CDT Montana Day 2: Take It to the Limit

Today’s miles: 23.2

Around 6am I hear Cowboy unzip his tent and announce, “Bluebird skies!” Then he deflates his sleeping pad, the most terrible sound in the world because it signals getting up. Most of us are moving slowly this morning, but I’m surprised to find my body feels pretty recovered. Yesterday I had the expected pain in my left hip that always appears the first day or two of a hike — I’m certain this is related to my scoliosis — and it’s still vaguely there, but everything else feels okay, if tired. Over a breakfast at the campsite’s food storage/eating area, we all take inventory of our bodily pains and get our minds set for today’s miles.

Today there is only one climb, up to Triple Divide Pass, but it begins immediately. Gentle enough at first out of camp, through some forested areas and then winding around the mountainsides, ever upward. Every so often the trail curves against the rock in these little nooks with small waterfalls and stream crossings. There is a snow bridge that looks a bit sketchy to me, but I manage it fine. The views get bigger and better. An alpine lake comes into sight, only visible once you’ve climbed high enough to peer down over the rock walls into it.

Cowboy passes me as I’m taking a quick breather on a stone slab, and we hike together most of the remaining climb. There’s a small false summit with little streams and many bold marmots scurrying about, then one last short push to the top of the pass. Triple Divide is so named because runoff here drains to three different bodies of water: the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Hudson Bay. It’s exquisite up here, just mindblowingly huge and sweeping — too much to take in. It’s also wicked cold, and we’re all bundled and huddled, eating snacks and looking around wide-eyed. Whiz arrives last, looking weary, and says she had to make multiple bathroom stops on the way up. Yikes.

We begin the long downhill. After this descent, it’s flattish and rolling for the rest of the day — but that’s still something like 19 miles of flattish and rolling, after yesterday’s heroic (read: utterly depleting) efforts. I take the downhill at a good clip for a while, and then the snowfields begin. I am very dismayed. A few of us bunch up here for a while, slipping across the snow, stopping occasionally to check where the trail ought to be. But soon I’m way in the back, walking timidly as the others forge ahead. I consider putting on my microspikes, but the snow is too soft and mushy for them to really help, I think.

After several alternating patches of trail and patches of snow, I arrive at a steep but short snow field that others have clearly glissaded. I make my way out to their slide marks, sit down, and let myself slide to the bottom. I try to brake with my trekking poles, but can’t make it happen correctly, and very rapidly I reach the end of the snow and my momentum carries me over a span of rocks and scrubby plants. I grind to a stop. Ouch. I stand up gingerly. Nothing actively bleeding, nothing broken or sprained, just beaten up from the snow burn and rocks. I take a deep breath and get ready to cross the adjacent (flat) snow field, when Whiz calls my name. She had to make a few more bathroom stops and I passed her without knowing it. She says she missed my fall, and I’m relieved.

On the next snow crossing, my foot slides out and I unintentionally do a split. Ugh. My adrenaline is so high now that on the other side I just sit on a rock to calm down. Whiz joins me, lying flat on the ground. She is not well, and I decide to hike with her for a while. We get through the last bits of snow and hike along trail that’s very overgrown on both sides. Occasionally it’s so much plant matter that I feel claustrophobic, despite the huge skies and distant mountains all around us. We hike at a medium pace, sometimes chatting but mostly not, until Whiz needs to stop for another bathroom-and-then-lying-down break. She gets the chills every time she stands up again. Not good.

She points out four mountain goats high above us, just four little white blobs, and then we walk a bit more. She tells me the plan she’s settled on to make it through the park, and I offer to keep hiking with her at this reduced pace, or carry some of her gear, but she declines. I remind her that when she hits the road she can hitch into St. Mary if she needs to, and I ask a few more times if I can stay, if she wants me to stay. She insists I go ahead. So the next time she takes a break, I check one more time and then hike on.

I worry about her for the next few miles through a burn area, hot and exposed, nothing to do but periodically call for bears and think about Whiz. I feel some potential blisters starting, and my butt chafe has arrived with gusto. Despite this deep discomfort, I try to hike quickly so I can meet the others for lunch at a campsite 11.3 miles into our day (after yesterday we are being more precise about meeting locations). I approach a wide water crossing and find Cowboy and Dad Jokes surveying it. After some discussion, it does seem we need to ford. The water is very cold but not too swift. It hits Dad Jokes just at the knee, but is up to mid-thigh on me. Fords always make me wish I was taller.

At the next stream we stop to filter water and spread out again. I reach the south side of Red Eagle Lake and find a large moose is soaking in it! Wow. I take pictures and marvel, then travel along the lake until I find the guys in the shade on the north side. I peel off my socks and know instantly that I will soon lose 2-3 toenails. It’s always these same toenails. I put neosporin and tape on them for now, eat a lot of calories, and then head out. We still have 13+ miles to do today, and it’s already early afternoon. We’ve agreed to reconvene at a bridged water crossing in about ten miles.

The next five miles zip by. More hiking through burns, sometimes by myself and sometimes clustered with the others. The trail through here is extremely overgrown, scratching my legs with every step. I slow considerably as we move uphill, and can’t get my speed or energy back. I hike above and around St. Mary Lake, find that I have cell service briefly, and text Cyn a couple of lines. In the forest now, the trail is wide and covered in pine needles. I see an extremely fresh pile of bear scat and increase the frequency of my hey bears.

Another tough mile and the guys are having a sit-down break, debating next moves. Everyone is hurting, though DJ seems least affected. We consider a zero tomorrow in St. Mary, though it would require us to get new permits for the remainder. We hike on to that bridged water crossing. I am fully zombie hiking now, and realize how hungry I am. At the bridge they decide to go another mile to a waterfall with a privy nearby, to eat dinner and decide on a plan for the night. We’re still 3+ miles from camp. It’s almost 9pm. I sit on the bridge and scarf down ramen, fill my water bottles, and hike the next mile on deeply tired feet and legs. It feels interminable. Finally, the thundering waterfall and my friends on the side of the trail eating dinner. I’m utterly exhausted, unable to do much except stand next to them numbly, shivering in the cold air coming off the water. Everyone looks fairly wasted. Still about 2.5 miles to our campsite, and now it’s almost dark. Dad Jokes has a swollen knee and shin splints; Sultry Bear has a worsening pain in his foot. Though it is not permitted, we eventually decide to camp near here — it’s just not physically feasible for us to go on tonight. I feel very bad about this but know it is the right call.

We hang our Ursacks and scatter to find flattish ground where we can. I need the light of my headlamp to set up my tent, and collapse inside too exhausted to even think about the grizzly bear that might eat me.

On the climb to Triple Divide Pass.
Whiz and Cowboy climbing Triple Divide.
View from Triple Divide, wow.
Whiz on one of the many, many snowfields on the north side of the pass.
Afternoon views.
Burn area.
Rickety suspension bridge, but fun!
Big moose hanging out in Red Eagle Lake.
View of St. Mary Lake. My last photo of the day — zombie hiking from here on.

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