San Juans Part 1: Chama to Pagosa Springs

I woke up at 4am under my tarp.  Some coyotes were yelping somewhere nearby, but I couldn’t tell which direction. I fell back to sleep, surprisingly warm despite it being near freezing. My alarm went off at 4:30. I deflated my pad and started throwing my stuff out of my pack and out of the tarp. Uberdude, 10 feet away from me, mumbled, “Do we have to get up now?” I responded, “Well it probably won’t get light til later cuz we’re so low in the valley.” Uber, “How about hiking at 6? That’s me being lazy” “How About 5:30?” suggested RightOn. “Ok”
I blew my pad up again and got on it, still in my sleeping bag. What’s the use of sleeping 30 more minutes if I probably won’t fall asleep anyway? Oh I have instant coffee. I sparked up my pocket rocket in the dark and watched the blue flame while my water heated up. The flame grew quiet. Shoot I was running out of fuel, and I still had at least 2 full days left. Maybe it’s just the altitude and coldness.
Mmmmm coffee in my cozy. I daydreamed about setting the record for fastest unsupported thru hike of the AT and getting interviewed by magazines. Someday. 5 o’clock rolled around, and it was time to start packing. I did everything I could while under the tarp: threw everything out onto the semi wet ground (stormed for 2 hours yesterday late afternoon/evening), plugged my phone into my external battery for a charge, stuffed my sleeping bag in my pack followed by the neoair pad, took off my long underwear (chilly!), put on shorts, took off my sleeping socks and grabbed my socks hanging above me, put those on, then my damp waterproof socks (which are awesome), then frozen shoes and crawled out of my tarp to pee and hang my groundsheet to dry a bit. I took down my tarp which was now dry, then packed up everything else. My pack looked smaller each day, despite the cumbersome snowshoes attached to the back. That post-coffee morning urge came quickly, so I ran and took care of that efficiently. Great way to start the day… I ate a nutrigrain bar, tied my shoes, and got moving with everybody at 5:45.

We were at the bottom of a valley, wedged between two 12,000′ peaks. We had to cross a stream and then walk up a thousand feet to pass around the mountain to the north. I saw the coyote prints in the snow.
Cowboy sketchily crossed the stream over the snow. RightOn wasn’t as lucky and post holed through the snow into the water and lost his trekking pole in the stream. We ran after it — RightOn along one bank and I on the other–  until I postholed, tried to recover then fell on my face in the ice. RightOn finally forked it out with his ice axe. Ice axes are great.
Ugh now for the climb up the icy mountain side. Ugh so tiring. My microspikes were crucial for traction. It wouldn’t be nice sliding all the way back down into the valley. Every now and then I’d post hole through the ice and scrape my legs or fall on my knees. My shin was bleeding. Almost there. Near the top I was talking to RightOn when BAM: post hole all the way to my waist. It took me a couple of seconds to get my leg out. My foot was sorta stuck, and I didn’t want to lose my shoe. All of a sudden I noticed two birds walking in the snow. They were grouses of some sort. What were Sagehens doing up here? What am I doing up here? I laughed, recognizing that I’m a little crazy. I walked the last few steps up to the mountain pass. 12,100′. Well, that was 1 mile for the day…


where do I begin?

The journey from Chama to Pagosa Springs — Cumbres Pass to Wolf Creek Pass — was long, hard, frightening, and trying. At the same time, it was also the most beautiful, the most rewarding, and the most exciting hiking I have ever done in my life.

It took us roughly six days to go 70 miles. We were above 10,000′ the whole time, and I even camped at 12,500′ one night. I’ve never hiked through so much snow in my life. I used my snowshoes, microspikes, and ice axe everyday. New Mexico feels like a distant memory to me now.

After waiting in Chama for some people’s gear to arrive, Uberdude, Cloud, Cowboy Stripper, RightOn, Goosebumps, and I caught a ride back up to the trail and started around noon. We went 12ish miles that day. Much of it was through snow, but there was enough dry ground that we made good time. We often went above the designated trail (which was often under snow) to walk on the actual divide. Ridge walking is amazing and a great way to get you stoked for the mountains with 360 degree  views. Sometimes the ridge got a little sketchy and narrow, but it was lots of fun.

That night RightOn and I arrived together followed by Cowboy and Goosebumps. We didn’t know where Cloud and Uberdude were. The next morning I woke up– Uber had arrived at 11:15 last night and Cloud rolled in an hour after I woke up.

The next day was tough. Lots of snowfields and a late start. I snowshoed pretty much the whole day. We lost and gained a decent amount of elevation, too. We ran into Speedstick for the second time. She is attempting to do all three trails in one calendar year. She introduced me to Siracha Gains, carrying a mini siricha bottle mixed with oil. Best new food item. Anyways, that day we only did 8 miles. It was slow going although we definitely could’ve done more.

The next day got very interesting. Our group split up, as some of us wanted to do the high route and some wanted to go low. I wanted to at least see the high route in person to see how sketchy it really was. I’m glad I made that decision because the next few days were absolutely ridiculously absurdly wild in a good way.

As soon as we split off, we dropped down to Blue Lake and then climbed back up. We had to scramble up a snowy, muddy steep hill. On top of this we were looking down into a deep deep valley. The stream grew into a river, and we even saw a not-too-small waterfall. Wow, the people who went low had to cross that “stream”.

We traversed our first sketchy slope. Sketchy as in if you fell and didn’t self arrest with an ice axe you were gonna take a couple thousand foot tumble into the valley below. One step at a time and deep breaths. Don’t look down. I looked down. I had to count to ten more than a few times, but got more confident as time went on.

We then made our way to the valley floor just as a storm blew in and found a dry patch to camp under trees. I got to read the Fellowship of the Rings on my kindle. So awesome.

The next day was partially described above. After that we did more steep traverses and some glissading (sliding down on your butt and using feet or ice axe as a brake). That day was pretty incredible. There was another very scary traverse, but we made it through that slowly and steadily. Later on in the day we ended up high on a ridge as a storm rolled in. We went a little bit down and prepared to wait out the storm. I spent an hour under just my umbrella until RightOn decided to pitch his shelter and invite me in, so nice of him. After the storm, after the hail and snow and lightning went away, we snowshoed 3 more miles around Summit Peak and camped at the base of Montezuma Peak, about 12,500′! Gorgeous sunset and sunrise.

The next day we descended a bit and ended up walking along dry ridges. We ran into some other hikers who were equally as stoked about the high route as we were. Ridgewalking is so cool! We bagged a few peaks on the actual divide then camped at Silver Pass. It was good to run into Titan again. He was glissading in snow pants, so he had a lot of fun going downhill.

That final day we got a late start and hopped on and off the divide through Wolf Creek Ski area and finally made it to the pass/highway around 2. Pagosa Springs is a cool town, although I’m pretty beat and haven’t explored much.

Tomorrow we are headed out for Stony Pass, roughly 84 miles, where we can walk/hitch 10 miles into Silverton. This next section should be just as intense if not more intense than the last one. The San Juans are blowing my mind. Stay tuned for pictures.


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