Monarch Pass to Twin Lakes, CO

Day 1: Nero… (8 miles to Monarch in the morning + 16.5 past Monarch after resupply)

After Tom dropped us back at the Lodge, I dumped out all my food in the parking it and made quick work of sorting and packing and gave Baskets any overflow of snacks he wanted. Between that, what was leftover from Twisted’s resupply box he left over at the Lodge and the snacks purchased at the Gift shop, Baskets would be fine for the next three day stretch to Twin Lakes. We charged our phones ate some snack bar food and headed off back to the trail which took us directly over the ski area and over several large and exposed ridge lines. Then we dropped down to several beautiful alpine lakes, one after another until crossing a fork of the Arkansas river where I waited for baskets.

When he caught up we decided to hike over Chalk Creek Pass which took us up a steep road past some abandoned cabins and under an enormous southern rock face. We made it over the pass as the sun set and with headlamps, hiked down a boggy basin to another lake with actively feeding fish at the inlet. This lead us down a road where we saw Situpchuck and Burkhardt, two German hikers, who offered to us to pick our tent nearby but there was no flat spot leftover. We walked another mile and a half and camped – now late and growing weary at 10pm – at a sufficient spot nearby a creek which was the outflow of the earlier lake above.

 

On day two (26 miles), we got a bit of a later start than usual, and hiked back up the road and up Tunnel Gulch, a historic railroad grade where conductors would haul full cars of coal around some of the steepest and curviest terrain ever. As fate would have it on occasion a train would go too fast around a corner…

This day called for climbs of 1,300 and 1,800 feet and four additional climbs totaling over 6000 feet of climbing and the day was beautiful and full of huge vistas including views of Mirror Lake but full of hard work. Approaching Cottonwood pass might have the hardest as we’d gone over and around about five large basins at that point. Windy and a bit of snow to navigate at the end it was late and I was hoping for camping but we were greeted with a featureless, concrete parking lot and lots of wind. We kept going, officially entering the West Collegiate Peaks and hiking another three miles past several people camping already. I eyes a spot above a small steam and Baskets called it 5-star… it was two great flat spots tucked into the trees and we made quick work and set up camp for the night.

Day three (31+ miles), was a beautiful walk downhill toward Texas Creek, our first big water crossing. We hiked for several hours across a large valley and passed the junction to Mirror Lakes. Next was a seven mile traverse to the South Illinois trail then headed up towards Lake Ann pass. We stopped for a short break before the climb and Situpchuck passed me, hauling ass with his headphones on and making good time. I spun  and took off toward him, attacking the 1800 feet or so we had left to climb. I passed another through hiker then a young local couple with a dog. With two switchbacks left I caught Situpchuck’s tail and surprised him when we reached the top. We then faced a very steep 100 foot section of snow that, had I kept my ice axe and not sent it to Salida, would have come in handy for a glissade. But I didn’t have it so I descended a set of steep, nerve racking steps left in the snow by previous hikers. I then watched Baskets descend while the couple who had the dog let the pooch run up and practically stand on his hind legs until finally corralling the mutt to give Baskets some room to concentrate.

Baskets descends steep snowfield at Lake Ann pass.

At the bottom we met and chatted with Situpchuck who had stopped for a snack. We hiked down mile after mile into a steep valley behind 14’ers, Huron Peak and Browns Peak and made a turn past an old mining town. Several miles later we turned up some of the steepest climbing I’d ever done and headed towards Hope Pass. 3000 feet and a lot of internal coaxing later, we reached the top and looked down towards Twin Lakes. Pushing on with the sun going down we descended from the pass nine miles down Willis Gulch towards the lake and Lake Creek. Exhausted, a few miles short of town we found a big oak tree – you heard that right, and plopped down a quick and dirty camp for the night.
Day four (17.3 miles nero), was a short walk over the bridge and Lake Creek, down the road two miles and two more to twin. We met Baskets friend Nope, reunited for the dirt time since hiking some of the Appalachian Trail a year before. We’d sweet talked the owner of Twin Lakes Lodge into selling us a continental breakfast – normally for guests only – and gorged ourselves accordingly. I resupplied for three days out of the selections at the local general store, then hit the BBQ cart in front of a small art gallery. After calling home, mom and dad, I hit the trail again about 2pm and hiked past 14’er Mt. Elbert about 16 miles more and stopped at a nice creek with a flat spot 100 yards above.

8 Miles over windy and windy ridgeine Drop under gondola Egg sandwich ad coffee Tom picks up heet, us, and shuttles to Lodge and back More food, charging 16.4 more miles starting w big climb from pass to 12550. Drop to lakes Wait for Baskets at fork of Arkansas Six miles over chalk creek pass to windy lake and down road by headlamp to find camp
Day 2 Late start Railroad grade and tunnel 1300, 1800, plus four more climbs 6000 feet North side snow 25.7 mileswalkimg to dusk again collegiate wilderness boundary five star camp, near catawampus and iceman
Day 3: 31+miles Start at mi 1122 Descend to Texas Creek hike five miles to junction with Mirror Lakes alt break, see swede Up Prospector gulch then 7 miles traverse until int with Illinois Trail and Lake Ann trail break, meet Ben couple passes, Situpchuck passes, I take off Pass Ben and catch up to Situpchuck at top Snow descent on steps Descend to lake and down S Fork of Clear creek. Passing Huron Trail we stayed on dirt road past old townsite. Continue on road past Ervin Peak and Mt Hope rejoin cdt via bushwhacked Up next pass -1100 feet in .7 mile past camp Up another 1500 to Hope pass down pass Baskets wants 30+ Descend all the way down willis gulch 3.5 left at bermuda triangle tril and camp
Day 4: 17.3 mile Nero mile down trail and two down road to town. Breakfast at Twin Lakes Inn and Saloon Resupply and relax BBQ joint Hike out one mile on road to CDT junction Chat with day hiker for a mile until Lily Pond Pass lots of Mt Albert summiteers Beautiful trail down to Halfmoon Rd to enter Mt Massive Wilderness More beautiful trail to camp by small stream.

Spring Creek Pass to Monarch Pass

Day one: 10.5 miles

After a hitch into Lake City I grabbed a bite to eat at Chillin and a bunk at the Raven’s Rest Hostel next door for the evening. While doing laundry I made a reservation at Climb, the best restaurant in the little town where I had a hiker budget meal of alfredo linguine with chicken and grilled vegetables and a glass of pino grigio.

The staff at Climb. Owner Jerry on right.

That night I met Man In Black, a retired schoolteacher from San Diego and his hiking partner Fly Fish, a very nice and funny writer from Munich, Germany. In the morning after resupply and errands I left town about noon and got a ride out of town by a local who dropped me off at an ideal intersection. After about 30 minutes an old couple picked me up and had other passengers: Black and Fly! We got dropped off at Spring Creek Pass and immediately hiked by a small fire that was ignited by lightening a few days before but extinguished quickly by local crews after only about 70 acres. We climbed 1,300 feet on the east shoulder of an ancient volcano and across a few miles of Snow Mesa when I ran into the same couple who I’d seen the day before getting dropped off at the pass, Scud and Esteh who were hiking the Colorado Trail. They were walking back to the pass as Esteh said she had elevation sickness.

