On the divide - the Window and Rio Grande Pyramid in the background

Overview

Continental Divide Trail, San Juan Mountains
Weminuche Wilderness, Southwestern Colorado
August 17 to August 21, 2002
Alan and Colin Dixon

Approx. 90 miles hiking in 6 days
Average elevation 12,000+ feet.
Total climbing approx. 20,000 feet

Link to Colin's Trip report (includes a day by day itinerary).

Also see:
Our visit to Sand Dunes National Park
Report on my moonlight summit of Longs Peak

My son, Colin, put it well,
"The San Juans are spectacularly beautiful but the price of admission is high."

By that he meant that this trip had the most spectacular nonstop scenery of any place we've been but that we had to work a bit for the view and endure some trying weather.

Typical weather and scenery at 12,500 feet - Colin hiking the divide at the tail end of a small squall

On most trips you occasionally hike up to the top of a mountain, ridge or pass get a quick view and then promptly go back down. On the CDT you get this experience all day long. The CDT in the San Juans offers an endless expanse of lofty peaks stretching to the horizon in any direction you look. At times you walk on a knife edge with a thousand foot plus drop on either side. A rain drop, in only a few feet, plummets on its way to either the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean.

The San Juans are the longest mountain chain in the Rockies and the highest mountain range (average elevation) in North America! Passes are annoyances you have to DROP DOWN into. If you're like me, and are happiest when you are above tree-line with expansive views, this trip is paradise. Everywhere you turn there is another stunning vista.

Colin taking in the view.

But these fabulous views are not free. The price is rigorous high altitude hiking and enduring some less than optimal weather.

We started our trip at out at 10,800 feet and promptly climbed to 12,200 feet in the first mile and a half. We then proceeded to climb gently across a vast alpine plateau to 12,800 feet before camping at 12,100 feet our first night - not exactly the standard recipe for acclimatization. For the next six days we rarely dropped below 12,000 feet. We averaged over 15 miles a day and usually climbed 3,000 to 4,000 feet a day. Our last two days we hiked 17 and 22 miles respectively.

After climbing to 12,200 feet in the first 1.5 miles we followed a huge alpine plateau for miles.
It gently ascended to our high point for the day, 12,800 feet.
(The posts mark the route of the CDT)

Colin right on the divide in particularly nice weather.

The CDT in the Weminuche, one endless and breathtaking ridge walk.

Colin working his way onto a knife edge of a ridge.

Waterfall and Wildflowers on or way down to Weminuche Pass.

Beautiful West Ute Lake.

The San Juans lived up to their reputation for sometimes violent and unpredictable weather. Other than the first sunny and pleasant day, the weather was challenging. We saw the sun only a few hours each day, sometimes less. It rained on us every day, hailed and sleeted on us every day, and rained on us every night. Much of the rest of the time it was just cool and windy and threatening to storm. At any given time some place in the San Juans was getting pounded.

Colin starting out on a "not too bad" morning Our "closed cell" foam pads were getting wet, so we purloined our Mylar food bag liners to protect them from rain.

If we followed the usual advice of getting down low when storms were around, Colin and I would have hiked less than 10 miles on this trip. Heck, it's the Continental Divide trail. You're usually walking exposed on a ridge at over 12,000 feet and it's the San Juans, there's always a storm brewing. I can't begin to count the number of times we changed in and out of our rainwear.

Colin prepared for an incoming storm

There was no predictable pattern of afternoon thunderstorms. In the same day, we woke up at 6 am to mist, drizzle and sputtering rain, got nailed by a black and nasty squall of rain, sleet and hail and 40 mph winds at 7:45 am, nearly struck by lightening (I mean really, really close!), in an hour long thunderstorm at 10:30 am and then got 2 hours of torrential rain from 9 to 11 pm and intermittent rain for the rest of the night. It was still spattering when we woke at 6 am the next morning. We packed up with everything damp to dripping wet.

Colin cold, unhappy and waiting out the end of a thunderstorm under some pine trees. This is about 1/2 hour after we were nearly hit by lightening. The strike was so close we felt the heat and shock wave, smelled ozone and watched the rain vaporize. I'm pretty sure we were briefly stunned.

Our shelter, a GoLite Hex, pitched on a bench above Ute Lake.
An exceptional piece of equipment, it kept us warm and dry in cold, windy and very wet weather.

Fortunately, the weather was kind enough to grant us a few sunny hours at critical periods in the trip so we could dry out our damp gear and clothing. Without these moments of benign weather the trip would have been misery.

Hiking into Trout Lake for a welcome period of dry and sunny weather.
We had a four hour weather window to dry out from two days of rain, sleet and hail.
(Ten minutes earlier it had been hailing on us.)

If we followed the usual advice of getting down low when storms were around, Colin and I would have hiked less than 10 miles on this trip. Heck, it's the Continental Divide trail. You're usually walking exposed on a ridge at over 12,000 feet and it's the San Juans, there's always a storm brewing. I can't begin to count the number of times we changed in and out of our rainwear.

