The South San Juans: An Icy, Dicey Dance
For weeks, we have been anxiously awaiting the Colorado border and all the hiking this colorful state has to offer. We are excited for the vast views, rugged terrain, and eclectic mountain towns but mostly we are nervous about the snowpack. This year, the San Juan mountains had less than average snow, but several late snowfalls. We are experiencing hot days, but the hikers ahead of us still warn that mountains are snowy, and tell us to expect post-holing and other snow-related complications.
Into the Mountains We Go
We hike north from Cumbres Pass optimistically. It is a clear, warm day and as our elevation gains, the views only get better. We stick together, unsure of what obstacles will present themselves. We have a few patches of snow that cross the trail but it is mostly avoidable. At a few points, the snowdrifts are still several feet tall. We risk crossing them and are glad not to posthole (postholing is sinking into the snow as you walk). There is one short section, on the shady slope of a mountain, where drifts block the trail. It’s tricky to navigate through the brush but it is only a short section. This proves to be the only difficult stretch for the first day, and we cross the boundary into the South San Juan Wilderness with confidence. We finish the day at 18 miles, far more than we were expecting since we started late and heard rumors that anything more than 15 would be impossible.
A Slow Start
On our second day, we wake up early to catch the snow while it is still frozen from the cold nighttime temperatures. I take a break to practice self-arresting with my ice axe on slope. Having never hiked in this terrain before, I am basing my practice on a few YouTube videos I had watched the night before. After a few practice falls, I feel more confident with my ice axe.
In no time, we begin to understand the complaints of the hikers ahead of us. We are greeted with fields of snow too wide to skirt around. We hike through the snow, stepping in the footprints of other hikers. We had been told that the postholing started around 4pm, but the day is hot and the snow is melting fast. By 10 a.m., we are sinking up to our hips. Cold snowmelt rushes under the snowdrifts, and our feet are soaked. It is slow going and discouraging. We find a few opportunities to glissade (slide down on our butts) a short ways, which saves some time. We are mostly in alpine meadows, though, and the hiking is only tedious, not dangerous. In some sections, the combination of shade and trees provides a tricky obstacle. The sun has yet to melt the snow in these areas. The snow that had accumulated on the trees over the course of the winter has dropped to form tree wells that are often 10 feet deep or more. I have dubbed these sections “tree well hells”- it is tricky and slippery to navigate and while I know if I were to fall here I would be caught by the thick foliage, I am nervous nonetheless.
Wiz patiently slows down to my pace, helping where he can. I can tell that the terrain is much easier for him, and he is enjoying the new challenge. We butt heads as he frolics about in a way that seems careless and unsafe. I chastise him for not being cautious, but I know it is just my own nerves and frustrations speaking. He is far more athletic and capable than I am- why shouldn’t he twirl the sharp blade of his ice axe around like a baton while sliding through the snow as if on invisible skis? My mood grows continually sour.
We manage to hike only 13.6 miles. I start to understand the warnings of the hikers before us but am thankful that nothing so far has put me truly out of my comfort zone.
A Far Too Eventful Day
On our third morning, we are determined to wake up even earlier to get as many miles in as possible before the postholing starts. I scarf down my breakfast at 4am with resolve. I am determined to be stronger with my hiking today: the terrain is slowing me down enough as it is, I don’t need to be lethargic as well. Our first mile is up hill, and I hike quickly. At the top, we watch the sunrise over impressive, snowcapped peaks and it is stunning. We meet our first snowy traverse. I strap on microspikes and hold my ice axe in my left hand. The snow is hard packed and firmly frozen and we cross without incident. Looking down the slope puts butterflies in my stomach, but I finish the traverse feeling accomplished. We cross two or three more, nothing too steep or too long and I am getting more comfortable.
In the late morning, the heat starts to kick in and the snow gets slushier. It is easier to slip in the snow and postholing becomes an annoyance once again. The trail crosses a mountain pass and we look down into a lush green valley, cut in half by a river of snowmelt. The trail stays high for a while then, according to our map, switchbacks down into the valley. When we reach the switchbacks we find no trail, just a steep slope of snow with a single track through it. It isn’t a foot track, but rather a slide where hikers before us have glissaded down.
I had heard about a glissade of a 500-1000 feet in this section but thought that was an exaggeration. I watch my hiking partners take turns sliding down- the slope is steep and they gain speed quickly. They shout up advice about how to best hold my ice axe to use as a break. I am the second to last to go and I am nervous. I gain speed quicker than expected and rely heavily on my ice axe to slow me down. Halfway down, my urge to slow down gets me in trouble. I dig my axe into the snow too deep, and it swings me off course. I am flipped onto my stomach and am off the track. I slide another 20 feet, through the steepest section, before I am able to self-arrest. Jagged rocks taunt me below. It takes me a long time to catch my breath and flip back. I finish the rest of the glissade with my heart racing, on the verge of tears.
Behind me, Wiz slides down quickly and without incident. He is cheering as if he is on a roller coaster, and later complains that he couldn’t get himself to go fast enough. I am frustrated to the point of tears that I seem so handicapped compared to the guys I am hiking with.
Shortly after the glissade, we come to another tree well hell. A few steps in, I start crying with frustration and it doesn’t take long for that to turn into sobbing. I struggle to see the “trail” through swollen eyelids, and I can’t catch my breath. I collapse as I reach dry trail at last, and Wiz stands by, doing his best to comfort me as I throw my tantrum. We decide this is a good spot to rest for lunch- the day is only halfway done.
