Jasper to Mount Robson: Mud, Mosquitos, and Magnificent Mountains

The short version of the last four days might go something like this:

*squelching through shin deep mud*

*slapping away gigantic mosquitos*

*spending a whole day crossing rivers*

*jaws dropping at the incredible Mount Robson*

August 8th – 17 miles, 2400′ of climbing

For our last night in Jasper, we got lucky. I was standing in line at the Post Office, and when I was leaving, a guy at the back of the line stopped me.

“Are you hiking the GDT?” He asked.

“Was it the zippy-bag wallet?” I asked, holding up the trade mark of a thruhiker in town: a zippy-bag wallet.

The guy introduced himself as Joe, and said that he and his girlfriend had hiked the trail the year before. He offered showers and a bed – in Jasper, where everything is sold out faster than you can think, I took him up.

The four of us – Joe and his girlfriend, Nicola, Dan, and me – all met up and had pizza, sharing laughs about the trail, and how it’s changed. Being not an “official” trail, the Great Divide Trail seems to change every year, from the route itself, there being closed routes taken away, new ones added, and some trail maintenance and even some new trail being built! As always, it was great to talk trail – and interesting to hear about the GDT from people who had had some “space” from it. Dan and I crashed at their place, and caught a ride back into town with Nicola on her way to work.

After breakfast, where we saw Coyote, Backtrack, Boat, and Mic again, we picked up an extra sticky bun from the local bakery and headed out to start hitching. Pretty soon after sticking our thumbs out, a car veered erratically of the road, almost hitting us. A young woman hopped out of the front and began shoving a whole assortment of odds and ends into the trunk of the car, chatting the whole time in between pounding a Monster, peroxide blonde hair with purple tips flashing over her shoulders. She was from Edmonton, on her way to see Victoria for a couple days, she explained, swerving onto the road and hitting it pedal to the metal, while hip hop blared from the stereo. She grew up downhill ski racing and skating and complained about how cowboy boots don’t fit over proper calves. Faster than an eye blink we were dropped off, as the whirlwind of our hitch drove away.

“Damn, I love her!” I said as we rearranged our packs before setting off.

The trail started off as an easy old dirt road, and soon turned off to slither up the mountain. We pushed past curtains of dense brush, the sticky humid air causing us to sweat profusely as we struggled through the muddy ground. Heads bent, as there wasn’t much to see, we eventually realized we were at the Miette River, a good 17 miles into the day. There was a rare spot of non muddy ground, so we decided to call it early, and set up camp.

After cooking dinner, I put my shoes back on (I always take my shoes and socks off whenever I can, as this has been such a wet trip that I’m struggling a bit with trench foot) and instantly felt a pronounced pain. Somehow, unnoticed by me, some grit from all the mud had gotten stuck between my sock and ankle bone and was now rubbed completely raw, a small dime shaped patch of skin worn away. It was such a silly thing to have happen, and all because of all the mud, I was a bit peeved. But there’s not much to do but put on some antibiotic ointment and a bandage out here!

August 9th – 18 miles, 1,900′ of climbing

I slept so well last night! After a few nights of terrible sleep in a hostel it was truly lovely. I struggle sleeping around so many other people – I don’t trust them, and so usually spend most of the night awake, listening to what they might do, which is immensely boring, as well as sleep depriving as they are usually sleeping.

Dan and I got to start the day off right by plunging right into the Miette River. Our shoes were clean for all of a few seconds in the river, before we exited and continued on what was becoming the now-familiar shin-deep mud of this section. This section is supposed to be a bit muddy as is, and locals we have met in town tell us that this is the wettest summer in the Canadian Rockies since 1923. Go figure! (I seem to remember something similar happening on our backpacking trip across the Hardandervidda…) As such, it seems exceptionally muddy.

As the morning wore on, we climbed to Miette and Centre Passes – more of a sweeping general pass than two true separate passes. In fact, it was rather flat up top between the two, complete with bog that we splashed through.We then dropped down Grant Pass into a beautiful meadow overseen by a towering monolith of a mountain with a glacier hugging its sides. A milky creek cut across the vibrant green meadow that we were descending to. Our maps were odd, we were glad to realize, as we descended. The evening before, going over them, we noticed that according to the contour lines on the map, the other side of Grant Pass was about vertical. The one thing we were hoping for was that there also seemed to be an odd seam along that particular point on the maps, as though two different versions had been melded together. We reached the creek without having to navigate vertical cliffs, and began the mucky climb of Colonel Pass, passing a horse camp at a lake on the way. Colonel Peak rose strong before us as we dropped down into the next valley.

Here, the tale of west sung its song as we walked out of the mud into a large burn zone from ’98. As any hiker knows, an unmaintained trail in a burn zone is…less than desirable travel. As we navigated over, under, around, and sometimes through the dead fall, we took heart from the note that accompanied our maps in this section:

“If you feel yourself becoming disheartened with the dead fall in the burn zone, recall that Dustin Lynx described this section of trail as nearly impassable in 2004.”

As Dustin Lynx is pretty much the Godfather of the Great Divide Trail, and has hiked all of it and all the alternates, and seemingly skied most of is as well, for him to call something “nearly impassable” is saying something. As we scratched ourselves on the old burned trees, we re-christened the GDT the “Great Deadfall Trail”.

I also think we had somehow managed to hit the trail in a bit of a lull of hikers – several people had left town as we were getting there, but the crew of eight from Jasper was all behind us. You know this on trail when you start running into the spider webs. Overnight, they are usually ok, just little stringers that sometimes get stuck in your mouth or eyelashes, but nothing crazy. This was a whole other level. Great gobs of sticky web, with spiders the size of my thumbnail sat around the corner, invisible in the odd half light, waiting for me to walk in. More than once one of us walked into one, instigating a most graceful and verbose spree of jumping, writhing, spitting, face writhing, and occasional cursing.

Arriving at Upright Creek, we saw that there was a way to cross it via a conveniently fallen tree, but decided to cross it using our eddy method. All the rivers so far had been either benign or had bridges of some sort, but as there were a couple potentially intense river crossings, we decided to practice for the real thing. I collapsed my poles, stuck them in my pack, and took hold of Dan’s pack from behind as he faced up the creek, poles braced before him, as he is the taller of us. With his shouting “left, right, left” over the roar of the river to indicate when to move which foot and me not responding with my bellowed “yes” until I had stable footing, we steadily crossed the creek.

Satisfied when we exited, I pulled my poles back out of my pack and we continued to the first crossing of the Moose, which turned out to be easier than Upright Creek, and set up camp for the night immediately beyond, once again finding a rare, non-muddy spot with no dead trees to fall on us.

In an attempt to seek reprieve from the blood hungry mosquitoes that had been relentlessly plaguing us, we set up our bug net to eat dinner in and set the water to boil. As luck would have it, as soon as dinner was ready, thunder came booming over the mountains behind us, thick thunderhead growing quickly. Shoveling the food in our mouths as quickly as we could, we still didn’t quite beat the weather moving in. Shoving our pot and food away haphazardly, we hastily began to set up our shelter, right as the storm centered on us, lightning flashing and thunder booming.

But what sent me over the edge was when the torrential rain started. In 30 seconds about four inches of a super wet combo of hail and rain stood everywhere, and after forcing numb fingers to tie out our guylines, we both collapsed in the mid, panting.

“OMGDT,” I panted out. Our friend, Mic, had coined the term a while ago, and it had quickly become the standard for all things out of the normal level of anything, whether positive or negative.

August 10 – 18 miles, 2,500′ climbing

Today was a day for crossing rivers! The Moose River has a bit of a reputation throughout the trail, potentially more because you cross it five times, than because it is a big scary crossing. Or six times. And then you simply walk it for a while, because that is simplest way forward. But I get ahead of myself.

Our first two crossings of the Moose were pretty straightforward – we did the eddy method because we’re cautious and there’s two of us. In between were stretches of muddy, boggy trail, and then the third one was significantly deeper. All along, as we stomped our way through the mud, three sets of bear prints stood out in the mud. One, as I knelt down to put my hand against, was bigger than my fingertips reached, one of middling size, and one quite small. Also all up and down the trail were moose and deer prints. Once again, we never saw any – we have come to the rather unfortunate conclusion that to stay safe and not startle a grizzly also means we aren’t startling anything else, so we see little to no wildlife.

