Great Western Loop: Day 30-39: Grants to Chama
Day 30: Mt. Taylor (24miles)
Grants was one the place you'll soon forget. Nothing interesting to do or see and quite a run-down city. I left around 10:30am and started my hike towards Mt. Taylor.
Upon leaving the city I had a weird encounter with a homeless person.
As I was walking past a gas station, a homeless person called me and I immediately expected that person to ask for money. Quite the opposite happened. That guy started waving with a plastic bag and asked me "are you hungry?", I replied "no, thanks I'm good" and the homeless guy said "allright, just asking. I know how that feels". I hadn't stopped walking and suddenly felt quite bad and realised again how easily we judge a book by its cover...
The first few miles led through the city, passing several closed and boarded-up shops and the cities prison. This was followed by a gentle but rather long climb from 6,500ft all the way to the top of Mt. Taylor at 11,301ft.
(View on Grants)
(View of Mt. Taylor)
I made it to the summit at 6:45pm and decided to hike on for a few miles.
On the northern side of the mountain I encountered some moderate snow, which I had crossed some 15minutes later.
Day 31: Back to the desert floor (41miles)
I woke up to a beautiful morning and some nice views. Ahead of me was an rather easy day, going downhill again from 11,000ft to about 6500ft.
The day remained uneventful. I met two turkey hunters in their car several times, as they were looking for good hunting spots. We briefly talked to each other and they offered some water and snacks, which I thankfully denied.
At noon I stopped at a water pool and met MoneyMustache shortly after. He was going rather slow, so we just briefly exchanged some trail gossip and parted again.
Most of the day I had spent on a plateau, with a well maintained trail or dirt road. At 7pm I was about to leave that plateu with a decent of several hundred feet back to the desert floor. The views from the plateau were stunning and revealed yet again, a completely different scenery than I had experienced in the last 24hours.
Just before 8pm I made it down to the desert floor and a nearby spring and looked for a sheltered place to pitch my tent in pretty windy conditions.
Day 32: Desert race (35miles)
Day 32 started with a beautiful sunrise and a nice walk through the desert and some washes.
At about 9am I was running low on water and got close to a local well. Unfortunately, there was a dead cow right next to it. The stench was awful and I decided not to take any water from that source. Luckily, there was a small yellow bucket with some rather clear water nearby, which I used to get water.
The trail than got pretty rocky and presented beautiful rock formations and views.
Even though the terrain wasn't hard, I was going rather slow. Maybe because of the sand, or just exhaustion. Nevertheless I tried to get within less than 10miles of Cuba, NM for an early resupply on the next day.
Upon walking into the evening I experienced a beautiful sunset on the opposite side of the ridge. Unfortunately some trees obstructed my view, but it was still enjoyable.
Day 33: In and out of Cuba (28miles)
On day 33 I got up at 5am, had a short breakfast and headed towards Cuba. I completed those 9.5miles by 8:30am and went straight to the Cuban Cafe.
At the Cafe I was immediately greeted by some fellow hikers, of which one looked pretty familiar to me. Upon asking if we'd met before, it turned out that I had just run into Mantis, an retired police captain, that I had met on the PCT in 2018. We had shared a cabin with two other hikers in Kennedy Meadows North. Mantis left a few minutes later, while I stayed in town until noon, having breakfast and resupplying for the next 5 days into Chama.
All the food I ate in Cuba helped me to climb from 6,800ft to 10,300ft.
After a short roadwalk I followed a nice and gently climbing trail to the San Gregorio Reservoir.
Some miles later, at an elevation of maybe 9,500ft the snow began.
It was about 5pm and so the snow was soft and very difficult to cross. I postholed for quite some time and was happy for every small meadow, that was free of snow.
Just after one of these meadows, I caught up with and passed Mantis.
(Injuries like that are common, when postholing. You never know what's under the snow, when it gives in and you crash down)
The days postholing had really drained my batteries and so I decided to call it a day after some 28miles, just before entering another snowfield.
Day 34: Ghost Ranch Alternate (37miles)
The day started with several smaller snowfields, that were now easy to cross. The night had been freezing and so was the snow. Frozen and rock solid, strong enough to carry my weight and allow for a steady pace without postholing.
The trail quickly dropped to lower and snow free elevations, making the morning rather easy, except for a few blowdowns along the way.
The weather was cold and wet and it rained or hailed several times.
The bad weather led to my decision to follow the Ghost Ranch Alternate, which stayed at a lower elevation, instead of climbing back up into the mountains. That meant I had to follow a dirt road for 10miles, after crossing the Rio Chama on a bridge.
On that road towards Ghost Ranch and Highway 84 I stopped at a campground and spent half an hour in the warm and dry pit-toilet.
At 7:15pm I crossed Highway 84 and a small suspension bridge, filtered water for the night and hiked a little bit closer to Ghost Ranch. Knowing that Ghost Ranch was closed for CDT Hikers because of Covid, I camped outside of their property and decided to sneak around early in the morning.
Day 35: Rough times (32,5miles)
As planned the night before, I got up early and snuck around Ghost Ranch in the morning. I used a road that bypassed their property and only had to enter it, once I was past the main building complex. No one approached me on my way to Box Canyon.
From here, I once again had to climb up into the mountains.
At 9,500ft I encountered snow again. However this time it was fresh snow that had fallen not more than 3 days ago and it wasn't deeper than 2-3 inches. All in all, just barely enough to get my feet wet.
