Editor’s note: “Stormin’ Norman,” aka Norm Stolt of Somerset, 70, is on a mission to complete the “Triple Crown” of hiking: the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails. Over the past 10 years Stormin’ has finished the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails, along with the Tahoe Rim Trail.
Last year he planned to hike the following leg of the CDT, but blisters on his feet forced him to stop after just a few days. At one point he wasn’t sure if he should abandon his dream and call his section-hiking career quits.
But it didn’t take long for Normin’ to realize he had to finish what he’d started. And as always, Normin’ shares his adventures with the Mountain Democrat readers.
“I can’t die. It would ruin my image.” — Jack Lalanne
It was Labor day weekend. I standing at the side of highway at the edge of the Great Divide Basin in south central Wyoming. It was early September, a fairly warm, but not unpleasantly hot day.
I had 50 miles left to go to complete my journey. I was on a desolated stretch of high desert plateau after hiking some 160 miles through Yellowstone Park and the Teton Wilderness.
Once again I encountered wonderful “Trail Angels” who assisted me along the way, the first of whom was an elderly couple who offered me a ride from the airport three miles into the town of West Yellowstone. That was quickly followed by three young men who gave me a ride 17 miles into Yellowstone Park to where I was forced to stop last year due to foot problems.
I never want to hike the same terrain twice. I carry a 25 pound pack and at the time was approaching 70 years of age — once is enough.
Once on the trail, I discovered I had no mosquito repellent or sunscreen. Between what I initially carried in my pack and what was in my first resupply drop, I somehow overlooked these two very important items. However, I knew that in three days the young men who gave me the ride would return from a back-country campsite that I would be approaching.
I hoped I could “yogi” repellent and lotion from them. Yogi is a hiker term for requesting and receiving aid from someone. Until then I used trail dirt and grime to protect me from the sun and I carried a mosquito coil. Every night I’d light the coil and try to impregnate my clothes and exposed skin with the smoke in hopes of deterring those ever-present blood sucking hordes.
I meet my three trail angels three days into the hike and they generously gave me enough sunscreen and repellent to finish my trip.
After a particularly long, hot day I arrived at what I thought was my camp site to find it occupied by a half-dozen hikers. Somehow during the campsite reservation process, I ended up with a site three miles farther down the trail.
It had been a difficult 17-mile day, I was bone tired and it was already early evening, I asked their leader if I could camp at their site. No problem. Furthermore, he invited me to join them for supper. I didn’t take his offer but when I discovered I had left my one and only eating utensil at my last campsite I successfully yogied him for another.
Meeting the challenges
Grizzly bear confrontations pose a constant threat in the park’s back-country. A man was killed and his wife badly mauled just a week before my hike when they had a surprise bear encounter. On one of my past walks through bear territory, I met a young woman who had a small bell tied to one of her hiking poles. We affectionately called her “Tinker Bell.”
I felt I needed something more than a small bell to deter a surprise bear encounter. I needed industrial strength pepper spray so I brought a cannister that shot some 30 feet — not the lipstick-size spray that ladies carry in their purses, but one of canister size that shot some 30 feet. Fortunately I never had to use it.
To further reduce bear encounters, there are 20-foot high pole contraptions at each of the park’s designated campsites to hang one’s food. However, once out of the park, there was seldom any way to hang my food at night. So I’d say a prayer and keep it in my pack with the rest of my gear and sleep with it under my knees.
I was surprised about the number of fords over rivers and streams I had to make. Everyday there were up to a dozen small side stream crossings and several fords across major rivers. I became quite the expert on rock hopping across the small streams — I felt like a ballet dancer hitting the mark.
I soon gave up on the idea of removing my shoes for crossings and wore my Crocs. If I couldn’t rock hop across, I just waded through, wet shoes and all.
Wading across a knee-deep river presented another problem. In addition to maintaining one’s footing in the strong current, there was a problem of navigation. The easiest place to ford can change from year to year, making it difficult to locate the trail on the far bank. I found the easiest place to ford and once on the other side, set the GPS pointer on the trail, took a heading and followed it back to the trail.
My GPS proved invaluable, especially since I lost my data book with a detailed description of the trail on the first day. When I came to the many unmarked junctions on the trail I set the GPS pointer a 100 feet or so down the trail and start down one of the branches. If my GPS showed the distance decreasing I was going the right way. If the distance increased, I had a short walk back to the junction to take the other trail.
My greatest navigational challenge occurred when I came out of a dense willow thicket into a meadow and the trail just vanished. I headed across the meadow to where my GPS showed the trail entered a dense woods and went uphill.
I had to zig and zag through heavy brush, thick timber and fallen tree trunks up the hill. The GPS is great for telling the distance and direction, but it didn’t tell me about all the obstacles blocking the way.