After the third crossing of the Moose (or fourth so far), we veered off a bit, and crossed Steppe Creek three times. You know, because Today Is The Day To Cross Rivers In The Mountains. We did a final crossing of the mighty Moose River, now reduced to a tiny little brook that we decided to walk up instead of fight our way through the brush on either side.

As we ascended Moose Pass, though, the trail suddenly became defined, and dare I say, even a bit less muddy. Reaching the top of Moose Pass, the skies cleared, the sun came out, and angels might as well have been trumpeting from the glacially-draped peaks around us. Setting up the bug net, we took a leisurely snack break.

“I know why Moose Pass is the only thing hikers talk about in this section,” I said, as I worked my way methodically through a spoonful of peanut butter with M&M’s.

Dan looked at me, too busy eating jerky and identifying peaks to ask.

“It’s because you’re a bit traumatized by all the mud, and then you reach Moose Pass and there’s wildflowers everywhere, and glacier-capped peaks, and it’s perfect land, so you forget the three days of mosquito-infested valley mud-bog slog in favour of Moose Pass.”

But the day was ticking on, and the Perfect Land of Moose Pass wasn’t going to come with us, so eventually we got up and moved on, down, back into the mosquito-infected valley of mud-bog slog for a few hours, complete of course, with multiple encounters with the now dreaded massive spider web.

And then there was the Smokey River. We tumbled out of the woods onto the gravel bar of the Smokey River, and squelched to its sides where we gazed at the rushing torrent raging past us. Sitting down (socks and shoes came off, of course), we read through all the recent notes that had been left on the crossing and looked at the weather forecast. Typically, with a glacially fed river, you want to cross in the morning, as the runoff will be highest in the afternoon/evening from melt. (We later heard a hiker tell of how it lowered three feet between an evening crossing and a morning one.) But we were predicted heavy rain overnight, which we thought might hamper the lowering effects. So we got up and began a thorough scouting of the river bank, looking far, both upstream and downstream.

We started crossing at two different places, pulling out both times as the roaring water reached Dan’s mid-thigh at a fast pace. We finally settled of a point rather downstream from where some other hikers had gone, in favour of a more braided river path. The first braid was simple enough, as were the several quite shallow braids that we simply walked across. I was thankful for a bit of walking, as even the short time we had spent in the rushing torrent had frozen my legs into numb stubs and the walking brought proper mobility back. The second true part of this crossing was more trouble. We started in two different places, pulling back both times as it got deep very fast.

Finally, we spotted a very ripply spot (with glacially fed rivers, it’s very hard to visually see the depth, so if you see the “right” kind of ripples, it can indicate that it’s more shallow in that location) that we aimed for. This did indeed prove to be only about knee deep, though still quite strong. About mid way through, I began to hear thunder booming. But soon we were across and it was only a few more little threads of water to splash through and we were fully across.

Weak with the adrenaline rush, and laughing from the relief, we trekked off down the still mud bog of a trail, but soon pulling over to camp, as the skies opened up and the rain began.

August 11 – 19 miles, 1,000′ climbing (but 3,400′ descent…which we do have to climb back up)

It rain, rain, rained all night, and when we got up to hike, the fog was so thick we could hardly see tree to tree, let alone the huge mountains around us.

As we neared Burg Lake, my grumpiness came out. I had just slogged through 3 days of mud, and I wouldn’t even get to see Mount Robson. Now, I can’t say I knew much about Mount Robson before I started looking at the GDT, but it’s a bit of a thing to this trail. For one thing, it’s the tallest peak in the Canandian Rockies, standing just shy of 4,000 meters (apparently it was demoted from being 4,000 meters, which has some folks upset still). For another thing, it is a common ending point for GDT hikers. Not being “officially” a trail, the GDT has many odd things going on, and one is that there isn’t really even an official end. A fair amount of people end in Jasper, and a lot of people end at Mount Robson. After walking out on the trail, I understand. For one thing, it feels very appropriate. It’s this huge, incredible, awe-inspiring mountain with three massive glaciers carving down its flanks. There’s the perfect alpine lake at the base, and then, yes, there’s an and then! And then you go tumbling down this perfect trail, down, down, down the Valley of a Thousand Falls, with hundreds of waterfalls cascading all around you – thundering monstrous falls, whispy, willowy falls, towering falls incredibly thin, but cascading hundreds of feet. For another thing, you have to hike back up that same trail if you want to continue on to Kakwa Lake. From Robson it’s a relatively easy hitch to Jasper, where you can hitch to Banff, or even get public transportation to either Edmonton or Banff.

And even though, in the scheme of long distance hiking, you haven’t hiked that far, (“only” 584 miles) it is a very, very challenging hike. There are multiple Tripple Crowners out here (folks who have hike the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail) who all say that this is the hardest trail they’ve done. The terrain is tough, it’s tough to cover the same amount of trail in bad to no trail conditions, and the weather is tough. In fact, we’ve been told in multiple towns now by locals that this is the wettest summer in the Canadian Rockies since 1923. Being wet day in and day out, being in thunder and lightning storms, being hailed on, being snowed on – this makes for good stories, but it’s draining. And it’s quite evident in the hikers by now. I’ve never seen hikers so worn down by so few miles, but this trail is tough.

So, as we stumbled along in the fog, my grumpiness set in as the thought of not even seeing Mount Robson set in. We walked by Berg Lake, where a bit of Berg Glacier could been seen sitting right above it, and then the thick cloud bank. Taking a chance, we stopped for an early snack break on the shores of the lake and watched as the clouds began to shift and change, and the sun began to try to shine weakly through the clouds. And then – it appeared! We gazed in awe of Mount Robson, marveling at it as we snacked. Finally, we scooped ourselves off the lake shore and continued on the trail, swooping and cascading down into the Valley of a Thousand Falls.

As we had just finished walking the road into the Mount Robson visitors center, we found a patch of grass, and promptly exploded our packs. This is a typical thruhiker thing – you get to town and suddenly, the things that are most important to you while on trail (like trekking poles) are useless or silly in town, and things that are useless or silly on trail (like a wallet) are most important in town. As we did this exploding, a voice floating across the grass:

“Any hikers looking for a ride to Valemount?” Dan and I both looked up at this – and Keith and Leslie walked up. The timing was serendipitous, as apparently they had literally just pulled in to the parking lot. We all tumbled into their mini van (which I have decided is an incredible adventure mobile) and rode off to Valemount where we ate burgers and told trail stories and laughed at their perfect ability to show up for us on the side of the trail.

And to be honest, I do think, in a way, this is the end of our thruhike. Thruhiking involves a certain mindset, and this next section into Kakwa Provincial Park is more of a wilderness excursion.

Into Wonderland: Kananaskis to Sunshine

Excitement pumped through the blood as we neared the trail again, the heady rush of embarking into a land that you know will blow your mind with the wild wonder of it all making us a bit punch drunk. We said our farewells to Leslie and headed off, beginning the long trek around Upper Kananaskis Lake. It appeared to be a popular loop to go around the lake, many tourists doing the trek around it, and even some runners.

A couple bald eagles made their debut above the lake, the incredible mountains with glaciers embracing their flanks and the classic turquoise lake the perfect background for their huge circling. We left the people behind as we turned off into the Upper Kananaskis River valley. The storm that was predicted for this stretch began practicing, the skies opening up and raining hard, then closing again for a short breather, repeating the process as it rehearsed for its big performances over the next couple of days.

Passing through a dense thicket of brush, a cow moose stomped across the trail, checking us out over her shoulder as we traipsed by, reassuring her that we were simply passing through. The chill in the air kept us in our rain gear for the remainder of the day, as we began climbing higher up the valley. Nearing our camp site for the evening, a black bear crossed paths in front of us, all teddy-bear furriness as he trundled up into the dense trees.

We arrived at Tourbine Campground with a lull in the weather, where we seized the chance to set up camp not in the rain. Fingers cold, we fumbled slightly with the guy lines, but soon the mid was up, sleeping bags laid out as we sought the cook area.

