Monday, February 21, 2022

Day 57: The Day That Would Live In Infamy!

June 16: Skunkbear and I woke up to a beautiful morning. The sun was shining. Life was good. We also wanted to get an early start to the day so we were packed up and hiking by 6:30am.

The first several miles climbed steadily higher and upwards and presented no trouble. But then....


We started approaching mile marker 818.4 which is the first of two locations that Pez reported as "sketchy." As if to emphasize the point, only a week earlier there was a double-rescue near the area where two separate hikers had to be rescued. The rumor heard all up and down the trail was that Smoosh broke her leg when a rock slid down the mountain and hit her. Her and her hiking partner had called for help with a personal locator beacon, and as the rescuers were attending her, another hiker apparently slid down a snow chute and was completely unconscious. Since he seemed to be in the more immediate danger, they ditched her for a bit to deal with the unconscious hiker that slid down the mountain and both were eventually helicoptered out. I never really heard any updates about them after that so presumably everyone made it out okay. If they had turned into fatalities, I'm sure I would have heard about it.

Anyhow, I wasn't precisely sure where all this went down, but it was definitely in the same area that Pez had reported as sketchy. I kept telling myself that that had happened a whole week ago, though! A lot of snow would have melted in the past week. It wouldn't be as bad now, and hikers were definitely making it through okay.

The trail followed near the higher end of a ridge, occasionally crossing some snow chutes that would plunge hundreds and hundreds of feet down the steep mountains. They were steep enough that we usually couldn't see the bottom of them, but we were high enough up the mountain that we could sometimes scramble up and around it. It was still difficult getting around them, however, scrambling over the loose rocks on the steep slopes.

Until we finally reached one snow chute that just looked dangerously bad--and we still hadn't even reached the point that Pez had reported as "sketchy." How could this not be sketchy?! How many more dangerous snow chutes would there be? 

And I finally asked Skunkbear what she thought about the idea of just charging directly down the mountain to the valley below. There was no trail marking the way, but the CDT was heading down to the valley bottom anyhow. We'd just cut down the mountain earlier and follow a steeper path than the official route did--and avoid all those snow chutes completely.

Skunkbear seemed to like the idea, and we started our descent.

This was the snow chute that blocked our route, and those loose rocks on the right are the part we scrambled down.

It didn't go quickly, though. The steep slope was filled with scree and we immediately started sending rocks rolling down the mountain ahead of us--which was especially problematic for whoever was further down the slope. Skunkbear went down the slope like a billy goat. I started right behind her, but eventually stopped when I couldn't help prevent dislodging rocks that rained down on her. So I watched her descend until she reached a safe place well away from any rocks I could dislodge, then slowly followed her down.

Now when I say this slope was steep, I mean it was steep! I used my hands as much as my feet to scramble down the slope, and I moved slowly and deliberately, following alongside the snow chute that had blocked our progress.

Progress was slow, but we worked our way down one step at a time. I wondered if this route we were doing was really safer than trying to cross the snow chutes. I was having second thoughts at this point, but I didn't consider climbing back up. Nope, no way, no how. That seemed like a dangerous proposition as well and would just leave us in the same bad place where we were before. Frankly, there just wasn't any good, safe option except a helicopter. But it seemed a little premature to be calling for a helicopter. At the very least, one of us should have a reasonable impressive injury before we signal for help!

As we neared the bottom of the snow chute, however, we ran into a small snag. The snow chutes on both sides of us merged into a single river of snow. We hit a dead end. There was no more rock to scramble down. The only way out was across the snow.

The good news, if you can call it that, was that we weren't hundreds and hundreds of feet higher. The snow chute leveled out less than 100 feet below us. If we slipped and fell, it probably wouldn't be fatal--but it could definitely still cause some major injuries.

Skunkbear took the lead. She pulled out her ice axe and decided to traverse directly across the snow chute that had originally blocked us. It was the shortest route to the dry ground on the far side of it. The distance she had to cover probably wasn't more than about 30 feet, but it took her a good 15 minutes to cross as she kicked in footholds for each step across the snow chute. When she finally made it safely to the other side, we shouted across back and forth to each other.

