gear review/talk

When I’m not on trail I tend to nerd out on gear… Here’s my quick sum up of most of the gear I had on the CDT with me. Or at least the stuff I think is worth mentioning.

Please note that I give some (ok, many) unsolicited suggestions and pieces of advice, but please don’t blindly follow my words, you probably weren’t anyway. This is based on my own experience and what I prefer for my hiking style. Get out there, do more research, look at videos, and make your own decisions based on your personal experience and preferences about the gear that YOU want for the way YOU hike! 

By the way, I’m definitely going waaay lighter in the future and here’s what my future ultrafeared-gear list could look like…

 

ULA CIRCUIT PACK

Great pack. Mine was orange. I took out most of the bells and whistles except for the little zip pouch on the inside where I’d keep my wallet. I also cut off the top strap (one that goes over the part where you roll it down) and wish I hadn’t. I could’ve kept an extra pad there or my snowshoes when I was using them. Honestly though, great pack. It’s simple: a main storage area, a big back mesh pocket, and side pockets for easy access to water bottles or bear spray or food rehydration jars or gloves, etc. The hip belt is extremely comfortable and has HUGE hip belt pockets. Everybody was jealous of my hip belt pockets. They’re awesome. Though the Circuit isn’t quite as light as other options like a Hyperlite pack, or an Osprey Exos, or the Gossamer Gear Mariposa (don’t get a gossamer gear gorilla unless you really have a light baseweight), Zpacks pack, or even a Granite Gear pack,  it was absolutely perfect for me on this trail with the gear I had (rarely carried more than 30-35 lbs and often started my food carries with 20-30 lbs total). It has no serious signs of wear or any tearing after 2700 miles and could easily do the rest of the Triple Crown.  If I go hiking again, however, I’ll be taking far fewer things and shorter food carries, so I’ll be switching to a small, frameless rucksack-like pack like the MLD Burn or Gossamer Gear Kumo and rocking a fanny pack instead of a hip belt.

If I were to recommend a first time pack for a first time thru-hiker it would be my pack, the Osprey Exos series (48L is a good size pack, but you also see the 38 and the 58), the Gossamer Gear Mariposa, or the Granite Gear Crown VC 60. I think they’re all great packs. The Ospreys are great because you can try them on at REI, and they have great warranties so you can return and get new ones in the middle of the trail if yours is getting worn out (not a problem for ULA packs).

 

Mountain Laurel Designs Cuben Grace Tarp Duo

Well I spent a paycheck on this tarp, and I’m glad I did it. I got the .75 cuben which I think is pretty darn durable. I love my tarp. With stakes (all MSR groundhogs because they’re strong and reliable) and lines it weighs about 14.1 oz, weighed at a post office. I could probably switch to lighter stakes and shave off 2 oz if I really wanted to. I love the simplicity of a tarp, the weight savings, the minimal condensation when it actually rains (I often stay drier than people with tents and tarptents), and all the space I have under there. There are even little hangers where I can hang wet socks to dry overnight. A tarp isn’t necessarily “bomb-proof” in a bad, sideways rain storm, but then again, neither is any tarptent or tent out there. Yes, pyramid styles do perform well in windy rain, but I’ve found that pitching my tarp low and in a smart location (tree protection) and also occasionally using my umbrella to plug up the front end of my tarp works pretty darn well. I’ve never gotten wet other than the usual condensation or some spraying if I did a bad job at pitching. I only got up a few times in the middle of the night after a storm started to readjust some things. When it rains, I can shake off a lot of the water in the morning and roll up my tarp. It dries in the dry sun in about ten minutes or so. If the sun doesn’t come out, it doesn’t really matter if my tarp is still wet (as long as I don’t rub up against it at night, which I don’t). It’s more my groundsheet that’s the issue, but I have a special way of folding it up to keep the dry side dry (kind of) and also sleeping on top of a dry neoair pad helps a lot. Anyways, I loved my tarp set up, but I have a pretty low standard of living. If it isn’t going to rain, I cowboy camp (no tarp). I use polycryo (window shrink film) as a groundsheet, and I don’t care if spiders or bugs crawl on me; I’m too tired. I was lucky with mosquitos and got away without any bug netting. There were a few nights in the Winds when I had to spray the back of my head with deet and cover myself with my rain jacket, but it wasn’t that bad. I would’ve been miserable in the Sierras I think, so I’m gonna work on making a bug net that will fit over my umbrella and have elastic to tighten around my torso.

