Monday, July 15, 2013

Day 24: Ruby Creek Pass to Highland Mary Lake Junction

Coyotes yipped and howled as they closed in on their prey. We packed up by the pale light of dawn. Cool, gray fingers of foggy mist drifted in and encircled our camp. We hiked out in a thick, gray cloud.

We climbed past the lightning strike, barely recognizable through the mist, and kept climbing. Our heads popped through the clouds as we neared 13,000 feet. Below us, fluffy, gray, pillow-like clouds blanketed the valley.

A wide grassy mesa awaited us at the top of the climb. A small group of deer grazed near the edge of the mesa. A lone coyote loped across the open grass in search of prey. Pika and marmots scattered and hid in waiting holes as we approached. A pair of ptarmigan strutted near the trail. A large group of tawny colored animals startled as we approached, stampeding down the steep hillside to a pond below.

We reached the high point of the Colorado Trail, 13,271 feet, just before 9. But the trail would stay above 12,000 feet, with no trees in sight, for many more miles. With dark clouds swirling around us, the threat of lightning would be our constant companion over the next 24 hours.

We continued to climb and descend a series of ridges all afternoon, never quite reaching 13,000 feet again, but never descending near treeline either. Storms raged all afternoon, with thunder rumbling overhead. The rains started with a torrential downpour, eased to a slow drizzle, then worked into torrents again. By late afternoon we were both cold, damp, and shivering.

Baaaa! Maaaa! Baaaa! Maaaa! Sheep perched on the ridge near Stony Pass, while part of the flock grazed in the valley below. Sheep dashed away as we approached, clogging the trail and creating a comical traffic jam. The many hooves obscured the muddy trail, creating numerous new paths and destroying plants in the fragile meadow.

A gentle rain misted down as we hiked on and on and on, hoping in vain to find camping away from the lightning prone ridge. The rain again strengthened into a downpour and, as we descended to a saddle, I slipped on the muddy trail, smashing a rock against my shin that cut a hole in my rain pants.

We finally set up the tent on the saddle, right next to the trail. In my haste to set it up quickly to keep out the rain I managed to puncture the mosquito netting with my hiking pole (which also serves as tent pole). But we were finally protected from the incessant rain, happy to be warm and dry at last.

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