I’m up at dawn, the massive rock walls turning pink under a crystal clear sky. It’s cool and a wonder to me that I slept through all the partying. I’m tired, for sure, and comfortable letting them do their thing as I do mine.
I pack up right away and even skip breakfast to get out on trail. I love mornings the best – the light, the fresh smell and the solitude, though I have bear spray at the ready and call out constantly in the woods.
I kind of want a ride from the campsite to the trailhead near the gorgeous lodge. I’ve walked it three times already, but no one picks me up, even single people in monstrous vehicles. Ah well, it’s a gorgeous walk along the lake with the light hitting the glaciers.
I pass a bus unloading luggage, then find a trail that appears to be going in the right direction. A CDT shield verifies it telling me I’ll hit Piegan Pass in eight miles. At first it’s dark and brushy, the birds loud like an odd signal. I yell for bears and walk well, finally finding my groove. Though that’s mostly because I’m ‘hiking my own hike’ by starting early and walking slow.
Cliffs peak out past the trees, enormous with long jets of water in frothy threads emptying the snow above. I haven’t had breakfast or anything to drink, often feeling better just going. But the time has come to take a break and I sit on a log in a meadow looking at Hidden Falls, a ground squirrel standing up to check me out, peeping, then making a break for one of his tunnels.
I’m so looking forward to a shake, maybe peanut butter and chocolate. I pull out my massive ursack. That’s funny, I don’t remember tying a knot at the top. Oh no! I took someone else’s bag! I’m too far in to turn around but I will if it looks like there’s a necessity in the bag, like insulin or heart medication.
I only see toothpaste and lotion, a stove and food below. I took the bag of cookies and cookie dust from the hiker box and it’s still in my pocket. So I eat the larger pieces, then make a kind of shake and drink it down. I have no idea who’s bag I took, but it must be one of our group and they’ll catch up, surely.
I finish up and march on, the trail turning more deeply into the valley of steep rock and waterfalls. I cross stream after stream of aqua water, clear as glass thinking in the back of my mind what the desk clerk at the hotel told me that the bridges have yet to be installed.
Sure enough, I reach a river that looks pretty wild. I step in, bracing myself with my sticks. There aren’t any footprints in the snow beyond so I doubt this is the way, but maybe I can push through the current.
In the shade, I put everything tightly away in case I slip. I also attach the wrist bands to my trekking poles, then take my first step into the icd cold water.
The water is heavy and pushing hard. I move my left foot up, then my right stick poking around for a good hold as water pushes it making it wobble. I can hardly move my right foot into position and dare not go forward.
Just then, a group arrives with shovels.
“Hi! I’m a bit stuck.”
“Care to give me a hand?”
It turns out they’re the trail crew ready to install the bridge. Good timing, I think, but the leader is kind of a downer and warns me it will take at least an hour.
My friends told me to wait if things got hard, so I’m fine with that, but I can’t understand why he’s so cranky. I mean, his job is in paradise. So I filter water and sit in the shade.
Just then, a hiker appears. Andrea is her name, from Southern California. She just spoke to a ranger who gives her all the beta – especially about this river which the crew was completely useless about.
We just need to head up 50 feet and we can cross. We walk over and I see it instantly, right above a hanging snow bank. I lead across swiftly elated to be moving on.
Andrea tells me her permit has her walking 30 miles today and .9 tomorrow. I ask if she’ll join our second permit, bringing our group to eight and she is relieved, especially since she walked all the way from the border yesterday.
The ranger also gave her information on the exposed snowy sections – a large chute that would normally be crossed by switchbacks, but now is a snow field at a 60-degree angle.
At first she wanders straight up a river which is slippery and also exposed. I find us a path through the woods and head straight up. Is it the best way? Maybe not, but there’s no chance of falling. And besides, I love powering straight up a d feel especially strong.
We pop out on the snow field and I skirt the edges in dirt moving higher and higher and crashing through some long limbed firs until we reach an open trail. Sweaty and breathing heavy, we put on our microspikes and Andrea tells me to shorten one pole before we edge out on the snow field.
Let me start by telling you I take no pictures. It was all business carefully placing each step, digging it in and then moving to the next. The snow is slushy and clingy, but a fall would be catastrophic down at least 100 feet or so to rocks.
Best not to look down.
The trees here are flattened by snow, still growing but at odd angles. I suppose a tree could stop you, but best would be to dig in with the pole and feet; even better, not to slip at all. Imagine just hanging on there with metal spikes, gently clinging to a tiny shelf before moving on.
We cross five chutes, the final one of about 50 feet, the most dangerous, and suddenly, we’re through. We meet two thru-hikers coming north because those were the best permits available. One carries a plastic trombone in her pack.
The sun beats down as the trail ascends through rock and over streams, the loose gravelly sand filled with wildflowers. More thru-hikers head down and one wishes me “happy trails!” Doesn’t she want beta? That snow was not something to fool with and I’m not surprised to see a sign warning people coming the other way that the trail is closed.
