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

Glacier National Park – or Where Did the Summer and the Miles Go?

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Breaking snow on the pass out of Glacier National Park.

Crunch, crunch, squeak. We’re postholing through mid-calf deep snow up to Triple Divide Pass. Dense clouds swirl around us, a sharp this-is-no-longer-summer wind biting the bits of skin we still have exposed. The trail winds through the cliffs, expertly chiseled between rock bands. Mountain goats leap nimbly on the bands above us, seemingly impervious to the late fall snow building up around them. The monolith of Triple Divide Peak looms above, the snow accentuating the great bands of rock wrapping around the peak. Hearts soaring, we continue punching our way up, our winter souls pulsing to the gusts of the wind.

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The Garden Wall rises into the mist.

All summer every footstep, every action, every decision, every motion Dan and I have made has been ultimately directed into movement. Movement north, north, ever north, the end goal being the Canadian border – and one hundred miles through Glacier National Park. When huffing over so many dry, dusty mountains, when there were injuries and infections to battle, motivations to boost, and tired bodies to move, the thought of this land of towering mountains, thundering waterfalls, and glistening glaciers pulled us on when nothing else could. Our hearts beat snow, our blood runs ice. Winter lives in our souls – Glacier National Park was the dream, the reason.

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Dan breaks trail up Pitamakan Pass.

While Dan and I both have been feeling the urge to get home and start prepping for ski season (there is also great amounts of wood that needs to be gathered), I think we even might have hoped to see snow before the end of this trip. Fortunately, northern Montana was more than happy to oblige! The evening before we left East Glacier, fat flakes fell heavy from the sky, and we spend a cold, happy couple of hours skiing around the golf course to get our September ski in.

Starting up out of town, the clouds hang heavy in the sky over us, and soon, as we wind our way through golden and scarlet brush, wet snow begins to fall, becoming heavier and heavier as we climb in elevation. Several big horn sheep pass us by, picking their way nimbly down the ridge by us, unconcerned by our presence. Passing by Scenic Point, we laugh, as we become completely engulfed by clouds. The trail wraps around to the northwest side of a peak, and the trail becomes obliterated by snow and Dan leads, his long legs an advantage in the deep conditions.

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Out of the plains near East Glacier, into the mist and snow.

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Who are ewe looking at? Big Horn sheep ambling about.

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They say it is scenic; I’ll have to take their word for it.

Soon we are down in Two Medicine Campground, we’re too late to talk to the ranger about backcountry sites, so we’ll do that tomorrow. Meanwhile, we eat dinner with the only other people there – a guy who hiked the AT last year and his wife. I’m clumsy and spill wine all over my rain pants.

“That’s something they never talk about,” we joke. “When you spill wine on your pants do they have to go in the bear box?”

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Dan navigating the insides of a ping pong ball.

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It just got real.

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Heading down to Two Medicine Lake.

Glacier continues to awe the next morning, gracing us with more snow overnight. We watch a bull and a cow moose foraging down in a swampy area before climbing up, up, up to the cloud land. We are up to Pitamakan Pass without seeing anyone, I think the cooler conditions are keeping most people away. The trail tops out at a heart stopping overlook of Pitamakan Lake. Good steps here. Don’t tumble over. Over Pitamakan Pass, we dive down into a lush valley, dense with crimson brush, the blueberries overripe and the aspens a deep gold. Autumn is getting on, and we scour the land for animals.

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That poised moment between fall and winter.

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Into the mist land.

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Overlooking Pitamakan Lake

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Don’t look now, but there’s kind of a drop off there to your left.

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The trail showing up faintly over Pitamakan Pass.

Triple Divide is a decent climb. At this point in the game, though the excitement level is high at being here, the body is also just tired. But the beauty pulls us up to where the clouds wrap their cold arms around us and the wind leaves cold kisses on our cheeks and nose. We keep stopping to gape around us, the beauty overwhelming. At the top is a snowman we are enchanted with, little shale rocks for buttons, his whole body icy from the pummeling winds.

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Serious work went into the trail over Triple Divide Pass.

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Dan rising above the valley floor.

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Do you want to build a snowman?

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Descending the other side of Triple Divide Pass.

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The last rays of the day.

