Continental Divide Trail Gear List

by Elaine Vardamis

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

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

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

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

The Big Things:

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

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

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Full on sun protection

The Things on the Body:

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

The Other Clothing Things:

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

The Things of a Personal Nature:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Summer of the Bear

Gallery

It was the summer of the bear. We saw eight black bears (Ursus Americanus) on our Continental Divide Trail trip: one each in the Gila Wilderness (NM), San Juan Mountains (NM), Cochetopa Hills (CO), Never Summer Mountains (CO) and a … Continue reading

Bumping Between Borders

After a double zero in Yellowstone, the legs feel much more recovered, and my headspace has improved too. It has been a lot of fun to walk around the Old Faithful area to look at all the geysers and hot pools.

The air is rich with smoke

Evening sun reflecting off a hot pool

It’s a vacation! Also, thanks for the birthday beads, Fran!

I came here a fair amount as a kid and remember feeling like I didn’t really understand the hype. I’m not sure if I was underwhelmed or overwhelmed, but now, sitting and looking into Doublet Pool, feeling the ground thump beneath us, I’m in awe of the whole Park.

Catching bubbles rising up

Morning Glory Pool

We walk along more pools in the morning, it’s a popular area, but it’s early yet, and the swarms of people haven’t made it out yet. Sapphire Pool blinks blue in the sun, and steam rises from the Firehole River.

Sapphire Pool displaying her glory

Streams raging with life

The day quickly becomes dominated by water sources, and we stop for lunch and water at Summit Lake.

Summit Lake

It’s a gorgeous lake, and I would take a dip, except it’s cold and clouds are moving in. We stop to look at the last geothermal area, enjoying our own personal hot pools and mud pots.

We cross the Idaho/Wyoming border and attempt to take one of those classic photos. But I’m uncoordinated and fall a lot before we get a decent shot.

Stop laughing, what is wrong with you?

Whoops

Hey look, Idaho!

We laugh when we leave Yellowstone National Park and are immediately dumped out on an old dirt road. So classic CDT.

Goodbye, Yellowstone National Park!

The next morning we are clumsy and uncoordinated. Trip, stumble, bumble, bobble. Maybe it’s a good thing we’re taking a cut-off through here. Maybe, at this point, the body is just not happy. Maybe it’s just tired. But we are close! Closer, anyway. Lunch is an incredible Chinese meal that catches us off guard as we walk through Sawtelle, where we meet a couple that we ate lunch with on Mt. Taylor, way back in New Mexico, Liam and Kate, and then a long climb up a dirt road before finally branching off onto trail again. Beautiful trail with purple, yellow, and red wildflowers.

As we neared the top, we stopped and chatted with a sobo hiker. He spent some time in Spain and hiked the Kungsleden, a trail in Sweden that we’ve talked about hiking. But the sun was setting, and we all respect the value of daylight. After a short downhill, we hit the source of the Missouri River. There is an ammo box with the story of how the source was found and after filling our bottles right at there, we spend the night in the tent reading this rather than looking at our maps for the next day.

Lewis & Clark never found this. The source of the Missouri!

Brower’s spring, the source

The rain patters on our tent as we fall asleep, and at one point, we wake to coyotes howling and yipping and an owl hooting. I snuggle deeper in my sleeping bag, searching for the pockets of warmth. It’s cold.

As we drag ourselves from sleep, the sound of rain pounding on the tent greets us. Gladly, I would tuck back in and sleep, but instead we pack up and head out, hoping there is a spot of sun sometime in the day to dry our things.

Lots and lots of green

It’s my birthday, and some might be bummed, but the rain is beautiful. A few miles down, we meet Kate and Liam as they are heading out for the day. Immediately afterwards, we find ourselves practically swimming through a swamp. I don’t feel much wetter than before, as it’s been raining so hard all morning. My rain jacket is delaminating, but I’m hoping to coax it through the rest of this trip.

It’s entertaining to walk and talk with people, and we tick off the time chatting. When the sun peaks out for a second, the four of us explode our packs to dry things out and take a snack break. Kate is from South Africa, and Liam is from Canada, so we all have fun talking about different places. Eventually, we drag ourselves up and continue on.

