Editor’s note: In 2007 Stormin’ took on a new challenge.
After seven years and 4,500 miles of backpacking the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails it was time for a new challenge and a change of scenery. When a hiking companion asked me if I wanted to hike a portion of the Continental Divide Trail with him and two friends, I readily accepted.
The Continental Divide Trail is referred to as “The Final Jewel” of America’s Triple Crown of hiking trails, the other two being the Appalachian and Pacific Crest. Unlike the AT where hikers follow white blazes 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine, and the PCT’s established 2,700-mile route from Mexico to Canada, the CDT is not a single complete trail.
It’s a patchwork quilt of remote hiking/horse and ATV trails along with paved, dirt and gravel roads and generally unmarked intersections. Extending 3,100 miles from the Canadian to the Mexican border, it passes through five states: Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.
Frequently there are daily climbs and descents of more than 3,000 feet through its more mountainous sections. It is not uncommon to follow a poorly distinguished trail and see it simply disappear.
Due to its remoteness and a general unawareness of its existence, one can expect little outside help from the local population or assistance from trail angels.
A hiker once said that the AT is your undergrad, the PCT, your graduate degree, and the CDT your doctorate. All the above difficulties are well represented by the CDT thru-hikers’ motto: “Embrace the Brutality.”
This year’s adventure required considerable preparation. The plan was to hike 800 miles beginning at the Canadian border in Glacier National Park and finishing at the border of Yellowstone National Park. I purchased and printed a CD of geodetic survey maps which contained both primary and alternate routes.
From another knowledgeable CDT expert I purchased a guidebook that described the trail, major junctions and water sources in great detail. Finally, since navigation is a prime concern on the CDT, I bought a GPS unit and took a one night course learning how to use it. I also purchased a good compass and attended a map reading and compass class.
Initially I planned to take a satellite phone for emergency backup as we would be traveling along some very remote and little used hiking trails at times. However I dropped the idea when Saunter (trail name) agreed to hike the entire 800-mile route with me. I would later regret my decision. I bought a bear canister and carried it with me for the first 260 miles — a must when passing through grizzly bear country.
I would fly to Seattle, spend the night with Saunter and his wife Juel and then we would take Amtrak to East Glacier and join his two hiking friends Pickleand G-Man, who would hike with us through Glacier Park and then continue by themselves to central Wyoming. Saunter and I would proceed at a slower pace. On my past adventures I had driven rental cars, flown and taken buses. This was the first time I traveled by train.
Unpacking my gear that first night at Saunter’s house I discovered to my horror that I had left my sleeping bag home. Fortunately I was able to purchase another at a local outfitter the next day.
After a 16-hour, all-night train ride on Amtrak’s “Empire Builder” we arrived at East Glacier, which is not actually in the park but on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation bordering the east side of the park.
Walking to our motel we encountered other CDT hikers. Among them were K-2, and Bald Eagle and his wife Nacoma, three hikers I befriended in 2004 on the PCT. All told, I met fewer than 20 CDT thru-hikers on my journey — a miniscule number compared to the 3,000 or so who start the AT every year and the 600 who begin the PCT.
After connecting with our two other companions we reported to the park ranger station. There we paid a small permit fee and watched a video on how to act during a grizzly bear encounter. Camping was only allowed in designated official campgrounds on specific dates, done to protect hikers and the park’s plants and fauna.
We were encouraged but not required to carry a bear canister, a plastic container strong enough to safely store food at night from marauding bears. We opted for the old-fashioned way of hanging our food bags from a tree limb.
We began our adventurous, 100-mile trip through Glacier National Park on a rather windy but comfortable day. As we hiked along, the wind gradually increased, the temperature dropped and large rain drops started to fall. About this time we met an old wrangler escorting two women on horseback, who cautioned us, “Ya best be careful, there’s a storm a comin’ on.”
