Pagosa Springs provided a welcome respite from the grueling conditions of the San Juan’s. At least, Pagosa Springs would’ve if I had been able to sleep. When we arrived in town, every room in the place was booked; nevertheless, in true hiker trash fashion, we were able to jump in with Reality Check and Melon, who were both happy to split their motel costs with us.
I’m not sure why I wasn’t able to rest properly in town. Sleep didn’t come easily to me while I laid awake late into the night in a shared queen with Reality Check nor was I able to sleep-in after being used to waking up early to start hiking. Though I tried to nap, there were too many hikers and too much to do to be able to relax fully. After such a physically and emotionally exhausting section, I could’ve used a few extra days of recovery, especially in light of my decision moving forward.
Fourteen miles into the high route from Pagosa Springs was the Creede cut off: a low route alternative that we heard was clear of snow after a few miles in. After what Buckmild, Season Pass, and I had recently endured, I had been inclined to take this route when I entered town Saturday evening, but by Monday morning, I was unsure what to do.
In my planning and preparations, I had wanted to take the high route (or Red Route, as the GPS-tracking app Guthook marks the official CDT in red) through the San Juan Mountains, but I was honestly scared of what lay ahead. The reports coming back suggested that the mountains were an avalanche risk, still covered in snow, higher in elevation, and overall, worse than what we had just gone through. The general impression was that you shouldn’t attempt it without snow expertise. With my nonexistent mountaineering experience, how was I to make it through?
From Cumbres Pass to Wolf Creek Pass, the mountains put me through my paces. I had managed to keep my anxiety under control, but only just. There were countless times that I was terrified of what I was doing, but then again, I had no other option except forward. Here I had a choice: to take the optimistically safer low route or the potentially treacherous high. The decision was stressing me out.
Both Reality Check and Fastball (a hiker I met briefly while I was still hiking with the Boys) were eager to see me continue on the red. Quite a few hikers were taking the Creede route to save time, mileage, and for a break from the tedium. Of course, there were a fair number in Pagosa that seemed to be planning on taking the official route. After speaking with my dad, I felt impossibly torn. I knew in my heart that I would regret not testing my limits and continuing on the red, but the thought of worse dangers than those I had already faced held me back. With time running short as everyone finalized plans for rides out of town the following morning, I made the decision.
I went to find Fastball and Juice, who I knew were taking the red, to ensure it would be a good fit for us all if I teamed up with them. After learning much in the last stretch, I didn’t want to find myself in another situation where I had to find a new crew to hike with halfway through. Buckmild and Season Pass had been a great snow team, but they were both still torn on their decision moving forward, both considering taking the Creede alternative. We discussed their plans and hiking routine, and I shared my own. After talking and jiving with their energy, I felt hopeful that I had found a solid snow squad to tackle the infamous red route with, but it still did little to ease my apprehension.
Decision made, I walked back into my shared motel room where the crew were relaxing and wrapping up town chores.
“I’m going to take the red route…” I told them, speaking my decision into existence.
Reality Check sat up with a smile. “That’s awesome,” she said in her easy-going voice.
“You are?” came the chorus of Buckmild and Season Pass. They knew how challenging the last section had been for me and I had been one of the stronger advocates to take the Creede Route.
I nodded solemnly, my heart thrumming in my chest from the anticipation.
I was half regretting my decision when we left town the following morning. I was incredibly nervous about the risk I was taking, that I had to keep talking myself down on the car ride back to Wolf Creek Pass.
Worst case scenario, I can always take the Creede route if the first 14 miles are too rough…
A hiker named Boomerang shuttled us out to the trailhead and all too soon I was standing on the side of the highway, repacking my bag after a hasty stuffing that morning. Sweep was also dropped off with us, so together the four of us began the climb back into the mountains.
Similar to my initial climb into the San Juan Mountains a week prior, we didn’t hit much snow on the ascent to elevation. Unlike that first day, which now felt so long ago, we didn’t cross any sketchy traverses nor terrifying glissades, but that may be in part to a general desensitization. We did cross some steep slopes and a few glissades, but nothing compared to what I had done before. To be honest, I was enjoying these traverses and controlled slides.
“Glissade glissade!” I called out, before launching myself down a particularly clear slope that ended in a pile of snow.
In many ways, a good glissade felt safer than trying to walk down a steep slope of snow. With no chance of losing your footing and with an ice axe in hand, sliding down the mountains became downright fun.
We didn’t plan to go very far that first day and ended at a little flat spot above Archuleta Lake in the shadow of Mount Hope, a mere 11 miles from Wolf Creek Pass. Tomorrow we would hit the Creede Route cutoff, and I contemplated the alternative. It was still on the table, but after a successful first day with Fastball and Juice (Sweep had long left us behind), I felt better about staying on the red.
When we arrived at the trail junction the following morning, however, I felt the tug of a guaranteed easy route on my mind. The reports were right, the entire way north was devoid of snow and lush in spring greenery. Had I been alone, there may have been a good chance I would have taken Sawtooth Trail down to Goose Creek, and followed the valley north toward the town of Creede, but with my good company it wasn’t an option to me.
