Up until a year ago, I had never even heard of Conundrum Hot Springs, but once it showed up on my radar, I knew we were meant to be. The best thing about these hot springs is that they are still wild. What I mean by that is that they haven’t been boxed up and commercialized like so many others around Colorado. No, in order to experience Conundrum Hot Springs, one must hike close to 10 miles one way, cross several “bridges” with high water rushing under them and ford at least one river. It is not for everyone and that is precisely why I loved the idea of doing it.
I knew that once we made it to this beautiful place, the solitude and views would make it worth the effort. The allure of being completely isolated and surrounded by mountains and nature had become my favorite addiction since moving back to my birth state. When I first imagined myself hiking to this glorious place, I did not consider any of the real life challenges that I might experience, I just knew that I had to do it. I knew the distance was something I could manage, and the elevation gain was within my reach, but I forgot that starting a hike at 8,800 feet elevation is much different than ending one at that height. I also didn’t consider the challenge of being loaded down with food, clothes, camping gear and snowshoes.
With so many mountains and trails to hike in Colorado, I had put this one on the back burner until a friend of mine got a coveted reservation and asked if I would hike it with her at the end of May. I naively jumped at the opportunity without hesitation. By the time our reservation date was on the horizon, I had already hiked over 40 miles for the month and my achilles tendons were thoroughly pissed off. I had been battling severe achilles tendonitis for over a year, and had finally figured out a way to alleviate the pain through lots of stretching, trigger point work and proper gait. I just hoped that I could maintain this balance after an already full month of hiking.
Our reservation was for Thursday, May 27 so we decided to go up the night before in order to get a good night’s sleep and an early start the next morning. We packed and unpacked our backpacks, attempting to keep the final weight under 30 pounds. The snowshoes seemed like an unnecessary burden, especially when we woke to bluebird skies and no snow in sight. We arrived at the trailhead just as the sun was beginning to light up the sky. There were only three vehicles in the lot and that included my friend’s Jeep. Where were the crowds I wondered silently. If you arrive to a trailhead in the Boulder area at 6:30am, you are lucky to find a parking space. I shrugged it off and we heaved our packs onto our backs and began our adventure. To my dismay, we barely rounded the corner when we hit the first pile of dead pine and aspen trees blocking our path. Undeterred, we gingerly walked through them and marched on.
The aspen were just starting to show the bright green of new leaves and were waving with excitement in the light breeze. A young moose hidden in their trunks stared silently at us as we walked by, a healthy distance from where he stood. We had read that the snow drifts would be bad further up the trail, but aside from giant piles of avalanche debris on our path, the trail and weather helped us forget what lay ahead. It was shocking to see so many rivers of broken trees laid low like dominos on the mountain tops around us. I tried not to think about the unleashed power that caused them.
This was my first backcamping trip since having a partial meniscectomy on my left knee the previous July. My knee had healed beautifully, but having that extra weight strapped to my back made me feel completely unbalanced. When we came to the first of three big river crossings, I was totally unprepared for the fear that washed over me. I felt a ball of anxiety form in the pit of my stomach. The bridge, if you want to call it that, was pretty high, had no rails and consisted of nothing more than two fat logs. It was hard to ignore the water crashing loudly underneath it. While my friend made it halfway across and then laid on her belly superman style for a photo op, I took little bitty granny steps and just tried not to look down. Just thinking about it makes my stomach lurch. We had to cross at least two more like this and they didn’t get any easier with repetition.
As we got further along, it became necessary to strap on the snowshoes for a bit, but then we would hit another avalanche pile and have to take them off again. It became clear that the snowshoes, though necessary, were going to really slow us down. They were also using muscles I hadn’t used in over a year and my hips kept cramping up. Between this and the increasing slushy and slippery snow, our pace dropped steadily. We started to leave the open trail behind and walked deeper into the forest where the snow was piled up in drifts over five feet high. The sunny day had created drifts that were crunchy on top and slushy underneath, the perfect recipe for post-holing.
