San Juan National Forest

My first real backpacking trip was to the southwest of Colorado in the San Juan National Forest just east of Durango. This was also probably the shortest backpacking trip since we were extremely unprepared for alpine camping, as well as making a few practical mistakes along the trail.

Another photographer friend and I drove his Jeep cherokee through the night to arrive and get a hotel in durango, and then begin hiking from the trailhead the next morning. Our first oversight was that the trailhead began at about 10,500 feet which meant 2 hours driving up switchbacks on a bumpy forest service road. We were glad to be out of KC for a weekend so the excitement of actually backpacking into the “wild” was still going through our minds and we didn’t mind the drive. We arrive at the trailhead and begin hiking, again still full of the excitement of the wilderness and before long, we’re hiking the ridge line on the Endlich Mesa trail and loving the incredible 360 degree views of snow capped mountains in late June. We stop for lunch at a meadow near the ridge, just off the trail and we then continue on the trail, all the while not realizing the combined effect of the sun, lack of water and the altitude affecting our bodies. About four miles on the trail and we begin to get headaches and dizziness and fatigue. We decide to find an good location well off the trail to set up camp. We barely setup camp with about three hours of daylight left and immediately fall asleep, heads throbbing in pain and extreme physical weakness. A few hours later I wake up and realize that something has gone wrong. In my mind I know that we need to eat and drink a lot, so I begin to try and make food with the little energy I have left, however, I feel better than when I had fallen asleep. My friend then wakes up and is not feeling any better so I assume that our situation is critical. I give him whatever I can to eat and drink, realizing that he’s in worse shape than I am and we soon both fall back asleep. As the sun goes down above 11,000 feet, so does the temperature and our 40 degree bags are not even close to warm enough as the temperature was probably around 30 degrees that night. We both sleep about an hour total through the night and realize that it’s hopeless to try and get warm so at about 3am I give Adam my sleeping bag to double up and I go out and make a fire on the edge of the hill to stay warm. He is finally able to sleep and I decide I’ll sleep when he awakes.

A few hours later when we’re both awake and completely exhausted physically, we decide that we shouldn’t go any further on the trail since we’re only a few miles from the truck. We ended our backpacking trip around noon that day and explored durango after a feast in town.

Not necessarily the ideal backpacking trip, but a valuable lesson to have learned, and looking back at it, we still had fun and it’s a great story to tell how we could have possibly died in a slightly worse scenario. Here are some shots from the short trip.

lemonreservoirpan DSC_0886 20110620-_DSC0071 DSC_0860 20110620-_DSC0080 DSC_0910

One response to “San Juan National Forest

  1. Your photos are gorgeous, and make me miss Colorado in an intense way. Our mountains are also quite beautiful, but different somehow. Colorado has lots of trees, but more meadows, wider, open, alpine country with views of the spectacular peaks. And the sky is unbelievable.

    dsc_0860.jpg is my favorite.

    Drinking hot water or tea at night is a good way to warm yourself up when the temps drop more than you expect. And while they aren’t cheap, you can get silk sleeping bag liners that weigh almost nothing and add almost 10 degrees. Or go to the thrift store and search for cashmere sweaters, they’re very warm, luxuriously soft, and since they should cost $5 to $10, you won’t mind getting them dirty in camp.

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