Oh! The brutality!

Holy shit. I’m still not at Canada. We awoke this morning full of ideas, plans and excitement to get this last bit of milage behind us before winter truly shuts us down. Just as we left the motel, packs groaning under too much food and fuel just in case, we bumped into yet another battle weary hiker with tales of the trail to our North. The look in his eye: “don’t do it”.

I quizzed him for 30 minutes about the route, slope aspects, doable milage and river crossings. Everything he said was terrifying: Five hour stretches to hike just two miles in waist deep snow, chest deep river fords, small avalanches and precipitous drops. This man went through alone, and he was clearly bent a bit sideways by his experience.

At what cost do I get to Canada? This trail has taken more of me than I could have ever inagined. I am exhausted, both mentally and pysically, and honestly don’t know if I have it in me to go through much more of this shit. All the shit south of here I have survived: every insurmountable obstacle, every time someone has told us the trail is undoable, every warning to turn back, has ended up being do-able, although not without some, if not considerable, risk. At what point does it become to much? Also, what is it for?

The Canadian border is just a point on a map, insignificant and tiny, underwhelming and distinctly unpretty, I have passed literally thousands of such points every day of this journey of three thousand miles. I am continuously arriving at points on a map, what makes this one in particular worth possibly dying for? Other than the fact that this is THE point on the map that I’ve been aiming for, in reality to me it’s worth nothing.

I always hate getting to the end of one of these hikes, I am a hiker after all and hiking is what I do best and when my life makes most sense to me, to get to the end means I have to lose one of the few things in my life that I feel makes me complete – how the fuck do you go about replacing something like that? That said, I’m ready for this one to finish. I’m a little bit over it. The game has changed and I don’t think I want to play anymore.

So, we aren’t walking all the way to the border through Glacier National Park. I’ve put together a plan to walk highways for 45 miles, and then cut west and pick up the last 20 miles of trail to the border. We still have one big pass in there but it seemed to me to be suicide to walk into the park when there’s more snow on the way, hopefully this route will still amaze and scare and give us some feeling of accomplishment when we finally arrive.

I’ll be sending a Spot message from the border, we should get there midday on Wednesday my time, so as you sit down to dinner on wednesday evening please raise a glass to the sky and think of my companions and I, because this journey of some magnitude will be over.

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Walking with Grizzly

I’m walking down a dusty trail above a flat bottomed valley, down below Autumnal colors jump out from a sea of coniferious green, a river of crystal clear, ice cold water meanders and snakes it’s way between gravel banks fringed with young willows, soaring above are snow capped mountains and, for now at least, the sun is shining.

It’s a rare day and I’m playing music. Elbow’s “little fictions” seems the perfect accompaniment to such a scene and my spirit soars with each chord, this is the first time I’ve heard it and I’m sure I’ll remember it forever. However, there’s a reason my music is playing on loudspeaker – I’m following a fresh set of Grizzly tracks, a Mom and her cub, and she’s got a rear paw print thats the size of a dinner plate and a stride bigger than mine. This animal is enormous and if I see her before she sees me, there could be trouble. I’m walking into the wind, which means that this scent I’ve spent the last one hundred (or three thousand?) miles creating is only for the benefit and enjoyment of my fellow hikers, who are some way behind me. A grizzly has a better sense of smell than a blood hound and, whilst mostly vegetarian in diet, they can and do eat meat when the chance presents itself, and whilst very rare for them to attack a human, if the bear is stressed or hungry this can vastly change their behaviour.

There are a number of reasons why these animals known for their unpredictability might be a little more cantankerous right now and that’s partly why I’m on edge – this area, the southern Bob Marshall wilderness, along with one million other acres in Montana, was hugely affected by wildfires and as such the bears were displaced from their habitats and forced into pastures new. As they are only a few weeks from hibernation they are normally much more active this time of year anyway as they pile on the last few pounds to see them through winter, foraging from some 400+ plants that make up their diet, along with the odd bit of carrion or lucky kill (or unlucky hiker). To add to these displaced, stressed and hungry bears list of problems, early September saw 3ft of snow fall and, each week, more storms have arrived piling more snow at elevation and burying even further their food.

