Entering the San Juan Mountains

Mile 648 – 717

After four days in Chama, I had found a group to venture into the San Juan Mountains with. The conversation in town was dictated by the path ahead: who had made it through and what they had experienced. Hikers were splitting into two groups: those who were going on the high route through the mountains and those who planned to avoid the snow—and potential foul weather—by taking the low route through the valleys. Despite my limited experience, I was set on the high route, but I was not keen on attempting it alone.

Thankfully my time in town proved fruitful and I was soon shuttled back to Cumbres Pass with five fellow hikers: the couple Darwin and Legs and their friends Cake, General, and Paulie. Now all I had to do was keep up with them.

2 June 2021 – View from the climb up to elevation

Towering above 12,000 ft, the San Juan Mountains are not something to be taken lightly. With steep traverses, avalanche risks, and the effects of elevation, even an experienced backpacker is at risk of injury or exhaustion. I had little idea of what I was getting myself into, but I knew one way or another I would have to make my way through it. Worst case scenario, I could always bail onto the low route if the high became too challenging… but I hoped that wouldn’t be necessary.

The 2,200 ft climb from Cumbres Pass was long and strenuous, but mostly clear of snow with only a few traverses that were concerning. I felt optimistic that this was the worse I was to expect, even when it started hailing lightly as we reached the South San Juan Wilderness Boundary at the 12,174 ft peak. Post holing had been minimal and none of the snow traverses had been worrying enough that I felt I wouldn’t be able to cope. Optimistically, I camped with General, Paulie, and Cake just above Dipping Lakes, tired after a long day of climbing. When I expressed my desire not to venture through the San Juan’s alone, General and Cake began to describe their hiking regiment and I was hopeful that I would be able to keep pace with them for the rest of the stretch.

The snow deepened the next day, but I was able to walk upon the crust in the morning with minimal sinkage. Most of the hiking during the day was on flat expanses of snow that gradually became more challenging to walk on as the sun softened it. Route choices became the topic of conversation, as the trail was lost in stretches due to down trees and thick layers of snow. The goal was to find the easiest path possible with the least hazard to our health… which soon became the only focus as we started to descend from the ridge into a canyon.

2 June 2021 – The Boys hiking across a snow field

The trail wrapped around the side of the mountain, weaving through a pine forest which I could only assume would become a beautiful stretch of trail. However, when we crossed it, we were tromping through waist deep snow and clambering over blow downs.

Lagging behind the other two, I was with Paulie, who push forward faster than myself through the uncertain terrain, until I fell behind. Luckily, a second pair of hikers, Fastball and Juice, were attempting the same area as us. I followed in their footsteps until I managed to break free of the tree line. I then found General, Paulie, and Cake resting beneath some trees that wrapped along the official route.

I sat down heavily upon the dry ground, tired from fighting with the snow, and watched as Paulie and a few familiar hikers approached from the snowy traverse. We were all worn out from the descent through the trees, some more than others. I did my best to keep a smile upon my face despite my fatigue.

The trail continued to get more sketchy as we continued that day, and I did my best to seek the flattest safest route across the mountain slopes. Finding poor campsites on the edges of Blue Lake, we set up camp for the night, our bodies worn out from hiking. Despite the rain that passed through camp just after we set up our tents, I was still feeling good about the trail and hopeful of the terrain ahead.

That positivity stuck with me until halfway up the climb the following morning. My legs burned from two days of post holing and I was soon lagging behind the boys as we scaled to above 12,000 ft. As I stopped to catch my breath, my eyes scanned the trail ahead and I felt my heart stutter in my chest. A few hundred feet above me, a pair of small black shapes were moving slowly across a snowy traverse that spanned thirty feet above a sheer drop.

“We have to go across that?” I panted, feeling apprehension pool within me.

General and Paulie were waiting where the crossing began, but once Cake, who was ahead of me, caught up to them, they all started across. When I arrived, I stood for a moment to catch my breath and watched Cake as he took the last few steps to safety on the opposite rock platform. Then I took my first.

3 June 2021 – The end is in sight

In that moment, there was nothing in the world more important than where I put my feet. My entire universe narrowed from the distant mountain peaks, the snowy slopes, and the beaten path ahead to a few feet of boot prints sprawled out before me. One foot, then a second, then the clink clink of my ice axe and trekking pole as I plunged them securely into the snow before taking another step. How long I spent crossing that traverse, I couldn’t be sure. Time seemed to simultaneously speed up and slow down at the same time in those hyper-focused moments watching my feet. Every moment my attention wavered, I reeled myself back in focus again upon my next few carefully placed steps on the three inch wide boot pack that made up the path. Finding a secure moment to catch my breath, I took a ginger look up to the trail ahead.

Cake and the boys were gone. I was standing on ice above a cliff alone.

Panic started to creep up my body as, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of where the snow suddenly disappeared to my right. Fear threatened to overwhelm me as I stood rooted to the spot, too afraid to move. I looked down at my feet, the brim of my hat cutting the scenery from view, and gathered my courage.

“Just keep moving,” I told myself steadily, stabbing the snow firmly with my trekking pole and axe. “One foot at a time. There’s no turning back.”

With much effort, my leg lifted and slid forward to the next foot hold. Stomping to dig my micro spikes into the snow, I tested my weight to make sure it would hold. The snow did not give way, so I shifted my full weight forward and moved my trekking pole and then my axe. I took another step.

Step after step after step until my feet stumbled onto gravel and dirt. I bent over, dry sobbing, allowing the anxiety to wash over me. After a moment, I heaved myself upright and looked into the valley below to spot a pair of hikers in the distance.

“Have to keep moving, girl,” I told myself, collecting my shredded courage and turning to the slope ahead.

After my initial scare, the rest of the descent into the valley was wearing. I could still see the boys ahead, and I kept moving as quickly as I dared in order to catch up; nevertheless, they steadily moved further away from me. Soon they were out of my sight, and I was on my own to discover the path forward in the snow. Sliding down a steep slope into the trees, I finally made it to the valley below and began crossing the field, post holing every few steps and swearing each time my foot sunk deep into the snow.

I spotted a pair of hikers across the river to my right, then saw General, Cake, and Paulie sitting high to my left, taking a lunch break. They called to me across the river, as the trail wrapped around the valley and climbed the opposite slope, so I trudged through the icy cold water and sat heavily with Buckmild and Season Pass, two hikers that I had met much earlier on the trail.

“Did the guys leave you?” Buckmild asked, a little astounded.

“Yup,” I said, pulling my wet shoes off my feet.

I ate lunch with them, which ended up being just a protein bar for me as my appetite at elevation was quite gone. Sweep, a hiker I met in Chama, joined us. Soon the boys crossed the river and set off ahead of us four, and I made a point to try to keep pace with Buckmild and Season Pass the remainder of the day. The boys were under no responsibility to ensure my safety, but I was rather put out about being left to cross that traverse alone. As if to solidify my decision to join the new group, Buckmild kept a slower pace to ensure I wasn’t left behind again. Even if I had slid down the mountain, there would be little any of them could do, but it was still an immense comfort to know I wasn’t alone.

3 June 2021 – Season Pass and Buckmild on a steep slope

As a group of seven, we climbed back up to elevation and skirted around a few more slippery traverses. On the opposite side of the rim, we found ourselves at another impasse. The trail skirted around the edge of the canyon, hundreds of feet above the valley and covered in steep snow. When I arrived, Sweep, Season Pass, and Buckmild were standing where the trail ended, watching the boys try to find a way down off to the right. A few feet before them lay the beginning of a smoothed slide in the snow that disappeared down the mountain.

“I’m not sure where they can go…” was the general vibe of conversation as we watched them post hole down a gradual slope.

To the left was the steep slope of the rim and to the right a flat patch of snow that appeared to lead to a cliff. We stood contemplating for a moment, before turning to stare down the snow slide. Uneasily, we dropped our packs to stow our trekking poles for the glissade; only our ice axes were needed for the slide.

“Do you have an ice axe?” I asked Sweep, who had not dropped his pack.

“No,” he said. “I told myself I wouldn’t thru hike early enough to need it.”

“How’s that working for you?”

“Well, I haven’t needed it before now.”

“I’m not sure about this…” I mumbled, looking nervously at the lines in the snow.

“You want to go back?” He asked with a grin.

We both knew that wasn’t an option. The only way out was forward.

Season Pass was the first to blindly attempt the glissade, sliding down the ramp quickly and soon disappearing from view. We strained to see him as he was hidden by a snow bank.

“Hey! Did he make it?” Buckmild called to the boys, who were off to the right making their own way down to the snow shoot.

They didn’t respond, but we judged that since they didn’t call out in horror, Season Pass must have made it through.

Buckmild was the next to go, ice axe securely in his hand. Braking with the blade, he slid down the shoot cautiously as to not lose control. Tentatively, I stepped up to the starting point as he descended, slowly lowering myself to sit at the top of the shoot.

“I’ll do my best not to scream,” I told Sweep, mentally preparing myself for the slide.

“Please don’t scream,” he requested just as I let go.

Having never used my ice axe before, not even in practice, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I certainly didn’t anticipate it stopping me so quickly. The point dug into the snow with such a bite that it jarred me when I attempted to brake. I did cry out, not in panic but in pleasant surprise at how in control I felt sliding down the snow. With my axe slowing me, I halted just where the boys, Cake, General, and Paulie, had reached the glissade 30 feet down. They each looked apprehensive, none owning an ice axe. Sweep arrived behind me, balancing on his feet as he slid past, his trekking poles in hand to slow his progression. I let the boys go ahead of me, as they had less control than I did, and one by one we all vaulted down the glissade.

3 June 2021 – View from across the valley of our glissade down. Look for the butt tracks

By the time we reached the valley below, we had slid nearly 1,000 ft down the mountainside on our bottoms. Mine was frozen from the snow, but I felt a rush of adrenaline having, for the second time that day, conquered my fears to persevere. With the afternoon still young, we all set off again, across the valley and another steep climb to reconnect with the trail.

The trail continued to follow along the mountainside, but most of it was covered in wet snow that caused us to slip and post hole in the warmth of the afternoon. The boys and Sweep pulled ahead, more confident traversing these mountain passes, but Buckmild held back with me, waiting at each sketchy section of trail for me to cross.

As the afternoon wore on, clouds continued to accumulate in the sky and rumbles of thunder could be heard in the distance. We had been lucky so far, as the rain remained on the opposite side of the mountains, but we were venturing to meet it soon. Just before a mountain pass, a brief shower of hail fell upon our heads as we skirted towards it on a steep traverse. Buckmild was nearly bent over as he dug is ice axe into the snow before taking careful steps in the boot prints. However, the hail relented once we made it to the pass and crossed the rim. The sky still threatened rain and we were eager to head below tree line.

3 June 2021 – Buckmild on top of a rim

The Boys were just ahead of us, scouting for a way down into the next valley. The trail once again curved around the mountainside, a common occurrence in the San Juan’s, but it was covered in waist deep snow and, judging by the lack of footprints, was not the preferred method of travel. As Season Pass, Buckmild, and I reached the spot where the footprints left the trail to cut a new path straight down, a clap of lightning lit the sky, closely followed by the rumbling quake of thunder. The hail held off for the moment, but we knew it was time for us to get off the mountain.

As usual, Season Pass went first, attempting the glissade path the boys had followed down. Watching my own feet as I stepped slowly down to the starting point, I missed him self-arresting when he nearly launched himself over a jutting rock that stuck out in the middle of the slope. Had I seen his desperate attempt to stop, I may have lost my resolve as I slipped and slid down the slope to the start of the shoot.

Just as it began to hail, I met Buckmild at the top of the glissade and we both went down together. I lost my water bottles and tyvek cloth on the initial slide down, but Buckmild was able to catch them and hand them to me as the world around us seemed to rumble with the thunder. I shoved them into my wet rain jacket, not bothering to put them properly into my pack.

We had to shuffle to the left when we reached the rocks; Season Pass almost went over and were able avoid a similar predicament. Once past them, we could see Season Pass making his way down in the tree line that walled the slope. It looked safer than the wet glissade around rocks, so, scooting on my butt, I led the way toward him. Lightning cracked overhead as Buckmild and I slipped through the wet mud through the trees. Neither my feet nor my trekking pole felt secure on their placement the entire way down, and countless times my foot or pole gave way as the ground became slick from the relentless hail. Our clothes were soaked through when we at last reached the next glissade point and slid the rest of the way down to where Season Pass was waiting. How long it took us to descend I couldn’t say, but the hail had turned to a soft rain and the thunder was quieter overhead as we stumbled through the wet snow.

