We began our walk through town and away from our wonderfully cozy room at the Chama Trails Inn. We could feel the new heaviness of our packs with the added snow gear and the weight of the section before us. We met up with Ralph and Ted at the Fudge Shop, grabbed a cup of coffee, and loaded up in Ralph's truck. During our drive to the trailhead, we passed back through the beautiful Chama River Valley, and we talked about everything from previous hikers, the importance of responsible plastics, to the Cumbres Choo Choo. We arrived where the trail crossed over the road. A notable landmark for us but insufficient, invisible even, to the normal passerby. We said our good-byes, and left the road to join the trail. Thank you so much Ralph for the ride!!
Back on trail and back in Colorado, we were headed up, a couple thousand feet to be exact. We followed the trail through tunnels of trees and over snow bridges as bubbling water flowed underneath. Gradually, we climbed, and the valley below came into view. The South San Juans that had decorated our horizon for the past hundred miles growing closer each day were now in front of us and beneath us. Sometimes the trail would hug the side of a peak and other times the trail took us right up the side of it. Each mile we climbed higher, and the sun ducked in and out of fluffy, white clouds.
Our lunch came with a view of Chama nestled into the valley and the snowless mountains of New Mexico. We could also see the large snow capped peaks of the San Juans, their sharp edges and rough ridges made the slopes in between appear smooth like marble. Each mountain that we climbed was sculpted to be completely different than the next.
With our micro-spikes on, we slowly traversed snow packed angles of thirty degrees or more. One foot at a time we carefully kicked out our steps. The snow was softening under the climbing sun. We crossed heavily angled snow patches and fields of scree. We put on our micro-spikes then took them off. Sometimes we were on the trail other times we had wandered off.
We arrived at 10,500 then 11,800 then 12,300 feet. Critter had developed a cough after lunch. She kept feeling like she had to clear her throat then the cough migrated deeper into her lungs. Her cough became more frequent, more painful, and she started to wheeze. Sometime the cough would be so powerful, she would cough herself into a gag. The cough became so often that each attempt at a deep breath would begin an involuntary wave of coughing. During this wave of coughing, something different happened. On an inhale, no air rushed into her lungs. She tried again, nothing. With no history of asthma, this was alarming. Garbelly raced over unbuckling her pack and threw it to the ground as she gasped for air. Sitting down with her head back, she was finally able to get air into her lungs. Inhale. Exhale. We sat there for several minutes in shock. We were at 12,300 feet with six miles to get under 11,000. We needed to get lower and fast.
The two and a half miles an hour that we were averaging reduced to less than a half of a mile an hour. To be this uncomfortable while surrounded by so much beauty brought another wave, a wave of heartbreak. Her mind wanted to keep going but her body had other plans. We walked a couple more miles but the coughing persisted, and then another attack began. Like before, Garbelly detected a change in a cough and just in time raced back down trail to throw her pack to the ground as she struggled for air. It was emotional, scary. The sun was beginning to disappear begin peaks even higher than our own. The air was getting colder, and we were still miles away from camp. Garbelly tried to find a way down closer to us, but with no luck we set camp up at 11,800 feet. We made the decision that night to go into town the following day. It was tough, being only one day out, but you cannot ignore your body when in the mountains. The mountains will always be there. Regardless of health or instance, altitude can affect anyone at anytime. Even if you have been in the mountains before. You have to be able to recognize the signs of altitude sickness, but more importantly you have to be able to make the decision to bail. It is not an easy decision to make, but it could save your life.
Critter was able to sleep even though we were still at altitude. Having worn herself out, she fell asleep easy but just in time to hear the songs of coyotes nearby and the silence that follows. Garbelly stayed up late formulating a plan to get down to the highway. It would require at least ten miles or so, but it was our only choice.
Be safe out there. Listen to your body. There is always tomorrow.
Cheers to the hard decisions. They can only make you stronger.
Garbelly & Critter