NOTE: I lost most of my Sangre traverse photos to sudden phone death. I’m sad that I can’t illustrate my journey as I intended to, but such is the ephemera of the past.
The Sangre de Cristo mountains are the ancestral land of the Ute and Cheyenne.
September 1, 2018
The clouds at the Hunts summit allowed only a glimpse of the traverse to Red Mountain. But it seemed that each passing minute put us further behind schedule, so we walked, or practically slid, into the mist.
Five hundred feet below, the talus faded into a wonderful rolling ridge. For a moment, I had the feeling again that I was strolling along and singing, waving my trekking poles like batons. But suddenly the ridge grew serrated blades and I scrambled delicately up the knife’s edge, while Junaid looked for a smoother route on the west slope.
The fog grew thicker and soon I could only see a few dozen feet in either direction. Every so often I called for Junaid, as per our agreement to stay in shouting distance. Sometimes he answered and sometimes he didn’t, so I paused until his shadowy form emerged.
The fog was compelling. Rather than feeling trapped I was inspired to keep moving, to plunge ahead and discover the shapes and stones that lay in store. And I liked that I couldn’t see how far we had to climb. But it was accompanied by the stomach-churning fear that the weather was about to get much, much worse.
The crest was deceptive in that not every 12,000-foot summit was marked as a waypoint, so our gain and loss between named peaks was marked by the false hope that we were already there. Junaid wanted to stay at as constant an elevation as possible; I was firmly convinced that the crest itself was the path of least resistance. And at any rate, I hiked faster (not surprising, given my summer of training and his lack of it) and stopped to wait in each saddle.
We took a little break. It was still early. “You don’t suppose we have to worry about storms in there?” I said, half-joking, pointing to the light-colored mist.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Could be nothing. Could be something blowing in on the other side.” Good point.
So we took shelter from the wind on the east side of the saddle and waited. Ten, twenty, thirty minutes. Junaid had sketchy LTE service and we checked the radar.
Forty-five minutes. At last, specks of blue began to appear in the sky. We started up the talus to Red Mountain, thinking but not saying, More lost time.
I kicked my way through the krummholz, tugging on dead limbs. Some of them resisted, still locked in a tangle with live branches. I pulled a little wildly, aware of the dangerous tension between my body and the dried-out little trees that littered the basin, tough-as-nails soldiers that had managed to take root amidst the sharp, barren rock.
I dragged the branches over to Junaid, who sat quietly by the fire pit. I made a Lincoln-log house out of twigs and ripped out a few pages from my journal, then lit them and watched the flame creep from twig to twig. I grabbed the smallest from gradient of sticks and started to feed the fire.
It had started out well. The sky cleared after Red Mountain and the grass was soft as we cleared the bumpy non-summits before the Twin Sisters. I even took off my puffy. Then, for the only time on the trip, I removed my base layer and leggings.
To complicate things, Junaid twisted his ankle somewhere on the first Sister. I waited in the saddle between them for what seemed like a while, amusing myself by taking selfies and staring at the rainbows in the rock. Once again, the weather kept changing its mind.
When Junaid arrived, I turned to him with my usual big grin, as if I could loan out some of my Type 1 fun points. Instead, he said, “I don’t think I’m going to make it past Hayden Pass.”
I nodded. I was half disappointed, half relieved. Continuing alone was still a scary prospect. But now if I fell behind or somehow failed, it would be on my own terms.
It was 3pm, and he suggested we camp. He was tired, unsure if the weather would hold, and worried about making it to the next opportunity to scramble down to water. “You’re the one who’s hurt,” I agreed, swallowing my disappointment. “Of course you get to decide.”
Stout Lakes were beautiful, and we even spotted a few tiny humans on the other side. I wandered out onto a rock and got cell service, where I tried to recruit friends to join me. It’s incredible; it’s not like anything else, I wrote. I wish I could, they both replied.
After two days of intense determination, I had to coax myself into relaxing. But all in all, it wasn’t an afternoon poorly spent. “When you first said you were going to make a fire, I thought you were nuts,” Junaid said. “This is great.”
I wasn’t upset, although a small part of me wanted to berate him for not training. But he was nice, and my only company – and after all, he had been sick with the flu a few days ago and had come anyway. I resented the part of myself that was fixated on goals and speed and glory. I kind of missed the girl who had asked years ago, Why do we have to go all the way to the top?
