Ice axes and crampons at the ready, we headed out of the town of Chama New Mexico for Cumbres Pass, our trailhead for the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Several people hiking ahead of us had been forced to bail out of a transit of the San Juans and the Weminuche Wilderness, due to late snow storms and just plain dangerous hiking, but the weather had been good since then and a few others had made it through.
Six of us had banded together to hike over this section and that was good news. It’s one thing to be lost in the snow with friends and altogether another to be lost alone. That’s no fun and scary as hell.
Why Not, Eric, Blister, Brooks and Wyoming had all spent a zero day (no mileage) in Chama. We’d been hiking with this team since just after Ghost Ranch and we all got along well. There isn’t a novice in the bunch and all of them are stronger hikers than Why Not and I, who are the elders of the bunch.
Wyoming had “Yogied” up rides Back to Cumbres Pass for that morning with a psychology professor from Oklahoma and his friend. She had met them at the town bookstore and when they heard there were thru hikers in town, they had offered to “angel” us to the pass. These guys were outdoorsmen who loved the idea of a CDT thru hike and tried to give rides to hikers whenever they were in town.
Lina, a lovely young woman from Germany with a huge backpack and Northern Strider from Quebec, had rolled in the night before, but weren’t ready to leave without a rest day, so we said goodbye to the sound of the train whistle from the Cumbres and Toltec steam engines just up the road. Chama boasts the last fully steam powered locomotives on a regular line in America. We could see the trains pulling their cars up that long incline for miles as we drove for the pass.
Walking through the train station at the pass, it was so green we had little hint of the snows that lay ahead of us. But we were excited and blasted up hill led by the three younger guys, Eric, Blister and Brooks.
Forests gave way to vistas and valleys, waterfalls and the far off snow capped peaks, our ultimate destination. At the relatively low elevation of 10,000 feet, flowers bloomed and the corn lilies were already half grown. Grass and muddy meadows with squishy hummocks of last years growth for stepping stones, gave us all wet feet. Some of the forest was completely dead from the devastation of the bark beetle, while other areas were deep green, but the trail was beautiful, dead and alive.
Those snowy peaks in the distance were the reason we were hiking this section. While at the Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off last month, I had spoken to Billy Goat at length and he had questioned our late May entry into the San Juans. Billy Goat is the elder statesman of long distance hiking and a guy who knows the PCT, AT and CDT intimately. He had told me that bypassing the Weminuche would be like missing the High Sierra or Goat Rocks or the Northern Cascades on a PCT hike. Unthinkable. No one would miss the best sections of that trail, but many take a shorter and lower route making straight for Creede CO after a taste of the snow we were about to enter. Both routes share the same first section from Cumbres to Wolf Creek Pass, but then there is an option to bypass the even snowier trail north of Wolf Creek. To Billy Goat’s thinking, a person should jump north and hike south or just wait for the snow to melt, or do anything but bypass some of the most beautiful mountains on the trail.
In a usual year the snow can be impassible in the San Juans. Tahoe’s, Mountain Ned says of his CDT thru hike years ago, that he had come upon a wall of snow out of Cumbres Pass that was simply insurmountable. He had been forced to turn around. This is a preeminent snow person and he couldn’t do it straight through when he tried. We have been blessed with an unusually low snow year, and we were attempting to barrel right through.
As we gained altitude sporadic patches of snow grew in size till they blocked much of the trail on the northern slopes in forested areas. By the time we were hiking above 12,000 feet, those patches had become snow covered slopes, some of them vast. South facing areas were clear but when we rounded to the northern slopes, those intrepid young guys in front began stomping steps in the snow, or following the few that had been stomped a few days before by someone else.
When I had hiked the PCT in 2010, we had virtually lived on snow for five weeks over the High Sierra. There had been much more snow there than we encountered here, but that was snow with a difference. “Sierra cement” is a very high water content snow, and in cold conditions you can walk right over the stuff. Here, the Rocky Mountain “powder,” a very light and low water content snow, had become the consistency of mashed potatoes by 8am and we often nearly swam through it. Step on top and it felt firm for a second, but then crack! You found yourself plunging waist deep in snow the consistency of a slushy.
Beacon, a fellow I’d hiked with last year in Washington had postholed in this kind of snow in Glacier Montana when he hiked the CDT. He had torn his intestines and ended up with an air evacuation and peritonitis. When you’re not expecting to break through, it can hurt.
In spite of the snow, our daily mileages remained at twenty and above and the spirit of the group remained positive. Wyoming had the least experience with snow, but learned quickly even though it scared her. Blister always took the high route, nearly skiing over the long traverses until being stopped dead in his tracks by a sudden sinking feeling as he plunged deep into the soggy mess. Eric was more thoughtful and studied every option before committing himself to a course, and often glissaded down slope and hiked snow free up a valley. Brooks found his course somewhere in between and plunged his own steps if need be. That gave several options to us three slower folk, and I just bless the character of those guys that they didn’t just hike on and leave us to our slower pace and our own devices.
It was all worthwhile. The mountains, the views and gathering clouds in the afternoons, the sunrises and sunsets and frozen waterfalls, emerald green of new leaf and the ice crystals on the watery frozen trails in the mornings, all made it worthwhile. The backdrop to this incredible beauty was the haze and great billows of smoke rising from New Mexico’s Gila Fire.
