After my nighttime trek through the dunes, I awoke just as the sun was illuminating the plains below me. Having climbed several thousand feet on a windy, well maintained gravel road, I now slept in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristos where the temperature still hovered around 25°. Zapata Falls, Zapata Creek, and eventually South Zapata Lake were all on my itinerary for the day. The trailhead, not more than a hundred feet away, invited me to get going early.
The ranger at Great Sand Dunes had mentioned that there could be about 6” of snow up in the cirque, so I wore heavier boots, packed gaiters, and sported my softshell pants. Since I knew the temperature and my level of exertion would vary greatly over the course of the day, I also packed just about every conceivable layer from a t-shirt to a down jacket paired with a hardshell. With my trekking poles in hand and breakfast in my belly, I hit the trail with enthusiasm. With 8-miles and over 2,000 feet of elevation gain ahead of me, I knew I was in for an adventure.
About a quarter of a mile into the trail, I was already in 2-3” of snow. No one else had been on the trail since the snow had fallen so I was making fresh tracks and the heavy silence of fresh powder filled the forest. As the creek descended into a valley below me, my path continued to climb and traverse along a ridge. As I climbed higher, the snow got deeper. After two miles, I was slowly stomping through 6” of fresh and relatively heavy powder surrounded by a dense forest of aspen and pine. Despite the relatively short distances, the snow slowed my progress significantly. Coupled with slight dehydration from my time on the dunes and the increasing altitude, I was feeling a little sluggish.
As soon as I broke from the tree line and saw the beginnings of the cirque, the depth of the snow transitioned from inches to feet. After a few knee deep steps, I put on my gaiters and blundered forward through the fresh powder. I stumbled upon a few shallower patches, but the median depth continued to grow deeper and deeper over the next mile. As I stumbled further and further into the basin, I saw a bend in the rocks that would undoubtedly lead to the lake. I knew I was close and pushed forward valiantly. That bend, however, was probably still more than three quarters of a mile away. My enthusiasm died when three consecutive steps landed me up to my waist in powder. In preparation for the second section of my trip that would take me through North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington in January, I had left my snowshoes and snow baskets for my trekking holes behind. Definitely could’ve used those…
Postholing for the past two hours and taken a lot of out me and I wasn’t sure how safely I could continue if the snow continued to deepen. Weighing my options, I stepped gingerly up a pile of rocks and surveyed my progress. I had made progress, but there was still a long way to go. I had been hiking for the better part of four hours and had come less than four miles. If something happened to me, it would undoubtedly be hours, if not days, before anyone would make it up to the cirque. Somewhat dejected, I turned back, knowing I had made the right decision.
Following my own tracks out of the cirque, I moved much more quickly through the snowfield and effectively skated down the rest of the trail. I didn’t encounter another soul for another hour, reinforcing my decision. The way down, however, was stunningly beautiful and much warmer than the climb upwards had been. The cloudless sky had meant consistent sun throughout the hike, which had only been amplified by reflections off of the brilliant snowfield. On the hike down, I worried about my own exposure and bundled up, despite the warming temperatures. By 2:00 PM, I wandered back into the parking lot, totally spent. A hike that normally should have taken 4-5 hours had lasted almost 7… and I hadn’t even finished it!
As I changed clothes and snacked at the car, I felt my muscles tightening and a general soreness swept over my body. It was a relatively rude awakening that my time on the road had so significantly diminished my athletic capacity. It simultaneously encouraged me to take advantage of the challenges that lay ahead of me as I headed north into the deeper and deeper snows of northern Colorado. Bring. It. On.
In an effort to replenish some salts and combat my persistent dehydration, I bought a big bag of Fritos and set my sights on Durango, one the gateways to Mesa Verde National Park.