Gap, Rock: Gloomy Gray to Gold in the Sawatch

Written by: Russell, Nick, & Annika

The authors showing off their backcountry cuisine

We woke up to gloom and grey. We’d camped at South Willow Stream the night before, on the flanks of Mount Massive. After cooking breakfast in the rain, we started out on our longest day of hiking yet: 6 miles through the hail and rain. The showers of rain, sleet, and hail tapered off in mid morning, and we made good time towards our Lily Ponds camp, at the foot of Mount Elbert. By the time we had stopped for our decadent trail lunch, feasting on crushed protein bars, bagged chicken, and pepperoni, the sun finally made an appearance. How we missed the warmth!

The miles dragged on and the pine trees started to blur together. We noticed more and more quaking aspens surrounding the trail. Suddenly, we turned a corner and were dazzled by row upon row of golden aspens, stretching as far as the eye could see. The dappled sunlight lit up a layer of thousands of yellow leaves, blanketing the ground. Quivering leaves floated on the breeze across the path. As tired and hungry as we were, it seemed like we’d entered paradise. As we left this golden corridor, we came upon a hillside, covered with aspens in greens, yellows, and oranges, with a backdrop of a snowy flank of Mt. Elbert.

The Colorado Trail through the golden aspen forest

Just a short half mile and a precarious stream crossing later, we had made it to Lily Ponds, our camp for the next 2 days. After setting up our mids (a cross between a tarp and a tent) to sleep in, we settled in to chef up our 5-star meals. A cultural immersion, from backcountry pizza (from scratch!), ramen veggie soup, and fly curry (you don’t wanna know). We even made homemade cinnamon rolls for dessert! Hearts and stomachs full; we danced amid a string of solar powered lights, as we Pumped Up the Jams. After a quick community meeting, we snuggled into our warm sleeping bags, blissfully unaware of the bucktoothed terrors that lurked in the dark.

Tasty backcountry cinnamon rolls!

You see, while the lakes we were camped next to were called the Lily Ponds, they were in fact a system of beaver ponds, as we could see by the intense terracing, the beaver lodges, and the felled trees. Little did we know that beavers have a deep and overpowering love of tortillas, trail mix, tuna, and even milk powder. As if the dragged and torn bags weren’t enough, they even ripped a few pages out of the recipe book. Maybe they just really wanted to make Stir Fry….

While the missing food and messy campsite were a rude awakening the next morning, all of the cook groups mixed, swapped, and bartered around our food so that we could all make breakfast. Our camp sounded like a crowded auction house: “We’ve got oats, does anyone want to trade us some pepperoni?” “I could do 2 bagels for 3 tortillas!” “Does anybody have any peanut butter?” In conjunction with an abundant amount of creativity, this allowed for the continuation of our five star menu as we hiked towards our re-ration at Monitor Rock.

While this encounter was certainly unexpected and a bit of a stumbling block, knowing that we all had each other’s backs — whether that meant sharing food, cooking for one another, or promising to fight the beavers — helped us push through to the end of our backpacking trip. While we won’t miss packing our bags each morning, carrying 45 or 50 lbs, or a long day on the trail in the rain, we’ll all miss the solitude, the camaraderie, and the beautiful backdrop of the Sawatch Range on this trip. Here’s to more adventures (and less beavers) as we transition into climbing in Rifle.

The string lights dance party