Only a few short weeks before, we had walked through the maze of trails and the near jungle of the Gila River. Both Why Not and I had thought it the most beautiful river trail we had ever hiked. And it was burning. In an email from Coyote, Sarah Holt, a hiker friend who is behind us, she describes what their group of five experienced as they hiked out of the Gila when the fire went catastrophic. I quote her email:
“New Mexico is burning! Lightning started two fires in the Gila Wilderness as we walked through it. The fires were far off. At first. The day we visited the Gila Cliff Dwellings the afternoon light had a strange surreal quality to it, almost muted, not quite identifiable. Then we smelled it. Like a faraway campfire. A day later we cleared the headwaters of the Gila at Snow Lake. Suddenly up in the grasslands the fires became clear: Baldy and Whitewater, on the horizon to the south and west. Our path led north, so we were OK. Right? ...Two days later, crossing Highway 12 east of the town of Reserve, we turned back to see a phenomenon no one had ever witnessed. High temps, abysmally low humidity, steep topography, woody fuels and afternoon wind combined to make a super-fire. It blew up all at once. It sent particulates 30,000 feet into the atmosphere. It grew so big and so fast, it created its OWN weather. Once the particulates reached 30,000 feet they could no longer support their own weight. They came crashing down - WHOOMP! - sending fire racing outwards at 100 miles at hour! And here's what five hikers saw: a mushroom cloud blossoming into the sky like an atomic bomb. No one knew what it was. Was it a gaseous explosion? Had the fire advanced to a nuclear power plant? At the Pie Town Pie-O-Neer we found out it was a natural phenomenon, probably amplified by decades of old-school fire suppression. The two fires joined to pollute the skies all the way up past Pie Town. Right now the Baldy-Whitewater Complex is over 250,000 acres. According to Girl Scout (a guy), it's the biggest fire in recorded New Mexican history.”
I can’t help but morn for the loss of that beauty although I know it will come back. It will never in my lifetime grow to the lushness and cool shadowed forest it was when we waded two-hundred and eighteen times across that lovely river.
Brooks has a different take. As a Bureau of Land Management employee for the past five years, he knows the damage, but also sees the need for fire in our Western ecosystems. Our forests are meant to burn regularly. Part of the devastation of fires when they happen now is because of the suppression of fire for so many years. The fuel loads are high and a fire takes out everything. Brooks sees a bigger picture and possibly a healthier Western forest as the ultimate outcome of a fire. That helps to put such a catastrophe into perspective.
Our days across the high country were magic but as we began to descend to Wolf Creek Pass and a day off in Pagosa Springs, CO, we really picked up the pace. A steak and a big baked potato were in the offing for me. Town food starts to sound really good after four or five days at elevation and extremes, and dried trail food, and we all picked up the pace. A clap of thunder and a blast of hail in the face got us to don weather gear and Wyoming and I ended up at the back of the pack.
I shot down trail giving a quick glance to Wyoming and headed across a steep, scree slope, never looking back again. We all camped just above the ski resort at the pass and made dinner, but Wyoming didn’t show up. Eric, always looking after us slower ones, headed back down trail and waited near a bad snow patch, but no Wyoming.
When he came back to camp without her, I started to get alarmed as I hadn’t seen her since that bad scree slope, and at that, Eric, Brooks and I all headed up trail in the fading light. Being the last to have seen her, I felt responsible and ran up trail, wanting to get to that scree slope while there was still light enough to see if she had fallen.
Without a pack I felt light. The adrenaline of fear fueled me and I never even noticed the four miles. Calling and looking I reached the slope and found no one. The mystery wasn’t solved but at least that one spot was put to rest in my imagination. Brooks had stayed right behind me with first aid and water and we both quick marched back by starlight. The night was so bright that even in the dimmest of forest black, I could see well enough not to use my head lamp.
We all slept with a bit of trepidation. Wyoming is a seasoned thru hiker and had planned to hike this trail alone but we couldn’t help worrying.
At first light, Brooks descended quickly through the ski resort while the rest of us hiked the trail. Five, snowy, northern slope, forest miles later we broke out onto the highway at Wolf Creek Pass and saw Brooks and Wyoming both standing with their thumbs out waiting for a lift to Pagosa Springs.
Wyoming came up and apologized profusely for not making it to camp and causing us to worry. She had gotten behind and found a few of the steep snowy patches too much. She had finally just hiked downhill to a lake at a campground below us. She was always the first to get up in the morning and planned to meet us at the pass, which she had done. We were just glad she was all right, and the bond between us all grew a bit with the realization of the care we felt.
Our first leg through the San Juans was over and we were still in one piece. The beauty of the mountains and the adventure of hiking day after day above 12,000 feet made all the sore muscles worth the effort. The next section would be higher, but we had heard, even more beautiful. After a day of rest we’d be ready for it.
"Keep close to Nature's heart...and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean." John Muir
If you would like to follow our daily journals, Google: Postholer.com/Shroomer, Postholer.com/Nancy or Postholer.com/Dirt Monger. An interactive map of the CDT on the bottom right of our journal pages will show you our current GPS Spot location. View it through Google earth and you can see where we’re camped for that night. You can follow Brooks Wilson’s trail journal at www.brooksmapped.blogspot.com