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.

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.

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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

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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.

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

Odda to reindeer skull camp: Day 1 of the hike across Norway.

August 27, 2016 – Odda to Nibbetjørn – 20 miles, 8,517 feet of climbing

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It’s amazing what a night of sleep can do to take care of physical ailments. Be it a bad headache or feeling car sick from an 8-hour bus ride, a solid night’s sleep, even if it’s in a rainy pyramid tarp in a muddy field with Norwegian teens ripping up and down the road all night on motorcycles, will do wonders for the spirit and the body.

As the first light glowed off low clouds, we rose. There was a lot of work to be done – expressly walking a long way across Norway – and daylight was wasting. We quickly got ready, pulled down camp and filled up our water bottles before anybody else in the campground even stirred. A quick “before” photo at the campground and we were soon walking through the early morning dampness towards the fjord and Odda.

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The click-click of our trekking poles tapped on the pavement and echoed off homes, schools and yet-to-be-opened stores. The first steps of a thru-hike, no matter how long, are always a “feel it out” situation. How does the body feel? Labored or smooth? What about the pack…too heavy or just right? That was a pleasant surprise. For the previous month we’d both been hiking up the hill behind our house three days a week with packs loaded with 50-pound bags of beans. Walking down those early morning Odda streets, I knew this pack was lighter. That boded well.

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We didn’t pack quite enough food for this trip, planning to supplement some of our dinners with snacks from the huts and towns we’d pass thru. In our rush to get out of Oslo, we’d failed to pick up one of the main staples of a thru-hike: cheese. When you are tired, cold, bonking and starved for protein, cheese is hard to beat. We decided to wait 30 minutes for the grocery store to open, enjoying the morning quiet and the views to the north. This would be the lowest elevation of our entire hike – sea level on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

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The market opened, so we picked up two very large cheese blocks (probably the heaviest single item we had for the whole trip), a little pastry and fruit for breakfast, and a bag of Cheez Ballz for later consumption on the trail. There is nothing like cheese and salt to quench the cravings of thru-hikers. Those chips would come in handy later on.

As we walked down the street, we got smiles from people driving through town, even more so than when we walk down the streets in Norway with skis. We obviously looked the part of hikers, tights with shorts over them, wool tops, ski caps, backpacks and trekking poles. I think in Norway, while skiing is celebrated, the simple act of walking is revered. It seems everybody walks. Most, old and young alike, like climbing to the top of mountains. Walking is part of life in Norway, and there is no better thing to do than go for a walk in nature, in the mountains. I think this is why people smiled at us.

Across the river, onto the other side, and up through a subdivision right to trailhead. I’d looked at this squiggle on the map months before from home in Colorado. There was no other information other than the contours of the map and the way the trail worked its way up them. It was surreal to see those symbols on the map transformed into real life.

The trail went up. Almost comically so right from the start. This was no manicured Colorado switchback route. This was a near vertical wall, hiking on your toes with no way to drop the heel, legs driving, lungs bursting type of climb. We were fortunate though – we were at sea level and our packs were lighter than what we’d trained with. It was doable, and it was even at times satisfying. Hard work and preparation yields results.

We entered into a pine forest and stumbled upon bushes and bushes of wild raspberries and wild blueberries. Memories from my youth of picking berries in the woods outside Oslo and in Vermont came flooding back. It was early, but we ate nonetheless. Berries are one of nature’s best treats, and a little vitamin C after days of immune system depleting travel is something to take advantage of.

The trail went up and up steeply. One-thousand feet of climbing turned to 2,000, turned to 3,000 in a remarkably short amount of distance, maybe a couple miles. We chuckled a nervous laugh from time to time…it appeared Norway was not messing around. Eventually the trail broke out of the woods and into a green lush wonderland with a small barn in the middle. The fjord dropped away behind us, and we simply stared at the mountain on the other side of the valley with an ice cap glacier on it. The western fjords were delivering a punch of beauty and challenge right off the bat.

