The stage was set: The San Juans contained a 300% snowpack, the fear mongers were out in full force and we truly did not know what to expect heading into these infamous mountains. Despite most people ahead of us walking around this section, we had to see what all the fuss was about for ourselves.
With approximately seven extra pounds added to our packs, we hit the highway looking for a hitch back to Cumbres Pass. All of us (Egg Rolls, Bones, Lunchbox & myself) had added snowshoes, microspikes, ice axes and various pieces of warm weather gear to the things we were carrying. Many of my friends who have hiked this trail previously recommended taking a couple of weeks off to let the snow melt, but after hiking through this section, I think it's safe to say the snow will remain for quite some time. With a positive mindset and an openness to tackle whatever was put in front of us, the four of us headed into the extreme unknown.
It would not be long before I started to realize why people claim that the San Juans are "no joke." Within the first few miles of hiking, altitude sickness quickly set in. We were now dealing with elevations 12,000+ feet above sea level and this was a first for me. My legs became weak, I began panting like a dog and by the end of the first day, it took all my strength not to vomit. In all honesty, I was wondering if I was indeed in over my head.
Fifteen miles out of Cumbres, an exhausted bunch setup their tents next to a frozen lake on the snow... another first for me. As you can imagine, it made for a very cold night's sleep. Laden with nausea, I forced down a couple of Pop Tarts for dinner before "sleeping" uncomfortably the entire evening. All I could hope is that I would acclimate and things would be different in the upcoming days.
Fortunately, it did not take long for my body to adjust to its new surroundings. I awoke the next morning with a newfound strength and was feeling rather optimistic. Furthermore, the weather was ideal and appeared it might stay that way for a while. Silly us for thinking so. By lunchtime on our second day, the welcoming blue skies were replaced with a wintery mix of hail and snow. Not long after the snow began to fall, we also faced the obstacle of an intense thunderstorm. Lighting bolts were striking within a couple miles of us and it forced us to seek sanctuary underneath the smallest of pine trees a little ways off trail. After waiting out the storm we found our way back to the CDT and pushed as far as the terrain would allow. The snow covered trail and navigation were enough to slow us down to fifteen mile days, but after having to hide from the conditions, we were only able to cover eleven miles on the second day. The weather had cleared by the time we got to camp, so we were able to setup camp and sleep comfortably, but little did we know that day three in the San Juans would be the most difficult on trail yet.
Looking at our maps, we knew things were about to get intense. Until we actually laid eyes on the mountain passes we had to cross, none of us knew what we were actually getting into. The first mountain feature that presented an issue was a traverse along the side of a mountain with a drop off that did not end for hundreds of feet. At least that is where the official trail went, but we noticed a route that shot us directly up the mountain. It was by far the most technical climb I have had to do on any thru-hike and it surely took us out of our comfort zones, as we clung to our ice axes and dug them into the ground as we struggled up the hill. I could tell by the look in everyone's eyes that there was worry amongst the group. Things would only become crazier as the day went on. Normally the trail would not be all that terrifying, because there is flat ground to walk on. With feet of snow covering our walking path, it posed some serious threats. We had to slowly traverse around the side of the mountain making sure we didn't slip, because in certain areas it meant imminent death. To add insult to injury, around the same time as the previous day, the weather rapidly took a turn for the worse. We found ourselves miles above sea level and hundreds of feet above tree line, as we slowly trudged toward Pagosa Springs. After approximately thirteen miles of hiking, we were able to find some small areas with no snow that were more than sufficient for camping. The rain had been nice enough to subside while we setup, but once everyone had retired to their respective tents all bets were off. What felt and sounded like marble sized hail started crashing down on upon us and the wind caused the walls of my tent to envelope me within my shelter. The next hour or so was spent hoping for the storm to die down, which luckily it did not too long after it began. All I could think was how fortunate we were to have setup our tents before the weather hit. Apparently we had not dealt with enough that day, as a band of coyotes surrounded our tents and howled natures cry throughout the night. With all the madness we had encountered, we knew it was time to start thinking outside the box and come up with a plan to escape these mountains as safely as possible.
By our fourth day in the wild, everyone's navigation skills had increased and we started diverting from the actual trail in order to find the safest route. We followed streams along valleys and climbed the most gradual routes up mountain passes. Even though we felt we had a tighter grasp on the situation, there was still an unease amongst the group. As we reached our high point for the section, the group began to discuss an alternate that would more safely get us to the highway. As tough as it was to abandon the CDT route, it was something that felt like it needed to be done. From here, things worked out perfectly and we followed a stream thousands of feet below the actual route that lead us to a forest service road and freedom. We would spend the next few days with our good friend Blue Velvet in Pagosa, as we healed up and contemplated whether or not we wanted to head back into the beast that is the San Juans.
Blue Velvet is a friend of Bones whom he went to school with in Virginia. She is a fellow AT thru-hiker who went over the top accommodating the four of us for the first night, then Pai Mei and Prophet joined the following two nights. It was exactly what we needed if we were going to throw ourselves back into the madness. Regardless of the hardships we faced over the first few days in Colorado, we were not ready to throw in the towel quite yet. Our group had grown by two and now we knew exactly what we were getting into.
