Monday, August 10, 2015

The Sneffels Traverse


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5 days. 32 miles. 35 pound backpacks. 

Epic.


Confidence: that feeling you get before you fully understand the situation.

We were dropped off with six other people at the top of Last Dollar Pass out of Telluride, Colorado at the Alder trailhead. We watched the SUV drive away, and there we were, with nowhere to go but down the trail. It was only  moments before we were surrounded by the San Juan wildnerness. Our groups quickly separated, some walking quickly, others stopping to enjoy the scenery a bit. In about five minutes, it was just Nicole and I. We were to walk 8.3 miles through rough terrain over unmaintained trail to arrive at a tiny wooden hut in the woods before nightfall.

The first thing we did was stop and fill up our hydration packs with mountain stream water. It really was delicious, and icy cold. It wasn't long before we realized this trail wasn't going to be like any other trails we'd hiked. Every couple hundred feet there were downed logs - big ones, sometimes waist-high. Some would not quite fall to the ground before being caught by another tree, and we'd have to decide if we'd rather go over or under. The climbing trees quickly became a huge annoyance.


Do you see a trail here? Yeah, neither did I.

Filling my hydration pack from a tiny little stream.
Best water you ever tasted, hands down.

It doesn't sound so bad, but after about the twentieth log, with 35 pounds strapped to your back and throwing off your center of balance, it gets tough. At 3.3 miles we arrived at an old trapper's cabin, and our written instructions were so difficult to understand that our entire group came together to problem solve. We ended up taking what looked more like a game trail than a hiking trail based on compass readings, gps coordinates, and two maps. That game trail did, indeed, turn out to be the trail we wanted. After that point there was enough flagging tape to keep us pretty confident we were on the right track, but by mile five it started to feel like the trail would go on forever and we might never reach the hut. Climbing over those logs was using a whole new muscle group - not the walking muscles we'd worked to build up over the past several months. Every time we'd lift our legs over yet another fallen tree, our muscles would scream in agony. We were checking the GPS every few minutes, hoping we would start to see our next waypoint. At one point we realized we were averaging just about one mile an hour of hiking. On a normal hike, we are closer to 2.5 or 3 mph. Picking up the pace wasn't an option - those packs and all the trail obstacles made moving faster impossible. And to keep things interesting, there were a handful of places where the trail was destroyed by avalanche slide areas. That in itself wasn't a problem - it was easy to find the trail again. But climbing up the sides of ravines, sometimes doing what looked like gymnastics moves to get up, was a bit tricky, especially with those damn packs.
But you feel so dang accomplished 
when you do finally manage to climb them.




After what seemed like a painful eternity, we reached the four-way intersection we'd be watching for for hours. It was such a blessed sight that we stopped and celebrated with what would be the first of many, many Cliff bars and some of that delicious water. We sat, talked, laughed at how confident and in shape we'd felt just hours before, and enjoyed the complete solitude and immensity of the forest surrounding us. It was moments like these that we remembered why we were doing this.

It was a couple more hours before we found the hut. It was a ways off the trail, hidden in a clearing beyond another clearing. A tiny, brown wooden structure tucked back and away, with a view to die for. Beyond the hut was the toilet, an elevated structure with a window in the door so you could enjoy that incredible view each time you used the loo. It was after 6 pm when we arrived at the hut. Two of the folks we'd been dropped off with were already there. The four others wandered in an hour or two later, having gotten a little lost looking for the hut.

The view from outside the first hut, where we ate our meals.
Nothing beats seeing the sunrise light those mountains up.


 We heated water on the propane stove, rehydrated our Mountain House dehydrated dinners, and sat outside on stumps, staring at the gorgeous, rugged mountains, eating dinner and reveling in awe at the fact that it took Mother Nature only one day to kick our asses. We laughed and talked and sat there, completely satisfied. And also a little terrified of what Day Two would hold in store.

Day Two, as it turned out, wasn't whole lot easier than Day One, but it was a more pleasant seven miles than the first day's eight. For one thing, there were fewer trees blocking the path. Also, there were more open spaces, places we could look out see something other than dense, never-ending forest. It was also very well marked and harder to get lost. This was also the day that our trail guide started using words like "climb" and "ascend" and occasionally "steep." By the end of the day, we understood that each of those words was synonymous with "pain". At mile three we came up to a beautiful shallow creek. We donned our water shoes and frolicked in the water for awhile like children. It was so cold. We splashed around until our feet were so cold we got brain-freeze.
This moment made carrying the weight of my 
Keens totally worth it. 


