Fear and Fortitude in the Weminuche Wilderness: Pagosa to Lake City

By: Chilton Tippin

“That’s a death drop,” I say to myself. And then I think: “We’ve got to go across it.”

The trail looks fine until we approach it – a line hewn into the side of a steep slope; a mountainside capped with a crag; a slab of frozen snow plastered over the path.

The sun rising in the east casts golden beams across the vast basin to our left. I can hear the wind sighing, the crunch of my crampons in the snow, the sound of my breathing, the clank and creak of my friends’ gear.

The rest, however, is silence – the calm, implacable, mountain silence that characterizes peaks above 12,000 feet.

Arriving at the edge of the ice sheet, which stretches some 200 feet across, I look down to assess the fall. My heart thuds. My breathing quickens. The fall is steep, a slick slide down ice onto boulders some 2,000 feet below.

“That’s a death drop,” I say to myself. And then I think: “We’ve got to go across it.”

Kick-steps

Chimichanga is in front. He turns to me. “I think you’re going to have to go first,” he says. “You’re the only one with crampons.”

“Okay,” I say. “Give me a second.”

We switch positions in line – an awkward maneuver on the thin trail above the drop. I set my pack on the cliff, balance it on my knee, twist my ice ax out of my pack’s ice-ax loops, tell myself to think not on the fall but on what will keep me from falling.

All this time I thought the ice ax would be an affectation. It makes me look cool, but surely I won’t have to use it. And yet here I am – a situation with serious exposure. No carabiners. No ropes. I’ve never even kicked steps before. I did watch a YouTube video once. Perhaps I can mimic the sequence. Just feel it out.

The sheet hangs in the shade of the crag which sits cathedral-like on the mountaintop. A northeast-facing snow slope, it melts a little in the afternoon and freezes in the evening, leaving it slippery and hard in the morning – our time of arrival.

I move off the trail, begin kicking steps into the ice, sawing and grinding with the teeth of my crampons. Once a step is made, I put my weight into it, drive the handle of my ice ax into the snowfield, swing my other foot forward, begin chiseling the next step. The steps keep me on the wall, but the snow is so hard each one takes between five and eight strikes. All the while, I balance on one leg, anchored with the ice ax, and attempt to ignore the drop swimming in my peripheral. I move about 10 feet from the trail in this fashion, perch on the points of my spikes, pant – my chest heaving. My thigh muscles quiver. My mouth is dry. I need a break.

“Want me to come out there, dude?” Chimichanga asks. “Let’s switch positions.”

“Okay,” I say.

Clutching my anchored ax, I turn precariously in a foothold, the weight of my pack swinging out over the drop, and make my way back to the trail.

Chimi proceeds in my holds. “These steps are great,” he says. “We can do this.”

Meanwhile, two other hikers – Toast and Hanitizer, who’ve been watching from the blocky crag – begin scouting another way around the section of trail. “It looks bad up here,” they keep telling us.

And so Chimi goes to work kicking steps.

I lean on the side of the wall with Delightful. We watch Chimi laboring. He doesn’t have an ice ax or crampons, but rather balances on metal springs stretched over his shoes called Yak Traks. Standing fully upright on the ice sheet, teetering with his poles – the tips of which are clattering on the hard-packed slope – he’s lifting his foot time and again, pounding his heel into the ice, crushing steps, moving forward.

“Chimi’s got balls,” I say.

Delightful nods. “This is so crazy.”

When Chimi is exhausted, we switch places again.

I advance across the field. My adrenaline is pumping because of the fall. I don’t realize I’ve cut my finger with my ax until blood begins spattering on the whiteness. Just a small nick, but it adds to the intensity all the same.

Halfway across I hear Toast scream from above. “I think we’ve found a way. There’s some sketchy cruxes, but it looks better than the slope you’re on.”

So I turn around, abandoning the kick-steps halfway across the field, climb with Delightful and Chimi to the base of the crag.

“You all right?” Chimi asks me.

“My nerves are shot,” I say. “Let’s take a five.”

We sit on the ridge. “That was just a long time to be hanging out over a death drop,” I say.

“Yeah,” Chimi responds. “Just to be out there working like that. I mean, if you fall out there – you’re gone.”

A swale formed where the snow meets the base of the crag. Chimi, Delightful and I follow Toast and Hanitizer’s footprints across. Safe on the other side of the slope. For now.

This is the second morning of the leg from Pagosa Springs to Silverton, a high-mountain journey through many of the 12,000-foot peaks of Colorado’s San Juans. I wonder if other hikers coming behind us will see our kicksteps, follow our half-wrought path rather than the safer swale above. I hope they play it safe – only 20 miles in, and we have many challenges ahead.

