CDT Take Two: SOBO Through Glacier National Park
“Back on the trail, back on the traaaaiiil, we don’t stop ‘til we get up that hill!”
Thanks to Pat “Axel” Dixon, I had a soundtrack for my return to the hiking life. And after 11! zeros it was definitely worth celebrating. CDT take two, southbound. Josh and I had spent a couple of days in Santa Fe and then road-tripped around Colorado before coming up to Montana. This gave the snow a chance to melt in Glacier National Park, and Giggles was able to go home and visit with friends and family for a few days.
The decision to flip was incredibly difficult. Our goal had been to walk north. Choosing to hike the Great Basin had broken up the hike somewhat, but flipping up to Glacier to southbound the whole rest of the CDT was different. The priority had to be safety and assessing the avalanche danger in the San Juans, and Giggles, Josh, and I all came to the same conclusion.
Even if we did everything we could to avoid triggering avalanches ourselves, there was still the risk of naturally triggered avalanches.
So even though I wanted to feel like a badass by hiking on through Colorado, I had to admit that the situation was above my level of risk tolerance. I tried to let go of the pride I had wrapped up in this vision of myself as a PCT thru-hiker who went through the Sierra Nevada in 2017. I tried to find humility in acknowledging that the conditions and weather events were larger than my own ability to push through adversity. When the three of us made the decision, I felt some sadness, and also some relief. I knew that I had made the right call for myself.
Josh and I showed up at the Apgar permit office before it was light out. I sat with my headlamp staring at a map of the park, figuring out which sites to ask for as first and second choices. When the rangers arrived we were able to start the process. The difficulty was in convincing the ranger helping us that we were capable of not getting rescued from the Highline Trail. We assured her that we knew how to use our ice axes and crampons, and that we would turn around if anything got to sketchy.
We looked at bailout options with her, showed her our Ursacks, bought bear spray, and she wrote us a permit! Heck yes!
Turns out she hiked the PCT a couple of years ago, so I think she was pretty sympathetic. And I can definitely agree that it’s important for thru-hikers to be prepared and ready to self-evacuate if necessary. There have been at least two rescues of early-season sobo CDT-ers off the Highline Trail in the last two years, and we had no intention of adding to that number.
Josh and I met Giggles at the Kalispell Airport in the afternoon. We made some sweet hitching signs (block lettering is a thru-hiking skill) and set off. We made it to East Glacier in four hitches, never more than fifteen minutes between. Not bad! It was starting to rain, though, and our last ride recommended a couple of restaurants. We headed to Serrano’s to fill our bellies with nachos and margaritas and put a roof over our heads for the night.
At dinner we met a couple of guys out pack rafting in Glacier for a couple of days. They came by the Rock ‘n Roll Bakery in the morning, and ended up giving us a ride all the way to Babb, where we caught another hitch to Chief Mountain.
The US Border Patrol kindly let us walk to the actual line and the three of us took some cheesy border pictures.
Josh and I said goodbye to Giggles, who would go into Waterton and meet us in the evening at our designated campsite. Finally, it was time to walk! The trail along the Belly River was lush, verdant, and full of both mosquitoes and bear sign. I yelled “Hey bear!” whenever we weren’t talking, and Josh put his bear bell on his trekking pole. (After a couple of days we concluded the little bells are useless. Maybe a cowbell would be loud enough.)
From the Belly River, Josh and I took a trail up and over Stoney Indian Pass to reconnect with the CDT.
Between the jagged peaks and rushing waterfalls we kept walking by, I couldn’t get enough of the landscape.
When it rained it was annoying but it didn’t matter. The pass was legit: snowy, sun-cupped approach, complete with creek crossings, and a steep treed descent on which we used both ice axes and crampons.
We could see Giggles’s tent beside the lake down below us, but we weren’t sure how to get around the lake. The trail was covered by snow and water on one side, and the other side looked too cliffy. What to do? Luckily the trail was only a few inches underwater! We just walked. I think Giggles was glad to be reunited with us, after hiking alone and worrying about bears all day.
The next morning the three of us went up the trail through thick green undergrowth.
