Continental Divide Trail Gear List

by Elaine Vardamis

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The right gear makes map reading in mosquito-infested lands more enjoyable!

When preparing for such a long trip, a lot of thought goes into what you are willing to carry on your back. Gear choices are going to be a little different for everybody. That being said, here is the gear that, after much deliberating, I decided to go with.

A lot of our decisions that we made for this trip were strongly influenced by past trips. Two major ones, our most recent ones, had involved hiking through cold, almost hyperthermic conditions for most of the time, while also in pouring rain. We were also coming off a ski trip to Norway in which we encountered conditions with strong winds and -30 degree Celsius tempertures. So, our packs ended up being a bit heavier than they should have been. We most definitely could (and should) have done an overhaul of this list, taking into consideration the facts of where we were, and what time of year.

Items with an * next to them went through reiterations while we were out on the trail!

The Big Things:

  • Backpack: Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400 (lined with trash compactor bag*1)
  • *Sleeping Bag: Western Mountaineering UltraLite 5’6” (also has a trash bag to line the stuff sack – don’t want it wet!!)
  • Sleeping Pad: Therm-a-Rest Neo Air XLite short

*1 The fabric is said to be waterproof, but after having significant leaking during a heavy downpour a few years ago, I always line my backpack.

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Full on sun protection

The Things on the Body:

  • Socks: Darn Tough Ultra Light No Show Tab
  • *Shoes: La Sportiva Ultra Raptor
  • Insoles: Custom from Bob Egeland with Boulder Orthotics
  • Gaiters: Dirty Girl Gaiters
  • Underwear: Icebreaker Siren
  • *Skort:  Lululemon Final Lap Skirt
  • Sports Bra: Ibex Balance Bralette
  • *Shirt: Arcteryx Fernie LS Shirt
  • *Sunglasses: Julbo Megeve
  • *Sunhat: Arcteryx
  • Sungloves: OR Chroma
  • *Trekking Poles: BD Distance Carbon
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While dealing with infections in both heels, I hiked in Chacos for a while.

The Other Clothing Things:

  • Warm Hat: Swix
  • Socks: Darn Tough Ultra Light No Show Tab
  • Underwear: Icebreaker Siren
  • Sleep Socks: Zpacks PossumDown
  • Compression Socks: 2XU
  • Long John Top: Icebreaker Oasis 200
  • Long John Bottom: Icebreaker Oasis 200
  • Warm Layer: Ibex Hooded Indie
  • Tights: Fjallraven Abisko Trekking Tights
  • Down Jacket: Western Mountaineering Flash
  • Rain Pants: Arcteryx Beta SL
  • Rain Jacket: Patagonia M10
  • *Mitts: Zpacks Rain Mitt & Zpacks Fleece Mitt
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When you have to wear all your layers!

The Things of a Personal Nature:

  • Food Consumption: Snowpeak Spork
  • Cup: GSI plastic cup
  • Feminine Products: Diva Cup
  • Hairties 
  • Toothbrush: Oral B Travel
  • Lip Balm: Ski Naked
  • *Water Bottles: 1 Poweraid bottle and 1 Smartwater bottle (can buy new ones when they become gunky!) and 2 Platypus soft bottles (1 liter)
  • Journal: Write in the Rain, Write in the Rain pen
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Hiking with umbrella from the Dollar Tree in Rollins, Wy. Hey, when it’s the only way you get shade!

The Things with the Batteries or in Need Of and of Course, Accessorizing! : 

  • Headlamp: Petzl Zipka
  • Watch: Suunto Ambit 3
  • Phone: iPhone SE w/Lifeproof case
  • Battery: Goal Zero Flip 20
  • Earbuds: Apple
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Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest and the Tenkara USA Rhodo – at home in the Wind River Range in Wyoming

The Things that We Shared (Because Sharing is Caring):

  • *Shelter: Hilleberg Anjan 2
  • Stove: MSR Pocket Rocket
  • Cookware: Snowpeak 9000
  • Coozy: Handmade
  • Lighter: Bic
  • Stuff Sacks: Assorted sizes from Sea to Summit
  • Water Treatment: Aquamira Drops and Tablets
  • 1st Aid/ Repair Kit: second skin, neosporin, band aids, liquid bandage, Advil, Tylenol, Advil PM, Benadryl, Peptobismol, needle, athletic tape, safety pins, Leatherman Squirt ps4, tweezers, nail clippers, arnica, Therm-A-Rest repair kit, Trail Toes, sunscreen, Dr. Braunners, Tenacious Tape
  • Extra Batteries: AAA x6
  • Sharpie
  • *Camera: Sony a6000
  • Camera Battery
  • Communication Devise: Garmin Explorer
  • Cords: Watch charger, phone charger
  • Maps: Ley Maps
  • Toothpaste: Lush Toothy Tabs
  • Floss
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • *Solar Charger: Suntactics
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She’s a real nowhere (wo)man, living in her nowhere land

