Mount Robson to Kakwa Lake

Words by Elaine, photos and captions by Dan.

Ridgeline

This is it, the big one, the one we’ve all been waiting for!

Sure, Fred and George Weasley may have forever engrained these words into many a millennial’s mind, but they sure seemed fitting as we headed into this last, and wildest, section of the Great Divide Trail.

I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. Dan and I arrived in Valemount, where we were resupplying for the last section, just fine – eating burgers, happy to dry out. That night, I woke up with the worst, wrenching stomach cramps. For 12 hours, I couldn’t stray far from the bathroom, and at one point, was stretched out on the balcony outside our room, sweating and shaking, wondering if I was going to die. (Yes, I’m a very dramatic sick person). Then, magically, that night I ate a whole pizza and packed up. I still have no idea what happened, but I was very grateful it passed quickly.

August 13th – Back into the Woods – 7 miles, 1,400′ gain

In Valemount, we met Mik again and realized that we were on a similar schedule. Their mom was coming to pick them up and offered us a ride as well. The trail ends, and then there is a 100km road walk out to a highway where you have to hitch from. This is Highway 16, which is also nicknamed the “Highway of Tears” because of a series of rapes and murders that have happened along it in the past 30 years. Now, these have actually happened between Prince George and Prince Rupert, which are quite far away from where we would be coming out on the highway, and the victims are by and large natives, but regardless, it was still a very disconcerting thing to know. Long story short, we decided to go through the last section together.

hitching

Hitchhiking isn’t our favorite part of hiking, but it’s sometimes necessary. A piece of cardboard, a sharpie and looking clean can help a lot.

Dan and I began hitching out of Valemount in the afternoon, and had a lucky hitch – a gentleman in a van pulled over almost as soon as we stood on the highway. He had seen our sign saying “Mount Robson”, and was heading there, so instead of what is usually a two-part hitch, we got the ride all in one.

As we started up the Berg Lake Trail, weighed down by our packs filled to bursting with our ten day resupply, we marveled at the difference good trail makes. The Great Divide Trail is, more often than not, on what would be more likely called a “path”, or even just cross country travel. With the Berg Lake Trail built to accommodate the traffic from so many people, we could cruise along fairly easily.

Arriving at the Whitehorn campground, where our reservation was for the night, we scoped a few spots, then chose one a bit further away from the main spread of tents, with an extra pad nearby in case Mik showed up. Taking our Subway sandwiches (it’s a nice break from freeze-dried food on that first night) down to the cook area, we soon struck up conversation with a family that had brought their kids up for a five-day trip. They had seen us coming down as they were going up, and so were confused as to what we were doing. We chatted for a while before everyone began to drift away to bed.

Dan and I stayed up for a while, watching the many waterfalls cascading down the cliffs around us as the sun set. It was hard to believe that the end of the hike was coming, and I felt a great swell of sadness. Some people say that the end of a trail gets easier the more you do it…I’m not sure that’s true for me. The more I stay out in this world, the harder it seems to be to come back to the hustle and bustle of civilization.

waterfall

One of the many waterfalls in the “Valley of 1,000 Falls.”

August 14th – Onto the North Boundary Trail, Into the Wild – 17.4 miles, 2,400′ gain

One of the things I love the most about backpacking is how amazing I sleep out here. I woke up that morning with no memory of even turning over in my sleep – however, as soon as I sat up, something felt wrong. I wriggled around in my sleeping bag to take a look at my sleeping mat, and immediately felt my heart sink. I use a blow up air mattress, one that has served me well for many thousands of miles. Punctures are a bit par for the course, though because I’m careful, I rarely get those. This, this was not a puncture – a baffle had blown, a phenomenon I’d only ever heard of when it comes to air mattresses, never seen, and it created an awkward bubble up by my head. As there was nothing I could do about it, I shrugged and we packed up and began the climb back up to Berg Lake and Mount Robson.

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Mount Robson and her glaciers rolling into Berg Lake.

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The weather at Mount Robson was a lot clearer the second time past. 

I’d been dreading this climb a bit, with the large packs, but because the trail was so well built, and the scenery was beautifully distracting, Dan and I were at Berg Lake before we knew it. Unlike the last time we had been there, blue skies reigned, and as we spread out by the lake to watch the mountain and wait for Mik, we got to bask in all its glory. While we waited, we pulled out our food, and again went over how much we had. Obviously it’s not our first time doing this, but it was very hard to banish the niggling doubts that we didn’t have enough. As we spread out the piles of food around us, other hikers came by to ask what we were doing with all that food. It is a funny experience to try to describe a hike that goes to place no one has ever heard of!

RobsonFace

It’s not easy, but people ski down this slope. 

glaciertoe

A jumbled mass of ice flows into Berg Lake. 

Mik arrived and we headed off again, eventually rejoining the Great Divide Trail, where we half-jokingly, half-seriously made an offering to the trail. It’s easy to get superstitious out here, and what with the weather we’d had, overconfidence was not a problem. For this section, we followed the old, decommissioned North Boundary Trail for a ways. It was a section I’d been dreading, as Jasper National Park is decommissioning trails everywhere, and the decommissioned trails are pretty horrible. However, the North Boundary Trail was still in pretty good shape: there was deadfall, but not enough to really slow us, and the trail was swampy and muddy, but nowhere near what we’d encountered in places from Jasper to Mount Robson.

offering

The GDT feels like a living, breathing spirit that you want to keep happy or it will destroy you. Here is an offering we made to the GDT gods to keep them happy.

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Sasquatch (or a bear that slipped) print found on the North Boundary Trail in far northern Jasper National Park. This is one of the wildest sections of the trail with very few visitors. It seems the only people who actually go here are GDT hikers. 

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Heading north(ish) along the Smoky River on the North Boundary Trail. 

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Sometimes the trail would deteriorate to just a channel of water thru a swamp.

We called it a day in a dense, murky forest, towering pine trees draped in old man’s beard leering over us as we pitched our tents on the mossy ground and walked 100 meters down the trail to cook supper.

Dan gave me a beautiful pair of earrings he’d picked up in Valemount, carved from birch found in the area, and when they found out it was my birthday, Mik gave me a piece of their chocolate for desert. Curled up in our tents that evening, an owl serenaded us to sleep, I knew there was nowhere else I’d rather be than there in the moss.

elaineandmik

Mik (R) and Elaine. Camping was tough to find this night, so we ended up just hopping into the woods and finding soft sections of moss to set up our shelters on. Owls hooted during the dark and it ended up being one of our best nights of sleep on the entire trail.

August 15th – Jasper’s Parting Gift…Torrential Rain – 14.4 miles, 3,400′ gain

The thrush bird ushered us into the day that morning, its powerful call ringing through the quiet woods. Once again, it was a fabulous night’s sleep, despite another baffle fully blowing on my mat, creating an even larger big air bubble.

wildarea

Nice big mountains and wild country along the North Boundary Trail.

We traipsed through the lush mossy forest, absorbing the steady thrum of life emanating from it. Mount Robson lays east of the coast, obviously, but very few to no mountain ranges are directly between it and the coast, so the area is very wet, almost coastal, to the point of cedars growing down low.

cedar

Cedar trees are usually found much closer to the coast. The area near Mount Robson benefits because the mountain attracts a ton of moisture, allowing big trees like this to grow.

We reached the Chown river – another river that has been known to cause problems, and where we would leave the North Boundary Trail. We took our first snack break by the river to discuss what we wanted to do. The trail technically crosses, goes up river a few kilometers, and then crosses again, so you could either cross it twice, or not at all. As the trail was once again more what one would describe as a “footpath” at best, and the Chown was looking rather full (with the wet summer, rivers are running high), we all decided to keep to our bank. At first we headed up the flood plain – easy traveling on bare rocky ground – until we were forced up into the woods. Progress slowed dramtically here, as we clambered over, under, and between deadfall. Finally, we reached the point where the trail crossed back over, and movement became a bit simpler.

Cown

Wading thru a Chown River tributary. We opted not to do a full crossing of the river, instead choosing a bushwhack route that avoided the main channel.

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The bushwhacking was slow but adventurous.

chownvalley

Wild remote mountains in far northern Jasper National Park.

As we started up Bess Pass, we began a singing game where one person would sing a couplet from a song, and then choose a word from that phrase, and then someone else would sing a song with that word in it. This was great fun, and covered a fair amount of distance for us, as we laughed hard. This turned out to be a bad idea – the excess energy used to belt out songs and double up with laughter moved our typical snack time up an hour, and we sobered up after that – none of us had brought enough food to carry on with that.

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Working our way up Bess Pass.

We passed under Chown Glacier – a vast glacier stretching out widely above us, and the source of many waterfalls all around. The trail deteriorated, becoming a muddy mess that caused each step to slip back half of what we gained. Cresting Bess Pass, sweeping views lay out before us, every peak sporting a glacier.

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Waterfalls up Bess Pass. The clouds were building and the weather would soon turn for the worse. 

topobess

Up and over Bess Pass and exiting Jasper National Park for the final time. We were now entering the legendary Willmore Wilderness.

As we reached Jackpine horse camp, heavy rain moved in, and we all layered into our rain gear before heading up Jackpine Pass. We set up camp in the rolling alpine, quick efficiency the name of the game with the threat of hypothermia looming in the cold rain. But once again we were tucked into our cozy tent and it was cuddly warm.

tents

Our camp near the top of Jackpine Pass. It rained hard all night long at camp, and snowed just a few hundred meters higher up.

August 16 – Onto the Jack Pine Alternate – 16 miles, 4,600′ gain

Rain poured all night long, with snow on the peaks just above where we camped, and I was grateful that we were camped on mostly slate rock with the hopes that it would drain well. It was a tough morning to get going, cold, wet, and foggy, so the three of us slowly meandered through a complicated terrain of tarns, ridges, and moraines. It’s interesting, traveling with someone else. Dan and I have almost exclusively traveled together for so many years now, we’re about as close to functioning as one person as two can be. Generally, we need to shed/add layers at the same time, take a break at the same time, all of the little stops that slow a group down, over the years, we’ve adjusted so that we’re really only stopping the same amount one person would. Adding another human into the mix is an interesting experience, and definitely one that is taking some getting used to.

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A soggy, crisp, foggy morning on the Jackpine Alternate.

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A dusting of snow touched the upper peaks. At 53° north, snow in August in the mountains is a fairly regular occurrence. 

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Wild country, home to caribou, wolves, marmots and soggy GDT hikers. 

The sun came out for a bit, so we took a snack break on a ridge above Blueberry Lake. Heading down to it, we hit surprisingly good trail that lasted until we hit bog again. Picking our way through it, we reached where the official trail dropped down into the Jackpine Valley to follow Jackpine River. The Perseverance High Route Alternate went off to our left, following a very high, completely cross-country route, 10km longer, and with a lot more elevation gain. However, the Jackpine River comes with quite the reputation – one hiker has dubbed it “The Valley of Sadness” for it’s bushwhacking through willows, mud, lack of trail, and general ickiness.

gorgeousness

The sun worked hard to peek thru, creating a magical vista of tundra, lakes, mountains, glaciers, fresh snow and clouds. 

epicmtnsEM

Navigating here required a lot of attention, as trail was non-existent. This will be the next step in our adventures…moving away from the established trails and finding routes that require more navigation and terrain management. 

vista

Big northern country on the Jackpine Alternate.

Though the clouds were still overhead, and the forecast wasn’t great, we headed up the alternate, knowing that there were several places we could bail off if the weather moved in. Immediately, we discovered that while the map showed us traipsing in a straight line across the tundra, the actual terrain was more complicated than that, involving us cutting straight across several very deep troughs and ridges, rising like waves perpendicular to the mountainside.

greyriver

Crossing a little creek just north of Blueberry Lake. 

bigmountains

Onto the Perseverance Alternate. This part of the trail was considerably slower and more rugged than the Jackpine section, with lots of talus and scree travel. 

smileelaine

Hiking thru the talus at one of those locations where the rock was grey on one side, and almost orange on the other. Geology is easy to see here. Generally speaking, the rock here is much more crumbly than the granite found in Colorado. We found numerous fossil shells on the top of passes and peaks, as this once used to all be under the ocean. 

We experienced another snafu when it came to navigation. Dan and I have honed a system over the years where he will do the macro navigation from the back, pointing out our general heading, and I do the micro navigation from the front, choosing the line to get there. Mik had been traveling solo, so had been doing it all. After several failed attempts at swapping responsibilities around, we settled on a similar arrangement that Dan and I usually use, especially as Mik’s knee began to act up more and more as the terrain grew more steep and technical.

slatemik

Mik moving well thru a shale topped ridgeline. This is remote country, and injury isn’t really an option. Or, if you do get hurt, it’s critical to find a way to work thru it effectively or you’re basically calling in for an expensive rescue. 

cliffdescent

This was one of the trickier descents of the day. The rock here was not stable, so we went one at a time, making sure to never be vertically above or below the hiker in front. A lot of communication is required to travel thru safely in a group. Unfortunately, it slows travel down to a crawl pace. 

cliffband

These mountains frequently had large cliff bands that would extend for a few kilometers before having a break. Here, we were fortunate that the route asked us to traverse above it!