But as we climb higher into a narrow bowl surrounded by waterfalls and humpy, snow-carved dirt, I realize the snow fields are hidden from view.
Up and up we go and I feel great. I’m not fast, but I don’t need to be. It’s warm with little wind and I’m carrying someone else’s food, the sooner I get it back, the sooner I eat.
The air smells of juniper, tight bushes clinging to the bit of soil. It’s hard to see where the trail goes, but it reveals itself cut into rock, a beautifully built ramp through a profusion of wildflowers, up and over.
Andrea and I sit up there a long time. She tells me I have to eat and offers a handful of crackers. I feel amazing – high on the snow crossings and all that oxygen going up. Marmots and ground squirrels visit, obviously fed for pictures. I take out my umbrella from the scorching sun (Glacier issued a heat advisory today) and receive a compliment from two day hikers.
They’re cute in multi-colored shorts and socks, and determined to go over the pass. “Do you have spikes?”
“How about trekking poles?”
They’re strong but we tell then not to try it because one slip and they could slide without stopping, picking up speed to the bottom. They seem undecided and head on. It’s a shame the snow fields can’t be seen from above.
We laze on top in this beautiful place for an hour or so until Austin arrives followed closely by the others. I tell them I accidentally took someone’s food and he says it was a couple who arrived after dark. They’re headed to a site five miles off trail from ours.
He then tells me they set our right after me and he never saw them on trail. They must be ahead, he surmises, certain they found another way up. He offers to run the food down the trail to them after he eats. I’m circumspect, thinking I would have seen them today at some point, but he’s adamant.
So I pull out the bag and wait for him to finish eating. But then he returns to tell me that if it were him, he’d be very worried about getting food back to people and I really ought to head down myself, fast. “I don’t understand, they started later than you…” he goes on – and on.
I stop him short to tell him I got it, I’ll go. Of course I’m sorry and it’s a bummer, but I am unable to go fast and didn’t he just offer to take it?!
Well I go and feel bad, especially at the implication that I should have caught them, or at least be walking all out to catch them.
The views are of the glaciers hanging in bowls a d being emptied out through rock channel falls I an hear all the way on the other side of this valley. Tourists keep pouring up and my heart hurts. I feel shamed for an honest mistake – we all have precisely the same food bag – and all the power and joy I felt just empties out.
The snow on this side is in trees, humpy and slippery and now I’m not wearing spikes. I come to a stream and fill my water bottles trying to remember why I came here and not let this situation and one person’s opinion cloud things up.
Just as I get up to leave, Austin and Emily arrive. He walks up and says, “I want to apologize for what I said and if it in any way took you away from your bliss.” I immediately burst out crying. I tell him it was an accident and that I’m old snd slow and I can’t run down the mountain. He tells me he really feels bad and truly was only trying to analyze and solve the situation.
I feel much better and more understood. I still can’t believe they’re ahead, but everyone thinks we’ll work it out and we all join up for food – they give me snacks – near a stream and under shade.
I’m better as the trail heads down steeply and into an area of blowdowns. Austin insists on walking with me and offers help, though I figure out how to crawl under or over the obstructing logs. I don’t want to jump anymore, so it requires some creative thinking.
I know he’s sincere, Emily too, trying to smooth a misunderstanding. I have the best day yet with my body and the scenery, and am happy I could cry and say I am old and I am different with new hips but look what I can do and where my new hips take me!
After the worst of the blowdowns, Austin leaves and I walk alone into the parking lot on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. I ask my standard question of a couple in a kitted out van if the might sell me a beer, and they do! An ice cold Corona with salt and a lime.
We drink and chat, they not totally understanding thru-hiking and shocked how sweaty and filthy I am. But we connect on the beauty of this place and how lucky we are to be here.
It’s only a mile to our camp spot, hot and overgrown with my calling out, “Mr. Bear” a lot. The river is a wild rush of swirling rapids, but the sights are small and carved out of mosquito swamp. I don’t care once I find the gorgeous rock next to the water, filter some and soak my legs.
Austin and Oceana make me food and we all gather about laughing about the day, the hard snow, the lone moose on top, the sunburned skin even on dark-skinned gals. And then the hikers arrive, the ones whose food I took.
I apologize profusely, introduce myself to Annie, a gorgeous redhead, who can’t even look me in the eye. They were behind us and she’s very upset. She asks if I ate anything, and I tell her no, that I only looked inside to see if there were important pills that had to be taken.
She says she needed the first aid and I realize she’s upset because she’s in pain. To hell with the permit! This hiker can’t walk another give miles tonight. Let them stay here. I reach in my bag and pass out gummy bears to everyone, a little trick-or-treat and the least I can do.
Then I turn in early loving this day for my strength, the incredible sites, the misunderstandings righted and the hope that Annie will get a good night’s sleep, accept this kindnesses and hike a better day tomorrow.