Monday, September 23, 2013

Day 99 - Fear

We almost died last night. I am not exaggerating. In all of my time outdoors--2.5 thruhikes, mountaineering in Ecuador, climbing Kilimanjaro, etc.--this was the most frightened I've ever been outdoors.

Short version: Thunder, lightning, rain, snow and gusting winds. Huge crashing noises near our tent. We were nearly crushed by the full-grown trees falling around our tent. (Mom, Dad, Mary, Todd--don't worry, we are ok. Unsmushed, and in a hotel room tonight)

Long version: After we camped early, the thunderstorm blew in quickly--rain and lightning too close, just 1-3mi away (as estimated based on the highly scientific Mississippi counting method). I wasn't too worried, since we were in a saddle below treeline.

I dozed off, and when I woke up, the lightning and thunder had stopped. It was eerily quiet. No wind, just the tent sagging under 2-3" of snow. Since the rain and wind had stopped, I ventured out. I could see stars. All quiet on the Western front.

A few hours later, I woke to the sound of an enormous crash near the tent. The wind was howling all around us. I really thought something would tear through the tent, and then it would all be over. I started to think seriously about my living will.

Since it was raining and thundering, we were pinned. Our options were to 1) pack and start walking, or 2) stay in the tent and hope for the best. If we left, we would be stumbling down the snowy trail in the dark, and whatever was falling would still be crashing around us. We didn't really have a choice except to stay in the tent and wait for the storm to blow over. At least we were warm, and mostly dry.

By morning, the snow was piled against the tent, covering our shoes and pressing against the doors. No sign of blue sky, just bright white, which meant more rain or snow.

And those terrifying crashing sounds: within 20' of our tent, four fallen trees. The trees were all full-grown, and previously healthy. They had been torn out of the ground, roots upended. Or snapped in two, thick trunks broken off at the base.

The air was still cold and wet. My socks froze overnight, and were sitting upright in a sad little pantomime of real feet. Everything was soaked. I was shivering uncontrollably, and my hands were numb. We opened a few packages of hand warmers. I put on almost all of my clothing.

Within the first mile, we saw ~100 downed trees. The going was slow, difficult to clamber over blowdowns with numb hands and feet. My left hand was the worst. I actually couldn't feel my left thumb for the first hour. I was a little worried I would smash it without realizing it.

Funny enough, when we had descended to 10,000', the air was warm and dry. The hiking was sunny and pleasant, almost beautiful. Alders were snow free, pines were frosted, and the landscape was dappled, green, yellow and white. So different from where we had camped, just 1,000' higher. The snow, lightning and fallen trees were almost unfathomable in bright, dry valley.

We got down to the road, and were debating if we should press on, or regroup in town. There wasn't much traffic. As we discussed, a van was approaching, and we quickly stuck out a thumb. The van pulled right over, which we decided was a sign. We took a ride with four Belgian tourists into Gunnison for the night.

Grateful to be in one piece, drying out our gear. Going to check the weather and plot our next steps. Hope everyone is well.

Mileage: 6mi from just past Lujan Pass to Hwy 114


  1. (I'm a friend of Shian) It sounds like you all are enduring some extremely tough environments out there. When Shian said this would be the most difficult of the 3 major hikes, it sounds like he wasn't kidding. Here's wishing you safety and warmth.

  2. Thanks, Aaron. I agree with Shian, this is the toughest one. Embrace the brutality indeed. Hope you're doing well

  3. Thanks, Aaron. I agree with Shian, this is the toughest one. Embrace the brutality indeed. Hope you're doing well