"How was it?" I asked.

"It was the scariest f**king thing I ever did in my life!" she called back.

Well... that didn't sound good. I was actually a little surprised by the answer. She seemed like she was handling it well and with the ice axe in hand, I didn't think she had any trouble with it.

Did you notice Skunkbear on the right side of this photo?

My problem, however, was that I didn't have an ice axe, and I didn't feel very confident about going the direction she did. She offered to come back part way and somehow get me the ice axe, but I told her no. She was safe and sound, let's keep it that way. If we had thought about it earlier, we could have had her carry one end of a rope with her then tie the ice axe to it and I could pull it back to myself, but we hadn't thought of it. And yeah, having her cross the snow chute two more times seemed unnecessarily stupid.

But that still left the question... how the heck was I going to get out of here? I sure wished I had my ice axe just then. I did have my micro spikes, but they didn't seem sufficient for this purpose.

I put on my micro spikes anyhow. I could certainly use any extra help I could get! I also put on my gloves. My hands were going to be on the cold snow for awhile and they needed the extra layer.

And I finally settled on the route that would just take me down the steep slope to where it leveled out. With every bit I moved down the slope, the risk to me would become smaller and smaller as the distance I'd slide down would diminish. In the event of an uncontrolled fall, of course. Ideally, I wouldn't have any uncontrolled falls.

I also decided to take an unconventional way of hiking down the slope: on my butt the entire way. I kicked in a hole in the snow to fit my butt, then slide my butt into it. Then kicked in places for my feet a bit further down. Then I'd slide down several inches turning the foot holds into a butt hold. About 6 inches at a time.

It was laborious and slow. Skunkbear hiked down the slope to where I planned to exit and provided mental support with encouragement. I apologized for being so incredibly slow--even though we were maybe less than 100 feet apart from each other, at the pace I was going, it seemed like it might take over an hour, but she was understanding and said to take my time. Better safe than sorry!

I had gotten maybe five feet down the hillside when Skunkbear noticed that my Nalgene bottle had fallen out of my pack above me. I looked up the hillside and could see it sitting there in the snow. Crap!

"I'm not going back for it," I told her. "It's not worth it."

I felt bad leaving it as litter, but it sure wasn't worth risking my life just to get it back. Which seemed a weird thought considering the thing was only about 5 feet away from me. 

This is the point where the two snow chutes merged, and the trail through the snow down the end of it is the one I made sliding down 6 inches at a time on my butt. The orange dot is the Nalgene bottle I lost but I didn't dare go back to retrieve. =(

I continued slowly sliding down the snow chute on my butt, six inches at a time. My butt had long since turned completely numb, but I actually felt pretty safe sitting in my big, wide foot (and butt) holds.

After a half hour, I was getting extremely thirsty, but the Nalgene bottle that I lost had all of the water that was left in my pack. There was nothing for me to drink, damn it. There was tons of water on this section of trail so I never carried more than a single liter of it, and there was certainly plenty of snow that could be turned into water, but it's not like I was in a position where I could take out my stove and start melting water. Nope, I wasn't going to get relief until after I got off this stupid snow chute.

So I felt myself growing increasingly thirsty and dehydrated, unable to drink any water while sitting in the surprisingly warm sun as the white snow reflected all of its heat onto me.

Finally, after over an hour, I had made it safely across! Yes! Yes! Yes! But I told Skunkbear that I really needed to sit down and just rest. I was absolutely exhausted from the traverse. It felt like every muscle in my body had been wound tight the entire distance and I needed to rest. I felt a little bad slowing Skunkbear down, but thanked her gratuitously for watching out for me. And she seemed fine with my needing a bit of a rest. She pulled out her sketchbook and started drawing, and I joked that she was more than welcome to draw me sliding down the snow chute on my butt. Which... she did!!! Although I wouldn't see the finished sketch until much later.