It is hard to explain just how mentally draining it is to take one trusting step on the snow with success and then to take another step and fall up to your knees in it. Snowshoes are supposed to prevent this, but they didn’t. I started to worry about how this would impact my freshly healed knee. It was very jarring. Every step was different and held uncertainty. Sometimes I would fall onto my hands and knees into a soft spot on the snow; other times, I would fall completely backward like a stranded turtle. About every third fall, I would feel it in my knee. The thought of having to have another surgery or suffer another knee injury had my stomach in knots. I felt like I was going to throw up any minute.
As we slowly made our way through the snow and trees the dread increased. It was as if time had stopped. We kept struggling our way forward, but we weren’t making any real progress. We got to a low river crossing with a single, thin tree in place that didn’t quite reach the other side. This was to be the last big crossing, but by this point, we were physically and emotionally exhausted. Our hiking speed was down to half a mile per hour and we still had several miles to go. There was no way we could cross the river without walking in the ice cold water and getting our feet soaked. We sat on the river bank and considered our options. My friend offered the possibility of turning around and going back. I quickly rejected this option and started crying like a cranky infant. I didn’t know how we were going to have the energy to keep going, but I knew we hadn’t come that far to tuck tail and turn around, at least not on my watch!
For the trip across the cold river, I kept my snowshoes on and dug my trekking poles into the slippery rocks. Once we made it across the river, I kept thinking to myself, “it’s gonna get better; it has to get easier soon”. My friend was of another mindset altogether and her realism about our situation seemed dire. It felt like I was fighting both the elements and her perceived negativity. The forest eclipsed the sun so it seemed later than it actually was. Every so often, my friend would comment on the dangers that we were facing if we didn’t arrive soon. She really started to scare me as she spun a picture of doom that included us freezing to death before we made it to our campsite. I was annoyed but too tired to argue with her. I had to pause after every few steps to rest and it felt like a luxury we could not afford. We were cold, weak and uncomfortably numb.
Eventually, we came across a sign that said the the first campsites were up ahead of us, yet when we reached them, site after site was completely buried under snow. My friend was hiking a little ways ahead of me and would call back every so often that we were getting closer. I couldn’t really hear what she was saying. I was lost in the sound and sloshing rhythm of my snowshoes scraping the snow. The next time I heard her calling to me, there was something new in the sound of her voice. She sounded hopeful, and that gave me a fresh burst of energy. A few more steps and as I turned a corner, the snow was gone. It was like stepping into some sort of garden of Eden. Everywhere I looked was dark brown dirt with bright yellow flowers popping out of it. I was awe-struck. I took off my snowshoes, walked past an abandoned wooden shack and then the springs came into view. Actually, I saw two tents first, and then two men lounging in the springs.
The first clear spot I saw, I dropped anchor. As the reality sunk in that we had just hiked for 10 straight hours through the most rugged and challenging conditions of my life, I started sobbing loudly in relief. I didn’t even care that it wasn’t at our official campsite. I was not about to budge. My friend walked over to the hot springs and spoke to the two men there. I’m not actually sure what they talked about, but the bottom line was that they were friendly and they did not care where we camped.
As soon as we set up camp and laid all our wet things in the sun to dry, we got into the hot springs. The other campers had graciously allowed us to have them to ourselves and it was such a treat. As I stepped gingerly into the warm water the stress of the day dispersed and my body finally relaxed. The water was so clear! I was enchanted with all the bright green and turquoise rocks. It wasn’t deep so I walked along the sandy bottom with my hands as my legs floated out behind me. There were little bubbles streaming up out of the ground in several spots, and that’s where we found the hottest water. To say the view from the springs was spectacular does not do it justice. Looking out over the horizon the rugged trail looked benign. There was no indication of the challenges we had just traversed. None of that mattered anymore though. All I wanted was to savor the bliss, the silence and beauty and let the heat and healing sink into every cell in my body. That is when the speed of time resumed.
Before the sun went behind the mountain, my friend got out to cook her dinner. I lingered and allowed the buoyant water hold me up. I was also topless, but there was no fear or shame because we were utterly alone. It was both liberating and strange all at once. With some prodding from my friend, I reluctantly got out of the water, and started to prepare my own dinner. Even the healing waters of the springs couldn’t undo all the stress in my belly, so I nibbled at my food and finally gave up. I could not find the energy or desire to eat. Once the sun went behind the mountains, we crawled into the tent and let go of everything but sleep.
