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.

Advertisements

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

A Day in the life

My alarm goes off at 5 am, A brutal and noisy intrusion into the stillness of the early morning. If the nights rest has been good, I wake easily. Other days I am fumbling for the snooze button for those precious few extra minutes, having been kept from rest by cold or pain. The few hours before dawn are often the coldest and my body seems to sleep lightly in these hours, my head tucked deep into the giant red quilt I made hastily before leaving.

I endeavor to keep a tidy tent but occasional night fumbling can send things into a world of chaos, my few possessions rummaged through at night in panicked search of a headlight to ward off some advancing animal or to inspect what sounds alot like expensive fabric being gnawed through by sharp, rodent teeth. You awake easily when you sleep outside, almost like you are still listening acutely despite your sleeping state. 

I eventually peel back the quilt and, if I’m worried about falling back asleep I’ll undo the valve on my air matress, if not I’ll enjoy those few moments of comfort as I begin to pack things away. I try not to leave the tent until my quilt is stuffed away, my pad deflated and rolled up and things generally ready to be packed into my backpack – a custom built 40L roll top made for myself in the days before leaving, one of three being tested on this trail this year. It’s doing very well. I like the patina of age and miles that show on it already – a few puncture wounds from the desert and an ingrained filth that tells of its long, hard and dusty journey through the New Mexican state.

Something happens to me when I go on a long hike: I become extremely regular. From the moment I awake I am fighting the urge to go and vacate my bowels immediately. This can be very inconvenient and sometimes adds unwanted excitement to my morning routines – Have you ever tried bending over and digging an 8inch deep hole with a tent stake in the early morning light whilst trying not to soil yourself? It’s a fun game that you nearly always win. The penalty for failure is, frankly, severe.

Enough about that. 

If I’m not too desperate I’ll have put my pot on to boil water for coffee and when I come back it will be bubbling nicely. Otherwise the pot goes on whilst I take down the tent, packing each item into its set place in my pack. I can and do do this in the dark. If it’s raining the tent comes down last, that way I can keep the bulk of my things dry as i eat breakfast, and then lastly stow the wet tent on the outside of my pack.m

Breakfast is a changeable affair but largely it’s two Peanut Butter tortilla wraps with fresh coffee, I gain a good 800 calories here with the added bonus of a largely indestructible breakfast item. Second breakfast,  to be consumed within the first hour of hiking, is a packet of Pop tarts, some 400 calories of crumbly sugar coated goo. I will only eat the chocolate schmores flavour, they seem trail hardy and robust and not too sickly. Nutritionally I’m sure they’re pretty moot, but at this point I just need sugar. I’m about to drag my tired aching joints over 20-30 miles of mountainous desert terrain. Fuel goes in, miles go out.

Once upright and packed up I ready my pack for the day ahead. Theres normally at this point at least 10 items scattered on the floor awaiting use. A toothbrush and toothpaste, sunscreen, the maps for the day, my lunch items and my snacks, a baseball cap and sunglasses. The night before I get my snacks ready – Normally two bars of some kind and a half pound sack of trail mix, a homemade mix of nuts, raisins and M&Ms that I can devour at handfuls throughout the day. My hand never goes into the big bag, I decant from big bag to small bag the evening before. This way my somewhat grubby hiker hands don’t pullute this most precious resource. I can and do eat literal sacks of this stuff.

Now I’m ready and it’s time to shoulder my pack with a heave and a groan and set off in hopefully the right direction. This sounds daft but I have gone the wrong way on more than one occasion.

My destination for the day may be some 25 miles away but right now all I am thinking about is water. If I haven’t camped right by a source  I will probably have only a litre or two to get me to the next. I’m not normally worried, I can hike 10 mi in the cool of the morning on just a litre. Once 11am hits things start hotting up and, if I’m running short there will be an urgency to my step. It’s all about water. Everything is dictated by it. I hope I’ll get there soon. 
It’s always a good idea to take a break at water, that way you can “camel up” and drink freely while you rest and filter more for the rest of the day. A good way to take advantage of water without having to physically carry it.  Some days you are carrying water for 20+ miles but normally there are options sooner. These might not be what you, at home, might consider palatable sources (a few cow troughs come to mind!) but they are my lifeline. It’s amazing what you’ll drink when you have no other choice. This isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity that you will quickly die without, so I’ll remove the floating, dead, jellified lizard and drink long and deep, thankful that whilst this water may have had a dead lizard in it (or three!) just moments ago,that it’s otherwise cold and clear and at least not got cow shit in it. Those are the options, generally speaking. Dead animals, funky algae growth, cow shit and piss or, occasionally, crystal clear well water that brings a tear to the eye with its taste and clarity.

I will normally walk for 3 hours before my first break (or to wherever water is) until I eat lunch some 5 hours after starting walking. I should, on a good day, have put down some 12-15 miles by now, leaving a casual 3-4 hours to walk in the afternoon at whatever pace I choose to get the day’s  miles in.

Lunch. I’m a big fan of lunch. My mainstay is cheese. Cheese and crackers, cheese and bread, cheese and tortillas, but always cheese. Basically the cracker is just a vessel for me to get cheese into my face without feeling guilty about eating just cheese on its own. Luckily most cheeses in America are of an industrial grade that makes them mostly inert and quite trail hardy (you must always double bag) I go for pepper jack with jalapeƱos to find something with some actual flavour. 