After I recover and am well fed, we climb up to the next pass. I am thankful for a long stretch of dry trail- we are on the south face of the mountain which receives the most sunlight. I am still moving slow, and our hiking partners pull ahead. Wiz stays close by, probably nervously anticipating another breakdown from me. We are almost to the pass when a strange noise catches our attention. We look ahead and see a yellow helicopter coming in from the east, heading toward the valley that we are on our way towards. We look at each other nervously. At the pass, we meet our hiking partners and catch a view into the valley. The helicopter we saw, along with another, are landed in the valley. We see pilots standing around casually and we optimistically concur that they must be doing training.
We are now on the north face of the mountain and soon we come to a long, snowy traverse. It takes nearly half an hour of high focus to cross- the guys have all pulled ahead and it is just me and Wiz again. I kickstep before planting my foot with each step since the snow is slushy. I see marks where others have slide a few inches before me. It is nothing too dangerous, but I know I would panic if I were to slide even the smallest amount. I am mentally and physically exhausted by the time we make it to dry trail. The relief doesn’t last long- another long traverse follows the first. And then a third. When we arrive at the fourth traverse there are no footprints in the snow.
Instead, we see the rest of our hiking group making their way down the patch of dry land to the valley. The trail eventually ends up in the valley so we follow suit: we don’t want to be the first to traverse the steep slope. At the bottom, the choppers are still lingering in the grassy meadow. The route is steeper than it looked from the top, and I keep my microspikes on to better grip the dirt. Small stones roll out from under my feet and it is hard to keep my balance. Less than halfway down, we find a discarded hat. Then some water bottles. Then an ice axe and a phone. We can see marks where it looks like someone tried to glissade- we no longer think the helicopters are out here for training- it is clear there was an accident here.
Still shaken from my experience earlier in the day, I refuse to glissade even at the bottom of the hill. I make my way carefully through the snow until I reach our friends at the bottom. In the meantime, we see the two choppers take off, but there is still a paramedic in the valley when I arrive. He is waiting for his team to come back and retrieve him. Wiz and I rush up eagerly with the discarded gear that we collected and the paramedic shares the story:
Earlier in the day, another hiker and her partner had decided to descend into the valley in this same spot. They had made it halfway down when another hiker crossed the traverse overhead and accidentally kicked loose a large rock. The rock had rolled down the hill and crashed into her leg, breaking the femur. When she realized she wasn’t able to walk, she hit the SOS button on her device. A helicopter arrived and was started their rescue. As they were working their way up to her, another hiker had either purposely or accidentally glissaded down the steep slope. He slid into some rocks and lost consciousness- this was probably where we found all the gear. He then proceeded to slide down the rest of the slope, unconscious and with severe injuries, landing at the feet of the paramedics that happened to already be on the scene. They called in the second chopper, prioritized evacuating the second hiker since his injuries were worse, and had just flown off with the first hiker when we arrived. The paramedic commented that this was their third rescue of the week.
Shaken, we decide that we are done hiking for the day. We find a flat spot in the valley and set up camp. As a group, we decide that after Wolf Pass we will not be taking the CDT through the San Juan Mountains. Instead, we will take the Creede Cutoff through the lower land, sparing us the dangers of continuing this terrain but also missing out on some of the most spectacular views along the whole CDT.
Almost Out of the Woods
The next day, we wake up early again. We are greeted with vast snowfields but make good time while it is still frozen over. We come to another snowy traverse at the base of Summit Mountain, but it is easy to cross. I am determined to be more courageous today and I cross with confidence. I had seen some comments about a traverse here that was supposed to be terrifying, and I am proud of myself for getting across without panicking. But before long we come to a second traverse and I realize this is the one that had earned a reputation of being dicey. The fall, if one were to slip, is short, but the occasional jagged rock emerges from the sea of white. The slope itself, however, is the steepest we have yet to encounter.
I start walking before I have time to think much about it. I don’t look down. Wiz mutters encouragement from behind me. Halfway through we reach a rocky outcropping. We are walking on a snow bridge across a cliff of boulders- I can see where others before me have postholed into the gaps between rocks and my heart races. It takes focus and concentration to make it across without panicking. We make it past the sketchy part without incident, but it is still another 20 minutes of careful steps before we reach dry land.
The Icing on the Cake
I am relieved to learn that this is our last traverse of the section. We work our way through deep fields of snow, but it is flat and postholing is our only concern. Finally we come to a long stretch of dry trail and at last we are able to actually hike. We enjoy lunch in a patch of trees, then proceed to hike another ten miles after lunch. For the first time this week, I can afford the distraction of a podcast. There is a sense of relief at camp. We are glad to have finally made some miles and we have town to look forward to tomorrow.
We hike eagerly the next day, and Wiz, Purple, and I find a bit of a short cut to the road. We have our first hitching experience of this trail- it takes about half an hour but a construction worker finally offers us a ride. It’s a half an hour drive into Pagosa Springs. We pile into our hotel room and agree to take a zero the next day. We enjoy the local public hot springs, pizza, and beer from the local brewery. The mood is killed when Wiz and I hear from our roommates back home and find out there are some costly-sounding issues with our home (which Wiz owns). We are grumpy as we contemplate the financial commitments that might be required. We do our best to enjoy the luxuries of town but the thought lingers like a black cloud. We can’t help but wonder if our hike might end sooner than expected.
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