San Juans Part Two (May 27-30)
May 27. The nights were cold, in the San Juans. After several nights of wearing my rain gear inside my bag to stay warm, I was ready to order a new sleeping bag for the rest of the hike. I planned to order as soon as I had phone service again.
I slept until 0600 on this morning, reluctant to move out into the cold. I was glad that no one around me was packing up yet, as it made me feel better about my own late start. I said good morning to a hiker couple as I walked by them, and they told me there was said to be some sketchy trail ahead.
I hiked by the pretty, icy lake we had camped by, then ascended a mountain, taking in the views. I came to two of the riskiest snowy traverses yet, on a slope that steeply dropped off below, like a waterfall. I stopped and put my spikes on, held my ice axe in hand, and cautiously walked over the first, stepping carefully into the footprints already packed into the snow.
The second traverse seemed even steeper and unnerved me. I started to climb up higher instead, hoping to hike up to the rocky summit above the snow, but climbing over loose soil was steep in itself, and didn’t feel any safer. I turned back and tried to take comfort in the fact that I was following footsteps. My heart pounded and I breathed heavily, trying not to look down, scared when any steps slipped a little. Little did I know this was only the beginning.
The snow turned to a patch of dirt, then led out to a sprawling space of snow. I could tell from tracks that many before me had glissaded (or slid in a seated position) down this slope. After studying it, I put on my rain pants, sat down, and pushed off. It was the perfect practice, a long slope, no drop off ahead, the slope the shape of a good sled hill with an even-ing out at the bottom. I was relieved that using my ice axe as a brake, as I’d been instructed, felt pretty easy. I practiced self-arresting, or braking completely, a few times, and was able.
The glissading was a relief, after those scary traverses. The snow grabbed much better than I’d expected. On this gradual slope, the snow kept piling up under me and my bag, bringing me to a stop. Sometimes I just sat a minute then and looked around, at the forest and snow on the mountains opposite, before pushing off again. What a time.
Mid-morning I watched the hiker couple, two specks below, traverse a valley below me and cut over to the climbing path on the opposite mountainside. (They cut over early, rather than following the entire curve of the trail around the bowl we were in. I was to do similarly, after my snack break.) It was pretty strange and a little inspiring to see these two human specks out in that vastness, slow-moving at that distance, and yet with time, covering a distance.
I started hiking up the next pass behind them, at a distance. I stopped often to catch my breath. It was nice to follow the trail on a south facing slope, snow-free, and look across at the snowy north facing slopes we’d come down.
The summit led to another descent, this time a much steeper glissade. I saw the couple at the bottom. This one was scarier for me because I couldn’t see over the last edge to what was ahead. I stopped myself and inched over to a rocky outcropping, spent a lot of time hiking up and down the outcropping to look over that last edge. Finally I decided it was safer to glissade than try to walk down. All went well. At the bottom I looked up and just laughed, it was such a long steep path. Where am I?
I walked further, then took a break, then watched from across the valley, as another hiker glissaded down that slope. He wasn’t as cautious as I, but this was so new to me.
The path worsened in the afternoon, meeting snow banks welled around conifers. Sometimes the only path was following steps around, stepping out on the edge of the snow bank, right on the mountain edge. I moved slowly, using my axe to anchor myself.
The other hiker moved faster, soon passing me and out of sight. I wished I’d caught up to the couple, and been able to talk about the day with them.
I hiked down and around part of the next snowy traverse on dry ground, tired of worrying about falling down a slope. That fear might not have been legitimate, but at this point in the day, I was weary of any risks.
I saw a coyote, scared and skittish, way below in the snow. He ran easily in the crust, definitely at home here, unlike me. So neat to see.