I will aim to drink, where possible, a litre of water at every major break in the day and at lunch I mix powdered lemonade which is, you guessed it, another load more sugar. This serves two purposes, one being that I have never got bored of the flavour and the sugar is an absolute treat and two to cover up the taste of cow shit.

I take all breaks with my shoes and socks off, an important ritual that helps with the surprise development of blister (holy hell! how did I not feel that!) amongst other things.

It’s also good to air your feet and attempt to dry/de-dust your socks. This dust gets everywhere and the stuff that’s filtered through shoe and sock is the finest. Attempts are made to tape and bandage various wounds but the heat and the pounding of walking is guaranteed to cause most remedies to fail. If you can find a rock to elevate the feet on even better. I use my backpack lying down, straps facing up, as a back rest and a section of folding foam as a butt pad. It’s almost my most treasured item and 4oz I am oh so happy to carry!

So now it’s the afternoon miles. These always take longer than the morning miles as impromtu breaks happen more often as the pressure of milage is off and I am generally more tired. I stuff ibuprofen into my face every 3-4 hours throughout the day, not for its analgesic qualities but to control the inflammation of various struggling tissue groups in my left knee, an injury I aggregated inattentively losing my footing some weeks ago.

I check my trail mix, if I’ve a load left I’ll wait until a flat easy stretch and try to Polish it off. This stuff is heavy and densely caloried, you don’t want to build up an excess nor do you want to eat it when walking  uphill whilstout of breath as you will surely die choking. 

Depending on the next few water sources I will endeavour to camp either at water or halfway between two sources. 6-10 miles away is the optimum for the morning as 3L will get me through the night and to the next source. 

Sometimes if I camp beyond water I will fill up everything to capacity, just so I can have a luxurious abundance of water, a camp wash or possible laundry (this is, again, very relative, I put water into a zip lock, insert socks or underpants (never both together you animal!) And agitate until the water looks gross whilst intermittently wringing them out) this is a good practice for socks and the weight is good training for the masisve snow gear weights i will have to carry through the San Juans in Colorado. I’m quite a big guy and the load I carry is proportionately very small compared to my size so slinging a gallon and a half into the pack and walking for another hour is nothing too strenuous, although not something I will recreationally pursue. 

I like these last miles of the day. Once I have water I can camp anywhere and I like the absorption of looking for the perfect spot: flat, sheltered from wind, away from critter tracks and hopefully beautifully located. 

Occasionally I will listen to music if I am especially tired but, for me, the alienation from my surroundings this provides is generally too much, preferring instead to let the chatter of the forest or the wind in the grass lead me through these final miles. If I am listening to music it will almost always be at the end of the day as I utilise beats and rhythm to motivate stubborn and sore limbs. It’s a remarkable remedy. 

Once I find a camp, the tent goes up first. Always. The sleeping pad is inflated (personal record is 12 breaths), the sleeping bag hung out to air, my pack emptied into a semi organised pile and then I will sit. If water needs to be got it can be hung to filter before the erection of the tent, otherwise this time is my own. I read, write my journal, analyse and pick at my feet, wash, figure out the bear danger and work out how far I should cook from my tent so as i dont make myself smell any more delicous (never as far as you’d think but always the opposing direction to the water, if nearby). Whilst cooking, I look at the following days walk, analysing water, milage and elevation, scanning the maps for route alternates and potential issues.

Dinner. Mmmmmm. I try and keep this varied week on week. Alot of hikers eat just Ramen noodles, a packet noodle that costs mere cents and can supply 140% of your rda of sodium in two packets. I eat these on occasion and they’ve got me many thousands of miles.

There are many options available: couscous, quinoa, Mac and cheese, pasta sides, rice sides etc. All can be cooked by boiling the water, adding the product, bringing back to the boil and then letting sit. I have a pot cosy made out if shiny bubble wrap for this. I have alot of time out here, but I will eat it crunchy if I’m hungry! 

Add to this either beef jerry, salami, a good glug of olive oil or grated Italian cheese and you have a 1000kcal pot. Nomnomnom. 

Washing up is done with a finger and some water, the pan scraped clean first and the liquid drunk to a) avoid making your campsite smell like dinner and b) to maximise calories. I’m a grey water drinker. Yep. That’s me. 

During dinner I drink another litre of lemonade (mmmmmm lemonade) and afterwards I graze on cookies and chewy sweet candies for desert.

Now everything not directly in use gets packed into my pack.  Food bag, stove and anything smelly or chewable gets stuffed in and packed away, propped up in the tent door. I brush my teeth and now it’s time to ease my aching body into the tent and experience the wonderful feeling of lying down, for the first time in the day my body and spine wonderfully relaxed and uncompressed. The feeling is exquisite and I can ride the high to sleep. Sometimes I’ll lie there debating picking up my kindle, knowing if I pick it up I will be asleep within minutes. I enjoy the feeling of just lying there, thinking about potentially reading. Most of the time I flick my headlight off , roll over and pass into a deep and untroubled slumber. 

I need my rest. In just eight or so hours I will get up and do it all over again.