A steel table stood in the middle, but the cold and wet of it was uninviting to sit on, so we contented ourselves with standing around it while preparing dinner, a drizzle beginning to fall around us. Hastily downing a hearty pasta meal, we reveled in the ease of this backcountry site complete with bear lockers. The speed of pack up was so delightful, not requiring the trek around, searching for the perfect bear-hanging tree. Dumping all our smellies in a bear locker, we dove into our sleeping bags.

All throughout the night, it rained hard, and every time I rolled over, I checked to make sure there were no small rivers of water making their way through our sleep spot. The rivers were content to wind their way around the tent, and we woke to spotty rain, and a cold wind. Donning the rain gear (for the first and last time of the day), we followed easy, beautiful trail up to Kananaskis Pass and a beautiful alpine lake. For the first time this trip, no views greeted us from the top, socked in and foggy as it was. The dense clouds blanketed us in a damp, bone-chilling cold that set in gradually.

Cresting the pass, we left Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and entered Height of the Rockies Provincial Park, and as we descended the other side, the quality and amount of use of the trail immediately declined. Faint trail, often simply a remnant of feet passing through the same place on the rocks, cascaded straight down the steep slopes.

The loose, steep, slippery situation was exactly the terrain that caused Dan’s ankle to act up, so we were forced to a slow pace that enable the damp’s creeping fingers to get a good grip on me, and soon I was shaking with cold.

The lower we dropped, the colder I became, as dense brush rose up on either side of the trail, sopping wet, gracing us with the dreaded phenomenon known as the “car wash”. This is where you must push through drenched brush, causing all the collected rain to slosh down over you. No rain gear is impervious to this, as the repeated pressure will eventually push the moisture through the membrane to you. Thighs and arms are exceptionally prone to this, and soon those body parts were very cold. Remnants of our large furry bear friends littered the trail: large piles of veggie filled scat, and footprints the size of plates going every which way caused us to hoot and holler into the surrounding brush.

Eventually we began the long climb up to Palliser Pass, the same wet bushes to the face slowing and cooling us further. Maintaining easy breath, convincing my body it wasn’t as cold as it was, we climbed up, until we crossed into Banff National Park.

We had been doubting the probability of us reaching our campsite – it was 23 miles away, and at 1pm, we had managed all of 7 miles. However, as we crossed into the National Park, the trail improved considerably. We could see where the brush along the trail had been cut back so that we could pass easily, and soon we were swooping down the Spray River valley, passing what seemed like hundreds of alpine toads along the trail – so many of them we had to watch carefully to avoid trampling them or poking one with a pole.

We were on our way to meet Leslie, who was coming in to hike with us for a couple days. As we hurried on into the evening, we finally neared Big Springs camp, and lo and behold, a lone figure stood under a tree as we arrived.

“Friends!” The familiar voice rang down the trail as we approached and soon soggy hugs were being exchanged, and then magically, what seemed like two pizza’s crammed into a tuppoware appeared in front of us, and frozen fingers immediately began to transfer the delicious food to hungry mouths.

Bodies exhausted, we crashed hard that night, even sleeping in a bit in the morning. Dragging ourselves out, we found the day to be cool, but very little rain yet, which raised spirits immensely.

The lack of rain also meant the views were back, and they were coming out in full force as we traversed wild flower carpeted meadows above the large Marvel Lake.

The morning was filled with trekking-pole whirling, whooping to warn bears, and jaws dropping at the fabulous views as we climbed to Wonder Pass.

Just we crested the pass, the weather decided to move back in, and as we began to descend, the temperature plummeted, and soon a mix of rain and hail pummeled us as we traipsed through enchanting larch forests.

This changed to sleet, thunder began booming, and then the snow fell, big fat flakes coming down thick and fast. At the bottom a small group of huts were nestled, with a cook hut between them.

Leslie peered through the window.

“Not too full yet,” she said, “Let’s make a quick cup of tea!” Peeling off all of the wet layers, we were soon inside, steaming profusely as we wrapped cold fingers around steaming mugs of ginger tea. The snow began to come down heavier, clinging to the larch branches as we watched with trepidation. As the feeling came back to fingers and toes, we left to go the rest of the way to our campsite. It was a bit shocking, after traveling through so much unpopulated wilderness, but as we walked towards Mount Assiniboine, we were entering a very popular area – one of those bucket list places. People can even pay to get a helicopter ride in, and stay in fancy little cabins. The snow was picking up, and as we passed the first real viewpoint of Mount Assiniboine, we laughed at the gaping white void where the mountain supposedly was.

However, once again, as we neared our campsite at Lake Magog, the weather gave us a bit of a break.

Dawn, one of Leslie’s friends, was on a trip of her own with another woman, Brenda, and she met us at the entrance to the confusing mess of trails that was the sprawling camp site, and led us back to a secluded area where they had saved us a spot.

She and Brenda regaled us with tales of their trip so far as we set up camp, wonderful, cheerful women opening their arms to us immediately.

“Well, friends,” Leslie announced once our shelters were set up, “we have a decision to make.” She gestured at the clearing skies around us. “We could do tea,” this tea was something of a trail legend, as the Mount Assiniboine Lodge was known to open its doors to the “public”, as us campers were known, for an hour to serve unlimited tea and loaf (which I was told was essentially cake), “or we could climb the Nub.”

Not even an alternate listed for the GDT, the Nub is a very quick little side trip that gives crazy good views over the Assiniboine basin. The clouds were lifting, lifting, drifting around the peak, and it was an easy decision in the end.

The five of us made our way from the campsite back towards the Assiniboine Lodge, where we parted ways, Dawn and Brenda to partake of the tea, and the three of us to climb up the nub.

Indeed, it was a short jaunt, and after just a wee bit of a huff, we popped out above tree line, the incredible basin of Assiniboine expanded out below us.

It was one of those moments, where trail lore is not just truth, but the real thing is greater than you imagined. Also known as the “Matterhorn of the Rockies”, its reputation preceded it – and most appropriately. We stood, watching sun beams dance on the glacier warped around it, the plume from the top indicating the whipping winds up there, and snow cascading from its many layers.

As we descended, a storm ripped back through the valley, bringing more snow, whipping winds, and thunder cracking overhead.

Back down at the camp, we discovered that a truly lovely cook shelter existed, and we settled down amongst the other campers. A young Israeli fresh out of the military sat with us, along with Dawn and Brenda, and the evening passed with folks rushing to find more layers, but unwilling to truly leave the conversation for the warmth of their tents.

Dawn, Leslie, Dan, and I took an evening stroll down to Magog Lake, where we learned about modern pentathlon (Dawn went to the Sydney Olympics – and we were all fascinated to learn more about this little-known sport).

Finally, we all curled up for the night, relatively warm and dry. It was still a restless night, unfortunately. This particular camp site had ready-made boxes they wish you to camp on, filled with these sharp rocks. Of course, with light weight gear, this would be avoided at all costs normally, but as that was what we were supposed to do, we did it. It also meant that Dan’s sleeping mattress received several punctures and he was blowing it up all night.

The cook shelter also proved to be a strong pull that morning, and even though we were all packed up and ready to leave, we lingered at the shelter, chatting with our new friends. Finally, the call of the trail pulled us from the shelter and we set out into the cool, but thankfully precipitation-less day.

It was perfect hiking weather, long-sleeved top and tights just warm enough, but brisk enough to barely break a sweat. We soon came to Og Lake, where we came upon another group.

“Your boots!” Exclaimed a woman as we approached them, pointing at Leslie, and we all stopped, surprised.

“Yes, what about them?” Leslie asked, leaning on her poles.

“Are they yours?” This was such a strange question, we were all laughing at first, but it soon came to light that when we had ducked into the cook hut for tea the day before, Leslie and this woman had inadvertently traded boots. As they switched back mid-trail, we all had a good laugh, and then we were off into the Valley of the Rocks.

This was a wonderful, magical place. It was the oddest, rolling terrain, dotted with gigantic crumbling rocks. The trail weaved through these massive rocks, and the mist drifting amongst the towering cliffs above us added to the expectation of Orcs leaping out at us unexpectedly from behind a boulder.

Whooping and hollering, we ascended Citadel Pass, stopping to look at the diggings of the resident grizzly on our way up, bumped along past Howard Douglas Lake, and then were deposited into Sunshine Meadows.

The clouds finally opened at this point, but even with the rain coming down, the ground squirrels still frolicked through the meadows and even a pair of Mountain Bluebirds graced us with their presence. We joked that wherever Leslie went, all of her friends came out, even the squirrels, no matter the weather. Soon we were in Sunshine ski resort, and descending a long road to where Leslie’s husband Keith was meeting us to take us all back to Banff, where warm showers and clean laundry awaited us, and where we would eat all the things.

Despite the weather, or perhaps because of it, it had proven to be an incredible section. Dan’s ankle seems to be on the mend, and though challenging, the trail continues to be rewarding beyond belief.

“It’s Not Your Job to Think, It’s Your Job to Charge!”

It’s a bit of a miracle we started this trail at all. On June 5th, we had resigned ourselves to spending a summer working in Boulder, commuting the canyon in its nightmarish construction state, and making the most of our days off – already planning a bunch of long backpacking trips we could take directly from the house, weird and convoluted routes to avoid people as much as possible.

But July 3rd found us barreling down a dirt road in Alberta in Keith and Leslie’s minivan to the “start” of the Great Divide Trail. On this trail, one of my goals is to go with the flow a bit more, to accept that I haven’t planned much at all, and to let go of some of the control I’m used to having. True to the nature of long trails and their desire to test you thoroughly, I was given the opportunity to practice this new, less control-centric philosophy from the get go. When Dan and I were finishing our thru hike of the Continental Divide Trail in 2017, it was highly impacted by fires, forcing odd re-routes, extensive road walking, and even ending in a different location from the “official” finish. Ironically, this same fire is impacting our Great Divide Trail hike. Most of Waterton National Park is closed due to this same fire, so our starting location was along Yarrow Creek – outside Waterton, and somewhere I’d never heard of.

Keith and Leslie drove us to the end of the dirt road, and after hugs all around, we started off, bear bells jingling. After passing some sort of power plant (oil or coal was my guess, complete with eternal torch thrust towards the sky), this alternate varied between dirt road and cross country travel across cattle grazing lands, but soon we were emptied out onto beautiful trail, wildflowers ablaze all around, and huge piles of fresh bear scat every few yards along the trail.

Up and up we climbed, taking our first snack break at a beautiful alpine lake surrounded by towering mountains, red and green bands streaking through them, and lingering snowfields glittering on their flanks.

Up, up, up we climbed, passing by another couple who were also starting the trail. Monique and a man I didn’t catch the name of had tried to start in East Glacier in Glacier National Park in the US and had run into a lot of trouble because of all the trail closures in Waterton. Already our Banff friends were proving to be a great help to us on this endeavor with their local knowledge. As we crested our first pass, a stunning view expanded out before us.

Towering mountains extended as far as the eye could see and I found myself choking up a bit. A month ago I had been crying for days on end, devastated by what I felt was an unfair situation. Now, the vast expanses of the Canadian Rockies stretched all around me, enveloping me in their rocky embrace – mine to explore for two whole months.

We traversed along Avion Ridge, a gigantic flank littered with scree. Footing was tricky along this side hill, and we continued to climb along the ridge as thunder boomed and cracked in the distance. As the spaces between lightning flashes and thunder crashes grew closer and closer and the trail climbed still higher, we finally dove off the side, scrambling down the ridge towards tree line, where we hastily erected our shelter none too soon. Lighting flashed across the sky, thunder cracked over head, ringing in the ears, and a wet mess of hail and rain pounded down.

We pulled out the stove and cooked an early dinner while the skies exploded all around us. Part of our bear management plan for this trip is to cook dinner, eat, and then continue on down the trail, leaving the tasty dinner smells behind. Just as we were finishing dinner, the storm rolled by, so we packed up and left.

The ridge continued to climb for a while longer, and then dropped down into a larch forest. I was surprised when a branch struck me across the face and it was soft – I’m used to pine trees where getting those needles to the face is a very unpleasant experience, but larch drop their needles in the fall, and these new needles were velvety soft.

Down a steep trail and just as I was stepping over yet another downed tree, I looked up to see the most classic black bear I’ve ever seen: deep black, with a brown muzzle. Dan and I raised our arms and trekking poles, talking to him, until he trundled off up the hill.

As the evening wore on, we passed a tent set up next to a creek, although we saw no humans, and we started looking for our own place to set up. The extremely dense underbrush made it difficult, as well as looking for a tree that would make for a good bear hang, but we found one and were soon tucking in for the night.

The next morning dawned cold and wet, and as Dan and I were layering on our rain gear, a couple passed us, different from the couple we had met the night before, and we assumed they must be from the tent the night before. We were following what seemed to be a very old logging road, quite overgrown in places, decent in others, that sloped gently downwards, getting the proper car wash experience as the dense brush on either side of the trail offloaded their rain-drenched leaves on us as we passed.

Is it not perfection?

We played leap-frog with the other couple as we each took snack breaks, eventually joining the official GDT and climbing up to a creek that was the last water source before a 14 km stretch of challenging, slow ridge walking – the hiker notes say it often takes hikers 8 hours to do the upcoming stretch. The other couple stopped to camp there, but as it was only 2 pm, I didn’t think Dan and I could manage not hiking for that long. We loaded up on water and started climbing.

Yes, this is the trail.

And up it was! Soon the trail disappeared and we were left to clamber up an almost vertical wall of slippery plants and mud, gaining 490 meters in less than 4 km. The view was richly rewarding.

La Coulotte Ridge was a jagged knife-edge, requiring a bit of scrambling and a bit of navigating to avoid a descent over cliff faces, made a bit more challenging by the rolling clouds that were wafting by, sometimes so dense we could hardly see what was directly in front of us, sometimes lifting up so that we could see the spectacular ridge line stretching away from us.

The climb to La Coulotte Ridge was followed by a just-as-steep descent down, and then up La Coulotte Peak, a peak standing at 2360 meters, and a total mess of scree. Our feet punched through the scree as though it were rotten snow, and I found myself very glad we had decided to bring two pairs of La Sportiva Raptor shoes for this hike – this was going to tear through shoes pretty quick. On the way up, Dan found what I’m pretty sure is a fossil. We may be wrong, but it was pretty cool.

Anybody know if this is a fossil?

A very tough trail on shoes. Thank you La Sportiva for helping us out with this hike.

The Barnaby alternate takes off from the top of La Coulotte, but we decided to stick to the main trail – Barnaby Ridge is Class III/IV terrain, extremely dry and exposed, and our luck with the weather had been tenuous at best so far.

We descended about a kilometer off the peak, found a tiny but suitable flat spot and set up camp for the night, watching more weather move in. To our east, dense fog billowed up and up, reaching tendrils through the little dips of the ridge, and to our west, British Columbia basked in the glory of the setting sun, the Continental Divide acting as the barrier between.

Fog Camp

Heavy rain came and went throughout the night and a cold wind blew underneath the shelter to kiss our faces with brisk fierceness, making sleep a fitful thing, and we arose to dense fog. I also awoke to an uncharged phone. I had plugged it in to my charger the night before, but it seemed to have mostly charged it, and then stopped.

“Perhaps it was just trying to conserve battery power,” Dan suggested as I lectured my battery.

“It’s not your job to think,” I told my battery sternly, “It’s your job to charge!”

I was actually quite cross at it, but when Dan started laughing, I couldn’t help but join in, it sounded so much like a line for a ski film, and that became the theme for the rest of the day.

It was another wet start, decked out in our rain gear as we navigated our way carefully through a cliff band that wrapped the flanks of La Coulotte Peak down to a saddle, and then up yet another steep ridge. Visibility was almost nil, and it was slightly vertigo-inducing to climb up, rocks beneath your feet, nothing but fog to the sides, not knowing how steep – or how far – the drop off was. The white out caused me to navigate down a bit too far to the west, but we corrected and soon had summited the next and last peak of the ridge and began our long, long descent into a valley, and then – lo and behold! What appeared to be an old mining road appeared out of nowhere and travel pace picked up a bit.

The rain continued as we dropped lower and lower, crossing several rushing rivers until suddenly we were on a dirt road and hit Castle Mountain Ski Resort. Now, I still haven’t seen the place properly, given the cloud cover and rain, but from looking at pictures while we sat in the small pub, demolishing pizza and nachos, I think we might just have to come back. After searching for a trail map (there were none, it is summer after all, I suppose) for a friend who collects trail maps from around the world, it was back out into the dreary evening for a few more miles.

Sun’s out, feet out!

A picture of what Castle Mountain looks like!

We were dumped unceremoniously onto a highway that we walked for all of a hot second before the Great Divide Trail took us off to walk through a knee deep river for a way before spitting us back out on to the highway, then veered off onto an old dirt track. We followed this for a while, observing the damage from a flood in ’13, wondering if it might have been the same storm that caused our own floods back home in ’13.

As we climbed gently up, passing through the dense brush, I suddenly stopped, looking off to the left where I saw a tiny little erosion gully coming down.

“That can’t be anything,” Dan said.

But after checked the maps and notes – “rest assured, this is the correct route” – yes, yes it was the GDT. So we stepped off the old dirt track and climbed vertically through yet more rain drenched bushes, becoming properly soaked now, and talking loudly in the hopes of scaring off any bears around, as we could see no further than the branches in front of our faces. Quite abruptly, after 400 meters of vertical climbing, we were spat out onto yet another two track and witnessed our first GDT marker of the trail!

First GDT marker!

We set up camp just off the trail while thunder began and lightning flashed over us, counting the seconds between flash and boom, like some count sheep to fall asleep.

Rain poured down that night, and I had dreams of floating away, but we awoke to a weak sun filtering through the thick clouds, slowly burning them away, and we were both so thrilled, we soon shed our rain gear, only to be swarmed by mosquitoes, intent on our fresh, sweet blood. They were so bad, we actually busted out the bug spray for the first time.

The flowers are in full force!

It was mostly two track that morning, passing through muggy, swampy areas. As we stopped at one junction to consult our maps on which way to go, I looked up and saw a cow moose trotting off, long legs making easy work of the swampy land. As we located where we were and read the notes, we laughed aloud:

“Watch for moose, on my hike in 2013 I saw a beautiful cow”

Much of what we’ve been hiking through is what I would consider moose terrain, but this was our first moose, and here was a note about it. I couldn’t help but laugh.

All too soon, we joined a gravel road, where miles became easy, but the sun soon became baking hot and we were stripping to shorts and t-shirts in no time.

We stopped for lunch along Lynx Creek, to fuel and camel up on water before ascending to Willoughby Ridge, another long ridge walk with no water. One butterfly took a liking to Dan’s head, and wouldn’t stop circling as we ate. As we sat, shoes off, feet baking in the sun, a couple stopped along the road and came down to us.

“We’re looking for the waterfall,” the guy said by way of greeting, full of friendly Canadian cheer as he waved his coffee enthusiastically through the air and his pup chased butterflies through the grass.

“I’m sorry, we don’t know where it is,” Dan responded, and was in the process of saying we could probably find it on our maps, but they were past us and in the creek before the words came out. Several minutes later, they came back, the guy dripping.

“I’ve traveled from coast to coast in Canada,” he declared, a huge grin on his face, “and I like to baptize myself in every body of water I find!” With that, they got back in their truck and were gone, and it was time for us to move on as well.

The climb up to Willoughby Ridge was a very steep two track, and with the sun beating down, and the high humidity from all the recent rain, both of us were soon drenched in sweat, even little rivulets making their way down my legs. My foot also began to give me a bit of grief as we climbed up – I’d felt it on some of the steep descents the day before, and it was getting angrier. It felt like a tendon behind my big toe was angry at me. Probably rightfully so. Not knowing that we were going to be doing a thru hike this summer, we hadn’t prepared very well, taking a full month off in April and only resort skiing, and in May doing a ton of backcountry skiing as pow day after pow day hit us. None of which does any good whatsoever for toughening feet up for the trail!

Willoughby Ridge had incredible views!

As we reached Willoughby Ridge, a vast view of the Continental Divide opened up to our west, stark and gnarly. It was no wonder the trail was not located there through this section – it would take a skilled rock climber to navigate those peaks. But from our vantage point along the ridge, it made for spectacular viewing.

A fire in 2003 devastated the forest around Willoughby Ridge.

Descending from the ridge, we ran into the tail end of a local endurance race, the Sinister 7, a hundred mile ultra race that climbs some 21,000 feet. This was the last of them, and many were not hitting the time limit. It was a little depressing to watch someone’s summer goal ending, to be honest. We ate dinner, watching them go by, trying to be encouraging, while they staggered past. One woman stopped, staring at Dan.

“Is that? Do you have a poodle with you?” She asked in disbelief.

“I – what?” Dan asked, taken aback.

“I, you, I’m sorry, I must be seeing things, I thought you had a poodle on your shoulder,” she stumbled off, staring back at us. Fortunately, there was an aid station just beyond the bend, so we didn’t feel obligated to make sure she was ok.

It did make us reminisce about some of the odd hallucinations we had on the Greenland icecap. At one point, we saw a pack of wolves in the distance, and at night, we always saw lights a ways behind us, as though there were a group a day behind us. It is crazy what the brain will come up with.

As we climbed up another ridge, our weather luck broke, and thunder heads gathered with alarming speed overhead. Just as we reached the top, lightning struck way too close for comfort, and at the same second a crash of thunder so loud it left our ears ringing boomed through the sky, and we both dropped to the ground, arms over our heads out of pure instinct. The next second, we were up and running, pell-mell, trekking poles clattering on rocks, slipping in the mud and hail that was now thundering from the sky, hair frizzing and hearts leaping in our throats.

Running down and then dropping into the trees, my foot began to scream at me, and I shouted at Dan that I couldn’t run, and continued on at a fast hike as the rain and hail pounded into the mud, the saturated ground unable to hold any more moisture, instantly turning the trail into a river.

I limped into camp at York Creek, now well below tree line, foot severely aggravated, but nobody struck by lightning. It was with trembling fingers that we tied out our guy lines. So far, I haven’t figured out the weather patterns. Thunder and lightning roll through at any time of day or night. Cold and wet again, we fell asleep, glad that at least it was an easy walk into town.

Overlooking Coleman

Indeed, it was a very easy walk into Coleman, at first on a two track, then a wide gravel road, then finally a few kilometers on pavement. My foot was still quite angry from the night before, and greatly favored going uphill instead of down, but this was mostly down, and what do you do besides walk?

As we stepped into Coleman, the most delicious smell of cinnamon washed over us, and as it was only 11 in the morning, we headed into the Cinnamon Bear Bakery, where we purchased cinnamon rolls and cookies, and sat down outside, where we were joined by Paul.

This is where the magic of the trail comes out – we came into town a bit hurt, a bit put out about being wet and cold for the last few days, and the very first person we run into in town is the most friendly, warm, encouraging person imaginable. It turned out Paul had guided in the Kakwa Lake area in the ’90s. Kakwa Lake is one of the ending points along this trail, though many end in Jasper National Park, or at Mt. Robson, as Kakwa Lake is quite a long, remote section, and requires an 80 km road walk out of. In fact, I have yet to meet someone in person who has actually been there. Paul’s eyes lit up when he heard that we were trying to get there, and we spent an hour listening to his tales of the area.

Our stoke for our adventure re-kindled, we checked into the Paddock Inn Motel, where the landlady is the kindest, most helpful human, and took a long warm shower each.

Trail life – it’s where your lows are very low, but your highs are even higher for it, and it’s all of that that makes this life so very, very special.

Thanks for the marvelous beginning, Canada!

And perhaps, truly, there’s a nugget of truth in what I told my charger: It’s not your job to think, it’s your job to charge.

Dealing with Disappointment

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Random fox tracks day four on the ice sheet. Made us wonder where the little guy was going.

