Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Glacier National Park

I've decided that after that trip I'm either incredibly resilient or amazingly stupid. The truth is probably somewhere in between. It started on 01 July when our friend Brad said at climbing "I'm going backpacking in Glacier. Anyone wanna go?" I perked up out of my unusually bad mood (I had been dragged to climbing against my will) and responded with a "Hell yeah!" Long ago Oscar and I had discussed doing a similar trip as part of our honeymoon, but it was waylaid by other plans (you know, a rocket launch, that sort of thing). It usually happens that Brad goes on vacation at the last minute, so none of us were surprised by his announcement. We just asked for him to give us more advanced notice when he goes on these sorts of things so that we can tag along too. Last time he told us three days before he left, so this time we got nine days notice!

Anyway, it turned out that Oscar and I both could go. Suhweet! Oh yeah, the resilient vs stupid debate. That one can be decided for yourself. I'm going to add a very large asterisk to this story: Brad planned everything, so I really have no right to complain about the amount of hiking we did ;-)

Day 1: We began our day with a fabulous breakfast at the Park Cafe (love them!) after being dropped off by shuttle #1. A quarter-mile walk (as if we needed to do more walking) to the St. Mary Visitor Center inside Glacier Park, and we were on another shuttle. We were dropped off at a location called "The Loop" along Going to the Sun Road. So our adventure began. It was hot. Stupid hot. Mountains aren't supposed to be that hot! It didn't help that our entire trek that day was through an area that had been completely burned out 6 years ago. No shade, with the exception of the side of a hill. Dude. What did I get myself into? I thought I was going to die. Nausea from the lack of electrolytes plus the steep ascent had totally kicked my booty. And not in a good way. Imagine my relief when we reached the top of the hill (or at least the top of the steep section). Short-lived. Mosquitoes. Thousands of them. Which led to the hour long sprint through the meadows (ok, not a sprint, but damn near close to it) to try to avoid them. Didn't help. Oscar and Brad got chewed to bits. Fortunately for me, I was hiking in between two very good mosquito magnets. I just had to deal with the occasional bite and a swarm as thick as syrup.

Our trek continued along this line (more uphill, are you serious?) across the top of Flat Top mountain. Our total ascent that day was around 3,000 feet or so. Several hours into our hike and as we were running out of daylight, we realized that we had to climb back down that dang mountain and up again to our campsite. Damn. Can't we just have a zip line? Sometime around 10 pm we rolled into the camp site (lots of daylight in that part of the country in the summer). I kept watch over our stuff at the food site while Brad went to get water and Oscar set up our tents. I think they really just didn't want to stand still with the mosquitoes. Not that I could blame them. :-P Then food. Oh food. How I love you.

Brad had asked me to put together the stove. I hadn't used it before, but I figured it couldn't be that hard. Burner: check. fuel: check. pump: check. Oh. It's leaking. Perhaps I had put it together wrong. I decided to leave it for Brad to check on. Yep, I had not seated the pump properly and it was leaking about the top of the fuel canister. No problem. It still leaked. Wait, what? Turns out that the stove was over 10 years old and the pump was cracked. Given that the fuel canister needed to be pressurized in order to deliver fuel to the burner, using it with a leak was not a good idea. No stove. Dinner, then, was recovery drink (don't get Luna dark chocolate recovery drink - tastes awful!) and some trail mix. Then bed, probably some time around 11 pm, judging by the twilit sky.

Day 2: Ok, muscles aren't too sore. A little stiff from our 12 mile hike the previous day, but not too bad considering. The previous night we decided to add water to our meals and see if they "cooked" overnight. Bad idea. I had a freeze dried version of Pad Se Ew noodles. With rice stick noodles and raw garlic. I probably could have choked down the crunchy rice stick noodles, but the raw garlic was simply inedible. Blech. Burned the back of my throat. Ok, so it's granola for breakfast. The granola was a win. :-) The scenery for day 2 greeted us with a smile. Meadows of yellow and white wild flowers with an occasional stream and a snow field for good measure (see picture). The hike on day 2 was only 8.2 miles. Much more doable than the 12 from the previous day. The bulk of the hike was spent descending the side of a mountain to a stream. We were treated to sweeping vistas of glacial valleys and waterfalls. The stuff storybooks are made of. I was glad to have such a stark contrast from the previous day. We actually saw pine trees that were still alive! The last 2.6 miles of the day were up another 1,750 feet climb to a cirque basin, bringing the day's total to around 2,300 feet. Dang. I decided that we were bad-asses. ;-) Thankfully we were greeted at our campsite with a welcome sight: friendly fellow hikers who were willing to share their stove! We actually had a hot meal that night. Pesto salmon never tasted so good! The camp site at Stoney Indian pass was located at the foot of a small glacial lake. The pit toilet - well let's just say it had sweeping views and throngs of mosquitoes.

