Sunrise, day one! Scattered rain through the night, but weather forecast called for a drying trend for the next several days...so I took the chance and headed to Wolf Creek pass with the goal to hike west along the Continental Divide Trail four days. I hoped to get as far as Weminuche pass, then come back over the course of four more days...total of eight days.
That means I needed to carry eight days of food. Pack, food, and water...was about 52 pounds at the start.
A new pair of the finest Wal-Mart running shoes that $12 can buy! (And arch support inserts.) Would they hold up to the distance and terrain? (They sure were comfortable during short test hikes at home...far easier on my feet than traditional, heavy hiking boots.)
The US Army jokes about combat boots...calling them LPC's...Leather Personnel Carriers. I guess these are Lightweight Personnel Carriers.
An hour into the hike a brilliant rainbow is visible. Sure is pretty, but it means that there's rain in the air. I got wet briefly, but did not drag out any rain gear.
Especially because of the previous two weeks of heavy rains, trail conditions here are pretty wet, and it's hard to keep footwear dry and clean. I hope I don't get trenchfoot.
This young one was silent, but he disturbed a muddy puddle on the trail ahead of me...that's how I knew that someone (or something) was nearby. I pulled my nose up from the trail after that realization, and saw him.
This 'lucky' horseshoe was not so lucky for the horse that lost it.
Pack animals are permitted in wilderness areas, and that also includes dogs, alpacas, and llamas.
Because of the previously rainy weather - many mushrooms lining the trail.
Bark beetles are responsible for much die-off of mature conifers in this area.
As I neared the major climb of the day (to reach a saddle at 12,600FT), the weather was improving. I decided to continue on instead of camping at Archuleta Lake.
Distant views became visible as I climbed.
Archuleta Lake - a popular destination because it's only a few hours hike from Wolf Creek pass. After I passed this point I would not meet other hikers for 72 hours.
Nearing the saddle that gets me on a high ridge. No risk of exposure to lightning and hail storms today.
After half a day of hiking, no foot or shoe problems.
But I did get in the habit of airing out my feet at most rest stops.
Windblown tree skeleton on a high ridge.
The terrain here is much more gentle and rolling, compared to what I'd find in a few days.
Trailside humor from another hiker.
No tent this trip. I carried a light sleeping bag, bivy bag, and ground cloth/overtarp. This saved weight and space in the pack. It also saved time during camp setup and teardown.
Day two! My start was not that early because my shadow was not very long.
Widespread tree die-off was still evident.
Two years ago, Sept. 2008, I hiked this same route but got pinned down by rain middle of the second day...and sat in a tent for the next two...then turned around and called it quits.
I've now passed the point of my 2008 attempt, and heading gradually uphill along a ridge to another saddle.
Last year's snow pack was a bit below average. I was surprised by the meager remainder on terrain at 13,000FT.
I was hoping that this was the saddle I needed to cross.
The Switchbacks continued ever higher....
Looking back at my slow progress...ever slower as I got into thinner air.
Finally crossed the saddle at 12,930FT....
Clouds increased, and it was windy up here.
These moths were on the trail every dozen paces. They were trying to get some heat from the now hidden sun, and would not fly because it was too windy. It's a tough life at this altitude.
The trail continued across a recent rock slide, so the trail is not distinct.
After that 12,930FT saddle...I had to drop 500FT...and climb another saddle! (And with my heavy pack load, it wasn't fun.)
Taking a break after two saddles, and looking east....
...but looking west the weather is more ominous.
The distant peak is Rio Grande Pyramid. To its left is the "window"...a small square notch in the ridge.
Blue-gray schist, showing its layered structure as it weathers.
After those high saddles...time to drop about 2,000FT. This view shows the high terrain I just came down.
The valley floor is below, still out of sight.
Few people hike this part of the Continental Divide Trail...the trail path can be pretty faint.
The valley has been crossed, and once again I climb to higher ridges....
...but my three-liter water bladder is empty, and my 'reserve' is almost gone. Ridges don't hold water, valleys do. Gotta look for a nearby water source....
...found one a quarter mile later. Seasonal rain runoff follows the trail for a stretch, and here it's flowing along some hoof prints.
