Hike in to Conundrum

After my hike to Electric Peak, I was feeling pretty good about my conditioning-though strenuous, the exertion had not been to the redline. However, I hadn’t been carrying a full pack. Although I had practiced packing everything at home before departure, I had picked up a few items in Denver at the REI store before going to Aspen. Now, the night before the hike in to the base camp location, I was re-assessing my gear: Should I take the extra rope ? (yes). Do I have enough clothing? (Probably). Do I need gloves?-after all, it’s high summer (but you’re in the mountains, so take the gloves). Even with creative packing, I barely got it all stuffed in my backpack, and I staggered a bit as I tried it on. I estimate I was carrying between 30 and 35 lbs. Savoring my last meal in civilization, I went to sleep tired but content, as the smell of marijuana wafted through the hotel (after all, we’re in Colorado)

Trail into Conundrum Valley
Trail into Conundrum Valley

Early the next morning I drove to the trailhead, parked the car, and as I read the signage at the trailhead I realized the Forest Service had not left any “poop bags” in the bin. I didn’t know whether to be happy or sad about that, but off I went up the trail. The sky was gray, unlike the day before, and only a handful of other hikers were present. I soon settled into a rhythm, adjusting my pack as I went to minimize the load on my shoulders. Once an hour I stopped to take a break and get the pack off my back, eating a snack and stretching. There were a few steep stretches and some muddy spots. About halfway to the camp I had to ford swiftly flowing Conundrum Creek but I managed to find a series of shallow beds and previously placed logs that granted me access to the other side.

The trail went steadily up. It sprinkled but there was no steady rain. I met a few hikers coming down the trail and I actually passed a few going in my direction as well-that made me feel good about my fitness. Toward the end of the eight mile walk, I was feeling the combined effects of the previous day’s hike, the extra weight on my back, and the steadily increasing altitude.  I was really happy to finally see the signs delineating the campsites:

A schematic of the campsites available
A schematic of the campsites available

due to heavy use I could only pitch camp in one of the designated sites. It was a first come, first served system but since I was arriving on a Monday I figured there would be some room after the weekend crowd left. However, the last part of the trek was the steepest, and I was really breathing hard when I arrived at the hot springs. Searching through multiple campsites I finally found one open at #12 and plopped down to appreciate my accomplishment. I didn’t tarry long, though, since the sky looked threatening and I knew I needed to get the tent set up before my last energy reserves were depleted.  Mine was a new tent but it went up quickly and easily. As I spread out my sleeping pad and bag, the thunder cracked and the rain pounded on the tent-I snuggled into my bag and slept like a man who had hiked 17 miles at elevation in the last two days-boy did that feel good . . .

When you're warm and dry, the world is good
When you’re warm and dry, the world is good



Electric Pass

Looking for day hikes in the Aspen area, I stumbled across mention of Electric Pass.  It was billed as the “highest trail pass” in Colorado so that sounded like a significant goal for a flatlander like me. I loaded my backpack with some but not all of my backpacking gear, wanting to introduce my body to carrying a load at altitude. Thinking I might want a hot lunch, I packed my new backingpacking stove-an unsuspected trap as described below.

Topographic map detail
I bypassed the side trails to Leahy Peak and Cathedral Lake

I started on the trail about 7:30. One thing I learned: getting to the trailhead means traversing the Forest Service road off the pavement. They don’t maintain those babies for the likes of little Japanese econoboxes such as I had rented for the drive from the airport. By going very slowly I managed not to get stuck in the mud nor bang the undercarriage too hard in the potholes. After about half a mile I got to the beginning of the trail.

The day was fine, with blue sky and temperature in the 50s. Quickly I started breathing hard and before long I came out of my long sleeves and pants. There were no bugs at that point and only a few fellow hikers.  Pine Creek was roaring away on the left as I ascended. The climb was up and more up. Just before the turnoff to Cathedral Lake there were a series of steep switchbacks (see map annotation) and towards, but not at, the top I paused to rest under a tree. That was a mistake.  Well, actually the mistake was not paying attention to the topography. I pulled some water and a snack out of my pack. To do so, I removed my backpacking stove fuel canister and set it down next to me on the ground. As I shifted around, I nudged the canister into a gravity-encouraged inclination and off it bounced like a kangaroo rat let loose, traveling at least 100 feet downhill,  across the switchbacks, into thick brush somewhere below. After securing the rest of my stuff, I trudged back downhill to look for it but to no avail-I couldn’t peer into the dense undergrowth  nor spot it from above or below. Did I mention that was my only fuel canister? Or that it was Sunday and I didn’t know if there was a retail source for this brand in Aspen (I had purchased it in Denver the day before)?  Or that I wanted to start up the trail to my planned basecamp early the following morning?