Every time my GPS showed I was within a couple of dozen feet from the trail, the heading would change and the distance would jump to several hundred feet. I soon gave up and just went straight up the hill through the brush and timber.
Once on the grassy top, I quickly found the trail. All in all, it was a two-hour, time consuming, energy expending experience. In retrospect, I think I couldn’t find the trail on the hillside because it went through a series of switchbacks and with all the heavy brush it wasn’t visible unless I stumbled across it.
Embracing the brutality
Spots in the park are still recovering from the disastrous fire of 1988, causing me at times to pass through long stretches of hot, shadeless terrain. I was totally exposed to the blasing sun while trudging through one seemingly endless valley.
Even though I was walking in shorts and a short sleeved T-shirt it was unbearably hot. The temperature on my watch showed 90 degrees. The only thing that kept me going was soaking my T-shirt and bandana in the frequent side streams I crossed. Thank God for my newly acquired sunscreen.
Afternoon thunderstorms oare part of the obstacles one faces almost daily in mountainous terrain. One day it started to rain as I inched my way uphill to the high point of my hike, a grassy 10,000-foot high, five mile long, two-mile wide plateau.
I thought about stopping as the rain increased but there was no place to camp, only a narrow trail with switchbacks going up a steep hill. The wind and rain were intense when I got to the exposed top. This was no place to camp either!
I was soaked and starting to get cold so I opened my pack to put on my cold weather/rain jacket. I would have put on the pants but needed to sit down. The ground was wet and muddy and the longer I kept the pack open in the downpour, the more soaked everything inside would be.
I plodded on. Then came thunder and lightning and there I was — the highest object on this barren strip of land. The logical thing to do was to sit on the ground and wait out the storm. But I was already so cold I was afraid I would go into hypothermia if I stopped.
So I raced on flapping my arms from time to time to keep warm. Miraculously when I reached the forest’s edge and began to descend, the rain stopped and I could put on my rain pants.
The trail was muddy and slick, making it slow going. By the time I descended 2,500 freet to my campsite, my hiking shorts and T-shirt were already partially dry. Not only is my cold weather gear rain- and wind-proof, but it’s totality breathable. It allows moisture to escape, but not come in, thus permitting my own body heat to dry my clothes underneath.
Near one day’s end I smelled smoke as I approached a large meadow surrounded by dense forest. The woods to my immediate left were ablaze — trees were exploding with flames 50 feet in the air and smoke filled the air hundreds of feet high.
I’d never been this close to a major fire before. I rushed to the safety of the middle of the meadow. I didn’t see any forest service helicopters overhead so I plowed through my pack, found my cell phone and tried to call 911 to alert the authorities on the fire and find out what I should do.
I should have known better; there was no cell service this far into the wilderness. Looking behind me, I saw that the fire had jumped across to the other side of the meadow next to me and the trail. Now I felt I was really in trouble. I pulled out my satellite-messaging device and pressed the 911 button.
I carry this device with me on all my adventures. It also has a “I’m OK” button which I press every night to send a per-scripted message to my daughters’ cell phones and e-mail boxes. It also sends my coordinates, which my granddaughter plots using Google maps. But this was the first time I used the 911 button.
About a half hour latter a forest service helicopter arrived, circled the fire a couple of times, dipped down to acknowledge my presence and left the scene. All this time I was frantically waving a light-colored shirt and flashing the small photon light I carried.
Another half hour passed. It was now sunset and starting to get dark. In spite of the inferno near me it was also getting colder. I put on all my cold weather gear with hood and gloves. A second helicopter arrived and landed. Two men rushed out and asked if I was injured.
I said, “No, I just don’t want to end my hike as ashes in a small box.” They told me I was in no danger from the fire(s). I was shocked. I’m used to California where super dry conditions and wind can whip a fire up to 10 to 20 mph with flames reaching out hundreds of feet ahead of the burning material.
I kept asking, “Are you sure?” and they kept replying that I was perfectly safe and since my life was not in danger and I was not hurt, it was against rescue service policy to evacuate me. They advised me to camp where I was and hike out in the morning.
They wanted to direct me back to the trail head where I’d parked my car. When I told them I didn’t have a car they seemed surprised. Next they wanted to give me directions on hiking to the nearest highway and town. I told them I didn’t have the time or extra food to take any detours. If there was no fire danger, I wanted to continue my hike.
I explained I had just enough food for the one day it would take me to my next resupply point, Books Lake Lodge. I was somewhat puzzled when I was next asked, “How old are you sir?” I said, “I’m going to be 70 by year’s end.”
The fellow went back to the copter and came back to hand me three energy bars and a piece of paper and told me,” Here’s our emergency dispatcher’s phone number. When you get to the lodge have someone call us that you arrived. If you don’t we’ll come looking for you.”
