CT Days 34-35: Stormy Lessons in the San Juans

I had enjoyed hiking and camping with Kinnikinnick yesterday, but he didn’t share my penchant for being up and on trail before daylight. I was making good time this morning until I stopped to filter some water and my cell phone fell from my unzipped shoulder strap pocket to the bottom of a shallow stream. I had topo maps and a compass but my navigation skills were rusty, having relied primarily on the convenience of the Guthook app on my phone to supplement the Colorado Trail Databook to this point. As I picked up my phone in disbelief, Flame walked up from behind and saw my sad and embarrassed expression. We had met just the day before and it was apparent then that she was a very experienced hiker. She wished me luck with my phone, which must have done the trick as it somehow worked just fine for the rest of my hike. I couldn’t keep Flame’s pace but we leap frogged several times that morning as she stopped to appreciate the views and waterfalls in this section. I was impressed to see her almost skip over a narrow log creek crossing that I had to take super slow using both poles to get across.

I cleared an unnamed saddle and thought I had made it over ahead of a typical pm thunderstorm. I just had to get across this little meadow. But almost immediately a lightening & hailstorm hit and I had to duck into a small grouping of trees for at least a bit of cover. It hailed non-stop for probably 1-1/2 hours with thunder & lightning flashing overhead the entire time. I was soaked and freezing, and finally had to move just to stay warm, so I tried dashing across the meadow through the storm. I slipped and ate it hard a couple times sloshing through the mud with my backpack but made it across and another couple miles to set up camp.  

A much more athletic friend I had met earlier raced past me. Danimal let me know he was “going long” to try & warm up by hiking fast to get ahead of the storm & into the night. I was later relieved to see Flame, Waves, & Gadget, then Kinnikinnick, had all made it through safely as they hiked past my campsite, and they had been worried about me as well. Gadget complemented my campsite with the “flat stuff” it featured, namely a sawed off tree stump that made a coveted dining table.

I was out of camp by around 4am the next morning to get as far away from that area as soon as possible, expecting another similar storm.  The deep hail had frozen solid on the trail and the only way I could hike the uphill sections that early was thanks to the big footprints Danimal had left in the hail the night before.  This seemingly horrible experience ended up being one of my favorite memories from the Colorado Trail, and also taught me some valuable life lessons.

The day before I had only made around 15 miles when I set up camp early after the storm, and had to get in 20 or more today. I would also be starting a possible 22-mile stretch without water that might leave me dry-camping. Despite my early morning head start, Flame & Waves passed me later that morning, followed by Gadget that afternoon. Haze from far-off wildfires began to roll in later in the day. We got a rare break from the monsoon rain, so I decided to push on to a potential water source that would leave me at about 23 miles for the day.

I was happy to see Flame, Waves, and Gadget had stopped at the campsite. They directed me to a small, barely trickling creek just beyond the campsite where Flame had masterfully placed a leaf as a water spout. I was surprised and impressed that I could fill my 3-liter CNOC bag here. I texted that good news to Kinnikinnick who had decided to dry camp a few miles behind us. It was Friday night and I had 30 miles left to finish in Durango by Sunday. I relaxed a bit knowing I had had two modest 15-mile days ahead.

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