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

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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Someone is Wrong on the Internet! (PCT Days 151-155)

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I looked at the weather forecast and my mood plummeted: 3-5 days of rain were headed my way. The state of Washington has a reputation for rain, and it looked like it was going to try to live up to that reputation. The thought of being cold and wet for days on end was not even a little bit appealing. I’d been there, done that, and it wasn’t a lot of fun for me. Maybe I could figure out a way to take a vacation from my vacation. I was approaching Snoqualmie Pass, which is just a 40 minute drive from Seattle… Surely some of my friends from Seattle could come and rescue me from the rain. I furiously texted everyone I knew, but they already had plans.

Eventually, against my better judgment, I turned to the internet for help and posted to one of the Facebook groups, “Looks like nasty weather for this weekend… I’m trying to coordinate a place to stay with friends, but if that falls through does anyone know any trail angels near Snoqualmie?”

Almost immediately I got a response, “Cool weather and showers shouldn’t be considered “nasty weather.” Sounds like maybe your gear is inadequate, or maybe you’ve just been spoiled by the warm, dry summer we’re having this year…”

Oh internet, why do you have to be like that? I’d chosen to post in a closed forum, one that was usually relatively troll free, and I’d dared to hope that I would get helpful responses. Instead, I got the response that I should have expected from the internet, a response that really irritated me, pissed me off even. What I wanted to do was yell at the internet. Someone on the internet was wrong. I should correct them, right? I grumpily composed my rebuttal to the three inflammatory clauses:

1) “Cool weather and showers shouldn’t be considered ‘nasty weather.'” How, exactly do you define ‘nasty weather’? Do you think that maybe having a nice cozy house with four walls and a roof that you can retreat to anytime you want might modify your definition of ‘nasty weather’, or are you just thinking about the weather that you are going to get at home in Seattle (at 0-520 ft elev.)? Did you actually think about the weather on the trail itself, up in the mountains, and on top of the ridges (at 5000+ ft)? Up in those mountains is where I’m going to be, and the weather up near 5000 ft is the weather that I’m worried about.

Did you know that for every 1000ft of elevation you gain, the outside temperature drops between 3.3F and 5.5F depending on humidity? If the high in Seattle is going to be 61F, then 3000ft higher at Snoqualmie Pass the high will drop to 44F – 51F (a drop of 3*3.3F=9.9F in high humidity, or a drop of 3*5.5F=16.5F in low humidity). Up in the mountains at around 5000 ft the highs will drop to a balmy 33F – 44F (a drop of between 5*3.3F= 16.5F and 5*5.5F= 27.5F relative to Seattle)… Highs of 33-44F, that’s cold not cool, and we’re still talking about the high temperatures for the day, the peak afternoon temperatures, not the colder temperatures that will prevail for most of the day.

When they forecast a 90% chance of showers for the lowlands, take a peek at the radar maps and see what’s happening up in the mountains. Usually the clouds build up into a solid mass in the mountains so they can dump all of their excess rain there before getting to the much more arid eastern part of Washington. A lowland forecast of showers all day usually means a mountain forecast of rain all day… Just compare the annual rainfall for Seattle to the annual rainfall up in the mountains. Those mountains, they get very very wet. Not only is it colder and wetter in the mountains than it is at lower elevations, it also tends to be windier. So if you take the wind chill factor into consideration, the apparent temperatures up in the mountains are even colder.

According to the CDC, hypothermia can occur at temperatures above 40F if a person is wet (from sweat or rain), so I consider prolonged rainy weather with temperatures in the 40s to be hypothermia weather, and while on extended backpacking treks, I consider that to be ‘nasty weather.’ I know that the weather could always be worse (I’ve certain been through much worse) but is there any reason that I shouldn’t consider hypothermia weather to be nasty weather? Go ahead, enlighten me…

2) “Sounds like maybe your gear is inadequate.” Really? Really? Somehow because my definition of ‘nasty weather’ and yours differ, you come to the conclusion that my gear is inadequate? Perhaps you should ask what I have for gear before making a judgment about whether or not it is adequate. Let me share with you a partial list of the gear I have for dealing with cold, wet weather:

Most PCT thru-hikers would consider many of the items I carry to be overkill, but I don’t like to be cold and I pack accordingly. I’ve also had a lot of experience backpacking in cold, wet conditions. I’ve been backpacking in New England, rain or shine, ever since I was a kid, and my 2013 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail was one of the wettest on record (it rained 50/60 days, and kept raining until I was more than 1000 miles into the trail)… My gear is more than adequate, and I have a lot of experience using it… Even though I am prepared to deal with endless days of rain, snow, sleet, and hail, I’d prefer not to.