Black and Fly eventually caught up and after a steep now crossing we decided to camp after 10.5 miles at a site marked on the map with good tent sites. During vamp time I learned from Black that Esteh had actually been overwhelmed by the hiking: the vastness of the peaks, steep trails, snow crossings… it had made her uncomfortable and she confided this in Black as she passed him earlier. This is understandable. The trail is high altitude and way up in the middle of nowhere. It’s quite daunting at times if you really stop to think about it. That night I didn’t sleep too well with a good bit of smoke settling in from the Santa Fe national forest fires and Durango fire combining into a thick blanket of respiratory discomfort. I’m looking forward to getting further north.

Day two: 23 miles

The day started with a hazy morning and a long steady climb before dropping to the highlight of the day, San Luis Pass, the confluence of four trails including the Creede Cutoff for those who decided to skip the San Juan’s and Wemnuche Wilderness.
Fly Fish related new terminology: the Bavarian Switchback. Essentially, a trail with no switchback a Bavarian Switchback is a long, steadily graded trail.

Strange pinnacles above the trail of Bavarian switchbacks.

They don’t build switchbacks in Bavaria apparently, and neither did those who lad out this section of the CDT as we scaled saddles of peaks of over 12,000 feet. We entered the La Garita wilderness and proceeded to descend elevation down Cochetopa Creek about 12 miles. Black and I approached our 1000th mile of hiking and as we passed several hydro-engineering masterpieces completed by the local beavers, we looked for a marker or piles of stones that might signify the moment. By 1000.9 miles Black stopped, disappointed, and began gathering sticks to construct our own monument.
Later on at a crossing of Cochetopa we met Too Much and Alex, a young couple from St. Louis. After a few more miles of flats walking we choose a spot to camp by the river. It was early and I enjoyed the company of Fly Fish and Man In Black that evening as we chatted and made dinner.

Fly Fish, another German hiker, has quite the sense of style!

Day three: 31 miles

On day three I packed camp and headed out earlier than Fly or Black and hiked up to a dry and muddy reservoir and around a small hill leaving Cochetopa Canyon for good. The trail climbed through several nice stands of aspen trees then out into broad rolling foothills. After stopping to dry my bag and have a snack I saw an antelope dart across the road then look back at another antelope in what seems to have been a communication of approval or confirmation. Black passed me and a few minutes later Fly came by and he and I hiked onward.
We stopped for water at Ant Creek which was a trickle. While resting, XC, Gusher, and Philly came along and we met them. XC hiked a few hundred miles of the PCT in 2016 with my pal in Seattle, Jeff (Mountainman) Brownscheidle, so I’d been expecting to meet him at some point. I hiked on for a steady pace a few more hours until 1pm and took a 40 minute lunch while Fly joined me. Another hour or so later we came up on Black who was resting at a creek right before the trail crossed over state highway 114. It was barely 3pm so I elected to make a big day out of this nicer walking and parted ways with Fly and Black at that creek while they would hike on just a few more miles and camp.
I gained the highway, hiked a quarter mile and then turned onto the trail which shared a road and climbed to the Lujan Creek trailhead. After a few more miles I reached a sign stating a summit trail and proceeded to walk along one, then a second and finally a third ridge line. While checking for cell service, Too Much and Alex passed by and while descending I caught up to and talked with them.

Too Much and Alex pass by new CDT signs.

We made it to a creek with camp sites but it was swarmed by bugs. XC, Gusher, and Philly arrived and we all had the same idea to hike another half mile to a flat meadow where they set up for the night on one side and I set up far away on the other.

Day four: 29 miles

I woke to another morning of light smoke , made coffee and ate granola then got hiking by 7am. After about an hour and a half of hiking I ran into Baskets who I hadn’t seen in a few weeks since Chama, NM. He was taking a break on a fallen log and we caught up for a few minutes and started hiking together.
Overall, the day was surprisingly easy with only two climbs over 1000 feet including Marshall Pass.

The smoke cleared and talking all day with Baskets made easy work of 29 miles. We camped in a saddle near Monarch Ridge and what would be the last good camping for eight miles – what we left to hike for the morning to get to Monarch Pass.

Day Five: 8 miles to Monarch (+17 later)

The morning and hiking went quickly, with just under eight miles to Monarch Pass we arrived before 10am hiking along a series of easy ridges and then down under the gondola that took people 800 feet up to the Continental Divide for a hefty fee.

 

We pulled into the Monarch Gift and General Store and ordered food from the snack bar. The gentleman at the register gave me a business card for Tom Syzek, a semi retired medical professional who kindly gives rides to CDT and CT hikers. Tom picked us up at the pass, drove me down to Monarch Lodge seven miles away so I could pick up my resupply box, and then drove back up to the pass. and dropped us off with a Snickers bar as a gift. Tom was also kind enough to pick up a can of HEET for me so i had fuel. We thanked him and headed off about 2pm to continue our “nero,” or near zero miles as the hiker term suggests… which turned out to be 17 more miles for a total of 25 on the day. Hardly a rest day, don’t you think?

Wolf Creek Pass to Spring Creek Pass (CO 149/Lake City)

After landing in Denver, sleeping in the airport, and then an hour and a half delay of my afternoon flight I finally made it to Alamosa where Peru was waiting for me after doing her weekly errands. We drove back to South Fork and after a stop at the Rainbow grocery I saw Radar (Peru’s partner), for the first time since leaving Lordsburg, NM back in mid April! She drove me to Wolf Creek Pass and dropped me off about 7:30pm. Twisted got dropped off about a half hour later after hitching up from Pagosa Springs. We decided to walk 10 minutes into a meadow and just camp for the night which allowed me to at least re-acclimate again since I spent a week at 1200 feet and now was back at 11,000.
In the morning we woke, crosses hwy 550 and headed onto the CDT. With views of Alberta Peak and the ski area my mind was reminiscing of great ski days in the 90’s, and after some climbing we entered the Weminuche wilderness, a moment I’d been anticipating for months, and something I’d been talking about with everyone since the beginning of the CDT. For me this was a feeling of homecoming. Spending 13 years and all of my 20’s in Durango, CO the San Juan mountains and the Weminuche wilderness we’re areas I’d explored, hiked, climbed and learned a lot of lessons. Little did I realize at that moment while standing next to that wilderness sign, now decades later, that I was about to learn some more.

We climbed through more dead forest damaged from beetle kill and passed Archuletta lake before ascending the west shoulder of Mount Hope at about 12,500 feet that afternoon. We climbed a broad and steep ridge and passed the rugged Sawtooth mountain and the Highline Trail spur before following a long ridge then climbing up around a massive rock walled valley above Beaver Creek for the next two miles.

The entire time a big , nameless peak loomed to the west and we started climbing the long lower shoulder which lured us into the shadowy and steep traverse. From a distance it looked like we would be crossing high and treacherous snow. I was concerned and charged upwards to examine more closely. When the sun dropped and I entered the dark reaches I was relieved to see the trail instead zig zagged up away from the snow. At the first of five switchbacks I stopped to wait for Twisted as he was about 15 minutes behind and watched him climb up the shoulder I’d just come from.

Though vaguely, I remembered this climb from hiking this section more than 20 years ago and when Twisted reached me we proceeded up an extremely narrow, wet and steep footpath. No trail maintenance here. No horse or even the most seasoned rider would ever attempt this. It would be one of many high-wire and skinny trails we’d experience in the Weminuche. At the third switchback we encountered ice and instead scaled the stone and mud as carefully as possible to reach the fourth switchback. This was even thinner tread and led to one more over crumbling rock and sloping trail. Twisted was in front and with full concentration reached the top of a magnificent ridge at over 12,800 feet and we towered above looking down at the West Fork of the San Juan River.

After walking a few hundred feet along the thin ridge the trail thankfully descended slowly across a west face and after a few more miles we reached Piedra Pass and made our night’s camp on a primitive and abandoned dirt road at about 11,400 feet. This first day back found us doing 21.5 miles.
In the morning we hiked below Piedra peak then along another ridge near 12,000 feet and east of Palomono Mountain. In our minds we knew that The Knife Edge, about 15 miles away from us to start the day, was the gateway to our continued journey through the San Juan’s and Weminuche Wilderness.
Before that came a majestic morning, and after passing Palomino we traversed below a long north facing ridge overlooking East Trout Creek, passing over more snow fields and then making our way up to and staying on a 12,000 foot ridge line for nearly six beautiful miles. The trail climbed right on top and we felt on top of the world, wind blasting us as we rounded northwest then north across the rocky talus edge, Middle Trout Creek basin below us.
Along the way we ran into and met Lately, a hiker in his 20’s from Edwards, CO. We would see him a few times here and there and when we wound up in a small basin at Cherokee lake about a mile before The Knife Edge we saw him filtering water and all chatted as we took a short break. Lately joined us as we climbed from the lake up a steep incline then around another basin as we saw the back of The Knife Edge approaching. We climbed a steep switchback and through a small keyhole and then we saw it. I think I could have thought to myself, “ I really don’t like what I see,” but said to everyone that we ought to all put our crampons in now. What I saw scared the hell out of me: a dozen snowfields crossings on a slope of at least 55-60 degrees of not a bit steeper.

After I converted to micro spikes and ice axe I quickly decided to dive right in, so to speak. The first foot placements were ok, parallel to the direction of the mountain. I sunk my axe in to the head and made another step. Each step that already existed in the snow from previous hikers made me nervous. I took my good, sweet, nervous time and reached the center of the 30 foot traverse when the risk that I was taking started to play out in my head. I refused to look at anything but the snow in front of me but that didn’t change the fact that if I were to slip I was going to fall to my death, and I was well aware of this. One failed foot placement or worse, something I couldn’t control, like the snow giving way to the beating sun and warm air, and there would be no way to self arrest a fall in time. In either of these two scenarios I would tumble off the cliff and with certainty, fall and die.
I turned to face the snow and began to softly kick steps a bit deeper into the snow as if I were Ice climbing. Lately, unwisely maneuvering behind me just a few steps, was being patient as I slowly talked through each axe placement, match of my feet, and reshaping each step. I neared the last five feet when my foot suddenly broke through the snow and I dropped two and a half feet, my right foot hitting rock below the broken snow and my ice axe now above my head, my fingers frozen from pressure against the snow and griping the axe for all I was worth. I quickly stepped on my left foot to raise my body up, took a long, reaching, and risky step far to my right to reach an existing step, then matched and lifted my axe out of the snow. Two more steps and I reached the end of the snow and found solid land. After another step I was completely on trail again.
Lately followed behind and during all this Twisted did he was instead going to try the lower route as he saw a sign suggesting their was one. I hollered back, “OK.”
After only a 50 foot stretch of trail we reached the next snow field, same steep angle and some lousy conditions. I looked at Lately and said, “How about you lead this one?” He said ok and passing by me and took his first then second step onto the snow. With both feet on snow he took his third step and with it, broke through the snow just as I had done, his axe now over his head. He backed off the snow and clinging to rock, climbed back onto the trail he’d just stepped off of moments ago. We both decided to stop crossing the snow fields and instead down climb the rock below which was equally as dangerous and carried the same consequence: slip, and a fall would kill us. It was our only way out.
Lately went first and on his hands and butt, wiggled his way through the crux, an eight to ten foot chute of steep rock and dirt. Once through he used his trekking poles to carefully pick his way down another 100 meters of very steep, loose terrain until the grade of the slope finally gave way a bit allowing him some relief from the stress. After he was clear I followed, taking twice the time to defend the chute, being exceptionally cautious, and twice as nervous as the younger hiker who’d I just watched descend this treacherous pile of rock and dirt.
As I worked my way down the chute I saw Twisted about 100 meters down and right, sitting on top of the lower route he had chosen to try instead of the insanity Lately and I had chosen. “I’m going to Creede!” he shouted at me. “I can’t cross this. There’s an ice chute.” I saw what was in front of him, the lower option with its own barrier, a short, 10 meter chute of snow that vaulted steeply over a clif. Slip on the crossing and there was nothing but air before hitting rock below. “Twisted, I can’t turn around,” I shouted back. “I know!” he replied. “I’m sorry,” were my last words to Twisted, and he shouted back, “It’s ok.”
With that I descended to the valley below and Twisted turned around and eventually hiked 22 miles back to the Creede cutoff which bypassed the entire San Juan mountains and Weminuche wilderness which I was about to hike alone for the next four days to Lake City. The lesson learned was that, for the last month and a half, I’d made decisions with a hiking partner. My decision to dive into tackling the extreme snow on The Knife Edge was based solely on my own desire to retrace my steps through the Weminuche wilderness from over twenty years ago disregarding the safety or risk tolerance off my hiking partner. As a result, I lost that hiking partner and would carry on solo.
The rest of that day however, Lately and I cross country hiked over to Trout Lake, and sitting above Williams Lake, decided to hike up the next mountain and down a ridge where we encountered a massive snow wall at high angle. Examining the situation, we chose to hike straight up a dry spot on this rock face about 800 feet and onto the mountain ridge to get around. Having used all my energy reserves and full of adrenaline from the The Knife Edge, I struggled to make this ridge climb and once at the top was completely exhausted. We spent the next 45 minutes picking our way down to a small saddle above Williams lake and after short debate on whether to keep hiking, decided to stop and camp.
In the morning I chatted with Lately who said he needed about 15 minutes before hiking. I took off towards the next mountain pass which looked like it might be holding difficult snow to cross but turned out to be manageable. I passed Chief Mountai, over Squaw Pass and through Little Squaw Creek then wound through a series of beautiful alpine lakes before climbing up to 12,200 feet, when I saw the fire.

