Momma Said There’d Be Days Like These

Embracing the brutality.

Good golly. One week back on trail and I had the most challenging day in all my hiking. Type 2 fun for sure! But I did what I could to stay safe, keep my spirits up, and get as far as I could for the day. Even if I didn’t even get 8 miles, it surely felt like 20! The entire day was physically and emotionally exhausting, but, at the same time, breath-taking in so many ways.

Getting up the gumption

Looking up at the first big challenge. It looks much steeper in person.

The day started out easily enough. I hiked a few more miles on the plowed forest road. The snow banks were at least as tall as me in some places, which made for easy hiking on a gentle grade. Then I got to the end of the plowed section and came to a wall of snow. At least 200 yards across and deep enough that I could look over the kiosk at the trailhead. As I walked along, I tried to find the crusty snow so I could stay on top. But, alas, sometimes my foot broke through and I sunk all the way to my upper thigh. Finally, I got to dry ground and hiked about a half mile before my next obstacle. 

Climbing up the rock scramble and pausing for the views.

Boy was this one a doozy! I knew from the topo maps that it would be steep. I knew for looking up at it from the valley that it still had snowpack. Standing directly in front of it, though, was a whole ‘nother beast. I stood there gulping, nervous about the climb. Wondering, “How the heck am I going to manage this???” It was only 1/4 mile, but I was terrified. I dithered about for a bit, even tried to get a signal to call someone in my family for a pep talk, but no luck. I had to gather my wits and go get it. The only other choice was to go back down to town and I was NOT going to do that.

So, I put on my microspikes, and plotted my route. I could see someone had previously climbed straight up the face of the snow. The grade on the climb looked to be about 45*. No way was I going to attempt that. I decided my best course of action would be to navigate around the side of the snow. The lower part of the slow was just as steep, but not nearly as technical. I began my ascent and quickly came to a rock scramble for the top half. It reminded me of climbing mountains in New Hampshire and Maine on the AT. I paused a few times on the climb, caught my breath, and picked out my path for the next 50 feet. That’s how I got to the top. Just 50 feet at a time. Eating the elephant one bite at a time, if you will. I was so excited to crest that ridge! The relief was overwhelming and the view was amazing!

Breathless

Breath-taking views from 12k, literally breath-taking!

The next few miles had little elevation change, but I was up at 12,000 feet, so I was breathless. Not to mention the gorgeous, breath-taking views! I took several short breaks just to gasp in the thin air. I was amazed at how I could really feel the difference in my athletic performance from even just 1,000 feet difference from the forest road. As I walked along, the trail was occasionally covered in snowpack. Many of these sections had soft snow which made traversing on the steep slow a bit treacherous. I did cross the short sections where I only had a few steps through the snow. But anything more than 20 yards or so, I circumnavigated. Not always easy across the grade, but it felt safer for me.

Before my last big climb of the day, I found a large, flat boulder and set a timer on my phone. I laid back, snacked, drank some electrolytes, and took a short nap. Then I got going again. This climb was not as terrifying as the first, but not easy either. At one point, I went around another steep climb on snowpack, and ended up off trail. I couldn’t find it, even though I had GPS and I was in an alpine meadow. The trail seemed to have disappeared. As happens so often in these situations, though, I accidentally stumbled upon it and found the going much easier over the last ridge. I knew the rest of the day was all downhill and it was only mid-afternoon. I was hoping to get another 5-6 miles in before I made camp.

Sledding without a sled

Snow, snow, snow. Beautiful, yet terrifying to go down this slope.

As I started down the valley draw, I was excited to make good time. The trail was descending fairly steeply, but leveled out every 50 feet or so. So, steep, dry descent, then nearly flat, several times. I was hoping and praying that the conditions would remain this way all the way to the place I was targeting for camp. But, this is the CDT. We don’t say “embrace the brutality” for nothing.

