Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Glacier National Park Part 2: The Grand Finale.

Here it is.  The ending you've been waiting for!

So there we were, in St. Mary MT, waiting for the weather to cooperate.  Other hikers were making decisions based on comfort levels and desire to be finished, but we wanted to get back out there and finish the way we had intended since the start of the trail.  At Waterton Lake, at the monument.  So we packed up and hit the trail.

Correction, first we went to the store and bought extra gear.  The boys got layers, I got a bright yellow poncho, trash bags and ziplocs, and away we went!  The weather was meant to be gloomy, but improve over the next few days, so we decided to go for it and atleast try.  We had to backtrack a bit to get on the trail, and as we did we saw a trail crew group coming out that informed us they had taken down the bridges.  Hrmm....well okay, I guess it just got a little harder.  But that first day back on trail was great.  Our spirits were high, we felt prepared, and we were happy.  We ran into two other thru-hikers, and camped with them the first night and heard horror stories of the weather while we were in St. Mary. (which made me really REALLY happy that we were inside for that!)  We hiked past gorgeous waterfalls gushing with the recent rainfall, and we really appreciated when the weather wasn't "bad."  We still had long days to hike, two 23 mile days, and a few really high passes, so we were hesitant about the weather, but as a group, we were prepared and eager to keep hiking, so that's what we did.

Our second day was better weather, with the clouds still lingering for most of the day, but we didn't have much rain, and we were able to get up and over our first pass, Piegan Pass without much difficultly.  The pass was covered in snow, waist deep drifts at times if you missed a step, but we could see the general direction of the trail, and hiking together helped make it much easier to travel through.  We had been concerned because this pass had turned back a friend of ours, Burrito, a few days earlier, but she was unable to see through the storm and was alone, so our conditions had drastically improved.  We quickly dropped down the other side to the region of Many Glacier, and in doing so, dropped back below snow line.  Because these were some of the first storms of the season, the snow line was very distinct and we always knew that as long as we got low enough we would be out of the snow.

Many Glacier was filled with people, as the campground was still open to motor traffic.  We knew to expect this, and had kept this in mind as a bail-out point as needed, but since everything was going well, we pushed past and keep hiking to our next camp.

Oh, but first we checked the bear box at the hiker site.  Liz, probably the greatest person in the whole wide world, had told me before that she had left us a small gift in the bear box and hoped it would still be there.  IT WAS!  and it was HARIBO DINOSAUR GUMMIES!  If you aren't familiar with Haribo gummies, I'm sorry, your life is probably miserable.  They were, without a doubt, our favorite snack of the whole trail.  We never left town without them, and they came in enough varieties to keep us always excited for them.  Dinosaurs, gummy bears, happy cola, fizzy cola, snakes, alphabet, cherries, the list goes on and on.  And here, hiding in the back corner, untouched by at least a weeks worth of hikers, was a very special bag of gummies!  And a beer.  So feast we did, then moved on for our last miles of the day.

We had one last pass to climb, but thankfully, it was sheltered for most of the way, and we were able to to hike snow-free for almost the rest of the day.  We got to the top just as it was starting to get dark, but we couldn't resist the temptation to poke around at the Granite Park Chalet, an old set of buildings up there for no reason other than to tease hikers.  It was fully boarded and barricaded, and no amount of poking got us inside of them, so we moved on to the backpacker campsite to crash for the night.  There was a bit of folly as we couldn't find the campground immediately and I started to throw a hissy fit because I was cold and it was beginning to snow, but we located it and found the best tent pad to pitch on.  Once the tents were up, it started to snow heavily, and Breeze and I didn't want to get wet cooking, so we decided to eat cold (sad faces), but Green Flash came to our rescue and boiled water for us under his tarp.  Fed, with warm bellies, we tucked in for the night, listening to the snow hit the taught tent. 

Such a peaceful image, huh?

NOT.  Snow on the tent is not good, as it weighs down the tent, can collapse it, and can drip inside.  So for most of the night, Breeze had to repeatedly hit the tent walls to stop it from building up, and we couldn't help but feel worried about the amount of snow falling.  We awoke in the morning to a winter wonderland, and concern over the fact that our next 10 miles was on the Highline Trail, a notoriously exposed and beautiful section of the trail that faced West- right into the snow and wind.  We also had cell phone service, and knew that the forecast was unfavorable, with winds predicted to be in the 70mph range.  But we conversed through the tent walls with Flash, and we still wanted to go for it, figuring that once the first few miles were done, it would actually be better to go forward that backwards, and if it got really bad, we could always drop low, down to a river, and hike below snow line.  So after some coffee and a quick morning visit to the airy pit toilet, we were on our way.

