Friday, January 7, 2022

Day 37: The Mount Taylor Challenge

May 27: I got up and hit the trail at 6:45am--my earliest start time yet! The morning wasn't particularly cold which helped make it easier to get out of my sleeping bag.

The first several miles of the day were over a largely flat plateau, fast and fun to walk through with scattered trees around for shade. I typically walked ahead of Evenstar, but then she would catch up whenever I stopped for a rest.

Not sure why there was a bell on the trail here, but that's what we camped by.

But then... the trail started climbing upwards. Slowly at first, until we reached the junction for the Mount Taylor Alternate. The main CDT went around the flanks of Mount Taylor, but the alternate climbed to the very top of the 11,301-foot (3,444 m) peak. Pez, we knew, probably wasn't far ahead of us, but he had been talking about avoiding the Mount Taylor Alternate since it required more up and down and he figured it might cause more problems with his knee, but Evenstar and I were more inclined to take the alternate although it was almost certainly going to be much more difficult since we figured it would be the more scenic option.

So we veered off the red line and onto the alternate, at which point the trail immediately started climbing at a steeper rate of attack.

It was the last three miles, though, that took our breaths away. Not just because of the high altitude or breath-taking views, but just because the trail was so freakishly steep. I joked that it was solid "AT-quality trail"--which I didn't mean as a complement. Evenstar, who had also thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, knew exactly what I meant and agreed whole-heartedly. The last portion was steep! Even with switchbacks!

The peak was also a solid 2,000 feet higher than the previous highest part of the trail we had experienced so far so the thin air just made it more difficult. But wow! What a view! Once we got above tree line, it felt like one could see a hundred miles in every direction! 

Relatively low-flying aircraft seemed to pass over us regularly, and I wondered if they were taking off from an airport to the east. Albuquerque, perhaps?

I was a little disappointed when I realized that this wasn't even a high point for New Mexico. The trail didn't go anywhere near the state's actual high point--but it was still a wonderful view from the top.

Reaching the top of Mt. Taylor was exhausting, but the views were excellent!

At the top, I took a much needed rest, relaxing for the next hour or so. From here, I thought, it was all downhill!

Except... it wasn't. *sigh* The trail did go downhill at first, and passed by a tiny amount of snow on the ground along the north-facing slopes. I was happy about the lack of snow at such a high elevation. I felt that it boded well for Colorado. I had been hearing horror stories about how bad the snow in Colorado was and was a bit concerned about that. I didn't want to spend entire days postholing, or traversing sketchy patches of snow, and the snow in Colorado was one of the main reasons I wasn't pushing myself hard through New Mexico. I was happy to give the snow there more time to melt.

I did know, however, that elevations in Colorado topped out a few thousand feet higher than Mount Taylor, but I figured this meant that snow shouldn't be a problem at elevations lower than 11,000 feet. I hoped that was the case, at least, and huge sections of Colorado are definitely below that. We were still a couple of weeks away from Colorado. Hopefully whatever snow was above 11,000 feet would also melt before we arrived.

Anyhow, from the summit, the trail descended steeply for a bit before climbing steeply once again, and I lost my steam on the climb. It was exhausting! Mount Taylor looks like it's an old crater with a deep depression in the middle of it, and the trail followed along the ridge around the crater's rim--up and down, up and down--although never going back quite as high as the high point where we stopped for the rest.

After the second long climb, though, the trail mostly leveled out and generally went downhill slow and steady, and at that point it was a lot easier to hike quickly and efficiently. The trail dumped us out onto a gravel road, and one vehicle driving by stopped to offer Evenstar and me a ride, but we turned them down. Nope, we wanted to keep our steps connected.

The trail followed this gravel road back uphill again. Argh! It was exhausting!

We finally stopped just before sunset as the trail descended from the crater, setting up camp at--according to my GPS--precisely 10,001 feet above sea level. It would be our first night above 10K! Might get a little chilly during the night....

A little after sunset, a rancher drove by on his ATV and got really chatty, telling us that there was a spring just below our camp. We didn't know about this water--the next water that we knew about was still somewhere ahead--but he went down to check it, then eventually returned to tell us that it was just a tiny trickle and not really usable. But that was fine. We hadn't known about that spring (I guess it wasn't considered reliable for hiker purposes) so we weren't depending on it.

He also offered us both beers, but neither of us drank so turned him down. I think he was a little disappointed about this since it would have given him an excuse to sit around and chat more with us. It was a shame Pez wasn't with us--I'm sure he would have been happy to enjoy the beer. =)

Eventually, the cattle rancher left us in peace and thus ended our 37th day on the trail.....

It was gonna be another hot day! Fortunately, we had trees at lower elevations, and cool winds at higher elevations.

Looking back, you can see just how flat the terrain was in the morning. So flat! So easy!

Something must have gone very, very wrong with this grill.

Who would carry canned goods out here?!

That looks like a lot of uphill ahead....

By this point, we're climbing up the slopes of Mount Taylor and looking back from whence we came. (I always love using a word like 'whence' to sound pretentious!)

Water cache! But it was largely empty. I did grab a liter from it, though, and finished it off.

The trail is definitely getting steeper the closer we get to the top of Mt. Taylor!

It's a little hard to tell in the photo, but that white, granular stuff on the ground is what's left of the snow on Mount Taylor.

Looks like the earth has a pimple to pop!

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