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

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

*squelching through shin deep mud*

*slapping away gigantic mosquitos*

*spending a whole day crossing rivers*

*jaws dropping at the incredible Mount Robson*

August 8th – 17 miles, 2400′ of climbing

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

“Are you hiking the GDT?” He asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 10 – 18 miles, 2,500′ climbing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rock Wall, Lighting Storms and Wild Strawberries – Sunshine to Field

We’ve entered the civilized part of our Great Divide Trail hike. Not that it’s not wild and remote and stunningly beautiful, but there is a bit of a different feel, thanks in part to that very beauty. This is world class terrain, part of the world class Banff National Park, and as such there are more amenities and people. In addition, we’re supremely lucky to have some wonderful friends who reside in Banff, who have helped make a few of these days feel a bit like a frolick in the woods – ala Sound of Music. In a game that involves a lot of suffering to see great beauty, this is about as cushy as it gets. It almost makes me feel guilty.

Not that I’m complaining. On this segment, we got to enjoy our first ever “slack pack.” Slack packing is when, through the good graciousness of others, the bulk of your pack weight is ferried ahead to the next stop, allowing you to move through the mountains more at a day hike effort than a backpacking trip. Simple put, hiking 20 miles is a lot easier with five pounds of weight than 25.

Our friend Leslie dropped us off at Sunshine Ski Resort Monday morning for the first part of our three-day journey along the Rock Wall. The Rock Wall is the creme-de-la-creme of Banff National Park, a sheer vertical sheet of stone set over impossible glaciers that send waterfalls cascading down to the alpine tundra below. It would be a short lived goodbye, as we would see her later in the day on a road at the end of the segment. Instead of hauling all our gear and standard rations, we instead carried tiny summit packs (thank you Hyperlite) with rain gear, foot-long Subway sandwiches, apples, chips and chocolate. Cushy, eh?

We began the day with a climb up Healy Pass. The 2,000-foot climb felt almost effortless as we skipped up the trail. We weren’t singing “The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Music,” but we might as well have been. Shrubs and brush gave way to pine trees, then spruce trees, and finally the alpine Larch which populates the highlands in the Canadian Rockies. Fields of wild flowers – purple, yellow and red – blanketed the meadows on this perfectly sunny day. After battling snow and cold on the previous stretch, it was a welcome reprieve. We reached the summit and asked a group of hikers to snap a photo of us. I usually end up shooting most of the pictures, so it’s always nice to get a picture of the two of us!

The Continental Divide rose in front of us as we descended down to a creek and past a campsite. Leslie told us about a nice lake a kilometer off the trail, so we took a little bonus loop to check it out. Scarab Lake sat perfectly under a glacier, and we enjoyed her blue waters while enjoying half our sandwiches. The mosquitoes were a bit voracious, so with a twinge of regret we began hiking again, leaving the near perfect setting.

The trail meandered through the woods before climbing steeply up the side of Ball Pass. This trail is sometimes affectionately called “Ball Buster Pass,” but with our light packs it was a relatively easy. Ball Mountain loomed above, a massive hanging glacier dropping down its side, impossibly thick and menacing looking, like a monster on the attack. As this was a leisurely day, we stopped at the top again and enjoyed a second lunch, amused by a begging ground squirrel who did his best to use cuteness to get food. Being the cold-hearted hikers that we are, we didn’t oblige him, although I’m sure a few crumbs were left inadvertently.

Most of the lunch was spent looking at mountains. Ball Mountain captivated my imagination, and I enjoyed the luxury of spending 30 minutes just looking at her face, nooks and crannies. Too often in our world we are running from one place to another, never stopping to enjoy and observe. Why not just stop for awhile, find something beautiful, and look at it, enjoy it and the fact that we are alive in this fantastic world?

Eventually we had to head down. Or maybe we didn’t need to, but that Puritan guilt that we needed to be “doing something” hit, and away we went. The trail dropped precipitously and my ankle which has been something of a pest on this saunter started bothering me. This was disappointing as I was hoping the two days off in Banff would completely heal it. Through a little self-diagnosis it appears I have something called Peroneal Tendonitis, undoubtably brought on by huffing heavy loads on foot up and down vertical hills after spending the past seven months in ski boots. Ski boots make for strong legs but weak ankles, and I didn’t have enough time this spring to properly prepare for this hike, in part because I didn’t know we were going to do it until two weeks before we left. Such is life.

The thing is, it’s a completely manageable injury. My stability is good, I don’t have a limp, it doesn’t hurt at all on flats and uphills, and the downhill pain is manageable with Advil and KT tape. We’ve been ticking off regular 20 miles days over tough terrain, and while of course I’d prefer to be completely pain free, that’s not my reality right now. I don’t have three to six weeks to let it heal completely. On these hikes it’s always nice to be completely healthy, but that’s rarely the case.

