Month 1: Flagstaff Through the San Juan Mountains
Mikhaila and I bathing in a tub of irrigation water after a day working on our friends' farm outside of Flagstaff, AZ. There were only a few dead moths floating in the water.
On June 30th our lease expired at 12:00 noon. Months of work and planning had finally culminated to this point in time, and we were on the road before 10:00. As novice van dwellers, we had decided to spend the first week or so of our new life somewhere close to our base, just in case. We drove two hours north out of Phoenix to Flagstaff, a town with a special place in our hearts that we were familiar with, where we had a network of friends, and where the temperature wasn't in the triple digits.
We spent two days helping out on our friends Tyler and Patty's farm outside of town. Together they run a small farm that they started around two years ago and have been growing pretty rapidly. They have chickens, ducks, goats, pigs, and a dog named Greta. They grow every type of crop imaginable, and we were mostly helping out by watering and planting seeds by hand. Their farm is still being developed, so it has no running water yet and electricity was connected to the site for the first time on our second day there. Without running water, we bathed in one of the big tubs where they store water that is hauled in from offsite and used to irrigate the crops. Our time in Flagstaff served as a nice farewell to our home state, as we spent the week camping, hiking, and climbing in all of our favorite spots one last time. On our last night before heading to Colorado, we got a nice send-off watching Tyler play in his band at a local coffee shop/bar.
A new day over the Animas Valley near Durango
Our next stop was Durango, our gateway into the San Juan Mountains. From here we set off for weeks of backcountry cragging, daily hail storms, and kitschy mountain towns. Highway 550 is a white-knuckle mountain pass that connects all of these small towns, from Durango in the south up to Ridgway on the northern slope. We spent two weeks driving this road, first staying at a small crag about halfway between Durango and Silverton. It was here that we met our first new roadtrip friends, a couple of guys living out their lives on forest land. One was 19 and from Texas, the other was a retiree from Phoenix. They shared their campfire with us, along with some sausages and Nyquil. Coming from the dry heat in the lowlands up to the cool, wet climate up at higher elevations had given us both head colds. After a few nights there, we coaxed the jalopy another 20 miles up the steep road to Silverton. This leg of the trip was full of steep hikes and sapphire lakes. Each day we hiked to a different alpine lake, which very quickly acclimated us to the altitude.
Ice lake sits at 11,500 ft. The trail is the most popular in the Silverton area, but if you brave the afternoon rain/hail storm, the basin will be clear of other hikers when you get there. In case you were wondering, the water is not warm.
The next town along the 550 is Ouray, which Mikhaila and I had visited a few winters prior on an ice climbing trip. For those of you who aren't ice climbers, Ouray is famous for its Ice Festival every January. There is a steep canyon walking distance from town where, in the winter, they pump water into the canyon from the top of the walls, spilling over the sides and freezing solid, creating a massive playground for climbers to sink their crampons and ice tools into. People flock there during this time of year, but I was surprised to see how busy the town was even in summer. It was very interesting to see the dichotomy between the two seasons. When the temperature gets below freezing, climbers flock there. The crowd is full of scraggly looking people from different mountain towns all over the west, clad in a rainbow of down coats and Gore-Tex. The streets are lined with eclectic-looking vans and Volkswagen buses. The brewery and gear shop are packed and most of the souvenir shops are closed. People walk through the center of town wearing huge, vicious looking crampons on their brightly colored boots. In the summertime, the town is full of families with kids from the Midwest who would likely shake their heads in confused disapproval at the sight of someone climbing a frozen waterfall. Every parking space is occupied by a shiny minivan or SUV. Dozens of gift shops have their doors wide open, displaying collections of tacky t-shirts, "hand made" walking sticks, and fudge. I'm sure each town in the San Juans experiences this phenomenon, but it just goes to show how these mountains have something to offer for everyone, and any time of year.