My water filter system handled it no problem, and the water shortage was (for now) over.
Up on the next high ridge. Time to traverse some more miles as it arcs to the right.
Looking back at what I had to cross a few hours ago. It's now late afternoon. At least the weather remains good.
Interesting erosion pattern that is part of a larger structure....
Boulder field from an old rock slide.
Crossed yet another saddle, changed heading...new terrain becomes visible.
Large boulders, bouncing down the slope, left marks in the vegetation.
It's about an hour before sunset. Traversing ridges is nice, but there are few flat spots for camping. Here's a nice place with water and a great view! This is where I'll spend the second night.
Final evening views.
Day three. I awoke around 5:15, and saw Jupiter above the ridge tops in morning twilight.
Traversing a ridge on the same side for many miles can be uncomfortable on your feet.
Award winning cairn!
Same story, second verse. I'm on the ridges, and water is several hundred feet below me.
I started monitoring water consumption because I had a long stretch of ridges ahead of me before I could re-tank.
My first few hours were in the trees, but now I was getting on exposed ridge line. Weather looked good.
Miles of bare ridge line lay ahead. With increasing clouds and a good breeze, I did not consume water quickly.
After a couple hours I found water and stopped worrying.
Now I could relax and pay more attention to the mountain patterns around me.
A small natural cave - good bivy site in a pinch.
Right after this picture it started hailing. And the cloud pattern stayed in once place, so I had to hike through it...the faster, the better.
Thirty minutes later I cross another saddle and see that I have a large basin to cross. I need to get past Trout Lake in the distance, but weather is not promising, and the terrain....
...I need to traverse the steep part of this basin. Parts of the trail were covered by recent rock slides. That, plus the weather I could not see coming because I was close to the ridge...was unsettling to me.
A cache of tools, and first aid kit, for volunteer workers that maintain the Continental Divide Trail.
And this section needed some trail maintenance.
A vertical vein of ?quartzite?
Past Trout Lake - weather looking worse. And I have to climb again.
I'm losing count of all the saddle crossings, and now they show me terrain I no longer recognize...both ahead and behind me.
Row after row of terrain near 13,000FT.
A brief hole in the clouds shows how lush the vegetation can be.
I'm skirting the edge of a storm system...receiving light rain and hail showers. It's enough to keep me cool as I climb to yet another saddle.
But the sound of thunder keeps me on edge.
Distant view of higher, rugged terrain west of me.
Rio Grande Pyramid and The Window.
But that's on the other side of Weminuche pass, and I have yet to drop down to Squaw pass.
Squaw pass - end of day three. Other folks camp here, so it's a semi prepared site.
I'm soggy from the day's scattered precip, so I air out some things before sunset.
Day four. Next morning, not fully awake...getting water at the stream. I stand up from the bank and brush...and see some big animals.
Elk, I thought to myself...and went back to gathering water.
They were not afraid of me, and got as close as thirty feet.
Eventually I grabbed my camera and took a snapshot. Only later, when reviewing photos, did I realize it was a moose!
It had rained during the night, and everything remained soggy.
Fog in the lower parts of squaw creek valley.
Climbing to another long high traverse to reach Weminuche pass. Weather not encouraging.
Here I can see some wisps of pressure wave clouds forming over distant high peaks.
By mid day there was more sun, but the breeze was very stiff and it was obvious that a cold front had passed through. The atmosphere was very unstable, but not in the typical summer monsoon pattern.
This billowing cloud was always in the same place...just down wind of a big mountain that is blocked by the foreground peak. The air is forced up by the mountain, and forms a local cloud.
It's probably hailing over there.
I have yet to see this mountain in non-threatening light.
Several miles ahead of me the terrain was creating a local thunderstorm pattern. I could hear lots of thunder and see the strong precipitation fall from the clouds. (This is typical for summer hikes on the Continental Divide. Don't want to be near it? Start early and be off high ridges by early afternoon.)
I put on my rain gear and pressed on.
Just as I was crossing the last saddle to descend to Weminuche pass...a hail storm caught me.
This pea sized hail did not hurt much, but it sure cooled things off.