 

The Things That Were Changed:

  • Sleeping Bag: Through New Mexico to our home in Colorado, we carried the Western Mountaineering Ultralite, where we switched to the Western Mountaineering Summerlite. We then carried the Summerlite through Montana until Augusta, MT, where we picked up the Ultralites again (it was snowing!)
  • Shoes: When I was buying my shoes (we bought all of our shoes before hand), La Sportiva did not have enough of my size shoe. So I decided to use the Altra Lone Peak 3 to start off with. That shoe did not work for me, but I know it works for a lot of hikers out there!
  • Skort: I used the Icebreak Comet through to our home, but was having terrible durability problems with it. It is not sewn along the sides (I can’t tell if they were glued or welded seams) and was constantly falling apart. At home, I picked up a Lululemon Final Lap Skirt. That thing was amazing!
  • Shirt: I wore the long sleeved shirt through Grants, New Mexico, but ended up switching out to an Icebreaker Cool-lite shirt. I had never hiked in a long sleeved shirt before, and it was worth a try. I did not like it, I definitely prefer to hike in a T shit.
  • Sunglasses: I wore the Julbo Megeve sunglasses from the start until Chama, New Mexico. There, because I knew I would be on a lot of snow, all day long (and I know my poor eyes are very sensitive), I switched to the Julbo Tensing sunglasses. They have a very dark lens that was very protective.
  • Sunhat: I wore a large, full brimmed sunhat from our start at the border of Mexico through the Great Divide basin. It was great for sun protection, but annoying, and I switched to a normal ballcap.
  • Trekking Poles: Dan and I skied the San Juans, and I used a pair of the Black Diamond Traverse poles while skiing. Extremely strong and also adjustable, they fit my needs better than the lightweight, fixed length pole I used on the rest of the trip.
  • Mitts: I hated the Zpacks mitts, both the rain mitts and the fleece mitts. In Grants, New Mexico, I switched both. I used the Hestra XC fleece mitt and the Outdoor Research Shuksan Rain Mitt for the rest of the trip. In retrospect, they were overkill for most of the rest of the trip, but this system was much more functional when I actually needed warm hands.
  • Water Bottles: When we started in New Mexico, we were carrying seven liters of water. (Also, I think too much, but there it is.) So I was carrying the Smartwater and the Poweraid bottles, one 2 liter Platypus bottle, and three 1 liter Platypus bottles.
  • Shelter: We started with the Hyperlite Mountain Gear DuoMid. We switched to the Hilleberg in Grants, New Mexico after sleeping on mud (and this was the mud of nightmares) during a snowstorm between Pie Town and Grants. Once again, in retrospect, I might have stuck with the Mid, as it is significantly lighter, but the Hilleberg did provide great protection, good warmth, and a mosquito free area!
  • Camera: We started with the Canon PowerShot G9X, which is a great little camera. We did switch to the Sony a6000. This was definitely a bigger camera, but we felt like the quality of picture produced was a great trade off for the weight.
  • Solar Charger: We started carrying the solar charger, but after it broke, we did not replace it. As on our previous, month long trips, we have never gone into town, the solar charger was valuable. But on this trip, we were in town often enough that the solar charger was unneeded.
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The standard procedure in every town: dump out the pack, reorganize, repack!

A note on socks: I started with too many socks, and somehow acquired even more as the hike went on. I love to wear compression socks at night, as I feel it helps me with feet swelling. But when I had massive infections in my heels in New Mexico, I stopped wearing them. I did, however, continue carrying them the whole way, which I was annoyed at myself for until Dan got tendinitis in Montana, and he had some relief from the pain when wearing them. 

The Things that Were Special:

For the San Juans, Dan and I decided to ski, so our snow gear list looked a bit different from others

  • Skis & Bindings: Ski Trab World Cup & La Sportiva RT bindings
  • Boots: Scarpa Alien
  • Skins: Pomoca Race Pro Climbing Skins
  • Ski Crampons: Dynafit
  • Traction: Kahtoola MICROspikes
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Because: skiing! I developed a whole new appreciation for this ski set up in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado

We will definitely do a write up on how the skiing portion went, that will also touch on gear. However, that will be a whole other blog post!

