It takes precisely two hours and seventeen minutes to hike from Pine Springs trailhead to the Pine Top campsite carrying a full load of water and gear for two nights in the Guadalupe Mountains backcountry. I know this because I had written that time on my map from a trip there three years ago, and that is exactly how long it took me this year as well. I do not believe in coincidences.
Pine Top is the first designated backcountry campsite after you’ve made it up Tejas Trail, only a 4 mile hike but a 2,300 foot elevation gain up a very rocky trail. Carrying all that water, you are happy to stop. As usual at Guadalupe Mountains National Park (GMNP), I had the place to myself–and by this I mean the entire 86,000 acre backcountry.
My plan was to go from Pine Top to McKittrick Ridge for the second night, then backtrack the ridge and come down and resupply with water at Dog Canyon Ranger Station on the isolated New Mexico side of the mountains. From there I could complete a loop of the Park on the west side, necessitating another 2,000-plus foot climb and two more nights. When I told the permitting Ranger that I needed permits for four nights, she professionally assessed me as possibly an idiot, but warmed up to me once I explained my plan and she realized how charming I am. Mostly, it was the plan.
On a side note here, on a GMNP trip I made a couple of autumns ago I was stopped by a Ranger on the trail who said I had an “ambitious itinerary” after he’d checked my permit (https://georgeschools.wordpress.com/2018/11/13/the-sun-the-stars-and-the-fall/). At the time, I was pretty proud that a Ranger thought I was doing something “ambitious” in the backcountry, but I noticed this time that “ambitious itinerary” was actually written on my permit. I don’t know if this is some kind of NPS official terminology for potential fools or if I started something, but–again–I don’t believe in coincidences.
Although Ranger LeAnn was reassured that there was at least a minimal chance that I knew what I was doing, she was clearly extremely worried about fire in the Park. “You’ve been here before, so you can see how incredibly dry it is this year. We’ve had fires almost every week, and we’re just waiting for the big one to come roaring down the canyon and wipe everything out. Have a nice trip!”
That first night up in Pine Top, I awoke at 2 a.m. in a lightning storm. Curiously, in my little tent up high on a ridge, with white-bright flashes and instantaneous crashes of thunder seemingly just the other side of my thin fabric shelter, it didn’t register with me to be afraid. I was tired, and I just lay there thinking “this is so cool.” You feel close to something.
I was up early the next day and made the eight mile hike to McKittrick Ridge fairly easily; you are already on top, so although there is some up-and-down you do not really gain much altitude. I had come in to McKittrick two falls ago from the other end, and that is one of the most beautiful hikes in the Park, something I definitely recommend. After I set up my tent I had time to kill, and so hiked further down the ridge overlooking McKittrick Canyon. On my return I could hear a small plane buzzing circles back toward Pine Springs Canyon, and sure enough the lightning storm the night before had started a large fire near the trail I had come up–and needed to go back down to return to my car in three days.
That night I went to sleep worried about my route out, but I was already deep in the Park and really couldn’t do anything but go to sleep and take it a day at a time. A light rain began around 3 a.m., relieving my fire worries a bit, but shortly afterward I heard two small explosions not far away and instantly thought “what idiot is shooting fireworks out here?,” followed by “that’s the stupidest thought you’ve had in a long time.”
The next morning I stumbled out of my tent to find that the ridgetop was now in the clouds, and the rain was simply the moisture in the clouds accumulating on all the trees and precipitating out. My morning ritual is pretty much just sitting quietly stunned and staring into space as I wait for that first cup of coffee to reconnect me to the world, so the gradual realization that there was a very large tree lying across the trail in front of my tent that hadn’t been there the night before was consternating, but explained the explosions I’d heard. I suppose all that moisture and the drop in temperature finally sent the burned-out snag down. I have always thought that a tree coming down on your tent in the middle of the night was one of the stupidest ways to die in the backcountry (this is not as rare an occurrence as you would think), so I took the miss as a positive sign. Life is better when you look at a tree that could have randomly killed you but didn’t and think “well, that’s a good sign.”
The third day’s goal was to descend to Dog Canyon and fill my water bladders, take a short break, then head off to the Marcus campsite for the night. This section of trail would be the longest day of the trip, but I’d done it before and knew it wasn’t all that hard. I had just gotten past Lost Peak when I looked up and found a horse and rider blocking my path. But behind the wrangler in front were two mounted Rangers behind.
You know you’re in deep West Texas when you are having a conversation with a real working cowboy on his horse while you stand to the side to let him get on with his work–Dennis the wrangler, who would later offer to transport me in his truck to get me back to my car on the other side of the Park. “You’d drive me all the way to Pine Springs?” I asked, and he just looked at me and said “I don’t see what else we can do.”
The Rangers were wonderful, a credit to our already amazing National Park Service. “Have you heard about the fire?” the one who looked like a reformed biker asked, long braided beard and tatted up including “Live Free” on the knuckles of his left hand. I knew what was coming. “They’re asking everyone to exit the backcountry,” which I knew meant specifically me. We talked for a while, thought about me going back up to McKittrick and exiting at McKittrick Canyon, which would still put me 10 miles or so from my car. “You could try hitchhiking,” said the lady Ranger, who I was slowly falling in love with, long braid in back, those incredibly white and straight outdoorswoman teeth, up there on her horse wearing that hat. She was just totally rocking that Smokey Bear hat. But I laughed at the idea of someone picking me up out there in the middle of nowhere, and she laughed too, so we just left it at me needing to resupply with water at Dog Canyon and I’d figure it out from there.
There is not much to do in Dog Canyon, except resupply with water. It’s a nice place, but I wouldn’t want to stay there; I did notwant to stay there. There was not a cloud in the sky, but I could see the clouds spilling over the tops of the mountains like waves over a seawall, all that moisture I had come through in the morning trapped on the side of the mountains with the fire, and I was pretty sure the Rangers would tell me in the evening when they got back that I could continue on.
But of course I was dealing with a governmental agency, and so that evening I got the bad news from rough people, who nonetheless repeatedly thanked me for my “understanding and patience.” I just said “it’s not your fault, you didn’t start the fire,” but went to bed with a plan.
I figured that the fire was probably fairly drenched by all that moisture in the air on the other side of the mountains. I also figured that I could skirt whatever fire there was by following my planned route well west of Tejas, and would only have to pay close attention for that last section from the mountaintops down to my car at the trailhead. And I especially figured that I needed to get up early and pack my gear so I could sneak out of Dog Canyon before those Rangers showed up to work.
But Rangers and cowboys start work early. Dennis was there first, to take care of the horses. Then the other two starting work before anyone I know clocks in, driving up and pretending not to notice that my pack was completely packed and I was obviously getting ready to hit the trail. “Well, the entire Park backcountry is closed,” tattoos said evenly. “Let’s find out what can be done.”
From then on it was just an exercise in remembering how wonderful people can be. Dennis wouldn’t be able to drive me out until they’d finished their day of work upcountry clearing trail and fighting fires, but he was happy to help me when he came down. But the Park Host volunteer, Kevin (who is the only nice person named “Kevin” I have ever met), said he’d take me to Pine Springs. We had an incredible hour and a half drive across the New Mexico and Texas high desert, passing herds of elk and old mining roads while talking about retirement, and beer, how Jeff Bezos destroyed the West Texas cowboy economy, what truly matters, and many, many other things. You could do worse in a fire.
