Welcome to Glacier: Winter is Coming (CDT Days 143-144)

Panorama of view from Pitamakin Pass

Panoramic view from Pitamakan Pass, Glacier National Park (September 24, 2019)

A year ago today I was hiking through the snow in an amazing fall/winter landscape in Glacier National Park, just days away from completing my thru-hike of the CDT. These are the stories and photos from September 24, 2018 as I hiked 12 miles from the Ranger Station at Two Medicine, over Pitamakan Pass, breaking trail to Morning Star Lake.

Prelude

Journal Entry: CDT Day 143 (9/23/18): Zero in East Glacier. Sick day zero.

I was sick in bed all day. Stayed at the Whistling Swan, lay in bed, watched Naked and Afraid, and only left the room to buy Gatorade and Ramen noodles. Went to Serrano’s again for dinner because I knew I needed to eat food. Miserable. Looked at the forecasts and realized that I was going to have to hike the following day sick or not because the weather was going to take a pretty big turn for the worse. Snow, snow, snow, and more snow. The only halfway decent forecast was for the following day. (Ate at Serrano’s for dinner; Pumpkin Donuts for Breakfast)

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Colorful fall foliage at low elevations near Two Medicine, Glacier National Park

OMG Snow!

CDT Journal Entry: Day 144 (9/24/18): CDT Mile 2925.4 (Two Medicine) to 2936.6 (MOR-Morning Star): 12 miles, 2480’ up, 1877’ down. OMG Snow!! Got two hitches to get back to the trail. Saw two great big black bears within the first 2 miles. 2-8” of snow on the trail. Ended up breaking trail from pass down to site.

I was definitely still sick, but at least I was feeling a little bit better than I had the day before. Looked at the forecast and made the call to get while the getting was good. My first hitch took me partway to the trail, and then, miraculously, a car full of people picked me up to take me the rest of the way almost before my feet hit the pavement. It was really nice. Chatted with the rangers and got permits for the last stretch of trail.

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Glacier Backcountry Permit complete with Bear/Mountain Lion Warning, Hypothermia Warning, and a 29-mile day.

“I don’t think you’ll see anyone out there,” the ranger mentioned as I was getting ready to leave the office and hike up into the clouds.

“Except other thru-hikers,” I replied, agreeing that the only folks I might see were other thru-hikers. “No,” she said matter-of-factly, “there’s no one else out there, not even thru-hikers. The last permits I issued were the day before yesterday.” She clarified, “I don’t think you’ll see anyone out there.”

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Beautiful, clear, easy hiking trail looking back into the valley before heading up into the snow.

The mountains were shrouded in clouds as I approached the shore of the nearby lake. I looked up, yup… of course… I was headed up into those cold, wet clouds. I nodded and set off in the drizzly, dreary weather to hike through Glacier, excited that my next resupply I would get to see my parents and I’d be almost be done… Somehow it just didn’t seem real that I only had a week of the CDT left, and that it was coming to an end.

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Black bear with a claw-full of berries

As I scanned the mountainside preparing myself for what was ahead, I spotted a big black bear on the slope opposite me on the far side of the lake. Glacier is famous for its wildlife, so it seemed rather apropos that less than 500 ft into Glacier and I had my first bear sighting. Bears are beautiful creatures, so I paused to watch it a while. It was a 250 – 300 lb bear, with thick, glossy black fur, no hump, and a light brown snout. It was raking clawfuls of juicy, ripe huckleberries into its mouth from the beautiful red- and yellow- huckleberry bushes, brilliant with the color of fall. Since both black bears and grizzly bears frequent Glacier, I double-checked the snout, ears, and shoulders before reaching the conclusion that it was definitely a black bear. Cool.

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Gorgeous yellow foliage highlighting the trail with snow-capped mountains in the background

“I suppose I should probably get back to hiking,” I sighed, somewhat reluctantly, took my boots off, and crossed the stream. I was excited, but tired, and I had a lot of uphill hiking to do before getting to my campsite for the night. Although the sky, and weather were dreary, the fall foliage was spectacular. The contrast between the dull gray & white of the sky, the dark gray of the rocks, the rich golden yellows of the aspens, with the reds of the huckleberries was absolutely amazing. Around each new bend, new mountain views and more amazing colors were revealed, and before long I forgot how tired I was and just marveled at the views.

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Black bear traversing a slope covered with low bushes covered in red and yellow foliage

Less than 2 miles later I rounded the corner and ran into another BEAR!! It was a 300-400 lb black bear traversing the boulder fields up above me to the left. The foliage here was more yellow, but it was a spectacular sight. I thought I’d be running into grizzlies in Glacier, which made the black bear sightings seem unusual to me; also, they were the first black bears that I’d seen since New Mexico! I hadn’t seen any black bear sign in 100s & 100s of miles, just grizzly sign, so when I encountered a giant black bear poop (full or partially digested Saskatoon berries) I was relieved that I hadn’t been mistakenly thinking black bear poop (full of berries) was grizzly poop (full of hair).