Over the course of the day, the weather improved and the snow got less, even though I was still going uphill. On my way to Canjilon Lakes I encountered only several smaller patches of snow, that were easy to cross. With such little snow on 10,500ft I got my hopes up, of making it through the rest of the day, without postholing...boy, was I wrong...
Half a mile after the campground the snow started to build up. The trail now followed the Canjilon Creek, which had massive snow on its western bank. I decided to cross the creek early and hike on the almost snow-free eastern side. While trying to get over there, I postholed through 1-1.5m of snow and even fell into a small tree-well (fluffy snow around trees, that easily gives in).
The eastern side of the creek made hiking easier, but with higher elevations the snow steadily increased and I found myself in a huge snowfield, with no chance to bypass it. Yet again, it was late afternoon and I started 2 hours of extremely strenuous postholing, fighting for every single yard on trail.
(I tried to use some other hikers footprint for orientation and to walk in those footprints, as they provided some more consolidates snow that prevented some postholing)
At the time I pitched my tent it was already getting dark and my feet were frozen. It had been a very cold and windy afternoon and I was happy to find a perfect campsite. Sheltered by large trees from three sides and some snow in between, there was no wind at this spot. The hardest day on trail so far ended at about 8pm.
(Picture taken on the next morning)
Day 36: Pole position (37miles)
With better progress than expected my hopes to get to Chama on day 5 after leaving Cuba rose. Day 36 increased these hopes with more sun, warmer temperatures and an easy trail to start the day.
Hiking downhill for a few miles, I left the snowfields behind and quickly found myself at Rio Vallecito. My trailapp told me to cross the river on a bridge. I didn't expect to find a huge bridge, but I also didn't expect to find, what I found...
(No...that is NOT a bridge...)
Crossing the raging river on that log was a bit sketchy and I was quite afraid of falling in. Luckily I made it across safely and stayed dry.
A few up's and down's followed. Some with more, some with less snow. Interestingly enough on this mountain most of the meadows were covered in snow, quite the opposite to the mountains I crossed days before.
In the afternoon the trail dropped below 10,000ft and was mostly free of snow. I almost believed to make it to camp with dry feet, but i than had to cross Rio San Antonio.
(View of Rio San Antonio, which I crossed half an hour earlier)
After the crossing I decided to push for another 4-5miles to a reliable water source and to get myself into a position, from where I could push into Chama on the next day. Knowing that the next day would get me to elevations of more than 11,000ft, I wanted to face any potential snowfields as early as possible. Half a mile before reaching my potential campsite I encountered yet another snowfield, which came out of nowhere and quite suprised me.
Day 37: Into Chama (28miles)
The night has been one of the coldest nights on trail. All my gear that was slightly wet the day before, was now frozen.
I quickly ate a 400 calorie blueberry muffin and packed my stuff, trying to make as much progress as possible before noon.
Most of the day was walking on snow. There was no sign of the trail and so I oftentimes just used my compass and went cross-country. The snow was rock solid in the morning and my pace was fast.
(Right behind that trail marker is a river, hard to see and hidden by the snow. Fortunately, the snow bridge was stable enough to carry my weight)
The last ~8 miles of the day were the hardest. With warm temperatures, the snow started to give in at 11am and I started to posthole. At that time I yet had to make it to the days high point at 11,040ft. Getting up there was a real struggle and cost a lot of energy.
Once over the high point it got easier again.
The trail followed a snow-covered road, which provided rather stable snow. Just for the last 2 miles I ended up postholing again. Going downhill to Cumbress Pass I mostly followed two pairs of footprints, and later realised that they were taking me a little bit of trail. All in all, not a problem as they quickly brought me to a snow-free meadow that allowed me to quickly reconnect with the actual trail.
At 2:15pm I had completed 28miles and decided not to wait for a hitch, but instead start walking towards Chama, 12miles away. Halfway into town, I got a ride from the Lady who runs the Cumbress Suites Motel. They had just picked up another hiker. That guy had arrived some 30minutes earlier at the pass and had also followed those footprints that I had followed.
At 4:45pm I was at the post office to pick up my new hiking shoes, ice-axe, micro-spikes and my snowshoes. It was another mile from here to the motel I wanted to stay and so I started walking again. While struggling with all my packages, a local family offered me a ride and dropped me off at the Chama Trails Inn, where I would stay the next 3 nights.
Day 38/39 Zero day with Golden
On day 38 I got up at 7am and went straight to Fina's Diner next door. Without knowing what to expect, I ordered the "special burrito", which was twice as expensive as all the other food. Well...it was also twice as big. I have never seen a burrito that big, guess it had some 2,000 calories.
In the early afternoon Golden, who is still roaming around with his Van in New Mexico, came to Chama and we spent the rest of the in several local eateries, while meeting some of the other hikers in town.
(All new winter gear)
Day 39 wasn't much different. I still have to make a decision how to proceed. Most hikers seem to take an alternate route to bypass the San Juan's and the heavy snow. My idea is to hike to Pagosa Springs to get a better idea of the current snow conditions.
I'm torn. I want to hike the San Juan's and I want the same kind of winter experience that I have had in California's High Sierra, but I would be quite alone out there and the consequences of underestimating these conditions could be fatal.
The last few days were just the beginning. For the next 4-6 weeks I'll rarely be at elevations lower than. 10,000ft. So I'll be constantly in the snow, crossing steep and sketchy traverses and facing extremely cold nights in their mid teens (15°F / -10°C)