We had planned to debauch onto Wolf Creek pass tomorrow morning, meeting my brother and his partner there for 2 days in Pagosa Springs, but last night we looked at the maps, talked ourselves into the idea those next 18 miles would be easy, and realized we probably could make it today. “Then we could camp with my brother tonight, and start hot spring soaking tomorrow morning!” I cheered.
The morning was damn chilly, one of the few that Prana deigned to wear his puffy mittens. My gratitude rose with the temperature when the sun finally poked between the trees. We squished along the muddy miles, clambering through increasing numbers of downed trees. Views of the main San Juans filled the northern skyline as we wound through the creases and pleats of the South San Juans’ undulations. One deep fold in the contours was plugged with a solid wedge of vertical snow, and Prana chopped out two stair steps, thwacked his axe in several times as handholds, and quickly swung around it. I followed just as quickly, joy bubbling at moving fluidly over something that would have stymied me a few days ago.
Cruising along to the 12 mile mark, we crossed onto a snowbound north slope, and our progress screeched to a crawl. The thick trees both kept the snow from melting during the day and from freezing over at night, resulting in a morass that could only tackled with wallowing. And so wallow we did.
The ridgeline leading to Alberta Peak rose free of the snow and into the fury of a galing wind, a perfect case of picking one’s poison. The trail narrowed until it curled against the back of the peak proper, as if it were a secret entry along a castle wall, and the row of the South San Juans stood proud and indifferent across the valley – Summit, Montezuma, Long Trek each now distinct and recognizable from our rendevous yesterday. On the far side of Alberta a trail snaked to the summit, and the wind jackhammered down. “Want to go up?” I yelled over the noise. “Nope. You?” Prana hollered back. “Not if it means even one extra minute in this wind!” I yelled back, and we waded into the final 3 miles of mashed potato snow hell.
Part of the reason we’d planned to camp right before this section and tackle it early the final morning was the reports we’d read about how it was some of the hardest toiling in the section. With the expanse of dry ground around the low point we’d camped in this morning and the siren song of town’s comforts, it had been easy to rationalize that surely the notorious descent would be better by now. It absolutely was not.
We struggled and floundered, punching through to ankles, knees, hips, waist, each step completely unpredictable on the rotting snow. Dead, fallen trees littered the lines of least resistance, forcing us to either weave and backtrack or gamble with postholing over the tangles of branches. Gradually stretches of dry trail appeared, and the thick traffic of Wolf Creek Pass grew from ant-size to beetle-sized below.
One particularly messy downfall pile marked the last navigational obstacle, and around the next switchback we met a family with small children in flip flops. “Excuse me,” I asked them with a sudden hunch, “is there any snow or trees on the trail up to here?” “No,” the mom replied, “why, is there up ahead for us?” We were free! Another half mile brought us to the meadow bordering the highway, and then to the asphalt pullout itself with it’s display proudly touting the Continental Divide.
We had a bit of time to kill until my brother would arrive, and as often was the case were pulled into conversation by another hiker, who arrived from up the highway, as though he were southbound. He was Chip, from Israel, and effusive about the wonders of the Israel National Trail- “far superior to the Jordan Trail,” he assured us. He recounted his full-on 3-day journey from Chama (which had taken us 5 days, mind you) and his wild self-arrests with his trekking pole (now bent) as he had no ice axe. “I decided to take the Creede cut-off,” he lamented. “30 minutes ago I started walking and my heart was breaking. I felt like I was giving up on a dream to go that way. So I turned around to think about it.” Follow your dream! we encouraged him. We chatted over the logistics options we knew by heart from studying for exit strategies, and he’d been unaware of a much closer resupply option. “I can only carry about 4 days of food, but I can do 80 miles easily,” he said excitedly. “But I still don’t have an ice axe. And I can’t rely on my trekking poles again; that was too risky.” There was no rule that said he couldn’t hitch back down to Pagosa Springs, we assured him, even if he had just hitched up only 40 minutes ago. “I am going then! One of the gear stores will have an ice axe!” He clapped his hands together, positively beaming. “If you ever come to Israel to hike you must let me know.” And with that he was into an SUV and whisking back down the pass.
Half an hour later Crusoe pulled his van into a parking spot. He leapt out with hugs, camp chairs, and ice cream, and we met the reputation-preceeded Calypso for the first time. After swapping stories of the last few days and brainstorming about the next few, we found the hotel with our upcoming reservations had one room left for tonight, so we claimed it and headed to town. 3 nights in a hotel! Relief and guilt washed over me in equal waves as Crusoe churned down the infamous curves of Wolf Creek Pass. That was a lot of money, and a lot of downtime, especially since now was the time to mash the hiking accelerator to the metal. But my right leg – my good leg- had started burning on the hike today, and when I went to load into the van, I could no longer bend it. I closed my eyes and braced against the hairpins. Obviously I needed some days off whether I wanted them or not.
The Quality Inn of Pagosa Springs could only have been named in irony. Luckily the interior of the rooms were far more acceptable than the exterior of the buildings, and the important things were hot shower, working fridge, and plenty of pillows. Check, check, and check.
Crusoe and Calypso produced pizza like magicians, the best of the trail, and watermelon, and beer. We cranked the air conditioner as high as it would go, and after satisfying our souls with laughter and food, we all dropped off to sleep.