The Things for the Bugs:

  • Bug Repellant: 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellant
  • Headnet: Sea to Summit
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Head nets are sanity saviors!

The Randoms: 

  • Sandals: Chacos 
  • Umbrella: Picked up from Dollar Tree in Rollins, Wyoming
  • Fly Rod: Tenkara USA Rhodo
  • Kid’s skis: Lucky Bums*I used Chacos for a significant portion of the time while I was letting the infections in my heel heal. The umbrella was a $1 addition to our packs through the Great Divide basin. It was my first experience with hiking with an umbrella for shade, and if we do something in desert style environment again, I will definitely consider it more strongly! We took the fly rod through the Wind River Range in Wyoming and into Montana. As far as the Lucky Bums skis went, Dan and I had had a strong streak of skiing every month going before we started the hike. We wanted to keep that streak alive and well, even during a five month thru hike. By skiing the San Juans, and then shipping these little skis to ourselves along the way, we succeeded, and finished our hike with 84 months straight of skiing at least once a month!
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The Lucky Bums skis after their debut skiing Knapsack Col in the Wind River Range, Wyoming

 

Thunder’s (Dan) CDT Wrap and Impressions

Team Thundersnow was a cohesive unit on the trail and in life, but of course we are two individuals! As such, we decided to decided to each write our own “Impressions and Wrap-Up” post. Here is Dan’s…Elaine’s will be posted in a few days.

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It’s been 22 days since we walked to Chief Mountain Trailhead on the Continental Divide Trail, headed north on the final 100 yard section of paved road, and touched the Canadian border, officially ending our thru-hike from Mexico to Canada. In a word, the time that has followed has been, well, muddled. Muddled in thought, muddled in motivation and muddled between pride, happiness but also an overwhelming feeling that something is missing. People hike these trails to find clarity. I find just the opposite – things seem even more open than ever and that can be a little disconcerting.

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Snow and sky rage in the Red Desert, Wyoming.

There are no two ways about it – life priorities have changed. Look, when you’ve lived in such a beautiful world, when your morning wake up call has been elk bugling, coyotes howling, or a stiff wind rattling the tent for the past 160 days, it changes you. It’s unavoidable. They say a behavior can be modified with 40 days of consistent pattern changing. Imagine what 160 days can do? I’m beginning to realize, it can devastate or complete a person, depending on which path you choose to take.

Meriwether Lewis was a hero, a great explorer. A lesser known fact is that he took his life barely two years after the expedition across the western part of the United States ended. He failed at going back. He’d simply seen too much beauty, and lived to purely. How painful it must have been to know he would never see that kind of beauty again. In the end, it was too much. It ended him.

We are more fortunate than Meriwether Lewis. The return to this world is more subtle. We live in a glacial carved valley with trails everywhere and the CDT a mere two hour hike away from our doorstep. There are plenty of other outlets than the route Meriwether took. We will certainly not be going down that trail. But on some level, I can now relate to what he went through. I hope his world after death involved endless western prairies, grizzly bears, buffalo, glacial carved peaks and rivers that wound into the sunset.

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Triple Divide Pass, and into the Hudson River Basin, Glacier NP, Montana.

It’s common in thru-hiker world to “summarize” the journey in a final blog post, offer witty thoughts on the trail and tell how the hike changed them.  The latter is almost impossible for me to comment on, but there are a few things I’ve been struggling with, the main one being making decisions. Take work for example. I find myself reticent to commit to anything because I don’t want to close doors on beautiful things in the future. I don’t want to get myself stuck again. I’m still navigating exactly how far “back” to this world I want to go. After seeing so much beauty, after being so free, how do you go back to driving a scary road an hour and a half a day and giving away so much of your life in exchange? So we take baby steps, like a newborn moose calf walking on snow for the first time. Tentative and excited at the same time. All I know is I want to be surrounded by people who help me shine, who respect me as a core human being. And more than that, I want simplicity, I want nature, I want peace. A cubicle is not in my future.

The Continental Divide Trail, oh wonderful trail. My perspective on it? It’s perfection. What makes it perfect is the imperfectness of it all. It’s hardly a Disney-esque experience. Really, it’s a fucked-up, mish-mash adventure that winds through every ecological zone you can imagine and tosses things at you regularly that will make you curse and cry and sometimes land in the emergency room. I have heard that veteran thru-hikers who have completed the Pacific Crest Trail have a hard time with the CDT. They miss the endless perfect tread of that western trail, the comfort of having a group of people to hike with, the more consistent maritime weather, the trail magic, the sheer bliss. And someday I long for that bliss. But all these things, the CDT is not, and that’s what I like about it. In some ways we were fortunate. Being rookies, we had no expectations.