My hiking buddy Rob Graham thought it would be motivational to remind me of a 2017 trip up Humboldt Peak, one of Colorado’s easier 14ers in the Crestones of the Sangre de Cristo Range. You could quite reasonably refer to it as a “walk up”–absolutely no technical skill is required, just keep walking up until you’re out of “up.”
That position is known as the “Sun Lizard,” or sometimes the “Dead Lizard” if you’re just walking by and see someone like this. “Looks like a dead lizard” they say as they check to see if your chest is rising and falling. Then they just leave you there. It’s not even embarrassing, because you truly don’t care about anything but not moving at this point.
This is a less refined version of the Sun Lizard, known as the “Dying Turtle.” You’ll note the jeans and cotton hoodie, things I’d never wear hiking now, but you can also see my headlamp attached to my chest strap, which means we’d started this Death March pre-dawn somewhere near Grey’s and Torrey’s Peaks in 2015, two other walk-up 14ers. You perform the Turtle rather than the Lizard when you are unwilling to remove your pack prior to collapsing. The thinking is that it is so much work to put it all back on, and if you can just lay down for a moment, just get some oxygen back into your lungs, you’ll be fine.
But you’re never fine. You lay there a few moments, and your heart stops pounding so you stand dramatically back up. But three or four steps later your heart is pounding itself out of your chest again, and now even the “Dying Turtle” seems like too much work. The shadow is of Ed Mahoney, another Colorado resident who–like Rob–never once made fun of me for assuming the position.
A lot of backpacking is about seeing how much the machine can bear. I don’t know, it might be different for younger people still feeling things out; that’s just me. Most of my solo trips are more-or-less a series of days walking as far as I can, and despite the extraordinary places my legs will take me I always eventually run out of gas. The feeling of accomplishment is in going just a smooch farther–sometimes a big smooch–on that empty tank. It is a nice feeling, and totally self-directed, so even if you don’t get as far as you’d hoped, you end each day knowing who you are just a little bit better.
Not so, Sun Lizard and Dying Turtle! These acts are entirely the result of external forces, and it is that helplessness when faced with oxygen levels I am unaccustomed to that I find highly irritating. I want to keep walking up the mountain, my legs are strong enough to keep walking up the mountain, but my heart is trying to explode out of my chest and so I think I’ll just lie down for a second. I really have no choice.
Each season it takes me a few days to get acclimated, and generally by the third day I feel much better. This kind of thing only happens in Colorado, by the way, where the mountains start high and go higher. Wyoming and Montana mountains are big and humbling, but they start lower and so even at their peaks you don’t notice that you’re being cheated out of some oxygen. Stopping is a choice you make.
The choice is not always based on being tired or finding a good place to camp. Sometimes, you just make a decision about gravity. Gravity is a physical property that is external to your will, very much like the amount of oxygen in the air you are breathing. But with gravity your body doesn’t let you know that the amount is not optimal until it is way too late. Choices like “if I fall here, I will die” or “if an avalanche starts here, I will die” leave it entirely up to you. You haven’t fallen yet, and so far there has been no avalanche. When you choose to stop you’ll never know if either of those things would have happened. Again, irritating, but not like that boom, boom, boom in your chest that you can’t do anything about.
I of course have plans for this coming season, none of which include images of me sprawled helplessly on a mountain peak. Funny how the mind works: I can imagine myself dealing with choices like turning around when the pass looks too dangerous, or deciding to carry bear spray even when I think the chances of me running into a 1,000 pound enraged carnivore do not outweigh the $40 expense. But I just can’t see having to stop because of something I can’t do anything about.
“If ever I should tell the moment: Oh, stay! You are so beautiful! Then you may cast me into chains, then I shall smile upon perdition!” Faust’s deal with the Devil, from Faust, Goethe.
“Don’t come back early.” I had just told my wife I was going to miss her as she dropped me off at the airport at 5 a.m. for my trip back to Wyoming’s Wind River Range, so her farewell had the taste of “come home carrying your shield, or on it.” We’ve been married a long time and I knew what she really meant, so I silently translated that to “enjoy your trip, don’t worry about me.” She’s funny that way.
My starting point was the Green River Lakes trailhead, about 80 miles south of Jackson, Wyoming. On Wyoming trail maps they call flat areas by rivers “parks” and claim they are great places to camp, and so I’d planned my first night’s stop at a place called Beaver Park. The trail is unremarkable, with the exception of Squaretop Mountain off to the west, which caused me to hear an endless mental loop of the five tones from Close Encounters of the Third Kind during the entire hike.
After about five hours of walking, a sharp pain had mysteriously begun in my right knee–it’s the only part of my body that has never hurt at one time or another up until now–and when I arrived at Beaver Park it was occupied by a large pack train run by rough women. No beavers were sighted. Feeling out of place and crowded, I continued on. By the time I got to Three Forks Park two miles further on, my knee wouldn’t take any more and I decided to camp. Amazingly, the one flat, dry area I could find in what turned out to be a mosquito-infested swamp had someone’s bag of food suspended directly over it in a tree, where bears couldn’t get to it. There was no one around to claim it, but I wasn’t going to camp directly underneath bear-bait, and so finally found a tiny spot of grass right next to the river and passed out without eating. I’d covered 13 miles of trail my first day, and the only thing I had eaten was a bag of pretzels on the airplane.
When I awoke the next morning for my first full day of hiking, the knee felt fine. I ate last night’s bag of dinner for breakfast–I recommend that everyone eat lasagna for breakfast at least once in their life–and took off for Vista and Cube Rock Passes. The Vista Pass Trail isn’t used very often because it takes you to only one place, and then once you get there it is even more difficult to get out of. The pass is a 2000-foot altitude gain in perhaps a mile and a half of walking, but as I said it is not much of a trail and the higher you go the less trail you’ll find. But I worked my way up the boulders, and could see above me where the pass topped-out.
Vista Pass Trail, lower and upper
Suddenly, sitting there in the shade of some very big boulders, were three fit older hikers, just sort of relaxing while one of them stared at their map. “Excuse me, but do you think we may have missed the trail to Vista Pass?” I promise you, when you think you’re lost, your brain dispenses with pleasantries until it gets the only important question out of the way. I told them they were in the right place although it might not have looked like it at the moment, and that I could actually see a bit of trail and the top of the pass, although they sounded doubtful when I tried to get them to see what I saw in the boulders above.
I’m always amazed at the wonderful people I meet once I’m at least one night out from the trailhead. “This is a lovely place, isn’t it?” said one without the map, even though he thought he was lost. He told me that as a teenager he’d hiked into the Winds from the WR Indian Reservation on the east side, all the way up Glacier Trail to the Divide and all its glaciers, and that now he was finally back. “I’m 68 now, so this is sort of a last hurrah” he laughed. “Speak for yourself, old man!” yelled across the rocks the third, a woman. “No last hurrahs for me yet.” He explained that she was from South Africa, as though that explained her.
Anyway, I told them I was heading that way, so if they saw me make it over the top they’d know it was the right trail; otherwise, I’d come back because I’d be lost, myself. Halfway up, in sight of the pass over the top, I realized we couldn’t see the trail because it was covered with a recent avalanche, and that the boulders I was scrambling over were moving and unstable. I’d reach and jump from one rock to another–not a childlike maneuver with a 35-pound pack on your back–and occasionally one would move slightly, and I’d be aware that the whole mountainside could just continue it’s way on down any moment it chose. I did finally make it over the top, but never saw them again.
