Berthoud Pass-Winter Park Traverse (Mis)adventure

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Even under the light of the moon, I’d have had no idea he was there if it weren’t for the spotlight and blue lights suddenly illuminating the dull shadows around me. I flipped my headlamp back on, as if any more light was needed, and, slightly surprised, greeted “good evening officer.” As he slowly stepped out of his car, he asked, bewildered at the sight of a guy in short shorts running up Berthoud Pass after midnight, “are you okay?”

I thought to myself, okay is a relative term. By most standards, probably not. In this situation at this time of night, certainly not. I replied “you know, I’m in the mountains, which is perfect, but my hopes of hitching a ride back to the top of the pass have been shattered…”

Let me rewind to the start.

Since last summer, I’ve been eyeballing the Continental Divide from Berthoud Pass to Winter Park. Today was the day I would take a shot at checking this one of many mountain traverse dreams off my list. I drove out to the top of Berthoud Pass (11,400’) late in the afternoon to start prepping my gear. Overhead, intermittent clouds from a distant rain storm passed over the sun, varying the vibrancy of colors found on the Divide about 1,500’ above me. I took a long gulp from my water jug before snapping the top back on, and tossing it into the black hole of gear in the back of my Jeep. Here we go.

I started the climb upward toward the weather station, where I would intersect with the Continental Divide trail. After a short 10 minutes, I joined with the trail, and turned my bearings toward the north. The trail was fairly runnable as I wound beneath along the edge of the summit of Berthoud Pass, ultimately adjoining the proper Continental Divide. Beneath to my right was an alpine lake, still partially coated with fissured ice, and blue as could be. The sun, low in the sky, pitched a shade of orange to the top of the lake, making the scene all the more Colorado authentic.

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I watched the weather station, perched atop a precipitous cliff, grow increasingly small as I neared the top of my first of five 13,000’ points, Flora Peak (13,127’). The peak was dotted with cairns and wind bunkers, some of them surprisingly deep. I could imagine how hard the wind must howl up here in the winter; those must feel miraculous to hide out in during skimo adventures.

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The view from Flora Peak

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I broke trail and took the meadow across the next ridge toward Mt. Eva (13,130’). Around this time, I saw my first wild Ptarmigan, a seasonally camouflaged bird that elusively wanders above treeline. Actually, I nearly stepped on it; I’m glad it decided to move when it did!

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Ptarmigan in summer camoflauge, center

At the top of Mt. Eva are the ruins of a dilapidated radio tower, completely toppled over and in shambles. The base building is accessible from holes in its foundation, or a jump up to the non-existent door, about five feet from the ground. Again, a great opportunity for some shelter if weather were to suddenly turn, or a place to throw a bivvy for the night.

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Near Mt. Eva.
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More from Near Mt. Eva.

The sun was setting on my left, emitting a deep red lightshow, pierced by the distant mountains of the Gore Range. For the next 30 minutes, I was able to navigate in the afterglow, before ultimately turning on my Fenix headlamp and flipping up my Oakley Trail Prizms around the top of Parry Peak. From Parry Peak (13,397), the lights of Winter Park and its ski area flickered far beneath me, with James Peak towering above me, across a sizable valley.

I took a moment to enjoy the solidarity and take in the views, everything now a dull grey color, with the moon just starting to rise behind me. I pulled out my Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest to combat the increasingly chilling breeze atop the divide. After a couple of fig bars and gulps of water, I clicked my headlamp back on and descended the talus toward my final 13er, James Peak. 

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James Peak from Parry

Honestly, descending on talus is my nemesis. I hate when it shifts, occasionally catching an ankle, or winding me on a sore tailbone. It was that way multiple times on the way to the bottom of the valley between Parry/James, and I was so happy to have that twenty minutes of careful footwork behind me, and also that my brand new Altra Lone Peak 3.0’s had held up to the beating.

Ascending James, previously unseen, in the dark, was a pretty arduous task. Coming up the valley involved a few big moves on large talus along a thin ridge, and a bit of route spotting along a steep edge. Things didn’t get easier when I ran into a steep snowfield not far from the top. The snow, judging from the welling around large rocks, was still between 5-8 feet deep, slick, and steep, though malleable. I climbed up and over what few rocks stuck through the surface to avoid as much snow as possible, and spotted a route that would require me to cross about 30 feet of snow to get back to the dry ground above.

