As I prepare to head out on my next adventure, a 3,100 mile trek down the Continental Divide, I can’t seem to stop myself from thinking, "what is it that drives me to court suffering on a daily basis?" Bradford Angier put it best when he wrote that in exchange for all of the luxuries and worldly conveniences we “undertake an existence in which there is considerable hard toil—work so admittedly long and exhausting that few men paid to labor would consider it for a second.”
The reasons for such melancholy thoughts trace back to the last four days I spent trekking the Pacific Crest Trail on the verge of hypothermia. It rained, sleeted, and snowed on and off for four days straight. Even doing my best to keep things dry, something I thought I was an expert at after 88 days of rain on my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, the air was so humid that eventually my down bag lost all of its loft. By day-four I was sleeping in a glorified plastic sheet.
I would hike anywhere from 12 to 14 hours a day stopping when the rain, sleet, or snow wasn’t absolutely horrible but never for very long because I had to keep my body temperature up. Occasionally a little sunlight would make its way through the maze of clouds but never for more than 15 minutes at a time. Just long enough to raise my spirits and get my hopes up that maybe, just maybe, I would be able to dry things out. No sooner would I start unpacking then back came the rain ruthlessly crushing my spirits time and time again. By day-two I stopped even trying to dry my gear out.
At the end of each day I would crawl into my wet sleeping bag and stomach as much peanut butter as I could. It wasn’t food at that point, just fuel. I had plenty of dinners to cook but no desire to make them. I was carrying a wood burning stove and the amount of effort to make a fire in such damp conditions was more than I was willing to put forth at the end of such long days. I spent the nights with what little warmth I could get from my sleeping bag mostly awake and shivering, with occasional bouts of fitful sleep mixed in.
Never fear, the story ends well. I completed my 2,663 mile hike, hit the US/Canada border and turned around and walked 37 miles back out of the park. Within a day and half, I was dry, sitting by a fireplace, drinking a beer, and eating pizza. How I managed to get out of the deserted park was just sheer luck, or maybe fate, but that’s another story for another time.
So, what is it that makes me want to go back out there and spend another summer suffering? Is it the lure of the mountains or the call of the wild? A desire to see sights that few people dream of while sitting in their comfortable La-Z-Boy with a roof over their head and the heater on full blast? Is it a need to test myself, and if so, will I go the way of so many who continued to push the limits until they abruptly find themselves at or beyond them and sadly never make it home to tell their tales?
I honestly think that I would simply be bored otherwise. We are no longer tested by Mother Nature and seldom encounter hardship in our day to day lives, so instead I feel a need to test myself. A hard day at home is one in which traffic is worse than normal or a waiter screws up my order at lunch. What do we learn about ourselves from such trivial matters? I want to know who I am…what I’m made of, what drives me, what my fears are, where my limits lie, and what it takes for me to survive and even flourish. How much can I really take and still come back asking for more?
Last year, I hiked 52 miles in a 30 hour time span because I had to make it to a post office on a Saturday between 10 and 11am to pick up my resupply box. If I hadn’t made it, I’d have been stranded in a tiny resort town for three days over Labor Day weekend with little to no food. If I’d have had to wait I would have ended up missing my flight home at the end of the week as well. I had little choice in the matter, so I did what I had to do. But had you told me that I could walk 52 miles in one continuous stretch a few years ago, I would have laughed in your face.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a glutton for punishment. It’s not something I seek but not something I go out of my way to avoid either. If I intended to avoid it, I never would have taken up ridiculously long distance hiking in the first place.
When I talk of “suffering” I think of it as a long time friend. My constant companion on each of my adventures, I am never surprised to find that its with me every step of the way. Sometimes, dare I say, its welcome. There is nothing like a little humble toil to really make you appreciate every moment of every single day.
Even though I talk of “suffering” daily, I don’t let it overshadow the beauty that I experience. I see incredible sights and experience wondrous things made all that much more incredible by the effort I put into getting there.
