CDT Leadore to Darby: Steep Ridges and the Burning Bitterroots 

The long and serpentine path thru southern Montana has taken us to the farthest west section of the entire Continental Divide in the United States. We are in Darby, Montana, deep in the Bitterroot Mountains. In a few days it will be September, the legitimate start of autumn. Smoke fills the air in all direction: Montana is burning. We are tired and a bit wounded. But we’ve come so far, almost 2,500 miles, and there are barely 500 miles left – maybe 20 to 25 days. So far away, so close.

The route from Leadore to here was as rough as we’ve seen. As has been the case since we entered Montana/Idaho, the trail follows the ridgeline of the divide. Switchbacks don’t exist. It’s essentially like hiking up the Ambush face at Eldora (and then down) over and over, every day. Because we’re on a ridge, water is very limited, necessitating heavy carries. The air resembles something out of the Hunger Games, smoke filled, blood red sunrises and sunsets, a constant haze. To add to the fun, a heat wave has smacked the northern Rockies, creating the perfect concoction of suffering, itchy eyes, scratchy throats and sweat. This isn’t the Shire…it’s more like Mordor.When Lewis and Clark came through here in 1805, the whole expedition almost failed. They were tired, they couldn’t find the way and they did not have the necessary supplies until the Nez Perce gave them horses to continue on to the Pacific. As we filled up our water at the distant spring on Lemhi Pass, 25 miles into this stretch, exactly where Meriwether Lewis did 202 years earlier, we couldn’t help but feel a kindred spirit of adventure. When I was 12 or 13, my mom checked out from the library the entire seven volume collection of the Lewis and Cark journals. I was fascinated and read the entire thing, spelling mistakes and all, cover-to-cover. It had an major impact on me and is a factor why we’re here.As we headed north, we entered true forest. The grassy hills of Lima went away, replaced by ever-thickening forest. The trail crossed high, talus filled passes with snow and dropped into deep river valleys, down to 5,800 feet, where the vegetation turned lush. Blueberry bushes were a constant distraction, and since we were moving slower than normal thanks to injury, they provided some valuable sustanence as food supplies grew short by the end of the ration. We saw a mother black bear and three cubs clambering up the talus looking for berries. Elk often crashed through the forest, already leery of the upcoming hunting season. We saw more wildlife in this section than we have anywhere since the San Juans. I had my first bout with injury in this 123 mile section to Darby. With the exception of a few nagging annoyances, I’ve stayed heathy on this journey, but on the second day out of Leadore, on a day with a 20 mile water carry, a near full ration and 7,000 feet of steep climbing and 6,000 of descending, I got a twinge on the outside of my ankle, a strain of a tendon or ligament. The body finally barked back. It got worse the next day and kind of stayed that way. It’s not torn or ruptured, it’s just tendinitis, so hiking in pain becomes something I have to manage for a bit.

Pain is an interesting thing. Dwell on the issue, and it can overwhelm you. But with the power of mental distraction, it’s not hard to continue on. Five percent of the body hurts. Meanwhile, 95 percent of the body is well. A wolf with a leg shattered in a trap can still function fine with three legs. Focus on what is right – almost everything – and the pain becomes a dull, distant thing. Of course working through injury that can do more damage is not good, but this is not the case here. Sometimes I think injury is just another excuse to quit, to fail, to distract. But it can provide the opportunity to get stronger mentally.

The section also took a toll on the camera. An errant pack lower, and the lens got bonked and broke on a piece of talus. Little things like this are more frustrating out here than normal because it’s just another thing to deal with. But, as has often been the case, our support network came to the rescue, Elaine’s dad shipping out our replacement that will arrive at our next re-supply. Between her parents, her grandfather sending out our re-supply boxes with little surprises, my mom sending treats like spiced salami, cheese, Scottish chocolate, tortellini and all sorts of amazing items and, well, we’re exceptionally well supplied and blessed.

This is the hardest part of the trail. But just when you need it most, the trail provides. We staggered to the end, a half-day slower than we’d hoped, and were looking at a resupply in Sula, a “town” that is essentially a gas station. It’s not really a great place to recover. As we walked down Chief Joseph Pass (there is an amazing nordic center on top of the pass), a gentleman named Curtis picked us up. Turns out, Curtis is an avid bikepacker who opens his home to human powered travelers. We had homemade soup and a sampling or 20 types of mead for dinner. It’s exactly what two struggling hikers getting our butts kicked by the Montana/Idaho border need.

Tomorrow, we hope to move into the Anaconda/Pinter Wilderness. We’ll see. At the US Forest Service Office in Darby we got vague warnings that part of the trail ahead could close. Montana is burning more than ever, and the heat wave is settling in. Last night was filled with lightning, little rain and 50 mph winds so the situation will probably be worse in the morning. We’re praying for that first cold front with 3-4 inches of wet snow to help get control of the fires but it’s not in the forecast.

As Lewis wrote in his journals when he arrived at Lemhi Pass, “immense ranges of high mountains” await. Between that and the fires, the CDT is hardly handing this thing to us, exactly as it should be.

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