29 August 2022
13.5 miles on foot
Starting elevation 9606 ft; Highest elevation 12,935 ft (3942 metres)
We’re making a beeline for the treeline so we can head up higher to that sweet spot: the tundra.
There really is nothing better than being alpine and doing a ridgewalk across tundra and talus on the continent’s western spine.
The sweet spot we’re aiming for today is Clover Mountain. I’m assuming its name comes from the 4-leaf clover being a good luck charm. The mountain crests the old mining town of Tomichi and we will see much evidence of previous mining on our hike today. They pulled a lot of different ores from the mining district but the main ones were lead and zinc.
After my dad drops me off at Monarch Lodge, I’m heading off at 7am up a 4WD track that starts out steep and then moderates. You can see your breath in the air. There’s not too much chance of rain today. It’s a great day to go alpine.
I’m hiking at a brisk pace, anxious to get above treeline as soon as possible and spend as much time in the tundra before noon as I can. As Ed Abbey says, I want to ‘breathe deep of that sweet, lucid air.” I want as many of those grand views and those grand feelings of being on top of the world as possible.
To me, that is what a mountain hike entails: time above treeline bagging peaks, walking ridges and hunkering down behind talus to eat your lunch protected from the wind. Then getting your bum back down below treeline by noon before the afternoon storms of monsoon season.
1.3 miles up the trail we reach the Boss Lake Trailhead. This is part of the Continental Divide Trail and the Colorado Trail. I wind my way up several long switchbacks through dying forest. The spruce beetle is here, too.
I’m thinking about beelining to treeline – wondering how the term “beeline” came about. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen bees making a direct line to a flower. They always seem to just buzz about, their sometimes haphazard flights colliding with my sunglasses or Verne’s head when we’re on the bike. Maybe after the pollen collection, they then make a ‘beeline’ back to the hive?
I’m feeling good again today. Last week I hiked an 18.something mile loop from my parents’ place up into the Arkansas Hills between 7500 and 9000 feet. I was ticking off the final few trails in the S-Mountain trail system that I had not yet done this trip: Cottonwood, Rumba and Beaseway linked with lower trails previously hiked. We were on the look out for bears – having seen some very fresh bear tracks on the trails the day before.
We never saw any bears but we did put another tick on the recovery scorecard. I was not tired or sore after the 18.something mile hike and could have gone longer. I was not tired the next day. In fact, I fast-hiked six miles of trail in two hours flat the following morning. After so long being able to do so little, I’m beyond overjoyed to be able to do so much.
Boss Lake Reservoir is quiet and still. It sits nestled down in rocky walls and I wonder what it would have looked like prior to being dammed. But there is no time to waste. Onward.
We clamber over a rocky ridge and then meet up with an old road that is now just a very wide, rocky and moderately steep single track. We push on through the forest through the long shadows of tall trees falling across the trail in long bars like a jail cell.
But we are not contained. We appreciate the stillness and the quick beat of my heart that matches my quick steps. Up and up. Hunt Lake is in the sun. There is no wind yet though, and there is a crystal clear reflection on the water of our destination peak high above.
I see some thru-hikers on the other side of the lake starting to make their way toward the trail. On this side of the lake, a solo backpacker is thrashing his way toward me through some underbrush. I wave but scoot on, not wanting to play leap frog with all those hikers all the way up to the Continental Divide.
The trail switchbacks steeply away from the lake as it skirts the jumble of rocks settled at the bottom of a tall, rocky ridge. Some of the step-ups on the trail are almost thigh-height. It’s a brutal stair-stepper at altitude. But I love it.
The trail continues steeply past small moraines and then into the krummholz. Ah, we’re getting there. It is still crisp and cool but not as cold as the day we hiked up Foose’s Creek. I can see the trail wandering through the krummholz and I can see cairns up on the ridge, but I can’t really see where it goes up the rocky mountainside.
You don’t want to know. It gets REALLY steep, and now that you are at 11,500 feet, all the fitness you thought you’d built back at 8,000 ft feels like nothing at this elevation. I huff and puff. That solo backpacker is not all that far behind me.
That steep surface is slippery and eroded. Boy is that going to be fun coming back down! But those two miles of steep switchbacks have really amazing views back down below. Huff, puff, one foot in front of the other. Push. Push. This is by far the hardest hike I’ve done in half a decade and my body is okay. Yipppeeeee!
We reach the knob on top of the Divide at 9am. 2 hours flat for about 5 miles. I’m happy with that given the steepness and the elevation. We are at 12,535 feet here.
I head down a little ways toward a saddle and stop for some peanut butter and crackers and an assortment of pills. There’s no wind yet, just sun and miles upon miles of mountain tops radiating out in all directions. Aaaahhh, now that is some high altitude honey – that sweet spot of being up high and not having a care in the world.
