A weekend in the San Juans, part 1

Lately I haven’t been able to sleep. I don’t know why, since life is always exhausting. I’ve learned to lie there complacently and resign myself to a shitty next day. Sometimes Benadryl helps; sometimes it doesn’t. Some nights I don’t get any sleep at all.

Of all the mountain ranges in Colorado, the San Juans are the most vast. The Continental Divide snakes through their jagged heart before heading north or south, depending on which way you’re walking. In 2016 I went north on the first day of June, hiking in snowshoes. There was so much gleaming white that I expected angels with trumpets to welcome me home.

But this was 2018 and late July. There was no trace of snow on the drive from Denver, not this year. Only a month earlier, the massive 416 Fire had closed the entirety of the San Juan National Forest. Humans, obsessed with guns and flames, couldn’t be trusted not to make things worse.

It was dark by the time I reached Montrose, and I was almost to the next green light when a large, shiny pickup truck jerked suddenly from the left-turn lane into mine. I swerved into the empty right lane and it missed me by inches or maybe seconds. I pounded on my horn as they sped off.

I thought about what hardcore hikers always say when people accuse us of inviting danger: It’s not as dangerous as sitting in a moving car.

That’s a conundrum fit for a statistician. But in the mean time, it’s comforting. It doesn’t have to be true.

Mt. Sneffels
July 20, 2018
Southwest Ridge, Class 3, 6.5 miles round trip

I sat up before my alarm. It was 4:15. Had I slept at all? I scanned my memory for dreams; there were none, just the long drive to Yankee Boy Basin in the dark. I opened the hatch of my car and made coffee on the back bumper. It was cold and I pulled my sleeping bag around me while I waited for the water to boil.

The sky was blank and black, but I could see the even darker silhouettes of the mountains all around. I started up the bumpy dirt road and stumbled over a stream, a gift from the monsoons that had extinguished the fire.

Hikers pause at Blue Lakes Pass to prepare for the journey ahead.

After a while I noticed that someone was following me. I could see their bobbing headlamp gaining step by step. For no real reason, I sped up. There’s something about being followed in the darkness.

In 20 minutes I was above tree line, and by 5:20 the sun had illuminated the basin enough to see the road ahead. My pursuer was catching up, a young man with a messy beard and long hair tied back. At the upper trailhead (accessible only to those with monster vehicles) I slung down my pack and pulled out a thermos. “Time for more coffee,” I announced by way of greeting.

He stopped and grinned. “Yeah,” he said, and reached for his own.

His name was Charlie. He had moved to Boulder a year ago and was in the San Juans for the first time. We were both nervous about the southwest ridge, a non-standard Class 3 route that resembled inverted icicles from a distance.

We walked and chatted up to Blue Lakes Pass, where we found more hikers waiting at the turn-off to the ridge. They assumed that we were together, and cocked their heads and blinked when I corrected them. “You’re alone? Wow, good for you.” They didn’t say that to Charlie.

The route around the spires – look closely and you may see a cairn.

We kept hiking together, laughing that at least someone would notice if we died. But the further into the spires we went, the more confident I became that death was not imminent. In fact, this was really fun.

Charlie and I talked about what most hikers like to talk about – hiking. We compared numbers and listed peaks. He had never heard of the CDT, but when I asked about the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, he said, “Of course.”

I surveyed the rock ahead for possible passage. We were using our hands a lot, but the route was easy to follow. We moved quickly when the rocks under us shifted, and paused to steady ourselves on the ones that didn’t.

I hauled myself up through a tiny notch. “When I’m out in the wilderness,” I said to Charlie, “it’s the only time I’m actually free from…anxiety.”

“I know what you mean,” he said. I was relieved.

I had to face a couple hard truths. One, I like scrambling a lot, but I’m not fast. And two, topo maps are no help when navigating micro-terrain like these skinny towers.

Scree near the summit, with the saddle and the standard approach in the background.