They say you learn more from misadventures than from the ones that are smooth sailing the whole way. And you know, they’re probably right.

But that doesn’t make it easy. Not by a long shot.

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Safe inside the Red House as a piteraq rages off the ice sheet.

It’s actually taken me until just yesterday to realize that both Dan and myself are grieving. At first, it sounded ridiculous, but as I thought about it, I realized that it actually makes a lot of sense. We put everything we had this past winter into this trip. Between working several jobs spanning 60-70 hours a week, living as cheaply as possible, training every second we got, and spending all the other free seconds we could scrape together planning and preparing for this trip, we really had invested everything we had into skiing across Greenland.

ontocap

Roped glacier travel on skis with a 175lb pulk…

If you’re going to do it, you have to, I suppose. It’s a serious undertaking, one that can’t be done lightly, and we needed to do everything we did. We’d planned longer trips before, but nothing quite like this one, and the amount of dedication needed to get everything done on time before we left was huge.

And when you put that much into getting something done, you really, really hope that you do get it done, in fact, you can hardly allow yourself to entertain the idea that you might not. I’m not really sure when the idea first entered my head that this was a doomed expedition.

crossingice

Three km of skiing across frozen bay ice was enough to send my heart thumping

As we ran into insane baggage fees again and again, it certainly did not occur to me then, I just handed over the credit card (rather reluctantly, I suppose, but really, what was I supposed to do?) to pay the fees.

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Camped outside the Kulusuk airport, watching the dog teams take people and gear into town.

As we met more and more incredulous people over our lack of a shot gun, culminating in our taking the quickest ever lesson from a native on how to shoot an ancient shot gun and our camping the first night along the sea ice with another expedition of two, it certainly didn’t occur to me.

gun

Standing polar bear watch that first night.

As we heaved our outrageously heavy pulks up, up, ever up, sometimes having to remove our skis and wallow in the snow when the going was too steep to get good traction with our thin skins, it did not occur to me.

bergs

Sometimes, it was so steep and the pulks so heavy that we had to take off our skis and boot up.

Even when night-time temperatures plummeted to -60ºC, wind ripping across the frozen wasteland that so resembled what I can only imagine the moon looks like, and my body quite clearly and in no uncertain terms knew that this was weather in which my fragile little body could easily die, it did not occur to me.

stark

It’s a crazy frozen wasteland out there.

When Dan began exhibiting signs of frostbite on his fingers and toes, it was a concern, for sure, but he showed that he was dealing well with it, and being extremely mindful of his slightly damaged appendages.

Perhaps, it filtered into my thoughts on that first day that we could not move, the wind buffeting the tent so hard that a tiny tear started in one of the strongest tents on the market, while Dan and I took shifts heading out into the gale to dig out the snow that was continuously piling up between our tent and our snow wall, threatening to cover our tent completely.

nothing

I tell people there was nothing out there. I’m not lying!

But as the day got worse, and that tiny tear turned into something not so tiny and more along the lines of gigantic (and proved to me that super glue does indeed not set when it’s friggin’-cold-degrees out and also that my skill set with a needle and dental floss leaves much to be desired), and the forecast for the next few days was updated to 130mph winds and heavy snow (a particularly unpleasant combination, to be sure), I had a taste of death. It wasn’t quite there, it wasn’t knocking right on my door. But death was sniffing around; it had picked up our scent and was following hot on our trail.

pullit

One of the times we could actually see the horizon!

There was a point in my life when I would have welcomed death, when I would have flung my arms open and brought it to me. There was a time when I even sought it. So perhaps, my biggest realization when I felt death drawing near us, was that I did NOT want to greet death. I wasn’t ready, no way, no how – and certainly dying with Dan, frozen to death on that great lonely ice sheet was not something I wanted. I could clearly see what would happen: the tent would fail, inevitably. Any sort of snow shelter stood a high chance of being destroyed as well. And then – the cold, cold process of the body slowing down, freezing, freezing, until we were nothing but two frozen bodies. Some (Romeo and Juliet come to mind) might find the thought of perishing in a frozen wasteland romantic, but the thought of watching Dan freeze before me – I definitely have better circulation – was horrifying. I didn’t want to die, and I certainly didn’t want to watch my partner die. My own hot, blood-pumping body recoiled dramatically at this vision, as a viscously strong realization slammed into me: I wanted to live.

evportrait

You’re walking a line out there – you create your own bubble of an environment that the human body can survive in; all while surrounded by an environment that could easily kill the human body.

There followed an extremely circuitous communication slog, in which we called via satellite phone Arctic Command in Nuuk, Greenland, our insurance company, and Fran.

Rasmus, with Arctic Command, got back to us with a weather forecast for our location very similar to what we had received, but with slightly stronger winds, and said “I’d like to see you guys get out of there. You do have two choices though: you could dig down, it’s the only way you have a possibility of surviving, but the Greenlandic snowpack is difficult to manage, and there’s a very high chance that it will collapse and you will still die. Or you get out of there.”

A few hours later, we were greeted by a helicopter pilot as he landed next to our destroyed tent by the words, “It’s nice to pick up actual humans and not bodies!”

That cemented in my mind that it was the right decision. It didn’t make it any easier though. As we rose up in the air, I watched our tent get smaller and smaller below us, feeling a hurricane of emotion threatening to implode me from within. Hot tears coursed down my cheeks, burning on my wind- and sun-burned cheeks.

gorgeous

Watching the ice flow below

ocean

Dangerous and deadly, yet captivating and breathtaking

Now, Dan and I have been home for a little over a month. I’m still working on processing this whole trip, the decision, the failure. It doesn’t help that I finally went to the doctor a few days after getting back to have my foot checked out. Several months ago, I had had a crash while skiing that had left me unable to bear weight for a few days, and that seconds after it happened, I told Dan that I had broken my foot. A minute later I said it wasn’t and walked out. When, three months later, I finally went in, it was to discover that I had fractured my calcaneus. I was ordered into a boot and on crutches for a month, which left me with very few coping mechanisms. My typical form of self medication is to beat the crap out of my inner demons until they’re so tired they no longer rear their ugly heads – that and a gigantic helping of good old fashioned sunshine to top it off.

wind

Two full pulks, one winding pulk trail.

For a month, while I reeled in turmoil  from our Greenland trip, I couldn’t even deal with the craziness in my head. I was reduced to sitting on our porch, which I will grant is actually quite nice, but did very little to help me heal. I don’t think I even realized I needed to heal.

Iwhite

Every second is filled to bursting out there.

But now, as we’re settling back into being home, as the massive fight or flight response is finally winding down and my body’s chemistry goes back to normal, my X-Rays are coming back normal, and I’m allowed to walk without crutches, I’m realizing that it’s ok. We are grieving. It was a rather traumatic experience. We went through a lot in the space of a very small time frame.

But most importantly, I’m realizing that it’s ok.

moreshadows

The crazy thing is…we’re planning on going back

Greenland Ski Traverse Gear List

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Sometimes it’s hot, but you still gotta wear your new boots!

Here’s a quick and dirty gear list of what all we’re taking to Greenland. This isn’t a nice write up like the one I did for the Continental Divide Trail, but it gets the point across. The format is also what I generally use for our backpacking trips, where I really care about weight. And while I care about weight for this trip, I’m not sure I want to be alarmed by just how heavy everything is! It’s enough for me to know that it’s standard for a month long polar-style expedition sled to weigh 165lbs. So I’m going to say I’m in that range!

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Food is gear, too 🙂

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I got organized! Each separate colour of stuff sack is for four days of food. We still have to buy some in Greenland.

