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
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.