Thru-hiker D-Low coined this tag line for the CDT: Embrace the Brutality.
Well, he's got a point! The heat and lack of water in the desert were tough, but just meant carrying a lot of water (often six liters/12 pounds) and getting creative about fitting into the at best dappled shade of a yucca.
Colorado is a different story. We reached the state just a few miles south of Cumbres Pass. From here we hitched south to Chama, NM, to clean up and resupply. We were then ready to tackle Colorado, or so we thought. After an hour of sticking out our thumbs, a nice couple driving from Guadalajara, Mex. to Vail stopped and moved some things around to fit us into their car. They dropped us off at Cumbres Pass along with a huge bag of homemade gorditas! These delicious, sweet corn pancakes made us think that perhaps they had been cooked over a wood fire.
The gorditas came in handy, as it began to snow on our way up into the mountains. And then it began to get really cold and rain. Approaching a 12,000 foot ridge, we decided to stay low and make camp. We woke up to the tent sagging on our heads due to the several inches of snow that had fallen through the night. After heaving off the snow, which caused a good deal of condensation to rain inside the tent, we mulled over our options while munching gorditas. A few gorditas later, our decision was clear. Welcome to Colorado, now let's go back to New Mexico!
So we packed up our sodden tent and hiked back down to the pass -- just in time to see the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railway arrive at Cumbres Station! This narrow gauge railway is the highest railway with scheduled passenger service. We chatted up all of the trainspotters braving the snow and cold to take photos of the historic rail, but soon the train whistled and headed out and the trainspotters got back in their cars and we were left alone, cold and wet in the station parking lot. Fortunately, a kind gentleman called Cuz pulled over after about fifteen minutes and took us back to Chama. Not only that, he took us out to lunch and then drove us around to find the best hotel deal in town! We very much enjoyed Cuz's company and due to his kindness were soon warm and dry again.
So, after a hot shower and a warm night in town, (not to mention hanging every item in our packs on every available hook, towel bar, hanger and door in our room to dry) we decided to brave Colorado once again. As trail angel Gordon says, Canada waits for no one. And as D-Low says, you have to embrace the brutality on the CDT.
After the rainy year on the AT in 2003, Reason and I are no strangers to liquid sunshine. But the AT hovers well below 6,000 feet at any given point. The CDT in southern Colorado lies between 9,200 and 13,200 feet. It's COLD in Colorado! Even in the sun, the mornings and early evenings are chilly at best. Because this is the Continental Divide Trail, our path takes us along the very spine of the divide. This is usually well above treeline. Even the low passes are at around 10,000 an 11,000 feet! Suffice it to say that 12,000 feet in a rainstorm is very uncomfortable.
We entered the San Juan mountains north of Pagosa Springs, CO, having forsaken trail for lower forest roads in the southern San Juans north of Cumbres Pass. I was nervous about the San Juans: snow, ice, steep slopes and exposed ridges. Our fantastic support crew expressed our ice axes and crampons to Pagosa Springs, and off we went. Our first two days were tough. The snowy northern slopes and deep snow drifts under the trees slowed us down. So, too, did the altitude. Having been above 4,000 feet since the Mexican border, we've slowly gained altitude, so neither of us has experienced altitude sickness. However, the thin air makes me wheeze and huff and puff whenever I climb above 10,000 feet.
We barely made 15 and 16 miles the first two days. The third day, we woke to dark clouds. By 11 it was raining and by noon it was covering us with thick, wet snow. Getting colder and wetter, we decided to pitch the tent just above Squaw Pass. We were at just over 11,000 feet and our only other choice was to hit the ridge at over 12,000 feet. Making camp in the trees at noon after traveling less that seven miles that day was demoralizing. We just won't get to Canada at that pace. But cold and wet conditions are not safe. Reason carefully guyed out the tent to keep it from sagging under the snow and I cooked some hot food. The precipitation lasted another few hours, giving us the chance snuggle together in our sleeping bags and finish Dove, the tale of Robin Graham's five year sail around the world.
We woke the next day to fog, which began to lift and by day's end became big puffy cumulus. Lucky, is all I can say. June is still early in the high peaks of Colorado. Afternoon thunderstorms should become consistent in July and August, but for now we are left wondering each morning what the weather will bring.
Most recently the weather brought a thunderstorm. We had just passed the ghost mining town of Carson and were headed up to the ridge when dark clouds rolled in. It had been spitting on us since midday, and we weren't sure how seriously to take this dark cloud. We learned soon enough when rain turned to hail and a clap of thunder and lightening sent us both to our knees. Reading the guidebook later that night we realized that we were at about 13,200 feet, the highest point on the CDT in southern Colorado! Perhaps we should have backtracked to a lower point, but we didn't. Up on the Divide, there wasn't really anywhere to go. On we forged, keeping low on the grassy ridges, heading cross-country below the trail. The hail became heavier and pea-sized, stinging our hands and heads. "It's gonna blow over," I said wishfully. It never did, try as the sun might to shine through.
No matter. Our map said that several miles ahead was a Colorado Trail Friends yurt. Our hands numb and our spirits drenched, we trudged on. "The yurt is probably locked," I said. "It's probably full of people. Maybe it isn't even there anymore," I insisted.
"Yurt, yurt, yurt," chanted Reason.
"It's gonna be locked," I answered.
But it wasn't. The yurt was unlocked, warm and dry! Well, it had a few leaks, but the wood stove made up for that. Reason built a fire and I cooked some hot mac'n'cheese'n'tuna. We covered every available inch of space with our wet things, agreeing that we need to invest in some trash bags once in town again. Warm and dry, we ate all the surplus food in our food bags. We'd been rationing in case we needed to spend another day in our tent, and now town was just nine miles away.
Here in cold, wet Colorado, that yurt was a five star hotel! We'd be lucky to stumble across another one in the next six hundred miles of the state. In the meantime, we'll just embrace the brutality and keep putting one foot in front of the other 'til we reach Canada. Only 2,000 more miles to go!