“Jenn, are we stupid for doing this?”
I looked down at where my feet used to be, seeing only hard-packed snow instead. Somewhere below, my left calf throbbed where it skinned past a thick layer of ice for the third time. I was pretty certain my right ankle was bleeding, and I couldn’t tell if my toes were still attached.
I looked back at Beth, who was sunk in the snow up to her mid-thigh. “Uh….no,” I pondered. “Not stupid; definitely just awesome.”
Right. Well, it was definitely an adventure, just not the one we thought it would be.
Beth and I had woken up early that morning to hike to Blue Lakes in the San Juan Mountains between Ridgway and Telluride, Colorado. Rated to be one of the best hikes in Colorado by several websites, we decided it would be a great hike, an amazing photo opp. and a cool camping spot. I hadn’t seen Beth since we stopped working the ski season at Snowmass together, and I definitely hadn’t been on a decent hike in awhile. It was going to be a great day, and I couldn’t wait to go camping!
The car ride was a blast—the scenery driving there was beautiful:
We stopped in Black Canyon of the Gunnison spur of the moment to check it out—also beautiful:
And then we Jeeped 3-4 miles over rocky terrain to the Blue Lakes Trail’s parking, eager to begin the hike. On the way, we passed two young dudes, each also with packs on their backs, but also carrying skis and ski poles. They walked awkwardly in ski boots over the gravel. Beth and I shared a wary glance.
“Hey guys,” I said, slowing and rolling down the window. “How much farther to the trailhead?”
They stopped and looked at us, and for a moment seemed perplexed. “It’s just up here,” one said, “but you’ll have to park back behind you. Are you girls planning on hiking?”
I was suddenly keenly aware of the tank top and capris I was wearing as I stared at their snow attire. “Um, we were gonna try. We want to get to the Blue Lakes. Is there….snow up there?”
The one who spoke laughed, but the other kept his composure long enough to say, “Well, we sure hope so. You have snowshoes at least?”
“Uh, we’ll be fine without them.” I said it more as a question.
This time they both stifled a laugh. “Ok. Well, good luck.”
“Thanks….” I rolled up the window and backed away, Beth practically hiding behind the dash from embarrassment. “They’re totally judging,” she said. “We came all the way out here and didn’t even think about the possibility of snow.”
It was easy not to think of it, though, because back at home in Carbondale it was pretty much full-blown summer. Guess we forgot to take into account the 3,179-foot altitude change from there to here, and the fact that the whole trail was in heavy shade. We saw Mount Sneffels looming in the near distance, completely covered in white, but it didn’t occur to us that winter was still lingering here.
We parked and stared in the direction the trailhead supposedly was. There was no snow in sight yet, but after seeing those guys, we weren’t really reassured.
“What do you wanna do?” Beth asked.
I thought about it for a moment, but have never been one to easily pass up an adventurous challenge. Also, I really did love camping, and I didn’t drive nearly three hours to give up before we started. So we strapped on our backpacks with sleeping bags, a tent, food, etc. (weighing ~30 lbs each), tightened the laces on our hiking boots (Beth) and trail-running sneakers (me) and set off for the trailhead.
After rounding the first corner and seeing compacted snow blanketing the first 100 feet of the trailhead, we knew we were about to get into some doo doo. But for every 100 feet of snow we saw, there was always 50-100 feet of brown, dry land just beyond it, beckoning us forward. At first it seemed feasible when our shoes dug only about two inches into the snow. But then, about every sixth step, those two inches turned into two feet. We’d step on the soft spots and crash through the icy top layers to the ground below, grating our legs on the way down.
Partway through I changed into longer pants just to lessen the pain of the ice scraping against my flesh. Add in the ~30 pound packs and a 2,370-foot elevation gain and we were walking a speedy one-mile-an-hour. The hike was a little over four miles just to get to the lakes.
That’s when Beth asked me for the third time if we were stupid.
Two girls completely alone, seemingly in the middle of nowhere in the woods with bears, mountain lions and other predators and no real sense of direction of where this trail actually was (the snow made it incredibly difficult to follow).
“Are you thinking we should go back?” I said, knowing she was as quick to accept a challenge like this as I was. Beth looked ahead and shook her head.
She wasn’t going to give up, and neither was I.
Besides, when we stopped and stood with skin burning in the middle of a snow pile for the 1,000th time, there was always that patch of dry land, alleviating our discouragement. “Just a little farther,” we kept saying. “We must’ve walked over half of it already. Why turn back now?”
We sang songs, we played word games, we caught up on life—anything to keep our minds off the actual trek. Little by little, we began to move faster because we no longer cared about getting wet or cold or scratched up. The damage had already been done.
Once in awhile, a view of Mt. Sneffels would break through the trees.
And we would hear the faint sound of water, rejuvenating our energy. We’re almost there!
Bend after turn after corner we rounded, banks and hills we climbed and frozen creeks we crossed. But the trees never broke and the sight of bright blue water never emerged. We had been hiking for nearly three hours.
“Jenn, I’m not even sure this is the right way.”
I stopped mid-calf in the snow. “Yeah…” But, what if it is? What if it’s just up ahead…. At this point I knew my enthusiasm had turned into desperation, and that this really was becoming stupid. And yet my stubborn nature did not want to turn around and have all this be for nothing. I knew Beth was thinking the same thing, so we neither moved forward or backward. We literally stood for five minutes, legs numbs, considering the options.
Finally, I spoke up. “Let’s just go for ten more minutes, and if we don’t see anything new, we’ll go back.”
We drudged on until, eight minutes later, the trail disappeared. I mean it just straight vanished. No matter how much snow we had encountered, there always seemed to be just enough of an opening in a general direction that we called it a trail. Now, on top of some mountain with nothing but trees and trees and trees, there was no opening. No trail. No where to go.
“Ugh!!” I groaned in defeat. So this was it, now there were no more options.
“Hey,” Beth said, “I still had fun. This was still worth it, I think.”
I breathed a sigh of relief and agreed. Yes, and truthfully, we had already changed into the warmest clothes we had and they were now soaked. It was probably a sign to finally give up.
It was a bittersweet hike because we never did find the lakes that we spent nearly all day searching for. But Beth was right, we did have a ton of fun nonetheless. As we practically ran back down through our footprints, laughing and plowing through the ice to add to our wounds, we cut nearly two hours off from our hike up.
We found out later that we had hiked over three miles (over six roundtrip), but in the wrong direction. Apparently, there was a turnoff within the first mile that was drowned in snow and completely invisible. Not even on our way down did we see any other way to go. In short, the hike was a success since we’d gone as far as we possibly could. I thought about the quote: “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey”—cheesy, but very accurate.
It’s been over two weeks since that hike, and I still have a foot-long bruise snaking up the outside of my left calf. Luckily the skin on my right ankle is almost completely healed, though I know it will leave a scar. I’m ok with that, though, because it’ll be an amusing conversation-starter. Another story to tell about that time a friend and I did something
stupid stupidly fun.
And I can’t wait to do it again.
Thanks for reading, check back next week to find out about my exciting new job!
Venture on 🙂