CDT Montana Day 1: Brutal

Today’s miles: 24.8

We are all up early, and I feel that familiar pre-hike nervous energy as we walk out of town at 6am, turning onto a dirt road that is suddenly the CDT. Soon we are climbing a relatively gentle climb through muddy trail. Not half an hour in, I trip on a root, slide in the mud, and tumble to the ground. What a way to begin. We continue uphill and officially enter Glacier National Park. We remind each other to call out to bears.

I’m keeping up okay for the first three miles or so. We agree to stop at Two Medicine for lunch, about seven miles away. After this the climb is steeper, and I fall behind. The trail winds across a sweeping open mountainside, with nothing to break the cold wind. I can see my friends ahead of me in the distance. I climb for a bit and then descend to a large creek where I join the others for a snack break. We’re all cold, and soon resume hiking just to warm up. This becomes a punishing ascent for me. We organically spread out on this climb, and soon I’m in the very back. The views are incredible, but I can’t catch my breath and over every crest there’s just more uphill ahead. I curse under my breath as the steep trail ahead comes into view. The others are just tiny specks in the distance now.

My morale is low already. As I’d feared, I’m the weakest hiker and won’t be able to keep up. My brain, lungs, and legs work in concert to make this climb more awful with every step. I resort to mental trickery: count 50 steps and you can stop to breathe. It is an agonizingly long hike to the top.

I wind around a curve of the mountain and am surprised to find a large group of bighorn sheep just above me. “Hey folks,” I say gently, moving past them before snapping a photo. My friends are way across the ridge — I can tell by Whiz’s bright red rain shell — and then they disappear around the side.

I walk the ridgeline. Ridgewalking is my very favorite thing, but I can’t enjoy it fully up here because it’s extremely cold and starting to rain lightly. Shivering, I stop to throw on my wind shirt and rain jacket, then rush across the ridge, breathing a sigh of relief when the descent begins. As I hike down, the wind and cold lessen. I’m descending into Two Medicine now, and begin to pass dayhikers who are climbing up. I also pass one of the rangers from the permit office, who asks how our itinerary wound up looking. When I tell her the mileage for our first two days, her face doesn’t necessarily comfort me.

Down down down, stopping twice to wait for bighorns to get out of the trail (I was going to title this post “Big Miles and Bighorns,” but then the second half of the day happened), and through a wide forest path (hey bear, hey bear). A short road walk brings me to Two Medicine and the ranger station I’m now so familiar with. None of the packs outside it are my friends’. I walk all around the picnic tables (more bighorns milling about, searching for food scraps) and through the car campground. No friends. I eat lunch at a picnic table where the trail picks up again, hoping to see them as they get back on.

It gets cold again and starts raining lightly. I hide out in the bathroom for a few minutes, then sit outside under the bathroom roof overhang with all my non-down layers on. I’m cold just sitting here, but I don’t really want to hike Pitamakan Pass — my next task — in a storm. I give myself until 12:30pm, clip on my pack, and start hiking. Just a few yards up the trail, a park sign reminds me that “this is grizzly country” and hiking alone is “NOT RECOMMENDED.” Oh well. Plenty of people hike solo here, I think. I look down at the can of bear spray on my hip belt. Gotta hike. Hey bear, hey bear.

Ten minutes later the sun is shining and I stop to shed all my layers. I climb up at a slow steady pace. All of the sudden it’s raining in earnest, and I stop to put layers back on. The weather changes on a dime up here, apparently. I walk through some lush open spaces ringed by huge mountains, then into the forest again. I’m tired and a little demoralized. My biggest worry of this trip has already happened: I couldn’t keep pace with my group, I have to hike alone, I’ll be hours behind them into camp tonight, my body’s too old to keep up, I’ll be dragging them down the whole trip, etc. I try to push these thoughts away and just press on steadily uphill. I pass a few southbounders and these brief encounters lift my spirits.