Charlie fell out of sight and I continued alone, climbing nearly vertical rock up a gully. I mentally thanked whatever gene combination gave me long legs. Yes, they make every skirt look way too short, but look what they can do!

Exhaustion hit near the top. Concentrate, I reminded myself. I tapped each rock three times with my foot, like I was kicking steps in the snow. Most held and a few fell, thundering down the sheer face of the mountain.

“Rock!” I yelled, praying Charlie wasn’t close beneath me. “Rock, rock, rock!”

The grade eased before the summit and I landed triumphantly at 7:40. The mountains scooped below me like caverns; it was like the Grand Canyon! It was wide enough for quite a few people, and because this was Colorado on a Friday, they were there waiting.

Mt. Sneffels, 14,150′

I lingered until I had the peak to myself. (Charlie, come and gone, seemed shaken.) Then I scrambled down the standard approach to the saddle.

It was a fantasy world, grim and mystical. An ice palace, realm of an evil queen! She is frozen except to her deepest core, where the hurt from a lost love lingers. 

Beyond the saddle (looking east), there are definitely dragons.

The descent was sheer loose rock and dirt, nothing technical or exposed but horrendously steep. I grew frustrated and imagined glissading down the rocks, how much it would hurt and what injuries I might sustain. I glared at the marmots watching smugly as I inched down.

At the bottom I got a ride to the lower trailhead with Brandon and Lindsey from Georgia, and there was Charlie again, and pretty soon we were all gathered around the hood of a truck laughing. I said goodbye and grinned all the way to Telluride.


El Diente – Mt. Wilson Traverse
July 21, 2018
Day 1: Kilpacker Approach and Navajo Lake

Summer in Colorado! Have there ever been such magical words? All winter it calls: Come see the wildflowers explode like fireworks! Listen for chimes when the aspen shimmer in the wind. Savor the last drops of sunlight as they seep from the sky. See the mountains in their naked glory; get freaky with the colors of the rock!

Navajo Lake.

I wanted to challenge myself with a harder, more technical climb. After all, I’m training for my most ambitious trip yet. But I didn’t want to do it alone, so I asked Squirrel to join me.

Squirrel on the Navajo Lake trail.

Squirrel and I met on the CDT in New Mexico, and finished together on a rainy day at the Canadian border. Much like me, he’s funny and opinionated and loud. He’s also adventurous with a keen head for safety. Perfect.

We took the Kilpacker trail and set up camp a few miles in, as close to El Diente as possible. There was plenty of light left in the day, so we doubled back and took the cutoff to Navajo Lake. It was less well-maintained, and we pushed our way through corn lillies and larkspur that nearly grazed our heads. Everything was green and wet, a gentle jungle.


Squirrel takes shelter from the monsoon.

The climb was steep and the lake came into view just as the monsoons were rolling in. I inflated my packraft and placed it on the branches of the pine tree above us.

Squirrel and I laughed and ate snacks as if huddling there was the reason we hiked up in the first place. He seemed alarmed by some of my cynical proclamations. “Do you believe in love?” he asked.

“Of course,” I said immediately. And then I realized what he meant. “Ask me if I believe in relationships and that’s a different answer.”

“There’s that optimism,” he laughed.

Aboard the packraft in Navajo Lake.

The rain passed and the colors reflected in Rorschach smears across the water. I danced on the rocks and paddled out to the center of the lake. It was nice to kick back for a change.

We returned to camp and made dinner next to the wet ashes in the fire ring. I pulled up the pictures and route description on my phone and passed it to Squirrel. He studied the El Diente – Mt. Wilson traverse.

“Well,” he said finally, “there’s never a dull moment with you, Cloud.”

We had different fears; he was afraid of lightning and I was afraid of rock. So we decided on a safe word: caterpillar. If one of us said it, we would turn back no matter what.

We agreed to start hiking at 4 am. I swallowed two Benadryl but lay awake in my tent all night.

Read Part 2

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