Thursday, August 30, 2007

Continental Divide Trip

Well, I just got back from my Continental Divide Trip. It was a fantastic time. I met up with Tom Shimko in Olympia Saturday and we drove scenic route 12 across the state of Washington to meet up with the rest of the crew at Jackson, MT, a town of about 18 people. The trip took us two days as we left around noon on Saturday from Olympia. Tom drives a 1987 Honda all wheel drive car that has nearly 300,000 miles on it. To be honest, from the look of it at first I didn't think we were going to make it but to my suprise the car is pretty darn burly. Check the picture out... We ended up driving into the dark and found a fishing launch site along the Clearwater River that branches off from the Snake River into Idaho. It was a beautiful night and we even caught the International Space Station Floating by above. It was so nice I didn't bother to set up my new Bibler Bivy and instead camped out under the stars. I must have passed out early because I never heard Tom's usual loud snoring at night. Maybe it was the half bottle of wine he shared with me before we fell asleep (I haven't drank much in over a month- except for a few friday night when I met up with some friends at Squirrels). We woke up early to a beautiful morning to continue on towards Wisdom and Jackson, MT. The sunrise was beautiful in the river canyon.
As we were driving through Idaho we quickly came into valleys completely chocked with smoke from the fires in Montana. This has been a really bad year for fires with drought throughout the midwest and we certainly got a first hand experience of it. The haze of smoke was so dense we could barely see more than a half mile down the road. I couldn't imagine the acreage that must be burning to produce such a cloud! Tom and I took turns driving (thankfully I knew standard) and we got to Wisdom, MT in the early afternoon. We stopped to talk to the firemen there to check about the safety of our hike which looked to be ok. The largest forest fire was on the northern side of the road we were hiking to and moving in the opposite direction of us (Rat Creek Fire) so we felt confident to start our trip.
When passed a hay truck which was completely engulfed in flames on the side of the road on the way to Jackson Lodge to meet the others. When we pulled in we immediately met Skot who seemed to be a drifter for the summer around the West taking on odd jobs where he landed and trekking around to see the land. Health issues combined with a bit of bitterness towards Backpacker Magazine for not hooking him up with free gear for the trip (ironically he was specifically upset about the lack of free socks) led him to decide to bail on the trip with us. Tom and I then met Aaron and Cory who had been relaxing in the hot springs. They seemed like great people and genuinely interested in the organization of the hike.
We got together for a bit and looked at maps in the lodge and finalized our plans for the trip. We were to shuttle Tom's car to Big Hole Pass, Mt. that night (Sunday) and then on Monday morning take their car (Xterra) to Goldstone Pass, MT to start the hike. We then distributed the little food that backpacker had provided us and after shuttling cars and grabbing dinner in Wisdom, MT (30 minutes north) we ended up back at the Lodge.
That night I spent relaxing in the hot springs (a giant swimming pool as hot as a hot tub) and drinking a few beers at the bar with locals and Skot, who seemed to know everyone. We paid the owner 10 bucks and were able to set up our tents in the backyard of the lodge for the night as well as have access to all the facilities of the beautiful lodge. I can't say enough how beautiful the interior of the lodge was.
The start of our hike was kind of dismal. After a ridiculously long approach via car over 20+ miles of dirt road and cow fields we started our hike up 1500+ feet climb up a jeep road to the the actual Continental Divide (for those who don't know The continental divide splits the water drainage into either the Pacific or the Atlantic depending on what side you are on). From there we crested a ridge at 9,240 feet ( could feel the elevation a little coming from sea level) which was to be our highest point on the trip. We then descended a very steep, crumbly hill (scree field) towards a lake called CowBone lake because apparently about 50 years ago about 300 head of cattle collapsed through the ice into the lake perishing. On the way to the lake we completely lost track of the very vague trail through the woods and rocks. When we got the lake and found it I decided to run a quarter mile up the trail to find it again but also had trouble. I did get to take a few pictures of some Marmots while searching around though. When I got back down the lake the group had met a Thru-hiker who helped us on our way. The whole point of this trip was to map out the official Continental Divide Trail so that the National Historical Trail could be built and finalized in our path, thus I felt it very important that we be as accurate a possible. After chatting for a bit we continued on around a few alpine lakes with great views. At this point my collar bone was beginning to really kill me (the shoulder strap was sawing into the notch of bone left by my 1999 crash) but I continued on trying to ignore the pain. After crossing paths with several groups of 4wheelers (apparently Montana doesn't have any true "wilderness" areas so motorized vehicles can unfortunately travel pretty much anywhere unless otherwise posted). Before heading down towards the valley we came across some beautiful old cabins abandoned in the mountains. That night after a long descent down from the mountains to, ironically, within a mile of our starting point over a ridge we set up camp along the roadside next to a creek running through cow fields and coming out of a beaver dam = perfect place for me to test my new UV steripen water purifier. Giardia takes 2 weeks so I'm still waiting to see if it worked or not.... yikes! That night it poured buckets of rain, which on one hand I'm sure helped the firefighters, while on the other completely nailed us. Thankfully my Bibler Bivy performed flawlessly both keeping me dry inside without leaks and without any condensation due to the Todd Tex's high breathability.
Tuesday morning we continued on the valley road and then up into the mountains again. It was a beautiful day of hiking through the hills and we were able find a great campsite along a small creek. The weather had appeared to clear but I decided that I would set up my bivy just in case and I'm glad that I did because at over 8,000 feet I was pretty cold at night in my 12 year old, 20 degree bag, that had obviously lost it's rating.
