The sun was up so early these days.
We were up with it, to take advantage of the night-hardened snow as long as possible. It was the day we’d get up among the peaks and ridges for the first time in the Colorado Rockies, a whole different flavor of hiking I relished the thought of. I was also a little nervous, as there were two big glissades plastered with warnings in the map app. I knew most of it was fear-mongering and blustery exaggeration, but it still seeped in: What will it actually be like? and Will I be able to do it?
The initial climb was not too steep, but my palms sweated as I watched the two hikers ahead of us inching toward the traverse above, a slope which rolled to vertical and dropped to sheer cliffs below. You’d have to slide a long way with several chances of self arrest before reaching those cliffs, but still. Yikes.
At the traverse we paused and put on our spikes: a much scaled-down version of mountaineering crampons that worked with hiking boots or shoes, and a magical piece of gear. Each step was now secure, the teeth biting into the snow as it compacted below each footfall . I forced the image of what yawned below from my mind, and simply focused on each step, each breath, the enchanted land we were in. In short order we were across the heights, and the snowfield sloped gently away and down. Prana took a running leap and slid down the upper bit like a playful otter, until the slope mellowed too much, then he jumped up and ran in great, skating strides. I started to pick my way down carefully, footstep by footstep, but at his shouted encouragement I sat and paddled my feet, pulling with my heels, until I was also sliding down the snowfield, laughing. Where the edge of the snow melted to sun-warmed, grassy tundra, I sprawled and laughed again, peeling off the spikes and shaking them free of mud. This was not so bad at all. We officially met the two hikers we’d seen ahead of us: Foxy, a redhead from Georgia, and Just Jim, a tall smile with a bushy white beard.
We clambered down the snow-free rib of land until the trail led us across a steep northeast face. Spikes back on, I kicked and stepped carefully in the tracks of those who had been through already, enough hikers to have left a semi-secure tread in the quickly-softening snow. At the crease in the base of the valley, a river foaming with snowmelt churned the boundary between the snowy side and the melted side. A bright, ice-blue waterfall had broken through the snow higher up in the drainage. I turned and faced into the hillside, kicking steps and clawing hands into the snow like I was climbing down a ladder. As the snow consistency morphed to that of a melting slushy, the river roared underneath. Foxy let out a yelp below, her foot punching through at the bottom and into the water. When I was within reach, I jumped onto the far bank.
Prana and I motored along the dry and perfect trail on the south-facing side of the valley, gaining and crossing the shoulder of a ridge. I still was surprised each time we turned a new aspect, the stark difference in snow on the east side versus the west, the clear south faces versus the buried north faces. We took a quick break in a circle of krumholz to grab a snack and watch some kind of grouse strut around making garbled cooing sounds. The snow deepened above, and we pulled our spikes back on before gaining the edge of the first drop.
“Whoa,” I said. “That’s steep.” “Nah,” said Prana, “that’s not too bad. I’ve glissaded down slopes steeper than that, and with the snow as soft as it is, it won’t be any problem.” I peered down, to where the slope curled even more vertical and out of sight. “Hmm. I don’t know.” “Yeah, it’s good,” Prana reassured. “Just watch me, you’ll see. You won’t go nearly as fast as you think.” Just Jim and Foxy caught up from behid as Prana leapt into the air to start his glissade with a playful flourish. “Whoa, that’s awfully steep, isn’t it?” said Just Jim as Prana accelerated. “That’s what I thought, but he says not,” I replied, “but to be fair he’s done this a lot more than I have.” Prana dug his heels in as he neared the edge of the upper slope, slowing until he could clearly see what lay below. “It’s good!” he called back over his shoulder. “Come on! The snow is perfect!” And with that, he disappeared over the edge. I shrugged to Just Jim and Foxy. “Well, here goes!” I settled into the bobsled snow-chute worn by the series of hiker butts preceding us, positioned my ice axe, and pushed off. The snow was so mushy it immediately accumulated under my legs, creating a ledge that halted my slide. Relief pinged. The snow was perfect. “It’s awesome!” I called to the two behind me. “Not scary at all!”