I was headed right for this wild fire but since I was pretty familiar with the general area I figured it was south of Silverton and likely caused by the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. A bit nervous, I hiked on but the fire was looming in my mind. I hiked on over a 6 mile section of high alpine tundra past several pothole lakes before descending down Snowslide Canyon down to a massive meadow where the Lis Pinos River flows south and the Weminuche river flows north to Rio Grande Reservoir. I would find out later that Shadow, Mouse, Bear and Tuff Broad would hike down to the reservoir and cut off about 40 miles before getting to Silverton.

I hiked on and up Rincon La Vaca towards Rio Grand Pyramid, a mountain I would continue to see for days on end.

I climbed on and on as the sun started to go down behind the Pyramid and the Window, a 300 foot notch in the side of the mountain. I made it over the shoulder and down to Ute creek then hiked until dark and camped below Ute mountain after a 28 mile day.

On day four I woke to some rain with big, ominous clouds everywhere. I would chase the rain and snow all day, tempting my fate through the unpredictable San Juan weather.

I climbed past Twin Lakes, Ute Lake then West Ute Lake and up a soggy cliff side south of Mt. Nebo.

From Mt Nebo I climbed Hunchback Pass and passed an ultra runner at the op before I dropped to Beartown site. I crossed a big creek and started a climb towards a broad open section of about four miles that presented a big challenge to me 23 years ago when hiking the Colorado Trail. Gaining the top near 13,000 feet I looked to the west Needles Range and saw black sky’s and clouds filled with snow charging forward. I though about turning around and retreating to shelter as on top there is no where to go… four miles of open alpine shoulder, exposed with no trees, rocks, nothing. Like 23 years ago I went for it and the weather came in fast. Winds increased to 60-70 mph gusts and I hiked as fast as I ever have, literally running in some spots. Hail started blowing horizontally, forcing me to balance and rebalance with each step. The entire left side of my pack – facing the Needles range and where this hell-storm was blasting in from – was quickly covered in a shell of frozen hail. Pellets cracked against my rain hood, hands, and legs and I prayed no lightening would join in with the storm. It would be the second time in three days I was thinking how easily I could die, as the situation I found myself in was classic conditions for a freak lightening strike. I hauled my sorry ass up and over mile after mile. I was probably doing 15 minute/mike pace and finally, thankfully I began to drop toward Highland Mark Lakes. After another mile I made it to The Cunningham Gulch trailhead and decided to drop down 1200 feet and while I did the storm subsided. 45 minutes later at the bottom of the gulch it was sunny and calm.

In the morning I climbed 1200 feet back up to the CDT and headed towards Stony Pass. I made good time and it was a beautiful day. I went down the pass and onto the trail again taking the new route south around Canby Mountain and hammered my way over 13,000 feet towards Cuba Gulch. A few more miles took me along the shared CT/CDT route and Cataract Lake.

I took photos as I gained elevation and enjoyed a beautiful day. At 6pm I climbed to the highest point on the CT, at 13,271 feet and kept on going another 8 miles. The next day I hiked over Jarisa mesa over an ancient volcanic lava field. By bypassing Silverton my goal was to make it to Lake City and I hiked until 9:30pm after a 31 mile day in the San Juans to set myself up for an 8 mile day into Lake City. That made it a six day trip to Lake City and I made it to Spring Creek Pass by 10 am. I saw Bear Sweatz and Tuff Broad get dropped off, chatted then hitched to Lake City and stayed at the Ravens Rest Hostel.

Cumbres Pass, CO (Chama, NM) to Wolf Creek Pass (Pagosa Springs/South Fork)

This entry was written and posted live nearly a week after completing this section and is based off my daily notes. It’s dated for the actual days spent on the passage to keep consistent with the rest of the entries for the trail.

Leaving Chama proved difficult. Two rest days were spent to organize gear, resupply, and plan for alternate routes. Twisted had his ice axe delivered Thursday. I had real 12-point crampons delivered as well (Camp XLC 490), but found I’d have needed the high top version of the Altra Lone Peak shoe in order to accommodate the crampon’s high rear ankle bail which wound up pressing into my exposed heel. I sent them back that day. Twisted had new socks coming as well and he needed them – his feet nursing several blisters and hot spots. Surprisingly, we use the exact same shoe and I’ve had zero blisters the entire time.

Twisted’s FedEx didn’t come until 2pm. Tuff Broad and Bear Sweatz had already hitched to the pass early morning, and Shadow and Country Mouse left at 10am. I had a local friendly – Ralph – scheduled to pick us all up at 2:30pm, as Dirtbag, Constantine and Nimbles (minus Fifty), headed our with us.
Dropped off at the pass we walked to the trail head where we encountered England who had left town two days ago but was sitting at the trailhead looking a bit exhausted. He explained that he hiked up over 11,000 feet twice in the past two days only to get bad altitude sickness and come back down to 10,300 at the pass. We’d find out later that he’d go back to town and restart Saturday walking the entire Great Divide road alternate instead.
The younger guys stopped for a smoke break at the trailhead and this was the last time we’d see them on this section. We aimed to hike 12 miles to the other side of a moderate-looking mountain and call it a night. Twisted and I headed up several miles of gradual climbing over a few creeks and through high ponderosa pines as the trail took us west with continuous views of the ominous and snow-filled Banded Peak and Chama Peak in the distance.

Twisted was sure we were heading right over Banded but the trail turned north and took us past it where we encountered our first snow, a short and steep 20’ long section that I flew right over without using any snow tools. There were several more spots like this with far less risk but with a bit of post holing. It was nearly 7pm and the going was slow. When we stopped briefly at a creek for water we decided to be less ambitious with the night’s destination and after reaching a steep cliff side with snow to traverse we instead dropped below it to camp on a flat spot that had some snowmelt for water filtering and called it a night just short of 10 miles in.


In the morning we hiked up and past the snow traverse and passed a small lake 400’ below in a steep drainage. Walking along a ridge line we ascended the small mountain we’d been targeting the day before which took us along the top and along the edge of a steep drop off where lots of marmots squeaked away at us. Now in the San Juan Wilderness, for the better part of the morning we hiked along this moderate alpine tundra with tons of unofficial little lakes avoiding snow piles when the trail ran into them, stepping around, over and often into large puddles of snowmelt. Water was everywhere
Every.
Where.

Our feet were soaked and trying to keep them dry was futile. We scampered over rock, trail, and plenty of snow as the afternoon temperatures warmed the upper layers to a vanilla slush. We post-holed pretty much over every snow crossing, wishing out our to mother nature to let the snow hold our weight with each step…until…DAMN it…sinking a leg in up to our knee, or thigh, and in some cases hip deep! Luckily the terrain remained moderate and the views of the distant peaks we’re outstanding. After lunch and nearing the end of a long day we were following foot prints and debated who had made them. Focused on reaching Blue lake for the evening we wove our way through some trees and then did a short glissade down a steep slope and saw Rabbit and Leopard, the owner of those foot prints. Together, we trudged onward two more miles down a long valley then climbed up and then down to the frozen over Blue lake where the couple made a camp at the outlet and we found a good dryish high spot at a trail intersection nearby. Feet and legs soaked again, we camped and ate and decided to start the next day’s hiking at 6am to take advantage of the snow in a frozen state and hopefully make better time for a while.