Pondering the situation later, I think they first though I was simply tired of hiking and wanted an easy ride out. Finally they didn’t think a person of my age could make it to the resupply point.
As soon as my rescuers left I pitched my tent. It was now dark. I ate one of the energy bars they gave me, crawled into my sleeping bag and tried to go to sleep. Needless to say I didn’t get much sleep with all the smoke and sounds of exploding and falling trees. In addition it kept getting colder. I put on all the clothes I had and added my Mylar emergency sheet. I was still cold.
It was the coldest, most distracting night I ever spent on any trail. My thermometer read 22 degrees. My water bottles were frozen solid and my shoes, which were wet from fording streams the day before, were frozen.
Thanks to improved ventilation the inside of my new tent stayed dry but there was a thin coating of ice on the outside. I tried to thaw my shoes with a Bic lighter. It worked somewhat, at least for the laces. After some effort I was able to get my feet into the shoes but for the first several steps it felt like I had boards tied to my feet. Wearing all the clothes I had with me and munching a Cliff Bar for breakfast I departed the blazing and frozen hell.
When I reached the resort the next day I had them notify Search and Rescue that I was safe. But it was another two days before I reached civilization and had cell phone reception and was finally able to call my family. Unknown to me, the rangers had called my daughters and told them I had initiated a 911 call but had refused their help as I wanted to continue on with my hike.
When I did call home to explain what happened, I caught hell for all the unnecessary worry I caused. I just hope my daughters don’t ground me from next year’s adventure.
After eight days and 120 miles I reached the road-walking portion of my journey. The highway took me 90 miles from a heavily forested elevation of 8,500 feet down some 4,000 feet to a high desert plateau. I stayed and resupplied at two motels along the way. At both of these establishments and at the Old Faithful tourist complex, I was surprised at the number of foreign students at work.
I met young people from the Ukraine, Taiwan and Slovakia. It made me wonder — where are the American college students? The owner of the second motel, the owner drove me out 20 miles so I could slack pack back. Slack pack is a hiker term for carrying minimum articles in your pack, i.e., only food and water.
Early the next morning he was going to drive me out to where he had left me off the day before and I would continue my journey. However, things went astray and I didn’t get out until around noon. Thus I found myself standing beside a desolated desert stretch of highway some 50 miles from the end of my adventure.
My original plan was to hike 20 miles and camp at a reservoir and state recreation area. But with only half a day left, I’d never make it before dark. So I decided to hitch hike the 20 miles then push hard the next day into the town of Riverton where I could catch a flight home.
Three hours passed. There was constant traffic with people returning home after the Labor Day weekend, but no one stopped.
Finally a biker on a big Harley passed me. He made a U-turn, came back and offered to take me seven miles down the road to a small store and gas station. After some difficulty because the back seat and foot supports were made for a 100-pound, 5-foot woman, I managed to get on the bike. I felt like I was going to fall off. With a pack on my back and sitting on a seat several sizes too small, I didn’t have the greatest balance.
I pressed my head against his back to keep my cowboy hat from blowing off, put a death grip around his waist and we roared off.
Once at the gas station I asked around about a ride but had no luck. So I hitched up my pack and started walking down the road. I gave up the idea of trying to get a ride and decided to just walk until near dark and camp where ever I ended up.
After about an hour a beat up pickup pulling a long horse trailer exited a dirt side road onto the highway. I waved and stuck out my thumb. It stopped! I ran up and asked the driver how far she was going? She replied, “Riverton.” It only took me a second to say, “Me too!” I thus ended my adventure riding in the open back of a pickup sitting on top of a variety of dirt-caked equipment in the company of a large, shaggy, lovable ranch dog called Axle.
While this was the shortest of all my adventures, it was the most fulfilling and by far the most exciting. I was saddened not to have encountered any of Yellowstone’s noted wildlife, but also very happy I hadn’t confronted its largest predator, a the grizzly bear.
Yellowstone’s geysers and thermal pools were spectacular. My wild ride on a motorcycle was a truly breathtaking, hair-raising experience I will never forget. I am especially grateful to my friendly local podiatrist, Victor Sucheski. for my new custom-made orthotics. For the first time in three years I was able to finish a hike without foot problems, even after a three-day, 50-mile walk on hard pavement.
As always, I am extremely appreciative to my family and friends for their support and especially for their concern and prayers the two days I was “missing in action” during the forest fire incident.
I approach next year’s adventure with renewed confidence — I’ve finally mastered the use of my GPS — and enthusiasm. What a great way to celebrate one’s 70th decade of life by traversing 500 miles of the Continental Divide Trail through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
And at the same time I will be completing my quest for the prestigious “Triple Crown of Hiking”