“Are you ready?” Fastball asked in his French-Canadian accent, extending his arm for a fist bump.
With an unexpected heaviness, I drew my gaze from the easier option and rapped my knuckles against his with an uneasy smile. My commitment was finalized: I was taking the red route north.
Not five miles later, I felt close to regretting my decision. We had a heck of a climb up to nearly 13,000 ft, which offered some spectacular views, but the south face was still blotted with snow, specifically where the trail switch-backed up to summit. The snow traverses were too risky to attempt, so instead we climbed the final 150 feet straight up the side of the mountain, fumbling over loose rocks and slick gravel as we sought the safest route back to trail. To keep my mind from wandering to anxiety, I turned on a Joe Rogan podcast featuring Edward Norton and listened to them discuss old-school Hollywood as I heaved myself up the what felt like 90° slope. Huffing and a bit shaky, I sat heavily upon the summit, giving myself a moment to catch my breath before ogling the steep snow traverse that lay before us on our descent. The comment Sweep made to me before my first glissade resurfaced in my mind:
“Do you want to go back?“
“No turning back…” I told myself before retrieving my micro spikes from my pack.
Our goal was 15 mile days through the Weminuche Wilderness that separated the San Juan National Forest from the Rio Grande, but by the third day we had yet to hit that number due to snow. Hovering around 12,000 ft, the ridge lines were peppered with deep trenches of snow and precarious cornices that threatened to collapse under foot. We spent our third day following the ridge of the mountain range, dipping once or twice below tree line to scramble over the blow downs, only to find ourselves standing on a narrow spine that was topped with a ten-plus foot deep cap of snow.
“What do you think, walk on the snow or walk along the edge?” I asked Fastball when he joined me and Juice after lunch.
He eyed it for a moment. “I would say on top.”
I sighed and pulled my micro spikes onto my shoes. Luckily, the snow had melted enough on the north side of the narrow rim trail that, for most of the three miles, we were able to walk on the gravel ridge rather than the slick, melting snow, but the tree-less rim still made me nervous as I stared nearly 2,000 ft down into the valley below.
Despite sleeping better on trail, I was still not fully recovered from my last bout in the San Juan’s, and the fatigue was causing my mental game to fray along the edges. The rim wasn’t particularly challenging to hike along, nevertheless being able to see clearly straight down was causing me to panic slightly. I knew better than to fret, but as the gusting wind blew me about on the unprotected ridge, I could feel myself yearning for more sheltered ground. Doing my best to not think about it, I kept myself level by listening to music and joking with Juice and Fastball as we crossed the final snow-free stretch of trail and rested at a creek gushing with snow melt.
“We still have the Knife’s Edge ahead of us,” Juice was saying as we filtered water and ate a few snacks. “We can aim to get to the junction to Trout Lake, which is a few miles after that.”
I nodded absentmindedly, finding it easier to tackle what lay ahead by thinking about it as little as possible. We were hoping, as we currently stood on a snow-free, eastern mountain slope, that the trail to the Knife’s Edge would be equally as easy. As we rounded the corner, though, we found the path ahead weaving between slick snow traverses and clear stretches of trail. Each time we crossed a patch of snow, I hoped that would be the last until we wound around another bend and encountered another swatch.
“It’s like the universe is just going to keep throwing snow at me until I’m no longer afraid of it,” I joked to Juice as I stepped carefully in the tracks of previous hikers as we crossed a slope of snow.
“Its all Gucci in the Weminuche!” Juice called over her shoulder, repeating the long-standing joke.
I felt exhausted, both physically and mentally, but there were still miles ahead before we could stop for the day. These short, but frequent snow traverses were bothering me a lot more than they normally would. Joking was my last line of defense. Once I couldn’t joke anymore, I knew I would be in trouble.
Knife’s Edge turned out to be a jutting section of trail that hugged one side of a narrow rock formation, only to turn at the point and follow the other side back to the main ridge. Snow coated the north-east facing side, so we found our way again straight up via loose rocks and gravel rather than attempting to follow the trail through the snow. A few hundred foot climb up off-trail was not something I looked forward to at the end of the day, and I found it difficult to keep my mind clear as I slipped on the gravel and heaved myself up the jutting rock faces. At last on trail again, I was clenching my teeth to keep myself from spewing the venom that was building in my mind. When we rounded the tip, however, I about nearly cried.
The north-west side of the Knife’s Edge was shaped like one-quarter of a steep bowl, where the sides were coated in wet, afternoon snow and the base opened to a few hundred foot drop straight down into the river valley below. I felt sick as I gazed a thousand feet below me into the basin.
“Get out your ice axes,” Fastball told Juice and I as he accessed the path.
