I’d seen the forecasts and I knew that winter was coming with a vengeance, but I’d hoped that an epic 29 – mile day would get me through Glacier ahead of the snow. Spoiler alert: It didn’t. These are the stories and photos from that day.
Journal Entry: CDT Day 145 (9/25/18): Mile 2936.6 (Morning Star) to 2964.9 (Reynolds): 29 miles, 2500’ up, 3600’ down. Epic!! Today was an epic 29 miles. Finally settling in @ midnight. I hate permit systems FYI. Freezing rain/snow last night. Drifts of 12-15” of snow in the pass. Breaking trail for the first 6 miles of the day. They removed all the suspension bridges to make life more interesting. Ran into a moose. Awesome foliage. Night hike waterfalls. Feet wet all day. Poor feetsies. Didn’t see anyone all day.
(Click here for: Welcome to Glacier: Winter is Coming (CDT Days 143-144))
“Brrrrrrrr…” It’s hard to get up and out of my warm, cozy sleeping bag when it’s soo cold outside, but a 29 – mile day in Glacier is bound to be epic, and an early start isn’t optional, so as soon as it started getting bright outside I was up and at it.
Although the sleet and freezing rain had kept on through most of the night, by morning it had stopped. Unfortunately, that meant that my tent was sopping wet and partially frozen as I packed it up. Nobody seems to talk about how cold your hands get when you’re trying to pack up a sopping wet tent in the early chill of the morning. Even with my gloves on, by the time the tent is packed my fingers are uncomfortable cold and by the time I hike out of camp they’ve become a bit numb and tingly.
As I descend into the valley, the temperature plummets. The cold night air has sunk into the valley, trapped by there by the beautifully rugged peaks I so admired yesterday afternoon. It’ll be hours before the sun rises above the mountains and warms this valley. Though my layers are mostly keeping me warm, my feet are cold. It was amazing how quickly they’d gotten so cold. They’d been toasty warm all night and had maintained their warmth in the morning as I started hiking, but now they were cold. Very cold. They were cold and they hurt. “Suck it up, buttercup” I mumbled to myself in a war of wills, trying to force mind over matter. They’ll warm up, they always do, I tried to console myself, but my feet were still cold.
Thank goodness for small favors, at least the slushy mess of the trail from last night has frozen into a blessedly solid mass, so my feet remain dry.
The sky was getting brighter and brighter and the clouds began to turn pink with beautiful colors of dawn and the impending sunrise. It really was quite a gorgeous sight, watching the clouds fill with color over the magnificent peaks of Glacier, met by an even more impressive show of fall foliage on the ground. The colors were truly spectacular.
I continued through the valley, spotting mountain goats on the rocky slopes around me as the sun continued to rise and hit the peaks of the mountain tops around me. My feet were cold. Yup, still cold, and it was looking like it might be a while before the sun reached me in the valley I was walking across. My feet were definitely uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough that I started wondering what, if anything, I could do about it. Could I warm them up somehow?
I suddenly remembered the pack of 4 toe-warmers that I’d brought with me. Surely those would warm my toes up. Since they’re not a renewable resource, I wanted to use them wisely, and in general thought of them as a fail-safe in case of emergency. I rationalized that I would be out of the woods the following night, and had two sets, and they had the potential to eliminate the misery I was in in that moment. Besides, I had 2 sets so I could use the remaining set if I ended up in an emergency later.
I sat down, pulled them out, and activated them, while rubbing my feet to try to warm them up a bit. To my extreme disappointment, the toe-warmers didn’t get warm ☹. “Surely, they’ll warm up eventually,” I hoped, but hope was not enough, and they remained cold. I uttered a few choice words and looked at the packaging more closely.
Grumble, grumble mother-f***ing grumble! The store in East Glacier had sold me toe-warmers that were 6 months passed their sell by date. I let out an exasperated sigh. Now I was grumpy, angry, cold, and my feet still hurt.
Ok, so one set were duds. That was ok, I had another set. Future emergency be damned, my feet were cold NOW. I pulled them out, activated them, and waited. Nothing. NO warmth, nothing. *sigh* I looked at the date and sure enough, they were passed their date as well. Ever hopeful that I was just being too impatient, I inserted them into my shoes and hoped against hope that they would eventually provide my poor toes some warmth. As I laced my shoes back up I grumbled about the store and the toe warmers, and the extra ounces that I’d carried and would have to continue carrying with absolutely no benefit to me…
Heavy little cold bricks of iron dust, grumble, grumble, grumble… Sigh. My feet would eventually get warm with or without their help (usually on the downhill, since they always remained cold for the uphill). Unfortunately, I had quite a bit of uphill to go (to get up to Triple Divide Pass) before my feet would be warmed by the downhill. My feet remained cold for the next half hour to hour, and eventually I stopped and pulled the dumb, cold, foot-warmers out of my shoes because they we causing my feet to rub uncomfortably towards blisters.
Eventually the sun began to rise above the mountains and my spirits began to rise too. The low angle light hit the peaks in front of me, and I climbed up the valley to meet it, and bask in the sun’s light. The moment I met the sun, I stopped and luxuriated in its warmth. Bathed in light, the bright colors of the fall foliage popped out of the landscape all around me. Snow glittered above me, the brush was aflame with reds, yellows, and gold, and there in the light green meadow below I watched two bull elk with large racks lock heads, putting on a show for a herd a short distance above. They strutted and postured, retreated and fought each other again, like gladiators in an arena, putting on a show for me (and the other elk present). Their sounds echoed up the valley to my ears, the only noise breaking the early morning stillness. My grumpiness faded away, replaced with awe at the beauty of the place I was in. IT was phenomenal.
The snow deepened as I got closer to the pass, and the color faded from the trail above me, replaced with the muted colors of rock and snow. It looked like their was 4-6 inches of freshly fallen snow. Step by step I made my way up towards the Triple Divide Pass. It was absolutely beautiful, but with a 29 – mile day ahead of me, and freezing cold temps, I moved relatively quickly.
It was slower going than I hoped, but I decided that I might as well enjoy it. I stopped, put down my pack, and flopped into the snow to make a snow angel. I laughed at myself as I did it. It was ridiculous, and hilarious. Here I was hiking a 29-mile day on the CDT. A bad-ass thru-hiker, soon to be triple crowner, all alone in the wilderness, stopping to play in the snow. Whatever! YOLO, and sooo much snow!
As I lay there expending precious calories creating an angel on the CDT, I reflected on all of the amazing trail angels that had helped me on this hike, and on my other thru-hikes. I wished there was a way that I could give something back to them, to let them know how much they meant to me. Maybe I could share my snow-angel picture with them and tell them with a picture as well as words.
I reluctantly stood up, looked at my angel, and kept hiking. I had many miles to go before I slept! I hiked higher and higher until I got to the pass. It had taken much longer than I’d hoped because of the snow, but most of the rest of the days hike would be downhill, which would be much faster. I ate a snack, made another snow angel or two, then began my descent 😊
The descent was much, much slower. On the Northeast side of the pass the snow had blown into drifts that were 2 feet deep and not even the faintest outline of trail existed. Soo much snow! I pushed my way through it, frequently wading through snow up to my knees. I could see the snowline below me, and I knew that once I descended far enough into the valley I would eventually get out of the snow and enter a world of golden aspens and a nice clear trail. Eventually. Yes, eventually that would happen.
As my thoughts turned hopeful, I reach the next switchback, only obvious because the snow depth instantly went from 18 inches to 36 inches. I grumbled, suddenly up to my hips in snow, and took the switchback… the drifts had blown so much that the switchbacks were consistently filled with at least a foot more snow than the surrounding trail. Who knew that entering deeper snowdrifts would be the consistent indicator for me that the trail was turning.
The instant I descended below the snowline I stopped for a break on a set of dark gray cliffs. I rested there a moment, soaking in the sun, and drying out my shoes, insoles, sock, jacket and tent. “My pack will be sooo much lighter once I stop carrying this extra water,” I beamed.
Below the snowline the foliage exploded into color: golden aspens as far as the eye could see, and red huckleberry bushes blazing the path of the CDT. The colors were insanely gorgeous as they formed their gradients of yellow and red. The base of the cliffs surrounding me were full of mountain goats, grazing and leaping around.
