Into Wonderland: Kananaskis to Sunshine

Excitement pumped through the blood as we neared the trail again, the heady rush of embarking into a land that you know will blow your mind with the wild wonder of it all making us a bit punch drunk. We said our farewells to Leslie and headed off, beginning the long trek around Upper Kananaskis Lake. It appeared to be a popular loop to go around the lake, many tourists doing the trek around it, and even some runners.

A couple bald eagles made their debut above the lake, the incredible mountains with glaciers embracing their flanks and the classic turquoise lake the perfect background for their huge circling. We left the people behind as we turned off into the Upper Kananaskis River valley. The storm that was predicted for this stretch began practicing, the skies opening up and raining hard, then closing again for a short breather, repeating the process as it rehearsed for its big performances over the next couple of days.

Passing through a dense thicket of brush, a cow moose stomped across the trail, checking us out over her shoulder as we traipsed by, reassuring her that we were simply passing through. The chill in the air kept us in our rain gear for the remainder of the day, as we began climbing higher up the valley. Nearing our camp site for the evening, a black bear crossed paths in front of us, all teddy-bear furriness as he trundled up into the dense trees.

We arrived at Tourbine Campground with a lull in the weather, where we seized the chance to set up camp not in the rain. Fingers cold, we fumbled slightly with the guy lines, but soon the mid was up, sleeping bags laid out as we sought the cook area.

A steel table stood in the middle, but the cold and wet of it was uninviting to sit on, so we contented ourselves with standing around it while preparing dinner, a drizzle beginning to fall around us. Hastily downing a hearty pasta meal, we reveled in the ease of this backcountry site complete with bear lockers. The speed of pack up was so delightful, not requiring the trek around, searching for the perfect bear-hanging tree. Dumping all our smellies in a bear locker, we dove into our sleeping bags.

All throughout the night, it rained hard, and every time I rolled over, I checked to make sure there were no small rivers of water making their way through our sleep spot. The rivers were content to wind their way around the tent, and we woke to spotty rain, and a cold wind. Donning the rain gear (for the first and last time of the day), we followed easy, beautiful trail up to Kananaskis Pass and a beautiful alpine lake. For the first time this trip, no views greeted us from the top, socked in and foggy as it was. The dense clouds blanketed us in a damp, bone-chilling cold that set in gradually.

Cresting the pass, we left Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and entered Height of the Rockies Provincial Park, and as we descended the other side, the quality and amount of use of the trail immediately declined. Faint trail, often simply a remnant of feet passing through the same place on the rocks, cascaded straight down the steep slopes.

The loose, steep, slippery situation was exactly the terrain that caused Dan’s ankle to act up, so we were forced to a slow pace that enable the damp’s creeping fingers to get a good grip on me, and soon I was shaking with cold.

The lower we dropped, the colder I became, as dense brush rose up on either side of the trail, sopping wet, gracing us with the dreaded phenomenon known as the “car wash”. This is where you must push through drenched brush, causing all the collected rain to slosh down over you. No rain gear is impervious to this, as the repeated pressure will eventually push the moisture through the membrane to you. Thighs and arms are exceptionally prone to this, and soon those body parts were very cold. Remnants of our large furry bear friends littered the trail: large piles of veggie filled scat, and footprints the size of plates going every which way caused us to hoot and holler into the surrounding brush.

Eventually we began the long climb up to Palliser Pass, the same wet bushes to the face slowing and cooling us further. Maintaining easy breath, convincing my body it wasn’t as cold as it was, we climbed up, until we crossed into Banff National Park.

We had been doubting the probability of us reaching our campsite – it was 23 miles away, and at 1pm, we had managed all of 7 miles. However, as we crossed into the National Park, the trail improved considerably. We could see where the brush along the trail had been cut back so that we could pass easily, and soon we were swooping down the Spray River valley, passing what seemed like hundreds of alpine toads along the trail – so many of them we had to watch carefully to avoid trampling them or poking one with a pole.

We were on our way to meet Leslie, who was coming in to hike with us for a couple days. As we hurried on into the evening, we finally neared Big Springs camp, and lo and behold, a lone figure stood under a tree as we arrived.

“Friends!” The familiar voice rang down the trail as we approached and soon soggy hugs were being exchanged, and then magically, what seemed like two pizza’s crammed into a tuppoware appeared in front of us, and frozen fingers immediately began to transfer the delicious food to hungry mouths.

Bodies exhausted, we crashed hard that night, even sleeping in a bit in the morning. Dragging ourselves out, we found the day to be cool, but very little rain yet, which raised spirits immensely.

The lack of rain also meant the views were back, and they were coming out in full force as we traversed wild flower carpeted meadows above the large Marvel Lake.

The morning was filled with trekking-pole whirling, whooping to warn bears, and jaws dropping at the fabulous views as we climbed to Wonder Pass.

Just we crested the pass, the weather decided to move back in, and as we began to descend, the temperature plummeted, and soon a mix of rain and hail pummeled us as we traipsed through enchanting larch forests.

This changed to sleet, thunder began booming, and then the snow fell, big fat flakes coming down thick and fast. At the bottom a small group of huts were nestled, with a cook hut between them.

Leslie peered through the window.

“Not too full yet,” she said, “Let’s make a quick cup of tea!” Peeling off all of the wet layers, we were soon inside, steaming profusely as we wrapped cold fingers around steaming mugs of ginger tea. The snow began to come down heavier, clinging to the larch branches as we watched with trepidation. As the feeling came back to fingers and toes, we left to go the rest of the way to our campsite. It was a bit shocking, after traveling through so much unpopulated wilderness, but as we walked towards Mount Assiniboine, we were entering a very popular area – one of those bucket list places. People can even pay to get a helicopter ride in, and stay in fancy little cabins. The snow was picking up, and as we passed the first real viewpoint of Mount Assiniboine, we laughed at the gaping white void where the mountain supposedly was.

However, once again, as we neared our campsite at Lake Magog, the weather gave us a bit of a break.

Dawn, one of Leslie’s friends, was on a trip of her own with another woman, Brenda, and she met us at the entrance to the confusing mess of trails that was the sprawling camp site, and led us back to a secluded area where they had saved us a spot.

She and Brenda regaled us with tales of their trip so far as we set up camp, wonderful, cheerful women opening their arms to us immediately.

“Well, friends,” Leslie announced once our shelters were set up, “we have a decision to make.” She gestured at the clearing skies around us. “We could do tea,” this tea was something of a trail legend, as the Mount Assiniboine Lodge was known to open its doors to the “public”, as us campers were known, for an hour to serve unlimited tea and loaf (which I was told was essentially cake), “or we could climb the Nub.”

Not even an alternate listed for the GDT, the Nub is a very quick little side trip that gives crazy good views over the Assiniboine basin. The clouds were lifting, lifting, drifting around the peak, and it was an easy decision in the end.

The five of us made our way from the campsite back towards the Assiniboine Lodge, where we parted ways, Dawn and Brenda to partake of the tea, and the three of us to climb up the nub.

Indeed, it was a short jaunt, and after just a wee bit of a huff, we popped out above tree line, the incredible basin of Assiniboine expanded out below us.

It was one of those moments, where trail lore is not just truth, but the real thing is greater than you imagined. Also known as the “Matterhorn of the Rockies”, its reputation preceded it – and most appropriately. We stood, watching sun beams dance on the glacier warped around it, the plume from the top indicating the whipping winds up there, and snow cascading from its many layers.

As we descended, a storm ripped back through the valley, bringing more snow, whipping winds, and thunder cracking overhead.

Back down at the camp, we discovered that a truly lovely cook shelter existed, and we settled down amongst the other campers. A young Israeli fresh out of the military sat with us, along with Dawn and Brenda, and the evening passed with folks rushing to find more layers, but unwilling to truly leave the conversation for the warmth of their tents.

Dawn, Leslie, Dan, and I took an evening stroll down to Magog Lake, where we learned about modern pentathlon (Dawn went to the Sydney Olympics – and we were all fascinated to learn more about this little-known sport).

Finally, we all curled up for the night, relatively warm and dry. It was still a restless night, unfortunately. This particular camp site had ready-made boxes they wish you to camp on, filled with these sharp rocks. Of course, with light weight gear, this would be avoided at all costs normally, but as that was what we were supposed to do, we did it. It also meant that Dan’s sleeping mattress received several punctures and he was blowing it up all night.

The cook shelter also proved to be a strong pull that morning, and even though we were all packed up and ready to leave, we lingered at the shelter, chatting with our new friends. Finally, the call of the trail pulled us from the shelter and we set out into the cool, but thankfully precipitation-less day.

It was perfect hiking weather, long-sleeved top and tights just warm enough, but brisk enough to barely break a sweat. We soon came to Og Lake, where we came upon another group.

“Your boots!” Exclaimed a woman as we approached them, pointing at Leslie, and we all stopped, surprised.

“Yes, what about them?” Leslie asked, leaning on her poles.

“Are they yours?” This was such a strange question, we were all laughing at first, but it soon came to light that when we had ducked into the cook hut for tea the day before, Leslie and this woman had inadvertently traded boots. As they switched back mid-trail, we all had a good laugh, and then we were off into the Valley of the Rocks.

This was a wonderful, magical place. It was the oddest, rolling terrain, dotted with gigantic crumbling rocks. The trail weaved through these massive rocks, and the mist drifting amongst the towering cliffs above us added to the expectation of Orcs leaping out at us unexpectedly from behind a boulder.

Whooping and hollering, we ascended Citadel Pass, stopping to look at the diggings of the resident grizzly on our way up, bumped along past Howard Douglas Lake, and then were deposited into Sunshine Meadows.

The clouds finally opened at this point, but even with the rain coming down, the ground squirrels still frolicked through the meadows and even a pair of Mountain Bluebirds graced us with their presence. We joked that wherever Leslie went, all of her friends came out, even the squirrels, no matter the weather. Soon we were in Sunshine ski resort, and descending a long road to where Leslie’s husband Keith was meeting us to take us all back to Banff, where warm showers and clean laundry awaited us, and where we would eat all the things.

Despite the weather, or perhaps because of it, it had proven to be an incredible section. Dan’s ankle seems to be on the mend, and though challenging, the trail continues to be rewarding beyond belief.

Coleman to Kananaskis: Forget-Me-Nots, Tornado Mountain and the Most Beautiful Spot on Earth

July 9, 2019 – 24 miles, 3,300 of climbing

Aspirations for getting out of town quickly rarely go as planned. The pattern of the trail gets broken, conversations happen and breakfast places keep serving food – all delaying departure. Such is life and the cause of us departing Coleman at an extremely lazy 9:45 am bound north on a six-and-a-half day ration to Kananaskis.

It was a productive break. My blisters healed, Elaine’s foot is feeling better and I traded in my sieve-like raincoat for a functional Patagonia Torrentshell that I got at a local fly-fishing shop in Coleman. If we open our own store someday it’ll look and feel a lot like this one: an earthy, wood-feel, a casual vibe with coffee and soup and pastries and a spattering of functional gear to get people into the outdoors. There are few things in life as wonderful as a small town gear/coffee shop.

The trail today was as if we got tossed back to Colorado. It was a mostly two-track day thru aspen groves and less dramatic gray mountains, reminiscent of Kenosha Pass or the eastern side of the San Juans. The sun was shining and there was a slight breeze making the trees quake, about perfect hiking conditions really. The area north of Coleman has been logged heavily, but the trees seem to be restoring themselves nicely.

While the landscape reminded me of Colorado, the animals tracks told another story. Big bear prints and scat were prominent, and for awhile we also followed what I’m positive was a wolf track. At the very end of the day we climbed a steeper pass and found a wonderful flat spot on its shoulder to sleep for the night. As I write this, the birds are chirping, the creek is gurgling and Elaine is fixing up some pasta for dinner. Life is simple, and life is good.

July 10 – 18 miles, 4,100 feet of climbing

Leslie and Keith told us this section had the most human resource impact of the entire trail, and we saw a big part of that today. After a blissful sleep we started up Race Horse Pass, a wake-up call stouter than the strongest espresso. I’ve always held the simple mantra that the perfect start to a day is to wake up early and climb a mountain. It’s good for the lungs, legs and soul.

We walk back down the other side on a long meandering ATV track as a light drizzle falls. I enjoy the insular feel, listening to the rain patter on my hood, letting the mind do nothing but be present in the moment. Humans spend too much of our time being busy. Yet what is particularly wrong with just being in the moment, listening to the rain or watching the wind blow through the trees?

After a long decent we came around a bend and saw what looked like Mordor. A quick glance at the map told us that this was the Line Creek Coal Mine, a massive scar on the landscape that resembled the Climax Mine back home. While we’ve passed numerous logging clear cuts, the impact from that seems minimal compared to this. I suspect it will take till the next ice age for the impacts of this mine to completely disappear. It’s always a tough balance, the need for energy and preserving the environment. I understand that balance but out here I tell what I see, and it isn’t always pretty.

The trail climbs out of the mine basin and up something called North Fork Pass. This pass is the official starting point of the original Great Divide Trail way back in the 1970s before they decided to include Waterton National Park. It seems a bit of an odd start, as it’s seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Then again, that’s part of what makes it so perfect…jagged grey mountains erupting into the sky from forests of dark pine and crystal clear streams running in the valley below. As if to prove a point of the wildness of this place, a buck leaps across the trail in front of us, stops, and stares at us for a good 30 seconds before moving on. It was almost as if the deer was evaluating us and decided we passed the mustard test to enter. Thank you deer, and may you have good luck this fall avoiding the hunter’s rifle.

We drop into a rowdy looking basin and turn left up towards Tornado Saddle. Tornado Saddle marks the beginning of the truly jagged part of this segment and promises to be a highlight. We follow an old ATV track up the mountain that gets more and more faint as we climb. We rise out of the trees and cross a talus field left here by the last ice age. The clouds rip by and build at a quickening pace. A check of the weather on the InReach calls for storminess this evening, and while a crossing of the pass might be unrealistic, we don’t feel like stopping yet.

The trail is more of a goat track than anything else now, and soon we come to a 100 yard section of blowdown that turns the trail into a 25-minute hopscotching ordeal. We arrive at a flat meadow with huge mountains on all sides. The weather is brewing up higher and this seems like a good spot to stop for the day.

I’ve been to many places in my life, but this particular place may take the prize as the most beautiful spot yet. It’s a mountain pass with lush, flat ground with scattered fir and spruce trees. Animal trails dart off in all directions, and cliff walls rise on all sides of the pass. A massive monolith shoots up 3,500 vertical feet to the east, and I believe I could spend a lifetime looking at this wall. Sheer cliffs rise up to the sky, broken up only by vertical gullies and snowfields. Rock fall echoes down the face, and the wind gives a haunting whistle as it rips thru ledges, towers, nooks and crannies. The top is constantly shrouded in misty clouds and fog, and below the wall is illuminated by the last rays of sun of the day.

Below the cliff wall, a slope of jagged talus and scree eventually relents to alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers. Below that small firs emerge, and lower, the dark northern forest with towering trees, deep and mysterious. And finally, further down, but still up above the rest of the world, the forest breaks into our valley were we are spending the night. Down here that howling wind that is ravaging the peak is a mere light breeze, keeping the mosquitoes at bay. Birds sing to one another, their chirps echoing across the forest.

Oh what I would give for a small cabin in this spot, to spend autumn and winter here, to see bears and wolves and watch the clouds roar by and the half moon hang in the darkening night sky. Today we did not see another human, just the way we like it. This may indeed be the most perfect spot on earth.

July 11 – 17 miles, 5,700 feet of climbing

Well this was a demanding day. It started off with a bushwhack out of the most perfect spot on earth through thick spruce forest on a steep sidehill that eventually gave way to alpine meadows. I have never seen so many Forget-Me-Not flowers in one place, hillsides of them covering the entire tundra. Forget-Me-Nots are my favorite flower, and I’ve never seen them spread so copiously.

I didn’t sleep too well last night. I had haunting dreams of the other world – work and the passage of time – and I wonder what brought it on. Remote places like this make you address your weaknesses head-on. My dad was a worrier, and it’s one thing I strive constantly to not do. That’s a big part of the reason I like to be out here – no time to think of frivolous things and let the undisciplined parts of the mind rule the days, not with a steep mountainside that was growing looser and rockier as we go up.

As we climbed the mountain grew steeper and the wind roared through the cliff walls. Tornado Saddle was living up to its name. As conditions got worse, I found myself getting more comfortable, the muscles and mind relaxing and flowing with the climb. Soon we crested the steepest part of the loose climb, and with a raging wind blowing in our faces, we reached the summit. As the wind howled, Elaine broke into a howl right into the face of the wind, wild and free, exactly where she belongs.

The descent down the other side of Tornado Saddle was less dramatic and steep, and soon we hit trail. We dropped back into the forest and onto the most perfect hiking trail, a remnant of the old GDT built decades ago. Logs were placed across the river, and after a nervous crossing high above on the first one we discovered that they were no problem and enjoyed the high wire act on the crossings to come.

We were meandering along when Elaine stopped dead in her tracks. On the ground in front of her was trigger device for a bear spray canister. While it’s possible it fell off, it’s more likely somebody in front of us actually had a bear encounter in this spot. That certainly got our attention, so we adjusted our bear bells to make them ring a little more jingly and talked and sung a bit louder. Some people find the ding of bear bells annoying, but I quite like it. It reminds me I’m in a wild place, that I’m not at the top of the food chain here and that we’re not walking thru Disneyland.

As the trail dropped lower still, we saw numerous wolf and moose tracks, but no bear signs. We took a lunch at a creek, enjoyed her sweet water and began the next long climb up. This one was very steep, and in the heat of the day sweat poured off of us, making the go a bit uncomfortable. After a long climb we eventually hit the ridge. Looking at the map and checking the GPS, we realized we’d reached the 50° north latitude of planet earth. As the border sits at 49° we’d now traveled one degree north in a little over six days.

When taken into perspective with our walk a few years ago, it’s an accomplishment to be proud of. When we started walking the Continental Divide Trail back in 2017 at the Mexico/US border we were at the 29th north parallel. We’ve now come 21 degrees north of that. We’ve migrated from rattle snakes to grizzly bears, ocotillo plants to larch trees, desert sand to glaciers and snowfields, all by putting one foot in front of the other. The further we go, the novelties of society – burgers and showers and internet – have a harder and harder time competing with a simple trail diet, a cold stream and the sound of birds in the morning and evening outside our Mid.

We’re now closer to the Arctic Circle than Mexico, and I’d be lying if the thought hasn’t crept into both our heads about continuing this northward walk in ensuing years to the Laird River, which is the geographical northern end of the Rocky Mountain chain, and then beyond that, following the caribou migration north from the valleys of northern British Columbia all the way north to the Arctic National Wildlife refuge and Arctic Ocean. That’s a massive project that may prove to be logistically impossible, but what an adventure it would be.

It sounds crazy to even write about it. But I do find a certain irony there. It’s funny how the most basic things – walking, drinking from steams and sleeping in the forest for extended periods of time – essentially migrating under your own power – is seen as “crazy” or “extreme” when in actuality it’s probably the most natural thing a human being can do. Humans have been doing this for many millenniums. Meanwhile, sitting in a cubicle, staring at a computer screen and accumulating more-and-more stuff, an evolution that has happened in the last 50 years, not even one human generation, is deemed “normal.” Normal for who, and normal for what purpose?

