Southern San Juan Mountains: Cumbres Pass to Wolf Creek Pass, Colorado
I have so many fears that sometimes I wonder how I have ever managed to venture beyond my front door. As a child I would cover the sofa with a large blanket because I was afraid of the things in the dark folds of the sofa.
Being in nature and thru-hiking challenges a lot of my fears–the big three being water, darkness, and heights–with the biggest one being water. Every river crossing is traumatizing for me and every snowfield is a frozen lake waiting to swallow me whole. Darkness is a lot like water–it envelopes me and I wonder sometimes if I won’t just disappear into its emptiness.
Leaving Chama we strapped the heavy snowshoes we had ordered onto our packs. My pack was heavy. I knew the miles would be slower in the snow, so slow that even though it was only 70 miles to the next highway crossing it could take as long as a week to get there through all the snow we were told was ahead of us. I packed more food, more than enough for seven days, enough for ten days. My fears were obviously looming over me and were physically weighing me down with the fullness of my pack.
It started right off. At first it seemed that maybe we wouldn’t need the snowshoes since much of the snow was gone near Cumbres Pass. But melting snow means roaring rivers. I trembled and my heart beat strong when we saw the first river. Luckily it turned out to be shallow and instead of crossing it on a slippery log I walked steadily through it feeling triumphant and letting out a big sigh of relief.
Then came the next crossing, which we could hear long before we got there. It turned out to be such a raging river that we opted to turn around and go cross-country up and over a ridge to avoid it and cross a different, smaller, yet still raging river instead.
I would think that such things, over time, would fill me with less fear and anxiety, but they do no,t and yet somehow I charge straight ahead right into them every time. Fear is funny that way, at least for me, paralyzing on one end and liberating on the other.
As we walked further into the southern San Juans we found more snow and thankfully fewer rivers to cross. It was magical as we walked further into the mountains. We heard a cat meow outside our tent, we heard a wolf, we saw all kinds of animal tracks, countless birds, and we saw an ermine and several pairs of white-tailed ptarmigans.
The miles went by slowly. We chose to take an alternate river route thinking it would have less snow and avoid some steep terrain. It was easy as we descended into the river valley. As we approached the river we could see that it was completely frozen over and covered with a thick blanket of snow. I stayed far away from it unsure of where its edges were. As we descended further into the valley we had to cross it. We crossed on the snow–I focused on walking gently. We found bits of bare trail on the other side. By this time we could see the river for the first time. It was deep and moving fast. Glacial-blue snow banks overhung the raging waters.
Several hours later we had to cross the river again. By this time I was in the zone and my nerves were numb from our terrifying descent of the cliff side. I packed my camera into a dry-bag while Neon chopped at the snowbank overhanging the raging waters. I made it half way across when a log dislodged and bumped me. It caught on the edge of a large rock as I tried to make my next step quickly. We made it to the snowbank on the other side–we were frozen. I couldn’t feel my feet or my left hand. We didn’t stop–we kept moving up the snowbank to a patch of bare trail. We looked at each other and kept moving, post-holing through patches of snow on the trail. As the snow became constant I could see the footprints where an elk had taken the same path. Its footprints looked desperate, hugging the hillside, staying as far from the edge as possible. I found this comforting–to think that this wild animal, who lives in these mountains, was scared on this same snow. Perhaps it had even made the same river crossing and was shaken with the same fear that I felt.
We kept moving fast hoping to feel our toes again when we saw our next river crossing. The river was wider at this point and not as deep, but still moving fast. We locked arms and waded across. We made it, frozen and traumatized. The meadow on the other side was sunny. We stopped, took off our cold, wet, clothes and warmed in the sun.
The next day we climbed out of the river valley and back to the main CDT route. Silently I was regretting having taken the river route, but relieved to be done with it, until we reached the main route and saw the terrain it had traversed and where we had to traverse next. It was steep, completely covered with snow, and the consequences of slipping lay thousands of feet below.
When we finally made it to the next pass and saw where we had to go next, Neon stopped to examine the map for alternative route options. We decided to climb the ridge, which was free of snow. Down the ridge on the other side the fog rolled in thick and fast. It started to hail. It was only 4:00pm, but with the storm and low visibility we decided to set up camp on a small patch of level ground where there were a few stunted trees providing some windbreak. The tent flapped in the wind all night and we woke up to six inches of new snow.
Over the next few days the terrain never let up, the storms rolled in earlier each day, our nerves tired. We were exhausted and scanned the maps for shortcuts. Ten miles short of reaching Wolf Creek Pass we found our way out over Bonita Pass to a forest service road that met the highway.