We’re literally on the Continental Divide in the section, and this involves lots of climbing up and down. I hear this is the story for the next couple hundred miles. We are crossing between Montana and Idaho all the time, and I can’t keep track. I’m tired, and I trip, but my legs aren’t burning with lactic acid all the time. That double zero paid, I think. The views are beautiful and the undergrowth has begun to change, reds and oranges beneath the trees.

Ridge walking in Montana

At second lunch, Dan surprises me with a whole box of Chips Ahoy that he brought from Old Faithful. This is truly delightful, and soon half the box has vanished.

At last we reach our water source, and Dan and I begin to set up camp. Liam and Kate decide to stay as well. Liam builds a fire (the Canadian says there is always dry wood, as a Colorado kid, I was convinced everything was soaked) and we spend a good evening cooking, eating, and talking as more rain falls. And then the sun has set and everyone is tired.

I am cold, cold, cold, and there is frost on the ground as we hike out. But soon forward progress come to a halt as we find berries.

Raspberries, and then huckleberries, and then blueberries. As we crest yet another rise, the sun peaks out – and out comes the tent to dry. Sarah and Liam show up and set up their stuff to dry, and before long, Numbskull does too.

It is one of those days that miles aren’t coming easy. I’m not that tired, necessarily, but definitely dragging. Dan says he feels like dog, which spurs a conversation on slang, as apparently that is a phrase not used in Canada or South Africa.

Finally we make it to the cross road we had set as a goal. It turns out to be Cow Area, with cow poop all around, but the option is to set up here, or to do a 2,000′ climb. It’s 8pm, and nobody wants to do that, so we set up.

Around our pots of food, we discuss social media, and how it has influenced people’s lives. We talk about #vanlife and all the “hip” things – how social media spreads the misconception of perfection and simplicity, yet the real story behind these photos is one of stress and time, definitely not simplicity. And then it is quite late, and we’re all too tired for this conversation anymore.

The walk to the highway is boring the next morning and so I plug in a podcast. At the start of the hike, I felt badly about this. On other hikes, we hadn’t even brought a phone. But at this point, I no longer feel that way. We’re out for a long time, and if a podcast is going to help in some sections, I’m going to do it.

It’s just a short wait at I-15, and then the guy who runs the motel pulls up. He gives rides to hikers to town, and the five of us pile into his truck. So far, I have to say, I’ve really loved this section. The hills, the expanse, the feeling of The North. I’m falling in love.

Numbskull, Kate, & Liam as we all wait for our ride

——————————————————

A huge shout out to everyone who has followed and supported us on this adventure! You guys are all so amazing and bring us strength and inspiration every day.

— Dan and Elaine

North to Yellowstone National Park

Foggy morning in Yellowstone.

North. The word has power. It invokes images. Wild images of deep pine woods, dancing aurora night skies, wolves sliding through the shadows, fog rising off lakes, owls hooting calls to one another through the night. In the north everything intensifies: the sound of a twig breaking raises the alert, a recent bear scat invokes a glance around, the smell of decomposing vegetation a harbinger of changing seasons, of autumn in the not so distant future.

There is an urgency to this quest. The seasons are changing. The morning light is less than it was a month ago. The mind says move. The body, tired from the 2,000 mile journey thus far, does its best to keep up. At this point, that’s what this is – mental fortitude versus physical fatigue. But then there is something wholly unnatural about walking north in the face of a northern Rockies fall. Your mind plays games with you. Through it all, into the wild, we walk. At this point, it’s what we do.

After a quintessential northern night at Upper Brooks Lake – crisp air, a shimmering moon, a fire – we head northwest. A deep dew coats the land so we wear our rain pants to avoid a soaking from the dense vegetation. That’s a big change from the south…the plants are higher here, thicker, wetter, more.

The trail rolls thru the Absaroka Mountains. It’s a hard range to get a grasp of, to feel. It’s exceptionally jagged, in many places looking almost unclimbable. The rock is loose, the peaks towering. We pass thru, thankful for a route, because negotiating this mountain range without one would be hell. The northern Yellowstone elk herd does it every year of course, but they are – simply put – better than us.

Fire has ravaged this range. As recently as four years ago the Cub Fire burned thousands of acres. Black skeletons cover the hill sides, and in between them, vibrant flowers. Fireweed, the first flower to return after burn, resides prominently.