It got colder and large snow flakes started to fall. Climbing above 6,000 feet, the wind increased and it got still colder. At 7,000 feet the wind howled and the flakes changed. We were now bombarded by driving snow pellets that numbed any exposed skin — face, hands and legs. It was time to cover up.
I put on my hooded jacket and gloves and zipped on the legs of my pants. Up till then I was only wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt and shorts. I dressed for the coldest and windiest conditions I had ever experienced. To protect my face I tied a bandana over my mouth and nose.
As we proceeded up a barren ridge at the top of the pass, the wind must have been blowing 60 to 70 mph. In several spots only my hiking poles kept me from being blown sideways to the ground.
Once we descended below 6,000 feet the wind died down, the snow stopped and it started to warm up. We spent the remainder of the day in the warmth and safety of the lodge at Two Medicine Campground at the bottom of the mountain.
There was a huge fireplace and we moved in. While drying out and soaking up the warmth of the fireplace two young women entered. They had tried to hike over a nearby pass not knowing that it was still closed because of snow and were caught above the tree line in the storm. They were totally unprepared and not dressed for such severe weather, but somehow they managed to get back down to the road where a passing motorist drove them to the lodge. They were very lucky to be unhurt and alive.
Thus my first day on the CDT ended.
Our journey through the park lasted seven days. On five of those days we made climbs and descents of 3,000 feet. What a magnificent place of raw, overwhelming beauty — rugged snow-capped mountains, surging waterfalls high on mountain ridges plunging hundreds of feet, huge mountains torn open by past glacier activity exposing layer upon layer of ancient sedimentary rock formations, raging rivers, glaciers and serene turquoise-colored alpine lakes. Glacier Park rivaled anything I had seen on my past adventures.
There were times we gingerly traversed steep and slippery patches of glacier snow where a single misstep could cause one to slide hundreds of feet downward to crash into the rock-spewed mountainside below.
At other times we encountered long stretches of snow that entirely covered the trail, making navigation difficult. Once we had to ford a near waist-deep, ice-cold surging stream. The bridge had been destroyed by a roaring spring runoff. A single cable was strung across to assist fording hikers. During those situations I was glad to be with others.
I really felt out of my league. My companions were avid and competent backpackers who had hiked in Europe and extensively throughout the United States. Pickle and G-Man, the most experienced of the trio, had already completed most of the CDT. They were ultra-lite hikers who carried the minimum of food and equipment.
Pickle didn’t even carry a knife, spoon or cup. I on the other hand, was the only one who took off shoes and socks and wore rubber sandals to ford streams, carried a pump for water treatment versus chemical treatment, wore a short-sleeved T-shirt and cooked for myself.
My companions ate dried fruit, nuts and an oatmeal mixture of powdered milk, brown sugar and water. They were clean shaven and wore baseball caps while I sported a mustache and goatee and preferred wearing a dew rag to cover my balding head.
Most of our animal encounters were at a distance. We came upon two grizzlies digging and turning over rocks looking for grubs at the bank of a stream. We safely passed by, bear spray in hand. We also had a brush with a mama black bear and her cub.
As mama stopped and looked at us we pulled out our bear spray and stepped back a little. Once her cub reached her they both quickly disappeared into the woods. Our most potentially dangerous confrontation involved a cow moose with two calves that passed less than 50 feet in front of us. Fortunately she was in more of a hurry to enter the safety of the woods with her brood than challenging us. Of course there were those always pesky marmots and ground squirrels that surrounded us looking for handouts whenever we stopped to eat.
One of our more humorous incidents involved G-Man. After four days of hiking in isolation and collecting multiple layers of trail dirt, we stopped at a beautiful, refreshing waterfall and pool. G-Man took off his clothes and plunged into the water for an invigorating dip and to rinse off.
Unfortunately the location was easily accessible and one of the park’s more popular tourist attractions. Looking up we saw a group of sightseers near the top of the falls looking down. Luckily he got dressed before a not too friendly park ranger came by.