But something good happened during the previous leg. I met three hikers coming the opposite way. They had recent weather info and said that today would be the worst...it would dry out for the next couple days and have far lower odds of storms. That was news I could use.
I started taking stock of my physical condition, rate of travel, and remaining food supply.
Hmmm, why turn around tomorrow and head back...when I'm over half way to Silverton (Stony Pass)?
I turned that thought over and over as I descended....
When an avalanche is funneled by terrain into a narrow gully or valley, the depth and speed of the moving snow can snap trees like twigs, and carry them way down the mountain.
Weimnuche pass - very flat, and it seemed a mile wide!
Crossing it was like driving across Kansas.
End of day four. It's faint, but there's a bit of rainbow in the photo. Again, it means it's raining on me...and it happened just as I was making camp.
It was a scramble to put everything under the tarp to wait out the shower of liquid sunshine.
Day five - almost a half mile climb to the highest saddle.
And in this region...many fallen trees across the path. In some sections the blowdown was so bad that you had to detour hundreds of yards before you could get back on the trail. Slow going, and in many places it was also muddy.
Obligatory waterfall shot.
After two hours of climbing I could look at the broad expanse of Weminuche pass.
It doesn't show well here, but the trail has eroded so that it's about calf-deep...and you're pushing through dense brush.
In some spots the erosion was even deeper, with scattered rocks and boulders in the trail...with a stream running through it. Those spots were not fun.
After two more hours The Window can be reached by a short hike.
Rio Grande Pyramid seems less striking from this near view.
Unusual weathering pattern on this boulder.
Last view of Weminuche pass before the final climb to a saddle at 12,500FT.
The trail continues to circle around The Window. As the angles change, I gain a better understanding of this unusual feature.
This ridge top has two different types of rock. They weather and crumble to different sizes...boulders, or pebbles.
A trail marker at the highest saddle of the day.
New views - more and more rugged.
A series of smaller up/down sections ahead of me.
These four younger hikers were doing a loop. We swapped trail and weather info for a few minutes, and then I watched them climb up what I descended...at least double my rate.
I felt old, but pressed on.
This rock garden made me think of the heads on Easter Island....
...Easter Island head? Or was I hallucinating?
Now the other side of The Window is visible.
I entered a lake district - and it reminds me of the high basins in the Sierras. Very beautiful, and several trails converge here. You can do a circuit of the various lakes - Flint Lakes, Twin Lakes, etc.
At this point I could no longer notice tree mortality from bark beetles. Everything was healthy and green.
Llamas make good pack animals, and tear up the trail far less than horses.
These two women were making good progress since their packs were very light.
In the late afternoon light the color of Rio Grande Pyramid really stands out.
West Ute Lake - tonight's camp site.
The terrain slopes right to the lake shore, so you must camp a small distance from the lake.
I saw a couple splashes of color on a small rise next to the lake....
Yup, it was almost crowded with campers.
About a half dozen students from Ft. Lewis College (Durango, CO)...many of them geology majors. They had a dog, which carried a pack to bring back interesting rock specimens the students collected.
They ended the day with a game of cribbage.
Crescent moon and Venus low in the south west.
West Ute Lake reflects the moon's light. Above it and Venus (from left to right) are Spica, Mars, and Saturn...much fainter.
Day six! Boiling water for my freeze dried breakfast...well before sunrise.
I just can't shake this mountain.
Here it's a silhouette against the morning sun.
Winds are very light and morning haze has not yet cleared away.
I've left the Continental Divide trail, but I'm not the first to do so.
Instead of descending Nebo pass and climbing Hunchback pass, I'm traversing a high ridge that is a shorter distance, and requires less vertical change.
Anyway, I prefer the views from on high.
I just hope my route planning correctly chose a route that I could negotiate with only occasional use of hands for balance.
I need to cross this saddle, then traverse the terrain on the other side of it...traveling to the right (north).
The slope is steep, but the footing is firm, and I don't back slide.
Just before crossing the saddle - is this the last time I'll see this mountain?
Across the saddle, taking a break.
The rugged terrain is just one valley away.
I must traverse this slope of boulders. Somewhat steep, but not too bad. (After all these days, my food load is much smaller, so the pack is less awkward.)