“Sorry, that path through the trees was a bad idea,” Season Pass apologized, when we reached him.

“It’s okay, we all made it down in one piece,” I told him, my mind finally catching up to what my body just did.

The entire way down, I focused on nothing but what I was doing. Not my stress nor fear of the situation had wavered my attention. Now standing on firm ground again, I felt nothing but relief no one was hurt in the dangerous journey to the valley.

“Find a campsite?” Buckmild said, burnt out from a long and stressful day.

We all agreed, and made the rest of the way to the river. The Boys and Sweep were nowhere to be seen, but we did spot a few tents set up on the opposite bank of the Adams Fork Conejos River. Hoping everyone made it safe, we crossed the river on a snow bridge and found a spot dry enough to pitch our tents in the flooded river valley.

Nearly everything I owned was wet. My tent was saturated and I had forgotten to put my fleece and puffy into my pack liner where they could be safe from the rain. Luckily, my sleeping bag was dry and, after forcing myself to eat dinner with shaking hands, I curled up within it, my body shivering from cold.

Morning dawned bright and cheerful and we packed up quickly. Buckmild was intent on taking an early break to dry our gear and we found a beautiful spot after a few mile climb out of the valley. With gear dry and spirits raised, we pressed onward.

4 June 2021 – Buckmild and Season Pass after drying out our gear

I was exhausted all day. From not eating enough the day prior to the abuse the trail put on my legs, I was ready to escape the mountain. My arms were sore from pushing myself through the snow and even my hands felt cramped from gripping my trekking poles so hard. I was ready to rest, but first I had to make it through the last 25 miles of the southeast San Juan Mountains.

We didn’t see anyone all day and much of the tracks in the snow were at least a day old and snowed upon. We found our way though, and the trail was significantly less abusive than it had been the day before. We had one short glissade, which was our easiest yet, and all the traverses were full of wet snow that we sunk deep into, making our crossing a bit more secure. We were dropping down in elevation and the terrain became less hostile with each hundred feet we descended. Crossing marshy fields and trudging through washed out paths, we reached a low point and set up camp near a stream of snow melt that cascaded past our campsite.

4 June 2021 – A short break on a saddle

It was there we met our first thru hiker of the day, an older man by the name of Storm Mocker. He was on his seventh day in this stretch trail, as opposed to our fourth, and was nearly out of food. We gave him what we could spare and settled down for an early night.

Our last day in the San Juan’s dawned bright and we were greeted with some of our easiest trail yet. There were still a few sketchy snow traverses and tree blow downs, but we felt we had left the worst of it behind. We hoped to reach Highway 160 that evening to get into Pagosa Springs, but the blow downs became worse the closer we got to Wolf Creek Pass and the highway. Soon, we were fighting our way through and around deep patches of snow and fallen trees.

It was late afternoon and threatening rain when we finally caught sight of the last 7 miles of trail before us. It climbed up to the exposed ridge line of the Wolf Creek Ski Resort, which was coated in a thick layer of snow.

“How do you guys feel about bushwhacking down to the lake?” Buckmild asked after checking his map and seeing an alternative path to Wolf Creek Pass.

Unwilling to get caught in rain again on a ridge, Season Pass and I quickly agreed and we followed the river a mile down to the flooded reservoir. The path was full of blow downs and snow, but we at last made it after an hour of persistent hiking. We climbed up to the road that lead to the lake and followed it through the closed resort to the highway.

5 June 2021 – Me, Season Pass, and Buckmild after escaping the San Juan’s.

It started to rain as we neared Wolf Creek Pass and the trailhead. We tried for a half hour to hitch in the growing chill before we were picked up by a local and shuttled into town. Arriving on a Saturday evening, there wasn’t a room left in town, but we eventually found another hiker with a room willing to let us join her.

Reality Check was happy to split the room costs and we joined her and Melon, quickly shedding our wet clothes and taking hot showers. Ravenous after a long day, a group of us found our way downtown to the local pizza place to celebrate surviving our first week in the Colorado mountains.