 

 

These were the most precise, calculated steps I may have even taken in my life. I jammed my poles into the snow as support on the steep angle beneath me. I slowly kicked out foot placements, one by one. Moving my poles forward, maintaining three points of contact, I kicked out another foothold. I was tingling with adrenaline. After a tense, slow 10 minutes, my feet hit rock. I looked back, and saw my line of footholds across the snow, with light reflecting all the way down. I trudged up the muddy grade to the top of James, and once again could see Winter Park, my next destination, far beneath.

It was quarter to eleven PM. I had been out for 3h20mm, and had covered just 8 miles in that time, with only about 60% of the route done. I took the talus field down to the CDT. I welcomed its buffered, simple surface and finally got some quicker movement in. I ran the CDT for about a mile and a half, just by the light of the moon. My Suunto beeped to let me know I hit my checkpoint; from here, it was an off-trail descent to the Jim River, where I would intersect a forest service road.

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Winter Park lights from the summit of James Peak.

I was once again introduced to a talus field for about 1,500ft of descending in the dark. A couple of times I slipped, landing on my poles, which surprisingly didn’t break. Frustrated yells periodically broke the silence, until I ultimately reached treeline.

The James Peak Wilderness is interesting to me, in that it is dense with tall (living) trees, but also equally dense with dead trees lining the forest floor that can at times be incredibly fragile. While bushwhacking, I stuck my foot straight through multiple trees which were approximately 4-5 inches thick. It is also a good idea to keep your sights high for overhanging branches; I had one take my hat and headlamp off.

I met with a stream around midnight, just beneath the forest service road. I slipped on one of the rocks while just steps from the other side, and went down in the snowmelt water, soaking myself up to my stomach in water that was just a foot deep. Nice. (It evaporated within the next hour… no big worries here)

I finally joined with the forest road, and was able to spot campfires along the way. Relieved to be   done bushwhacking and navigating talus, I finally started to run again, until I met Winter Park’s Highway 40, at the northern terminus of Berthoud Pass. I looked up at the Continental Divide’s silhouette high above me, and let out a smile and little “woo!”

I started jogging up the pass, shining my headlamp on an extended thumb for the passing cars.

One. Two. Ten. Twenty. Nobody was stopping. People get picked up all the time on Loveland Pass, just across I-70 from here. Come on. Then, nothing. I didn’t see a car pass for what seemed like an eternity. It was almost 1am, and I’d not even gone two miles on the pass. I turned my headlamp off, and walked by the light of the moon, awaiting my next potential ride. Then, from the back of a pull off, a spotlight shone into my face, and blue lights bounced off off of my surroundings. As I shielded my eyes, for whatever reason, I turned on my headlamp, perhaps in retaliation for burning my retinas. As if it did anything.

As soon as the lights appeared, they turned off, and a police officer climbed from his car, turning on his Maglite. “Are you okay?” I thought to myself, okay is a relative term. By most standards, probably not. I replied “you know, I’m in the mountains, which is perfect, but my hopes of hitching a ride back to the top of the pass have been shattered…”

“How did you get out here?”

“The Divide from the top off the Pass.”

“Wait, you’re trying to tell me you ran down the pass to here”

*Pointing into the dark* “No, the actual Continental Divide, up there.”

“You’re crazy.”

Figures.

“Of course I can give you a ride, man!”

The officer took my poles and pack, and patted me down before opening the door to the back of the car. I thanked him profusely for putting me in the back of a squad car. He radioed back to HQ, “I’ve got a pedestrian that’s been running the CD all night and needs a ride to the top, so I’m taking him back there.”

He asked the typical questions. What made you want to do this, are you training for something, did you eat or drink anything up there, how do you train…” We had a pretty good conversation out of it on the ten minute ride to the top. We rendezvoused with another officer in the summit parking lot, whom I was introduced to after getting out of the car. Apparently yet another officer had spotted me in the forest earlier that night and told him I was heading toward town. Where do these guys hide??!!

Grateful to be back to where I started, I shook hands with everybody and wished them best of luck and safety. I demolished the PBJ sandwich and bag of peanut-caramel trail mix I had stashed in my Jeep. I looked at the traverse, far above me, and reminisced on the misadventures of the day, thankful for each step in this vast, colorful wilderness. I pointed my wheels toward home, put on the radio, and drove into the night.

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