Location- Grand Lake
Elevation- 8,386 ft
Distance Traveled Today- 28+ miles
Distance Traveled Total- 1,422.1 miles
Weather/Temp- cloudy, foggy, 50s/40s/30s
Pain level- zero
Spirits/Morale- confidence boosted
Wildlife encounters- elk, elk, elk!
Days without shower- zero
Days without laundry- 6
I wasn’t surprised when my three earthly compatriots expressed no desire to go back and do the 20 miles we missed coming into Grand Lake when we avoided the weather. I don’t blame them. We’re already behind and the trail winds straight through the village of Grand Lake. It’s too easy to simply hike out and never look back.
I had to go back, lest I be unable to sleep. So I said goodbye to the three of them, plus six other thru hikers who have been in our vicinity for the past several weeks (Hummingbird, Merlin, OG, Ride or Die, Surprise, and Starfish). They all left southward at various times throughout the morning. At a little after 10 am, I began walking north.
Originally I wanted to get a ride back to where we left off and then hike back south into Grand Lake. I couldn’t quite work anything out that fit my timeline, so I decided I’d forgo the logistics of trying to get back to that specific and remote trailhead and just hike north to it instead. Once I got there, I’d then hitchhike back into Grand Lake and continue south. That was my last minute plan this morning. I the end, I enacted a new last minute plan.
So my unbroken footsteps were finally broken when coming out of Steamboat Springs the other day (technically). Since I road walked into the town and then hitched back up to the open trailhead, I technically broke my footprints. I would’ve had to have road walked out of Steamboat and back up to the trail in order to maintain the line. My heart just wasn’t into being that anal about it anymore. I’ve had it with roads and highways on this trail. So, footsteps broken.
Aaaaaand ironically enough, my northbound hike this morning began with several miles on the road. A couple miles in I reached the checkpoint/admission area for cars entering Rocky Mountain National Park. Since the trail passes right into the park and gives you the option of taking a cutoff into Grand Lake (the option nearly everyone chooses), or hiking an extra 24+ miles through the Rocky Mountain Loop; you never really have to register with the park (even though you’re required to carry a permit and a bear canister if you decide to camp in the park). You just kinda enter and exit the park incognito.
However, I was entering (not exiting) on a road while on foot. As I passed one of the three booths, an attendant called out to me that I had to pay. I let him know that I was only walking another mile or so up the road, then heading northwest out if the park, and that I was a thru hiker. “Doesn’t matter.” Was his reply. “If you enter the park right here, you pay.” I didn’t argue or fuss. I said “No problem,” then paid the man and continued on my way. That was when my new plan hatched.
I figured to myself, “Well,I just paid for a day in Rocky Mountain National Park, might as well get my money’s worth.” The Rocky Mountain Loop would be further than I originally needed to hike, but it would take me straight back into Grand Lake instead of forcing me to hitchhike at the end of the day, possibly unsuccessfully (depending on traffic and how late I finished). Since my footprints were already broken, I decided I’d make up the miles with a possibly more scenic and challenging route, instead of fruitlessly clinging to my already failed goal. Boy am I glad I did! Unfortunately, I was getting a very late start for such an endeavor. Especially if I didn’t want to end up camping unlawfully within the park. I had to stay strong with my pace and maintain the loopholes I was jumping through; I can not have a backcountry permit, and not have a bear canister, so long as I don’t camp in the park.
So instead of turning northwest at the trailhead, I turned East, then north, then northeast, then east again, then…well you get the idea. The loop began with a 3,400+ ft ascent towards the summit of Flat Top Mountain, at more than 12,200 ft. Small amounts of snow and ice were on the ground even near the trailhead at less than 9k feet; so I safely assumed I would have more than my fair share of snow the higher I got. I wasn’t wrong.
About 6 miles into the loop I came across a herd of elk; cows, calves, and one very, very big bull. This was my all time favorite elk encounter. The big bull kept bugling over and over, calling his harem over to him. He had the largest rack of antlers I’ve ever seen on a wild, unmounted elk. I was in awe. I watched them move slowly away from me for several minutes before moving on.
After the elk encounter I began to gain elevation more quickly. I’d also like to point out that I didn’t see another soul in this stretch of trail after I’d made it about 3 miles from the road. Almost immediately the snow began to slowly get deeper and deeper with every couple hundred feet I ascended. There was only one set of footprints in it, definitely from earlier in the day. I had one mystery person in front of me, but I’d never see who they were.
The snow definitely slowed my climb a bit, but it was more of a welcomed novelty at first. I hadn’t hiked in this much snow since the Sierra Nevada on the PCT. Even then, the snow on the PCT had been old and packed, meaning it was mostly like walking on hard ice in the morning, or crunchy ice in the afternoon. This was powdery, fresh fallen snow, meaning my feet pushed through from the top of the snow, all the way down to the ground with every step. It was post hole hell. Fun at first, but after a mile I was over it.
When I reached the summit, I also reached the pinnacle of the snow depth. I was post holing anywhere from my ankle to my mid shin with every step. Once I even went up to my waist, but I think I just stepped in a hole; not sure if it was totally filled with snow. I didn’t wear socks, and as a result my feet were completely numb up to my ankles. Halfway across the summit, I sat down for the first and only time of the entire day. I put on a pair of thick wool socks that I’d bought in town for the exact purpose of hiking in snow. The great thing about wool is that it insulates even when wet. I instantly felt better with thick socks on my feet, however it would be several more miles before I regained full feeling.
The self explanatory thing about Flat Top Mountain was it’s flat top summit. The summit of this mountain was nearly level for about 2 miles. That meant two miles of the deepest snow on the entire mountain. Two miles of post holing before I began to descend into thinner snow. Even then, I’d still be post holing for a while. All in all, I think I post holed somewhere around 5 miles, give or take. When trying to knock out 28 miles with a late morning start, this was a huge set back and dent in my pace.
Truth be told, it was gorgeous. More truth be told, it was exhausting. Even more truth, it got scary at one point. While still trekking across the summit, a huge wall of fog/cloud rolled up over the mountain and nearly whited me out. I even came within 15 feet of literally walking off the side of the mountain. You could barely tell where the fog ended, and the settled snow began.
If not for the many and massive cairns, I would have had a hell of a time finding my way off that mountain. I slogged around in three fog for a good 40 minutes before it finally broke as I descended to lower elevations.
When I finally hit solid trail with minimal snow, I was shuffling down the mountain at a near jog. I had to make up for the lost time on and near the summit. I made excellent time. I knew I wasn’t going to make it back into Grand Lake before dark, but I wanted to get as much done before that inevitability.
In the end I got caught in total darkness with around 2.5 miles to go. Not bad! Total darkness arrives around 7:30 nowadays; that’s a far cry from 11pm when I started up in Montana. I did the final miles at a moderate pace without my headlamp and walked into town without incident about a quarter after 8pm.
I feel fantastic. Today was so much fun. It was challenging and beautiful, and I’d almost forgotten how surreal and wonderful it is to be totally alone and self dependent. I look forward to catching up with my friends, but I’m anxiously and equally looking forward to being alone again. I am the last and northernmost southbound thru hiker as of now (and as far as I know), last in line.