Lightening crackled overhead and the booms of thunder seemed all too close. The thunderheads had built throughout the morning and we could see rain falling in the distance but we were still dry at lunch. We were two days into the Weminuche Wilderness from Wolf Creek Pass, CO and the afternoon looked and sounded like the backdrop to a Nordic myth. Clouds swirled about the peaks and the roar of thunder shook the very ground. At 12,000 feet, there’s little distance between sky and earth and the two seemed bent on a storm centered collaboration of powers to shake us from above and below. A storm in the high country can bring you to your knees and send errant humans scurrying for shelter and lower elevations. Thank God we were still below tree line.
As I hoisted my pack after lunch, I turned just in time to see a jagged bolt of lightening spark its way to earth and strike the forest several miles behind us. Wyoming pointed out several small plumes of smoke rising from the trees even further off when a sudden wind ushered in the first round of hail and visibilities dropped as the fusillade of ice began.
It rained for three hours as we climbed higher, but finally turned into a lazy drizzle among the thinning trees. We all felt great relief as the peals of thunder moved off into the distance and finally quieted altogether.
Breaking out of the last of the forest, we found ourselves hiking along rolling bluffs, often sheer cliffs on one side, still holding onto remnant snowy cornices, with rounded Alpine meadows on the other. We were on the Continental Divide and I could spit into the waters of the Atlantic on my right hand and into the drainage of the Pacific on my left. Through this amazing wilderness, we would walk for days along the center of the continent, now dipping to cross the saddle of a pass, traversing along one side or the other, but always returning to that rolling crest and an unparalleled vista onto peaks and mountain ranges in all directions.
We were in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, a range of the Rockies that forms a giant horseshoe shaped obstruction in the Divide. It forces the drainage of the continent -- which up to this point has run roughly north and south -- to bend west for many miles, past countless summits, before turning north again and finally back east. It was a place of spectacle and snowy vastness, and a big part of the reason for hiking this 3,000 mile trail.
I had spent a zero day in the town of Pagosa Springs, CO with Why Not, Eric, Wyoming, Blister and Brooks. Dirt Monger had tried to leave earlier but after a fruitless four hour attempt to hitch back to the pass, he had returned to our little motel, totally dejected. Was it the beard, or the dirty pack or maybe just the thought of a name like Dirt Monger that kept them from stopping?
We had arranged a ride to the pass the following morning and after a bit of a pep talk we convinced him to give it up and just enjoy the day with us and start again in the morning.
Our ride was with Addi of Pagosa Spring’s, Summit Ski and Sports. Why Not had met her the day before at her shop and she had become our impromptu trail angel by volunteering to give us a lift to Wolf Creek Pass the next day, all for the price of listening to our stories. She is an outdoor enthusiast with designs on the Pacific Crest Trail in the future, and simply wanted the connection with other thru hikers.
She had packed us into her van and deposited us at 10,857 foot Wolf Creek Pass by 10 am the next day and we were off up the mountain. Dirt Monger, who had been champing at the bit since the day before, took off like a shot and we followed his footprints for days thereafter.
We could see Pagosa Springs, nestled in its valley far below, while we spent the day climbing the east ridge of a long glacial canyon, waterfalls pouring out of the hanging valleys at the far end. Much of the forest was dead or dying from the bark beetle plague that is destroying millions of acres of our nations forests.
Midday we crossed a tiny creek, the headwaters of one of the forks of the Rio Grande River. Snow melt streams were everywhere and none of them wider than a few stepping stones. Hiking so high on the Divide, none of the watercourses has enough distance to build in size to become a formidable stream.
Often the trail would disappear under the large banks of snow still covering the north sides of the mountains at which point we had to decide whether to attempt a traverse through snow, which had the consistency of mashed potatoes, or climb far down to the valley floor and hike back up through wet meadows to regain our path further along. Blister usually just headed out onto the snow, while Eric often chose the lower, safer route, and the rest of us split on who to follow. Brooks, also a very strong hiker, often picked a route of his own, and it was always a crap shoot who would regain trail first.
