We gather with maps in the Chama motel room to make a plan of attack. Five of us hikers sprawl out on the floor. I can sense it. An air of excitement — tinged, I’d say, with a little anxiety. We know the South San Juans will be a test. We know they are at high elevation and steep and buried deep in thick snow.
But how difficult will they actually be?
None of us can say.
You simply don’t know till you go.
We’ve been averaging 20-25 daily miles during the walk through New Mexico. Anticipating snow, we dial back our pace. Dutch takes out a pen, circles camping spots at roughly 15-mile intervals: Dipping Springs Lake, Blue Lake, a valley at the base of a 3,000-foot climb. We choose these spots because they’re low. We hope they’re within striking distance, somewhat out of the wind, and provide camping patches free of snow.
“All right,” Dutch says, as we finish the session. “These are the goals.”
Food for four-and-a-half days. That’s the time limit — more or less — for completing the leg across Colorado’s South San Juan Wilderness – 70 miles, Chama to Pagosa Springs.
In the morning, I can sense the energy. A hiker named Toast does handstands in front of his motel room. I am not strong enough for such acrobatics. Instead, I pace aimlessly; eat apples and a few bananas; pack and unpack my bag; invent things to fuss over.
I have been reading about these mountains for two years. I hold the places in my imagination: The Rio Grande and San Juan National Forests, Conejos and Montezuma peaks. I have heard the ranges are so jagged and steep they call the San Juans the “Switzerland of the Rockies” — a catchphrase meant to draw an association with the characteristically sharp and craggy Alps.
I am ready, but I am antsy.
Sanjay’s parents take us to Cumbres Pass. (Thanks!)
We pile six hikers with gear into their vehicle, limbs and bags and pointy ice axes and spiky crampons pointing in every direction.
We walk along the railroad tracks, hook north onto the trail.
The Cumbres-Toltec train chugs up the valley as we follow the path into the mountains. We can hear its whistle blowing, a send-off to mirror our excitement: “Hoo-Heee, Hoooo-Heeee!”
The trail plunges immediately into rolling hills lined with steep rock walls. Three falcons wheel in currents above our heads, screaming shrilly across the clear blue sky. We see an American Dipper playing in the froth of a waterfall. A tough, cheerful, enthusiastic little bird — in fact, my favorite bird, because no matter the weather, you can find these Ouzels (as they’re also known) swimming and singing and enjoying life along streams and rivers in the American West. Of the Ouzel, John Muir once wrote: “Among all the countless waterfalls I have met in the course of ten years’ exploration in the Sierra, whether among the icy peaks, or warm foot-hills, or in the profound yosemitic cañons of the middle region, not one was found without its Ouzel. No cañon is too cold for this little bird, none too lonely, provided it be rich in falling water. Find a fall, or cascade, or rushing rapid, anywhere upon a clear stream, and there you will surely find its complementary Ouzel…”
A rugged bird, indeed. I take it as an omen for what might come.
(Chimi makes his way up a ridge.)
We reach snowfields a few miles in, posthole across them, rest at the lip of our first big ridge. I look through my pack for some snacks and realize a boneheaded error. While in Chama, I put all my socks in a plastic grocery sack to keep them dry on the hike — a good idea had I not left the sack in the motel room.
“Damn,” I say aloud. “I left my socks.”
“How many?” Chimi asks.
“All of them.”
He just shakes his head. “I can lend you a pair.”
“You don’t need it?”
“I was going to hiker-box it anyway.”
(Maine Man (foreground) and Delightful (background) traverse a snowfield.)
A Taste of the Mountains
The ridge climbs and climbs and I get my first true taste of the heart of the South San Juans: The mountain ridges like cresting waves frozen in lurch over valleys plunging 4,000 feet. The basins like bathtubs scooped out by glaciers which likely melted away some 15,000 years ago, in the Pleistocene, the Last Glacial Maximum, leaving behind scarred gorges to fill with forests. From 12,000 feet, these forests look like shag rugs. Wind soughing through them creates a remote roaring sound, constant and steady, like sea surf crashing at a distant shore. A heaving, sighing, rushing sound, it rises up the canyon walls, rolls along the contouring hills, reverberates among the leaning crags — an ever-present, colossal breathing that remains somehow far away — a sound from another place, in other words, like hearing the roar of a crowd in a stadium at a mile-and-a-half remove.
In the canyons far below, waterfalls cascade from hanging valleys, avalanche tracks scour tubular chutes, and cirques look like divots or craters in the moon.
