There was a strong turn-out at today’s Crag Crest Trail Run hosted by the Mesa Monument Striders. I estimated over 30 folks lined up for another round of trail camaraderie and competition in the same vein as the recent Turkey Flats event. I like these ‘races’ for their simplicity. Just show up, put the shoes on and go. To me that’s what running is all about. And instead of moseying around the woods on my own stopping to look at every flower, animal or view as an excuse to take a breather, here I start running and keep running. I can get a quality workout on a very fine trail. The Crag Crest is a spine of rock extending across the top of the Grand Mesa and reaching 11,189 feet at its highest point. The trail takes a loop up the west end of the Crest, along the top, down the east side and returning through the forest along its base. Sounds like a simple run - up, flat, down and then more flats? Nope, not a chance. The Crag Crest trail is a tough one. And rubbing salt into our wounds, oxygen is in very short supply. The entire 10 miles of the trail, from beginning to end, is above 10,000 feet. As expected it starts out with a real kicker, the beefy switch-backed climb up the Crest, which quickly spreads out the field. The problem is it just never lets up. Even traversing the Crest requires several steep and very rocky climbs with the stiffest coming right at its eastern end. I wasn’t sure if the hazy views were due to sweat running through my eyes or the smoke from the forest fires currently burning on the Uncompahgre Plateau to the south-west. Either way, the end of the Crest seemed to be a mirage, as I huffed and puffed, up and down countless false summits. (Ok, so I’m exaggerating here. There’s probably only four, but it felt more like forty.) At around the half way point, the descent of the Crest finally appears through the sweat/smoke fog. It’s sweet but sadly too short, barely enough time to restore the ragged breathing of the ascent to something inaudible from half a mile away. The return to the trailhead alternates between the shaded forest, meadows of wildflowers and glorious lake views. The scenery may be forgiving but the rolling terrain is not, as the several stomach punching hills testify. As I run, I am concerned for the hikers enjoying a Sunday afternoon stroll, who must fear for their lives as they hear a slobbering, gasping wild beast thundering up behind them in the dark forest. Luckily for them it is I who is being chased, my sweaty grimy flesh now a magnet for blood thirsty mosquitoes. Also hot on my heels was Kelsey Slauson, who at 15 years old and with an abundance of talent surely has a great running future ahead of her. Amazingly I managed to hold off the young whippersnapper and finish in a time of 1 hour and 52 minutes for 6th overall and 2nd in the women’s. The fastest time of the day was logged by Glenn Randell in 1 hour and 29 minutes. Christie Aschwanden topped the women’s field with a time of 1:46.
Standing around the rock aka women's podium from L to R: Kelsey Slauson, Yours Truly and Christie Aschwanden.
Second time was the charm for Hagerman Peak last Sunday. A week before, Chad and I were turned back barely two miles into the approach as a ‘20% chance of showers’ developed into a sustained and drenching sheet of rain. This weekend, with an identical weather forecast, the rain held off and we successfully reached the summit of one of Colorado’s centennial peaks. At 13,841 feet Hagerman feels like a fourteener but without the crowds. In fact we barely saw anyone all day apart from our cohort Mike Steele who we suckered into joining us for a ‘nice little hike.’ Truth be told at days end, annihilating was a more accurate description of our days exertions. Plans started to go awry right from the start when I decided to lead us on an unmapped shortcut trail which was rumored to reduce the vertical of our route by 1,000 feet. Ha! After quite some time traveling cross country, up hill and down dale, in search of the cairns and game trails which would lead us through cliffy terrain to the promised land, it was evident that this was going to be a long day.
Smiles early in the day as a distant Hagerman comes into view.
When we finally reached the base of Hagerman Peak, 6 miles, 3,500 feet and several hours later, it was debatable if we would rally for the summit. Mike wisely decided to keep some gas in reserve for the return journey and found a sheltered rock to rest up. As is typical, Chad and I were committed to continue. It was unthinkable we could come so far and not bag the summit. So up we went, scrambling hand over foot for 1,500 feet.
The south face of Hagerman Peak.
