DAY 36: Colorado
Appa is the first one out of camp this morning as we make our approach to the New Mexico/Colorado border (I can’t imagine why Appa is so eager to get to Colorado).
Moist and I set out together up a climb through some snow. The snow isn’t deep, but the ground is sufficiently covered. Thanks to last night’s freezing temperatures, we’re mostly walking on ice. Moist stops to put on his microspikes as we still have 9.7 mi / 15.6 km before we hit Cumbres Pass (where we will hitch west to Chama, New Mexico).
As usual, my GPS isn’t working and I depend on my Appa/Moist-following skills to lead me across the snow-covered terrain.
We do what the trail has taught us to do and ignore the fact that there’s a trail (which turns out to be easier when you have no idea where the trail is). We instead take the most direct route we can find to our next waypoint, the New Mexico/Colorado border.
A mountain turkey (I’m pretty sure this is the official name for these creatures) greets us at the border where, surprisingly, there’s no indication that we’ve entered Colorado – only that we’re now in the Rio Grande National Forest.
One state down, three to go (I consider the CDT’s brief foray into Idaho a part of Montana).
After a few more cuts we’ve made up ground on Appa, and by the time we reach where the trail crosses Highway 17 we’ve caught our companion.
Our hitchhiking luck has been good until now, so after waiting over an hour with no ride we’re frustrated. There’s cell reception on the pass so I begin calling motels in Chama (12 mi / 19.3 km southwest of us) to see if anyone will come pick us up. All the motels are around $85 per night and the owner of the Chama Station Inn offers us a ride.
As soon as I hang up the phone with her, a pickup truck (with a bed full of empty PBR cans) stops for us. I call back and tell our host that we’re on our way (how can we say “no” to riding in a beer-can-filled truck bed?).
Having made it to our second state, we splurge and upgrade to the Chama Station Inn’s fireplace room for $10 more a night. Absolutely worth it.
We drop our packs in the room and set off to separate corners of the town to take care of errands: Moist heads to the Y Motel to pick up his resupply box (and apologize for not staying there), I head to the post office to pick up my resupply box (which contains my snowshoes and ice axe), and Appa heads to the bar (presumably, to buy us all beer).
Rose, the owner of the Chama Station Inn, lets us use the hotel laundry machine (for free) and offers us the use of the hotel fridge (we don’t have one in our incredibly fancy room) to store our adult beverages.
Before locking ourselves in the room for the rest of the day and night, Moist and I walk to the supermarket on the other end of town – 1.6 mi / 2.6 km away.
Since I’m an idiot, I don’t bring my backpack and on the way back to the motel my grocery-filled plastic bags begin to rip. To make things better, it’s also far hotter in town than it is up in the mountains and I’m dripping with sweat. Fortunately, Moist is a kind and gentle man who allows me to put some things into his pack and even fortunately-ier, a woman pulls over in her pickup truck (aka cars most people along the CDT are driving) to give us a lift.
Back in the room, I settle into bed where I will not be moving from. Appa and Moist head next door to the Foster Hotel Bar Restaurant (where the food is not very good – definitely recommend the Boxcar Café instead) for dinner and I watch The Rock while eating food I bought at the grocery store.
Appa is meeting someone in Pagosa Springs (the next resupply stop) and is leaving Chama tomorrow. Moist and I will be taking a zero.
DAY 37: Zero Day 3 (Chama, New Mexico)
We all have breakfast together (Boxcar Café, excellent food – and wifi) before Appa hitchhikes back up to the trail (sucker).
Highlights of today, my third zero day of the Continental Divide Trail, include:
- Arguing with Moist about what to watch on TV (Moist votes for Bar Rescue and I vote for Gladiator)
- Walking to the Family Dollar and buying some new shorts for $8 (the Prana Ansa shorts I began the trail with are garbage)
- Attempting to visit the local brewery and finding it closed
After one more trip to the Boxcar Café to ensure that we have plenty of music, podcasts, and movies downloaded for the next section of trail, we head to the room for a relaxing night of wood burning, television watching, and beer drinking.
