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 .