Crossing those snowy slopes involved a good deal of postholing, that awful, gut ripping experience of breaking through the thin surface crust and plunging one leg or both, waist deep into the slushy stuff. At times we needed help to get out, either by laying our trekking poles across the surface to provide a secure platform or from another hiker. But there was no guarantee you wouldn’t just plunge back in with the next step. That kind of snow travel is exhausting.
That first night we found ourselves on a very exposed saddle at 12,000 feet, looking at a long climb first thing the next morning and plenty of snowy trail on top. We found a few stunted trees and a boulder for wind breaks and set up camp on the lee side of the hill.
The next morning we climbed to 13,000 feet and hiked just above or below that, rarely dipping beneath 12,000 in mountains very different from the High Sierra. In the Sierra, anything over 10,000 feet becomes peaks and crags. Here there are jagged summits, but often the highest points are rounded, tundra covered meadows, rolling along for miles. The High Sierra is so much newer that only the granite domes of Yosemite are smooth on top, and almost nowhere has soil built up at elevations above 10 and 11,000. The much older Rockies have been pulverized not only by glaciers, but by time itself, breaking down the old rock into sand, gravel, and over the eons of biological work, soil. There was a pastoral quality to the high country in the Weminuche Wilderness and we saw elk grazing along the ridges, and moose in the wetter valleys.
On our second day, we had clouds condense above us early in the morning, and luckily our trail dipped into the trees before the thunder and rain hit us as we finished lunch. Our trail that afternoon took us over the Knife Edge, which was clear of snow. When we rounded it, however, the trail dived under the largest, steepest snow bank we’d come across and rather than risk death at the rocky bottom of a long slide, we all cross countried our way down to the valley and hiked up it, finally camping at Trout Lake, thoroughly exhausted by 7pm.
Our rain gear had become quite muddy but Wyoming, very quietly as she always is, gathered it all up and washed it in the lake. That’s a quality hiker. Brooks was another one. He never went to get water without asking to take someone else’s bottles with him as well. And then the care that Eric and Blister took on trail each day to make sure we were all still with them was incredible. They could hike twice as fast and twice as far as Why Not or I, but they would always be found waiting not too far up trail. These folks were all trail angels in their own right, and us older folks felt taken care of over this very difficult section.
For days more our path led us across the rolling tops of the Rockies, past the Window, a cut in a mountain that looks just like its name, and over snowy cornices still perched on the sheer sides of the Divide. At one particularly bad cornice we scrambled up a tongue of rock and then kicked steps in the vertical face of snow and crawled over. So as not to collapse the cornice, Eric lay on the top and proffered his foot to Wyoming to grab hold of as she inched over the icy overhang. After that one, I sang my “Nobody died, nobody died” song and the relief was palpable.
When the wind was right, we saw great billows of smoke from the lightening sparked fires of the day before, and on our third and forth days found the sky hazy. We were lucky none of those lightening strikes had occurred north of us.
On our third night we camped low, next to a great soggy meadow, and Nancy found her wet shoes frozen so solidly the next morning she couldn’t get them on. She and Eric had to put one each under their jackets for a time to warm them enough to break the ice. We climbed out of that lowland, back up thousands of feet to the rolling ridges and snowy slopes of the Divide.
Just before reaching Hunchback Pass and our eventual merge with the Colorado Trail, we came to a heart stopping view of peaks to rival any in the world. Over Stormy Gulch, a deep chasm, loomed The Guardian, Mount Silex and Storm King Peak. A wall of rock whose crags simply staggered the eye. We stopped to take pictures which we all found inadequate for the span of mountains we encountered, but we had to try, as it was the first place on this trail to rival the mountains we had hiked through on the Pacific Crest Trail years before, the High Sierra, and the Northern Cascades. Here was the reason for slogging through snow and across thunder topped mountains. Here was one of those places on the planet so grand you couldn’t help but feel your own living connection to the globe itself, that great womb of beauty and life.
"Who wouldn't be a mountaineer! Up here all the world's prizes seem nothing.” 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