#5 Pacer’s 2022 CDT Thru-Hike: Gunnison, CO to Monarch Pass, CO

This is update #5.
Chris “Pacer” Ford is attempting to thru-hike the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) when he began on April 30, 2022. He will keep us updated every week or two with the progress of his adventure with stories and photos from the trail. Follow along with us… get automatic updates by subscribing to this blog.

June 2, 2022

1,067.2 of 3,100 miles…34% complete…just 1% gain since last update.  

A Big Replan: 

Only 52 miles covered since leaving Gunnison, and we’ve made the decision to flip north of the Great Basin in Wyoming. Let It Rip and I will hike south to let Colorado melt a bit more…full explanation below.  😄

Trail Names:

Martin, Grasshopper, Heater, Big Green, John Boy.  We passed all these hikers at/before Monarch Pass.  

Headed for Monarch Pass:

Over night in Gunnison, the last of the bad weather blew through. We decided to head back up to the CDT early afternoon just to make sure the weather stabilized. Hwy 50, and then Hwy 114 would take us back to the point we stopped a couple days before. After a quick lunch at Taco Bell (Yes I Did), we started walking to the edge of town with our thumbs out. Before making it to the town’s edge, a couple pulled over and gave us a ride up to Hwy 114. About 10 minutes later, we caught the second hitch about 32 miles up to the CDT. The sky was clear and sunny, but cold as we bounced up and down around 11,500 feet. At this elevation, I was walking through a pine and spruce forest that smelled like Christmas. As expected, the overnight temperature was in the mid-20s.  I had gotten in the routine of putting my filter in my quilt overnight, then in my pocket during the morning so it wouldn’t freeze and crack…coldest morning of the hike so far…burrrr.

Earning some great views and memories.

Cold morning start, but we started with a big climb that warmed me up. By late morning, I was able to change out of colder hiking clothes…still just wearing my shorts in the cold mornings…of course! This day was a bit of a rollercoaster through more pine and spruce…up and down all day over shaded patches of snow pack. Micro spikes and ice axe never needed though. Our target for the end of the day was a shelter that sounded similar to an AT shelter…three walls and a bench where the 4th wall would be. Checking up at 29 miles would just leave seven miles to Monarch Pass, and over the last 7 miles to the pass, we were informed to expect a lot of snow pack that would slow us down. I was looking forward to the shelter, but when I arrived, I discovered it didn’t have a floor, and the ground was soaking wet. As the sun dipped below the trees, it got cold.  We set up tents on a flat ridge around some trees. Overnight, I started to hear water/snow hit my tent.  I looked outside the tent, and we were covered in a cloud. I would have much preferred snow; instead, it was a freezing mist. At 5:15 AM, I yelled over to Let It Rip to see if she wanted to wait until 6:00 to see if the mist would lift. We both agreed to sleep another hour.  

By 6:00 I think it actually got worse. More time allowed more ice to build on our tents. A stiff misty wind built rime ice on all the trees, grass, rocks and our tents. As we packed up, ice built on my pack, hat, glasses, hiking pole…anything that couldn’t build up heat. 

Ice stuck to everything on the way to Monarch Pass.

I should say that I actually put on my wind pants…first day I had pants on.  Also, my first day with a rain jacket and shell gloves too. The snow pack started as predicted so we went ahead and put on the micro spikes. At least it was frozen so we could stay on top of it without post-holing. We came across an 8-10 foot ledge of snow in a clearing just outside the tree line. The snow stacked up high…no way around it either.  Steep angle, exposed long fall potential once we got on top of the ledge…time to pull out the ice axes. I couldn’t find any evidence that anyone had climbed this yet, but I’m sure others had been here.  I took my time to kick steps up the face of the ledge at an angle. Once on top, I was glad I had my ice axe…about 200 feet below me, the mountain side dropped out of sight.  I think it just crowned over. Who knows how far it dropped? Once Let It Rip got above the ledge, we worked our way across the traverse with our axe on the high side…easy peasy. Sounds a little scary, but we both commented how fun it was to work across this section.  I was expecting 7 miles of tough snow pack, but the last 5 miles were mainly clear trail…still had that darn freezing mist though. There’s an incredibly well stocked general store at Monarch Pass. They have a corner set aside for hikers to stow packs and such. I got two breakfast sandwiches and a coffee…time to warm up and dry out. Great break!

