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Saved by the Elk! – CDT 2009 | Average Hiker

Elk in the San Juans

My eyes slowly blinked open and I pushed my head up out of the sleeping bag. Icy air sliced through my matted hair and I immediately burrowed back down into my Down cocoon. Moaning softly, I curled up more tightly, feeling fatigue radiating through my battered body. I was running low on food, and the constant need to stay warm had me burning an excessive amount of calories.

If these cold, snowy conditions did not ease today, I would need to find a way down out of these brutal mountains. Current hiking conditions had slowed me down too much, and I was now rationing food.

Too cold to eat, I threw bars into any pocket available, and as my fingers started to stiffen from cold, I paused to shake my hands and blow warm breath onto them. Leaving my gloves on the whole time was not possible. Closing zip locks, stuffing the very last piece of my tarp into a pocket, and anything requiring a more nimble approach, would not work in gloves, so I packed fast.

Snow Covered Slope - Continental Divide Trail
Continental Divide Trail - San Juans

Glancing up, I watched streams of dark clouds race across a steel grey sky. It was early, but the wind was picking up and temperatures were not rising. The bare open land around me screamed “run!” More bad weather was coming and I needed to get some miles in before the weather really made a turn for the worse.

Bad Call on an Icy Slope

I reached snow-covered slopes quickly. They were steep, and there were no other footprints across the steep traverse. Was I going the right way I wondered to myself? I checked my maps – shaking as the cold seeped through my insulating layers. Hurriedly, I stuffed my maps back into my pocket and stepped out onto the snow.

My breath caught as my foot slipped. The snow was not as hard as I had expected and my spikes were not long enough to get a good bite, so my feet were sliding.

“The snow will harden” I muttered, trying to reassure myself as I moved gingerly forward. I knew not to look to my right, and I felt my stomach tighten at what my mind knew lay below me. Nothing but a long fall to the valley hundreds of feet below me.

Looking up, I squinted at a vast expanse of snow ahead of me. The slope was getting steeper and I paused to consider my options, turning to glance back at the solid ground. Suddenly, my downslope foot shot out from under me and I slammed down onto my side. I began sliding fast on the semi-frozen snow!

My ice-ax was gripped in my flailing hand as I picked up speed. I tried to get enough leverage to roll over onto the ax and sink it into the slick snow, but I could not get enough leverage to pull it under me, and I continued to slide faster!

Struggling frantically I reached out for a small spruce sapling that slammed into my upper arm, instinctively grabbing it with both hands and wrapping myself around its small flexible trunk. The tree was tiny, and I gasped out a terrified sob as I waited for the small tree to pull loose.

Making a Tough Decision

Thirty seconds later I opened my eyes and slowly began to unwind so I could evaluate my situation. The tree was holding, and other than being amazingly stupid I appeared to be alright. Looking up I saw I had probably slid about 200 feet. No way was I going back up, so I looked back to where I had started and slowly began to turn onto my stomach where I would begin digging holes for my feet.

The slow painful climb back to the solid ground felt like it took an hour. I wanted to stand but I was terrified, so crouching low to the snow I slowly dug holes and inched my way back up the slope. Halfway there, adrenaline fading, I began to shiver. The temperatures were definitely falling.

Reaching the edge of the snow slope I let out a huge sigh of relief, circled around behind a boulder, and collapsed onto solid dirt. Tiny ice particles were pelting me now, the kind of snow driven by really cold temperatures. I dug my Down jacket out of my backpack and stripped off my gloves to unfold my map, before quickly putting the gloves back on my frigid fingers.

Looking back over at the slope, I sighed in frustration. I was past the halfway point for this section. If I could just get across those slopes I thought, beginning to again focus on moving forward. A small voice whispered a warning in the back of my mind and I paused in my thoughts.

I sometimes fought practicality, but not this time. I did not have the gear I needed and did not know if I would be slowed even more by bad conditions. I turned back to my map and hunched over it to find a path down out of the San Juans.

Trout Lake Climb

Trail 574 appeared to be my way out, and I quickly covered the three miles over to Trout Lake. With my head bowed to the wind and stinging ice particles, I began jogging to generate body heat.

Before stopping to study the route up past Trout Lake, I caught movement from the corner of my eye. Looking up to my left I saw a lone Elk running up a huge expanse of snow. The Elk was up and over in seconds, which would probably have taken me an hour. I smiled softly to myself. This was definitely their world.

A gust of icy wind drew my eyes back to the route before me, and I stared for a moment before groaning in frustration. There was a wall of snow and ice across the pass above the lake, and it covered the switchbacks. There had to be another way up over the Pass. I only studied the rocky slopes next to the icy Pass for a moment before cold pushed me forward and I began climbing.

The slope was rocky and started as a moderate climb before beginning to steepen considerably. As I continued climbing my heavy backpack threw off my center of gravity. I quickly slid the pack off and crouched lower, crab walking over the rock-strewn ground, dragging my pack behind me. The slope continued to get steeper as I climbed, and just as I was about to reconsider climbing further I reached a small ridge and stopped to rest.

“Crap,” I muttered as I looked around. I would need crampons to head across the icy pass, and not just the Kahtoola Micro-spikes I was carrying. The spikes were not long enough and would just slide. The other direction was no better – a sheer drop-off where I could see shades of green leading to the distant valley below. It was time to head back down and try again.

Climbing down was not fun – kind of like climbing tall trees as a kid. Scrambling up trees was easy but once I reached the top and looked back down – well that was a whole other story. Many a rescued cat had experienced the same thing. This climb up was not much different, and I ended up having to drag my heavy winter backpack back down behind me as I again ungracefully crab-walked and slid my way back down the steep slope.

San Juan Elk
Fish Lake Pass
San Juans - Drop Off to Valley Below

Following Navajo River

My next review of the maps crouched to block the unceasing icy wind, resulting in a route that did not include an established trail. The thin blue line was Navajo River, and it looked like I could bushwack along the river for about 6 miles, head out County Road 362 to Highway 84, and then hitch hike my way to Pagosa Springs, CO. Only 25 miles – I had this. I relaxed as the comfort of a solid plan eased my tension.

Dirt and muck covered me as I bush whacked my way down to and along the Navajo. It was really just a creek but I knew it would probably widen as it dropped into the valley below. It didn’t widen though. Instead, it narrowed and the banks became steeper, forcing me to drop down on the creek and walk on the ice-covered tributary.

My usual chant of “Don’t look down” became “Please don’t break” as I made my way down the ice-covered creek until suddenly the creek dropped away in front of me. “No, no, no!” I yelled in frustration! I was NOT going back because going back meant miles over a hard-fought trail, and NO thru-hiker backtracked if at all possible. “There has to be a damn way down!” I yelled out loud.

I straddled the narrow creek, bracing my back against one bank and my feet against the other side. Sliding forward I dragged my pack along, over the ice below me. If I could just shimmy down, between the two creek banks, then I could see how long the drop was going to be. Maybe I could just climb down until it leveled back out some I thought.

Ancient Elk Highway!

Around the same time I realized I was being pretty stupid I heard the clopping of hooves and looked across the creek to see several Elk moving along the slope above me. What the hell?! How could a huge hoofed beast walk where I could barely shuffle sideways!

Grabbing my pack, I slid down the embankment, shuffled over the ice, and began dragging the pack back up the other embankment. After walking only a few yards up the steep hill I stopped and stared down in amazement. In front of me was a clear trail cut at least two feet into the surrounding rocky ground. I had discovered “Elk Highway.”

Over the next few miles, Elk Highway wound its way down out of the mountains. The trail really was amazing! It rerouted around massive blowdowns, cut through solid rock, and traveled its dirty, hoof-marked way across icy snow fields. Elk had to have been using this trail for generations.

In some instances, there were a few sketchy parts, and I wondered out loud how a half-ton animal could navigate its way down across some of these steep rocky slopes. There were places where the trail momentarily disappeared for small stretches, and even I had to almost crawl (I’m not crazy about heights). Small, nimble mountain goats maybe I could understand, but not a huge Bull Elk with hundred of pounds of momentum. Crazy…

I constantly strained my neck to peer around every corner, expecting the trail to fade away or disappear, as animal trails have a tendency to do sometimes, but I remained lucky. Temperatures rose as I moved lower, and I relaxed, even laughing a couple of times. On a couple of occasions, an Elk group would catch up with me. The “What the $%^&!” look on their Elk faces was priceless! I bet I would be a hot topic when they all convened at the next Elk gathering. Far side flashed through my mind.

A Small Ledge and a Camp

Finding a place to camp for the night was tough on the steep slopes, but once I descended into the thicker forest and hardwoods I began looking down the slopes for a shelf. Right before dark, I spotted a small shelf in the trees about 30 yards below me. I slipped and slid my way through the undergrowth, down to a flat leafy spot just big enough to set up my tarp.

My entire body ached as I settled down onto my sleeping pad. Too tired to do much for dinner, I shoveled some peanut butter and a tuna pack into my mouth (separately) and considered the next day.

Tomorrow would be my last day in the mountains, and the rest of my route down would lead me to a county road that then led out to Highway 84. The only unknown variable was the trail I was currently traveling and whether or not it continued down to the valley floor.

Would my way be blocked again? Would I have a stand-off on a narrow trail with a giant Bull Elk headed up the mountain? Would I simply starve? I was so hungry, but then I was always hungry, even when I had enough food.

I was too tired to study my maps further and could barely hold my eyes open as I settled back into my sleeping bag and instantly fell asleep.

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