CDT 2021: Day 41, Lagunitas Creek Canyon to Forest Road 686

You've got stuck in a moment and now you can't get out of it

No Keys, OldTimer, and Top O' climb a ridge

Becoming stuck or trapped, even for just a few moments, can immediately make you feel uneasy or helpless. Depending on the circumstances, that feeling can quickly escalate into panic. It's difficult to remain cool-headed when you're stuck.

I was thinking about those emotions as I began to write about today on the trail. Two people got stuck in snow on this section.

DateFriday, May 21, 2021
WeatherThunderstorm with sleet, then mostly sunny and windy; temperatures from the low-30s to low-60s
Trail ConditionsSometimes muddy; long sections of snow with post-holing; long climbs and descents
Today's Miles18.9
Trip Miles624.6

To be clear, I don't equate the two occurrences. They're not related in any way except they happened within a few miles of each other and in snow.

One of the people who became stuck was me. I was only stuck for a couple of minutes and soon continued with my hike. The other person got stuck five years ago. He was an experienced, Triple Crown hiker, and the conditions he faced were much different than mine. Sadly, he died.

A campsite covered in snow

After lightning stopped flashing in the distance, I thought we had seen the last of the storms. That was wrong because another storm popped up much later. Thunder began to rumble early in the morning and about a quarter-inch of sleet followed.

When I crawled out of my tent, the ground was lightly coated in a white crust.

Everyone packed their gear quickly, and I tried to do the same but also wanted to walk around to enjoy the cold, crispness of the morning. I was the last to leave but didn't lag too far behind. I was on the trail by 6:55 a.m.

A pond near Lagunitas Campground

The first 1.5 miles of the day were easy. The trail led down to Lagunitas Campground, the place I thought yesterday was where we would be camping. There were really two campgrounds located there. The trail went between two ponds before reaching the upper campground.

A privy at Lagunitas Campground

The campgrounds' privy was locked. When we arrived there, someone mentioned this was where Otter died.

Until then, I was unfamiliar with Otter or what happened to him. I learned he had been section hiking on the CDT in early December 2015 when he disappeared. Attempts were made to find him, but conditions made that nearly impossible.

One of the first thru-hikers to come through here in May 2016 found a note scratched on the privy's door, which had been left by Otter. It said, “DEAD CDT HIKER INSIDE - CALL COPS - OTTER.”

The thru-hiker knew authorities had been searching for Otter, so he quickly made the difficult journey to Chama to report what he had found.

Otter hadn't walked far when he left Cumbres Pass. He intended to go to Ghost Ranch but heavy snow made the trail impassable. He had to hunker down while being hit by more snowstorms and plummeting temperatures.

A friend told police Otter refused to take a map when it was offered to him. Otter had already thru-hiked the CDT, as well as the AT and PCT multiple times. He thought he was prepared and could take care of himself. It wasn't long before he realized his mistake.

"I really rolled the dice and I lost," he said in a video he recorded on his phone. "I need a miracle right now."

The miracle he desperately needed never came.

I won't attempt to tell all of Otter's fateful story. You can find well-written accounts of it here and here.

The trail goes across a ridge

When we left the campground, the trail was easy at first. Top O', No Keys, OldTimer, and I walked together. The trail curved around an exposed ridge before climbing to follow Brazos Ridge.

Snow on the trail

The trail left the exposure and re-entered the forest of fir and aspen trees. Much more snow covered it here, though it wasn't difficult to walk on at first. That soon changed.

blowdowns across the trail

Several blowdowns became the first problem thrown at us. Finding the trail when everything is covered in snow is difficult enough, but the downed trees often made that impossible. When we couldn't climb over a downed tree and had to walk around it, we had trouble finding our way back. We never knew for sure where the trail went unless we stopped to check our Guthook app.

OldTimer, Top O', No Keys, and I tried to communicate and help each other to stay on track. Eventually, though, the group splintered as we picked our way around and across the mess of downed trees.

Beanie Weenie passed me during this first stretch of bad trail. We agreed it was hell to walk through here, though he seemed to be managing better than I was.

A flooded Forest Service road

The trail later picked up the route of a forest road. That was only sometimes better to walk on. A lot of the time it was muddy and slippery. One long section was flooded.

Brazos Ridge

The footpath improved significantly by 10:30 a.m., but this resulted in another difficult condition. We followed Brazos Ridge to a higher elevation where fewer trees made it more exposed. There wasn't a lot of snow, but there was also nothing to stop the wind. It blew with gusts up to 20 mph.

I had walked more than eight miles by now and had made good time considering how difficult some of the trail had been.

A view from New Mexico of snow-covered peaks in Colorado

Brazos Ridge gave my first view of snow-capped mountains in Colorado. I could see Chama Peak (11,985 feet high and 17 miles away), Chalk Mountain (11,988 feet high and 26.5 miles away), and Banded Peak (12,782 high and 19.5 miles away).

Though the snow on those mountains looked beautiful, I knew the trail conditions ahead would be worse than what I was walking on today.

Rocks on the trail

The trail continued across the open ridgeline for nearly five miles. Part of the way was extremely rocky, and I had to stay focused more on where I was placing my feet than on the Colorado mountains.

Top O', No Keys, and OldTimer stop for lunch

Near the end of the ridge section before the trail descended from it, I almost failed to see where Top O', No Keys, and OldTimer had stopped for lunch. They were tucked into some trees to get out of the wind, and I nearly walked past them.