Now, you might say that to put yourself in the path of one of these animals would be suicide or an act of lunacy but the site of her prints actually fills me with awe and wonder. I’m ecstatic that she’s out here, excited to maybe catch a far away glimpse of her, buoyed by seeing her prints and huge piles of berry filled scat. This is and, hopefully, always will be their land and they are as much a part of it as the mountains and rivers. It is richer for their presence and, whilst the idea of coming face to face with seven hundred pounds of maternal instincts backed up with rippling muscle, teeth and claws five inches long gives me the willies as much as it would any sensible individual, it is no reason to stay at home.

As with any element of life, there are things you can control and things you can’t and one of the great joys of undertaking a journey of this magnitude is that at some point, if not daily, something will happen that is out of your control, be it weather, animal encounter, injury, act of God or Alien invasion, it is at these moments, when the shit really hits the fan and the plan goes out of the window, that you really learn who you are and what you are made of. It is at this moment that the “trip” becomes a bonefide adventure.

My first grizzly encounter and only the fourth bear encounter of this trip came a day or so after when I was descending to Gunsight Lake in the early afternoon. A bear had come up the trail and walked off to the right, leaving prints in the fresh snow, after a half mile of following its track I saw it had looped back across the trail and just then a sudden explosion in the undergrowth had me frozen in my tracks. I get used to spooking deer, elk and grouse and this thing was making a noise like no other, branches cracking as it burst out in front of me. Within a second I’d noted a few things, my bear spray was already in my hand, safety off, the sky was full of large squawking crows, Gayle already had her camera out, and an Adolescent 400lb Grizzly was barreling into the woods across my path and in its mouth, a huge ribbon of flesh thar bounced as it ran. It dropped the meat and it ran another ten yards before realising. At this point it stopped to face me, looking at me, then back to where it had dropped the meat, it looked puzzled like a dog caught doing something naughty and then bolted into the woods out of site. I was very aware that we were standing in between it and its meal and I didn’t want to hang around for it to come back, our friend and previous grizzly encounter survivor was just behind and I rudely told him to hurry the f#$@ up and we made our escape unscathed.

I was pumped. It was the most beautiful animal I have ever seen. I quickly snapped a picture of its tracks, if you look closely you can see a blood spot from the meat it was carrying. Bear tracks were everywhere for the next four miles and we kept a tight group, I was so excited and we made alot of noise to warn any more in the area of our presence.

So if things had turned out differently i wonder how i would fair if or when I find myself staring down the business end of an advancing Grizzly? I have no idea. I imagine I will literally shit myself lifeless and expire into a heap on the ground, but maybe previously untapped instincts will take effect and I’ll suddenly find myself able to jump 20ft into the air, run at 35mph or climb swiftly and nimbly to safety up a tree. I hope to never have this interaction, but if I do, I will bear no grudge to the bear. It will react to me in the only way it knows how… with animalistic instinct. It will be a sight to see and, if I walk away, a story to tell but the interesting thing is that it probably won’t factor into the bear’s day at all – It was simply being a bear.

Fire and Ice

I’m sitting here by heart lake in warm Autumnal sunshine with my feet soaking in the cool water and contemplating what has been one of the toughest and most varied few weeks of hiking I have ever experienced. This is the first day that i can remember recently where I have finished the day with dry feet! Today I removed my socks to a plume of dust and built up stink, as opposed to peeling them off my frozen and pruned up feet.

Two weeks ago, Montana was on fire. A record breakingly hot September and dry late summer pushed these fires out of all control and, with five hundred miles left to hike, only a few hundred miles were open. Latterly, even the northern terminus of the trail and then all of Glacier National Park was closed for business. The majority of the miles through southern montana were socked in with smoke magnifying the heat of the sun and sticking in your lungs. What we needed was rain, and lots of it.