The place Vista Pass takes you is Peak Lake and the source of the Green River, which eventually becomes the Colorado River. But people aren’t going to Peak Lake, they’re going to try and go over Knapsack Col above Peak Lake. I tried last year, but the snow turned me back.
What you get a lot of going to Knapsack Col is liars. On the 18 miles or so of trail up the Green River to Vista, I passed three other small groups. You run into backpackers in the middle of nowhere, and suddenly it is some kind of competition. “Where are you headed?,” they ask fake-innocently, “Knapsack? Us too!” I’m not the strongest hiker on the trail, but I looked at them and instantly thought “oh, heck no you’re not.” I never saw any of them again, either.
Amazingly, after I’d made it over Vista and Cube Rock Passes and was on my way down to Peak Lake, I met a woman at precisely the point where the only other trail coming into Peak Lake met my trail. After who knows how many dozens of miles in the backcountry, we each arrived at the precise point where we could neither avoid nor ignore each other, and I immediately saw that same look of fear I see every trip when a young woman alone encounters an old scruffy guy alone. “Did you just come over Shannon Pass?” I asked just to be polite; it was the only way she could have possibly come. “No, I’m doing Shannon tomorrow. I think I came over Vista, and then Knapsack.” I tried to get it straight in my mind, explained that the trail she was coming down came over Shannon (I came that way last year), and that Knapsack was across the ford below us and then up the Ice Age-looking valley after. “The rest of my party will be here any minute” she lied, really uncomfortable there in the middle of the mountains and glaciers and no one else except a strange man.
I made my camp that evening just beneath Stroud Glacier and the enormous waterfall pouring out of it as it melts. I had seen it last year, and thought “who’d want to camp with that constant roar?” But it was exactly where I needed to camp this year to be ready to try Knapsack early the next morning, and so when I stopped there this year the only negative I could find was a very bold marmot that was obviously going to try and steal my food the instant I turned my back if I camped there. This turned out to be that central moment I experience on each of my trips: when you start walking, everything is a jumble. You are still thinking about your life and the world and all the transient problems, and you just have this persistent feeling of being off center. And then you have this instant of perception, a moment where suddenly everything becomes clear, and the scene composes itself around you, as though that precise moment has suddenly become a snapshot, and you are so extraordinarily content. The trail, the glacier, Knapsack, myself–everything was so clear to me, both in its relation to me and taken alone. Except that marmot. He was a problem. And my knee had suddenly locked up again.
Knapsack Col is sort of famous, mostly because it is the only way out of or into the back end of Titcomb Basin–one of the most incredible places you will ever see on this continent. You can hike into Titcomb’s front end, but unless you’re willing to risk going over Knapsack, you just have to turn around and walk out the way you came in. Going up Knapsack from the west was not easy, but I didn’t really give myself a choice this time. I thought “other people have done it; there is no reason I cannot do it.” Last year I turned back because of the weather, but this was an extraordinarily beautiful day. So I made it over and down, and am proud of that and will never have to do that again. At the bottom, I met the only CDT through-hiker I’d cross this entire trip. He asked some questions about Knapsack, and I said I was glad I’d done it west-to-east because I didn’t envy anyone going over the other way–his direction. “It is straight up a scree slope, about 70 degrees, with that big snow cornice on the other side. Just big boulders down the back, also steep” which is what he said he had heard. When I told him that I hadn’t met any other through-hikers, he said forlornly “I’m all alone,” and I realized how late it was in the season to still be so far south. I met some hikers three days later who had seen him, and he was bloodied and torn from that scree ascent, but on he walked toward Canada.
There isn’t a trail at all between Knapsack Col and the end of Titcomb Basin; you cross a big snow field, and then snow turns to water flowing over rocks the lower down you go, and then you are basically walking down a waterfall. My knee had felt amazing once I understood I had made it over the pass, and I made very good time–ahead of schedule, even–as I met the trail and headed out of the Basin. But the knee suddenly hurt again, right around my tenth hour of walking, and so I found a wonderful campsite in a spot that had seemed totally inhospitable to me when I passed the year before. Outside my tent, just before retiring, I sensed again that feeling of sufficiency, of each thing clearly in relation to each other. And then a bald eagle, which I had not even seen until then–which is not easy to miss because it’s a really big bird and the sky was mountain clear–dropped straight down out of the sky like the finger of God and killed something for dinner, reminding me that even when you feel a scene composing itself around you, to never let down your guard.
I shot out of the front end of Titcomb the next morning and turned back north, up the Fremont Trail and over Fremont Crossing, and before I realized it was already on the section that cuts west across the Elbow Lake plateau to Summit Lake. The knee felt fine, fantastic even . . . until, again, it suddenly stiffened and stopped in the middle of perhaps the least welcoming landscape I have ever seen.
When you stop and look and listen hard at Elbow Lake, you understand what it feels like to be truly alone. It is as if the Ice Age has just ended, the glaciers receded, and you are all that is left. I have rarely heard such silence, and I realized that despite the great amount of water up there, there was no sound of running water. No wind. Only rock. And mosquitoes. I finally found a small patch of flat, rocky soil to pitch my tent on, prepared dinner, and took a moment to be grateful for the experience. And then I took another moment to laugh at the mosquitoes. They had been of Biblical proportions last year, but this year I was ready for them. It took considerable mental re-training to allow dozens of mosquitoes to gather on the netting inches in front of my face, and understand that I did not need to swat them away.
When I awoke the next morning, the knee felt fine. Reasoning that if I had injured it, it would hurt worse as time went by rather than feel better each morning, I decided to continue on. “The worst that can happen is that you will die” I said, and that is not much of a threat when the issue is that you are too old.
Several hours of trail later, I did not realize that I had reached Summit Lake. I knew only that I had suddenly come upon a scene from a more beautiful world, something before us. After the severity of the Elbow Lake landscape, it was like walking into a Luminist painting. Faust would have spent eternity in Hell had he even murmured “make this moment last forever,” and although I was way ahead of schedule and had plenty of daylight left to cover more miles and build up a cushion if the knee gave out, I stopped long enough to allow life to stand still a brief moment.
I met three very friendly hikers, based lower down and out for a long day-trip with lighter packs. When they asked where I was headed, and I answered “I’d like to get as far as Summit Lake,” there was an awkward pause as they stared at me blankly, and then informed me that I had arrived. I could not believe I had come that far that fast, but they were correct. I should have taken note, because this was going to be a problem later.
From Summit I passed quickly “No Name Lake,” which is the actual name of the lake on the map, leaving me to wonder what they call lakes that have no name (there are plenty up high). I was so unbelievably ahead of schedule that I stopped for a real lunch at Cutthroat Lake–boots off, food you need to eat with a spoon, fill up the water bladder, maybe take the shirt off and get a little tan.
No sooner had I found a comfortable spot to relax by the lake than an angry front of black clouds roared over the tops of the surrounding mountains, pelting me with enormous rain drops. During the frenzy to don my rain gear, a barrage of marble-size hail began to fall, and it seemed strange to get hit with balls of ice when it was only in the 60’s. The storm of course ended as soon as I had all my rain gear on, but somehow its passage made the lunch seem more delicious.
At Palmer Lake the trail turned north again, and I planned to camp that evening just after my trail’s wishbone juncture with parallel trail coming in from the other side of the mountains to my left at a place on the map called “New Fork Park.” I felt great; the knee felt great. At 5 pm I came upon another one of those Luminist scenes, a site so beautiful, so still yet full of potential, so pre-mankind, that I considered stopping early and camping there. But I knew I had at least another hour of walking before I reached New Fork Park, and there was still plenty of light, and so I walked on.
