This trip report tells the story of my trek from Boulder, Colorado to Winter Park, Colorado – a journey I ventured out to complete on January 28, 2015. The idea of this training run came to be just a few days before I hit the trail and although I’ve run this route before it was along marked trails and not during the winter months.
On Wednesday, January 28th, I pieced together the route I planned on taking. I took about 15-20 minutes planning my route. I’ve run to Winter Park before, through Nederland up over Rollins Pass down. I was looking for something a little more challenging to kickoff my training for the Barkley Marathons coming up at the end of March. This time, instead of sticking to trails and roads, I figured that bushwhacking would be great training for orienteering and long hours on my feet. I took a few pictures of my route and sent them to a friend in case something were to happen along the way.
After getting a game plan drawn out I started packing up running gear. I was able to snag a new Ultimate Direction Fastpack 30 which ended up being perfect a “run” like this. I was able to fit my 30 degree sleeping bag, a bivy, four days worth of food and everything other “just in case” item that I thought I may need on this run.
That afternoon I left home and headed to the NCAR trailhead, where I’d leave my truck. I set off up and over Green Mountain between the 2nd and 3rd Flatirons at about 3:30pm. I stuck to the trails for a couple miles until I got to the Flatirons then headed straight up where I gained over 1500’ in less than a mile. Some of it was a little technical but I was enjoying myself and was plenty comfortable.
It was dark by the time I got to the top of Green Mountain. I checked to see if my Bia Sport GPS tracker was working while I still had service. Apparently I forgot to enable the “live tracking” feature on the watch that sends out my location to a website to let others see where I’m at. I cooked some dinner at the top of Green Mountain while I was figuring the watch out.
After dinner I started heading west on the Green Mountain West Ridge trail over to Flagstaff Road. I hiked along the road for a little while then took off north into the woods for my first real “bushwhacking” as I attempted to make my way to Boulder Canyon. The trees were extremely dense and I found it hard to navigate through the steep terrain at night. I could not see far enough to tell by the terrain where I was on the map, which was a great experience and realized I need much more practice like this before my Barkley race.
After hiking about 3 hours in Boulder Canyon I found myself on top of a cliff. It looked like it was 100ft high and the terrain around it started getting pretty technical, so I decided to set up camp there where the ground was relatively flat and open. It stayed quite warm through the night although I to think it got below freezing, even so, I was comfortable enough in my 30 degree sleeping bag.
I slept in till about 9:00am the next morning and it felt great to wake up with amazing views atop the cliff overlooking the canyon below. I cooked up a pound of bacon and made a couple bacon/cheddar tortilla wraps, eating one for breakfast and saving the other for lunch. I took my time packing up camp and was on my way down the canyon by 10:30. The terrain was steep and the trees opened up a little bit but were replaced by rocks and fallen timber. It was still slow going but considerably easier than the night before. I finally got to the bottom of the canyon and realized I went down a different ridge than I initially thought I had. Luckily it ended up only being about 1/4 mile east of where I wanted to be.
I crossed Boulder Canyon Drive and my original plan was to continue to bushwhack the rest of the way to winter park but decided to stay on Sugarloaf Road for a few miles to make up some time from my less than perfect orienteering. Before too long I turned off trail and went up to summit Sugarloaf Mountain where I stopped and had lunch in beautiful weather. It was about 45 degrees and sunny and I was hiking in shorts and a lightweight long sleeve shirt for a good part of the day. Not usual for January but it worked to my advantage on this trek.
After lunch on the Sugarloaf Mountain summit I continued to head west over a few more peaks and crossed the Peak to Peak Highway about 10 miles north of Nederland and set up camp at an actual campground in Caribou Ranch Open Space. I gathered some firewood and got a nice fire going to dry out my gear and keep me warm throughout the night. It got down to around 5 degrees but I was able to stay comfortable throughout the night in my 30 degree bag by keeping all my warm clothes on and curling up close next to the fire.
I got up the next morning around 7:00am on Friday morning, had a quick breakfast and was back up and moving at around 8:00. My route was to follow a trail that took me around a small peak and up a ridge towards the Continental Divide. I was at the trailhead and it looked like there was no one on it since the first snowfall. The trail was completely gone under all the snow, so I was trying to follow it as close as I could based off of what it showed on my map. The snow was finally getting deep and was up to my thighs. It was slow going and tough to navigate because the trees were so dense I couldn’t see any of the terrain past 100’ or so.
I continued trudging along through the snow and felt that I was getting close to the ridge that would take me up to the divide. I glanced at my compass and continued west towards the ridge. The terrain grew steep and continued to post hole through the snow for close to 1000’ until I got to what seemed to be the peak of something. After looking at my map for a minute and checking my elevation on my Garmin I soon realized that I’m a friggin’ moron who doesn’t know how to read a compass. I ended up heading back up the peak that I spent the last 3 hours hiking around. I was less than a straight 20 minute hike from where I started. I called myself some derogatory names out loud and was actually fairly amused at how a mistake like this would pretty much end my race at the Barkley. I laughed it off and took it in stride as just more training.
From the summit I could see the ridge I thought I was on for the last hour which was about half a mile west from where I actually was. I headed back down and across a field to the ridge I was trying to get to. Once I got up on the slope the snow was windblown and was fairly easy traveling since I was able to stay on top of the snow rather than post holing. I continued up the ridge for another 4 miles where I got to South Arapahoe Peak. I continued up to about 13,000’ where I finally could see Caribou Pass, which would take me to the other side of the Continental Divide. My heart sank when I saw what I was in for. The pass cut through Mt Neva’s North Ridge which was extremely steep, exposed, and completely covered with snow. I was unprepared to travel across technical terrain. I only had running shoes and hiking poles where I should have brought an ice axe and crampons.