Colin moving fast to get over a 12,300 foot pass and back down before weather hits.
Ten minutes later we were desperately pitching our GoLite Hex shelter in rain and 40 mph winds.

We had white out on the ridges and it wasn't uncommon to hike in layers of warm clothing, gloves and full rainwear for long periods in the middle of the day. I don't think the high got over 60 degrees any day but the first. Most days, afternoon conditions were windy and in the 50's. At saddles, and higher points on the ridges, winds were as high as 40 mph and sometimes we hiked leaning to one side. Occasionally gusts pushed us off the trail. As long as it wasn't raining, the cool and windy weather made for great hiking.

Hiking the divide into whiteout conditions.

In the thick of it.

For the most part the Continental Divide trail wasn't hard to follow but it could be vexing at times. One minute you're in a calf deep trench of a trail and then in ten feet is vanishes. It might take you 10 or 20 minutes of looking at the map and scouting around to find it again. Our map, a Trails Illustrated of the Weminuche Wilderness, was supposed to be up-to-date and signed off on by the Park, butů I guess the trail has been rerouted since its publication (that's about as polite as I can be).

The rerouting always seemed to be in the area of critical trail junctions where one would be most likely to make a wrong turn. Trails that were on the map never appeared, and trails that were not on the map would join or branch off in odd places. Then for the next few miles you wouldn't be 100% sure if you were on the CDT at all. Sometimes there would be the three reassuring weathered CDT marker posts or cairns in a ╝ mile stretch of easy to follow trail but then you wouldn't see any posts or cairns for a mile or two when you desperately needed them.

On a well worn portion of the CDT and incoming weather. What's new?!

Water was scarce. The San Juans received 20% of their regular snowfall this year. Most of the larger lakes had water but many of the smaller ones as well as most streams had dried up. One day we hiked 17 miles before we found water. Another night we camped at an almost dried up lake. We cooked dinner and made hot chocolate with brown water. We'd carefully scooped it from the last few inches of water left in the muddy lake bottom. We tried to minimize (not eliminate) the number of critters swimming in our water.

A fanciful CDT trail marker. Not so far from the truth though.
With 20% of its normal snowpack water was scarce in the Weminuche.
Colin and I went 17 miles one day before we found water.

Colin collecting water from a rare but welcome spring.
We usually started the day carrying 4 to 5 liters of water.

Under the Window.

And 4 hours, 8 miles, 3 weather fronts, and 3,000 feet later.

Dinner at Ute Lake. (We carried up and treated 17 liters of water.
We also had a "refreshing" swim before dinner.
)

A beautiful rarity in the San Juans, a running stream.

90 miles later the "dudes" at the Lobo Overlook Trail Head!
Yes, we look beat after hiking 22 miles and climbing nearly 4,500 feet.

View from our room at the Movie Manor Motel. The rooms are arranged around a drive-in movie theater and have speakers next to the bed. We watched Star Wars Episode II.
The movie was lame, the screen dark and small and the sound tinny but we still enjoyed the show if only for the novelty of the concept.

Sand Dunes National Park

Since we hiked out of the San Juans a day ahead of shedule, we decided to use the extra day to visit Sand Dunes National Park.

Sand Dunes National Park (white foreground), the Sangre De Cristo Mountains and the usual Southwestern Colorado weather. The dunes cover 39 square miles at the base of the Sangres.

Colin heading towards High Dune. At 750 feet above the valley floor it is the highest sand dune in North America. Amazingly these sand dunes are in an 8,000 foot high valley at the base of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains. The top of High Dune is almost 9,000 feet!

Due to the drought, the sand was dry and loose (after a rain it's hard and makes for easy hiking). It took a long time to get to the top of High Dune. You know the old saying, three steps forward and two back. The phenomenal views more than compensated for the poor hiking conditions.

Looking across the Dunes, the San Luis Valley in the distance.

At the top of High Dune.

Dunes and the Sangres. High winds blow sand (eroded from the San Juans) across the San Luis valley. When the winds hit the Sangre De Cristo Mountains they slow down and deposit the sand.

At the top of High Dune. Enjoying the wind in my face and some incredible views.

Me about 1/4 mile out in one of the very shallow San Luis Lakes.
Sand Dunes and Sangres in the background.

Climbing Longs Peak

Sunday night I summitted Longs Peak by moonlight and headlamp. I was at the summit before dawn. Alone on the summit watching dawn and sunrise was a breathtaking and emotional time. I cried for a few minutes -- partially from emotional release but mostly because it was just so f'ing beautiful. An intense moment I'll remember for the rest of my life.

The only thing as intense may have been finding my way along the final 1.75 miles and 1,105 vertical feet of class 3 climbing alone, in the dark, in windy and freezing conditions on a totally unfamiliar route.