What happened over the next few days was a precipitous drop in temperature an increase in wind and, starting with a little dusting of snow, a full blown blizzard then swept across Montana. Three or four separate storms swept over us and caught us completely off guard. Hikers were descending from the divide with epic tales of thigh high snow drifts, of waking up under a tent collapsed with snow, of boots and shoes frozen solid and unwearable, frozen water and falling trees, of digging out buried water sources and taking impromptu and wild imaginative detours off the divide to lower and less snowy ground.

Now, as I sit here basking, it seems a lifetime ago. I now have all of my winter gear bar an ice axe and labour under its weight daily. I’m almost longing for more snow just so I can justify the hassle I’ve put myself and poor Josh (my heroic logistics guy) through to get it here.

Now I love winter travel, I absolutely adore it; the feeling of fresh snow crunching under your feet, the sight of fresh animal tracks on the ground, the way the light reflects off the snow and up onto the trees, the muffled and total silence, in its essence, the sheer winter wonderland-ness of it all. However, to hit these conditions when you are 60 miles from civilisation and wearing short shorts and tennis shoes is a problem. For one day it’s uncomfortable, for much longer than one day and you can run into trouble pretty fast. Slowly, everything you own gets wet. Your shoes and socks go first, then the tent as your frozen breath defrosts by day, if your tent is small, this moisture will transfer to your sleeping bag, reducing the loft of its precious down left and making each night colder than the last. If you’re unlucky, your clothes get wet. Thankfully this is hard to achieve what with snow being solid and all but, accidents happen and rain gear that was once shiney and new is now old, battered and mouldy. In short, these are conditions that need a completely different set of gear and mentality that those possessed by your average through hiker this late in the season, myself included, with stripped down packs and high milage attitudes.

Three times in the last two weeks we have been forced to abandon the trail for a road or jeep track, to detour on highways around higher elevations and to retreat back into civilisation for a good meal and warm bed. Amazon has made literal thousands of dollars from my party alone as boots, warmer gloves, base layers and microspikes are ordered express to the next town (sometimes ordered sat down mid blizzard!)

So now, my pack is as heavy as it’s ever been. I have two huge boots strapped to its outside, two massive puffy down jackets and far more food than I think I’ll need. Right now as I sit here basking I can’t think I will need it, but if the last few weeks have taught me anything, everything can change in just a few tenths of a mile and knowing our luck, it probably will.

They say this trail is brutal and that is something I cannot dispute. It has chewed us up and spit us out, scratched us and beaten us, showed us intense beauty and great devastation, I have been at once terrified and amazed, hurt and bleeding and I’m still not ready to bow out. So tomorrow I’ll put on my pack with a heave and a groan and once more try to walk to Canada, I’m trying really hard, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll get there one day .

BC x

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Wyoming, the basin and the woes of ten toes