I came to a line of low scrub, buried in snow. Snow as far down the valley as I could see. First, I put my microspikes back on. I tried to walk on the crust, but it was too soft and deep. If you haven’t post-holed in deep snow before, let me tell you, it will wear.you.out. Doing it on a steep descent, is terrifying. Instead, I decided to sled on my knees, and occasionally my bottom. I used my poles to check my speed as I descended. It worked pretty well, and I tried to keep as close to where I thought the trail was, figuring that would be the best grade. I really didn’t want to get to a point where I came to a drop-off and couldn’t get out of the situation.

At one point, I did come to a steeper section. I could see tracks from winter sports enthusiasts – skiing or snowmobiling? I have no idea how they would have gotten to the top. When I came to the sharp drop on the slope, I was concerned about tumbling down. Fortunately, there was a line of pine trees going down this section. I made my way over to them and grabbed onto branches to ease my way as I walked down. I was fully inside the trees at times to be able to grab a sturdy enough branch. It smelled like pine air-fresheners, but not artificial. 

Finally, finally! I got to a section of the snowpack that had a solid crust and was able to carefully walk another 200 yards or so. This whole snowpack section was probably 1/2 mile long. It took me a good hour to navigate safely, though. As abruptly as the snow started, it ended.

Wildfire 

Wildfire burn scar as far as the eye could see.

Since I was off-trail through the snow section, I came to the burn scar off-trail. It looked fresh, and again, that was all I could see ahead. Blackened, downed trees crisscrossing the valley slope. Most of them seemed to be somewhat aligned with the slope, so I tried to find the trail as I descended. Over and under tree after tree. Covering myself and my gear in soot. When I couldn’t find the trail, I thought maybe following the stream down would be a clearer path. It was more of a narrow raging river with all the snowmelt. And with the addition of downed trees crossing it every 10 feet, it was even scarier. So, I just followed the slope down, figuring I’d eventually come to the end of the burn scar and could find the trail again at the point. I was even thinking that maybe the burn scar was too fresh for the trail to have been cleared yet.

Another 1/2 mile and over an hour after I started making my way through the burn scar, I was wiped. Climbing over stacks of trees (sometimes 3 or more trees laying on top of each other), scraped and bruised, filthy, and sweaty, I still could not see the end of the wildfire remains. I started looking for the largest, safest place to set up camp, right in the ashes. I found a space in the triangle of some downed trees that barely fit my tent. It wasn’t completely level or flat, but it was good enough. The foot end of my tent was suspended over the open hole from an uprooted tree. I didn’t care. I was done. There were some widow-makers nearby, but I figured the heft of the trees that surrounded my tent at chest level would protect me if one of them came down. 

I was sweaty and filthy from the soot. My gear was a mess. I stood next to my tent and stripped down there for all the world to see. Fortunately, this was remote wilderness, so no one DID see. I washed off what I could and then pulled out my clean sleep clothes and bedding, being careful to toss them all into my tent to stay clean. I crawled in, got my bedding set up, and dressed for bed. By then, it was time for my book club meeting. When I’m hiking, I try to join in the weekly discussions if I have a signal. I joined the zoom call and gave the other ladies a quick rundown of my day, stating that I would probably leave early because I was so tired. I made it about a 1/2 hour. I didn’t even eat dinner, journal, read, or do any of my evening toiletry. I was asleep before 7.  

The sun will come out tomorrow

Lasting memories of a challenging day on the CDT.

Bruised legs from the adventure.

The next morning, I got up refreshed and ready to leave the wildfire remains. I was hoping it would take less than 30 miles of hiking. I had miles to make up for the short, but overtaxing, day. I had to laugh to myself when I accidentally found the trail, cleared and easy, within 5 minutes of setting out. I sent a snap to my family chat with cheers of excitement. And in 10 minutes, the burn scar ended as abruptly as it started.

This trail ain’t for the faint of heart. One reason I chose to do these hikes, is because I like to test my limits. That day tested my limits. “If it were easy, everyone would do it.”

 

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Comments 1

  • Jeff Greene : Jun 24th

    Wow! Brutal day to tackle alone! Hope it stays a bit smoother sailing for you…

    Reply

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