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There are a variety of hazards on the CDT. Afternoon sun melt snow balls is one of them. San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

The CDT is raw. Much of it is wild and untamed. Sometimes there is trail and sometimes there is nothing, no tread, no sign, just a general direction. I saw things I never knew existed. I saw elk in the San Juans, starving with broken legs after a brutal winter. We crossed deadfall that made us scream at the top of our lungs after moving at a 1/4 mile per hour for an entire day. We drank water from cow manure filled troughs with dead rats floating in it. We had lightning explode seconds from our heads. We got brutalized by up-and-downs on the Montana/Idaho border so steep they caused tired legs at best, bad tendonitis at worst. We had blisters so bad we would not hesitate to put a blade to expensive shoes and feet to cut holes and ease the pain.  We were stripped to a core almost every day, forced to pull ourselves back up and keep going. Did we ever want to quit?  Until the very end of the trip, at least once every damned day.

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“Embracing the Brutality,” dodging lightning storms and climbing steep mountains with metal skis on our back. Carson Saddle, San Juan Mountains.

But if we’d quit, what beauty we would have missed. It wasn’t all the time – this is a massive, dusty, cattle overgrazed country – but when it was there, it made the soul sing and shudder. Have you ever cowboy camped near the Mexico border, where there is no light pollution or humidity to cloud the sky, and spent the night watching the Milky Way rotate around the desert as satellites and meteorites dance overhead? Or had a herd of wild horses, 150 strong, run along side you as you move absolutely freely across the Red Desert, as free as those wild horses? Or woken up to a bitter crisp morning with snow gracing the cliffs of the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the best Wilderness in the entire nation? As the fog wanders in and around those cliff walls, you swear there are gods somewhere.

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Storm and snow greet the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana

I can’t imagine never crossing Triple Divide Pass, entering a new watershed and seeing a world carved by the Pleistocene Age, the last Ice Age, and seeing waters running to the Hudson Bay. And then the next morning, heading down the valley as alpenglow danced on high remnant glaciers (dying but not yet dead), being serenaded by elk doing the autumn bugle not once or twice, but for a couple hours straight. That sort of beauty brings a person to tears, and indeed, for me, thinking back, it does. It’s too much beauty to take in without being affected.

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Snow where she belongs. Saddle of Triple Divide Peak, Montana.

The people of the CDT are almost as raw as the land. Take the hikers. Frat party-like pods moving up and down the trail are a reality on the other trails. They are nowhere to be found on the CDT. The CDT is the land of the lone warrior, or in our case the lone couple. It’s normal to go days without seeing another human being. After a few months, pretentiousness goes away, and the urge to move north takes over. It’s a migration, a humbling one at that, and there is no time to be arrogant. Head down and walk soldier, wind and lightning and snow be damned.

Or how about those people who live near the trail in forgotten towns like Cuba, New Mexico, or Encampment, Wyoming or Leadore, Idaho, who open their homes, who took us in, who gave us rides, who made life out here, if not possible, a whole lot better. This is no pre-determined, commercial trail magic. It’s genuine kindness from people who politically and socially probably have next to nothing in common with us. But they are good people, the salt of the earth, and they love the land. And despite our long hair, dirty beards and mountain stench we all wore, they respected us. On a lonely road in Montana, a man, an old veteran, saluted us as we walked past. To have done something to earn that sort of respect…well, that’s about as good as it gets.

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Living life the way it was meant to be. Cochetopa Hills, Colorado.

I’m proud but not arrogant about what my wife and I achieved on the trail. We were humbled and broken, but in the end we did it right. We didn’t skimp a single step. We faced the hardest sections head on: the San Juans in snow, the difficult passes in the Winds, the soul sucking hills of the Montana/Idaho border, the stark wildness of the Red Desert. The boring sections challenged us more, but we learned to keep moving and embrace them. The mundane sections were when we dreamed big and came up with plans to make those dreams real. I wouldn’t exchange that time for anything. Finally, I was especially happy we were able to integrate a big part of our life – skiing – into the hike. The ski across the San Juans has never been done before as part of a completed thru hike. First ever: that’s something nobody can take away from us, and that feels good.

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Snow skis a chute as part of the first ever ski of the entire San Juan Loop in a thru hike.

