Friday, October 02, 2020

Shades of the apocalypse

I was quarantined for four days but it felt like weeks — sleeping alone, jogging along empty dirt roads, and ruminating on doomsday until I felt genuine gratitude for 2020, because "these are probably still the good times." During these darkening autumn days still singed with record heat and wildfire smoke, I decided that should health prevail, I was going to finish up the summer endurance projects I mapped out at the beginning of the season. I wanted to run the Pawnee-Buchanan loop, ride to the top of Mount Evans from home, and finally connect Devil's Thumb Pass to the elusive Caribou Pass on a loop I called "Big Lonesome." 

Big Lonesome was the most interesting and also arguably the easiest endeavor on my list — 28 miles with 7,200 feet of climbing, but all on trail and topping out just above 12,000 feet. Compared to the endless block talus, chunder gullies, steep ridges, and relentless high altitude of our recent mountain traverses, Big Lonesome would be a piece of cake. "We can even run some of it," I said to Beat, as though actual runnable terrain was the most compelling part of all. 

Monday's forecast called for real cold. A high of 37 at 9,000 feet, which would mean if the wind was cranking at 12,000 feet, it was going to be brrrrr. I speculated as much to Beat — "remember Niwot Ridge in January?" and packed insulated shorts and a balaclava on top of my usual mountain layers. Beat still wore his thin bib shorts, insisting that "my legs rarely get cold." Let me just state for the record that this argument baffles me. Legs are part of the same vascular system as everything else in the body. Cold wind on exposed skin will cool blood rapidly, and that cold blood is going to end up in your core. Where does this reasoning from shorts enthusiasts even come from? 

The temperature for our 7:15 a.m. start was 24 degrees, causing Beat to scrunch up his face as soon as we stepped out of the car. I thought it felt amazing. The crispest of crisp autumn mornings — the kind where I'm cozy in my pants and vest, but when a breeze brushes my face, I can almost taste a sharp infusion of energy. This exhilaration was almost immediately followed by sadness. I recently spent far too much alone time reading about climate change research, which shows how even mild cold will become increasingly rare  — confined to higher latitudes, deeper winter, and unpredictable shifts in the Arctic Vortex. Whenever I think about change, I feel a preemptive sense of loss. But I refused to stifle the frosty zing of mountain air with dull heartache. Not today. One lesson 2020 has taught me is to not pin anything on an uncertain future. All we have is now.

This cold and stunningly clear morning was more than enough. The summer crowds have largely faded, and we only passed one other couple near Hessie townsite during our blitz to Devil's Thumb Pass. Fall colors in the region are muted this year, with only patches of gold amid the faded green of aspen groves. The tundra is now copper and beige. As we crested the Continental Divide, I remembered the way this ridge used to burst with life, when it was a thick carpet of green speckled with wildflowers, just three months ago. Change is swift, here and everywhere. 

The breeze was already brisk at 9 a.m., and my water hose froze. After criticizing Beat's shorts, I ended up feeling underdressed myself. I had plenty of layers in my backpack, but I felt a strange reluctance to stop for the jacket and balaclava that dominated my thoughts. Why? Beat was marching, and I wanted to keep up. The wind was cranking, and I didn't want to stop moving. Beat noted that he could smell smoke, but my sinuses were so clogged that I no longer bothered trying to breathe through my nose. I just put my head down and marched, and hoped the wind would relent soon.

"We're heading back down into the trees," Beat reasoned when I asked whether he planned to put on a jacket. 

"All downhill from here," I quipped. I appreciated that this mountain adventure only briefly tagged the frigid alpine zones. I looked forward to easy trail miles as opposed to an arduous ridge traverse. My legs felt peppy and my feet more nimble than usual. I was able to dance around rocks and pick up speed as we descended toward the valley. Running! In the mountains! There's no better feeling. If I had been looking at something besides the ground, I might have noticed the bigger picture — a ripple of flattened trees, perhaps, or the ominous haze darkening the horizon. Living in the moment is exhilarating, but in hindsight, some forward-thinking can prevent a lot of misery. 

We soon dropped below treeline and almost immediately encountered piles of uprooted trees strewn across the trail. Deadfall is a frequent obstacle in these pine beetle-ravaged forests, so I didn't think much of it. But within a half-mile, we found ourselves climbing over fallen giants, wending around 15-foot-high walls of roots and dirt, and groping for weaknesses amid impenetrable tangles of branches. 

