Friday, December 22, 2017

Day 31: Into the snow!

September 24: The morning was foggy and snow blanketed the surrounding mountains, but it was time to hit the trail again. Four consecutive zero days in Silverton was enough! I liked Silverton, but it was time to move on.

Temperatures were cool--but surprisingly warm given the fresh show in the mountains--but I knew the temperatures were expected to plunge dramatically overnight. I felt confident that my upgraded gear during my stay in Silverton would get me through.

So I woke up early, about 6:30 to be precise. As did the other people I shared a bunkroom with: Kevin, Max and Bushwacker. We were all planning to get back on the trail today and resume our journeys.

Molas Pass certainly had more snow on it than when I first arrived five days ago!
And then Bushwacker made an announcement: he was quitting the trail. He didn't think he could do it with all of the cold and snow in the mountains. (Lest you've forgotten, he's from Florida and neither mountains nor snow are in his usual stomping grounds.) We were all shell-shocked. Just the night before we had been talking about where we wanted to camp each night, how long it would take, etc. He had found points where he could bail on the trail if things became too tough. It might require several miles of off-trail hiking, but if it got too cold or too extreme, he could bail. So it was a surprise to all of us when he decided to quit the trail.

None of us pushed him about it, though. He knows better than anyone his own limits and the limits of his gear and if he doesn't think it's safe to keep going, I had no intention of arguing the point. Even if it were safe, it could still be miserable if there was a lot of postholing or cold in those mountains, and he didn't sign up for being miserable. None of us did. Oh, there are bad days--that's to be expected--but if the rest of the trail would all consist of bad days, why bother?

He clearly felt bad about his decision too, saying that he really did want to finish the trail and how hard it was to make this decision. He wanted to finish and didn't want to be a quitter, but he also wanted to live a long and happy life and was just too worried about the conditions in the mountains. To be fair, we really didn't know what the conditions in the mountains were like. We could see the mountains around Silverton from a distance, but nobody had been on the trail to give us a first-hand report about what the trail conditions would be like. We were, in a sense, the "first responders" to check out the current trail conditions.

So we all packed up and got ready to go. Bushwacker packing up to go home, and the rest of us getting ready to hit the trail again.

Kevin and Max left on their bicycles. Silverton was actually on the trail for them. Mountain bikers had to take a detour around the Weminuche Wilderness and got off the trail at Stony Pass following the route directly into Silverton, and now they would continue biking from here back up to the trail at Molas Pass. It was the last bike detour of the trail.

Nicole arrived just as I finished up packing and asked if anyone wanted a ride back up to the trailhead. Now that the Dirty Double 30 was over, she was heading home as well and would be passing over Molas Pass anyhow. I said if she gave me two minutes, I'd be ready. I'd love not having to hitch a ride back up!

Nicole had to go to a morning after-race thing for an award or something--I'm not entirely sure what all it consisted of--but said she'd be leaving in about a half hour. Perfect--I could have been ready to go in two minutes, but I still had a few things I wanted to do before I left and preferred the extra half hour. "I'll be ready," I told her.

Nicole left, and I continued getting ready. I checked a last minute weather forecast and any last-minute emails I might have received before I left down. I took a shower--the last for the next several days. And then I was ready.

Nicole came back about a half hour later and proceeded to give me a ride to the trailhead.

Along the way, she told me about the race. She finished, but the weather was awful--and that she learned two new words: postholing and graupel. I laughed. I'm always a little surprised when I learn that someone doesn't know the word "postholing," but then I remembered that Nicole was from Los Angeles. Of course she wouldn't be familiar with the term. Graupel is a bit more esoteric. I had heard of it before, but until she told me the word, I couldn't remember the word describing that weird half-hail/half-snow I had seen earlier.

She said that she was glad for the experience, but that she'd never, ever do that again. She posted a photo to Facebook of her running in the midst of the snowstorm and all of her friends had posted congratulatory messages. "Good job!" "Congratulations!" "That's amazing!" But not one of them had posted the truth: "That was stupid and dangerous and you shouldn't have been out there!"

I laughed. "Yeah, well, that was stupid and dangerous! But I'm glad you survived. Otherwise, I'd be standing on the side of the road right now trying to hitch a ride." =)

Along the way, we passed Max biking up the road to the trailhead. I had forgotten at the time that they were biking up to the trailhead and had assumed I'd never see them again. They were on bikes and traveling faster than myself, and got a head start out from the shelter. So obviously, I'd never see them again. Except that despite my later start, I had a ride in a car to the trailhead and passed them!

We knew Kevin must be nearby on the road and I rolled down the window to tease him. Nicole slowed down a bit when we snuck up on Kevin. "This is how hikers get to the trailhead!" I shouted out at him. I saw him look up from the road to see who was yelling at him. I hoped he realized it was me and not some random jerk just being an ass. My taunts were with love and care. =)

We reached the trailhead. It was beautiful and clear out! The fog from the early morning had largely burned off and what little was left was hanging low in the valley in town and not high on the pass. Nicole hugged me goodbye and I put on my pack and started hiking.

The snow was absolutely pristine. I could tell that I was the first person to step foot on the trail since the snow had stopped. No other footprints marred the otherwise fresh layer of snow except from rodents. The snow was only a couple of inches deep--not bad at all--but Molas Pass was located at 10,890 feet above sea level. The trail would only go up from there--to about 12,500 feet. But it was comforting to know that there only appeared to a few inches at most at these already high elevations.

An hour later, Kevin and Max caught up with me on the trail and we chatted for a few minutes, took a couple of photos, and then they continued on ahead of me. They were obviously struggling trying to ride uphill in the snow and often got off and pushed their bikes. I almost kept up with them for about 20 minutes and taunted Max by shouting, "You better not let me catch you or I'll have to kick your ass!" =) He was ahead of me, but still close enough that I could yell loud enough for him to hear.

When we reached a relatively flat area on the trail, though, they got on their bikes and I never saw them again after that. I couldn't keep up with them on the flat (or downhill) terrain--only uphill, and only then because of the snow.

As the morning progressed into afternoon, it was clear that the snow was already melting fast and some of the south-facing slopes became largely snow-free. Which turned out wasn't as nice as it sounded since the snow had turned the trail into a slick mud that was very difficult to walk on without slipping.

As the trail rose ever higher, though, towards that 12,500-foot pass, the snow wasn't melting. In fact, it kept getting deeper and deeper and with the terrain so exposed, winds whipped through like a hurricane. I found myself postholing in snow drifts about a foot deep. I had been following the bike tracks left by Max and Kevin earlier, but I lost their tracks. The wind had blown their tracks away already. I put a Buff over my head so the small grains of snow didn't grind against my cheeks like sandpaper from the strong winds. I thought maybe Bushwacker was right for quitting the trail. This was brutal!

But I hoped it would improve on the other side of the pass. This section was probably brutal because it was so high and exposed, but once I dropped down the other side and back in the trees, it would be better.

And it was! By the time I got down to about 11,500 feet, I was back in the trees and the snow was intermittent.

I pushed on, eventually camping near the low point for the day at around 11,000 feet above sea level. I decided to set up camp just before a creek because the hillside on the other side of the creek looked like it held a lot more snow than the south-facing side I was currently on. The problem was that the ground was entirely covered with snow. I would have preferred not camping on the snow, but I didn't want to backtrack to the last level, snow-free location and it didn't look like there were any snow-free locations ahead. So I camped near a creek by the low point of the trail. I hoped at the low point, it might be a tad warmer than elsewhere on the trail--although near an ice-cold creek probably didn't help warm things. It would have been better to camp further away from the creek, but there weren't any semi-flat areas I could find before then. At least I was in the trees, though. That would help trap what little heat was at ground level.

I set up my tarp--not because I expected any precipitation or wind, but in the hopes it would keep the air below the tarp a couple of degrees warmer. It was going to get cold tonight and I needed all the help I could get. A couple of extra degrees here and there can start to add up! A tent that actually trapped the air would have been better, but a tarp was better than nothing.

I blew up the sleeping pad--Nicole's sleeping pad that I had borrowed--which took a few dozen breaths and left me breathless by the end. I suddenly remembered why I didn't like sleeping pads--but I was glad to have it anyhow. It was absolutely essential given the fact that I was camping directly on snow.

I put on all my layers of clothes then slipped in my sleeping bag (and the borrowed sleeping bag liner that I had also borrowed from Nicole), and over all that, I wrapped the thermal blanket that I had purchased in Silverton. I was set!

Temperatures plunged quickly once the sun set, and my fingers turned numb within a few minutes of having them out. I decided to skip cooking dinner and ate snacks instead. A hot meal certainly would have felt great in my belly, but cooking required me to expose my fingers to the cold which I didn't want to do.

While setting up camp, a group of four hikers passed me. Mouse was leading the others. The others I recognized from the hostel but I hadn't formally met them or spoken with them before. They'd been wondering all day whose footsteps they had been following. Just little old me! Well, me and Kevin and Max--reminding them at even mountain bikers will leave footprints when they're trying to go uphill in the snow. =)

They decided to push on and look for another campsite--one with enough space to hold all four of them which this site did not.

Then I curled up into my sleeping bag and did absolutely nothing. Literally, absolutely nothing. I was toasty warm, but the air temperatures were brutally cold and I didn't even want to pull out my Kindle to read because it meant I needed to expose a hand to the weather to change pages. So I laid in bed pondering the meaning of life and playing an iPod before falling asleep for the night.

From left to right: Me, Kevin and Max and our one and only time we crossed paths on the trail!
Max (in the front) and Kevin (in the back).
Kevin might be able to zoom downhill far faster than me, but they weren't so fast when they had to go uphill!

By afternoon, some of the south-facing slopes were almost snow-free!

This area was brutal with super-string winds and I found myself postholing through foot-high snow drifts. Not that you can tell in this photo!

Not a happy little flower.... I know how you feel, little buddy. *nodding*
You can totally see the tire tracks left by Max and Kevin earlier in the day!

Home, sweet home! And look! I'm carrying a sleeping pad! (Borrowed from Nicole.) That red sheet under it is the thermal blanket I bought. (I would put it over me during the night. It was under the sleeping pad while I worked on blowing up the pad, though!


Mary said...

I love the snowy photos, especially the icicle and the snow on the pine tree.

Karolina said...

The conditions on the trail might not have been entirely hiker-friendly, but this snow-dusted - OMG! So beautiful!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful scenery, and my favorite way to experience the snow... hehe..

on a different note.. WHY is Max wearing shorts?? lol

-Only Dreaming*