When I hiked the Continental Divide Trail in 1999 I reached Colorado at Cumbres Pass on Memorial Day. I went from drought New Mexico to post-holing in snow up to my crotch. I kept dropping to lower elevation to get through the first 250 miles of Colorado. I have always wanted to go back and hike this section that I missed. Since we were in Colorado in June, this seemed like a good year as the snow level was low in this part of Colorado. We found a great Forest Service campground just four miles up the mountain from Durango. The campground hosts were great and invited us to Happy Hour at five o’clock every day. It was a quiet and safe place with friendly people for Gaila while I hiked. I figured it would take me about 12 days to do my 200 miles and I felt comfortable leaving her there. Gaila drove me 134 miles down to New Mexico and dropped me off at the border of Colorado on Cumbres Pass on Fathers Day. It’s my Father's Day gift every year to hike, and her gift to have me take a hike. Unlike 1999, Cumbres Pass was mostly free of snow. I could actually see trail tread.
I discovered quickly that this is perhaps the toughest section of the CDT. Average elevation is 12,000, poorly marked and not well maintained. I like to do 20 mile days but this section takes a lot of attention and time searching for trail direction. A lot of hikers are carrying GPS units that tell them everything from where the next water source is to where to take a leak. I just took a couple National Geographic topo maps that turned out to be not very accurate. If I had it to do all over again I would take Delorme maps which is what I used in 1999.
The trail is mostly marked with rock cairns. Some are as tall as I am, and others are two or three rocks piled on top of each other. The secret is to not let one cairn out of sight until you find the next one. Often, even this late in June, many are still buried in snow.
I was surprised how much snow still remained in mid-June. I didn’t see anyone the first two days. The third evening I stood in the middle of a huge snowfield looking for my next rock cairn clue as to which way the trail turned. Not finding any sign, I dropped my pack and started circling the outer reaches of the field. High on a rock outcropping I could see tread heading straight up the mountainside. At the same time I spotted a guy moving up the snowfield with a huge pack on his back. I could see his confusion so I whistled to him. No response. I whistled several more times, still no response. I thought, “This guy must be freakin’ deaf. As it turns out, he was!
By the time I descended and snagged my pack he had whipped out his GPS, found the trail and was headed up. I need to get one of those things.
I started up after him and then noticed another hiker headed up behind me. These were the 2013 CDT thru hikers who started late in New Mexico so they would reach the San Juan wilderness after the snow receded. The guy coming up behind me turned out to be, “Tattoo Boy” (trail name). True to his trail name he was tattooed everywhere God had given him skin.
Compared to the guy ahead of us, “Tattoo Boy” looked like he was carrying a purse. This new generation of hikers carry the bare necessities. We were high above treeline and the wind was ferocious. I was curious to see how “Tattoo Boy” would survive the night with his tarp and down blanket. I never did see because he quickly disappeared around the next bend. With little weight these people can do 30+ miles a day. It began to sleet so I just found a flat spot and tried to quickly put up my tent. I must have looked like a monkey wrestling Superman's cape in that wind. My hat blew off and I was running across the slope with my ground cloth under my arm chasing my hat like a Frisbee that would not stop flying. It’s a Tilley hat and guaranteed for life, even if you lose it. I was about to lose it. Just before a precipitous drop off I stomped it with my foot. It all sounds miserable, but not really. I have a Swedish tent called a Hilleberg. The Europeans know how to build tents. Once I get it staked out good and climb in, I am high and dry. It’s a bomb shelter. It weighs less than 3 lbs. and I can guarantee you it is much more comfortable than a tarp.
I never saw “Tattoo Boy” again. He was moving fast. He was a seasoned hiker with many long trails under his belt. He knew what he was doing, but I am still curious how they stay comfortable with so little shelter in such a harsh climate.
I was up at dark thirty and on the move again. Around the first bend, behind a boulder, I could see the guy with the huge pack stuffing it full. I said, “hello.” no response. My first thought was, “This guy needs an attitude adjustment.” Then he spotted me and spoke. I knew immediately that he was deaf. He pulled notebooks out of his cavernous pack and asked me to write my name. The first pen was frozen. The second pen was frozen. The third pen was thawing and I could write my name.
