The High Lonesome

Most people look at Colorado's Sangre De Cristo Mountains and see a line of peaks. Our scout saw an opportunity: pioneering the range's first end-to-end traverse.
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Most people look at Colorado's Sangre De Cristo Mountains and see a line of peaks. Our scout saw an opportunity: pioneering the range's first end-to-end traverse.

I've bought many maps, but only one ever triggered an obsession. National Geographic Trails Illustrated, Sangre De Cristo Mountains 1:75,000. I bought it for $9.95 in 2005 for a backcountry overnight in southern Colorado. The trip was great. It rained a little. I saw a porcupine. My whole route covered 3 inches on the poster-size map.

It wasn’t until later, back home in Denver with the plasticky paper spread on my kitchen table, that I fixated on the 100-mile ridge running the length of the range. It was a clean, straight line, the most text- book mountain spine I’ve ever seen. Then I noticed a road leading up to the north end of the ridge from the town of Salida, and a trail leading down off the south side into high desert near U.S. 160. In between lay a glorious span of trailless terrain studded with 13,000-foot peaks. I wondered if someone could walk that ridge. You know, the whole thing.

I had put in a few half-day peakbagging trips in my life, all talus and alpine tundra and scrambling. I had been on backpacking trips up to a week long. But trying a traverse of the Sangres would be an enormous step up. As far as I could tell, either nobody had done it before, or nobody had talked about it. I saw two tremendous unknowns: Was it actually possible? And, was it actually possible for me?

It took me eight years to find out.

On a blue-sky Tuesday in September, 2013, my friend Jim and I loaded our packs on a sidewalk in Salida. We’d decided to start in town to make shuttling easier. We walked south on Blake Street, elevation 7,080 feet, the tips of our poles clicking the asphalt on the way up Methodist Mountain.

According to my research, we were looking at 109 mostly trailless miles, 54,000 feet of elevation gain, and 83 mountains (mostly unnamed), all of them taller than 11,000 feet. I guessed it might take us 16 days to hike the whole thing.

Everything could go wrong: Bears, logistics, rockfall, thunderstorms, bush- whacking, navigation, running out of food, carrying too much weight, not being smart enough, not being tough enough. Alternately, nothing could go wrong, and it could be amazing. In a state where basically every peak has been climbed, some by hundreds of people a day, I’d be making a new route across an entire range.

Three hours after we started, misery was seeming more likely. The sky opened up, dumping rain as we walked up a dirt road. As soon as we hit the end of the road, the pine forest thickened, then transformed into a maze of deadfall. We navigated around stacks of downed logs, climbing with hands and feet over one and under the next. Sweat dripped off my nose. A hundred feet of progress took us five minutes. We were still half-mile below treeline, where—in my mind, at least—the journey would truly begin. At this pace, it would take two hours to get there. “Day one,” I said to myself. “I really thought this was going to take a lot longer to feel like a bad idea.”

We left the trees the next morning, starting our long dance with the top of the ridge: Every day, we woke up at 5 a.m., made breakfast in the dark, packed up, and charged back up to the spine of the Sangres. We stamped out about 10 miles a day before the afternoon storms hit, staying on the ridge and picking our own routes up tundra and talus, scrambling up boulderfields near the tops of the peaks. Every day, we topped out on a handful of summits, some named, mostly not, all high. We looked out over the San Luis and Arkansas River valleys, which seemed perfectly flat 5,000 feet beneath our shoes, dotted with green crop circles and veined with dirt roads.

The beauty of the traverse was that we could go anywhere we wanted, making up our route on the fly. But our freedom raised a question I hadn’t considered until we got on the ridge: Where should we go? Jim and I talked daily about what would count as success for us. Was the goal a pure ridge traverse, crossing every high point? Or was our trip more like the Haute Route in the Alps—point to point, without concern for summits? Should we try to tag all of the 80-some named and unnamed peaks on the entire ridge?

We decided on a modified Haute Route, tagging as many summits as we deemed feasible and taking the few marked trails when we could (a total of 7 or 8 miles). I wanted to put together a route that other people could safely backpack in the future, so we avoided anything harder than class 4.

The days and the miles slowly added up. We signed every summit register we found, and tried to take a selfie on every peak. A dozen bighorn sheep wandered into our camp at West Creek Lake, and an elk hunter let us throw our packs on top of his truck at Hermit Pass so marmots wouldn’t chew them while we hiked to the top of Rito Alto Peak. I wondered about what it was like at the gorgeous alpine lakes far below. Every afternoon, we dropped off the ridge when weather came in and set up our camp at one of them.

I started to feel calm when we regained the ridge each morning, where we could see the rest of the range ahead and look back to see where we’d come from. We never returned to a campsite; every day brought an unmarked and unknown route southward, so the ridge became a sort of home, the only familiar thing we had. My quads burned in protest and my body burned through every ounce of extra fat. But after a week, it started to feel like we might actually be able to pull it off.

Then the weather changed. Day 10: The summit of California Peak, about 3 miles and a couple of summits away from the range’s southern terminus, was one of the more miserable places I’ve been in my short mountaineering career. Water squished out of the mesh uppers of my trail runners. The icy wind blew a constant 15 mph from the east, chilling the side of my face and my hands inside my thin wool gloves.

It was our second straight day of 100- foot visibility, and everything that wasn’t soaked was clammy inside our packs. We’d stopped taking summit photos because they all looked the same. We’d get confused, then pull out the GPS to decide which direction to walk through a maze of fog-shrouded deadfall. It felt like winter, and the demoralizing rain kept falling. We stood looking into a cloud that obscured the rest of the ridge, not knowing if anything past California Peak was class 1 walking or class 5 death choss.

We had talked plenty about how we would finish the trip. The proper end of the Sangres is Little Bear Peak, one of the most difficult and dangerous Fourteeners in Colorado. I’d voted for ending with Blanca Peak instead, a mile farther north along the ridge and the high point of the range at 14,345 feet. But the neverending rain—incredibly unusual for Colorado— was undermining the idea of summiting either Fourteener. My only desire was to get the hell out of my wet gear and not risk an accident. Jim agreed. We camped in the trees above a trail junction, leaving our options open for the next morning. Maybe we’d wake up to blue skies and bag a couple Fourteeners.

All night, the rain hammered the tent. In the morning, I stepped outside and peeked through the dripping trees to see the peaks above buried in clouds. A slight breeze pushed wet branches around and loosened fat droplets to explode on my hood. Below, near the mouth of Zapata Creek, the water had swollen so much overnight we could hear boulders roll- ing under the rushing water. We later learned that 150 miles north, a 100-year flood was engulfing Boulder and Lyons.

I had the south end of the map memorized. We were one trailhead north of Lake Como, the Sangres’ southernmost access point, 3 miles and a high ridge away. The map geek who had traced his finger along the spine of these mountains for eight years wanted to end the hike there. But the guy who actually pulled it off, the guy who lost 15 pounds, who ground out almost 100,000 feet of verti- cal gain and loss and destroyed a brand- new pair of shoes, well, he figured it was time to ditch the map. We’d traversed the range, pushed our limits, accomplished something no one had done before, and had an adventure we’d remember forever. That felt pretty successful, whether we went out this trailhead or that. We packed up and started to walk down. ■

Brendan Leonard wrote about love on Italy’s Via Ferrata 2 in November 2014.