It was already 4:30pm and I still had to descend over 2,000′ and hike back up 1,000′ just to get to the start of the pass. I came to terms with the fact that I was going to be hiking through the night because I was still 15 mile from Winter Park and the terrain is only going to get slower. I wasn’t on a major time constraint but I hadn’t checked in with anyone since Thursday afternoon [it is now Friday evening] and the time frame I gave family/friends had come and gone. I needed to keep moving so they didn’t send help, as I was only slow, not in any danger.
I started heading down through the valley and up started up towards the pass. The trail I was on heading up towards the pass was all drifted over with hard packed snow. The snow was iced over enough that I couldn’t kick in foot steps with my running shoes and although it wasn’t exactly steep I was still worried about being able to self arrest if I were to lose my footing. There were some exposed rocks that I was trying to hop from one to the next and stay out of the snow as much as I could. A few spots turned into giant snowfields that I had to cross, where I ended up cutting out foot steps with a knife. I finally got to the pass at 5:30pm, as the sun was setting.
If needed, I had enough food and warm clothes to make it another night if I was uncomfortable with crossing and had to turn back. I was still calm and collected as I started crossing the pass. I stayed focused and took my time trying to keep my movements fluid and precise. The trail soon started to disappear into snowdrifts hanging onto the side of a cliff. I knew that I was getting into a no fall situation, if I slipped I wouldn’t stop for at least 1,000’. The snow seemed firm and stable, which is what made me decide to keep going. I was kicking in each foot step, which was tough with the running shoes I had on, but after 5 or 10 kicks I was able to make and adequate step. I was moving slow, making my way across the pass and the sole of my right shoe started separating from the upper material.
A little ways into this slow process of crossing the pass I came to a stretch where the trail went around a ridge. The snow on the path I had to follow was nearly vertical and the cliffs below me dropped straight down. I kicked my feet into the snow and took a breath. I felt this was the crux of the pass, where if I managed to get across this then the rest would be fairly straight forward and I’d be across in no time. The snow stood straight up and was almost touching my face. I was trying to figure out the best way to get up and over this. I needed to climb up and over this drift that shot straight up about 8 feet. I jammed my hiking poles deep into the snow and tested my footing, the snow felt solid and stable, so I started kicking in more footsteps heading up the drift, keeping my poles in the snow up to their handles. After a few deep breaths and a couple of steps I was up and over the drift.
I made my way around the ridge and at this point it was dark, the wind was picking, up and it was starting to lightly snow. The moon was bright and it lit up the mountains, where I could see every feature like it was day. I saw a couple of steep couloirs ahead of me where the trail disappeared beneath drifts of snow. By now I had discovered that my hiking poles were great to cut out steps for my feet. It was slow going but felt fairly safe crossing the snowy stretches, as long as I maintained three points of contact at all times.
I got about 500’ from the end of the pass and saw in front of me a completely impassable section. My heart again sank as I realized I wasn’t going to make it across. I pulled out my map and was seeing if there was any other way across, otherwise I would have to turn back and spend another night down below tree line. I started back a few hundred feet and saw a rock ridge that headed up Mt Neva. I figured if this ridge made it up to the top I could drop down on the other side where I would be able to hike down to where I needed to be. I started climbing up through class 4/low class 5 terrain, the rock seemed stable and so far I was glad of the decision I made. I climbed about 100’ and then the rock disappeared and turned into a snow field as far up as I could see. I only needed to climb another 100’ to get to the top and then I would be off of the technical terrain. I started climbing in the snow, kicking in each step and sinking my poles every step.
As I neared the top the snow kept getting steeper. Once again the snow turned to near vertical, but I could see the top and it didn’t look like it was corniced so I kept going. I finally made it up to the top of the ridge where the ground leveled out and felt a huge rush of adrenaline. I felt alive. I don’t waste any time and start heading down the ridge towards the west side of Caribou Pass. The ground is rocky and windblown but it was a non-technical descent. I was able to hike down and was looking forward to the 3500’ descent to Winter Park. But then, before I had time to truly enjoy the rocks, the windblown mountainside turned into deep fluffy snow up to my boobs. I was having fun descending as the snow turned obnoxiously deep.
I stayed in the trees and kept working toward the bottom. About two dozen times I went to take a step and post holed myself into a somersault. I just dug myself out and kept pushing forward. My original course was to go down the valley then go over another pass to drop straight into Winter Park but while on the pass I look at the mountainside that I was supposed to climb in the moonlight and decided to look for a different route because the deep snow would make it nearly impossible to get over. If I continued down the valley it would take me to a road that lead me to Fraser, which added about 5 miles to my route, but at least it was on road.
I continued down the valley as it leveled out and the snow was now only up to my waist. It was extremely taxing on my legs as they turned into over-cooked noodles from pushing through the deep snow and climbing over fallen trees. My pace slowed down to about 2 hours per mile and I was expecting it would take another 6-8 hours before I hit the road at the pace I was going. A little over a mile later I ran into a snowmobile track where the trees started to thin, it was completely unexpected but a much welcomed change in terrain. I stepped up onto the tracks and it was hard packed and able to keep me from sinking down. The tracks took me all the way to the road and from there it was just an 8 mile hike back to town.
When I came into Fraser a guy doing his newspaper route offered me a ride into Winter Park and I decided to take it. I needed to call family and let them know I made it! After days without any contact I needed to let them know I had survived. My 24 hour trek to Winter Park had turned into a 60 hour adventure, but I survived and learned a thing or two about navigating!