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

The journey out

My head smashed off the ceiling of the truck for the third time in as many minutes, the leaf spring suspension in the rear doing nothing to dampen the savage ruts and channels on this road to the Mexican border. To Radar, our driver, a wild eyed man with thousand yard eyes and a chest length Beard and well worn cowboy hat, this was just another day at work, shuttling prospective hikers to the border post down in the Bootheel of new Mexico. A dozen or so would need rescuing within the first few days over the season, just a little less than 10%. This area was unforgiving and seemingly affected people at random, regardless of experience or due care taken. 

After almost 90 minutes, with Radar driving, by his accounts, quite carefully, my spine felt truly compressed and my body ached head to toe. This was the last 3 hours of couped up travel in 36. I needed the hike to stretch my legs.  My parting words to Radar where short. “I don’t care how sick I am, I’m walking all the way back to Lordsburg. I’d have to be on the verge if death to get back in that truck, but thank you for the ride.”

The border post was unremarkable. A concrete monolith surrounded by desert brush, a lean to for shade and a information board about the trail. I hopped across the fence into Mexico, had a wee through the barbed wire (international pissing) took some dumb photos at the start marker, and then began. 

When is a good time to start a 3000 mile walk? Is it now? Or now? Fuck it. I’m off. 

Holy hell it was hot. Due to some logistical mishaps we’d been dropped off at noon, when the sun was at its highest and the temperature beginning to soar. The heat surrounded you, came up through the soles of your shoes and scorched your throat, my solar umbrella doing a little to shield me from above but somehow magnifying the heat radiating up from below.

Starting a journey of this length is strange in many ways, I was a 12 hour flight, 14 hour train ride and 3 hour bump fest 4×4 drive from home. What the hell was I doing? I new no one, no one knew I was coming, and for alot of personal reasons I found it hard to bring my mind into the present and forget about the last 8 months at home. It had been a shitter of a year and I was either about to have a massive breakdown in the desert, or walk all the way to Canada.  How was this going to play out? You roll the dice. No one knows if they’ll make it. Injury aside there is a huge mental game in pitching yourself against such an idiotic undertaking. You are signing yourself up to be in pain, discomfort and hardship for at least 5 months. 

As I set off with Mexico to my rear and the vast flat desert plains in front of me, the first miles ticked by and my spirit began to swell. I remember how to do this. And for the first time in months I begin to think i can walk all the way to Canada.  If I don’t, fuck it. It’s my journey and it’s worth the money to try.  The rewards for success will far outweigh the costs of a potential failure. 

So I walk. That first day I made it fourteen miles, it took me about six hours. It was tough as all hell in the heat but my body felt good.
I found a bike abandoned by a boarder hopper,  a cheap steel affair that had gone as far is it could before, I’m assuming, a puncture or mechanical failure forced the rider to abandon their steed and continue on foot. This area was rife with drug cartels and boarder jumpers,  the fence not really an obstacle but the searing desert heat the real deterrent. Many try, I’m sure many succeed. Some unlucky souls don’t. 

I slept under the stars that night, some of the best I have ever seen. The troubles of the last few months beginning to melt away, the cloud lifting from over my head. I awoke at 4 am, determined to skip the heat of the day. Those few hours around dawn the desert comes to life, it’s 20 degrees C already but it’s comfortable hiking, slowly the sun comes up and with it the birds and critters start whooping and hollering, this is their time, the rest of the day is too hot for such activity. How the desert can sustain such life I have no idea,  it’s a hard living out here and it shows in the visible ribs of the Jackrabbits. I wouldn’t see a natural spring for 200 miles, everything man made and pumped from wells. Sticky green cow water. Delicious and nutritious. 

To describe each day of this trail would take too long and might not make such interesting reading. Instead,  I’m much more interested in the overall affect that this mode of life has on me and my thoughts and that’s what I will attempt to put forward in this blog. From the rambling to the profound, with this phone handy I can blog on trail and publish in town. I do not guarantee this will happen with any regularity. Most of this will be unfiltered and full of typos. If the odd profanity slips in, then please don’t take offence. This life of a hiker is raw and unfiltered, I hiked with a 63 year old doctor who I heard swear 8 times in one loud, long expletive aimed mostly towards his umbrella, but also at the quasi ridiculous situation we found ourselves in. This was, I imagine, quite exceptional for him but, then, everything gets magnified here. The result? We all stink, we are hungrier than you can imagine, we can drink, we can party and we have the foulest mouths in America. Why? Because this is hard as hell and our whole beings are morphing into the anti-citizen. 

What am I talking about? It’s gone a bit wobbly. That will happen. I’m in a town called Pie Town, sitting mostly consumed by a sofa, with new shoes on my feet and a whole day ahead of me in which all I have to do Is walk to the post office and stuff my face with, you guessed it, PIE! 

I strained my knee not paying attention to the gravel road I was walking on, lost in my map and thoughts of the future, when my left foot slipped down a drainage channel cut into the side of the road. Great. Initially, at the start if this hike i had top of knee pain that then moved to the bottom, then the rear. I’d hiked through this and it was now feeling good. This slip caused me to do some horrid sideways hyper extension that initially was painless but built throughout the day to an occasional collapsing limp. Shit. This could be a problem. 

I hobbled and waddled the next 70 miles fuelled by an excess of ibuprofen and the thought of new shoes in Pie Town. The road walk on gravel tracks was rough, my shoes wafer thin at the pressure points and blisters multiplying by the hour. Oh, I’d also got pretty wild tendinitis in the ligament above my big toe, because I couldn’t tighten my shoe to inflame this, my heels blistered as my shoes were loose. Win some. Lose some. Hike on.

So I’m here now at mile 423, I got in yesterday after 15 miles before 11am yesterday. I awoke to a few inches of snow and hiked out wearing all my clothes, if it rained I’d be in trouble. Luckily the snow bounced off and I was kept warm by hiking hard. Must get my rain pants forwarded to me soon. This elevation is no joke. 

There are holes in this story, a few hundred miles of experience that will come across at another time. But for now life is good. The problems I left behind still exist and are very real for those still at home. My thoughts are there often. I’d be there if I could but for now, my soul needs this. 

It is a remarkable medicine. 

I lost my spork and also my knife so had to use my tent stakes as chop sticks. Chop stakes? 

Days without human contact… 4

Just one blister pic… to set the scene

This is cow water, the spring that fed it had three putrified dead lizards in it, but no cow piss or poop and wasn’t green and warm but clear and cold. I elected for the lizard water… mmmmmmm lizard water.

Gila cliff dwellings. Old, high and cool.

Hummingbird!

that tape stayed on for 140 miles, hurt like hell to pull it off!

The Gila (hee-lah) river. The trail Crossed this 200+times in 60 miles.

There was a hermit lived near here and had done for 18 years on a quest from Jesus. Nice place. 

This is a rare CDT sign, even rarer considering I wasn’t actually on the CDT at the time!

I didn’t see anyone for 5 days… went kinda crazy.

Pre dawn hiking into Silver city

Finally pulling out of the desert, good times and greener hills await!

Pretty cactus. 

Setting off from the border, not seen the guy behind me since! His name is Thomas. He must be in Colorado by now… I hope!

Desert sunrise.

Best campsite for 100 miles. So shady! Kudos for Mike Turner tents for the sweet setup. Watch this space.

I’ll maybe one day regret not taking a more serious picture.