Soggy summer puts damper on ambitious trek | AspenTimes.com

Soggy summer puts damper on ambitious trek

Jeremy Heiman

Aspenite Garry Pfaffman is probably more tired of this summer’s rain than most Coloradans.

Pfaffman, 25, who teaches at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, spent almost two months walking the Continental Divide Trail through the soggy state this summer. The rain was the major reason that Pfaffman’s fund-raising trip with his friend Silas Binkley, of Boulder, didn’t go quite according to plan.

They started from Winter Park on June 20 and ended their hike only days from reaching their goal, the New Mexico border. Pfaffman knocked off on Aug. 18, at the small town of Platoro, just 30 miles short of the border. He was suffering from giardia (an intestinal parasite contracted by drinking contaminated water) and had not had dry clothes for days.

Binkley had called it quits a week earlier, at Wolf Creek Pass, nursing a stiff ankle. A few days before, he had twisted an ankle that had been surgically repaired in March.

Until mid-July, the hikers faced afternoon showers on a regular basis, usually after 2 p.m. But from July 13 to Aug. 18, Pfaffman said, it rained virtually all day, every day, except two.

“After that, Mother Nature changed her clock on us,” Pfaffman said. When the monsoon conditions that brought the excessive rain kicked in in July, rains started at around 10 a.m. and regularly continued into the evening. The two often traveled through a fog of clouds that drastically altered their view of the landscape.

“Sometimes the clouds would make the whole scene even more dramatic, like we were traveling through a whole different world” with the clouds below them cutting them off from the valley bottoms, Pfaffman said.

“Sometimes they’re downright scary, too,” he said. The fog reduced visibility and made route finding a problem. Often, too, the rain was accompanied by lightning, making traveling on high ridges perilous.

The weather led to changes in the itinerary the two men drew up before hitting the trail. They cut some distance off their planned 600-mile trip by dropping below timberline to avoid the thunderstorms, shortcutting the snaking route they had picked out on the actual divide. In the South San Juan Mountains, the trail is above timberline for 60 miles in one stretch, Pfaffman said, but the two rerouted their trip to avoid much of that section.

The rain cut into the hikers’ activities off the trail, as well. Fishing time was cut back drastically. They spent little time bird watching or wildlife watching. And it was depressing.

“Si and I talked about that at the beginning of the trip,” Pfaffman said. “We knew there’d be weeks when it would rain three or four days in a row,” he said. But they hadn’t bargained for the deluge Mother Nature dished out. A ranger at the Pagosa Springs Ranger District office told them it had been the wettest summer since records have been kept there.

“But we did play a lot of chess,” Pfaffman said. He said they were confined to their tents much more than they had hoped.

Still, Pfaffman and Binkley saw a lot of wildlife on the last stretches of their journey. Among the best memories, Pfaffman said, is walking across forested hillsides and listening to elk cows calling to their calves on either side of the trail.

At one point, Pfaffman said, he was within about 30 yards of four elk in a hilltop meadow. When he snapped a picture, he was startled by the commotion of dozens of elk crashing away through the trees, spooked by the flash and the sound of the camera. Though they saw large herds of elk – up to 60 or 80 at a time – the two saw no black bears and few mule deer.

Pfaffman said he fell short of his fund-raising goal of $10,000, too. The hike has produced about $3,500 in cash and pledges to this point, and Pfaffman said he expects to have about $5,000 in hand by the time he finishes a slide show on the trip, planned for January.

The programs slated to benefit from the hike are the locally operated Outdoor Adventure Program (OAP) and the Aspen School District’s environmental education classroom.

OAP provides programs for kids, ages 13 to 18, who have been involved in the courts. They must go through the program as part of the consequences they face for breaking the law. A typical OAP session involves team-building exercises and meeting law enforcement officers. The session ends with a weekend snowshoe trip to the Lindley Hut south of Ashcroft.

Classes will begin in the environmental education classroom later this month. The straw-bale and rammed-earth building was built largely with volunteer labor and donated materials.

To make a donation, or for more information, contact Pfaffman at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, 925-5756.


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