San Juanderful

The fearmongering regarding the southern San Juan section of the trail was real, and it was intense. While in Chama, I heard everything about the snowpack from “if you go out there, you’ll die” to “basically all the snow is melted; there’s no reason to not go”.

Obviously, the only thing left to do was see for myself.

Heading into the South San Juan Wilderness.

Entering the San Juans

We left Chama in the afternoon of the first day, and spent the following four and a half days along the redline through the South San Juan Wilderness.

While the snow was nowhere close to melted, we also didn’t die. The experience, overall, was wonderful, exciting, and rewarding, but interspersed with plenty of grueling, frustrating, and exhausting moments.

My ankles are pretty traversed-out after this stretch.

Obviously, take your own experience and skill level with snow travel into account but, in my opinion, the San Juans are more than ready for the NOBOers to pass through.

(For NOBOers trying to plan, I went through June 2nd-6th. It’s getting drier and less frustrating every day!)

Day One: Wet, Windy, Wonderful

I spend a lot of the morning soaking in my anxiety about the next stretch of trail into the snow. I cry a lot but hide it well because I’m tough and cool and very low maintenance. Certainly no one in my life has ever accused me of being “anxious” or “an overthinker”.

We hitch back to the trail with two nice men from Chama and, as soon as I get back on, the nerves fade. Suddenly, I’m just doing the same thing I’ve done for the past five weeks– walking. Something I know I can do. And my goodness – what beautiful walking it is.

Miles and miles and miles of snow.

The terrain starts gradually, though I see swaths of snow blanketing the mountains ahead. After a climb (a relatively small one, but still larger than most of what I encountered in New Mexico!), I officially enter the South San Juan Wilderness.

The wind took my hat, but it was so exciting to finally stand here.

Soon, I find myself walking across snow. I can’t stop grinning like a fool. I’m so happy to be back in my home state, in mountains I love, walking on snow for the first time in months.

I will never get tired of this.

Day Two: Slow, Snowy, Sloggy

I’m so tired of the snow.

I wake up to a hard freeze– my water bottles, shoes, and socks are frozen. My contact case– with my contacts frozen inside– gets slipped into the footbox of my quilt until it thaws enough for me to put them in.

Skeeter and his frozen socks.

For all my griping about the cold, the first miles of the day pass easily! The overnight freeze provided a thick crust of ice over the snow, and I’m able to walk across it almost as quickly as dry ground.

However, around 9:30, the intense sun starts causing trouble. The snow turns to slush, and each step turns into a posthole. The saving grace of this proves to be the glissade opportunities; I’m excited about any chance to shave walking distance by sliding down slopes on my butt.

Looking back up post-glissade.

By evening, we’ve only gone about 15 miles, which is nearly ten fewer miles than our average through Northern New Mexico. We’re in no rush– all of us are eager to let the snow ahead of us melt– but it’s pretty demoralizing to work so hard throughout a day and not feel like you’re moving at all.

We vow to wake up earlier the next morning and capitalize more on the frozen ground before the sun rises. Hopefully, with this plan, we’ll move a little further tomorrow.

Day Three: Terrible, Tiring, Tedious 

There’s only one issue with this brilliant plan: nothing freezes overnight. I wake up warm, cozy, and furious. I camped on snow the night before, and I posthole as I stand up out of my quilt. Terrible start to a morning.

Not even a beautiful, above-treeline sunrise can rescue my mood.

Tired and grouchy, I walk about half a mile before having a certified breakdown in front of Big Catt out of the sheer frustration of postholing. Trying to justify why, at 25 years old, I’m sobbing about snow, I tell her I only got an hour of sleep. I actually slept fine. I’m just a baby.

The day does not improve from there. After splitting apart as a group so half of us could avoid a sketchy traverse, I find myself completely off trail. The rest of the afternoon, while not dangerous by any stretch, is just incredibly frustrating.

Throughout the day, I manage to cry in front of every single member of my tramily during separate occasions. Truly, this is the biggest accomplishment of the day.

Where is the trail? I don’t know– we’re just guessing.

After 12 hours of hiking, and only 13 miles from where we started, we call it a night. I wake up at midnight to see a vast expanse of stars above, with the Milky Way cutting its way across the sky just overhead.

I don’t pull out my camera– thankfully, it’s freezing and my hands are too cold. Finally.

Day Four: Icy, Idyllic, Irreplaceable

I wake up and everything is frozen. Again, my water bottle, my contacts, my shoelaces, and, most importantly the ground, are frozen solid. I could cry tears of joy, but they’d likely freeze on my face.

I spend a beautiful sunrise– and subsequent morning– hiking over and around Summit and Montezuma Peaks. For any NOBOers heading into the San Juans soon, make sure to reach Montezuma Peak in the afternoon when the snow is soft enough to glissade. Please trust me on this.

Sunrise in the San Juans.

Soon after, the trail loses much of its snowpack, and I enjoy miles at a time walking on dry(ish) ground. When the trail becomes less frustrating, I’m able to appreciate the beauty around me even more. I love the San Juans.

We camp early, around 2 PM, to let the rest of our tramily catch up with us. Dinner with the full group feels amazing, and the additional time at camp actually lets my socks and shoes dry for the first time in four days.

My feet stayed consistently wet from the snow melt and postholing all day through slush.

The day was beautiful, easy, and enjoyable, but I’m still really looking forward to the town day tomorrow. My body aches in places it’s never ached before, and the avalanche warnings have me eager to spend a night or two in a real building.

Day Five: Rambling, Relentless, Restful

The section ends with miles of snowdowns (snow and blowdowns) because of course it does. It takes almost seven hours to hike the 12 miles to Wolf Creek Pass, where friends pick us up and take us into Pagosa Springs.

The trail takes us through Wolf Creek ski area, and it’s interesting to pass by warming huts and under ski lifts while still feeling so removed from civilization.

Except for the ski area itself, the trail has a lot less snow than the past few days.

A frustrating, steep, wet descent down to the road– made all the more frustrating by realizing after the fact there was a forest service road I could have taken instead– fully cements my resolve to take a zero day in Pagosa Springs.

We stay with a past CDT hiker, Nuuner, and his girlfriend, Fran. They make wonderful hosts, showing us around the town, giving us restaurant recommendations, and– best of all– letting us soak at the hot springs. Once again, the kindness of near-strangers (I had met them once previously in the security line at the Boston Logan airport) adds so much to the trail experience.

A Juan of a Kind Section

Did I have fun on this stretch? It depends what time of day you ask me. Between the hours of 4 AM and 9AM, when the snow is frozen solid and the miles come easy, I had more fun than I’ve ever had before. And, after 7 PM, when I was warm in my quilt, full from dinner, and surrounded by friends, life was good once again.

Plus, waking up early guaranteed I’d see each sunrise glow against the surrounding rocks.

However, those terrible hours between 9 AM and 5 PM when I was forcing my way through slushy, melted snow, postholing up to my waist, and losing the trail, I was in a fairly bad mood.

My legs, used to New Mexico’s flat roads, were unaccustomed to the climbs Colorado threw at us. My lungs were not fully acclimated to the 12,500 foot trail. Everything hurt, my body was exhausted, and my muscles were screaming.

I’m very grateful for the easier miles towards the end of this section.

Finally making it to Pagosa Springs felt wonderful. Soaking in the hot springs felt even better. And, somehow, the knowledge that I’m about to do this all over again tomorrow feels the best of all.

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