We meet on a narrow trail etched into the side of the mountain.
” What’s up ahead?”
“Caribou Pass. But there’s a fresh rock slide with loose rock blocking the trail. I made it over but probably shouldn’t have tried it. Be careful.”
“Thanks for the warning. I think I’ll check it out.”
We ease carefully past each other on the narrow ledge.
Hiking down to the pass, I turn a corner and come to the slide. Looking off to my right, I get a touch of acrophobia. It’s a long way down. Decision time.
Earlier today, I was hiking steadily up the Arpahoe Pass trail from the Fourth of July trailhead. Things have changed dramatically in the mountains since my last backpacking trip two weeks ago. Though the day is warm for late September, autumn has clearly come to the high country.
Near the junction with the Arapahoe Glacier Trail, I spotted some rusted machinery not far from the trail and spent some time checking it out. What kind of project had been attempted here? Who had hauled this metal up the mountainside? What had happened to it?
The wind became stronger as I climbed closer to the top of the Continental Divide.
A sign at a junction points left to Caribou Pass, and right to Arapahoe Pass. My destination for tonight is Caribou Lake, in a basin below Araphoe Pass. Since it was still early in the day, I decided to go exploring and took the left fork toward Lake Dorothy and Caribou Pass.
Near Lake Dorothy, I met a couple of women dressed in nylon wind shirts and pants. One of the women was wearing a Lowepro Toploader camera case that is twice the size of mine. We started talking photography and lamented the clear blue sky that was hampering our ability to get good photos in this most dramatic of settings.
“What do you shoot?”
“Just a Canon Rebel. I do backpacking trips and take photos for my blog.”
“What’s your blog?”
“Dondo Outdoors. It’s easy to find. Just google “Dondo”, and ignore any results that mention David Hasselhoff.”
Farther down the Caribou Pass trail is where I met the hiker who warned me about the rock slide.
Now, standing here, facing it, I have to make a decision. I study the rocks carefully. Both hands and feet will be needed to get past this point. Any loose rocks or loss of balance could send me hurtling into the abyss. Too risky, I decide. Carefully, I turn around and walk a few steps, then turn back to study the rocks again. Yesterday was my birthday. I decide that I want many more. Turning my back on the slide once more, I hike purposefully toward Arapahoe Pass.
Peering over a cliff, I spot tonight’s destination in the basin far below, Caribou Lake.
A series of switchbacks is etched into the steep rock on the west side of the Divide. Getting down to the lake will be adventure enough.
At the top of Arapahoe Pass, the wind is really picking up. Hiding behind a wall of rocks, I tighten and double-knot the laces in my trail runners, lenghten my trekking poles, snug down the hood of my wind shirt, and take a swig of water. Facing into the wind, I drop off the Divide.
It turns out that this is an excellent trail, with only a couple of really steep sections. All I have to do is follow the path while fighting the wind.
Things are quiet at the bottom of the basin. The wind calms to a gentle breeze. There are no signs of other humans here.
A spur trail branches off the Arapahoe Pass trail toward the campsites. Normally, I avoid places with designated camping, but this being a weekday at the end of September, I have my choice of sites. Circling the lake, I pass sites #6 through #10 and decide that I like #9, near the far end of the lake.
The sun is getting lower in the sky now, illuminating the marsh grasses from behind.
Large cutthroat trout appear in the shallow water at the end of the Caribou Lake. Continuing around the lake, I fail to find sites #1 through #5. Back at the trail, I take a look at Arapahoe Pass, which I’ll be reascending tomorrow morning.
Quickly, I set up camp at site #9 and walk to the lake for dinner.
Dinner finished and bear bag hung, I now explore the lake at my leisure.
It’s a clear, still night. I fall asleep while gazing at countless stars shimmering through the open door of my shelter.
During the night, I have a strange dream that I’ve overslept and missed the sunrise. It feels so real, that I’m sure that it happened. Waking up, I check my watch. It’s a quarter to six. I grab my camera and step outside to meet the new day.
In the morning, I linger over breakfast, then pack my bag and walk back toward the pass. Refreshed by a night in the wilderness, my legs move easily through the many switchbacks to the top of the pass.
Hiking back down the Arapahoe Pass trail toward the trailhead, the day heats up. It’s a beautiful Indian summer day here in the Colorado Rockies. It feels great just to be alive and moving.
On my way down, I meet Robert and Annemarie, who are hiking slowly up the the top of Arapahoe Pass. Annemarie is engaging with her lovely Dutch accent. She tells me that Robert used to be a mountaineer. Robert says that he doesn’t climb mountains any more but still likes to get up here and hike. He gives me tips about handling switchbacks in the wind. We chat for a while about hiking, backpacking, and staying warm and comfortable with a light pack. All agree that it’s pure desire that keeps us coming back to the mountains month after month, year after year.