Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
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  CT SEGMENTS 16-17:


Today's miles: 35.6                                Cumulative miles: 483.5
Approx. elevation gain: 7,050 feet (5,820 feet loss)  Bonus Miles: 0
"Sargent's Mesa teems with its hundreds of grazing elk and numerous trout-filled beaver ponds.
The high mesas and rolling uplands along the [Continental] Divide, extending from Marshall Pass to
the La Garita Wilderness and known as the Cochetopa Hills, are excellent elk and mule deer habitat.
Bighorn sheep are found around the pass . . . Early morning or dusk are prime viewing times."
 - The Colorado Trail Official Guide Book, Seventh Edition, p. 154


Sargent's Mesa, a huge grassy plateau sitting at 11,620 feet above sea level, lies in the middle of Segments 16 and 17. I would reach it after running and walking 20.4 miles northeast in Segment 17 from Hwy. 114 (North Pass) and still have another 15.2 miles to go in Segment 16 to reach Marshall Pass. I was hoping to see some of those elk but knew my chances weren't real great in the middle of the day.

Sargent's Mesa, above

Completion of these two segments would wrap up my Colorado Trail journey run, begun last summer. That was a big motivation to get out there and just do it.

If you read yesterday's entry, you know I was filled with apprehension. This is the longest trail section I've run in one day on either the Appalachian Trail or Colorado Trail and it's got about 13,000 feet of elevation gain and loss -- mostly above 11,000 feet. I'd have more uphill than downhill doing it northbound, the direction that made most sense coming from the west. I estimated it would take me somewhere between twelve and fifteen hours, depending mostly on the unknown trail surface (the guide book isn't very helpful in that regard).

Granted, it's not as long as many ultra marathon races I've completed in one day, but out in the wilderness I'm alone and don't have aid stations to cater to my every need! These segments are so remote and inaccessible, I might not even see any humans all day -- except for Jim, who planned to run in from the end to meet me at some point.

I wasn't real excited about the segments for several other reasons:

  • Water is very scarce along this part of the Continental Divide, which I'd be following most of the day. The guide book was very explicit on that. I'd carry as much water as possible but have to treat the rest, which the CT guide also warned is often tainted by grazing cattle.
  • The photos in the guide showed open "parks" with few trees. I assumed I'd be out in the open most of the day -- the Divide is at high elevations and above tree line, right? -- and subjected to the blazing sun and the usual afternoon thunderstorms.

  • These two segments are mostly open to motorized traffic. I was concerned that dust and noise might be a problem. I figured the terrain would be similar to Segment 18 and part of 19 with all of their dirt jeep roads -- very exposed and hot.


  • The guide warns about lots of logging roads and intersecting trails that can confuse hikers, many of whom "have reported taking unwanted side trips in this area." (p. 155)  That must mean signage isn't so great. I worried about getting either lost or doing unwanted bonus miles. I already had enough miles to do without that!
  • The segments were too long to take Cody, so I'd be alone. He's not trained for 35+ miles, especially if there isn't much water along the way. I'd later discover the numerous rocks in Segment 17 are not at all conducive to canine companionship anyway; Segment 16, below, is much better for dogs.

All these concerns meant some special considerations and planning for today's trek:

The plan: I started at 5:12 AM, much earlier than usual, so I could finish in daylight. Result: that worked well. It took me exactly thirteen hours, so I finished well before sunset. It was cool in the morning (40s) and mostly sunny the first eight hours. I began hearing thunder after twenty miles (around Sargent's Mesa) but never got wet until a couple miles from the end when I was running with Jim and Cody. I appreciated the clouds the last five hours when it could have been much hotter.

The plan: No dawdling and don't take so many photos. Result: I took no breaks, except when I stopped a couple minutes to talk to cyclists and hikers, and I took fewer photos than usual. Compared with the whopping 93 photos I took during our 13-mile Stony Pass run/hike on Monday, the 97 pictures I took today in 35+ miles are definitely fewer per mile! (Just can't help myself, no matter the circumstances.)

