Gear Review: Fjallraven W’s Abisko Trekking Tight

 

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Life is good when you have a good pair of tights and a swing!

As any woman who has ever done anything even remotely outdoor-oriented knows, finding clothing that is functional (helloooo – pockets, anyone?), fits (we don’t have to look incredibly frumpy, do we?), and is durable is about downright impossible. And I get some of it. Clothing is mass made now, cut to the “average” person, and the truth of the matter is that us women have a million plus one size and shape combinations. Some of it I don’t get – why do the men always get great pockets that they can actually fit things in, and the women’s version of the exact same item from the exact same brand has little tiny useless pockets that you can barely fit a tube of lip balm in?

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Pockets, anyone? That right pocked housed my breakfast bar every day.

For this reason, I gave up on hiking pants years ago. Honestly, I was just sick of the constant search, and I started wearing leggings. I struggled with it a little bit at first – there’s a certain consensus that you’re not wearing enough if you just wear leggings, so my first foray into the legging wearing world included shorts worn over them. However, I gradually began to not care what others thought. I’m out hiking or running, and leggings cover me perfectly, if someone else is going to judge me for it, well, that’s their problem.

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DGAF – Ima wear leggings.

This summer, before starting out on our thru hike of the Continental Divide Trail, I was poking around for the pair of tights that I wanted to bring with me. I have done most of my hiking, running, and backpacking with the Lululemon Speed IV Tight (can I say awesome pockets), but I have one problem with those tights. They have a zipper pocket on the back of the tights that sits right on the bones that stick out on either side at the base of the spine. Literally, the beginning and end of this zipper coincides perfectly with those bones. Normally, for running or hiking (without a pack), this is no big deal. However, when Dan and I hiked the Colorado section of the Continental Divide Trail in 2015, I wore those tights, and ended up with pretty bad sores there, and that was only a month. I was worried about what I’d look like at the end of 5 months.

Literally a couple of days before leaving on our trip, Dan and I stopped into the local Fjallraven shop, just looking around, when I saw the Abisko Trekking Tights.

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These tights were made for train tunnels!

Enter Love at First Sight.

Now, these tights were not cheap. But, there were several features that sold me on them.

  • First – no zipper in the back! No sores on those bones! (There is a tiny little pocket on the front of the tights, but my belly is soft, and I did not have a problem with this pocket.)
  • Second –  the pockets! A girl could dream forever about these pockets! One flap pocket on my right thigh, where I kept my bar before eating it for breakfast, and one zippered pocket on my left thigh where I often kept my phone handy. Imagine, pockets big enough to fit things in. Can you hear the choir?
  • Third – the reinforced zones! Another concern I had had was that, well, this was going to be a really long trip. Every piece of gear was going to go through the wringer. These tights have great reinforcements on the rear-end (if I may say so, I think it also helps that area look better, always bonus points) and on the knees.
  • Fourth – the back panel is wide, so the possibility of seam rubbing while wearing a pack is greatly reduced.
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How’s that for versatile? The Abisko tights made a decent ski pant, too.

So, I bought them, obviously – and proceeded to wear them almost every day for five and a half months.

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I mean, literally, every day.

Pros: Overall, I really loved these tights. They were comfortable, functional, looked good, and had great durability. They were one of the few clothing items that I not only wore throughout the whole trail, but also can continue to wear post-trail, as they have no holes! They were a great layer for traveling through the snow and putting on during those chilly mornings. The durable panels added on were a lifesaver. I didn’t have to pay much attention when sitting down, or kneeling on things. Also, they made it through climbing through/under/over/around a ton of deadfall while on the trail. That is saying something. Tights being tights, I also believe these would fit a variety of outdoor ladies.

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They were great lounging around the camp fire tights, too!

Cons: Only a few (very small) downsides existed with these pants. I really did not spend much time sitting in these tights – surprisingly, a thru-hike consists mostly of hiking! But if I did spend a decent amount of time sitting, I felt my bottom become a little agitated by the coarseness of the reinforced material in that area. The other thing was that over the course of not washing these for a week on end, they became quite baggy in the knees/rear-end areas. I also rated these a bit lower on versatility because they are a slightly warm tight. When temps warmed up, I was generally changing pretty quickly.  For me, these cons were fairly insignificant.

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Chillin’ with my shades an’ my tights!

(Scales 1-10)

Price: $175

Mobility: 10

Durability: 10

Features: 9

Versatility: 7

Weight: 10oz / 284g (size XS)

What is my end take away?

If you are looking for a new tight to hike in, or perhaps are utterly sick of dealing with the rubbish that is hiking pants for women right now, look no further.

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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

 

Gear Review: Hilleberg Anjan 2 Tent

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San Juan Mountains, Colorado

In the long distance thru-hiking world, taking a tent over a tarp is sometimes considered a luxury. But the Continental Divide Trail is a different beast from the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. It’s the highest elevation continuous trail in the United States and has more weather extremes, from harsh desert sand in New Mexico and the Great Divide Basin to weeks of sleeping above 12,000 feet in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. North bounders will almost certainly encounter crisp fall weather and snow in northern Montana. The insects in the Wind Rivers can be maddening. All these factors start to move the tent from a luxury item to something bordering on necessity.

Elaine and I initially started the trip with a pyramid style tarp. It worked quite well and was light. But the reality of a five month trip versus a week or even month long trip is that your shelter truly becomes your home. We craved more, something with a floor for muddy conditions, and a cozy feel of a home where we could really rest at night. It needed to be durable for the five month trip and a master of different terrain, including above-timberline alpine conditions. And of course, as is always the mantra in thru-hiking world, it needed to be light.

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Near Mount Taylor, New Mexico

Hilleberg is not a popular brand among thru-hikers. Indeed the most popular models on the trail come from the brands Z-Packs and Big Agnes, well established in the thru hiking cult of gear. Some of this is weight based, but some comes from lineage. Hilleberg is a Swedish brand, well known in the polar exploration and mountaineering circles but much less so in thru-hiking world. Hillebergs are also known for being a bit more expensive than competitors – the Anjan 2 retails for $650.

Of course weight is also a factor. The Anjan 2, with stakes and poles, weighed 3 pounds, 2 ounces. It’s not the lightest tent on the trail, but between the two of us it was absolutely fine, basically 1.5 pounds each. When balancing lightweight with strength however, we were very pleased with the Anjan. There was never a time where we thought “Oh wow, this tent is too heavy and is really bogging us down.” That simply was not a factor. A solo traveller might consider the Hilleberg Enan which weighs right around two pounds.

We spent approximately 120 nights in the Anjan 2, putting it through the paces in wind, snow, rain, sun and everything in between. While not a free-standing tent, we found this was not an issue. It’s very easy to set-up. Basically, slide the two color coded poles through their respective sleeves, stake out one end, “snap” the tent to make it taught and stake out the other end. There are four guyline in addition to the end stakes, which we used every night in case of bad wind.

Wind River Mountains, Wyoming

Speaking of wind – this is where the Anjan and Hillebergs in general shine. The were many nights on the divide where the wind was between 20-50 mph but the Anjan almost seemed oblivious to it. It’s ideal to face the front or back into the wind, but even if this is not possible the guy lines make it so the tent can handle a cross breeze with aplomb. Tunnel style tents like the Hilleberg do well in the wind. There was one night in particular just south of Rogers Pass in Montana. A cold front was moving thru and we had to camp in the open because all the trees were dead from beetle kill. The wind was howling. While it wasn’t the most restful night, the tent held strong and fast.

Rain was pretty much a non-issue with the Anjan. We stayed dry and we had no problems with splash-back under the tarp. The bathtub floor is strong and waterproof. We did not use a ground cloth, in large part because with Hillebergs you don’t really need one. We did encounter a fair bit of snow, especially later in the trip in northern Montana. It was the heavy, wet variety. This is the one area where tunnel tents, especially those made of the lighter fabric, struggle a little bit. Snow sags the fabric between the two poles, although we had much better luck handling this when we made sure the guylines were absolutely taught. It’s worth noting that the Anjan is billed as a three-season tent. Eight inches of heavy, wet snow is not what the tent is designed for, but it held up despite a bit of sagging.

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San Pedro Parks Wilderness, New Mexico

Therein lies much of the beauty of the Anjan. It allows the backpacker to head out in weather that would prevent movement with some not-as-strong shelters. That’s a main reason to adventure – to get out in all conditions and see what nature is like at her most temperamental. Good gear with proper knowledge about how to use it allows one to enjoy the full gauntlet of conditions. For us, that was worth a weight sacrifice of a few ounces.

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San Juan Mountains, Colorado

The inside of the Anjan is very comfortable and roomy. There was plenty of area for my wife and I with gear, including about 10 inches of space on each side to store random items. There is also a nice pocket on each side to stash your headlamp and phone at night. There is a clothes hanging cord off the roof, perfect for getting wet socks out of the way. Finally there was more than ample space to put our wet shoes at the bottom of the tent, a necessity to keep them from freezing solid overnight.

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Idaho/Montana border country

The vestibule is absolutely huge. We cooked in it 80 percent of the nights on the trail, exceptions being very nice weather and in grizzly bear country. Generally one of us would cook and the other would hang out at the bottom of the tent writing, sending satellite messages to family and friends and relaxing. The tent tapers significantly at the bottom, but it was still plenty roomy enough for relaxing with two people.

We traded out the under-gunned stock pegs for mini-Groundhogs from MSR. Lightweight is important, but breaking stakes on the trail is no fun and causes unnecessary stress. I would recommend this upgrade for any backpacker, regardless of tent choice.

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Lake of the Woods, Wyoming

One area that takes a little figuring out with the Anjan and the interconnected fly and tent body is what to do if the tent gets wet. If the tarp is soaked from rain, dew or condensation, it’s a little frustrating to stuff the whole thing together, soaking the entire tent. We ended up paying a lot of attention to the weather and getting very proficient at separating the inner and outer tent. If a warm, dry day was forecast, we’d put the tent away wet and then dry it out during lunch. If cold and wet weather was predicted we would take apart the inner and outer tent, keeping the relatively dry body separate from the soaked fly. Using these two techniques, we never really slept in truly soaking wet tent.

That said, the Hilleberg set-up method, which is so useful and quick in heinous conditions, does require a little more thinking when dealing with multiple days of rain in a row. Of course, we’re thru-hikers, up and hiking well before things can dry. For traditional backpacking, where breakfast is cooked and the sun is allowed to warm and dry things before setting out, this would not be an issue at all.

Glacier National Park, Montana

Being a bit of a warmer tent, the Anjan does suffer from some condensation. However, it’s not worse than any other shelter. When we camped with other hikers, we noticed that we got condensation when they got condensation and visa-versa. Condensation is a product of many things – campsite location, localized weather conditions and temperature difference between the inside of the tent and the outdoors. The Hilleberg breathes fine, has a large mesh door, a mesh window, and plenty of flow space beneath the tarp walls.

After three months of desert and mountain camping, we did have some problems with the front zipper. However, clamping them down with a small pliers on our multi-tool and squeezing them together about a millimeter fixed the issue in seconds. At the very end of the trip we got a tear in the fly on a seam near the front zipper. I’m not sure how it happened, but I suspect it was a result of overtightening the guy lines on the snowy night in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. True to Hillebergs though, the tear did not increase. When we got home we called Hilleberg and they gave us simple instructions for sending it in for repair.

Red Desert, Wyoming

That’s one of the best things about Hilleberg. They are a family operated company who are passionate about one thing: tents. Petra Hilleberg, who runs Hilleberg North America, is the daughter of founder Bo Hilleberg. She is a fantastic outdoors woman and has a real knowledge of the perfect shelter for everything from a hike along the CDT to a ski across Greenland. They also have an in-house warranty and repair department, following the mantra of re-use and fix.

Bottom line: Hillebergs cost a bit more money, but when looking for a bombproof two-person tent for three season backpacking in the high and low country, it would be hard to do better than the Hilleberg Anjan 2.

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Near Stony Pass, Colorado

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

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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

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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.

Summer of the Bear

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It was the summer of the bear. We saw eight black bears (Ursus Americanus) on our Continental Divide Trail trip: one each in the Gila Wilderness (NM), San Juan Mountains (NM), Cochetopa Hills (CO), Never Summer Mountains (CO) and a … Continue reading