Tomorrow we hit the (un)official start of the San Juan Mountains and discover the answer to the question that all thru-hikers (regardless of the trail they’re hiking) have before beginning their hikes, “What is the snow going to be like this year?”
DAY 38: Snow? What snow?
I’m not overly eager to get back on the trail today (I never am after a zero), but when a random older man shows up at our motel room door offering us an unsolicited ride back up to the pass (apparently the fudge shop owner we spoke to yesterday recruited this man to drive us), we have little choice but to accept.
Before driving us out of town, he says that he has to pick up another hiker at the post office and take him back to his motel. Apparently, this man is officially in charge of shuttling hikers around Chama (where was he two days ago when I was sweaty and chasing my groceries around the street?).
Moist and I are happy to see that the hiker we pick up is Napolean (whom we haven’t seen since Pie Town). After a quick reunion, he’s dropped at his motel and we are off to the trail (after, of course, picking up some Subway sandwiches to pack out of town).
It’s 12:30 when we’re back on the trail and hiking, and it’s around 13:00 when we stop to eat our sandwiches (the transition from town to the trail never gets any easier).
We’re happy to see there’s not a lot of snow on the trail. Instead of snow, we get a couple of sketchy stream crossings (made sketchy only by the fact that we did not want to get our feet wet). After making surprisingly good time (it’s probably the Subway), we begin a long and steady climb up to around 12,200 ft / 3,719 m.
And guess what? We find the snow.
As we reach the day’s high point, gathering clouds greet us with a clap of thunder. We’ve only just crossed the border and the infamous Colorado thunderstorms are already on our case.
Did I mention everything is covered in snow?
We continue ahead with no real indication where the CDT is. Tired from our day of doing nothing yesterday and excited to camp, we examine the map and find a low point next to a water source – we decide we’ll camp there tonight.
Moist quickly gets ahead of me and soon disappears out of sight.
I struggle to follow his footprints in the snow but end up really engaged in what can only be described as “wandering through the mountains.”
If you weren’t already aware, I’m an expert map reader. Right now my map is saying, “You are lost, dummy.” Luckily, the sensation of being lost (or, as it can be accurately described on the CDT, “not knowing exactly where the trail is”) is something that I’ve gotten used to – almost comfortable with – during the past month.
Further examination of the map (on which my current position is not a feature) and it looks like I’m supposed to be descending. Cool, let’s do that.
You know what the best part about hiking downhill in the snow is? Glissading (aka skiing on your feet and/or sliding on your ass down a snowfield).
As I glissade down the snowy mountainside, I am happy to see (what I believe to be) the place where we decided on camping. My loud and intermittent shouts into the distance are soon answered and it’s not long before Moist and I are reunited.
It takes us until it’s nearly completely dark, but we find a flat (and dry) spot to camp.
We’re really in it now.
DAY 39: Yahtzee!
After our first night of nearly camping on the snow, we begin our first day hiking nearly entirely on snow.
We both have our gaiters on and Moist is using his fancy hiking crampons (I am carrying microspikes, but, for some reason, have irrationally decided to go as long as I can without using them). The “trail” (which, remember, is now completely buried in snow) takes us uphill and I quickly fall behind Moist.
Reaching the pass at the top of this morning’s climb, I look at the map to figure out where to go (my phone’s GPS is still not functioning).
I traverse down from the pass and have to kick steps most of the way (aka, I need to literally kick flat spots into the snow-covered hillside so that I have somewhere to step securely). How the hell did Moist make it down from here? It’s like he has spikes on his feet or something. I think he’s a wizard.
Safely making it past the traverse, I am relieved to again be walking on level ground. That is, until I posthole (that’s this really fun thing where your foot breaks through the top layer of snow and/or ice and then down into whatever space happens to be below; sometimes it’s just your foot, sometimes it’s your entire leg – very exciting) into a body of water hidden below. And I was silly enough to think that my feet would stay dry today.