Skunkbear fords the river

Now that I was no longer on the snow and my butt started to thaw out, it felt like there was a bunch of snow that had been rammed up my butt--or at least in my underwear--and I tried to shake it out, but there was nothing there. It was a weird and uncomfortable feeling, but that feeling eventually went away after about 15 or 20 minutes.

The rest of the way down to the valley bottom was gratefully uneventful. The ground wasn't so steep anymore and there wasn't any snow to deal with. We did have to ford Adams Creek, but that wasn't a big deal. And on the other side of the creek, we found the trail that followed along the valley bottom which would lead back to the CDT up the valley.

Skunkbear looked at our maps and suggested an alternate route that would skip the second section that Pez reported as sketchy. She actually had two alternates, one leading west and the other leading east. The one going west followed the CDT for a little way and actually looked like it might even be shorter than the main CDT, and I found myself drawn to it. The one potential problem I saw was that it involved descending a north-facing slope which was likely still full of snow. However.... the slope didn't look as steep as the one we had just descended. It seemed reasonable to think it might be navigable. And if that was passable, the rest should be easy road walks until we reconnected with the CDT again.

The route eastward didn't appeal to me at all because it basically missed a lot of high mountains with the great views and looked like it swung way out of the way, perhaps adding 20 miles or more to the hike. I didn't have a lot of spare food and worried I might run out if we took the eastern route, although that route stayed low the entire time so snow was less likely to be an issue.

So I picked the westward route and we continued onward.

The valley bottom was a delight to walk through. The trail was in good shape, it was mostly flat, and dry and snow-free. We passed one campsite alongside the river that looked absolutely lovely and I joked that if it wasn't so early in the day, we could just camp there.

We soon reconnected with the official CDT, and followed it uphill again, climbing hundreds and hundreds of feet. I found myself dragging pretty badly, though. I was just so friggin' tired. We probably only covered about 4 or 5 miles for the day, but ugh! It felt like I had just finished 30!

As the trail ascended, dark clouds started rolling in. We didn't hear any thunder in them--not yet, at least--but Skunkbear was definitely leery about them.

We finally reached the point where her alternate route veered off from the main CDT. Our route took us over a snow-covered pass, but we were able to hike around the snow. On the other side of the pass, there was a bit of postholing involved, and we followed the route for about a mile before we reached the downward north-facing slope which was still buried in snow.

"I don't think we can go this way," Skunkbear reported.

It killed me to admit it, but she was right. We shouldn't have tried to go this way. Crap! The idea of backtracking sends shudders down the back of every hiker. Argh!

We pulled out maps and looked at them some more, and Skunkbear suggested another alternate route off our alternate. I liked where her head was--let's not backtrack! But I vetoed that idea because our maps didn't span wide enough to show the entire route. And, heaven forbid, it was definitely a lot longer. I really didn't want to run out of food which was a very real concern if the route we used was significantly longer. And... There was a good chance that that route wouldn't even be passable either. I was thinking we'd have to backtrack a mile or so back to the CDT and just continue on that. At least we had maps and Guthook comments about conditions along that route.

Skunkbear took another look at the eastern alternate she had originally suggested as an option and noticed that it would take us by a small general store.

"What?! Wait? There's food there?!"

That was a game changer for me. Even if it was just a tiny little convenience store, I just needed a little extra food to last me the extra day or so it would take to arrive at the next real trail town. It definitely didn't need to be big or fancy.

So I took a closer look at that route and wow! OMG! Why did we not choose this route originally?! It was low the entire way until it reconnected with the CDT, and it passed near a general store. The general store was a couple of miles off our route, but a couple of miles off trail was certainly doable if we needed the food.

So just like that, we decided to go that way. Which meant backtracking even further--all the way back to where we crossed Adams Creek. Ugh! Hundreds of feet of elevation gain, miles of wasted effort in the wrong direction. It was so dispiriting, I almost felt like crying.

Except I didn't have time to pity myself. The dark clouds started turning even darker, and my energy levels had been completely drained. We needed to get back down the mountain.

