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

http://www.virginmoneygiving.com/tomonthecdt.

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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

The wrong way down

I got to the top of the downclimb where I’d last seen Motown disappear over the edge, her final remark being “when I said it’s okay, I meant it looks do-able…” quite what that meant i had no idea. It had taken me a while to get to where she’d begun descending the cliff we had found ourselves perched upon and as I neared the edge I was initially pleased to see her still on the rock but at the same time horrified at what she was attempting – a 40ft vertical downclimb with a loose and awful runout into an impossibly steep gully that ended some 1500ft below, mellower ground being off to the right and not necessarily in the fall line.

I felt massively responsible, it was my route choice that had lead us to this spot. We’d had some luck hiking the actual divide to get onto snow free high ground and, aside from a steep and exciting rock scramble onto a knife edge ridge, we were feeling pleased with ourselves for creating alternative routes through the San Juans and avoiding excessive danger on banked snow. 

That luck had evidently now run out and we’d come unstuck descending from the divide to Squaw Pass, both the map and GPS failing to note the steepness of the terrain on the western flank of this mountain. One side was totally vertical for some 1000ft, the other (that we were descending) was not many degrees off 50*. 

As I peered over the edge I smiled and asked if she was okay, she grunted something back to me about always wanting to try rock climbing and continued her descent. This is not somewhere I’d have chosen to go down but, as she was nearly at the bottom I guess I had to follow suit. 

I was wearing my Scarpa mountain boots and, not for the first time since packing them out, i was very pleased to be carrying their excessive weight and size. By the time I started descending Motown was already at the bottom and was already calling words of encouragement for foot placements, I managed the first few moves with ease but them came stuck some 10ft above the ground. I decided to jettison my pack into a bush below and, in doing so, knocked Motown’s pack from its perch and sent it cartwheeling down the mountain. It bounced and rolled, tommahawking down the mountain before it flew in several high and graceful arcs, eventually smashing into a car sized boulder, her axe making an enormous “kerFLUNK!” sound as it hit. I’m sure it only took fractions of a second but it felt like we were watching that pack fall for an age. I’m sure it felt much worse for Motown.

Free of my pack and keen to redeem myself by finding her various possessions that had flown in every direction I finished off the downclimb and focused and scrambling down to her pack some 50ft below. It was remarkably unharmed by its journey. Water bottles and clif bars located, we high fived, took photos and began the next stage of our descent. We were still seemingly right on top of our destination with no clear way down except through some impenetrable woodland and snowfields to the north.

Needless to say we eventually made it down and after spending the next hour and a half sliding and smashing our way through snow and prickly brush and even scrambling down a gorge and descending another cliff by way of a fallen tree we emerged onto the valley floor, extatic to see some actual trail and open ground. We had just taken three hours to cover only two miles. We were exhausted, bleeding, sweaty and resolutely FILTHY. 
We walked down to the river Squaw and spent a happy hour dipping ourselves into the freezing river and taking advantage of the now late afternoon sun to do a little laundry, every now and then one of us remarking on the stupidity of the descent we’d taken, the mountain looking wholly unclimable from where we’d descended. 

As we lay there in the sun, a 400lb brown bear silently walked out of the woods and began to cross the meadow some 100ft down the valley. It looked like a juvinile, maybe 3 or 4 years old, it had a deeply tan coat that was almost orange in color. As we were down wind of it it was completely unaware of our presence but it began to run as it got out into the open ground. There was a playfulness to its movements, almost like it was running for pleasure rather than fear, it bounded through the water and, after inspecting a few bushes for early season berries, it made it’s way up the slope and into the woods, easily climbing over the jumble of dead trees that seems to litter every forest here.

 I watched it into the woods until I could see it no more. I was dirty, hungry, exhausted and still a long way from the trail, having just completed what I hope to be one of the gnarlyest and toughest descents of my life. Despite all of this, in that moment I was as contented and happy as I could ever be, knowing that had I not been through all of that to be at this exact place at this exact time, I would never have been able to watch the bear.

Bizarrely, that’s a deal I would take time and time again. Hiking is hard. At times it’s f!@#*ing hard. The highs can be precipitously high and the lows cavernously low and sometimes you can experience many such moments in a day. I have laid down under the stars and experienced such joy that i almost contemplated ending my life as in that moment I was unable to perceive ever being so happy again, I have hiked across ridges laughing with tears of joy streaming down my face at the sheer overwhelming  beauty of the world. I have also sat on a rock and cried like a child after stubbing a toe, I have literally smashed trekking poles to pieces and I have screamed at the trees until my throat was raw. Although you might think that on these days it’s not worth it, trust me when i say it’s ALWAYS worth it. I suppose that’s the reason I am out here, to experience life at its most raw and unfiltered, in all it’s precipitous highs and cavernous lows. If the balance ever tips the other way you can bank that I will be on the first plane home but as long as there is air in my lungs and strength in my legs, I think will keep at this for some time to come…