A Yelmite’s Journal: A Journey as Beautiful as It Was Brutal

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Editor’s Note: Andrew Kollar is Yelm Community Schools’ Community Relations Coordinator and former reporter at The Nisqually Valley News. He is a lifelong Yelmite who enjoys sharing his love for the outdoors with others. In 2018, Kollar chronicled his 130-day, 2,650-mile journey on the Pacific Crest Trail, which spans from Mexico to Canada. He’s currently hiking the Colorado Trail. Look for updates on his journey at yelmonline.com in the coming weeks. 

After two days spent relaxing in Breckenridge and enjoying the luxuries of town, Happy Hermit (Raleigh, North Carolina), Paradise (Denver, Colorado) and I loaded our packs with three days worth of food and set out for the high alpine. 

From Highway 9, we ascended 3,826 feet in 8 miles, bringing us to 12,489 feet and the highest point of the first 112 miles of the Colorado Trail. We marveled at the view below. On one side we could see the entire city of Breckenridge and on the other we could see the entire village of Copper Mountain. After enjoying a late breakfast with a view, we began our descent back down to the base area of Copper. 

We stopped for an extended lunch break in the Copper Mountain Village where we drank our fill of cold, bottomless soda and devoured a basket of fries before we set out to continue 17 more miles as we worked to gain back all of the elevation we lost, cowboy camping under the stars on the west side of Kokomo Pass, just above 12,000 feet. 

The following day began with another descent down below 10,000 feet — it was beginning to feel like we were walking horizontally along the serrated edge of a handsaw blade. Up and down, up and down, up and down. Losing every bit of elevation we had worked so hard to gain. 

After lunch, we entered the Holy Cross Wilderness, home to one of Colorado’s most famous landmarks known for the permanent snowcross naturally etched into a mountain, aptly named “Mountain of the Holy Cross.”

Zzzt. Smack. The first mosquito bite. 

Zzt. Smack. Another one. 

Before long this would be the sequence for the rest of the afternoon in conjunction with hiking as fast as possible to lose the inevitable swarm. 

“Not this again,” I thought to myself as I was reminded of the angry swarms of mosquitoes in the Sierra Nevada that made life miserable while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018. No matter how fast I hiked, I couldn’t avoid the skeets accumulating on the back of my shoulders and biting through my shirt. 

We reached camp and the mosquitos continued to get worse. Despite being hot, I frantically threw on my rain jacket and pants, topped with a headnet to keep my sanity. As I crawled into my bivy, I looked over to see Hermit sitting happily in his tent while my face would be no more than 4 inches away from the blood suckers. That was my tipping point for the bivy. It was worth a try but laying in a coffin made of nylon and cuben fiber with hundreds of skeets just inches from my face was my definition of hell. 

Knowing the bivvy was an experiment, I had my dad send my tent to Salida, the town nearest to the halfway point just in case the bivvy didn’t work out. While I sat staring at the skeets I kept saying “only four more nights in the coffin. Just four more nights!”

The third day out of Breck, we had a decision to make. 

We were 14 miles from the Mount Elbert junction. Elbert is the highest point in Colorado and the Rocky Mountains of the United States at 14,440 feet but the original plan was to hike 20 miles, putting us in Twin Lakes around 4 p.m. Sticking to the itinerary would allow us to eat a good lunch, resupply before the Twin Lakes general store closed and get a room inside to adequately prepare for the difficult 80-mile stretch, known as the Collegiate West. Adding in Elbert would add about four hours and force us to resupply at the general store the next morning and cause for a late start to the day. 

Elbert adds roughly 3.5 miles, as well as a brutally steep 4,000 feet of elevation gain and loss to boot. Worried the climb would compromise the overall mission of hiking to Durango, Hermit and Paradise chose to stick to the itinerary while I opted for the latter. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Elbert was right there, even if I did have to carry my pack with everything in it up and over. 

“See you guys in Twin Lakes,” I said as we reached the last water source where I’d fill up all four liters of my carrying capacity before I’d make the climb up and parted ways with the team. 

The climb up the north route of Elbert is steep, rocky and exposed. It took two hours and 40 minutes to ascend from the junction to reach the summit. I felt on top of the world standing on the top of Colorado and the second highest peak of the contiguous U.S., second to Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada. To say the view was incredible would be an understatement. 

I began my descent at 4:15 p.m. and was on a mission to make it to the Twin Lakes Saloon before they closed at 8. I missed the general store but I wasn’t going to miss out on a hot dinner. I reached the saloon just in time for a burger and a beer, while I arranged for a ride to take me to the place Hermit and Paradise were staying at. It was small, likely 150 square-feet with one bed, a pull out couch and a toilet backing up into the shower. I slept on my sleeping pad on the ground but was grateful to be back with the boys and for a night without mosquitos. 

While I had theoretically caught the guys, I was still far behind. They had already resupplied and were ready to get back to the trail, while I had to wait for the store to open at 9 a.m. This put me more than two hours behind them as we started the Collegiate West alternate route but we made a plan to meet and camp at Lake Ann, a beautiful alpine lake sitting at 11,800 feet. Getting there wasn’t easy. First I had to climb up and over Hope Pass, then weave around a hot and exposed valley before ascending back up to the Lake where I would meet the guys after hiking a day and a half alone. It was nice to have company again. 

From Lake Ann, we tackled 78 miles of the Collegiate West, hiking more than 25 miles per day, and if my memory serves me right, climbed up 10 mountain passes, crossing six passes in one day.

We’re now past the halfway point, sitting in a hotel room in the town of Salida, resting our feet, showering and washing our permanently smelly clothing, despite Hermit saying he doesn’t even stink. Trust me, he does. We all do. But most importantly, I was able to pick up my tent, meaning no more nights in the coffin!

On to Lake City and the San Juans!

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