I really recommend tarping. It’s so simple, and simple is the name of the game out there. It still has its disadvantages and discomforts. It really boils down to experience and what you prefer or what scarring nights you want to avoid having again. There are lots of options out there, relatively expensive ones like Big Agnes tents, Hyperlite stuff, Yama Mountain gear stuff, or the Zpacks hexamid and relatively inexpensive silnylon tarptents like Tarptent (Rampaige had the Notch) and Six Moon Designs (Handstand had the Skyscape Trekker, RightOn had the Gatewood Cape with bug netting he sewed on). If you wanna get a simple, ultralight tarp, Gossamer Gear is making their tarps out of spinnaker again, no one else makes stuff out of that material… interesting.

Sorry I’m rambling on this, but I like tarping! You might not. For me, thru-hiking is more about the walking part and less about the camping part, so I just need something that works well when it gets ugly out there. I think tarps work well.

 

 

ZPACKS 20* SLEEPING BAG

A solid sleeping bag is the key to a good night’s rest and happiness on trail. Down bags are great. They are super light and compress to a small size. Zpacks bags are stripped down to be as light as possible while still keeping you warm, and I think they do a great job at doing that. A few complaints for an otherwise awesome bag: 1) it’s expensive, if I were to get another bag, I’d get an Enlightened Equipment quilt, which is almost the same thing for so much less money; 2) by the end of the trail, some of the down was clumping up and not insulating me well, especially at the top of the bag in the top few baffles, this should go away if I wash it and dry it; 3) I think the baffles are badly designed and it’s hard to fluff the down to stay above you and not under you (compress down beneath you does nothing). Other than that, great bag. Western Mountaineering bags were also very popular. I think it’s worth looking at synthetic-down bags if you’re gonna be hiking in a wet area (PNW or East Coast).

 

Therm-a-rest Neoair Xlite

Best inflatable pad in the game. Most thru-hikers on trail had these. I slept so well on mine. I sleep better on trail than in town. I wish I had gotten the small, torso version to shave 4oz, but I could also just carry less water to shave that weight… Anyways, awesome pad. Just be careful about popping it, especially if you use polycryo as a groundsheet and not Tyvek. I caught a cactus in New Mexico and had to patch it. I also popped it in the Thorofare in Wyoming and ended up sleeping on the cold, hard ground for 3 nights. I woke up every hour and thought a grizzly was going to eat me. Patched it and now it’s fine. My pad has sort of always lost a little bit of air over night and my hips touch the ground by the morning. I don’t mind. It helps me get up, or I blow it back up, take a piss, and drift off into blissful morning-sleep.

Shoes

I walked the trail in 4 pairs of Altra Lone Peak 2.5’s. Roughly one every 700 miles. Altras are great and probably the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned. Many thru-hikers and ultra-runners agree. The zero-drop takes some getting used to, but the roominess and wideness is great for lots of walking. I actually don’t think they’re good for me because my family has such tight calves and achilles. After it snowed, my overworked achilles hurt like heck. My feet decided to swell up in the Great Divide Basin, and I got a pretty nasty blister on the top of my left big toe joint from it rubbing on the shoe. It eventually healed over with an infection on the inside (painful and lots of pus), so I had to get antibiotics in Cody. Other than that though, my Altras kept my feet pretty happy most of the trail.

I’m gonna try to walk in Chacos from now on if conditions allow.