It was actually really fun hiking for a while.  I was fully plastic wrapped, from my feet in bags inside my shoes, bags over my hands, and the poncho wrapped around me.  I still ended up getting mildly wet, but much better than in the past, and I didn't cry once!  The snow was deep in spots, and we were slowed down to a snail's pace for much of the morning, but we were doing it! And with every step we were that much closer to the end.  We started the day with about 26 miles to the border, and it felt like nothing was going to stop us.  Unfortunately it was hard, exhausting hiking, a final exam of sorts to test us before we could earn our reward at the end, but we stuck together, worked as a team, and kept moving.  We completed the Highline trail and began to drop down just as it began to snow/rain, and it became harder to find dry spots to rest.  Around 6 in the evening, we discovered a ranger station and happily collapsed underneath the overhang for a quick break.  This was the first time all day we sat down.  We were determined to make it further, and unpacked headlamps, knowing that we would be stumbling through the dark to make it.

When we had applied for permits, they offered two sites in the same area, a backcountry campsite, and concrete shelters.  We originally picked the campsite since shelters are often rodent-ridden and difficult to set up in, and the backcountry office had strongly encouraged us to avoid them.  Well, screw that.  We were going to those shelters, and if a ranger had a problem with it, I think the boys would have sent me after him.  We hiked, cold and wet, hoping that we would find a roof there, and get some relief from the rain, but we didn't know what to expect.  It might have well been paradise.

When we got to the area, we spotted lights on in a cabin, and a person moving about, and quickly dimmed our headlamps to try and avoid any negative encounters with a ranger, hoping instead to sneak past.  But lights?  That means electricity, right?  Maybe this wasn't going to be so bad?  We struggled in the dark to find where we wanted to go, but headed towards to boathouse on the southeast end of the lake, a landmark noted to find the backpacker shelters.  As we got closer, we saw people in the boathouse, and my mind already started planning how we could explain ourselves to "the man."  But it was HIKERS!  People we knew!  It was fellow thru-hiker Sunday and his girlfriend, and they had set up in the boathouse to dry out and warm up as the caretaker, (that fellow in the cabin...) had come along, started chatting to them and built a giant fire for us to huddle around. There were also bathrooms with running water and electricity, and 8(!) shelters for hikers.  Okay, it WAS paradise. 

It was a perfect night to finish the trail on.  We celebrated as if we were already done, only 3 miles between us and the border.  And yet, just hours earlier, we were crossing our fingers for a roof, just a roof, not even sure we would find that, and we stumbled into good company, a raging fire, running water, and friendly folk that wanted to help.  No matter how rough it got out there, the trail was always trying to watch out for us.

We slept in the next morning, and built another fire, leisurely enjoying the last morning we would spend at CDT thru-hikers.  It was bittersweet, and part of me didn't want it to end, but we had a ride to meet in Canada, and it wasn't officially over until we touched that monument, so we packed our wet gear one last time and hit the trail.  Everyone was giddy with excitement, and not even a steady drizzle could hold back our smiles.  But the trail wasn't done with us yet.  Remember that trail crew we met earlier?  Well they were right, the bridges were gone, and we had no choice but to ford one last (large) swollen creek.  We had walked past the "horse ford," following the bridge/hiker signs and giggled, commenting "Glad I'm not a horse" and "I hope your horse can swim" since the river looked super gnarly and deep, but were promptly turned back by Sunday and his GF as they had just discovered the bridge was removed.  *gulp* Not wasting a moment, we tossed our packs to the ground, secured our warm layers and electronics one last time, and prepared to get dunked.  As a 5 person team, we entered the creek, using each other to keep balance and fight the current, and successfully crossed, though our feet screamed with pain from the chilly water.  From there, the trail was easy, though I felt as though it was toying with me, and I was constantly looking for my first glimpse of the monument.

And then, it was there.

Two metal monuments, along the shore of Waterton Lake, signifying the international boundary between Canada and the United States.  It was official.  I had walked from Mexico to Canada.  Again.  I had laid a continuous footpath some 2,800 miles, cross an entire country.  A big country.  Not some European state.  It took me just around 5 months to complete, and I joined a small group of people that had successfully hiked the Triple Crown.  Approximately 200-250 people have completed this task, compared to the thousands that have summitted Everest.  I had walked 7,500 miles over the course of 3 summers and 5 years.  And man was I tired!