 Then we had lunch and carried on. We got to the part where it said we would "climb steeply". Somewhere around mile five on that second day, we were passed by four cowboys on horseback, happily riding right up the meadow we were "climbing steeply." There may have been a moment where one of us suggested holding them up and stealing their horses. Or at the very least, begging pitifully for them to haul our packs up the hill and leave them at the top. We learned that it was less tiring if we took ten or fifteen steps and stopped to catch our breath than to try to muscle through to the top and sit there while our heart rates returned to normal.


Cocan Flats. Open meadows are like a breath of fresh air when you've been buried in deep woods for days.

At mile six we walked into Cocan Flats. This was the first really, truly awesome view. Standing there, I felt so small, so insignificant. It was one of those places that reminds you just how vast the world is, and how very small each of us is. I felt powerless and completely consumed by nature. I think every person in the world ought to feel that way at least once. It wasn't much longer to the next hut. We arrived a couple hours earlier than the night before and our group sat around eating our dehydrated dinners and visiting and starting to really get to know one another. I also drank a slightly alarming amount of whiskey, using the excuse that the more I drank, the less I had to carry the next day.

Day Three started with a slight headache and hot instant oatmeal. We'd been dreading this day. The trail guide included the word "summit", which sounded nearly insurmountable after words like "climb" and "ascend" and elicited a bit of cursing. We saw our first people on this day at the main trailhead which lead up to Wilson Summit and also out to Blue Lakes. It was a little bit strange seeing folks, and their cars. We moved on quickly. It wasn't long before we came to a creek much deeper than the others we'd previously crossed. We switched out our shoes and went for it. It was knee deep and freezing cold. We laughed and splashed along, squealing like little girls as we lost feeling in our toes. That might have been one of the highlights of the hike, it was an absolute blast. We sat on the other side, had more Cliff bars, and enjoyed our little success. Because at some point those little successes became what we lived for. There were more creek crossings (with some seriously scary bridges) before we entered what we fondly referred to as The Gates of Hell. Others, who might not be carrying all of their necessary belongings strapped to their backs, might call them "switchbacks". Up we climbed. 1,000 feet of elevation in 1 mile sounded nearly impossible. At this point we started using words like "summit" and "switchback" in place of other words. Because they really are essentially curse words at this point. Fifteen steps, stop, blow, "mothersummit sonofaswitchback", fifteen more steps. We made it. It was intense and the feeling of success was incredible. Neither of us had ever really summitted before. It was worth every minute of the struggle. The GPS waypoint was marked as "The Best View in Colorado." That might be pushing it, but it was close. The waterfall that we had been staring up and marveling at just a couple of hours before was now far below us. We sat for a long time, staring at Sneffels and Cirque and Tea Kettle mountains, looking all the way to Utah past that.
This is us, standing at the Sneffels Lookout on Wilson Summit.
Those expressions are a mix of elation, satisfaction, and exhaustion.


 It was huge and it was beautiful and it was perfect. And we'd worked so damn hard to get there, the satisfaction of being there simply could not be rivaled. We had walked just about 20 miles at that point. The hut, about a mile past the summit, was the creepiest of them all. At one point there were kamikaze mice jumping off the wall onto the girl sleeping above me. I could hear them scurry past my head and chatter and chew the way mice do. It wasn't a good night's sleep.

My bunk at the Ridgway Hut. I firmly believe they
 should rename it The Mouse House.


Day Four was practically a walk in the park compared to any of the other days. 4 miles of generally easy terrain, a wide trail that was actually a road in some places. There was only one point we really had to stop and think and not get lost. Some careful studying of our maps and GPS and we made it with no trouble. Not so for the other folks with us, who got turned around and walked a couple extra miles before realizing they were headed the wrong direction. It's a little unnerving to think how easy it really is to get lost out there. We ran across more people this day - a family in Jeeps out for a picnic, and a couple of ladies out for a little stroll. They were wearing makeup. I felt wretched. Not only had I not put on makeup in days, but I had given up brushing my hair three days earlier and couldn't remember when I'd last brushed my teeth. I was covered in grit and grime and splashes of mud and my hair was so greasy it never actually left the knot it was tied up in - even when I took the hair-tie out. And despite how wretched I felt, I didn't care. Not even a little bit. I'd walked 22 miles to get where I was, godsummit, and I'd earned every ounce of that dirt and grease. I was even just a little bit proud of how filthy I was and how awful I must have looked.