We see a spot where the trail goes low into a depression, contouring a wall strewn with avalanche debris. Footprints go up the slope to the ridge. The ridge looks like the plated spine of a stegosaurus. We take the ridge.

Chimichanga leads. I can tell he’s loving the view, the danger, the adventure. “This is incredible up here,” he says breathlessly. “I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like this. Let’s take our time up here. There’s no need to rush this, I mean – this is epic.”

Delightful cruises behind me, under the light of the bright sun, bent forward, smiling. Every once in a while Chimi and I check up on her. “How ya doin’, D?”

“I’m great!”

She says this every time.

I dislodge a rock the size of my head and shudder as it tumbles down the ridge, hits an outcrop and detonates. Up ahead, Chimi pauses.

“This is sketchy up here,” he says. “This is super sketchy.”

And then he drops over the crest out of view.

When I get to the top, he’s making his way across a grade of raking scree – loose rock faltering on the tilt of the backbone.

He sets off a rockslide. The small rocks pick up boulders that go thundering down the mountain.

My hands begin to sweat. I shuffle across the spree, feel the rocks sliding beneath my feet, see the fall – another drop that would kill or seriously maim.

“The rocks are going to fall,” Chimi says from his point of safety, “but it’s okay. Just keep your footing and let them slide and you’ll stay up.”

That sounds insane, I think.

I send a massive boulder down the mountain, creating a landslide of my own. The enormity of the sound of falling boulders only amplifies my fear. The ground below is constantly shifting, but I make it across.

“How are you?” Chimi asks.

“Scared.”

“Keep your eye on D,” he says. “I’m going to see what’s ahead.”

It can be harder to watch your friend go through something dangerous than actually doing it yourself.

D shambles across the loose rock slowly as Chimi and I coach her on where to put her feet. I can tell she’s scared, but she’s moving – facing her fear like a champ. She winds up in a position where her back is against the wall. Her feet are splayed, one on a safe boulder, another on a rock that could dislodge. She needs to make a pivoting motion. She gathers herself, makes the move, lunges to safety. We all take a seat on the ridge, looking back on the alley of avalanches we’ve avoided by taking the ridge. I decide I learned something watching D navigate the slope:

Bravery is not the absence of fear, but persevering in spite of it.

 

As we walk, Chimi and I have a talk.

“Look,” I say, “both of those situations could have been avoided. We need to pay more attention. We need to do a better job of scouting routes.”

“I agree,” he says. “Next time we come to something sketchy, let’s take a break, look at the situation.”

To Take the Knife Edge?

 

The Pagosa-Silverton section of trail is dominated by a feature called the Knife Edge – a high traverse over a north-facing slope. I once heard Jerry Brown, the man who made the Bear Creek maps, describe it.

“I want to tell you,” he said. “The Knife Edge is scary. When it’s snowy, it’s the worst place on the trail. People have done all kinds of enterprising things to get around it.”

We stop at a water source before the Knife Edge. All of us want to give it a shot, but we also know doing so is dangerous in a high-snow year.

It’s a delicate equation to solve, to find the balance between ambition and risk level, between bravery and stupidity. I know we must respect these mountains. We are in a sense at their mercy. I also know that we don’t have proper mountaineering gear or training. But in a way the Knife Edge represents the heart of the danger – an integral part of the challenge we’ve set before ourselves.

We consult our maps and find a ridge that goes around it.

“Let’s make the smart decision here,” I say. ¨We should get through these mountains in the smartest way possible.¨

Chimi and Delightful agree.

We take the ridge, avoiding the Knife Edge. But the ridge itself involves plenty of exposure. At times we lash our poles to our packs and climb with hands and feet up faces that loom over thousand-foot drops.

The Cold Abyss

Malarkey, Tom and La-La catch us in the evening. We camp nearby on patches of land uncovered by snow. It begins raining at 1 a.m. and doesn’t let up in the morning. We break camp during a lull, walk in a group of six. The rainstorm degenerates into a whiteout blizzard as we climb high onto a ridge over 12,000 feet. The icy precipitation saturates our raincoats. I can feel the wetness seeping through, my shirt sticking to my ribs. We cannot stop walking lest we’ll become hypothermic.

White clouds envelope the group. Visibility is 20-30 feet. Beyond that people waver, “turn to ghosts,” as Chimi put it, and disappear.

We try to stay together but get split up atop the ridge. Malarkey and I take a wrong turn. I pull out my GPS but can’t push the button because the dexterity is frozen out of my fingers. I make a fist, turn on the device with my knuckle. We see we are way off the trail.

¨We need to get down!” Malarkey screams over the wailing storm.