This year’s trip, in all likelihood, will be more challenging than anything I have attempted yet. I’m hiking 3,100 miles from Canada to Mexico through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. Only about 200 people in the world have finished it in a season and only around 40 people attempt it each year.
This year is looking tougher than most. The conditions are so gnarly that people are bailing on their plans without ever even setting foot on the trail. The snow levels range from varying degrees of bad to worse. The average snow level is about 150 percent of the norm with extremes of anywhere from 200 to 400 percent. I’m not too worried about walking across the snow, but it’s the stream crossings that will be full of snowmelt that have me concerned.
A few weeks ago I read the line “I never doubted I could make it, I just wondered what would be required” and that will be the attitude I take into this hike. I’m far too stubborn not to make it, but I wonder what hardships await along the way.
No matter what is asked of me this year I have a feeling that Suffering and I have a long term relationship in the making, one that I don’t doubt will last the rest of my life. The call of the wild is too strong to resist and I’ll forsake the luxuries of home: a roof, a heater, running water, television, and the convenience of a grocery store again and again. I’ll gladly trade them out for my tent, sleeping bag, and my backpack and place myself at Mother Nature’s not-so-tender mercies. As John Muir said “The mountains are calling and I must go.”
Late August, an update:
Montana and Idaho
If I had to sum up in one word this first month and a half and 800 some miles, I think it would have to be just "wow". A lot of the other words that fit are four letters long and not quite appropriate.
Glacier National Park was an experience that I won't forget anytime soon and left me feeling happy to be alive. Taking on the Highline Route in a huge snow year was unlike anything I've ever done before. Ryley and I were only two of the four through thru-hikers to do it this summer. A few others tried it but everyone else bailed. At least once a day a slip in the wrong place meant a fall off a cliff or down a nice long icy chute with rocks waiting at the bottom. Even with the constant danger it was easily one of the most beautiful places I've ever been in my life and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
From GNP we entered the Bob Marshall Wilderness Aka "the Bob" which we carried way too much food for courtesy of prior hikers dire warnings. We had an easy time of it, stream crossing and all, and made good time for the most part. Of the 50 plus stream crossings we did, only two were sketchy. I would say that during that week, my shoes and socks were wet at least 90% of the day, every day.
From there on it all starts to blend together. We've done two seven-day-long carries now which have left us pretty drained by the time we stumble into town. That's a long time with no town-food to recharge the batteries. We also did a 15 day stretch just picking up resupply boxes at ranches and lodges with no town-food in the middle and that one took it out of us too. By day 22 I'd already lost 15 pounds. I can't imagine what I'm at by now.
We've managed to pull a few 30 mile days but they've left us exhausted by the end. Lately, 25 miles has been the average and while we have to work for it, we don't feel like death at the end of the day. That is one thing I have to say about this trail; you really have to earn you miles. They don't come easy.
My body has managed to hold up so far...knock on wood. I had some ankle and calf problems in the snow, then a minor knee injury from snowshoeing but they all left with the snow. I'm feeling like I'm finally getting back in shape, seems like of took longer than usual this time, and it's a great feeling.
Unlike most of the other southbound hikers we chose to take the Butte route instead of the Anaconda route and it's not something I'd do again. The trail was new and well made but there was nothing to see and we spent a lot of time road walking on gravel. After 10 or 15 miles my body doesn't like that very much. The route we took was also about 60 miles longer than the other adding two extra days to our trip.
A couple days back we climbed up to Cottonwood Peak at 11,200 feet which was simply amazing and the highest we've been this trip. The 360 degree view from the top, right along the Montana-Idaho border would have been enough to take my breath away if I'd had any left after the climb. It's one of the few alternate routes we've taken that has been longer and more elevation gain than the actual CDT route.
We've finally finished up with Montana after following the Divide right along the border and have two more days in Idaho before we head into Yellowstone. I'm really looking forward to Wyoming and hiking in the Winds. I'd never even heard of them before this trip but ask anyone around here and they all say the same thing, it's one of the most beautiful places in the US. I've got some pretty high expectations for the next few weeks and can't wait to get there.