Hmmm. An update…. We tried to get through Wyoming in 20 days, the promise of flat trail and cow shit water not encouraging us to hang around. Somebody we met in northern Colorado even apologised to us about Wyoming and how bad it would be. Luckily for us they were massively wrong! Wyoming was one of the best surprises I have ever experienced on trail. Initially we were dreading the baron and waterless “Basin” but it had a stark beauty that was comparable to the more remote sections of the north island on the Te Araroa. Flat and scrubby desert plains leading into brown grassy mountains with occasional lush flowing springs supplying ample water if you were prepared to carry it to avoid the cow shit brown grot that the cows drank, pissed and shat in (sometimes all at the same time). My shoes, purchased in Salida were the last of a bad batch that were delaminating and tearing out after a few hundred miles. The company had agreed to replace them for free but inexplicably decided not to mail them out for ten days after they’d agreed to honor the exchange. The result was that I arrived in town before the shoes did and, having novelty sized feet, had no option but to keep going in torn, glued and badly repaired shoes, already several hundred miles beyond where they should have been thrown out. The majority of the 200 miles to the north was on hard packed dirt road in blazing heat and my feet thanked me by blistering up on both heels, big toes and the balls of my feet. We pushed big miles through here, completing 130 miles in 4.5 days. New shoes finally came at Pinedale and are still feeling box fresh (if not smelling box fesh) some 200 miles on. I have lost 6.5 out of 10 toenails. 65%! One day, after sime 150 miles of “basin” we rounded a corner and there on the horizon were high snowy peaks of shattered rock reaching several thousand feet up. Within a day we were at the base – we had reached The Winds. We stopped overnight in a town called Lander where I had the best burger I have had on the trail, served unashamedly rare and juicy. It was amazing and well worth the 24 hr shitting and vomiting disease that it gave me some days later, although I might not have agreed at the time. This came to a head in the middle of the first leg into the winds, we had entered the Cirque Du Towers and huge peaks that brought the Patagonian Andes to mind were towering all around us. I managed 15 miles on the first day before collapsing, completely spent, on the trail halfway up Texas Pass. It was an area of staggering beauty and, in the moments between violent retching or running to the woods, I noted that I’d like to come back here some day. I slept for 15 straight hours and awoke feeling much better, if not massively dehydrated. So through the winds we had a few setbacks, initially of the pooping kind but latterly of the unexplainable foot pain kind. Motown got a flat tyre of epic proportions and despite new shoes, Socks and insoles bought during various side trips into the town of Pinedale, one of which involved a 100 mile hitch and the loss of my ipod, she was still limping with pain. So what should have been an 8 day section ended up taking us 11 days but, as The Winds were one of the most exceptional mountain ranges I have ever had the pleasure to walk through, I didn’t mind in the slightest. Also there was this other thing that, had we been a day earlier or later, would have deprived me of one of the most intense and poignant experiences of my life – The Eclipse. Owning to our own entirely circumstantial dumb luck, we landed ourselves on the day of the eclipse on the top of a completely inaccessible peak (6 hour bush-bash over Lava anyone?) and we were right slap bang in the path of totality. We shared the north east face with no one but a herd of Elk, with a view over jagged sawtoothed mountains and a ribbon of deserted highway as one of the most intense light displays I have ever witnessed played out in the sky above and the valleys below. For two exquisite minutes we had absolute totality as we both stared slack Jawed at what was happening around us. It really did get very dark. As the sun disappeared behind the moon, the sky filled with stars and the mountains and valleys grew pitch black, we struggled with our footing as we were standing on a slope and were too busy staring upward. It got really cold. I witnessed an eclipse aged 11 in England and, being in England, of course it was cloudy and we didn’t see a thing except for a few moments of darkness. The whole thing was a bit unremarkable and I went into this one expecting something similar. Once again how happy I was to be proved wrong. For some twenty minutes after the totality had passed we just sat dumbfounded by what we had experienced, unable to say much more than the occasional monosyllabic “wow” or to comment on some trick of the light. Today was a town day and instead of feeling like we should be moving on to gorge on cheeseburgers and beer, we just sat, unable to shift our gaze or find the motivation to move on. Something inside us had been deeply moved. It took a long time to move from that spot and an even longer time to climb down the mile long Lava shoot to firmer, more stable ground. The ribbon of highway that seemed so close from the summit took us several hours to reach as there was no trail In between and finally, some four days over due, we reached Dubois. The path of totality was some thirty miles in diameter, had everything gone to plan we would have been too far north to have experienced much more than a brief chill as the sun’s rays were diminished by the moon. Over the last decade I have walked rather a long way, its become the core of my being and the main focus of my existence and even my profession. My journeys have led me across some eleven thousand miles of trail and yet I felt strangley like all of it had led to to this point. To say that everything happens for a reason is too cliche and, in some circumstances, offensively incorrect, but the universe does occasionally have a way of aligning itself sometimes to shine down on a fortuitous few and, on this day, I happened to be exactly were I was supposed to be… and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. BC x

Enter: Wyoming 

Okay. So here I am some three months after spontaneously booking a flight to LA, walking a dirt road that stretches off into a never ending landscape of grassy brush and rolling hills,  a gray ribbon in an otherwise brown and baron land. The sun is bearing down, I can feel it burning my shoulders through my threadbare shirt. Every now and again a truck or occasional cyclist appears coming south, most offering water, snacks or words of encouragement as they pass , others speeding by and spraying me with gravel and dust. I am precisely nowhere,  stuck on this gravel road between dustbowl towns hundreds of miles apart. 

