To The Zone of Death

Idaho State Highway 29 is not a busy road. Rather than hitch, I arranged a ride out of Leadore with Jen, a local trail angel. But first, I needed to collect my twice-bounced box from the post office. Its contents were still intact, but the box barely survived three rounds with the USPS. I repacked my bear canister outside the Stage Stop while waiting for the place to open. Members of the biggest hiker bubble I would encounter on the CDT were also outside: Dink, Gatsby, Locomotive, Rogue, Slim Jim, Songbird, and Thumper.

Jen dropped me and Dink at Bannock Pass just as some slightly wet and windy weather arrived. With a pretty big climb to keep me warm, conditions were almost perfect. By the time I summited Elk Mountain, the sky was starting to clear. The rain died down and the wind picked up. And up. And up and up.

There were some steep, rocky ups-and-downs that afternoon. Pretty frustrating when combined with strong wind and unpredictable gusts. Fortunately, I managed to avoid rolling an ankle, despite constantly getting blown off-balance mid-stride. I was even more fortunate to find the perfect place to camp, given the sparse tree cover. Once inside, I lay there listening to the wind roar through the trees, nice and cozy in my well-sheltered tent.

Death by a thousand PUDs

There are no trees for much of the distance between Bannock Pass and I-15. There’s a lot of sagebrush and short grass, so plenty of long-range views, but only if you stop looking at your feet. The terrain was rough, and I had to concentrate on exactly where each footstep would land. For two days, I mostly followed a rocky two-track across the tops of “rolling hills.” At least, they looked like rolling hills from a distance. Up close, the gradient was often steep enough that the climb was just a few percent shy of becoming a scramble. And of course, descents were just as severe. Thankfully, elevation changes greater than a few hundred feet were rare.

The morning of day three, after an hour, the CDT disappeared entirely. For the next 25 miles, there were only sporadic sections of trail. Sometimes it was pretty obvious where to go, e.g. just keep following the ridgeline. Other times, I had to route-find and backtrack. Where there were cairns or marker posts, they were often too far apart, so I’d frequently have to check my phone. Throw in a plethora of Pointless Ups-and-Downs, and you’ve got yourself a slow day.

Bare, rolling hills and a stormy sky.

Bad weather moves in.

Death by a million Volts

That afternoon was a complete PUD-fest. It concluded with a seven mile, west to east route-finding extravaganza, and some vanishingly rare, short bursts of trail. I picked my way from hilltop to hilltop, following an extremely lumpy ridgeline covered in smooth, rounded, fist-sized-and-larger rocks. To make matters worse, I wasn’t far along the ridge when a procession of thunderstorms moved in from the south. During one of the many short, steep climbs, there was a cloud-to-cloud lightning strike directly ahead of me, and shockingly close. I hastily retreated and hid near a small clump of trees.

After an hour of lightning, interspersed with well-timed, if slightly risky, ascents and descents, the clouds started to clear. The sun even came out for long enough to dry my rain jacket. About half an hour before sunset, I reached the saddle where I intended to camp. I pointed my tent into the wind, staked it down securely, and crawled inside. Then, after the longest, slowest day so far, I reflected on the last three days.

  • Highlight – watching a cowboy round up a small herd with the help of two cattle dogs.
  • Lowlight – deer flies. Worse than mosquitoes? I still can’t decide.

Living it up

Getting to Lima has a similar degree of difficulty as Leadore, but I’d planned ahead. The previous day, I’d called the Mountain View Motel and booked a room. They operate a shuttle that collects hikers at the I-15 underpass, three times a day. I needed to be at the interstate by 11:30 AM, so I got up slightly early, and left camp before six. After only three miles, the trail descended from the route-findy ridgeline, and joined a dirt road. My speed instantly doubled, and I arrived at the underpass with plenty of time to spare. Dink arrived soon after, and we chatted while waiting in the shade.

After checking in and collecting my resupply box, I went for lunch and did chores. Most of the Leadore hiker bubble were staying at the motel, and we all went for dinner at the nearby steakhouse. The next morning, I went to Jan’s CafĂ© for breakfast, and was still uncomfortably full by the time Monty, the shuttle driver, arrived. Rogue and I were back on trail at 11:30, and hiked, then camped together. It was nice to have some good company.

A couple of days later, I caught my first glimpse of the Grand Tetons from the upper slopes of Taylor Mountain. There’s a set of gentle switchbacks cut into the mountainside that were once part of a mining/wagon road. At the top, there’s a long, mellow, scenic traverse, with the unmistakable outline of the Tetons some 70 miles away. Where the CDT turns north, I took the Mack’s Inn alternate, and headed in the direction of Island Park.

Flowers and trees on a nearby slope, with a valley and mountains in the distance.

The view from Taylor Mountain.

Potential lifesaver

I camped about five miles from the highway and cruised down the remainder of Sawtelle Peak Road the next morning. My first stop was the grocery, and I bought five days’ worth of food. Then I packed it away while chatting to Rogue, who arrived not long after me. During our conversation, I discovered that bear spray has an expiration date. My 10-year-old canister of “Counter Assault” didn’t have a date marked on it, but Rogue’s new canister did. It lasts about four years.

Fortunately, the store sold cans of “GrizGuard”. Here’s how it compares.

  • Counter Assault. 32 feet, 8.1 ounces, 7 seconds.
  • GrizGuard: 30 feet, 7.9 ounces, 4 seconds.

I decided to test-fire my old bear spray in a nearby parking lot. The can lasted about five seconds and had a range of about 10 feet. The propellant and pepper components weren’t mixed properly, but the resulting cloud still made me cough for several minutes. Once I could speak again, I called Yellowstone’s Central Backcountry Office to book two campsites.

  • Site 8T1, tomorrow night. Available.
  • Site 8J2, the night after. Full. They gave me a place in 8J3 instead.

At 11 AM, I realized I’d stayed far too long. I’d been there about three hours, and I still had 21 miles to go. I said goodbye to Rogue and hit the road. Five paved miles and sixteen dirt miles later, I reached the boundary of Yellowstone National Park. I camped about an hour before sunset, in dense forest with a slightly ominous, claustrophobic feel to it. With any luck, I would survive my night on the edge of the zone of death.

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