September 14th, 2019
West Ute Lake mm 2082.4 to Squaw Creek mm 2109
Distance in miles: 26.6
For whatever reasons, my efficiency and motivation is off all day. As hard-core as yesterday was, today I just feel like I’m riding the Struggle Bus. Following such a hard day has a lot to do with it and this day just brings more of the same beastly elevator terrain, but with more challenging trail conditions. These mountains seems to stretch forever, spectacular yet unforgiving.
It’s of course very cold in the morning but this time we aren’t in a hurry to get down and out of the wind. We take our time packing and get a bit of a late start. Up and over our first pass of many, we’re stopping frequently to shed layers and re-arrange things in our packs. I’m bummed to find a burn hole in my skirt from a spark from the fire last night. I also got one on my pants…the hazards of trying to stay warm.
We drop into a large valley that has a lot of willows and meadows. I see a large animal at almost a mile in a meadow and later confirm that it’s a bull moose. A cow and calf appear after. We also see several elk, including 2 bulls. I suspect a whole herd is hiding in the willows. This valley appears to be teeming with animals…it’s far from any roads and during hunting season, the animals seem to know it.The wildness of the trail seems to confirm that few even on foot pass through here. The willows are like a fortress. I at least develop a strategy of using my trekking poles as a sort of v-shaped snow plow to push them aside with minimal snagging on my body. But the density makes it so I can’t use my poles to aid my climbing. I also sometimes can’t see the big rocks in the deeply eroded trail. While wrestling with the branches, I’m simultaneously tripping. It’s slow going, to say the least.
We climb high and stay there for a bit. The ridges have rocky buttes like canyonlands, only they are the tops of mountains. The San Juans are so incredibly diverse, from broad volcanic domes, to sharp spires and rock-wall ridges. We traverse a big peak to cut through a saddle, coming out below the Window and the Rio Grande Pyramid. The Window is a notch from a wall-like peak that stands out from many vantage points in the San Juans. It always seemed like a small feature but standing a quarter mile underneath it, I realize that one could fly a plane through it. It appears that a massive chunk of rock displaced itself from the wall at some point, forming the notch.We meet a few horse packers that are scouting for elk on the ridge. They point out a moose in the valley and I tell them about the elk we saw in the morning. This may be unfair to the elk but it’s a fair trade for me because the guys then offer us food. I mention that I’m low on fuel as well and they give me a full canister along with a mountain house dinner! It is one of the best gifts I’ve ever received on trail. Suddenly my anxiety about not having enough food or a way to cook it on this long stretch dissipates. I’d been in a funk about it all morning but everything always seems to work out.
On the other hand, Relentless’s new shoes that he got in Lake City, same model as mine, are tearing up the tops of his feet. His old shoes had terrible tread, so he wanted to try something different. But different shoes on a thru-hike can be a big mistake. For now, all he can do is apply a lot of neosporin, tape and bandages, which he’s running out of fast. I feel bad since I ordered the shoes for him but I know it’s no one’s fault that they don’t fit quite right.
We descend into a huge valley, which can only mean we’re going up much of the rest of the afternoon, back up to the height we just came down from. I wish there was a huge zipline across to save us all the trouble.We get a little lost at the bottom…classic CDT nonsense. We have to hike across a meadow where there are some poles but no trail. The CDT utilizes a series of trails that probably already existed but there are places where they don’t all connect perfectly. This is one place.
We climb steeply next to a stream but the trail is at least in great shape. We stop to collect some water but there are no trees to hang my gravity filter so I fashion a tripod from trekking poles. As we sit by the stream, a family of moose wonder by: a bull, cow and two calves. That makes about 8 moose sightings for the day.
Then it’s back to willow-bashing and going straight up hillsides. Above in the tundra, I have a great 360 view of the progress we have made through the San Juans. It starts all the way over by San Luis Peak, then Snow Mesa, down to Slumgulian Pass, up to the ridges along the CT High Point, through the crazy terrain around Sheep Mountain (a prominent red volcanic dome), through all the valleys of today, past the Window, and finally the deep valley we just climbed from. What a jumbled bunch of rock we’ve navigated going on 5 days!
To the south and east is a lot of haze. There is a fire somewhere and I just hope it’s not affecting the trail. I can also see a plume of smoke to the northeast, far far away (I find out later it’s near Salida). We’ve been lucky to not be affected by fires all trail.
We begin dropping down through another series of bowls and it is getting late and cold. I need water but don’t want to be too high, low, or right next to the water source for camp. We see a fox scurry up a hill…so much wildlife today but no signs of bears. We find a passable campsite at the next stream and hunker down. We had planned on a short day but it ends up being about a mile even shorter. Oh well. This has been some hard hiking. Looking ahead at the map, we’re not going to be in a good position to camp on the 4th night unless we do a short day (22 miles) or one over 30 due to a long, high ridge section, so we’ll just have to see how it goes.