And OMG the waterfalls cascading off of the cliffs and into the brightly colored valleys below were spectacular. I took hundreds of pictures, astounded as I was with the epic beauty of the scenery on this epic day of hiking.
“Crash! Crash!” A noise thundered in the bushes beside me. My pulse quickened, as I realized that a large animal was in the brush beside me. Moose or Bear? Moose or Bear? I wandered.
“Hello,” I announced, in a loud, firm voice. The ground beneath my feet vibrated as the large animal moved a few paces away from me. I let out my breath. A moose, not a grizzly. A big enough moose that it caused the earth to shake with each footfall.
“Sorry buddy,” I apologized as I continued down the trail, spying him in the brush about 6 feet away. “The foliage is pretty awesome, isn’t it,” I continued conversationally since he was the only living creature I’d been close enough to talk to all day. I snapped a quick picture and continued down the trail as he crashed a few more paces away from me into the brush. “I didn’t mean to startle you,” I assured him as he stared at me and I continued on my way.
The sun was bright and beautiful, and both the trail and the afternoon seemed to go by quickly as I descended into the burn zone below. It was rather sad and dreary compared to the beauty of the mountains I was descending from. Though the trail was good and easy to follow, I faced a new obstacle. IT was late enough in the season that the rangers had come through and dismantled the suspension bridges that normally cross the rivers and creeks along the trail.
“SIGH.” Ok, it was a really loud sigh, but that was only because the water was REALLY, REALLY cold ☹ The first time the suspension bridge faked me out. I thought it was probably pulled, so I went to cross the stream at a shallow spot, but when I got there it looked like the bridge might still be up, so I bushwhacked over to it since it’s cables were still strung across the water. But, no dice. The cables were up, but the wooden boards were stacked in a nice, neat pile on the far side of the water. This was a horrible place to cross on foot, and I didn’t want to have to backtrack… I wonder if I can just cross on the cables?
I climbed the stairs to where the cables crossed the stream, suspended 3 to 5 feet above the water. Maybe? My feet were finally warm and I didn’t want to have to submerge them in the frigid water and make them cold again. I put my hands on the upper wire, and tentatively placed on foot on the lower wire… Maybe? I thought as I weighted the foot. I was confident that the wire would support my weight. Carefully holding the upper wire with both hands, I moved my second foot from the safety and support of the bridge platform and onto the lower wire. My body swayed left & right, and the wire on the bottom bounced up and down in a very unsettling way. I waited a moment to see if things stabilized and it sort of did. I tried to inch my weight a smidge along the wire, but the instability was ridiculous.
Yup, Stupid. It would be really, really stupid to try to cross along the wires. #nodying I reminded myself, and then I retreated back to the solid and not wobbling base of the suspension bridge. Grumble, grumble. Having all the boards just piled up, lying there on the other side, seemed like they were adding insult to injury. “If they wanted to protect the boards for the winter they could have at least hauled them away,” I frumped.
I made my way back to the safe crossing spot, took my shoes off, crossed, put them back on and headed down the trail again. Before long I came to another suspension bridge with the bridge removed. Grumble, grumble, grumble. Normally I just tromp right through with my boots on, but my feet had been so cold that I wanted to keep them dry so I stopped and switched to my camp shoes for each stop. Killing time each time. I looked at my map. There was absolutely no way I was going to get to my permitted campsite before dark. My level of grumpiness suggested that it would be a good idea to stop at next campsite and eat an early dinner. Besides, it’s always nice to eat dinner while it’s still warm and sunny, and I should be able to make the last river crossing before dark, which is always important.
I stopped to eat at around 5 and took advantage of the break to finish drying out my tent in the afternoon sun, and to try to dry out my shoes and insoles, which were still wet from the snow. The food in my belly felt good and I set off with renewed energy, after making a quick stop to get water. The lake was pretty, but the burn zone was sad. The landscape, gray, dull, and dead. Eventually, after what felt like forever, I spotted the most golden copse of aspens I’d ever seen. They seemed to be twinkling in the golden-hour sun, giving them an almost magical air.
