Days 40-43: The High San Juans, Part One

June 29 – July 2, 765 miles hiked

After experiencing a bout of extreme unmotivation to hike, during which we sat on the trail a mile from the road for over two hours, we finally decided it was time to get moving. The next section was 120 miles through the high San Juan mountains: some of the highest, most remote, and most unforgiving terrain and weather yet, but also some of the most beautiful country we’d seen so far. We’d packed enough food for six days, so we needed to average at least 20 miles a day until Lake City, our next town. In a few days, the CDT would merge with the Colorado Trail, and they would be one and the same for the next few hundred miles.

The trail wound through the Weminuche Wilderness, and the scenery was beautiful. Alpine lakes were everywhere, always surrounded by mountains, and everything was green and fresh. We ran into Sass, Chipmunk, and Paperweight several times throughout the day, and it was so nice to have fellow thru-hikers to chat with. It started raining in the late afternoon as we climbed a pass, then cleared up as we crested the top. The trail then followed a ridge, as the CDT often does, and climbed and descended steeply. Around 8pm we started looking for a camping spot, and, realizing that the trail wouldn’t be dropping below 12,000 feet anytime soon, we settled on a flatish area along the ridge in the shelter of some shrubs.

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Exposed, green mountains and rocky trail. Many of the passes in this section looked like this.

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The trail stayed between 12,000 and 13,000 feet the next day, almost always following rocky, exposed ridges. It was usually flooded with snowmelt, sometimes becoming a small creek on the downhill sections, and the grassy plateaus had turned into lakes. Our feet were always wet. It was constant up and down, from one ridge to the next.

A note on pictures: my phone stopped working due to water damage between Pagosa Springs and Lake City, and was never able to be revived. 😦 So, I lost all the photos I took up to that point. We didn’t take very many pictures on Phil’s camera during this section, so I am using some of Sass’s photos (with her permission). Thanks Sass!!

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Photo credit: Sass

A storm brewed late in the afternoon, turning to rain and hail by evening. I had started to watch the sky and clouds constantly, trying to learn its patterns and guess when the rain would arrive. We continued on through the rain and got to a section called the Knife’s Edge by early evening, which was a quarter mile-long shelf built into a shale rock cliff. We’d heard about this section from other hikers, but it seemed more tame than I’d thought it would be. I could imagine how harrowing it would have been in heavy snow a few weeks before though. Snow covered much of the trail, but so many had gone before us that there was a clear route and footprints. We grasped the rock wall above us, using all four appendages equally. I longed for trekking poles. One misstep would mean tumbling half a mile straight down the slope below us, although I was learning that this was par for the course on the CDT in Colorado.

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Photo credit: Sass

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Paperweight and Knife’s Edge. Photo credit: Sass

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Photo credit: Sass

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Here’s a picture of the Knife’s Edge I found on the internet, with way more snow.

We continued along the rocky slope, the rain and hail pelting us. We came across a small cave in the side of the mountain and crawled in, hoping the rain would soon let up. Phil made a hot chocolate/coffee mixture to warm us. We continued on, and came to a small lake on the edge of a basin. Realizing that we were starting to get too cold, we decided to camp, rushing to set up our tent in the pouring rain. Because we weren’t carrying trekking poles, we had to find a stick each night to hold up the rear end of our tent. We had a light aluminum pole for the front end. Phil searched for a suitable stick while I dug our tent stakes into the ground, fumbling as my fingers lost feeling and mobility in the cold. Finally, we peeled off our wet clothes and crawled in, relieved to be in a dry place. I had had a pair of Patagonia thermal bottoms shipped to Pagosa Springs, and was so glad to have them now.

It rained all night and morning, and we didn’t emerge from our tent until 11am. We spent most of the morning eating, drinking our coffee/hot chocolate concoction, and reading Blood Meridian to each other out loud. The clouds parted for a brief moment, and we donned our wet hiking clothes and soaked shoes. Squaw Pass was just ahead and we hoped the weather would cooperate long enough for us to get over the pass. We were learning that we needed to be cautious – the combination of rain, cold temperatures, and an exposed trail that never dropped below 12,000 feet could easily lead to us being at risk for hypothermia.

Almost as soon as we started hiking, it started to rain again. We ascended the pass in a cloud, unable to see anything in front or on either side of us. The trail climbed, switchbacking up rocky cliffs, until it reached what seemed like the top and started to wind around the side of the mountain. The wind howled and the rain pelted us. Finally, we started to descend, the rocky trail leading us steeply down the bare, green mountains we had become used to. Little by little, I could feel my body becoming too cold. My teeth chattered, I had no feeling in my hands, and my arms and legs seemed stiff and machine-like. We had to keep our down jackets and sleeping clothes dry, so we were in our usual shorts, light button-up hiking shirts, and rain jackets. To save weight, I had, of course, chosen the lightest possible rain jacket I could find, thinking I wouldn’t be wearing it much. As we hiked, I wished for a rain jacket that actually kept me dry, and resolved to find rain pants in the next town.

We raced down the trail, trying to get to lower elevation as fast as we could. The trail had become a steep muddy creek, tumbling down the mountain in brown gushes. We knew the Squaw Creek valley was just a few miles away and it was at 11,000 feet, which sounded like sea level after the past few days. As I got colder, it was getting harder and harder for me to hike. I could not feel my legs or feet and worried about falling each step. Every fiber of my being wanted to be in the valley, to be safe, warm, and dry. As we dropped below tree line, I knew we were getting close.

Finally, the trees opened into a wide, green valley. It was 2pm and we had only hiked 6 miles that day, but we knew it was time to stop. My body was numb and my words were coming out as a mumbled mess. We found a flat spot, set up the tent, and relief flooded over me as I fumbled to put dry clothes on and crawled into my sleeping bag.

We ended up spending that night and the entire next day and night in that valley. The rain continued almost the entire time, the valley was stuck in a cloud, and we were too worried about getting over the next pass to pack up and leave. I didn’t know it was possible to sleep so much. When we weren’t sleeping, we ate constantly (I ate an entire jar of Nutella by myself during that time) and read Blood Meridian. During a brief break in the weather, we attempted to dry out our belongings, but nothing really got dry. The San Juans had taught us a lesson, and we knew we needed to be more careful as we moved north.

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