Day 41: June 3, 2019
Destination: CDT Mile 782.0
Today’s Miles: 18.6
Start Location: CDT Mile 763.4
Trip Miles: 654.1
Today I would climb up over 11000 feet. I still hadn’t seen another hiker since I left Ghost Ranch.
At this point, I assumed I wouldn’t until I got into town.
I started early and the weather looked good. The sun was shining as I started a big day of climbing up. I walked along a beautiful ridge with an incredible view of a lush valley below. The drop off was steep with no tree cover. It allowed for fantastic views, but made me really glad it wasn’t covered in snow. In the valley below I saw two herds of elk. Well, two groups of roughly six elk. I just love seeing animals in their natural habitats, especially when they don’t know that I am there.
I pushed hard to make it to the still-closed Lagunitas campground. There were large snow bumps on the road heading in, so I did a little postholing to get there. My feet were wet anyway from some morning stream crossings. There are a few lakes around this camping area, and apparently good fishing in them. I made my way to the pit privy where there was a decent amount of sun and laid out my wet gear. I took off my shoes and socks, popped on my flip flops and sat in the shade to eat lunch. I stayed about 30-40 minutes as my gear was quite wet. It was an early lunch and I left by 11, but not 20 minutes into my hiking, the thunder started....
The storm seemed to dance around me, but not land on me. I climbed and climbed until I was post holing pretty badly in large snowfields. I put on my snowshoes. It became difficult to see footsteps over what was supposed to be the trail, and so I just walked in the general direction.
I spent much of the day taking cross country routes. If the storms popped up in the ridge, I would look for opportunities to snowshoe through the valley. If the trail went in a big loop, I would try and cut straight across. I was feeling stressed by the weather. Even when it was sunny, there were ominous clouds looking somewhere, and it was hard to know which storms were coming for me, and which weren’t. I got a little bit of hail with one, a little bit of rain with another. The worst was when I climbed up to the top of a ridge over 11000 feet. I was struggling because I was at a high enough elevation where there wasn’t a lot of tree cover. The snow was mixed with large patches of muddy ground. This made it really hard to wear snowshoes. I kept them on through some of the dirt patches, but then had to take them off. I again left trail and climbed up to the top of the ridge where there was no snow. I walked as far along that as I could, and then it opened up into a huge snowfield that slowly descended. There were no trees. I heard a rumbling in the background, and it was game on.
Dark clouds started rolling in. I strapped on my snow shoes as the post holing was bad. I shuffled as fast as I could through the valley. I was exposed. It started raining and the thunder got louder. I checked my map and decided to do a major off-trail maneuver. I took a hard left and shuffled down a steeper slope towards treeline. I needed cover. When I got there, it started raining, but the worst of the storm passed over the ridge, a bit to the east of where I’d been. I was still glad I wasn’t up there.
I then decided to try to walk towards a distant trail junction. I could see I needed to head down, but after a mile or so I reached a cliff that was too steep. I had to climb up again before I could shuffle around and go down.
I came out just above a valley and carefully navigated over a few streams that were buried by snow. It’s kind of eery when you can hear them flowing beneath the surface. I kept walking and got within about a few miles of the trail junction. I reached a spot that had some dry ground, and a marmot popped out of his hole to investigate me. He really was not shy! I walked right up to him and took a picture before he scampered off about his business.
I dropped to within a half mile to a mile of the trail, this time in a huge valley completely covered by snow. It was pretty wet snow at this point. I put my snowshoes on again and tried to head in an efficient way to where I wanted to camp for the night. The stream crossings in the valley where a challenge. I was coming in perpendicular to the CDT, and so instead of crossing once, I had to cross three times as there was a big junction of creeks. Sections of them were partially buried; sections were fully buried by snow. Complicating matters, another thunderstorm rolled in as I was crossing the snow field. I couldn’t move that fast because of the snow and the streams. I started to see lightning, and again I was stressed to get through the field and find cover.
I pushed over the field up a small hill and down the other side. This valley was huge! I saw the stream crossing I had targeted to wrap up my day. I had planned to cross its icy waters since my feet were already wet and cold so that I wouldn’t have to do it in the morning, but it was sprinkling and thundering and the sky looked horrible. I didn’t see anything but snow in the other side of the river. On my side, however, there was a small hill with some trees, clear if snow. I’d learned my lesson about having a bird in the hand, so I set up camp on that little hill. It wasn’t so tall that I was concerned about lightning, but I also didn’t have a choice. It would have to do.
I got set up and it appeared that the giant thunderstorm that was brewing was going to pass just east of me. I celebrated a little in my head. Not 10 minutes later, ANOTHER thunderstorm appeared in the exact same spot behind the first. This one, too, passed to the east, making noise but amounting to nothing.
As I sat in my tent enjoying dinner, I saw an elk come down the other side of the valley towards the river, and me. It was post holing and choosing its footing carefully. I smiled a little at this - we had something in common! I sat and watched as it made its way to the river and had a drink. It appeared to be looking for a place to cross, and disappeared upstream behind the trees on my hill. 10 minutes later, it came out from behind the tree cover on the side of my hill and stood there, about 30 feet in front of my tent. At that point, it saw me, and as Is rambled to get my camera, it bolted across the snowfield. The amount of ground it covered in short order was impressive. I felt really lucky to get to see it before it knew I was there!
The coyotes howled and tipped as the sun got low in the sky, and I realized I was staring at another storm rolling in, only this one was headed right towards me. I took a picture of the reddish pink clouds, then battened down the hatches as the wind picked up.
It gusted and there was a lot of lightning and thunder. I felt the temperature drop about 10 degrees in 5 minutes. It rained, and then sleeted. I tucked my water filter in my quilt. I was above 10,000 feet, so I worried it might freeze overnight. It was a tough day, and despite the cool animal sightings, I was feeling really low. I can handle snow, and I can handle storms at elevation, but put it all together and I was stressed out all day. I had exhausted myself hiking only 18 miles, playing hide and seek with thunderstorms seemingly all day. I was wet and cold and tired of running from things. It’s probably the closest I have come to just pulling the plug on a thru-hike, because at that point I didn’t have a plan for heading north or flipping. I lot just felt like I might be stuck in this mountaineering, storm dodging, post holing mess for an entire state. I guess I just wasn’t having fun because the stress level was so high. I went to sleep feeling like I might get to Chama and actually consider calling it. It probably didn’t help that I hadn’t seen anyone for days.
This is the reality of thru-hiking though. There are always tests. Hopefully the rewards on the other side of those tests make it all worthwhile. Tonight, I wasn’t sure. Seeing the elk definitely helped though :-).