"Hey, Skunkbear," I said. "Remember that campsite that I joked was so nice, it was too bad we couldn't camp there? I think we should camp there after all."

If it wasn't for the knowledge that we'd be able to hit a convenience store the next day, I'd have suggested pushing on until sunset, but I felt like crap and was dragging so slowly. I was so done with the day and wanted nothing more than to stop. The idea of pushing on until sunset was horrible, but without that convenience store, it would have been absolutely essential to keep moving just to not run out of food. Without that fear pushing me on, I just wanted to stop at the first good place I could find--which was that really nice campsite along the river.

Skunkbear liked the idea, and so that's what we decided on. Backtrack to the campsite and set up camp, then tomorrow hike out to the convenience store and take the long, low-level route back to the CDT. If it took us an extra day or two longer to make it into Pagosa Springs, no big deal since we could supplement our food supplies tomorrow. Perfect! My only regret was not thinking to do this before we spent hours pointlessly hiking in circles. I wondered if anyone was following my progress on my SPOT device and seeing how slow we were going and all the backtracking and wondering what the heck was happening with me.

On our way back down the mountain, we finally started hearing the thunder. Skunkbear asked if I'd be okay if she ditched me to dash down the mountain faster, and I gave her my blessings. "Yep, go. I'll be fine." And I would be. We were out of the snow and heading downhill on a trail we had already hiked before and knew was in good shape. And I definitely couldn't run down the mountain like she could. Skunkbear seemed much stronger and in better spirits than I did.

So we hiked separately for a bit until I caught up with her lower down the mountain when she felt safe enough to stop and wait for me again.

We hiked the rest of the way to the campsite together, arriving in camp at an early 4:30pm. It was a ridiculously early time to stop for the day, but we were both ready to call it quits. I think Skunkbear was pretty tired as well, even if I felt like I was the one slowing us down. For me, I just wanted to curl up in my sleeping bag and go to sleep and die. Or maybe just cry a little.

My GPS officially recorded that we had covered 14.0 miles for the day, but we were maybe six trail miles from our last campsite. It was absurd how little ground we managed to really cover today.

In camp, I thanked Skunkbear for being there with me. It was just a miserable, crappy day, but her support and presence was the one good thing I can remember about the day. They say misery loves company, and I desperately needed the company! And she said that she really appreciated my watching out for her as well. We were in this together.

Shortly after Skunkbear had set up her tent, I noticed a rainbow that formed over her. Like, a literal rainbow. =)

See the rainbow above Skunkbear's tent?

At around 6:00, Goose and Savage arrived at our camp, coming in from two separate directions, cursing about how horrible the descent they had just completed was. It was the same one we did that morning that broke my spirits. They had been hiking together but got separated. Goose I had met in Chama, but Savage was a new hiker for me, so we made introductions and welcomed them to camp. It was still hours until sunset, but they were tired enough to want to quit for the day as well.

They also reported passing Splits who, apparently, wasn't far behind them and might still show up this evening. I asked about Evenstar, but they hadn't seen her. They did hear about her from Splits, however, who had hiked with her for at least part of the time. I hoped she was doing okay and not going through these snow chutes and slopes by herself. I wished I had some way to contact her, but oh well.

The rest of the afternoon we all just chatted away and by around sunset, headed back to our respective tents and tarps for the night. It was the merciful end of my worst day on the trail. Well, at least my worst day so far.... Lord knows what the days ahead would hold....

This was the point where Skunkbear and I decided to ditch the official CDT and just go straight down the mountain rather than attempt to traverse the snow chute. We couldn't even see the bottom of the snow chute! But if we could just made it to the bottom of that valley.... Safe!

This is the view from the bottom of the valley looking back up the slope we had just come down. That long snow chute near the center of the photo is the one we followed down the left side of, and you can see where it merges with the snow chute next to it near the bottom left corner of the photo. That's the point where I spent over an hour sliding down less than a hundred feet on my butt.

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