As is my usual custom, I woke up at 2 a.m. and had to pee. It was really, really cold, but my bladder was not about to let me sleep through the night. As I got out of the tent, the full moon was shining over head. I grabbed my phone, took a few photos and crawled back into my warm sleeping bag. How I wish I had allowed myself to walk the few feet to the hot springs and get in. How amazing it would have been to soak naked under the full moon in the dark silence of the night.
The next morning, it was literally freezing. My wet shoes and shoelaces had frozen solid. I made a mental note to untie wet laces before going to sleep in freezing temps for any future trips. Looking back, I realize I could have just put them in the springs to melt the ice. Not sure why I didn’t think of that until now. Clearly the previous day’s events had zapped my brain cells more than I thought. I could feel a sense of deep dread at the prospect of going back through the snow in snowshoes. My entire body ached. There was no point in hoping for a luxuriously slow morning and a second swim in the heated springs. The cold weather had frozen the slushy snow from the day before, but the untethered sun was already shining and we had precious little time to hike back over the snow before it melted again. We were packed and on our way back down the mountain by 7:30 with barely a wave goodbye to the mystical springs.
The hike back became a moving meditation. I started chanting a mantra to the Hindu god Ganesh, the remover of obstacles. It seemed completely appropriate, and it helped clear my mind. Om Gam Ganapati Namaha. Om Gam Ganapati Namaha. On and on I chanted it, sometimes out loud, sometimes silently. It worked. My achilles never started to hurt and we made it through the snowy forest without the snowshoes. Leaving early proved to be the correct choice.
By this point, we still had seven more miles of solid hiking ahead and the fatigue from the previous day returned. I started thinking of different songs to occupy my mind. It became a sort of game. There was Steady As She Goes, by the Raconteurs, then “Just keep hiking, just keep hiking” a la Dory style from the Disney film Finding Nemo. I knew one verse of “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes”, but my friend knew all of them. I swear if anyone had heard us as we headed back down the mountain, they would have thought we were completely mental. We did in fact, finally start running into people heading up. We tried to warn them about what lay ahead, but they, like us, were on a mission and our warnings went unheeded.
We got to the river that almost derailed us the day before and discovered that the snow melt had washed away the thin tree that had been our partial bridge. There was really no choice but to get really comfortable with cold, wet feet again. I didn’t really care because my shoes were still wet from the night before. The water current was strong, but I dug in with my trekking poles and finally made it across. When we emerged from the trees, the sun was beating down on us and the piles of avalanche debris was even harder the second time because we knew they coming. Everything looked so different on the way back. It didn’t even seem like the same trail in some places. We were putting mile after mile between us and the springs when we rounded a familiar looking corner. I was expecting to see the original pile of debris, but to my surprise, a path had recently been cut through it with fresh chain saw marks on the tree trunks flanking us.
As soon as we got to the trailhead sign, we turned off our trackers. We had hiked a total of 20 miles and 2,848 feet of elevation gain. The unexpected detours we made over the debris piles had added to our total. Even though we started an hour later and didn’t have to use our snowshoes, it took the majority of the day to hike back. This was extreme hiking. In fact, it was gut-wrenching, anxiety-fueled hiking, and it was simultaneously the best and worst hike of my entire life.
I wanted to write about this sooner, but it has really taken me months to process it. When something big like this happens, it is easy to talk yourself out of your experience and downplay the hard stuff. Over the summer, I read other reviews from hikers who came after us. They were oblivious to the challenges that we faced because the trail had changed. It was no longer covered by dead trees and snow. It had completely reinvented itself.
Just as the trail changed, I felt changed. I didn’t notice it right away. The shift was subtle, but undeniable. It’s like John Muir once said, “and into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” Every hike and quest I complete helps me recover a part of myself and my soul that was suppressed somewhere along the way. And once I return home, I have to decide which pieces to keep and which to release because “returning home is the most difficult part of long-distant hiking. You have grown outside the puzzle and your piece no longer fits.” (Cindy Ross, author and triple crown hiker) The puzzle pieces of my old life are being replaced with new ones colored by every post hole, injury, sunrise and scent of warmed pines, and I can’t wait to see each new piece.