Fuel canister is down there, somewhere . . .
Fuel canister is down there, somewhere . . .

This incident forced me to control my anxiety and accept the providential event at hand. Maybe I was planning just a little too much and not enjoying the experience. After all, if you can plan it, it’s not an adventure. I laughed at myself, put my pack back on, and kept going uphill.


Wildflower meadow on the way to Electric Peak
Wildflower meadow on the way to Electric Peak


There was a meadow south of the saddle between Electric and Leahy peaks. Here was the last green swatch below the rocks of the mountains above. And not only green, but red, blue, orange, white and all the other colors of the gorgeous wildflowers seen below.


Indistinct trail
Trail was a little indistinct here . . .

But there was more hiking to do. Towards the top I slowed to a crawl and after the vegetation diappeared, slowly stumbled across the loose rocks. There wasn’t much of a trail left at this point. Looking downhill I understood how potential injury was not far away if I slipped. Nonetheless I got to the Pass where there was a small notch in the ridge. The actual peak was another 200 foot scramble to the north-why not? Once there, the view beyond, looking east into Conundrum Valley, was stunning–see the photos below. Suddenly I had a deep sense of contentment at having achieved my goal.

At 13,600 feet, Electric Peak has a fine view.

Another view from Electric peak


I would estimate my average HR for the hike was about 130. Round-trip distance was about 10 miles. When I got back to Aspen that night, my legs were beat, but my spirit was high, especially after I found the outdoor store still open and my fuel canister in stock. This was my last chance for supplies: the next morning I was leaving for the trek to the basecamp at Conundrum Hot Springs.

Arriving in Aspen at Altitude


Pleasant pedestrian path in downtown Aspen
Pleasant pedestrian path in downtown Aspen

My first job was acclimatization; if I botched that I’d be miserable those first days at altitude. My plan was pharmacologic and calendar-based. Before leaving home, I started some acetazolamide. Then I flew into Denver and drove that evening to Aspen, about 7500 ft in elevation. Driving over Independence Pass was a bit nerve-wracking, mostly because of the crazy drivers behind me on the road trying to pass on single lane sections of the road with no visibility. To recover, I stopped at a bar named Justice Snow’s and savored an “Irish Proposal” concocted from Guiness Stout, chocolate, and raspberry liqueur. Ummm . . . After that I was feeling a lot better.

Back at the hotel, I made plans for the next day, a 9 mile hike to Electric Pass with a top elevation of 13, 600 feet. If my acclimatization was inadequate, I figured Electric Pass would let me know.

Backpacking trip to Colorado

The next series of posts will describe a trip I took this summer to Colorado, hiking and backpacking in the mountains south of Aspen. I flew into Denver with my gear, rented a car, and drove to Aspen. I stayed there two nights before backpacking into Conundrum Valley where the popular hot springs were to be a basecamp for the next four nights. My plan was to rendevous with my friend Mark from the men’s group at church. He’s an avid hiker and goes out West every summer for a two week soujourn. He convinced me to join him for this year’s edition, and I eagerly agreed.

I hadn’t been camping in years, nor backpacked in over 20. The principles haven’t changed, however: stay warm, stay dry, stay fed, and enjoy the fresh air. I even used some of the equipment I retained from years ago, lugged from house to house with the plaintive hope that I would get to use it again some day. Well, ‘someday’ finally arrived.

Why now? Well, why not? Mark had related the story of another aquaintance of his who had talked for years about doing a trip like this together. Then Mark’s acquaintance died. That motivated Mark to just start taking the trip. Talking and planning is fine, but sometime you gotta act. As Clint Eastwood put it “Let’s not go and ruin it by thinking too much.”

A new blog space

I haven’t updated my personal blog in a while. There were some problems, and I neglected it. Recently, I got motivated to restart. Who can understand these meanderings of motivation? Anyway, I decided to self-host the new blog and learn something about WordPress along the way.