Note: This is not a post about food poisoning, thankfully. Nor is this really a post about food–my apologies.
Last week, I spent 4.5 days backpacking in the San Juan Wilderness in CO with my husband (who I firmly believe had a mountain goat ancestor somewhere in his lineage). For all but the first half day, we were above 10,000 ft above sea level. Most days we were higher than 11,000 ft above sea level. We hiked an average of 14-15 miles a day, starting by 8:30am and ending by 6 or so.
The high country is hard to describe, because it is mostly a feeling–a feeling of vast emptiness and height and brisk, thin, pure air with mountains on the horizon as far as the eye can see, and an empty trail stretching out to meet them. Of course, you only notice that for a moment before the stiff mountain wind swirls over and takes your breath away.
Many days, it seems as if you are the only living inhabitants of this vast high country, but you are not. Hawks fly over head, and deer/elk/bighorn sheep poop is common on or near the trail. Sometimes, you can see suspiciously large dog footprints or giant deer-like footprints probably belonging to elk. Many days, you can follow the shoe prints of horses pressed deeply into the trail and try to estimate how many days ago the equines trudged over the narrow, rocky trails you now walk. Some days, marmots and other rodents chatter from their perches among the rocky slopes above us.
The trail generally winds and twists up onto one pass and back down and around into another. Some passes require a steep scramble up several hundred feet after slowly climbing, one foot in front of the other, several hundred feet up past the valley you descended into half an hour before. Other passes require descending hundreds of feet down a grass and tree-lined path, past two female moose who regard you with interest, but little fear.
The first day takes us from the trailhead to a pass, where I accidentally leave my sunglasses, a fact I don’t discover for more than half an hour. It then winds down into the actual pass, where it intersects with the Continental Divide Trail, our home for the next four days. We climb back up into the mountains, passing an elderly couple, and wend our way back down into a valley, where we refill our water near a stream and eat snacks. We then head slowly back up onto a 12,000 ft ridge. It’s a magnificent view, but I’m freezing cold from the wind. We identify a campsite below, next to a pond which is slowly dehydrating as the summer progresses. It’s almost dark by the time we reach the campsite, and my husband develops a mild case of altitude sickness. I am unreasonably cranky about this, but try to be sympathetic. We go to bed early.
Our water filter clogs from the slightly murky water the next morning, and it goes from filling a 32-ounce bottle in five minutes to running water through at roughly an ounce a minute. Our iodine is old and iffy, and there is too little of it. We discuss bailing next to a stream in a valley. There are three horses tied above us, probably left by hunters. I fantasize about riding one out of the wilderness instead of walking.
Later that day as we walk beneath a gate-like notch cut into a steep cliffside, we meet a female through-hiker. She does not have iodine or a spare filter–in fact, she doesn’t purify her water at all. I contemplate the number of different waterborne illnesses we could acquire this way, and reject following her approach. We slowly fill water bottles during and after dinner that night, timing their slow drip-filling. To fill four 32-ounce bottles requires more than two hours. There is a beautiful rosy sunset in the meanwhile, as well as a sprinkle of rain, followed by a clear sky and brilliant sparkling stars, twice as large and bright as in the lowlands, with no light pollution anywhere.
The next morning, we quickly run into two male backpackers. We ask about iodine, and one cheerfully hands over an unopened package, joking it’s an early Christmas present. They have two filters between the two of them, so we accept the iodine, suppressing sighs of relief. Thank God. We can now finish our planned trip.
The rest of the day yo-yos up and down between high passes and low passes, plunging 1,000 feet deep into a gorge and then climbing steeply back up 1,000 feet, the last several hundred of which are virtually straight up. At the top of the last pass, we can see the trail plunge back down 1,000 feet and then come back up again before our planned campsite. I crash on the ground to read and recover, while I wait for my husband to come back from scouting alternative routes. The prone position is significantly less exposed to the wind, and I welcome the relief from the cold.
The alternative route involves crossing a boulder field on a steep slope, several hundred feet above a valley. We discuss the merits and demerits of this route, and ultimately it looks much more attractive than the actual trail, so we take it. The rocks here are marble-like and granite-like and shiny. Between guessing which rock will not shift and which might trigger an avalanche, I admire their beauty. It is the most beautiful rock field I have ever crossed.
We cross the rock field safely and find our campsite a bit early–4:30 instead of 5 or 6pm. We set up our water filter dripping into a bottle and set up the tent. The lake is secluded, so I wash up for the first time in several day. My own smell is becoming obnoxious to me. The sun is shining and we bask in its rays against rocks, reading companionably and chatting occasionally about tomorrow’s trail. My husband wants to climb up onto a ridgeline to enjoy the sunset while we eat supper. I am unenthusiastic. Eventually, I agree to climb for as long as it takes our dehydrated backpacking meals to absorb the boiling water.