The 'path' at the base of the distant mountain is a 4WD-only road that leads to Stony Pass. I don't think I'll get that far today, but I hope to camp a few miles short of it.
I like the small lake, surrounded by talus. But it may not be a very comfy camp site...no flat terrain.
After bypassing Nebo and Hunchback passes, I descended to Bear Creek. It's warm down here, and the sun is strong.
This path leads up to Kite Lake, but that's not the route I need to take.
These buildings are above 12.000FT. I don't think you could easily inhabit them year-round.
Fair weather sky.
Now I'm on a rolling plateau at 12,500FT. It's just a casual stroll for miles and miles.
We're close to Silverton, so I meet many more hikers today. Some are through-hiking to distant destinations. Some are doing a day loop to places like Highland Mary Lakes.
Yet another high plateau shot...but I realized I was hearing sheep in the distance....
Hundreds of them!
The grazing season at 12,500FT must be real short. Snow stays up here until late June, and new snow stars falling by early-mid Sept.
I'm only about four miles from Stony Pass.
My progress has been faster than anticipated because the terrain is gentle. Can I reach Silverton tonight?
I'm looking forward to the idea of a shower and bed in Silverton...and I just may make it that far since weather is good.
Stony Pass is at the base of Canby Mountain's talus slopes.
The final couple miles of the trail had some steep sections that were washed out, and the type of soil (and lack of rocks) made it tricky to traverse wearing softer shoes. (This was the only time I wish I had stiffer soles during this entire trip.)
A few hundred yards from the end....
I wonder if I can buy some of this online?
Stony Pass! The end of the trail!
A few jeeps are parked here...probably for day hikers doing a loop.
It's a 3,000FT drop to get to Silverton, but it's already past 5PM, and I've been hiking almost 11 hours. Can I do it on my own?
I'll try hitchhiking....
These ATV'ers were full. No luck.
And there's not much traffic up here.
Evening light shows that I don't have much time...and I still have a long way to go.
Where can I find a flat spot to make camp?
Luckily the next ATV had room and they gave me a lift as far as they could - about two miles outside Silverton.
Time to hitch again.
That happened fast, and soon I was in Silverton, looking for a room....
First class digs! I didn't care that I had to share the bathroom and shower with all other boarders.
This building was originally a series of 'crib rooms'. Brothels were more upscale, and you would have a private room. Crib rooms had bunks stacked on top of each other....
I had a real dinner of Mahi Mahi at the Bent Elbow, and slept awful well.
Day seven - breakfast in the Little Bear Cafe. The ceiling is tiled with stamped sheet metal.
I found an affordable shuttle service to take me back to Wolf Creek Pass (2 1/2 hour drive!), and had a bit of time to stroll the village of Silverton.
This weekend was the Hard Rockers festival. No, it's not a rock concert. It's a gathering and friendly competition of miners, doing mining things...like operating a heavy (but hand-held) hydraulic rock drill.
Here's a colorful street scene.
There's only one paved street in Silverton, and this is it.
The village is at about 9,300FT and is surrounded on all sides by 13-ers. The 50-mile drive to Durango requires you to climb and cross two passes.
When major winter storms dump on this place, Silverton can be cut off from the rest of the world for up to a week.
Not every site in Silverton is historic.
The running shoes held together, but seams were starting to come undone, and the heel of one shoe's footbed was collapsing...probably happened during my two-hour descent from Stony Pass on the last day.
I really don't see a need for heavy hiking boots if you only through-hike. (Alpine ascents...that's a different story.) I just need to find shoes that are better quality, more durable.
I hope to hike this route next year...with some detours. I also plan to have a far lighter pack.
If Ray can hike the entire Appalachian Trail with a pack load that's less than ten pounds:
http://www.rayjardine.com/adventures/2009-AT/index.htm ...and my pack's empty weight is 6 1/2 pounds...I think I need to get his book:
http://www.rayjardine.com/ray-way/Trail-Life/index.htm I think I can cut my pack load about 15 pounds, and not sacrifice shelter, comfort, and safety.
I was lucky with weather. I must get better at dealing with rain while hiking because it's a fact of life.
This was an unforgettable experience.