The next day is golden, a watery autumn sun shining down, and we let our limbs thaw in the light. We don’t have to go far today, because of the way the backcountry sites are, so we stop for little things, lounging in the rustling of dying leaves. The smells of fall wash over us – sometimes the dank, over powering, too-much-mold smell; sometimes the sharp, bright, spicy smell that makes me dream of pumpkin pie and chai. We are giddy with it, drinking it in, breathing it deep into our souls, filing up with the pulse of life.

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Alpenglow on Triple Divide Peak.

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When they say “suspension bridge”, they mean it.

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Brilliant brush in a sea of standing burnt trees.

We pass Virginia Falls, and we marvel at the luxury of having the time to clamber around on the rocks, the mist billowing over us. The temperature is not quite warm enough for it, but we do it anyway. Finally, after hoping up and down the complex of falls, hands chapped red with cold, we continue down the trail. As we reach St Mary Fall, we see a couple coming up the trail towards us.

“Did you go to Virginia Falls?” They ask and we say we did.

“Is it worth it?” We blink. Worth it? Worth what? After coming this far, it better be!

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Enjoying the lower part of Virginia Falls

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The trail around St. Mary Lake had this stone. That’s quite an Eagle Scout project.

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You tell me: Is it worth it?

As we cross the Going-to-the-Sun Road the next morning, we gleefully pile our trash in the bin. Always glad to be rid of trash! Then it is climbing up to Piegan Pass. The legs fall into a rhythm. Though they are tired, one of the biggest things I’ve learned on this trip is no matter how tired the legs are, it’s not so bad to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Just keep moving. As the clouds hug the peaks again, we decide to take advantage of the wind and dry our tent before heading down the other side. Tumbling down the north side of the pass, the wisps of clouds twirl around the incredible towering presence of the Garden Wall. Huge and dark and slightly foreboding with the snow and the fog, it dominates most of the rest of the day.

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Heading down Piegan Pass

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The Garden Wall looms to the left.

We round a brushy corner and come upon a grizzly digging up the tundra, woofing quietly. He looks up at us, and I feel his eyes land on me. Then, as though shrugging, he goes back to his digging. We navigate down and around him, breaths fast in our chests and bear spray out.

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Fascinating snow formations

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Fortunately not interested in us

It’s our last night. We’re in Many Glacier campground, a crackling fire warding off some of the chill. A melancholy fills the air. Maybe it would be good to spend this night with others. There are a few tears. At times, I’ve wanted nothing more than to be done, but now that it’s so close, I think that desire was wrong. As the last embers die, we crawl into our tent, tucking into the familiar feel of the small space, all our things arranged just so around us.

We drag in the morning. Leaving camp for the last time? How is that a thing? But eventually we are all packed up and begin up our last pass of the trip. Not a mile into the day, we meet a lady moose coming down the trail. She is making odd grunting noises, and we hop off the trail to skirt around her. The trail meanders for a while before climbing up. We scan the wall ahead of us. There is the Ptarmigan Tunnel, and I’ve been trying to imagine what it even is. It is, it turns out, to be an actual tunnel! As we round a bend, we see it is a tunnel with doors, both propped open for now, but soon to be closed for the winter. It looks like something from the Lord of the Rings, and we walk through the tunnel listening for orcs. On the other side, it is not a stretch to imagine the stone giants living here, heaving boulders crashing over the cliff walls to the glacial carved valleys below. The trail is incredible, carved right into the cliff, but bitingly cold – it feels like this cliff rarely sees sun.

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Looking back from Ptarmigan Tunnel into the depths of Glacier National Park

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Inside Ptarmigan Tunnel

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Dan on the other side of the tunnel

Staring in awe up the next valley – Helen Lake sits beneath some of the tallest peaks in the Park, and seems like a good place for a future trip – we soon lose all the elevation we gained, meandering through the changing leaves. We can’t help but stop frequently to stare backwards at the peaks, rising mighty above us.

wall

The trail hugs the cliff wall on the other side of Ptarmigan Tunnel

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Looking up the valley towards Helen Lake.