Guitar

I had a Washburn Rover. It’s a great travel guitar. I ditched it in Lordsburg and got it back again in Grand Lake, CO. Unfortunately, the neck snapped off when I shut a trunk door on it during a hitch in Cody, WY. I rarely played it on trail when I had it because I was often alone at that time and pushing long days and big miles. Having a guitar on trail is definitely a huge luxury item (2 lbs!), and I wouldn’t do it again because I’m simply too tired to be creative when hiking fast. However, on my next hike I’m gonna carry a little journal in my fanny pack to write down lyrics I think of in the middle of the day. It’s so nice to play a guitar after not touching one for weeks; creative bursts! Now I gotta work on that album I told myself I was gonna write after trail…

Umbrella

AWESOME piece of gear. Montbell has a lighter version, but it’s in pieces and utterly fails in the wind. Mine can withstand some wind, especially if you use the stiff arm method. Umbrellas are the best light-rain gear, hands down. I have it easily accessible, so if it rains hard enough that I don’t want to get wet (or at least my head and torso), I whip it out like a samurai sword. Pretty feared move. It also serves as an extra shelter plug-up for sideways rain or a tarp pole if I lose a trekking pole. It’s also great to be in the shade all day when hiking the desert stretches!

SAWYER (sit! not squeeze!) FILTERS

Do not get a Sawyer Mini. You can thank me later. I absolutely recommend a REGULAR SIZED SAWYER. However, there are a few things you can do to achieve ultimate sawyer sit nirvana: 1) throw away the bladders and syringe you won’t need those; 2) peel off the label, it just looks cooler without it, and also #ultralight, shave those grams; 3) designate a 1L plastic bottle (smartwater, aquafina, etc.) as your dirty, collection bottle; 4) filter the water by collecting in your dirty bottle, screwing on the sawyer, and SITTING on the bottle. you will smile as the water comes gushing out and collected in a different bottle, immediately ready to drink. you might have to unscrew the sawyer a few times to let the air back in before sitting again and maintaining maximum stream strength; 5) leave the sawyer on your dirty bottle so you can drink/suck through the filter, too; 6) carry smartwater-nipple-bottle-caps to back flush your sawyer every once in a while and get some of the gunk out, if you do this one sawyer will last you the whole trail; 7) MAKE SURE YOU SLEEP WITH YOUR SAWYER EVERY NIGHT, if it freezes, any water inside the filter will expand (#physics) and ruin the filter. stuff like Giardia will be able to flow through the cracks, not good

I used bleach (1 or 2 drops per liter and wait 15 minutes or more if colder) in NM and CO, switched to a Sawyer mini in WY, then got a Sawyer regular in Darby, MT for the rest of the trail. I would use a Sawyer regular from the start. I like the taste of water that isn’t bleachy. Aqua-mira is another good option, but it’s annoying to wait for the chemicals to mix.

I feel like I might be able to get away with not treating most of my water, in which case I would just carry a tiny dropper of bleach, but I’m scared that Giardia could ruin a hike for me. I didn’t treat a lot of water sources (mostly snowmelt, streams in wilderness areas, piped springs and springs coming out of the ground) and was fine. Some people treat everything and get Giardia (maybe they get it from other people who don’t hand sanitize after going #2). Some people don’t treat much water at all and are fine. I dunno if I wanna take that risk though, sawyer sitting is pretty simple and easy and only takes a few more minutes. I treated water like 4 times in Colorado.

Clothing

This definitely changes depending on the general weather pattern. I wore the same t-shirt and MLC shorts for most of the trail everyday, but had different long-sleeve-button-downs at the beginning and ending of the trail.

Injinji toe socks are great. I had thick wool CDT socks as luxury, dry sleep socks every night. I used Showers Pass waterproof socks in the San Juans; those were pretty awesome and helped out a lot.

I rocked my 47 Pomona cap the whole time. It was a little heavy and warm, but I love it. Next time I’m either gonna rock my Fratagonia duckbill cap or a sweet visor. I’m a big fan of ball caps and not that into 360 brim hats, but that’s just me. I sometimes use a handkerchief to cover my neck, but the umbrella also helps.

Rocked my old Patagonia long underwear every night. Not really sure what degree warmth they are. They weigh like 7oz and work well for me. They’re black and grey striped.

I had a Frogg Togg rain jacket. I’m pretty sure it’s lighter than every other rain jacket out there and only costs like $20 (that includes rain pants too). I really never needed rain pants until northern Montana. They would’ve helped to keep me warmer during the snow, but whatever. The rain jacket does not breath at all, but I never really use it unless it’s cold rain and the umbrella isn’t enough. It also gets holes in it and wears thin. I probably should’ve gotten a new one for northern Montana because I still sorta got wet on the inside, especially if the rain went sideways. With my fleece underneath though, it works pretty darn well.