How did I get here? Well I suppose I l walked! I walked from the Bootheel of New Mexico through scrubby desert and fields of Cacti, I walked through flat and featureless landscapes until slowly, the trail began to climb. I climbed into increasingly lush and green mountains, the air cooling with the increase in altitude. I walked down to the Gila River, I sat amongst cave dwellings and camped under petroglyphs, I got my feet wet, I bathed in hot springs and emerged, having not seen a soul for six days, onto yet more gravel road, I was given beers, sodas and even some pork chops by passing cars. On this road or a variant of it I stayed for some 70 miles, with occasional breaks onto trail where access could be found. I walked North, day by day and week by week seeing landscapes of shattered volcanic beauty and ever increasing magnitude. Eventually, I reached the border of Colorado.
 “Colorado”, a word whispered fearfully on the lips of this years thru hikers, why? THE SNOW! It snowed so much in Colorado last winter that the sheer weight of it has pushed the entire state closer into the centre of the earth. Or did it? I heard so much fanatical chatter about the snow that I eventually tuned out to it, there being absolutley nothing I could do to avert the coming snow-pocalypse other than just walk slower or take more time off. Let’s just walk in and have a look shall we? Suck it and see. Although it was certainly snowy, it was definitely manageable and, after one particularly exciting 40ft slide and the partial loss of a fingernail in the ensuing fingertip arrest, the rest of the state was passed without Incident or, indeed, any need for skis. 

For six weeks we walked through the luscious, towering and snow capped peaks of the Colorado Rockies, by now hiking with an unlikely motley crew of some six or so hikers, joined together by a shared enthusiasm for the absurd and a mutual understanding of one and other,  content in the knowledge that we were the only people in the world who understood what the other was going through at that precice moment. We bathed in ice cold rivers and drank greedily from mountain springs that gurgled to the surface from unknown depths and together slipped, slid and gissaded our way, laughing and wooping, down and across steep snow slopes.

Now, however, the gang has disbanded, the very thing that brought us together also pulling us apart, and I walk mostly alone.

Three days ago I crossed into Wyoming, my third state on this trail of five, and I can now say with some confidence that I am more than halfway to Canada. I have no idea of my exact milage, there have been too many variations and alternates to be sure but it’s over 1400 miles for sure – It had better be anyway, the state of my body, gear and bank balance belies a long and tough journey that can’t be sustained for much more than another month or two! I never like to run out of trail, I am and hiker after all and this is basically all I can think to do, but six months is a silly time to be pitching yourself against a trail this rugged and arduous… at some point you will have some kind of massive emotional breakdown and lie belly down on the trail, two broken trekking poles at your sides, smashing your fists into the dirt whilst babbling nonsensically whilst you lather yourself in Peanut butter and lie there in waiting for a bear. The game we play is to finish the trail before the trail finishes you. Ideally you want to emerge at the Canadian boder, tanned and chipper, with an unshaven grin on your face, having had  positive and worthwhile experience but ready for the next thing. 

For most of us that will be a bed, a roof, cable tv, wifi and unbroken access to properly franchised coffee outlets. 

For me? I’m not too sure yet. In the same way that I only booked this hike last minute (and to my poor mothers continual dismay) I probably will put off answering that question until I really have to. 

But for now, the road and the miles are long, I guess maybe the answer will come but, for now, this is more than enough for me.   

Colorado, you cruel and beautiful beast. 

I’m nearly out of Colorado and I am running late. It’s hard to chastise myself too hard about this as, had I not taken exactly the course of action and days off that I did, I would have hit the snow too early and either had some massive mishap or had to retreat and skip some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever walked through. This seems like a good deal to me, even if it does mean potentially getting snowed on in Montana. 

