Our campsite had not exactly been ideal last night. We slept on an uneven field of sharp rocks above a fork of the Arkansas River. Surprisingly we woke up to an early morning sun and it was not terribly cold. As we got out of the tent and packed our bags, we were not even swarmed by mosquitoes as we had been the night before.
We began our walk towards our first pass of the day, Chalk Creek Pass. For the first couple miles, we snaked in and out of the woods. Then as snow drifts grew higher and higher, we were finally spit out of the thick forest and into a wide open field next to a beautiful lake. We began kicking steps into the snow heading up the pass. Garbelly's hat flew off in the wind, so he chased it down just before another huge gust of wind swept it closer to the lake. Critter's hat flew off her head too but tangled in her hair, it did not go far. Soon we were experiencing one of the greatest feelings hiking can provide. We came over the top of the pass and got to see an entirely new family of mountains and a massive lake reflecting the color of the sky right back at us.
Descending, we had a group of switchbacks that quickly dropped us out of the blustery winds. Near the bottom we were again walking through snow and swamps. We found our way around the lake and sat down for a minute to wait on Charlie and Hannah who had left a few minutes after we did from camp. While we waited, Garbelly decided to take a swim in the half frozen lake. Unfortunately, it was only knee deep and extremely slick causing him to look like a deer running across a frozen pond. We ate a few snacks and headed on down the mountain.
This is when we began seeing people! First a couple and their dog and then a family of four. As we slid down the snowy slope we heard car doors and engines. Soon we came upon a trailhead in the middle of nowhere. Nearly ten cars of day hikers had pulled up to explore the mountains. Here we split off onto the Alpine Tunnel loop. This loop was an old railroad bed the led around the mountain a few miles and then tunneled through the mountain. Although the tunnel had collapsed, historical signs showed us pictures and information about the tunnel's golden years. Built in 1881, the alpine tunnel took thousands of workers to complete the 1,800 foot tunnel. We secretly wished the tunnel still existed instead of climbing up to the next 12,300 foot pass.
Looking at our maps, the trail switched up the mountainside. Peering up from our maps, we saw a steep snow covered vertical slope. We decided this would not be the safest route up the pass, so we followed a drainage up towards the pass. The snow bridges over the creeks were still solid enough to walk over so we made our way up to a lake with fairly dry feet. Charlie yelled back at us to look at the top of the mountain. There lay seventeen bighorn sheep staring down at us from their granite spire. Finally we made it to the top of our second pass, Critter still coughing most of the way.
Over the pass, a sea of white plagued our view. We knew we were not out of the snow, but we were hopeful. A couple miles in the distance we saw our next pass. Beyond that, a green valley. We decided to make a huge push and climb the third pass so that we could camp in a beautiful warm valley.
Walking through snow fields feels a lot like Russian Roulette (without the getting shot aspect). With each step, we knew that we might posthole at any moment. We walked on the slushy crust and just when we were not expecting it, plunged waist deep into the snow.
We started dropping quickly. Every so often the switchbacks zigzagging down the mountain would appear but snow would soon take over. We headed in the general direction taking the most efficient and safe path over trying to stay on the trail. Once we made it to the valley floor, we were greeted by warm air and snowless trail. Oh! And bridges!
We found the perfect campsite tucked into the trees. As we set up camp, Charlie quickly built a fire and we huddled around and cooked our dinners. We sat our shoes and socks around the fire to dry them out and told stories. We had earned our sleep tonight and around 10:30 we finally got into our sleeping bags.
Garbelly & Critter