July 22, 2020
Destination: Little Molas Lake Today's Miles: 11.30
Start Location: Elk Creek Trip Miles: 406.90
We could just make out the spiky silhouette of trees through the semi-transparent fabric of the tent when the alarm went off. Stretching in our bags, fully feeling yesterday’s miles in our muscles and joints.
Aaron mentioned his left knee had not recovered much during the night and was still bothering him. Disappointing news, typically our pains feel somewhat better in the morning.
Despite moving a little slow we were still on the trail at 6. An easy day compared to yesterday with only 11 miles to Molas Lake Campground where we are picking up our resupply box and hoping to get a camp spot for the night. Our last resupply, it’s hard to believe this epic adventure is almost over.
Yesterday’s trek down Elk Creek was narrow and choked with debris but today we experienced a wider and more scenic version of the drainage. Negotiating 3 more avalanche debris fields was both unexpected and unkind to aching knees. I imagined myself falling into the tangled mass below and getting stuck or heaven forbid one of the large unstable trees shifting at the wrong second pinning one of us down. Any number of bad things could happen but thankfully, none of them did.
The views expanded with 14’ers Arrow and Vestal Peaks rising sharply to our left. Traveling through open meadows the valley was widening before narrowing once again above the confluence with the Animas River.
We encountered one obstacle other than the avalanche debris where the trail simply disappeared in front of us, sloughing off along the ledge of a rock bluff. Fortunately, the pieces that fell are now in Elk Creek providing adequate stepping stones to pass under rather than above the bluff. Quite convenient.
Dropping over 1,400 feet before arriving at the railroad tracks along the Animas River we were having a bit of a flashback. Aaron, Corey and I passed through here last year riding the train from Durango to Silverton after a 6 day backpacking trip in the Weminuche Wilderness. Making the short walk along the same tracks we reminisced about how much fun we had. It made me miss Corey and feel close to him at the same time.
It’s a good thing there’s a foot bridge over the Animas River, I’d hate to have to cross on foot. Stopping halfway across the bridge we looked for rafters but saw none. The 1,600 foot climb up the other side had many switchbacks, thank goodness. We enjoyed the expanding views, the aquamarine thread of the Animas River growing thinner and thinner below.
Approaching the top of our climb we ran into two young fellows intersecting the trail from below. They asked us where the parking area was, we asked them which parking area they were referring to? They didn’t know so it was hard to help them but we tried. We told them we were heading to Molas Lake and they were satisfied tagging along behind.
Shortly after the boys fell in with us we passed a family bee-bopping down the trail. In the rear was a woman, matriarch no doubt, who stopped to ask us how far we had come, “over 400 miles” we replied. She wanted to know how long it took, contemplating the scope of the journey. “Since Father's Day” we told her, not knowing the exact day count but I think she was impressed. “Remember we’re going to have to go back up” a female voice floated up from below. “You should try it with a full pack,'' echoed the voice in my head.
At the turnoff to Molas Lake our new companions veered off upon spying a couple of their friends. At the lake several fishermen were trying their luck, a few boats, RVs, tents and lots of people. We made our way to the campground office, giving my name through the glass doorway to pick up our box. Grabbing a clipboard the dark-haired gal behind the pane of glass searched the list. “There’s nothing here” she told me.
Surely there was a mistake. Dad sent the box and it would be arriving Tuesday, today is Wednesday so it should be here. “Follow me” she motioned coming out of the office heading to the room where all the boxes were stored. She wanted to know what the box looked like, I told her it was a small box I bought at Walmart. She told me there weren’t any like that here (box expert that she is), double checking the clipboard while I looked through the chest-high, three-deep pile.
What were we going to do without enough food to get the remaining 75 miles? Hitchhike to Silverton? She wanted to know how it was sent. I thought dad told me UPS but I couldn’t remember for sure. “I’ll have to call and ask” I told her heading back towards the picnic table where Aaron was waiting.