“I feel so isolated,” Chimi says. “There is nobody out here.”
“Probably because we’re the only ones dumb enough to try to traverse the South San Juans while they’re covered in snow,” I reply. “If we came back in July, this would be a different landscape. I mean, the trail would be walkable.”
“But at least we get to see it like this,” he says. “That’s one thing I’ve learned in my travels. You’ve got to appreciate places when you’re there. Chances are, you’re never coming back.”
(Maine Man cruising.)
Sanjay turns on the jets in the late afternoon. As we set up camp on a knoll, we watch him grow smaller and smaller, plowing vigorously across a snowfield bigger than any man-made sporting venue. We won’t see him again till Pagosa.
On our knoll, Dutch produces a Batman Pez dispenser.
“Where should I put Batman?” he asks. “He’ll watch over us tonight. Keep the storms away.”
Chimi builds a little bivvy spot of rocks where Batman chills on the crest of the rocky knoll.
We’re not sure if it will drop below freezing in the night.
“What are you guys doing with your wet shoes?” Chimi asks.
“I’m gonna bag ’em and put ’em in my tent,” I say.
“I’ll probably do the same,” he says.
And Dutch is not done joking.
“I’m going to take mine and throw them out in the middle of that snowfield.”
Dancing in the Snowfield
We get on the trail early the next morning in hopes of avoiding postholing. Stepping onto the snowfield, it’s firm and grippy. A joy to be walking again like a normal human. A hiker from Ireland trail-named Malarkey comes off a hill, hits the hard-packed snowfield and does a little dance.
(Malarkey doing a hard-snow dance as other hikers walk in the early morning.)
There is something about the light at these elevations. A transluscence. A paleness. Yellow and blue and washed out, sheening on the snowy slopes of distant peaks. Everything harsh. Everything amplified: the brightness, the intensity of the sun, thirst, hunger, fatigue, the difficulty with which a person breathes. It’s a simple environment – a world of mostly rock and ice. And in this simplicity there is dignity. A touch of grace. Serenity. Silence.
(Chimi, Maine Man and Dutch hiking in the late afternoon.)
(G-Funk near his tent on the ridge)
(Maine Man leads the way up a hill.)
We camp on a rocky cliff, the first place we’ve seen that’s not blanketed in snow. My tarp tent requires stakes driven into the ground. It’s held up via counterbalancing. With difficulty, I build mini rock cairns around my stakes, strong enough to hold them down, and sleep with my feet pointed downhill. Chimi sleeps at another outcrop just across the way. In the morning he says, “We called your spot ‘Camp Rockslide.”
(Mine and Dutch’s tents at ‘Camp Rockslide.’)
Other hikers stronger than me break trail in the day, an exhausting effort — splitting crust with shoe and shin, a continuous, repetitive downward thrust of the foot. Up and down all day. Snowy valleys and mountain traverses, steep inclines along the sides of hills.
(Dutch, Chimi and Memphis plodding across the snow.)
It’s hard to describe that feeling — the one you get when you’re looking out across a snowfield that stretches for miles before ramping up toward a mountain pass 1,000 feet above where you stand.
“That’s where we have to go?” you might ask your friends.
And they’ll respond — gawking forlornly at the rugged pass — they’ll say something along the lines of: “Well…that’s what the map says.”
It’s strange, though. I’ve never partaken in a thing whose joys are so intimately interwoven in misery.
The Driving Force?
Dark clouds build around the peak near our pass. Walking slowly, with hip-high postholes through the snow, I am warily watching those clouds, hearing the guttural roll of thunder, and despairing. This is going to be a nightmare, I think. We are climbing right into it.
But I keep my wimpy opinions to myself. I see Malarkey, Chimi, Dutch, Maine Man, Tom, La-La, Delightful and Toast plodding ahead of me.
What is it that’s driving these people? How do they keep on?
(Chimi and Dutch atop a ridge.)
(Malarkey battling snow.)
(Maine Man and Dutch dropping into a valley.)
A few of us stop for a break before the climb. We wring water from our socks. Dry our chilled feet.
“I’m just going to keep moving today,” Malarkey says. “I am going to move and walk until I drive myself into the ground. Then I’m going to sleep for a few hours, get up tomorrow, and do it again.”
