Sangre traverse, part 1: Meth Mountain to Hunts Peak

NOTE: I lost most of my photos from this trip due to phone shenanigans. I’m sad that I can’t illustrate my journey as I intended to, but I did salvage a few from instagram

The Sangre de Cristo mountains are the ancestral land of the Ute and Cheyenne.

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August 30, 2018

I met Junaid in Crestone, where we planned to leave his car and my second stash of food. After four days he would head back to Boulder, and I would continue on my own.

He arrived in slight distress: he had forgotten his trekking poles. “This is going to be one of those trips, isn’t it?” I joked.

I unfurled my sleeping bag in the back of my car and he spread his tarp on the ground. We sorted our food, counting out four days’ worth of nuts, Oreos, and tuna packets. How many sour worms is too many sour worms?

Before I went to sleep, I unfolded the map. I had spent all summer studying the ridgeline, imagining hopping from one peak to the next. It looked simple on paper. I stared at the dark lines and wondered what the Sangres had in store.

October ??, 2013

Cloud in the Great Sand Dunes National Park, the day of the government shutdown. Southwest Conservation Corps, fall 2013.

On trail crew, the only numbers we gave the days were 1 through 10. This hitch was finally over and we were driving north through the San Luis Valley.

I hugged my legs and leaned against the window of the Suburban. When I rubbed my eyes, it was there in the creases. It was in the wet rim of my nostrils. Sand, motherfucking sand! I ruffled my hair and it sprinkled onto my lap like dandruff.

Through the window, I saw the first light hugging the crest of the Sangres. It was neon pink and didn’t look like blood.

Our crew leader named summits in the jagged silhouette. Like teeth at the end of a saw, they shot up from the valley floor and traced a sky-high line through the dawn. “Do people hike the whole ridge?” I asked.

“No,” said my crew leader. “There’s no trail and no water. I don’t think it’s possible.”

I had been waiting to see the sunrise from the San Luis Valley. The story was that a Spanish priest had been fatally shot by the Utes and whispered in his final moments, Sangre de Cristo. Blood of Christ. I had imagined it deep red and pooling in the sky.

The story of the Sangres and the San Luis Valley is the standard American tale of imperialism, genocide, and a harmony that is now lost. The Southern Ute camped and traveled in the mountains, hunting elk and gathering roots and seeds for medicine. They had a reputation as fierce and adept warriors. This, along with the formidable barrier of the landscape, kept early colonizers at bay.

But the Spanish made it in from the south. The Ute, Colorado’s earliest known residents, were forced into a reservation 200 miles east on the New Mexico border.

The Sangre ridgeline is practically unbroken from Methodist Mountain to Sisnaajiní, a mountain commonly called Blanca Peak. It is one of the most sacred mountains to the Diné, or Navajo, and it marks the eastern boundary of their ancestral homeland. In the early 1860s, the Navajo were massacred and driven from that homeland by the scorched-earth depravity of Kit Carson, a “frontiersman” employed by the U.S. Army. One of the tallest mountains in the Sangres is named Kit Carson Peak.

Today, both tribes are still fighting. This summer, a challenge from the Navajo Nation saved the land around Sisnaajiní and the Great Sand Dunes from being auctioned off for oil and gas drilling. (For now.)

I wrote about the Sangres here, my scant knowledge of their history and geology and the vast personal impact they had on me. I never forgot that morning in the rig. As the years rolled by, I began to suspect my crew leader was wrong. My suspicions were confirmed last April when I met someone who had done the traverse.

And then it hopped unbidden from my mouth: “I’m doing it this summer.”

Although the Sangre range extends into New Mexico, when people talk about a traverse they mean Methodist Mountain to Sisnaajiní. It’s a rough road. Even side trails are scarce, except around the 14ers. I knew to expect a few things:

  1. Constant up and down
  2. Lack of water/dropping thousands of feet to camp and refill
  3. Difficult technical scrambling

To train, I did long, technical traverses with a full backpack, and climbed a few 14ers with it too. (The El Diente – Mt. Wilson traverse shook my confidence.) This was a dream five years in the making and I was determined to be ready.

August 31, 2018

We left Junaid’s car at the North Crestone trailhead and stopped at the Wal-mart in Salida for a pair of cheap poles. On the road up Methodist Mountain, my Subaru made it as far as the metal gate. It was an unwelcome surprise; I hadn’t planned on roadwalking to the summit.

Junaid broke one of his poles almost immediately. “One of those trips,” I laughed. We had only been walking for about two minutes when a pickup truck with an official C-DOT emblem came bobbing up the road, and I reflexively pivoted and stuck out my thumb.

I have to protect our driver’s identity, since he wasn’t supposed to pick up hikers. “We’re doing a full traverse of the range,” I told him, expecting shock or skepticism.

“Okay,” he said. He seemed to be smiling behind his mustache. He told us that he had taken his teenage son up a 14er, and the kid wasn’t impressed. “It’s a shame,” he said. “That feeling at the top, it’s like you’re flying.”

Here we go! Cloud and Junaid on Methodist Mountain with the rest of the range in the background.

I sucked in my breath. That was the first thing I said on a mountaintop too.

His job was to drive all over the state up bumpy dirt roads for a few minutes of flipping switches. He said that this road was the second most dangerous in winter, when he used a Snowcat. At the top of the mountain, he gave us a tour of the radio transmitter. I nodded politely, but my eyes were already searching out horizons.

