I was looking for something to do once upon a time and pulled out a book called the ‘Worlds Greatest Adventure Treks’. In it a large series of treks around the world for those who’s minds would wander. I learned within a hour or so of reading that hiking has a season in most places, dictated by cold, heat and rain. In the time slot coming up for me was the CDT, most hikers were already on trail walking North from the Mexican border, but the book hinted that at the start of June, one or two battle hardened warriors with nothing to live for have the gall to hike South. I could be that guy!
For those unaware, the Continental Divide Trail is a trail that runs from the Mexican Border approximately 3000 miles to Canada, following the water divide of the Rockies. In many places, one side of the path drains to the Pacific, the other side to the Atlantic. It is recommended for hardened vets of the hiking world. I remember being told a comparison to the other USA long trails while on it. The Appalachian trail is like a kitten, gentle, places you can order fast food to the trail and a good many people to hike with. The Pacific Crest trail like a grown cat, fun to pet but can bite and scratch once in a while. But ‘the Divide’, it’s a raging mountain lion you’re holding by the ears’. I do wonder how hard it really is in comparison to the others, having no time on them. But my experience was the best of my life
It started a month or so before, reading up on this trail, there were things called resupply packages people would prepare months in advance, I didn’t have time to sort these. My food preparations were made in Seattle to cover me for the first 4 days mainly consisting of powdered potato and M&Ms. The maps, I was too late to order good ones. I printed off 800 miles of trail on my computer on letter sized paper that seemed to make the bulk of my hiking pack. The low print quality wasn’t great, but I knew there had to be real maps out around the national parks so I wasn’t too concerned.
I bought a two season sleeping bag with the thought I can wear extra clothes if I am cold. A pair of Merrell Moab Ventilator shoes, reputedly great for hiking but the bane of my life most the time I wore them, a titanium cup and spirit stove for cooking, and a new waterproof top. The pack all in weighed non too much. I had a spare pair of socks, a warm top, and lots of micropore tape to fix myself. I also had an adventure time hat that looked befitting for any budding angler.
I arrived in Glacier Park Ready but feeling kind of stupid. I booked into a hostel for a few days to get used to the area and get my bearings. I didn’t want to push to hard in these first days, a few months before I had a herniated disc in my back so painful I couldn’t take one step forwards without pain shooting through my butt and down my leg. I accepted coming out here was a risk and if on day one I had to abandon the trip, at least it would have been a scenic break. I met a guy called Axle, who had just ran a half marathon nearby and we decided to do a few hikes together. It was nice and chilled hiking in the overpowering pine forests. It felt high on the resin smell. After a few days I decided it was time to start. I picked up a permit and stuck my thumb out at the roadside to hitch to the trailhead. Committed, hiked in.
The first day was 20miles. Not a big target, but a good first day. I passed most of it clapping my hands and shouting ‘Hey Bear’ to ward away fear until the sun began to set. Climbing over a pass as the sun began to set I raced down thinking of making camp before nightfall. Then, it happened… what my parents told me would be the death of me weeks before, the fear I said would not happen. In a clearing, on the middle of the trail Beelzebub incarnate, a monstrous Grizzly Bear. I felt feeble and small. The canister of bear spray i bought in the town seemed pointless. I wondered how quickly it would charge through the red mist. How quickly it would tear though my skin to the bone and chuck me about. How my family would read the headline the next day, that was it over. Gone.
The bear did not charge, but after a few seconds or minutes, he turned and walked off into the forest and quiet filled the air. Just like that, most the fear I had felt vanished. I was buzzing. A grizzly bear! I jogged along silent but ecstatic. The last mile to camp passed fast, arriving at the camp there were others. I told them of the Grizzly bear encounter. ‘Your first one hey?’ came the response.
I woke the next morning in the dark, made a coffee then rushed to catch up with a hiker called Oldschool. A precise man with a love of the outdoors. He was also hiking the Divide and we agreed to hike together the next days, I was feeling relieved to have someone to hike with while in grizzly country. We hiked into St Marys and grabbed a hot drink from the hotel before heading out into the rain and thunder. Call it reckless, most hikers will stay indoors for lighting, but to hike thousands of miles in the same season, the safety margin is cut. We gained elevation, up into a whiteout into the freezing cold, and away from comfort. Early in the season snow still covers the trails and as we came up through the alpine flowers it soon became hard to navigate. On a steep hillside, the path disappeared into white hardened snow. A quick check of our general direction on the map, We put on crampons, brought out the ice axes and started across. It felt like hours and thunder rumbled overhead. I remembered reading once upon a time snow is a poor conductor of lighting and I kept telling myself this. We climbed quickly to the top of the pass and descended just as quick away from the rumbling monsters. The walk down was long but at the end of this day camp would be welcome and the sooner the better. We arrived at camp in the dark. Pitched up on Oldschools pitch (I was ahead of my permit) and slept. We agreed it would be good to have another early start. Each days rations I packed into individual ziplock bags, trying to vary the chocolate, potato and what ever treats I had for the day to keep it exciting. I liked this system of organisation. the food lived in a dry sack i would hang up the trees at night.
The next day was wet. The paths overgrown, fresh green vegetation soaking me, like walking through a river of ice. It was painful, but liberating to be out. The miles ground by with the underside of my feet aching. Each stop I would take off the shoes and socks and let them breathe. Full well knowing the depression of putting back on wet sock in ten minutes would be miserable. For lunch the small stove would come out and into the cup would go powdered potato and a few sprinkles of bacon bits for flavour. Another pass to climb, followed by a long descent, a short break then another climb, almost hypnotic, all thoughts leave and I keep walking. Towards the evening we come across a Moose, I had never really considered what to do if there was a Moose, so I stood bemused. Like most wildlife, it weighed me and Oldschool up, paused, and walked away. It seemed to move the whole forest around it as it forced with ease through the trees. We reached camp, pitched up and went to sleep.
I woke in the night to the sound of crushing and thumping, what could be making this sound? The nylon skin keeping me from the outside felt thin. I slept uneasy. I asked Oldschool in the morning if he heard it. To which he replied it is probably a bear, they sound like a drunk man stumbling about when they forage. We packed up our small camp and carried on upwards. Today there would be two passes. Walking over compacted snow we gained height in a large bowl aiming for where we knew our pass was. I was loving the alpine trees and spaces. I raced ahead and waited at the top of the pass for my friend to catch up. We knew in the next valley was a small store next to Two Medicine lake. A few hours hiking brought us to a welcoming owner who was in awe of what we were attempting, we received free breakfast wraps, as many as we could eat, and free coffee. I wasn’t expecting this but was told it’s know as trail magic. People who see what you’re attempting and want to help. We set off replenished with a final short pass to climb and from the top could almost see the hostel a few miles off. This was the end of the first leg. Glacier complete. It felt easy. Three days and the first hundred miles in. I was sore but happy, my back was holding up and I would have a beer to celebrate at the hostel. I booked in, did my laundry the next day and studied the next section of hiking so I knew how much food to buy from the small store in town.