So we step to the edge of a ridge and look over. The world is a white, swirling abyss, one in which you cannot differentiate the sky from the snow. Beyond our toes, however, we sense a great void – a plenum, nothingness, a terrible drop down a steep snowfield.

We exchange expletives meant to convey the fact that there is no way in hell we’re going blind down that slope.

¨We need to backtrack,” Malarkey says.

I follow him, shivering back down the spine of the ridge.

Navigating blind

We descend into a world of white. I can see nothing but Malarkey’s figure in front of me. I wonder where our friends are and hope they are okay.

Malarkey’s GPS is dead and I am failing at navigating in a world where I cannot see the land, so Malarkey drops his pack, digs for batteries, pops them into his GPS and begins moving out.

I call for our friends, a high-pitched ¨Whoo-Weee! Whoo-Weee!¨

I hear them make the same call from somewhere out in the cold blank tempest. They’re close…

I keep on Malarkey’s heels until the fog lifts for a split second and we see the rest of the group making their way up a trail on the mountainside.

 

(Digging out of a posthole)

We reunite and Malarkey takes the lead. From my position toward the back of the group I catch glimpses of him checking his GPS, climbing boulders, scouting, descending, postholing, moving with unfathomable alacrity through this calamitous netherworld – this strange and disorienting space of cold, moving grayness.

I don’t truly know how he’s doing it, but I am thankful, because I am wet and cold and verging on hypothermia – as is most everyone in the group. I fall in line, enter a sort of walking meditation, concentrating only on shuffling my feet through the deep snow.

Delightful, meanwhile, is wearing shorts. I am worried she will become hypothermic without long pants.

¨How cold are you on a scale of 1-10?¨ I ask her.

¨Let’s just keep moving,” she says.

We posthole in Malarkey’s footsteps to stay warm all day, without breaks for food or rest or bathroom. Chimi calls it ¨hypothermic rambling.¨ A seven-hour, freezing, postholing slog – a worrisome slog, because we don’t know if we can outlast the storm.

When we drop into the Weminuche Valley, however, we pause to look at a map and discuss options for bailing off the high divide.

Then we perceive a strange shift. Almost immediate. I feel a pleasant sensation. Warmth. ¨Is that the sun?”

And the whole group cheers.

¨I never thought it would actually break,” La-La says.

¨In all my life I have never been so happy to see the sun”

Bear vs. Elk

We camp as a group at a wide flat spot in the Weminuche Valley where there is a preexisting fire ring. It takes six of us, an umbrella and some denatured alcohol to build a fire with wet twigs. We dry our drenched gear, warm our frozen bodies.

I learn from Malarkey and Tom, who is from Israel, and two other hikers – G and Funk – that they followed our kick-steps onto the ice wall. G apparently paused in the middle of the ice wall to put yak tracks on, which is just insane, and Malarkey tried chiseling steps with his ice ax. It wasn’t until Tom from Israel went across kicking steps that the path was completed, meaning at least five hikers kicked steps across that blasted wall. I’m just glad nobody got hurt.

In the evening an elk herd filters into the valley. The cows in the herd begin mewing, circling their calves, and making haste across the pasture. A large black bear drops into the valley, and one elk peals off from the rest of the group to confront the bear. We watch in amazement as the bear and elk bluff charge one another – a cat and mouse game – as the rest of the herd flees. When they make their way off our stage, we saunter off to our tents and go to sleep.

Excelsior!

In the morning fog and clouds scud through the valley and over the Rio Grande Pyramid. The whiteout blizzard was so demoralizing, cold and difficult that many in the group decide to take the Weminuche Trail off the Continental Divide. But Chimi, Delightful and I want to give the pass one more shot.

We take a nice trail toward the snowy Rio Grande Pyramid. I feel good but also have a sense of dread in my stomach. I do not want to go through a storm like that again, I think. It was truly scary.

We climb above 12,000-feet again, into the snow, and begin postholing past a square hole in the high mountain wall called ¨The Window.¨

We reach a spot about eight miles in, a peak above Ute Lake. Massive thunderclouds drift over a series of snowy peaks and valleys, filling the entire sky. It begins hailing, so we sit on the side of the peak.

¨That’s a lot of snow,” Chimi says, looking sullenly over the mountains.

We take a vote and elect unanimously to bail off the trail. When we exit the Divide, we do so in style: glissading on our butts about 500 feet into the Ute Creek Valley.

Off the mountains, we hear blasts of thunder reverberating over the divide.