The clouds gathered in the Wet Mountain Valley, and those closest to the horizon turned pink. Pike’s Peak came and went behind sheets of rain. It was raining everywhere, I realized, except on us.
September 2, 2018
I woke at 5:30 again and instead of stars, I saw the flickering lights of a town in the distant black. We had five miles to Hayden Pass, where we would try and hitch back to Crestone.
As we ascended the ridge, I happened to glance back across the valley. “Look!” I called. “There’s snow on Pike’s Peak.”
Indeed, it had fallen overnight – and not an insignificant amount. I stared uncertainly, but it was so far away that it didn’t, couldn’t affect us. Pike’s Peak was back on the Front Range, which we had left behind.
In two hours we were past the Twin Sisters and sitting on Bushnell Peak. Junaid seemed to be regaining cheer and confidence. The Crestones were looming ever closer – though still so, so far away. I chuckled at myself for thinking we could make it all the way there by tomorrow.
I gazed out over the San Luis Valley, trying to understand the spidery lines that connected it to us, here on this harsh, almost melancholy rock. The bald ridge faded into aspen and pine, and the trees faded into sage and sand on the valley floor. There were tiny dots of green marking settlements. I thought of Ben saying long ago, The first thing you do to make a homestead is plant trees.
Pike’s Peak was obscured again, and rain was moving in from the Arkansas River Valley. (How amazing that we could see three valleys!) So we pushed on.
The scrambling got more technical on the way up Mt. Otto. I appreciated that. When scrambling, my brain was so focused that my body forgot to hurt. I would call it Class 3+, I decided. No Class 4 on this part of the traverse. Still, I was glad to be wearing approach shoes.
I wasn’t glad about my choice of raincoat. Yes, it was very light – but it wasn’t very thick, and the hood wouldn’t stay on as the rain intensified. I took my buff and secured it over the hood like a big rubber band.
Less than a hundred feet from the summit, it began to hail. We took shelter against a solid rocky wall, not quite an overhang. At last, relief from the wind! We were crushing it, we concluded. It was only 10am.
After Mt. Otto, the scrambling eased and I was on the tundra again, with room in my mind for thoughts and feelings. I went in and out of a good mood. I scolded myself for hoping for too much. I contemplated, very seriously, what it would mean to continue.
I was taken with the traverse. I loved its snaky gray continuity, its just-around-the-riverbend suspense. It didn’t treat me like a normal hike would; it was mystifying and cold and thankless with no end in sight. It rumbled dangerously. It was gray and iridescent, soothing and scraping, right and wrong. Somewhere I found the confidence that I understood it, I was broken in, and I could do it alone. I chanted that to myself.
Galena Peak was our last summit before the pass. On the way down there was an ‘X’ made of rocks to denote a helicopter landing spot – the first sign of human activity that we had seen besides summit registers. And shortly thereafter was a trail.
We were beside ourselves with wonder. It was like sinking into a hot bath. And it wasn’t a nice trail, but it was good enough for us.
At Hayden Pass there were four cars, a sign, and a little fence, which felt for all the world like a plunge back into civilization. It had been three days, just three days – but three days on the Sangre traverse was a visit to a whole new realm.
September 3, 2018
I knelt down and barfed in the gravel outside the coffee shop. I had awoken in Crestone with a throat full of phlegm and swallowed sinus medication on an empty stomach, resulting in pain that I might have taken as imminent death if Junaid hadn’t pointed out my mistake.
Back inside, I spread the map across the table and pointed at the trailhead where I wanted to be dropped off. It had rained hard through the night, pounding the roof of my shelter like soft gunfire. I hadn’t paid too much attention to that fact until a man walked into the coffee shop and said, “The Crestones got snow last night.”
My stomach would have twisted if it wasn’t already in so much pain. Snow?! That was the one thing I hadn’t prepared for. My ice axe and microspikes were sitting a few hundred miles away in Denver, but the thought of using them on the traverse was frankly unfathomable.
I waffled. I deliberated. I checked the weather. And with a great wrenching sadness, I agreed that Junaid should drive me back to Salida, where I would at least have my car.
We drove north through the San Luis Valley. I leaned my head against the car window and counted summits in the jagged silhouette: Methodist, Simmons, Hunts, Red, Twin Sisters, Bushnell, Otto, Galena. They felt as familiar as the curves of my own body. Cottonwood Peak, which should have been my next destination, was covered in thick white snow.
To be continued (in Utah, in sickness and in health)…