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As we climbed further, we were met by a constant companion for the next nine-days, sheep. Just like the U.S. uses public lands to graze cattle, Norway uses the land to graze sheep. The sheep are used for wool and meat, and are the top livestock animal in the country. I can’t complain, as I have a couple Norwegian wool sweaters that are unbelievably comfortable and warm! For all the synthetic fabrics used to make clothes, wool can’t be beat for warmth, lack of odor and functionality in wet and variable conditions.

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The trail kept climbing though not as steep as before, leaving the sheep country behind and entering into a rocky tundra landscape.  From this vantage, we could see the massive ice cap to the west.

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After 72 straight hours of travel, this high vantage point, combined with the big climb and a night of sleeping on the ground, far from airports, hotels and cities, reminded me why we travelled all this way to hike. As the wind picked up and landscape unfolded, we were once again adventurers, and this made us happy.

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Norwegian trails have a different marking system from American trails. Often, there is no trail, as routes will take you across rock, river and snow, surfaces non-conducive to trail treads. This is not to say there are not trails in Norway, because there are, but in the region we travelled there was probably an absence of trail tread 80-90% of the time. While there is not tread in many places, there are large cairns spaced every 50 to 100 feet. The cairns are marked with a large red “T” representing the last letter of DNT. Volunteers come out and repaint them every year. Intersections are also very well marked, with posts propped up in rock piles, giving clear direction where things are.

In this regard, backpacking in Norway falls in a weird middle ground. The tread is much rougher than the Colorado Trail or that found on popular 14ers in Colorado. It’s also rougher than the Indian Peaks. More often than not, there is no trail. It’s more like Alaska in that way…use rock, river beds and ridges to get around. But, on the other hand, the entire “route” network is exceptionally well marked. There are these massive cairns with giant red “T”s on them at close range (a necessity in a country with such wild weather, fog, snow and white-out conditions). Intersections have signs that would rival road signs in the U.S. There are huts every 15 miles or so. You can choose to sleep and eat in them or not use them at all. They are not luxury but they are not shacks by any stretch.

For Elaine and I, autumn backpacking trips are used in part to build a base for ski season. The nature of the Norwegian trails allows us to hike steadily without having to check navigation every two minutes, but also provides extremely varied and challenging terrain. We can push our bodies, but also enjoy a wilderness experience.  That’s what makes hiking in Norway so unique and that’s why we came here.

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We passed an older couple heading quickly down from the mountain we were heading up. They were much more bundled up than us, head-to-toe in Gore-Tex. They shouted something in Norwegian through the wind, to which we responded a common response, “Beklager jeg snakker ikke norsk så got (sorry, I don’t speak Norwegian so well.)”No problem, the entire country speaks fluent English and they can switch between the two languages easily (this makes it very hard to learn Norwegian). They told us we were heading to Møyfallsnuten at 1,450 meters and that we could stamp our book at the top. I wasn’t sure what they meant, but I could tell they were happy and having the time of their lives. It seems Norwegians rather like hiking on the tundra in windy conditions. I have to agree – it’s much more enjoyable and satisfying that 85° days with perfect sun and no wind. The harsh weather keeps you alert and alive.

We made our way to the top of Møyfallsnuten and its accompanying cold, gale force wind. We stamped our journals and signed our name in the book (tucked into a little cubby built in the rock), and by the time we were done our hands were starting to not work so well from the cold. It was time to move on. To the west, we saw clouds moving towards us quickly. We descended into a little ravine in the rock and put on more layers, including long pants. They would not come off for the entire rest of the trip. We continued across snow fields, into a fierce wind. Licks of rain touched our skin, but it never reached downpour state that morning. While it didn’t rain right on top of us, it rained hard all around us. As the sun broke through sucker holes, the water was illuminated and rainbows shot up on all sides. This was a typical pattern – there was only one day on the entire trip where we did not see at least one rainbow, and that was because on that day we were in a pouring rain fog from first light to last. If Norway changed its name to “Rainbowland” it would not be an inaccurate description of the country.

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There was an incredible amount of snow on the ground for late-August. The ice age was not that long ago up here. Traveling on snow was no problem, and usually a respite from tougher terrain. It’s smoother and softer than talus, and a snow-confident traveller can make good time across fully supportive snow fields.