The last few weeks have been breathtaking, so much so I would actually gladly turn around right now and walk them in the other direction. The landscape, the sky, the rivers, the storms and the trail all seem to have been amped up to insane proportions – everything just got a whole lot bigger. From the moment we separated from the Colorado Trail, a 484 mile route from Denver to Durango, this has been the case.  Glorious, green mountain ridges undulate and stretch in every direction, wild animals and wildflowers abound, pristine lakes and alpine meadows surprise and delight and the climbs (oh the climbs!) have stretched upwards into oblivion. 

My legs feel amazing… Mostly. Some days they power under me like two great locomotives, not bothered about up or down, just raring to move me through this landscape. Right now, for example, I have just finished walking 26 miles and am propped up on a log in a meadow waiting for my hiking companions whom I haven’t seen since I left camp this morning, I have been waiting here for an hour and I could well be here for another. I felt so good all day that I barely stopped for a break, other than to get water and quickly wolf down a sandwich, as a result I got massively ahead. Despite this marathon day, I honestly don’t feel tired. I am 13 miles to a road and a town and feel like I could easily walk that distance right now, the terrain would suit it, it’s mostly flat or down hill. 

However, all of this can change instaneously. Some days (or rather some parts of some days) you just cannot get yourself moving. You know those days? We all get them I am sure, but where as you at home might just be mildly underperfroming at work, being a little grumpy and off with food servers or flagrantly ignoring your children’s cries for attention, I am up at around thirteen thousand feet in either blasting sun, hail or soul-numbing rain, with the equivalent weight of a medium sized toddler on my back, trying to haul myself up and over some rocky/grassy extrusion and then safely descend the other side. Add to this the excitement of an imminent, or indeed present, lightning storm and you can see how I might struggle.  Whether this is because of diet, sleep, fluctuations in the earth’s gravity or just plain lethargy is at this point unknown. 

I have fourteen-hundred miles left to hike, I guess I best get to it. 

Smiles not miles

I’ve stopped a few hundred feet below Hope Pass, on a pathway leading up to a saddle so steep that I can smell the earthen trail in front of me, taste it even. I’ve been climbing for some forty minutes, the bulk of the elevation gained in just two miles, over one thousand feet per mile total. I stopped to drink greedily from a clear and ice cold mountain stream, dunking my hat and my shirt to cool me on the climb. 

I have only a few more minutes hard graft separate me from this particular high point but, as I draw closer, I realise I’m reluctant to rush. The valley stretching out behind me, through which I have already walked some twelve miles this morning to this point, is amongst one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. Luscious mixed pines cling to the higher slopes lending a vanilla caramel smell to the air in the early days heat, below that young Birch trees abound, their white trunks lending a spectacular light to the forest, their green leaves hanging like medallions and shivering in the breeze. I love walking through these forests above all else and the eight cool and flat miles I journeyed through them this morning after descending from Ann Lake were an absolute joy. Above are soaring mountains, stretching 5000ft above the valley bottom, I’m almost at eye level with some but, even from my lofty perch at 12500ft, many are looming over me also.

 

The moment I cross over this pass, save for the luxurious few minutes when I will see both ways, past and future, hills climbed and hills yet to climb, I know I will likely  never set eyes on this valley again. I can, of course, take pictures but they can’t come close to the real thing, the smells and the sounds and the feelings that I have right now. 

I climbed two-thousand-six-hundred feet to be here, later in the morning than I’d have liked so the heat is intense. The final challenge of yesterday, Lake ann pass, proving challenging enough to cut my hike short by six miles. 

Now, as I sit here with his beautiful valley below me, surrounded by wild alpine flowers and having spent this last twenty minutes contemplating my past, I realise I now look forward to the future. So now, with a heave and a groan I will shoulder my pack and finish this climb… I cannot wait to see what’s on the other side. 

BC x