Big thoughts for the head, but there is trail to hike. After the climb the route began an equally as precipitous descent back down to another valley floor. Before the hike I rolled my left ankle on a training session, and for the first time it began to bother me. I’ll have to keep an eye on that. The bottom of the trail was a horse shit, trampled mess and we wearily took a break and assessed our next move. We certainly didn’t want to stay here, so we began the next vertical wall climb, a slow go to the Beehive Mountain Cirque. This was the time of day when mental toughness ruled the roost, when the process of putting one foot in front of the other becomes more deliberate. True happiness comes on the heels of suffering, so there would be some happiness tonight!

After a roller coaster ride through fields of Forget-Me-Nots and stunning views, we found a place to set up camp for the night on the edge of a ridge underneath the stunning cliff wall of the Continental Divide. As I review the day in my head, a little battered and bruised but also ecstatic, I’m beginning to realize the purpose of all this: to feel totally comfortable in all natural environments.

I was a little nervous before Tornado Pass. On our Greenland trip, I think we were both constantly a little nervous. Being attentive is key. But being nervous is when mistakes happen. We have little interest in racing competition anymore, as we’ve kind of accomplished everything we need to accomplish in that realm. Going around in circles with hundreds of other people holds little interest to us now. But getting comfortable in all environments, no matter how harsh or alone or wild…now that’s something to strive towards. It’s a goal that may take a lifetime to attain, but it’s a good goal nonetheless. I am beyond lucky to have a life partner like Elaine who wants to do this stuff with me. I know of no other team like ours so well matched and motivated in this regard.

July 12 – 21 miles, 5,000 feet of climbing

There is a line the Bad Religion song “Sorrow” that resonates: “Let me take you to the herding ground, where all good men are trampled down.” Truth be told, this hike was the direct byproduct of a failed work situation that I’ve been thinking about, and at times feeling guilty about. As we walk on, clarity about these situations is becoming clearer.

The situation involved leaders degrading, harassing and belittling fellow co-workers. After months of this, after speaking up and trying to change the situation, we essentially left. We were far from the only one’s experiencing the situation, and in actuality we were carrying the burden of others who were. And I’ve been feeling bad about this. Perhaps we were too idealistic, and needed to be more compromising. But on the trail, where rules are simple and right and wrong are defined, clarity is emerging. We were right. We were absolutely right. Fighting for decency and the fair treatment of fellow human beings is the right thing to do.

It feels like we passed a test of one of those life moments where we were, like that Bad Religion song, brought “to the herding ground,” but instead of “being trampled down,” and compromising our values and morals, we made the harder choice, we fought back, we took a stand and we maintained who we are. And for that I am beyond proud. Thank you trail for providing that clarity.

Today is another day to rage in the mountains and walk north. After descending to a river valley, we climbed up another huge ridge and entered a mountain cirque with a lake perfectly placed underneath. Looking up, an eagle circled overhead and in the far distance, we heard the deep echo of a wolf howl. We crested another ridge, looked south, and saw the jagged undulations of the mountains we had just crossed. We have not seen another human in three days, and we are becoming as wild as the landscape around us.

We pass by remnants of an old gold mining operating, rusted buckets and cranks melding into the earth, a tale of a bygone era where fortitude and toughness and the chance of failure ruled the land. Onward still, into a Larch forest. Larch is a coniferous tree that sheds its needles every winter, defying logic and the norm. In the fall, it turns the most golden yellow, glowing on the hillside. If you have not seem a larch tree in the autumn, then you sill have things to do in life. Unlike most conifer trees, larch needles are soft when new, and when passing through them they brush your skin like a soft kiss. The have quickly become my favorite tree.

We descend to an mangled river valley, with stream beds everywhere, downed trees and clogged mud making navigation challenging. A flood ravaged this area in 2013 and the evidence is clear that this is huge country and we are mere blips to nature’s power. We take a break and a pine marten scurries through roots and moss, comes within ten feet, stares directly at us, and scampers away at a rapid pace. We suspect we might be the first humans the marten has ever seen.

We climb another ridge, another 1,500 feet, and come to another stunning vista, raging grey mountains erupting to the sky. As we head back down through the forest we come across something that I assumed was only legend. Tree shrapnel was scattered across the trail like a bomb had gone off. I’d heard stories of trees exploding in extreme cold when the sap freezes and expands, but until now had never seen it. If a person was close by when this tree exploded, it could easily kill them. I imagined a cold January night, so cold that sap freezes and trees explode like bombs. We are now north enough for trees to explode. That is a beautiful thing.

Wearily, we head down to a creek and debate camping there. We’ve learned that camping on creeks is a recipe for a cold, wet night, so we drag our bodies up yet another hill and plop our shelter down right on top of the trail, exhausted and dehydrated, but souls full and hearts happy and clear.

July 13 – 23 miles, 4,400 feet of climbing

Today was a strange day. We met other hikers. After being alone in the wild for so long, our social skills have declined. Like us, they were thru-hikers, one guy from Glenwood and one from Auburn, California. It was good to see other people, other like minded migratory folk out here, but I can’t imagine hiking something like the Appalachian Trail where groups of hikers are the norm. I crave more solitude and wilderness than that, at least at this time in my life.

After a couple warm up passes, we crested the final big rise of this stretch, Fording River Pass, which offered the most extended stretch of alpine tundra yet. In just the short 150 miles we’ve travelled, the land feels more wild. Near the top, I climbed a short stretch of rock and noticed that I was walking on top of fossilized sea shells. This high mountain pass used to be deep under the ocean where barnacles clung to rocks. It’s hard to comprehend that sort of transition in the span of human life but it brings to realization that this earth we live on has been here for a very, very long time.

We drop down the other side of the pass, and the mosquitoes, which had not been much of a problem thus far, begin to ravage us. We put on our head nets, spray on the deet and forge on, down the valley, to a creek. After five hot and humid days of sunscreen, bug spray and sweat, we take the opportunity to jump into the river, bathe and feel clean again. And just like that, another human civilization nicety, a shower, becomes unnecessary. I suspect, if we knew plants and animals and how to live off the land, we could stay out here forever and be perfectly content and happy.

The trail meanders down a river bed and I roll my bad ankle. Ouch, that hurt. Fortunately, the trail turns into a dirt road walk which is easy on it. We walk eight more miles and camp in an open field, watching the gophers scurry about and listening to the birds sing as the sun sets over the big mountains to the west.

July 14 – 20 miles, 2,100 feet of climbing

We’re up at 5 am for a road walk to Kananaskis and civilization. My ankle hurts to start but after a half hour it warms up and feels fine. Elaine is dealing with some aches and pains too, but walking on easy road for 20 miles is certainly not a problem. Walking is good for a person…the problem is being sedentary too much. We simply have to walk our bodies into shape.

We pass a ranger cabin and stop at a bench to eat a snack. A cycling group, riding an array of jeep roads to Whitefish, Montana passes the other direction, friendly folks enjoying their own adventure. At the end of the group, a young woman passes by and asks if she can share our bench and eat her lunch with us. Of course we say yes. She admits she is terrified of bears and appreciates our company. Bear fear aside, we love this woman’s style. She’s riding a rigid, 26″, steel Mountain Goat bicycle in some of the most remote terrain on the planet. Mountain Goat hasn’t made bikes in over a decade but she tells us that she’s ridden this very steed to Mexico and back and has no need for anything newer. After working in a bike shop this summer that sells $14,000 bikes, it’s refreshing to see that adventure requires no such price tag. It’s the size of the heart and bravery of the soul that creates true greatness, not the size of the wallet. After a jarring experience in the past month, it restores a little bit of my faith in that sport.

We depart ways and walk on north as she peddles south. As road walks go, this one is stunning. These mountains surpass anything I’ve seen in the lower-48, yet they don’t have a name. Eventually the road ends and we enter Elk Lake Provincial Park. If this is a provincial park, I can’t imagine what the national parks here in Canada will look like. We hike right to Elk Lake, the most beautiful alpine, glacial fed lake imaginable, and take another swim. There is a simple rule of the trail. If the day is warm and there is a mountain lake, by all means swim.

We continue on another five miles to the end of the segment. We’ll be back here in two days with our Banff friends to continue our journey north, but for now, it’s a hitch hike back to Banff for some R&R, healing our our bodies and fixing a couple equipment issues. True to Canadian style, the people who give us rides are some of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met, and we arrive in Banff safe and happy, restored and ready for the next phase of the journey.

“It’s Not Your Job to Think, It’s Your Job to Charge!”

It’s a bit of a miracle we started this trail at all. On June 5th, we had resigned ourselves to spending a summer working in Boulder, commuting the canyon in its nightmarish construction state, and making the most of our days off – already planning a bunch of long backpacking trips we could take directly from the house, weird and convoluted routes to avoid people as much as possible.

But July 3rd found us barreling down a dirt road in Alberta in Keith and Leslie’s minivan to the “start” of the Great Divide Trail. On this trail, one of my goals is to go with the flow a bit more, to accept that I haven’t planned much at all, and to let go of some of the control I’m used to having. True to the nature of long trails and their desire to test you thoroughly, I was given the opportunity to practice this new, less control-centric philosophy from the get go. When Dan and I were finishing our thru hike of the Continental Divide Trail in 2017, it was highly impacted by fires, forcing odd re-routes, extensive road walking, and even ending in a different location from the “official” finish. Ironically, this same fire is impacting our Great Divide Trail hike. Most of Waterton National Park is closed due to this same fire, so our starting location was along Yarrow Creek – outside Waterton, and somewhere I’d never heard of.