I crossed the final river crossing, not even bothering to change into my camp-shoes in my race against the dark. I scurried up the bank on the far side. There were fewer aspens, but the underbrush had an amazing medley of fall foliage colors, spectacular in every way. In places the reds, oranges, and yellows made the trail come alive with the colors of fire, but without the smoke and trauma of the real fires. I moved quickly, trying to get as far as I possibly could before losing the last light of the sun. I was also hoping that I might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the sunset hidden from me by the mountains to the West.
As I rounded the corner of the East End of St. Mary Lake the sun was getting low on the horizon. I still had more than 10 miles to go to get to camp, and any illusion I may have had about getting to camp before sunset or anywhere near sunset, completely disintegrated. It just wasn’t going to happen, but I kept moving fast, pretending it might be possible to get to the site my permit had assigned to me before it got too insanely late…
I dipped in and out of the trees along the lake as the light grew dimmer and dimmer, it was starting to look like the sun was going to set behind the mountains without giving me any good views of it. I was feeling a little bit bummed as I dipped into a thicker section of woods figuring that I wasn’t going to get much of a sunset view when I rounded the corner, and much to my surprise was greeted by one of the most spectacular displays of sunset colors I’ve even seen. The crisp gray mountains stood in stark relief against a fluorescent pink sky. It was gorgeous, it was beautiful, and it was breath-taking. I stopped and stood there, alone, in the middle of the trail appreciating it.
“Totally worth it!” I smiled, knowing that I had hours of night-hiking ahead of me, but I didn’t care. if I’d had any kind of sane hiking plan for the day I would have missed this sunset, and this sunset, was worth the challenges I’d already faced that day, as well as those that lay ahead of me for the evening. Totally.
My pace was a little frenetic after that. I would speed through the areas shaded with trees, and slow way, way down for the lakeside views with their awesome displays of color until the last of the pinks slowly faded from the sky and darkness settled in.
I had many miles and hours of hiking in the dark to go, but I was a very happy hiker.
Into the Darkness
The darkness was thick and beautiful in its own right as I hiked beside the cold, windy lake. My awesome headlamp provided me with a wide swath of visibility against the darkness and I kept hiking, quickly, but carefully into the night, hoping that maybe I’d make it to my campsite by 10 pm. I hustled, but the trail was overgrown with brush (maybe cloudberries ?) and seemed to have had little traffic on it this year, except perhaps from horses early in the season, which had eroded holes into the trail at awkward and unpredictable intervals. I had to stay very focused on the trail to avoid spraining my ankle in any of those, or worse, tripping and rolling down the very, very steep embankment to my right.
The trail rose, climbed, and fell, and the solitude of my existence followed me with each step… it mostly feeling very fitting. Hiking in the dark creates a sense of isolation, but also narrows your attention and forces you to focus on a much smaller area and range of things… I looked for signs of bear (grizzly), moose, or elk, but didn’t see anything. Even still, I sang as I hiked to warn any and all nighttime creatures of my imminent arrival. After a few miles of rather contented night-hiking, I was tired and starting to get grumpy. I was on edge as I hiked through the dark along the edge of the forest, the edge of the lake, the edge of a cliff.
“Friggin permit system!” I grumbled into the darkness. “If I wasn’t in Glacier, I would have stopped and found a place to camp for the night hours ago,” I huffed, before channeling the impetuous voice of my teenage self, “But No-o-oo, I can only camp at the designated site on my permit in Glacier, even if it is STUPID.” I then blurted out the reasons why it was stupid that I had to keep hiking: “Hiking alone on the edges of cliffs at night is STUPID! Night-hiking alone in grizzly country is STUPID! It’s STUPID that the park system is making me doing something that I think is UNSAFE! It’s UNSAFE and its STUPID…”
I’d allowed myself to whine and have a little self-pity party because I was exhausted and needed to vent even if no one was listening, but was I actually putting myself and my safety at risk because of the permit system? It was a sobering thought. The short answer was YES, which is why I was feeling so grumpy about it. In general, I feel that solo night-hiking is taking unnecessary risks, and those risks outweigh the potential benefits. In fact, the only other time I’d only stayed up hiking solo this late after dark was in Yosemite trying to get to the campsite designated on my permit there. Both then and now I was solo night-hiking in grizzly territory and was well outside my comfort zone.
