CDT Day 42 (CO – Chama to Pagosa)

Retreat From the San Juans

  • CDT Miles: 798.2-795.5 again (2.7)
  • Elk Creek Trail (~10-12 miles)
  • FS Road 128 (1.1 miles)
  • Total Hiked: 723.8 (none added)
  • Elevation Range: 8,800-12,100

Imagine you’re in my shoes.. my Brooks Caldera 4 size 9’s… made it through a full day of beautiful hiking yesterday, but towards the end of the day felt pretty drained and took shelter inside the tent before a storm hit.

It was a long night. The wind was relentless, continuously surging and causing the tent to flap and do a sort of suck in and out thing. The trekking pole/rock pike contraption held nicely, but my mind was going through various what-if and worst-case scenarios mostly to do with my tent fly failing on me, ripping to pieces, or coming loose and blowing off the cliff. What would I do if that happened?

Through the night and into the morning I stayed physically fine, just a little mentally rattled. I kept warm and my tent stayed strong through it all. At one point, after waking from one of my short sleeping spells, it seemed quieter. Thinking things had finally let up, I looked around and realized instead that snow had accumulated enough to cover all the air spaces around my tent. The noises outside seemed subdued because the wind was no longer zipping through; the gap had been blocked. My brain then started worrying that I might run out of oxygen or something and in my half dazed state, it took me a long while to realize that there was still plenty of air coming up through the sides of the tent. Not grasping that, I made a little tunnel to the outside, just in case.

When I awoke for good, I just laid there thinking. I thought about packing everything up and how that was going to go in the snow. I thought of continuing my hike and how my trail runners would handle it and how wet and cold my feet might become. I’ve backpacked through plenty of snow before in Michigan and on the PCT, but mostly it was packed down, not fresh. And then there was the wind that was still blasting my tent. None of that seemed ideal to me. I still had about 50 miles to go to the next town and the majority of it was above 11,000 feet with a good amount staying up above 12,000 feet. And what do I do after the next town if I make it… hike on beyond there, right back into more snowy conditions? This is where my mind was at this morning, wrestling with these thoughts.

Still in my tent, I looked at my map app and continued going over options and weighing what felt right. Even as I packed up, I was considering whether to keep trekking forward or to turn back. I think it was the cold of packing up and seeing the wind swept snow-covered landscape that finally caused me to decide to withdraw out to the lower green line.

So… I made the call and started backtracking towards a spot on the trail where I knew I could detour off and take a side trail out. Back around the giant bowl I went.

Everything was very drifty. Some spots where the wind just blew the snow across were bare rock. But other spots where the air slowed, like the rutted trail, it was more like 6-8 inches.

I ended up seeing a few hikers on my way out. The first group was four hikers and they were on the actual trail route whereas I had gotten off, just going the general direction I knew I needed to go (it was tough to see the actual trail itself). I headed towards them to talk, waved at them, but they just kept cruising. Not sure who they were, but I wasn’t super impressed with their trail etiquette this morning.

My “bail out” trail would eventually lead me down this green canyon where Elk Creek drains the snow melt of the bowl I showed above.

I ran into a guy called Smoke Beard and then Daydreamer and Kate. These last two got out maps to show me different options for bailing out ahead and invited me to join them hiking. They were super nice, but I felt weak, tired, and mentally not up for this stretch apparently. So, we parted ways right at this view down towards Dipping Lakes.

It was around 8:30am that I veered off the CDT down to the Elk Creek Trail. I started following the footprints of someone that also must have decided to hike out, but eventually just went my own way bushwhacking down to the meadow.

It was very frustrating terrain in this shadowy forest. All snow with trees downed everywhere. I pulled some of my sketchiest maneuvers to get down including some unadvised glissading. But, I made it down to the green meadow and crossed Elk Creek.

The creek was full from all the snow melt and I didn’t see any easy logs to cross on. After taking a break to get situated, I waded across the icy water. After going a ways through the mushy meadow on the other side, I found the trail. It wasn’t long before it went through another forest of downed trees though making it easier to just freestyle my route for a bit. Exhausted from climbing over sideways trees, I took a breakfast break. Not very hungry still, I just took off my shoes laid down and actually fell asleep for a short bit.

I got myself moving eventually and trudged onward. It was a truly beautiful area and got me feeling that it was wrong to leave such a gorgeous section. The sun had come out even, making me further question the decision.

To counter the idea above (of feeling bad about leaving), although this valley was super pretty, I was still in a grumpy mood and wasn’t really taking it in. I still felt off and like I just wanted to get out and be in town. It was a long haul though, so a lot of audiobook’ing today to keep me moving.

One very awesome thing was when I came across this mama and baby moose near the trail!

I was happy that I did get to discover this trail, which after that initial “blow down tree” section, was really in good condition. Meadows, an abundance of Aspen greenery, and doing super meanders through it all, the overflowing Elk Creek.

Around 3:30pm, I made it to the trailhead. I mentioned earlier that this side trail leads to a lower route, the green line. I could theoretically decide to keep going here towards my goal of Pagosa Springs, Colorado. It’d be dirt road walking at lower elevations (9,000-10,000) feet. I’d made my plan as I walked out though. I wanted to get back to Chama and I was already thinking beyond that of what to do once there. In the moment though, this was just a simple, peace out to the trail… for now. I’ll be back, just not sure when or where yet.

A big white suburban was leaving the trailhead parking lot as I struggled into view. If I’d been aggressive in my attempt to get a ride from these folks, I might’ve saved myself a lot of time. But I didn’t go up to them, and ended up walking another mile or so on the Forest Road out to Highway 17, the one that leads into Chama, to try and hitchhike. I didn’t know it, but I was 25 miles out of town at this point though.

After about an hour, I walked down the road to what appeared to be a sort of RV park. Turns out, it was all long-term living stuff and the one store was closed down. So, back to try and hitchhike til around 5:30pm-ish when I gave up. Just not a loo or if traffic. What appeared to be another snow cloud was making its way towards me down the valley I’d just exited and I decided to find a spot to stealth camp and set up my tent.

I was especially sneaky and think I set up hidden from any passerbys. Not sure if I was in Forest land or private, but there weren’t any fences or no trespassing signs. To top off my day of feeling pretty crummy, I had a bird poop on my tent. Not cool. But, once again, I was warm inside my tent as it started to sprinkle wet snow on me. I fell asleep watching my downloaded Stranger things episode. Tomorrow I plan to make a renewed attempt to hitch into town.

“Man became civilized for a reason. He decided that he liked to have warmth, and clothing, and television, and hamburgers, and to walk upright, and to have a soft futon at the end of the day. He didn’t want to have to struggle to survive. I don’t need the woods. I have a nice wood desk. I don’t need fresh air, because I have the freshest air around, A.C.” – Michael Scott in The Office

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