Before moving to Colorado, I experienced seasons in a completely different way. While there would be some anomalies, for the most part, winter was winter and summer was summer. Snow was something I experienced starting in November, through the winter, probably one last time in early April, and then not again for 6-9 months. Likewise, heat would be primarily confined to the summer months. In other words, I experienced being cold and being warm in two separate parts of the year. The experience would generally only mix during the in between seasons; mid-spring and mid-fall.
In Colorado it’s all different. In Denver I’ve seen temperatures reach the lower 70s (23 C) in the middle of February. At higher elevations snow can fall nearly year round, and there are places where snowpack persists well into the summer.
Saturday morning, the start of my second day in the Weminuche Wilderness, was a cold one. The chill had awoken me at 3:00 in the morning, when I reached for my warm hat and for the zipper to zip my sleeping bag all the way shut. At roughly 6:30 I woke up for good, and crawled out of the tent to find ice on the fly! Frost was found on many of the items we left outside, including this bear cannister.
It warmed up fairly quickly at the campsite making me wonder why I did not simply stay inside the tent for another hour. All the weather forecasts we had looked at prior to this backpacking trip had indicated that a wet period was coming to a slow end, and that each day would get progressively drier (lower probability of rain). Yet, in the morning I saw something that would indicate differently; alto-cumulus clouds. These are puffy clouds with a base somewhat higher up in the sky than the clouds we typically see. On some storm chases, the presence of alto-cumulus clouds indicated the presence of moisture at higher levels of the atmosphere. This was seen as a good sign on a storm chase, but, on a backpacking trip, is a bad sign.
The first few miles of the day took us by a lake we are glad we did not chose to camp at the prior evening, and then back into the woods, where once again the trail was muddy kind of on-and-off.
Headed farther up in elevation, towards the summit of the day, we approached the tree line, encountering several waterfalls. This one, by far, was the most pictureqsue.
I did not even know the name of any of these waterfalls. In fact, I did not even verify that they even have a name. It didn’t even seem important at the time. We just liked what we saw. At that time, most of the conversation within our group revolved around whether we would see marmots in the nearby rocks, and speculation as to what elevation the tree line was at at this latitude.
We followed the Rincon La Vaca (Cow Canyon) trail, which is also considered a section of the Continental Divide Scenic trail, above the tree line, and approached a rock formation we had been looking at since early the prior afternoon, “The Window”.
This is where we decided to stop for lunch, at a lake where we could safely refill our water bottles.
It was noon when we finished eating lunch and, four of us (out of a group of six) decided, despite the potentially ominous weather, to make a side excursion. We dropped our packs and hiked the 500-ish feet (and half a mile) up to “The Window”
We got back to the lake, where our backpacks were, around 1:00. As soon as we prepared to move, and catch up with the rest of the group, it started to rain. A few minutes later, ice pellets began to fall from the sky.
We briefly took shelter from the inclement weather, but eventually soldiered on through the not quite rain not quite ice, which would eventually change over to snow!
I experienced a lot of this living in Chicago. I called it “precipitation jambalaya”. But, I never thought I would hike through it, and, well, am used to experiencing this in December, not late August! Once again, that thing about the seasons!
The precipitation stopped right before we turned off the Continental Divide/ Rincon la Vaca trail, and started looking for the trail we would take back towards the reservoir, the East Ute Creek Trail.
The scene looked familiar. The shape of the Ute Creek Valley where we were headed, with an open meadow surrounded by mostly dead forests on either side looked quite similar to the Weminuche Creek Valley we had hiked through the prior day. The trail, though, was hard to find.
For the first mile we kept losing the trail, or we just saw it show up only as a barely visible line in the grass. We actually speculated as to whether or not this trail was so infrequently used and/or maintained that mother nature was basically starting to take it back!
We hiked until roughly 5:00 P.M., and by the time the day was over we hike a total of 10.2 miles (11.2 for those of us that took the side excursion to “the window”). The last hour featured two crazy river crossings where we actually removed our socks and shoes.
We found a campground near a small lake called Black Lake, where, once again, the weather took a turn for the worse.
The rain started shortly after 6 P.M., and did not let up until after sundown. I rushed back into my tent! With all of the experiences of the day, the mixed precipitation at over 12,000 feet elevation, wading through water, and now, once again, more icy rain, I was cold! I was way colder than I wanted to be, and way colder than I ever imagined being in the month of August. For the first 20-30 minutes, I had to lie sitting still inside my sleeping bag, otherwise I would start to shiver.
All I could think of were things that were HOT and DRY. I wasn’t even thinking of warm, pleasant experiences, like drinking rum on a beach in Puerto Rico at sunset. I was thinking about things that would immediately heat me up and dry me off; sheets that were pulled directly out of the drier, a sauna, Death Valley!
With the hard hiking parts over with, I had originally hoped to have kind of a party with the group on Saturday night. We had even brought flasks, filled with whiskey for such an occasion. But, the weather changed my plans, as the rain continued and I continued to periodically hear thunder through the 7:00 and 8:00 hours.
I also did something I never do on group trips; read. I joke I often bring a magazine or even a book, places, but never touch it. This time I actually read. It was the July edition of Adventure Cyclist. Fitting for the mood, thinking about warm places while trying to stay warm, I read full stories about cycling journeys through Morocco and Hawaii, both warm places!
I guess regardless of whether you are in an urban setting or in the wilderness, life has a way of changing plans. In the city, it is some merger, or a random change in commodities prices. In nature, it is the weather. But, when it comes to rain, and anytime rain changes my plans, I always do my best not to complain. Even while I was bummed that I was not partying with my friends and hating how cold I was in my tent, I was mindful to remember that rain is necessary for the food we eat, the water we drink, as well as everything that made this trip possible in the first place. I do not want to be one of those people that fails to realize this, and cannot put up with a little bit of rain.