And on. And on. At 6 pm I thought “I should be there by now.” I knew there was a ford just before the park, and finally by 6:20 I crossed it. But then it was 6:45 with nothing but steep slopes, and then another ford where there shouldn’t have been one, and I understood that somehow I had missed my turn. Miraculously, I stumbled upon a lovely woman camped in a niche off the trail, and she confirmed my mistake. She was older, perhaps my age, with a beautiful ponytail that ran down her back past her waist. She asked where I’d come from, and when I said I’d slept the night before at Elbow Lake she said “you poor thing, you’ve gone a long way today (a little over 13 miles),” and invited me to share her campsite in the fading light. Despite this being a variation of every guy’s backcountry fantasy come true, I had distance to make up: I’d passed my turn by three and a half miles, and New Fork Park was the inviting spot I had wished I had time to camp at. I made it three miles back before nightfall, camping just the other side of the ford I had made, sharing my spot in the woods with a young moose and a really big deer, each of which walked through my campsite with a total lack of concern.
I had been worried about Porcupine Pass the next day: I knew that Knapsack looked easy on the map but wasn’t, but it turned out that Porcupine looked difficult but was relatively easy. Coming into Porcupine Pass from the south, there is a fairly steep and wooded trail to what looks deceptively like the top of the pass. But arriving at the top, you realize that you have reached simply the first step, a beautiful alpine meadow where grazing herds of elk are quite easy to imagine.
Across the meadow and up the last level to the top of the pass, where the wind suddenly roared above the shelter of my leeward side of the mountains. I had to lean into it to look down the steep other side, and the way down.
Standing at the top of Porcupine Pass and looking down, I thought “this is my last ‘down.’ I’ll not be going up again, at least not on this trip,” and so I took an extra moment or two in that blasting wind to take it all in one last time, and then started the trail down and home.
It took about an hour and a half to get to the bottom and the Porcupine Creek drainage. My knee felt fine. I stopped for lunch at a stream crossing in the shade, and the deer that wandered literally right in front of me as I leaned against a rock was more surprised than I was, although it seemed entirely proper that we were each there.
I flew down the trail after lunch; I felt free. My knee felt great, and I knew I was moving fast, very fast. Until suddenly, still inexplicably, the knee simply stopped. By good fortune I was in a beautiful place to stop; it would have been a beautiful place to stay forever, but I decided to take a nap. I have never taken a nap on the trail. But I took my last two ibuprofens, put on my raingear and mosquito netting so that I could sleep insect-free, pulled my pack under my head as a pillow so that nothing would be tempted to steal my food, and curled up on my side on the cushioned forest floor, surrounded by pine trees, and beyond them the river, and beyond that those mountains.
When I awoke, I felt good enough. I was now more than a full day ahead of schedule, despite the knee. Between the layers of DEET and sunscreen and a week of sweat and grime and inadvertently peeing in my right boot and face due to poor decision making in a strong wind up in Titcomb, I really needed a shower. Even my left index finger smelled like bad cheese, something I noticed my next-to-last day while sucking water out of my hydration tube, and I began anticipating that extra day in a hotel, with a bed and a bath. But it would have been useless to make it to the trailhead this late in the day: it would take a couple of hours to drive out and find a hotel, too late to get clean and then find some meat and beer, and so I camped at the foot of Green River Lake.
That last morning as I broke camp, I went through my usual routine. Everything one step at a time, everything in its place so that nothing is misplaced. I irritate even myself, because I’m so slow getting out of camp every morning. I boiled water for my coffee, and as I broke down the stove and put away the gas canister I thought again “this is the last time I’ll do this on this trip. This is perhaps the last time I’ll do this, ever.”
And then suddenly, as if by magic, I realized that unseen spiders had in an instant spun single-strand gossamer webs horizontally from pine tree to pine tree–hundreds of them between the trees, all seemingly perpendicular to the sun’s rays, all spun only between my spot on the spinning Earth and the lake and rising sun–as though created simply to catch the morning light streaming over the mountains and glisten to my eye alone.
Somewhere there was a waterfall that had roared all night, but I hadn’t really heard it until then because I couldn’t see it, and I suppose by then I was used to the sound of constant waterfalls. Standing there, I thought “please God, I know I haven’t seen a soul in two days, but don’t let anyone come down the trail just now and see me like this.” There’s a line in “A River Runs Through It,” my favorite book: “What a beautiful world it was once,” a wistful reminder of the transience of things. I would not hold a moment forever, not ask Life to stand still. But suddenly that is all I could think about, this beautiful world, and the line repeated itself, over and over, as I walked out and home
I used to be in the habit of bringing back small bits of geology from my trips, but I became jaded the last couple of years, less willing to allow myself to be astonished at the simple marvels of the physical world. Plus, rocks are heavy. I backpack “ultalight,” meaning I never carry more than 35 pounds in my pack, no matter how long I’ll be out, so everything in there is essential. Except a rock; believe me, there are plenty of rocks where I travel. I could buy people t-shirts, but I bring back rocks. So to carry a rock useless to me up and down mountains, pack it in my checked baggage, give it to someone, and hear “oh, a rock,” can be disheartening. You can understand my loss of enthusiasm.
I brought these rocks back for me, although I did disguise them as a gift, thinking they might make someone happy. The one above is from the bed of the North Fork of the Flathead River, just south of the Canadian border. The idea of the North Fork of the Flathead River has been an ambition of mine since I learned of it several years ago (https://georgeschools.wordpress.com/2018/10/09/its-all-bear-country/). The rock weighs two and a half pounds, and it is amazing. It was deposited during the Precambrian, so 1.4 billion years ago or so, perhaps in the general vicinity of where I found it, but even a rock can move a lot in a billion years. If a geologist digs it up in my Texas back yard a billion years from now, she is going to be perplexed. Those perfect lines across it tell a story that I don’t understand completely, but it is enough for me that they tell a story that is true.
The second rock is from Boulder Pass, 8,000 feet above sea level. It weighs over four pounds, so you have to understand how beautiful this rock was in my hands, in that pass, that light. I held it and said out loud “you are beautiful.”
It is a bizarre compulsion to want to possess a thing beautiful because of where it comes from; like wanting an autograph from someone famous. But I carried it down those mountains and out to have it physically mine forever. The rock’s lines tell a story, but the place I found her tells a stranger one. Everything in Glacier is water and time, but a billion year old seafloor mudflat 8,000 feet above sea level puts you in your place.
I have suspected this before, but people sort of look at me strangely when I talk about it, eyes opened unnaturally wide and a weird smile fixed on their faces: something changed in these rocks when I took them away from their place. They do not glow, not like their glow when I first saw them in a wild river bed, or high in a mountain pass. I have carried rocks back from many places, given them to a very few people, and the most beautiful ones have all done this. I experimented today, sat these rocks in the sun to heat them and see if the Texas humidity had robbed them of their luster, but the glow has not returned. But holding them in my hands for my experiment, I felt again the same thing I felt when I first held them: “You are beautiful.”
On the trail from Boulder Pass to Hole-in-the-Wall I found that brief spot where everything is aligned for me. I followed the trail and the purple bear poop, which was becoming noticeably fresher as I advanced, and came down into the empty campsite. I again found myself with daylight on my hands once my food was hung and tent set, and so said “what trouble can I get into?” Again, a large, wooded basin very similar to the one below Boulder, and I thought “there has to be a grizzly in there.”
Funny thing about trying to find a grizzly: after a day or two of not finding one, your brain starts thinking you won’t ever. You reason it out: you want to see one, but not too close. You try to be quiet so that you don’t scare them away, but not so quiet that you surprise one. So I made my way straight through the densest part of the plateau this time, not working around the edges, but stopping and looking and listening every few steps.
The dimensions of everything you see up high in Glacier make it hard to judge relationships. The forest and undergrowth had seemed thin from up above, but down inside it became a thick tangle that light barely penetrated. Finally making my way out after an hour of purposeful searching, I found myself on the far side, right up on the mountainside trail that had brought me down into Hole earlier that day. There I crossed four young, wide-eyed and out of breath guys: “there’s a grizzly and two cubs just down the trail!,” something I had by then become accustomed to. I asked how far, how long ago, and precisely where in relation to the trail they had seen her, and I was off. “They’re just around the next bend!”
The trail was hemmed in by beargrass in bloom in places, a new sight for me. Although I recognized it, it suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t know why it was called “beargrass.” Nothing good came to mind. The bear cubs were leaving the purple poops every mile or so because the mother was leading them through patches of huckleberry as she made their way to lower elevation in anticipation of winter, all three of them foraging to gain weight before hibernation. Only once did I come across the mom’s scat, which was noticeably larger, less purple, and was comprised mostly of hair and bones. It was also at that point that I noticed the scat was now fresh and damp.
I followed the trail all the way to the top of Brown Pass. The path takes you along a steep mountainside, with clear views of the meadows below in many spots, but in others it is nothing but a narrow flat line taking you across a cliff face, and once you are on it your only choice is to forge on. Stepping over the fresh purple poop, I vaguely wondered what I would do if the bears were still stuck on the trail around that next bend.
Walking along, certain now that the grizzly family would be right in front of me as I came around the next corner, I became self-conscious, questioning my behavior. I supposed that if a Ranger would have crossed me at that point–alone, without bear spray, in the evening on an isolated trail and wearing black and grey–she would have said I was “irresponsible.” A day-hiker might say I was “insane.” But I thought that a hiker of similar experience–both in life and on the trail–would probably say that I was taking “a calculated risk,” although all three might have simply said I was stupid. The math is different for each of us.
I never caught up with the 700 pound carnivore and her cubs.
Hole-in-the-Wall and Out
I followed the purple bear poop out now in the opposite direction, like a time traveler moving in the wrong direction. The farther I got from Hole-in-the-Wall, the drier the scat became, and life seemed incrementally less interesting.
My last night, I was again at Upper Kintla. I made my way back down the shore for a final swim, then hiked back into the marsh above the lake, looking for moose. I had seen this cove from the trail when I came down from the pass, and thought “this place looks exactly like all the paintings and photos with a moose standing in a marsh,” so you can imagine my disappointment when I didn’t see anything remotely mooselike after an hour or so. But waiting there, stretched out in a shoreline grass that smelled of citronella, an eagle began to call from somewhere in the trees behind me. It would cry once, and the echo from far across the lake was so distinct, so clear, that I thought there was a second eagle answering it. I sat up to listen to the conversation, and suddenly there was a loud splash seemingly just behind me, as if someone had thrown a huge rock in the water. I stood and turned to look, and saw nothing for a good ten seconds, not even a ripple in the water. But just as I was about to turn back, a black bear, at the very far end of the marsh, perhaps 100 yards away, sprinted across the grass like a galloping horse, running like a child at play. And I thought, “what are the chances?”
I tracked the grizzly bear and cubs for three days. Admittedly, this was much easier than one imagines, requiring no actual mountain man skills: they were using the same trail I was, and leaving tennis ball-size bright purple poops behind them every mile or so. This is the story of my attempt to catch up with a 700 pound carnivore and her cubs, just because I wanted to see if I could. I will use the word “stupid” only once.
Days 1 through 3: Up Kintla Lakes to Boulder Pass
My only goal this trip was to see a place called “Hole-in-the-Wall,” a campsite that you’ll see only if you hike way in, nights past the trailhead. The Rangers at the Backcountry Office got me the permits to reach Hole via the Kintla Lakes drainage, but I’d have to break the trip into six days of very short hikes. I’ve never walked so little each day on one of these trips, so I wasn’t sure what I’d do with all my spare time.
The trails up Kintla are easy and level, following the wooded shores of two connected lakes. After I’d hung my food and set up my tent at Lower Kintla, I walked the stony lakeshore to the hidden inlet bringing water down from Upper Kintla and the mountains above. At a loss for a use of my time and energy, I stripped down, took a brief swim in the icy water, and stretched out to dry on the smooth alluvial stones.
Smoke from the West Coast fires covered Glacier like gauze, obscuring entire mountains and making it seem as though it were always sunset and I should be thinking about sleep; or that it was about to rain, and I should find cover. But the crepuscular sky meant none of that was about to happen, so I stared at the sky and smelled the grass and waited for the water to evaporate off my skin.
For at least five minutes, I resisted. I lay there and thought “George, just let nothing happen. Do not think the thought you are about to think.” But sure enough, a couple of minutes later, I thought “I’m bored; nothing is happening.” I tried rationalizing it, thinking “George, something is always happening, you’re just not seeing it,” but nothing persisted in happening except the water running down the stream next to me.
And then something marvelous happened.
I’m laying there naked next to this tree-enclosed lake, surrounded by these enormous mountains, and an eagle flies from one side to the other, perhaps 200 yards down the lake from me. “Wonder where he’s going?” I thought; I hadn’t noticed it before. And then before I knew what was happening, he was chasing a second bald eagle, which I had also not noticed, directly toward me. And as they passed over me they turned to each other, both pretty much flying on their backs, and briefly fought each other with their bright yellow clawed feet. I thought “wow, what are the chances?,” and I was not bored.
The trail up to Boulder Pass the next day is a gradual climb up through wooded and brushy slopes; nothing dramatic. But when you crest–that is something. This enormous expanse opens suddenly before you, and you are put in your place. The campsite is immediately after arriving on top, and as I walked in I found a group of excited young guys just leaving. “A grizzly and two cubs just walked through here this morning! Pretty much right where you’re putting your tent.” I was ok with that, and considered moving my tent to the sites they were vacating, but it seemed like a lot of work, and I’d come to Glacier to see big fauna, and so thought “nah. I’m good here.”
I had plenty of time before me after I’d pitched my tent, and set about occupying it. I’d heard ascending Boulder Peak right next door was easily doable, and so I took off up the mountain. It is not a large mountain, only a little over 8,500 feet, but I’m not a mountaineer and there’s not really a trail up there, so you just start scampering upward. You know you’ve reached the top when you suddenly realize there is no more “up”. There was a brief moment when I considered that the acrobatics required to make it over a small ledge were not worth the distinct possibility of falling the 2,000 feet of void immediately beneath my feet, and so I sat down and composed myself. I had decided then to turn around and go back down, but as soon as I stood up I thought “stop being a pussy,” and flipped my old ass over the ledge and made it to the top. The view was worth the effort. I have seldom encountered a view not equal to the effort.
Back down, and damn if I didn’t still have a lot of daylight to use up. And so I looked at the trail going past my tent–the trail that grizzly sow and cubs had taken–and thought “well, you came here to see grizzlies. Let’s go see if you can find her.”
I followed the trail down into an amazing bowl, a meadow deposited beneath cradling mountains surrounding it on three sides. The forth side was a shear dropoff to some place not on the map.
