CDT Day 110: somewhere on the Divide to somewhere else near the Divide – High Camp to the San Juans Are Alright Camp
Miles hiked: 22.7
Total miles: 1902.7
The San Juans. Yep, the San Juans are alright. The first full day of hiking in these mountains did not disappoint. The scenery was stunning, yes, but it was the depth of these mountains that impressed me the most today. An occasional dirt road did surprise me a few times, but even then, I have not felt this “out there” since Montana. These mountains are big, and they are everywhere. Somehow the CDT cruises through them with relative ease. Can anything really be easy at 13,000ft?
SpiceRack and I made it through the night comfortably, but maybe not with maximum relaxation. I was a little restless, perhaps from the altitude or perhaps due to my excitement for the day(s) ahead. I tracked the night by the position of the nearly full moon in the sky. Each time I woke, it felt like the night was reaching an end before I noticed the moon had barely budged. A mighty wind came up around 4am as well, causing the tent to flap with gusto. Annoying. We made moves to pack up around 6:30am. Everything frozen.
The sun had just barely risen when I started hiking a minute or two after Spice. I immediately was too warm. Somehow there was zero wind as soon as I left camp. Layers came off for the climb up the ridge to the Colorado Trail high point at 13,258ft. It was a surprisingly cool spot, and it represented our highest point for the rest of the trail. All downhill from here jokes made their rounds. And we did go downhill a lot. Headed west to a dirt road and some mining relics.
We turned up a high valley. The browns and earth tones, the frozen streams hanging on the valley walls and meandering along the floor, the utter lack of trees or anything green, the cold air. These things reminded me of winter in the Nepal Himalaya or the High Atlas of Morocco. Stark, barren, harsh, intimidating. I was blown away. Spice reserved her judgment to be disclosed at a later time. We got water in a warm gully, filling our bottles between the ice, then followed the trail to a saddle. Almost at 13,000ft again.
The views to the west were fantastic. No green. One could say no life. But the colors in the rock, my goodness. Reds, oranges, and even blues splashed across the brown velvet slopes that rose to 14,000ft and beyond. A serrated ridge of peaks everywhere I looked. We followed a long traverse, cairn to cairn, swooping down into a valley then up again. Lunch came in another warm gully, protected from the wind. Thaw out, charge up.
I left a short while after Spice to continue this dream. Up again, back into the wind. Nominally, the temperature was a balmy 50°F, but it felt much colder. Movement with effort was needed to stay warm. That was fine by me. I enjoyed pinballing between 12 and 13 thousand feet, saddle to saddle, along ridges, high above deep valleys with no bottoms, separated from higher ridges by incredible distances of clear air. Trees were rare to spot, and only at a great distance. Spice was a small dot, hard to distinguish from the tall stone cairns that lined the trail. She was the moving one.
I found her waiting for me after a few up and downs, at the top of the last big up. Down below we could see the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Down below we drank from the headwaters of the Rio Grande. The sun disappeared for good behind a jagged ridge, and we bundled up for the last few miles to camp. No sun, no warm.
Down and around something, then up a surprising dirt road. Sunset kissed the countless summits and wisps of cloud with a pink glow. Then all was gray. I’ve never been so comfortable hiking in so many layers before. Then again, I’ve never been hiking in Colorado in late October either. It’s a cold place. I had to turn on my headlamp despite the bright moon to be assured of my footing while switchbacking down a scary steep slope. We made it to the bottom then a little up the next hill before tucking into the willows for the night, hoping for some wind protection. I’m hoping for more days like today too. Amazing weather in amazing mountains. Amazing hiking with an amazing partner. This is hard. This is definitely worth it.