Slow going on the Knife Edge

Day 49: 11,600 foot saddle along the Divide to Squaw Pass, ~13 miles, ~769 miles total

Some trail days the “miles made” are not an accurate reflection of the effort it took to earn said miles. We are reminded today of the equivalencies of terrain and travel and their conversion rates. We are reminded that sometime we should discard the measurement of miles and instead appreciate other units to calibrate a day.

Back home, 10-12 miles can be a lot of ground to cover when climbing a peak in winter or spring conditions. Heck, it can take all day (or all the day light hours) to go 7 miles! So traveling 13 miles that included some exposed third class scrambling, traversing steep variable snow condition slopes, kicking steps up steep wind slabs, slogging through mud, meadows and occasionally trail should be seen as an accomplishment. Logically, using our non-hiker brains, we know we did a lot today.

But when thru-hiking, the hiker mind with few exceptions, has the expectation that all days should be 20+ mile days (unless they are neros or zeros). With 25 or 30 mile days preferred. So despite our being close to our planned average travel for this leg (~15 miles/day) we were both tired and annoyed when we added up the mileage at day’s end and came up with 13 miles. Fortunately, we had other ways to appreciate the day.

The morning started out with us running the Divide as it winds westerly toward the Knife Edge. A high dry ridge with spruce forest covering it below treeline and snow and talus above. We rolled up and down with views all around. Serious craggy mountains further to the west, gave us pause. Is the trail taking us there? The basins of Trout Creek, full of charred spruce forest below, had us wondering about the successional pathways that the land will take post the 2013 fires. And far out to the east we could see the lush green and gentle valleys that head toward Creede; where it was already summer.

We hiked on and made descent time to the southern base of the ridge that comprises the Knife Edge. Instead of traversing the snowy slopes and rounding the ridge on its eastern side, we’d planned to scramble the Divide itself. The notes on our map said, “You might try walking the divide here…” Being scramblers, we wrongly presumed that a note made on a map for general hikers would mean that this traverse was hands in our pockets easy. But after gaining a subpeak and traversing the ridge, we soon came to the map’s noted “difficult notch”. It was exposed third and fourth class loose rock with awful runout (hundreds of feet down). And it looked like it went on for a while.


Not what we want to deal with on a HIKE. We looked around for some other route options, but eventually descended back down to the whereabouts of the mostly snow covered trail. Sigh. It had been lovely to traverse rock and admire lichen, buckwheats and early pentstemon. But on this day, this trip really, neither one of us wanted the stress or risks of a climb, we just wanted to hike. The trade off of no stress on the rock was adding several hours of snow slogging, postholing and traversing around the Knife Edge. It had some lovely views of lakes and charming marmot tracks. But the exploration, backing down, and taking the other route took a long time.

Finally wrapped around the Knife Edge and sitting above Trout Lake we were surprised at how much of the day had gone into less than 10 miles. Wind swept ridges, ptarmigans, bunch grasses amid rock gardens had us enjoying the views. Climbing up windslab walls of snow, 40-feet high with poor runout to gain the trail had us focused on one ice ax planting at a time. And wondering what we were doing. Hiking this was not. Mountaineering this was not. We were scrambling to gain trail, not summits.

With daylight turning golden as we gained the shoulder of Chief Mountain, it was time to look ahead for a camp. Unless we are in a national park, with designated campsites, we almost never know where we’ll sleep on the trail. The aim of each day is to get hike as far as possible. After two nights of less than ideal camping (snow or meadow shoulders) tonight we were well timed to get down to Squaw Pass (~11,200 feet). Three hundred feet lower than the last night. In the trees, albeit dead spruce. And surrounded by glacier lilies. Good, dry, level ground. With duff. It was the best night of sleep in many days.

From our dinner spot, we could see the slopes and peaks to start our day ahead. From here, the San Juans were going to get much better.

(Pictures to come!)