¨I feel so much better now that we’re off those peaks,” I tell D. ¨The tallest thing on my person is my metal ice ax.¨

She laughs. ¨I’m glad we’re off the peaks, too. They’re brutally beautiful, but I’m glad we’re down here.¨

Raging river crossings

A trail leads down the valley but it is on the other side of Ute Creek – swollen and raging with snowmelt. The river is moving far too fast to cross. As we travel down the trail-less side of the valley, making our way over miles of deadfall, I look at my GPS and notice the valley drastically deepens ahead. We move listlessly through bogs and fallen trees. The slope begins pinching the river, and we find ourselves sidelining the steepening canyon, struggling along walls that rise above a river running at what seems like the speed of vehicles on a freeway. All the while, a clean-cut trail winds along the bank on the opposite side. Tantalizing. Agonizing.

We come to a tree that’s fallen over the river. The walls get so steep, there’s really no choice but to take it.

¨I’ll go first and break off any sticks that might get in our way,¨ Chimi tells us. ¨There is absolutely no standing. If you fall off this log, I don’t think you will survive.¨

I have no intention of standing, anyway, and I fully agree with Chimi’s assessment. The waters roar beneath the log at a tremendous speed, boiling over boulders, sending curls of spray into the air, and smashing into the rocky canyon walls on either side.

We frog-crawl across the log and make it safely to the trail-side of the mountain.

We follow the Ute Creek Trail to the Rio Grande Reservoir, near the headwaters of the river that runs through the city where I was born.

¨I’ve come full circle,” I tell D.

We cross the Rio Grande on a private bridge that says ¨no trespassing,¨ but there is no other option as the river is far too deep and fast to ford.

As we pass a campsite, Delightful asks two people in a camper – the first people we’ve seen since departing Pagosa – if we can look at a map.

Their names are Mike and Cathy, from Salida. They invite us inside, offer us coffee, eggs, sausage, grapes and doughnuts.

Mike and Cathy explain another big river crossing stands between us and our destination, which is Stony Pass, above Silverton.

¨Pole Creek is huge right now,” Cathy says. ¨We couldn’t cross it yesterday on our ATV.¨

¨I’m beginning to think Silverton is impossible to get to,” D says. ¨Maybe it doesn’t even exist.¨

After much discussion, we decide to go for it anyway.

Before we leave, Mike says, ¨We bottle our own wine, by the way. Want some?¨

Delightful laughs. ¨Do you know who you’re talking to?” she says.

Chimi and I have been drinking red wine the whole trip. We’re hiker winos.

Mike gives us a bottle of red Zinfandel. We decide to drink it if and when we get across Pole Creek.

Outside the camper, Cathy asks if she can pray for us.

¨Of course,¨ we say.

We bow our heads.

¨Please protect Chilly, Chimichanga and Delightful on their journey,” she says. ¨Please help them get across the river safely.¨

Amen.

We set out on the road, walk a few miles, and hear a truck approach behind us. It’s Cathy and Mike, returned to give us a lift to the crossing.

The best trail magic we’ve had yet.

“All we know to do is keep moving.”

Everything in Motion

At the crossing, Pole Creek is a rushing torrent. It stretches about 40-feet across. Chimi and I head upriver, the intention being to find a tree or a shallow spot.

We hear a cheer behind us. Delightful is already halfway across the river.

¨I’ll be damned,” I say.

Delightful makes it across, so Chimi and I follow. The water comes to my waist, pushes against my knees and ankles, splashes my stomach and chest, but I make it across, as does Chimi.

We sit in a field of blooming yellow dandelions, dry our soaked gear and pop the wine. I once bought a roughly $100 bottle of Colome. This wine – for free and from friends and at the tail end of a harrowing adventure – tastes 100 times better.

We sit on rocks and pass the bottle and drink it down before walking to Stony Pass and hitching into Silverton.

In Silverton, Chimi and I go out for a night on the town. It becomes something of a celebration of our survival. At the end of the night, during the small hours, we take a trip up a hill to see a statute of the Virgin Mary, beers bulging in our pockets, stumbling drunkenly – I think we both feel very much alive.

We sit on the hill overlooking Silverton, nestled in a Caldera beneath sharp snowy mountains, and watch the twinkling headlights of cars driving in the dark shadows of mountain passes.

¨Everything is constantly in motion,¨ Chimi says.

And I respond with my favorite quote from Heraclitus. ¨No man steps into the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.”

All we know to do is keep moving.

We leave Silverton the next day, taking a low route – the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway – to Lake City. A much-needed respite from the snow. On the road I think about how I saw some extraordinary feats in the San Juans: D persevering through the blizzard in shorts; Malarkey navigating blind through the frigid whiteout, plowing ferociously through willows and bogs and hip-high snow; and Chimi staggering on the ice wall, crushing his heel again and again into the frozen sheet.