A few months back we decided that we needed to plan a big trip. We were looking for somewhere new and exciting; some place with huge landscapes; some where like Colorado. After doing some research we put together a 50 mile loop through the San Juan Wilderness. Starting outside Silverton at the Molas Trailhead we would hit a series of trails, forming a loop and ending up just outside of Durango at the Purgatory Trailhead. The loop included bits of the Colorado Trail, The Contintital Divide Trail, and few high passes. The trip was organized to include a small, fast group.
After leaving Phoenix Thursday morning we made it to Silverton in the late afternoon. There are a few free scattered campgrounds just out of town, and we set up camp at the closest one. That evening we headed into Silverton to enjoy a normal meal before living off dehydrated meals and energy bars for four days. Silverton was exactly how I pictured it. Only main street was paved, shops closed early and locals gossiped on the porch of the establishment. Somehow the town has managed to maintain a frontier town feel. Finishing up our dinner we made it back to camp and straight to the sack. We knew we had some solid days ahead.
Early in the morning a rainstorm pushed in and dropped low clouds all around us. Arriving at the Molas Trailhead the rain continued to come and go. Spirits were high, as we expected the rain to pass. A few minutes in the trip we came across another hiker. She was eager to reach the end and seemed to be in a low place. We quickly asked where she was headed; finding out she had started in Denver and was nearing the end. The gal stated that she was almost certain that everyday she had been out it had rained. Considering that the trail is 486 miles, we understood her misery.
The hike immediately begins descending towards the Animas River crossing. After a few miles we found ourselves along the banks of the now infamous Animas. Lucky for us there was a bridge, so no wadding was necessary. Directly across from the crossing lies the railroad tracks that take tourist (and some backpackers) from Durrango to Silverton. The train is an expensive option if you are looking to cut down the mileage (and don't have dogs). After crossing the tracks the hike begins climbing. We continued up at a steady pace even thought the rain was attempting to discourage us. Along the way we came across moose that were enjoying some local flora. After a quick 9 miles we stumbled upon a campsite along a creek and near a waterfall. Even though the rain had continued the beauty we had hiked through was inspiring.
In the early evening we were rushed to bed by the rain. Although it was early we had no qualms with getting to bed. The following day we had to cover 16.7 miles and two 12,600ft passes, so sleep was key. In the early hours of the following morning we heard some of our party trying to resolve some issue. Unable to hear them over the rain we fell back asleep, waiting for the rain to subside.
Rising in the morning we found ourselves evaluating the rain damage from the day/night before. Two in our party managed to have a catastrophic tent failure in the middle of night, leaving the interior flooded. Down sleeping bags and a flooded tent do not mix. The San Juan portion of their trip came to an abrupt end, when they were forced to hike out. The remaining three in the party packed up, said goodbye and carried on. The trail miles started early with two 12,600ft passes and 16.7 miles to cover.
The trail immediately began the steep ascent to the first pass. Starting from 10,300ft we climbed 2.5 miles to the 12,600ft pass. Along the way we were graced with wide open views of meadows, waterfalls, and peaks. Although the clouds remained the weather was tolerable, till we neared the top. Near 12,000ft we ran into a family of marmots. First spotting the babies fumbling around on the rock, we then noticed the mother (presumably) calling out. The babies began scurrying towards her in a frenzy that only led us to believe she was warning them of potential predators (us). After leaving the family, the final 600ft dragged by. By this point the sky had began to rain and the clouds were so low that we were unable to see each other along the trail. Sections of the switchback were covered, hiding the top of the pass. Once reaching the point we wasted no time in beginning our descent. By this point the rain was blowing sideways as we trenched through the small creeks (also known as the trail). Once over the pass the weather backed off slightly and exposed a brief section of sunlight. We took full advantage of this and bathed in the sunlight before it disappeared again.
Since we had only dropped 1000ft since the last pass the second came easier. Before we new it we were cresting the top and beginning the long descent to camp. Ten miles of descending lay between us and camp, and we felt every last foot of it. Along the path we encountered brush that was wet from all the rain. Initially this was of little concern, but as the miles racked up the amount of water our clothes absorbed had increased. Some where near 11,000ft we found ourselves soaking wet, descending a slippery trail, in the rain. Less then ideal, ever. The mood quickly changed as we lost feeling in our hands and feet. Pushing on we made it through the type 3 fun and had lunch. This broke up the mood and allowed us to warm up slightly before pushing on.
The rest of the miles for the day dragged on. Multiple creek crossing were encountered which did nothing to help us dry out. After a long effort we arrived in camp and began tending to our gear. In a stroke of luck the sun popped out as we scrambled to lay our gear out in an attempt to dry it. Rocco was exhausted and sore from the day's travels, and took up residence on a sleeping pad. Because of his pathetic appearance (and uncontrollable shivering) we covered him up with a dry sleeping bag and put him in the tent. After sitting down to eat dinner, a large crack disturbed the conversation. It was clearly thunder rolling in, and doing it fast. We frantically cooked our meals as the thunder neared, hoping to be able to eat before getting rained on. Unfortunately the mountains had a different plan for us. We scarfed down our food while hiding under a tree to avoid most the rain. When the thunder drew near we decided to call it a night and head to bed. We were just in time as the sky began flashing with lightning directly above our tents. As we lay in our bags we pondered our odds of being struck and were relieved when the lightning subsided. The first two days were interesting and we were unsure of what to expect the for the remaining days, only hoping that the rain would pass.