But too soon, we are climbing, the very last of all the climbs on the trail. My parents appear around the corner – they are picking us up. And then the last sign post. There is a small CDT marker, as well as one for the Pacific Northwest Trail. Just a bit further is the boundary line between the US and Canada, and we get our passport stamped. Pictures at the boundary line – it feels surreal. Just this little spot, this mark on the map, is this really it? Where we’ve been hiking towards for months? But this is it, the finish. I don’t think my brain computes it. This little spot doesn’t seem like much, it’s not the most incredible place on the trail, but it’s the end.

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It’s the last trail head sign

finalshot

Sorry it’s over, but stoked to finish!

I think I thought I would have answers at the end of this. I think I thought I would feel satisfied. Maybe the thirst for adventure would be quenched. But for all the questions I answered, I have more questions than ever unanswered. We are not satisfied – I think the desire for adventure was a small flame, and we just poured gasoline on it. More, more – more wild, more mountains, more rivers, more vastness. The soul wants it all.

DSC01063

There’s a heck of a lot more trail out there…

Snowstorm in the Bob Marshall Wilderness

At the mountaineering shop Elaine and I worked at in Boulder, Colorado, we sold a variety of maps highlighting regions and trails for adventure. Some of the maps cycled through quickly – the Indian Peaks, Summit County, Rocky Mountain National Park and Elk Mountain maps sold on a daily basis. And then there were the odd balls, the maps that sat on the rack, that almost never sold.

I always found the latter category fascinating. During slow times, I was known to pull out a dusty map of the Gates of the Arctic Wilderness or Himalayas, opening it on our big wooden table at the shop, looking at mountains, ridges and valleys and imagining routes through that landscape. On a hot, sweltering July day in Boulder, it was an escape to another world.

On the bottom corner of that rack, almost hidden, sat National Geographic map #725, titled “Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.” In the six years I worked at the shop, we sold this map one or two times. I remember an older gentleman came in looking for the map, and when we found it, with a knowing and distant look of adventure, told me in a hushed tone, “you need to visit the Bob.”

And so the Bob Marshall Wilderness was introduced to me. Research showed it was a place deep in the northern Montana Rocky Mountains, home of wolves, grizzly bears, inaccessible mountains and the best Wilderness in the lower-48. It’s a huge expanse, the fifth largest wilderness in the United States. It is known to have the highest per-capita rate of Grizzly Bears in the lower-48, more even than Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Grizzlies prefer more remote, more wild locales than even National Parks can offer.

It’s possible I never would have gone to the Bob. It’s not exactly a place you end up in accidentally. But, as the trail gods would have it, the CDT happens to take the hiker right through the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Indeed, it goes into the heart of it, below something called the Chinese Wall, a seven-mile cliff face smack dab on the divide.

After our fire-induced road walk connecting Rogers Pass and Benchmark, the weather took a 180° change. A major cold front moved into Augusta on our rest day, blowing a swift wind and a steady rain down from the north – raw, cold, winter-like.  By the time evening rolled around, that rain was coming down more swirling, frozen and whiter in the form of a wet snow/sleet mix.

We pride ourselves in being prepared for cold weather, but our layering system was under-gunned for this type of wet cold. We headed into the local convenience/hunting store, and came across a couple $25 thick fleece jackets. Neither were the epitome of style – mine had a defined green camo hunting motif and Elaine’s black hoody could only be described as something that a 15-year old fan of dystopian fantasies would wear – but they were very warm. As we left the store and walked back to the lodge in the cold snow and wind tucked into our ugly fleeces, we knew we had no excuses not to head out.

It was quick turnaround the next morning. Since we had walked the section from Augusta to Benchmark two days earlier, we were able to accept a ride up to the trailhead and still maintain our continuous footpath. We hitched a ride to Benchmark with Mack and Connie who own the Bob Marshall Wilderness Outfitters. After a stop at the local bar to pick up some breakfast burritos, we began the 35 mile journey to the edge of the Wilderness. As the truck bounced down the dirt road into the mountains, snow swirling in the headlight’s glow, we found out that our hosts were, for lack of a better word, caretakers of the Bob.

Mack and Connie take visitors, mostly on horse, into the Wilderness to hike, ride, fish and hunt. On this particular trip they (and their staff, which included a girl with a Master’s Degree in literature – stereotypes be damned) were taking two gentleman from Oregon elk hunting.

