A HAPPY RETURN
The Great Outdoors|February 2020
For more than 30 years, Chris Townsend dreamed about doing a long walk through the high reaches of the Colorado Was it everything he hoped for?
Chris Townsend

RETURNING TO A PLACE you’ve dreamed about for years has risks. Maybe it won’t be as wonderful as you imagined. Returning for a long walk could be even more disappointing; if your expectations aren’t fulfilled day after day, you may end up spending the entire trip with a feeling of anticlimax.

I knew this might be the case when I finally went back to Colorado to walk 400 miles (644 kilometres) along the Rocky Mountains. It was thirty-four years since I had traversed the state during my Canada to Mexico Continental Divide Trail (CDT) hike. On that walk, winter had come early, and deep snow and blizzards had forced me down to a lower route for the southern half of the trail in Colorado. I’d been in forest most of the time and hadn’t had more than glimpses of the mountains. Now I was going back to tackle the high route I’d missed, and experience what many say is the finest landscape on the whole of the CDT.

The Colorado Rockies are high – in fact, they are the highest in the whole 1900 mile (3000 kilometre) length of the Rocky Mountain chain, which stretches from British Columbia in Canada to New Mexico in the United States. I would be above 10,000 feet (3048 metres) most of the way.

Eager to be up in the mountains as soon as possible, I chose the ski resort of Copper Mountain as my start point. This was a mistake. Copper Mountain lies at 9800 feet (2987 metres) and the trail climbs to over 12,000 feet (3657 feet) in the first 10 miles. I soon felt the altitude and could only walk at half my usual pace.

THE HIGH COUNTRY

I didn’t mind. I was in the company of two friends – Andrew Terrill and Igloo Ed – and happy to climb slowly and camp early. The landscape was lush and lovely with beaver ponds along the creek, luxurious flower meadows, and magnificent conifer forests. I relished every step. It would be many days though before I was somewhat acclimatised to the altitude, and for the whole walk I was slower on ascents than I am at home.

The second day we climbed above the trees and the world opened up, with alpine tundra stretching to rugged mountains in every direction. This was to be the pattern for the walk – climb through forests to high mountain passes, traverse the high country, then descend back into the trees. Sometimes the trail would barely brush the forest before returning to the high country, but there was always much climbing every day.

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