The rest of the day involved navigating up long ridges and down several tricky cliff bands, where Dan rolled his ankle pretty badly and in an unusual way, rolling it over itself to the inside. It didn’t bother him much at the time, and we continued onward. Eventually we reached a set of tarns where we set up camp, very far away from each other due to the scarcity of semi-flat spaces.

intent

Perseverance Camp near an alpine tarn for water. We had to camp quite far away from Mik, as there were few spots in the area with flat ground and rock free. Our shelter in the Hyperite Duo Mid, a fantastic mid that is strong in wind and perfect for travel in northern, wet climates. We’ll give a full review soon.

August 17th – Perseverance, Storms and Heinous Bushwhacks – 12 miles, 4,500′ gain

This was the first night my mat really hindering my sleep. Another couple baffles blew, and while there was a sense of dread when I hear it happening before I’ve fallen asleep, it was quite shocking and loud after I’d fallen asleep! Dan also woke up to find that the ankle he had rolled the day before was feeling useless. He could hardly weight it, and said it was throbbing as we sat there. There’s not much we can do out here though, so I went over it as best I could – assessing for swelling, which there was very little and no bruising. While Dan visualized his ankle healing rapidly, I taped him up and had him take several ibuprofen tablets combined with a caffeine pill in the hopes of managing the pain properly.

ridgewalker

The Perseverance Route was some of the most interesting, challenging travel on the entire GDT. This is wild and remote country, more like Alaska or the Yukon than trails in the lower-48.

victory.jpg

Celebrating big country and massive valleys in the Willmore Wilderness. Unfortunately, the weather was rapidly getting worse, making traction on the loose rock challenging. 

Mik joined us and we began climbing up to our next pass via sweeping slabs of rock. Dan’s ankle began to feel a bit better as we climbed and by the time we crested a snowfield to the pass, nestled in between two glaciers, he was walking fairly normally. Another curiosity with our maps occurred here, as we gazed down the talus-filled valley at two lakes that very clearly were there in real life and not on the maps. We navigated the challenging, steep talus down to the lakes, and then climbed up a ridge above the lakes where we chose our route very carefully and slowly down a series of cliff bands and waterfalls to the valley below. The beauty was stunning, but the attention required to not slip over the cliffs prevented any of us from taking many.

elaineandmik

Elaine and Mik hiking along the spine of the divide on the Perseverence Alternate. 

smile

Elaine in her happy place. Some people are suited better for wild places than the civilized world. She is definitely one of them. 

sketchdown

A slow descent along the Perseverance Alternate. There was no 3 mph travel here. Come to think of it, there wasn’t much 3 mph travel on the entire trail. The saying is, “1 km on the GDT is the same as 1 mile on the trails in the lower-48.” Simply put, it’s a harder and wilder route. 

Eventually, we reached another talus-covered slope, this one much gentler, and now covered in rain-soaked lichen and moss, making footing even more tricky. As we began climbing up to another ridge, the wind began to pick up, whipping our backpack straps around and blowing hats off. We walked along the ridge for a while before navigating down some more little cliff bands to a creek at the base of Perseverance Mountain. We filled up on water and began the very steep climb up it. It was a grind, just trying to keep it moving, but I loved it.

evclimb

Elaine working her way up Perseverance Mountain as the rain and wind build. 

disheveleddan

Working hard on the Perseverance Mountain climb.

toporidge

Elaine crests the top of Perseverance Mountain and assesses the ridgeline route ahead. We were nearing a decision point. The route ahead continued on in this fashion for another 5 miles and the going would be slow. The weather was lousy and we didn’t have enough time to get off the ridge before night. We weren’t moving particularly quickly. On the other hand, descending off the ridge would require a heinous bushwhack in claustrophobic forest. We decided to continue on the ridge for awhile longer. 

ridgeline

They may take our lands, but they’ll never take our FREEEEEEEEDDOOOOOMMM! 

As we reached the top, the wind continued, whistling around our ears, bringing rain this time. We eyed our ridge, and the six peaks along it that we would climb on the route as we donned our rain gear. As we worked our way up and over the first one, the storm moved in stronger, the by-now familiar white wall of heavy rain advancing on us. The weather was rapidly deteriorating, the rock was getting very slick and travel was slow. We hunkered down in a little pass between peaks, debating what to do, eventually deciding to bail on the high route.

mikcrazydown

The ridgeline required a bunch of Class III travel over loose, exposed rocks. Awesome in good weather, a little less enjoyable with a cold rain making everything slick.

twoontop

Decision time. For the safety of the entire group, we decided to drop off the ridge and tackle a heinous bushwhack instead. 

At first, as we descended, it was relatively easy travel on crushed scree, then across soggy tundra, but soon we hit a dense woods. There was nothing to do but put our heads down and keep going, each retreating into our own little suffer bubbles. Eventually we reached the Jackpine River and the official trail, or what little of it there was. It was in a bit of a depressed state that we all set up camp that night.

The woods here were so dense, it was almost dark, and we were so exhausted that getting water for dinner almost turned into a disaster. The woods were extremely disorienting, and by the time we found water we had little idea of which way to go to get back to camp. We grabbed the GPS and headed in the general direction of where we thought we should be, yelling loudly, hoping for a reply from Mik.

mooseskull

The bushwhack down was a three-hour blur of route finding, log hopping (and ducking) and immersion into a claustrophobic, soaking wet land of deep vegetation. Fair to say it was the wildest part of the entire hike, and in some ways the most dangerous because it would be so easy to get lost here. Working our way thru the forest required 100% focus, and by the bottom we were all mentally exhausted. 

After repeating this a dozen times, we finally heard a return call, and followed the sound to camp. Ten minutes later, Mike repeated the same process to get water, and a similarly harrowing experience in these very dense, very claustrophobic woods.

August 18th – Over Slate Mountain and Into the Willmore – 14 miles, 5,300′ gain

The mattress reached an unfortunate place that night. For the first half of the night, I fought with it, the bubble now so pronounced that I could barely stay on it, slipping off to one side or the other, or else ending up with my head hanging off it. Then Dan and I swapped mats so that we could each get a half night’s sleep. It rained all night again, and was still at it when we finally woke up at 8. What with the rain, and yesterday’s effort pulling sluggishly through our blood we were slow getting going. We found Mik to see they were still waking up. It was cold enough that we all agreed Dan and I would hike on and meet back up with Mik later, to avoid getting chilled.

Weird things of weird things, Dan’s ankle didn’t hurt at all.

camo

After an intense day before, this type of terrain was a welcome relief. We saw a wolf not far from this area. This is the area where wolves were captured from for the Yellowstone and Idaho reintroductions in 1995. Good for Americans, but did anybody ask the wolves?

The Jackpine valley lived up to its poor reputation, even the short amount of time we were on it (we had covered 80% of the valley via the high route before we came down), with lots of “muddy schwacking” – a trail description I had not thought to verbalize before hiking the Great Divide Trail, involving schlepping through shin deep mud while bushwhacking through bushes higher than your head. Insert a rain storm, and you have a pretty darn cold, wet situation. Dan and I climbed up the first ridge – a very steep grunt involving more slippery mud, and more bushwhacking through the rain-soaked brush. Finally, we got up high enough to emerge from the brush and the worst of the mud, long enough that we got to stretch our legs a bit before plunging back down to the valley on the other side, which was a virtual muddy slip ‘n’ slide.

cresttop

Cresting the top of Shale Mountain as a cold gale blows from the north.

At the bottom was Pauline Creek, which was over my waist in depth, but was thankfully not very fast. Thoroughly drenched at this point, we began the climb up Shale Pass. For whatever reason, when I was researching the trail, Shale Pass stuck in my head. Obviously the end point (whichever end point you choose, as this trail has three) is a big one, but Shale Pass was, for some reason, meaningful. As Dan and I climbed above treeline, we watched the white curtain of rain in the distance getting closer and closer to us, the wind buffeting us along, and then, miraculously, that curtain of rain just passed us.

danslate

topofslate

Getting to the top of Shale Mountain was something we both felt very happy about. We didn’t know much about this trail before we started, but we did know that Shale Mountain was a place way up north near the end of the route. It was everything we hoped for – wild, cold and gorgeous.

We descended to a little boggy valley, then back up some more before deciding to call it a day and wait for Mik to show up. That evening, as the three of us huddled around our little cook stoves, we bemoaned the mud and rain and wet, while simultaneously being thrilled to be there.

August 19th – Across the Wild Wilmore Wilderness – 21.3 miles, 3,300′ gain

wildernesssign

Moose antler sign in the Willmore Wilderness. There seems to be some disagreement whether to spell Willmore with one “L” or two. Different maps and books have different spellings. You know a place is wild when the few folks who have been there can’t even agree how to spell it. 

In Jasper, when we stayed with the British couple who had done the Great Divide Trail, they had told us that after Shale Pass, “you fly.” As pretty much nowhere on this trail has even remotely involved that sensation, we decided to start hiking at 7 am that day, to try and catch up on some of the miles that we’d lost on previous days. The trail started with expanses of boggy sections that were sprinkled with forested sections of magical, beautiful, perfect trail. As we began to climb up our first pass of the day, the sun popped out, so we took advantage of it and stopped to dry stuff. Mik’s tent works much better when it gets the chance to dry (using a mid, Dan and I don’t have to deal with that), and everyone’s sleeping bag was getting a bit soggy.

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Mike and Elaine at the Willmore Wilderness sign. 

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Fantastic country for a ramble of a few days or a few months.

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There is really no place on earth I’d rather be than the Willmore Wilderness. To me, it epitomizes the GDT better than anywhere else on the trail.

After, we passed a plaque for the Willmore Wilderness Wanderers – a group of people out of Grand Cache east of here that apparently spends a lot of time exploring this area. Then we descended to more wet boggy land, then up a beautiful climb to Fetherstonhaugh Pass, where we had a fantastic view. We took second snack break here, absorbing all the beauty around us.

wanderers

“No problem guys…just follow me!” To heck with PhD’s or medals…I want to be a Willmore Wilderness Wanderer!

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Mik reaches the top of Fetherstonhaugh Pass.

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Elaine exploring deep in the Willmore Wilderness, always north, looking for the next adventure to more remote and wild lands. 

We ended up camping at Sheep Creek – another horse camp. I very much dislike the horse camps, with all the horse poop and how icky they feel. But we spent a beautiful evening watching the sun set on the cliffs around us.

sheepcreek

Crazy beautiful light at Sheep Creek.

August 20th – Surprise Pass and the Providence Alternate – 17 miles, 5,000′ gain

Dan and I woke up early again to get hiking – we were planning on doing the Surprise Alternate, while Mik had been planning on sticking to the trail. As we left camp, Mik informed us that after reading the trail description, they were probably going to try and do the Surprise Alternate as well. We also discussed traveling apart that day – Mik had started solo, and for Dan and me, we had first embarked on this adventure way down south at the 29th parallel at the New Mexico/Mexico border, so all of us felt the need to spend the last true day on the trail as we had started.

outsheeo

Leaving Sheep Creek and the Willmore Wilderness, bound for Kakwa Provincial Park and trail’s end.

The trail quickly left Sheep Creek and we began a gradual climb up to Surprise Pass, following a vast alpine valley up. There were caribou prints on the trail, and we kept our eyes peeled, but we didn’t see any caribou. Just on the other side of Surprise Pass, the trail continued down valley and we cut cross-country to hug glacier line at the base of Wallbridge Mountain.

ontosurprise

Surprise Pass marks the border between the Willmore Wilderness and Kakwa Provincial Park. There is no sign mentioning this. Between Mount Robson and Kakwa Lake, we didn’t cross a single road, power line, ATV track or any sign of humans other than the trail and a few rustic signs. It’s truly a wild and magical place.

backofshale

Up and over Surprise Pass and onto the Surprise Alternate. We saw a herd of caribou here, part of the dwindling northern Rockies herd. 

Up there, we met incredible, complicated, rolling glacial terrain. Enjoying the moment, we took an extremely long first snack and cooked one of our extra dinners. While waiting for the water to boil, we realized that the little pebble rocks surrounding us were not, as they appeared, simply rocks, but fossilized shells from millennia past. Dan and I whiled away a good amount of time pouring over the landscape and marveling at all the fossils that were just lying there for us to see.

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The Surprise Pass Alternate was full of glaciers, open country and ocean fossils from another time.

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Glaciers are everywhere here near the 54° North parallel.

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A beautiful day and some of the most enjoyable travel of the entire trip.

While waiting for our dinner to rehydrate, I spotted something moving, way back on Surprise Pass. I wondered if perhaps it was a wolf pack at first, but realized they must be larger creatures for me to be seeing them from the distance we were at. It was tough to see, but I think it was a herd of caribou – perhaps seven or so – that we watched flow across the terrain, moving as though they had wings on their feet. I’ve read their hearts are much larger than ours, and that they can cover terrain in minutes that would take us hours. We watched, breathless in awe.