Disappointed, I dialed the phone and relayed news of the missing box to Aaron. One ring, two rings, three rings before he picked up. I was right, it was UPS. He quickly tracked it telling me it was delivered to Molas Lake Campground yesterday. I thanked him profusely before heading back to the office.
Once I told her it came UPS she found it quickly. For whatever reason it hadn’t made the list yet - or the store room and was sitting in the office. Whatever, I was just relieved it was here. I paid her for the box, 2 Coke’s, 2 bags of chips and 2 cheese sticks. I tried calling dad back and let him know it had arrived but for the life of me I couldn't get cell service again, not even enough for a text. Wow, I felt incredibly lucky getting through the first time.
No luck getting a camp spot however, they are booked through the end of the month. Oh well. Truth is we’d probably hate it with so many people and so much commotion. Thunder and lightning were fast approaching and it started raining just as we dug into our resupply. We put on our rain pants and jackets, fortunately the rain only lasted about 15 minutes but threatened to start again soon.
Back on the trail we left our rain gear on, a good decision considering it started raining soon after leaving the lake, much harder this time. Our destination was Little Molas Lake 2 miles ahead where Guthook said there are dispersed camping sites and cell service. We started getting service on the climb to the lake so I texted dad letting him know we got the box, following up with a phone call after we were settled in camp.
Little Molas Lake was absolutely beautiful. Quite a few people were enjoying the views, a few were fishing, some walking around the lake and we could see tents and campers on the other side. Making our way through the campground we found a suitable spot on the very edge across a small ravine, buffering us a little from other campers and noisy generators.
Setting up the tent Aaron could hardly bend his knee. The rain had quit long enough to complete the task but was starting up again. We climbed in the tent grabbing the chips and sodas picked up from the store. It was about 3 in the afternoon and we were happy to have an early day. I was happy for the rare occasion to have cell service and started making reservations for a hotel room and rental car, we will be finishing the trail on Tuesday the 28th. Yippee!
Everything had been going so well I never once considered today would be our last day on the trail. Up until this moment we believed there were no obstacles we could not overcome, no challenge too great, 413 miles had taught us that. So it came as a shock, even to us, when we decided to pull the plug. I suppose it’s better that way, there was no lingering disappointment, no dread to tarnish today’s hike.
Here’s what happened. We were sipping soda and munching contentedly on chips, a light rain pattering on the tent but it was letting up. I had already made car rental and hotel reservations and was now checking the weather. Not a favorable forecast, predicting heavy rain day and night for the next several days including daytime lightning.
Of the remaining 4 sections of the trail (25-28) all but the last are exposed above tree line at high elevations for many miles. We even read somewhere that 27 was the deadliest section on the entire trail, I don’t doubt it with a climb to over 12,000 feet along the knife edge precipice of Indian Trail Ridge. Not the place you want to be in a lightning storm.
The weather was discouraging but Aaron’s knee was even more discouraging. The rain quit and we made our way down to the lake for water. It took considerable effort for Aaron, his knee having stove-up from lack of movement. Climbing up to the tent was difficult for him, it was getting worse, not better and now there was a big lump behind his knee.
Catching the last warming rays of sun through the trees we decided the pain in his knee would not improve without rest - and possibly medical intervention. We knew the weather would flat out suck and what the implications of that were. It was a difficult decision, no, it was a very difficult decision - painful even - but we did not want to unnecessarily put ourselves or others at risk - nor did we want to risk permanent injury to Aaron’s knee.
Just like that the decision was made to go home and rest, let the weather improve and get back to Little Molas Lake as soon as possible. We’re fortunate our schedules are flexible and will allow us the time. I changed the car and hotel reservations and called Buckhorn Limo to get a ride off the mountain in the morning.
We were disappointed and in shock but kept telling ourselves it was the right thing to do, and it probably was. The next day two hikers were evacuated by helicopter nearby due to raging waters and our friend Candacy posted on the FB group she had 4” of water in her tent at Taylor Lake.