I came upon a sunny, seemingly less windy dirt patch at a pass. I set up my tent early, exhausted. It felt good to rest in the tent, the warm sun’s rays hitting this spot, but then a wind abruptly began to gust. The gusts strengthened enough to blow a tent corner from its stake, blowing the tent off the ground cloth even with me inside. It was stressful to be exposed to those gusts. I decided to attempt to hike down to the river below, 2 miles. I gritted my teeth and packed everything up.
Once again, I soon faced a piece of trail that unnerved me, snow piled on the trail with foot steps embedded into snow that stuck out on the mountain’s edge. My attempts to anchor the ice axe in the snow met with no grab at all, the snow too loose and melted by this hour. If I fell, nothing would hold me, in loose snow like this. I turned back.
I felt anxious, the sun setting, condemned to a mountaintop with windy gusts, potentially a cold sleepless night ahead. I looked around for anything and saw a protected patch I had missed, surrounded by snow wells, truly exactly what I needed. Almost like being in igloo walls. Once I had the tent set up, I could hear gusts passing above me, the tent buffered by the snow walls on either side. I felt it was a small miracle to find this protected spot.
That night, I tried not to worry too much about the next day, that snow bank and narrow trail ahead. I was glad to have learned some new mountaineering skills, and also to have figured out mountaineering-type hiking is not for me! I wasn’t sure what that meant for the future- maybe I’d need to start skipping the snowier sections ahead.
May 28. My sheltered spot held up wonderfully overnight. Often I could hear the wind blasting the mountainside, but the snow drift beside me buffered my tent from all those gusts. I could hear the powerful wind, but remained untouched. I was relieved about that, to say the least.
I started hiking, wondering what I’d do about that crossing that had so scared me before. First I spent time in camp putting band aids around many of my fingertips- they were chapped and opening and painful, maybe from being wet and the dry air, from grabbing snow over these climbs. So many challenges out here. I was really looking forward to getting to the next town and recovering.
I passed over the scary traverse with more of a hold for the axe, because of the snow freezing overnight. Then the next snowy stretch scared me too, the trail on a small ledge, and a patch of ice stretching over the trail, before I even got to the snow. I just didn’t know how the spikes would grab on ice, and I only had loose snow on the edge of the trail for the axe to dig into- not a good hold. Like so many of these passes, I could risk it and it would probably be okay, but there was a possibility it wouldn’t. Falling on a gentler slope would be okay, but this one was so steep, it wouldn’t be a good fall.
As always, my fear level was much higher because of hiking over these traverses with a heavy pack throwing my balance off.
I backtracked and studied what I could see of the mountain slopes behind. That was the other hardship, you can choose to glissade down a slope, but often you can’t see the entire slope beyond a drop off, you just don’t know what’s below.
I decided to use the conifers in one chute to lower myself down to the valley, more gently, and get off this mountain.
I slowly slid from tree to tree, often post-holing (or sinking down suddenly) in the well of soft snow beside the tree, but as long as I was safe, I didn’t care about that. But then the line of trees ended, and I was forced to cross the snowy chute to the trees on the other side. It was so very steep, it felt almost vertical to me. I believe a confident glissader would’ve slid down, but I couldn’t bring myself to. So I painstakingly dug my axe and crampons into the snow, step by step wedging the axe into the snow, kicking my feet into the snow, pulling the axe out and wedging it in another spot, and basically mountain climbed across the chute, terrified I would fall, shaky with the effort, first crossing halfway without pack, to test it, then coming back and crossing with pack. Basically the full body effort of mountain climbing.
I followed that line of trees a while, then noticed the land to one side seemingly dropping off, and once again, the trees ran out. It was so steep there. I made the painful decision to throw my bag down ahead, so I could climb across the chute again. All this time the day was getting warmer, the snow slushier, adding to my sense of urgency.
I found my bag, fortunately, descended with it a bit further, then had to throw it ahead again. I slowly descended, making more fearful crossings of the chute, then saw my bag way below, thankfully, at the bottom.
I descended and even glissaded the final, more gradual bit. I was glad to get down to the bottom of that mountain, but also so anxious, shaky. Guilty about putting myself in that situation, and sad that it wasn’t fun, just scary.
