Trip Date: Sept 30-Oct 01, 2017
It looked like it was likely the last weekend of the year to try the Pawnee-Buchanan Loop so I went for it. This route would cross the continental divide twice--at Pawnee Pass and at Buchanan Pass. This complicated the plan somewhat since I only had two days to do it. To avoid storms in the afternoon I was going start at Long Lake TH and cross Pawnee Pass first (going west) and get as close as possible to Buchanan Pass for camp that night. I knew this was going to be an intense trip but I like those. The whole loop was about 27 miles which meant that I was going to do about 13.5 miles each day.
The weather looked like it would be "acceptable"...
I arrived at the Long Lake Trailhead before dawn and surprisingly one other group had beaten me there. There was snow in the forecast but it wasn't supposed to start till 4pm Sunday. I was planning on being done by then or at very least nearly done. This summer I'd really gotten used to how much farther and faster you can travel compared to winter. I probably took thirty minutes going back and forth trying to decide whether or not this was going to be a summer trip with brief snow or a mild winter trip.
"I really don't want to bring my winter boots. I hate boots. Maybe I can just wrap my feet in grocery sacks and just wear them inside my shoes for the mile I have to walk in snow on top of the divide? I'll bring several extra pairs of socks to change into once I get off the divide. If I bring boots I should bring tennis shoes too because I won't want to wear boots for long."
"Should I bring fleece jacket as well as my light down jacket? Should I bring my Gore-Tex shell or my ultralight rain jacket?"
Reluctantly, I decided to bring my Gore-Tex shell, both fleece AND down jacket, as well as both winter boots AND tennis shoes. I cringed at the extra weight but I figured that this is really the worst possible temperature for snow. If it snows much it'll be right on the edge of freezing--half snow and half rain. In a full-on winter trip, where temperatures are well below freezing I'd had good luck staying dry by simply shaking excess snow off my clothing before getting in my tent. This trip on the other hand, could really shape up to a hypothermia filled shit-show.
Before long, I'd reached the junction for the Pawnee-Pass trail (just before Lake Isabelle). Once I reached the intermediate plateau below Pawnee-Pass I saw the first stunning views-as well as the first serious wind-of the trip. Lake Isabelle was also the lowest I'd ever seen it.
Once I reached Pawnee Pass the wind was really howling. I took off my mitten to eat a snack and in a few moments it was 50 feet away. Miraculously, it had gotten stuck between two rocks and I could reach it before it was lost in the valley below me.
Just passed the trail up to Gourd Lake, I noticed a huge swath of debris that an avalanche must have left some time earlier. Video of the clearing below.
Once I reached Thunderbolt Creek, it was starting to rain slushy snow pretty hard so I looked for a place to camp. I knew that it was going to rain that night so I made an effort to stake out the fly as well as possible to make sure it didn't come in contact with the inner tent. I ran out of stakes so I used my trekking poles as stakes.
The weather took a turn for the worse overnight. I woke up just before my alarm around 6AM to loud thunder. I figured it would pass in a bit so I went back to sleep. It seemed that avoiding lightning that I knew was there, was preferable to an early start over Buchanan-Pass to avoid "possible" lightning.
The snow was so wet that it actually partially collapsed the tent (see bow in the pole on the left side). The picture below was after I'd cleared snow off the tent in the middle of the night.
At this point all of my stuff was soaking wet. I'd only brought wool gloves (liners and mittens) and I couldn't get them dry. My Gore-Tex shell was completely soaked inside and out. I'm glad I brought a fleece jacket that would retain it's warmth when wet. My down jacket never left my dry bag.
The snow I'd gotten in camp at around 9000 ft turned out to quite mild compared to how much snow fell above 10,000 ft. In the final stretch through the trees up to Buchanan-Pass I was postholing through knee deep snow (I'd only brought microspikes). The combination of slow travel, late start and a clear winter storm that I could see moving towards me I had to admit that I'd screwed up. I could make a push for the pass--I was only a half mile away--but this could leave me above the tree line right as I got hit with wet "thunder snow". I was already soaking wet and having problems keeping my hands warm.
I was confident that at lower elevations I could weather a brief (several hours) storm well. If it came to it I'd pitch my tent and get in my sleeping bag (it was wet but would still keep me pretty warm). What worried me more was that the forecast had predicted several inches of snowfall that night and I was running out of food. Staying warm a second night in a wet tent, wet sleeping bag and wet clothes was not certain. Perhaps even more serious than that was that I had no plausible way of getting over the continental divide where I'd left my car.
Reluctantly I sent Katie this message from my satellite messenger: "I hate to say it but I fucked up. Winter storm coming and I'm not prepared. Headed down".
The closest exit point was the Monarch Lake trailhead where Katie was going to meet me. I was farther away than I thought I was when I gave her my ETA so I ran a little late.
As I approached the very end of the trail I came across a family that asked me "Are you Travis?". This couldn't be a good sign. "There's a very worried young lady looking for you". Katie says my lips were blue when I came out and that she was about 20 minutes away from calling search and rescue.
It's worth thinking about what I would have done if I hadn't had a girlfriend willing to drive 100's of miles around the rocky mountains to come save my butt. Heading down to Monarch Lake trailhead would have still been the right thing to do. If I hadn't seen anyone at the trailhead I could have spent the night in the building housing the vault toilets. It would be smelly (maybe I could put earplugs in my nose...) but at least I'd have a good roof over me. The next day I could have walked 16 miles to the town of Granby and figure out something from there.
Thanks to Katie for bailing me out and driving a distance equivalent of our trip to the Wind River Range in Wyoming (one way) but this time through serious winter driving conditions. Several times the visibility dropped to 10's of feet with snow blowing straight towards us.