Hunting in Wilderness may be a strange concept to some, and I’m sure folks on the left and right coasts of this country would disagree with it.  But before casting judgement, let it be known that Mack and Connie are on the front lines of the Wilderness movement and have fought hard for decades to preserve land in northwestern Montana. I suspect when these two walk into a meeting with a land manager or a politician, they command instant respect. They walk the walk and talk the talk. In our continuing education about the real American west away from the Boulder bubble, this was one of the best encounters we had.  They drove us right to the trailhead, and before departing Connie told us, “Enjoy the Bob Marshall. It is a magical place.”

The trail headed due north across the Wilderness boundary. A light snow fell, leaving the path wet brown but the trees and shrubs on the side covered with a thin layer of white. The contrast between the yellow and red underbrush was stark against the white.

Through forests and river valleys the trail meandered. Sometimes we’d be in ancient timber stands, hundreds of feet tall, and the next minute, walking though the skeletal remains of a burned forest. In these sections new stands of bright green pine have filed in the space between the burned trees, the rebirth of life under the remains of death. We will both be gone by the time this forest is ancient, but in some ways that is comforting, the cycle of life never ending, unaffected by our blip of time here.

We breaked under the shelter of an old patrol cabin, and then continued our way. The trail began to rise noticeably, and with it the snow grew deeper and fell steadier. Clouds and fog shrouded high cliffs in front of us, and a quick glance at the map confirmed we were approaching aptly named Cliff Mountain.

We circled the base of Cliff Mountain, crossed a small pass, and came to the southern reach of the Chinese Wall. A sheer cliff rose a thousand feet, dark and foreboding as the mist whisped around it. It extended north into the fog, the end nowhere in sight.

Darkness was approaching, the snow falling hard and it was time to set up camp. We tamped down the snow on a flat section under the wall and hunkered down. The wet snow required constant tightening of the guy lines and shaking off, but inside the tent we were warm and cozy.

The next morning was magic. Cold magic, but magic nonetheless. The fog lifted some, revealing the Chinese Wall in all its splendor, with the fog just kissing the top of the cliff wall. The world below was white, as about eight inches of fresh powder blanketed the land. Our core, wrapped in our $25 fleeces and a host of other layers was warm, and the plastic bags between our socks and shoes did an adequate job keeping the feet from freezing. Ahead on the trail, animal tracks jutted off in all directions. The world tells a story with a fresh snow.

It’s rare when place and time converge to create such perfection. If I’d custom ordered up the conditions I’d wanted to see the Bob Marshall in, this would have been it. Deep fall, moving into winter. Cold. The first snow of the year. Mystical and beautiful. Hikers a few days ahead had to endure this section in smoke. We were luckier. Sometimes being patient pays off.

After traversing along the base of the wall, breaking trail through the powder, we had to descend off the ridge thanks to a fire reroute. The reroute took us into a new Wilderness area that most CDT hikers don’t get to visit, the Great Bear Wilderness. But not before a chilling descent. That snow up high fell as ice and sleet on the trees, bending them directly across the trail. As we passed through, we got an icy car wash, soaking our gear and freezing us to the core.

The sun emerged and soon we were sitting back, drying our gear and enjoying lunch in a beautiful old growth forest. The rest of the day wandered through magnificent river valleys and forests in the northern Bob. Yellow leaves dropped from trees and the rich smells of decomposing leaves permeated the air. We camped that night under the stars in deep forest, the sound of elk bugling and wolves howling serenading us to sleep.

The next day brought us up and over Gunsight Pass, a 2,500 foot climb through a recent burn near a mountain that literally had a notch in a cliff wall. It was something out of a novel – a lonely mountain in the northern Montana Rockies that looks like a hideout for cowboys or banditos. And then, past serene creeks that carved through moss covered ground, and down into an old, deep, peaceful feeling forest. If the Bob Marshall is the land of mystery, the Great Bear Wilderness is a step beyond, an Avatar-like dreamscape that captures the soul.

As the the light waned, bear tracks. A horse rider had crossed the opposite direction no more than ten minutes earlier, and these large bear tracks were on top of those. A grizzly bear, heading the same way we were. We suddenly started raising a ruckus, singing bad pop songs and telling the bear in no uncertain terms that we meant no harm. The tracks continued on to the Flathead River,  requiring an icy ford at the end of the day.