It didn’t feel like many people had walked this section so far this season. Maybe one.
We rounded a corner and I saw a bear running around the next corner, light brown butt bouncing along. I think they heard us coming and skedaddled, but Giggles, Josh, and I took a break and made some noise for a few minutes, and then sang made up songs to the bear as we continued.
The views were amazing every time the trees opened up. The mosquitoes were bad, so we took one break on a bridge above a very active creek, and another break on a rocky, exposed section where we thought the breeze would protect us. We thought wrong.
Giggles was in front most of the time, because she walks faster than I do and I don’t like feeling like the person behind me wants to go faster. (Josh doesn’t care too much.) The trail had been switchbacking up through patches of snow. She went around a bend and immediately walked back to where I was, a few steps back, clacking her poles together and saying “Hey bear!” I joined right in and she said the bear had just been running at her! I was thinking I should probably grab my bear spray from my hip belt, when I saw the bear running along around the next section of trail I could see. Again we waited and made noise before walking onward.
This time there were running bear prints in the snow.
Both Giggles and I had seen a hump on the bear’s back, but they weren’t huge paws, which left the bear’s identity in question. It could have been a small grizzly or a cinnamon black bear. Either way, I’m glad it decided to run away!
This was our Highline Trail day, and it was a beast.
The trail was snowed over for long stretches, and the many steep traverses were time consuming. The gnarliest bits were near Fifty Mountain campground, and then at the end of the day on the Ahern drift. Josh bravely took the lead on the Ahern drift and kicked steps into the 50 degree slope.
I’ve come a long way since my first steep snow experiences on the PCT. I no longer sing the Radiohead lyrics “this is a low flying panic attack” in my head. Now I mostly just make sure my steps are firm, that I plant my ice axe, and I move forward. I had a few moments of fear on the drift though, and I was glad not to be in front.
Because of Glacier’s designated campground permit system, we had to keep on pushing to Granite campground. There were many more traverses on slushy evening snow, and I was grateful for the late northern summer sunset. We got to camp at 10 pm after 16 hours of hiking. It was a tough day. I had to make myself stay up to eat dinner, but luckily I had some incredibly delicious freeze-dried chicken tikka masala. Thanks Giggles! She got it from another thru-hiker’s mom, who freeze-dries meals from the local Indian restaurant.
The next day I was exhausted and my hand hurt from gripping my ice axe, but the hike down to Many Glacier was beautiful and easy.
I bought a head-net and some snacks at the camp store, and had lunch with Giggles and Josh at the restaurant. We took a Ley alternate back to the trail that put us on the west side of Lake Josephine. Two moose were frolicking in the water, splashing and running as park visitors watched from the other side of the lake.
Back on the CDT it started raining. The three of us huddled under a tree to eat a snack and put on rain gear when another hiker came by in the opposite direction. He enthusiastically told us the river ahead was really cold, and that the pass ahead was snowy but we could cut straight up. He was somehow like a ray of sunshine, even though we talked for only a couple of minutes before he skipped on down the trail. I think we all would have asked him to come with us if he hadn’t been day hiking.
Piegan Pass wasn’t so bad, although avoiding the snow-covered switchbacks meant walking directly up a steep slope next to a melting snow bank. The last sections were snow-free. At the top we huddled in the wind-break of some rocks and ate snacks while fending off an overly-curious chipmunk.
That night we camped at Reynolds campground. We knew there were other hikers by the bear bags hanging, but I think they were hiding from the mosquitoes in their tents. I wore all my rain gear during dinner and tried to air out my feet by taking off my shoes and socks and draping my pack cover over my feet. It didn’t work very well. My feet were white and swollen from continued soaking during the day.
In the morning the trail went along the Saint Mary River for several miles. It was windy and white-capping and Josh and I fantasized about zipping along in a Hobie cat. I watched two little ferry boats struggling in the waves. Josh and I changed our minds and decided a Quest would be just fine.
Not having either kind of sailboat at our fingertips, we kept on walking.