I woke early; about 4:30am, and slowly made two coffees and had my granola. We left camp a few minutes after 6 and with our microspikes on made quick time around the west end of the lake. With everything frozen still we climbed a few switchbacks up and then made good time down a shallow valley only losing a bit of elevation as we crossed underneath a snowmelt lake that is the headwater for the Navajo River. We traversed west and climbed a skinny, wooded ridge line where we spotted an actual CDT marker! We hopped off the ridge and up some skinny switchbacks to gain another high treeless ridge line with lots of snow.

We came to our first real need for ice axes where we carefully crossed a 45 degree slope of snow that dropped off into a void some 200 feet below. We were able to get on some dry ground and descend a few hundred feet before getting in the snow again on less of an angle where we glissaded down another 200 feet of elevation. We stayed as high as we could and rounded over the Middle Fork of the Conejos River, then climbed straight up 500 feet to rejoin dry trail. 500 more feet later – on dry trail, then post holing through steep trees, then dry trail, then snow…we rounded the top in snow. This was the first of three major basins we would traverse this day and we were feeling good. The next snow traverse was long but a more moderate 35-40 degrees and I did this with just hiking poles. We made another high saddle where the North Fork Cutoff trail joined the CDT and it started to hail with some lightening off in the distance.

We quickly came to another really short but 55-60 degree steep crossing. I went first and made it 25 feet and I couldn’t sink the shaft of my axe down more than an inch or two. The snow was very solid and icy and this was a very dangerous crossing with only micro spikes. We dropped down below the ice about 60 feet and were able to cross, climbing back up to rejoin the trail and reached another saddle as it continued to hail and lightening. Another few long snow traverses on more moderate terrain (35-45 degrees) led closer to the Adams Fork of the Conejos River.

We picked up what we knew were Bear and Tuff’s foot prints as we descended to a skinny, steep ridge at 12,000’ to an impending 180 degree turn across a north face. When I reached a cairn marking the turn I saw no foot prints. I checked my GPS and was standing spot on where the turn should be. I peered over the edge and saw nothing below. I took a few steps and looked again, then again. What I saw was zero tracks and a 65 degree drop into no man’s land. “We’re not doing this! I see zero footprints. It’s deathly steep.” I shouted to Twisted. I retreated off the edge and looked around seeing no prints going in the direction of trail. Back the way we came I looked up the ridge we descended and saw no tracks going directly up the spine which would have been equally as insane to try as we confirmed on the topo map. Twisted looked west thinking people might have dropped down a bit further up the area we we’re standing. He didn’t see anything and I said I wouldn’t drop this ridge anyway. I was looking at bailing down the nose of the ridge we were on which looked less steep and we could get to the river, hike up a mile a rejoin the CDT from Adams Fork.
Twisted was all for this made-up alternate and we headed down cross country. This prooved to be a tiring and physical slog down steep snow, through dense trees and more postholing through what turned into a small chute. After about 40 minutes we made it out of the crud and to mellow ground. We took a break and I made us coffee. We debated our options and the bottom line was that I had a flight out of Denver in two and a half days and needed a day to get there from South Fork. Not knowing if we could make it up the base of Summit Peak and if we had to retreat again, how much time that might take I reluctantly suggested we hike down the Adams Fork trail to Platoro Lake and take the road alternate to South Fork. We did.

A three mike walk along the Adams Fork less us slowly down to the north end of Platoro Lake as it was nearing dark. We camped in a quiet meadow near the lake after chasing away some grazing deer and making dinner, a bit disappointed but safely resigned to our decision.

It rained hard a few hours later and I woke several times with the loud rumble of thunder cracking through the valley we’d descended earlier. Waking to a tent filled with frozen condensation, I rolled everything up with frozen fingers. We started hiking on day four at 6:30am heading down the road to the bottom of the lake and were treated to a beautiful sunrise. We caught glimpses of the town of Platoro as we rounded the bottom of the lake and passed smaller Mix Lake. We climbed up a rough dirt road to a pass then down a long stretch of road past Lookout, Sheephead, Iron, Prospect and Big Red Mountains – all with old and active mining activity and the heavy metals made the headwaters of the Alamosa River bright red with ore.

We saw Elwood pass in the distance and 13 miles from the bottom of the lake later we made it to the top of Elwood at about 3pm as bad weather set in.

Taking a photo, we noticed two hikers coming towards us from the direction of the CDT. We chatted with them and they had bailed at exactly the same place we did and went up Adams Fork to Summit Peak as we had planned. They took a break and we decided to get back on the main CDT and do the remaining 17 miles to Wolf Creek Pass – trying to get three or four in before we camped tonight. We made it a half mile over snow and down the trail as the sky broke into heavy hail and then lightening stuck nearby. We retreated near a group of short trees and got in the lightening position to wait out the charges. After a few close calls of lightening the hail turned to a snowstorm and after 45 minutes of waiting we decided that this second try wasn’t in the cards for us either. We hiked back to Elwood Pass and hiked down the road alternate as snow continued to come down for another hour and a half. Nearing 6pm and below 11,000’ the snow eased off and eventually stopped. With about 12 miles remaining to South Fork we ducked into the soggy woods to a small, flatish land island surrounded by trees and made camp.
The next day we started at our usual time and after a short rain the clouds cleared as we passed by idyllic parks – open, flat areas next to the Rio Grande River – where we wandered by campers in cars, trucks and trucks pulling fifth wheels.

As the sun dried us off we delayered and reached Hwy 17 before 11am where we hitched a ride into South Fork with a couple who was headed to their property east of Santa Fe, NM. We stopped by the liquor store and met the owner Joel who also owns a rafting and fishing guide company and learned how dire the snow and water situation was this season. He’d already laid off eleven employees and expected the river to drop precipitously in two weeks leaving a fragment of business for May but worse, creating major fire danger that everyone was bracing for…

We ate at Feelin Good Cafe – very nice folks but the food is very average – and wound up staying at the Four Seasons before I headed off to Denver then Pittsburgh to see my father. Twisted got together with Mouse, Shadow, Tuff Broad and Bear Sweatz and rented an AirBNB for six days in Pagosa. Everyone had had enough post holing and death chutes to last a while and decided to let the incoming warm weather to melt off more snow. Those four actually managed to stay on the CDT, taking several risks they would later admit they probably shouldn’t have. But they made it, and we were proud and a little bit envious of them.

We all get back on the trail on May 30 or 31st on our way from Wolf Creek Pass through the Weninuche Wilderness to Silverton, CO. As luck would have it we’ll probably all wind up close by one another soon.

Grants to Cuba, NM

Leaving the Sands motel from Grants we walked towards the next section of trail and stopped at a local coffee spot The CoCo Bean cafe, which, oddly was out of espresso beans. What kind of coffee shop runs out of espresso beans?

More fantastic signage in the old uranium mining town of Grants.

Passing a church a very kind woman on her way inside waved to me insisting that I come in. I explained that I had water and food after resupplying but she insisted I come in. So I did. We chatted for a few moments and she explained that as a “trail town” they were supposed to be friendly to hikers and offer any help. All this was very charming and I explained that while I was all set to head out of town I would tell others that the church offered help 🙂

(L-R) Bear Sweatz, Tuff Broad, Shadow, Country Mouse, and Twisted.

Twisted, Shadow, Mouse and I caught up with Bear Sweatz and Tuff Broad on the road walk out of town and the six of us ambled up the highway past the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility and then off to the right was the trail head. After a few minute break we climbed up nice trail  to the top of a broad mesa where a brass bell was attached to a trail marker.  After a long walk across the mesa we climbed gradually and all met up again a few hours later at a cattle trough that was recently turned on and filled.  We passed another water cache maintained by Carol Mumm and proceeded up the Mt Taylor summit alternate – a 3000’ climb over 3 miles to the peak. Twisted and I made it up first and were joined by Bear and Tuff about 25 minutes later.  Getting late, we hiked down the north side one more mile where we had a view of the fire tower and communications equipment used by the forest service on another peak. We’d done 21 miles so we called it good and camped under some trees nearby. We’d found out later that Shadow and Mouse camped near the water cache and would climb Mt. Taylor the next morning.

CDT marker and bell at the beginning of Gooseberry trail, heading towards Mt. Taylor.
Twisted near the top of Mt. Taylor summit looking southeast.
Our first steps over 10,000 and 11,000 feet on the CDT lead to the summit of Mt. Taylor.

The next day we hiked up near and around the fire tower and communications gear and slowly descended via a series of dirt roads and made our way to excellent water and took a short break with Bear and Tuff at American Canyon Spring. More road walking led us further down the mountain where we joined a short stretch of trail and stopped for a good hour and a half break at a giant tractor tire filled with water. Tuff and Bear joined us and as we were leaving Shadow and Mouse joined everyone at the tire. 13 more miles of hiking over mostly rough road littered with volcanic rock led us past a series of ancient volcanic cones.  After more than 26 miles on the day we did a dry camp leaving us four miles from water in the morning.

In the morning we hiked the four miles to a trail junction then hiked about a half mile off trail down a canyon and old mining road to another spring. Once again Bear joined us shortly after arriving and we chatted while filling water and eating a snack. Hiking back up we passed “the kids:” Nimbles, Dirt Bag, and 50, now joined by a forth hiker named Constantine. We all fist-bumped as we passed. They dropped down the water and Twisted and I rejoined the trail which was a nice stretch through a recently manicured section of juniper and small oaks. We hiked through an eerie stretch of fire damaged forest and took a break where a solo local hiker who was out doing her geo-cache thingy and stopped to chat with us. Missing my dog Buddy, I was less interested in her chatter than I was  getting some dog-love from her pooch as I let the very thirsty mutt lick my face for salt! Another section of nice trail led us to the edge of the giant mesa we’d been hiking, and a broad view opened up before us filled with more odd volcanic cone shapes but now, colored cliffs, arroyos and new landscape. I dropped the two miles  to the valley floor and came to (you guessed it by now, right?), another dirt road and an intersection to a concrete cattle trough filled with good water. I filled up but still didn’t see Twisted who, not fully accustomed to high desert heat and hiking,  tends to take more breaks in the heat of the day than I do. I walked back to the road and sat under a tree. After a few minutes he caught up and headed to the water. I dozed off in the 90+ degree weather, protected in just a bit of shade. Bear and Tuff Broad passed about 20 minutes later and after Twisted rejoined, he partook in the shade break as well.

Deep arroyos cut by massive water events.

We headed out on well marked trail up and down a few deep arroyos – huge “canyons” of sand, if you will, cut by dramatic water events. We saw yet another series of trail markings: wooden stakes sharpened at the top and painted white. With each passing mile of New Mexico I marvel at the diversity of the landscape and the randomness of the way the trail is marked. Or not. Dropping into a giant sandy wash, we climbed up the other side and the land changed again, this time transforming into a series of odd sandstone shapes marked by rock cairns. Getting late, we hiked along a fence line for several miles and ducked around a fence, then climbed a short, steep cliff side up to a rock shelf perched just below a higher cliff wall. This area offered up a fantastic view of where we’d just come from along with several enormous buttes of rock. We decided we had to stop here and camp for the night and we both admitted this was the first kick-ass camp spot we had. Now in territory I was more familiar with (in a broad sense), I pointed out the Sandia mountains and the glow of Albuquerque to the south east as we were treated to a beautiful sunset. Coyotes howled away in their frenzied feeding craziness as they snacked on the abundant rabbits scattered in the valley below us.

Sunset from our shelf campground. The Sandia mountains can be seen on the horizon on the far right.
Sunrise from the same shelf camp.

Camping on the cliff shelf was another dry night. What I mean by this is we didn’t camp directly next to a water source, so before we camp for the night we have to consider how much we’ll need to cook and drink for the night, but also how far the water source will be the next day and how much extra water to have for that morning stretch. With six miles to go in the morning to reach water, we set off early again. I tend to not need a whole lot of water in these situations when we’re within 5-10 miles of water as the temperatures are cool and we can hike 10 miles by 10 am if necessary. So with six miles to water I had a little less than one liter. Sounds scary to most, but water needs are personal and water management is a skill acquired with thousands of miles of trail hiking. I’m also well versed in high desert travel living in the Four Corners for nearly 15 years.

50 pauses to take a photo looking towards Cerro Cochino.

Twisted was hiking a bit in front of me and I stopped briefly and was caught by 50. I learned that he is also from Seattle and we had a nice chat over a few miles until we reached a surprise water cache from the Trujillo family who live in Cuba, NM. Nimbles, Constantine and Dirt Bag joined shortly thereafter and we enjoyed bottled water, sodas, snacks, apples and more. They also set up a solar shower, complete with a wooden palate to stand on to keep your feet off the sand! This was Twisted and I’s first true Trail Magic – unexpected help, food, water, etc. from complete strangers. The Trujillo’s had a trail journal that we all signed and we learned that they stop by and restock things every 4-5 days or so. We’d also learned that Micky, the owner of the Save-Way supermarket in Cuba and whom we’d meet later, donates considerably to the resources at this surprise cache.

(L-R) Twisted, 50 and Nimbles (in shade) and Constantine enjoy the Trujillo cache.

Moving along once more we came upon the water source we’d been expecting, which was a large metal tank completely dry. I found a spigot with a hose attached and found when turned on, water came up from the well. I reattached the hose which led to a float valve in the tank when I saw one of the cows that were standing nearby wander up to the tank. I could tell she was a nursing mother by how full her udders looked. She looked at me and I could tell what she was thinking: WATER. I jiggered with everything and turned on the water, hoping I was doing the right thing by beginning to fill this dry tank. I checked my resources about this source and found that the tank was full a week before. I guessed that someone had accidentally, or without much thought, turned off the water leaving the tank water to be drank by the cows and the remainder evaporated from the heat. Slowly filling, the mother eyed the water and Twisted and I, joined now by Nimbles, backed away to give her room. She arched her neck and reached into the tank, scooping up mouthfuls of water. We walked away as other cows joined her in quenching their thirst. A quarter mile later I noticed a water main and lifted a metal cover to see a valve below. I guessed that the rancher leaves the water off in the winter, turning it on again in the spring/summer to keep the tank full for the cattle.