"This is dangerous," Beat argued. The deadfall pile continued down-canyon as far as we could see. Massive tree trunks had snapped and splintered into treacherous blades. Some trees were suspended more than six feet off the ground, propped up by still-healthy limbs. Going over or under these precariously suspended widowmakers seemed like, well, a death wish.

"It has to be avalanche debris," I reasoned, imagining a spring slide driving concrete-like blocks of snow and ice down from Devil's Thumb Pass. Wet slides can be destructive but they don't travel far, usually. I felt confident that if we could find a way around the pile, we'd be free of the tangle and back to running easy on the trail. 

"This trail is part of the CDT," I reasoned. "It's a major trail." 

We picked our way to the edge of the canyon, climbed until the slope became too steep to support solid footing, then descended back to the slightly more stable ground only to encounter yet more impenetrable deadfall. The trail itself was entirely buried. I could trace the track on my GPS, but from 200 feet away, all I could see was mayhem, as though someone dropped a bomb here. Deadfall wasn't confined to the creekbed; it extended hundreds of feet up the mountainside. Evidence was mounting that this was not the work of an avalanche, but I'd created such a convincing story in my mind that it was difficult to see past it. 

"We just need to get lower in the valley," I reasoned. "There's this road on the map; it's not far."

Beat reminded me that at our pace — crawling up and down sideslopes at a half-mile per hour — any distance was far. Maybe the road was buried as well. Maybe the mayhem went on for miles. How could we know? 

I blustered back that such a scenario was so unlikely. "I was here just three years ago, with Leslie when she hiked the CDT. It was an easy cruiser trail then. How could it possibly change so much in three years?"

We continued along the sideslope, balancing precariously across a loose rockslide before dropping back to the bomb blast. It was only getting worse. The road marked on my GPS was nowhere to be found. I vocally conceded defeat, but then Beat suggested climbing to the top of the ridge to seek cleaner ground. From there, we looked down on an open swamp that looked not terribly far away, and I knew this was where the trail turned north and climbed out of this godforsaken drainage. It had to get better from there. Still, it was clear the ridge dropped precipitously from where we stood, and it seemed unlikely we'd find a way down it without getting cliffed out. 

"I don't want to go back through what we've been through, but ..." Beat hesitated.

"Neither do I," I replied. "But ... what is it they call this?" I scoured my fatigued brain for the term. "Sunk cost fallacy! You know, when you've invested so much, and you don't want to lose what you've invested because you're convinced you're so close to your reward, so you invest just a little bit more. But all this leads to is more loss."

"Let's see if there's a way down," Beat suggested. "And set a turnaround time."

The descent off the ridge wasn't as bad as we were expecting, although there was one more unstable rockslide where Beat nearly gave in and I urged him forward. We reconnected with the trail, which brought vocal rejoicing. But within a hundred yards we were hopping matchsticks again, and then huge tree trunks, and then we were back in an expansive mire of destruction. We picked our way to both sides of the valley and found no way around. Here, I was the one to concede defeat. "I'm out of ideas. Let's turn around." I need to state for the record that at this crucial junction, it was Beat's idea to try to crawl over the deadfall pile. Both of us ripped pants and skewered limbs during the battle, and my knees came out badly bruised. But we didn't want to go back. We really didn't want to go back. 

We found our way back to the trail just as it began to veer uphill, and I felt a wave of relief. Finally, we were free of the drainage of doom. This freedom, sadly, was extremely short-lived. The trail dropped into another drainage and ran parallel to the creek. Trees were down everywhere. 

"This isn't an avalanche," Beat said.

"No," I mumbled. "No, it's just wind. It must be. But I've never seen anything like it."

At this point, nearly six hours and only four miles had passed since we dropped off of Devil's Thumb Pass. It felt like time had ended, like we were experiencing a world after the end of the world, after the forests had fallen and humans were no longer around to sweep up the damage. This idea replaced the misguided avalanche story that had been looping through my head. After that, I saw only a macabre dreamscape —splintered wood and dried grass drenched in the eerie light of a smoke-shrouded sky.

"It's terrible, but beautiful in its own way," I thought.