Stats:

TH: 9,400 feet Summit: 14,225 feet
El. Gain: 4,855 feet Total climbing: 5,000+ feet
Time up: 5 hrs (in dark) Time down: 2 hrs 45 min
Time on Summit: 1 hr. (5:30 am to 6:30 am)
Total Miles: 16 (round trip)

Looking very pleased with myself after climbing Longs Peak by moonlight.
I was alone on the summit for dawn and sunrise.

Trip Report:

After dropping Colin off for his 3:30 flight out of Denver, I headed towards Longs Peak trailhead. At TH the Rangers gave me a basic description of the route and some particulars about Park regulations -- e.g. how to park my car for a moonlight summit and not get towed or ticketed - that I had to start after midnight or it would be considered an overnight (permit required) that I couldn't sleep or camp anywhere along the route or the summit. They also strongly discouraged me from doing the summit the first time in the dark. They really didn't believe I would find the way and would end up falling or stuck in a dangerous position.

After my lecture, I finished packing my gear in the parking lot and headed to Estes Park for an excellent dinner of fish tacos and a bean and chicken burrito. I then headed back to TH and did a final checking and tweaking of my gear under the dome lamp of my rental car. Around 9:45 I scrunched into the back seat to my compact rental car for a few fitful hours of "sleep." My alarm went off at midnight and I drove the car to the TH parking (not allowed to park there before midnight or you get ticked).

At 12:30 I signed the register and was off. At 9,400 feet and in the trees I was comfortable hiking in my Ibex Alp pants and a Pat. R.5 zip-T and Eccomesh shirt. As soon as I was above tree line I had to put on a 200 wt. Balaclava and fleece gloves. The temperature was below freezing there was a good 10 to 20 mph wind and without any sunlight that's pretty damn cold hiking conditions. Approaching 12,000 I put on my FF Jackorack with the hood zipped over my balacalva. This outfit just kept me warm enough as long as I was moving. I cursed myself for leaving my R1 vest in the car. It would have been the perfect addition to my active layer. With only my Cirrus vest left there was no way I could keep warm enough to stop even a short time.

I kept hydrated with 2 liters of water and two 24 oz bike bottles of double strength Cytomax. I also took hits off a 10 serving container of Power Gel and portions of the four Cliff bars I brought along.

The sky was overcast when I started but once I passed tree line it cleared and the almost full moon was bright enough to illuminate the trail. I turned off my headlamp and kept hiking at about a 2 mph pace. Fast enough to stay warm and position me for a summit but not so fast that I would be sweaty and worn out for the boulder field and final 1,000 foot class 3 push to the summit.

I reached the boulder field about 3:30 am and turned on my headlamp. It was impossible to see and sort of trail or cairns even with the headlamp on (although it did help immensely to navigate the talus and boulders). By then I could clearly see the keyhole so I just made my way towards it by any route I felt. I reached the keyhole at around 4:00 am.

Along the way I passed a lot of sleeping people in tents, or sleeping bags and bivys. They were waiting until it got light enough to summit. I didn't have this option for three reasons. One, I didn't have enough clothing to stay warm if I waited for dawn; two, because I had to summit by around 6 am or I wouldn't be back in Aurora in time for a 1:30 pm business meeting; and three I would miss summitting by moonlight and seeing sunrise from the summit. Of the three the last was most important to me. At the Keyhole I hesitated as I got a gust of very cold wind and surveyed the route. What the hell I figured, I go as far as I can before it gets light.

The Keyhole route on Longs is marked with what people call bull's-eyes or fried eggs, yellow circles with a red ring around them. Painted on strategic rocks are like blazes that help people follow the class 3 route to the top. The route really isn't that hard in daylight but deviate much from this route in the dark and you'll quickly end up in something a lot more difficult and dangerous than class 3.

Even with a bright headlamp I couldn't find many of the fried eggs. Some were brightly painted and where I expected them others were faded and I couldn't see them until I was just a few feet away. Sometimes I would turn around and find one behind me. After a while, I realized that I was wasting far too much time trying to find fried eggs, and that I wasn't going to summit soon enough for sunrise by this method.

I made a choice to skip the eggs and follow my route finding instincts and the basic route descriptions from the Rangers and online correspondents. After that, things started going a lot better. Not surprisingly I would stumble into a fried egg from time to time. This was a comforting reminder that I was on route but not essential for summitting. In retrospect, I realize I would have made it safely to the summit on approximately the correct route without the fried eggs. I would have saved a ton of time.

From my general conditioning, and after doing 90 miles in the Wimenuche at over 12,000 feet, aerobics were not a problem. I reached the summit at 5:30 am. Blessedly the wind died down and I was warm enough when I put on my Cirrus vest. I ate some crackers and waited. Alone on the summit watching dawn and sunrise was a breathtaking and emotional time. As I said before, I cried for a few minutes it was so beautiful.

I left the summit at 6:30 am. Coming down was fast and uneventful. I realized that I had only seen about 1 in 10 fried eggs on the way up but had generally followed the right route. I didn't meet the first of other climbers until I was well on my way to the Keyhole. I was down by 9:15 am and easily made it to my hotel, had a shower and lunch in time for my first meeting.

-Alan