It took awhile but I finally realized he was thinking about quitting in Pagosa Springs. He was tired of dealing with the snow. He was carrying snowshoes. I also tried snowshoes through this section in 1999 and knew they were worthless crossing steep, icy snow fields. I bid him goodbye, but we would become more acquainted as the day progressed. As heavy as his pack must have weighed, he was a big strapping kid who could move. Over the next big climb I could hear him gaining on me. It was like the turtle and the hare. He was fast with many rest stops, and I am slow but seldom stop. It was interesting because I would come upon him standing in the trail, deeply concentrated on his GPS and not aware of my presence. That’s okay as long as I’m not a grizzly bear. Fortunately, he would not have this problem here. A griz has not been spotted here in over 40 years.
Once I found him studying his GPS and next to him a large wad of money lay in the trail. It had obviously fallen from his pack during his rest stop. I pointed it out to him. That’s when I discovered he could read lips. I had to keep reminding myself that I didn’t need to yell, it didn’t matter. Just say concise sentences slowly and we were communicating just fine.
At the last stop I saw him, I also ran into “Raisins.” I never asked him why his trail name was “Raisins” but my guess would be that he lived on them. He was from New York and had walked across New Mexico with “Tattoo Boy” from L.A. His base weight was seven pounds. That’s right, I said seven. He carried no stove and he ate cold food, I’m guessing raisins. He sleeps in a tarp, carries a water bottle in his hand with a filter built into the spout. Unlike Tattoo Boy I noticed he did carry a thin sleeping pad and an ice ax. The ice ax could come in handy if he slipped. I cross step snowfields using my trekking poles. I really don’t know how these guys can cross without poles. In the morning these fields are hard packed and icy. During the day they soften up. If you slip or lose your balance it’s a long way to the basement, but they seem to manage them.
I ran into Raisins a couple more times - a great kid. Unfortunately, for all of them their trip was about to need a major adjustment. It’s smart to hit this section of incredible beautiful trail in mid-June. It keeps you from going to lower elevation because of snow, as happened to me in 1999. Now it was fire. Ahead, the Weminuche Wilderness was on fire and already our section of trail was closed and we would all have to exit at Wolf Creek Pass at the next road crossing.
I told them all how I had to take a lower route around the Weminuche because of snow and this route would also work for fire. They would only have to road walk to Creede, Colorado, then take a Forest Service trail back to the Divide at Spring Creek Pass above Lake City, Colorado. Like me, the Weminuche would have to wait for another year.
I could smell smoke and walked hard until dark. I wanted to reach the Wolf Creek Ski Area and sleep within sight of the highway below. The trail is constantly blocked by deadfall and has had little maintenance lately. Climbing under and over these trail blocks can be time consuming. The fire seemed like it was a good distance away, but if I needed to make a run for it I wanted visual insurance that I could make Hwy 160 and Wolf Creek Pass. I could smell smoke all night, but could see no flame. Fortunately, I could get phone reception and called Gaila to pick me up at Wolf Creek Pass the next morning. I arrived by six in the morning and decided to hitchhike down to Pagosa Springs and meet her there.
There's not a lot of traffic on Wolf Creek Pass at 6 a.m. Luckily the third vehicle by picked me up. A typical dually ranch pickup blew by me, then had second thoughts. I must have looked okay. My Tilly hat does have that Cowboy look to it.
I always get picked up by characters. This guy was a real cowboy with his dog “Scrappy.” I jumped in and he had his radio blasting country music. As it turned out he was a hydrologist. I think that would be the word for his work. He was from Arizona, but had been working the Bootjack Ranch below us for four years. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/30/bootjack-ranch-in-colorad_n_559227.html#s86705title=Entry_Gate He was trying to show me the lakes and fly fishing streams he had created, but all we could see was thick smoke. He said he would take me all the way to Durango, but he had to pick up a load of hay, deliver it, go fishing all morning and he had a roping contest in the afternoon. He was full of great stories. He said the owner of the Bootjack called one morning and told him he was tired of looking at the power line that crossed his ranch. He told them to “bury it.” I’m sure that was pocket change. The entrance gate alone cost $480,000.
The owner is CEO of one of the biggest gas operations in the US. It pays to have gas. Unfortunately, mine is from eating too many beans crossing the Great Divide.