Beyond Bananas – In the clear on the Continental Divide

18 August 2022 (21st anniversary of moving to Oz)

13.something miles.

Starting elevation 8930 ft. High point 11,970 ft.

First light is back there somewhere. Its dim illumination of earth had just started to spread over the Arkansas Hills as we headed west. But the light has not reached this cleft in the mountains yet. It is dark and moist and COLD. It was only 42F when we left the house, and we are about 1000 feet higher here. 

Still, I’m moving quickly up through the thick forest, each crunchy foot fall drawing me higher.  It’s 6am when my dad drops me off at the trailhead. And it’s 6.15 now as I follow Fooses Creek uphill.  I’ve got a couple miles to walk up a rocky track before the trail proper starts. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!

The weather forecast is perfect today. It would be an absolute sin to spend the day doing anything other than getting up into the mountains and taking advantage of sunny skies and 70s temps.  

There are no storms forecast.  Normally, in summer, the monsoon is active and afternoon storms mean you need to get down below treeline by noon lest you become a lightning rod. 

But today, there will be no storms. So I’m able to plan a hike that starts low, climbs above treeline and ends at a mountain pass. It is going to be a bit over 13 miles with a bit over 3000 feet in elevation gain. About 500 feet of that comes in one very steep ½ mile push to the headwall of the creek at about mile eight. I want to see if my body can do this distance at elevation without any repercussions.

So I hike as quickly as my body allows. It’s a steady pace. I feel good. Cold, dry air combined with exercise is my biggest asthma trigger. These are absolutely prime conditions. And though I do feel some chest tightness, it is amazingly little. I do not need my inhaler. I am not hoarse. Go, good body, go. All the hard work, the strict diet and the expensive supplements to heal my gut are doing amazing things.

A guy on a mountain bike passes me on the road, not long before the trail starts. But the trail is so technical and steep, he never gets more than a half mile in front of me. His wet tyre tracks over rocks are always pretty fresh when I get to them. 

Up and up through the forest. The first 3 miles of the trail are very moderate. The trail mostly lazily lopes up the slopes. You know there is going to be some climbing to come and you anxiously wonder just when you are going to have to put in harder effort.

When there are slightly steeper bits, the nearby creek rushes with the sound of whitewater. When the trail and creek lessen in grade, the sound changes to bubbling and gurgling as gravity pulls the water down and the rocks erode in tumbling fashion.

Steady, steady. Quick, quick. I cover ground at a good speed through a forest being decimated by pine/spruce beetle. Many sections of the trail have lots of standing dead trees and I think about how beautiful this hike once would have been. Today’s hike shows an overgrown forest with dense same-age stands and whole swathes standing in dead testament to climate change. 

I pass a couple of Colorado Trail thru-hikers who have stopped to take a photo of a mushroom. They look surprised to see me. I motor on and don’t see them again.

I’ve been watching the sun creep down that rocky slope through the trees for awhile now.

There is still somebody in front of me though, because I can see wet footprints on the rocks next to the bicycle tyres, but not in a position for hike-a-bike. (When I get to the meadow below the drainage headwall, I see two thru-hikers cresting the drainage and cheering on the mtn biker pushing his bike up the super steep scree at the top).

I feel so good. My breathing is good. My energy is good. I have a functioning body finally. I almost do not know myself. Who is this middle-aged chick scooting up the trail so quickly? 

We are going up there in a couple miles.

Soon we are hiking in higher, open grassy patches between rocky slopes. There is thick frost and the ground feels hard beneath my feet in these exposed bits. The season is changing. The frosts have arrived at elevation.

It’s about time to go home to get chased by magpies and battle the flies. I’m really looking forward to getting home and getting on the bike now that I feel like I will be able to ride without hurting my health.

The last two miles to the head of the creek is a mud-fest and full of slippery roots. The trail is in pretty crap condition up here. I squish through the mud and splash through the puddles and slip and slide in the steeper bits. 

But, damn, I feel good.

I get to the meadow below the headwall at 11,440 feet.  I stop for a banana and a few of the supplements on my  protocol.  It is exactly 9.03am. I have just done 8 miles, with almost 3000 feet of climbing  in 3 hours flat. I am very happy with that. 

Now we just need to get up there and we’ve done all the hard bits.

My dad and I looked down on this meadow when we did the Monarch Crest Trail a couple weeks ago. There was a tent erected in the meadow and it looked very inviting. But today, in the meadow, it is not nearly so inviting. Just too many dead trees. I take a video for my dad, but then feel like I’m ready to push up that last really steep bit. 

The steep climb up the headwall is slippery, loose rock. It’s a straight-shot escalator to the Divide. It kicks my butt. Yet it does so in a do-able way.  I am breathing hard, but just because I’m pushing as hard as I can go at high elevation. I feel puffed, but in a very good way. 

Of course it is much steeper than it appears. 500 ft escalator to the Continental Divide.
Looking down the drainage we’ve hiked up this morning.

9.30 am. I am to the Continental Divide. I am up top. It is still pretty cold. And it is very windy. Like billow out your pants and flap them against your legs windy. It’s not very nice up here today. When my dad and I hiked this as an out-and-back from Monarch Pass to this point a couple weeks ago, there was no wind.

Somebody propped this nice heart rock up against the cairn. We take a photo for my mom because she can’t get this far on the trail anymore.

So what to do with myself? I have only 5 miles to go to Monarch Pass where my dad is scheduled to pick me up at 3pm. The trail is mostly level and some downhill to that point. I could do that in about 1.5 hours. 

So this means I’ve got most of the day to relax in the high altitude air. I am very pleased with my body. I could have done the whole thing in 5 to 5.5 hours. I’ve just done 8 miles and nothing hurts. I did not stop at all in that first 3 hours of uphill hiking, except to take a photo here and there. 