I had a light fleece and mountain hardwear down hooded ghost whisperer for most of the trail. I ditched the puffy from Grand Lake, CO to Leadore, ID. I would’ve survived without it, but I really love sleeping in my down jacket with the hood and using the fleece as a pillow. I’m also ridiculous warm if I wear everything (long underwear then shirt, fleece, puffy, and rain jacket).

I love fleece gloves too. They just get worn out on my trekking pole handles.

I’m interested in investing in a slightly heavier fleece as my main jacket (they’re so awesome they still insulate when wet… kind of). I should probably get a better beanie, mine was this knit REI one that wasn’t that warm. I’m also interested in checking out Patagonia’s “air merino” stuff. Obviously ridiculously expensive, but maybe worth checking out.

Electronics

I had my iphone (also functioned as GPS, camera, and ipod), earplugs, anker 6700 mAh external battery, kindle, DeLorme, a double outlet-usb converter, iphone charge cable, and micro-usb charge cable for kindle and delorme and anker (kindle and delorme rarely needed to be charged). That system was great and worked for me. The anker was more than enough most of the time and just right for my longer, 5-7 day stretches. It just takes a long time to charge in town, which is kind of annoying if you just wanna do a quick in and out. Solar chargers work well on the CDT because we are exposed most of the time, RightOn had one. You don’t have to charge it in town, which is nice, but they are much more expensive than the Anker batteries. Not really sure how much they weigh. He had a SunTactics one.

My future set up, though, will probably feature just my phone, my ipod nano (the tiny  square touch screen one), and the cords and double outlet block thing. Undecided on the kindle. If I hike the PNT, 1200 miles in roughly 40-45 days, I will likely be too tired to read. For longer trips I would probably take a kindle. Cutting out the delorme and anker would cut out at least 12oz, and the kindle would put that over 1 lb I could cut out.

I’m not a big camera or video guy, but GoPro’s would probably be great on a thru-hike.

Cooking

Mmm dinner. I had an MSR pocket rocket. It did the trick. My pot was a little small but could still easily hold a ramen+knorr rice side or a ram-bomb (ramen and idaho potatoes). Those were my staple dinners when I had a stove. I also got super into making drip coffee in northern Montana with a little MSR filter thing. Good stuff.

You could probably shave 1 or 2oz if you really wanted a lighter stove. Snowpeak’s stove might be lighter. Boston Chris had a $10 stove from China that weighed less than an ounce. It was really loud though and might’ve been inefficient (end up buying more fuel).

I dropped my stove in Steamboat Springs, CO and didn’t get it back until Helena, MT. The no-cook, cold-soak method works really well for me, especially if I am alone and pushing big miles. I had a kool-aid jar (gatorade powder jars work better or ziploc twist-lock containers). I’d put my knorr rice + ramen in there and fill it up around 5pm. It hydrated in about 1.5-2 hours. Then I would stop to eat dinner, keep walking, then eventually stop to sleep and have some nutella before bed. Works great. Simple. Obviously, you miss hot meals when it gets cold at night, but I often don’t really notice the difference.

I really don’t know much about alcohol stoves, but I’ve heard about “caldera cones” and someone told me about this website: http://zenstoves.net/Stoves.htm . Check it out.

Poles

I like hiking with poles, especially on ups and downs. They also serve as my tarp poles, which is pretty important. I have Leki, telescoping poles. They have lasted a long time and are fully adjustable for my tarp poles. Cowboy Stripper got really pissed off at his Black Diamond z-poles (the tri-piece, foldable ones). Mine are aluminum. Carbon fiber poles are lighter (why lighter, gotta work out your arms, right?) but will snap if you get them caught in rocks or snow and bend weight on them, especially when it’s cold.

 

Well I hope this helps anyone who is prepping for a long walk. Honestly, gear only does so much. You can change things and drop things as you go pretty easily (Amazon and the USPS are your best friends). You can have the nicest gear in the world, but it’s not gonna walk a trail for you. Get out and hike or run to prepare for your long walk!

