Archive for the CDT PTSD Category

Inferno in the San Juan

Posted in CDT PTSD, Trail Tales with tags , , , on June 11, 2018 by A lo Hawk

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.



The Ballad of Grants Conquest

Posted in CDT PTSD, Trail Tales with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2017 by A lo Hawk

Listen up lads and pull up a perch

Hear the tale of two men on a New Mexico search

Tea smoking Dhurango Bum with a CDT craze

His old amigo Jorge from down Austin way

Transient snow with their first morning coffee

La Ventana Arch marks the route above the narrows

Along comes a portly gentleman with a killer trail app

Suddenly appears Dorothy and her little poodle dog too!

Day two begins with a chilly ascent of 11,301 ft Mt Taylor

Up charge the Pink Blazers: Honey Pot and three hounds nipping at her heels

They venture out to the ancient watering hole at El Morro

Returning to Grants on Route 66 looking for the elusive Junkyard Brewery

At Coalmine Campground weekend party ghosts shout and rattle pallets in the night

In the morning the intrepid wanderers say farewell on the worn tread under the tall pines.

Trail Monkey

Posted in CDT PTSD with tags on July 20, 2015 by A lo Hawk

La Plata had a hiking itch, some unfinished trail business. He called it the Monkey.

El Lobo Rapido shared the itch. It began in 2011 with their epic snowshoe over Georgia Pass.

Honey Badger was added in 2014 to walk the divide. The trio stood at the knife’s edge before retreating from Argentine Pass.

This year the Colorado duo planned an audacious double. A weekend of hammering designed to chuck the monkey.

Successful day one was twenty miles of alpine delight. Six peaks at or near 13,000 ft before a light rain cooled their descent from Georgia Pass.

The next day dawned with ominous clouds building. A pair of tired hikers trudged up to Argentine Pass watching the high peaks disappear in the mist.

While standing at the windy pass leading to the knife edge a sober reassessment was made. The monkey lives!

A Mystery in Silver City

Posted in CDT PTSD with tags , on June 2, 2015 by A lo Hawk

Honey Badger was the first to arrive at the foothills of the Gila National Forest. Driving his new Mazda hatchback on dirt roads near Bear Mountain, he searched for the symbol which identified the Continental Divide Trail. It wasn’t until he doubled back did he see the sign hidden in the trees. La Plata reached Silver City after sunset and also passed by the trail head, eventually finding Honey Badger’s camp at 9:30 PM. What the two men didn’t realize was they had just entered a CDT black hole.

The next day began with camp coffee then into town for breakfast. They immediately spotted a busy donut shop where they munched on burritos and an enormous bear claw. The day’s plan was simply to find the Little Walnut Rd trail head and hike six miles to the other car. The morning was mild and sunny, the trail meandered among tall Ponderosa pine interspersed with cacti undergrowth. Trail symbols were faithfully followed at all junctions and turns but several hours passed with no end in sight. La Plata became concerned about his dwindling water supply. Honey Badger repeatedly unfolded and folded a map the size of a twin bed mattress.

The two men saw their last marker as the trail faded away near a well used dirt road. They spent a couple of hours looking for the trail ahead with pointless side trips in the increasing heat. The addled hikers returned to the road and flagged down a passing truck. The helpful driver informed them their car was four miles down the road. Six miles in this “Gila Triangle” took seven and a half hours.

The beaten down boys made a well deserved trip to town for burgers and beers. In fact Silver City was hosting a Blues and Bikers festival this Memorial weekend. The distinctive sound of Harley Davidson motorcycles mixed with the smell of fried food and the riffs of a blues guitar blasting from amplifiers. As they explored the streets of historic old town, Honey Badger and La Plata found a local hike and bike shop. There they learned they had been on the “new” CDT and had parked at the “old” CDT. The locals assured them the section planned for tomorrow would present no problem.

Another pleasant day dawned. Car camp coffee then on to an inviting adobe restaurant for eggs, bacon, pancake, etc. The refocused trekkers left a car at the Arrastre trail head north of town and headed southbound from a sign indicating 7.5 miles to Little Walnut Rd.

When the trail markers became less frequent La Plata and Honey Badger consulted their maps. They saw an unmarked side trail drop down towards an intriguing monastery and made the incorrect assumption it was the CDT. The extra walk cost approximately 45 minutes but the wayward hikers saw impressive woodwork and stonework at the quiet sanctuary. More than four hours after leaving the Arrastre grinding rocks they reached the previous night’s campsite.

The afternoon trip to Silver City was kicked off by an amusing stop at the visitor center. Inside, the men became the target of attention of a large jovial woman whose ancestors built the bank and mercantile on main street. On her recommendation they followed a shaded promenade along a tranquil creek to the Little Toad Creek brewery. After fueling up on pub grub and ale, they camped near the Arrastre site and hiked northbound toward Signal Mountain in the cool evening air. On their return in the fading twilight, La Plata made an error at a junction costing the pair an extra mile of walking.

The third day was also clear and sunny. La Plata made coffee while Honey Badger tried to extricate himself from his unsatisfactory bed in the hatchback. The intrepid travelers decided to head north to the Gila cliff dwellings and hot springs for some low intensity recreation. A curvy, scenic drive led to a remote pueblo site built into large caves used for centuries by the native people. The enchantment of the area was magnified for the two visitors as they contemplated the lives of people walking these hills a thousand years ago.

Their wonder and delight continued at the nearby Gila hot springs. Operated by an outspoken couple decked out in worn western wear, they wrangled and corralled their guests like a herd of unruly cattle. The two dusty hikers soaked in the three relaxing pools then finished with a jolting dunk in the Middle Fork Gila River.

Once again the pair found themselves having an early dinner at the mediocre Little Toad Creek brewery. They took a stroll to the park where the Blues and Bikers festival was in full swing before driving back to the original Bear Mtn trail head. There was a shared curiosity about the elusive portal between OLD and NEW CDT so a second evening walkabout was undertaken. Evidence was found where old trail markers were removed from trees but after an hour they came upon several unmarked routes leading to the unknown. The undaunted duo returned to their final camp satisfied they had found plenty of inscrutable adventure in southern New Mexico.

POSTSCRIPT: After all the effort to follow the official CDT route, the section hikers ran into a thru hiker who told them hikers actually prefer the unofficial Gila River route because water is reliable and the scenery is more memorable. Before going their separate ways, Honey Badger and La Plata vowed to return to NM to unlock the mysteries of the divide trail in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness.