A Really Big Sky: Thru-Hike Prep in the Northern Rockies
What started out as an arduous slog through several inches of fresh snow has become something else. I’m practically sprinting now. Powder is flying in every direction, my feet relentlessly plowing through it. I imagine that I’m literally burying the last few months of my life under every inch of displaced snow.
It’s a good feeling, a reminder that I’m once again holding the keys to my own well-being.
The ferocity of my pace is causing me to sweat despite steadily falling snow and temperatures in the low-20s. I stop and unzip my coat, allowing the wintry air to penetrate through to my skin. The bite from the chill is cathartic, a gift I gratefully accept. I am relieved to find that I’m very much present in this moment; the serotonin is obviously flowing.
I spot a bench next to the trail and decide to rest for a while. No sense in overdoing it. I have a long walk back to the hotel and I’ve forgotten my Nalgene again.
I brush snow off the wood seat with my bare hands and sit down, stretching out my legs as I look around. There isn’t a whole lot to see due to the weather. I’ve been here several times before, and on a typical day, I can see mountains extending out in every direction. Today there’s not a peak to be found.
As the snow lightens up a bit, I suddenly find myself focusing very intently on a specific recent memory, one which I would rather not be thinking about right now. Or ever, really.
I hastily put earbuds in and find my favorite album on Spotify. I shift my thoughts to the PCT permit I will be applying for in a few days as the music starts playing:
Don’t wanna be an American idiot
Don’t want a nation under the new media
And can you hear the sound of hysteria?
The subliminal mind-fuck America
I consider the fact that Montana isn’t going to be the most convenient place to prepare my body for long-distance hiking this time of year, but somehow I know this is precisely where I’m supposed to be.
The mountains I can’t see have drawn me back here for a reason.
I have to trust them.
Hiking trails in this part of the world—specifically southwest Montana—typically become snow-covered by mid-November. In a really good snow year, it can be much earlier than that.
Although I will most definitely encounter snow in the Sierra while on the PCT, the majority of my time on the trail will be spent walking on ground that isn’t covered by the stuff. In addition, the consistency of the snow I’ll be hiking on here is not what I’ll come across in California.
I’m stepping off from Campo on May 24, which puts me into Kennedy Meadows and points beyond relatively late. The snow will likely be a slushy mess by then, much different than the packed powder I’m experiencing on trails right now.
While it’s definitely possible to rack up good hiking miles here, doing so can be a bit of a chore. You need traction devices to get around, especially later in the season. I learned the hard way last March when I took a painful tumble on a very icy trail.
I’ve listed some pros and cons to training in this harsh winter environment.
- I’ll get some practice finding trails that are buried in snow. Navigation skills will improve.
- This is a skiers’ paradise. Once I learn how to do it, I’ll have a good way to get additional exercise.
- It’s unreal how beautiful this place is in winter
- I don’t have any backpacking experience. Getting that here during winter is certainly doable, but it will be challenging for this first-timer.
- Frigid temperatures will make some hiking days miserable.
- I just want to walk, man. What is with all these foot contraptions?
It’s Not Just about the PCT
“I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love.”
I easily could have gone somewhere like Death Valley for the winter. That would be an ideal place to get in lots of hiking miles.
But at the end of the day, I had other considerations. I didn’t want these months to just be about preparing for the PCT. I wanted to be somewhere I already knew I would love.
I think I made the right choice.
What’s the plan?
My preparation is going to be multifaceted. Here’s the breakdown:
Despite the snow, I plan to get 500+ hiking miles in before I leave in April. This, combined with other outdoor activities, should have me in great shape by May. I want to have strong trail legs before I hit the PCT. My late start means I’ll have to put in an average of 20 miles per day to make it to Canada before the first snows arrive in Washington. Right now, I can hike 15-20 miles with ease—but that’s without a pack.
My best friend lives here, there are many opportunities in these mountains for solitude and reflection, and I’m currently in weekly therapy for my depression/anxiety.
Everything looks good on this front.
Logistics and Supplies
My resupply person lives in South Carolina. I’ll be paying her a visit at winter’s end.
There’s an REI less than a mile from me, so that’s easy.
I definitely plan to work on sharpening my photo-taking skills while I’m here this winter so I can properly document my time on the PCT.
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