And so long as we’re on the subject of “awesome things that are happening today”, have I mentioned that the beautiful blue sky we woke up to this morning has been invaded by dark and menacing clouds?
I need to find Moist.
It’s another hour before I find Moist lounging beside a frozen lake, and the weather situation does not appear to be improving.
We’ve got a climb coming up, and in the interest of not being caught on a ridge above treeline during a thunderstorm, we elect to take a break and wait it out. I pitch my tent in “fast fly” mode using the footprint, fly, and poles (aka everything but the mesh tent body) to create a space for us to hang out (since it looks like we might be here a while).
Just as we get into the shelter, as if a switch has been flipped, a storm erupts.
Flashes of lightning illuminate the walls as we’re assaulted by deafening hail and explosive thunder. I can’t even tell you how happy I am to not be hiking (particularly up on a ridge) in this. Cowering in my tent, we pass the time playing Yahtzee (dice are ultralight). Moist wins the first round (where we both perform very poorly with scores below 200), but I take him in the second (when we each roll a Yahtzee, one after another).
Almost two hours after taking cover, the storm has passed and the sky has cleared enough that we’re comfortable continuing.
As we start hiking, Moist again pulls ahead and out of view; I am really not feeling it today (could be the extra weight of my snowshoes and ice axe, could be that it’s my first real day hiking through snow, or could be that I’m a bitch).
Fortunately, for the first time in what feels like weeks, my phone gets a GPS fix on my position and I’m able to stay not lost (which is the best you can hope for since staying “on trail” isn’t really an option).
The next time I find Moist waiting for me (because we all know that deep down he loves me and is worried about me), it’s before a long and sketchy traverse. I should probably get my ice axe out, but risking my safety seems like a reasonable call when the alternative is stopping for sixty seconds and removing my backpack.
At the end of the traverse, we get to do a long glissade down into the valley on the other side of the ridge. Glissading is a bit like skiing or snowboarding – not in the sense that you’re sliding across snow, but instead in the sense that it’s incredibly fun with the potential for things to go terribly wrong and for you to be very injured.
You know who loves glissading? Appa. I wonder where that man is right now.
It’s getting late, and thanks to our long unplanned break this afternoon we’ve only managed 17.8 mi / 28.7 km. We’ll have to better tomorrow.
Finding a suitable campsite (flat, near water, not covered in snow) is a challenge tonight, but eventually, we find a spot we can squeeze our tents into (we both have two-person shelters, but sharing is not an option). The best part about this campsite? A nest of mice (yes, nest, the collective noun for mice) has also made this place their home.
We’re basically guaranteed a great night of uninterrupted sleep.
DAY 40: The shortest day
The mice are well organized.
Thanks to the tactical assault they launched on our camp last night, we’re both short on sleep when we start hiking around seven.
We begin with a long and icy climb up to a spot on the map labeled “Mountain Pass”. Whether this place is proper noun Mountain Pass or normal noun “mountain pass”, I do not know. And really, who cares? As per usual, by the time I make it to the top, Moist has disappeared ahead of me.
Following the trail along the curve of the mountains, I find the first snowshoe tracks of the trail (and the first snowshoe tracks I think I’ve ever seen).
My own snowshoes, weighing in at 4.5 lbs / 2.04 kg, have been sitting unused strapped to the top of my backpack since I picked them up in Chama. Moist, who has the same snowshoes, has taken to carrying his in his hand (he does not have trekking poles). Maybe I should trade my poles for my snowshoes; it would certainly make my pack lighter.
Or I guess I could just put them on?
The truth is, I have no idea why there are snowshoe tracks here because this is basically an ice field. Maybe the snow has some give in the late afternoon, but I doubt it (and these tracks look like they may have been made this morning). I also have no idea to whom these tracks belong as Moist and I have not seen a single hiker since we left town.
As I come around a ridge, I see Moist below me – a very long way down the hillside.
And he’s walking back up toward me?