Keith and Leslie drove us to the end of the dirt road, and after hugs all around, we started off, bear bells jingling. After passing some sort of power plant (oil or coal was my guess, complete with eternal torch thrust towards the sky), this alternate varied between dirt road and cross country travel across cattle grazing lands, but soon we were emptied out onto beautiful trail, wildflowers ablaze all around, and huge piles of fresh bear scat every few yards along the trail.

Up and up we climbed, taking our first snack break at a beautiful alpine lake surrounded by towering mountains, red and green bands streaking through them, and lingering snowfields glittering on their flanks.

Up, up, up we climbed, passing by another couple who were also starting the trail. Monique and a man I didn’t catch the name of had tried to start in East Glacier in Glacier National Park in the US and had run into a lot of trouble because of all the trail closures in Waterton. Already our Banff friends were proving to be a great help to us on this endeavor with their local knowledge. As we crested our first pass, a stunning view expanded out before us.

Towering mountains extended as far as the eye could see and I found myself choking up a bit. A month ago I had been crying for days on end, devastated by what I felt was an unfair situation. Now, the vast expanses of the Canadian Rockies stretched all around me, enveloping me in their rocky embrace – mine to explore for two whole months.

We traversed along Avion Ridge, a gigantic flank littered with scree. Footing was tricky along this side hill, and we continued to climb along the ridge as thunder boomed and cracked in the distance. As the spaces between lightning flashes and thunder crashes grew closer and closer and the trail climbed still higher, we finally dove off the side, scrambling down the ridge towards tree line, where we hastily erected our shelter none too soon. Lighting flashed across the sky, thunder cracked over head, ringing in the ears, and a wet mess of hail and rain pounded down.

We pulled out the stove and cooked an early dinner while the skies exploded all around us. Part of our bear management plan for this trip is to cook dinner, eat, and then continue on down the trail, leaving the tasty dinner smells behind. Just as we were finishing dinner, the storm rolled by, so we packed up and left.

The ridge continued to climb for a while longer, and then dropped down into a larch forest. I was surprised when a branch struck me across the face and it was soft – I’m used to pine trees where getting those needles to the face is a very unpleasant experience, but larch drop their needles in the fall, and these new needles were velvety soft.

Down a steep trail and just as I was stepping over yet another downed tree, I looked up to see the most classic black bear I’ve ever seen: deep black, with a brown muzzle. Dan and I raised our arms and trekking poles, talking to him, until he trundled off up the hill.

As the evening wore on, we passed a tent set up next to a creek, although we saw no humans, and we started looking for our own place to set up. The extremely dense underbrush made it difficult, as well as looking for a tree that would make for a good bear hang, but we found one and were soon tucking in for the night.

The next morning dawned cold and wet, and as Dan and I were layering on our rain gear, a couple passed us, different from the couple we had met the night before, and we assumed they must be from the tent the night before. We were following what seemed to be a very old logging road, quite overgrown in places, decent in others, that sloped gently downwards, getting the proper car wash experience as the dense brush on either side of the trail offloaded their rain-drenched leaves on us as we passed.

Is it not perfection?

We played leap-frog with the other couple as we each took snack breaks, eventually joining the official GDT and climbing up to a creek that was the last water source before a 14 km stretch of challenging, slow ridge walking – the hiker notes say it often takes hikers 8 hours to do the upcoming stretch. The other couple stopped to camp there, but as it was only 2 pm, I didn’t think Dan and I could manage not hiking for that long. We loaded up on water and started climbing.

Yes, this is the trail.

And up it was! Soon the trail disappeared and we were left to clamber up an almost vertical wall of slippery plants and mud, gaining 490 meters in less than 4 km. The view was richly rewarding.

La Coulotte Ridge was a jagged knife-edge, requiring a bit of scrambling and a bit of navigating to avoid a descent over cliff faces, made a bit more challenging by the rolling clouds that were wafting by, sometimes so dense we could hardly see what was directly in front of us, sometimes lifting up so that we could see the spectacular ridge line stretching away from us.

The climb to La Coulotte Ridge was followed by a just-as-steep descent down, and then up La Coulotte Peak, a peak standing at 2360 meters, and a total mess of scree. Our feet punched through the scree as though it were rotten snow, and I found myself very glad we had decided to bring two pairs of La Sportiva Raptor shoes for this hike – this was going to tear through shoes pretty quick. On the way up, Dan found what I’m pretty sure is a fossil. We may be wrong, but it was pretty cool.

Anybody know if this is a fossil?

A very tough trail on shoes. Thank you La Sportiva for helping us out with this hike.

The Barnaby alternate takes off from the top of La Coulotte, but we decided to stick to the main trail – Barnaby Ridge is Class III/IV terrain, extremely dry and exposed, and our luck with the weather had been tenuous at best so far.

We descended about a kilometer off the peak, found a tiny but suitable flat spot and set up camp for the night, watching more weather move in. To our east, dense fog billowed up and up, reaching tendrils through the little dips of the ridge, and to our west, British Columbia basked in the glory of the setting sun, the Continental Divide acting as the barrier between.

Fog Camp

Heavy rain came and went throughout the night and a cold wind blew underneath the shelter to kiss our faces with brisk fierceness, making sleep a fitful thing, and we arose to dense fog. I also awoke to an uncharged phone. I had plugged it in to my charger the night before, but it seemed to have mostly charged it, and then stopped.

“Perhaps it was just trying to conserve battery power,” Dan suggested as I lectured my battery.

“It’s not your job to think,” I told my battery sternly, “It’s your job to charge!”

I was actually quite cross at it, but when Dan started laughing, I couldn’t help but join in, it sounded so much like a line for a ski film, and that became the theme for the rest of the day.

It was another wet start, decked out in our rain gear as we navigated our way carefully through a cliff band that wrapped the flanks of La Coulotte Peak down to a saddle, and then up yet another steep ridge. Visibility was almost nil, and it was slightly vertigo-inducing to climb up, rocks beneath your feet, nothing but fog to the sides, not knowing how steep – or how far – the drop off was. The white out caused me to navigate down a bit too far to the west, but we corrected and soon had summited the next and last peak of the ridge and began our long, long descent into a valley, and then – lo and behold! What appeared to be an old mining road appeared out of nowhere and travel pace picked up a bit.

The rain continued as we dropped lower and lower, crossing several rushing rivers until suddenly we were on a dirt road and hit Castle Mountain Ski Resort. Now, I still haven’t seen the place properly, given the cloud cover and rain, but from looking at pictures while we sat in the small pub, demolishing pizza and nachos, I think we might just have to come back. After searching for a trail map (there were none, it is summer after all, I suppose) for a friend who collects trail maps from around the world, it was back out into the dreary evening for a few more miles.

Sun’s out, feet out!

A picture of what Castle Mountain looks like!

We were dumped unceremoniously onto a highway that we walked for all of a hot second before the Great Divide Trail took us off to walk through a knee deep river for a way before spitting us back out on to the highway, then veered off onto an old dirt track. We followed this for a while, observing the damage from a flood in ’13, wondering if it might have been the same storm that caused our own floods back home in ’13.

As we climbed gently up, passing through the dense brush, I suddenly stopped, looking off to the left where I saw a tiny little erosion gully coming down.

“That can’t be anything,” Dan said.

But after checked the maps and notes – “rest assured, this is the correct route” – yes, yes it was the GDT. So we stepped off the old dirt track and climbed vertically through yet more rain drenched bushes, becoming properly soaked now, and talking loudly in the hopes of scaring off any bears around, as we could see no further than the branches in front of our faces. Quite abruptly, after 400 meters of vertical climbing, we were spat out onto yet another two track and witnessed our first GDT marker of the trail!

First GDT marker!

We set up camp just off the trail while thunder began and lightning flashed over us, counting the seconds between flash and boom, like some count sheep to fall asleep.

Rain poured down that night, and I had dreams of floating away, but we awoke to a weak sun filtering through the thick clouds, slowly burning them away, and we were both so thrilled, we soon shed our rain gear, only to be swarmed by mosquitoes, intent on our fresh, sweet blood. They were so bad, we actually busted out the bug spray for the first time.

The flowers are in full force!

It was mostly two track that morning, passing through muggy, swampy areas. As we stopped at one junction to consult our maps on which way to go, I looked up and saw a cow moose trotting off, long legs making easy work of the swampy land. As we located where we were and read the notes, we laughed aloud:

“Watch for moose, on my hike in 2013 I saw a beautiful cow”

Much of what we’ve been hiking through is what I would consider moose terrain, but this was our first moose, and here was a note about it. I couldn’t help but laugh.

All too soon, we joined a gravel road, where miles became easy, but the sun soon became baking hot and we were stripping to shorts and t-shirts in no time.

We stopped for lunch along Lynx Creek, to fuel and camel up on water before ascending to Willoughby Ridge, another long ridge walk with no water. One butterfly took a liking to Dan’s head, and wouldn’t stop circling as we ate. As we sat, shoes off, feet baking in the sun, a couple stopped along the road and came down to us.

“We’re looking for the waterfall,” the guy said by way of greeting, full of friendly Canadian cheer as he waved his coffee enthusiastically through the air and his pup chased butterflies through the grass.

“I’m sorry, we don’t know where it is,” Dan responded, and was in the process of saying we could probably find it on our maps, but they were past us and in the creek before the words came out. Several minutes later, they came back, the guy dripping.

“I’ve traveled from coast to coast in Canada,” he declared, a huge grin on his face, “and I like to baptize myself in every body of water I find!” With that, they got back in their truck and were gone, and it was time for us to move on as well.

The climb up to Willoughby Ridge was a very steep two track, and with the sun beating down, and the high humidity from all the recent rain, both of us were soon drenched in sweat, even little rivulets making their way down my legs. My foot also began to give me a bit of grief as we climbed up – I’d felt it on some of the steep descents the day before, and it was getting angrier. It felt like a tendon behind my big toe was angry at me. Probably rightfully so. Not knowing that we were going to be doing a thru hike this summer, we hadn’t prepared very well, taking a full month off in April and only resort skiing, and in May doing a ton of backcountry skiing as pow day after pow day hit us. None of which does any good whatsoever for toughening feet up for the trail!