Later we met a group of snowboarders who were on their way to board down a nearby mountain glacier. I pondered who was more crazy — them for extreme snowboarding on a rugged mountain glacier, or us trying to hike 800 miles through Montana’s remote wilderness.
Once through the park, our companions left us to proceed more rapidly southward. They were able to cover 30 miles per day compared to 17 for Saunter and me. What great individuals they were. In spite of their vast hiking experience they were extremely humble. I especially appreciated their patience and consideration. As the slowest hiker, they let me lead and set the pace.
Once out of the park the trail left the Divide and passed through a series of densely wooded river valleys separated by low mountain passes. At times it was more like hiking through a jungle than forest. In spots it appeared the trail had not been maintained for several years.
There were numerous blow-downs, trees that had fallen across the trail. I felt more like a high hurdler than a hiker. The lower elevation, dense vegetation and water brought on droves of mosquitoes. Worse yet were the black flies. They would literally take a small chunk out of you, leaving quarter-size welts. They were undeterred by Deet, an industrial strength mosquito repellant, or the bug coils I burned while camping.
The highlight of this section was “The Chinese Wall,” located in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and commonly known as “The Bob.” The area was named after Robert Marshall, a legendary Forest Service administrator who lobbied for the area and made numerous backcountry trips into the wilderness which now bears his name.
The Chinese Wall consisted of 10 miles of a ridge several thousand feet high. Multiple layers of sedimentary rock revealed millions of years of the earth’s history.
The trail around the wall was heavily traveled by equestrians. In many places the trail was badly chewed up by all the traffic and made for rough treading.
At times damage from erosion and horses turned it into a muddy trench. Where the trail was open for ATVs, we encountered a variety of riders. Some of them stopped for friendly conversation while others simply sped past, leaving us in a cloud of dust.
My worries about losing the trail were ill-founded. We only lost the trail twice and my GPS got us quickly back on track. A large fire just east of our route did cause us considerable concern. In the midst of a smoke-filled day, fortune smiled on us when we met three rangers who called their center and we were informed that the fire posed no danger to the trail ahead of us. Sure enough, a few hours later the air cleared.
End of the trail
After 10 days of trudging 17 miles a day without a break, the last five in near 100-degree heat, we arrived at the town of Lincoln. There Saunter informed me that he was leaving the trail. Knowing he was used to Seattle’s climate I saw that he was having trouble with the heat and all the bugs. I also noted he was having some foot problems.
Before starting our adventure I knew we had significantly different goals. Completing this section was part of my goal of becoming a “Triple Crown” finisher. Saunter on the other hand, was motivated by the rugged beauty of the environment and was very up front about that from the beginning. He felt the scenery that lay before us was not worth staying on the trail for another six grueling weeks.
Nevertheless he earned my respect. He had traveled 260 miles through some of the roughest conditions imaginable with a knee replacement he had undergone in November, 2006. I don’t know if I would have attempted that.
I likewise opted to end my hike. I was burned out. More importantly, I would have been entirely on my own. That’s when I regretted not bringing a satellite phone on the trek. Had I done so I could have rested for a couple of days and resumed hiking.
The other CDT hikers were well ahead of us. Long sections of the trail are little used and extremely remote. There was no cell phone coverage or a way to call for help if I got into trouble.
The next morning we went out to the highway to hitch an 80-mile ride to Missoula, Mont., where we both planned to catch a bus to our homes. I guess we were still two pretty good-looking fellows because a half hour later, were on our way to Missoula and home.
I have already started planning for 2008. I hope to cycle the back roads along the CDT from the Mexican border to the Colorado border in the spring. The CDT in New Mexico involves considerable road walking — why walk when you can ride? All told it is about 600 miles.
In the summer I will hike either Washington State to complete the PCT or go back to Montana and do a long section of the CDT. I hope to finish the Triple Crown — 7,500 miles — before I turn 70. I already have 4,600 miles logged in.