Sean Kamp, Friend of AppGear
2019 was one of the highest snow years on record in the western United States. It was also the year I decided to thru hike the roughly 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada along the continental divide. Sitting in my hotel room in Lordsburg, New Mexico the day before starting my grand adventure, I checked the snow reports for Colorado. 197% above average. “That’s ok,” I thought. “I have roughly a month and 700 miles before I get into the big mountains; things will be melting and calm down a bit before I get there.” It was late April, after all. Snow would be melting soon. Famous last words.
As I meandered north through the New Mexico desert, I continued to check the snow reports. The storms kept coming and the snow kept falling. Skiers rejoiced! Hikers felt their chests tighten. The percentage above average kept climbing, at one point nearing 500%. “This isn’t good.” Nobody spoke this aloud, but we all thought it. Soon my hiking partner Salty and I were getting above 10,000 ft. and encountering deep snow in New Mexico. We weren’t even in Colorado yet. Just north of Cuba, postholing and slogging our way through feet-deep drifts became the norm. We began to feel less optimistic. As we neared the Colorado border, we got hit hard. It was late May and we had moved too fast, while Mother Nature had moved too slow. We were quickly approaching the beautiful but unforgiving San Juan Mountains, and it was still snowing.
Three days before the border, we were in heavy snow. Not only was the ground completely covered but the sky was turning gray quick. With no trail in sight, we had to rely on GPS to stay the course. Good campsites were few and far between, and anywhere we could get cover, we took it. We stumbled upon a three-sided picnic shelter and decided to stop early for the night. We couldn’t pass up a protected night’s sleep, and the fire pit sealed the deal. We needed to warm up. After a fire to warm our bones and dry our socks, we bundled up and rested our eyes.
In the morning we continued onward, zigzagging through the snowy forest, hoping for a glimpse of footprints to build our confidence that we were heading the right direction, or at the very least following someone else. But we were on our own and we were slowly but methodically staying the course. Late in the day, we began looking for a suitable spot to stop. We were wet and cold, and the snow was beginning to fall again. Starting as beautiful, slow, fat snowflakes, the snow soon engulfed us in a white haze. We came upon a Forest Service campground. We saw a privy. Yay! But our brief sense of safety and relief quickly morphed into dread, as we couldn’t get the door open. It was locked shut. I dropped my pack and stumbled around the campground, exhausted and pessimistic, but hoping for a miracle. To my surprise, there was another privy close by, and this one was open. I called Salty over and we climbed in.
It was my first time sleeping in a privy, seemingly a right of passage of all thru hikers who find themselves in dangerous weather conditions. Though protected from the wind and snow, we still had a rough night. Nighttime temperatures were dipping well below the comfort ratings of our quilts. I had already treasured my alpaca hoodie and beanie for their comfort over the previous few weeks, but this night would make me a true believer in their worth. Wearing all my clothing, and with my quilt cinched down tight, I was able to stay warm and get some much needed sleep.
Waking up around 5 o’clock, we knew we had to make miles. We were only 23 miles from the Colorado border and the highway to hitch into Chama. Chama was our next resupply and where we knew a warm hotel room lay awaiting. But while 23 mile days were easy in the desert, they were a struggle in the heavy snow with no sign of the trail. We took turns using GPS to stay on track and slowly made our way along the CDT. Throughout the day, we got blasted with strong winds and heavy snow. Our fingers and toes numb, we pressed on. All of our water sources were frozen solid and our food was low. Fatigued, hungry, thirsty, and beaten down, we somehow kept our composure and with very little left in our gas tanks, we made it to the border. Ice clung to my Appalachian Gear hoodie and hat, but I was still warm. Overwhelmed with joy, I collapsed next to the border signs. Salty snapped one quick photo and we were on our way to town.That was our last day as north-bounders. Like many CDT thru hikers this year, Salty and I decided to flip north to Glacier National Park and finish the trail southbound. Four months later, I would stand at that same highway to Chama and reminisce about those last few days northbound.