The sun finally baked off the cloud we were in. We both tried to dry our tents off in the sun, but it just wasn’t warm enough yet. I got my resupply box Cookie Jar mailed me, and reset my food bag. I ordered a couple chili dogs before I headed back out. Let It Rip was already stuffed, so she headed back to the Trail ahead of me. We were headed to 12,600 feet, the highest elevation of the trip so far. We wondered what 1,000 feet higher would look like. See Trail Tale below for the details.  😝

Trail Tale:

With two chili dogs on board, I crossed the highway and started the climb. In the shady spots, I bumbled up and over snow pack…usually post-holing as my weight pushed through the packed snow in the afternoon. I worked my way to the top and to the edge of the ski slopes.  Above 12,000 feet, and I was consistently on snow pack and some of the fresh snow from a week earlier. And ugh, yes there was more post-holing. From the top of the ski area, I had a 360 degree view of all the snow covered mountains and some of them were below me. What a fantastic view. The southern mountain faces were fairly melted, but the northern faces looked ominous with loads of snow. There were two peaks at 12,600 feet…high above tree line. The first one was perfectly clear in the southern facing sun. As I hiked around the side of the mountain, I came across a very steep, exposed snow pack traverse. Up and down the mountain…nothing but rock.  I decided to climb 100 feet above the snow pack on the rock. It was sketchy because the rock would routinely shift under my weight…a fall would hurt.  

Focusing on my footwork, I heard Let It Rip shout, “Pacer, we have a BIG PROBLEM!!!” I already felt sunk, hearing her voice. I worked my way down off the rock as she headed towards me. We sat in the rocks to discuss. She recorded a video to show me the problem…it was right at the second 12,600 high point, right at the edge of a steep descent.  When I say steep, I’m talking 1,200 feet/mile for half a mile…with no snow.  Yes, 600 feet straight down! The mountain side we walked around was horseshoe shaped. On our side of the mountain, there was a mountain side to walk on. The other side (where the Trail descended) was nothing but straight down like the edge of a volcano…switchbacks to the bottom. Earlier while I had views of the rim, I could see lakes and ponds in the center below. I also noticed  the entire rim’s edge had a continuous cornice built up with the snow from a storm a week earlier. When the wind blows over a peak, it build snow on the downwind edge of peaks…loose snow builds into an unstable cornice that overhangs. A cornice had been a concern of mine for a long time. From above, they can cause avalanches; or in this case, I might not see it and fall through/off it if I don’t know it’s there. In the video, it showed the trail disappear over edge completely covered in snow. There were no footsteps anywhere in the snow. She recorded left, right, 360 degrees. If anyone had gotten down the steep descent, it was before the last snow. I froze the video at the point where the Trail disappeared. The snow jutted out about 10 feet and leaned over just hanging to the mountain…who knows how much more snow was out there? I could only imagine how straight down that cliff of snow would look. Of course, we didn’t step a single foot on that snow. This spot was on the southern side, so snow covered below to the left too…very large exposed fall. The call was easy, but hard to accept: 1) No safe way ahead could be found; 2) Cottonwood Pass was less than 40 miles away, and it was just plowed the weekend before…snow along the highway there was still 6 feet high (that’s the low point of that mountain passsge); and 3) the further north we go, elevations increase and so did the snow totals from the storm…west of Denver got 30 inches a week earlier.

The Trail wrapped around this mountain and led to the far right side in the mist where the most snow is visible. See the cornices all around the edge? Spooky stuff when you’re trying to figure a way down!

Doomed at the finality of where we were, we had made it a little over 7 miles from Monarch Pass to this decision point. We turned around and hustled back to the pass by 6:00 PM. From atop the ski area I called Cookie Jar with our predicament. She was glad we were safe and happy with our decision. Luckily, the first time we put out our thumb, we caught a ride, and they were passing through Buena Vista where Let It Rip had a Trail Angel from her 2020 Colorado Trail hike. I got a hotel room to reset and her Trail Angel picked her up after dinner.  

A flip was the most obvious choice. Reroutes at lower elevations would end up being road walks, and we’d miss so much of the high elevation beauty. I really wanted to see the Collegiates. Where to flip seemed pretty easy. Flip north of Wyoming’s Great Basin…120 miles of nothing…not a single tree. In the Basin, water doesn’t drain to the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans. When there is water, it pools in this low point. During the summer, it’s brutally hot and waterless. Flipping north of it, we might still have water in the Basin, and as we hiked south, Colorado would continue to melt. In total, we would hike south about 420 miles before we were in consistent high elevations again…hopefully that would be enough time for melting. I was close to the area where Jim, a long, long time friend of mine planned to come over to meet me. He and I got into all kinds of mischief back in the day. Cookie Jar said he had sent me an email to try to sync up where we could meet. Jim agreed to shuttle us to Wyoming…looking so forward to seeing Jim…it has been too long. The afternoon of June 3rd, Let It Rip and I will be somewhere on the northern side of the Great Basin.  

Until Next Time (and hopefully a few hundred miles further south),



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