“Here we go,” I said.

I wasn’t prepared for the blow-downs that characterized our first few miles. Route-finding over piles of downed trees was much harder than on rock, and I felt like we were tiptoeing through the ruins of a battlefield. It wasn’t long before I gashed my knee on a branch and shed the first Sangre de Cloud of the trip. And then the second, and then the third.

When we finally popped above tree line, I felt immediately at home. The traverse spread before us like a fanned-out hand of cards. I spun in an excited circle and pointed out the Collegiates, the Chalk Cliffs, the San Juans, the Crestones, the Blanca Group, and Pike’s Peak. It was strange, and would continue to be strange, that we could see whole towns and thin highways stretched taut across the valley.

It was raining in the La Garitas to the west. I was startled by how complete the shapes of the clouds were, and how they crawled quickly across the sky. Usually clouds were framed by something, but up here the only frame was the talus under my feet.

There were already so many textures and colors of rock that I started to give them names, like Wart Rock and Red Leopard. The grade was gentle and I barely had to use my hands. In my mind I was running through a meadow, leaping and twirling in the air. In reality, I was taking large, awkward steps from boulder to boulder and turning around every so often to yell eloquent things like “Wow!!” I was faster and stopped occasionally to wait for Junaid, soaking in the far-off views as well as the crumbly close-ups.

Cloud atop the ridge on Day 1, with the Crestone Group visible in the background.

Junaid suggested circumventing the summit of Simmons Peak to save time and I agreed – we had plenty of summits. So we made for the saddle and continued towards Hunts Peak, the first 13er. It was raining lightly by then. This hadn’t been in the forecast, but of course the Sangres make their own weather.

Dark clouds worked their way into the sky. The wind was fast and cold, and I already regretted my gear choices for gloves and raincoat. Hunts loomed high above us, Junaid was tired, and I didn’t need much convincing – I’m cautious about storms. We agreed to find the nearest campsite and call it a solid start. It was 5pm.

But this was the Sangre traverse, and we had to descend thousands of feet from the knife’s edge to find water and a safe place to sleep. I was suddenly thankful for the chilly weather, since it seemed likely that we would be able to carry a full day’s water out of camp in the morning.

We spied a small bank around Hunts Lake and took a direct line down. It was an aggravating descent and we couldn’t avoid sliding down the scree. I told Junaid that I’d take talus any day.

He disagreed. “With scree,” he said, “at least you know what you’re getting.” It must have taken us at least an hour to get down, and I was sincerely worried about how we would get back up.

Cloud next to Hunts Lake, which is a little bigger than it looks here. Not pictured: the fortress-like walls of the crest.

The lake was small and desolate with a silty beach where we set up our shelters. We were surrounded by the ridges that split off from the main crest like the legs of a centipede. The east shore opened up to the Wet Mountain Valley, and the map showed that there was a trail from the valley floor. But all we could see was a mess of blowdowns. On the beach, I found a mostly-intact glass bottle of Pirate Bay rum.

“It’s strange,” I said, “how we can see lights from the town but still feel so out there.” I assumed Junaid would know what out there meant: wilderness as its own ungovernable universe. Self as a solitary speck.

September 1, 2018

It was still dark at 5:30 in the morning, and I could see a few stars through the lacy clouds. I heated water in my vestibule and stirred in a homemade powder that was half instant coffee, half hot chocolate. I added a single-serve packet of coconut oil.

As he was taking down his tarp, Junaid informed me that there had been heat lightning overnight. “Just because I have my stuff packed up doesn’t mean I’m ready to go,” he warned.

“That’s fine,” I said, pulling my sleeping bag around my shoulders. While he made oatmeal, I pressed my lips to the white-hot pot and wrote in my journal. I wanted to memorize all the details around me so I could travel back later, when the world of this strange journey gave way to walls, lamps, and stagnant air. The light hits the edge of the water in silver, I wrote. It crept across the lake in the shape of a crescent moon.

Junaid fretted about the climb back up to the ridge, and I suggested we take a less steep route through the blowdowns. “It definitely goes,” I said, studying the map.

View from the climb to Hunts Peak.

And it did, though not quietly. It was still steep enough that with every step, I slid just a little and my heart pitter-pattered. Above tree line it turned into steep Class 3 scrambling. I scanned the rocks for slope and sturdiness, calling out my observations to Junaid below.

And then I paused mid-hoist, because I saw the clouds. They were blowing in from the San Luis Valley and disappearing as they crossed the crest and headed east. Yesterday they had been shapes in the sky and now here they were, streaming past me like ghosts.

I wanted to call something down to Junaid, but he had been engulfed by mist. What would I say? That the world was hard and soft and mysterious and magical? That we were flying?

Cloud on Cloud on Hunts Peak.

The sun burned a momentary hole as I scrambled to the summit, and my fingers screamed out thanks. I pulled my puffy from my pack and placed it down next to the trail register, which told me that five other people had signed in this year.

As I waited for Junaid, I had to pace to keep from shivering. The clouds were breathtaking, yes. But I had imagined myself skipping down the ridge in the sun. I couldn’t wait for the weather to improve.

Photo by Junaid Dawud.

Read part 2

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