The United States is a great big complex country, and the Continental Divide is the wild backbone of it. It deserves to be travelled, one step or pedal stroke at a time. When a person is healthy and full of vigor, what a waste it is to be stuck in a mundane class or job, not rambling in the mountains and woods on a great adventure. We as human beings deserve to be free. Not some freedom. Total freedom. We deserve great adventures, adventures so big that they will break a person down and build them back up again stronger than ever. We deserve to go to bed to coyotes howling and wake up to elk bugling. These type of adventures will make a person question EVERYTHING, and that is good.

Where to now for us? A thorough recap of the journey and that world through a book, the realities of earning money, and then, more WILD-ness. There is so much to do. Hike. Ride. Ski. Paddle. Explore. Ramble. Climb mountains. Cross glaciers. Explore icecaps. To do things nobody has ever done before. And then, figure out a way, to inspire, to fight like hell to protect this planet for the next generation, for the future. We can do better. We must do better. And maybe, just maybe, a 3,000 mile long hike along the spine of the continent is the catalyst for it all.  – Dan aka Thunder

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Booting up a 1,000 foot couloir…another day on the CDT. San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

Dedication CDT ’17 – To my dad Alex. It was a honor walking the steps you couldn’t at the end. And our companion and best friend, Stella. You were with us every single step girl. 

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Stella hiked with us on our 500-mile CDT shakedown hike in 2015 from Wolf Creek Pass to home.

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…

Out of the Winds

Sometimes, even after a full zero, it’s still tough. The infected blister I got in the Red Desert didn’t heal (shockingly) in one day. But options are low, and mostly the option is forward, northward, ever onwards. So despite green puss and a toe still too swollen to fit in my shoe, we finished up town chores and headed out to hitch a ride.

Part of the town chores involved picking up mail, one of those boxes being our Lucky Bums skis. Dan and I have skied at least once a month since October of 2010. We weren’t about to let that streak die just because of a five month hike. So, after scouring the interweb, we picked these skis, little kids skis (I think they have a weight limit of 80 lbs) with plastic strap-on bindings. With them strapped to my pack, they garnered a fair amount of attention. A gentleman approached us as we stuck out our thumbs as yet another massive truck went whizzing by.

“Those skis?” He asks. I laugh and explain the story, and next thing you know, he’s giving us a ride up to the trail head. Turns out this guy skied for the US Nordic Team from ’76-’84 – quite the long career. We had a lot to chat about as we headed up, picking up TennesSteve (whom we haven’t seen since Chama) along the way.

Soon, we were strapping on our packs, saying goodbye to our ride, and diving back into the woods.


The Winds had a high snow year, and things are still melting out.

The toe, the toe, the damned toe! It’s such a tiny thing, but it was being a beastly little thing, and my speed was limited. We debated going over Knapsack Col on the way up – we had 11 miles to make the decision. The information on it was surprisingly differing: at the Great Outdoor Shop in Pinedale, they told us that a group with crampons and ice axes couldn’t get over it, and a thru-hiker in front of us said another thru-hiker did it with no gear, no problem. Which of the two extremes was true?


Little skis, big mountains.


Heading into Titcomb Basin

Of course, we decided to do it, and so took the turn to Titcomb Basin. As we climbed slowly, once again we were surrounded by the immense Wind River mountains. Some of the tallest peaks in the state towered high over great blue lakes, and finally we stopped, finding one dry spot amongst the swampy tundra to set up.


Titcomb Basin is popular, but we had this whole area to ourselves.


What’s for dinner?

Before drifting off to sleep, the same incredible thunderstorms that we’ve been having at night hit, great violet bolts of lightning shooting across the sky and thunder cracking so hard you could imagine the stone giants tossing boulders around. But the deep exhaustion runs so deep in a thru-hiker that sleep won out before long.


Titcomb Basin in the morning

Up and out of camp the next morning, excited to see Knapsack Col. Soon we hit snow, but it was east facing, and so softened early, and huge sun cups pocked the surface, so traction was easy.


Things warmed up fast.


The last push before the top.

Up and up and up, slipping between two gigantic peaks, and then, one last push to the top, where we met TennesSteve again. We laughed and took pictures before heading down the other side – we saw some lower-angle snow down low that maybe wasn’t as sun cupped.


Happy we took the alternate.

The ensuing moments were filled with hilarity as we strapped the tiny wooden kids skis to our feet (clearly the binding was meant for kids, too, as Dan’s feet barely fit) and skittered around the snow, out of control and off balance, but laughing our heads off. TennesSteve walked by telling us he’d rather keep his streak of non-broken bones. Good point.