Willoughby Ridge had incredible views!

As we reached Willoughby Ridge, a vast view of the Continental Divide opened up to our west, stark and gnarly. It was no wonder the trail was not located there through this section – it would take a skilled rock climber to navigate those peaks. But from our vantage point along the ridge, it made for spectacular viewing.

A fire in 2003 devastated the forest around Willoughby Ridge.

Descending from the ridge, we ran into the tail end of a local endurance race, the Sinister 7, a hundred mile ultra race that climbs some 21,000 feet. This was the last of them, and many were not hitting the time limit. It was a little depressing to watch someone’s summer goal ending, to be honest. We ate dinner, watching them go by, trying to be encouraging, while they staggered past. One woman stopped, staring at Dan.

“Is that? Do you have a poodle with you?” She asked in disbelief.

“I – what?” Dan asked, taken aback.

“I, you, I’m sorry, I must be seeing things, I thought you had a poodle on your shoulder,” she stumbled off, staring back at us. Fortunately, there was an aid station just beyond the bend, so we didn’t feel obligated to make sure she was ok.

It did make us reminisce about some of the odd hallucinations we had on the Greenland icecap. At one point, we saw a pack of wolves in the distance, and at night, we always saw lights a ways behind us, as though there were a group a day behind us. It is crazy what the brain will come up with.

As we climbed up another ridge, our weather luck broke, and thunder heads gathered with alarming speed overhead. Just as we reached the top, lightning struck way too close for comfort, and at the same second a crash of thunder so loud it left our ears ringing boomed through the sky, and we both dropped to the ground, arms over our heads out of pure instinct. The next second, we were up and running, pell-mell, trekking poles clattering on rocks, slipping in the mud and hail that was now thundering from the sky, hair frizzing and hearts leaping in our throats.

Running down and then dropping into the trees, my foot began to scream at me, and I shouted at Dan that I couldn’t run, and continued on at a fast hike as the rain and hail pounded into the mud, the saturated ground unable to hold any more moisture, instantly turning the trail into a river.

I limped into camp at York Creek, now well below tree line, foot severely aggravated, but nobody struck by lightning. It was with trembling fingers that we tied out our guy lines. So far, I haven’t figured out the weather patterns. Thunder and lightning roll through at any time of day or night. Cold and wet again, we fell asleep, glad that at least it was an easy walk into town.

Overlooking Coleman

Indeed, it was a very easy walk into Coleman, at first on a two track, then a wide gravel road, then finally a few kilometers on pavement. My foot was still quite angry from the night before, and greatly favored going uphill instead of down, but this was mostly down, and what do you do besides walk?

As we stepped into Coleman, the most delicious smell of cinnamon washed over us, and as it was only 11 in the morning, we headed into the Cinnamon Bear Bakery, where we purchased cinnamon rolls and cookies, and sat down outside, where we were joined by Paul.

This is where the magic of the trail comes out – we came into town a bit hurt, a bit put out about being wet and cold for the last few days, and the very first person we run into in town is the most friendly, warm, encouraging person imaginable. It turned out Paul had guided in the Kakwa Lake area in the ’90s. Kakwa Lake is one of the ending points along this trail, though many end in Jasper National Park, or at Mt. Robson, as Kakwa Lake is quite a long, remote section, and requires an 80 km road walk out of. In fact, I have yet to meet someone in person who has actually been there. Paul’s eyes lit up when he heard that we were trying to get there, and we spent an hour listening to his tales of the area.

Our stoke for our adventure re-kindled, we checked into the Paddock Inn Motel, where the landlady is the kindest, most helpful human, and took a long warm shower each.

Trail life – it’s where your lows are very low, but your highs are even higher for it, and it’s all of that that makes this life so very, very special.

Thanks for the marvelous beginning, Canada!

And perhaps, truly, there’s a nugget of truth in what I told my charger: It’s not your job to think, it’s your job to charge.

Staying Sane in a Worrisome World

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Heading out of the Wind Rivers in Wyoming.

I’m not a cocky person. Usually, I have a myriad of little things running through my head, putting me in my place, so to speak. When I do have confidence, it’s usually for a good reason. When Dan and I finished the Continental Divide Trail last fall, I actually had confidence that I could transition back to a normal life, and that honestly, it wouldn’t be that challenging. I figured, how hard can it be? We have carved out a life that is pretty good. We live in an old cabin in a small town – 150 people in the summer time, and significantly less in the winter – with wilderness and forest service lands literally right outside our door. Whatever it is that we want to do – be it mountain biking, running, roller skiing, groomed nordic skiing, backcountry nordic skiing, AT skiing, telemark skiing – we can either do it directly from our door, or drive five minutes to Eldora. I’d have to say that we’re pretty darn lucky. And it’s always been good enough – until now.

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Home is pretty good.

There’s a lot of literature out there about thru-hiking – and in almost every single one, you’ll also read about a phenomenon called “post-trail depression”. There’s also a phrase used very regularly after people get off a trail: “thru-hiking will ruin your life”. I saw these, read about them, acknowledged them, and honestly, disregarded them. It’s not that I think I’m any better and any better adjusted (heaven knows I’m not) than any other hiker out there. It’s that I knew we were coming back to something that was pretty darn good. I know other hikers often end up back in cities – and I definitely recognized how hard it would be to go from living in the wilderness for five months to constantly being surrounded by the horrid hustle, bustle, noise, and stress of the city. Heck, I’ve never been able to stand it. I grew up in a town of 1,600 people, and it’s the largest place I’ve lived.

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Thru-hiking might just ruin your life…

I didn’t expect that deep, deep melancholy that settled over us after we got off the trail. Everything seemed so…tame. It seemed like nothing was worthwhile. On the trail, if we were trying to meet up with someone, it was within a several day time window. Or, as hikers coordinating a ride from town, even that would have an hour time frame.

“We’ll meet to ride back up to the pass around 9 or 10.”

“I expect we’ll be in Helena sometime between Wednesday and Friday.”

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Not usually a horse person, but after 80 miles of road walking, I’ll take the distraction!

The trail life invites freedom – in its most free form – into your life. It breathes in your very lungs, it is your heartbeat, it is the blood pulsing through your veins.

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Freedom is the name of the game during a thru-hike

But you can’t very well tell your boss that you’ll be at work around 9 or 10 – let alone that it might be between Wednesday and Friday that you’ll actually show up. There are things, simple things really, that you are expected to show up to in everyday life with. And this is true on the trail, but they’re different. If you forgot your rain shell, well you’d be a very unhappy hiker if the winds picked up, the sky opened up, and the rain cascaded down. In real life, it’s frowned upon if you walk out of the house without your wallet and phone – items I failed to bring with me for the first several weeks back.

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Everything I need is on my back

People are intense, too. Angry, even. They stand in line, glaring, sit in their cars, impatient. It was challenging. I wanted to be alone, to process whatever was happening inside me, but we had to go to work. It was both overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time. There was too much and too little.

Heck, it was even the little things. I couldn’t just drop trou whenever I needed to pee, no matter where I was. I had to, gasp, find a restroom. It’s weird, but even those little things add up.

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Peace and freedom reign in Glacier National Park

Where freedom and peace of mind came so easily on the trail, I found myself fighting for it every moment back in the “real world”. In the middle of November, I realized that it just wasn’t going to come easy, and started making an effort. I tried to approach it like we would a challenge on the trail – slowly, steadfast, with single-minded determination.

fire

Every night, I incorporated a mindfulness meditation into my routine. I would make a cup of tea, drink it, and then let the calming voice of the woman who lead the meditation wash over me. I cried every night, even though I wasn’t sure why. Things got a little worse before they got better. I began crying at random times – driving down the canyon, I’d see something that trigged me, in the market I couldn’t focus on my groceries and became overwhelmed – anywhere and everywhere I became susceptible to the fountain of tears. But it slowly got a bit better: I began to be able to sort through the raging emotions locked inside my chest. When work was slammed and I was working with six people at once with more staring at me, waiting, I could breathe in and out, focusing on nothing but the breath, and come at my situation with a bit more clarity.

dadeye

Sometimes being on the trail was tough

I then brought a gratitude journal into my life. It seemed hokey, but the rate I was going, I needed something. The meditation opened me up to being grateful, and the gratitude journal allowed me to tap into all the little things I could be grateful for. Slowly, I began to heal. Ten people standing around me didn’t cause a panic stirring within me. I could shop for my groceries. I could be on time somewhere – and I’d even have my wallet and my phone. And gradually, the happiness came back as well.

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Made it to Canada – but now what?

I still miss the trail life with such a deep persistent ache the when I think about it, it’s actually painful. Thru-hiking might have ruined me, I’ll be honest, but in the most beautiful way possible.

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The fire-raved sky of Montana rages in the evenings.

Off the Greyhound, Onto the CDT

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And so it begins. April 10, 2017 at the Crazy Cook Monument on the Mexico/USA border.

Our Chevy Suburban creeks, groans and moans as her tires bounce and crawl over the red-rocked arroyo gully, deep in the New Mexico bootleg. A long, dusty cloud of red wisps off in the distance behind us. We’re on the official “road” to the Crazy Cook Monument and the start of the Continental Divide Trail, but to call it a road is being generous. It’s a desert two-track: gnarled, raw, dusty, rocky and cactus strewn.