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the end

My name is Slingshot. I’ve nearly walked the continental divide from Mexico to Canada. I’ve seen many things. I’ve seen it rain as the sun comes out. I’ve come face to face with a silvertrip grizzly bear. I’ve walked underneath the Milky Way through the desert. I’ve seen the full moon rise and set. I cried up high in the Wind River range, looking at the heavens. I have walked alone. I have walked with friends I love. I drank from the headwaters of the Yellowstone. The Fountain of Youth. That water is with me, in me. I do not know what tomorrow will bring. Joy? Maybe hopeful suffering in the face of an early winter storm. I still have miles to go. There are no answers, but that’s okay.

I wrote that in my journal before leaving Helena and embarking on the last 360 miles towards Canada. A little corny, but I’ve always been a sucker for corniness and trying to see romantic epicness in the world around me.

In the morning, Cowboy Stripper’s friend gave us — Cowboy, Handstand, Boston Chris, and me — a ride back up to MacDonald Pass. The weather report predicted cold weather and a potential snowstorm over the next few days. It was only 65ish miles to Lincoln, our next stop, so I didn’t worry about the weather too much… Upon getting out of the car, it was already chilly, and I was walking in my fleece and rain jacket for warmth along with my ripped up gloves. We walked through trees on top of the divide with the occasional open meadow. The clouds slowly surrounded us. I could only see about 100 feet in front of me at some points. The trail took us down into cow country and onto 4WD roads. We took a break under some trees as it began to rain. I made some coffee with my stove. I just got it back in Helena and also indulged in buying some grounds from the local roastery. Ethiopian beans, medium-light roast. Mmmmm.

We walked through the light rain that afternoon as the temperature dropped.  We eventually found a super sheltered spot under some pine trees to crash in. There was cow shit everywhere, but I’m pretty used to that at this point and don’t really care about it. That’s what my groundsheet is for. It felt good to eat a hot meal on trail for the first time since before Steamboat Springs, CO.

I woke up and looked up. My tarp was slightly bowed in the middle under the weight of some snow. I knocked it off from within and grimaced as I looked outside. Our little sheltered area was pretty much free of snow, but beyond that it was a winter wonderland. I rolled over and made some coffee, still in my sleeping bag. I hummed, “well the weather outside is frightful…” and looked around at the others. Cowboy was still sleeping (classic) and Handstand was stirring around.

After some wishful thinking, I finally bit the bullet and took off my long underwear to put on my wet shorts. Now I had to move. I packed up as much as I could while still under my tarp then got out. I rolled up the icy cuben fiber with my bare hands and moaned because I thought they were gonna fall off. I shoved them between my thighs and groaned some more. It’s gonna be a long day, I thought.

I set off into the blizzard by myself. It was pretty much whited out and still coming down heavily. We had at least 4 inches at that point. Handstand quickly caught up to me, and we walked the morning together. The trail was on a dirt road, so it was still relatively easy to follow. I kept my phone inside my fleece, resting on top of my belly and hip belt to keep it warm. My battery drains and dies in the cold. We gained elevation as the snow depth increased and walking grew more difficult. At our highest point, I estimated the snow to be just under 10 inches. Despite my cold feet and no knowledge of when this storm was going to end, I had a blast all day. Maybe it was the brightness of the pure white snow, but I smiled for hours straight. We were doing this, walking through snow in shorts and sneakers. It was absurd. And I love the absurd. Cowboy caught up to us at lunch. Luckily the wind wasn’t too bad.

It cleared up a bit in the afternoon, and the snow started to melt. We found a pretty good campsite that night with a fire ring but were unable to start a fire because it was so wet. We didn’t try that hard though. The next morning I woke up to a gorgeous sunrise and painful achilles. I guess I put a lot more stress on my calves and tendons while walking through the snow. I hobbled uphill and shuffled downhill. I was in some serious pain and was a bit worried. The pain eventually got better, or I got more used to it, and we walked about 23 miles to Rogers Pass, where we would hitch into Lincoln. It took a while to get a hitch, but a sheriff eventually drove us into town where we split a motel room between the three of us and Boston Chris. A bunch of other hikers were in town recovering from the snow like us.