The trail was supposed to follow high on the rim of the bowl, around the mountain side, to a more level section about a half mile opposite. There were some old footprints that marked the path, but the path looked treacherous and if the snow gave way, it would be a long, steep slide down. A more frequented path led straight down the side of the bowl, half on steep rock and dirt, and half on a more shallow section of snow. Wrenching my eyes from the cliff’s edge of sharp rocks and the deep plummet into the valley below, I looked over at Juice and Fastball who were carefully climbing down the rocks to where a set of footprints marked the lower path. Neither option was necessarily safe, but at least the lower path was less steep and seemed to be the crowd favorite.
Gingerly, I began my own descent, clutching onto my trekking poles and testing them with each placement to ensure it would hold my weight before taking another step. Clambering down rocks made me more nervous than the snow. After resting in the sun all day, the snow was wet and it was likely you’d sink or post hole before sliding too far. Slip on the rocks though and you would have a painful and nearly irreversible tumble down, unless you got lucky and hit a rock heavily embedded into the mountainside… if you were still conscious to grab hold.
I was trembling by the time I reached the start of the snow about thirty feet below the trail. I still needed to put on my micro spikes and withdraw my ice axe, which I had carried down in my pack rather than try to fumble with them in my hands on my way down. The slope was steep and the ground loose. I barely had enough strength to take off my pack and hold it steady to avoid it sliding down the mountain with no hope of collecting it. Even when sitting, most of my weight was centered in my feet, as I gingerly lifted one at a time to secure the spikes to my shoes. My breath was quivering as I attempted to steady myself, but I made the worst mistake I could just before I stood back up.
I looked down.
Vertigo washed over me and I felt like I was on the verge of breaking down. I still had another thirty or so feet of snow to descend straight down before the path began to level out and cross an increasingly easy slope to where a small lake lay quietly on the opposite side of the upper valley: our anticipated endpoint. Waves of panic and fear washed over me as I envisioned myself losing my footing for one moment and sliding through the snow, over the skirt of rocks, and plunging into the valley to my certain death.
When I looked again, Juice and Fastball had already made it halfway down the straight descend. No turning back. I closed my eyes and attempted to level my breathing. Wobbly, I got to my feet and turned to the snow. As well as I could, I turned off my brain and zeroed in on the first shaky step. My foot sunk into the boot print and the snow held. Releasing a quivering breath, my attention turned to the next step.
The trick to descend down on a snow bank is to heel step. Stepping with the ball of your foot is a sure way to find yourself sliding out of control, but planting your heel first with your toes lifted upward, you are able to cut natural steps into the slope with the sole of your foot. Whether those snow steps hold when you put your full weight on it is another matter.
Half the time, I was stepping two or three feet straight down as the melting snow gave way and my heel led the rest of my body down the slope until it post holed a few feet below. I tried to control the slides as well as I could, stabilizing with my ice axe and trekking pole and using my upper body strength to help lower me down, but quite a few times I resorted to lowering down on my bottom to add another point of contact.
By the time I reached the bottom of the slope where the boot path cut through a more level section of snow, I was robotically moving forward. I was beyond fear, maintaining motion somehow in a state of shock, and by the time I reached solid ground again, my legs felt as if they were made of gelatin. I collapsed on the spot Fastball had selected for our campsite and allowed the waves of relief to wash over me. It took hours before I was feeling normal again and I couldn’t even look at our descent with pride having conquered it until the following morning.
I started to feel normal again the next morning when we began hiking and I looked over my shoulder to say farewell to my scariest moment on trail so far. When we climb back up to the ridge line, I checked Guthook to see what the trail held for us that day. I was optimistic because it looked like we would be crossing several fields today and I hoped for easy terrain in order to bolster our mileage. When we initially descended into the valley and stopped for lunch, our luck held… until we began to cross the fields.
Due to being in lower elevation and collecting the constant snowmelt, the meadows turned into a marsh topped with a few feet of snow pack. They were post hole central and Fast Ball and I took turns cutting a path through the unblemished snow. It was exhausting work, for each jarring step your foot sank to the ankle… To the knee… To the hip… You couldn’t get proper leverage to get out fully before your other foot sank just as deep. When we stopped for a break in midafternoon we checked our mileage after 10 hours of hiking and we had gone… only nine miles?! It was such a defeating feeling, particularly when a group of about eight rolled up having gone 15 miles that day. Fastball was particularly aggravated from the constant post holing (him being taller and heavier than Juice or myself, causing him to sink deeper and more frequently) and we wrapped up the day soon afterwards, cutting our losses at 10 miles and camping above the saturated valley.
It was our slowest day on trail so far only to be followed with one of our best. The snow started to clear as we hiked further north, and the next few days we were able to crush out a nineteen then a seventeen mile day back to back. At last we reached Stony Pass, our anticipated endpoint to hitch into Silverton for our next resupply. We were all essentially out of food, having anticipated easier days, but shared what was left with each other. Fastball passed around hot chocolate packets and I had a glob of melted M&Ms that we each took a chunk of. Inside a dilapidated log cabin, we cowboy camped beneath the stars, eager for a return to town and rest after a punishing section of trail.