Our driver Juan, is relaxed but focused on the path ahead. Bob Marley eminates from the old stereo, appropriately rebellious and care-free music for our little band of CDT thru-hikers. I’m in the front seat next to Juan, the best seat in the house. He’s quiet and talkative at the same time, like somebody who has a secret he’s dying to share. He tells me about some hikers earlier in the year who got drunk at the start and ended up walking to a Mormon camp across the border in Mexico: a bad start to the biggest and baddest long distance hike in the U.S. We talk more: he lets me know that Lordsburg, New Mexico is a shit hole (he lives in Silver City), and he thinks the U.S. Border Patrol’s effort to round up immigrants is a load of crock. We’re in it now, deep in the desert, in Abbey Country, where immigrants, water and ocotillo plants are the biggest realities and concerns.

Juan drives this shuttle as part of a service the Continental Divide Trail Coalition offers to help hikers get off on the right foot. On a 3,000 mile hike, it’s less than ideal if a bunch of skinny hikers die in the first 100 miles. The Crazy Cook monument, the official start to the trail, is not a place easily reached. To get a seat on Juan’s shuttle, one must make their way to the aforementioned town Lordsburg, tucked deep in southwestern New Mexico. Since hiking the Continental Divide Trail is not a round trip vacation, it can be challenging getting here with no loose ends to pick up later. My wife, Elaine and I, ended up flying to Tucson, Arizona, walking ten miles thru the city slums to the Greyhound station, and then catching the bus to Lordsburg.

hikeday1

We had a lot of bad ideas on this trip. One of our worst was to walk from the Tucson airport to the Greyhound station. Should have spent the day in downtown eating Mexican food.

Riding Greyhound is an adventure in its own right, a trip to a culture of America that is rarely found in Boulder, Bend or Boston. It’s a lot less white and a lot less affluent. Most folks on-board have a hacking cough of some sort. There is a lot of stress, a lot of bickering. One woman on-board is relegated to a wheel chair. The Greyhound has certain areas where wheel-chaired passengers can sit, and there are straps coming from the floor and walls of the bus to secure them in place. As we exit Tucson and make our way around the twisty entrance lane to I-10, the woman and her wheelchair suddenly go flying across the bus, slamming into the opposite wall, with her rightfully screaming, “stop the FUCKING bus!” It’s not a pretty sight, but it is our first real immersion on this trip into a world that is very different from ours.

After two hours of cramped riding, we get off the bus, breathe the evening exhaust and McDonald’s french fries filled desert air, cross under the Interstate and search for our hotel for the night. Lordsburg is a gathering spot for northbound CDT hikers. It’s a railroad and highway town, located directly on Interstate 10 and the Santa Fe railroad line. While the Continental Divide might evoke images of snow covered peaks and lush mountain meadows, Lordsburg is a far cry from this. It’s a lonely, sun-baked, blown-down, litter-strewn dilapidated town in the heart of high New Mexico desert. The main street in town features an old pizza place and a general American food joint called Cranberries.

There are a few motels, including the Econolodge, recommended strongly in Yogi’s CDT Trail Guide, the one and only real “guidebook” to the trail. In Lordsburg, the Econolodge is the place to be. Juan’s rides to Mexico leave from here and they also hold re-supply packages for hikers. In a town where business is hard to come by, the Econolodge is doing all it can to cater to the small segment of CDT hikers using Lordsburg as their launch locale.

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First steps.

It’s been a long day, catching the bus from our mountain cabin in Eldora, Colorado to Denver, flying to Tucson and then bussing it to Lordsburg, and we are mildly starving. We drop our backpacks off at the Econolodge, and head over to the convenience store to pick up some supplies. While checking out, I ask the teenage boy at the counter what the best eating options in Lordsburg were.

“Well, my favorite place is McDonalds, but the Arby’s is great too,” he informs us. “The pizza place is OK and Cranberries has good Mexican food.”

I’ve learned over time that “OK,” when asking locals for food advice, is somewhat akin to them saying, “It’s goddamn awful but you probably won’t get food poisoning.” Case closed. We were not in the mood for fast food, so Cranberries it is. Turns out the enchiladas and milk shake are indeed pretty good. Test number one, avoiding gastrointestinal sickness on the first day, accomplished.

After dinner we head outside and the sky is simply exploding in a way that can only happen in the great American desert. We’d heard of these New Mexico sunsets, but this was beyond anything imagined. Orange melds into red into purple into a firestorm of western desert magic. Perhaps it was the sky, or the end of a long travel day, but an elation that only total freedom can bring hits us hard. For the next five months, we are about as free as humans can get. From the deep bootleg of the New Mexico desert, our mission, our calling was simple: walk across the wild land, along the spine of the divide, north to the Canadian border. Giddy excitement hits us. We may be standing in a brown desert field littered with trash and needles, but there is nowhere we want to be more.

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Enjoying the ecstatic sunset the night before hitting the trail.

An ecstatic, slightly nervous sleep takes over and before long the alarm is signaling the wake-up call and the beginning of the greatest adventure of our lives to this point. We head to the Econolodge breakfast room, packs in tow, make some of those mediocre waffles hotels tend to serve, and chat with a few fellow hikers at the table. In addition to Juan, there are five other hikers joining us on the ride to Mexico. A guy introduces himself as “Backbone,”, and is definitely the most talkative of the group. He asks where we all are from, what we had hiked before and if we are worried about rattle snakes. At NOLS, we would call him a fluffy bunny, full of energy, perhaps a bit too much for 6 am. There is a nice elderly couple from Canada, a slightly overweight younger fellow from Albuquerque and finally, a Dutch guy who introduces himself as Frank. Frank looks the part, lean, appropriate clothing, and a backpack that looks slightly larger than an elementary school kids day pack. Indeed, in comparison, our packs seem downright behemoth.

In the breakfast room we meet a 50-something year old grizzled man who goes by the name “Radar.” Radar is a trail angel, and there is no place where that magic is needed more for disoriented hikers than Lordsburg. Radar serves many key functions. He drives hikers around but much more importantly, he makes sure water caches are filled. The Continental Divide Trail Coalition, in an effort to ease us into the trail, maintains water caches between the Mexican border and Lordsburg. They are located every 15-20 miles. While it might be possible to do the first part of the trail without these caches utilizing cow troughs and the occasional well, the caches make the experience much more enjoyable. Radar is the most essential person in this section for CDT hikers.

Indeed, this is some of the driest country in the entire United States. The hike begins in the extreme northwestern corner of the Chihuahuan Desert, a massive arid region that extends deep into Mexico and east into Texas. It’s the second largest desert in North America (the largest, we will cross later, in Wyoming). This ecosystem promises to be singularly unique on the entire trail.  Even just north of I-10, the deep desert gives way to the rolling, sagebrush hills of New Mexico, a little more mountain, a little less desert.

Juan our driver meets us, we load up the Suburban and begin the journey to the southern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail. As we head east on I-10, the red fireball sun rises over the horizon, painting the desert in deep oranges and purples. Juan tells us that he had to call border patrol before we left to let them know that we would be out there for the next 4 to 5 days. The area south of I-10 is heavily patrolled for immigrants trying to make their way north from Mexico. There are sensors everywhere, on fence posts, on cacti and on bushes; in addition, border patrol guards are constantly driving up and down the mish-mash of dirt roads in the area, checking on anything that might trigger the sensors – a rattle snake, a cow, an immigrant, a thru-hiker.  Anybody traveling in this area is required to check in with border patrol before departing.

day9

Elaine hopping the fence over to Mexico and back.

I have mixed feelings about this heavy level of security. On one hand, I understand the need to keep tabs on who is coming into the country. But I overwhelmingly feel that if somebody is able to risk life and limb and cross the incredibly dry, prickly and hazardous land between the border and I-10, they deserve to be here, at least in some capacity. It’s much more of a sacrifice than most of us who were born in the United States will ever make. Visiting this area also brings to light how laughable and unnecessary the concept of a gigantic wall between Mexico and United States is. There are sensors on practically every bush. What in the world do we need a wall for? And how exactly are we going to get people and supplies down here to build it? Crazy Cook is a two-hour rough jeep road ride from Interstate 10. Is Juan going to drive all the construction workers down here, towing the concrete behind his Suburban? And where will these workers stay and what will they drink? There is nothing out here but cactus and arroyos. Are we going to build a small city, pipe water in from the Rio Grande so we can build a gigantic wall? A wall seems like an archaic idea – we aren’t in the Middle Ages anymore.

These are the topics of conversation on the ride down between Juan and I. Just before turning off the pavement, we stop at the tiny town of Hachita to fill up water bottles, pee and stretch. And, then onto a wide graded dirt road before turning off onto a spine jostling two-track jeep trail straight across the desolate desert. As we drop sharply into arroyos and back up over slickrock and sand, mountains unfold in front of us. The Hatchet Mountain Range is the southernmost segment of the Continental Divide in the United States. It’s mostly brown and cactus filled, but on the very highest reaches I could make out pine forests, a rising crescendo from tan to deep dark green. Bighorn sheep frequent the high reaches of the range, grazing on the vegetation and basking in the cool, thin air.

The passing landscape is full of gnarled-looking plants and cacti. One particularly stark looking specimen is the Ocotillo plant. The Ocotillo is tall, sprouting up in thin stalks ten feet in the air. The plant itself is covered in sharp needles and is topped off with a bright red flower on each stalk. It’s very beautiful, but you wouldn’t want to accidentally walk into one, lest you end up pulling cactus prickles out of your flesh for the next hour. Our two-track turns southeast, down the rise from the Hatchet Mountains, towards our destination.

Across a massive valley, hills rise to the east. Those mountains are in Mexico. I couldn’t help but think as much of an adventure this was, what would it be like to head SOUTH from Crazy Cook along the Continental Divide thru Mexico? Perhaps in another life. That is not our calling, and honestly we’re not exactly the ideal pair to head deeper into the south. We’re as pale as can be with nordic complexions, light hair and blue eyes. We also live at 8,800 feet and relish the snow. Just two weeks earlier we’d been camping in negative-30 degree temperatures on a high plateau in central Norway. Odd as it sounds, that seemed less foreign and harsh than crossing the Chihuahuan Desert. Cold and snow we understand. Everything about this landscape was new and intimidating.