Across the river the bear tracks disappeared, and we emerged at the Schaefer Work Station, a wilderness airport and a USFS ranger cabin. It was dark now, so we poked our head into the cabin, aglow and overwhelmingly warm from a hot fire in the woodstove. A group of rangers inside informed us there was camping nearby, and a gentleman walked the 300 yards with us to the campsite. He lives in Eureka, Montana, along the Pacific Northwest Trail, and after talking with him about it…well, we have another adventure to embark on! This country speaks to us…we will be back. That evening Himal and Chosen staggered into camp. They told of epic tales of avoiding fire and freezing. They did not have the $25 fleeces, and Himal only had shorts, not ideal for temperatures in the teens and 20’s. Himal is a minimalist though, and I suspect it’s as much his identity as being good in cold and snow is ours.


The next morning was smooth travel along river beds in perfect fall weather, flurries and rain mixed with sun. Somewhere on this section one of those moments hit me: perfect happiness. Not because we are finishing – in a sense I dread that – but because I was in the perfect place, with the perfect partner, moving exactly how we wanted. No bosses, no traffic, no stress other than those things that are real: water, food, warmth, movement. The way life should be.


The rain began to beat down hard. We put on every layer. The trail dumped out onto a dirt road heading north towards Glacier National Park. It was too cold to stop. We moved in the cocoon of rain, pitter patter on the hood, breath exploding in front of us. We crossed another mountain pass and soon hit Highway 2.

We turned right, avoiding the spray of 18 wheelers, rounded a corner, and saw it: the southern border of Glacier National Park. Grey mountains erupted from the valley, and snow capped peaks that were sheer, unlike anything we have seen. Our destination for the past five and half months, right there in front of us. It was a joyous, emotional moment, a hug and a few tears shared. We made it to Marias Pass and camped on the side of the road, an icy wind blowing down from the glaciers above.The next morning, it was back on trail for a 15 miles walk on the CDT to the town of East Glacier. We’ve been laying low for 36 hours as a storm rages in the mountains. This will not be an easy finale. The mountains have about a foot of snow on them and there are still 100 miles to go. But the route is open, the fires doused. For a snow-loving, mountain couple, we woudn’t want it any other way. I am giddy with excitement – we are going to Canada and we get to cross some of the best mountains in the world to get there to finish up this 3,000 mile thru hike on the Continental Divide Trail.

Touring Around the Fires

 

Several days before Helena, I was multitasking. Between making dinner, purifying water, and writing in my journal I got thirsty and grabbed a water bottle. Gulp, gulp, gulp – and then I paused, a mouthful of water still in my mouth, eyes staring at the bottle. Damn. This was the bottle I was getting ready to purify. I leaned over, spitting out my mouthful of water, spitting, spitting. I stared at the puddle of water slowly seeping into the ground. Well.

 

Now I’m not sure if that mistake was what caused the nausea, or if simply breathing smoke for weeks on end caused it, but for this whole section, I’ve had a moderate constant queasiness. The most depressing thing is a burger doesn’t even sound good!

The trail started a mixed bag out of Helena – some beautiful trail, some old forest service roads, and some straight ups and downs. It wouldn’t be the Continental Divide Trail any other way!

The gang’s all here!

We reached Dana Spring – I guess in the springtime there is water coming from an actual pipe, but this late in the season, it’s reduced to a puddle about 3′ down at the bottom of a metal tube. But the puddle provided water for all.

The water…I think I can reach it.

Most of the group stayed and cooked dinner there, as it was a fair stretch until the next water source, but Dan and I headed off (one of my favorite times of the day is dinner, and I don’t like to spoil it by having to hike afterwards). Almost immediately thunder and lightning rolled in. A brisk rain fell – the first since my birthday – but with the lightning and the wind ripping around, we wondered if this storm would do more harm than good.

Light rain – the first for us in a month.

Wind became the story of this section – battering us as we climbed up and down barren ridges, snapping backpack straps across our faces, and whipping dust into our eyes.

The wind howled all night long, whistling through the trees, and causing Dan and I to constantly peer about for a dreaded orange glow, wondering if a lightning strike fire was being whipped into a frenzy up the ridge towards us.