We followed a rib of somewhat solid rock directly up the south face, solid being a relative word in Colorado’s mountains. Relative to the scree, talus or crumbly face that one usually ascends. Although I frequently tested my hand and footholds they held good, made for enjoyable climbing and reached the summit within the hour.
Hagerman's summit ridge, Maroon Bells in the background and Snowmass lake to the left.
Always spectacular, the views from this summit were also a little thrilling as the north side of Hagerman sheered away into the Snowmass bowl hundreds of feet below. We did not loiter long, aware of the long trip back and Mike waiting for us below. Quickly descending a gully of scree, we plowed through small rocks as we attempted to slide and run at the same time. After emptying our hiking boots of pebbles and debris we lumbered back towards the trailhead, stopping only a few times to fill up on water and take photos of bear tracks and marmots. It was a bit of a slog and as Mike accurately remarked “towards the end my Up and my Down weren’t working much anymore”. In the final analysis we made it, and the 12 miles and 5,000 feet of climbing left us beaten, but not down. Far from it. After many years of absence from summer mountaineering, I’m inspired to jump right back in. So what’s next?
As soon as the high country opens up for the summer there are so many trails to run, hike and bike, mountains to climb, rivers and lakes to fish, the list goes on and on, growing longer every year as I pinpoint more places to visit. But many times I can’t resist going back to some of my old favorites. Riding the road from Marble to the Crystal Mill is one of them. We did it again this past weekend. Sandwiched between the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness to the north and the Raggeds to the south, the scenery is, of course, breathtakingly beautiful. The road travels alongside the clear waters of the Crystal River along to the Crystal Mill, one of the most photographed locations in Colorado. Though double track, the ride is still fun what with dodging big puddles and a couple of short climbs thrown in here and there. It can be quite wet and muddy but somehow getting filthy makes me feel like I worked harder.
Sometimes we continue on from the ghost town of Crystal City to complete the Lead King Loop. Knowing it would be busy on the 4th July weekend we opted instead to visit the ominous sounding Devil’s Punchbowl, a few miles beyond Crystal on the ‘road’ to Crested Butte. Schofield Pass was still closed due to snow and so we had the road pretty much to ourselves. As we all know, punchbowl’s normally hold very tasty alcoholic concoctions of which I tend to consume rather copious amounts. Not this one. Being the Devil’s it was full of narrow, rough and rocky shelf roads, big and scary drop offs, steep climbs, raging torrents and piles of snow and avalanche debris. History recounts of more than a dozen deaths as vehicles have peeled off this, one of the most dangerous 4WD roads in the state. Sipping, not guzzling was definitely the MO here. Riding was slow with eyes glued to the road and hands gripped to the brakes.
As we tentatively peered over the edge down towards the river below, a beat up kayak stuck beneath a pile of logs caught the eye. No sign of a ‘maytagged’ kayaker who hopefully made it out of the washing machine before going through the full spin cycle. As the river enters the punchbowl from Schofield Park it plunges almost 1,000 feet before leveling out. An awe inspiring sight, it leaves you with no illusions as to the power and force of water especially running high as it was that day. On our return, passing through Crystal we stopped in at Roger Neal’s cabin. Having spent every summer since 1948 in Crystal, Roger knows the history of the area well. He told us the Mill, built in 1893, was actually a compressor station driven by a water turbine, providing compressed air to nearby silver mines. After our little history lesson and with thunderheads building we quickly headed on back to Marble.
What better way to spend the weekend of July 4th than soaking in the beauty of the Elk mountains trail running, mountain biking and hiking! Day 1: A 5 mile trail run to an unnamed high mountain col between the Silver Creek and Avalanche Creek drainages. The wildflowers are just starting to break out though there is plenty of snow above 12,000 feet. Avalanche lilies recently unfurled were a reminder that the snow is still receeding. Beautiful singletrack, switchbacks to the sky and views across the rugged Elk Range as a reward. I was almost in danger of breaking out into a yodel, if I had enough breath. It was so great to be up high again and I'm looking forward to a summer filled with high mountain running.
Avalanche lilies along the trail.
Views of Capitol Peak from the col.
Descending from the col, Treasure Mountain provides the backdrop.
Chad tries snow surfing. Fast but a little wobbly!
Mountain running can't be beat!
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