I had a mind shift on this descent. Instead of putting impossible pressure on myself to magically heal in 48 hours, I allowed myself to accept the injury, realized I can totally manage it and just relax. Perhaps it was psychosomatic, but as soon as I made that mental transformation it actually felt better. I have no doubts some days will be better than others, but at this point it’s a discomfort and something that has to be dealt with, much like putting on a raincoat if a storm comes. Manage it, do no damage, take care of myself and move on.

After hiking with Leslie last week we realized our bear calls are severely lacking. Bear calls are noise made to alert bears and warn them that humans are around. Until we hiked with Leslie, we thought our pitifully weak “Hey Bear,” audibles were enough. Not true. We needed to get more savage and louder with them.

We’re quick studies. Elaine has quickly developed an almost wolf-like howl that feels primal and appropriate. Mine is a deeper bellow, and we alternate every minute or so, making sure no bears are surprised by our presence. It feels a bit like we are Tarzan and Jane bellowing through the forest as we walk, and I like the wildness of that. As we were heading down the pass, thru a recent forest fire burn that left charred skeletons of trees, we heard a cry down the mountain responding to ours. We came around a bend, and there was Leslie! She had hiked up the hill to meet us for the evening. It was an amazing surprise and a highlight of the day.

We hiked quickly down the hill. New pine trees have emerged from the burn, a quick recovery from the incineration just a decade earlier. We crossed creek beds, enjoyed the companionship and gave loud bear calls the whole way down. We talked about lynx and bobcats, mountain lions and wolves, and agreed that mountains with things that can eat you are better and more invigorating than mountains where all predators have been killed.

After a couple hours we reached the highway, but not before Leslie spotted a grove of wild strawberries. While cars zipped by, we foraged on our hands and knees for berries, likely a comical site for the tourists driving, but well worth it for the sweet delight of wild strawberries. It was a perfect capper to the easiest 22 miles I’ve ever hiked. Eventually we headed back to the van, but first it was time for hor d’ouvres on the Vermillion River while we waited for temperatures to cool. We eventually meandered back to the campsite, where Leslie had graciously put up a “car camping” tent for Elaine and I, complete with a blanket inside. It felt like camping in the backyard when I was eight years old.

We opted to skip the rain fly for the night in hopes of “gazing at stars.” I distinctly remember looking at the sky and commenting that, “it looks pretty good, it can’t rain.” So of course, as fate would have it, at about 2 am thunder started rumbling overhead and a few drops of rain woke me up! No crisis: we hopped out of the tent and popped on the rainfly as the 15 minute deluge commenced, cozily tucked away in the tent for the night.

The next morning was a bit back to reality, as we’d have to carry our camping gear and an entire TWO DAY RATION up and over the Rock Wall to Field. As it turns out, this segment would get quite real soon enough, but we didn’t know that at the time. The day began with farewells to Leslie and a 3,500 foot climb up and over Numa Pass. It was a hot and steamy day, and it wasn’t long before we were dripping with sweat as we navigated our way up the brushy lower stretches of the trail. There were a lot of people heading down the other way, as this is the end of a popular multi-day backpacking trip that most people take four or five days to complete.

The climb continued relentlessly, but as we went up, the air cooled. After what seemed like a terminal amount of time, we finally arrived at Floe Lake, named after the ice floes that drift into it off a glacier. We cooled ourselves in the lake with a quick dip in the slightly-above-freezing temperature water before continuing up the pass. Lunch was taken at the top of the pass, as a near gale force breeze kept the bugs at bay.

We made our way down the long descent to Numa Creek, enjoying the perfect trail and recently manicured deadfall. And then it was back up another 3,500 foot climb over Tumbling Pass. This one was steeper and shorter than the first one, a little more brushy and a little more wild. As we were heading up, a group of four came down and informed us that they had seen a grizzly bear at the top who had “made a run” at them. They seemed awfully calm for folks who had just been charged by a grizzly bear, but we took this information and made our calls a little more consistent and louder still.

The low elevation brush gave way to forest and soon we were at Larch line, heading up and over the pass. We’d climbed 7,000 feet on the day, a fair amount by any standards, and were feeling good. We saw no bear at the top, but did catch up to a Manitoba man who sheepishly asked us if he could hike down to the campground with us for protection from the bears. We of course agreed and enjoyed a conversation about hiking and the great Canadian wilderness. We passed a campground at valley bottom, but Banff National Park restrictions and the fact that we didn’t have a permit made it necessary to climb up to Wolverine Pass and enter into British Columbia to spend the night.

We were both suffering as the ascent on the day eclipsed 8,000 vertical feet. The end was near though, so it was easy enough to suffer through it. On the way up, we crossed paths with a hiker who had hiked the CDT in 2016. He was a hilarious guy, and raised our spirits. We continued on and made our way to the impossibly beautiful Wolverine Pass. We crossed into British Columbia and set up camp in a low clearing beneath a small forest and two massive mountains, Mt. Drysdale to the north and Mount Gray to the south.

The area was chalk full of bear prints, so we decided to eat a good half-kilometer away from our shelter, our dining room floor literally having a grizzly bear print smack dab in the middle of it. No matter…dinner was delightful and view out the front window was phenomenal! We went to bed in a happy and blissful state.

That bliss ended about four hours later as an electrical storm the likes of which I have never seen moved in right on top of us. For half the night our tarp lit up like a nightclub in Berlin as electric blasts illuminated the world around us. The highlight of the experience was when the storm moved in right on top of us, striking the tops of Mount Drysdale and Mount Gray in rapid succession, over and over, shaking the ground and sending rockfall plummeting down the mountain side. Indeed, it felt like Thor and Odin were playing volleyball with one another, and the location of our tent was the net. In truth, it was terrifying, and despite our relatively safe location we spent a good hour curled in the lightning position on our sleeping mats. I doubt a sleeping mat would do much if a billion volts of lightning decided to strike us, but it provided a little bit of comfort.

The funny thing is, that lightning storm will be one of the highlights of the trip, and one of those things I’ll remember fondly on my death bed. It was incredibly powerful and raw, a kind of natural beauty that few get to experience let alone be in the middle of. I’ll elect to avoid it whenever possible of course, but I’m glad it was an experience I got to enjoy and survive.

The next morning was predictably soggy, so on a solid three hours of sleep we made our way across the moody Rock Wall. Low clouds and fog danced with the peaks, creating a scene that felt like the ice age in the Pleistocene Era. A glacier sits at the bottom of the wall, and waterfalls cascade off the Washmawapta Icefield above. The trail meanders through larch forests and glacial moraines. The whole thing is downright gorgeous and surreal, and certainly up there as one of the top five hikes I’ve ever done in my life.

In too soon a time we were heading down the hill as campers at the Helmet Falls campground worked their way up. We traded stories of surviving the storm, ensuring them the Rock Wall was well worth the effort despite the misty weather. We passed Helmet Waterfall, one of the highest waterfalls in all of the Canadian Rockies, a roaring cascade that had me thinking the thunder had returned for a brief moment.

Turns out, the thunder DID return. As we headed up Goodsir Pass the storm brewed yet again and a steady rain fell as distant rumbles echoed off the mountain. Fortunately this pass didn’t ever really rise above larch line, so we tentatively passed though a potentially hazardous situation. Evidently this has been a stormy summer in Canadian Rockies, so we are getting the full experience, just as I’d hoped we would.

The clouds and rain really socked in, so we went into cocoon state, full rain gear on, hoods up and heads down as we ticked off miles. To the left we could hear more rumbles, higher pitched than thunder, as invisible glaciers and rock plummeted down the mountain, the mountain literally falling away as we walked. We crossed wild avalanche chutes that had devastated the forest in their path. And then, after an endless down, we came to Ottertail Road, a dense two track that allowed for quick smooth travel back to the Trans-Canada Highway.

We arrived at the road at 6:30 pm and began the process of what we hoped would be a smooth hitchhike into Banff. It was not. I’m not sure if it was because of the rain, or the late hour, or the fact that there is a nation-wide man hunt going on as a result of five murders recently in this part of the world, but whatever the reason, the gods were making us earn this one.

A rather ridiculous occurrence did happen during the hitch. An SUV passed by us, quickly did a U-turn, and stopped in the lane opposite us. A man ran across the busy Trans-Canada Highway and delivered the following news to us: “So I can’t give you a ride, but I just wanted to let you know there is a black bear eating a dead deer about 50 meters up the road in the direction you are heading.” With that, he got back in his empty SUV, turned around, and speeded off into the distance in the exact direction we were heading. Thanks for the warning buddy! At this point in time, with the rain pelting down, the bear was the least of our concerns, and with a couple hoops and hollers it disappeared into the forest.

Long story short, through a series of rides from the same person – a raft guide named Bruce from Minnesota – we made our way to Field and then Lake Louise and then caught the bus into Banff. We arrived in Banff at the stroke of midnight and headed into McDonalds for a late night dinner as it was the only place open in town. It was a bit surreal, as drunk night club partiers dressed to the nines were enjoying late night munchies. I felt like a visitor from another planet in my soaked rain gear and ski cap with a weathered backpack. Truth is, I wouldn’t have traded places with them in a million years.

We’re heading out today. The trip is about to get a lot wilder, the rations longer. We’ll be entering Yoho and Jasper National Parks, and then, fate willing, the remote Kakwa Wilderness. This will be the last blog post until we hit Jasper a good 200 miles up the trail. In the interim we’ll cross the 52nd and 53rd parallels of planet earth and enter into the Arctic Ocean drainage basis. There will be no scary hitches, just big woods, mountains and wilderness that we love and feel way more comfortable in than offices and corporate work places with politics and all that crap. It’ll be a hell of an adventure and we’re looking forward to it. We’ll talk to you soon from Jasper!

Into Wonderland: Kananaskis to Sunshine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leslie peered through the window.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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First night journal writing.

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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.

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The adventure begins.

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. *

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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.

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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.

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