Day 3: Our fellow hikers got a much earlier start than us. They were out of there before most of us had exited our tents. Turns out that was a really smart thing to do. Breakfast was followed by me using our tent as a haven from mosquitoes as I packed my backpack and got ready to go. We had all just finished packing and getting water when we saw a lightning bolt hit the mountainside not 200 yards from where we were. Crap. Not good considering we needed to hike 1,000 feet up to cross Stony Indian pass. And either way we sliced it, we were now at least 20 miles from civilization. As we sat on Brad's foam sleeping pad and hunkered down in our rain gear, a though drifted through my brain, "What in the hell am I doing?" It wasn't the first time that thought had entered my head. We waited out the thunder and lightning and set off for our 8.7 mile hike. By the time we were at the head of the lake the rain had stopped. Sweet. Hopefully that was the worst of it. I decided to keep my rain gear on (just-in-case), as the clouds looked threatening enough. Brad took his rain pants off and nearly got a serious case of hypothermia. The view from the top of Stony Indian Pass would most likely have been stunning. That is if it weren't for the driving rain that greeted us at the top. We descended the valley past a series of lakes and waterfalls, all the while being pelted with rain. By the time we reached our campsite, the rain had stopped. At least long enough for us to hang our packs, pitch our tents and get inside of them to dry off and warm up. The Glen Lake head campground (which wasn't our site) allowed fires. We found this out because we passed a group of people looking rather toasty by a roaring fire. One of the members of the group walked past us and said "You look rather wet." Thank you captain obvious!

We didn't take many pictures on Day 3. It was far too wet and cold for us to stop long enough, and that combined with the views of the clouds made for lousy photo conditions. It started to rain again about 15 minutes after we climbed into our tents. And it continued to rain until about an hour before we all woke up. Our tent held up relatively well considering. A few drops had found their way through the rain fly, but it wasn't anything we couldn't deal with. Brad's tent, on the other hand, didn't fare as well. It was a good thing he had a closed-cell sleeping pad. Otherwise he would have wound up sleeping in puddles. As it was, all of our sleeping pads and bags had gotten somewhat wet from our fabulous trek through the torrential rain earlier in the day. Oscar brought up the question that was looming in all of our minds "Do we stick it out for the whole time, or try to get home tomorrow?"

Day 4: We decided that we had enough camping. Especially now that everything was soaked. Water makes everything heavier, and with the combination of not being able to eat our freeze-dried dinners and all the wet stuff we were carrying, our packs were heavier than they were when we started. That's exactly NOT what is supposed to happen to them! Our decision to cut our trip short by a day meant that we had an almost 18 mile hike ahead of us that day. Thankfully the sun graced us with its presence, and the weather warmed up quite a bit. The first six miles of the hike were relatively flat. Day 4 was supposed to be our easy hike day. An elevation change of 200 feet and the shortest distance. It would have been a great day to relax (wait, what is that?) and hang out by Elizabeth lake. We hung out around Elizabeth lake for about an hour. Long enough to dry out our feet, restock our water supply, and enjoy some "gorp" of pepperoni and cheese that some fellow hikers generously shared with us. I'm so bringing pepperoni and cheese next time. Stupid stove! :-P

I could write an entire blog post about the rest of the hike on Day 4. The middle 6 miles were studded with a 3,000 foot climb to the top of Ptarmigan Pass, switchbacks, a really, really, really incredibly steep, narrow incline up the side of a mountain, and a tunnel. I would not recommend it for those of a faint of heart (or fear of heights). Did I mention that I'm afraid of heights? Yeah. The whole time I was hiking along that steep section of the trail I kept saying "this is crazy." I was petrified. But there was nothing to do but push through it, tell myself to put one foot in front of the other, and ignore the precipitous fall I was convinced I was going to take. I still think it was crazy. And people take horses on that trail! As we neared the top of the hill, the clouds once again rolled in and up right to us. So much for the view from the top! It rained again, confirming to us that our decision to hike it out that day was the correct one. The final 6 miles were a very welcome downhill.

It might sound like I'm complaining about this trip in this post. Quite the contrary. With the exception of the first day's worth of insane heat and hiking, the trip was awesome! The mosquitoes, the rain, and even the broken stove were laughed off. After all, there's nothing else you can do when you're in the wilderness and miles from home but give in and enjoy yourself. I like to say that even though the hiking was tough, it was a small admission fee to pay to see the views that greeted us around every corner. I would do it again. But not for at least another year. ;-)

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