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
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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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
August 28, 2016 – Nibbetjørn to Nedsta Soltjørni – 21 miles, 4,150 feet of climbing
What’s a natural alarm? How about a brisk wind blowing from the west, rippling your tent, letting you know that nature waits as an honest partner, never too easy and never too hard. We woke on day two, calves a little stiff from 8,000 feet of climbing yesterday, but honestly we didn’t have time to listen to that nagging cry.
A quick pull of camp while simultaneously trying not to freeze and soak the hands while shaking the wet tarp and picking up frozen aluminum pegs. Mornings can be rough when things turn a little brisk. There is only one thing to do: move.
The predominantly rock terrain crossed a number of short, 150 vertical feet, climbs and descents, over and over again, demanding snap from legs that gave a lot of snap the day before. After an hour or so of this, the route began descending, and to our left, it appeared the world dropped away. We scrambled up a mound and jaws dropped. Words don’t describe this view, and thankfully they don’t have to.
You just have to soak it in at such times and realize these moments of perfect pureness are brief in life, and need to be savored. We continued on along the ridge and made our way to one of the most bizarre and non-pure scenes of the entire trip: Trolltunga.
Trolltunga – which means Troll’s Tongue – is an iconic Norway tourism destination, gracing the pages of travel magazines, Lonely Planet guidebooks and YouTube drone videos. And there in lies the problem. It is a mob scene of ridiculousness. It’s literally SnapChat central, the place to do a handstand on the rock and send it to your friends on Instagram. The direct route to Trolltunga is no slouch, and every day folks have to be rescued from the large vertical, rocky climb on the edge of the North Atlantic Ocean. We were glad we took an alternate route with no people even if it added a day to the trip. People fall off Trolltunga too – perhaps a handstand gone awry? We observed the chaos (as well as the toilet paper strewn around and about on the cliffside) and quickly made our way out towards more sane locales.
It’s amazing how easily it is to avoid the crowds. If you see a tourist destination, go someplace else. Ask the locals too – they know where the gems are much better than a British guidebook. Or, just head 500 meters from the destination and find your zone again. And so it was as we headed east away from the fjords and onto the Hardangervidda.
This area is the heart of Norwegian water. There is water everywhere. Water in lakes, water in copious streams, water running from snowfields, water permeating every rock and crack in the area. As such, it’s also a huge area for Norwegian hydropower, with reservoirs and human impacted waterfalls weaving their way through the wilderness. It allows the country to be powered by natural, non-polluting sources. Industry uses it too…my Dale sweater is made from the power of waterfalls in the Norwegian mountains. It’s not perfect, but it’s as good a source of energy as I’ve ever seen.
This was an exciting day as we were heading into an area where we actually skied back in February on our winter jaunt across the Hardangervidda. Our destination for the evening, somewhere in the vicinity of the mountain Harteigan, was almost exactly where we slept six months earlier. That was sort of the motivation for this trip – we were wandering around the hut, found some patches of tundra popping out through the frozen wasteland, and decided we needed to come back here during the snow-free(ish) months.
We worked our way east across the rolling, Lord of the Rings-esque landscape marveling in the abundance of water, rock, snow and green. We eventually made our way to Tyssevassbu, one of the very few DNT self-serve huts that has electricity. This is possible because this hut is in the middle of Norway’s hydroelectric hub, and it was nice luxury to be able to charge our electronics while enjoying a snack of hot ramen and solbaer drink. Even on nice days the climate here is raw, the cold wind a constant reminder that things can get brutal in a hurry. Any respite is welcome. As we were leaving the hut, a woman showed up who looked at us in disbelief when we told her we hoped to be at Finse in two days. I’m not sure if her reaction motivated us or made us wonder if we were insane – probably a bit of both!
It was time to head back onto the trail. It meandered over the high plateau, crossing stream and snowfields, with the massive flat-topped mountain Harteigen acting as a lighthouse for our campsite for the evening.
As the day moved on and the kilometers grew, the temperature began to drop. We were both beginning to experience something of a bonk, with cravings for food moving to the forefront of the brain. Yet the beauty of the landscape acted as something of a distraction, and we began to enter that strange zone where discomfort actually accentuates beauty and wildness. There is something very ancient about feeling this way, in perpetual motion, in a bit of pain, yet overwhelmed by beauty.
We crossed into a ravine and descended down a slightly sketchy snowfield with a river running underneath it. I tentatively led the way across, hoping the bottom didn’t drop out and we both ended up in the river. Fortunately, it held. Harteigen emerged in front of us, and we knew our day was nearing an end.