I decide I should find somewhere up the trail that is out of that blasting wind to have breakfast. I’ve done my 3.5 hours of steady state cardio, which means I need to have a break. Steady state cardio is not good for your gut, so anything beyond a few hours will start breaking down all that I’m working very hard to build up. 

Looking for a lunch spot out of the wind.

So I lounge around for awhile on a rock out of the wind. Once the ants find me, I move a couple miles up the trail and find another spot in the sun where I can lounge about, nap and watch all the mountain bikers and hikers move up the trail as little dots on the distant ridge.

Breakfast spot. Mostly out of the wind.
Lounging in the sun – spot number 2.
View from lounging spot 2. I could watch all the mtn bikers riding along the trail on that near edge.

Then, in the afternoon, I move on to another knoll with a different view. I’m close enough to the Pass that I can jaunt down there in about 45 minutes to meet my Dad at three. 

I sit on a log and look southwest to the San Juans and all the volcanic peaks down that way. This volcanic field covered much of the southern Rocky Mountains in the middle Tertiary (about 35-25 million years ago). The field spewed out impressive volumes of volcanic rock – at least 22 major ash sheets (each 150-5,000 cubic kilometres of rock) originating from calderas (10-75 kms in size) after a period of flows from clusters of stratovolcanos.

I have been lucky enough to summit some peaks, ride the bike through old calderas and spend time backpacking down that way in the past. 

It is impressive to sit here at nearly 12,000 feet and look over to peaks that still look very impressive in size even though they are many, many miles distant.  I can also look down Highway 50 as it snakes in and out of drainages, climbing its way to Monarch Pass. I rode that pass fully-loaded from the hard side two times in two weeks in 2013.  

Looking southwest over the San Juan volcanic field. The gashes through the trees are a powerline cut and the Hwy 50 road cut – which I’ve ridden twice.

I can get phone reception on the knoll. So I call and leave a message on my parents’ answering machine. My wonderful Dad got up at 5am, drove in the dark and fog on mountain roads, which are very uncomfortable driving conditions for him, to get me to the trailhead this morning. And he is going to drive up the pass this afternoon, solely to come get me. My parents have always been very supportive of the things I want to do – even when they had no interest in those things themselves. 

But my dad looked worried when he dropped me off today. So I want to ring and tell them that the hike has gone spectacularly well and that I’m just hanging out in the sun and will definitely be to the pass by 3pm.  Hopefully this will stop them worrying a little bit. 

And then I sit there and think about how far I’ve come in the last year. I almost feel normal again. This hike has been a spectacular tick on the recovery scorecard. I am well on my way to being well.

Taking that 6 months off work to let my immune system catch up was key. Getting rid of all the inflammation from that unhappy gallbladder was crucial. And doing all the testing and then starting into strict diet and supplement protocols to get my gut bacteria into better shape has been the final piece to the puzzle. The whole picture has finally come together. 

Sitting there, I feel emotionally overcome with relief. And joy.  I even shed a few tears there at 11,550 feet overlooking the grand scenery. I’ve done it. Through all of that hell over the past five years, through all of those days scraping myself out of bed, through all of that sickness with no end in sight… I have finally come out the other side. 

I am going to be okay. I still have a long way to go to get my guts totally healthy again, but I now have the momentum. I cannot believe this body is mine. I really am going to be well again. 

Oh yes, I’ll always need to be careful and I’ll never be able to abuse my body through diet or extreme exercise ever again. But my body’s capacity is surprising me and I just can’t believe how good I feel. 

I reflect on those days when I literally had to crawl to the toilet because I did not have the energy to stand. I think about all the well-meaning but incapable doctors that told me there was nothing wrong. I think about how functional or integrative medicine is poo-pooed by traditional doctors but how it has saved my life. I am absolutely certain that finding doctors who have worked with me to find the root CAUSE of my problems, instead of just treating symptoms, has saved my life. Maybe not from all the vector-borne disease issues but from other chronic disease that was likely to erupt from my messed up gut going forward.

So here I am. Healing. Recovering. Achieving remission of the crap that keeps some people housebound or bed bound permanently. I cannot believe I have made it. The sickness is over. I am ready to dive back into life again.

We celebrate the hike with very cheap popcorn (like $1.25 a bag) from the gift shop at the pass. I promised Verne. We got a second bag to give to my Dad when he came to pick me up (though he had to share as my mom came along too!).

6 thoughts on “Beyond Bananas – In the clear on the Continental Divide

  • You mentioned Magpies. Oscar and I were attacked by Plovers (Masked Lapwings) in the churchyard last week. They were parent birds protecting the two balls of fluff they recently hatched. Looking up seeing a bird carving through the air at eye level was a bit uncomfortable. They tend not to actually hit their target – unlike Magpies – but you never know!!

    It’s bloody good to hear you are going so well and really enjoying the hikes.

    • I am convinced plovers intentionally build their nests in the absolute worst locations possible. I don’t worry about them though, since they never actually hit your head or draw blood. I did get swooped by a magpie on 8 June this year – early start for that bugger!

  • Oh my goodness congrats on getting your health back!! Made me want to cry too. Your persistence hard work and patience have paid off. Enjoy. I know you are.

  • I see I’ve got some catching up to do, Em. I didn’t know you were back in the states for awhile. The last I heard your health was steadily improving, but this is so wonderful to read. Rachael and I are both so happy and relieved for you. Go, Emily!

    • Yeah, I’ve been hanging out with my folks for a couple months. I head home on 13 Sept and I’m looking forward to getting on the bike and touring again now that I feel very good.

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