When I crested the slope change, I saw Prana waiting far below, at the next horizon in the snow. I let myself go faster before slowing, then faster again, then faster again, until I practically had to lay flat to slow myself with my heels, axe, and friction from my backpack. “Oh my god, this is so much fun!!” I yelled down, laughing. The sun burned hot in a depthless sky of cornflower blue, the snow glittered like a sequin sea. When I reached Prana, he pointed left. “I think we need to traverse over there,” he said. “There’s a lot of open rock right under us here, and even though we could probably get around it, I can’t see what’s farther below that.” “It looks like this chute we’re in keeps going,” I pointed below, where the slide track reappeared and continued until it spilled onto the floor of the valley. “Yeah, but stuff is melting so fast, changing day to day, I don’t want to go unless we can actually see for ourselves it’s still good.” “Alright,” I agreed, “that’s probably smart.” We stood up, and, with massive effort, wallowed waist deep through the untouched snow to the next scallop in the rocky mountainside. “This looks good all the way down,” Prana affirmed, then zipped away again. I settled myself and lifted my heels- zing! This face was steeper yet than what we’d been on, and when I lowered my heels to slow, I realized it was also much icier. I cranked the ice axe into the snow behind me, deccelerating as I reached the bottom, where Prana stood among melted out rocks. “Wooo!” I exclaimed, flopping spreadeagled on the snow. “That was fucking awesome.” “See?” Prana grinned.
We shook snow out of our pants and restowed our ice axes. I glanced up the original chute. Minus a few presumably avoidable boulders down low, it was in pretty good shape, other than the lip we’d stopped above, where a waterfall burst through a surprisingly big gap. A slender bridge of intact snow bordered the left side of the overhang- wide enough if you aimed precisely enough and early enough- but it was impossible to tell from here what the integrity was. “Good call on crossing over,” I said. “Yeah,” Prana said, “the key is not going down anything you can’t see.” “Let’s wait for the other two,” I said, “so we can signal to them. I’d hate for them to assume we came that way and that it’s fine.”
Foxy appeared up at the edge, and I alternated waving my arms and holding them crossed in a big X until she noticed and stopped. I pantomimed and hollered to get up and follow our tracks to the left, which she did, as Just Jim appeared and followed her. They both slid safely to our stance at the bottom, and we all rehashed the thrilling travel, buzzing and giddy. “That was 584 feet!” reported Just Jim, doing the math from his screenshots of the elevation profile on his map app.
Onward! The day felt so full- and successful- already, but the fact remained we still had quite a ways to go. I hoisted my pack and tromped off behind Prana, leaving Just Jim and Foxy to their lunch. As we regained elevation, volcanic conglomerate ridges and walls loomed above the treeline, snow striping the tops in black and white. Stunning! I was torn between the importance of moving fast, getting through as much as possible before the snow softened to its awful toil stage, and the desire to linger, take pictures, soak it all in, up in this unique, hard won, ephemeral place.
We contoured through a long bowl of snow, not quite steep enough to be scary, but steep – and vast- enough to bring focus to each movement. The vastness created the illusion we would be forever in the sky, that no flat ground existed anywhere below. Each step stomped firmly onto the flattest footprint already in place, every other step punctuated by the firm plunge of the ice axe into the uphill slope. It was an intoxicating rythym, and in short order we gained the ridge above the second big drop.
Two new people were perched in a dry patch of ground amid the snow. They were Good Fun and Ranger, and when we introduced ourselves, they said, “Oh, we were hiking with Butters! He was trying to catch you guys, but he’s a day ahead now.” Dang! I would have loved to see him again. Just Jim and Foxy, who had been loosely hiking with these two for awhile, arrived as well, and the six of us scoped out the flank of the mountain we needed to descend. “Doesn’t this look way steeper than the last one?” I asked at the first snow chute, which Good Fun announced he planned to use. “Yeah, I don’t know if I’d go down this one,” agreed Prana, “you just can’t see what’s below, and it’s steep enough if it’s icy, it’d be tough to get back up if you had to.” We all peered down in silence, comtemplating. “Did you hear that people fell and had to get rescued somewhere on this descent?” Good Fun asked. “Yesterday. By helicopter.” My stomach clenched. “Well, those tracks lead somewhere,” someone finally said, referring to a deep boot track traversing straight out from the top of the shoulder. “Maybe it goes to an easier slope.”
