Turning Around the Winter of Discontent

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In February the roads finally got snowy enough to pull pulks. 

It’s been a strange winter in Eldora, Colorado. It’s probably the closest I’ve ever felt to the “winter of discontent.” That’s certainly being a little bit dramatic, but there has been a lack of flow that has been disconcerting.

As fantastic as our Continental Divide Trail thru-hike was – and I would never trade it out – it did break up our traditional “rituals” for getting ready for ski season. Personally, late summer and autumn has been prep-for-ski-season time since I was 15 or 16 years old. The norms during these months are lots of roller skiing, running intervals in the mountains, biking up steep trails, lunges and the like. This year, we just walked. And while our fitness was fine the lack of going through the processes started things off weird and effected our mental readiness.  It’s kind of like showing up to work or class late…things are all out of whack.

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Back on the CDT for a Valentines Day ski at Tennessee Pass before dinner at the cookhouse. 

And then, winter just took a long, long time to come. We had some flirty snows in October and November, but then the faucet turned off. December was the warmest and driest twelfth month I’ve even seen here. The nordic center had their latest opening ever by nearly three weeks, and the two ski shops we work in, Larry’s Bootfitting and Boulder Nordic Sport, had customer flow more reminiscent of March than the supposed busiest time of the year.

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This was the first year we ever shoveled in a skin track to keep skiing. Lots of downhill skinning this early season.

We did our best to get out on snow, but it required different thinking and adaptability. Early season was a lot of uphill skinning and then skinning back DOWN on 2-3 inches of snow. The resort opened, so we spent more time than normal honing resort turns, gazing out at the brown hills as we made our way down the man-made strips of white. We bought uphill passes because the backcountry was non-existent. Around Christmas the nordic center finally opened, but it was just a fraction of its normal self in terms of available kilometers.

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More resort days than normal as a result of the low snow. 

Slowly but steadily, snow came. We have yet to have a big storm, but there have been a fair amount of 2-3 inch offerings. Mid-February was actually good. We could finally ski right out the door, usually a norm for most of the winter, but then a warm spell hit and basically set us back another two weeks. 48 hours ago it was 77° F in Boulder, but a cold front hit, and right now it’s 9° F.

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Sled pull up to 4OJ. That’s either a fox track or Gary Neptune’s work on the left there. 

The snow graphs say we are at 90 percent of normal snow pack, but I’m skeptical of this. It seems much less. Down south in the San Juans, they are fairing much worse, and even with some recent winter blasts are sitting around 50 percent of normal. Meanwhile, the east has had polar vortexes and bomb cyclones, Europe has had their best winter in a decade and even South Korea looked enviably cold during the Olympics. Most years you win, some years you lose. And it’s not over yet, but things will start getting warmer now here on the 40th parallel, where the March sun burns long and high.

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Classic powder days have been few and far between, but there have been a few. Let’s hope spring brings more. 

On top of the odd weather, my wife Elaine has had a bit of a rough go. The Continental Divide Trail left her dead tired and really what can only be described as over-trained. Six months of twelve hour days can do that. Most hikers take an entire winter off. We had planned to dive right back into training, but that proved unrealistic. She has battled fatigue and a fair bit of sickness. So while we have skied a lot, until very recently it has not been with the normal aplomb. There have been no nordic races, no intervals, just lots of days exploring the woods and waiting for the body to recover. We were actually a bit concerned about our health, so we got physicals recently, and it turns out we’re in perfect health, albeit overtrained. The only way to get out of that hole is to wait it out.

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Finally, real winter came in February, where we could ski out the door and take runs behind the house. 

Eventually, recovery came. Something clicked two to three weeks ago, the snap returned, and with it a deep endurance born from the long walk along the spine of the nation. She’s been crushing again, we’ve had some strong sled pulls and systems are go for the Greenland trip. That said, we’re taking a year off nordic racing just to let the body build properly without unnecessary stresses. Greenland will require long, plodding strength and mental toughness. The gain versus potential risk of diving into a late season racing program simply is not worth it, We’ll fry that cat in 2018-19.

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After a few months of extreme fatigue and sickness, Elaine has found her mojo again. It’s been fun to watch. 

A highlight of the winter has been the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Korea. Olympic years are always fun and I find myself feeling more motivated after watching the best athletes in the world at the top of their game. Of course, the shining moment as a nordic skier in the United States was Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall winning the team sprint race. While it has been dubbed as something of an upset, the truth is they were primed for this race. Diggins is 3rd overall in the World Cup and Randall is a multiple World Cup sprint champion. It would have been a disappointment if they had not finished in the top three, and once it comes down to the last few hundred meters, and the skis are fast, it’s open season.

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Cold nordic ski days have been rare, but we’ve had a few.

I’m hopeful this will provide a needed boost to nordic skiing in this country, because I really do think it’s the best sport around. Racing is just a small part of that. To me, buying a nordic pass is like buying health insurance – it’s really, really good for the body. The question now is how do we take that momentum and really make the sport grow in the United States? I have some ideas based on personal experience that I will write about in the next few days.

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Nordic skiing makes this girl happy. 

For now, it’s time to ski. Tomorrow is supposed to be in the single digits, so it’s time to take advantage and enjoy what will possible be the last Green wax ski of the winter. It will be our 90th day on skis of the winter, not bad considering it’s been anything but smooth. But in skiing, as in life, adaptability, creativity and persistence are essential.

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Green wax day tomorrow.

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.