We have to drop a couple hundred feet the rest of the way to the saddle before we can then begin the climb up Clover Mountain. There’s no trail – so I look at some possible ways to head up that will take advantage of grassy ramps and minimise time picking my way over talus.
And then, there’s nothing to do but go climb that mountain.
It’s always wonderful to be up top when the wind is not blasting. It’s pretty damn nice to be hanging out at 12,935 feet. And it’s super-nice to be up here without throngs of other hikers. Colorado is a very crowded place these days.
So I just sit down and gaze out in one direction for a bit, then shift my butt, and look another direction for a bit. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to spend so much time in the tundra. I’m just soaking it all up.
I decide not to head back and climb Bald Mountain. I’ve got a good idea of what the views are like from there, and there are some interesting rocks a bit to the north. Let’s go over to the next hump to the north on the Divide instead.
We clamber down off the peak on some loose rock that’s a bit dodgy and that raises my adrenaline a bit. But then we’re down to the saddle and doing a mighty fine ridge walk along the Continental Divide. What a fantastic day to be up here and waltzing along the tundra. Cue the Sound of Music soundtrack.
As I’m sitting on the next narrow hump along the Divide, I note that there are a few clouds starting to build. Nothing is threatening, but I don’t think I’ve got time to get over to the next peak along the ridge and still get back down to the trail below treeline before noon.
So we head back – taking our time to look at the different contacts between rock types and to ponder all of the geomorphology. We think about the mining history and resolve to have a look into the history of the Tomichi district once home.
We side-hike Clover Mountain – there’s no need to go up and over again, but this does mean slowly picking our way through crumbled Paleozoic rocks that slope steeply down to the basin. Even more precarious and slow is all of that slabby, tilting talus. If you fell and rolled, you could roll a thousand feet or so. More likely is a snapped ankle from a rock that flips or shifts as you step upon it. If you were afraid of heights, or were risk adverse generally, this would probably be a bit terrifying. But I am not either of those things. And when I need to focus and concentrate at the task at hand, I can do that, no worries.
I do take one spill on the lower slopes of Clover Mountain, as I negotiate some more Paleozoic crumble. My lower-slope foot lands on a rock that decides to roll. It takes my lower foot with it, but I quickly get my high-side knee and hand down and lean into the slope. I feel 18-years-old again, as if I’m just discovering the joys of the backcountry and the freedom of backpacking in the mountains. I could be in the Sangres or San Juans again. I do not feel like that is even the same lifetime, but the alpine junkie inside me remains.
As I descend the steep, slippery trail down off the Divide, I meet a couple different thru-hikers. The one guy says, as I tell him he’s almost there, “Ah, man, this was a long, steep one!”. The young European woman about five minutes behind him, who is taking one, slow deliberate step at a time in tortoise vs hare fashion, says, “Oh, this is so inspiring”! Alpine junkie for sure.
I’ve got time to kill before meeting my mom at the trailhead at 3pm, so the guys have a float on an alpine tarn and then we have a long rest at Hunt Lake. I set them out to float and lean back, very happy with my body today. I have not been able to gain weight over the past two months, but I feel so, so good. The nutritionist said not to worry about weight, that it would take care of itself as my gut healed. But sheesh, cut out meat, dairy, processed foods, simple carbs and sugar, eat heaps of veggies, whole grains and protein powder and you, too, could be this slim and trim. I have to wear a belt to keep my pants on, but if skinny is the price to pay to be well again, then I am happy to wear a belt and have no boobs. Ha!
The trout are everywhere. Rings of water erupt all over the lake as the trout kiss the surface here, there and everywhere. It’s a catch-and-release lake, and there are heaps and heaps of cuttthroats cruising the shallows and the depths. There are so many expanding circles of water at times that it almost looks like it is sprinkling rain.
Eventually we head on down the trail and make our way back to the trailhead.
We had to squeeze this hike in today, since tomorrow I get my COVID booster (I’m gaming the system a bit to get a fourth shot here), so that I will be at maximum antibody level when I fly home in two weeks. All of the shots so far have knocked me down for 3-5 days, so I expect the same again. It’s a shame that the new variant-specific shot won’t be released in time for me to get it and build sufficient antibodies before I go, but a second booster will be better protection than what I had on my way over.
But how nice to hike along the Divide today and to have a mountain to ourselves. How nice of my body to decide to turn the corner so we could build ourselves up to a beeline to treeline. I’ve purposely given myself some time to relax and be directionless for a while, but anytime the opportunity presents itself to head in an alpine direction, I will always be ‘up’ for that.