Not trying to pursue broken bones

But there were miles to be made, so down, down the valley we swept, past Peak Lake (complete with rock slide to scramble around without falling into the icy depths), over Cube Pass, and down, down, eventually hitting the official CDT again.


The trail around Peak Lake appears to have been taken out


The beauty of the Winds

I poked the trail with my trekking pole when we reached it – a habit I’ve picked up whenever we take an alternate or end up off trail somehow, I jab the trail with my pole when we come back, emphasizing in my mind that we are “back”.


Into the woods


The Green River quickly becomes quite large.

The trail wound through beautiful forest, deep and green and mosquito infested. So infested with mosquitoes that when we set up camp along the Green River, we quickly barred ourselves inside our tent, feeling ever grateful for having a tent with a screen.

Walking along the Green River the next morning was incredible. This hike is full of those moments: I look forward so much to Knapsack Col, and then this little section captures me by surprise with its beauty.


The sections that surprise you.
Getting dumped into sagebrush land.

Soon we were dumped away from the Green River, heading up Gunsight Pass, back in sagebrush land. Both of us, a little traumatized from the Red Desert, rushed past, giving the poor sagebrush some serious side-eye. I don’t trust it. This is not a section that is talked about by hikers, I know not what to expect. Do we go back into the desert? But the land only teases us. The expanses of sagebrush seem like they will go on forever, but we make it to the oasis of Lake of the Woods, which shockingly is not a mosquito nightmare, where we hear our first loon of the trip, and drift to sleep listening to that enchanting call.


Lake of the Woods was enchanting.

North, I think. We’ve walked to The North. I’m feeling a difference here. The bite in the cold, just a little bit, the call of the loon, the track of a wolf print, the shift in Polaris as I stare skywards in the evening. It’s higher in the sky than it was when we started. Much higher.


This wolf print was as big as my whole hand spread out.

Dense fog rolls in that night, and we hike through it most of the morning. Afternoon finds us lucky with no thunderstorms as we bounce along a ridge we will learn burned four years ago.

Charred trees, black skeletons, stand stark against the bright blue sky and a true riot of wildflowers erupt in a flurry of colors at their bases. It is beautiful. Life. Death. The Cycle. We walk back, click click click with our trekking poles.


Fireweed, some of the first plants to come back. They help keep the soil stable while more plants grow.


Hiker hunger: when you find a Snickers on the ground, you smile and eat it.

The next morning is resupply day! We are picking up a package at Brooks Lake Lodge, and we have no idea what to expect. We hear there is nothing there. You cannot eat. I don’t know how this works, as it’s a place people stay (for $350/night, minimum 3 night stay!) and people usually have to eat.


Oh, hello.

We arrive early afternoon, packs light at the end of a ration. Donna, the nice lady at the desk finds two of our boxes, but not our box with my shoes and more food. We sit down outside and explode our packs, trying to do so in a contained sort of way, while we set the wheels in motion trying to find this box. UPS tell us they delivered the package three days ago. Someone else helps Donna search for the package, and I ask somebody else if I can buy food. I’m met with a crisp no. Finally, because I may be a bit of a freak and want to see things for myself, I ask Donna if I can help look, and we find our box. Happy, we sit back down.


Resupply at Brooks Lake Lodge

I have a slightly shameful moment of begging. I’m hungry. I know Dan is too, but he won’t say anything.

“Is there any way there is any food I can buy here?” I ask Donna. (I may or may have embellished it into true begging.)

Before long, Dan and I each had a bowl of strawberry rhubarb crumble with whipped cream. Slightly embarrassed from my begging, but pleased with the results, none the less, I cherished that bowl of dessert more than just about anything.

It came time to leave, so we packed everything into our bags again, said our goodbyes to Donna, and headed up the trail.

Leaving Brooks Lake Lodge.


Nothing like the moon on the lake and a fire.

We didn’t make it that far, as soon we came to Upper Brooks Lake, and the peacefulness of the area captured us, pulling us in until we set up camp and made a small fire, watching the full moon rise above the mountains.

Norway Bound!