I wish I could say that conditions improved shortly after that, but they did not. Beat's prediction of miles of mayhem is what came true, and he was not happy about it. There was much swearing, more skewering, slogging through swamps, and route-finding through a maze of 15-foot-high slash piles. I abhor bushwhacking and have been known to complain loudly after just a few minutes of it. But in this case, I kept my mouth shut, acknowledging my fault in the matter while quietly marveling that my "easy trail run" had somehow become more of a scramble than I could have ever imagined. 

"I really have hiked this trail before," I mumbled. "Something isn't right. Did we pick up an abandoned trail? How does something become so destroyed in just three years?"

We discussed what we'd do if we couldn't get through to Caribou Pass. If we had to spend a night out in the 20-degree weather. I thought hunkering down or descending Meadow Creek Road to Tabernash would be safer than trying to return the way we came, bashing through the mayhem in the dark. It would be miles to town, though, likely 10 to 15. Beat speculated that the road could be in as terrible shape as the trail, and I couldn't disagree with him. I'd been wrong about everything else. Did Tabernash even still exist? I couldn't be sure. 

Early evening light had saturated the sky by the time we turned off the High Lonesome Trail/CDT onto Caribou Pass Trail. Here we saw evidence of trail work — fresh sawdust sprinkled over the dirt — and we were able to walk more than a hundred yards without hopping over a downed tree or snagging torn pants on a tangle of branches. About a mile later, we encountered a crew of four young forest service employees hauling an enormous crosscut saw, along with other hand tools. We stopped a woman in the crew and asked her about the trail ahead. As we expected, they hadn't worked much beyond where we were standing, but she guessed we'd only have to negotiate a couple more miles of deadfall before we climbed above treeline. 

"This is all from that storm earlier this month," she said. "Thousands of trees came down."

Suddenly, all of my disjointed stories finally clicked together. I couldn't fathom how an entire forest could come down in just three years. But a single storm, three weeks ago — that made sense.

We told her about our descent along the High Lonesome Trail. She wasn't even aware of the damage to that trail. They'd only assessed and worked on a few miles of the most popular day hikes around Grand County. They were trying to clear as much as they could before winter, but expected to only reach a fraction. Most of this forest is designated wilderness. Power tools are prohibited, and that includes chainsaws. I got a little teary-eyed as I thanked the woman for the crew's hard work.

"I'll never take trail work for granted, ever again," I said.

She shrugged. "Hey. It's job security." 

The following day, I'd spend more than two hours digging around for information about what happened here. Surprisingly, I found little. No trail closures were listed on the U.S. Forest Service web sites, and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition included only a vague warning about trail damage in Grand County. This storm happened more than three weeks ago. It was the same strong front that dropped nearly a foot of snow on Boulder and blasted Salt Lake City with 110 mph winds. I'd heard strong winds also hit Winter Park and Steamboat Springs, but again, there was little in the way of official reporting. Finally, that same day — Sept. 29 — 9News aired a report about the damage. The report included enlightening footage and quotes from district rangers:

"What we've seen so far is tens of thousands of trees that have blown down."

"It was such a violent wind coming from the east, it laid everything down, similar to a nuclear blast."

"Where chainsaws are not allowed, it could be several summers before this is cleared out."

All information that would have been nice to know yesterday. We had berated ourselves for not researching trail conditions before embarking on our loop, but much of this information wasn't even public before we set out. How many others were caught out unaware? Out of curiosity I did some Strava stalking and was only able to find one other person who had definitely been through since the storm. He titled his run "Through the blowdown to Monarch Lake" and took more than 12 hours to travel 17 miles. 

The trail worker's assessment proved true, and we did have to climb over and under trees all the way to treeline. From there, we still had to negotiate steep and rocky terrain as a hard wind drove the chill into frigid depths. When I planned this loop, the segment I'd fretted about the most was the final traverse to Caribou Pass, which wraps around cliffs over precipitous and loose dropoffs. Twice in the past, I've tried to get through and have been stopped by snowfields. I knew if any snow lingered from the Sept. 8 storm, it would be frozen to hard ice and a definite no-go. With this knowledge, I planned the loop in this direction anyway, because I figured we could find some way over and around if the trail proved impassable. But I wasn't sure. Wouldn't it be funny if, after all that, we couldn't get through to Caribou Pass and had to turn around anyway? Luckily the snow was gone, and the traverse, while a bit spicy, was a nonissue. 

From there, it truly was just down and down and down. We could finally breathe sighs of relief, fairly certain that the popular Arapaho Pass Trail remained passable. It was a lot later than we'd planned, and eerily quiet. If we hadn't run into that trail crew, I would have probably become more convinced that my end-of-the-world daydream was, perhaps, reality.

