Whiteout: A Cautionary Tale
A series of unfortunate decisions, including a passion to be first, led to Chris Carter having something of a standoff with Mother Nature, and she was in no mood for games. A hasty - and possibly ill advised - retreat from a snowstorm was the start of what would thankfully only end up being a cautionary tale.
No shit, there I was …
Hip-deep in fresh powder, staring into an endless, angry white tunnel along one of the most technical and gnarly sections of the Weminuche Wilderness, and my companion and I had three snowshoes between us - one less than is ideal. We needed to get out of the mountains, and fast.
This past year I set out on an eight-month, 5,200-mile, journey to complete thru-hikes of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) and the Appalachian Trail (with the Pacific Crest Trail, they are collectively known as the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking). Since I was pushing big miles to knock out both trails in one season, I was the first thru-hiker of the 2021 hiking season to enter the snow-laden San Juan Mountains along the CDT, hitting the first peaks in early May.
After a couple of days of preparation in Pagosa Springs, I set out from Wolf Creek Pass with another thru-hiker and mountaineer named Sky, armed with a passion to be the first hikers to make it through the San Juans. After four days of battling through chest-deep snow, navigating wind-swept knife-edges, and trying to conserve precious calories, we were hit with a full-on blizzard which trapped us where we had set up camp on the fifth day.
“Where did this come from!?” Sky bellowed over the wind, his headlamp beam dancing blindly in the frantic flurries. “We were supposed to be done with stormy weather three days ago!”
“Couldn’t tell ya.” I shot back groggily, as I knocked back a snowdrift that threatened to cave through my open mesh door. “But we’re gonna be buried soon if we don’t make some decisions.”
We agreed that we would wait out the storm where we were unless it reached a certain level on our tents, scared we would be permanently trapped in the ever-deepening pale blanket amassing around us. The snow eventually and perhaps inevitably reached our agreed-upon point, and so we hastily broke camp and prepared to push forward. Sky had used one of his snowshoes to pin down a guyline for his tent, but the snow had piled so high, he was having trouble digging deep enough to retrieve it. We excavated the entire area around his tent as best we could, but after nearly an hour of wasting precious calories, realized we had to move on without it.
After a day of wading through the storm, Sky trudging slowly behind the track I beat in the snow, we decided it was time to bail. There was no way we were going to make it to Silverton before collapsing from cold and exhaustion. After some deliberation, we made the decision to deviate from our GPS track of the CDT, and navigate down a treacherous gorge to get below the snow line and out of the mountains.
Our excursion down the gorge quickly turned into one of the most desperate, hail mary attempts to get below the snow line and back to safety that I have ever experienced. We spent two days making our way down the increasingly dangerous canyon. We soon realized we weren’t moving fast enough through the towering drifts of snow lining the raging river below. By this time our clothes were soaked, and our food supplies were shrinking. Hypothermia and fear began to set in. Shivering uncontrollably, we taped hothands to our extremities, and jumped in the river, realizing that wading and swimming our way down the gorge may be the only way we could drop elevation fast enough.
Though we were moving at twice the speed through the river, we were barely holding on to our energy, and frequently found ourselves cliffed out or trapped above soaring waterfalls. To add insult to injury, I began to develop flaring shin splints from the breakneck pace we were hitting, and Sky had to help me hobble through the labyrinth of whitewater and jagged cliffs we found ourselves in.
It had been a while since I had felt so close to death.
We hit the snow line at the end of the second day. To say it was a relief would be something of an understatement. Footsore and weary, we trudged the remaining miles to an old jeep road, and eventually hitched a ride back to Pagosa Springs to recover. The relief was palpable, and in retrospect, allowing our fear of getting trapped to push us out into that storm could have very seriously led to our deaths.
Fear led to panic which led to a series of bad decisions. These decisions almost cost us our lives, and ultimately we were lucky to escape in the shape we did.