Snowbound on the CDT

When Dad arrived at Elwood Pass for our 28th meetup, I quipped that his CDT hike was at risk of being overshadowed by my four-wheelin’ adventure. I’d arrived not 10 minutes before he appeared, having spent a good 2 hours “crawling” up to the pass, the whole time in low range, four-wheel drive. Two times on the way I had to pull over, park, and walk the “road” ahead to figure out how to negotiate the steep and rocky obstacles, one of which I couldn’t surmount until my 3rd attempt. Given what I’ve driven through, it’s astounding that I had yet to puncture or otherwise destroy a tire on this journey. We planned to camp there, but it was only 2pm—Dad had slackpacked 17.3 miles from Wolf Creek Pass—and he wanted to keep going. His next segment was a long 50.4 miles, and if he could chip away at it, the following 3 days would be that much easier. So he resupplied in a flash, switched to backpacking mode, and I got back in the Jeep, winding my way on dirt roads to our last meetup in Colorado.

La Jeep on the road to Elwood Pass
The road to Elwood Pass

Dad’s inReach location came in pretty late that night, well after I had relocated to Cumbres Pass for our 29th meetup. Turns out he hadn’t just chipped away at the next segment, he’d smashed it, hiking another 9.3 miles that afternoon! That’s the power of a zero day (and a hot shower). I assumed that the remaining miles would still take him 3 days to complete, but he blew through them in only 2—motivated by the weather we were expecting on the 3rd day. The forecast had called for rain starting around noon (so there was really no reason to rush), but the temperature was expected to drop so dramatically at night that snow, possibly as much as 3–5 inches, was forecast in nearby Chama, NM. Then the temperature would rise above freezing over the next 2 days, as the probability of rain dropped to zero. I think my attitude was mostly one of “things could get muddy”, but erring on the side of caution, I made an adjustment. Our plan had Dad heading out again for 2 days, but I found a Forest Service road where I could meet him halfway, so at least we’d be together when the storm hit.

Cumbres Pass campsite
Cumbres Pass campsite (hazy from the fires out west)

En route to the spot I’d picked out, I came upon a locked gate blocking the road. I got out and fiddled with the padlock, but it was secure. I had followed Google Maps to this point, and it offered no alternate routes. So I turned around, hoping to catch the man I’d passed earlier on horseback—maybe he knew something about the gate—but I spotted him in the distance, now far off the road. I pulled over and began to compose an inReach message to Dad that went “PROBLEM: ran into a locked gate on the way to our meetup…”, and then I opened Guthook to get a sense of where I was in relation to the trail and discovered I was parked right on top of it—an earlier location where the trail crossed a road. It was 8am and he wouldn’t reach this spot until 10 or 11am. So I deleted my unsent message and started looking more closely at the USGS maps in Guthook. There was what looked like an alternate route to our meetup spot. I decided I had time to check it out, even though I assumed I’d end up at another fence or locked gate. But no. Though the road I’d found was a more technical 4×4 route, there were no barriers, and I reached our meetup spot, wondering whether Dad or the weather would arrive first.

La Jeep's muddy front bumper, plus an old rusty horseshoe
La Jeep is getting quite the “paint job” on this adventure

Dad arrived first, a little after 11am, to our 30th meetup, 10 miles into New Mexico. It had been very windy all morning, and continued to be hazy from the fires out west, but that was all. Dad pitched his tent behind some tall pines that acted as a windbreak. The constant wind made it annoying to be outside, so I sat in the Jeep, listening to an audiobook while Dad napped in his tent. There were a few spurts around 2pm, but it didn’t start raining continuously, albeit lightly, until about 3:30pm. Dad emerged from his tent around 5pm and got into the Jeep, which I turned on so we could have a little heat. I warmed up some canned chili for dinner, which we ate sitting in the Jeep, watching the rain through the windshield. Occasionally it came down frozen, not quite hail, but also not quite snow. By 6pm it was definitely snowing. We were both in our respective tents by 7pm, and the snow was collecting on the walls of Dad’s Zpacks Duplex so rapidly that he had to knock it off every 5 to 10 minutes. (An experience he had early on the PCT in the San Jacinto Mountains still haunted him. The snow collecting on his tent that night caused it to tear open, and when he woke up, it was snowing inside.) I had a sense that neither of us would sleep well. At some point in the middle of the night, I became aware that the roof of my rooftop tent was only inches from my face. I had tightened the “locks” on the shocks that keep it propped open, but somehow it had collapsed. Could it really have been the weight of the snow? I rolled over onto my back and attempted to do an inverted squat to raise the roof. It was heavy, and twice it sank back down, but eventually I got it just past the equilibrium point, and I was able to get back to sleep.

Snow beginning to fall on La Jeep and Dad's tent
The world as it was when we went to bed

If you grew up in a place where it snows, then you probably remember that feeling of anticipation, waking up on the morning after a big storm, one that would almost certainly ensure a “snow day” and transform the landscape into something magical. Even all grown-up, I love that feeling (perhaps because I’ve spent most of my adult life in the Bay Area, where it never snows), but the next morning, with all the doors closed on my tent, I felt the polar opposite. I was awake, but I dreaded unzipping the doors to glance at what nature had bestowed. Eventually I looked, and it was a winter fucking wonderland. Everything was enrobed with an obscenely thick layer of snow. Somehow Dad was still alive, and still in his tent, though there was surprisingly little snow on it, suggesting he hadn’t slept much keeping it cleared. Foolishly I only had my flip-flops and shorts in the tent, so from the ladder I was able to contort myself into the Jeep (without stepping knee-deep in snow) to collect my warmer layers and a pair of shoes. Meanwhile Dad was packing up his things and preparing to decamp to the Jeep. Once appropriately dressed, I grabbed snowshoes (brought just in case Dad ran into snow in the Rocky Mountains—he hadn’t) to tamp down the powder around the Jeep and create a path for Dad to reach it. There was easily a foot of snow on the ground, maybe more in places. I threw Dad’s pack in the back, and we both sat in the Jeep, trying to take stock of the situation. Clearly we weren’t going anywhere. We had lots of food and water, though the lock on the swing-out tire carrier had frozen shut, preventing easy and immediate access to some of the food and all of the cooking gear. Dad decided he wasn’t going to sleep in his tent again, it was too cold, and not built to handle snow load. Instead he’d sleep in the Jeep’s passenger seat (even though I offered if not pleaded with him to share the rooftop tent with me). So while he grabbed a shovel to dig out and take down his tent, I took a spare bottle of propane with a torch fitting (brought in case we need to brûlée something like pizza or a crème—we hadn’t), and proceeded to melt the ice that had frozen around the tire-carrier latch. Once I was able to get the tailgate open, I discovered that the bladder in Dad’s pack had drained itself all over the fridge and there was at least a liter pooled in the cabinet underneath. While trying to soak it up with a towel in one hand and the heavy fridge propped up with the other, the water started to freeze. Finally though, I was able to make myself a cup of tea and Dad a hot chocolate. Even though we were pretty certain we were stuck (because we couldn’t see the road, to say nothing of being able to drive in this much snow), in the interest of science and with Dad’s encouragement, I decided to test that theory. With all the finesse of a blind hovercraft pilot, I managed to get the Jeep around the corner, where, when confronted by the full extent of the white wasteland that surrounded us, we declared in unison, “Oh, hell no!” and I inched my humble hovercraft back to the small patch of white we knew.

At least one foot of snow had fallen overnight, covering La Jeep and everything around it
The world as it was when we woke up

And so that was it. We had irrefutably confirmed that we were stuck in the Jeep in the snow in the middle of a forest miles away from the nearest paved road or town. For Dad this full stop was particularly galling, as he’d been in non-stop motion for nearly 60 days. And he didn’t seem particularly keen to strap on the snowshoes and take off down the trail as-is. Even if he did, there was no telling when I’d be able get the Jeep out, or if I’d even be able to safely reach him at any of the meetup spots south of here. So he went into a sort of hibernation mode. I tried to help pass the time by listening to an audiobook with him, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. There was something about the text or perhaps it was the voice of the narrator that worked on Dad like a drug. He was out cold. But it helped me pass a few hours (and I suppose it helped him too). I wondered if our neighbors, an extended family of hunters and outfitters to whom we’d only said “Howdy” in passing the previous afternoon, would try to make a break for it. They were camped a few hundred feet away, behind a wall of trees, but I didn’t see any movement from them until the afternoon, when a figure came out to the entrance of their camp, perhaps taking in the full extent of things. I jumped out of the Jeep and tromped over to make contact. The man, Ken, told me that they weren’t going anywhere today or tomorrow, but that he had an important family gathering in Albuquerque that weekend, so he was going to try to leave on Friday. This news was at once heartening and disheartening. Now we had a potential comrade in arms, but it was also clear that we’d be stuck in the snow for another full day, and even Ken expressed doubts about whether he’d be able to reach pavement on Friday. Dinner was a repeat of lunch, grilled sausages wrapped in toasted tortillas, and then we began to rearrange the bins within the Jeep so that Dad would be able to recline the passenger seat somewhat. Remarkably, his footwell was dry, and he wanted to keep it that way (so as to not get his sleeping bag wet)—so he hadn’t left the Jeep all day, he hadn’t even pooped (that’s a rarity), and I think he told me he just peed out the open door when I was cooking at the back. Around 7pm, as we were preparing to bunk down for the night, I heard a distant rumble, the sound of an engine? It was getting closer, so I got out of the Jeep just as a side-by-side with 4 seats rounded the corner and stopped. The driver said that the State Police had gotten a distress call from 2 stranded hunters, and he was out looking for them. After determining that we were stranded, but not 2 hunters, he took off, but his arrival gave us a jolt of hope. If he had managed to get here, then there’d be tracks. “If only he had showed up earlier in the day,” Dad huffed, “Then we could have tried to follow him out.” But it was getting dark. That would have to wait until tomorrow or Friday. Thirty minutes later, the side-by-side returned with 2 very fortunate hunters in tow. Though it hadn’t snowed at all during day, when I got into my tent, I began to hear a tinny percussion against the walls. Something, not quite snow, not quite hail (maybe rain?) was falling. When the roof of my tent collapsed on me again in the middle of the night, I had my answer.

Our view of the snow from within the Jeep
Our snowbound view of the world

On our second day of captivity, we woke to another 4-6″ of snow. The side-by-side tracks that had filled us with glee the night before were now all but filled in. Dad, still alive, had managed to get decent sleep, by extending his sleeping bag encased legs across to the driver’s seat, somehow wedged between the emergency break and the stick shift. I could sense his eagerness to follow what remained of the tracks, but I was less convinced. It did give me an idea, however. Without much else to do, I strapped on the snowshoes to see how far I could follow the tracks “on foot”. Though we didn’t have signal where we were camped, I’d learned from Ken that they’d often ride one of their horses up the hill to a point where they could send and receive texts. Sure enough, not 10 minutes from where we were stuck, my phone came alive as delayed text messages started coming in. We had been keeping our family apprised of the situation by sending text-message length emails via my inReach, but I knew that sending them a picture of the Jeep buried in the snow would be worth more than a thousand words. I snowshoed about an hour away from the Jeep, alternately trying to follow either the side-by-side tracks, or the paths that cows had cut through the snow. It wasn’t easy. In response to one of the inReach emails I’d sent, Stephanie reminded me of one of the cardinal rules we learned in our Wilderness First Responder course: “In the wilderness, you’ve got time”, meaning there’s usually no benefit to be gained by rushing. So I returned to Dad having determined that we should wait another day before attempting to depart. It was a calculated decision—I felt strongly that our chances of getting out together with Ken were greater than if we left on our own. At some point that afternoon, Ken, in his massive diesel pickup with dual rear tires, drove out of his camp and pulled over next to us. He wanted to “cut a track” through the snow for the following day, and he also wanted to see what sort of traction he had going up the hill that was just around the corner. Off he went, and we didn’t see him for 30 minutes, 45 minutes, and then all of a sudden he came blasting down the road, not stopping, and continued up towards his camp, his tires spinning and rear-end fishtailing this way and that. Hmm. It was hard to tell whether the character of his return bode good news or bad, but his lack of traction suggested the latter. A little while later, he walked over and described how he spent a long time trying to get up the hill, tearing up the ground in the process, but was ultimately unsuccessful. He was now planning to leave earlier the next day, in hopes that the slushy snow would freeze overnight to improve our traction and thus our chances.

Side-by-side tracks, filled in with snow
The side-by-side’s tracks, filled in with snow

Ken invited us over to their camp that afternoon to warm up by the fire. Dad continued to hibernate, but I went over and met Ken’s brother, his Uncle, and his Uncle’s grandson. Throughout the day, we caught small glimpses of blue sky through the oppressive whiteness hanging overhead, but by 4pm, as we stood around the fire, the clouds parted, and the sun beamed through, warming our backs as the fire warmed us from the front. While there, a stranger appeared out of the woodwork, clean and underdressed for the weather, saying he’d just come up one of the “roads” at the junction and had tried to leave by the road that Ken had failed to get up, without success. We all kind of looked at him strangely, thinking to ourselves “What the fuck were you thinking coming out here?” We mentioned that we were all essentially stuck, held hostage by the snow, waiting it out, and that he might have to do the same. He was insistent on getting back to Chama that night, classic city slicker attitude, and decided he’d give it another shot. We didn’t hear from him again, perhaps he made it out, perhaps he was stuck in the snow somewhere. Dad had again remained in the Jeep all day, leaving only in the morning to finally take a dump after I’d created a path in the snow with my snowshoes to the cathole he’d dug before the storm hit. I used up our last 2 tortillas with the cheddar brats I made for lunch, so for dinner we had Spanish rice/quinoa bowls with carnitas.

Cow tracks through the snow
Cow tracks through the snow

I woke early on Friday morning, wanting to make sure we were ready to go the moment Ken emerged from his camp. After packing everything up, I got into the driver’s seat to turn the Jeep on so we could run the heater, and all I got was “Click click click click click click click”. I tried again and got the same. The battery was dead! I’m not sure how, it’s never died before, but something we did over the last two days had drained it. It was 6:30 or 7am, and I had jumper cables, so now we just had to wait for Ken. He drove out shortly before 8am, I waved him over, we jumped the Jeep, it started, crisis averted, and we began our slow caravan out. There was a fork in the road just around the corner, one on the left we knew was steeper and more rutted, the other a little harder to follow. Ken had gotten stuck on the former the previous afternoon, so he decided to stop and walk ahead to see if the city slicker had made it through. Nope, about 50 feet up, his tracks stopped. So we backed up, and took the road to the right. I stayed back as Ken coaxed his truck up the hill, fishtailing ever so slightly. Once or twice it seemed like he was about to loose traction, but he pulled through in the end. As he was reaching the top and rounding a corner behind some trees, I started to go, but just as I was turning towards the hill, I drove through a giant slushy puddle of indeterminate depth, and the Jeep stalled. I think I was in 2nd gear when I should have been in 1st, but whatever, no big deal. I instantly turned the keys to restart the Jeep, and I hear “Click click click click click click click.” Fuck. Apparently it hadn’t run long enough to recharge the battery (or worse, something was wrong with the alternator). I leapt out of the Jeep and ran in the slushy snow up the hill to get Ken’s attention, hoping he hadn’t continued on without us. He was still there, but now we were in a pickle. Ken’s truck had barely made it up the hill, and there was no guarantee of a repeat performance if he came back down to jump me. But his truck had a second battery, so we removed it, and I carried the behemoth down the hill. We connected the jumper cables, and all we got was “Click click click click click click click”. Damn! “No worries,” said Ken, who’d walked down behind me, “I’ve got a portable battery jumper back at our camp.” So we walked back to grab that (we were probably less than a tenth of a mile away), and Ken also alerted his Uncle that we might need him if this didn’t work. And unfortunately it didn’t. So I walked back again, this time to ask his Uncle to come help. He came blazing around the corner in his truck, popped the hood, and we jumped the Jeep a second time. As anyone who’s learned (or tried to learn) how to drive stick can viscerally appreciate, once you stall in a high pressure situation, say, a left turn lane with a line of cars behind you, a fast, high-pitched voice in your head begins repeating “Don’t stall, don’t stall, don’t stall” over and over again, which of course only has the aggravating effect of causing you to stall, often over and over again. To make matters worse, I was wearing my trail running shoes, so by this point my feet were wet and painfully numb. I could not, however, under any circumstances, let the Jeep stall again. So I thanked Ken’s Uncle profusely, made sure the Jeep was in 4LO, shifted into 1st gear, and gave it a healthy gulp of gas before releasing the clutch. Like a toy tank, we began to crawl up the hill, without slipping, without stalling.

La Jeep with dead battery and hood up stuck in the snow
Easily the scariest picture I’ve ever taken

At the next hill, we again increased our distance behind Ken’s pickup as he began to go up. About 2/3rds of the way he lost traction and started to fishtail to the right. He got out and tried shoveling away the snow (and the ice that forms under spinning tires) to improve his traction, but each time he tried to move forward, he’d end up fishtailing closer to some deep ruts he wanted to avoid. After several failed attempts, we decided to use a tow strap from his rear hitch to my front bumper in an attempt to pull his rear-end down the road and get him straight. It seemed like I was only able to drag him diagonally down the road until the very last moment, when his pickup straightened out just as I backed into a small tree and he came within a foot of smacking my front bumper. We unhooked the tow strap, and he reversed behind me down the hill, thinking he might try to approach it from another angle. Meanwhile I decided to see if I’d have any better luck. I got to exactly the same spot where he lost traction, I lost traction, and then my rear-end started to slide to the right. After several failed attempts at reversing, turning the wheel, and going forward, I ended up back at the bottom of the hill. I tried going up again and got stuck again. At this point Dad decided he wanted to shovel snow out from under the wheels. The combination of my persistence and his jumping in and out of the Jeep to shovel gave us the edge we needed to finally crest the hill. Meanwhile, Ken, through his own combination of persistence and shoveling, managed to cut a path up the hill behind me.

La Jeep with tow strap attached to the front bumper shackle
Preparing to tow La Jeep

We made it easily through a flat stretch and barely had enough time to catch our breath, before coming upon another small hill, but here the snow had been trampled into a muddy slurry by the cows. I made it about halfway up before my tires started shooting mud backwards, and I stopped moving forward. I tried again and got the same results. I pulled off onto the snow to try my luck there, but again reached a point where I lost traction. While I was off to the side, Ken tried the mud route and got stuck, so he decided to back up, get out of four-wheel drive, and gun it. With tires spinning, mud flying, and black exhaust spewing like this was a monster truck rally, he made it to the top. I tried the same (without the diesel exhaust flourish), but just couldn’t get up enough speed and stopped halfway up. So we decided he’d try to pull me up with my tow strap. I attached it to one of my front bumper shackles and walked forward, unrolling its entire 30 foot length. It didn’t even come close. We were probably 100 feet apart. But no problem, Ken had two heavy duty ratchet straps and a tow strap that he was going string together. Visions of this amalgamation snapping at tension, whipping back towards the Jeep’s windshield, and taking off our heads flashed through my mind. But before we could complete our ad hoc death chain, we were asked by a shepherd who’d appeared out of nowhere, if we could please remain in our vehicles while his herd of sheep and several sheepdogs (who don’t take kindly to strangers), passed through. I laid my tow strap down and got back in the Jeep. For the next 15 minutes, we watched as a thousand sheep and half a dozen sheepdogs streamed by on either side of us. Once this surreal ovine horde had passed, Ken and I finished linking up the tow straps, and I ran back to the Jeep, where Dad said “We can’t go yet, I dropped a USB cable in the mud.” Oh no, we had to go, because Ken was about to drag us forward, and I did not want to lose my head. With the Jeep idling this whole time (Can! Not! Stall!), I shifted it into 1st before Dad had closed his door, and the line snapped taut as Ken started inching forward. I gave it gas, and little by little we made it up the hill, heads still attached, one muddy USB cable in hand.

Waiting for 1,000 sheep to pass (seen through the windshield)
Waiting for 1,000 sheep to pass

Then I jumped back out into the slushy snow to unlink the tow straps and toss them in the back of the Jeep so we could continue moving. This was the last hill we can recall with any clarity, but I know there must have been a 4th because after that point, I ended up in front of Ken. I think he started to fishtail again, while I was able to get the Jeep around him. Though we were prepared to take out the tow straps again to see if I could pull him out, in the end, his shoveling paid off, and he was able to get unstuck. At this point, we’d been operating at a frenetic pace for over 3 hours, struggling to move our vehicles a mere 2 miles through the snow. After that, we reached a better graded dirt road that was largely level or downhill the whole way. These remaining 6 miles were smooth sailing, until I pulled slightly aside to let 3 vehicles go by in the opposite direction, and ended up getting my right side stuck in a ditch. Together with Ken, we tried to carve a “ramp” out of the mud and snow for my right front wheel—without success. At one point, Ken even stood on his shovel to backstop the mud ramp while I essentially drove into him. No dice. Eventually “muscle” won out. The road ahead switchbacked to the left, while the ditch continued to the right and then over an edge that we couldn’t see the bottom of. Dad cursed and hollered as I drove the Jeep farther down the ditch, approaching the point of no return (where I sensed that, hidden beneath a foot of snow, it became shallower), and I was finally able to pop the Jeep back onto the road.

View of the good dirt road (seen through the windshield)
Reaching the good dirt road, finally

Four hours and 8 miles after setting off, we finally reached pavement. When Ken arrived behind us, we hugged, we took a selfie together, and my priority to reach an auto parts store (to solve our battery woes) gave way to a deep desire to buy Ken lunch and thank him for all his selfless assistance. He had family in Chama, and planned to stop there for a burger on his way to Albuquerque, so we followed him down. During the drive, I began to realize that Dad was more shell-shocked by the last 3 days than I’d realized. He only had 150 miles to go before reaching Cuba, NM, but with this much snow, he felt that the hike was finito. First things first though, lunch. Over burgers and fries, the 3 of us spent the next hour telling and retelling each other stories from our great snowbound escape. After 61 days, Dad had hiked 910.8 miles.

Justin, Ken, and Brian (aka Tartan)
Justin, Ken, and Dad

4 Comments

Katie

Wow! Just wow. I am glad you all stayed together and attempted the escape as a team.

Margie

Whew!! quite the adventure. Glad you all made it out safely. Hope rest of trip is easier.

Michael Sunderman

Unbelievable adventure! A lot of perseverance & luck that you all & Ken met up to be able to combine your talents & hard work to succeed.

Mike Milley

I am in awe. That is over-the-top on my scale of adventure. By the way, great writing. I read every word … twice ! Pass on my regards to your dad. Best wishes for the rest of your journey.

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