Just when the bouncing and jarring was getting unbearable, we reached the Mexico border. It’s not a spectacular location and there is no fanfare, just a dirt road paralleling a fence line. There is no border crossing here, no sign, no flags of any type. There are actually three separate “official” starting locations to the CDT, one further east in Columbus and one to the west in Antelope Wells. The Crazy Cook start seems to be the most remote start, and with the shuttle and the water caches is where the coalition is dedicating the majority of their resources. Juan pulls over as we reach a large CDT Monument, dropping us off at Journey’s beginning.

day8

Out of the Suburban, into the desert.

The crew quickly exits the Suburban and we start unloading packs. I can quickly tell our packs are among the heavier in the group. They say you carry your fears on your back. Well, it would not be an exaggeration to say Elaine and I are afraid of the desert, and in particular, running out of water. Even with the caches, we are well stocked, each carrying seven liters of water from the start. I don’t think anybody else in our van had more than four liters. It’s a significant amount of water weight – a liter weighs 2 pounds. When you do the math, that’s about 14 pounds of water weight Elaine and I chose to carry in the beginning of the hike.

We all take our photos at the monument. We’re informed by Juan that it’s OK to cross 100 feet or so into Mexico and take a photo for posterity sake, so we do. Elaine and I do some re-shuffling of our packs, intentionally going slow so we’d have some alone-time at the monument and start of this momentous journey north. I notice Frank and Backbone left first, then the kid from Albuquerque, then the Canadian couple and finally us. We are a little rusty – our last backpacking trip was seven months earlier in Norway – and it took a little bit to get our systems dialed, our layering figured out, our packs feeling just right.

day7

We go north (actually, we started off heading west. Minor details.)

And then, after a final photo and hug of the CDT Monument, we take our first steps north. When we first talked about hiking the CDT, during a 2012 hike of the Colorado Trail, we probably didn’t even understand what it would require to even get to this point. And while a 3,000 mile thru hike is a physical beatdown and a mental trial, one of the hardest parts of any thru-hike is just getting to the start. It took Elaine and I five years. We had comfortable jobs at a popular Boulder outdoor shop, a dog and a great life at home. To actually quit your job and to leave everything behind to essentially live a quasi-homeless lifestyle for about half a year is not a decision most people make. But it was a decision we made, and as a result, it is time to walk north, across the New Mexico desert.

The trail in the beginning traverses a flat plateau dotted with cactus plants and Ocotillo. Massive, almost comically large “CDT” trail signs are placed every 100 yards or so, perhaps in response to the guy who got drunk and headed to Mexico in the first ten minutes of his walk.

One disadvantage of the van ride is it left us starting off at 10 AM, well into the part of the day where temperatures are rising to a crescendo. On a normal backpacking day we’d be up well before that, taking advantage of the cool of the day to make early miles. That isn’t an option on this first day. As we head into the desert, the Hatchet Mountains guiding us along, it starts to swelter.

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With signs like this, it was a bit hard to get lost. They were much appreciated.

Up on the horizon, we see a couple walking ahead – the Canadians. They are a couple in their late-50’s, well covered in long pants, long sleeve shirt and gloves for sun protection. This is not their first rodeo. Indeed, they inform us they had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail as well as a number of smaller trails.

Making the Continental Divide Trail a debut long distance hike, as Elaine and I are doing, is quite rare. It’s almost always a second hike, and often the final adventure in the “triple crown.” The triple crown is awarded to hikers who hike the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail. There is some debate in the hiking community if the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail are harder. There is no argument about the CDT however – it’s considered the most difficult of the three. It’s remote, it’s high, it’s long, it’s mountainous and, of the three, it’s the trail that will offer the most opportunity for real adventure.

For Elaine and I, it was a relatively easy decision. From our home in Eldora, Colorado, a tiny town of 50 people that sits at 8,800 feet above sea level, the CDT is practically in our backyard. An eight mile hike from our front door takes the hiker to the top of Rollins Pass on the Continental Divide Trail. We see the trail multiple times every year, and every time we would wonder what it would be like to link the whole thing up from Mexico to Canada. We have no such fascination with the PCT or AT. The CDT was burned into our heart and soul long before our first step on this thru-hike.

We continue on past the Canadians, finding a hiking rhythm after a long hiatus. This is our first real hike in more than seven months. During the winter months, Elaine and I are avid skiers, and spend much of the year traveling up, over and down mountains in the winter landscape. And while there are similarities, skiing is not hiking. A plastic ski boot feels different on the feet, the stride of a kick and glide is less impactful than a hiking step and skiing is much, much cooler on the feet. It feels good to be walking again, a little foreign, but not completely alien either, buried under a few layers of muscle memory.

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Into the Chihuahua Desert.

The route begins to rise slowly and we leave the wide open plain of nothing. Small canyons rise to our south and ahead the terrain gets more hilly. As we hike along, we see the guy from Albuquerque sitting on the side of the trail, taking a snack break, umbrella in hand protecting him from the sun.  We exchange hellos, comment on how it is warming up and tell him we’d see him up trail. As it turns out, we never did see him again.

We are ready for our first break and looking to get out of the sun. There is little shelter from the sun, so we crawl into an arroyo with prickly brushes and contort our bodies in such a way to get a little bit comfortable while eating a bag of chips in the sand. Just as we are wrapping up lunch, the Canadians come walking by. They are ready to take a break as well and take our just vacated spot: shade is a hot commodity out here. Like the chap from Albuquerque, we tell them we’d see them up trail. We never did.

The trail now rises in earnest into a desert canyon reminiscent of something out of an old Cowboys-and-Indians movie. Fueled by our snack break, we begin to hike with more rhythm, gliding up the mountain, using our trekking sticks like nordic ski poles to help us up the mountain. We’re both much more comfortable on the up than on the flats, and it is nice to hit the first real hill of the Continental Divide Trail.

Sitting just off the trail is another hiker from our van ride, lounging in the shade of a tree. It’s Frank from the Netherlands. We don’t say words, just exchanging a quick wave before continuing onward. We climb further still and come upon yet another hiker, Backbone, relaxing under a Cottonwood. We exchange greetings and he asks us if we’d like to join him for lunch. We gladly oblige, happy to get out of the desert heat for a bit.

day6

Desert Rose.

We chat for awhile about the adventure and how we all got to this place. Backbone is from New York and is taking a hiatus from life to hike the trail. His wife and kid are at home, and his parents are following him, at least at first, in a RV for the summer. It sounded quite nice, but I can’t imagine leaving my spouse and family for five months. Backbone asks us if we have trail names, and we reply no, so he bounces a few ideas around. None of them really appeal or stick.

At that point Frank comes by. Before continuing, I should point out that over the course of the hike Frank became one of our best friends during the entire hike. He is extremely knowledgable, has high integrity, and once you figure out his direct personality, he is really an enjoyable guy to hang out with, However, first impressions did not go so well. His first question to us is, “So is this your first thru-hike?” We respond no, that we’d hiked the Colorado Trail a couple of times. Frank had mentioned earlier that he had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail the year before, so I was curious where this line of questions was going.

“So this is your first thru-hike,” he say, mincing nothing. He continues, “If you were an experienced thru-hiker you would know that it is better not to hike during the heat of the day.”

Whether or not it was meant as a slight, we took it as such. If there is one thing to know about Elaine, it is that she is no wilting flower. She is also very, very strong physically. When annoyed or angry, that strength can go thru the roof. The next hour we spent hiking at a ballistic pace, fueled by a fair bit of angst and “what the fuck?”  We may have never done a 3,000 mile hike before, but we were not exactly newbies either.

In some ways, that moment feels like the start of the real hike. The honeymoon ends after a few hours, and emotion takes over. It would certainly not be the last time that happened on the trail, where raw emotion fueled us when the body was tired.

After hiking down a rocky arroyo for a few miles, we reach the first water cache. It is a beautiful thing – fresh gallon bottles of water absolutely filled to the brim. We drink and fill up, preparing for a night of dry camping. Dry camping is spending the night somewhere where there is no water source. Lack of water excepted, it’s a phenomenal way to spend the night. There is less condensation to deal with, less concern about aggressive animals and it’s generally a bit warmer. Of course, one must carry enough water to get through the night, but it’s usually very doable.

Up until this point the CDT has been relatively benign. Now, however, as the day grows late, the trail starts benching north along the foothills of the Big Hatchet Mountains. The massive CDT signs disappear, replaced instead by bushels of ocotillo plants, prickly and waiting to grab a hiker. The “trail” dips in and out of arroyos, side hilling the whole way. It isn’t a trail at all, however, simply a direction, and I quickly shift out of the mode of following the GPS and checking it every minute. It is far better to pick something on the distant horizon, a peak or a distinct landmark and head directly towards it.

Adding to the challenge are huge groves of cacti forcing big detours from our goal to head in the “most direct route possible.” The dips seem to get bigger and the Big Hatchet Mountains rise to our west. At one point we have to lower ourselves down a small cliff, hike up a slick rock arroyo, and then scramble back up the other side, all the while avoiding ocotillo plants. Snakes are a constant concern as well, but we do not see any on this day.

We continue on as the sun drops low towards the horizon and the sky turns a fire red. We are in Abbey country now, god’s country, the land of the Apache and tribes even more ancient. The sky and earth turn a blood red, and soon it will be dark. We decide to use the next good spot to camp, as areas devoid of cactus and massive rocks are few and far between.

day4

Sunset over the Hatchet Mountains, the southernmost range on the Continental Divide in the U.S.