But this was a time for celebration!  I had hiked a bottle of champagne in, and Breeze's friend had buried a treasure for us to dig up- beef jerky, candy, and a 1/5 of Jack.  And of course, there were Haribo stashed away for such an important occasion!  Our moment was temporarily interrupted by a group on a day hike that passed through, and a tour boat that stopped to point us out, but nothing could damper our spirits.  The rain and fog even let up long enough for us to get some great pictures.  It might not have been perfect, but it was darn close!

We stayed as long as we could, but knowing we had to meet our ride, we left the monuments and began our short Canadian walk to Waterton.  And honestly, Canada felt a lot like the U.S....but we knew the difference.  :)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Glacier National Park Part 1

(Once again, another blast from the past. I finished the trail on the 29th, but I've been busy!)

Our CDT finale would be nothing without a little struggle.  In fact, my friend Liz, who finished about a week before I did, made sure to inform me that she felt like she wasn't done hiking by the end of the trail becasue the weather was so beautiful when they finished.  I didn't experience that emotion... 

Our departure from East Glacier for the national park was already a bit challenging.  Although the trail left directly from town, no hitchhiking required, we needed to make it to the ranger station, 14 miles down the trail.  Knowing we might be slightly hungover that day due to The Hoopla, we had intended to ONLY hike 14 miles for the day and camp by the ranger station.  Well, we managed to be more than slightly hungover, and after a call to the ranger station, discovered it was their last day for the season, they closed at 4:30, and, no, they could not leave our permit attached to the door.  With no chance in sight of leaving town in our current condition, I volunteered to hitch to and from the ranger station to pick up the permit, allowing the boys more time in town, and removing our time restriction for the afternoon.  It turned out to be a good call, as the terrain was more challengeing than we had realized, and it was very dark by the time we made it to camp.  But made it we did, and we were rewarded with a lovely, lazy morning the next day. 

We departed Two Medicine late in the morning, with only a short day planned.  All of our hiking in the park was through a permit system, and we were expected at certain campsites on certain nights.  It's a huge bummer because we can't hike "normal" days, but atleast the short days are enjoyable! We made it to our camp really early, and caught up with our friend Burrito.  She had an itinerary that shared our campsite that night, and was lucky enough to share camp with us on Movie Night!  We had previously rented and downloaded what turned out to be a horrible Tom Cruise movie (Oblivion), and watched it on the Kindle Fire huddled in the cold before retreating to our sleeping bags. 

At some point in the night, the rain started.  Secure in the tent, we dozed through it, but when we awoke in the morning, the clouds were socked in above us and it would periodically open up.  Knowing that we had a gnarly 26 mile day, we had to decide early if we should go for it, or consider bailing options.  I, unfortunately, have really old, worn rain gear that doesn't do crap.  It only takes about 30 seconds of rain for me to soak through, and about another 30 seconds for me to start being miserable.  If you don't believe me, ask Breeze.  Knowing my limitations, I was very skeptical about hiking forward and leaving my tent, so we elected to stay a little longer and see if the conditions changed.  We knew that would change our permit camping, but we also figured we could talk our way out of it, so, we grabbed our food from the bear hang and ate and slept all morning. 

Or almost all morning.  If it weren't for that pesky bear.  At some point a disgruntled bear decided to share his feelings of being crowded by us, and proceeded to growl and grumble at us while Green Flash and I half-heartedly yelled at him from the safety of our 3 millimeter tent walls to go away.  After our unfriendly friend seemed to get louder, Breeze brought the yelling to a whole new level and sent that bear running with a few harsh words. 

When the rain started to let up around mid-day, we elected to hike on, up and over Triple Divide Pass, then head down, down, down.  We packed up, tried to waterproof our backpacks as best as possible, and hit the trail.  Until Green Flash's backpack broke.  The whole arm strap that is critical for attaching the pack to the body.  Oops.  Sadly, with our camp broken down and securely packed, there was no where to hide from the steady drizzle of cold rain.  As he tried to repair the pack with floss, needle and very cold fingers, I got progressively colder and had to start running and doing jumping jacks to get my blood flowing.  I was not built for winter camping.

But once we got going, it was honestly beautiful.  The trail was mostly clear of snow, and once on top of the pass, we had warmed up and were beginning to dry out from the wind.  Then we went down.  I think I made it about an hour before I started crying.  

As we dropped down, the dry snow turned to wintery mix, and I turned into a mess.  Breeze tried to gently coax me the best he could, but I was drenched and getting colder with every step.  My hands and feet were not functioning well, and every article of clothing on my body was wet.  The only motivation I had was that I had packed my sleeping bag well and I knew that even if everything else was wet, that should be dry.  But it still sucked.  I couldn't eat or drink water all day because it was too difficult to perform the most basic of functions, ones I previously performed multiple times a day without having to think about it.  But here I was, trying to coax my body parts into motion.  I repeated tried to wipe the tears and snot from my face, but my fleece gloves were so saturated with rain that I could squeeze out the water just by making a fist.  When we reached a campsite on the north side of the pass, I desperately wanted to camp, even though it wasn't our site, and Breeze and I set up the wet tent. 