As I cross some small patches of snow, fatigue sets in. I sit, eat a packet of nutella, and give myself a pep talk. Just a few steps later, from behind me, a voice: “Apple Juice?!” I turn. It’s Cowboy! I’ve never been so happy to see someone in my life. His face is equally full of joy. “I’m so happy to see you! We were worried you were in a grizzly’s stomach! But you’re leading the pack!” What! Turns out they took a really long lunch and went to the Two Medicine cafe, which is why I didn’t find them.

Buoyed by this reunion, we climb together to overlook a spectacular alpine lake. Now it’s up the last set of switchbacks to Pitamakan Pass, as DJ catches up to us. Again, I can’t catch my breath and want to stop several times, but it’s cold and windy up here, and if I’m not moving, I’m shivering. At the top, the views are awesome — what I think is Pitamakan Lake is still partially iced over, and it’s beautiful. Dark clouds are moving in. DJ and Cowboy want to hang out here for a bit, but I’m too cold and just need to descend. A few short switchbacks bring me to a trail junction and down I go, into unrelenting cold wind and freezing rain.

On the descent, I shiver and my teeth chatter against the sleet, and I mentally check myself for hypothermia symptoms. Halfway down, the sun peeks through again and the wind settles. Montana weather is wild so far. The trail stops at an enormous snowfield and I see other hikers’ footprints, which I follow across the soft snow, slipping around on every other step. The snowfield goes on and on. The others catch up to me. “Apple Juice!” Whiz yells. “I’m alive!” I yell back, and then hear Sultry Bear joke to Whiz, “You owe me five bucks.” Good one, Sultry.

I’m slow and unsteady on the snow, and eventually the others pass me. I hike alone again for a bit, postholing once up past my knee, and then find Whiz in a small clear patch of dirt, eating a snack. It’s a steep snow patch to get to her, and though I can see the others’ footprints, on my second step I slide, accidentally glissading down on my butt. Exhausted, I stumble over to her and open my food bag.

Whiz hikes on ahead of me, and on my way to catch up, I hit a water crossing that can’t be rock-hopped. I look for the shallowest possible crossing but the water still hits me mid-calf. You don’t know cold water until you know glacial melt. It’s a short ford but as I step back on trail my feet are blocks of ice and my teeth are chattering again. When I find Whiz at a little stream a ways up, we are both struggling with this long tough day, but hiking with her improves my attitude. We find the guys sitting by a stream having a full dinner break, and join them. They saw a moose on the trail! I am amazed and relieved to hear that everyone is suffering intensely from today’s miles. It’s not just me! There’s a common saying about the CDT: “embrace the brutality.” I’m not sure we’re embracing it just yet, but we’re being forced to confront it right away. We groan about our aches and pains, commiserating and then trying to psyche each other up for the last two miles to camp.

On the first of those miles, Whiz and I see a moose and calf just walking across a meadow together, up into the woods. There’s not enough time to get my camera out but that’s maybe for the best. It feels so special to have been here to see them just now.

The last mile is always tough, but this is one of the toughest last miles. I hike it on autopilot, calling for bears frequently now that the daylight is starting to fade. I’m the first to our campsite, and as the others join me to hang our bear bags, we realize that all the tent sites are taken. This means there are many people here without permits for the site, but we’re all too delirious with exhaustion to wake them up, and anyway, where would they go? We find a large flat space big enough for all of us and try to be minimally invasive. I’m out of practice with setting up my tent and bed stuff, so it feels like it takes forever until I can just lie down. When I do, I fall asleep instantly. Welcome to the CDT.

Wide open space early in the day
View partway up the morning’s big climb
If you look closely you can see tiny hikers in the distance, and the trail that seemingly goes up forever.
Bighorn sheep at the start of the ridgewalk.
Stretch of easier walking en route to Pitamakan Pass.
Lake below Pitamakan Pass: site of extreme beauty and also of my pure delight from being reunited with Cowboy.
Near the end of the climb on Pitamakan Pass.
Cowboy on Pitamakan pass, right before the freezing rain began.
Some of the slushy snowfields on the north side of the pass. Exhausting AF.
Whiz behind me on our last two miles to camp.

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