The weather cleared briefly, and I could see that the mountains and passes I was climbing towards were covered in snow… “Brrrr…” It was going to be cold, but there was no denying that the mountains were strikingly beautiful, blue skies, puffy clouds, brilliant white snow, golden aspens at lower elevation, stark black or rusty red trail, and red huckleberry and blueberry bushes ankle- to knee- high bordering the trail. I was lovely, and as the ranger suggested, once I got more than a couple miles away from the ranger station the crowds melted away and I had the whole place to myself.

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My snowy footsteps in the trail at Pitamakan Pass

The downside, however, was that I was hiking up towards tree-line, and as I climbed more and more snow and ice began accumulating in the trail. By the time I left the last trees behind there was between 1 and 2 inches of snow on the trail and coating the surrounding rocks. Through the middle of the trail was just one set of slushy/icy footprints from an intrepid day hiker earlier that day. The wind kicked up and it was beautiful, but cold.

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Unbroken trail above me (and leading down to my campsite) at Pitamakan Pass

I zig-zagged my way up the snow-covered trail all the way up to the pass, the snow gradually growing deeper and the tracks getting fainter and fainter until I got to the top of the pass. The views were spectacular, and it was very exposed. I had had the ridge and the trail to myself for hours, and now I had the pass to myself as well. It seemed likely I wouldn’t see anyone else until I made it to Many Glacier… As I entered the pass and headed up the ridge, the lonely footprints I’d been following disappeared. It was clear that whoever had left the footprints in the trail had gotten to the pass and turned around there and headed back down.

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The view from Cut Bank Pass

THIS. THIS IS WHAT FREEDOM FEELS LIKE. A beautiful, gorgeous amazing place, where your path isn’t obvious. You’ve got a pristine clean and clear slate, you just have to figure it all out on your own, knowing that somewhere hiding beneath that sparkling, glittery white, beautiful snow are right decisions and wrong ones, easy paths and hard ones, and you just have to figure it out.

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Snowy mountain view near Pitamakan Pass

There, appreciating the view and the solitude, I spotted a couple of people in the next pass up. Hmm… I wondered. Sure, it was uphill, and a bit of a detour, but I wanted to share the beauty of the place and the moment with another person, and I wanted a picture of me in the snow, so I started to break trail through the snow between me and them to say “hi.” They were a lovely couple, they happily snapped some photos of me, and I of them, and somehow they convinced me to keep climbing the rest of the way up the next pass to check the view, even though it was a fairly significant detour. I like hiking up, and hate heading down into the valley at sunset, so hiked up to check it out before returning to the unbroken trail of the CDT and the hike down to my designated campsite for the night.

It was beautiful up there, but since the afternoon was heading towards evening and I still had a lot of miles to go along unbroken trail, I headed back towards my original route. I marveled at the ruggedness of the mountains as I returned to my Northward trajectory through the cold, wet snow. The fact that the trail was unbroken, without any visible footprints on the CDT reminded me of how very alone I was as I continued North into the mountains.

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The view looking down into the valley where my campsite was waiting for me.

I descended into the valley, following the footprints of a fox for a while, and then a ptarmigan. The ptarmigan’s little footprints pointing like arrows in the direction it had gone.

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Ptarmigan footprints in the snow

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A ptarmigan stopping to question my sanity.

The clouds descended to keep me company, and as the snow got shallower it seemed the skies tried to make up the difference by starting the sleet on me.

“Well,” I sighed, in an Eeyore like moment, “at least I can see where the trail is now.”

Down, down, down I went, and the snow in the trail turned into a mushy slushy mess. My feet were soaking wet, and I had a feeling they were likely to stay that way until my trip was done. Eventually, as the sky turned gray and dull with the coming storm and the setting of the sun, I made it to my designated campsite. It came as no surprise that I was completely alone.

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A wintry mix (sleet/freezing rain/snow) descending on me at Pitamakan Lake

I pitched my tent in the rain, wandered over to the bear-line. Sat on a stump in the icy rain, ate my dinner, and hung my bear bag. The sleet had turning into a cold freezing rain, and I was incredibly happy to finish eating so that I could retreat to the comfort and warmth of my nice, dry sleeping bag. With almost 30 – miles to hike the next day I was going to want to get moving early the next morning and it was going to be a long, long, loooong day.

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3 thoughts on “Welcome to Glacier: Winter is Coming (CDT Days 143-144)

  1. Pingback: Glacier: Snow What?! (CDT Day 145) – Patches Thru

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