CDT Montana Day 22: The Caboose

Today’s miles: 22.1

Miles to date: 383.7

It’s the coldest night we’ve had so far, and I sleep poorly, my hands and feet cold all night despite my thick socks and fleece gloves. In the morning there’s a thin layer of frost inside my tent, and I listen to Whiz start her stove and cook breakfast from her sleeping bag, reluctant to leave my quilt. Cowboy takes some morning photos of Rainbow Lake while I force myself to put on my hiking clothes. He and Snotfish head out. Sultry Bear follows. Whiz refuses to get out of her sleeping bag, which is rated for colder weather than any of ours; the sound of my sniffles and chattering teeth as I roll up my tent don’t exactly encourage her to start packing, and I leave her still bundled up, waiting for the sun to finally peek over the mountain and offer some warmth.

There’s a climb out of the lake right away, up over Rainbow Pass. The grade feels reasonable, and I’m enjoying the crisp morning weather and the views. At the top, I try to take a photo with the Rainbow Pass sign, but the sun is in my eyes. Whiz passes me on the descent — I’m hiking slower on the downhill to protect my shin. I walk around Johnson Lake and then begin the next climb up Pintler Pass. It feels incredibly long: the cool air is gone, and my lack of sleep starts to affect me. About a half mile from the top, while I’m filtering water from a stream crossing, DJ and Foxy catch up to me. I leave them to their own water collection here, and determine that I will at least finish this climb before they can pass me. The trail crosses a meadow before making the final ascent, and I am alone to enjoy the views at the top.

They pass me as I’m carefully rock-hopping the many muddy streams on the forested downhill, and I just steadily descend to cross Pintler Creek at the bottom. There’s a large campsite at the junction here, and I take advantage of the logs set up near the fire ring for a quick sit-down snack break, swatting lazy mosquitos as I eat. The trail climbs again now, a bit longer but not quite as steep. But it’s hot, and I’m struggling enough to put my audiobook back on, in need of mental distraction. Just near the end of the climb, I pass a northbounder who is carrying a giant pack. Not just big compared to the usual thru-hiker minimalism, but really, objectively huge. It towers over him, and his body is stooped beneath it. He stops to warn me about the long dry stretch after Schultz Creek (which I’ll hit tomorrow) and to advise me on the best place to hitch into town in a few days.

Once over the top of this climb, the trail descends through a huge burn area. It’s early afternoon, the hottest time of the day, and I trudge through what feels like endless exposed trail, wondering if I will catch up to the friends for lunch. At last I turn a little corner and see a cluster of people ahead — the friends. My mix of joy-relief almost immediately fades, though: most of them are packing up, having already taken a long lunch here at this stream. Snotfish and Cowboy are just waking from naps in the shade, and I am extremely jealous. Whiz says everyone plans to hike another 13 miles to Surprise Lake. I agree, but in the back of my brain I’m observing that it’s already 3pm, another 13 will make this a ~26-mile day, my shin hurts, and if I want any chance of arriving before dark, I won’t be able to take a real lunch break here. Ooof. Sultry is last to leave, and generously lends me one of his compression sleeves for my shin.

I sit in the shade and eat, looking at the elevation profile ahead and estimating (with some dismay) how many hours it will take me. Then I filter water, pack up, and head out about 40 minutes after I arrived. I’m on a sleep/rest deficit compared to my pals: slowed down by my shin pain, but trying to maintain the same mileage as them, I’ve been unable to take decent rest breaks during the day recently. It’s catching up to me.

But I feel determined as I hike out, trying to pick up my pace. There’s a very steep, very hot uphill that slows me down, and I can’t make up time on the descent like I usually would, because it hurts my leg to take the downhills fast. I begin to worry about time, a worry exacerbated by periodic blowdowns and the sudden need to dig a cathole, both of which cause delays I can’t afford. I feel okay on the next climb, but by the time I reach the top it is already 6:30pm with 7.5 miles still to go. I resign myself to camping alone tonight. The decision brings a small measure of relief, because I can now just hike at a manageable pace and stop worrying, but I also feel a heavy sadness. I feel disappointed, as if I’ve failed at something, and bummed that I’ll spend my last few nights on the CDT camping alone instead of with my friends — there’s no way I’ll catch back up to them on trail, and we’ll have to just meet again in town. Here at the top of the climb, I find I have cell service, and I text the friends with my decision, hoping the rumors of cell service at the lake are true so they won’t worry when I don’t show tonight. I send Cyn a text with my sad feels, and then begin the descent.

It’s long and slow, but I try to enjoy a steady pace, still listening to my audiobook. Near the bottom, the wind picks up, and makes an eerie whistling sound through the dead, burned pine trees all around me. I clamber over a blowdown here and there, and then more blowdowns, some of them so big in diameter that I can’t even swing my legs over to straddle them, and have to slide across on my butt. The next uphill starts, but it is filled with giant blowdowns. Sometimes I can clearly see the trail just on the other side, just four or five feet ahead of me, but it’s completely blocked off by a huge fallen tree and its many sharp, jagged dead branches. The wind continues and the air grows colder: I’m ascending and night is coming. There is no place to camp — the trail just curves around mountainsides covered in fallen trees. I want to hike faster, to find a place for my tent before dusk, but every few steps another enormous tree trunk blocks my way. I curse and yell. “I hate this trail! Fuck you, CDT!” I drag my exhausted body over another blowdown. And another. And another.

Finally, at 8:30pm, I find a small bit of bare ground, just big enough for one person, and fight the wind to pitch my tent. I hastily eat a Snickers bar and bites of a few other things, then put on all my layers, noticing that my legs are scraped and bloody from the blowdowns. I’m up high enough to have cell service here, and text with Cyn for a bit until my hands are too cold to hold the phone anymore. I scrunch down in my quilt as the last bit of daylight fades, the wind still rippling against my tent doors and howling through the pines.

Rainbow Lake, still as glass in the early morning.
Trying to make my direct-sun-in-the-face squinting look fun/gay and intentional. (On Rainbow Pass, elevation 9250 ft.)
View from south side of Rainbow Pass.
Bear grass and other post-burn new growth.
Johnson Lake.
Alpine meadow before the final ascent to Pintler Pass.
View from Pintler Pass.
View near the top of my last climb before lunch.
What most of the long exposed sections looked like today.
View as I finally accepted I would not make it to the lake.
Evening view amid the blowdowns, near my eventual campsite.

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