No tree fell on us, and no fire came roaring up the ridge, but that morning dawned on us groggy from lack of sleep. So it was off and at it again. Up and down dry, dusty, and now windy ridges, my stomach gurgled and moaned the whole way. I tried downing water, wondering if I was dehydrated. Most of our food was unappetizing, but I forced it down, as my body hadn’t started rejecting it.

Getting beat up by the wind.

This section would be a 28 mile stretch without water, except that there are some locals that stash water at two of the passes, so the day became dictated by the water at these passes.

We lunched at Stemple Pass, hiding in the trees, and watching folks drive by on the ATVs. The outhouse had a trash can, which we all delighted throwing our trash in. Moose, Dumpling and Wolfman’s dog, proved he was not pure lab by turning up his nose at every treat offered.

Lunch for all – except Moose. Moose has no time for such things.

After a somewhat blistering pace set to Flesher Pass (during which my stomach totally rebelled and required me to sit and try to quell it), we arrived in time for dinner for most.

Before the sky exploded.

Once again, Dan and I went on, stopping 8 miles from Highway 200 and Roger’s Pass, where the trail north of which was closed.

The sky exploded.

A raging sunset trumpeted the end of the day, and the wind howled.

Yet another night of terrible sleep with the buffeting wind found both of us dragging. Everyone passed us as we lagged out of bed. Finally, we were packed and ready to go. Most of the trail miles were on exposed ridge, where we were blasted by the wind all morning.

Autumn – it’s coming!

About 1/4 mile of beautiful trail, with red touched underbrush and aspens just turning golden graced us before we were dumped out on highway 200. And there the road walk began.

Yep, it’s closed, just in case you had any doubts.

For me, there’s not much to do on road walks but plug in the phone and zone out. It’s 38 miles to Augusta, and there was no way I was doing it without music. I had thought that we would have to walk 200 all the way to I-15, but a FS guy pulled over and told us about highway 435, a gravel road we could cut onto earlier. As we tramped down the highway, we watched huge smoke plumes billow up, sometimes even seeing the flames. It’s no wonder they don’t want us back there.

Gutpunch and his parent pulled over, giving us each a Mountain Dew – an appreciated sugar buzz. We just squeezed through on the road, as apparently they closed 200 for a bit after we passed through.

Yes, please and thank you!

As seen on highway 435

Another encounter with another FS guy gave us cold water (amazing!), and the goal to sleep under the bridge at Dearborn Creek. The chatter of the creek, and the absence of wind meant the first good night of sleep in a while.

The next morning was a 20 mile walk into Augusta.

Morning on the road.

Once again, it was plug in the earbuds and go. Just as we were nearing town a truck full of hikers pulled over. It was everyone – Sherpa, Wolfman, Dumpling, Moose, Lumber, and Moment. They were heading up to Benchmark – we’ll be behind them for the rest of the hike now. That’s how this trail works, there are so many decisions to be made, especially in the face of all the closures due to fire, and we may never see them again. But it was fun hiking with them for a few days!

Once in Augusta, we started weighing our options. The Bob Marshall Wilderness was open North of Benchmark (with a detour), but we still wanted our continuous footpath. This left one option: a 31 mile road walk from Augusta to Benchmark.

So the following day, we were out of bed and on the road by 5:30. We left everything in town except what we thought we would need for the day – our first experience with slackpacking. We had been told to get out early to catch the hunters going up, but there was no traffic. As we walked along, sometimes stopping (I absolutely don’t want to walk more than I have to) but moving because the morning was so brisk, 6:30 came around. A red Prius drove by, not even slowing down. Just as we were deciding to go back to bed, two guys in a truck pulled over. They were up from Great Falls, were just driving around for the day, and agreed to drive us up to Benchmark. We were lucky they stopped – the whole day we saw one other vehicle come up that way.

The leaves, they are a changing!

The first half of the road walk was much more pleasant than I thought it would be. The road had wound up into the mountains, and we followed along a gravel road, shaded by trees and with a creek right by us. But after 16 miles we were kicked into the rolling dusty valley, and it was back to the trusted headphones.

Would you pick up this guy if you saw him hitchhiking?

Finally, just as the predicted storm began rolling in, the first drops of rain falling from the sky, we arrived back at Augusta. Mission accomplished: we still had our continuous footpath.

Another blazing sun. Hopefully this storm cycle will dampen this.