When I got there, I had the eerie feeling that “this is not a place that belongs to us.” There were no trails, and although from the edges I had clear fields of vision, I did wish that I had not lied to my wife when I had promised I would carry bear spray this trip. I made my way down the outside of the basin, stopping and listening and looking often, and then I made my way inside the stands of yellowing Western Larch. It was creepily still, so silent. In spots, the ground became like walking on sponges, the living moss was so deep. I eventually had enough, enough to prove to myself that I wasn’t afraid, enough to be sure that any bear around knew I was there and had only to come, enough to feel I had understood all that this place was going to let me understand, and so I turned to leave. And just at that moment, something whistled from somewhere within the dense trees, the same strange whistling I had heard last year just before a grizzly appeared out of no where onto the trail in front of me, and so I stood there quietly and waited.
I wish there were another way to start this story, but there isn’t so I’ll just begin: I had just finished taking a dump on the mountainside when I saw the woman flying through the air. Moving so fast, spinning so high on her outward and downward trajectory, I knew without seeing her land that she’d be either dead or severely injured when I found her.
And now for some background:
“Leave a car on Hwy 550 at Coal Bank Pass, drive out of Silverton on Alpine Loop Road to Maggie Gulch Road and park. Hike gulch jeep road 3+ miles to CDT/CT.” That’s the beginning of my hiking buddy Rob’s email regarding our planned route. My drive from Austin was just under 1,000 miles, so I was tired but happy to hit the trail when we met up at Coal Bank, staged the cars, and pointed ourselves toward the Continental Divide (CDT/CT).
The part of his plan in red is what I love about Rob. I had dissected his words before, looking for the unspoken part–there is always something unspoken with Rob–but only recognized it in hindsight. I should have seen that “hike to CDT” gave Rob way too much latitude, because the Continental Divide is a very big place. Rob is a hiker, and all he needs is to see something that might be a trail heading generally uphill, and he’s good to go. So Day 1 involved quite a bit of serendipity, and I collapsed in my tent the instant it was up.
We would spend all of Day 2 above treeline on the Continental Divide. This is actually the easiest part of a mountain hike, because once you’re up on top, there’s really no more climbing to do. The terrain tends to roll, and the lack of trees and clear air means you can see a very, very long way. It is my favorite place to be. On top of the world.
But there is also very little between you and the sun, and so at the end of Day 2, after 11 hours of carrying a 35 pound pack with 11,000 feet less of our atmosphere’s oxygen than I am accustomed to breathing, and also 11,000 feet closer to the sun, I again collapsed in my tent, moderately delirious, and happy as a pup to be in that place.
This particular spot on the globe is special to me: it is where I took my wrong turn in 2017 and lost myself deep in the Weminuche, ultimately hiking 20 miles out of my way, meeting some wonderful people on the trail, and completing an incredible loop over Columbine Pass and out the Chicago Basin (https://georgeschools.wordpress.com/2017/10/13/isis-not/). Standing in the exact spot where I’d made my mistake before, I could not imagine how I’d missed that turn. I could see the spot I’d camped that night three years ago, could see the faint trail that took me over the top of some other unnamed pass instead of the much easier and obvious correct route. What I couldn’t see was the idiot who had made that wrong turn, but I knew he was still around there somewhere.
Day 3 we’re taking that trail on the right and dropping way down into the Elk Creek Drainage. It is a long way down, and we were both happy to be hiking the canyon East to West and not vice versa. We met two young guys that morning who had just come up, and they had that excited exhaustion that comes from succeeding at something difficult. “Twenty-seven switchbacks!” the talker kept repeating (we counted 28 later), while his friend just sucked air and looked on, wide-eyed, as though he’d just won a fight he couldn’t believe he’d won. They had done something that gave them meaning, although I don’t think they would see that for several years.
Cool thing coming down into Elk Creek: mountain goat hair!
When I was lost in 2017 and saw mountain goat hair on some brush, I instantly knew where I was. Mountain goats were re-introduced to the Chicago Basin area in 1947, and they have thrived. I had been to the Chicago Basin area the year before my 2017 trip, and I had literally kicked mountain goats out of my campsite. Lost in a very big wilderness, you cannot imagine my joy to see their hair caught on bushes the following year and say “fucking mountain goats; I can only be in the Chicago Basin.”
But the Chicago Basin follows the Needle Creek drainage, so to see that they are now colonizing our adjacent Elk Creek drainage is pleasing. I suppose now the next time I’m lost and see mountain goat hair, I’ll have to say “I can only be in the Chicago Basin . . . or 20 miles away in Elk Creek.”
Before I talk about Day 4, I have to mention the tequila. I know it is sort of a thing for a lot of people to bring along some good booze to drink around the campfire at the end of the day, but I’m neither a campfire nor booze kind of backpacker. I walk, I look and listen, I think, I eat, I pass out. But Rob brought along some very good tequila on this trip, which I have never had and which is sort of unusual for Rob to do, so every evening we’d share his tequila, about 1/4″ in the bottom of my favorite coffee mug, and it was a wonderful way to make your body stop walking, to shift from the physical to the spiritual.
The coolest part of Elk Creek was the problem. You get spoiled hiking trails in our country. No where else in the world can you find these incredible systems of interconnected trails, taking you from easy access points near paved roads, and then as far into the wildest backcountry as you are able to take yourself. It is truly amazing, a corollary of “America’s Best Idea” (it was Wallace Stegner who called national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst”).
We were down in Elk Creek, which has a different kind of beauty than the truly high country, a beauty born of gravity and time, the basement to the mountains where everything up high flows down. And a great deal had flowed down, cataclysmically. A winter avalanche or snow-melt loosened mountainside had brought down tons of trees in the canyon floor, completely blocking the path through. It is a truly amazing sight. We were fortunate that the snow had already completely melted down low, and that the fallen trees had more-or-less settled in their jumble. But still, crossing them like acrobats on balance beams, we were each highly aware that the one we were standing on–or any random one anywhere in the pile–could suddenly move and set the entire pile in motion. You would be able to do nothing.
Which brings me back to the woman. We were now four nights into our trip, 35-40 miles from our starting point but now reasonably close to several trailheads off of Highway 550, although now back up around 12,000 feet. The altitude had knocked me down the first two days, but by now I felt quite good. That high, in the clear air and cloudless sky, the sun is strong. The trail bounced above and below treeline, so when we came to a small spot of shade we took a break.
I’m not sure why “taking a crap in the woods” has become some sort of touchstone for reconnecting with Nature or a measure of manliness, but after a few days out you just go when it is convenient–the alternative is to go when it is inevitable. The only rule is to do it far from water sources, bury it at least six inches deep, and pack out your paper. In this instance, because of the precariousness of the trail and limited cover, my only convenient and discreet option was to scuttle downslope beneath our little spot of shade and squat on the steep mountainside clinging to a small tree trunk. Finished and climbing up, Rob was asking me if I had enjoyed the view, and I’d explained that experience had taught me to face toward the mountain and not away, gravity and balance being what they are should I lose my grip.
Still a few feet of steep slope beneath the trail, I looked up just in time to see a small woman going very fast on a mountain bike. Things like this happen so fast that they pretty much all occur simultaneously: the bike roars over a rise in the trail before us, Rob and I both turn our heads toward the explosion of energy coming toward us, she hits a rough spot just below, and then the sublime instant when time slows and events follow inevitably, one behind the other: the front wheel plants, immovable, beneath the suddenly focused weight of the rider thrown forward to her hands; the back wheel rises up behind her, carried skyward with her now weightless lower body; and then the entire assembly begins its beautiful, terrifying, inevitable pirouette into space, momentarily free of any earthly tether.