Josh was looking at the map and proposed to Giggles and I that we could cut off two miles by going cross-country for just 500 feet. The two trail miles went upstream to what we supposed was a bridge. It couldn’t hurt to go check out the river for a potential crossing, it was so close we could already see it. The three of us decided to go for it and Josh went ahead. I saw how deep it was on him, and I took off my socks and insoles before crossing behind Giggles. Within a few steps I was waist deep and despite planting my poles firmly, I couldn’t move a foot and maintain balance. I tried anyway and got swept off my feet for a moment. I got very wet, but no harm was done. I managed to regain footing and Giggles stayed right in front of me, blocking the current as we got to the far bank.
Onward to Triple Divide Pass! This one was very cool. An intersection of three ridge lines, where the three valleys are separate watersheds, going to the Pacific, Atlantic, and the Gulf. I don’t think any of my pictures did it much justice. The views on the descent of Medicine Grizzly Lake were just stunning. That night we shared a campsite at Atlantic Creek with a hiker heading up to start the Pacific Northwest Trail. Our little site was incredibly crowded with her Duplex, the Hubba Hubba Josh and I share, and Giggles’ little Copper Spur squeezed in.
I tried to fall asleep in the 10 pm dusk light as thunder crashed.
A woman guiding a trip warned us that we might run into an aggressive ptarmigan on the trail out, but there was no sign of the bird as the three of us headed out toward Pitamakan Pass. Plants wet with dew and rain soaked my feet. High peaks above were dusted by snow. When I hit the snow line I was trailing behind the others as my period cramps set in. What had been a readable boot track was covered by snow. I found Giggles’ prints following those of a moose, and then I found her checking Guthook and heading back toward the “trail.”
It snowed on us as we approached the pass, and I thought it was the solstice, which felt very epic. Then I discovered that it was actually the 20th. It was still epic. I have a deep affection for walking through a fresh thin layer of snow. The magic of altitude and latitude!
About three miles away from Two Medicine I started crossing paths with day hikers. In the campground Josh and I noticed our first two bighorn sheep, feet planted in the rusty fire pit of an unoccupied site. “Hi sheep! What are you doing eating people trash?” I asked them.
At the ranger station we met up with Giggles and went in to provide a full report about the Highline Trail. The ranger took notes on a pink post-it. Giggles said that both the section before the notch, just south of Fifty Mountain campground, and the Ahern drift were super spicy, which he put in quotes. With directions to the campground store and cafe, the three of us trooped on.
I highly recommend the soft-serve wild berry ice cream.
Some major hiker trash yard sale-ing ensued: we spread out all our gear right in front of the store to dry, and sat on the lawn while other park visitors wandered around us. Some of them asked us questions and I felt a little like a zoo animal, being dirt-covered and different and on display like that. Everyone was nice though, and one of the red tour bus drivers brought us a coffee and asked us questions about the trail. He was planning to hike the CDT through the park during his next week off.
Finally we dragged our tents and bags together, re-packed, and found the trail leading up to Scenic Point. Very up. I was tired and lagged behind as Josh went full speed ahead. A marmot ran ahead of Giggles for a while with seemingly no desire to move off the trail. They (the gender-neutral marmot) cut a switchback and got in front of her again before finally retreating to under a rock. When I came by the marmot made some moves and I said “No way, you stay there.”
A little farther up, I encountered two hikers who said I was on the last switchback and almost there (which was highly misleading because I was most definitely not at the top).
Then another bighorn sheep! Who would not get off the trail. I asked several times and then they came toward me so I clacked my poles together. I told the sheep that they could not have my salt. Finally I was begrudgingly allowed to get by.
At the top I found Josh lying down resting. I sat for a few minutes and then Giggles and I continued on, talking as we wound down and out of the park to East Glacier. All was green and beautiful and the big grey thunderstorm to the north stayed away.
In town we stayed at Brownie’s Hostel, ate pizza, and found Stoke, who had also flipped north! It was a very international scene, not just hikers, and it felt good to be social.
We would get back on trail the next day, but for now I could laze around, drinking beer, walking around barefoot, and putting off my shower because I didn’t care how dirty I was.
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