CDT Montana Day 11: Run for Your Life

Today’s miles: 22.8

Miles to date: 204.5

In the morning there’s a short uphill section and then all down and flat for about 12 miles. It’s a sunny day, and I cruise along enjoying the easy walking and making good time. We have a huge climb in the afternoon that I’m trying not to think about yet. About eight miles in, I hear dry brush cracking just off-trail to my right. It’s something big making that noise. I freeze, walk a few careful steps. Just as I’m about to yell “hey bear!” I catch a glimpse of Cowboy’s purple fleece. Oh. Whew. Just a bathroom stop.

I arrive at the Dearborn River for lunch, meeting Whiz, DJ, and Foxy. The others trickle in soon after. This is the deepest and swiftest river crossing we’ve had so far, I think, and Whiz tells me she’ll cross with me before I even have to ask. Everyone knows fords are my biggest backcountry fear. She holds my pack as I scramble down the bank and stands just behind me as we make our way across to the other bank. It’s not as bad as it initially looked, but I’m still grateful.

Now the climbing begins. There’s a big chunk of it, a short downhill, then another big climb to the ridgeline, and finally down to a lake where we plan to camp. I take it slow, aiming for a sustainable pace, and Whiz zips ahead. Cowboy passes me a bit later. Long switchbacks finally lead me up out of tree cover and then turn into super steep exposed trail. I have to do some of the climb on the balls of my feet, it’s so steep; my calves burn. Finally, I crest a little hill and can visually follow the trail along a grassy ridge, with some of my group at the topmost point that marks the end of this first ascent. I collapse next to them and we watch the rest of the crew come over that hill one by one, guessing who each tiny figure is. It’s beautiful up here, and very cold. We book rooms for Helena on Saturday night while we have service.

Time for the second climb. I hike down and along a stream as the wind picks up. At a junction I meet Snotfish, who says she’s worried about these clouds turning into a storm. I am too, but I’ve also seen Montana weather change on a dime many times already, so I just start climbing. It’s steep. I take several mini rest breaks with my feet pointing downhill to take the pressure off my calves. Finally there’s a long open stretch across a bare meadow before the very last steep ascent, and it begins to rain as I’m halfway across it. Thunder rumbles in the distance, but no lightning. I look at the sky, at the trail ahead, and back at Sultry Bear hiking well behind me. Well, it’s not like I’m any less exposed here, I guess. I try to climb a bit faster.

My body is very tired and I’m hungry again, but now it’s raining hard and the wind is cold and there’s no time to rest or eat. I push hard to get to the top and feel a moment of relief — now I can descend away from the storm. But no, there’s a ridgewalk first. The storm intensifies: the sky is dark, lightning flashes, and pea-sized hail pelts me. I walk-run as fast as I can across the ridgeline. There is no place to hide. Lightning. I count three seconds. Thunder. Yikes. I try to go even faster.

At last a mild descent begins, but it doesn’t give me any cover. I slip on a small patch of snow and an empty water bottle falls out of my pack — I just hold it in my hand, no time to put it back in its pocket. Every time lightning flashes I try to count the seconds before thunder, but now the lightning and thunder happen simultaneously. I spy a small clump of trees and turn around to ask Sultry Bear if we should take shelter in them. As I do, I see Snotfish and Cowboy running past him, past me, and Sultry and I start running too. BOOM!! Thunder and lightning right on top of us. We’re totally exposed. I have never felt so afraid. I cut several switchbacks in the way down, my feelings of guilt instantly swallowed by sheer primal terror.

Finally, I’m down in thick trees and see the lake — I join Sultry, DJ, and Foxy huddled together, drenched and shivering as the storm continues at the same strength above us. I take deep breaths and try to clear the adrenaline from my body. I tell them I have a new #1 backcountry fear. Sultry sets up his tent in the rain. I finally do the same, since there’s no sign of the storm lessening soon. Careful to keep my dry things dry, I manage to get into sleep clothes and under my quilt, finally warming up a bit. I hear everyone else come in — we are all safe and accounted for. During a brief break in the rain I make myself eat some calories and drink the last of my water. Exhausted on all levels, I have no choice but to pass out, even as the rain picks up again.

Gentle morning trail.
And gentle morning weather.
Some nice walking before lunch.
Whiz at the Dearborn River before we forded.
Views during the early climb. Clouds coming in.
View from the top of the first climb, and a tiny hiker coming up the ridgeline. Last photo I took this day.

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