CDT Montana Day 21: Free Soloing

Today’s miles: 24.1

Miles to date: 361.6

In the early morning I have a very unsettling dream, and dig my phone out of the bottom of my quilt to write it down so I can tell my analyst at some point. Later, I hear Whiz starting up her stove to make breakfast, but then don’t hear her or anyone else actually packing up, so I just lie in my tent dozing off and on. When I finally drag myself out of my warm cocoon and begin to pack, Whiz pokes her head out of her tent, alarmed. She’d intended to get an early start but fell back asleep. Sultry is clipping on his pack and Cowboy and Snotfish have already left. Whiz and I head out last, saying a temporary goodbye to Dad Jokes — his foot injury is too painful to keep up with the daily miles, and he plans to hitch back to Anaconda and then to Darby to meet us at the next town. I feel sad that I won’t get to hike with him for my last section.

Whiz passes me almost immediately, and I begin climbing up to Storm Lake Pass alone. This is the first of today’s four big climbs, and I feel some trepidation, wondering how my shin will fare. It still hurts, but not as much as yesterday. Partway up, I spot Whiz far above me, trucking along. Oof, she’s way up there — so much climbing to do. But to my surprise and delight, I find that the trail runs along fairly reasonable switchbacks instead of the steep grades I’ve come to expect from the CDT. Maybe it’s because we’re still technically on the Anaconda route alternate, instead of the official CDT? Whatever, I’ll take it. I keep a steady pace, enjoying the views and the beautiful weather, and soon find myself at the top of the pass, at over 9,000 feet elevation. It is gorgeous up here, and my body feels good, and I’m having a great morning.

Plus, the other side of the pass entails what is almost a ridge walk, with incredible views, and then pops me out onto a sweeping alpine meadow called Goat Flat. There’s only a faint hint of trail here and there across the meadow, and instead I follow big cairns to the junction that puts me back on the official CDT and a long descent. I take the downhill slowly, noting the strain it puts on my shin, and then approach the next climb. It’s long, and near the top the trail winds around so that I’m never quite sure where I’ll end up. But at the top, there’s a sign declaring this Rainbow Mountain, and more incredible views. I spy an elk grazing just at the edge of the trees before it ducks into them and disappears from my view.

Now there’s a very long descent, largely winding around the mountainside without tree cover, and I wonder if I will find the friends at the small stream ahead. Nope. I’m getting hungry, but still hoping to join them for trail family lunch, I continue to descend through Queener Basin and then to the east fork of Rock Creek, a wide rushing water source. But still no friends. The third big climb begins here, and I know I can’t do it without eating first. There are some large hospitable rocks near the creek, and I spread my quilt out to dry in the sun before eating a packet of tuna (deli style flavor), a bunch of Fritos, and peanut m&ms: my standard trail lunch, which has proven to be not only calorie-dense but reliably palatable day after day.

Just as I’m finishing up, two hikers come down the trail. I cannot stress enough how isolated the CDT has been compared to every other trail I’ve hiked. I almost never see anyone who’s not in my own group. So it feels very strange when these two arrive at the creek. Their names are Gator and Leopard, and they got married in Glacier at the beginning of their hike. It is Leopard’s first ever long trail, and kudos to her, because the CDT is no freaking joke. I enjoy chatting with them as I repack my things and filter water, and then leave them to their lunch while I tackle the next climb up Cutaway Pass.

I’ve been kind of dreading this one, because the elevation profile looks steeper and now the mid-day heat has set in. But I just try to settle into a sustainable pace. When I check my GPS, I’m shocked to see how far along I am — almost finished climbing, actually. Wow, did my trail legs finally get here? I reach the top of the pass with relative ease and feel energized. Now it’s downhill forever, but the grade is mild enough not to bother my shin too much, and the tread doesn’t require very much attention in terms of foot placement, so somewhere along the way I zone out for a while and get lost in my head. Near the bottom I realize I’ve spent most of the descent thinking about my research — pondering the final article revisions that I have to finish up when I get home from this trip, and thinking ahead to the next article I have planned. I haven’t thought about my work at all since starting this hike, and I suspect that the break has made it possible to come back to it now in a way that feels motivating and exciting rather than stressful.

I also realize here that I’ve been hiking solo all day, free soloing in the back of the trail family pack, and that (atypically) we didn’t all agree on a campsite for tonight, so I’m not sure where I’ll actually stop. I begin today’s last climb, up to Warren Lake, and hope to find the friends there. But stopping at the lake would mean not even a 19-mile day, and I suspect they’ll want to do more than that after yesterday’s super short day. On the final set of switchbacks up to Warren Lake, I feel for the first time today that the trail is kicking my ass — they’re steep and the sun is relentless. A few short rest breaks get me through. I see a couple of people and tents as I approach the lake, but my hopes are dashed: it’s weekend backpackers, not my trail fam. A wave of disappointment washes over me. Well, gotta keep hiking. I’ll find them eventually.

I follow the trail around the lake, bummed but determined, and then perk up. There are some packs in a small clearing on this side of the lake. They’re Cowboy and Snotfish’s packs! Then I see a small figure curled up on the ground, wearing a red cap. Whiz! I call her name and she sits up from her nap. I feel flooded with joy to see her. The other friends are napping by the lake, around the corner. “I feel great!” I tell Whiz, adding, “I think I got my trail legs!” She says everyone else has said exactly the same thing, then tentatively outlines the group plan: have dinner here and then hike on to Rainbow Lake, another 5.8 miles ahead. My body feels genuinely strong and I’m still riding high on the feeling of being reunited with these guys, so I agree immediately.

Lakeside, we eat and chat, and I try to internally psyche myself up for another almost six miles. It’s after 6pm already. Just as we begin to pack up, DJ and Foxy arrive (they’ve been a bit behind us because they walked out of Anaconda instead of hitching), and so do Leopard and Gator. The former pair are planning to do another couple of miles after their dinner; the latter plan to camp here at Warren. As some of the others hang back to chat, Whiz and I hike out together. It’s so helpful to me to have her near for conversation — the initial downhill hurts my shin, and then the uphill to our campsite begins to feel interminable, but talking with Whiz eases both of these pains considerably. Sultry Bear and Snotfish eventually pass us; I’m slowing down on the last of the climb, my body now exhausted. We approach a large, dingy, stagnant pond, and Whiz says, “I want this to be Rainbow Lake because I’m so tired, but I really hope this isn’t Rainbow Lake. If it is, our people seriously deserve better.” But we’re still half a mile away, so there is yet hope for good queer aesthetics.

The real Rainbow Lake is beautiful, though by the time we arrive night is falling quickly and the cold is setting in. We’ve heard it’ll probably freeze tonight, and all I want is to bundle up in my tent as soon as possible. I know I’m not making the best choice as I pitch my tent near the lake — uphill under the trees would be marginally warmer — but I’m just too tired to scout for other tent sites. I put on all my layers and snug my quilt up as close as I can, falling asleep almost immediately.

Forested trail on the way up to Storm Lake Pass.
View from the south side of Storm Lake Pass. I was so happy here.
Entering Goat Flat.
Following these giant cairns across Goat Flat.
View on the second climb of the day.
Summit of Rainbow Mountain.
Very short but glorious ridge walk on Rainbow Mountain.
Near the top of Cutaway Pass.
Whiz at Warren Lake.

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