It would not be an inaccurate statement to say Elaine and I have a thing for Norway. We’ve been there twice in the past two years, and as I’m writing this are heading over there for a third time. What can I say…it’s an awesome country that speaks to us in a number of ways. Of course it’s the hotbed of skiing, and in particular the kind of skiing Elaine and I like to do…Nordic and AT. There is so much passion and stoke for skiing in Norway, and it draws you back for more. The system of huts, the network of trails, the mountains that drop right down to the sea, the public transportation…it’s custom made for skiers. And while it is expensive, the abundance of public transportation, hostels and such make it possible to survive and even thrive without going broke. 

While we love skiing, there is a lot to see in Norway when the country is not white. It is home to a system of interconnected trails that is likely unmatched anywhere in the world. We wanted to see and experience that. Point-to-point travel across wild places brings us more joy than anything else in the world. And so, on the day after Brexit, when a $450 ticket from Denver to Oslo popped up on Hopper, we decided to jump on it. 

This trip is different from our previous two. This time we’re going there to hike. On our winter trips we missed out on some of the highlights of the country, namely the fjords and the mountains in the Jotenheimen Mountains. Simply put, there is epic stuff here that needs to be experienced…Trolltunga, Preikestolen, Bessegen Ridge and the highest peak in the country, Galdhoppigen. These are places we both want to go.


It’s a simpler trip. We’re not lugging around heavy ski bags, but instead just have our Hyperlites and backpacking gear. We plan to hike good distances and camp every day. It’ll be considerably cheaper, and we plan to only use the huts if the weather is horrible (quite possible – August and September are the rainiest months in Norway) – or we need some extra food to supplement what we’ve brought from Colorado. 

We’re not really into just picking off the popular destinations without having to work to get there. It feels much less rewarding and we feel less connected with the place. We want to log some good miles and build more base before ski season comes about. The best way I’ve found to do that is a long backpacking trip. This one certainly isn’t the PCT or CDT in size, but it’s no slouch. The goal is 300 miles in 12 days, which should be a sufficient push to build fitness. We’re starting in the fjord town of Odda, hiking up to the Hardangervidda and then making our way north across the high plateau, over a glacier and into the Jotenheimen Mountains. Along the way we plan to eat as many berries as we can, see reindeer, enjoy that high latitude light, smile a lot and live well in a wild place. We’re not completely sure where we’re going to finish (possibly the town of Sota Seter) but basically the plan is to go as far north as we can to catch a bus to Lillehammer in two weeks. This is not a designated trail or pre-defined route…we’re figuring it out as we go. 


Once in Lillehammer, our final goal of the trip is to visit the Fjellpulken factory and check out sleds. Fjellpulken makes sleds designed for ski trips. We’re doing a race in February that requires we each pull one, each weighted at 44 kg, and we also have aspirations to ski across Greenland in the future, where such a contraption is an absolute necessity. Fjellpulkens have a proven track record in polar exploration and we’re excited to check out their factory in Lillehammer. And while we’re there, we certainly hope to hike to the top of the ski jump and get fueled and energized for the upcoming Nordic ski season. It’s the hotbed of the sport and that kind of passion rubs off strong. 


Now it’s time for some sleep. Our plane touches down in Munich in six hours where we have five hours to see explore that city before it’s back to Oslo and the gateway to the Norwegian wilderness. 

71 Months of Skiing

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Back in October 2010 Elaine and I headed up to Loveland ski resort on Halloween Day. There was a certain excitement as there always is on the first ski day of the season. Truth is, the opening affair always features terrible conditions and soaring excitement. This one was no different. There was a “white strip of death” that offered a typically hazardous opening to the season. And yet being up there at 12,000 feet, feeling the slide of skis on snow, the cold autumn air, and smelling the wood smoke from the top shack on the mountain made up for any lack of pizzaz the skiing offered.

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Thanks to my newly earned job at Neptune Mountaineering, I was privy to a weekday ski pass at Loveland. And while Elaine didn’t work there yet, I was able to convince our bookkeeper Roland to put her on the Neptune list so she could buy a pass dirt cheap. It was a good move, as Loveland and all of Colorado got hammered with snow that winter. I’ve never skied more inbounds powder than I did that season, and memories of gliding silk-like on six inches of powder EVERY SINGLE TIME OUT still linger with me today. That was a great year, and a start to something kind of cool that we’ve been doing ever since.

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That Halloween Day was the first of a skiing streak that has grown impressive in numbers. We’ve skied at least one day on snow for 71 straight months. It’s nothing unusual from November to April. Those six months of the season are the gimmes…as they should be. We live three miles from a ski area, have skinning and backcountry routes out our door, and more nordic trails than most folks this side of Norway. And honestly, unless you want to become an alcoholic, there isn’t much else to do here in the winter. Skiing in the winter is our health and sanity.

