Take a Trek

Day 16: Majestic Violence

North of Cottonwood Pass to Cottonwood Pass Ridge
Day: ? Miles
Trip: ? Miles

Last night, while watching Lake Anne Pass get demolished by lightning, I mentioned to Mr. Oddity that I was concerned about the amount of weight that I’ve lost. He must have taken the comment to heart, because he’s quite adamant about “fixin’ me a bowl of oats” this morning. Although I’m incapable of consuming the entire pound of hot cereal that he “fixes” me, having a breakfast that doesn’t consist of energy bars and almonds is much appreciated.

Mr. Oddity and I cross a small parking lot, at Cottonwood Pass, and chat with a local who feels the need to give us a weather report. “We’ve been gettin’ hit with these monsoons comin’ up from the Gulf of Mexico,” he says, “but it’s supposed to be clear and nice for the next few days. After walking through these mountains for the past two weeks, I’m officially done with listening to the locals talk about Rocky Mountain weather. Getting a weather forecast for the mountains, from town and city folk, is like having your car inspected by a ballerina. Smiling politely is the only response I have left for these people.

From Cottonwood Pass, we begin a ridge walk that my map depicts to be about nine or ten miles long. The weather is pristine, the trail is evenly grated, and scenery is dramatic. We’re literally walking along the Continental Divide, an experience that evokes a rare and deserved sense of euphoria.

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Cottonwood Pass

I’m awestruck, momentarily incapable of comprehending my surroundings. Who am I to live this life? By the time I snap back to reality, Mr. Oddity has been nearly swallowed by the enormous backdrop of the Continental Divide.

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Mr. Oddity traversing Cottonwood Pass

As the trail crosses a ridge, we meet a woman sitting in the grass, staring helplessly into the mountains. Her gear is scattered all about, bathing in the afternoon sun. “I needed a break, so I’m drying some things out,” she tells us. She and her friend, both from Ohio, are hiking the Collegiate West Wilderness. “My knee needs to be replaced, so I thought I’d come out here and get my moneys worth out of it before the surgery.” Her right knee looks like its in terrible shape. “Well, how are you liking it so far?” I ask. She smiles wryly. “It sucks, but I love it.” An appropriate answer, from a mountain traveler with an obvious handicap. I dub her Wounded Knee.

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Vista from Cottonwood Pass

Early in the afternoon, I stop at a turn in the trail to wait for Mr. Oddity and explore lunch options. A stale tortilla wrap, with tuna fish, string cheese, and a packet of yellow mustard are on the menu again. Yum.

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Stale tortilla and tuna

Mr. Oddity eventually takes a seat next to me, and we watch the sky behind a distant ridge line turn to gray. “Looks like its going to miss us,” I point out, as thunder echoes through the mountains. “Seems that way, doesn’t it,” he replies. Before leaving our afternoon perch, my map is consulted, and it’s determined that we can reach the next road crossing by late afternoon. Mr. Oddity needs a resupply, and I could go for a cold beer and a Snickers Bar.

This smiling cactus plant seems to agree with our plan.

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A bad omen?

Things can change so drastically, in a Rocky Mountain minute,

The stale tortilla taste is still lingering in my mouth, when the trail turns sharply around a wall of rock, and I notice something unnerving on the horizon. “I don’t think we’re going to be so lucky this time,” I say to Mr. Oddity, while setting down my pack to fetch my rain gear. “I believe you’re right,” he agrees, while doing the same.

The trail inclines slightly and I pull ahead of Mr. Oddity, as I often do during climbs. The rain quickens to a downpour, before turning to sleet, then hail. I turn around to look for Mr. Oddity and spot him in the distance, walking with his umbrella held high. Who brings an umbrella on a backpacking trip? How…odd.

With each passing minute, the hail falls faster and harder. Pea-sized balls of ice are falling senselessly towards the earth. They’re dropping into the crevasse, between my body and my pack, accumulating, and lingering. It feels like I have a giant icepack hanging from my shoulders. My exposed legs and hands are being pelted mercilessly. The voice in my head tells me to stay cool, not to worry. “This is going to pass soon,” the voice tells me.

The voice is a liar.

I turn around to look for Mr. Oddity, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Through a wall of sleet and rain, my field of vision is limited to fifty feet. The icepack hanging from my shoulders is getting colder, the crevasse in my back is going numb. Why the fuck didn’t I bring an umbrella? “It’s okay,” the voice in my head carries on. “At least it’s not…” KABOOM!

My first instinct is to retreat, but there’s nowhere to go. The trail has been zigzagging, from one side of the continental dived to the other, all afternoon. To the right, there’s a one-hundred foot wall of rock that climbs to the ridge. To the left, a craggy cliff descends towards the unknown. The trail to the north and south leads towards more ridges. Another thunderbolt tears through the sky above me, this time longer and louder. My back is completely numb, the Icepack is part of me now. Slowly, hesitantly, instinctually, I keep moving forward.

I need to do something; I need to shelter myself from this storm. Hail is bouncing off of the ground, like ping pong balls. Ahead of me, to the right, is a small cluster of foliage that looks like a giant bush. I rush towards it, unsure of what I’ll do next. A flash of lightning highlights the earth around my feet, immediately followed by a rumble in the sky. The cluster of foliage is shaped like a U, so I walk inside of it, toss my trekking poles aside, and crouch down on my foam sleeping pad. I look towards the sky, to track the storm, and hail hits me in the eyelid, nose and mouth. This sucks and I don’t love it.

As the storm tappers off, I hear the sound of footsteps sloshing through mud. Squish, squish, squish. “Mr. Oddity, is that you?” The squishing stops. “Yes. Yes it is. RJ?” I stand up, inside the cluster of foliage, my storm shelter. “I didn’t know what to do, then I found this big bush, so I…” KABOOM! With a single, deafening clap of thunder, the storm resumes. “Would you like to join me in my foxhole, Mr.Oddity?” He forces a grin. “There’s no one I’d rather share one with.” Sitting on my foam sleeping pad, huddled beneath Mr. Oddity’s umbrella, we remain pinned down by a whirlwind of violent weather for nearly an hour. This isn’t an isolated incident, it’s an accumulation of several storms that are breeding in the sky above us. Thunder and lightning are clapping and flashing simultaneously, our rain gear is drenched, and the need to evacuate our foxhole is obvious. “I saw several forks of lightening hit the ridge above us,” Mr. Oddity admits.

It’s time to cash in our one remaining option.

The following thirty minutes are a blur, a feverish dream sequence. A rush of adrenaline floods my bloodstream, and my body goes into autopilot. Mr. Oddity and I charge down an embankment of loose gravel, rocks, and boulders. We descend through a shallow creek, bushwhack through chest-high shrubbery, and run towards a distant cluster of trees. Soaking wet and wide-eyed, beneath an onslaught of rain, we fumble through our packs and pull out our tents. The ground is uneven and partially rock. My fingers are numb, stiffened by the cold, forcing me to assemble my shelter with the palms of my hands. I scramble inside the nylon walls that I’ve called home for the past two weeks, strip off my wet clothes, and crawl into my sleeping bag. “Mr. Oddity, did you get into your shelter okay?” I ask. “Yes,” he confirms. “Screw that guy from the car park, for saying the weather was supposed to be good.”