I saw her do at least one flip, spinning in tandem with the graceful arc of her bike. Her trajectory carried her and her machine several yards downslope, directly into two fallen trees, although I could no longer see her. I got up to the trail, saw Rob’s stunned expression, and we both hesitantly moved in her direction, knowing that we were going to find something horrendous.
And then she roared. Not pain, and not fear–rage. She was furious. “Arrrrrgh!“She was a tightly wrapped steel cable of a woman. I noticed that she was composed of only muscle, and had no breasts of any consequence–I suppose I was trying to identify what I was dealing with. She saw me, and as she wrestled her bike up yelled “I have to get the adrenaline out of my system!” I was still trying to understand why she was not dead, confused by the lack of arterial bleeding; all I could say was “well, as long as it’s only adrenaline and not blood.”
From that point on, we were an inconvenience and an embarrassment to her. I have known other small, fierce women like her. They are amazing, a force of Nature with immense and humbling interiors, and in that instant of her fury I truly felt that I knew this person. She needed us to not have seen her fail herself, she needed us to have never existed to witness her weakness. Rob and I each tried variously to ask her if she needed help, and she picked up her bike and literally ran with it away from us and her shame. On our way out, we saw her later sitting with her bike, eating a snack, telling us only “have a nice day, goodbye” as she stared off into her own space. Rob whispered “do you think she’s in shock?,” but I was pretty sure she’d stab us both if we asked her one more time if she needed any help, and so we continued on.
The end was where I chose the end to be. I don’t even know if it was the last evening, or sometime sooner–a few days out from your beginnings, the sequence doesn’t really matter any more, and events do not follow inevitably, one behind the other. We were camped up high, well above treeline. We’d found a good flat spot, near water, and had the earth and the sky to ourselves alone. After dinner, I had stretched out on the bare ground, feeling the earth turn and sending my mind flying with the high clouds above. I told Rob “this is my favorite place,” and that night, in my sleeping bag, I watched hundreds of diamond sparkles fly as the static electricity of the pure, high air leapt with my every movement.
I am just over the crest of Swiftcurrent Pass, and it is very windy. In fact, it is clearly windy enough to blow a 150 pound man carrying a 35 pound backpack off of the trail and down the 1,000 foot cliff he is on. I decide it is a perfect place to stop for lunch.
I promised my wife that I would eat more on this trip, so I pick a little promontory off the trail and sit down beneath a ledge and slightly out of the wind. I lay rocks on top of my gear so it won’t blow away, and the re-hydrated granola with milk and blueberries is so good. I’m sitting there, eating this wonderful stuff that the wind is blowing out of my spoon before it reaches my mouth, literally on the edge of a most beautiful cliff, feeling this force that could care less whether it blows me over the side. A wonderful place and time.
You see a lot of mountain goats in Glacier, but they are almost always up in some incredibly inaccessible spot, so as I eat I am scanning the mountain across from me, looking for those improbably perched white spots. I finished my lunch without seeing anything on the other side, and as I stood up to get back on the trail I turned to face a goat sitting barely fifty feet away from me the whole time. I had not considered that I was myself in one of those incredibly inaccessible spots.
I love this about being outside, the unexpected miracle. Looking back now, on this trip and all the others, I think “that was not so hard.” You do these things, see and feel these things, and at that instant and forever after you know it is worth it. But there are moments of doubt, of weakened resolve. At the very start, I always feel deeply guilty for doing something so selfish. And the first day or two, surrounded by mountains and sky and wind, I sometimes wish I were home in a comfortable bed. But then I tell myself “this is where you are, now. You have to be somewhere, and you are here, so be here, now.” Then I am where I need to be.
I have always been very fortunate outdoors. I make good decisions. I prepare, I adapt. I allow myself briefly to credit marvels, and to be astonished at the simplest transactions of the physical world. I let go of the complacent conviction that the world has been made for humans by humans.
And then the trail is covered in bear shit. Sections of the trail above Cosley Lake, and later near Granite Park, had piles of bear shit every fifty feet. Those bears were eating a lot of berries, and if I was their medical professional I would recommend that they cut back after seeing this. At one point, I would say there was either a pack of 20 bears regularly shitting on this one trail, or one bear that really had an issue. I was so proud to come upon a pile of bear scat that looked totally different, fewer berries, intimations of hair and bone. Proud because I was able to see the difference, to see grizzly. Looking at shit.
You tell yourself “it is what it is” often, and realize that is perhaps both the most inane and the most profound statement, underlying all of life. The trail is steep, or it rains, or you cannot eat because you are too cold, but it is what it is, and you have to be somewhere, so this is it. And then you are standing at the top of Triple Divide Pass, feeling so tiny; or you are watching a bald eagle steal a trout from an osprey that has just swooped down to grab it from the mirror surface of a silent mountain lake; or you come upon a tiny glacial runoff, draped in perfect tiny moss, just beneath these enormous mountains, and you are so deeply, deeply content.
I was briefly worried that I would die, which does not happen to me often. Everyone has do die sometime, and I am 60 years old and ready, but please not just yet. You think “that was close; I have had enough.” You ask yourself if a view is worth risking your life. The Zen master intones “do not persist in bad decisions,” and I think perhaps to throw in my cards before I have lost everything. And then 24 hours later, after a hot shower and clean bed and two meals of meat and fat and beer, I begin to think “that was not so bad. If I just fix one or two little details, next time I will not have these problems.”
My last day inside Glacier was not easy, and then it was. After I met my bear, after I knew I would not lose fingers and would make it out, I had only a few miles to my last campsite, at Granite Park, a half-mile beneath Granite Park Chalet, the precise site of two of the three 1967 grizzly attacks in the same night that revolutionized the way the Park Service manages the bear/human interface. I had avoided the Chalet and its day-hikers on my way in over a week ago; now on my way out I considered stopping there for water, perhaps a dry bunk. But the Chalet was already closed unexpectedly for the season when I arrived, and the crew there heli-lifting out supplies informed me that my campsite farther down was closed due to bear activity. They said they would escort me to a safe spot to camp near the Chalet once the helicopter had finished the last lift, but I decided to hike on out the last four miles to my car at the trailhead, down an easy trail I already knew, past the closed campsite.
You have to be somewhere. It is what it is. And some views are worth it.
Life is endless challenges, and challenges cannot possibly be good or bad. The difference between an ordinary person and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while the ordinary person takes everything as a blessing or a curse.
The bear is standing in front of me, and I am cold and wet. I have been soaked and numbed by the cold for two days, and that is all I can think about. So when the bear steps onto the trail, what I think is “there is a bear, and I am cold and wet.”
When things go bad outdoors, they go very bad. Problems are normal on the trail, so anything less than very bad is just an inconvenience. But bad is very, very bad. Extreme semantics. Still, you need to understand how my bear and I arrived at this place together. It was not easy.
Faced with mountain geology, your notion of time alters. Everything you see seems forever, and you become aware of your own transience. A few days out from the trailhead, time the way you understand it stops. Your concerns are immediate: stay dry, get food and water, don’t get hurt, cover the distance. And when things go wrong, time alters again: everything flows into and out of the event. Now don’t freeze, now keep walking, now keep your sleeping bag dry.
