Friday, December 8, 2017

Day 25: Snow Day!

September 18: I woke up to another beautiful, clear day. Cold--freakishly cold--but beautiful, with about an inch of snow on the trail at my location. Looking around the horizon, it was clear some of the mountains surrounding me got even more.

I tried throwing off my tarp, desperate for every little bit of sunlight I could get to warm up, but had trouble because the snow had frozen into sheets of ice on my tarp. You'd think the ice would just flake off, but it seemed like it was glued to the tarp. Eventually, I got the tarp off of me and laid it out on the ground nearby.

Another absolutely wretched night on the trail during which an inch of snow fell. The patch of dry ground was where I camped, and that's Cataract Lake in the background.
I lingered in my sleeping bag mostly trying to stay warm, but my lack of sleep during the night played a part too. I was tired and wanted to sleep in. The wave of four successive storm cells kept me awake for half the night. At least, however, I was dry this time. I didn't have to worry about drying all of my gear like I did after the rain storm earlier in the week. I was grateful for that!

But I also didn't have time to sleep all day, and eventually got up and hit the trail by 8:00. An hour later than my usual start time, but it could have been worse! My biggest problem when I tried to pack up camp was what to do with the tarp. I left it out in the sun so the ice on it would thaw, but it hadn't thawed by the time I left and I couldn't get back in its stuff sack. I wound up folding it up like a piece of giant paper then used the shock straps of my pack to hold it in place. Hopefully--knock on wood--later in the day, the ice would thaw and I could put it back in its stuff sack.

My feet made a satisfying crunch in the snow with each step I took. I could tell I wasn't the first person on the trail in the morning, though. I saw all sorts of animal tracks in the snow. There were mid-sized tracks--perhaps from a marmot or something of a similar size.

There were small tracks--perhaps from pikas which I heard chirping in the rocks. "Had a nice night, did you?" I asked them. I once heard that pikas will die of essentially heatstroke if temperatures climb above 75 degrees which is why you'll only find in high in the mountains above 10,000 feet. When temperatures do get too high for them to handle, they go underground to escape the heat. For an animal that will die at 75 degrees, I figure they must love conditions like this.

Heading up the pass, at about the same point I turned around yesterday. There's definitely a lot more snow on the ground now than there was yesterday!

Then I saw tiny, tiny little tracks. Lizards, maybe? But lizards were cold-blooded animals. Surely they wouldn't be running around in the snow. I wasn't sure what was causing the tiniest footprints.

There were also bird tracks--those distinctive three-pronged feet that might have been left by a crow or something.

Later in the morning, I found a set of gigantic footprints following the trail--as big as my foot, but wider. Bigfoot! No, just kidding.... While I'm not an expert on animal tracks, I suspected they were moose prints. It had a hoof shape to it, so I ruled out other large animals like a bear, and the only thing that big with a hoof shape that I could think of would be a moose. Or perhaps a large cow, but a moose seemed more likely at this location. I scanned the horizon for the moose but saw nothing. I knew he was out there, though, and probably watching me. All of these tracks were fresh, after all! The snow wasn't here yesterday, and even if it was, the footprints would have been covered with the fresh snow overnight. These footprints couldn't have been laid down until after the last storm cell of the night had passed.

The trail climbed ever upward, reaching a pass near 13,000 feet above sea level where it was a winter wonderland. The snow averaged maybe two or three inches deep up here, and I was glad I had turned back when I did the day before. I would have been in a world of hurt had I continued onward.

It's a winter wonderland!

As the morning progressed, the crunchy snow melted into a soggy, wet snow. Fortunately, being only a few inches deep at most, I couldn't really call going through it postholing, but it did slow me down.

The south-facing slopes were melting a lot faster than the north-facing ones, but that turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing when the snow turned the trail into a slippery, wet mud.

I made it over the pass and the trail descended again. Between the warming sun and lower elevation, there were even patches of bare ground now.

In mid-morning, I caught sight of two men on horseback arriving at a trail junction from another direction which took me by surprise. I hadn't expected to see anyone out here after the dreadful weather the night before, and now here were two guys on horseback! I suddenly wondered if the giant hoofprints I saw were from horses, but quickly realized that wasn't the case. I've seen horseprints before, and these prints didn't have horseshoes on them or look anything remotely like a horseprint. Anyhow, I saw the horses arrive from off the side trail--they weren't on the trail where I saw the gigantic hoofprints.

About a half hour later, I caught up with the horse people and passed them by, then they passed me when I stopped for a short break, then I passed them again until I stopped for a lunch break when they passed me again.

Apparently, I hike faster than these horses walked, but I needed more breaks to rest. =)

The horse people, ahead of me on the trail.

By Stony Pass, the snow was largely gone and my speed picked up, but I still had to be careful around the slippery mud.

The trail also flattened out a great deal, turning into rolling hills--from the tops of which I could see for miles. I was quite startled when I reached the crest of one of these rolling hills and discovered dozens are large elk a stone's throw away. I startled them as much as they startled me, however, and they bolted like lightning across the prairie, running over the next hill out and out of view in seconds. One in particular stood out because it was the only one I saw with antlers. Obviously the male of the group! The rest are females.

They ran in the same direction that the trail went so I'd be going over that hill soon enough myself, and I dropped my pack and pulled out my fancy camera with the zoom lens hoping to sneak up on them again and get some photos.

I hadn't taken a step, however, before I saw the elk again. They were heading up the next rolling hill and back into view--albeit even further away. Looking through my camera, I was disappointed to see them as tiny dots. Even zoomed in, I couldn't see much detail on them. I could try getting photos of the whole herd of  animals, though, and worked on that. I hoped they'd stop running soon and I could sneak up close for much better photos, but I suspected my element of surprise was ruined.

Stampede! (And I started it. Oops!)

The deer kept moving, though, further and further away, and I grudgingly had to admit that I wasn't going to get any better photos. I was really disappointed about that.

An hour later, late in the afternoon, I reached the trail junction where the Continental Divide Trail split off from the Colorado Trail. I'd continue on the Colorado Trail, but I cast longing looks down the CDT wondering what adventures lay in that direction. Perhaps someday I'll follow that route, but not today. Not this time.

I took another snack break and the horse people caught up with me again.

"Did you see that herd of elk?!" they exclaimed upon reaching me.

"Yeah, I kind of accidentally started that stampede," I told them. "It was really awesome, but yeah, I got a very good close-up view of them!" I didn't mention that I didn't get any good photos of them.

"Did you count how many there were?" he asked me.

I hadn't even thought to do a count. No, I didn't count them. There were a lot of them, though! If I had to guess, probably between 20 and 40.

"We counted 29," they told me. Which sounded about right. I took photos of the herd, but they had spread out and none of my photos got the entire herd in a single shot so I'll have to take their word for it.

Goodbye, CDT. Until next time....

"Did you see any with antlers?" they asked me.

"Just one," I told them, wondering what their interest in the antlers were. Were these hunters? I didn't see any guns and they'd been traveling all day--not doing anything remotely hunter-like.

We chatted a bit more, and then I continued on pulling ahead towards Elk Creek.

Almost the entire day I spent above 12,000 feet, but the trail practically plunges off a cliff when it goes down towards Elk Creek dropping thousands of feet in just a couple of miles. The view from the top, however, was absolutely breathtaking with two lakes perched next to the edge of a cliff of the dramatic canyon. It was, I decided, right then, one of the top 10 best views I'd ever seen in my life. WOW!

I quickly descended, glad to be camping deep in a canyon where trees were reappearing. I wouldn't be camped in an exposed location tonight! And dropping a couple of thousand feet I figured would make it a good 10 degrees warmer than at the summit. It certainly wouldn't be warm overnight, but I hoped it would be enough to keep out the bone-rattling cold from the night before.

The photos doesn't really do it justice, but this captivating viewpoint I declared as one of the ten best views I've ever seen! The Colorado Trail heads down into that canyon on the left.
At some point, I touched my nose and was surprised it felt painful. I rubbed the ridge of it and realized I had burned badly in the snow and sun. My hat with the wide brim usually keeps my face mostly in shade, but I forgot that snow can be such an excellent reflector and my nose was burned to a crisp since I hadn't put sunscreen on. Crap.

And I realized, while writing in my journal, I had passed the 100-mile mark. I had less than 100 miles left to the end of the trail, but I had my doubts if I would make it. Winter was creeping in, and I didn't have the gear for it. So close to the end....

Tomorrow, though, I planned to resupply in Silverton. I'd go into Silverton no matter what, I'd check the weather forecast for the rest of the week, and I'd figure out if that was going to be the end of my hike or not. I really wanted to finish the trail, but not at the risk of freezing to death!

As the morning progressed, you can tell that the snow is melting rapidly! A lot less snow now than earlier in the morning!
See the trail snaking its way across this ridge?
By this point in the day, the snow was basically gone.

Stony Pass
This collapsed structure was part of the mining operations in the area. It was the only one that the trail went directly next to. (The rest were always off trail to some degree.)

Now how did these poor little things do so well in the storm last night?!

The stampede I started kept going and going and going....
Just look at those crazy switchbacks leading down to Elk Creek! Glad they used switchbacks....

This old mining shack doesn't look safe to stand near anymore!
The trail was a little sketchy at times going down Elk Creek....

1 comment:

Lou Catozzi (PI Joe) said...

The Colorado Trail and CDT thru the San Juans have been on my bucket list for years! Especially the Elk Creek area south of Stony Pass. Maybe after I retire, sigh.

PI Joe