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.

Staying Sane in a Worrisome World

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Heading out of the Wind Rivers in Wyoming.

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

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Home is pretty good.

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

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Thru-hiking might just ruin your life…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Everything I need is on my back

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

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

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Peace and freedom reign in Glacier National Park

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

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

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Sometimes being on the trail was tough

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

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Made it to Canada – but now what?

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

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

Off the Greyhound, Onto the CDT

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And so it begins. April 10, 2017 at the Crazy Cook Monument on the Mexico/USA border.

Our Chevy Suburban creeks, groans and moans as her tires bounce and crawl over the red-rocked arroyo gully, deep in the New Mexico bootleg. A long, dusty cloud of red wisps off in the distance behind us. We’re on the official “road” to the Crazy Cook Monument and the start of the Continental Divide Trail, but to call it a road is being generous. It’s a desert two-track: gnarled, raw, dusty, rocky and cactus strewn.

Our driver Juan, is relaxed but focused on the path ahead. Bob Marley eminates from the old stereo, appropriately rebellious and care-free music for our little band of CDT thru-hikers. I’m in the front seat next to Juan, the best seat in the house. He’s quiet and talkative at the same time, like somebody who has a secret he’s dying to share. He tells me about some hikers earlier in the year who got drunk at the start and ended up walking to a Mormon camp across the border in Mexico: a bad start to the biggest and baddest long distance hike in the U.S. We talk more: he lets me know that Lordsburg, New Mexico is a shit hole (he lives in Silver City), and he thinks the U.S. Border Patrol’s effort to round up immigrants is a load of crock. We’re in it now, deep in the desert, in Abbey Country, where immigrants, water and ocotillo plants are the biggest realities and concerns.

Juan drives this shuttle as part of a service the Continental Divide Trail Coalition offers to help hikers get off on the right foot. On a 3,000 mile hike, it’s less than ideal if a bunch of skinny hikers die in the first 100 miles. The Crazy Cook monument, the official start to the trail, is not a place easily reached. To get a seat on Juan’s shuttle, one must make their way to the aforementioned town Lordsburg, tucked deep in southwestern New Mexico. Since hiking the Continental Divide Trail is not a round trip vacation, it can be challenging getting here with no loose ends to pick up later. My wife, Elaine and I, ended up flying to Tucson, Arizona, walking ten miles thru the city slums to the Greyhound station, and then catching the bus to Lordsburg.

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We had a lot of bad ideas on this trip. One of our worst was to walk from the Tucson airport to the Greyhound station. Should have spent the day in downtown eating Mexican food.

Riding Greyhound is an adventure in its own right, a trip to a culture of America that is rarely found in Boulder, Bend or Boston. It’s a lot less white and a lot less affluent. Most folks on-board have a hacking cough of some sort. There is a lot of stress, a lot of bickering. One woman on-board is relegated to a wheel chair. The Greyhound has certain areas where wheel-chaired passengers can sit, and there are straps coming from the floor and walls of the bus to secure them in place. As we exit Tucson and make our way around the twisty entrance lane to I-10, the woman and her wheelchair suddenly go flying across the bus, slamming into the opposite wall, with her rightfully screaming, “stop the FUCKING bus!” It’s not a pretty sight, but it is our first real immersion on this trip into a world that is very different from ours.

After two hours of cramped riding, we get off the bus, breathe the evening exhaust and McDonald’s french fries filled desert air, cross under the Interstate and search for our hotel for the night. Lordsburg is a gathering spot for northbound CDT hikers. It’s a railroad and highway town, located directly on Interstate 10 and the Santa Fe railroad line. While the Continental Divide might evoke images of snow covered peaks and lush mountain meadows, Lordsburg is a far cry from this. It’s a lonely, sun-baked, blown-down, litter-strewn dilapidated town in the heart of high New Mexico desert. The main street in town features an old pizza place and a general American food joint called Cranberries.

There are a few motels, including the Econolodge, recommended strongly in Yogi’s CDT Trail Guide, the one and only real “guidebook” to the trail. In Lordsburg, the Econolodge is the place to be. Juan’s rides to Mexico leave from here and they also hold re-supply packages for hikers. In a town where business is hard to come by, the Econolodge is doing all it can to cater to the small segment of CDT hikers using Lordsburg as their launch locale.

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First steps.

It’s been a long day, catching the bus from our mountain cabin in Eldora, Colorado to Denver, flying to Tucson and then bussing it to Lordsburg, and we are mildly starving. We drop our backpacks off at the Econolodge, and head over to the convenience store to pick up some supplies. While checking out, I ask the teenage boy at the counter what the best eating options in Lordsburg were.

“Well, my favorite place is McDonalds, but the Arby’s is great too,” he informs us. “The pizza place is OK and Cranberries has good Mexican food.”

I’ve learned over time that “OK,” when asking locals for food advice, is somewhat akin to them saying, “It’s goddamn awful but you probably won’t get food poisoning.” Case closed. We were not in the mood for fast food, so Cranberries it is. Turns out the enchiladas and milk shake are indeed pretty good. Test number one, avoiding gastrointestinal sickness on the first day, accomplished.

After dinner we head outside and the sky is simply exploding in a way that can only happen in the great American desert. We’d heard of these New Mexico sunsets, but this was beyond anything imagined. Orange melds into red into purple into a firestorm of western desert magic. Perhaps it was the sky, or the end of a long travel day, but an elation that only total freedom can bring hits us hard. For the next five months, we are about as free as humans can get. From the deep bootleg of the New Mexico desert, our mission, our calling was simple: walk across the wild land, along the spine of the divide, north to the Canadian border. Giddy excitement hits us. We may be standing in a brown desert field littered with trash and needles, but there is nowhere we want to be more.

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Enjoying the ecstatic sunset the night before hitting the trail.

An ecstatic, slightly nervous sleep takes over and before long the alarm is signaling the wake-up call and the beginning of the greatest adventure of our lives to this point. We head to the Econolodge breakfast room, packs in tow, make some of those mediocre waffles hotels tend to serve, and chat with a few fellow hikers at the table. In addition to Juan, there are five other hikers joining us on the ride to Mexico. A guy introduces himself as “Backbone,”, and is definitely the most talkative of the group. He asks where we all are from, what we had hiked before and if we are worried about rattle snakes. At NOLS, we would call him a fluffy bunny, full of energy, perhaps a bit too much for 6 am. There is a nice elderly couple from Canada, a slightly overweight younger fellow from Albuquerque and finally, a Dutch guy who introduces himself as Frank. Frank looks the part, lean, appropriate clothing, and a backpack that looks slightly larger than an elementary school kids day pack. Indeed, in comparison, our packs seem downright behemoth.

In the breakfast room we meet a 50-something year old grizzled man who goes by the name “Radar.” Radar is a trail angel, and there is no place where that magic is needed more for disoriented hikers than Lordsburg. Radar serves many key functions. He drives hikers around but much more importantly, he makes sure water caches are filled. The Continental Divide Trail Coalition, in an effort to ease us into the trail, maintains water caches between the Mexican border and Lordsburg. They are located every 15-20 miles. While it might be possible to do the first part of the trail without these caches utilizing cow troughs and the occasional well, the caches make the experience much more enjoyable. Radar is the most essential person in this section for CDT hikers.

Indeed, this is some of the driest country in the entire United States. The hike begins in the extreme northwestern corner of the Chihuahuan Desert, a massive arid region that extends deep into Mexico and east into Texas. It’s the second largest desert in North America (the largest, we will cross later, in Wyoming). This ecosystem promises to be singularly unique on the entire trail.  Even just north of I-10, the deep desert gives way to the rolling, sagebrush hills of New Mexico, a little more mountain, a little less desert.

Juan our driver meets us, we load up the Suburban and begin the journey to the southern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail. As we head east on I-10, the red fireball sun rises over the horizon, painting the desert in deep oranges and purples. Juan tells us that he had to call border patrol before we left to let them know that we would be out there for the next 4 to 5 days. The area south of I-10 is heavily patrolled for immigrants trying to make their way north from Mexico. There are sensors everywhere, on fence posts, on cacti and on bushes; in addition, border patrol guards are constantly driving up and down the mish-mash of dirt roads in the area, checking on anything that might trigger the sensors – a rattle snake, a cow, an immigrant, a thru-hiker.  Anybody traveling in this area is required to check in with border patrol before departing.

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Elaine hopping the fence over to Mexico and back.

I have mixed feelings about this heavy level of security. On one hand, I understand the need to keep tabs on who is coming into the country. But I overwhelmingly feel that if somebody is able to risk life and limb and cross the incredibly dry, prickly and hazardous land between the border and I-10, they deserve to be here, at least in some capacity. It’s much more of a sacrifice than most of us who were born in the United States will ever make. Visiting this area also brings to light how laughable and unnecessary the concept of a gigantic wall between Mexico and United States is. There are sensors on practically every bush. What in the world do we need a wall for? And how exactly are we going to get people and supplies down here to build it? Crazy Cook is a two-hour rough jeep road ride from Interstate 10. Is Juan going to drive all the construction workers down here, towing the concrete behind his Suburban? And where will these workers stay and what will they drink? There is nothing out here but cactus and arroyos. Are we going to build a small city, pipe water in from the Rio Grande so we can build a gigantic wall? A wall seems like an archaic idea – we aren’t in the Middle Ages anymore.

These are the topics of conversation on the ride down between Juan and I. Just before turning off the pavement, we stop at the tiny town of Hachita to fill up water bottles, pee and stretch. And, then onto a wide graded dirt road before turning off onto a spine jostling two-track jeep trail straight across the desolate desert. As we drop sharply into arroyos and back up over slickrock and sand, mountains unfold in front of us. The Hatchet Mountain Range is the southernmost segment of the Continental Divide in the United States. It’s mostly brown and cactus filled, but on the very highest reaches I could make out pine forests, a rising crescendo from tan to deep dark green. Bighorn sheep frequent the high reaches of the range, grazing on the vegetation and basking in the cool, thin air.

The passing landscape is full of gnarled-looking plants and cacti. One particularly stark looking specimen is the Ocotillo plant. The Ocotillo is tall, sprouting up in thin stalks ten feet in the air. The plant itself is covered in sharp needles and is topped off with a bright red flower on each stalk. It’s very beautiful, but you wouldn’t want to accidentally walk into one, lest you end up pulling cactus prickles out of your flesh for the next hour. Our two-track turns southeast, down the rise from the Hatchet Mountains, towards our destination.

Across a massive valley, hills rise to the east. Those mountains are in Mexico. I couldn’t help but think as much of an adventure this was, what would it be like to head SOUTH from Crazy Cook along the Continental Divide thru Mexico? Perhaps in another life. That is not our calling, and honestly we’re not exactly the ideal pair to head deeper into the south. We’re as pale as can be with nordic complexions, light hair and blue eyes. We also live at 8,800 feet and relish the snow. Just two weeks earlier we’d been camping in negative-30 degree temperatures on a high plateau in central Norway. Odd as it sounds, that seemed less foreign and harsh than crossing the Chihuahuan Desert. Cold and snow we understand. Everything about this landscape was new and intimidating.

Just when the bouncing and jarring was getting unbearable, we reached the Mexico border. It’s not a spectacular location and there is no fanfare, just a dirt road paralleling a fence line. There is no border crossing here, no sign, no flags of any type. There are actually three separate “official” starting locations to the CDT, one further east in Columbus and one to the west in Antelope Wells. The Crazy Cook start seems to be the most remote start, and with the shuttle and the water caches is where the coalition is dedicating the majority of their resources. Juan pulls over as we reach a large CDT Monument, dropping us off at Journey’s beginning.

day8

Out of the Suburban, into the desert.

The crew quickly exits the Suburban and we start unloading packs. I can quickly tell our packs are among the heavier in the group. They say you carry your fears on your back. Well, it would not be an exaggeration to say Elaine and I are afraid of the desert, and in particular, running out of water. Even with the caches, we are well stocked, each carrying seven liters of water from the start. I don’t think anybody else in our van had more than four liters. It’s a significant amount of water weight – a liter weighs 2 pounds. When you do the math, that’s about 14 pounds of water weight Elaine and I chose to carry in the beginning of the hike.

We all take our photos at the monument. We’re informed by Juan that it’s OK to cross 100 feet or so into Mexico and take a photo for posterity sake, so we do. Elaine and I do some re-shuffling of our packs, intentionally going slow so we’d have some alone-time at the monument and start of this momentous journey north. I notice Frank and Backbone left first, then the kid from Albuquerque, then the Canadian couple and finally us. We are a little rusty – our last backpacking trip was seven months earlier in Norway – and it took a little bit to get our systems dialed, our layering figured out, our packs feeling just right.

day7

We go north (actually, we started off heading west. Minor details.)

And then, after a final photo and hug of the CDT Monument, we take our first steps north. When we first talked about hiking the CDT, during a 2012 hike of the Colorado Trail, we probably didn’t even understand what it would require to even get to this point. And while a 3,000 mile thru hike is a physical beatdown and a mental trial, one of the hardest parts of any thru-hike is just getting to the start. It took Elaine and I five years. We had comfortable jobs at a popular Boulder outdoor shop, a dog and a great life at home. To actually quit your job and to leave everything behind to essentially live a quasi-homeless lifestyle for about half a year is not a decision most people make. But it was a decision we made, and as a result, it is time to walk north, across the New Mexico desert.

The trail in the beginning traverses a flat plateau dotted with cactus plants and Ocotillo. Massive, almost comically large “CDT” trail signs are placed every 100 yards or so, perhaps in response to the guy who got drunk and headed to Mexico in the first ten minutes of his walk.

One disadvantage of the van ride is it left us starting off at 10 AM, well into the part of the day where temperatures are rising to a crescendo. On a normal backpacking day we’d be up well before that, taking advantage of the cool of the day to make early miles. That isn’t an option on this first day. As we head into the desert, the Hatchet Mountains guiding us along, it starts to swelter.

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With signs like this, it was a bit hard to get lost. They were much appreciated.

Up on the horizon, we see a couple walking ahead – the Canadians. They are a couple in their late-50’s, well covered in long pants, long sleeve shirt and gloves for sun protection. This is not their first rodeo. Indeed, they inform us they had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail as well as a number of smaller trails.

Making the Continental Divide Trail a debut long distance hike, as Elaine and I are doing, is quite rare. It’s almost always a second hike, and often the final adventure in the “triple crown.” The triple crown is awarded to hikers who hike the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail. There is some debate in the hiking community if the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail are harder. There is no argument about the CDT however – it’s considered the most difficult of the three. It’s remote, it’s high, it’s long, it’s mountainous and, of the three, it’s the trail that will offer the most opportunity for real adventure.

For Elaine and I, it was a relatively easy decision. From our home in Eldora, Colorado, a tiny town of 50 people that sits at 8,800 feet above sea level, the CDT is practically in our backyard. An eight mile hike from our front door takes the hiker to the top of Rollins Pass on the Continental Divide Trail. We see the trail multiple times every year, and every time we would wonder what it would be like to link the whole thing up from Mexico to Canada. We have no such fascination with the PCT or AT. The CDT was burned into our heart and soul long before our first step on this thru-hike.

We continue on past the Canadians, finding a hiking rhythm after a long hiatus. This is our first real hike in more than seven months. During the winter months, Elaine and I are avid skiers, and spend much of the year traveling up, over and down mountains in the winter landscape. And while there are similarities, skiing is not hiking. A plastic ski boot feels different on the feet, the stride of a kick and glide is less impactful than a hiking step and skiing is much, much cooler on the feet. It feels good to be walking again, a little foreign, but not completely alien either, buried under a few layers of muscle memory.

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Into the Chihuahua Desert.

The route begins to rise slowly and we leave the wide open plain of nothing. Small canyons rise to our south and ahead the terrain gets more hilly. As we hike along, we see the guy from Albuquerque sitting on the side of the trail, taking a snack break, umbrella in hand protecting him from the sun.  We exchange hellos, comment on how it is warming up and tell him we’d see him up trail. As it turns out, we never did see him again.

We are ready for our first break and looking to get out of the sun. There is little shelter from the sun, so we crawl into an arroyo with prickly brushes and contort our bodies in such a way to get a little bit comfortable while eating a bag of chips in the sand. Just as we are wrapping up lunch, the Canadians come walking by. They are ready to take a break as well and take our just vacated spot: shade is a hot commodity out here. Like the chap from Albuquerque, we tell them we’d see them up trail. We never did.

The trail now rises in earnest into a desert canyon reminiscent of something out of an old Cowboys-and-Indians movie. Fueled by our snack break, we begin to hike with more rhythm, gliding up the mountain, using our trekking sticks like nordic ski poles to help us up the mountain. We’re both much more comfortable on the up than on the flats, and it is nice to hit the first real hill of the Continental Divide Trail.

Sitting just off the trail is another hiker from our van ride, lounging in the shade of a tree. It’s Frank from the Netherlands. We don’t say words, just exchanging a quick wave before continuing onward. We climb further still and come upon yet another hiker, Backbone, relaxing under a Cottonwood. We exchange greetings and he asks us if we’d like to join him for lunch. We gladly oblige, happy to get out of the desert heat for a bit.

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Desert Rose.

We chat for awhile about the adventure and how we all got to this place. Backbone is from New York and is taking a hiatus from life to hike the trail. His wife and kid are at home, and his parents are following him, at least at first, in a RV for the summer. It sounded quite nice, but I can’t imagine leaving my spouse and family for five months. Backbone asks us if we have trail names, and we reply no, so he bounces a few ideas around. None of them really appeal or stick.

At that point Frank comes by. Before continuing, I should point out that over the course of the hike Frank became one of our best friends during the entire hike. He is extremely knowledgable, has high integrity, and once you figure out his direct personality, he is really an enjoyable guy to hang out with, However, first impressions did not go so well. His first question to us is, “So is this your first thru-hike?” We respond no, that we’d hiked the Colorado Trail a couple of times. Frank had mentioned earlier that he had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail the year before, so I was curious where this line of questions was going.

“So this is your first thru-hike,” he say, mincing nothing. He continues, “If you were an experienced thru-hiker you would know that it is better not to hike during the heat of the day.”

Whether or not it was meant as a slight, we took it as such. If there is one thing to know about Elaine, it is that she is no wilting flower. She is also very, very strong physically. When annoyed or angry, that strength can go thru the roof. The next hour we spent hiking at a ballistic pace, fueled by a fair bit of angst and “what the fuck?”  We may have never done a 3,000 mile hike before, but we were not exactly newbies either.

In some ways, that moment feels like the start of the real hike. The honeymoon ends after a few hours, and emotion takes over. It would certainly not be the last time that happened on the trail, where raw emotion fueled us when the body was tired.

After hiking down a rocky arroyo for a few miles, we reach the first water cache. It is a beautiful thing – fresh gallon bottles of water absolutely filled to the brim. We drink and fill up, preparing for a night of dry camping. Dry camping is spending the night somewhere where there is no water source. Lack of water excepted, it’s a phenomenal way to spend the night. There is less condensation to deal with, less concern about aggressive animals and it’s generally a bit warmer. Of course, one must carry enough water to get through the night, but it’s usually very doable.

Up until this point the CDT has been relatively benign. Now, however, as the day grows late, the trail starts benching north along the foothills of the Big Hatchet Mountains. The massive CDT signs disappear, replaced instead by bushels of ocotillo plants, prickly and waiting to grab a hiker. The “trail” dips in and out of arroyos, side hilling the whole way. It isn’t a trail at all, however, simply a direction, and I quickly shift out of the mode of following the GPS and checking it every minute. It is far better to pick something on the distant horizon, a peak or a distinct landmark and head directly towards it.

Adding to the challenge are huge groves of cacti forcing big detours from our goal to head in the “most direct route possible.” The dips seem to get bigger and the Big Hatchet Mountains rise to our west. At one point we have to lower ourselves down a small cliff, hike up a slick rock arroyo, and then scramble back up the other side, all the while avoiding ocotillo plants. Snakes are a constant concern as well, but we do not see any on this day.

We continue on as the sun drops low towards the horizon and the sky turns a fire red. We are in Abbey country now, god’s country, the land of the Apache and tribes even more ancient. The sky and earth turn a blood red, and soon it will be dark. We decide to use the next good spot to camp, as areas devoid of cactus and massive rocks are few and far between.

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Sunset over the Hatchet Mountains, the southernmost range on the Continental Divide in the U.S.

After another half hour or so, we find a level spot on the plateau with flat ground for setting up camp. It’s a perfect evening out, with not a cloud in the sky (not to mention that the ground in the area is so hard I doubt we can get a stake in it without breaking one) so we opt to lay out our sleeping pads (after a very thorough cleaning of the ground for sharp things), sleeping bags and sleep out under the stars, cowboy camping in the New Mexico desert.

As we were about to fire up dinner, Frank comes by, looked worse for the wear and coughing. He laments to us, “that was absolutely brutal travel.” Despite our rocky beginning, we invite him to stay at our camp, as flat spots are hard to find. We learn that evening that he is suffering from a bad cold. We offer him some tea but he politely declines.

Frank is a good guy and we let our emotions get the better of us that first day. In retrospect, he was right. The Colorado Trail, while amazing and challenging, is nothing like the 3,000 mile Continental Divide Trail. We just didn’t know it at the time. It did indeed become a source of conversation as we made our way past the 1,000 mile mark, the 2,000 mile mark: no, hiking the Colorado Trail is not the same as a “true” long distance hike.

day3

First night journal writing.

day5

Full moon rising over Mexico.

As night settles in, the stars explode in light, Polaris, the North Star, guiding us to Canada. As we write the final words in our first day journal entry, as the Milky Way emerges and satellites cross over the sky, a content yet excited feeling sweeps over us.

We are on the CDT, we have survived our first day, and we are on the greatest adventure of our lives. Now the only job is to walk along the spine of the country, day in and day out, the end impossibly far away. And then, as coyotes serenade us to sleep and the full moon lights up the Big Hatchet Mountains, we sleep.

day2

The adventure begins.

Continental Divide Trail Gear List

by Elaine Vardamis

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The right gear makes map reading in mosquito-infested lands more enjoyable!

When preparing for such a long trip, a lot of thought goes into what you are willing to carry on your back. Gear choices are going to be a little different for everybody. That being said, here is the gear that, after much deliberating, I decided to go with.

A lot of our decisions that we made for this trip were strongly influenced by past trips. Two major ones, our most recent ones, had involved hiking through cold, almost hyperthermic conditions for most of the time, while also in pouring rain. We were also coming off a ski trip to Norway in which we encountered conditions with strong winds and -30 degree Celsius tempertures. So, our packs ended up being a bit heavier than they should have been. We most definitely could (and should) have done an overhaul of this list, taking into consideration the facts of where we were, and what time of year.

Items with an * next to them went through reiterations while we were out on the trail!

The Big Things:

  • Backpack: Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400 (lined with trash compactor bag*1)
  • *Sleeping Bag: Western Mountaineering UltraLite 5’6” (also has a trash bag to line the stuff sack – don’t want it wet!!)
  • Sleeping Pad: Therm-a-Rest Neo Air XLite short

*1 The fabric is said to be waterproof, but after having significant leaking during a heavy downpour a few years ago, I always line my backpack.

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Full on sun protection

The Things on the Body:

  • Socks: Darn Tough Ultra Light No Show Tab
  • *Shoes: La Sportiva Ultra Raptor
  • Insoles: Custom from Bob Egeland with Boulder Orthotics
  • Gaiters: Dirty Girl Gaiters
  • Underwear: Icebreaker Siren
  • *Skort:  Lululemon Final Lap Skirt
  • Sports Bra: Ibex Balance Bralette
  • *Shirt: Arcteryx Fernie LS Shirt
  • *Sunglasses: Julbo Megeve
  • *Sunhat: Arcteryx
  • Sungloves: OR Chroma
  • *Trekking Poles: BD Distance Carbon
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While dealing with infections in both heels, I hiked in Chacos for a while.

The Other Clothing Things:

  • Warm Hat: Swix
  • Socks: Darn Tough Ultra Light No Show Tab
  • Underwear: Icebreaker Siren
  • Sleep Socks: Zpacks PossumDown
  • Compression Socks: 2XU
  • Long John Top: Icebreaker Oasis 200
  • Long John Bottom: Icebreaker Oasis 200
  • Warm Layer: Ibex Hooded Indie
  • Tights: Fjallraven Abisko Trekking Tights
  • Down Jacket: Western Mountaineering Flash
  • Rain Pants: Arcteryx Beta SL
  • Rain Jacket: Patagonia M10
  • *Mitts: Zpacks Rain Mitt & Zpacks Fleece Mitt
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When you have to wear all your layers!

The Things of a Personal Nature:

  • Food Consumption: Snowpeak Spork
  • Cup: GSI plastic cup
  • Feminine Products: Diva Cup
  • Hairties 
  • Toothbrush: Oral B Travel
  • Lip Balm: Ski Naked
  • *Water Bottles: 1 Poweraid bottle and 1 Smartwater bottle (can buy new ones when they become gunky!) and 2 Platypus soft bottles (1 liter)
  • Journal: Write in the Rain, Write in the Rain pen
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Hiking with umbrella from the Dollar Tree in Rollins, Wy. Hey, when it’s the only way you get shade!

The Things with the Batteries or in Need Of and of Course, Accessorizing! : 

  • Headlamp: Petzl Zipka
  • Watch: Suunto Ambit 3
  • Phone: iPhone SE w/Lifeproof case
  • Battery: Goal Zero Flip 20
  • Earbuds: Apple
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Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest and the Tenkara USA Rhodo – at home in the Wind River Range in Wyoming

The Things that We Shared (Because Sharing is Caring):

  • *Shelter: Hilleberg Anjan 2
  • Stove: MSR Pocket Rocket
  • Cookware: Snowpeak 9000
  • Coozy: Handmade
  • Lighter: Bic
  • Stuff Sacks: Assorted sizes from Sea to Summit
  • Water Treatment: Aquamira Drops and Tablets
  • 1st Aid/ Repair Kit: second skin, neosporin, band aids, liquid bandage, Advil, Tylenol, Advil PM, Benadryl, Peptobismol, needle, athletic tape, safety pins, Leatherman Squirt ps4, tweezers, nail clippers, arnica, Therm-A-Rest repair kit, Trail Toes, sunscreen, Dr. Braunners, Tenacious Tape
  • Extra Batteries: AAA x6
  • Sharpie
  • *Camera: Sony a6000
  • Camera Battery
  • Communication Devise: Garmin Explorer
  • Cords: Watch charger, phone charger
  • Maps: Ley Maps
  • Toothpaste: Lush Toothy Tabs
  • Floss
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • *Solar Charger: Suntactics
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She’s a real nowhere (wo)man, living in her nowhere land

 

The Things That Were Changed:

  • Sleeping Bag: Through New Mexico to our home in Colorado, we carried the Western Mountaineering Ultralite, where we switched to the Western Mountaineering Summerlite. We then carried the Summerlite through Montana until Augusta, MT, where we picked up the Ultralites again (it was snowing!)
  • Shoes: When I was buying my shoes (we bought all of our shoes before hand), La Sportiva did not have enough of my size shoe. So I decided to use the Altra Lone Peak 3 to start off with. That shoe did not work for me, but I know it works for a lot of hikers out there!
  • Skort: I used the Icebreak Comet through to our home, but was having terrible durability problems with it. It is not sewn along the sides (I can’t tell if they were glued or welded seams) and was constantly falling apart. At home, I picked up a Lululemon Final Lap Skirt. That thing was amazing!
  • Shirt: I wore the long sleeved shirt through Grants, New Mexico, but ended up switching out to an Icebreaker Cool-lite shirt. I had never hiked in a long sleeved shirt before, and it was worth a try. I did not like it, I definitely prefer to hike in a T shit.
  • Sunglasses: I wore the Julbo Megeve sunglasses from the start until Chama, New Mexico. There, because I knew I would be on a lot of snow, all day long (and I know my poor eyes are very sensitive), I switched to the Julbo Tensing sunglasses. They have a very dark lens that was very protective.
  • Sunhat: I wore a large, full brimmed sunhat from our start at the border of Mexico through the Great Divide basin. It was great for sun protection, but annoying, and I switched to a normal ballcap.
  • Trekking Poles: Dan and I skied the San Juans, and I used a pair of the Black Diamond Traverse poles while skiing. Extremely strong and also adjustable, they fit my needs better than the lightweight, fixed length pole I used on the rest of the trip.
  • Mitts: I hated the Zpacks mitts, both the rain mitts and the fleece mitts. In Grants, New Mexico, I switched both. I used the Hestra XC fleece mitt and the Outdoor Research Shuksan Rain Mitt for the rest of the trip. In retrospect, they were overkill for most of the rest of the trip, but this system was much more functional when I actually needed warm hands.
  • Water Bottles: When we started in New Mexico, we were carrying seven liters of water. (Also, I think too much, but there it is.) So I was carrying the Smartwater and the Poweraid bottles, one 2 liter Platypus bottle, and three 1 liter Platypus bottles.
  • Shelter: We started with the Hyperlite Mountain Gear DuoMid. We switched to the Hilleberg in Grants, New Mexico after sleeping on mud (and this was the mud of nightmares) during a snowstorm between Pie Town and Grants. Once again, in retrospect, I might have stuck with the Mid, as it is significantly lighter, but the Hilleberg did provide great protection, good warmth, and a mosquito free area!
  • Camera: We started with the Canon PowerShot G9X, which is a great little camera. We did switch to the Sony a6000. This was definitely a bigger camera, but we felt like the quality of picture produced was a great trade off for the weight.
  • Solar Charger: We started carrying the solar charger, but after it broke, we did not replace it. As on our previous, month long trips, we have never gone into town, the solar charger was valuable. But on this trip, we were in town often enough that the solar charger was unneeded.
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The standard procedure in every town: dump out the pack, reorganize, repack!

A note on socks: I started with too many socks, and somehow acquired even more as the hike went on. I love to wear compression socks at night, as I feel it helps me with feet swelling. But when I had massive infections in my heels in New Mexico, I stopped wearing them. I did, however, continue carrying them the whole way, which I was annoyed at myself for until Dan got tendinitis in Montana, and he had some relief from the pain when wearing them. 

The Things that Were Special:

For the San Juans, Dan and I decided to ski, so our snow gear list looked a bit different from others

  • Skis & Bindings: Ski Trab World Cup & La Sportiva RT bindings
  • Boots: Scarpa Alien
  • Skins: Pomoca Race Pro Climbing Skins
  • Ski Crampons: Dynafit
  • Traction: Kahtoola MICROspikes
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Because: skiing! I developed a whole new appreciation for this ski set up in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado

We will definitely do a write up on how the skiing portion went, that will also touch on gear. However, that will be a whole other blog post!

The Things for the Bugs:

  • Bug Repellant: 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellant
  • Headnet: Sea to Summit
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Head nets are sanity saviors!

The Randoms: 

  • Sandals: Chacos 
  • Umbrella: Picked up from Dollar Tree in Rollins, Wyoming
  • Fly Rod: Tenkara USA Rhodo
  • Kid’s skis: Lucky Bums*I used Chacos for a significant portion of the time while I was letting the infections in my heel heal. The umbrella was a $1 addition to our packs through the Great Divide basin. It was my first experience with hiking with an umbrella for shade, and if we do something in desert style environment again, I will definitely consider it more strongly! We took the fly rod through the Wind River Range in Wyoming and into Montana. As far as the Lucky Bums skis went, Dan and I had had a strong streak of skiing every month going before we started the hike. We wanted to keep that streak alive and well, even during a five month thru hike. By skiing the San Juans, and then shipping these little skis to ourselves along the way, we succeeded, and finished our hike with 84 months straight of skiing at least once a month!
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The Lucky Bums skis after their debut skiing Knapsack Col in the Wind River Range, Wyoming

 

October Skiing on a Dying Glacier

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Golden turns on the ice age. Andrews Glacier, RMNP

Since returning from the trail I’ve felt an increased desire to learn about mountain ecology. More specifically, I’m fascinated by that dying thing known as the mountain glacier. In Glacier National Park where we finished our hike, the forecast is that they will all be gone by 2030, melted away as part of human-caused global warming. Before departing, we took a walk up to the famous Grinnell Glacier, and while I have no personal previous experience to compare it to, the reaction from Elaine and her parents left it painfully evident that it has shrunk a lot since they first saw it 15 years ago.

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Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park, Montana – September 29, 2017. Below are images of Grinnell Glacier over the past 80 years. Note how the upper and lower glaciers connected and the lake was entirely a glacier in 1938. 

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Upon leaving the park, I picked up a copy of Christopher White’s book “The Melting World,” and spent the next 30 hours in the back seat absorbing myself in the dire news. It’s a somber read, but it does make me want to something. I’m not a scientist of glaciologist, but I can explore places and share them with others on an emotional level, leaving the data and figuring to those much more advanced in such things.

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16,000 years ago the Indian Peaks and Rocky Mountain National Park looked like this. Mastodons and Woolly Mammoths roamed the land.

My wife and I are fortunate to live in the only part of Colorado where there actually are glaciers. The largest, Arapaho Glacier, is about four miles as the crow flies from our back door. This is not a glacier you can legally tread on, as it is part of the closed-to-the-public City of Boulder Watershed. Fortunately there are other nearby glaciers, the closest being Isabelle Glacier under the shadow of Apache Peak.

In Rocky Mountain Park, just north of us, there are even more of these mountain glaciers. Tyndall, Sprague, Rowe and Taylor Glaciers are a few of the more famous ones. But for Elaine and I, Andrews Glacier, just east of the Continental Divide, is our glacier of habit and annual visit. We’ve been coming here for years in late fall, seeking the glacier for ski turns. Our monthly ski streak relies on these glaciers. Like an old friend, we visit Andrews each autumn to catch up, have fun and assess where we are in our respective worlds, human and glacier.

It’s not so much about the actual skiing. In this 13-mile roundtrip hike, there are maybe 500 yards of actual turns. Year round skiing is more about the experience, less about the turns, especially in the latter months August, September and early October. Andrews has everything a year-round skier could want: predictable snow coverage, an easy entrance, a lack of crevasses, a beautiful hike in and out and a nice mellow grade for a couple rusty skiers who spent the whole summer walking.

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Andrews Glacier and Tarn, Rocky Mountain National Park

Since returning from the CDT, one thing we’ve struggled with most is simply not being outdoors 24 hours a day. walking in the sun, sleeping on the ground, and all the goodness that provides. We were excited to get into the mountains for an entire day of adventuring.

We entered the park with our freshly bought annual pass, enjoying the morning light as it turned the meadows of Moraine Park a golden hue. The elk are converging in this place now, sheltered from the mountain winds and exposure. As is often the case in the Colorado Front Range, it’s been a windy autumn, so we had to pack accordingly:

  1. Wool Base Layer – 200 weight – non-itchy Merino from Ibex
  2. Fleece mid-layer from Melanzana. We would normally make this a wool layer, but since it was going to be cold and windy, breathability was less of an issue.
  3. Poly/Nylon backcountry skiing/hiking pant from Dynafit.
  4. Cecile shell from Bergans.
  5. Swix Romsdal Puffy Jacket. The Puffy is gold, a sacred layer if you will. Treat it with respect, use it wisely
  6. Light, nordic style gloves and heavier mittens for the cold. My big mitts are bright orange, perfect for landing planes if need be.
  7. Ski cap…Swix or some esoteric Norwegian nordic team brand preferable.
  8. Julbo sunglasses, because snow blindness is no fun.
  9. Bread – A nice French Loaf goes well with most things.
  10. Salami – Boars head and something with a lot of seasoning. Dry salami is essential.
  11. Cheese – A Gruyere is the mountain adventure cheese of choice!
  12. Chocolate – We’re a bit broke after the trail, so Snickers and Hersheys it is!
  13. Water, replenished with fresh glacier water, gathered as close to the source to avoid contamination.
  14. Hot Solbaer Norwegian Black Current Drink in a Thermos.
  15. Skis. Lightweight ski mountaineering Ski Trabs. No skins needed for this trip.
  16. Poles.
  17. Boots – Lightweight Dynafit TLT’s
  18. Pack – Hyperlite Ice Pack modified to carry skis.
  19. Headlamp.
  20. Delorme InReach – Just in case.
  21. Sony A6000 Camera.
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A nice morning with hardly any other humans. Bear Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park.

Shoes were a dilemma for me. On our last night in Glacier National Park before driving home, I was cooking pasta for the group, and accidentally poured scalding boiling water all over my big toe in the pitch darkness. It instantly swelled up and blistered, and soon after popped and turned raw. For a few nights I couldn’t really sleep with anything less than four Advil in my system. It’s been a painful mishap, but since the trail was over and this is supposed to be a relatively easy month, it came at the best time possible.

One accommodation I’ve had to make to the injury is cutting open the toe of my left shoe to avoid aggravating it. Since the shoes I was wearing already had 750 miles on them and were well worn, it was a small sacrifice to make. But having an open toe was going to be less than ideal climbing onto the snowy, windswept Continental Divide. I packed a plastic bag, to be put on between the sock and shoe to keep snow and moisture out when we got above timberline. It’s a trick we picked up on the trail.

On this day, we wanted to do a loop and get on the divide. The Continental Divide, our home this year, has been calling to us. We decided to loop around Bear Lake and begin the long steady climb up to Flattop Mountain. Flattop is a nice smooth, fast trail that climbs about 2,500 feet in three miles. Usually it’s overrun with folks, but on this very blustery day in mid-October, we hardly encountered a soul.

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Elaine makes her way up firm snow on the Flattop Mountain Trail. The constant wind packs it down to a near solid texture.

The trail up Flattop winds gradually through the forest, switchbacking through lodgepole pines. While the wind howled overhead, the trees dampened the blast, making a peaceful sighing noise as we climbed. Alert squirrels, busy shoring up their winter food stock, scolded us, as has been the case for the last five months. An agitated squirrel is a peaceful, calming sound for us now.

As the altitude rose, the trees shrank. At 11,000 feet the forest gave way to gnarled branches and webs of krummholz, those hardy “trees” that spend much of the year getting blasted by the wind and cold. Above this, it’s all ground vegetation, rock, ice and tundra – trees simply can’t live here.

These above-timberline areas are shrinking worldwide, thanks to a warming planet. The forest is encroaching. Slowly but steadily, we are losing alpine tundra. Eventually forest will crowd out alpine meadows, but that won’t simply result in a few less wildflowers. Sheep, goats, deer and elk depend on that tundra for summer feeding. As the forest grows to cover everything, there will be less genetic biodiversity, and with that some species will not survive.

It doesn’t stop there. Flowers that now only live on the top of peaks will run out of space. The small mountain pika, whose “eeekkk” cry defines the Rocky Mountain timberline, rely on those plants to live. Pika are literally being driven up and off the mountain. There was talk of putting them on the Endangered Species List, but the Bush administration exempted greenhouse gasses from control under the Endangered Species Act. That’s not a happenstance event – climate sensitive species are regularly turned down for protection.*

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Back on the divide! Otis Peak in the foreground, Longs Peak in the background.

These things get lost in the politicized world of economic growth versus environmentalism, but they are of real consequence. It goes beyond pika and plants. In nature everything effects everything else. Scarce food means some animals die. Another animal, another ecosystem that relies on that source also dies. How far does it go? Right to humans ourselves?

It’s important to ramble in the mountains, but also to look and observe, to take off the headphones and heart rate monitor and see what is actually going on. To go regularly, to feel and see the change, to report back and raise a ruckus. So…we go to timberline to ski, but also to observe and learn.

As we climbed above timberline the wind grew brisk. Dirt gave way to snow drifts, hard and slick from the constant pounding of the wind. This concrete snow is our first layer, or base, and will be here until June. It was time to put the plastic bag inside my open shoe and layer up. Up we went until soon we were on top of Flattop Mountain, a wide open, appropriately named “peak” on the top of the Continental Divide. Even better, we were back on the Continental Divide Trail.

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Stoked to be back on the Continental Divide Trail. Tyndall Glacier and Hallett Peak in the background.

Spirits went from good to ecstatic. I realized it’s been some time since I have seen my wife smile that big. We were finally home again, the place we’ve lived for the past half-year. The wind blew strong and we walked south on the CDT. You don’t get anything material for hiking the CDT, but you do get the feeling that you got the Continental Divide melded into your soul, like you know it and somehow possess it. That means much more than a medal or certificate.

The mountains surprise sometimes. As we headed south, the wind died down, defying logic for the place we were. It was good to be on the tundra again, maneuvering over talus and testing the firmness of snow drifts for sure footing. One thing I have noticed after hiking 3,000 miles – there is no tentativeness in step or hesitation on uneven terrain. There is a comfort and balance walking that has been honed during the past months.

Hallett and Otis Peak loomed on our left. This is the very heart of glaciers in Colorado. Steep and dramatic Tyndall Glacier came first. We peered over its edge into another realm, icy and ancient. Onward south, and a warning sign said “Chaos Glacier is steep and can have large crevasses. Use Extreme Caution. Not Advised.” And then, up a talus field, along the ridgeline and we had reached the snowy banks of our destination, Andrews Glacier.

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Looking off the divide onto Andrews Glacier.

The glacier itself is wedged into a notch between two mountains on the eastern side of the divide. At this latitude, barely above the 40° parallel, wind is the driving force behind these glaciers. Snow on the upper reaches of the western side of the divide gets scoured and blows just over the edge to the eastern side. That’s why in this area at least, the eastern side of the mountains is usually more dramatic and glacier carved than the western side. Because of that wind, snow depths accumulate dramatically more in some places. I’ve seen this in effect – two inches of snow can pile into a foot where the wind deposits it just right.

Andrews offers nice easy access to a moderate route for early season turns. I’ve skied it for about ten years now – it’s something of an annual ritual – and it’s a very enjoyable, relatively safe excursion. Access this year was easy, as early season snow covered the usually steep edges of the glacier. It was simply a matter of popping ski boots on the tundra and gliding right onto the glacier.

It’s possible to tell the health of a glacier based on the snow line. Underneath the new season’s snowfall is something called a “dry glacier.” Dry glaciers are essentially very compressed snow and ice. They have a different look – they are much more grey and often have sediment in them. Dry glaciers can actually be quite safe to travel on with the right equipment because you can see what is going on – crevasses are fully exposed so one one won’t accidentally walk in.

“Wet glaciers” have snow covering the ice. This snow has not yet fully consolidated into ice form. On big glaciers with crevasses one has to exercise extreme caution because crevasses are hidden by the fresh snow. Sometimes those bridges are enough to hold a climber, and sometimes they are not. Back in 2008 on a NOLS mountaineering course in the Waddington Range in British Columbia we got a foot of snow one night in August. The next day was torturous travel, the person on the front of the rope essentially stepping into a crevasse every twenty steps or so, as the entire area was hidden under the new snow. The folks back on the rope holding the lead definitely had to be attentive on that day.

Glaciers accumulate snow for most of the year, but that window is getting smaller as the planet warms up. September storms are moving to October and June melt is being pushed to May. That leaves less time for the glacier to accumulate and more time for it to melt. Glaciologists usually take samples of glaciers at the end of the season, usually in early September, to see what the overall yearly effect is. A general rule of thumb is if the glacier is more than 50% “wet” at the end of the season, it’s growing and doing well. If it is more than 50% “dry,” the glacier is shrinking. Comparing the images below, it’s easy to see the difference. *

AndrewsCompare

Like almost all mountain glaciers, Andrews Glacier has shrunk significantly from 1913 to 2009. Dry glacier is the browning colored ice. Wet glacier is white.

This year we arrived after peak melt off. Early season snows and wind has dropped a few new inches on the glacier surface, leaving it a glorious white color, and allowing us to temporarily forget that this glacier is dying. Crevasses are not really an issue on Andrews Glacier. It doesn’t have enough mass and is not moving enough to create massive fissures, and will be retired from glacier status once it stops moving altogether.  That’s the difference between a snowfield and a glacier. Glaciers move, carve the earth and deposit sediment from the upper accumulation zone to the lower reaches of the ice. Snowfields, while providing valuable habitat and moisture. essentially just sit there. Their days of carving the landscape are done until the next ice age.

We were happy to see the new snow. Skiing on dry glaciers is not particularly fun. The surface is rough, often full of massive sun-cups. On this day, however, the new snow had compacted to create a firm surface, perfect for making some almost resort-like turns. As we sat on top of the glacier transitioning from trail running shoes to ski boots, enjoying a snack, a raven flew past, rising and falling in the currents before darting across a mountain face, in search of prey or maybe just for the sheer joy of it.

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Elaine feeling small as she makes the first turns of the season on Andrews Glacier.

The skiing itself was actually quite good, great even for mid-October. We picked the line with the smoothest snow and enjoyed setting our edges to make some turns. We are both very rusty, as we have not made a legitimate ski turn in three months. While we did send kid’s skis to ourselves in Wyoming and Montana to keep our seven year streak of skiing at least one day every month alive, it wasn’t really making turns. It was more shuffling and surviving. By the time we reached the lower flanks of Andrews, balance and agility came back and we were actually skiing half-way decently.

Poleplant

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Conditions were firm and fast – kind of like most days at the resort. Finding my balance and rhythm on Andrews Glacier.

The run steepens a bit on the bottom and the snow had accumulated nicely on the north side of the glacier. We enjoyed some softer turns right down to the small lake at the bottom, already frozen over by the autumn cold. The world is warming, but this place is still one of the harshest climates around – that’s why there is a glacier here in the first place.

Glaciers tend to melt from the bottom up, and this is where I have personally noticed the most difference in Andrews Glacier. When I first started skiing it back in 2008, the glacier extended right into the lake. Now, ten years later, it’s backed off 50 to 60 feet from the lake’s edge, revealing instead talus and rock. That’s just the vertical downsizing. It’s also shrinking on the sides, as well as in total depth and mass. Andrews Glacier is dying. We were fortunate though on this day. The new snow had covered much of the talus so we were able to ski right to lake’s edge before transitioning back to running shoes.

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Elaine enjoys buttery turns on the lower flanks of Andrews Glacier.

Something we miss most about the trail is how the massive mountains and big sky country makes you feel small and inconsequential. Humans are no match to time transcending things like glaciers, ice ages, erosion and volcanic uplift. And then there are the threats – rock fall, cliff edges, icy lakes, lightning, river crossings and avalanches. There are many things that could kill us in a heartbeat. Living with that, seeing how nature works (not always kind) makes you realize that while humans may think ourselves incredibly brilliant and important, we’re very, very small and fragile.

And yet, for Elaine and I, that isn’t something we fear. In an odd sense, we enjoy it, because it makes us realize that all this stuff we worry about, the minutia of every day life, in the end means almost nothing. You learn to relax, to worry less, to just shut off the mind and be. And in that mountain cirque, surrounded by glaciers and massive cliff walls and higher mountains, we set down our packs, ate lunch, and just enjoyed being. Enjoyed being quiet, listening to the wind, the clatter of the pika, the small creek meandering down the meadow.

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A very nice day up on Andrew’s Glacier and the Continental Divide. This was our 85th straight month skiing together.

We’re an odd species. So fragile yet dangerous at the same time. We can change the local forest or stream, but beyond that we can impact the climate of the entire planet. It seems like an odd choice for nature to have made. Why would something be allowed to survive that is so destructive to the natural balance? And as a species, why would we insist on destroying our natural home? That makes no sense, and that feels to me like a suicidal path to take.

I know this. I like glaciers. I like big snows and bitter cold. I want them around for my lifetime and for generations to come. To give all that up without a big fight would be a mistake.

eQavCKE* The Melting World, A Journey Across America’s Vanishing Glaciers. Christopher White.

Snow’s (Elaine) CDT Wrap & Impressions

The final wrap up for Team ThunderSnow!

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We did not hike the CDT on a whim. This was first our first thru hike, back in 2012, on the Colorado Trail, where we first uttered the words, “I want to hike the whole CDT.”

The Continental Divide Trail. I grew up in the shadow of the Continental Divide; as a kid, it blew my mind. I was micro-focused. I was captivated by the little things, fascinated by them, as I think most kids are, and the idea of this ridge of mountains stretching all the way from South America, through the whole United States, up through Canada to Alaska? It was something my mind couldn’t comprehend, and so it took on a mystical quality. I’m not the first, either – the Blackfeet called it the Backbone of the World. As I learned about trails, and then longs trails, and then learned about the Continental Divide Trail, my whole being swelled at the concept. Something about it tugged at me. Since I first understood the concept, it became something I wanted to do. And then, in 2012, Dan and I hiked the Colorado Trail, where I said it for the first time:

“I want to hike the Continental Divide Trail.”

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Our 2015 CDT prep hike, a fast 500-mile September jaunt from Wolf Creek Pass to Eldora. All that was left was to quit our jobs and commit to making it happen. That took another 18 months.

Five years later, I sit here, having done it. And I can’t even begin to process what just happened. Some people say they aren’t really changed by their hikes. Some people say that thru hiking will ruin your life.

For me, I have no idea where to start. I know I miss the trail – I miss it with a deep, painful throbbing that encompasses my whole being. It’s a constant flicker in my mind, a prickle in my eyes, a desire in my gut, an ache in my feet. A few days after being back home, Dan and I drove over Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, where we went into the visitors center and watched the movie. It was longer than normal, and people came and left throughout the film – nobody else stayed for the whole time. And I cried. I cried that desperate, gut-wrenching, unrestrained cry that I usually associate with loss. Even now, just typing this, I finally make the connection. Because I am grieving. I have, even if temporarily, lost the Continental Divide Trail, the trail life, and I desperately want it back.

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The sun drops as we take our last steps out of the southern Rockies and into the Red Desert of Wyoming.

I know that mostly, it’s chemical. When the last of the aspen leaves rustle around on the ground, when the sky is tinted that brilliant morning hue, when the elk down valley from us bugle, when the sound of a chattering creek makes me break down – I know I can tell myself this is chemical. All summer I was in the sun, all day, every day. I’m not getting the endorphins of hiking a marathon every day. I know myself to be sensitive to chemical imbalances – heck, chemical imbalances were the story of my life for many years. I know it will come around, that if I do the things that I know work, I can rebalance my internal chemistry. But for now, while I’m deep in the mourning process, it feels devastating. (And I feel silly that it does.)

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One of those moments that makes you feel so alive. A ski traverse of the San Juan Mountains. Just north of Wolf Creek Pass

I am not sure I can explain it. Were there so many terrible, horrible times? Yes. I bruised my heels in New Mexico; those bruises turned to pockets of infected pus. I dealt with that for two weeks by ignoring it and eating pain killers like Skittles before going into the emergency room when I saw a streak of dark red running up the outside of my leg. We stood by a river in the San Juans in Colorado, pantless at 8pm, debating a crossing of a raging river that we backed out of and then yelled ourselves hoarse because we’d scared ourselves so bad. In Wyoming I dealt with two more infections in my feet, so painful that ibuprofen hardly touched it and I cut massive holes in my shoes so that I could still walk. In Montana Dan got tendonitis  and we had to road walk many miles around fires. In Glacier National Park, there was a night I got chilled, and found myself shivering uncontrollable and temporarily lost the ability to think clearly. I spent every day in pain; some days more manageable than others. My level of exhaustion climbed past what I ever thought possible. The Continental Divide Trail was ruthless.

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The hills on the Montana/Idaho border are almost inhumane in their steepness and endless dishing out of pain. 800 miles from the Montana border and feeling every inch.

Yet, I miss it.

I miss it.

I miss those moments: those moments of strength, when you’re body is aching, so tired, and yet you realize, simply putting one foot in front of the other is not that hard, and it turns out that you can do it indefinitely (or so it seems). It’s the moment of the sun rising up above the trees, filtering its golden beams onto the earth below. It’s trudging through 8″ of fresh snow, feet safely encased in gallon-sized ziplock baggies, enchanted by the cold beauty around you. It’s camping beneath the stars, no tent up, just a few miles from the Mexico border, the Milky Way a great glittering banner in the sky above you as the coyotes serenade you to sleep. It’s hiking down a massive, glacier-carved valley for an hour with elk bundling all around. It’s finding a water source in the Red Desert that isn’t terrible. It’s watching a herd of 150 wild horses thunder across the ground, feeling the pounding of their hooves shudder up your legs. It’s slogging for 14 hours a day through the San Juan mountains in Colorado, being exhausted, but knowing that you can’t let your guard down for a second, that you have to always be paying attention perfectly, and finding that you can. It’s putting your frozen shoes in the sleeping bag with you the moment you wake up so that you can actually put them on when you want to.

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We were warned Knapsack Col was uncrossable because of a huge cornice on top. The doomsayers are many out there. They are almost never, ever right. It went with a smile and a fist pump. – Knapsack Col, Wind River Mountains, Wyoming

While I am still processing what the CDT means to me now, and what it is that I am taking from this experience, I do have two things that really stand out to me about what I learned while hiking the Continental Divide Trail this summer. The first is that being stubborn is not always a bad thing. I have had my stubbornness pointed out to me many times as a fault, and I will concede that stubbornness can be a detrimental quality. I will also fully claim that one needs a high level of stubbornnes (I would go as far as to say pure mule-headedness) to finish a long trail like this. There are a million and one reasons to not finish. In fact, most of them make a heck of a lot more sense than continuing. The second thing I learned is that flexibility is just as important. When I finally allowed these two traits to coexist (it seems like an oxymoron to say to be stubborn and flexible at the same moment), I felt like I was finally able to experience the trail in all that it was, and not try to force it to mold to my expectations – because the Continental Divide Trail is fierce and unpredictable and unyielding and uncaring. With these two traits combined, it felt like the obstacles the trail threw at me were manageable. I also think that maybe, just maybe, the right combination of these traits (one pinch stubbornness, two dashes flexibility) might be a good way to approach life in general.

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There will be many more campfires, starting with the Great Divide Trail in 2018. Snake River, Wyoming

This life – I suppose it’s “reality”. I’ve realized I want so much more out of it; maybe it is that I want less. All I know is that when I embarked this summer, I think I was maybe looking for answers, for some sort of epiphany. I had no epiphany. What did happen is I’m more thirsty than ever. I wish to drink from that endless fountain of adventure. And maybe that’s ok.

The Earth, our Mother, she breathes
She pulses, pulses with the breath of life
In, out
In, out
In, out
Ground swelling beneath my feet, heave
Heaving me forward, ever onward
In, out
In, out
In, out
She cradles me to her bosom,
Hold me close, close, closer
In, out
In, out
In, out
Scarlet, golden sky, explosionÂ
Basking me in her glory
In, out
In, out
In, out
Rivers flow, flow, flowing
Rushing, tumbling, chattering
In, out
In, out
In, out
Trees, leaves bursting with color
Rustle in the gentle breeze
In, out
In, out
In, out
The Earth, our Mother, she breathes
Pulse, pulse, pulsing with life
Breathing that life into me

Fireburnrogers

I’m friends with the trees, don’t you know
And the trees, I believe, are friends with me
Tree-ish love is not wild and passionate –
As the love of the sun is want to be –
Tree-ish love is strong and steady
They spread their boughs overhead, protecting
They offer their strength, soft and mighty
Quiet, unassuming, but consistently steady
The love of a tree is a thing of beauty
So I’m friends with the trees, (and so should you be!)
And the trees, I believe, are friends with me

winner

This summer’s end will be next summer’s beginning. – Chief Mountain, Glacier, Montana

 

 

Thunder’s (Dan) CDT Wrap and Impressions

Team Thundersnow was a cohesive unit on the trail and in life, but of course we are two individuals! As such, we decided to decided to each write our own “Impressions and Wrap-Up” post. Here is Dan’s…Elaine’s will be posted in a few days.

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It’s been 22 days since we walked to Chief Mountain Trailhead on the Continental Divide Trail, headed north on the final 100 yard section of paved road, and touched the Canadian border, officially ending our thru-hike from Mexico to Canada. In a word, the time that has followed has been, well, muddled. Muddled in thought, muddled in motivation and muddled between pride, happiness but also an overwhelming feeling that something is missing. People hike these trails to find clarity. I find just the opposite – things seem even more open than ever and that can be a little disconcerting.

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Snow and sky rage in the Red Desert, Wyoming.

There are no two ways about it – life priorities have changed. Look, when you’ve lived in such a beautiful world, when your morning wake up call has been elk bugling, coyotes howling, or a stiff wind rattling the tent for the past 160 days, it changes you. It’s unavoidable. They say a behavior can be modified with 40 days of consistent pattern changing. Imagine what 160 days can do? I’m beginning to realize, it can devastate or complete a person, depending on which path you choose to take.

Meriwether Lewis was a hero, a great explorer. A lesser known fact is that he took his life barely two years after the expedition across the western part of the United States ended. He failed at going back. He’d simply seen too much beauty, and lived to purely. How painful it must have been to know he would never see that kind of beauty again. In the end, it was too much. It ended him.

We are more fortunate than Meriwether Lewis. The return to this world is more subtle. We live in a glacial carved valley with trails everywhere and the CDT a mere two hour hike away from our doorstep. There are plenty of other outlets than the route Meriwether took. We will certainly not be going down that trail. But on some level, I can now relate to what he went through. I hope his world after death involved endless western prairies, grizzly bears, buffalo, glacial carved peaks and rivers that wound into the sunset.

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Triple Divide Pass, and into the Hudson River Basin, Glacier NP, Montana.

It’s common in thru-hiker world to “summarize” the journey in a final blog post, offer witty thoughts on the trail and tell how the hike changed them.  The latter is almost impossible for me to comment on, but there are a few things I’ve been struggling with, the main one being making decisions. Take work for example. I find myself reticent to commit to anything because I don’t want to close doors on beautiful things in the future. I don’t want to get myself stuck again. I’m still navigating exactly how far “back” to this world I want to go. After seeing so much beauty, after being so free, how do you go back to driving a scary road an hour and a half a day and giving away so much of your life in exchange? So we take baby steps, like a newborn moose calf walking on snow for the first time. Tentative and excited at the same time. All I know is I want to be surrounded by people who help me shine, who respect me as a core human being. And more than that, I want simplicity, I want nature, I want peace. A cubicle is not in my future.

The Continental Divide Trail, oh wonderful trail. My perspective on it? It’s perfection. What makes it perfect is the imperfectness of it all. It’s hardly a Disney-esque experience. Really, it’s a fucked-up, mish-mash adventure that winds through every ecological zone you can imagine and tosses things at you regularly that will make you curse and cry and sometimes land in the emergency room. I have heard that veteran thru-hikers who have completed the Pacific Crest Trail have a hard time with the CDT. They miss the endless perfect tread of that western trail, the comfort of having a group of people to hike with, the more consistent maritime weather, the trail magic, the sheer bliss. And someday I long for that bliss. But all these things, the CDT is not, and that’s what I like about it. In some ways we were fortunate. Being rookies, we had no expectations.

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There are a variety of hazards on the CDT. Afternoon sun melt snow balls is one of them. San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

The CDT is raw. Much of it is wild and untamed. Sometimes there is trail and sometimes there is nothing, no tread, no sign, just a general direction. I saw things I never knew existed. I saw elk in the San Juans, starving with broken legs after a brutal winter. We crossed deadfall that made us scream at the top of our lungs after moving at a 1/4 mile per hour for an entire day. We drank water from cow manure filled troughs with dead rats floating in it. We had lightning explode seconds from our heads. We got brutalized by up-and-downs on the Montana/Idaho border so steep they caused tired legs at best, bad tendonitis at worst. We had blisters so bad we would not hesitate to put a blade to expensive shoes and feet to cut holes and ease the pain.  We were stripped to a core almost every day, forced to pull ourselves back up and keep going. Did we ever want to quit?  Until the very end of the trip, at least once every damned day.

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“Embracing the Brutality,” dodging lightning storms and climbing steep mountains with metal skis on our back. Carson Saddle, San Juan Mountains.

But if we’d quit, what beauty we would have missed. It wasn’t all the time – this is a massive, dusty, cattle overgrazed country – but when it was there, it made the soul sing and shudder. Have you ever cowboy camped near the Mexico border, where there is no light pollution or humidity to cloud the sky, and spent the night watching the Milky Way rotate around the desert as satellites and meteorites dance overhead? Or had a herd of wild horses, 150 strong, run along side you as you move absolutely freely across the Red Desert, as free as those wild horses? Or woken up to a bitter crisp morning with snow gracing the cliffs of the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the best Wilderness in the entire nation? As the fog wanders in and around those cliff walls, you swear there are gods somewhere.

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Storm and snow greet the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana

I can’t imagine never crossing Triple Divide Pass, entering a new watershed and seeing a world carved by the Pleistocene Age, the last Ice Age, and seeing waters running to the Hudson Bay. And then the next morning, heading down the valley as alpenglow danced on high remnant glaciers (dying but not yet dead), being serenaded by elk doing the autumn bugle not once or twice, but for a couple hours straight. That sort of beauty brings a person to tears, and indeed, for me, thinking back, it does. It’s too much beauty to take in without being affected.

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Snow where she belongs. Saddle of Triple Divide Peak, Montana.

The people of the CDT are almost as raw as the land. Take the hikers. Frat party-like pods moving up and down the trail are a reality on the other trails. They are nowhere to be found on the CDT. The CDT is the land of the lone warrior, or in our case the lone couple. It’s normal to go days without seeing another human being. After a few months, pretentiousness goes away, and the urge to move north takes over. It’s a migration, a humbling one at that, and there is no time to be arrogant. Head down and walk soldier, wind and lightning and snow be damned.

Or how about those people who live near the trail in forgotten towns like Cuba, New Mexico, or Encampment, Wyoming or Leadore, Idaho, who open their homes, who took us in, who gave us rides, who made life out here, if not possible, a whole lot better. This is no pre-determined, commercial trail magic. It’s genuine kindness from people who politically and socially probably have next to nothing in common with us. But they are good people, the salt of the earth, and they love the land. And despite our long hair, dirty beards and mountain stench we all wore, they respected us. On a lonely road in Montana, a man, an old veteran, saluted us as we walked past. To have done something to earn that sort of respect…well, that’s about as good as it gets.

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Living life the way it was meant to be. Cochetopa Hills, Colorado.

I’m proud but not arrogant about what my wife and I achieved on the trail. We were humbled and broken, but in the end we did it right. We didn’t skimp a single step. We faced the hardest sections head on: the San Juans in snow, the difficult passes in the Winds, the soul sucking hills of the Montana/Idaho border, the stark wildness of the Red Desert. The boring sections challenged us more, but we learned to keep moving and embrace them. The mundane sections were when we dreamed big and came up with plans to make those dreams real. I wouldn’t exchange that time for anything. Finally, I was especially happy we were able to integrate a big part of our life – skiing – into the hike. The ski across the San Juans has never been done before as part of a completed thru hike. First ever: that’s something nobody can take away from us, and that feels good.

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Snow skis a chute as part of the first ever ski of the entire San Juan Loop in a thru hike.

The United States is a great big complex country, and the Continental Divide is the wild backbone of it. It deserves to be travelled, one step or pedal stroke at a time. When a person is healthy and full of vigor, what a waste it is to be stuck in a mundane class or job, not rambling in the mountains and woods on a great adventure. We as human beings deserve to be free. Not some freedom. Total freedom. We deserve great adventures, adventures so big that they will break a person down and build them back up again stronger than ever. We deserve to go to bed to coyotes howling and wake up to elk bugling. These type of adventures will make a person question EVERYTHING, and that is good.

Where to now for us? A thorough recap of the journey and that world through a book, the realities of earning money, and then, more WILD-ness. There is so much to do. Hike. Ride. Ski. Paddle. Explore. Ramble. Climb mountains. Cross glaciers. Explore icecaps. To do things nobody has ever done before. And then, figure out a way, to inspire, to fight like hell to protect this planet for the next generation, for the future. We can do better. We must do better. And maybe, just maybe, a 3,000 mile long hike along the spine of the continent is the catalyst for it all.  – Dan aka Thunder

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Booting up a 1,000 foot couloir…another day on the CDT. San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

Dedication CDT ’17 – To my dad Alex. It was a honor walking the steps you couldn’t at the end. And our companion and best friend, Stella. You were with us every single step girl. 

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Stella hiked with us on our 500-mile CDT shakedown hike in 2015 from Wolf Creek Pass to home.