Another wild landscape opened up over the next several miles with shelves of sandstone, reminding me of the slickrock of Moab, Utah. Hiking along with Constantine and Nimbles we covered a lot of ground before dropped to a spring hidden in an alcove with a small Pueblo-era ruin nearby. After another break Twisted and I set off again cross a broad flat a few miles long before a hard, physical climb 500 feet up a wild cliff line of very soft rock and hardened mud formations (can you tell I gave up on my geology major while in college!).

Blooming cactus contrasts with Deadman peak.

We topped out at 7pm, took a five minute break and walked along this high mesa with another incredible view. We stopped after a few minutes and another pristine camp spot with another fantastic view. The mileage on this day put us nine miles from the town of Cuba, and we would camp talking about the eggs, bacon, french toast and coffee we would gorge immediately upon arriving in town. That we did. Shortly after 6 am we were hiking again, hit the highway after a few miles on dirt road, put music on and earbuds in and walked like hell. Reaching the Cuban Cafe, I stopped to take photos I had passed dozens of times over 20 years ago.

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CDT resupply in Cuba, NM… Ya know, I’ve got tons of pretty photos of mountains, arroyos, mesas, buttes, sandstone oddities, etc., but the signs, places, and people I’ve met along the way tell another story of the trail. Mickey, owner of the Save-Way, folks at the USPS, the Trujillo family’s water cache… The CDT just wouldn’t be the same without all of this as well – not to mention all the hikers I’ve met as well! I hope I can do everyone justice as I post along…More to come later today here, and at… jasonrepko.com . . . . #continentaldividetrail2018 #cdt2018 #continentaldividetrail #cdtcoalition #thruhike #backpacking #backpackersbistro #featheredfriends1972 #zpacks #hyperlite_mountain_gear #patagoniaballard #patagoniaseattle #thetrek #thruhikesyndicate #optoutside #wildernessculture #ultralightbackpacking #at #appalachiantrail #pct #pacificcresttrail #cdt #embracethebrutality #ultralight #ultralightbackpacking #wanderlust #withguthook #blackdiamondequipment

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After filling up – and some complimentary ice cream from our waitress – we stopped at the Del Prado Motel which was another old flop, but had what we required in terms of two beds and a clean bathroom – and a good price tag! The young crew showed up an hour later, Tuff and Bear after that, and Shadow and Mouse a few hours later. We socialized, ran errands, and took some well earned rest and discussed the next stretch to Ghost Ranch, then Chama. With Colorado closer and closer, there are some nerves in the air talking about snow, the San Juan mountains, what snow gear to bring and what to expect. Many folks are looking at social media where a lot of chatter about conditions. A small handful of hikers are hitting the mountains now, and there is some feedback available – but little clarity. With everyone knowing that I’ve lived and played for years in the San Juans, I’ve been cautiously answering everyone’s questions about what to expect. I feel prepared myself, but mountains are what they are: unpredictable, always changing, filled with risk. As we all consider what’s coming soon, I remind myself of all of this and prepare to respect what lies ahead.

A bleached earless lizard perches on a rock.
Our second pristine camp spot. One night before reaching Cuba.
Morning sunrise, descending town our last stretch before Cuba.
These were the final steps on trail that would lead us to the highway and a four mile pavement walk into Cuba.

Pie Town Zero Day

After getting to Pie Town we headed straight for The Gathering Place where we were greeted by a gaggle of locals in for the same good food we were about to be treated to. Jennifer was our server, a 40-ish California ex-pat, who kindly ignored the fact we hadn’t showered in nine days and served us up a HUGE breakfast.

We headed to Nita’s Toaster House to shower and settle in. Afterwards we joined Shadow and Mouse at the RV park next door where their full-time RV-life friends Collin and Andrea made food and brought plenty of beer. We had no problem eating or drinking any of it, and stayed up late until walking back over to the Toaster House to sleep. Our zero day (rest day) was spend doing wifi “chores,” like posting photos to Instagram, and doing blog posts (myself and Mouse).  The problem was that all wifi at businesses was terrible and there was no cell service in Pie Town. This marked ten days without any cell reception. Frustrated, I created some drafts to post later once we would reach Grants in another dour days. I resigned myself to simply eat.

The Toaster House. Yep. Those are all toasters on the fence posts.
The old wall of shoes ~ Toaster House.

Eat pie. Eat hamburgers. Eat more pie.

This was made fairly simple since there were only three choices in which to eat: The Gathering Place, Pie Town Cafe, and Pie-O-Neer.

I spent a few hours at the Pie-O-Neer (see previous post), where I met the owner Kathy. Two slices of pie later I noticed a poster of Kathy and asked for the story. It was tied to Russell Lee, a photographer who documented migrants who moved to Pie Town from places like Oklahoma and Texas during the Dust Bowl with promises of work and land in California. You read Grapes of Wrath, yes? Pie Town is one of the places that migrants got “stuck” during their travels towards the opportunities that were never there.

Pie Town. Not much of one…

In the Pie-O-Neer hung dozens of photographs which would serve as propaganda pieces on behalf of FDR’s New Deal and were published in 1939 just before historic WWII. A New York Times journalist contacted Kathy to try and interview some of these migrants, most of which had died, but some survived. Many are survived by sons and daughters who are immortalized in a fantastic coffee table book by that NYT writer, Arthur Drooker, called Pie Town Revisited.

 

After the story and a few more hours working quietly while Kathy and her husband Stan cleaned up, I headed back to the RV park for a mellower evening with Shadow, Mouse, Twisted, Collin and Andrea and their two sons until heading back to the Toaster House again to sleep. In the morning we would be headed off to Grants, NM.

Doc Campbell’s Outpost to Pie Town

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Shadow sorts his food in front of Doc Cambell’s.

After hiking 13 miles on the Gila river to get to our resupply, we only stayed at Doc Campbell’s for two hours. Long enough to eat home made ice cream, drink a few sodas, and pick up, sort, and pack our food for the next six-day long section through the Gila River Wilderness.

We left Docs at 4pm and walked four miles. I forgot my battery pack, left charging by the picnic table but luckily was only a few minutes away from Docs when I turned around to get it. I walked the four miles and caught up with everyone at the Gila Wilderness entrance.

Me in front of Gila sign.

We hiked past the ranger station and an additional mile down to the river and a small set of natural hot pools built with stones on the side of the cliff. Setting up camp, we ate dinner and Shadow and I hung out and soaked our feet in the hot springs for a good 45 minutes before turning in for the night. This would prove helpful as the rest of the hiking through the middle fork of the Gila was very physical, hard going.

Camp by hot spring.

Waking up and setting off at 6:45am the next morning I briefly soaked my feet in the hot springs before crossing the cold Gila river and passed by a few campers and tents still sound asleep. After several dozen cold river crossings we warmed in the sun after a few hours. After eight miles we reached Jordan hot springs and were met by a group of kids from El Paso soaking in the beautiful clear pools. We soaked here and made lunch, then packed up and were on our way through the river once again for several dozen more crossings over rough and rocky terrain.

