This is from my trip in July/August 2007. I never wrote it down till now, because I was waiting for the pain to heal before I did. I think I still come across as a bit angry, but oh well. Here it is. We went to the South San Juans in Colorado. Enjoy and learn how not to backpack!
A River, No Water, and a Laptop Computer
How Not to Backpack
Intro and Arrival
There are times in life where you realize youíve made a mistake. No matter how hard we may try to avoid mistakes, they can seem to come up and bite you when you least expect it. Sometimes one mistake can lead to several. I made a huge mistake the summer of 2007. It stemmed from some assumptions that I felt did not need to be voiced. I always heard the line ďTo assume makes an ass out of u and me.Ē I assume youíve heard it. So what possible assumptions could I have made that would lead to the ideal example of how NOT to backpack in the Colorado Wilderness? Read on, and Iíll tell you.
In the winter of 2006/07 I had the grand idea of backpacking into the South San Juan Wilderness in Southern Colorado. I had been backpacking before in 2002 and I had day hiked many places. I felt I was knowledgeable on the activity of backpacking, but not real experienced. I felt I could advise and guide someone that had never been backpacking in the Colorado Wilderness due to my large interest and research. This was my first and greatest mistake that I made during this adventurous endeavor. All the turmoil and miscalculations can be traced to this one assumption that I made that winter. My other mistaken assumption that I made was thinking my partners would research and read about backpacking. My backpacking buddies did no research that I am aware of prior to this trip.
In my defense, because I really need one, the trip was planned to be 4 of us. My friend Andrew was supposed to join us on this trip. He has much more backpacking experience than I. He would have been a welcome voice of experience during the struggles that persisted during this trip. However, due to issues beyond his control he was not able to join us. In retrospect that should have resulted in the death of the trip. I pushed onward and began thinking I had enough knowledge and skill to get anybody into and out of the Colorado Wilderness with success. I was wrong. Nobody died on the trip and beyond a few bruised egos there were no lasting scars. Things could have taken a much different course due to my lack of experience and leadership.
So who were my backpacking compadres? One of them was my Brother-in-Law Kris, who is married to my oldest sister and lives in Dallas/Fort Worth. He had no experience and no knowledge of how or even why to backpack. He is a good sport and is always up for trying something new. So I thought he would be a good candidate for taking on the trip. My biggest concern was the physical conditioning required to hike with a 45 to 50 pound backpack for hours up steep grades at high altitudes. This turned out to be a valid concern during the trip, because he was not in great shape physically. I knew that his knowledge was lacking. I did my best to inform him about all the equipment that he would need and not need. Equipment wise I feel that Kris was nearly as prepared as I was. In retrospect, I donít feel that Kris was physically or emotionally prepared for this trip. It seems I focused on his equipment list nearly exclusively. He wasnít prepared for how hard it would be to hike at 11,000 feet with a backpack on. Nor was he prepared to leave all communication with family behind. He didnít have any type of survival mindset. I donít think I could have fully prepared him, but I definitely could have done a better job.
My other trail buddy was also named Chris. He is a friend that lives here in San Antonio that I had gotten to know pretty well. Chris told me he had been backpacking before in New York. Once again, I assumed he had knowledge that he did not actually have. I have come to know that Chris is a city dweller. He is an internet and cell phone junkie. He must have coffee and it must be up to his standards. He doesnít like to spend money unless it makes sense to. Assuming he had the knowledge necessary, I didnít really focus on telling Chris what to expect and what to bring for equipment. This was a big mistake. I do know that Chris was in better shape than the other two of us. With proper equipment he would have been more than fine.
Note: To simplify things from here on out I am going to refer to Kris and Chris as K and C respectively.
So my Tacoma pickup and us head out of San Antonio via Dallas to pickup K. Itís a 15 to 16 hour drive to Antonito, Colorado where we were staying. We arrived at around 6 if I recall and settled in for the night. Antonito is a small town and saying that is making it sound bigger than it is. It is a tiny town. Especially compared to the cities we were coming from. That didnít really matter though, because that was the point of the trip. Getting away from the city life and hustle and bustle was and is the whole point of backpacking. We ate at one of the only restaurants we could find, which happened to be a Mexican food restaurant. We had a good nights sleep in the Railroad Inn. I donít highly recommend the Railroad Inn, but if you are going to the South San Juan, it is one of the nearest places to stay for a hot shower and bed. We went to sleep feeling exciting and anxious to be heading out into Godís beautiful country. I had no idea what was in store for us out there. I only hoped to have fun.
The plan was pretty simple, however, simple turned out to be difficult in this case. Our group of three was to leave Antonito and drive to the Three Forks Trailhead in the South San Juan Wilderness at 10,200 foot elevation. From there we would depart on foot with our destination set for Blue Lake at 11,500 foot elevation. We would camp there for three nights, allowing us to day hike and really soak in the beauty of the area. I had planned climbs of Conejos Peak and also a climb up to the Continental Divide. This portion of our trip was to be slow and relaxing. After spending three nights in the South San Juan, we were going over to the Sangre De Christo Mountains to camp and climb Mount Lindsey. The Sangres are a much meaner mountain range with jagged peaks and steep slopes. The South San Juans are very gentle mountains that most people can climb and hike in.
The hike to Blue Lake is about 5 miles with a 1300 foot elevation gain. For anybody reasonably knowledgeable about hiking, that should be a cakewalk. I knew we had to cross the Conejos River at about the 2 mile mark and then we would have to cross the Rita Azul several times on our hike up hill. It is a beautiful hike through meadows and trees with glimpses of mountains in the distance. I had thought about this trail and these plans for months. I knew the map very well for having stared at it and daydreamed about what it would be like. I had every detail thought out and planned for. I thought it was all going smoothly. I didnít know that we would never make it to the Sangres. Hell, we didnít even make it to Blue Lake the first day.
We awoke in Antonito on Sunday morning. We leisurely checked out of the hotel and got some breakfast. I didnít think there was any need to hurry, due to the hike in being so short. I figured we could hike the 5 miles to Blue Lake in less than 3 hours. We got to the trailhead around 10:30 and hit the trail with all of our stuff. Except for some boot suckiní mud in the trail, we cruised the first two miles. Everything was going beautifully. It was quiet and the scenery was far above average compared to most of Texas. I was thoroughly enjoying myself to the point of feeling a little bit cocky. I felt like I had pulled it off. I tackled all the logistics of getting the three of us into the South San Juan Wilderness with all the equipment we needed. I was the bees knees, yeah, I was the crap. That feeling was short lived however.
At the 2 mile mark we came upon the Conejos River. The same river we followed nearly the whole way from Antonito in the truck and had hike along for 2 miles. It was significantly smaller at this elevation compared to lower down, but it was no slouch of a river. Well, I had read online that one should take off their boots and cross the river barefoot in order to keep their boots dry. This made sense to me, because I know that rule number one is to take care of your feet when you backpack. We all proceeded to de-boot ourselves. C steps into the river for a minute and tries to walk across and immediately comes back out claiming it is too hard to cross. He began to try finding a different way across. So I am next. I forget to grab my walking stick before stepping into the rushing river. I make my way out into the current. The water is moving fast and is up to my mid-thigh.
Why did I rush into the river? Well, it was probably due to the cockiness I was feeling moments before. It is also because I felt I had researched how to cross the river here. I read to go barefoot and so I did. If I had my walking stick I might have made it across without incident. The water is coldÖVery cold. The rocks are hard and sharp. The current is stronger than it looked. These three things along with the absence of my stick and wouldnít you know it, I fell down in the river. I just sort of sat down on my butt and the current pushed be about 40 to 50 foot downstream before I was able to catch the bottom with my feet and stand up. My body is immediately freaking out from the cold water. This is by far the coldest water I have ever immersed my body in and I know that nothing could have prepared me for it except experiencing it. Once I caught myself and was able to stand I figured there was no point in coming back so I pressed on across to the other side. I soon remembered that I had put my camera in my thigh pocket. It was dead. I also lost my sunglasses off my head. Later I will realize I hurt my pinky toe pretty badly and bruised up my feet. Other than that I was no worse for wear.
Meanwhile, K had plunged in right after me and proceeded to fall much like I had. He was able to catch himself a bit sooner, probably due to his height and weight difference over me. I know he was only following my lead and I hadnít told him any different. I should have given him explicit instructions to wait till I was across and safe. I told him that he should tie his boots together and put them around his neck or chunk them across the river. He didnít do this. He was holding his boots in his hand like he had picked them up off the floor at home. In his other hand was his walking stick. He had a two-way radio clipped to his belt. He lost all of that when he fell except for one boot. He made it across to where I was drying off and was realizing that he had lost his boot. Oh crap. I figured that was it. This trip is over. It probably should have been over.
K noticed that his boot washed up on an island a few hundred feet down. How lucky are we? So K and I are screaming across the river to C, who has yet to cross, that he needed to go down and get Kís boot that he had lost. Didnít think he was going to hear us, but he finally got the picture. It turns out that we should have crossed the river at the island anyway. It is much easier to cross a strong river if it is split in two. Duh?! C crosses the river using my walking stick that I had failed to use and got Kís boot joining us on the other side. After sitting a bit and making sure that we all were okay, we started off down the trail.
One thing I havenít mentioned yet is what C was wearing. K and I were wearing synthetic materials that dry quickly in the dry mountain air. Staying dry can be the difference between life and death in the chilly mountain air. C was wearing blue jeans, a t-shirt, cotton socks, and Sketcher boots that werenít really made for hiking. Lets just say that C didnít fully dry off till we left the wilderness two days later. He had a hard time staying warm enough the rest of the trip. He didnít have any rain gear. He had no gloves or hat either. He did have a change of clothesÖmore jeans and t-shirts. I didnít fully realize how ill equipped C was till this moment. I was concerned about him. However, he was in great physical shape and this probably helped him survive the ordeal. Did I mention he was wearing a Sketcher boot from two different pair? He had realized that the night before in Antonito. I just thought I was glad it was his feet not mine.
After the Conejos River the trail begins to climb up the Rita Azul trail. It had been level to this point and now we were going to find out who was in shape and who wasnít. Well C was in shape and tearing up the trial. I was doing fine as well. K began having a hard time shortly after we started up hill. 11,000 feet can be hell on the lung capacity if you havenít experienced it before and you arenít in great shape. I hung back with him and kept him company while we slogged up the hill. We came across several creek crossing that were hairy, but nothing like we had experienced at the Conejos. We took our time and made sure to keep our balance when crossing. It seemed like everything was looking up a bit and that this trip was going to be ok after all.
Then it began to rain. Not a hard rain, but just enough to be annoying. Then it began to get cold. When you lose the sunshine in the high mountains, it can get cold fast. Well, I knew that C was wearing cotton and he needed shelter before it rained hard. So, I sent him on ahead to find Blue Lake or find a good place to set up camp. It was going to take awhile for K to reach camp and I wanted C to get to a safer place where he could warm up. This is the point where that long range 2-way radio would have been most helpful. We had no contact with C for what seemed like a couple of hours. It was just K and I on the trail.
K began to struggle immensely from exhaustion. He said he was feeling light headed and began to hunch over with dry heaves. At this point I think I said, ďYouíve been drinking water, right?Ē To which he says, ďI donít have any.Ē I say, ďWhat do you mean you donít have any?Ē It turns out that he hit the trail that day with zero water in his bottle. I wanted to throw him down the Rita Azul. It had been 4 to 5 hours and he hadnít taken one sip of water. He was severely dehydrated and my frustration level was at its breaking point. I immediately pulled out the water filter and began filtering him some water. However, it was too late. Thereís no way to magically hydrate someone in minutes. We could not stand around for an hour here, because it was raining and cold. We would catch hypothermia if we werenít careful. I told him that we had to get up this trail one way or another. I became a drill sergeant of sorts, which is totally out of character for me. I know the stakes and we were not in a good place for camping. This is the point where I really wished I had not sent C up ahead. We had no communication with him. For all I knew he could be lost or kicking his feet up at the lake enjoying himself. With the way the day was going I was pretty sure the later was not true. K and I were just flat moving too slow. It finally got to the point that I told K to throw down his pack and carry his sleeping bag. I came back later and retrieved his backpack. We were finally moving.
We came to an area that was a large clearing. I saw someone crossing the meadow, which was more like a swamp. It was C. He never found Blue Lake, because it was further ahead than I had thought. I had goofed again. I was hoping he had a nice cozy camp all set up for us, but I was pretty sure that wasnít the case when I saw his backpack still on his back. K needed a camp badly. So we hiked a little ways further looking for a good place to set up camp immediately. We finally found a nice elevated spot in the trees that would not be inundated with water in a heavy rain. It was a bit close to the trail, but it would have to do and I could tell that some one had camped there before. I was just glad to find somewhere that would be safe and get us out of the rain.
Part II to follow below shortly....