One of the hard parts is reading all the tracks in the snow with no context to accompany them. Are there tracks here because this is the way to go? Or did someone go this way, leaving tracks all the same, but it didn’t work out once they got farther along, and there will be no way to know that until we are also farther along? Or maybe it worked out fine, but that was several days ago, and the melt out has changed something critical?
Prana and I were the last off the ridge, trailing the others in the well-trodden contour. The second snow gully looked at least as steep as the first. The third gully was the same, except it offered the temptation of a mellower entry point where the angle eased partway down, before it plunged steeply again. The four ahead of us had taken that offer and were painstakingly picking their way down a rocky, loose rib of land. Clods of dirt and stones rolled away from almost each step as the ground crumbled. “I don’t think that way is a great idea,” said Prana. The well established footprints we’d been following in the snow, however, did go that way, as there were no more leading ahead of us. “I think we just enter from up here if we use this chute,” he mused. I pondered this. “There is no way I am starting up here,” I finally said, “especially with those four below us. It’s too steep for me.” The pressure of anxiety was building in my chest again. Had we hiked ourselves into something I couldn’t handle? “Well, then the other option is we keep traversing,” Prana said, and kick-step-plunged away. I followed a distance behind, kicking my feet in firmly, plunging my axe in to its head. The snow was reaching mashed-potatoes-consistency, and occasionally what felt like a firm foot placement would crumble when I fully weighted it, plunging me into sloppy snow up to my thigh or deeper. The slope steepened, and perhaps halfway across the next wide gully I found myself frozen in place, certain that if I started to slide from a too-slushy footstep, I wouldn’t be able to arrest myself. Tears started to squeeze out of my eyes. What the fuck was I doing here? I had no business being here, in a situation demanding specific skills I hadn’t practiced, in a location which demanded I get it right the first time. You know better, my brain hissed. You don’t deserve to be here. “Come on Haiku!” Prana called from far ahead. “You’ve got this!” You’ll fall and get injured and have to be rescued like the idiot you are, my brain hissed again, it’s ridiculous that you thought you could do this. My tears built to an open sob. But if I couldn’t do it, what was I going to do?
Suddenly, a new voice rang clear in my mind. It’s a voice I’ve only heard a few times, but I recognized instantly. I call her the Captain Marvel voice; she only shows up when shit is real, and gets it taken care of. “You have every right to be here,” she stated clearly, silencing the negative drivel on its endless loop. “You deserve to be here.”
I plunged in my ice axe, kicked, kicked. I deserve to be here, I repeated to myself. Plunge, kick, kick. I have every right to be here. Plunge, kick, kick. I repeated it out loud, in time with the punching and crunching of snow. “I,” plunge, “deserve,” kick, “to be here,” kick. “I,” plunge, “have every,” kick, “right to be here,” kick.
I looked up from my trance of determination to find I was across the steepest part of the open chute, almost caught up to Prana.
“Alright!” Prana cheered, “come on! Let’s see if we can stay as close as we can to where the trail would be!” He plowed ahead into the untouched, thigh deep snow, and I followed, sinking often to my hips. “I still think we have to glissade again,” said Prana, looking at the map and comparing it to the edge of the ridge ahead. He plopped down and sledded down the hill, slaloming between trees. “No!” I yelled. “This is still way too steep!” “You’ve got to!” he called back. “The trees will keep the snow softer, no problem digging your heels in!” “Well…this is bullshit!” was my final, eloquent retort. I settled into the snow and slid, careening closer to several of the trees than I’d have liked, digging everything in to stop myself at Prana’s feet. “Look,” he pointed, “the trail.” Sure enough, a 25-foot melted circle revealed the well-worn tread of the CDT.
We slogged on in a full-effort, slow-motion gear for what felt like hours, my leg aching in a whole new way from toe to hip. The temperature was sinking with the sun as we neared the Adams Fork of the Conejos River and the first potential dry ground big enough to tent. We’d planned to go another three miles or so, but exhaustion had full hold, so we smooshed through wet mud until we found the perfect little elevated tent site, tucked above a rocky slot that funneled the whitewater of the river into a soothing background roar. We stripped off all of our soaked clothes, hung them in the last meager bits of sunlight. I floated in a sublime state, so tired my mind could make no noise about anything whatsoever. “Lasagna?” asked Prana. “Perfect,” I agreed. I bundled on all my dry layers and watched the world dissolve into twilight shadows.