Having never [intentionally] been winter camping before and my ski pass not yet activated, I decided to hike head-on into an ‘early’ season ‘storm.’
In keeping with my new side-quest to explore Colorado’s various Hot Springs, I headed for Conundrum Hot Springs.
Crossing over Independence Pass 45 minutes before the road closed for the season I felt proud, knowing I’ve done a decent job of maximizing on this hiking season. What I did not think about was that road-trip revelries had eaten most of the day. Clouds were thick and moving fast and the winter evening moved even faster. Suddenly feeling rushed, I hustled through Aspen, not even stopping to eat.
A common destination, the trail head was easy clearance and well marked. From the trail head sign it’s a quick skip into the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, then 8.5 miles up at a gentle grade. You can measure it between the 3 bridged creek crossings.
Personally I tried counting it in Beaver Dams but eventually lost track. Just at the second crossing I was admiring the dozens of tidily gnawed Aspen stumps and slide down to an impressively expansive dam when there was a commotion just ahead on the trail, where it bordered the dam’s pool.
The architect flopped into the icy water, swam a few laps and slapped his tail, telling me in no uncertain terms, to skedaddle.
Some gals coming down told of one other couple up there but by the cold dark hour I arrived that night, I had naught in me but to set up and pass out. Sometimes, hungry Fidgits don’t make the wisest choices. If you were me, you shoulda made something easy and warm to eat.
Don’t bother throwing temper tantrums against Mother nature. Or do. She won’t care either way.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the Hot Springs. Which apparently are quite the hot spot in the easy months.
I bedded down just as the snow kind of really started. Listening to it flishk onto the tent fly. Waiting for it to insulate this most precious dome of warmth and dryness.
Winter camping is just like normal camping; except everything is heavier and more demanding. For example, I was glad to have brought my -40 Alaska Guide sleeping bag…all 7 lbs of it. Or, at first your Gatorade is a perfect slushie, and all is well in the world. Then suddenly it’s this loathsome brick of ice shards and you’re thirsty and you have this beverage but you just can’t get at it. So you end up sticking your tongue in the bottle just to lick the sweet ice. Pitiful.
Everything quickly goes about the business of freezing. Water in your drinking bladder, camera-phone batteries, olive oil, toothpaste, your extremities, sticky frozen dirt cakes (should you be fool enough to put your backpack down), you get the picture.
Mind you, this being a popular destination, the locals are accustomed to certain privileges. By the middle of the next day, I was the only human up there and the LGB (little grey birds [camp robbers]) were perching everywhere and mouse snow tunnels came and went in all directions. On the rare occasion I left my tent, food was hung.
I ate well. Thanks to the awesome refrigeration power all around, I dared to bring up all sorts of ‘requires refrigeration’ goodies.
By the by, did you know eggs freeze? I didn’t. I just wanted to be cool like Chief Daddy and pack out eggs…
Having set up camp in the first sites I found the night before, it was about a .333 mile hike up to the springs which sit just at tree line.
Follow the only not frozen streams up to the billow of steam. The pool is large, probably 12×10. Below it is another much smaller pool (4 friendly people). Above it is another small pool, which may look cool but leave it be.
Having the entire pool to myself I sat in one spot for about 3 seconds before becoming bored. Went exploring and found where the bubbles come up out of the pebble sand. Not like the eggy smelling SUPER hot pools just off the beach in the Dominican Republic. Nor like the metal dyed pools high in the mountains in Chile.
After making a couple snow angels I settled until the water was placid. Only snowflakes fffissing onto the pool surface. Daytime lifted her skirts and began to turn tail around 3:30 pm. Taking advantage of a small break in the weather, I hustled back down to camp. Froze my mits (when winter camping: gloves are like socks- bring 2 pair. [Bring 3 pair of socks]) collecting water.
Broke camp in under 4.5 hours the next morning, strapped on my micro spikes and traipsed (I love long, gentle downhills) down through a vastly different landscape.
Where before there had been embarrassed and exposed dead plants, was now fields and turns of white.
The trail was mercifully easy to find thanks to a group of kids from CU who had come out with llamas late the night before and left before me the next morning. I was impressed by their excursion and vindicated to find it was mostly girls who were leading the llamas and coordinating.
Eventually passing their party (9 humans, 3 llamas, 6 skis [3 pair]) I again raced this interminably early darkness. Reaching Pickle, I quickly dropped pack, de-iced and got out and off the back-roads lickety-split.
Driving home, I was sated. Most happy knowing I don’t need to do that again for some time!
In Sum: When you can, go for a warm meal and a soft bed. But at the very least, you’ll need the warm meal.