Now I cannot use my fingers. Now my feet are very cold and wet, but I can still walk. Everything I own–everything–is soaking wet, except my sleeping bag. It has been this way two days now, and all I can think is “keep walking, and DO NOT LET YOUR SLEEPING BAG GET WET.” I had had one wonderful day to dry out at Mokowanis Lake after a wet day coming up the river. Everything was soaked, so I spent the day naked, swimming in the lake and sunning, while my gear and clothes dried on lines that would normally have been used to pitch my tent and hang my food.
The clouds were rolling back in the morning as I left the lake, so I knew it would be wet again. The trails here are tightly hemmed by wet knee- to shoulder-high thimbleberry plants that soak you as you walk by, but it is a pleasure to simply reach down and eat a berry just because it looks so perfect.
Well before I got to the top of Stoney Indian Pass I was completely swallowed by the clouds, walking within the steady drizzle. I only realized I had reached the top of the Pass when I came up to a sharp edge where the trail suddenly turned, with nothing but cloud beyond: land, then cloud. I couldn’t see anything, but I sensed a great void, just there within reach of my outstretched arm. Then the trail started downward.
Stoney Indian is a small campsite, only three slots, next to a lake which I could not even see until I had almost walked into it.
When I arrived I found a group of four Romanians who were up in Kootenai the night before. “I want you to hear this,” one of them said, pulling out his phone. “A pack of wolves started howling last night all around our camp at around 2 a.m. They didn’t stop until almost sunrise.” It was amazing.
I was too cold and wet to eat, so I pitched my tent, stripped off my wet clothes, and curled up in my sleeping bag on my side, hands between my knees. It rained all night, and I woke occasionally as I became aware that my tent wasn’t able to keep up with all the water. When I awoke at 7 a.m. I realized that my tent was full of water, and only my air mattress had kept me dry. “This is not good.”
Packed the wet tent and headed for my next camp at Fifty Mountain, a little more than eight miles away up the Waterton Valley. Head the other way and you are in Canada within the day. Out of the mist I see a guy approaching, and for a second I am sure it is Willy Nelson. It turned out to be a wonderful, cheerful little man, perhaps in his 80’s but seeming quite fit. When he told me that he was headed for Kootenai, I told him about the recording of the wolves howling, and he said “oh, gee, that would be wonderful! I have always wanted to hear that. I hope I get to hear that.” I hope he got to hear that.
Fifty Mountain was bad; there is no way around it. All I owned was wet, except that sleeping bag. My heavy winter gloves had given up trying to stay dry, and I eventually decided my hands would be warmer without them. Unable to light my stove with frozen hands, I was just barely able to pitch my tent, strip off once more the wet clothes, and dive in.
Somewhere during the night I realized the temperature was dropping severely. Even curled up naked in my bag, I realized I was cold. Found the entire mountain face above me blanketed in white when I crawled out at dawn. It was not a choice to simply stay there and freeze, so I took down my tent with more difficulty than I had anticipated, and took the trail.
I have made some difficult hikes. Of course, a lot of things that may have been hard before look easier to me now, in my memory. But coming over the col above Sue Lake was the first time I have said “I am not sure I can do this.” Steep climb, thirty mile an hour headwind, heavy sleet and snow directly in my face, hands so cold, soaking wet. That enormous black mountain face, now covered in ice.
I obviously made it, although I don’t have any pictures of the rest because I could not hold a camera. The bear finally came to me, but it no longer mattered. My hands had thawed by then, and I had passed Ahern Drift (which looked more intimidating from afar than it was up close).
I was somewhere on the Highline Trail, only a few miles from Granite Park. There was something strange happening in the dark forest of the cirque down below this section of the trail. Something was making a loud, sharp chirp over and over down there, but I couldn’t tell what it was; a strange, otherworldly cry. I saw three marmots together, running away in a weird way (I actually thought “that was weird; I’ve never seen marmots run like that“). And then I looked up just as an adult grizzly stepped from the brush onto the trail about thirty feet in front of me. I instantly thought of the moose at Elizabeth Lake that was stuck on the same trail I needed to use. I laughed at myself a little when I raised both hands like I was being robbed at gunpoint and said “hey bear.”
My hands were still quite numb, but as I stood there facing the bear I reached around to my right side, where my bear spray canister hung on my belt, right next to the pocket that held my camera. “Get a picture, or get the spray? Get a picture, or get the spray?” I backed up gently as the bear took two steps toward me, and looked over my shoulder trying to find a spot wide enough for me to step aside and let the bear pass. He sniffed the air once, decided I did not matter, and disappeared silently into the brush he had come from.
Literally everyone I met had had a daily bear encounter by my fourth day in the Glacier backcountry. Everyone but me. Maybe I was trying too hard. Perhaps, it was just not yet my time.
I am hiking fast from the head of Elizabeth Lake, up the Belly River drainage and then a ford to Cosley Lake to my next campsite at Glenns Lake. “Avoid surprising a bear,” the Ranger said, which sounded like good life advice. Just let them know you are coming, and you avoid most of the problems.
I am striding along, looking out for bear, staying out of trouble, and BOOM I walk into the ass of a 1,000 pound bull moose. How I could not see this enormous thing, I do not understand, but the trail exploded and the moose took off down the trail in front of me. “Holy shit, George, that was stupid. You need to pay attention.” I am thinking “bear” so much, I do not see “moose.” I start walking again–there is only this one narrow trail out of there–and have just the time to tell myself “you don’t want to make THAT mistake twice,” when BOOM–same moose explodes a second time out of the trailside as I come over a little crest.
We’re both stuck now. With a steep slope down to the lake on my right or up the mountain on my left, this little path is the only avenue for anything larger than a chipmunk that wants to get away from anything. Clearly, this moose wants to get away from me, and I’d pretty much like to get away from him. So now I’m walking slowly forward, calling softly “hey, moose; hey, moose,” and every fifty feet or so there he is, shocked and offended that I’m still there. He’s bolting off, I’m trying to get to Glenns Lake, and I’m hoping he doesn’t decide he’d really rather get away from me by going the other way down the trail and over me.
We finally worked it out. I’d walk, he’d bolt, and I could hear him stressing, making these deep little “huff, huff” noises, but we both, together, eventually made it to the foot of Elizabeth Lake where he was able to get off the trail and let me pass. I was happy for him.
I decided to stop thinking “bear.” If I didn’t notice a moose standing right in front of me, how did I expect to see a bear half its size? “Do not seek the bear”–there’s this little Zen master voice I start hearing inside my head after a few days out–“let the bear come to you.” After a pause, I just shook my head and said “that’s the stupidest thing you’ve thought in a while.”
The trail up to and down the other side of Ptarmigan Pass
It’s not as if big animals are jumping out of the shrubbery every 100 yards, but after bumping into a moose once or twice you realize that you have probably already walked right past a couple of bears and mountain lions and mountain goats without seeing them. Conversely, the smaller creatures–the martins and birds and marmots–you have to wonder why you see them so much when there is so much else out there ready to eat them. Walking the trail up to Ptarmigan Pass, I came upon–wait for it–a ptarmigan! You’d think a delicious giant quail would fly the heck away, but this one just stood there and told its chicks to join it in the path of a giant omnivore.
I eventually had to shoo them away from my boots so I could continue. All I could think afterward was “I feel like a fraud right now.I really need to look in the dictionary when I get home. I don’t know if it’s the “p” or the “t” that’s silent in “ptarmigan,” and enunciating them both about half-way is cowardly. I need to stop thinking about this bird” Even typing both the “p” and the “t” right now feels dishonest. “Ptarmigan.” What a stupid word.