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We navigated through the snow and rock covered plateau to its edge, and then began a steep descent down to a valley with a small cabin and a raging river. It was back into the land of green and berries, and after 5,000 plus feet of climbing and lots of calories burned, we were happy to supplement our walnuts, dried fruit, cheese and chocolate with fresh berries. Next up, our first experience with a swinging suspension bridge. Basically, you climb a ladder to get onto the bridge, walk across as it swings precariously, and then go down a ladder on the other side. They were great fun and a nice little shot of adrenaline on endorphin filled days.

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After the river, the trail climbed steeply again to a rocky and snowy valley. A light rain picked up, forcing me to tuck my camera in my jacket. Because of the wet weather, this remote, talus filled valley felt exceptionally wild. By accident, we ended up taking a little detour to the top of the 1,446 meter mountain Einseten. It was a good detour, as the climb was very fun and top offered an exceptional view of the surrounding rock, snow, mountains, waterfalls, glaciers and fjords.

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After Einseten we backtracked to the valley and continued east, past a small lake with grey mountains rising into the clouds around us. We shouted at the walls, and were answered once, twice, three and four times with echoes, bouncing from one wall to the next, wildly and indiscriminately. Happy and alive feelings overwhelmed the senses.

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We continued through the wild valley, past an alpine lake and then up the other side to a high pass. The fog and drizzle moved back and the light started dancing through the clouds. Fog ripped past the peaks, being blown at a pace similar to an airplane.

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We continued on over undulating, rocky and wet terrain, carefully stepping to avoid twisting an ankle or worse. We filled our water bottles and drank directly from streams, sans filtering. There were many stream crossings, but we’d given up on dry feet long ago.

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There was no trail surface to speak of, but there were massive cairns guiding the way. It was some of the most spectacular terrain I’ve ever hiked in my life, like something out of the imagination. The mind dreams there are places like this on earth, but this was the first time I ever had proof. I was coming to the realization that this might indeed be my favorite day of hiking ever.

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We rounded a bend and came across a huge waterfall, dropping off an ice cap from the plateau above. The cascade echoed off the rocks and mountains, creating an overwhelmingly beautiful scene as the wind howled from the north.

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The day was progressing on, and we were beginning to think about setting up camp. It had been a hard day with more than 7,000 feet of climbing over very difficult terrain. But, wilderness doesn’t care so much about the concerns of humans. If anything, as we got more tired the terrain got more difficult. We did a number of map checks to find potential campsites and make sure we stayed on course.

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We worked our way along the northern shore of Langavatnet and came across a discovery – a tiny emergency cabin tucked under a rock mound with a sod moss roof. The door was no more than three feet tall, but the inside was cozy.

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In addition to the regular DNT huts, there are also a number of emergency cabins tucked in the hills. If conditions get bad enough, these could keep you alive and even comfortable. Most are privately owned, but there is an ethics in this country that wilderness cabins should remain unlocked. Similarly, there is an ethic among the people of Norway not to abuse this. The entire system is built on trust. Almost all the cabins are stocked with some food, wood for a fire and mattresses for sleeping.

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While certainly fatigued from a long day of travel, we were not in an emergency by any stretch. Besides, one goal for this trip was to sleep outside as much as possible. We would move forward, but not before taking a nice little snack break on the stone built picnic table and bench right outside the sod roof rock hut.

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The route headed north. We entered an area that is used heavily for hydroelectric power. Norway has an enormous amount of water and a lot of steep vertical slopes that can harness that water and create an energy source that is much less environmentally impactful than fossil fuels and even wind farms. The western fjord region is ideal for this type of power, and we crossed a couple dams that are used for this very function. Elaine is a tremendous outdoor woman, but like all of us has a few fears. Her biggest fear is dams and potential for them simply breaking. Perhaps not rational, but who among us doesn’t have some fears that are not overly rational? As such, we moved quickly over the dams!