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It’s something of a secret, but the best skiing in this neck of the woods – at least in terms of climbing peaks and sliding back down them – is in May, June and early July. The snow consolidates, bringing our normal extreme avalanche danger to safer levels. The Indian Peaks are a great place to go in these months, even better than the rest of the state, a result of our slightly more northern location and distance from snow destroying desert southwest dust. Skiing in May, June and July is something to be relished here, because it’s  a world class experience.

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August and September is when things get interesting. The winter powder is long gone and the corn snow of the spring is a distant memory, having turned to something more resembling ice. That said, we are blessed with many things in this area, and the one in particular that directly impacts the local year-round skier – we have more glaciers in our local mountains than anywhere else in Colorado. These aren’t your Alaska behemoth glaciers. Indeed, most of them no longer count as official glaciers since they don’t really move anymore. They are, for all purposes, permanent snowfields. But they are there and they can be skied year round.

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The skiing is marginal. In the late summer, the corn snow turns to ice which turns to something called “sun cups.” Sun cups are formed by melting pools of water in the snow that create cavities in the surface – basically, thousands and thousands of cups. These cups are not particularly fun to ski. The worst of the sun cups are nearly unskiable, so you pick your way between little paths of relative smoothness. It’s a far cry from powder skiing…it’s almost a Mad Max-style battle type of skiing. But, it’s turns on snow when most folks are sweating on the flats. It’s good and it’s worth it.

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There have been some interesting adventures over the past near six years to take the streak this far. That first summer was easy…it snowed so much. The next year was one of the driest on record. I remember right before our first CT hike skiing a 30-foot-by-30-foot patch up at the local haunt. September was relegated to some horrible turns at Saint Mary’s Glacier. Come to think of it, September often involves horrible turns at Saint Mary’s.

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The cruxiest time of the streak was back in 2014 when I had knee surgery. My surgery was somewhere around May 25. May was in the skiing books – I was making turns the day before surgery despite the impending surgery – but June was no sure thing. It was way, way, way too early to be making turns safely on my expensive new ACL, so while Elaine and her friend Danielle took a couple laps on Sundance Couloir in RMNP, I skinned around the top for two hours. It wasn’t sexy but it counted as a day of skiing on snow in June. That whole summer was a challenge, and I distinctly remember being downright angry and scared with the horrible sun cups on Saint Mary’s in September. I was like…I’m going to end my season on this junk and the year hasn’t even begun!

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Alas, it all worked out. The next real threat was last year right after our Colorado CDT trip. We were simply out of of days and time to hit the glaciers in September, and were busy driving around the state picking up caches. We tossed our skis in the car in hopes of finding something, and we did – a 20×20 foot patch on the top of Cottonwood Pass. We hiked that patch 10 times each and skied back down so many times we actually made ruts in the snow.

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It’s been a good winter and spring and we managed to keep the streak alive, our last ski being fun little couloir on the 4th of July. Since we’re heading to Norway at the end of this month and have to work the days before departure, yesterday was our designated day to ski in August. We decided to head to Isabelle Glacier. Isabelle is a little pocket mountain glacier tucked between Apache and Isabelle Peaks. It’s a gorgeous cirque and the 4-mile hike in takes the visitor past lakes, pine forests, talus, tundra, moraines and right through some amazing peaks. I’ve seen a lot of mountain ranges, but the western part of the Apache cirque is hard to beat.

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It was a good ski and a great hike. The turns were surprisingly high quality and the snow was actually kind of smooth in places. For August it was a ten! Perhaps the coolest thing about the ski was the large gaggle of crows just hanging out on the glacier. When they crowed, it echoed off the mountain walls with an eerie reverberation.

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On the hike out we were greeted with rain, hail and sleet that was predicted to turn into snow by night’s end. Fall is coming rapidly and I haven’t felt it more all year than I did yesterday afternoon. We hiked just slightly faster than the storm, and when we stopped near the trailhead to relax by a stream and watch a family of ducks feed, it caught up to us.

We got loaded back into the car just before the deluge began. Evening plans included a quick shower at home and then dinner with our good friends Erica and Bob at Crosscut. Stomach full and soul alive, we noticed through the heavy cold rain that the bank thermometer read 39°. While the satisfaction of skiing 71 straight months was significant, it was overwhelmed by the excitement of the snow-filled, skiing months to come!

Past accomplishments, medals and long streaks have their place, but they can’t compare with the giddy anticipation of future adventures. The past has been great, but the future excites me much, much more.