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Filling up water from an alpine tarn near Wapiti Mountain. We used these BeFree filters from Katadyn that worked marvelously. 

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Relaxing on a saddle below Wapiti Mountain, enjoying our first views of the Kakwa Lake basin. We spent a lot of time lallygagging on this day, taking an hour lunch and enjoying just being out here. We knew it would be over all too soon.

We began climbing again, stopping to grab water from a high, brilliantly blue tarn, before beginning up Wapiti Mountain for real. It was a fun climb, the kind that Dan and I like – steep, but manageable, steady, long enough to find your groove. At the top, we took yet another long break, savoring the high views. The days are on countdown, now, and we desperately want to hang on to these moments.

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Up the shoulder of Wapiti Mountain. 

upwapiti

Wapiti Mountain was one of the easier climbs on the whole trail. The top was so wide it felt like you could land an airplane on it. Prints of caribou were all over the shale covered slopes.

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Elaine on the top of Wapiti Mountain overlooking Cecilia Lake. Careful not to step backwards…there is a 2,000 foot cliff on the other side. 

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On the top of Wapiti Mountain. We may not have glamorous jobs or career aspirations, but we’ve gotten to experience more wilderness and adventure than most. And for that, we’ve beyond fortunate. 

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Cecilia Lake deep in the Kakwa. A cabin, a canoe, a pair of skis and a lifetime or three at this place would work well for me. 

Finally we began to descend, slow going, quite steep, with large talus that ended in a complicated cliff band to navigate. As we descended into the trees, the bugs came out in full force, biting so ferociously that we busted out the bug spray for the first time on this section. After some time, we rejoined the GDT, which soon proved to be every bit as icky as we’d been told – more mud and brush. So much so, in fact, that by the time we reached Broadview Lake, where another alternate branched off to resume a higher route, we jumped at the chance.

The Providence Pass High Route Alternate started off as a vertical climb up an old drainage, soaked moss making for some challenging footing, and the bugs on their endless quest for blood. After climbing 400 vertical meters, we were once again above treeline, the bugs died down, and we were able to traverse a steep, talus strewn slope.

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How could we leave the GDT without another steep, buggy alternate loop? Onto the Providence Alternate for extra-credit, foregoing the straight path to Kakwa Lake and civilization.

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The Providence Alternate seemed more like a loose concept, with only feedback being, “the GPS track on the map may or may no be accurate.” 

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We found ourselves on top of a large talus field, having climbed a little too high up the peak. No worries…take your time and go slow to go fast. 

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The pay off for the climb was getting to camp in this valley below for one last night on the Great Divide Trail. Kakwa Lake is just visible on the upper left of this photo. 

We ended the day, our last night on the Great Divide Trail before beginning the 100km walk out, camped beneath  Francis Peak and Broadview Mount. My heart swelled with happiness as we cooked dinner by some scrubby krummholz, gazing out at the towering, glacier-blanketed peaks before us. After messaging Mik on the InReach, we settled in to our cozy tent.

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The wildflowers in the meadow were spectacular.

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Bear camping requires creating a triangle. The three points of the triangle are the shelter, the cooking and eating area, and the food storage area. Ideally, the three are each located 100 meters from one another. This wasn’t always possible, but we did our best. A habituated bear is a dead bear most likely. 

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Not a bad spot for dinner on the last night on the GDT.

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If we never had to leave, we wouldn’t. The Canadian Rocky Mountains are one of the finest places anywhere in our opinion. We absolutely fell in love with the landscape and wildness here. We liked the wetter conditions, the colder temperatures, the rugged, more challenging terrain. They have permanently changed what we now consider the absolute perfect environment, and we will be searching for ways to integrate that into our everyday life. 

August 21st – To Kakwa Lake, Trails-End and the 54° parallel – 25 miles, 3,000′ gain

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In 2017 we actually had the crazy idea to hike from Mexico to Kakwa Lake as part of our CDT hike. I remember sitting in a desert draw one night, barely 100 miles into the entire hike, talking with Elaine and another hiker about Kakwa Lake and how we would rent a float plane to get out of here. In retrospect, it was a bit preposterous, but it was big dreaming. Turns out it took longer than one summer to do the whole walk, and we never did get that float plane out. But we did walk from the Mexican border to Kakwa Lake, on foot, about 3,800 miles north on the spine of the Continental Divide. And this was our final destination for this leg of the journey.

We rose to an absolutely perfect morning – just a bit of rain, and then the skies cleared as we climbed up to Mount Ruth’s shoulder, brushing along a lake before beginning a descent back down to muddy bogland. Our notes mentioned that the descent was steep, and after days with no mention of anything being steep and then consequently navigating cliff bands, I was a bit nervous, only to discover that not only was the trail not a cliff – it was actually a trail! We trundled down it, watching the glacier-robed peaks disappear behind the trees until we reached the GDT again – the muddy pit that it was.

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Mixed emotions on the last day. While we enjoy a good burger, shower and clean clothes as much as anybody, we have found that the value of these things isn’t nearly as high to us as wildness. Honestly, if we didn’t have to earn money, we might never come out. We don’t need much, but we need this. 

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Elaine looking north, toward Kakwa Lake, trail’s end, a lifetime of adventure ahead. 

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The morning took us around two small lakes and thru wildflowers galore. The wind blew and occasional spit of rain fell. All in all, about as perfect as it gets. 

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Elaine enjoying a “Sound of Music” moment.

As we meandered through the mud, I thought about endings. When we hiked the Continental Divide Trail, in some ways I thought about the end a lot. The trail was a lot easier, in a lot of ways (though a lot longer), and it allowed for the mind to wander. On this trail, I am always present. Whether it’s navigating a tough section, or just walking through mud (which is a lot tougher than it sounds), my mind was always on the moment at hand. On the CDT, I spent a lot more time literally thinking of nothing, in almost a state of moving meditation, while on the GDT, every moving moment requires thinking about what I’m doing. There are pros and cons to both, for sure. In town on the GDT, it was time to check the weather, and time to read all you could about the upcoming trail and all the alternates, and in the evenings on trail, I would be going over what we were to cover the next day. My mind never really thought about the end. I knew this section was it, but as we neared Kakwa Lake, I realized that I wasn’t ready for it. Somehow, I wasn’t prepared.

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Want to go to Ruth, or Alberta? Both good options I’d say. Off the Providence Alternate and onto the Kakwa River Trail for a few boggy miles before the lake. For some reason, this sign was hilarious for two hikers who had been in the wilderness for 7 days.

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Elaine taking the final few steps towards Kakwa Lake, and the end of this portion of our odyssey from Mexico.

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The river running into Kakwa Lake. In true GDT fashion, before you can enjoy the lake, you have to ford a shin deep river. 

After crossing a small river, we stood on the banks of Kakwa Lake and walked 200 meters up to the 54th parallel. We took a long snack break at the lake, trying to process everything, watching the still water.

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Heading north on the shores of Kakwa Lake to 54° parallel. 

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On August 21 we made it the 54° degree parallel, Kakwa Lake, and the end of the approximately 700 mile long Great Divide Trail. The Great Divide Trail is, mile-for-mile, the most beautiful trail I’ve ever been on. It’s also the most challenging. We’ll write more in a wrap-up post.

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My wife Elaine was a powerhouse on this trail and absolutely in her element. She didn’t suffer a single significant injury, and more than once carried a heavier load when others were struggling. It felt like she never had to extend herself to the maximum, a good place to be in the Wilderness so you have some reserve when the shit does hit the fan. She had an incredibly impressive hike, and I’m honored to call her my partner. 

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It’s no accident that I’m pointing north in this photo. The trails from Mexico to Kakwa Lake end here. But the route north absolutely does not end. More dreaming and scheming in the works.

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If there is a quieter, more relaxing place on the planet than Kakwa Lake, I’ve never been there. There was a serene ease about the place that just made the whole body and mind relax. That, and perhaps we knew that the hard work was done for awhile, and we finally COULD relax. Nevertheless, Kakwa Lake is one of the most special places anywhere, in part, because it’s so hard to get here. 

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There are two cabins at Kakwa Lake maintained by British Columbia Provincial Parks. One is for the park staff, the other for the general public. Not a bad job, working for the parks, cleaning the cabin, and getting to spend summer’s at Kakwa Lake. Those folks must have done something right in a previous life. 

Finally, we pulled ourselves up and began the long trek out. It started out as a slightly overgrown two track, which was easy travel, and allowed us to clip along at a decent pace. As our miles per hour ticked up, I realized that this was a whole muscle group that I’d not used all summer. Road walking is a totally different movement from cross country travel.

Immediately after crossing Buchanan Creek, the skies absolutely opened up and poured. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that amount of rain before – as though a hose had been turned on us. The road itself, already so saturated from a summer of record rain, turned into a river, and beneath the coursing water, a slick clay like substance that made any footing slippery. Slowly, the rain let up, and we soon ran into Mik, who had taken refuge from the deluge under the porch of a cabin belonging to a snowmobile club.

After a while, our two track became a much better maintained road, and eventually, we set up camp, cooking supper in the middle of the unused road and catching up.

August 22nd – Road Walk Out – 31 miles, 1,100′ gain

Mik had never done a 50k day before, and this was about the most perfect conditions to do one, with smooth road, cool temperatures, and lots of water so we didn’t have to do a water carry.

We were all sodden when we got up though – shocking to think that just the other morning we were relatively dry. So much rain last night – it left the ground sopping wet, and everything was just so damp. The sleeping bag, my poofy, everything was so damp. But it was a cool morning, the road made for quick travel, and we finally have light packs.

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Funny, but the road walk out was prettier than probably 90% of the actual CDT. The standards on the GDT are high.

The walk out was surprisingly enjoyable. Huge mountains with glaciers surrounded the road, and the now-turning-orange trees were starting to shed their leaves as a cool autumn breeze blew across the land, kissing its first brisk warning on our weathered hikers’ cheeks.

At one point, we got a ride from a couple surveyors who were out – I guess they’re planning on logging this section in a couple years. It made me sad for future GDT hikers, as currently, this walk out isn’t too bad. They turned off up another road, so we continued on our way out to the highway.

Every once in a while, we would round a bend and a huge shape blocked the road. But these black bears are skittish, and all they want is to eat berries, so they would ramble off as soon as we raised our arms and let loose a couple bear calls.

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No doubt about it, fall is in the air in mid-August in the Kakwa. Some complain about it, but to me the walk out was one long, calm walk through the changing seasons in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Not much to complain about there. 

The end of the day dragged on, and Mik’s pain in their knee and back took a steep turn up, but between a combination of music, podcasts, and chatting, we crossed the 50k mark. Setting up camp in another marsh (I shall always remember the Great Divide Trail as when I became somewhat comfortable sleeping literally in a swamp), we began to cook our dinner in the middle of the road.

We had hiked late to get the 50k, and summer was now winding down, the sun no longer setting after 10pm,. The darkness rolled in comfortably around us, stars peaking out above as we dawdled on our last night out while we were all set about to enjoy a last cup of tea. We broke out the bottle of whiskey we had taken turns carrying from Mount Robson and passed it around, laughing at the ridiculous beast that is the Great Divide Trail.

All of a sudden, the sound of a motor came down the road, and an ATV came barreling at us. Startled, we all scrambled to move our stuff from the road, until Mik stood up to get them to stop. They were a couple who were part of the snowmobile club in Prince George that owned the cabin up the road and they were heading in for their own adventure. After chatting for a while, they drove off, cheering us on as they left.

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Kakwa Lake is a big snowmobiling destination in the winter (it would be a huge approach on skis). It’s also very dangerous avalanche terrain. The snowmobile club erected this to make sure riders are traveling safe and stay alive. 

We all lay on the road looking at the stars and laughing. Soon the topic of music came up, including John Denver. (I know…I’m a Colorado native, and I don’t like John Denver, it’s practically blasphemy to many.) And then the topic of Canadian artists, which led us to singing Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” at the top of our lungs. I can’t say I’ve ever had Bieber Fever, but “Sorry” is sure going to have a special spot in my heart from now on.

These late summer Canadian nights are crisp, though, so soon we crawled into our tents and played “Would you Rather” with the Great Divide Trail.

“Would you rather hike the GDT with Oprah or Taylor Swift?”

Oprah, obviously.

“Would you rather hike the GDT with Obama or Jesus?”

Well, Jesus – I mean, the man walked on water, it would have been a useful skill out here.

“Would you rather hike the GDT with Jesus or Dobby?”

Dobby, for sure. Who wouldn’t want a house elf out here?

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The long walk out. One trip ends, and planning for the next one begins. Thank you GDT and the Canadian Rocky Mountains for a rich and wonderful experience. Special thanks to Keith and Leslie for making the trip possible. Time to make some money and dream up the next wild, northern adventure. 

August 23rd – A short walk and a ride out – 5 miles, 500′ gain

The Great Divide Trail wasn’t about to let us go easily. It rained all night and continued to rain as we packed up. On the plus side, I finally realized that if I only partially inflated my mat, I was able to sleep, so both Dan and I got a decent night’s sleep. We all packed up, marveling at our light packs, and, layered in all our rain gear, as usually, headed off down the road.

It was now a road in very good shape, and Mik’s mom had decided to come and get us, so a few miles from the highway, a little Prius appeared on the road, headlights shimmering in the rain. It was a fitting end to this summer’s GDT – rain, no fan fare, just a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, a Prius, three dirty hikers, and one mom eager to feed us. As we consumed doughnuts from Tim Hortons and Hungarian sausages, we all laughed, smiled, and ate.

As much as this trail hurt, I’m sad it’s over. The Canadian Rockies are truly amazing.

Total miles walked: 754

Total elevation: 148,300′

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Coleman to Kananaskis: Forget-Me-Nots, Tornado Mountain and the Most Beautiful Spot on Earth

July 9, 2019 – 24 miles, 3,300 of climbing

Aspirations for getting out of town quickly rarely go as planned. The pattern of the trail gets broken, conversations happen and breakfast places keep serving food – all delaying departure. Such is life and the cause of us departing Coleman at an extremely lazy 9:45 am bound north on a six-and-a-half day ration to Kananaskis.

It was a productive break. My blisters healed, Elaine’s foot is feeling better and I traded in my sieve-like raincoat for a functional Patagonia Torrentshell that I got at a local fly-fishing shop in Coleman. If we open our own store someday it’ll look and feel a lot like this one: an earthy, wood-feel, a casual vibe with coffee and soup and pastries and a spattering of functional gear to get people into the outdoors. There are few things in life as wonderful as a small town gear/coffee shop.

The trail today was as if we got tossed back to Colorado. It was a mostly two-track day thru aspen groves and less dramatic gray mountains, reminiscent of Kenosha Pass or the eastern side of the San Juans. The sun was shining and there was a slight breeze making the trees quake, about perfect hiking conditions really. The area north of Coleman has been logged heavily, but the trees seem to be restoring themselves nicely.

While the landscape reminded me of Colorado, the animals tracks told another story. Big bear prints and scat were prominent, and for awhile we also followed what I’m positive was a wolf track. At the very end of the day we climbed a steeper pass and found a wonderful flat spot on its shoulder to sleep for the night. As I write this, the birds are chirping, the creek is gurgling and Elaine is fixing up some pasta for dinner. Life is simple, and life is good.

July 10 – 18 miles, 4,100 feet of climbing

Leslie and Keith told us this section had the most human resource impact of the entire trail, and we saw a big part of that today. After a blissful sleep we started up Race Horse Pass, a wake-up call stouter than the strongest espresso. I’ve always held the simple mantra that the perfect start to a day is to wake up early and climb a mountain. It’s good for the lungs, legs and soul.

We walk back down the other side on a long meandering ATV track as a light drizzle falls. I enjoy the insular feel, listening to the rain patter on my hood, letting the mind do nothing but be present in the moment. Humans spend too much of our time being busy. Yet what is particularly wrong with just being in the moment, listening to the rain or watching the wind blow through the trees?

After a long decent we came around a bend and saw what looked like Mordor. A quick glance at the map told us that this was the Line Creek Coal Mine, a massive scar on the landscape that resembled the Climax Mine back home. While we’ve passed numerous logging clear cuts, the impact from that seems minimal compared to this. I suspect it will take till the next ice age for the impacts of this mine to completely disappear. It’s always a tough balance, the need for energy and preserving the environment. I understand that balance but out here I tell what I see, and it isn’t always pretty.

The trail climbs out of the mine basin and up something called North Fork Pass. This pass is the official starting point of the original Great Divide Trail way back in the 1970s before they decided to include Waterton National Park. It seems a bit of an odd start, as it’s seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Then again, that’s part of what makes it so perfect…jagged grey mountains erupting into the sky from forests of dark pine and crystal clear streams running in the valley below. As if to prove a point of the wildness of this place, a buck leaps across the trail in front of us, stops, and stares at us for a good 30 seconds before moving on. It was almost as if the deer was evaluating us and decided we passed the mustard test to enter. Thank you deer, and may you have good luck this fall avoiding the hunter’s rifle.

We drop into a rowdy looking basin and turn left up towards Tornado Saddle. Tornado Saddle marks the beginning of the truly jagged part of this segment and promises to be a highlight. We follow an old ATV track up the mountain that gets more and more faint as we climb. We rise out of the trees and cross a talus field left here by the last ice age. The clouds rip by and build at a quickening pace. A check of the weather on the InReach calls for storminess this evening, and while a crossing of the pass might be unrealistic, we don’t feel like stopping yet.

The trail is more of a goat track than anything else now, and soon we come to a 100 yard section of blowdown that turns the trail into a 25-minute hopscotching ordeal. We arrive at a flat meadow with huge mountains on all sides. The weather is brewing up higher and this seems like a good spot to stop for the day.

I’ve been to many places in my life, but this particular place may take the prize as the most beautiful spot yet. It’s a mountain pass with lush, flat ground with scattered fir and spruce trees. Animal trails dart off in all directions, and cliff walls rise on all sides of the pass. A massive monolith shoots up 3,500 vertical feet to the east, and I believe I could spend a lifetime looking at this wall. Sheer cliffs rise up to the sky, broken up only by vertical gullies and snowfields. Rock fall echoes down the face, and the wind gives a haunting whistle as it rips thru ledges, towers, nooks and crannies. The top is constantly shrouded in misty clouds and fog, and below the wall is illuminated by the last rays of sun of the day.

Below the cliff wall, a slope of jagged talus and scree eventually relents to alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers. Below that small firs emerge, and lower, the dark northern forest with towering trees, deep and mysterious. And finally, further down, but still up above the rest of the world, the forest breaks into our valley were we are spending the night. Down here that howling wind that is ravaging the peak is a mere light breeze, keeping the mosquitoes at bay. Birds sing to one another, their chirps echoing across the forest.

Oh what I would give for a small cabin in this spot, to spend autumn and winter here, to see bears and wolves and watch the clouds roar by and the half moon hang in the darkening night sky. Today we did not see another human, just the way we like it. This may indeed be the most perfect spot on earth.

July 11 – 17 miles, 5,700 feet of climbing

Well this was a demanding day. It started off with a bushwhack out of the most perfect spot on earth through thick spruce forest on a steep sidehill that eventually gave way to alpine meadows. I have never seen so many Forget-Me-Not flowers in one place, hillsides of them covering the entire tundra. Forget-Me-Nots are my favorite flower, and I’ve never seen them spread so copiously.

I didn’t sleep too well last night. I had haunting dreams of the other world – work and the passage of time – and I wonder what brought it on. Remote places like this make you address your weaknesses head-on. My dad was a worrier, and it’s one thing I strive constantly to not do. That’s a big part of the reason I like to be out here – no time to think of frivolous things and let the undisciplined parts of the mind rule the days, not with a steep mountainside that was growing looser and rockier as we go up.

As we climbed the mountain grew steeper and the wind roared through the cliff walls. Tornado Saddle was living up to its name. As conditions got worse, I found myself getting more comfortable, the muscles and mind relaxing and flowing with the climb. Soon we crested the steepest part of the loose climb, and with a raging wind blowing in our faces, we reached the summit. As the wind howled, Elaine broke into a howl right into the face of the wind, wild and free, exactly where she belongs.

The descent down the other side of Tornado Saddle was less dramatic and steep, and soon we hit trail. We dropped back into the forest and onto the most perfect hiking trail, a remnant of the old GDT built decades ago. Logs were placed across the river, and after a nervous crossing high above on the first one we discovered that they were no problem and enjoyed the high wire act on the crossings to come.

We were meandering along when Elaine stopped dead in her tracks. On the ground in front of her was trigger device for a bear spray canister. While it’s possible it fell off, it’s more likely somebody in front of us actually had a bear encounter in this spot. That certainly got our attention, so we adjusted our bear bells to make them ring a little more jingly and talked and sung a bit louder. Some people find the ding of bear bells annoying, but I quite like it. It reminds me I’m in a wild place, that I’m not at the top of the food chain here and that we’re not walking thru Disneyland.

As the trail dropped lower still, we saw numerous wolf and moose tracks, but no bear signs. We took a lunch at a creek, enjoyed her sweet water and began the next long climb up. This one was very steep, and in the heat of the day sweat poured off of us, making the go a bit uncomfortable. After a long climb we eventually hit the ridge. Looking at the map and checking the GPS, we realized we’d reached the 50° north latitude of planet earth. As the border sits at 49° we’d now traveled one degree north in a little over six days.

When taken into perspective with our walk a few years ago, it’s an accomplishment to be proud of. When we started walking the Continental Divide Trail back in 2017 at the Mexico/US border we were at the 29th north parallel. We’ve now come 21 degrees north of that. We’ve migrated from rattle snakes to grizzly bears, ocotillo plants to larch trees, desert sand to glaciers and snowfields, all by putting one foot in front of the other. The further we go, the novelties of society – burgers and showers and internet – have a harder and harder time competing with a simple trail diet, a cold stream and the sound of birds in the morning and evening outside our Mid.

We’re now closer to the Arctic Circle than Mexico, and I’d be lying if the thought hasn’t crept into both our heads about continuing this northward walk in ensuing years to the Laird River, which is the geographical northern end of the Rocky Mountain chain, and then beyond that, following the caribou migration north from the valleys of northern British Columbia all the way north to the Arctic National Wildlife refuge and Arctic Ocean. That’s a massive project that may prove to be logistically impossible, but what an adventure it would be.

It sounds crazy to even write about it. But I do find a certain irony there. It’s funny how the most basic things – walking, drinking from steams and sleeping in the forest for extended periods of time – essentially migrating under your own power – is seen as “crazy” or “extreme” when in actuality it’s probably the most natural thing a human being can do. Humans have been doing this for many millenniums. Meanwhile, sitting in a cubicle, staring at a computer screen and accumulating more-and-more stuff, an evolution that has happened in the last 50 years, not even one human generation, is deemed “normal.” Normal for who, and normal for what purpose?

Big thoughts for the head, but there is trail to hike. After the climb the route began an equally as precipitous descent back down to another valley floor. Before the hike I rolled my left ankle on a training session, and for the first time it began to bother me. I’ll have to keep an eye on that. The bottom of the trail was a horse shit, trampled mess and we wearily took a break and assessed our next move. We certainly didn’t want to stay here, so we began the next vertical wall climb, a slow go to the Beehive Mountain Cirque. This was the time of day when mental toughness ruled the roost, when the process of putting one foot in front of the other becomes more deliberate. True happiness comes on the heels of suffering, so there would be some happiness tonight!

After a roller coaster ride through fields of Forget-Me-Nots and stunning views, we found a place to set up camp for the night on the edge of a ridge underneath the stunning cliff wall of the Continental Divide. As I review the day in my head, a little battered and bruised but also ecstatic, I’m beginning to realize the purpose of all this: to feel totally comfortable in all natural environments.

I was a little nervous before Tornado Pass. On our Greenland trip, I think we were both constantly a little nervous. Being attentive is key. But being nervous is when mistakes happen. We have little interest in racing competition anymore, as we’ve kind of accomplished everything we need to accomplish in that realm. Going around in circles with hundreds of other people holds little interest to us now. But getting comfortable in all environments, no matter how harsh or alone or wild…now that’s something to strive towards. It’s a goal that may take a lifetime to attain, but it’s a good goal nonetheless. I am beyond lucky to have a life partner like Elaine who wants to do this stuff with me. I know of no other team like ours so well matched and motivated in this regard.

July 12 – 21 miles, 5,000 feet of climbing

There is a line the Bad Religion song “Sorrow” that resonates: “Let me take you to the herding ground, where all good men are trampled down.” Truth be told, this hike was the direct byproduct of a failed work situation that I’ve been thinking about, and at times feeling guilty about. As we walk on, clarity about these situations is becoming clearer.

The situation involved leaders degrading, harassing and belittling fellow co-workers. After months of this, after speaking up and trying to change the situation, we essentially left. We were far from the only one’s experiencing the situation, and in actuality we were carrying the burden of others who were. And I’ve been feeling bad about this. Perhaps we were too idealistic, and needed to be more compromising. But on the trail, where rules are simple and right and wrong are defined, clarity is emerging. We were right. We were absolutely right. Fighting for decency and the fair treatment of fellow human beings is the right thing to do.

It feels like we passed a test of one of those life moments where we were, like that Bad Religion song, brought “to the herding ground,” but instead of “being trampled down,” and compromising our values and morals, we made the harder choice, we fought back, we took a stand and we maintained who we are. And for that I am beyond proud. Thank you trail for providing that clarity.

Today is another day to rage in the mountains and walk north. After descending to a river valley, we climbed up another huge ridge and entered a mountain cirque with a lake perfectly placed underneath. Looking up, an eagle circled overhead and in the far distance, we heard the deep echo of a wolf howl. We crested another ridge, looked south, and saw the jagged undulations of the mountains we had just crossed. We have not seen another human in three days, and we are becoming as wild as the landscape around us.

We pass by remnants of an old gold mining operating, rusted buckets and cranks melding into the earth, a tale of a bygone era where fortitude and toughness and the chance of failure ruled the land. Onward still, into a Larch forest. Larch is a coniferous tree that sheds its needles every winter, defying logic and the norm. In the fall, it turns the most golden yellow, glowing on the hillside. If you have not seem a larch tree in the autumn, then you sill have things to do in life. Unlike most conifer trees, larch needles are soft when new, and when passing through them they brush your skin like a soft kiss. The have quickly become my favorite tree.

We descend to an mangled river valley, with stream beds everywhere, downed trees and clogged mud making navigation challenging. A flood ravaged this area in 2013 and the evidence is clear that this is huge country and we are mere blips to nature’s power. We take a break and a pine marten scurries through roots and moss, comes within ten feet, stares directly at us, and scampers away at a rapid pace. We suspect we might be the first humans the marten has ever seen.

We climb another ridge, another 1,500 feet, and come to another stunning vista, raging grey mountains erupting to the sky. As we head back down through the forest we come across something that I assumed was only legend. Tree shrapnel was scattered across the trail like a bomb had gone off. I’d heard stories of trees exploding in extreme cold when the sap freezes and expands, but until now had never seen it. If a person was close by when this tree exploded, it could easily kill them. I imagined a cold January night, so cold that sap freezes and trees explode like bombs. We are now north enough for trees to explode. That is a beautiful thing.

Wearily, we head down to a creek and debate camping there. We’ve learned that camping on creeks is a recipe for a cold, wet night, so we drag our bodies up yet another hill and plop our shelter down right on top of the trail, exhausted and dehydrated, but souls full and hearts happy and clear.

July 13 – 23 miles, 4,400 feet of climbing

Today was a strange day. We met other hikers. After being alone in the wild for so long, our social skills have declined. Like us, they were thru-hikers, one guy from Glenwood and one from Auburn, California. It was good to see other people, other like minded migratory folk out here, but I can’t imagine hiking something like the Appalachian Trail where groups of hikers are the norm. I crave more solitude and wilderness than that, at least at this time in my life.

After a couple warm up passes, we crested the final big rise of this stretch, Fording River Pass, which offered the most extended stretch of alpine tundra yet. In just the short 150 miles we’ve travelled, the land feels more wild. Near the top, I climbed a short stretch of rock and noticed that I was walking on top of fossilized sea shells. This high mountain pass used to be deep under the ocean where barnacles clung to rocks. It’s hard to comprehend that sort of transition in the span of human life but it brings to realization that this earth we live on has been here for a very, very long time.

We drop down the other side of the pass, and the mosquitoes, which had not been much of a problem thus far, begin to ravage us. We put on our head nets, spray on the deet and forge on, down the valley, to a creek. After five hot and humid days of sunscreen, bug spray and sweat, we take the opportunity to jump into the river, bathe and feel clean again. And just like that, another human civilization nicety, a shower, becomes unnecessary. I suspect, if we knew plants and animals and how to live off the land, we could stay out here forever and be perfectly content and happy.

The trail meanders down a river bed and I roll my bad ankle. Ouch, that hurt. Fortunately, the trail turns into a dirt road walk which is easy on it. We walk eight more miles and camp in an open field, watching the gophers scurry about and listening to the birds sing as the sun sets over the big mountains to the west.

July 14 – 20 miles, 2,100 feet of climbing

We’re up at 5 am for a road walk to Kananaskis and civilization. My ankle hurts to start but after a half hour it warms up and feels fine. Elaine is dealing with some aches and pains too, but walking on easy road for 20 miles is certainly not a problem. Walking is good for a person…the problem is being sedentary too much. We simply have to walk our bodies into shape.

We pass a ranger cabin and stop at a bench to eat a snack. A cycling group, riding an array of jeep roads to Whitefish, Montana passes the other direction, friendly folks enjoying their own adventure. At the end of the group, a young woman passes by and asks if she can share our bench and eat her lunch with us. Of course we say yes. She admits she is terrified of bears and appreciates our company. Bear fear aside, we love this woman’s style. She’s riding a rigid, 26″, steel Mountain Goat bicycle in some of the most remote terrain on the planet. Mountain Goat hasn’t made bikes in over a decade but she tells us that she’s ridden this very steed to Mexico and back and has no need for anything newer. After working in a bike shop this summer that sells $14,000 bikes, it’s refreshing to see that adventure requires no such price tag. It’s the size of the heart and bravery of the soul that creates true greatness, not the size of the wallet. After a jarring experience in the past month, it restores a little bit of my faith in that sport.

We depart ways and walk on north as she peddles south. As road walks go, this one is stunning. These mountains surpass anything I’ve seen in the lower-48, yet they don’t have a name. Eventually the road ends and we enter Elk Lake Provincial Park. If this is a provincial park, I can’t imagine what the national parks here in Canada will look like. We hike right to Elk Lake, the most beautiful alpine, glacial fed lake imaginable, and take another swim. There is a simple rule of the trail. If the day is warm and there is a mountain lake, by all means swim.

We continue on another five miles to the end of the segment. We’ll be back here in two days with our Banff friends to continue our journey north, but for now, it’s a hitch hike back to Banff for some R&R, healing our our bodies and fixing a couple equipment issues. True to Canadian style, the people who give us rides are some of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met, and we arrive in Banff safe and happy, restored and ready for the next phase of the journey.

Prelude to the Great Divide Trail

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The Great Divide Trail under Mount Assiniboine in Banff National Park. Photo by Elizabeth Morton.

June 6 was a rough day. Out of nowhere, Elaine was laid off from her job at a bike shop in Boulder. She was told the company was doing poorly financially, and that it was necessary to eliminate Elaine’s paycheck from the fray. She’d been doing good work and the owner was apologetic, explaining that his hands were tied and this was the only solution.

It was a harsh and unexpected blow. Work is something we don’t talk much about, but we pride ourselves in doing it well. At the old Neptune Mountaineering Elaine carried a large portion of the sales floor for half-a-decade. At Larry’s Bootfitting Elaine established herself as one of the up-and-coming stars in the craft.  And while relatively new at the bike shop, which doubles as a nordic ski shop in the winter, she was doing good work, selling bikes and learning the craft at a rapid pace. She’d never been laid off before and it hurt her deeply.

Part of the disappointment was that, to do well in the bike shop job, we’d already called off a hike we’d been planning ever since we finished the Continental Divide Trail. For a few years we’d aspired to hike the Great Divide Trail, an 800-mile extension of the CDT that heads north deep into the Canadian Rocky Mountains. This was the summer we’d planned to hike it, but the bike shop was a new job and we wanted to impress, so we postponed the GDT hike indefinitely. It was an odd and uncharacteristic decision for us, but we were trying to be responsible adults. The lay off changed the dynamics of all that drastically.

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Smiles were a little forced the day after the lay-off. It was a catalyst toward much better things.

For a couple days after the lay-off we panicked, and there was a lot of tears and anger. The prospect of finding a meaningless job until winter wasn’t appealing, and Elaine’s confidence was shook. During a particularly rough patch, we decided to call Larry from the bootfitting store. Larry was our boss, but more importantly he’s also a friend who understands Elaine’s value and work ethic better than anybody.

As is always the case, Larry put everything in perspective and let her know that it was a stupid decision that in absolutely no way reflected her work ethic or talent. That was good to hear and made her feel better. But before the conversation ended, Larry floated a carrot: we go hike the trail and come back to work for him in the autumn. Those words cascaded into a decision that lead us to where we are now.

After calling Larry, we went for a walk in the woods and discussed what we wanted to do for the rest of the summer. After eight years of thriving together, working away from each other on different schedules had zero appeal to either of us. The commute down Boulder Canyon was already a nightmare with summer construction doubling the time it took to get to work every day. What we wanted to do was get away from the chaos and go hike the Great Divide Trail. With the lay-off and the promise of work in the fall, suddenly there was not much stopping us.

We got home and called our friends Leslie and Keith. Leslie and Keith are fellow thru-hikers and adventurers who live in Banff, Alberta and are very familiar with the GDT. We met them on the Continental Divide Trail two summer’s prior. Leslie was thru-hiking it, with Keith playing the role of “super support team,” driving the truck and making sure Leslie was well taken care of. They’re an awesome couple and just good people. We weren’t sure we could pull together the logistics of a long hike in such a short time, but Keith and Leslie assured us it was completely doable.

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This is Keith. While hiking a hot, smoky road section outside Anaconda, Montana on the CDT, he provided us with the best trail magic possible, a surprise pint of Ben and Jerry’s Coffee Toffee ice cream.

It was an easy decision, and a necessary one. We booked tickets to Calgary and went into a blitz of preparations. We consider ourselves loners, but in reality we needed other people’s help here. The words and encouragement from Larry, Keith and Leslie led us directly to where we are now: flying to Calgary in eleven hours to go hike the Great Divide Trail for two months.

So what exactly is the Great Divide Trail? In the simplest terms, it’s a route that heads north from the Canadian border thru the Rocky Mountains. It starts where the Continental Divide Trail ends, in Waterton National Park just north of Glacier National Park. From Waterton, the route traverses north 800-miles along the spine of the Rockies through rowdy, glacially carved mountains and some of the most beautiful terrain on planet. The trail passes through Waterton, Banff, Kootenay, Yoho and Jasper National Parks before finishing at a place called Kakwa Lake in northern British Columbia, close to the northern end of the entire Rocky Mountain chain.

gdttrailThe Great Divide Trail is considered mile-for-mile the prettiest long distance trail in the world. Whereas the CDT has long stretches of flat desert and ranch-land walking, the GDT stays in the mountains and forests. It’s also one of the wildest and hardest trails in the world, with a lot of navigation challenges, river crossings and steep, snowy mountain passes. Often there is no trail, with the route more resembling backcountry travel in Alaska or the Yukon. The entire trail is in grizzly bear terrain which adds an element of excitement and challenge.

It’s been quite the lead-up to get this place, and we’re giddy with excitement. The type of terrain and climate the GDT presents is exactly the kind of place we like to be. Beyond the mountain terrain and natural challenges, the thing we’re most excited about on this particular hike is the trust-in-the-world attitude we’re going to have to embrace as a result of our limited planning. On previous hikes we had an almost military level of organization with drop boxes and supplies mailed to us well in advance. There will be an element of that here, but there is also going to be a lot more of the free-flowing Jack Kerouac traveling style involved.

We’re experienced now. We’re more confident, we understand the pacing of a thru hike and we know how to make trail towns and resource work. We are comfortable making smart decisions in big mountains and wild environments. There is a freedom to the looseness of this hike that is very appealing and invigorating. And it’s not like we’re not prepared…it’s just…this one will be a little more come-as-it-will.

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The trail ends here at Kakwa Lake in northern British Columbia.

The truth is, Elaine and I have struggled since we got off the Continental Divide Trail. Not with each other, but with everyday society and civilization. After hiking 3,000 miles north under your own power where everything is tangible and real, this civilized world seems mundane and contrived. We’re independent people and we don’t like being told what to do. We like to work hard – you don’t go for long hikes if you don’t – but we struggle with the bullshit that is so prevalent in the “real world.” More than ever, we need this hike.

It’s time to go for a long walk.

We’ll be updating this blog regularly, or at least as regularly as the wild stretches of the Canadian wilderness allow. There isn’t much information available about the trail, mostly because not many people have hiked it. We did find a few good resources for anybody interested. The Great Divide Trail Association are stewards for the route and a primary source of information. We also found this wonderful nine-part video series from a couple who hiked the trail back in 2017. It’s inspiring and gives a good flavor of the terrain and challenges we’ll encounter.

Special thanks: Larry for inspiration. Tour Guide and Wife Tracker for logistical assistance. Mom for cat watching. Julbo for awesome eye protection. La Sportiva for keeping our feet happy and healthy. Hyperlite Mountain Gear for the best packs in the world. Nemo for shelter. 

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Time to do what we do best: move freely thru mountains and wild places.

“Long Way Radio” Greenland Podcast

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A 300-year old sod roof cabin Elaine and I stayed at in Østmarka at the end of our trip.

We arrived back in the United States from our 16-day adventure in Norway late last week. It’s good to be home in our cabin in the mountains again, where we can be creative, go for little recovery skis, live cheaply and ease into some normalcy of life again. We’ve truly entered the “off-season” for Elaine and I. Of course we go out and ski, hike or bike almost every day, but right now it’s just for fun, there is no plan to follow and the pressure is off. It’s an absolutely necessary time of the year to refresh and relax mentally and physically before determining future goals and rebuilding for next season.

Personally, I have five main projects/goals for the next 30 to 40 days:

  1. Getting a lot of these adventures we’ve been on – Expedition Amundsen, Greenland and the Continental Divide Trail – beyond journal entries and into some sort of working written format, some for this blog, and some for publication.
  2. Improving knowledge about bikes and all things bike related for our new job. It’s an exciting challenge and it’s been fun learning something new.
  3. Carve a wooden spoon or something made of wood once a week.
  4. Improve flexibility. This is an essential part of the fitness rebuild process and necessary for injury prevention. That, and I’m stiffer than a 2×4!
  5. Start working on firewood for winter 2019-20. This is an extended process that requires cutting wood in the spring and then allowing it dry for the summer.

Late last summer a good friend of ours, Jack Fisher, paid us a visit. Jack worked with us at Neptune Mountaineering before the place went bankrupt a few years ago. Jack is one of my favorite human beings, with a good sense of ethics, an incredible work ethic and a sense of humor that often has me laughing out loud. Jack also has a penchant for unique adventures that includes going to India, renting a motorcycle and riding it to the Pakistan border. The inspiration I get from Jack is to do things a little more off-beat and not take everything quite so seriously! That’s a good way to be.

Jack recently went back to school in Oregon to become a journalist/story teller. As part of this process, he started a Podcast called “Long Way Radio,” that focuses on adventures and the folks that participate in them. Podcasts are a fun, relatively new way of telling stories, and indeed Elaine and I listened to them religiously while hiking some of the more dusty and boring sections of the Continental Divide Trail.

Jack convinced us to talk about our Greenland trip for a “Long Way Radio” podcast episode. The trip itself didn’t go quite as we’d planned, but the lessons we learned there have proven invaluable for everything we’ve done since. Besides that, it was a harrowing adventure, and it’s a good story.

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Two sleds in the vast expanse of the Greenland ice cap.

Thanks to Jack’s podcast, we’re finally able to tell a bit more of the story. If you are so inclined, listen to it on some headphones during your next adventure, or on the stereo while carving a nice piece of birch or cooking a good soup!

I’m not a podcast expert, but I believe it can be found on iTunes, or by clicking the link below. Happy listening!

Long Way Radio: Greenland Episode 5

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Jack Fisher: Podcast maestro or Professor of Botany at the University of Montana in Missoula?

First Day of the 2018-19 Ski Season

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Clouds from the storm linger over Eldora ski area.

Opening day. There are few things quite as magical as the first ski day of the season. The initial click of the boots and bindings, the first turn and glide, cold air blasting into the face and lungs. It’s a harsh, yet spectacular reminder that the lazy days of summer are over. The reign of winter begins.

Sliding devices on cold snow are likely the greatest human invention ever. Instead of snow being an obstacle to movement, getting from point A to point B becomes easier, more graceful and much more fun. The early Norseman and tribesman of central Asia used skis for practical reason: hunting, communication, migrations and such. For us, skiing is a recreational activity, because even difficult point-to-point endeavors like skiing across Greenland are done by choice, not for survival. Yet despite our difference in skiing objectives, I have to wonder if those early skiers from a distant, simpler time felt that similar pure joy the first time they strapped skis to feet each season? I find it hard to believe, even for the most pragmatic human, that there wouldn’t be some sense of elation felt from those first few strides in snow.

Before I got into backcountry skiing, opening day would be dictated by the ski resorts. The annual battle between Arapaho Basin and Loveland to open first is a well publicized and exciting kick-off to the Colorado alpine ski season. But more often than not, this opening is dictated by snowmaking capacities, not by winter weather. It feels less about mother nature and more about marketing departments and the skiing hype machine. It feels artificial, like the snow these early openings provide (by contrast the Colorado nordic season opens in a much more subdued fashion, volunteers grooming trails on the top of Rabbit Ears Pass. It’s a more natural and enjoyable occasion.)

Opening day should be dictated by snow and cold. When snow falls, go ski on it. For the past few years, however, that snow and cold seems to be less predictable and later in the year. During last year’s disaster we didn’t start skiing in earnest until after Christmas. It was the ski season that almost never started.

After a balmy September this year, it felt like we were scheduled for a repeat. It started snowing early this year in Canada, but Canada and the northern jet stream is a long way from Colorado. Storm systems brushed Glacier National Park and the Wind Rivers, but for the most part avoided Colorado. We’d wake up a few morning and see a dusting of snow on the highest of peaks, but it was oddly warm.

I subscribe to a website called Open Snow that forecasts snowfall for the winter season. After weeks of nothing, I was surprised to read a forecast calling for a sustained period of cold and snow in the Colorado high country in early October. It’s not that uncommon to get a blast of snow in late October, but this forecast was calling for a week to ten days of cold, snowy weather.  I can’t remember the last time that happened here in early October.

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Post snowy roller ski time trial stoke…

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…gave way to a cold, wet hike home.

At the end of last week a cool, grey settled over Boulder. Every morning we would go for a roller ski or hike in sunny conditions here in Eldora and then drive down into the cold fog for work. Finally though, the storm moved uphill. On Sunday night it began to snow at our cabin, and when we woke on Monday morning we found a couple inches covering the trees and ground. We roller skied a cold and wet time trial up Shelf Road and froze on the hike back down to the valley. Yesterday it flurried sporadically, so we put on more layers, took to the trails west of home and enjoyed a splendid, solitary hike, our only company being tracks of a bobcat.

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Better prepared and warmer for a long walk in the woods the 2nd day of the storm.

Last night it snowed more. There was a forcefulness to the 4-5 inches left on the ground that was lacking the previous two days, and it was colder too, in the low 20’s. The training plan called for some easy roller ski intervals, but the snow looked too good to pass up. And besides, the road would be a slushy mess to roller ski on. Skiing on October 10 seemed almost novel, possibly the earliest I’ve ever been on snow in a season. We decided to make today opening day of the 2018-19 ski season.

Elaine and I have a lot of skis. We have nordic racing skis, nordic training skis, backcountry nordic skis, spring couloir skis, powder skis, daily backcountry skis, resort skis and telemark skis. It’s a bit ridiculous. But without doubt, the most important skis are something we call “rock skis.” Our rock skis are designed for just that, heading out when the snow coverage is shallow and we don’t want to damage our good skis on rocks. Four to five inches in early October is impressive, but it’s nowhere near deep enough to avoid hitting objects in the appropriately named Rocky Mountains.

Our rock skis are almost silly: a pair of 2006 Icelantic Nomads in a 156 cm length. At the time Icelantic subscribed to the belief that shorter skis were better, and this was the only length they made. They were revolutionary when I got them, and I spent a winter coaching the Nederland Alpine Ski Team and skinning up and down the race course on those fledgling Icelantics. I believe they even won a DoJoe race from some bygone era before ultralight rando gear became all the rage.

The diminutive Nomads now have more than 1,200 days of skiing on them. The bases are almost worn to the core, the edges terribly thin and the bindings – an early era Dynafit – are starting to work less than optimally. But still, twelve years later, they serve an important function. More often than not, they bat lead-off for the coming ski season. Today was no exception.

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Shallow snowpack but a mid-winter feel thanks to copious amounts of snow of the trees.

We decided to head from our home to a popular local backcountry skiing destination. The storm grew in intensity as we moved along, gradually climbing at first, and then more steeply gaining altitude. While the snowpack was shallow, the snow clinging to the trees had the feel of mid-winter. That amazing quiet that snow provides, the insulation to sound it gives, soothed us along as we strided uphill.

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How can you not have a huge smile on the first ski day of the year?

A pleasant surprise: we felt physically good. The first backcountry ski of the year is usually a painful affair. It appears the training plan we’ve been following since we got back from Greenland is working. We tossed in our interval sets, moving not quite effortlessly, but easily enough up the mountain. It’s nice to see hard work paying off.

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Looking forward to the best winter yet with this gal.

Near the top, the wind started to blow, the snow pelted us, and the sky and clouds above opened for a second to let the red hew of evening alpenglow pass thru. This was no fluke storm. This had the feel of winter. I zipped up my collar, dipped my eyes towards the ground, and headed ever upward into the tempest, into these mountain that I love, to begin the winter cycle once again. We are skiers, and our time, after the long, hot summer, has finally arrived.

Kuksa Carving Class at the Northhouse Folk School

IMG_4049This September, Elaine and I took a unique-for-us trip to the northern part of Minnesota. The plan for the trip was two-fold. First, we wanted to learn how to carve Kuksa cups at the Northhouse Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. After the class, we hoped to take our packrafts on an adventure in the legendary Minnesota Boundary Waters Wilderness.  As odd as it was to load up the car and head away from the mountains, the trip rewarded us in ways different from the sheer athletic and adventure endeavors we normally tackle.

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The Focus, loaded up with axes, paddling gear and roller skis for the 1,200 mile drive to Grand Marais, Minnesota.

I first heard of the North House Folk School from my old boss, Gary Neptune, who visited the school to take a wooden ski building class. The idea of making something from scratch out of wood fascinated me because it’s so simple yet almost never taught in modern society.  When we heard that there was a three-day carving class in September at the school to learn how to make Sami kuksa cups, we decided to take the dive.

The drive to northern Minnesota was an epic, hot, two-day slog across Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and finally Minnesota, but we did enjoy passing thru the Black Hills and watching the Great Plains slowly drift into the hardwood forests that stretch from the Missouri River to the Atlantic Ocean. After two solid days of driving, we finally arrived in Grand Marais, road weary but excited.

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Sunset on the banks of the Missouri River in Chamberlain, South Dakota.

Conveniently, the North House Folk School is located directly adjacent to the campground we were staying at. It was an easy five minute walk from our tent to the school and classroom. The school consists of a half-dozen or so independent buildings surrounding a center plaza. It’s located directly on the banks of Lake Superior on the main road thru town. Grand Marais itself is a small, tourist destination with lots of fish restaurants and outfitters for visitors heading into the outdoors.

The class met the first morning in a long room with wooden floors, wooden skis on the wall and birch bark canoes hanging from the rafters. Our instructor was a gentleman named Alex Yerks. Alex has been making Kuksa cups for about a decade now, and produces some wonderful pieces. He is arguable the most prolific Kuksa cup maker in the United States, and we were fortunate to have him as our instructor. I enjoyed his teaching style and willingness to let us get to work: after a five minute general discussion on wood grain, it was time to get busy, carving axes wielded, hacking away at our selected pieces of fresh cut birch wood. I was a little amazed nobody chopped a finger off, but Alex was watching us carefully, giving instruction when needed. I suppose too, that human self-preservation ensures that the axe blades stay safely away from exposed fingers!

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These are Kuksa cups made by Alex. They are cut from greenwood of various types, birch, alder and maple being the most common wood selections. Alex lives in northern New York where a variety of wood is available. We’ll have to experiment with aspen here, as hardwoods are extremely limited in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. These are all hand carved and not sanded. It’s a point of pride with experienced carvers not to sand their work.

 

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Step one: pick out your piece of wood and cut it length wise to size. The next step is to split it to a general form of a cup. This is done with a carving axe and mallet.

Alex teaches techniques to build the entire Kuksa by hand. Before the class began, he headed into the Minnesota forest and chopped down an older birch tree. The wood we got was something called “spalted wood.” Spalted wood has been affected by fungi, and while it does lose a bit of strength in the decaying process, it also provide some unique color and design patterns that can be fun to work with. Strength, while important for making skis or furniture, isn’t particularly important for making a cup.

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After the wood has been cut and split to an appropriate size, the working piece is viced. In class we used hand made wooden stands and wooden wedges to hold things in place. Using first an adze and then a gouge, the cup inside is hollowed out. This is a the best time to remove wood, as the cup is held in place and it’s easy to get leverage. A skilled craft person could hollow out a cup in 10-15 minutes using this technique. It took us a bit longer!

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Gouges come in many shapes and sizes. This particular one that Elaine is using was built by Alex and is specifically designed to make Kuksas. The longer shaped handle and shallow cutting part makes it easy to use.

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Elaine’s 1st kuksa cup, gouged out. Ideally it’s good to have a little overhang to prevent liquid from spilling out when the cup is in use. Note the pencil drawn in handle on the outside of the cup. Which brings us to the next step…

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Using a carving axe, first the area around the bowl is chopped and rounded to size, being careful not to cut so deep that it puts a hole in the cup. Next, the handle is thinned. There is still a lot of knife work to do after this process. The point is to remove enough material so time isn’t wasted knife carving away lots of wood material. Skill and a good axe can help the process. We had neither, but we eventually got the job done.

After hewing out the cup with carving axes, we used straight blade carving knives and hook knives to complete the kuksas. We learned that the inside of the cup has a different grain pattern than the outside, which dramatically changes carving techniques. A general rule is it’s best to carve with the grain of the wood, as anything else can make knife handling choppy and hard to control. Our first finished cups looked nowhere near as good as those made by Alex, but that’s to be expected. If it were easy, everybody would do it.