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The day was seriously getting late now and the terrain was not letting up one bit. We identified on the map an area with small lakes and what appeared to be flat terrain called Nibbetjørn and made that our target for the day. It was a harsh landscape, attested to by the reindeer skull we found near our destination. I can only imagine how wet, windy and brutal winters are in this place. Such conditions yield a harsh toll.

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We found a flat spot near some tiny alpine lakes and decided to camp. It was less than ideal terrain, as the ground was so soggy it would barely hold a tent stake. We gathered as many large rocks as we could and tied our shelter to them in hopes that if a big wind came over night, they would hold. Soon the shelter was up, and warming up quickly as we cooked pasta and tea before spending our first night out in the Norwegian wilderness. Despite a stiff wind and the sound of rain on our shelter we quickly fell into a deep sleep after one of the single best hiking days ever.

Catching up, glacier country

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55° and clear this morning. After a nine-in-a-row work day stretch, we've finally earned ourselves a day off. There's lots to do with the house, but after so much work a hike up to the divide is a necessity. It'll be good to see the high country and what's been going on up there for the last two weeks. The flowers should be in full regalia and perhaps the elk have migrated up too. 

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Elaine and I bought a cabin this month up in Happy Valley.  It's fantastic. It sits at 8,800 feet above sea level (the highest I've ever lived), is perched up on the hill above the valley and gets great sun. The land backs Forest Service land with lots of trails, and there is plenty of room for growing a great garden.  That's be a project for next spring. There is also an area with aspen trees and a Kinnikinnick and moss bedding that'll make for a great reading and relaxing spot. The original cabin was built in 1909 and you can feel the history dripping from the walls. Who lived here, what were their stories? This place is a true sanctuary. There are mountains on all sides, and even with this busy week of being into work at 7 am on some days and working 15 hour days, I was able to sneak in trail runs and power hikes with 1,000 feet of climbing almost every day. It was a good chance to work on going fast as opposed to going all day. One things for sure – there are no flat adventures in Happy Valley. It's good to be back on the western front. 

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In addition to getting up into the mountains, the goal for the next couple of days is to syphon through the rest of our moving boxes, toss the junk and get the well insulated. In addition, it's time to start writing more and journaling about the transition into our new home. The crazy thing is, in less than two months time, there will be snow on the high peaks of Colorado, and I want to chronicle that change from this new locale.

We did have a nice adventure before the move and the work spell. Headed up to a remote valley in the Indian Peaks with rumors of massive glaciers. The rumors proved to be true, but it wasn't easy going getting there. Huge talus fields with chock stones, Alaska-style bushwhacking and just big distances made the adventure a challenge. The plus: we were able to camp during the 4th of July period at a beautiful mountain lake and didn't see a soul. If you're willing to get out there, you can find solitude anywhere, anytime.

Made some nice turns on the glaciers and spent a lot of time watching the ice break-up on the lake. The sound it made was sort of like chimes, like an orchestra in nature. Very enjoyable and relaxing. Swear we saw a wolverine too, but it was a little too quick for positive identification. That would certainly be something, as I've never seen one of those creatures in the wild. 

Here are a few images from the adventure. 

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Colorado's native plant, the Columbine, at home amongst the glaciers.


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Heck of a campsite. That was a tempting line staring us in the face, but we fore-goed it as a result of a massive cornice on top. It would have been like climbing up the barrel of a loaded gun. 


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 Elaine climbing up to the far western edge of Boulder County. I suspect this might be the coldest place in the county on average. Hence, the rather large glacier! 


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Blow this picture up. Elaine is in the middle of the cirque arcing some turns. Better than any cathedral in my book.


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We did a bit of Euro-style alpine touring, linking glacier 1 and glacier 2. This one had a more gnarly feel, with rocks strewn all about. We're a bit late in the season, but I suspect a few weeks earlier we could have linked up 5 or 6 glaciers without any walking. Next year! 


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After a good adventure, we enjoyed a rainy, cool afternoon at camp with lots of reading and relaxing.


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Evening tea with my lovely wife and pup. 


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Ice chimes from break-up. 


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Evening fun on the 4th of July playing with time exposures and mountain creeks. 


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Great adventure up in glacier country. We'll be back for sure.