“Tomorrow’s forecast: high shred alert.”
My buddy had scrawled this on a sheet of paper that he left on my desk. In actuality, the forecast was looking wet: 60 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms after noon. The typical weather pattern for late summer in the mountains, when clouds pile up nearly every afternoon to leak rain in various states of downpour, thunder crashes off the valley walls, and lightning makes everything a little spicier. Monsoon season, as it’s known.
Despite the forecast, we were hungry to test out an alluring linkage of singletrack that ventured far into the San Juan Mountains — from Lizard Head Pass south of Telluride, the route connected into the Colorado Trail before climbing over the red-streaked notch of Blackhawk Pass and bombing back to the highway.
It was going to be a big day in the saddle. But with an early enough start, we figured, we’d be fine. A little rain never hurt anyone.
Ha. That’s what the monsoons would have said if they heard our naïf arrogance. Because, though we started pedaling under blue skies, by mid-morning clouds were crowding overhead. And just as we were cranking slowly up through a riot of wildflowers — columbine, king’s crown, bluebells, and paintbrush — with Blackhawk Pass finally in sight, the first raindrops began to patter down.
By the time I was on the final switchback, what had begun as light sprinkle had turned into steady drizzle. I was wet, but the effort of climbing kept me warm, and I reveled in the final push.
Once there, though, there was no time for celebration. The rain began falling harder, ominous cracks of thunder shook the sky, and black-bellied clouds pressed suddenly upon us. What had started benign suddenly turned dangerous, like an unpredictable drunk gone belligerent. The sky cracked open, and a violent downpour ensued.
We headed down the endless descent, chased by lightning and biblical rain, thunder booming as if the gods were bowling. It rained so hard it seemed there was more water than air in the sky, the trail turning into a creek, every fiber of clothing drenched, socks sloshing in my shoes, gloves sodden and face splattered in mud thrown up from my wheels.
The rain turned to hail. Frozen pellets fell from the sky amid the rumbling thunder, carpeting the forest floor in white. By this time my chamois felt as soiled as a dirty diaper, my raincoat had long passed its limits and my hands were ice claws.
And the worst thing was, we were still miles and miles from the truck.
The rest of the ride was misery, frozen hands and muddy faces, filthy, exhausted and, by the time we finished, chilled to the bone. In all my dozen winters of living in the San Juans, I had never been so cold as I was on this late July summer day.
It was a slice of humble pie that taught me to never again underestimate the summer monsoons.
Western mountains are notorious for these afternoon thunderstorms, near-daily events that occur from mid- to late summer. The pattern starts with the convection of warm air rising above the peaks. It cools as it rises, forming clouds and condensation, which triggers the production of electricity and precipitation. The result: bluebird mornings that give way to dark, wet and bone-chilling afternoons. Storms beautiful to behold from a safe refuge, but none too fun if you are in them, exposed, underdressed, and far from shelter.
And because monsoon season coincides with high summer, when days are long, legs are strong, and the high country beckons, the opportunities for trouble are plenty. But with planning, it’s possible to adventure successfully in monsoon season. Here are tips for staying safe and dry out there.
Be an Early Bird
Dawn patrol it. Not only will you beat the crowds, but you’ll maximize clear weather. If you plan accordingly, you could already be safely on the couch with a beer cracked by the time the sky starts rumbling.
Pack sturdy rain gear, warm base layers, and wear wicking fiber like merino wool rather than cotton. Bring a plastic bag to stash your phone, and plenty of food to keep you fueled and warm.
If you get out late or were too ambitious, have a Plan B. There’s no shame in turning around if the alternative is hazarding a lightning storm to get over a pass. You can also scale back your objective: head to an alpine lake rather than a mountain peak, for example.
In the unfortunate chance you do get caught in a storm, be aware of lightning danger and hunker down if necessary. Do not stand alone in an open meadow, and avoid mountain summits, lone trees and large bodies of water. Drop any metal, avoid close contact with others, and crouch down. The best shelter is under a group of shorter trees among larger ones.
Photos by Katie Klingsporn
Adventure Journal is free but relies on reader support to make stories like this possible. Please join the thousands of your fellow adventurers and subscribe to our amazing printed quarterly or pick up an issue here.