Wednesday turned out to be a truly unbelievable day. It was up to then the hardest day of the trip with over 3,000 feet of climbing for the day over 12+ miles. We found ourselves ascending from around 7,500 feet to about 9,000. This took us several hours but the views we were rewarded with at the pass were truly amazing. Jagged peaks all around us with alpine lakes sprinkled about like raindrops on a carpet of lush green conifers. I took a ton of photos this day of all the views which of course can be seen by clicking the title of this entry for the slideshow of all of them. I had turned to using my packtowel as padding for my broken collarbone which worked out great and combined with my pack finally breaking in and loosening up I was feeling great except for a few blisters starting on my toes. Traversing across the slopes of the high terrain Tom spotted a brown/black bear which quickly sprinted off when it caught wind of us. I kept looking for big horn sheep as I saw on Montana's high point years ago but wasn't as lucky this time around. Wednesday night turned out to be quite the show for us. We set up camp at a beautiful alpine lake on our descent down towards a river valley. We could have pressed on I supposed but the lake was so beautiful and appeared to be begging for us to set up camp there. We did and boy were we rewarded! As we were filtering water and cooking up dinner Tom spotted another bear (look closely at the picture here and you can see the outline of him in the trees). As we were all in our tents after an exhausting day of climbing I suddenly heard splashing (no, not the splashing from Naked Tom taking his nightly dip... this was different). I jumped out of my bivy and army-crawled up the slope until I could see across the lake... a herd of about 20 elk were there with babies washing off in the water. The elk ran up the mountain slope when they noticed me in my all bright blue polartec fleece outfit starring at them. It was truly unreal to see their climbing ability and balance on the scree slope of the mountain. Their ascent was obnoxiously loud with falling rocks and debris they kicked up. Later that night when it got pretty dark another herd of elk showed up, apparently unwarned by the previous group of our presence. I was able sneek a couple pics of them before they bolted off, this time bellowing our location to every other animal in the general area... I can't stress enough how amazing that section of the trail was, away from jeep roads, motors, and on beautifully maintained trails with well marked CDT plackards on the trees at all time. We no longer had any trouble following the CDT and my GPS track log was growing nicely.
Thursday we continued on high up in the mountains after waking up to frost on our tents. The views continued to be spectacular the whole day. Again, I urge you to click the title and watch a slideshow of the photos. Our plan was to continue on as far as we could so that we would have a short exit on Friday but the problem was finding a place near water for the night. Eventually we came across a beautiful lake at around 8,300 feet that was literally half dried up from the summer. A group of ducks calmly circled the lake all night ignoring our presence. We felt litterally "cupped" by the mountains on all sides where we were. Like setting up camp in the palm of a giant rocky hand. I tried to get water to purify but there were a billion little shrimp-looking bugs in the water which prevented me from getting a clear cup to purify so I used Aaron's water filter instead to fill up for the night. The bugs didn't prevent Tom from taking his nightly naked dip though! I then proceeded to pop my therm-a-rest but luckily Tom the chemist was there who ironically was the literal inventor of the glue used in the patch kit! So, in less than 10 minutes with the use of Cory's patch kit my pad was as good as new. Later we would find out Tom had invented all sorts of other things such as parts of the Platypus hydration system etc. I cooked up some Backpacker Pantry Pesto Salmon with my awesome new Jetboil only to find it tasted terrible (I've been keeping track of what dehydrated foods I like/dislike on the trip so that I can buy in bulk for the future). I then tried to wash it down with some apple crisp which was equally as bad... go figure. It was another beautiful (and cold) night under the stars with a beautiful sunrise as well.
Friday turned out to actually be a pretty long day. Tom had spent the week hiking on a recently sprained ankle and we had to descend from 9,000 feet to 5,800 then up another 1500 feet up a steep jeep trail filled with rock rubble. I was therefore very worried about how he would hold up despite taping his ankle for him two days prior. The descent followed along the steep sides of Pyramid Mountain down to a river drainage. The trail was not smooth and there was a lot of loose scree around but Tom seemed to manage just fine. Once in the river valley the climb up to the car seemed like a kick in the crotch after such a beautiful hike... It was up a horrible jeep trail with very poor footing and frankly it was really shitty. All of us thought it tainted the trip terribly. Thankfully it was just a 2 mile walk over a newly constructed hiking trail back to Tom's car. Unfortunately Tom's car couldn't handle the weight of all of us with gear so he had to shuttle Aaron and Cory to the road to hitch-hike then come back for me which took a good hour. Then Tom dropped me off Jackson Lodge to shuttle cars with Aaron and Cory and didn't get back until after 10pm. I thankfully had time to unpack, chuck garbage, eat a pork chop Skot (who now was working in the kitchen) gave me, and also soak in the spring along with an undergrad geology class from Calgary while sipping some deliciously cold brews and minding my VERY blistered toes.
Saturday was simply a very long, and hot drive back to Portland in Tom's un-airconditioned car. The fires had died down a lot and the smoke had cleared out of the valleys for the most part. On the way to Wisdom we encountered a cattle drive with some real cowboys on horses and dog wrangling the beasts down the center of the road. I was able to get a picture as we drove by. We took turns driving but my back always seemed to be soaked in sweat and stuck to his sheepskin seat covers. It was a great hike and I think we all worked well as a team in the woods. I learned that the CDT for the most part is mostly over jeep trails and 4x4 roads so I'm not to psyched to travel it myself but we did end up with one of the most beautiful sections on the whole divide. Throughout the entire week we found ourselves straddling the Idaho/Montana boarder which follows the divide there. I'm glad I was able to keep up with a bunch of Thru-hikers as well despite my massive blisters on my toes!

No comments: