Inferno in the San Juan

The plan was to meet my friend George (aka Honey Badger) on the Continental Divide Trail in the middle of the Colorado wilderness on a specified weekend in June. Honey Badger had spent months planning an epic 90 mile traverse of the rockiest terrain to split the continent. He would begin hiking at the CDT trailhead at Wolf Creek Pass near Pagosa Springs and exit via the Colorado Trail at Molas Pass north of my hometown of Durango. I offered to backtrack from Molas, meet him on the trail and we would hike back to my car together.

The long awaited departure weekend arrived and Honey Badger loaded up his Mazda in Austin, Texas and began the long drive to Colorado. Meanwhile, a thousand miles away, the Durango to Silverton narrow gauge train threw sparks into dry grass along the tracks and ignited a blaze that would be named the 416 fire. On the eve of his trek I contacted George to update him on our 500 acre alarm and wished him Happy Trails until we meet in a week.

Five days later the 416 fire had grown to a 5,000 acre conflagration, forcing the evacuation of over 800 homes and the intermittent closure of scenic highway 550 between Durango and Purgatory ski resort. To reach Molas Pass, I waited in line for a police escort available only between the hours of 8 am and 6 pm. As our caravan passed below the burning Hermosa Cliffs, the massive bone white column of a pyrocumulus cloud billowed into the sky.

I arrived at the trailhead at noon surrounded by the imposing majesty of the Grenadier Range and Needle Mountains to the south and the solemn vigilance of 13ers Sultan, Grand Turk and Kendall Mountain to the north. I shouldered my pack, acrid scent of smoke stinging my nostrils, and followed the short connector to the Colorado Trail where I turned toward the Weminuche Wilderness.

The day was already warm with a dry south wind pushing the foul air deeper into the mountains and reducing visibility. The trail dove 1,440 feet to El Rio do Los Animas Perdidas or “The River of Lost Souls”. A field of lovely Columbine (the state flower of Colorado) greeted me after descending 33 switchbacks which led to a bridge spanning the churning emerald water of the Animas. I followed alongside the silent tracks of the culprit train for a quarter mile before continuing up a bank on the other side.

Here the trace initiated a nine mile, 3,542 foot climb up the Elk Creek drainage to finally top out on the continental divide at 12,682 ft. Moments after signing the Forest Service register, I met a fellow backpacker sitting on a log inhaling a package of cracker crumbs. Bonefish was a hungry CDT thru-hiker who had run out of food and was trying to get to Silverton to re-supply. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it would have been easier to reach Silverton if he would have stayed on the CDT a little longer instead of taking the CT to Molas and hoping for a hitch.

Continuing to ascend, I was awed by a magnificent cascading waterfall draining some unnamed and unseen high alpine basin. The route then meandered along the white bleached rocks of mineral infused Elk Creek as the drainage closed in on the headwaters. In the evening I reached treeline and found a sliver of smooth ground among the boulders of a large scree field to set up my tent. Later I discovered I had camped among a community of disturbed and vocal Pika varmints who squeaked incessantly while I boiled water for my tasteless and half eaten rehydrated meal. I watched the orange glow of sunset creep up the walls of rock towering over my head satisfied with my first day’s progress (11 miles in 7 hours).

I opened the vestibule of my tent onto a warm morning and set up my stove for coffee. The sky was clear blue and the air was alpine fresh as I broke down camp anxious to go on the hunt for the Honey Badger. After a mile of easy strolling up a grassy hill on meandering switchbacks I stood atop the divide separating two monumental water flows. If I pissed toward Elk Creek it would flow to the Animas, San Juan and Colorado Rivers ending up in the Gulf of California and eventually the Pacific Ocean. Spitting the other direction would feed a creek leading to the Rio Grande, Gulf of Mexico and finally the Atlantic.

Ahead I saw a wooden sign where this trail intersected with another forming a T in the tread. A left turn heads north with the CDT and CT overlapping for almost 200 miles. A right turn heads south toward a wave of CDT thru-hikers and a few section hikers like George. To the west I could see a haze of smoke from the 416 fire rising on the horizon.

It wasn’t long before I saw the head and torso of a hiker emerge above the foliage disguising the trail ahead. Lost Larry carried a sad sack full of woe but he also told me he had seen my friend three days ago. Knowing a thru-hiker would walk more miles per day than my mate, I got a clue he was likely behind schedule. An hour later I confirmed that assumption when I met two more thru-hikers who left Wolf Creek Pass after Honey Badger but did not recall meeting him. At this point I knew something was wrong but the day was glorious so I continued hiking up and down the roller coaster of single track between 11 and 12k ocassionally dropping into the trees. I stopped a few miles past Humpback Pass at a small saddle above Nebo Creek where I could see a distinctive landmark in the distance, a square notch called the Window on the flank of 13,821 ft Rio Grande Pyramid. This would be my turnaround, approximately 17 miles from the car.

When I returned to the trail junction, an impromptu confluence of hikers had formed under darkening skies. Besides the aforementioned CDT hikers, I saw a lone figure striding  confidently toward us from Elk Creek. We talked for several minutes before realizing we had met before. Freebird and I became acquainted on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2005 when we were resupplying at Kennedy Meadows before entering the southern Sierra. I remembered him as a quirky fellow who planned to hike the snow covered high country in sandals. Since then he has become something of a trail legend; not only completing the Triple Crown of North American Hiking (Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail) but completing each trail three times earning the absurd title Triple Triple Crowner!

As I reached the crest of the divide above Elk Creek, my phone alerted me of a tenuous signal so I was able to see texts from George indicating he had turned back but would meet me in Durango. Not having my glasses I was unaware the messages were from yesterday and the weak signal made it impossible to hear the voicemails that would have told me he had returned to Austin. All I knew was I was free to scoot home at my leisure.

Standing above the deep gouge in the earth under a blood red sun with white flakes of ash and blackened aspen leaves floating in the air, I thought of Dante’s Inferno, part of the Divine Comedy which depicts a journey through hell as 9 concentric circles of torment located within the earth. Instead of concentric circles I looked down on as many inviting switchbacks and stepped eagerly into the vulcan depths.

In fact it was a pleasant nine mile descent with evening temperatures cooling and shadows growing longer. The woods were so quiet I spooked a young moose who had been lying on the duff as I came around a corner. We stared intently at each other for a moment, ten yards apart, then slowly turned to go our separate ways.

Moments later I saw the unmistakable look of an experienced thru-hiker advancing quickly on long tanned legs. Birdfood informed me of the new Burro fire near Dolores which has forced the closing of the Colorado Trail from Molas Pass to Durango. Apparently the last hiker to get through until the fires are extinguished, he suspects more areas will be closed and is trying to haul ass out of here.

I bottomed out at the Animas River at dusk, thoughts of a cooler full of cold beer and soda motivating me forward to the start of the 33 switchbacks. Shadows became darkness but my eyes adjusted and my breathing recovered on the steady nocturnal climb. I finally pulled out the headlamp for the last mile; arriving at the Subaru before 10 pm, 23 miles covered in 15 hours (including unknown amount of time talking to all the trail folk). Knowing the road to Durango would be closed until 8 am tomorrow, I drove to Coal Bank Pass, beer in hand, where I knew I could get a signal to call my wife and settled into my sleeping bag for a restless car snooze until morning.

On the day I returned, the 416 fire had grown to 16,000 acres with 10% containment, the Burro fire was over 2,000 acres with 0% containment. Highway 550 was closed midday and has not reopened. Authorities later decided to close all 1.8 million acres of the San Juan National Forest.

 

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