CDT Day 41 (CO – Chama to Pagosa)

What It’s Like Up There


  • CDT Miles: 782.6-798.2 (15.6)
  • Total Hiked: 723.8
  • Elevation Range: 10,175-12,175

I didn’t sleep great last night. The spot I picked was pretty lumpy and I was a bit nervous about today’s hike. I knew I was heading up in elevation and was finally going to find out for myself what the conditions are up there.

The sunrise was pretty, with some blue sky visible behind puffy cotton ball clouds. It only lasted for a short while though before clouding over.

Going into this stretch, there was so much uncertainty. Like other hikers, I did my best to research the weather forecast, trail conditions, and any other insights about this section. What I’d heard is it’s slow going due to snow patches (with potential post-holing), downed trees over the trail, and the effects of high elevation. That’s exactly what I experienced this morning (not so much post-holing though thankfully)…

I did pretty good at being patient. I kept telling myself the slow pace is normal and just to take my time climbing over or going around the various downed trees. I was given a boost when I came up to this viewpoint!

I was excited too about walking along this edge for the next few miles, offering very beautiful views but also very exposed and windy.

A little after 8am I got into my first sort of sketchy snow patch. It was a steep side slope, but there appeared to be good foot prints packed in that I could use. I thought about getting my spikes out or my ice axe but in the end didn’t think it was a risk. So, just walked across and all was well! Here’s looking back at it…

More gradual climbing while traversing along this mountain-side. And still quite cloudy.

Overall, colorful Colorado had a dull and dreary feel to it today. But, did find some small-scale brightness 🙂

I was pretty surprised and pretty excited at how little snow was up here actually. The story I’d been hearing for the last few weeks, that things have been melting “scarily fast,” was very apparent. Yes, there were patches of snow but overall, the trail was mostly dry up to this point and it was cold enough that the patches had a hard crust.

This was all the first five miles of the day or so, still on my climb up to 12,000 feet. I took a breakfast break behind some trees and also set my tent and fly out to dry. Both had frost from last night and we’re soaking wet, so in the morning I strapped them to the outside of my pack, a technique I haven’t had to use in a long time. No water in New Mexico.

The clouds were so strangely cool looking, like the surface of an upside down river or something. I tried to do a time lapse to show how much they were flowing and moving, but once again, it didn’t really turn out…

The exposed ridge hiking continued after breakfast and I trekked all the way to the high point for the day. Close to the top, I saw a couple hiking the opposite direction. Big Gulp and Pretty Bird were retreating out. One of them had a leg issue going on and from their view up ahead, they said, it looked to be all exposed and snow-covered trail. So,they planned to get out and take the lower green alternate to get to Pagosa Springs.

I remember being surprised here that the trail doesn’t follow along on this side of the ridge, but instead goes right up that snow patch and up to that high point ahead…

Some of the snow looked like it was carved by the sun and by the wind. I’ve heard it called sun cups when it happens, but these were pretty extreme with pointy, almost jagged-looking ridges on the snow patch. Mostly I walked around, but at different times I had to walk across and it was tricky keeping my balance.

I made it up to 12,175 feet. There was a little rock bivy structure compiled and a sign saying I was entering into the South San Juan Wilderness. Pretty rad with the views and the the intensity of the wind. I was tired, but having fun!

Leaving here, the trail backed away from the ridge. The walking stayed pretty gentle, now downhill, and I went through some lower areas that were full of meltwater. Couldn’t keep my shoes dry, which was a bummer, but thought it was neat.

A little after 1pm, the trail wound its way down relatively steeply to Dipping Lakes. Going through a shadowy forest with lots of snow patches, the trail was tough to follow, and so for a lot of it I just went down where I knew it was heading. Soon, the snow had become just a series of meltwater streams joining together and all crashing downwards.

I reached the upper lake around 1:45pm or so and was exhausted. Took my lunch break there..

I didn’t eat much at lunch and hadn’t been eating much throughout the day. I made myself snack some, but my stomach wasn’t right and with my history, adding a lot of food into it (as hikers do) isn’t a good idea when this is going on. At different points throughout the day, I’d unbuckle my hip belt and hear gurgling as the pressure released from my bloated stomach. I think this added to my tiredness and lack of energy during lunch and onward today. I made it like 12 miles already, but just felt spent.

After filtering some water and resting up for a bit, I decided to keep pushing. I considered camping in this lower elevation area by the lakes as opposed to everything ahead that seems close to 12,000 feet or above, but felt it was more important to get as far as I could each day (would this choice come back to haunt me?).

MacGyver passed as I was getting going and not long after, Denver and Charlie too… all hikers I know somewhat and Charlie is one I hung out with in Grants. It was comforting to know there were folks around and I wasn’t as alone as I’d felt at times. Here’s leaving Upper Dipping Lake (I did not take a dip this time, would’ve been a tad chilly I imagine)…

And here’s another one of the lakes.

Going up again there was another steep sketchy side-slope section, but I followed Denver and Charlie going up and bypassing it altogether.

You may have noticed… the clouds seem to be darkening.

I saw my first marmot!!!

And just up trail from here, I spotted this cool white feathered bird making noises. I felt it would be very camouflage when in the dirty snow.

The trail appeared that it would wind its way around this bowl. Starkly open and a bit forbidding even.

I followed along Denver and Charlie for a bit, which was nice because without, I had to search for the trail (or more just the general direction of the trail at this point) myself. They walk pretty fast though and I was struggling, so my “drafting them” plan didn’t last long.

Around 4:30pm, I was already thinking of different spots I might be able to camp. I had concluded that I want to get into camp early in these high mountains to have plenty of time to rest and set up. So, I was eyeing a lake that appeared on my app to be at a slightly lowered elevation.

I didn’t end up making it to the lake. Instead, I started seeing what looked like a fog of snow up ahead, in my head I was imagining blizzard/white-out conditions. I was completely out of water and so needed to find a source, but planned to set up my tent as soon as possible before the snow hit me. I ended up coming across two meltwater puddles that would suffice and then located a somewhat flat space between some boulders and what I thought was a decent tree/shrub/packed-snow wind block…

Well, I managed to get everything set up and hidden inside my shelter before the threatening storm came my way. I had been in a bit of panic mode despite telling myself to take my time and afterwards discovered that it wasn’t really the greatest place to have made camp. The main issue was that the section of my tent’s fly that sticks out to create the vestibule, wasn’t able to be staked down. There was a large flattish rock in the way and so I had to secure my stake by pinning it down with small cobbles as best I could. Well the wind thought that was a joke and blew it off twice. I finally stuck my trekking pole through the loop and piled about 17 rocks to hold the thing in place. This held, but even so, there was a bigger than normal space between the fly and the ground, allowing air to blow underneath.

After that fiasco, I was happy to be inside and made myself eat some dinner even, cooking right inside the vestibule. I was tired, but laying down and relaxed. Had cold fingers from filtering and setting up, but was warming up nicely. The wind was blowing strong, but I felt sheltered and safe (as long as everything held up through the night!).

Here’s my elevation profile for the day (left side is where I started, right is where camped, the tent symbol is the rock bivy where I took the picture of me and the sign, and duck icon is Dipping Lakes)… didn’t make it too far after lunch!

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