The plan: To compensate for the distance and lack of water along the course, I carried 100 oz. of water in my Camelbak bladder, 28 oz. of water in a UD bottle, and 28 oz. of concentrated Perpetuem in a UD bottle. Result: I drank water from the bottle first, then treated 28 oz. more with iodine at the first little stream about ten miles in and drank it next. When it was gone, enough time had elapsed that I thought I could to make it to the finish with the remaining 100 oz. in the bladder. It wasn't enough, though. I got about twelve more ounces of water from Jim to mix up another bottle of less-concentrated Perp for the last few miles. I had asked him to bring extra water in for me. If it had been hot and sunny all day, I could have gotten more water from Tank Seven Creek, below, at about 24 miles:

The plan: I took and consumed sixteen scoops of Perpetuem energy drink (with proteins and fats, as well as carbs) and twelve ounces of Hammergel for a total of about 3,112 calories. Result: I didn't eat either the Harvest Bar or Clif Bar that I carried in case I needed them. I wasn't hungry when I finished thirteen hours later, but craved salty cheese crackers. I took ten Endurolyte electrolyte capsules during the run and never got swollen hands, an upset stomach, or leg cramps (i.e., the dosage seemed appropriate).  My feet and ankles were a little swollen in the evening.

The plan: I put on plenty of sunscreen and wore a thin, long-sleeved technical shirt with the sleeves down all day to avoid sunburn. I started off wearing my Marmot rain jacket and REI convertible pants but took off the jacket and pants legs three hours into the run (about 8 AM). Result: I was in shade as much as sun the first eight hours, and I never got unduly hot -- so much for the Continental Divide being on exposed ridges all the time! As noted, it was overcast the last five hours and comfortable.

The plan: I carried more emergency supplies and extra clothing than usual in case I was out after dark or got into some sort of trouble -- a lighter to start a fire, foil blanket, LED flashlight and two small back-up lights, fleece hat, two pairs of gloves, extra shirt. I almost always carry a jacket, two little lights, a whistle, iodine, knee wrap, sunscreen, cell phone, and GPS. Result: All this stuff and the extra water and energy bars weighed me down more than usual and I wasn't able to run as much as I'd hoped (as if I could have run above 11,000 feet all day anyway!). But it's good that I had it.

Jim programmed the GPS with the topo maps and waypoints for these two segments and printed out detailed topo maps. I carried the maps and the directions I'd written backwards in a plastic baggie.

Somehow the waypoints didn't show up as they have for every other segment on the CT. I could see where I was in relation to creeks, mountains, etc., but not the trail. But I soon realized, "I don't need no stinkin' waypoints! All I have to do is follow these hoof prints all the way to Marshall Pass!!"

You see, I was about three hours behind Erin and her two mules the entire day. I could see their fresh hoof prints in the dust and mud for thirty-five miles! They left other evidence of their passage, too, of course. <wink>  I found those hoof prints to be as reliable as any signage along the way, and the signs were good:

That was a relief. I never got off-trail and was pretty certain the entire time I was on-trail even when it was a while between signs. Every intersection was clearly marked. Thank you, CTF maintainers!

Most of my fears were NOT realized (of course). Sometimes I let things get too exaggerated in my mind. Early in the run/hike today I had to laugh when one side of my brain silently vowed to the other, "When I grow up, I want to be as courageous as Erin."


I had two main surprises today, one good and one not so good.

The trail was more shaded than I expected -- that's the good surprise. The Divide has many miles along forested ridges in these sections. That meant fewer flowers and views than on exposed ridges, but I welcomed the shade.

When I finally had some grand vistas on Sargent's Mesa and parts of Segment 16, I appreciated them all the more:

It's a very good thing I didn't attempt these segments a month ago when I had trouble with snow in Segments 15, 18, and 19. Since so much of the trail today was both above 11,000 feet AND shaded, it would surely have been impassable. The only snow I saw today at my elevation was near Marshall Pass, and it wasn't on the trail.

The nasty surprise was the number of rocks in Segment 17, which was mostly uphill for me going northbound. If I'd been going southbound and able to run more they might not have bothered me so much -- I can "flow" downhill over rocks better than step between them walking uphill or on flatter terrain. Probably fifteen miles of that segment is rocky, very unusual for the CT. It reminded me of those rocky ridge walks I hated so much on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania.

Deja vu all over again . . . (above)

Even the cyclists I met were swearing at the rocks. I imagine Erin's mules weren't too happy with them, either. I can't begin to count the number of times I stubbed my toes. Fortunately, I never fell.

The only rocks I enjoyed were OFF the trail -- this rocky outcrop with a view . . .

. . . and this interesting rock cairn in a clearing just southwest of Sargent's Mesa:

That's the first cairn with a sense of humor that I've seen on the Colorado Trail. There were quite a few on the Appalachian Trail.

The trail improved significantly after Sargent's Mesa in Segment 16. I was finally able to run for about six miles on smoother trail until I had to go back uphill again. I was pleased I had the energy to run after being out there for eight hours!

I met Jim seven miles from Marshall Pass on a steep, rocky incline, but it wasn't as bad as what I'd already been through. The rest of the way to the end was much more runnable than anything in Segment 17. Sometimes Jim gets the "bad end" of a trail section when he runs in to meet me. Today he got the "good end." Cody came in with him. They both got about fifteen miles including the initial bonus mile from a mistake -- confusing signs going southwest -- right at Marshall Pass.

I saw more people today than I expected -- one young man sunbathing near Sargent's Mesa (!), six cyclists,

and nine hikers of all different ages. All were going the opposite direction. I saw no other NOBO hikers or cyclists and never caught up to Erin and her mule team. Jim saw her near Sargent's Mesa but didn't talk to her very long. She was going on farther north today. I spoke to most of the cyclists and hikers about the trail and their plans. Only a couple of them were thru-hikers, the rest just out for a section or two. Several mentioned seeing Erin and being totally impressed with her CDT quest.

The only motorized vehicles I saw were a car parked near Sargent's Mesa and one at this old ranch building in Segment 16:

I was very, very happy to have no ATVs, jeeps, or dirt bikes sharing the trail with me. The "roads" were mostly too narrow for even a Jeep, much more like trails than in Segments 18-19.

Since I began before daybreak and didn't have a dog with me, I was hoping to see more wildlife in the early morning. Alas, I saw nothing all day except mule deer and cows. Sargent's Mesa is popular with elk, but they must have been off sleeping somewhere. The only elk I've seen recently were near our campground at South Mineral Creek and they moved away too quickly for me to get a photo of them.

I was so happy to finally be able to run (after eight hours of mostly walking) that I almost missed a herd of about thirty cows on Sargent's Mesa. One mooed and broke my reverie:

I also saw the first real vistas going northbound near Sargent's Mesa when the land opened up. Mt. Ouray (at 13,971 feet, almost a 14er) was closest to my destination at Marshall Pass. That was a nice beacon. The 14ers in the Collegiate Peaks and lower Sawatch Range were also prominent to the northeast: Shivano, Antero, Princeton, Yale, and maybe even Harvard. Seeing those beautiful mountains ahead of me was a definite advantage of running northbound in Segment 16. (The other advantage was a slight net downhill for that segment.)


It was also great to see Jim seven miles from the "finish" after almost eleven hours of running alone. My legs were pretty tired by then but I ran as much as I could on the rolling terrain to Marshall Pass. I was very grateful for the smoother trail surface and interesting views.

We got into about ten minutes of rain but I welcomed it. Another couple that I'd seen hiking toward Sargent's Mesa told us they got into a bad storm soon after I passed them; I got only a minute of sprinkles in that area. [They stopped at the Mesa, where they had one car, and drove back to Marshall Pass, where they had a second car. It took them two days to hike that fifteen miles. They got back to the pass right after Jim and I did and we talked a while. They're a retired couple from somewhere in Colorado and like to do short backpacking trips.]

I'm pleased with my time today. I went farther, and at a much higher altitude, than on any of my AT runs but faster than several of them. I remember three grueling 14-hour days in the Smokies and Maine when I finished after dark. Jim took this photo of me near the end of the run. I look tired, but probably better than after those AT runs!

I would have done better on this long section if I'd taken another rest day. Both of us still had tired legs from all the hills and gullies we crossed on Monday near Stony Pass. Jim's on a mission to get up to Leadville and he didn't want to spend all day at North Pass with "nothing to do." That's no problem for me. I always have lots to do and enjoy being in the camper all day doing it!

Today Jim moved the camper to the visitor's center in Poncha Springs where we spent one night a month ago. He enjoyed the new route through Saguache that we decided on yesterday in order to avoid Monarch Pass on Hwy. 50. He had no problems with either North Pass or Poncha Pass, each just over 9,000 feet (Monarch's well over 11,000 feet, with long approaches from either direction).

After we got done running we had a nice drive down the dirt road from Marshall Pass to Poncha Springs, ate a late supper (yum, leftovers!), got ourselves and our gear cleaned up, and hit the sack by dark.

Ahhh, it feels so good to be horizontal!!


It feels less good to be done with the Colorado Trail. There's a sadness to it, another ending. This journey run has been so different than the Appalachian Trail because I did it over two years and in disjointed segments. I'm happy there are several more new reroutes I can still explore. I don't want it to be "over." Maybe one of these days I'll do some sort of summary of my experiences on the CT and recommendations for other runners/hikers.

Of course, there are other long trails out there waiting to be explored: the CDT, the PCT . . .

Tomorrow we're off on the short drive to the NFS campground at Clear Creek Reservoir on the road to Winfield, about halfway between Buena Vista and Leadville. Jim has some unfinished business there. So do I, but I no longer feel the need to finish it!

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2007 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil