Hiking the Continental Divide – Entering Colorado

The first thing you do at the Colorado border is lookup. Colorado doesn’t waste any time revealing itself; its mountains have all the subtlety of a mile-high wall. They loom in front of you, above you towering, monolithic. The only way to go forward is to go up.

We had walked 750 miles to get here. We were strong, broken into the trail, at ease with the packs and the miles and the rhythms of a life spent entirely outdoors. We owned the trail now. We impressed ranchers, shopkeepers . and rangers with our tales. And we impressed ourselves.

The San Juan Mountains were not impressed with us.

At Cumbres Pass, Bob joined us again, and the four of us headed north, into the mountains. A sign directed us: Continental Divide Trail; Blue Lake 22 miles. We started up, lulled into complacency by the promise of the marked trail. Hiking would be more comfortable in this backpacker’s paradise.

Two miles later we were hopelessly lost in a maze of dirt roads, all of which went the wrong way. The choice – to continue on the roads or to head cross-country – was an easy one. No matter how fine the road, it doesn’t help much if it goes to the wrong place, so – reluctantly – we turned into the woods. Scrambling along a creekbed, doing battle with branches and brush; then climbing, up, out of the timber to the open high country of snow and scree, we became acquainted with Colorado’s idea of a late-spring hike: one step up, one slide down, compasses out, maps flapping in the breeze, and no trail in sight.

When, sometime later, we found it again, the trail was still pointing uphill, to the 12,187-foot summit of Flattop Mountain. It’s one of those names that you run across frequently throughout the West; there are many Flattop Mountains, just as there are countless Spring Creeks and Gunsight Passes and Apache Canyons and Elk Parks. Usually, the names say something about the terrain, and, indeed, the top of this particular peak was flat. But getting there was another story: The ascent was unforgivingly straight-up steep, and it catapulted us into a new world of rock and ice and thin, thin air. To find similar conditions at sea level, we would have had to travel to the Arctic Circle.

In just a few miles, the rules had changed completely. Weather, water, elevation, temperature, footway; here in the alpine tundra nothing was the same. In New Mexico, our general route of travel had taken us through desert and semi-desert; to see trees, we had had to climb. We wouldn’t spend much time walking among the trees in the South San Juans, either, but for a different reason: They were far below us, and from here on we would travel mainly above the tree line.

The trees that did manage to cling to their tenuous hold on life were hardy fellows, the marathon runners of their species. Their feats test the outer limits of endurance as they eke out a fragile existence in cold, rocky soil, hurricane-strength winds, and months of frigid blizzarding winter. And, like marathon runners, they are far too preoccupied with their struggle to worry about what they look like Krummholz, they are called, a name as awkward and graceless as their appearance. It means”crooked trees” in German, and crooked shapes, they are: Contorted by the wind into grotesque, deformed these stunted spruce hug the ground or crouch against the lee side of boulders. Somehow, they hang on. Trees, as we would see, again and again, have an immense will to live.

From the summit, we could look back into New Mexico – mere foothills from this lofty vantage. We were standing at the gateway to Colorado’s high country. In front of us, the view extended over valleys, down glacial cirques, across to more mountains, and then, again, to even higher, snow-tipped peaks. There were no towns, no power lines, no highways, no lights  only the endless mountains over which we proposed to walk. It sounded preposterous.

We had no way of knowing yet whether it was even possible. Still south of the highest ridges, we had so far only seen the warmer, south-facing slopes. The north slopes remained hidden from our view; we had no idea how much snow would be lying on the cold, shaded sides of the mountains. Enough to stop us? We knew that we’d have the answer only when we reached the first ice slopes, the first cornices.

There were other differences, too; the abundance of water stood out the most. Water was everywhere. It rushed down from the peaks, gurgled in streams, trickled out of ice fields, and seeped into meadows.

No more planning our days by windmills and containment dams; no more thirsty climbs on rationed water. All we had to do was reach down and dip our canteens into the clear running streams. There was snow, too: huge, icy patches that melted every afternoon and froze again every night. The walking took on new, uneven rhythms: slow and cautious in the morning as we made our careful way across the hard, icy slopes; awkward and ungainly in the afternoon, when we broke through the sun-softened crust and sank, thigh-deep, into stinging, wet slush.

And the climbs! This was a completely different kind of walking. This was weight lifting, this hauling of bodies and backpacks up 1,000 feet, then down again, then up once more. Some deep recess of memory provided the tidbit that the Empire State Building is 1,000 feet tall, give or take the radio tower. Following Colorado’s Continental Divide, we would climb anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 feet in a day, rarely less. As we struggled uphill  and it seemed that we were always walking uphill  our bodies clamored for attention, demanding that we notice the thinner air, the strain on our muscles, the mechanics of motion.

We had walked into a new weather pattern, too. As if to punish us for the audacity of being so close to the sky, the clouds pelted us with rain, hailstones, and lightning. Walking astride the backbone of the continent, we were far higher than any trees, completely exposed. Above us, the mountain gods told us, with booming pyrotechnics that brooked no argument, precisely what they thought of our trespass into their high abode.

Lightning. When it strikes close – say, right next to you – you smell it, feel it, hear it, all at the same time. Just accurately as it rends the air, an instinct older and more profound than conscious thought throws you to the ground; the earsplitting crack echoes off the mountains reverberates in your brain.

To the Maoris of New Zealand, he is Iko; to the Pygmies of tropical Africa, he is Kvum; the Dakota Indians of North America call him Wakan. He is the God who controls lightning, and he is to be feared.

Like any other god, this one has his preferences, at least according to folklore and myth. He is attracted to cats and dogs and repelled by pregnant women and infants. He likes oak and ash but avoids aspen and elder. Bibles, candles, bells, and salt are said to afford protection, and the safest place of all is on a feather bed.

We carried a little bit of salt, but no candles, Bibles, or bells. And alas there are no feather beds on the Continental Divide.

Lightning seeks the earth, yearns for it. It sends out forks of electricity  branches that search for the air current offering the quickest route to the ground. When it strikes, the temperature can be as high as 30,000 degrees Kelvin  hot enough to separate air molecules into their component atoms (and thus transform the usual form of oxygen, 02, into ozone, 03, which is the oddly acrid”burned” odor one smells after a strike). And it is hot enough to kill, it strikes the first thing available, often the highest point. Too often, the highest point was us.

And then, there is the thunder, not a boom or a rumble, but a resounding in the sky that sounds like an announcement of the end of time. Engulfed in the noise and power of the storm, entirely at the mercy of a random bolt of electricity, you don’t think of the statistics  that to be struck by lightning is, in fact, very rare. On the contrary, you think of metal ice axes and metal backpack parts, and it seems that your escape has been nothing short of a miracle. You are somewhat surprised to find yourself all in one piece.

The Sherpas of Nepal believe that to climb a mountain brings bad luck; it makes the mountain gods angry. Avalanches fall, storms gather, young men may die. It may be that Colorado contains some misplaced Himalayan peaks. Take Montezuma, for instance: At 13,150 feet, it’s a modest mountain, by Colorado  let alone Himalayan  standards. The state has some two hundred summits that rise above it. We aimed only for its shoulder; our trail contoured around, and 500 feet below, the summit. But even that modest goal angered the gods.

Scientists, of course, have a different explanation for Montezuma’s behavior: orographic effects, they call it, when mountains create their weather. Either Montezuma Peak engaged in orographic legerdemain, or, godlike, it conspired with the skies. Whether you believe the ancient myths of modern science, the effect, for us, was the same.

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