Once inside, I was able to peel the wet layers off my skin and climb in my sleeping bag.  Sadly, Breeze's sleeping bag didn't fair as well as mine, and he had a long night of trying to dry the sleeping bag with his body heat.  We watched Oblivion again.  It was as bad as the night before. 

In the morning, we did a team eval.  Green Flash had good gear and was fine to go forward, but I desperately needed better rain gear, and Breeze wanted to dry out.  So we checked the maps, and discovered that we were really close to a side trail that could dump us right into St. Mary- a Glacier NP gateway town that consists of tourists and seasonal workers.  AND we knew someone there, a 2012 PCT hiker that was offering to take in hikers that needed a place to escape the weather.  So without much second-guessing, we were headed to town!

(bonus story - as we were walking out, we ran into a Backcountry Ranger, and he was super CDT-friendly, having been a 2011 PCT hiker himself.  He knew that we would have permit issues if we went back into the office because they were trying to close the trail due to weather, so he offered to do all the sweet talking for us, and was able to issue us a new permit right on the spot!)

Then we found our seasonable-employed hiker friend, Tickled Pink, and quickly exploded our wet backpacks in the employee laundry room.  We were able to dry gear, wash clothes, and get clean, plus there was a TV and couches perfect for commandeering.  As we made ourselves comfortable, 6 other hikers came in, also escaping the weather, and we had quite the shindig!  We had elected to take a zero day to avoid the worst of the weather, and planned to head out just before the forecast predicted sunny, warm skies.  Sadly the meteorologists were wrong, for what is likely the first time ever, and we ended up missing those sunny skies...

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Bob.

(Sorry, these blog posts are a bit late!)

The Bob Marshall Wilderness was the second to last section of the trail as we wandered through Montana.  We were aware ahead of time that the Bob was facing trail closures due to fires in the area, and we entered with slight uncertainty about the upcoming trail. We were however, excited about a few things.

First off, we discovered a yurt.  Only a few miles north of the Lincoln crossing, we came across a newer structure that was opened and fully stocked.  There was a register, chairs, water, food, fuel and protection from the wind, so we happily piled in and made ourselves comfortable. We originally planned to hike a few more miles, but with such luxurious accommodations, we settled in for a cozy evening.  In true hiker trash/tech geek fashion, Breeze rented and streamed a movie on his phone and in the morning we brewed up some coffee on the propane stoves. :)

Aware that we camped a little early, we pushed the miles for the next two days to make it to Benchmark Ranch in an attempt to meet Breeze's friend who spent the summer building trails in the area.  Unfortunately we missed the rendezvous as the trail crew had finished a day early, but atleast we were able to pick up our resupply boxes at the ranch.  (and for a consolation prize...we met up with him for a beer on our drive home!)  It was a quick stop, with nothing more than some locked cabins and a bear box with hiker packages, but we were happy to find what we shipped intact and loaded it up.

And then we hiked.  The weather was mostly cooperative, with warmer days and only the occasional rain. As we had already known, trail closure signs were posted all along the trail, and we used the mediocre maps attached to navigate the alternate.  Sadly, we missed the crown jewel of the area, a geological feature known as the Chinese Wall, a 1000ft+ cliff face that runs for 10 or more miles.  I wish I could give better details or a picture...but I never saw it.  When we rolled into East Glacier 5 days later we found out that the trail closures had actually been lifted but no one took the signs down.  So we missed the best part due to misinformation.  Not Cool.

Through this section we bounced into a bunch of other hikers, all aiming to get to East Glacier in time for the First Annual Hiker Hoopla! hosted by the lovely folks from the CDT Montana.  When we got closer to the town, we elected to hitch to town early so we could eat more and skip the rain, then come back out and hike those miles when the skies cleared.  It worked out perfectly for us, and gave us lots of time to mingle with other hikers.  Once the party rolled around about 25-30 thru hikers had positioned themselves in East Glacier to celebrate.  Some, like ourselves, were at that trail location.  Some, such as Liz, had  just completed the trail and were back in East Glacier before heading home.  And others had hitched from locations south along the trail.  The hoopla included food, live music, and free flowing drinks, and all were merry!

Soon to come, The Final Leg: Glacier. National. Park.