Except for it wasn’t. The trail did one of those annoying meandering things that turned a kilometer into three, and when you are very hungry and bonking that’s not fun. After another half-hour, we made it to Torrehytten (Thor’s Hut) and cooked up four packets of Pasta-di-Parma. This was a decision triggered by extreme hunger, but it was too much as we struggled to eat 3/4 of the feast. Stomachs loaded and temperature still dropping, we headed out into the wild to find camping for the night.
After another 30 minutes of hiking we found a flattish plateau with thick moss. A fair bit of hemming and hawing later, and we settled on a campsite, pitched the tarp and, as the wind howled and light drizzle started to fall, settled in for a cozy night of sleep in the heart of the Hardangervidda.
The day started with a groggy meeting at 8 am at the Rocky Mountain National Park visitors center, which required a 6:45 am departure from home. A salmon colored sunrise shimmered through the golden leaves and left a glow on the white capped mountains. Winter may not be here yet, but it’s coming…you can see it in the sky. It’s a different shade of blue and grey from summer – flatter, shallower, more menacing and much more expansive.
Elaine and I broke our isolationist pattern and skied with another couple who have been customers at Neptune Mountaineering for a couple of years. They are also serious skiers, hailing from Lake Tahoe and Jackson Hole. We’ve been trying to carve out space to ski with them for some time, and today it finally happened. Alex and Danielle were the perfect partners – fit, sensible, calm and funny. I was immediately impressed with Danielle’s ability to handle stressful situations, as the Bear Lake parking lot was full. Rather than lose her shit as I might be prone to do when situations of too much crowding prevail, she kept her cool, kept smiling, and lo and behold found a spot within minutes. Clearly surviving the weekend rush requires a patience with crowds that Elaine and I do not have. It’s good thing we work 95% of all weekends!Our destination for the day was Andrews Glacier, and we decided to take the longer but more satisfying circle approach from Flattop Mountain. Flattop is a popular 3,000 foot climb from Bear Lake. It was the first mountain I climbed in the park way back in the early-90’s…I scaled it in stiff soled SPD mountain biking shoes and then ran back down. I still have a damaged big toe nail on my left foot from that act of brilliance! We climbed smooth and steady, chatting and enjoying an ever increasing amount of snow on the trail. While at the bottom it was just a dusting, by the top it was at least three inches deep, drifted to quite a bit more in certain spots. We got a lot of obligatory, “are you really skiing” comments, to which we gave the affirmative. We turned left, departed from the trail and headed south on the Continental Divide into a real winter wonderland. The snow was deepish and the ptarmigan were out in force, turning white just in time for winter. The divide was an absolute treat with zero wind and improving views of Longs Peak and the Indian Peaks to the south. Past Hallets Peak and Chaos Canyon, across some talus, up a rise and we were at the top of Andrews Glacier. We feasted on cookies and cocoa while changing into ski boots. I did a little scouting and noticed that the left side over the knoll had fresh snow on it and nary a suncup in sight. The first turns of the month are always a little dicey, and this was no exception as the fresh snow was grabby and a little punchy. We tentatively found our balance and then made our way over the knoll, hop turning for safety sake before letting the skis run out a bit. These were real turns, not the contrived death snow we normally encounter in September. We milked the left side as much as we could and then headed onto the face, hopping a few small crevasses along the way. And then the culmination, 30-plus turns right down to Andrews Tarn in snow that would be worthy of January billing. For Alex and Danielle this was their 34th straight month of turns, and for Elaine and I our 72nd straight month. Six years ain’t bad! The numbers matter little however…it’s the adventure along the way and the things you see while seeking out those silly little turns. And today, it was just about hanging out with good people who have similar goals and priorities. Stoke was high as we put our shoes back on, slapped our skis onto our packs and made our way down the talus moraine to the lakes below. Danielle, who works in the hydrology field, showed us nitrogen study areas along a perfect stream. We proceed on, enjoying the leaves, the trout swimming in the lakes and the endless questions from tourists about whether or not we were really skiing or just completely insane. Perhaps a little of both?
After six hours in the backcountry we finally made our way back to Bear Lake, lounging in the comfort of the car, savoring the snow, wind and sun and enjoying the afterglow of a great autumn hike in the mountains and probably the best September turns any of us have experienced. It was a very good day, and a great start to the season.