Snowmelt flows through a basin

After lunch, I continued walking with the guys for the next hour. The trail dropped from the ridge into a basin. Several streams ran through this wide-open space. The water came from melting snow and seemed to flow in every direction.

Getting across the streams required careful navigation. We had to hunt for narrow spots in the streams where we could hop across.

When we stopped to filter some water at one of the streams, I decided against collecting any. I had enough for now and didn't want to take time to filter more when my filter was performing so poorly.

The trail then climbed out of the basin. I missed where it made a poorly-marked turn, but No Keys noticed I was going in the wrong direction. He hollered back to let me know before I got too far off-trail.

Deep snow

We followed the trail across more open terrain to where it climbed to another tree-covered ridge. As before, there was deep snow, and I fell behind again.

More blowdowns slowed me. These were more frustrating than before because I wasn't hiking with anyone this time. We couldn't help each other navigate and stay on the trail.

Beanie Weenie caught up to me again but soon passed me. I'm not sure how I got ahead of him. Considering how easy it was to stray from the trail, it shouldn't have been surprising.

He was wearing microspikes now and had pulled out his ice ax. They weren't much help in this kind of snow, though. Beanie Weenie mostly used his ice ax to knock snow from his feet where it balled up in the cleats.

There was a little break in the snow when I reached a Forest Service road. I met some southbound section hikers there. They were hiking with a dog. I didn't comment about the dog but thought they were nuts to bring it in these conditions. The dog's body language told me it was thinking the same thing.

The section hikers said they started from Cumbres Pass at 7:30 this morning. That was a speed of barely more than a mile an hour. That was alarming news about the trail conditions ahead until they explained why it took them so long. They followed some footsteps in the snow for a long distance before discovering they were being led the wrong way.

Gravity's foot is stuck in snow

Another long section of snow came next. By this late in the day, the snow was much softer and wetter than before. It was also deeper. Each step I took sank farther into the snow. I usually sunk to my knees.

This was only frustrating until it became a little worrisome. In one step my foot slid awkwardly and deeper than before. It became so wedged I couldn't pull it out. I tried to wiggle my foot free. I tried to wedge it out while flopping over on my back. It tried to simply brute force it out. Nothing worked.

I could see this was not a good situation, but I wasn't ready to panic yet. For one thing, I remembered Baguette telling me in a text message recently that this happened to her.

After several failed attempts to pull out my foot, I began to chip away at the snow with my trekking pole. I had been stuck by now for about two minutes. Eventually, the snow around my foot became loose enough for me to free it from its locked position.

Post holes in the snow

A little worn out by this ordeal, I continued down the trail. The time was past 3:30 p.m., and by now, the snow was the softest it would be all day. The post-holing didn't stop. I didn't have any more trouble getting stuck, just more frustration.

The problem with walking on snow such as this is you can't tell when your foot will sink and when it will stay on top of firm snow. There were several footprints of other hikers, so I tried to step where theirs didn't sink. That wasn't always successful.

Tracks in snow across a meadow

The wooded section of trail opened to a flat meadow at 4 p.m. The snow was only three or four inches deep here. I saw some footprints cross the meadow and wondered if this was a route to avoid deeper snow.

It was tempting to go that way, but then I remembered the experience the section hikers told me about. I decided to not risk going any farther off the trail than necessary.

A surprisingly snow-free section of trail

A little more than a mile past the meadow, the trail entered a section of woods surprisingly free of snow. I couldn't believe my luck. Was I home free?

A Forest Service road covered in snow

Nope. My luck ended as soon as the trail joined a forest road that was covered in snow. Though there were a few short, nearly-clear sections, most of the way was covered in deep and mushy snow.

Forest Road 686

I was on this road for about two miles, post-holing most of the way. This happened so frequently, I began to assume I would sink to my knees with every step despite my attempts to stay on top of the snow.

By now, the time was past 6 p.m., and I began to wonder where everyone was camped. I thought No Keys said he would stop at mile 771-something (using Guthook's mileage). Maybe it was mile 774-something? I couldn't remember for sure and hoped I hadn't walked past them already.

Hikers trying to get warm by a smokey fire

I found everyone at mile 774.6 where there was a wide, snowless field. OldTimer, No Keys, and Top O' were here, as were a couple of hikers I hadn't seen on the trail today. Some were already in their tents for the night.

Nono and Top O' had started a fire, which they used in an attempt to dry out shoes and socks. I'm not sure how successful they were because finding dry wood was an impossible task. Still, it was an admirable effort.

Our campsite was at 10,770 feet. It was just 2.5 miles from the Colorado state line and 5.3 from Cumbres Pass. We'll be in Chama tomorrow morning.

Now that I've had a chance to learn about Otter's tragic story, I have a little understanding of what happened to him. I think I know what led him to become stuck where he couldn't get out. Bono says in his lyrics, "I'm just trying to find a decent melody; a song that I can sing in my own company." Maybe there is a connection here with us.

Otter and I came here because we wanted to be happy. Unfortunately, seeking happiness in the wilderness doesn't always turn out well, even for the most experienced of us.

While learning about Otter, I discovered another thing that made me feel connected to him. We were the same age, having been born just three days apart. I never met him, but I grieve for him.

I'm not afraid of anything in this world
There's nothing you can throw at me that I haven't already heard
I'm just trying to find a decent melody
A song that I can sing in my own company

And you are such a fool
To worry like you do
You gotta stand up straight, carry your own weight
These tears are going nowhere, baby

You've got to get yourself together
You've got stuck in a moment and now you can't get out of it
Don't say that later will be better, now you're stuck in a moment
And you can't get out of it


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.