Twisted goes all in and Steel (me) soak and make a lunch in Jordan hot spring.

Sometimes the trail was easy to pick up, other times it was tempting to walk along the bank hoping trail would simply show up. I quickly figured out that the trail could almost always be picked up immediately after a crossing if we headed strait towards the opposite side or cliff wall instead of looking for it immediately along the banks.
The terrain was slow going through sand, rock, reeds, over downed trees and through the river again and again. However, this alternate was completely worth the effort. Beautiful cliff walls of volcanic rock opened up before us in an alien-like landscape. Pock-marked formations, spires, caves, jagged angular shapes and an occasional ruin site all made this traveling quite magical.

 

The next day we hiked 19 miles and 60-70 river crossings. Twisted fell behind after I was passed by a couple and a dog heading south to the Gila ruins via the river. I waited and took a snack break but after 25 minutes I was ready to head back and look for him just in case something happened. Just as I started back, he appeared. “Just taking a few morning breaks,” he smiled and thanked me for waiting. About an hour later we caught up with Shadow and Mouse who had stopped as well and were worried someone had slipped and gotten hurt.
Hiking onward I joked that there was never any solid trail for longer than two minutes, and this was the truth! Soon we encountered some slick rock and a water chute to navigate around. Every section of trail led to another crossing and we hiked another four miles, the last two finally yielding consistent trail. We rounded a nose of land and found a nice camp above the river and stopped here.

Walking up and around the water slide.

The next morning – our fourth day in the river – was flat out brutally cold water. My feet and lower leg muscles were numb for over two hours before the sun finally hit us. Stupidly, the NRS lightweight neoprene socks I’d purchased for the Gila were in a box I sent to Cuba, NM, as I changed my mind last minute on needing them. I needed them. We took a warm up break at 9:30 am and I thought my left leg had a shin splint coming on. Likely due to the cold muscles. I put on my compression sleeves as a precaution but by the end of the day everything was fine. I decided to keep wearing them for the foreseeable future just in case.
We passed flying V canyon, then a massive meadow where I read a note on the Ley mapset that mentioned 85 more river crossings to Snow Lake. Shit. It was fun and it was absolutely stunning scenery but we all wanted to make better time. We simply reserved ourselves to enjoying the beauty and brutality of the Gila alternate. I absolutely recommend this to anyone doing the CDT! At a 180 degree bend in the canyon we were treated to some alien rock walls. Then we had lunch in a sunny spot in the pines.

Odd volcanic rock shapes everywhere.

The canyon began to lose some elevation and with it we also got break from the sun. We finally hit good consistent read for several miles making good time and came upon the bottom of Snow Lake dam. We crossed the dam and hiked up to a parking area where we said hello to a young man hanging out on a bench who told us the hikers he’d seen over the weekend. We then hiked out on road past a nesting bald eagle and through a few miles of cross-country with little trail before breaking out into a magnificent, large basin of grassy hills and more volcanic rock.

Bald eagle watching his nest (which is out of view).
Cool volcanic rock above big grass meadows.

Nearing dusk we rounded up a hill to a large stock pond where we made camp for the night. When morning came each one of us either wanted to stay in our bags or get up lightening quick and start hiking right away to get warm. The temperature dropped down to 25 degrees and my water bottles were almost completely frozen. Since I cowboy camped, eschewing to set up my tent, my sleeping bag had frost on it from the condensation released from my body overnight and the nearby pond. I made two coffees and then a third to carry in my hands and get them warm! Hiking out of the pond and up to a road we were treaded to a wonderful sun rise to start the day.

Sunrise above the pond…

This day was all about the dirt road. About 23 miles through open grassy plains and then into lodge pole pine and oak forest as we climbed in elevation.

Twisted, head down road walking.

We had to carry all our water on this day and reached Dutchman Spring about 5pm where we all filled up. We climbed one more mile to a trail head where our alternate ended and the CDT main route picked up again. Tired, we all decided that this would make a good camp and began setting up and sat down to make our dinners. Just as we mentioned that we hadn’t seen any other hikers since Silver City (five days now), a car came to the trail head and dropped off a young hiker who told us he had started only a week ago from the border of Mexico. He had been hiking the Appalachian Trail since starting in February and stopped after 1600 miles in Vermont due to too much snow. So… he flew to New Mexico and started the CDT. He said he was trying to hike the Pacific Crest Trail as well all in one calendar year! We now know he has skipped at least one CDT mile as his ride picked him up at Dutchman Spring and drove him the mile we just hiked 😉
The next day Shadow and Mouse took off a few minutes before me. I started off down the trail with the young hiker and we chatted while finding the trail which shortly headed down some steep switchbacks. Wanting to take it easy on a knee that has been annoying me some, I slowed down and the young hiker took off. After an hour I was warmed up and I passed Twisted, Shadow and Mouse on a 1000’ climb. I rested at the top and took a lunch break.

Lunch spot looking north.

After 30 minutes the group caught up with me but I was ready to go again and started hiking. Descending, I dropped through a burn area then up again past John Kerr peak. Down another burn area and past a pair of dry lake bed sand onto a dirt road. One mile later I reached Aragon tank and filled up on water – another 20 mile carry. Here I met Adrian who grabbed water and camped. I hiked three more miles onto the next trail alternate towards Pie Town and camped alone near some cattle.
The next day I got hiking by 6 am and planned on a 30 mile day which would put me within 10 miles of reaching Pie Town. The alternate was all dirt road and I dropped down through more lodge pole and douglas fir forest when I came upon a line male elk grazing 50 yards in front of me.

Male elk grazing in front of me.

He quickly picked up my scent and took off but not before I gotta photo of this 2-3 year old male. I reached Valle Tia Vinces tank which was dry and afterwards I accidentally hiked a mile down the wrong road. I cut cross country for40 minutes to reach Manga Overlook road and hiked 1500+ feet over three miles to a fire lookout tower and met Patrick who was manning the tower for the forest service. I learned there were already three fires this season all started by campers who left their area without properly extinguishing their fire.

View south from Mangas fire tower.

The still-operating tower was built in 1937 and I spent an hour chatting g with Patrick who actually lives in Puyallup, WA about 45 minutes south of Seattle where I live! Another downhill and more road up and down and up and down. As I reached about 25 miles for the day I started seeing a few ranches and reached water. I hiked another five miles and camped 10 miles outside of town. I cowboy camped again and made dinner and hit the sack.
In the morning I delighted in another incredible sunrise, then after only a few minutes of hiking, Twisted jumped out of the woods into the road and whistled at me!

Sunrise 10 miles from Pie Town with Sawtooth range as silhouette.

Surprised to see him we swapped stories of our last two days of hiking, what we saw, what we missed. We both were thinking the same thing: BACON! We trudged 10 miles and made it to Pie Town where we had a great breakfast at The Gathering Place and then headed over to Nina’s Toaster House – a sort of hostel for hikers – for the night and a rest day the following day.

Hiker hunger is kicking in. I could have eaten this twice in one sitting!