July 23, 2003
Three of us decided to ride the Rainbow Trail last month. We started out at the Horn Creek trailhead, about 10 miles south of Westcliffe, elevation about 9,000 feet, with our desination being Hermit Creek Road some 12 miles away as the crow flies. It was a gorgeous day, sunny and about 68 degrees when we left at 10 a.m. I was amazed at how rocky the trail was. You could not get any kind of momentum going, and it seemed we were pushing the bikes more than riding them. We got to Camp Alvarado around 12:30, where we were told we were about "halfway" to our destination. Not even close. After we ate lunch we began an over 1,000 feet elevation climb, and the terrain was getting worse and worse. Yes, the scenery was spectacular, but the stones became rocks which became boulders; that, combined with the intense elevation gain, really began to slow us down.
It got worse. At about 1 it start to cloud over, about 1:20 it started to rain, and in 10 minutes we were in the middle of the biggest storm I have ever been in. Temperatures dropped to 42 degrees (my Sieko watch has a built-in thermometer and altimeter) and the rain turned to hail, then sleet and hail, and it was non-stop lightening and thunder, and it kept up for hours. We stayed huddled under a tree until 2 p.m., at which time we realized that, soaking wet and shivering, we either had to get off the mountain or die of hypothermia. Thus began are almost 3 hour journey off the mountain. We kept following the trail north, thinking that it would start to descend, but the elevation kept rising: 9200 feet, 9300 feet, finally 9400 feet. The trail was now a raging torrent of water and floating hail - you couldn't even see the ground underneath you. It wasn't until around 4:30 that we reached Hermit Road, which was in fact as badly rutted and rocky as the Rainbow Trail, only wider. We began our slow decent downward; I encouraged my mates to bike down as fast as we could, but one of them was a girl, and she was so shook up by now that she was afraid to ride and just jogged along, pushing her bike. I kept cajoling her along, trying to encourage her and yet also telling her that if we didn't get down soon, we could all end up freezing to death. By the time she took my advice and began navigating through the thick ice and flowing, freezing water, I found myself starting to shut down. I couldn't feel my feet, then I couldn't feel my hands, couldn't work the brakes. I started going slower and slower until I was barely moving at all. My friends road back up hill to get along side me and encouage me. I was so could, I just wanted to drop my bike and crawl up into a ball and lay down. It seemed like we were never going to get down.
Then something strange occured; about 4:50 p.m., it got quiet: it took me a moment or two before it dawned on me what was happening: it had stopped thundering! I realized that from the moment it began to storm, there was either a fresh lightening strike and resultant thunder, or the rolling echo of a distant thunder, or both, for more than 3 straight hours! The quiet lasted less than 30 seconds before a new lightening strike continued the thunderous assault on our senses.
Well, we got down to the paved road that led to Westcliffe, the hail had turned to rain, and we were safe, albeit soaking wet and shivering uncontrollably. It would be almost another hour before we could stip our soaking clothes off and take a life-saving hot shower.
Needless to say, that is one trail I never plan to ride again.