This list is my personal gear – Dan’s gear is pretty similar, although without things like the Freshette, Diva Cup, and sports bra, obviously

Gear Item Specific Weight (lb.) Have Packed!
Sled w/harness & poles Acalpulka Expedition Tour 135 ✔︎ ✔︎
Arctic Bedding Piteraq XL ✔︎ ✔︎
Sleeping Pad Closed-cell foam ✔︎ ✔︎
Sleeping Pad Therm-A-Rest X-Therm ✔︎
Sleeping Bag WM Puma 5’6” ✔︎ ✔︎
Ski Poles Asnes Fram 140 ✔︎ ✔︎
Skis w/bindings Asnes Ceclie 185 ✔︎ ✔︎
Skins x2 Asnes full length, nylon & mohair ✔︎
Kicker Skins x2 Asnes 45mm mohair ✔︎
Ski Boots Alfa Polar ✔︎
Warm Boots Steger Arctic Mukluks ✔︎
Shell Jacket Bergans Ceclie ✔︎
Shell Pants Arcteryx Alfa ✔︎
Softshell Jacket Arcteryx Gamma ✔︎
Light Pants Fjallraven Bergtagen ✔︎
Big Insulation RAB Positron ✔︎
Light Insulation Fjallraven Bergtagen ✔︎
Vest
Light Thermal Top Kari Traa Tikse ✔︎
Light Thermal Bottom Kari Traa Tikse ✔︎
Heavy Thermal Top Kari Traa Rose ✔︎
Heavy Thermal Bottom Kari Traa Rose ✔︎
Sleep Thermal Top Kari Traa Ulla ✔︎
Sleep Thermal Bottom Kari Traa Ulla ✔︎
Wool Tank Top Icebreaker 200 ✔︎
Underwear x2 Icebreaker Siren
Bra Kari Traa Ness ✔︎
Liner Socks Bridgedale Race ✔︎
VBL Socks Plastic bags
Thick Socks Darn Tough
Sleep Socks Darn Tough
Compression Socks Feetures
Mid Layer Top Melanzana Fleece ✔︎
Mid Layer Bottom Melanzana Fleece ✔︎
Light Gloves Hestra Touch Point Wool ✔︎
Light Mitts Hestra Winter Tour ✔︎
Warm Mitts BD Mercury ✔︎
Bomber Mitts Steger Arctic ✔︎
Windproof Cap EXA Lowe ✔︎
Ski Cap
Ball Cap
Headlamp Black Diamond Spot
Sunglasses Julbo MonteRosa ✔︎
Goggles Smith ✔︎
Facemask Cold Avengers ✔︎
Buff
Shovel Camp ✔︎ ✔︎
Hairties
Facewipes  Yes to primRose
Spoon Orange Plastic
Cup GSI plastic ✔︎
Bowl Nalgene Jar ✔︎
Knife Benchmade ✔︎
Thermos HydroFlask 32oz ✔︎
Large Thermos 45° Latitude 64oz ✔︎
Food Thermos HydroFlask 18oz ✔︎
Watch Suunto Ambit 3 ✔︎
Feminine Hygiene Diva Cup ✔︎
Urinary device Freshette ✔︎
Inhaler ✔︎
Toothbrush Oral B ✔︎
Lip Balm Ski Naked
Phone iphone SE w/Otterbox ✔︎
HandiSani
Cards ID/debt/insurance/passport/Global Rescue, etc.
External Battery Anker PowerCore 26800
Cords/Earbuds iphone charger, earbuds
Shoes La Sportiva Ultra Raptor GTX                      
Crevasse Rescue Kit Black Diamond Couloir, Black Diamond ATC Guide, Camp Corsa axe, 4 locking carabiners, 4 non-locking carabiners, Petzl Tibloc, varying prusiks axe
Funfun! Little Kitty toy
Total

0

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The “soft clothes” I’m bringing. The others are shells and puffies pretty much

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My big bag of shtuff! Note the kitty ❤ 

I think Bjorn approves of the kitty!

Now, here’s our group gear:

Gear Item Specific Weight (lb.) Have Packed!
Shelter Hilleberg Namatge3 ✔︎ ✔︎
Sled Bag Hilleberg ✔︎ ✔︎
Stove MSR XGK x2 ✔︎
Wind screen MSR ✔︎
Box for Cook kit w/lid for stove Plastic ✔︎
Cookware GSI 4L ✔︎
Trash Bags Lopsak Opsak, 12.25” x 20” x2 ✔︎
Fuel
Matches & Lighters
Candles
Food Sacks
Compass
Probe ✔︎ ✔︎
Snow Saw Black Diamond Snow Saw Pro ✔︎ ✔︎
1st Aid Kit

second skin, neosporin, band aids, liquid bandage, Advil, Tylenol, Advil PM, Benadryl, Peptobismol, needle, athletic tape, wound closure strips, safety pins, tweezers, nail clippers, arnica, athletic tape, Ace bandage, Dr. Braunners, Tenacious Tape

✔︎
Repair Kit

Leatherman Juice CS4, therm-a-rest repair kit, Tenacious Tape, spare pole basket, stove repair kit, bailing wire, zip ties, duct tape, tent zippers, spare pole section for tent, super glue, allen key for sleds, bungee for sleds

✔︎
Spare Binding

binding, screws, steel wool, binding buddy with drill bit

Bootfitting Supplies

Heel lifts, various wedges, bontex boards, foam, carpet tape

Spare Pole Set

BD Traverse

✔︎ ✔︎
Brush for Ice ✔︎
Container for scraping ice/condensation
Extra Batteries
Wax Kit

Polar, green, Blue extra, cork, glop stopper, kick scraper

✔︎
Camera Cannon a6000 ✔︎
Camera Battery
Drone DJI Mavic Pro, 3x batteries ✔︎
POV Camera GoPro Hero 5
Memory Cards
InReach Delorme Explorer ✔︎
GPS Garmin etrex 30x ✔︎
GPS Garmin 60CSx ✔︎
PLB McMurdo Fast Find 220 ✔︎
Marine Radio Cobra Marine ✔︎
Sat Phone iridium
Weather reader Kestrel 2500 ✔︎
Chargers ✔︎
Maps Garmin Greenland ✔︎
Food
Tea
Toothpaste Lush Toothy Tabs ✔︎
Floss Glide ✔︎
Solar Charger Suntactics S-14 ✔︎
Sunscreen Dermatone Z-cote ✔︎
Funfun Deck of cards (Harry Potter for more fun!) ✔︎
Group Crevasse Rescue Kit Black Diamond 7.0 dry, snow picket, ice screws x2 snow picket
Emergency Bivy Terra Nova Superlite Bothy 2
Total

0

 

 

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A bit of our repair kit

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Our sleds all packed up! No messing around with cardboard boxes this time

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Maps! Because who doesn’t love maps?

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Cards for those tent-bound days. Ima have to up my game – can’t tell the difference between black and red on this deck. But Harry Potter!

Mostly a pictures post, but time is of the essence. What would you pack?

The Big Question

D&Epulk

Training up high with the storm clouds rolling in.

More than any other adventure that Dan and I have embarked on, we’ve received that big question: Why?

So far, most of what we’ve done kind of makes sense to most people – even those who are not inclined towards launching themselves wholeheartedly at type-two kinds of adventures. Even if someone’s idea of a good time is not trekking across the United States for months-on-end along the spine of the Continental Divide, it seems like most can comprehend why somebody else might want to do that. The same thing goes for skiing across the Hardangervidda multiple times, or entering races, or really anything else that we’ve done. But with Greenland I’ve received the question of “Why?” astronomically more times than ever before.

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Sometimes, we’re being generous when we say type two fun!

Let’s be honest: it’s actually a fair enough question. We want to go to one of two icecaps in the whole world. A place with no life. And to be honest – once you’re up on a the icecap, there’s really nothing much at all except me and Dan and a vast white horizon. I know: I’ve watched videos, seen pictures. It’s a vast, non-undulating mass of white. It’s what I imagine being at sea would be like. Just on-going, never-ending, flat horizon. There are no resupply points, so we have to have everything that we might need for a month – including all of our food and fuel. This means that I’m willingly volunteering to drag a sled behind me that most likely is going to end up weighing more than I do myself. According to what I’ve seen – temperatures at freezing are the highest we might expect. To that end, -28°C is definitely a possibility. Added to that is windchill, a very real thing, as it’s not uncommon to encounter quite intense windstorms – and even though we live in a place that we somewhat-lovingly dub “Windora”, the wind there is on a whole other level, if only because there is nothing, absolutely nothing to protect us out there from the wind.

