passes were beautiful and different from times before. The wildflowers were long gone and the willows turning brown and red, but oh man, the aspens! The valleys were filled with the suddenly stunning yellows and golds of fall. I’m not sure I could ever get tired of hiking the same trails, because the seasons are always different.

At Kokomo Pass, we had to stop to do a video montage, dancing to the Beach Boy’s Kokomo (you can see it on Suvi’s Instagram). Yeah, I can’t dance. But we had fun. The rest of the day was cruisey, down through Camp Hale and on to finish at Tennessee Pass. In 2017, I struggled to make it 19 miles to where I camped on the CO trail, well short of the highway. This day’s effort didn’t even register. It was just a wonderful, happy day, free of any worries. We stuck out our thumbs and got a ride into Leadville in no time. We went straight to High Mountain Pies (get it?) and wolfed down huge pies each. Mine was sooooo delish and the staff were unbelievably nice and accommodating. They actually invited us to pitch our tents in their beer garden (after hours)…to which of course our response was Hell Yeah! They know their clientele. Huge thanks to this incredible Leadville establishment…doing Colorado Proud!

We drifted over the Melanzana Store, where we were each able to take advantage of our thru-hiker status to buy their ever-coveted fleece hoodies…without an appointment! Actually, I’d looked into this loophole and had made an appointment days earlier in Breckenridge….for the next available date months in advance. No mater, they let thru-hikers change their apt. date to whenever they manage to roll in. So in this case, I was able to buy 2 hoodies! It’s so funny, all the hoopla over this cult clothing company. After getting the privilege to spend our money at the store, we went for beers at a brewery on the outskirts of town. We ran into Cold Bikepacker there and sat down to have some beers with him. He”d done himself a favor and gotten a warm hotel room, while we looked forward to a cold night on a lawn in America’s highest city. We prolonged our warm status by hanging out at a local bar until after 9, then went back to the pizza place to pitch and crash. The past week had been so amazing, I hated to face the next day, saying goodby to my dear friend and leaving the trail I loved so much.

Day 6: Even though this was technically not a hiking day, I have lots more stories before I wrap up. I woke early to bid Suvi farewell. It was an emotional parting. I envied her for the many miles and adventures she had ahead, yet I also worried over the cold weather. Winter was coming…I could feel it in my bones and the way I’ve learned to read the subtle signs on my many late SOBO hikes. We both knew the San Juans would be hard in late September but if there was anyone that could handle it, it was Suvi. We hugged through some tears but knew we’d meet again. This had been a year of strong and amazing female companions, and I was lucky to end it on such a high note! Rock on Spacegoat! (Update: Suvi did complete her CDT thru-hike, despite several feet of snow in the San Juans, so CONGRATS!).

I made my way to a coffee shop, where I basked in the warmth and made some friends. The first was a recent PCT thru-hiker’s mom, and then the thru-hiker himself. I was unabashedly pandering for a ride back to Denver, so I gave him the low down on how to get a Melanzana hoodie. Score! They were totally up for giving me a ride but weren’t going back until later in the day. Another lady in the coffee shop overheard our conversation and also offered me a ride. But first, she was headed out for a short day hike on the Colorado Trail. Heck yeah, I invited myself along and it turned out, it was the same section that Suvi was hiking! I’d like to say that in a perfect universe I was able to surprise Suvi once again on the trail but alas, it was not to be. We went NOBO for about 2 miles, then turned around. I missed her by probably 30 minutes. Oh well. The ride back to Denver was quick and uneventful. End of trip.

I want to dedicate this beautiful and perfect ramble on the CDT and CT to my Aunt Peggy, who elevated to another realm at the end of this year. She was an indomitable force in my life, beginning with my earliest childhood years. She stood as a prominent figure at the start of my first Colorado trail thru-hike and in the middle of my CDT hike, providing a warm and loving place to rest and prepare. She was the most calming and caring person I could have wished for when I was dealing with the death of my father in 2020. She helped me and my mom so much. It was the most striking blow to learn that she’d been diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor earlier in 2022. I got to visit her several times over the summer and recently during this trip. I almost didn’t hike the PNT, worried she’d fall ill again over the summer. She held on, even thrived, spending her last months bravely and happily, hiking in the nearby mountains and holding true to her principles. I, my 2 cousins and all her friends loved her so much and tried so hard to help her stay well, but it was her time to return to the earth and stars. I miss her so much and will always think of her on my hikes. We shared a kindred spirit in our love for the mountains and she was always an inspiration to love and be in harmony with nature.

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