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Weminuche Wilderness 1999

Over the knife edge

We awoke to a pretty good morning, nice sunrise, although there were still threatening clouds around. We did not have direct sun on the tent, so we took the fly off and stretched it out over a tree to dry it off. We did not have far to go (maybe 3 miles at the most) but there was no point in hauling a wet tent. Susie informed me that Mike had not a cent with him, and so we decided to give him $10. (I wanted to do $20, but Susie's generosity - with strangers - had its limits.) I went over to where Mike was breaking camp, and gave him the money. He seemed outwardly reluctant to accept it, but I could tell he was looking forward to eating some restaurant-cooked hamburgers.

We left camp at 9:06 am, and headed north on the Divide. The weather was holding for a bit, and the scenery was gorgeous. The trail does a climbing traverse around a basin, which was covered with wildflowers. We were anticipating that the Knife Edge, which is mentioned big time in all the guidebooks, was going to be "interesting." But it really just entailed a break in the rock outcropping which comprised the top of the ridge we were walking out. I guess when you have mastered the Catwalk on the Bailey Range traverse, or some of the other off-trail excitement that we have, a 2-foot break in a rock wall seems pretty tame. But it did offer some great views. We could see our destination, Trout Lake, to the right, and looking behind us, could see the lovely basin we had just contoured around, and just below us, was the Trout Creek drainage, with views off to Antelope Park, in the Rio Grande Valley. Unfortunately, the weather seemed to be deteriorating. It was clouding up, and that meant we could get hit with rain any time. As we left the Knife Edge, the trail climbs slightly, and traverses a wall (finally, some steep stuff, and places where the trail was washed away, to make the walking interesting) which, surprisingly for so late in the season, was absolutely awash with wildflowers. My bet is that had we been there 3 weeks earlier, it would have been even more spectacular. Even so, it was one of those scenes that you remember for 20 years. I tried to take some photos, but with my pack on, it was just too steep off the trail to risk falling. And with the weather closing in, prudence replaced passion.

The CDT actually goes past Trout Lake, and there is a feeder trail, perhaps half a mile long, that takes you near the south end of the Lake. Susie and I felt like the best thing to do was to drop off trail, and take a slightly more direct route, but we soon hit the feeder trail. We could see that the terrain was not quite as "advertised" by the topo map. We had agreed to meet the crew at the isthmus between Trout Lake and the western-most pond to its south. That turns out to be in the middle of a marsh, and there were more ponds than shown on the map. We had seen someone camped with a horse below the Lake, so we wanted to give them a wide berth as we looked for campsites. We dropped our packs, and for the first time on the trip, got out our rain covers. It was 11:15 am. A note here: yes, this was a very short day, and No, we are not usually this wimpy. But this had been one helluva summer for yours truly, with a huge push to get the ETS (that is environmental tobacco smoke) book re-written before the August 31st deadline. It took a monumental effort, leaving no time for any kind of tuning up, or conditioning hikes. And I for one was tired of pushing. So the hike was designed to be not too tough: two days of hiking to reach the Divide, and easy day to get to Trout Lake, a layover tomorrow, and then a couple of 6 mile days.

Susie and I wandered around, looking for a site which would be suitable for 3 couples, as we were expecting Andy, Sue, Time, and Diane in this afternoon. We finally found a small spot, near a pond (not on the map) with a couple of flat spots to put tents up nearby. We wanted to make sure that we were semi-visible from the trail, as it was clear that we would not be meeting them at the planned location. As we finished setting up the tent, the other camper came over. He was leading a burro on the CDT, south to north, and was using a 1:100,000 map as a guide. He had some questions about the route. (What a surprise: we come out for a few days, and I have Xerox copies of the routes, and side trails from at least 3 guidebooks, plus the Trails Illustrated map, plus the USGS topo maps, plus the TOPO! maps. Other folks come out with hardly anything, and then they have questions. I often think that such is why I am where I am, and they are where they are. Of course, one could say that I am chained to a desk job, and they have freedom, and the time to hike a lot, or you could say I have economic security, and they have hardly any. I guess it just depends on what is important to you. My parents both lived through the Great Depression, and it is hard to work away from the brainwashing that ensued. Enough digression.) Anyway, just about the time he had his questions answered, it started to rain, so Susie and I dove into the tent. Shit. Noon, and it is raining already. And cold, and nasty out. Then, it started to hail significantly. The hail was only pea-sized, but there was a lot of it. We munched on lunch, watched the hail build up outside the tent, and were glad we had a couple of millimeters of nylon over our heads. God, it was awful outside.

As I was finishing my jerky, I started thinking about the pace that ASTD could be setting, which, if they were coming over from Squaw Pass, could put them into Trout Lake before too long. I was concerned that they would not be able to see us from the access trail dropping off the Divide to the Lake, so I drew a little map, with some instructions, and put it in a plastic bag, and figured as soon as the hail stopped, I would head out, and leave the note on a cairn in the middle of the trail where they could not miss it. I left the tent a few minutes after 1 pm, and got about 400 meters from camp, when I looked up and saw the familiar yellow wind shirt of Dr. Susan Fischer, followed by the rest of the crew. I had been 4 months since we had seen Sue and Andy, but a year since seeing Tim and Diane. I have reflected often in my life how the sharing of outdoor experiences tends to deepen friendships. Maybe it is commonality of intense experiences, maybe it is just finding folks who think like you do about the really important things of life. Anyway, the friendships have deepened over the years. Hugs all around, and then I started apologizing about the tent sites. They were certainly not ideal, but by spreading out enough, we could find non-rocky suitable spots. When I got back to camp, Susie pointed out that our tent seem to be in a lake formed by the recent shower, and that due to the depression in the ground and the likelihood of further precipitation ( I would say "Lead pipe cinch"), we move the tent 25 feet or so. ASTD reported that they had not been as fortunate as us, in that they had been forced to deal with much more sustained rain. The more that they talked, the luckier I felt to have avoided what in Tennessee we call "frog drowners."

They got their tents set up, and endured another shower. However, it seemed like things were breaking up. Some blue sky finally appeared, the air temperature dropped, and I dared to believe that maybe, just maybe, we would get a break in the weather. The sun was out, and if you picked a spot in the sun, you might actually get a little too warm. While Susie and I had been treated to some sunshine over the last few days, it was clear that the others had not, and they were really drinking it in. We all took some form of bath (as, of course, I do every day) but it was great to air dry without fear of imminent drenching. We all cooked dinner out on some rock sheets, and as we were getting started, Andy pulled out a full bottle of Chardonnay! Boy, was that a treat 3 days into the back country. It was not enough to get drunk on, but it tasted just fine. Air temperature was in the low 50's, and by bed time, it was in the low 40's. As we were preparing for bed, we could see that any weather optimism was ill-founded: a huge thunderstorm front, stretching maybe 20 miles to the south, passed over, and we endured lightening strikes within a couple of thousand feet. It can be disconcerting when you have such little protection. Susie might say "scary as hell." I tend to be bothered less by such, especially because I kept thinking that there are scattered trees near us, and that they would probably be preferentially hit. Small comfort when so little time passes between the flash and the boom.

It stopped raining for a while, and that offered us some peace. Sometime in the middle of the night, it had been raining for a while, and my bowels told me that I just had to get out. I waited for a break in the downpour, and headed out, dressed in long john tops and Tevas and my new GoreTex jacket. I did my thing, but realized that, as the rain started up again, that even with a headlamp, the rain cut the visibility considerably. I guess it would be easy to get disoriented on a rainy night. Anyway, as I was dropping off a little ledge, my foot slipped and I spun around, fearful that I could take a serious fall and hurt myself, but the only thing that happened was that I stepped in a big mud hole. So there I am, the rain starting back up, harder than hell to find my way back to the tent, and when I do, I can not get in because my right foot is covered in mud. Boy, is this FUN!!!! I did the only thing that seemed appropriate: I went over to the pond near our tent, where we had bathed, and hopped in. I was able to get the mud off, and then I headed for the tent and dove, in, scolding Susie for not having left the light on so I could see where the tent was. She pointed out that I had the option of asking her to do such before I left, and she was right and I was wet, but at least, with a layover day tomorrow, and empty bowels right now, I could sleep for a bit.

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Roger A. Jenkins, 1999