My knee-jerk reaction when someone asks me why is the in-famous, and fully incomplete answer “because it is there”. It’s a cop-out answer, to be honest. So I’ve been thinking about it. What actually draws me to this particular adventure?

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Can you fly over this and NOT want to go there?

I think maybe it might have started the first time I ever traveled to Europe – in 2010 I took a trip to England and Ireland, and as every plane does, we flew over Greenland. At that point, I don’t think I thought I’d ever see it up close. But something about it triggered a longing inside me. It might be impossible to look at that place out a plane window and nor wonder – what if? That feeling has not subsided the more I’ve flown over it – in fact, every time builds a stronger desire to be there, to experience it. Every adventure that Dan and I do – well, it makes me wonder…

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Enjoying the serenity of camp on the Hardangervidda.

This life is short, right? Honestly, we don’t get a whole heck of a lot of time. And maybe something I’ve learned in my short time so far is that I don’t want to let an experience slip away. I don’t want to give up on the chance to learn something else about myself. I don’t want to miss an opportunity to see what is possible. Greenland is like one of those magical lands of opportunities – and obviously I don’t mean that in the obvious sense. Since talking about Greenland, people always make the joke about how Greenland is not green and Iceland has no ice. Obviously not talking about those kinds of possibilities. I’m talking about more…

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Enjoy that cup of tea!

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Yes, you can be cozy when it’s howling wind, snowing, and freezing cold out!

Greenland is a place that has captured my imagination: the vast openness, the wildness, the starkness that is the icecap – all of it speaks to my soul. It’s an opportunity to see and feel and experience a place that so few humans have. And the opportunity to cross it is a chance to explore myself even further than I ever have before – a chance to explore my own personal human boundaries, both the physical and the mental ones. I’m under no delusions that it will be easy. But perhaps that lack of ease is partially what attracts me. Maybe this is truly at the heart of what we consider type-two adventures: there are those of us that are strongly, inexplicably drawn to what many would deem “suffer-fests”.

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Potentially genetically pre-disposed to love the suffer-fest?

I’ve read some articles that touch on the subject. Apparently there are some people that do not actually get rewarded for exercise – they for real do not get the “runner’s high”. Their bodies simply do not reward them. And then there are others – others whose bodies reward them higher than average. That’s right: some people’s bodies reward them very highly for doing things involving strenuous physical activities. My suspicion is that I fall in the later category. And so does Dan.

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The pulks after a cold night out.

That’s another part of this: I want to experience absolutely everything. I want to grab this life by the horns and really feel and experience whatever it is that is waiting out there and I want nothing more than to go through it all with Dan. I’m beyond lucky to find this in a partner, but it works so well. It’s true – that feeling of strength and power and all those little reward chemicals that pump through your body when you complete something challenging are incredible. But to get to share them with the love of my life? Well, that’s just plain special.

And as I think of it more, my only real response to the Big Question is: Why would I not?

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Also – I want to thank everyone who has been so supportive of us as we’ve trained and worked towards this goal! You all mean so much to us. And if you would like to support us monetarily (because, let’s face it, this expedition is hella expensive!) we have a Go Fund Me at https://www.gofundme.com/expedition-greenland-team-vardami. Also, under the Donations tab here, the link is at the bottom. We plan to really share this experience via words, photos, and video when we get back!

Once again, thank you so much!

Staying Sane in a Worrisome World

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Heading out of the Wind Rivers in Wyoming.

I’m not a cocky person. Usually, I have a myriad of little things running through my head, putting me in my place, so to speak. When I do have confidence, it’s usually for a good reason. When Dan and I finished the Continental Divide Trail last fall, I actually had confidence that I could transition back to a normal life, and that honestly, it wouldn’t be that challenging. I figured, how hard can it be? We have carved out a life that is pretty good. We live in an old cabin in a small town – 150 people in the summer time, and significantly less in the winter – with wilderness and forest service lands literally right outside our door. Whatever it is that we want to do – be it mountain biking, running, roller skiing, groomed nordic skiing, backcountry nordic skiing, AT skiing, telemark skiing – we can either do it directly from our door, or drive five minutes to Eldora. I’d have to say that we’re pretty darn lucky. And it’s always been good enough – until now.

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Home is pretty good.

There’s a lot of literature out there about thru-hiking – and in almost every single one, you’ll also read about a phenomenon called “post-trail depression”. There’s also a phrase used very regularly after people get off a trail: “thru-hiking will ruin your life”. I saw these, read about them, acknowledged them, and honestly, disregarded them. It’s not that I think I’m any better and any better adjusted (heaven knows I’m not) than any other hiker out there. It’s that I knew we were coming back to something that was pretty darn good. I know other hikers often end up back in cities – and I definitely recognized how hard it would be to go from living in the wilderness for five months to constantly being surrounded by the horrid hustle, bustle, noise, and stress of the city. Heck, I’ve never been able to stand it. I grew up in a town of 1,600 people, and it’s the largest place I’ve lived.

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Thru-hiking might just ruin your life…

I didn’t expect that deep, deep melancholy that settled over us after we got off the trail. Everything seemed so…tame. It seemed like nothing was worthwhile. On the trail, if we were trying to meet up with someone, it was within a several day time window. Or, as hikers coordinating a ride from town, even that would have an hour time frame.

“We’ll meet to ride back up to the pass around 9 or 10.”

“I expect we’ll be in Helena sometime between Wednesday and Friday.”

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Not usually a horse person, but after 80 miles of road walking, I’ll take the distraction!

The trail life invites freedom – in its most free form – into your life. It breathes in your very lungs, it is your heartbeat, it is the blood pulsing through your veins.

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Freedom is the name of the game during a thru-hike

But you can’t very well tell your boss that you’ll be at work around 9 or 10 – let alone that it might be between Wednesday and Friday that you’ll actually show up. There are things, simple things really, that you are expected to show up to in everyday life with. And this is true on the trail, but they’re different. If you forgot your rain shell, well you’d be a very unhappy hiker if the winds picked up, the sky opened up, and the rain cascaded down. In real life, it’s frowned upon if you walk out of the house without your wallet and phone – items I failed to bring with me for the first several weeks back.

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Everything I need is on my back

People are intense, too. Angry, even. They stand in line, glaring, sit in their cars, impatient. It was challenging. I wanted to be alone, to process whatever was happening inside me, but we had to go to work. It was both overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time. There was too much and too little.

Heck, it was even the little things. I couldn’t just drop trou whenever I needed to pee, no matter where I was. I had to, gasp, find a restroom. It’s weird, but even those little things add up.

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Peace and freedom reign in Glacier National Park

Where freedom and peace of mind came so easily on the trail, I found myself fighting for it every moment back in the “real world”. In the middle of November, I realized that it just wasn’t going to come easy, and started making an effort. I tried to approach it like we would a challenge on the trail – slowly, steadfast, with single-minded determination.

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Every night, I incorporated a mindfulness meditation into my routine. I would make a cup of tea, drink it, and then let the calming voice of the woman who lead the meditation wash over me. I cried every night, even though I wasn’t sure why. Things got a little worse before they got better. I began crying at random times – driving down the canyon, I’d see something that trigged me, in the market I couldn’t focus on my groceries and became overwhelmed – anywhere and everywhere I became susceptible to the fountain of tears. But it slowly got a bit better: I began to be able to sort through the raging emotions locked inside my chest. When work was slammed and I was working with six people at once with more staring at me, waiting, I could breathe in and out, focusing on nothing but the breath, and come at my situation with a bit more clarity.

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Sometimes being on the trail was tough

I then brought a gratitude journal into my life. It seemed hokey, but the rate I was going, I needed something. The meditation opened me up to being grateful, and the gratitude journal allowed me to tap into all the little things I could be grateful for. Slowly, I began to heal. Ten people standing around me didn’t cause a panic stirring within me. I could shop for my groceries. I could be on time somewhere – and I’d even have my wallet and my phone. And gradually, the happiness came back as well.

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Made it to Canada – but now what?

I still miss the trail life with such a deep persistent ache the when I think about it, it’s actually painful. Thru-hiking might have ruined me, I’ll be honest, but in the most beautiful way possible.

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The fire-raved sky of Montana rages in the evenings.