I do think the spikes hold really well in snow- many times you can cross over anything, something practically vertical, and they’ll hold. But you just don’t know. One patch of mushy snow and you’re done. Maybe if I had more mountaineering experience I’d feel more confident, but I just could not enjoy these risks.
I walked along the valley, along the river for a while. Through willows, boggy ground, mud. It was good to be down on stable ground.
I wasn’t hungry, even though that had been a tremendous effort, and quickly felt full when I tried to eat. I think maybe I was just overwrought, nerves shot.
I ascended slowly, wearily, to Summit Peak, often stopping to look over at where I’d climbed down, how scary it looked. I could see where the trail had continued up on the ridge, and that didn’t look great either. I had read that several had been rescued from this place in past years. I just don’t know what I could’ve done differently. Maybe back-tracked to a drier slope and descended to the river, walked quite a ways down there to this valley.
I hiked over mostly gentle ground and snow to Montezuma Peak, where the snowy trail abruptly curved over a steep edge ahead. I couldn’t really see what was ahead without following steps further than I wanted to.
I studied the land I could see, and made a plan to descend to the valley below, follow a river, and make it to a road I could see, thankfully, in the distance. I could reconnect with the CDT further north.
It took some time, but I finally descended to that road. Never did I think I’d be so thankful for a road walk, my feet steady on a solid, wide path.
I thought of my goals for the trip- meeting other hikers, peaceful walking through pretty scenes, listening to my books, learning the flora, landscapes along the way. I decided for the hundredth time in the past two days that mountaineering is not a goal for me. Security and safety are big trip enhancers that I took for granted before.
Thoughts come up like, is this trail too rough for me? I still had this desire to see it all though. I spent much time in the miles ahead, thinking of things I could do once I got to town to make the hike more enjoyable.
May 29. I continued the road walk this morning, before turning onto the Continental Divide Trail once again. There were many fallen trees over the path in this area, but I appreciated the forest walking, the open mountains, the views, and mostly the security of a snow free and wide path, proceeding over the mountains.
I was dismayed when the path narrowed and advanced directly on the mountain edge, steep drop below, tilting down toward the drop, scree bed that could easily slide under the sneakers. There was a place where I needed to step down over a flat rock in the path, loose pebbles on top of it. It seemed more dangerous to turn around than to keep going. I felt my legs shaking after I made those scary steps. I kept walking, trying to walk it off.
After that, I didn’t have confidence in the trail routers in this area. Why would they place a trail on mountain’s edge, in such a risky place? If you fell, you’d be done for. And the mountain looked like it was constantly eroding, constantly narrowing the path.
I walked further, passing over blowdowns. I couldn’t work up annoyance over something that wasn’t threatening my safety though, I couldn’t care less about blowdowns. It’s a hierarchy of priorities.
I ate more today, but still not much at a time. I believe it was the effects of the altitude, after reading others’ comments online about experiencing the same here in Colorado.
I hiked on, then came to the summit and my stomach sank looking ahead at another exposed mountainside stretch. Once again, narrow path on the edge, cut into the mountain partway up a steep slope. Everyone’s perception and risk assessment is personal, and I was terrified by what I saw.
I stood for a minute by some conifers, sheltering and thinking of what I wanted to do. If I could get through the first piece of it, I’d make it to a sort of wide secure resting place where I could gather myself.
I hadn’t seen another hiker in over 24 hours, hadn’t spoken to a hiker in longer than that. A hiker appeared suddenly behind me, said “Hi”, then, “Mind if I scoot past you?”
He seemed to have no qualms about walking the path ahead, up around 12000 feet, the mountain dropping off into an endless void below, while buffeted by strong gusts, inconsistent enough to knock a person off balance either from the initial gust or from overcompensating from a gust.