Was it unsafe for me to continue? Would it be safer to me to break the rules, and find a place to camp now? I stopped in the middle of the trail and thought about it. The SMART thing to do would have been to camp at Red Eagle Lake when I got there at 5, but realistically, even without the constraints of the permit system I probably wouldn’t have camped there because I got there too early. I’d known I would. It was a Goldilocks problem, Red Eagle Lake Campsite had been too close, and Reynolds Creek Campsite was too far, but there were no Campsites that were just right, and I wasn’t allowed to make up my own. So my decision in advance, and also when I decided to leave Red Eagle Lake after dinner a few hours before had been to push on to Reynolds Creek. Under normal conditions, I would have made it to Reynolds Creek by dark, but the snow had slowed me down and worm me out a lot more that I’d realized or thought it would.
“Answer the question,” I reminded myself, “Should I keep going, or should I try to find a place to stealth (camp) as soon as possible.” Stopping as soon as possible seemed like a really good plan, and if there had been a designated campsite with a bear cable between where I was and the sites at Reynolds Creek I absolutely would have camped there, but that wasn’t an option. The hillside I was traversing along the lake wasn’t particularly conducive to stealth camping and wildlife (including grizzlies) in National Parks more notoriously more problematic than anywhere else. Ultimately, I decided my best bet was to continue on to my designated campsite.
I stopped at a Falls along the lake to get water. Getting water from waterfalls makes me illogically happy, so on a long exhausting day it was worth it to pause and find a reason to smile and try to pull myself out of the funk I’d been. It felt cozy and peaceful there, but I wanted to keep moving. “No,” I reminded myself, “you have to eat!” I was tired and didn’t want to eat my snack bar, but I knew I was hungry, and with good reason. Logically I knew that I was super low on calories. It was cold and I was burning lots of calories, so I had to eat. I forced the snack bar down, before allowing myself to leave the spot.
Sure enough, by the time I got to the next waterfall my blood sugar was clearly up, and I was feeling better. The waterfall was beautifully framed in the darkness of night. It was at this point that I finally managed to embrace the night.
“Screw it,” I exclaimed to the darkness, it was so late there was absolutely zero chance that I’d get to camp anywhere near a reasonable hour, so I finally decided to slow down and just enjoy the night. Fully embracing this new attitude, I pulled out my camera and tried to get some night pictures of the falls.
“Click,” I pushed the button on 10 second timer after setting my camera on its rock tripod. I ate a snack and waited for the 30 second exposure and then the processing time, and then looked at my creation. It wasn’t quite right, so I tried again… and again… Eventually I got something that looked cool and headed non-chalantly to the next waterfall. The path was much clearer and nicer through here, during daylight hours it looked like it would have had lots of tourists, but long after dark, I had the area to myself.
From that point on I made my way, slowly, but surely, along the trail from waterfall to waterfall, each one more gorgeous than the last. I set up my camera on a rock, and went through the process of photographing it. But this time I ate one of my packets of almond butter while I waited for the extremely slow shutter time. Oops, not quite… naw, not that one, until finally I got one that seemed ok.
Saint Mary Falls was thunderously loud, and amazingly beautiful framed in the light of my headlamp, with the stars above. I looked off into the distance across St. Mary Lake, and wondered what the source of light pollution coming from behind it was… it seemed odd since I hadn’t noticed it earlier. I finished taking pictures and hiked a few more steps before I realized that that light was the moon.
I paused, wondering how long it would be before I lost the beautiful stars and the milky way to the epicly bright moon rising up through the mountains behind me. It was still below the mountains and I suppose it was just a hypothesis that it was the moon, and in that moment realized that I was missing a glove. What? How’d that happen? Oh yeah, I didn’t have my hiking poles anymore either… oops… I was definitely tired. I’d left them on the bridge where I’d photographed the waterfall. Luckily, I hadn’t gone that far before I realized my mistake, so I trotted back and got them. Yikes. Gloves in hand, and chopping down some trail mix, I set off down the trail again.