Our view of Mt. Sneffels driving up to the trail head the day before we attempted the summit. Our route goes up the back (south) side
The crowning achievement of our fist month on the road (even though we didn't actually "achieve" it) was our attempt on the summit of Mt. Sneffels. The peak is 14,150 ft above sea level, and requires a lot of very steep scrambling and some steep snow climbing in the last 1,000 feet below the summit. The most popular route begins from Yankee Boy Basin to the southeast of the mountain and can be done in one day. We decided to make it a bit more of an adventure by hiking up to Blue Lakes Basin which lies to the southwest of the peak at 11,700', making a base camp, and then summitting the following day. This route requires a bit more tricky route finding than the classic route.
The hike to Blue Lakes Basin would make a wonderful trip on its own. There are actually three lakes, each a bit higher than the last, and many people make the moderate 3.5-mile hike to the lowest lake with tents and fishing poles to spend the weekend relaxing in an alpine paradise. We continued on to the upper lake, where we set up camp with a million-dollar view of the lower lake and spent the rest of the day taking pictures and watching storms clouds gather and then disperse across the towering mountainsides.
At 4:00 am our alarm awoke us. Less excited than I, Mikhaila needed some extra convincing to get out of her sleeping bag. Even at such an early hour I knew we had already begun the race to beat the daily afternoon thunderstorms to the peak of Sneffels. Being back below treeline before noon was absolutely critical. Soon we were on the approach trail up to a 13,000' saddle where the ascent would begin. The sun rose on our backs as we toiled our way up endless switchbacks to gain around 1,000 feet in under a mile. We both stopped to catch our breath and watch the cloud cover gradually light up.
One of the most spectacular sunrises I have ever seen, on the approach to Mt. Sneffels. The peak in the distance is an unnamed 13-er, at the base of which sits lower Blue Lake. The two lakes in this photo are the upper and middle lakes.
We reached the saddle at a little before 7:00. The trail goes up and over this saddle down to another trail head. To reach the summit, you head north off trail into a field of steep talus and sort of make your own way through a labyrinth of towers and gullies to climb the last 1,000+ feet. From the moment we stepped off the trail to begin the ascent, the fog began to roll in around us. Finding our way up proved not to be too difficult, as there seemed to be only one way up that was non-technical. We made our way eventually to the base of a very steep couloir filled with snow. At this point our visibility was down to less than 50 feet. Unable to see how high up the couloir went, I knew from my GPS that we were still about 600 vertical feet from the summit. Finding our way this far in the fog had already cost us more time than we had to spare, and not willing to travel on 4th-class snow without crampons, we opted to turn back.
This is where things got interesting. All the horrible scenarios in the mountains you read about usually involve some technical failure or oversight, or an injury, or severe weather. But something as simple as a disagreement can also lead to disaster. What is the proper procedure when you are in a party of two, and both members are 100% positive they know the correct route, but they can't agree? Accusing each other of being disoriented by the fog is what we chose to do apparently. To me it began to feel like the beginning plot of one of those wilderness survival tv shows. Even though I knew exactly which way we had come from, Mikhaila's persistence began to make me question myself. In her frustration, she started walking away down the opposite gully from where we had come. Had she continued this way, she would have ended up on the north side of the mountain, cut off from our approach trail by the ridge line that formed the northern wall of Blue Lakes Basin. Finally, the fog cleared just enough that I could see the saddle where we had began our ascent far below us. Ecstatic, I called her over to show her, just as the brief window in the fog closed again.
This was our view as the fog began to clear for a brief moment, allowing us to see the saddle below us where we had come from.
We made it out of this experience alive, with an awesome story and some great photographs. Though we didn't make the summit, we learned a valuable lesson in preparedness. We hiked back to our van the same day, and spent the afternoon rainstorm in the back of the van parked in a meadow far below the peak. As if the mountain was giving us the middle finger one last time, the next day we awoke in that meadow to crystal clear skies and a pristine view of the summit that got the best of us.