3) “Maybe you’ve just been spoiled by the warm, dry summer we’re having this year.” Spoiled?! Now I’m going to go out on a limb here, but if someone’s been spoiled by the weather this year, I’m guessing that it was you, not me. When you’ve been out backpacking for five months straight you get a real up close and personal feel for the weather, and though I’ve been lucky enough to have some nice, warm, dry days this summer, I’ve also had my fair share of cold, wet, miserable days. For instance, last week I got clobbered with torrential downpours and hail three days in a row (they’d predicted 10%, 20%, and 0% chance of rain on those days, respectively)… Is that the warm, dry weather that you think has spoiled me? In case you’re wondering just how often I’ve gotten wet on my PCT thru-hike so far, here’s the list of days that I’ve noted measurable precipitation:

  • April- 1, 2, 4, 5, 11, 13, 18, 25.
  • May- 7, 8, 9, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24.
  • June- 2, 6, 14, 17, 25, 26.
  • July- 8, 11, 21, 22, 23, 29.
  • August – 10, 11, 12, 13, 19, 20, 23, 30, 31
  • September – 1, 2, 3 so far…

Sometimes the cold, wet weather comes with an incredible beauty of its own… The sounds of the forest change, and it can feel like the only things that exists in the world are you, the rain, the trees, and the occasional salamander… It can be incredibly peaceful. That said, most of the storms lately have come with a side of thunder, lightening, hail, fire, and flooding… For many of us hiking this year, the weather has felt more apocalyptic than peaceful… Hiking through Oregon the storms would come and we’d get wet, we’d get hailed on, and then the fires would start… As we headed further north, we got more torrential rains, rains that caused flash-flooding and killed a hiker the day that we were at Mount Hood… If anything, I would say that the weather this summer has traumatized us, not spoiled us… The good weather has been amazing, but the bad weather, it’s often been downright scary.

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Now that I’d written my rebuttal I felt a little better. I decided not to post it to the forum because it would just add fuel to the fire of crazy, and I was still hoping that someone might respond to my original question with something helpful. Starting a flame war wouldn’t be helpful, even if it did let me vent.

Eventually there were a couple more replies to my query, most of which were helpful and supportive. The next known trail angels were the Dinsmore’s. Unfortunately, they were too far away, I wouldn’t be able to get to them before the first set of storms hit. I looked at my maps and at Yogi’s guide and came up with a plan to deal with the upcoming storms. I decided that I would take a zero day (hike zero miles) and stay at the hotel in Snoqualmie Pass to wait out the first day of rain, and then the next day and I would hike out to Gold Myers Hot Springs in the rain… After that I hoped that the rain would let up, and I’d get at least one nice day before the rains set in again.

P.S. The weather ended up being cold and wet (as forecast), but the hot springs were absolutely amazing! I got there early in the day and had the entire hot spring to myself all afternoon… I relaxed in the hot water and enjoyed the company of the only other occupants of the cave, two bats. I watched them cuddling and grooming each other and decided that ‘bat TV’ was cute and highly entertaining… Eventually, when I got too hot, I’d dash through the cold rain and up to the little cool-off cabana (complete with a roof!! a very nice thing to have on a rainy day) where I’d eat a snack, drink some water, and watch the rain. ‘Rain TV’ wasn’t nearly as interesting as ‘bat TV,’ so when I got bored with the rain, or cooled off too much, I’d just head back into the hot springs in the cave… It was the perfect way to spend a rainy day (or two)!

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