“Wait, What?!” I stopped, and there in the middle of the trail was a toad staring up at me. “Hi, Mr. Toad, what are you doing here?” I asked. I hadn’t seen many amphibians on my CDT thru-hike (probably due to the severe lack of water), but all the ones I had seen, I’d seen at night. I stopped, crouched down, and looked more closely at it. It was beautiful, with big, deep, black eyes. I pulled out my camera and snapped a photo or two before carefully stepping around it and continuing on my way.
“Ugh,” I was suddenly feeling very, very tired. “Maybe I could just camp here, in the middle of the trail,” I muttered as I slogged down the wet and muddy trail. I was getting so, so close, but I was soo so tired. I pulled out my tropical fruit mix, shoving handfuls into my mouth hoping to fuel my body to power through the last little bit. “Munch, munch, munch,” I paused to swallow and look behind me. Still no moon. I kept walking.
“Munch, munch, munch,” how about now? I stopped looked behind me. Still no moon.
“Munch, munch, munch,” ah, I smiled, there it is 😊 It peeked an edge up from behind the mountain. How quickly will it rise? I wondered, staring at it intently. Hmmm, too slow to justify stopping and watching it rise all the way up.
Only ½ a mile to go, “munch, munch, munch,”… only 1/3 a mile to go, “munch, munch, munch,” oooh, the moon is risen, “munch, munch, munch,” only ¼ mile to go. “You can do it!!” I encouraged myself, out of trail mix and really pushing myself to keep going. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I found myself at the sign for my campsite.
“Oh no,” I mumbled, seeing the base and cables of a suspension bridge between me and the campsite I had a permit to sleep in that night. My heart sank since every single suspension bridge I’d come to so far had been dismantled. It was almost midnight and I DID NOT want to do a stream/river crossing now. Nothing and no one had said anything about a suspension bridge here. I frowned, shoulders slumping as I approached the bridge, hoping against hope it was there, but not believing it would be.
I climbed the stairs, and breathed a sigh of relief. The bridge, the bridge was there and waiting for me 😊 I was overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude and bounced my way across the bouncy, bouncy suspension bridge full of joy and relief. I was here! I’d made it my designated campsite.
Exhausted I walked over to the bear-hang area, pulled out my food-bag, and grabbed a Milky Way. I sat on a nearby stump, pack off, staring at the bear hang wire above me as my mouth filled with rich chocolatey goodness. It was still frozen from the night before and rather chewy, but oh so good. As I finished the last crumbs, I put the wrapper into my food bag, and threw my bear rope up over the high wire. “Yes!!” I smiled, sugar beginning to course through my veins, I got it on the first try.
After stringing up my bear-bag I hefted my pack onto my back and headed for the closest campsite. I was tired and wanted to be done walking ASAP, but there, in the middle of the campsite was a pile of fresh bear poop.
Well, it’s black bear poop not grizzly, so there’s that at least. Still, I wasn’t going to camp there. “This,” I grumbled, “this is another thing that sucks about the permit system.” I grumbled turning to leave, and spotted a freshly mawed ptarmigan carcass. “Great,” I sighed, “just what I need,” signs of black bear + a predator I just startled off mid-meal, all in this campsite.
“This,” I mumbled, “this is why I don’t camp by rivers.” Wildlife tends to congregate by rivers, which is great for wildlife sighting, but less so for a peaceful night’s sleep. If I wasn’t in the National Park I would have hiked to a spot at least ¼ mile away from this evidence of active bear and predator activity, but here, that wasn’t allowed, and my best option was to choose whatever campsite was furthest from this one, and furthest from the water. I circled the area and settled for one with a much better strategic location. A small tree had fallen across it, but after verifying that there wasn’t any animal sign around, I moved the tree out of the site, and pitched my tent.
As I prepared to curl up for the night, the moon had risen, and I enjoyed the sound of the water and the gently swaying trees… This might be my last night on the trail I realized as I crawled into my tent. I checked the time, and it was just after midnight. “I made it,” I thought rather incredulously. My 29-mile day through a snow-covered Glacier National Park was done, and I just had a couple days of hiking before my CDT journey was over. Unbelievable.