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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

Devils Thumb Trail

August 5th, 2008 · 5 Comments

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After I fell down the glacier twice, I gave up.

It’s not a big glacier. It probably doesn’t even have a name, like the Arapaho Glacier that I hiked up to a week ago. But it’s covered with ice all year long. And no way around it was any less hazardous.

On Tuesday, August 5, I wanted to celebrate my 73rd birthday by doing something I love. Hiking. My resistance training classes that I take on Tuesdays and Thursdays were cancelled this week, making a multi-day hike possible.

So I planned a three-day backpacking trip in the Indian Peaks Wilderness up the Devils Thumb Trail, then along the crest of the Continental Divide on the High Lonesome Trail, and back down the King Lake Trail for a total about about 17 miles. I didn’t make it.

At the end of the Devils Thumb Trail right at the top of the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet I encountered a glacier. There was no way around it that was less hazardous. I had a type of crampons called Yaktrax and trekking poles with me, so I attempted to climb about 50 feet over the ice.

But about 10 feet up I slipped and fell down to the rocks below. Still, I tried one more time, being even more careful this time. I made it up 15 feet before falling to the rocks again.

Fortunately, nothing broke. I only suffered four little cuts on my right leg and consider myself lucky. But I decided that I couldn’t make it through without risking my life. After bandaging my wounds and photographing my nemesis, I reluctantly turned around.

My Nemesis, the Glacier where I Fell and Turned Around

My Nemesis, the Glacier where I Fell and Turned Around

My two-day backpack took me 15 miles. It took 11 hours on the trail on my birthday to Devils Thumb Lake, where I found one of the nicest campsites ever. It was level and with no signs that humans had been there before. Just below treeline at 11,145 feet, it was sheltered by pines and spruce trees but with a view of the lake and the Devils Thumb. It was the highest elevation at which I have ever spent the night.

Devils Thumb and Devils Thumb Lake at First Light Yesterday from My Campsite

Devils Thumb and Devils Thumb Lake at First Light Yesterday from My Campsite

Yesterday I climbed another steep mile up to within a few feet of the Continental Divide, where I encountered the glacier. Turning around at that point, I retreated to the place I had camped the night before, where I enjoyed a hot meal and a couple more cups of coffee before hiking back down for a total of 12 hours on the trail yesterday.

Yes. 23 hours of hiking for 15 miles is even much slower than my usual pace. I had to stop about every hour both up and down the trail, which was steep, rocky, and often muddy. I climbed almost 3,000 feet, a personal best. But the big difference was the weight I had to carry in my backpack.

It weighted 39 pounds loaded with my tent, air mattress, sleeping bag, kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. I pared it down to the essentials and in fact needed everything except some clothes and food for the third day plus some small emergency items (like a compass, headlamp, and whistle).

Strange to think how 39 pounds can make such a big difference. A few years ago I was carrying 160 pounds more all the time.

I had read that I would need crampons at the glacier, but it had not been a concern of mine, because I never imagined that it would be so steep. What had really concerned me ahead of time was the hours that I would be hiking on the High Lonesome Trail on the Continental Divide and its approaches. Beyond Devils Thumb Lake I was above treeline, an unsafe place to be in afternoon thunderstorms.

In fact, on my birthday a violent thunderstorm caught me for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Since August is the wettest month in the Rockies, it came as no surprise. Lightening was striking as close as a mile away, but since I was in the woods, I knew I was safe. My parka protected me from the heavy rain, except for my trouser legs, which dried overnight. But then the hail started, and it struck so hard that it stung my hands.

And yesterday the thunderstorm started earlier, about 1:30 p.m. While it didn’t hail, the early lightening would have been perilous above treeline. So it was a good thing I didn’t continue.

The impossibility of climbing up the glacier was my only unpleasant surprise. And because of it, I didn’t have to face my feat of lightening on the High Lonesome Trail.

I had also some concern about whether my shoulders could carry the weight. It was a pleasant surprise that they could. Still, today they ache, but no worse than my legs.

Today I am stiffer after a hike than I have been for more than 30 years. That was when I backpacked down from Haleakala Crater in Maui, another two-day hike. It was a little longer, but that hike was all downhill. I was much stiffer then, because I am in better shape now.

After such a strenuous hike, you might think that I would lose weight. Quite the contrary. I’m up from 152 to 154 pounds this morning. I ate freely yesterday on the trail, not for hunger, of which I had none. But for energy to make it back because I was so weary.

Before I set forth, I not only considered my fears but also my positive feelings. I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted the freedom and independence of being alone in the wilderness. I wanted to see and photograph the beauty there.

Cycling champion Lance Armstrong says, “It’s not about the bike.” Likewise, I say it’s not about the hike. It’s the experience.

As planned, my trip was challenging. It was probably my most difficult birthday since the day I was born, which was certainly harder. At least I didn’t cry on my 73rd birthday. While I had to push myself hard on this trip, it was a wonderful adventure.

And, of course, I took a lot of pictures. Eighty of them. Here are a few pictures of flowers that I particularly like and a couple more landscapes.

A Study in Yellow and Black

A Study in Yellow and Black

A Few Elephantheads

A Few Elephantheads

Some Monkshoods

Some Monkshoods

A Mariposa Lily

A Mariposa Lily

My Gear as I Entered the Wilderness on my Birthday

My Gear as I Entered the Wilderness on my Birthday

Jasper Lake, 10,800 feet and One Trail Mile Below Devils Thumb Lake

Jasper Lake, 10,800 feet and One Trail Mile Below Devils Thumb Lake


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Posted in: Backpacking

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Pat // Nov 19, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    Cool report! I did the EXACT thing you did one week before you – the loop up to the divide, then down via King’s Lake. We camped next to Devil’s Thumb Lake, then the next day, tried to get up to the High Lonesome trail. I tried to walk up the snow field without crampons, and decided it was too risky, so we turned around and hiked back to the trailhead. fyi – while camped by the lake, I spoke to a couple hikers that came down from the pass. They were able to negotiate the snow, somehow.

  • 2 David Mendosa // Nov 19, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    Dear Pat,

    Fascinating coincidence! Thanks for sharing your story. You were wise not to attempt to cross the snow and ice. I was awfully lucky that I didn’t break any bones or worse when I fell down it twice.

    I can’t find the reference now, but someplace I read in the meanwhile that the route does not have to cross that difficult place. It is to the south, apparently. I know that I searched for a route there and couldn’t find it. But maybe next year you or I will be able to get up to the High Lonesome Trail that way. Good luck!


  • 3 Andrew // Nov 29, 2008 at 5:18 pm


    what a great trip report. I just hiked a portion of the Devil’s Thumb trail and went up to Lost Lake earlier today. I have been wanting to do an overnight backpacking trip but am unsure exactly where to go and have had fears of bears etc. This sounds like an excellent trip to try and you have given me a new motivation. I just need to wait until next Spring, lots of snow today. I am sure the experience is well worth any unrational fears and I am glad to see that you still enjoy enjoying Colorado to its fullest.

  • 4 Baseball Regulation // Feb 4, 2009 at 1:00 am

    You fell? You’d better be careful next time. =) My friend had an injured knee due to a fall while playing baseball. Now we lost a player :(

  • 5 Diana // Sep 9, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    Really enjoyed this report and pictures. Reinforces why I hope to retire here in Colorado!