One of the best parts of the class was the classroom setting and our fellow students. In addition to Elaine and I, there was a hockey player and a bicycle advocate from Minneapolis, an outdoor instructor from Ontario, a retired wolf-volunteer lady from Ely, a retired, cross-country skiing and canoeing enthusiast who had a cabin near the Canadian border, and an older, 70-something gentleman from southern Minnesota who surprised us all by telling us he planned to visit Burning Man next year! There was a diversity in skill and experience level, from Elaine and I who had barely carved to the Ontario instructor who has carved extensively and sells items on the internet. Despite this, everybody was friendly and helpful and there wasn’t much lag in the time it took to get work done.

I was surprised at the age range in the class. Real world craft skills like working with wood are gaining popularity with the younger generation in our technology based society. Working with wood is an opportunity to unplug and do something that harkens back to a time before computers, smart phones and video games. It’s good for the brain and soul.

The room had a kitchen where we could cook lunch and dinner. We did splurge on lunch a couple times at a nearby, informal fish restaurant on the water with the fresh catch of the day from Lake Superior. Before class Elaine and I would go for a roller ski around the campground to get our exercise in. All in all, it was a perfect environment for learning a new skill, getting away from it all and relaxing.

I found the whole thing much more inspiring than a traditional school setting. Students were engaged and there was a tangible product produced in the class. Too often in modern society we deal with theoretical ideas. We don’t really teach people to make things from start to finish. We’ve become a society of people who rely on others to make and fix things. Learning to make things, be it a kuksa cup, a tool, a garden or finely prepared meal is healthy for humans because it provides a sense of completion and pride.

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It was important that the wood didn’t dry out too much. As such, we would soak our kuksas in the sink for the night. Drying really impacts things and I’m already learning that our Colorado climate can dry wood to such an extent and so quickly that it cracks.

Alex taught us many interesting techniques to make the kuksas unique, including chip carving for designs and lettering and using milk paints to add color to the cups. Alex usually treats his cups with tung or linseed oil, but having the ability to put a non-toxic paint on the finished product is a nice tool in the arsenal. We also learned how to sharpen tools, including using a power grinder for sharpening axes and knives. Finally, we were taught knife techniques so we could carve safely and effectively.

There were other concurrent classes going on at the school that we got to visit. Just next door, the blacksmith class was teaching participants the basic techniques of forging, a skill Elaine very much wants to learn. Across the pavilion, a wooden furniture class was being taught by a legend in the woodworking world, Jogge Sundqvist from Sweden. Next door to him, there was a cooking class focused on making traditional Viking meals. We all benefited from that class as they served us an afternoon snack of sacrificial broth and bread…it tasted much better than it sounds!

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The school hosts a lot of classes. There is even one teaching how to build a birchbark canoe. I could easily spend a couple weeks after ski season doing that!

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For three days we learned and carved. Our hands were sore and splintered, but there were only a few sliced fingers and no serious injuries. These are our finished 1st kuksas. Alex taught us the technique of forming a pointed front end. It makes the cup stronger and gives them a slight Viking ship look. The spalted wood gives the cups and unique, natural feel. These cups were untreated and as such leaked, as the wood still was wet which allowed moisture to pass through. Finished cups that have been treated would not have this problem.

The final event for the class was a pizza dinner. This was no ordinary pizza dinner. The school has a wood burning pizza oven. Students would roll their own dough, select topping and then cook their pizza in the oven. While I’ve been fortunate to be exposed to this type of cooking, it was a first for many people in the classes. It all harkens back to the school’s mission of teaching people to do things and learn, not just providing.

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Pizza and libations in our handmade kuksa cups.

Overall, it was a great experience and learning opportunity in a beautiful and inspiring place. We’ll certainly be making more of these at home. I’m signed up to go back in January to learn to make wooden skis and Finnish ski poles. Elaine and I also talked about how the class was the first time since we got off the Continental Divide Trail that we were surrounded by a healthy, alternative thinking community of people with a shared goal and tangible accomplishments. It was remarkably similar to the CDT in that regard. A class at the Northhouse Folk School might be the perfect re-entry for a thru hiker who is just off the trail and is struggling to dive back into the craziness of the real world.

After one final, perfect Indian Summer night at the campground, it was time to leave Grand Marais and head due north to the Minnesota Boundary Waters for some hiking and packrafting…

CDT Thru-Ski: Skiing the San Juan Mountains on a hike from Mexico to Canada

This post is for hikers and prospective skiers who might be interested in tackling the San Juans or other portions of the Continental Divide Trail on skis. In my opinion, it’s a fantastic way to go. In Europe there are a number of “Haute Routes” or high routes that are very popular ski mountaineering trips. While we stuck primarily to the trail corridor, I do believe it would be possible to create an amazing CDT skiing “Haute Route” through the San Juans. More on that later. IMG_0675As part of our 2017 Continental Divide thru-hike from Mexico to Canada, my wife Snow and I elected to ski a portion of the route from Cumbres Pass on the Colorado/New Mexico border to Highway 114 in Colorado (in the general vicinity of Cochetopa Pass). In reality, the skiing ended just east of San Luis Peak, as the relatively low terrain in the Cochetopa Hills was clear of snow by early June. We skied the entire Continental Divide Trail thru the San Juan Mountains, including the loop that heads west from Wolf Creek Pass, north towards Stony Pass, and then east past Highway 149 and up and over San Luis Peak.

We were not the first people to bring skis into the San Juans as part of a CDT thru-hike. In 2015 She-Ra brought skis on her CDT adventure. I do not know if she brought them on the entire San Juan loop, and in the end it doesn’t matter. Hike your own hike, or in this case ski your own ski! Altogether we skied or carried skis for about 250 miles. Of the 250 miles, I’d estimate we were on the skis 70% of the time. The remainder, we walked, with skis on our back.

The winter of 2016-17 was record breaking snowpack for much of Colorado. Snowpack levels topped out to 120-130% of normal. In contrast, 2017-18 is barely at 60% snowpack. It may not be viable this year unless one plans to cross the San Juans in late-April or early May. IMG_0910A bit about our skiing background for reference when planning your own adventure: Snow and I ski a lot. We spend more than 100 days each winter skiing in the backcountry. We have a alpine ski racing background and compete in nordic ski races in the winter. We’ve had some success in randonee style ski races. We live close to where the CDT passes James Peak in Colorado, so we have good familiarity with the Colorado snowpack.

Based on trail difficulty, I will say a hiker entertaining the thought of skiing the CDT thru the San Juans would want to have a solid base of backcountry skiing in their skill set. It was harder than I thought it would be. There were a number of places where some of the skiing was quite dicey, especially in the section between Cumbres Pass and Wolf Creek. The ability to make quick hop turns and traverse steep hillsides is essential. We considered skiing on this route one large “no fall zone,” and while that is exaggerating the danger, an injury out here really isn’t an option. Best to keep it upright.

A prospective skier also should be aware that they will be managing risky terrain while trying to make big miles. We found this to be the biggest challenge and stressor. When we put our heads down and stopped thinking, we would often get ourselves into dangerous situations. When we focused on terrain management, mileage would suffer. It’s a tricky balance,The main dangers were exposure, fatigue and wet avalanche slides. A prospective skier needs to be able assess those risks and make appropriate decisions. That said, if somebody is a strong skier with good backcountry knowledge, skiing the San Juans is a viable and often joyous option.

For our gear, we went as light as you can go with a fixed heel ski system. We both used Ski Trab World Cup race skis and ATK bindings. The ski weighs about 700 grams, the binding quite a bit less than that. Snow used Scarpa Alien boots and I used Dynafit PDG boots. One MAJOR mistake we made was only bringing one pair of mohair Pomoca race skins. I would recommend future skiers bring AT LEAST two pairs of skins, preferably with a tail hook. We spent a lot of valuable time drying our skins out when the glue failed, as will happen in spring-like conditions. If we’d another pair of skins each, the latter part of the trip would have been much more efficient and enjoyable.

IMG_0635We ended up bringing ski crampons but never used them. We left regular crampons at home. That was a mistake. There were more than a few times when a pair of ultra-light boot crampons would have been nice. We didn’t use the ski crampons once. Next time, I would trade the ski crampons for the real thing.

We brought regular collapsable Black Diamond Ascension ski poles. We considered a BD Whippet, but in the end chose to leave this item at home. We used our Hyperlite Windrider packs, and in a perfect world I would have liked to have had a slightly beefier pack for this part of the trip. Weight will go up, and we were reaching the limit of what the Hyperlites could comfortably carry.

Like thru-hiking, thru-skiing is best when done as light as possible. Powder skis are unnecessary and too heavy. Skinny, light, maneuverable spring skis are best. Go for massive articulation in the boots and very simple bindings with no brakes. Watch pounds and ounces very carefully.

We shipped our gear to ourselves in Chama, and had some friends pick it up for us at Highway 114. Ideally, somebody would pick up skis at the eastern trailhead to San Luis Peak, but this is a very remote area, especially in late-May/early-June. As far as clothing goes, we used our regular hiking gear, with a bit warmer options for the high elevations. We did not use helmets, and this is a risk of course. I can’t recommend this tactic, but it worked for us. We left goggles at home.

There are many advantages to having ski gear. From a pure speed and moving perspective, skiing is faster on most terrain. It’s certainly faster on downhills, slightly faster on flats, and about equal on uphills. Sidehills are safer because one has an edge to dig into the snow. Kicking steps up steep couloirs was essentially like having a stiff toed mountaineering boot, far more secure and safe than a pair of Altras. From a mental standpoint, having the potential to make a sweet ski run in a very difficult section was certainly a nice carrot on the end of a stick.

Be aware though: bushwhacking is undeniably slower. Hopping deadfall with skis hanging off the pack to your knees is kind of like a Chinese torture test. We also lost a lot of time because of our skin situation. We spent hours and hours drying skins and postholing because our skin glue failed and we were forced to walk. Again, bring at least two pairs of skins.

We started our ski on May 26 and technically ended it with a ski off the 14er San Luis Peak on June 9. This was about 10-14 calendar days later than we’d hoped to be there. An emergency at home necessitated we leave the trail in Grants for about 10 days in late-April. Had this not happened, our ski would have almost certainly been earlier, faster, more wintery and less slushy.

We had some amazing moments and some rather hairball days. I’ve decided to include some brief daily excerpts from the ski across the San Juans on the Continental Divide Trail. Photos from the described day follow.

May 26 – Cumbres Pass to a saddle about a mile south of Blue Lake. 24 miles, 6007 feet of climbing, 4482 feet of descending. Switched to skis about a mile into the hike and kept them on the whole time. It is VERY easy to get sucked down the hill by gravity, end up below the trail, and have to hike back up. Day was  sloggy, but there was a sporty 35-40° snow climb and very heinous sidehill traverse into camp through extremely thick woods. Inside right ankle was quite sore by day’s end because of an extensive amount of side hilling.

IMG_0624IMG_0627IMG_0629IMG_0630IMG_0633May 27 – Blue Lake area to a high saddle just east of Summit Peak. 17 miles, 6414 feet of climbing, 5427 feet of descending. One of the more epic days I’ve ever had on skis, or for that matter, any outdoor activity. Started off getting sucked down too far and having to wander around finding Blue Lake (frozen solid, had to break ice to get water). Climbed a ridge, decided to drop down to a valley and ended up skiing down an extremely steep slope, probably 45°, in snow too soft. Too dangerous to repeat again. Had we headed further up the ridge and followed the trail exactly we actually would have found a better slope, albeit after a rather dangerous ridgeline climb (would have LOVED crampons here, frozen solid). A nice switchback ascent to a ridge and back down a beautiful couloir to the headwaters of the North Fork of the Conejos River. Perhaps the best ski of the entire endeavor. Sure beat walking. Then, bushwhacking through woods, to a saddle and then a very dicey sidehill crossing on solid snow above a huge cliff (crampons again please).

IMG_0637IMG_0640IMG_0645IMG_0646IMG_0703IMG_0706On the ridgeline south of the Adams Fork of the Conejos, things got silly. Instead of being relegated to a long traverse around the edge of the mountain, we elected to climb directly up to the ridge in hopes of continuing on. This proved impossible – Class IV/V climbing along the ridge to the west, plus storms moving in. Did a risky traverse along the north side of the ridge. Evidence of wet slides everywhere off the cliffs above, but what were we to do? If we waited, the slope would have been bullet proof in the morning and likely more dangerous. Slope at top was probably 45° but we were traversing so as long as we had a good edge hold, we were fine. On the flip side, we covered this ground in about 10 minutes…would have been hours of posthole hiking. Heard rumors after that a number of people fell here, some got hurt. So in that regard, skiing was safer. Rest at Adams Fork, then elected to climb straight up a couloir to access the large flattish area north of Adams Fork. While not exactly fast, ski boots made kicking steps in the snow and loose dirt viable. About an hour climb, then a traverse to the ridge below below Summit Peak where we pitched camp. Lightning in the distance, elk on the horizon. Days like this are the ones you remember before your last breath.

IMG_0709IMG_0712IMG_0714IMG_0718IMG_0721IMG_0725May 28 – Summit Peak to top of Alberta Peak at Wolf Creek Ski Area. 18 miles, 4475 feet of climbing, 5400 feet of descending. Lots of high alpine traversing and skiing around a massive bowl. Passed Montezuma Peak, Long Trek Peak before deciding we were a bit bored with the nordic style terrain. Dropped down a north facing bowl/couloir that eventually led to Elwood Creek. This is something about skiing – you will end up choosing straight up-and-down over traverses. You may rack up a lot of vertical as a result. Ended up hiking for most of the rest of the day as terrain was either very wooded, snowless or on a high ridgeline. An exception was a very fun snow climb and descent just north of Bonito Pass. Ended up meeting up with Frank, and hiked a steep ridge with him. While not totally necessary, skis did make the descent off the ridge a bit more fun, and I would argue more safe. Decided to skin to the top of Wolf Creek Ski Resort to end the day in hopes of a fun morning descent down Alberta Peak. Ended up camping on the upper ramp of the Alberta Chair Lift. Great day of skiing the CDT.

IMG_0728IMG_0734IMG_0737IMG_0767IMG_0778IMG_0782IMG_0783IMG_0786IMG_0796May 29 – Alberta Peak to Wolf Creek Pass – 5 miles, 250 feet of climbing, 2,500 feet of descending. Are there better things in life than starting the morning off with a climb to the top of a mountain and a ski back down? I’d argue no. This was the reward for the hardships of the previous three days. Stellar descent back down to Highway 160, felt like mini-supermen and women. Ski the CDT! Spend the next day resting in Pagosa Springs.

IMG_0797IMG_0803IMG_0821IMG_0835IMG_0837May 31 – Wolf Creek Pass to a few miles north (west) of the Creede Cutoff. 14 miles, 5089 feet of climbing, 4190 feet of descending. Tough, tough day. Started off with a very dicey/class 3/4 ridgeline traverse, then some interesting skiing and climbing back up  in the vicinity of Mount Hope. The snow here seems much more rotton, blow-out-your-ACL type skiing. Plus, slush wrecking havoc on skins. Mentally very tough. Weather cloudy, thunderstorms, rain, white-out conditions, wet. An epic 14 miles.

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June 1 – Point North of Creede Cutoff to just before ridgeline that leads to the Knife Edge. 17 miles, 4,000 feet climbing, 4,100 feet descending. Very hard, frustrating, epic day. Body exhausted. Big, steep climb up SE of South River Peak. Pretty much a real, legit snow climb. I don’t know how people can safely do this in Altras. If you fall, you’re fucked. Even with ski boots, it was attention grabbing. Across a few VERY steep sidehills. Frozen. Elected to put on skis. Not much of a problem on skis with sharp edges, again a BIG problem if we were just wearing shoes. So skis were very beneficial and safer here. Total skin failure – wasted an hour drying them. Late in the day, snow absolute shit. Punchy, even on skis. Massive wet slides above us from previous days. Not the safest place to be in the world. We kept moving as briskly as we could. Then, a sidehill climb and back on skis on a burned, wooded ridgeline. Exhausted. Set up wet tent, questioned the reason for taking this route.

IMG_0841IMG_0842IMG_0847IMG_0849IMG_0857IMG_0861IMG_0862June 2 – East of Knife Edge Ridgeline Camp to Elk Meadow near Cimarrona Peak. 20 miles, 3200 feet of climbing, 5500 feet of descending. Easy hiking early on frozen ridgeline, then onto the much hyped Knife Edge. Easy, quick snow climb (although crampons would have been nice), and a set-the-edge, don’t look down traverse. Much, much easier on skis I would imagine. Harder terrain for sure on day two out of Cumbres Pass. Too warm of a day, very dangerous. Snow got rotten again, skins failing, avalanches ripping off rocks above us, so decided to lengthen the route and head south directly off ridgeline to Williams Fork drainage. Skied a bit, hill ended up turning into a cliff, butt-slid down a waterfall, made an extremely sketchy descent to valley floor. Wouldn’t have minded having a 30 meter section of 7 mm rope. Valley floor looked like a cyclone had hit. Terrible deadfall, made worse with skis on the back. So much deadfall. Saw an elk with a broken leg. Tough winter here. Hiked to Palisades Camp, but not before some of the worst deadfall I’ve ever seen in my life! But then, beauty, forests, good to see some vegetation and wildlife. Headed up Weminuche Creek, past Mile Creek, camped in an absolutely beautiful Aspen grove. Why does the CDT not offer this as an alternate? Snow covered early season trail is no match for the spring beauty of the lower Weminuche Wilderness. Elk everywhere. A bit longer than the actual trail, but give people this option instead of the Creede Cutoff which misses the absolute best of Colorado. Glorious evening.

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IMG_0656IMG_0864IMG_0875June 3- Elk Meadow to headwaters of Rock Creek – 22 miles, 4,344 feet of climbing, 2667 feet of descending. Nice morning walk, but the crossing of the slow moving Pinos River was very deep (chest deep, murky so can’t see the bottom), and some of the crossing streams coming from mountains due west were very swift and sketchy. Long, long, long climb to eventual headwaters of Flint Creek. Fairly smooth going at first, bushwhack hell with postholing galore after. Lots of elk. Post holed right to the top of the pass, probably would have been better off skiing but too lazy to take skis off the back. Then, a major mistake. Put on skis, enjoying blissful descent down Rock Creek, decided to traverse to south side of river where snow line went further. Snow starting rotting out and eventually ended. Turns out, we skied a mile past where the trail easily crossing the creek. Light failing, incredibly fast moving stream, deep, very dangerous. Made up mind to do tandem crossing, pulled off pants (it was cold and late) and first step almost was the end of us. Aborted mission, went back on shore, had a emotional screaming session that we didn’t die. Set up a shitty, adrenaline filled camp, broke a stake, made pact not to keep pushing these limits each and every day. The daily adrenaline and danger is simply too much to maintain. Trying to do risk management of dangerous, snow covered, icy mountain terrain on skis and clock big miles do not go hand-in-hand. We will get hurt if we keep this up.

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June 4 – Headwaters of Rock Creek to lake just north of Stony Pass. 20 miles, 5,177 feet of climbing, 3,691 feet of descending. River was still raging in the morning, so we headed back up the valley and crossed about a half-mile up from our camp on a still frozen but very thin snow bridge. Mama moose and her days old calf were our only company. Gave them very wide berth. Nobody comes to this valley. Wild as heck.  Rejoined the CDT, climbed to a big saddle, more elk. Lunch on Hunchback Pass, then skied down to Kite Lake (nice slushy turns) and then skied entire way up bowl that eventually led to spot where Colorado Trail and CDT join. Then, a real highlight. Flat high plateau, all the way to Stony Pass. Walking would have been PURE HELL this late in the day, sinking to thighs on every step. On skis, despite having to dry skins for 15 minutes, we traversed over it quickly. Crossed Stony Pass, skinned up bowl that constitutes the headwaters of the mighty Rio Grande, camped by a frozen lake way above Silverton. 14er Handies Peak in clear view. A stunning end to the day. Skis redeemed themselves in a big way.

IMG_0883IMG_0887IMG_0894IMG_0896IMG_0897IMG_0898IMG_0900IMG_0907IMG_0913IMG_0918IMG_0920IMG_0923IMG_0925IMG_0930June 5 – Just north of Stony Pass to Colorado Trail Yurt – 24 miles, 4,731 feet of climbing, 5,725 feet of down. Another tough day. Snow is failing, so after about an hour of efficient travel things just got too slushy. Ended up doing endless postholing, skins failing in minutes. Slow going. Past Cataract Lake, postholing everywhere, exhausted, when we got smart and put skis back on. Up over pass, awesome descent quite a ways down Lost Trail Creek. Then, a long hike back up to the trail and eventually up to a very cold, blustery and stormy Carson Peak and the high point of the Colorado Trail. Proceeded to have some very tough slush skinning/postholing and descents down ridgeline with eventual goal of yurt. Concerned that snow to the east and Snow Mesa doesn’t look all that snowy. Nice ski line down to the yurt, making turns over posthole marks. Work our way into the yurt, meet two other hikers. First humans we’ve seen since Wolf Creek Pass, only the third since Cumbres Pass. Feels like we’ve been in the wilderness on an intense, intense experience.

IMG_0937IMG_0944IMG_0946IMG_0948IMG_0951IMG_0953IMG_0961June 6,7 – Easy walk to Spring Creek Pass, rest days. The only thing of note here is that Lucky at the Raven’s Roost is an awesome human being, and we were very, very tired. Lake City is a gem of a trail town. Don’t miss it.

June 8 – Spring Creek Pass to massive cirque just west of San Luis Peak. 19 miles, 5,400 feet of climbing, 3990 feet of descending.  No snow on Snow Mesa, then finally put on skis 10 miles into the day for a slushy descent. So wooded it made little sense to ski, so we posthole instead. We’re about two weeks too late. Windy camp born from exhaustion on the side of the mountain. Lots of carrying the skis on the back today.

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June 9 – San Luis Peak to Cochetopa Hills. 24 miles, 3,200 feet of climbing, 5,000 feet of down. We are dead tired, but we’ve got to ski San Luis Peak, one of Colorado’s highest mountains and put a little exclamation point on this journey. Nice descent down the east side to Cochetopa Creek, but snow soon turned rotton, we had to scramble out, and thus ended the ski. All walking from here to Canada!

IMG_0974IMG_0975IMG_0979IMG_0984IMG_0986IMG_0995We carried our ski gear out another day and a half to Cochetopa Pass where our friends fed us and allowed us to convert to normal, lightweight, thru-hiking gear. We walked the remainder of the trail to Canada, but we did have some tiny “Ski Bums” skis sent to us in Pinedale, Wyoming and East Glacier, Montana to keep our streak of 86 straight months with at least one day of skiing alive. We ended up making some horrible turns in massive sun cups on the west side of Knapsak Col in the Wind River Range in August and did some cross-country skiing around the Amtrak station in East Glacier when the first snow of autumn arrived in mid-September. We made some turns in July at our home in Colorado. The steak lives on!

Summary: The ski of the San Juans is something we’re proud of. It was very hard and it felt good to persevere and prove that it was possible. There were a number of critics and naysayers beforehand, and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t fuel us a little bit.

I believe skiing is a legitimate form of transportation on the CDT. In the race to the South Pole, they skied. Snowy places are made for skis, and the San Juans in May are snowy. Skis are allowed in Wilderness – there are no restrictions and they are seen as appropriate in Wilderness areas.

Contrary to what one fellow-thru hiking critic (from the skiing mecca of Indiana) told us, skiing the San Juans is NOT “akin to getting in a car and driving to Canada.” The energy required to do the sheer vertical of heading up couloirs and back down was easily the hardest part of the trail for us. The San Juan ski took a toll. We were never as spry for the rest of the hike as we were after the San Juans. It was ten of the very hardest days of the trail piled on top of each other, and it left us exhausted for the rest of the hike. We finished, but it was not easy.

IMG_3509At times, the skiing was fantastic. There were lines that were dramatic and downright fun, and so remote that it would be unrealistic to just ski them on a weekend backcountry trip. The area south of Wolf Creek Pass offers terrific, essentially empty skiing. The area north of Wolf Creek was more traverse-like in nature, but we also really felt the effects of being too late in the season. I would say around Memorial Day would be a perfect time to be finishing up at San Luis Peak

IMG_0915Being up in the San Juans in May is harder physically than taking a lower route. It seems many hikers skip this part, and this isn’t necessarily a bad idea. It’s tough being up so high. It’s colder, it snows, it’s late spring in the high, high Rockies. Living at 12,000 feet is harder, you eat more, you sleep less, you burn more calories. The appropriate gear probably needs to be more robust and warmer.

IMG_0932If prepared, it is a wildly enriching experience to ski the San Juans, indeed one of the finest ski experiences I’ve ever had. The mountains observed, the descents enjoyed, the couloirs climbed…it’s unforgettable. It is the wildest part of the trail. The animals are just emerging, the tourists have not arrived, there will be few other people. We saw injured elk from winter, baby calves left on the tundra, and massive elk herds, skinny and surviving. We saw newborn moose calves, went to sleep each night to the sound of coyotes howling, saw black bears and enjoyed the awakening spring in the high Rocky Mountains.

In future years Snow and I hope to return to the San Juans and chart and map out a true “CDT Skier’s Haute Route Alternate,” that takes advantage of the awesome terrain by maximizing aesthetic and amazing couloir descents and snow climbs back up. Or if somebody would like that chart this out first, we will be your biggest supporters.

We encourage anybody with the know-how and desire to ski the San Juan part of the CDT. It will take toll on your body, but it does not need to be a sacrifice for finishing the CDT. In retrospect, it was probably the best part of the entire hike.