The sun dawned over the same stunning backdrop it had disappeared behind last night. The South San Juans, I thought, blinking, still a bit incredulous.
We wound around snow ringed pools of meltwater before dropping into the horseshoe cirque of the Dipping Lakes, source of the East Fork of the Rio Chama. Breakfasted and watered, we started our ascent out, up the north-facing side of a sharp nose. It was uncompromisingly covered in snow, and although it was still before 9:00, the warm night and warmer morning had left it the consistency of mashed potatoes. We scrabbled and floundered on the steep wall, the snow too thick to kick through to reach the solid ground beneath, but too thin to actually provide resistance for the ice axes. Eventually Prana picked out a gently rising diagonal path that kept us off the steepest aspect and deposited us on the melted out nose. The mile had taken almost an hour. Well. I think I have a lot to learn about snow travel.
Our path traced the flat ridge top around the head of elk creek, alternating over dry ground, muddy tundra, and snowy meadows, cairns stacked tall leading the way. The shelves we were walking on were much wider than I’d expected: I’d pictured steep side hills and knife edge ridges, and in comparison, these were plazas in the sky.
The wind howled and hollered, no change there from New Mexico, and when we reached Trail Lake we tucked into a semi-circle of krummholz, a sudden warm, still haven, and tucked into lunch. Floating, slushy ice still covered most of the lake, incongruent with the solar radiation bouncing off all the rocks and snow surrounding us, the sound of trickling water everywhere. What a privilege to see this land waking up out of winter, yawning, stretching, rolling over to greet the arrival of spring.
More slogging in mud and intermittent snow, and I referenced the map constantly, trying to match up which aspects were melted, what subtle geographical ripples still held snow, how it changed with elevation, to try and project over the next days how much our travel would be affected. A long snow shelf appeared to block a descent, but Prana hurled himself down the slope in glee like a kid on a sled, confident he was reading the terrain correctly that a smooth slope waited below. Indeed he did, and I cautiously followed suit, eyeing the overhanging cornice jutting to our left, trying to take in everything, observe, memorize, lock in patterns, viscerally understand this scape we were moving through, so I could start to read it for myself.
The ratio of mud to snow slowly shifted until we’d been on snow covered meadows for hours. The afternoon had warmed in the blinding intensity of the sun until most footsteps sank at least calf deep, more often to the knee, and I had the sensation gravity had increased, or that I was a stop action clay figure only advancing frame by frame. And always, the wind. We collapsed on a little island of dry ground, ringed by stunted firs, and ate and drank. My face was already fried from the sunrays ricocheting off the sparkling snow crystals, and I refused to believe how little mileage our entire afternoon’s effort had collected. “Oh my gosh,” I said, staring at the map, “how have we only come 5 miles in over 3 hours?” But, BUT, I thought, gazing around, listening to all the melt, to be here. Now, when the mountains themselves are stirring. In the summer the land would be blanketed in beauty, the wildflowers would bloom, and then autumn would unfurl its colors, seeming practically on the heels of spring; but this was the time the mountains were the headliners, going about their business, shaking off winter, before resuming their stoic poses as backdrop the rest of the year.
Onward. Between the new lofty altitude and the increasing wallowing, exhaustion crept in. Blue Lake was our destination, the next in a series of bite-size mini-goals, and we reached the far side of the valley preceding it close to dinner time. The official trail rimmed the valley, staying on contour with the lake, but it hugged a steep north-facing slope into thick trees, a recipe for deep, sloppy snow that we’d barely had to contend with yet. The bottom of the valley, by contrast, was a crater of open muddy ground, and by cutting down for a snow reprieve, we would intersect a trail to the lake that had partially melted out, ascending the far, and blessedly south-facing, side of the valley. I voted for that route instantly, and, although I could tell he was disappointed to not be toiling mightily along the red line, after a reconassaince revealed no other footprints existed on the buried official route, Prana agreed.
As he cavorted tirelessly ahead, I wondered. Was wanting to go this way just taking an easy way out? Was I wrong not to make things harder and therefore to try harder? This section was massively difficult anyway, wasn’t it smart to utilize the conditions we found to our advantage instead of clinging to something arbitrary, like a trail created where it was because it would be uncovered and dry and mindless to hike for the vast majority that ever set foot on it? I mean, we were in here with ice axes, there were mandatory glissades ahead where we wouldn’t be anywhere near the buried trail, didn’t this type of route choosing also fall in the same category? I shook my head to try to stop my brain from grinding at it. I wanted to do my best, is what it came down to, which should be simple enough- until the definition of best is called into debate.
Blue Lake was beautiful, a mosaic of filigreed ice slabs plating the surface, stirring slowly in the frantic battering of the wind. A flat cliff top offered the perfect place to cook dinner, until the wind abruptly reversed its direction. We scarfed the hot meal and bundled up our packs before anything could be batted into the lake.
A track of footsteps appeared in the snow on the far side, and we dutifully followed. Miraculously our steep climb was through south-facing trees, and sunlight dappled the dry, easy trail. Gentle as the slope back down was, though, it was north-facing. This was the moment when I accepted the fact that the story of the southern Colorado mountains would be entirely dictated by the aspects of the compass.
Our aim was the last flat meadow below the long steep side-hilling and climbing of tomorrow, and behold, a strip of bare ground edged the snow filled center. Two other tents were already pitched, occupants already nestled inside, and I sprawled flat in the lee of a tiny swell of ground, rewarding myself on the day’s completion with a short hide from the wind. How I had underestimated the sheer effort the snow would add.
Tent pitched, dinner cooked, I watched the walls around us burnish in the evening light and scrutinized the maps for tomorrow.