Our loop wrapped up with four miles on Fourth of July Road. We'd both dreaded this part since it was a road slog, but in this context, I found it pleasantly enjoyable — just to shut my brain off and jog effortlessly with no obstacles in the way. Never mind that my knees ached and my legs were so tired after ten miles of climbing and crawling through a jungle maze — mostly downhill — that I was only able to boost them to 14-minute miles. We'd had an adventure, that was for sure. And that was all we could ask for in the end. 


  1. Careful riding down Mt. Evans - wheel-eating fissures in the pavement have opened up from what I hear.

    1. I've been up Evans five times already this summer. The pavement can't be much worse, but I do expect a lot of cold discomfort during the long descent. I put this off for much to long and may not get around to it before the snow anyway, given how bad the air quality has been.

  2. Wow. Good it ended within the span of a normal day. All those decision points you encounter in the mountains like, "am I going to make it back home today and sleep in my own bed or am I going to huddle under leaves & branches and slowly go hypothermic?" are the types of things I think about on those runs. So far, so good.

    The number of healthy green pine trees that were down surprised me, that is not common. At first I thought they were sawed down, but... they just broke in half.

    1. The mass destruction of big, healthy trees was shocking. I wasn't too worried about being caught out after dark. We didn't have much in the way of bivy gear, but I still had a lot of food and batteries for my headlamps. Walking all night would have been unpleasant, but we could have gotten ourselves somewhere. I figured there are worse things than hiring an Uber to drive us from Tabernash to Eldora.

  3. What an enduro that turned out to be. We've had similar hikes through criss crossed tree debris from avalanches but they were short lived. I literally felt your pain from fighting through the unending snags, and the rising panic of "It's getting late, we should turn around" snuffed out by unrealistic optimism of "just a little farther." Suddenly you are too far to turn around, and must fight through. Epic hike that you will never forget. 30 years from now you will be lying in a warm cushy bed, "Hey Beat, remember when we..."
    :) mark

    1. Haha, indeed. We definitely had that discussion — what our final turnaround time would be, and then acknowledging we were more than an hour past it. Truth is, I was willing to do just about anything to avoid climbing back through that. I was convinced we could walk the road to Tabernash. From there it's only a 76-mile cab fare back to our car. :P

  4. Ha. My legs don't get cold either, go Beat! So that forest could probably apply for a chainsaw exemption. It has happened before in situations like this.

    1. Interesting. I wonder if Arapaho National Forest will apply for an exemption. I honestly don't see how they could complete the work without one. It would probably take many thousands of hours of paid labor.

      My hands are my body part that "doesn't get cold." I've been known to go gloveless down to 0 degrees. However, if I ever complain about being cold and I'm still not wearing gloves, I hope someone will slap me. Maybe not physically, but just remind me that I'm uselessly cooling all of this blood circulating to my core, and to knock it off and cover up.

      Still, my experience with venting heat through my hands does help me better understand why people choose to wear shorts. Leg coverings are just one of the most difficult layers to add and remove, so once you pick something, you're mostly stuck with it.

  5. Wow, what a interesting and catastrophic situation. Glad y'all came through it safely.

  6. Back in 1999 we had a Derecho in Minnesota that hit the Boundary Waters hard!! Worth a dive into Wikipedia. It showed me how vulnerable we are as a species and so dependant on our technology to live a very privileged life compared to those who went before us and built the world we enjoy today. Tho....Gia takes everything back in time....:).

    Jeff C

  7. I can't imagine hiking (er, crawling/climbing/swearing) thru that! I remember long ago driving south from Norfolk VA thru Charleston a few months after hurricane Hugo CRUSHED the area. The devastation was like nothing I'd ever seen...huge forests of quite large trees where 4 out of every 5 was just snapped in half, some still attached and most broken all the way off littering the forest with an impenetrable maze, but there was no trail thru this, I think it would have been nearly impossible to go even a few hundred yards in off the highway. But in your case many were completely toppled with enormous roots standing vertical...that's just insane! Seriously, I can't imagine it, and you both went THRU it! The storm required to do such a thing would be quite rare (thankfully)! As always, beautiful pictures, but also as always, they just don't do justice to seeing things first-hand. Your memories and experience dwarf any attempts to capture it on camera.


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