Be safe out there

It is not infrequently that I want to return to these days, when almost all the trails in Glacier National Park were new, and I had only the maps vaguest idea of what was around the next corner. Today, I’m running into needing two hands to count the times I’ve been over many of the passes and across many of the lakes. I’ll never run out of corners to explore, and there is a lot to be learned from seeing at ground level just how different each year is from the next, but the days of whole drainages being blank spots are over, which is sad.

The purpose of hiking, and life generally, was in question early Saturday afternoon. Three times now I’ve hiked north over Flattop in June, with miles of snow slogging and lots of rain. But never before had the snow been so spongy and energy sucking, and never before had it rained the whole damn day. Going through the big meadow north of Fifty Mountain the rain beat down, the wind blew it up into my hood, and there were no flowers to be seen under the 10+ feet of snow and avalanche debris. It’s hard to justify esoteric backpacking plans in moments like that.

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Stoney Indian Lake.  The campground is just out of sight on the left; the trail follows the far short and wraps around the right end before climbing up to the pass.

Everyone told me to be safe out there, even the folks on the shuttle.  With snow delaying the full sun road opening, small buses started running visitors up to the Loop (halfway to Logan Pass) last Friday.  M dropped me off an hour before the first was to run, and I was the seventh person in line.  45 minutes later there were nearly 40 people waiting, and the buses only hold 12-15 people.  Riding the bus up through the rain and fog, most of the passengers seemed to lack a clear idea of where they were going and why they were doing it.  There’s no shelter at the Loop aside from a small bathroom awning, and I imagine many people spent a lot of time Saturday standing in the rain, waiting to go back down.

The safety comments are always curious, and seem to dovetail with the advert copy about ultralight gear: “lighten your pack without effecting comfort or safety!”  We’ve been over the comfort issue before, and I worry that thinking the contents of your pack should make the top five list of safety considerations is itself a deeply dangerous idea.

I sure wasn’t comfortable Saturday night.  Everything was a bit damp, which is best case scenario after hiking for 10 hours in the rain.  Dinner warmed me up, but I ate it hurridly in the rain.  The Stoney Indian Lake campground lacks many trees taller than 15 feet or wider than 4, and most of them were made even shorter by being 6 feet deep in snow.  I skipped making tea, as it would have meant more time squatting in the drizzle, and headed to bed, meditating upon back sweat migrating out of my wool shirt, through my fleece vest and primaloft jacket, and finally deep enough into my down bag so I would not longer feel like a lightly used and forgotten kleenex.  That did eventually happen, and I did eventually go to sleep.  Safe, and comfortable enough.

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Stoney Indian Pass looking NE.

The next morning answered the why question pretty well.  Late June morning and while snow and a white tarp woke me up very early, early enough that when I rolled over, went back to sleep for a while, and woke up again it was still barely 6.  I took my time and enjoyed hot coffee lounging on a rock, out in the open and lashed by wind which did not contain rain.  Cramponing up around the lake and to the pass went easily on hard snow.  It wasn’t sunny, and the clouds threatened eventual rain, but being cocooned against alpine wind is less oppressive when that wind is dry.  I lost the trail heading down off the pass, but had a good enough idea of where it made the first creek crossing that I didn’t mind.  With crampons the walking was easy, and I could follow bear and wolverine tracks and hop creeks at whatever pace I saw fit.

So why do I hike?  The point of diminishing returns has with backpacking been reached.  By any standard, reasonable or un, the Grand Canyon trip this spring was so good and went off so well I could have immediately retired with no truly important business left undone.

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Atsina and Glenns Lakes.

The first answer is that, for the moment, I have to do something with my time, and I’ve yet to reach a level of maturity where reading books and going for strolls nearby are sufficient for contentment.  The second answer is why the hell not?  You can’t see things like the view above enough, you just cannot.  Smart people have recently said that writing is nothing more or less than an extension of language itself, that it exists to share your perspective on the world with others.  The first corollary is then, if you want to write something worth reading you need to find interesting perspectives on the world.  This is why, today, it’s impossible to take a good photo of Mesa Arch.  This is why it’s essential to get out into the world, however you choose to do so.  Why go backpacking in the rain?  As Nietzsche wrote, “why have knowledge at all?”

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Thimbleberry.

Once I was done Stoney and able to put the axe and crampons away for good, the crux of the trip was over, but the seeing was not.  I still had Glenns Lake to paddle across, chased downstream by a 20 mph tailwind, lashed by rain.  I still had Redgap Pass to get over, where I was nearly blown flat by the wind.  My feet still hurt, a lot, going down into the Kennedy Creek drainage, and I still had the creek itself to paddle, with it’s fantastic fast and twisty willow tunnels, and one horrific portage around beaver damn induced willow sieves to infinity.  I still had to paddle across Poia Lake, in the rain of course, where I saw a Common Goldeneye botch the landing, hit a wave, endo, and do a 360 before picking itself back up and squack away to join it’s family.  I perfected the paddling a packraft across a lake late in the day, in the rain, while drenched to the navel and with numb hands and feet song in the process.  It’s easy: half “Row your Boat”, half “I’ve been working on the railroad”, sung at 200 bpm, with every word having become fuck.  Like so:

fuckfuck fuckfuckfuck

fuck    fuck      fuck

fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck  fuck fuckfuck

fuck     fuck      fuckfuck

And so on.  Try it, it will help you paddle faster.

The next morning I was up early, having eaten everything except granola bars, with visions of microwave burritos and a triple espresso driving my legs forward.  Ending a backpack in the Many Glacier valley is a good idea, with the grand enveloping folds taking a second seat to nothing and nowhere.  The hotel, set at the base of the lake at the confluence of three big valleys, is well named, and totally ridiculous.  It brings lots of people to prime bear habitat, and sits one hundred feet high and many hundreds of feet wide in the one of the windiest spots around.  The snows drift deep all winter, and I’ve heard they always have lots of fun in May shoveling out the interior, ideally before it all melts into the flooring.  But the view is stunning and the whole edifice of excess stands as a metaphor for modern human conduct in the wild: as vital as it is absurd, every day standing out more and more as apart and foreign, but still deeply tied by a history so coherent it can barely be expressed.

Which is why I’ll keep backpacking.

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3 thoughts on “Be safe out there

  1. I would share this with some of my friends but they likely would only focus on why one would endure this type of suffering. I see only adventure and hardships well prepared for in order to experience that which you love and thankfully have enough energy and skill afterwards to share with those who understand. Still I had a mental gulp when you revealed you had packed in your raft, well done.

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