Fear mongering and turning back on the CDT – Update #1

Having already done two long trails, particularly the PCT in a high snow year has taught me to not listen to the fear mongering. Tales of upcoming tricky sections spread like a wildfire on any long trail. The CDT is no different. I hadn’t even made it to Lordsburg in the desert before I started hearing rumours of the Gila River flow rate being too high to get through. I’m not one to listen to fear mongering but having now done part of the Gila I have worked out how to respond to fear mongering. But at nearly two weeks into the CDT I am getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack to the lead up to the Gila.

Crazy Cook to Lordsburg

The excitement I felt from standing at the Crazy cook monument ready to walk towards Canada. Soon turned into thoughts of ‘What the heck am I doing?’

The first portion of the CDT is just 14 miles to the first water cache. As a thru hiker that should be easy right? But that 14 miles felt like it would never end. It is for some reason it felt like the hardest 14 miles I’ve ever done. Perhaps it was the heat, the lack of shade, the scenery that changed little, but something soon zapped the excitement from me that I felt standing at the monument.

Thankfully, over the next few days that started to change. I got into a rhythm. Up early-ish. Hike until around 2. Siesta under whatever shade could be found (the tiniest of bushes and an umbrella worked). Then start hiking again around 4-5 once the heat of the day was starting to dissipate. Camp and repeat.

As I did this I started to enjoy myself. I started to see the beauty and life in the barren and desolate landscape and once again I was excited to be on a thru hike.

But as I got closer to Lordsburg that is where the rumours of the Gila started to trickle in.

Lordsburg to Silver City

In Lordsburg as all the hikers converged together by the pull of town, food and a shower. The trickle of rumours about the Gila River were flowing stronger than the Gila itself.

However, one thing hiking the PCT in a high snow year taught me, is that reports of trail conditions ahead can be helpful but shouldn’t be taken as gospel. So many factors come into play as to whether a section is doable for someone or not. So, my personal attitude is to distil from the rumours the bare facts. Then go see for myself if a section is possible for me or not. If it isn’t then I have food and a plan B that enables me to turn around off my own intel, knowing what my own abilities and risk levels are comfortable with.

In the stretch between Lordsburg and Silver City. Reports of the current flow rate of the Gila flew thick and fast.
‘It needs to be under 200 to cross’
‘X said crossing at 250 is fine’
‘Y crossed it fine’
‘Yeah, but Y is 6ft 2 and built like a tank’
‘Flow rate has gone up today, is at 285’
‘Flow rate might go down later this week’
And so it continued.

I let the rumours run off me like water off a ducks back and enjoyed being out of the flat desert and into some mountains with real trees. The heat and lack of water remained but the elevation and presence of real trees had changed from the previous section. It reminded me a bit of the PCT in the desert. There was a beauty to it and I enjoyed stretching my legs out on some real climbs.

Silver City and into the Gila

As reports of the Gila continued to come in while in Silver City. I continued to remain steadfast in my decision to hike to the Gila and see for myself.

I’m not a fast hiker or the strongest and at 5ft 5”, I’m pretty average for a female. Nothing about my build gives me an athletic advantage. I also consider myself average when it comes to taking risks too. I’m willing to give things a red hot cracking go, but I know when I’ve hit my comfort/tolerance level with the risk before me.

The hike out of Silver City to the Gila River was beautiful. The south side before the Gila was a beautiful red rock, Mars like landscape. Then as the mountain was crested and the descent to the Gila began the scenery changed to green pine forests.

Sitting at the start of the Gila crossings. One person decided to go and do the alternate to Doc Campbells. They like me had come and accessed the risk for themselves and made a wise decision to turn back.

I was still willing to give it a go. My risk tolerance is perhaps a bit higher. The first few crossing went off without a hitch. No more than crotch deep and solid but not a fast flow.

The next however had a hitch. The taller, stronger guys in my group found the next crossing challenging but made it across fine. I however, should have taken my time a bit more, as I hit the really fast flowing section, I lost one foot and couldn’t regain traction on the river bed against the flow rate. Thankfully, one of the guys in my group. Held my arm, so I remained steady in place until another got back in and held me up from the other side as they pulled me towards the bank, out of the fast flow and back to where I could regain footing again.

Lesson learnt. If the guys in my group found a crossing challenging. I needed to a) take more time than them to make sure I leant into the flow more, found solid footing, having 3 points of contact at all times or b) turn back and find somewhere else to cross.

Most the crossings continued to be fine. A few with slightly faster flow rates, I was helped by one of the guys standing behind me and putting pressure on my back, to give me just a bit extra strength to move against the flow rate. Team work makes the dream work.

That, however changed with the last crossing of the day. As I stood for a minute in the river with water pushing against me. I tried to move my poles and my foot to the next position, but nothing felt solid as I stood in place not moving. As my poles vibrated against the current, still not able to find the next solid foot placement. I made the decision to turn back. I moved out of the current and back to the other bank.

Back on the other side. I took stock and saw that the river was wider and looked to be flowing less 50ft upstream. So, I bush bashed my way up the bank. Until I found a place to scramble in. I made my way across in deeper but less strong water. Then on the other side one of the guys helped me scramble up the embankment to the other side.

Where the guys had crossed was more accessible via each bank. But the flow rate was too strong for me. Where I crossed wasn’t easily accessible via either bank but was 10x easier in the water.

As we sat around camp eating dinner that night. We reflected that the person who had turned back to do the alternate at the start of the Gila made the right decision. They would not have enjoyed it.

But what about me? Did I make the right decision?

I would say, ‘Yes’.

If I was on my own. I would have made a different decision. But being with a good group made a difference. Even with the few challenging crossings. I never felt shaken, or fearful. I was still within my comfort level of risk tolerance. But the first challenging crossing was a reminder to me, to take the fast flowing ones slow to make sure I have good footing and also be willing to find a different place to cross from everyone else.

Am I glad I did it?
Absolutely. The Gila is beautiful. I love the challenge and now I have a hot spring waiting for me.

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