After another half hour or so, we find a level spot on the plateau with flat ground for setting up camp. It’s a perfect evening out, with not a cloud in the sky (not to mention that the ground in the area is so hard I doubt we can get a stake in it without breaking one) so we opt to lay out our sleeping pads (after a very thorough cleaning of the ground for sharp things), sleeping bags and sleep out under the stars, cowboy camping in the New Mexico desert.

As we were about to fire up dinner, Frank comes by, looked worse for the wear and coughing. He laments to us, “that was absolutely brutal travel.” Despite our rocky beginning, we invite him to stay at our camp, as flat spots are hard to find. We learn that evening that he is suffering from a bad cold. We offer him some tea but he politely declines.

Frank is a good guy and we let our emotions get the better of us that first day. In retrospect, he was right. The Colorado Trail, while amazing and challenging, is nothing like the 3,000 mile Continental Divide Trail. We just didn’t know it at the time. It did indeed become a source of conversation as we made our way past the 1,000 mile mark, the 2,000 mile mark: no, hiking the Colorado Trail is not the same as a “true” long distance hike.

day3

First night journal writing.

day5

Full moon rising over Mexico.

As night settles in, the stars explode in light, Polaris, the North Star, guiding us to Canada. As we write the final words in our first day journal entry, as the Milky Way emerges and satellites cross over the sky, a content yet excited feeling sweeps over us.

We are on the CDT, we have survived our first day, and we are on the greatest adventure of our lives. Now the only job is to walk along the spine of the country, day in and day out, the end impossibly far away. And then, as coyotes serenade us to sleep and the full moon lights up the Big Hatchet Mountains, we sleep.

day2

The adventure begins.

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
gear3

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
gear8

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
gear12

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
gear2

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.
gear1

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

 

Snow’s (Elaine) CDT Wrap & Impressions

The final wrap up for Team ThunderSnow!

first_foray

We did not hike the CDT on a whim. This was first our first thru hike, back in 2012, on the Colorado Trail, where we first uttered the words, “I want to hike the whole CDT.”

The Continental Divide Trail. I grew up in the shadow of the Continental Divide; as a kid, it blew my mind. I was micro-focused. I was captivated by the little things, fascinated by them, as I think most kids are, and the idea of this ridge of mountains stretching all the way from South America, through the whole United States, up through Canada to Alaska? It was something my mind couldn’t comprehend, and so it took on a mystical quality. I’m not the first, either – the Blackfeet called it the Backbone of the World. As I learned about trails, and then longs trails, and then learned about the Continental Divide Trail, my whole being swelled at the concept. Something about it tugged at me. Since I first understood the concept, it became something I wanted to do. And then, in 2012, Dan and I hiked the Colorado Trail, where I said it for the first time:

“I want to hike the Continental Divide Trail.”

15CDT

Our 2015 CDT prep hike, a fast 500-mile September jaunt from Wolf Creek Pass to Eldora. All that was left was to quit our jobs and commit to making it happen. That took another 18 months.

Five years later, I sit here, having done it. And I can’t even begin to process what just happened. Some people say they aren’t really changed by their hikes. Some people say that thru hiking will ruin your life.

For me, I have no idea where to start. I know I miss the trail – I miss it with a deep, painful throbbing that encompasses my whole being. It’s a constant flicker in my mind, a prickle in my eyes, a desire in my gut, an ache in my feet. A few days after being back home, Dan and I drove over Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, where we went into the visitors center and watched the movie. It was longer than normal, and people came and left throughout the film – nobody else stayed for the whole time. And I cried. I cried that desperate, gut-wrenching, unrestrained cry that I usually associate with loss. Even now, just typing this, I finally make the connection. Because I am grieving. I have, even if temporarily, lost the Continental Divide Trail, the trail life, and I desperately want it back.

dividebasin

The sun drops as we take our last steps out of the southern Rockies and into the Red Desert of Wyoming.

I know that mostly, it’s chemical. When the last of the aspen leaves rustle around on the ground, when the sky is tinted that brilliant morning hue, when the elk down valley from us bugle, when the sound of a chattering creek makes me break down – I know I can tell myself this is chemical. All summer I was in the sun, all day, every day. I’m not getting the endorphins of hiking a marathon every day. I know myself to be sensitive to chemical imbalances – heck, chemical imbalances were the story of my life for many years. I know it will come around, that if I do the things that I know work, I can rebalance my internal chemistry. But for now, while I’m deep in the mourning process, it feels devastating. (And I feel silly that it does.)

bootpack

One of those moments that makes you feel so alive. A ski traverse of the San Juan Mountains. Just north of Wolf Creek Pass

I am not sure I can explain it. Were there so many terrible, horrible times? Yes. I bruised my heels in New Mexico; those bruises turned to pockets of infected pus. I dealt with that for two weeks by ignoring it and eating pain killers like Skittles before going into the emergency room when I saw a streak of dark red running up the outside of my leg. We stood by a river in the San Juans in Colorado, pantless at 8pm, debating a crossing of a raging river that we backed out of and then yelled ourselves hoarse because we’d scared ourselves so bad. In Wyoming I dealt with two more infections in my feet, so painful that ibuprofen hardly touched it and I cut massive holes in my shoes so that I could still walk. In Montana Dan got tendonitis  and we had to road walk many miles around fires. In Glacier National Park, there was a night I got chilled, and found myself shivering uncontrollable and temporarily lost the ability to think clearly. I spent every day in pain; some days more manageable than others. My level of exhaustion climbed past what I ever thought possible. The Continental Divide Trail was ruthless.

beatdown

The hills on the Montana/Idaho border are almost inhumane in their steepness and endless dishing out of pain. 800 miles from the Montana border and feeling every inch.

Yet, I miss it.

I miss it.

I miss those moments: those moments of strength, when you’re body is aching, so tired, and yet you realize, simply putting one foot in front of the other is not that hard, and it turns out that you can do it indefinitely (or so it seems). It’s the moment of the sun rising up above the trees, filtering its golden beams onto the earth below. It’s trudging through 8″ of fresh snow, feet safely encased in gallon-sized ziplock baggies, enchanted by the cold beauty around you. It’s camping beneath the stars, no tent up, just a few miles from the Mexico border, the Milky Way a great glittering banner in the sky above you as the coyotes serenade you to sleep. It’s hiking down a massive, glacier-carved valley for an hour with elk bundling all around. It’s finding a water source in the Red Desert that isn’t terrible. It’s watching a herd of 150 wild horses thunder across the ground, feeling the pounding of their hooves shudder up your legs. It’s slogging for 14 hours a day through the San Juan mountains in Colorado, being exhausted, but knowing that you can’t let your guard down for a second, that you have to always be paying attention perfectly, and finding that you can. It’s putting your frozen shoes in the sleeping bag with you the moment you wake up so that you can actually put them on when you want to.

knapsack

We were warned Knapsack Col was uncrossable because of a huge cornice on top. The doomsayers are many out there. They are almost never, ever right. It went with a smile and a fist pump. – Knapsack Col, Wind River Mountains, Wyoming

While I am still processing what the CDT means to me now, and what it is that I am taking from this experience, I do have two things that really stand out to me about what I learned while hiking the Continental Divide Trail this summer. The first is that being stubborn is not always a bad thing. I have had my stubbornness pointed out to me many times as a fault, and I will concede that stubbornness can be a detrimental quality. I will also fully claim that one needs a high level of stubbornnes (I would go as far as to say pure mule-headedness) to finish a long trail like this. There are a million and one reasons to not finish. In fact, most of them make a heck of a lot more sense than continuing. The second thing I learned is that flexibility is just as important. When I finally allowed these two traits to coexist (it seems like an oxymoron to say to be stubborn and flexible at the same moment), I felt like I was finally able to experience the trail in all that it was, and not try to force it to mold to my expectations – because the Continental Divide Trail is fierce and unpredictable and unyielding and uncaring. With these two traits combined, it felt like the obstacles the trail threw at me were manageable. I also think that maybe, just maybe, the right combination of these traits (one pinch stubbornness, two dashes flexibility) might be a good way to approach life in general.

stokefire

There will be many more campfires, starting with the Great Divide Trail in 2018. Snake River, Wyoming

This life – I suppose it’s “reality”. I’ve realized I want so much more out of it; maybe it is that I want less. All I know is that when I embarked this summer, I think I was maybe looking for answers, for some sort of epiphany. I had no epiphany. What did happen is I’m more thirsty than ever. I wish to drink from that endless fountain of adventure. And maybe that’s ok.

The Earth, our Mother, she breathes
She pulses, pulses with the breath of life
In, out
In, out
In, out
Ground swelling beneath my feet, heave
Heaving me forward, ever onward
In, out
In, out
In, out
She cradles me to her bosom,
Hold me close, close, closer
In, out
In, out
In, out
Scarlet, golden sky, explosionÂ
Basking me in her glory
In, out
In, out
In, out
Rivers flow, flow, flowing
Rushing, tumbling, chattering
In, out
In, out
In, out
Trees, leaves bursting with color
Rustle in the gentle breeze
In, out
In, out
In, out
The Earth, our Mother, she breathes
Pulse, pulse, pulsing with life
Breathing that life into me

Fireburnrogers

I’m friends with the trees, don’t you know
And the trees, I believe, are friends with me
Tree-ish love is not wild and passionate –
As the love of the sun is want to be –
Tree-ish love is strong and steady
They spread their boughs overhead, protecting
They offer their strength, soft and mighty
Quiet, unassuming, but consistently steady
The love of a tree is a thing of beauty
So I’m friends with the trees, (and so should you be!)
And the trees, I believe, are friends with me

winner

This summer’s end will be next summer’s beginning. – Chief Mountain, Glacier, Montana