We were first to arrive at that hut and had it to ourselves for a couple hours, owing to the fact that the other folks had gotten lost and were now hiking in the rain. It was lunch time when we arrived. We unlocked, situated our bunks, and had a good lunch (if you can call a packet of tuna and a tortilla a good lunch. I thought it was.) There was a lot of sitting around that day. To fill the time, we ate as much as we could, trying to lighten our packs. I was worried when we left that I'd be starving and hadn't packed enough food. As it turned out, I hardly ate half of what I'd taken. Also, I will never eat another Cliff bar or Lara bar as long as I live. But I do still love peanut M&M's. Nicole and I pored over our map, talking about which hikes we want to do next. I think that's when I realized we really must be a little bit insane. We were exhausted, our bodies had found their limits and been pushed past them, and all we could think about was what adventure we wanted to go on next, how next to torture ourselves to the point of satisfaction and accomplishment. There's no doubt about it - we are hooked. We are officially backpackers.

I finally slept that night for more than two hours at a time. It rained much of the night, and the world outside was so clean and fresh... and wet and muddy. The last four and a half miles were in front of us. We packed up fast and ate Cliff bars as we walked. We reached Moonshine Park, a beautiful steep meadow, and virtually mud-skied down the side of it. The path was only six or eight inches wide and was lined by skunk cabbage taller than we were on both sides. Thanks to the rain, the skunk cabbage held little puddles of water that dumped all over us as we walked. It wasn't long before our shoes were full of water. We were soaking wet and every so often another little puddle of water would be dumped down our backs. The path - which had been overgrown for much of the hike - was even harder to find at times on this day.
Instead of invisible rocky paths, we now had overgrown
plants to contend with. It felt like walking through a jungle
for miles at a time.


Often when we did find it, it was so muddy and slick that it was easier and safer just to hike right through the brush. We didn't stop for breaks that last day. We were just ready to get to the Jeep and back to civilization. We pressed on past the overgrown meadows, into the forest, and out onto beautiful, rugged red sandstone cliffs. And there, far below us, was Ouray. Houses. Electric lines. Cars driving down the highway. I was happy to see it, to know we'd reached our goal, but I realized at that moment that I wasn't really sure I was ready to be done. Two miles of steep downgrade worked yet a new muscle group. My knees wanted to give out with every step. More switchbacks, this time going down. That last mile might have been the longest mile I've ever walked in my life. And then... there we were. The parking lot. The Jeep. People and cars, right there with us.

It was an odd feeling, I'm not sure how to describe it. I was elated that we were in Ouray, that we'd made it. I was also not ready to leave the mountains. We walked through the town, busy during tourist season with people milling all about, but we didn't feel like one of them. We'd just done something epic. We'd finished one of the greatest adventures of our lives just minutes before, and there we were, acting perfectly normal. It felt weird.

But we soon learned how nice showers are. And chairs. And ohmygod beds with pillows. We soaked in the hot springs, ate food that had not been dehydrated and rehydrated. We drank really cold beer. We visited with people, with each other. We laughed a lot and rode the high that can only come after such an accomplishment.

We did it. We pushed ourselves to our limits, we fulfilled our spirits, we saw things that not many other people ever will, We learned a lot about each other and ourselves. We met some amazing people, faced some fears, and built a ton of character.

I feel like none of the words I've written can even come close to describing it. Pictures don't do it justice. It wasn't the views. It wasn't the Point A to Point B. It was the journey. And it was one hell of a journey.








2 comments:

Teresa Fletcher said...

Once again, thank you for sharing your incredible journey....these are th types of journey's that I enjoy reading....Even though I've not done anything like that, I can go out to my hay fields and just sit and absorb the beautiful place where I live and allow my brain to slowly comprehend the majestic mountains! So glad you had to opportunity.... :)

Anonymous said...

Julie,I enjoyed this(you will never know how much)a year or two before I turned 40probably around 1980 probably I decided I wanted to go backpacking in co.with a friend.a lady that worked at j.c. Penney with me .most rewarding but toughest this g I ever did .ill have to share with you sometime pictures etc.I enjoyed this experience of this with you just reading. Thanks for sharing.love you...