Nearly screaming our words to one another, I gather that he glissaded down and his water bottle fell out of his pack somewhere along the way (he’s far enough away that our words take a second to reach one another). Seeing an opportunity to be the hero, I tell Moist that I will rescue his water bottle.
I get out my ice axe and prepare for the longest (and probably most dangerous) glissade of the hike thus far (and because I know you’re very worried and wondering, yes, I found Moist’s water bottle).
After crossing the valley below we encounter more terrain that can be described in the same terms as much of what we’ve encountered during the past 24 hours, incredibly steep and sketchy.
Moist has been using his hiking crampons all day while I (still) have yet to put on my microspikes (again, no rational or logical reason for not using them). Many of the slopes in the area are clearly avalanche paths (either that or all the trees are just growing parallel to the ground) and we do our best to make it across these areas as quickly as possible.
We reach a traverse that not only rivals all the others in terms of steepness but also has one of the scariest looking “I wouldn’t want to fall down there” zones (I’m pretty sure that’s the official name) of the hike. I stash my trekking poles and get out my ice axe.
Turns out that the ice axe makes me feel a lot more secure. It’s almost as if these things were designed for this kind of hiking.
When we make it to the next valley we see (on the map) that the trail does a big horseshoe around the end of the valley before heading up and over the ridge across from us – basically an incredibly long traverse.
Since “traverse” has become a scary word in the snowy San Juan Mountains, we decide to drop down and hike along the river at the valley floor before cutting straight up and over the next ridge. The slope we head down is quite icy and Moist take a spill and has to self-arrest at one point (aka use his ice axe to stop himself from entering an uncontrolled fall down the mountainside to what will probably be his death).
We make it down and hike up the valley until we’re lined up with the next pass. Our reward for not traversing and instead dropping down? A 1,300 ft / 396 m sheet of snow and ice to climb up.
It’s now early afternoon which means that, once again, the clear skies we woke up to this morning have been invaded by clouds – dark clouds.
We decide, as we did yesterday, to hang out and see if we can’t wait out the coming storm (because if the past couple days have taught us anything it’s that there is most assuredly a storm coming). I set up my tent in the “fast fly” configuration once more and we resume our Yahtzee playing.
After five games (of which I took four), the storm is still raging outside and the simultaneous thunder and lightning does not inspire much confidence in the idea that we will be stepping any closer to Canada (remember Canada?) any time soon.
We’ve only gone 7.5 mi / 12 km, but it’s nearly 18:00 by the time the weather clears.
After a brief meeting, we decide to call it a day. We will camp here, sleep early, and wake up at the crack of dawn to start hiking and make up the distance we missed today.
Good idea, right?
DAY 41: The crack of dawn
My alarm goes off at 4:00 am. What a terrible idea.
By some miracle we get packed and are hiking within an hour of our earliest wake-up call of the trail. It’s fucking freezing. It’s so cold that for the first time on the CDT I stop and put on my down jacket to hike in.
We start the day with a big climb out of the valley we dropped into yesterday and despite the ground being mostly ice (and me not wearing any traction on my feet), I make it up with the help of steps someone kicked into the hillside (thank you, anonymous stranger).
The trail takes us below Summit Peak (strange name for a mountain?) as it levels off and we hit some dry patches. I promise I will never complain about a trail again so long as it isn’t covered in snow.
During a long traverse we find that the mysterious footprints (probably responsible for the snowshoe tracks from yesterday) are still in front of us. It isn’t Appa, and since we (still) haven’t seen anyone else this section, we remain in hot pursuit of this elusive hiker as we pass Montezuma and Long Trek Peak (who gets to name mountains and can I be one of these people?).
Temperatures have increased considerably since we began this morning and the weather today could almost be described as “hot”. Postholing is becoming a real threat to our plans to make up considerable distance today.
In the distance, we can see the trail crossing dry ground (for at least a bit) and we continue to traverse before cutting cross-country to get off the snow.
We excitedly follow this dry trail down and around a ridge as we make up time lost yesterday and this morning; and then we realize we’re not on the CDT anymore.