The sunset is magnificent, the sun turning a canyon beneath us into a chiaroscuro of shadows and gold. The wind is fierce, though, and forces us to retreat. We make a civilized cup of tea to warm up back at camp, and I argue for the merits of retreating into the tent. I eventually win the argument, and we retreat into the tent, blow up our thin air mattresses and read, on the condition we’ll go back out when the stars appear. I grudgingly keep my end of the bargain, and the stars are even more magnificent than the night before. The Big Dipper is enormous, the Milky Way large and fleecy across the sky like a shawl. I guess at something that might be Cassiopeia and we laugh that the namers of the constellations must have been drunk or high to see images in the sky from one or two dubious points.
Morning comes and we head back onto the trail. Today will be mostly high country, with fewer big drops and climbs than the day before. From the first small climb, we can see the ridge where we met the female through-hiker the second day, and the gate-like notch cut into that ridge. The wind is stiff, but it is too warm for my down jacket and not warm enough without it. My boots, nearing their end before this trip, begin to deteriorate in earnest today. The rock field loosened a large flap of outer sole on the left boot yesterday; today, the instep of the left boot’s top begins sharply separating from the sole, causing rubbing and angst that I will loose the boot entirely soon. We discuss bailing again, and opt for wrapping the boot in athletic tape instead. I look like a hobo, but it stops the unraveling.
Midday, we cross our first road in days–a jeep or 4×4 road–and then head back up to the ridgetop. A large marmot whistles as I lead the way up the trail, but otherwise remains stationary on his large rock as I approach. My husband doesn’t notice the marmot–which is just as well, as he isn’t a fan. Marmots have destroyed his equipment in the past. We keep climbing, up and around a mountain, crossing a pass before descending back into a valley. This valley is full of marmots, who are all dashing to their holes as we approach. We eventually discern a hawk as the cause of this sudden flight, but as the marmots appear to be substantially larger than the hawk, it seems a bit unnecessary.
Past the marmots, we descend a bit further and find a creek. It’s small and shallow, but it is the headwaters of the Rio Grande. “More like Rio Pequenito, if it qualifies as a river at all,” I joke. The older man sitting at the edge of the river finds us amusing and laughs at our banter. He turns out to also be from Washington, and to work for the Navy Shipyards near Seattle. He and my husband bond a little over their shared veteran status while we refill water bottles via filtration and iodine. Water bottles filled, we continue on, leaving the man eating corn chips. I am beginning to daydream about corn chips, skittles, and giant cinnamon rolls as we hike.
As the day goes on, the wind remains stiff, and I become colder and colder. While my boots are holding together with repeated re-application of tape, they aren’t gripping the loose, dusty soil well, and I come close to wiping out several times. Finally, I put a second shirt over my long-sleeved hiking shirt, and I finally begin to become a bit more cheerful. My husband is relieved it’s a quick fix and that I’m once more able to enjoy the scenery, but we have about five miles left to hike, including two 500-foot climbs, and it’s mid-afternoon. Time is running short.
We decide to do an alternate trail that cuts out the last climb, instead plunging down into a valley which ends earlier on the same road as the main trail we’d been planning on. Unfortunately, while this trail exists on the map, it doesn’t in the soil–or only intermittently. Nonetheless, we decide to cross-country it, because “How bad could it be? We’ll cross-country it.”
Cross-countrying it involves bushwhacking through 4-foot bushes, which have turned a lovely golden thanks to the cold weather and early fall. It also involves swampy areas and creek crossings, but all is well, because we find the remnants of an old trail. We follow this until we reach a steep hillside. The valley is several hundred feet below, and we’re unsure whether there are cliffs below. Nonetheless, we have to keep going because we’re too far along to make it to the original campsite by dark. I let my husband trail find, and I gingerly follow, both of us praying we won’t “cliff out”. We don’t, and at length we come out into a well-established campsite in the valley next to a noisy stream and surrounded by evergreen trees and the ubiquitous golden bushes. We settle in for the night, and look forward to tomorrow being our last full day on the trail. The stars are less magnificent, but the brook makes an excellent white noise lullaby. We don’t know that tonight will be our last night on the trail.
The following morning, I developed a sprained ankle, ironically on the ankle in the good boot. Normally, these things resolve quickly for me, but after an hour of 3-4 level pain (10 pt scale), I realized it wasn’t, and somewhat sadly realized that the planned ending wasn’t a good idea. We were able to get a ride from a former EMT and re-arrange our transport back to our hotel a day early, so we cut our plans short. At the time of writing, the ankle is still not recovered.