Nobody says a word when the rain comes. We all stop, a five minute interval, drop our packs, silently produce our rain gear, saddle up and advance. A localized shower, it lasts five minutes. These peaks are large enough to create their own weather. Clouds pile up against them, colliding and amassing until they boil up over the tops, bringing rain and thunder and lightning, before moving swiftly past. At any given time, if you’re standing at altitude on a high pass, you can see thunderheads strafing distant ranges in rain or snow.
It takes two hours to get to the base of the pass. Near the top, two snow-bellied ptarmigan cluck at us as we plod exhaustedly by. Somebody calls them “snow chickens.” We’re all pretty damn hungry.
One last push, a great and valiant effort, and we reach the top. The view is of more mountains, purple, white and blue in coloration, stretching like an empire of tents to the horizon. Immediately before us, the punched-in line of footprints hugs the mountainside — a valley of blinding white coruscating snow – our next daunting challenge. It simply never ends.
(Toast chillin before sunset.)
Dutch, Chimi, Delightful, Maine Man and I find an island of dryness, camp early, build a fire to dry our gear and warm our spirits.
“We’re still on schedule,” Dutch reminds us.
Dutch — always a motivational force.
A Glissading Explosion
The next day, it’s more ascents through snow. After we make our first big climb, we tuck between boulders on the ridge. The landscape around is a seemingly endless succession of high, rocky, snowy peaks.
“Man,” Dutch says. “We are out here.”
And Maine Man affirms: “It is remote.”
(Chimi during a break.)
(Delightful applying sunscreen.)
(The crew at the top of the ridge.)
We crest a ridge above a deep depression, a long walk to the bottom. Chimi decides to glissade on his butt, a roughly 120 foot slide. I go after him and Dutch follows suite, using our feet and poles and packs as breaks.
Maine Man positions himself for the slide. Standing at the bottom, I look down to ready my camera. He starts to glissade. Chimi goes, “Whoa, Maine Man is flying.”
I look up to see an explosion — Maine Man rolling over his pack, his arms flailing, his walking stick jettisoning up into the air.
He stops at the bottom, a little shaken but nothing serious. Delightful retrieves his stick on her way down.
“When I got to the top, I thought, ‘That looks dangerous, I should go slow,'” Maine man tells me. “Then, when I sat down, something changed, and I said, ‘I want to go fast.'”
Creatures of the Night
As the sun goes down, we cannot find a dry place to camp. We decide to disperse along the trail. I go a little ahead with Chimi and Delightful and we pitch our tents on a small patch of trail that is somewhat dry and relatively flat if compared to, say, a half-pipe ramp. I am utterly exhausted. I make macaroni and can’t finish the cheese sauce and make a bad decision to pour it outside my tent flap before sleeping.
In the night, I wake to a scratching noise. Heat floods my body. A creature, I can see it’s dark figure through the tent mesh.
What is it? A raccoon? A wolverine?
Laying on my stomach, I unzip the mesh and grab my ice axe handle and swing it violently at this mountain beast snacking greedily on my cheese sauce. The creature scurries off into the woods, only to return five minutes later.
By now I can tell what it is: A bastard bunny rabbit.
And soon other bunnies arrive on the scene. Three in total. They’re fighting over my cheese sauce, hissing and scurrying and even jumping on the walls of my tent. I make war with them for more than an hour, swinging my ice axe at them, brighting them with the light of my camera. But they don’t care. They scurry and return, forever and anon, laughing at the dumb desperate human who is too cold to even climb from his tent.
A miserable night’s sleep on the cold sloping trail.
Dutch announces in the morning that he did some map work and found a short cut. Delightful, Chimi, Dutch, Maine Man and I march out to the pass by 10:30 a.m. My Dad drives up from Ruidoso to meet us. When we hit the road, we see him passing, call him on the phone, and he turns around — almost perfect timing.
We plan to stay in Pagosa for a few days. A Blues and Bluegrass Festival, hot springs and charming little town. It’s been great to spend time with my Dad as I haven’t seen anyone from my family since starting the trail.
A last note:
When I started this journey I thought I would be mostly alone. That has not been the case. It might make me a coward, but I don’t care: Had I been alone in the South San Juans, they’d have swallowed me whole. And I can’t overemphasize the comfort it gives me to look ahead or behind and see a familiar figure — a friend ardently bent to the same task as me.
(Chimi prepping for lunch.)
(Dutch during camp night one.)
(Our camp night one again.)
(Chimi, Delightful, Dutch crossing a snowfield above a gorge.)
(Dutch and Chimi walking and admiring the view.)
(Dutch digs his shoe out of the snow and Chimi prepares to descend a slope.)
(Me standing around.)