Our bodies are up and down in this segment, both from the land and how we feel. We have not had any real source of fat in a week, and the lack of that is making us inconsistent. Hills hurt a little more, endurance isn’t quite as deep. It’s a long haul from Pinedale to Old Faithful. From somewhere, Elaine leads us up a long 2,000 foot climb, and it feels like we are fresh again, moving fast, peppy. And then on the next climb, for no reason, we’re sluggish and slow. It’s like that at this point in time. Mental strength, always mental strength to do a marathon a day.


We pass a place called “Parting of the Waters.” Here, phenomenally, a creek divides, never to be rejoined again until it reaches the ocean. One branch heads east to the Atlantic, one branch to the Pacific. Being a human, I change the course of nature, taking a Nalgene full of Atlantic water and dumping it in the Pacific Creek. Always have to tamper with things, that’s the human way.

We camp at the edge of the national park. It is our last day without the requirements of a permit for some time. A site at the bend of the Snake River. I catch a cutthroat trout and release it back into the world. We’re hungry, but not too hungry to negate a life. Maybe later, but not now. It’s a great night – more fires, relaxation. It’s really part of the reason we are here. To be, not just to move.

We enter Yellowstone. The southeastern part of the park is basically empty of humans. The CDT follows the Snake River drainage west thru fire charred lands. This area was anihilated in the 1988 fire, that great inferno that changed western fire management forever. Thirty years later, and the land is alive. Twenty foot high pine groves are everywhere, healthy. Meadows with flowers abound. The land feels right. Like death, fire is not the end.

Rain greets us in the morning. We enter the cocoon of wool and Gore. We’re transplanted back to the Hardangervidda, to the far north, to the place of past and future adventures. We pass a lake, a stiff wind ripping across it, driving rain into us, making us wake up and feel alive. There is the smell of wood cutting, as rangers work on putting a roof onto a new cabin. We chat, traveler and caretaker, as a fog drifts over the top of Mount Sheridan. We are technically in Yellowstone, but right now we could just as well be in Alaska, the Yukon, Norway. It has that feel. I imagine Dick Proenneke building his cabin on the edge of Lake Clark in Alaska and envision Elaine and I doing that same thing, sometime down the line, in similar conditions.


We enter the land of smoke and geysers. It’s a land of mist and fire, Nyflheim and Muspell rolled into one, and it feels as ancient and godlike as those realms. The crust boils, a kaleidoscope of boiling water and steam. We reach into a creek, discover it’s hot – perfectly hot – and decide to take a dip as the rain beats down. It’s perfection in nature.

The days clears, we pass thru pine forests, rolling hills, a large lake, great beauty. In the morning we wake to a world of fog. It engulfs the forest, enters the body as we breathe, cleansing, bringing back to life. In my book, a foggy morning by the lake in the woods is nearly impossible to beat. At this rate, autumn isn’t some distant concept. It’s just about here. Beautiful goes to phenomenal as we enter more geysers, steam and fog mixing. What is this place, how is it that so much beauty can converge in one spot? We are a lucky duo to be here at this time.

And now, a brief respite at the largest campground in Yellowstone, Grants Village. Last night, beans in a can and hot dogs for dinner over a roaring fire, and a campfire talk from a ranger like we used to do as kids. It’s good to be back in civilization, however briefly. Tomorrow, we hike to Montana.

A thousand miles left. Less than two months. This thing is in grasp. The best part, the northern part, is yet to come. We are happy, we are well, we are loving the moment and this hike of the Continental Divide Trail. 

Out of the Winds

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

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

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

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


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

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


Little skis, big mountains.


Heading into Titcomb Basin

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


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


What’s for dinner?

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


Titcomb Basin in the morning

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


Things warmed up fast.


The last push before the top.

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


Happy we took the alternate.

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


Not trying to pursue broken bones

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


The trail around Peak Lake appears to have been taken out


The beauty of the Winds

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


Into the woods


The Green River quickly becomes quite large.

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

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


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

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


Lake of the Woods was enchanting.

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


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

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

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


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


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

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


Oh, hello.

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


Resupply at Brooks Lake Lodge

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

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

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

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

Leaving Brooks Lake Lodge.


Nothing like the moon on the lake and a fire.

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