I decided to follow behind him before he disappeared, maybe gather courage in numbers. I had watched him stop briefly to stand, take some photos. Unbelievable, our different perspectives here.
The wind was gusting so fiercely, at one point I stopped to brace myself against the mountainside, working to avoid pushing back too hard against it. Once it lessened, I continued on, trying not to look down off the path but always sensing the void beside me. I started crying as I walked, thinking of the hiker ahead of me taking pictures, and how scared I felt.
I was relieved when I reached the flat clearing ahead, but maybe even more than relieved, totally exhausted. Also sad that I wasn’t enjoying the trail and what that implied (Would I continue to feel terrified in coming miles? Was it continuously routed this way? Was I missing something here? Were other hikers not scared?)
I cried for a while, and in those moments firmly decided not to put myself in a situation like this again, that it was missing the point of being out here at all. I look around at these mountain heights and I know in my mind that it’s beautiful, but nothing is beautiful or touching when you are frightened and anxious all the time.
I started down the other side of the mountain, making my own path, glissading from tree to tree on the snow, often sinking in, getting back up, sliding again. I was happily surprised to come out to a dirt road that wound down the mountain. I followed it down and around the mountain, then followed a smaller path to Alberta Reservoir. I could navigate somewhat using the map on my phone, always knowing my location in relation to the trail above.
Overhead, the sky was increasingly stormy, and even down below, where I was, gusts of wind continued to blow against and around me. I was glad not to be up 500-1000 feet higher, trying to hike up there.
It started to snow. I crossed the outlet of the reservoir and hiked in wet feet, but nothing that did not directly imperil my safety bothered me. I hiked by ski equipment and lifts, then the main hub of Wolf Creek Ski Run.
As I huddled under the eaves of one of their buildings (all appeared closed for the season) I saw two hikers walking across the parking area below. They looked like me- rain gear on, harried in the wind and snow/rain. I shouted to them, then hurried to catch up.
They were hitch-hiking in to Pagosa Springs and I wanted to hitch with them. We made quite a picture. A kind man pulled over and offered us a ride to town. It was truly a relief to ride down to Pagosa Springs, eat a warm meal in a restaurant, and find a place to stay for the night. Down below, the precipitation was not snow, but rather a light and passing rain.
May 30. Woke up to sunny skies in the campground I was staying in. I started the day by doing laundry, eating leftovers from the restaurant I had eaten at last night, and chatting with other campers in the laundry room. I appreciated just sitting in the soft chair in the laundry room, waiting for my clothes to dry.
I was touched by different kindnesses throughout the day. I walked with my clean laundry back to my campsite. The family camping beside me had seen my tent starting to blow away, and had staked it down for me with their own stakes, even placing heavy rocks inside my tent. (It had not been windy at all when I left the site, and I assumed the tent would be okay with some of my gear inside it.) The family asked if I needed anything, “We have everything here”, and I sat and ate hard-boiled eggs with them. I told them about my recent experiences, and they sympathized. It was appreciated.
I walked to a hotel to check in for the night. The man on staff was so kind. I was early to check in, but walked into the lobby anyway, hoping they’d let me check in early. No one was present at the front desk, and I started looking for a public restroom in the lobby. The man on staff walked in, asked if I needed help, I said I was just looking for the restroom, but
“It’s not an emergency”, and he said, “Yes it is”, and led me down the hall to a clean room, swiped me in, opened the door, and walked away. After I came back to the desk and checked in, he said, “Get some rest”.
It was so nice to be in a clean room, indoors, for a day and night. I loved it there.
I called home and we talked a long time. Dad commented on the kindnesses I noticed today and said, “That’s part of why you go on these trips, right? It refreshes the mundane of daily life”. Mom said she was nauseous, listening to my recent scares, but they both are glad to hear that I’m not drawn to the risks. The plan ahead is to minimize the risky moments.
I’m glad to have grown up in a family that was never drawn to personal achievements over personal safety.
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