Luckily, we’re in the heart of Alternate Country and we see that instead of backtracking to where we got off the trail, we can cut over to the Great Divide Alternate and follow it up to the Elwood Pass Alternate before heading down a random forest road and following an old use trail over Bonito Pass to another forest road that we can take into Wolf Creek Ski Area on Highway 160.
We’ve become masters of the alternate.
While examining our new route, Moist’s phone rings. It’s Appa. He’s alive (dammit), and he’s had the fear of Zeus put into him by his time spent hiking alone through these thunderstorm-ridden mountains.
Clouds are gathering (as they do every day) and the forecast calls for thunderstorms (I don’t know why we even bother checking).
We follow our alternate until we discover some picnic tables next to the random forest road we’re on. This route was obviously meant for us. Unless something goes terribly wrong, we’re making it to Pagosa Springs tomorrow, so I feast on everything left in my food bag. Also excited by all of my food is the army of chipmunks and camp robbers (the ballsiest birds I’ve ever encountered) who have apparently made a home for themselves around these picnic tables.
With full bellies, the forest road now leads us down to McCormick Cabin. We were hoping this would be a nice shelter (that maybe we could sleep in), but it turns out to be falling apart; it looks like this place has been neglected for many years now.
According to one of our maps (of which we have three or four), there’s supposedly a trail leading uphill from McCormick Cabin to Bonito Pass where it crosses the CDT and heads down the other side.
I investigate and find very little that could be described as a trail. That said, we don’t have much in the way of choices since if we don’t get over this ridge we’re going to have a very long walk out of the mountains on this forest road (which I can’t afford since I just ate all of my food).
We follow the remnants of a trail up the gully. At the top of the climb, we’re greeted by our old friends, thunder and lightning. Heading down the other side, we find a forest road and follow it until we reach the Pass Creek Yurt.
Unfortunately, the yurt is locked.
Despite our best efforts, we cannot decipher the four-digit combination between us and a comfy night’s sleep indoors (and according to the internets, this place is $140 – are you fucking kidding me?).
We pitch our tents beside the yurt and eat dinner on the porch in front of it. Tomorrow we make our entrance into our first Colorado town, Pagosa Springs.
DAY 42: Wolf Creek Pass
Waking up slowly, we are relieved to see that the rain from last night has passed.
It takes us about two hours to reach Wolf Creek Pass on Highway 160 where we begin hitchhiking west to Pagosa Springs (hitchhiking east to South Fork is also an option, but most CDT hikers head to Pagosa Springs.
We’re not at the spot where the CDT crosses the highway since we made up our own route to get here, and after nearly an hour of unsuccessful hitchhiking, we decide to walk up to the pass in hopes of finding some sympathy.
Eventually, we get a ride into town with a couple who says surprisingly little to us for the entire thirty-minute drive down (except for when Moist comments on the guy’s Metallica t-shirt).
Pagosa Springs is a bit of a sprawl and there’s an “old side” (the east side, closer to Wolf Creek Pass) and the “new side” (the west side, where most of the chain hotels and restaurants are) – a WalMart unites old and new in the middle
We get dropped off on the old side of town and get a room at the Quality Inn (Moist and I like to do town in style when Appa’s not around).
The plan is to take a couple of days off here (probably two) and wait for Appa to return from his escapades around Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.
Let the movie marathon begin.
- Day 36 (June 3): 9.7 mi / 15.6 km (Arrive Chama, NM)
- Day 37 (June 4): Zero Day 3 (Chama, NM)
- Day 38 (June 5): 15.2 mi / 24.5 km (Leave Chama, NM)
- Day 39 (June 6): 17.8 mi / 28.7 km
- Day 40 (June 7): 7.5 mi / 12 km
- Day 41 (June 8): 20.2 mi / 35.5 km
- Day 42 (June 9): 23.8 mi / 38.3 km (Arrive Pagosa Springs, CO)
WEEK’S TOTAL: 94.2 mi / 151.6 km
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