The six of us split up into groups and made our way back to Wolf Creek Pass to embark on the next 85 mile section of trail. Not even a half day back into the wilderness, the difficulties persisted. When Bones and I caught up to the rest of the guys, we were quickly informed of Lunchbox's near serious fall. He had slipped on the ice on one of the side traverses and slammed down on his ribs. His trekking pole went flying off a cliff and from how it was described to me, a branch was all he had to hold onto to keep him from sliding off the mountain. Nonetheless, he got up, dusted himself off and continued north with only one pole for stability. It was obvious now that no matter how experienced or comfortable we were in these mountains that it would be no easy feat to conquer our goal of making it to Silverton.
The next few days were more of the same; Everyday we awoke to frozen shoes and socks and the only thing that would melt them would be us putting our feet in them. We spent our time scaling ravines, traversing sixty degree slopes and barely had a moment to observe anything besides our feet and the next step we would take. Mother Nature was kind enough to grace us with nearly perfect weather the entire five days we were in there and we were able to push our miles back up to fifteen-eighteen miles a day. We even tackled the "Knife Edge," which was easily the scariest looking feature standing between us and our next town. Two other hikers were actually heading back down the ravine to go around as we were getting ready to give it a shot. Once we laid eyes on the traverse in front of us, we suddenly realized why people had been skipping this part of trail. However, we knew by taking the actual trail we would save ourselves at least half of a day. It took us more than an hour to hike less than a mile, but after successful completion, we knew we had made the best decision for us. We knew there was nothing in front of us that we were incapable of and even though we still had a lot of hiking to do before complete safety, morale had increased tenfold and we were all high fiving each other at the end of the day.
Confidence reached an all time high as we strolled into Stony Pass and realized that we were some of the only people to complete the San Juan section in 2017... at least as of yet. A zero was much overdue, so we took a day off in Silverton to recuperate and prepare for whatever lied next. Our snow gear had essentially been deadweight through this section, as be hardly ever stopped to use any. One of our first priorities was to send all of it home and hope that it's the last time we have to use any of it on this trip. We got a chance to speak with other hikers who had done the trail previous years and the consensus was that we had made it through the really tough stuff and the trail would only become friendlier from here on out. Thank goodness they knew what they were talking about.
Only 33 miles stood between Silverton and Lake City. We wanted to believe the trail would get easier, but seeing is believing. It was miraculous how quickly things would change. The topography really seemed to flatten out and all of a sudden we were in much more open areas. Snow was still a factor, but exponentially less dangerous as we only had to walk across flat ground. Getting back to the trail at Stony Pass is an interesting task, for the road up to the trail ascends roughly 3,000 feet over four miles. It is very steep and made of gravel, so it is very slow going... especially during a heavy snow melt. I only tell you this, because it all factored into our late start. We were officially back on trail just before noon and were only able to make it ten miles to a beautiful lake tucked in the mountains. The next day is when we would begin to be rewarded for all of our hard work.
The goal was to make it within a few miles of Highway 149 and our next escape to town, We dealt with a few small patches of snow early on in the day, then a red carpet rolled open before us. The trail was actually... well, trail. Things were beginning to change drastically and we were all able to really catch our stride again. We blazed down the trail three miles an hour and by lunchtime we had already crushed fourteen+ miles. Lake City was dead in our sights and before we knew it was had arrived at the highway well before dinner. The hitch into Lake City was the first time I had ever been picked up by a Mercedes and they gave all six of us a lift into town... we have gotten really good at cramming into small places.
In order to save money in town, we took to the Apline Loop Trail for free camping. We spent an extremely relaxing evening sleeping next to what I believe was Henson Creek. The following morning we resupplied as soon as the grocery store opened and hitched back to trail shortly thereafter.
It was only a few days to our next town, Salida. This has been a highly anticipated town stay for all of us, but mostly for Pai Mei and Prophet, because they have had this planned since before the trail started. A good friend of Prophet's has a vacation house just on the outskirts of town and agreed to let us use it and his vehicle for a few days to decompress from the hardships of Colorado. If this was not incentive enough, the realization of 2,000 miles left on trail really motivated us to continue pushing bigger days.
Just as we had hoped, the miles continued to come more naturally and my stresses began to subside. Knowing that the miles to make it to Canada were still obtainable was such an uplifting feeling. We hammered out 25, 23 and 26 mile days with three days of laziness in mind. 101 miles passed in less than five days, but it did not stop us from seeing some incredible things. Even though I have lived in Maine my entire life, I have never seen a Moose in the wild, but Colorado changed that. Bones, Prophet and I stumbled upon one as we made our way up one of the many climbs. The moose appeared to be relatively young, so we moved cautiously down the trail fearing a mother was nearby. We wound up only seeing the one moose and it was definitely more scared of us than the other way around. It scurried off into the forest and we continued grooving our way to Salida.
The last couple of days have been magical to say the least. Collectively we spent nearly $500 at Wal-Mart and have just been munching on delicious food. Tomorrow will be no different, as we continue to heal and prepare for the remaining mountains of Colorado. John Wick 2, Split and Logan are the featured films for the next two nights and on Friday morning it's back to 20-25 miles a day. As wonderful as this relaxation has been, I can not wait to get back on trail and continue to share with all of you.