Winter was coming early. People were posting on the CDT facebook page about a series of winter weather events moving in throughout September. I guess we deserved it. The weather along this entire trail has been amazing. The thunderstorms weren’t too bad in Colorado and it hardly rained at all through Wyoming.

Our next leg was 180 miles through the Scapegoat Wilderness and Bob Marshall Wilderness to East Glacier, just outside Glacier National Park. Cowboy and I prepared to do it in 6.5 days since we weren’t picking up a package at Benchmark Ranch. The weather looked okay… okay as in very windy for the next few days and potential snow  on the 5th and 6th days.

We left Lincoln in the afternoon and climbed up out of Rogers Pass. Up on the divide, we had to climb up and down hills and peaks as it got windier and windier. We saw a great rainbow and ran into a hiker we hadn’t seen since Colorado. The next morning I got a pretty early start and immediately ran into some wind and light rain up on the divide. I had my tattered frogg toggs rain jacket fully cinched and pulled my frigid hands into my sleeves. I dropped down briefly where a trail took me past a water source. I passed Elusive and also Fix-It and her husband. Elusive is 73, Fix-It is 71 or something, and her husband is 76… WOW! I hope I’m still walking when I’m that old.

I climbed back up to the divide and found myself facing a sideways hailstorm. Whenever I looked up, 50mph wind would slap and sting my face with ice. I was pretty much hike-jogging for over an hour until the storm subsided a bit. Cowboy caught up to me before lunch.

We looked at each other and laughed. “That was absurd,” he muttered through his bushy beard and mustache.

“And you’re wearing jorts,” I replied.

We dropped down a long ways into a river valley as the sun came out. Oh it felt so good. We dried out our gear and kept walking after that. We met a section hiker and walked with him throughout the late afternoon and early evening. We heard some hooting and hollering as we were looking for a place to camp. I thought it was Rampaige, Handstand, Lucky, and Boston Chris, so I started screaming back. “PENIS!” I screamed. “I LIKE PIZZA!” was the response. I crossed the creek, filled up water, and walked over to the patrol cabin where they were. A dog ran up and started barking at me. A man came up and talked to me. A bible college class from Augusta was taking a backpacking trip. There were a bunch of 18 and 19 year olds. They came over as I set up my shelter and asked a bunch of questions about my trip. They asked good questions (not the usual “so, you sleep on the ground every night?”) and shot the bull for a while. One of them had taken a big, 50 day road trip through all the states, so I asked him about that for a while. Cool stuff. They got me thinking more retrospectively and started my internal thought/day dream process for the rest of the trail. What was the significance of what I was doing? Why am I out here? What have I learned? Have I changed? What will I do when I finish? Stuff like that. Questions that spark answers that lead to new questions and then I eventually give up and slip into a fantasy about being a rockstar.

That night I slept pretty well despite snuggling with a field mouse. It ran up and down my arm a few times, but I didn’t really care. I got started in the morning before Cowboy. “See ya down the way,” I said. “Yup yup,” he replied as he ate oatmeal in his tarp. Well it turned out we wouldn’t see each other again until East Glacier (oops) because we took different routes that day. He ended up way ahead of me.

I stuck to what is called the “Ley red route”, the red line on the maps we have made by Jonathon Ley. It took me west and up to a cool rock formation called Hoadley Reef. Most other people (and I guess Cowboy, too), took the purple route to go through Benchmark Ranch. I walked that day alone and only ran into one older couple who were out for a few days. I climbed up to Hoadley Reef and over a pass. I saw a group of 5 bighorn rams. I’ve never seen rams before. That was cool. I got up to the pass and took a little break. As I stared out across the mountain sprawl, I had this idea pop up in my head: I should walk on top of the Chinese Wall. 

The Chinese Wall is a cliff of about 1000 feet that stretches 22 miles. That’s huge. The normal CDT route goes up under the base and walks the northern half of the Chinese Wall for about 10 miles. I looked at my maps and saw that there was a way to get up to the southern terminus of the wall. I reached that turn off at the end of my day up and over Hoadley Reef. I actually decided not to do it and walked past the junction, but I changed my mind 5 minutes later. “Fuck it, I’m never gonna have this chance again,” I said out loud and turned around. At the junction, I drew a message into the mud “Slingshot went” and an arrow pointing towards the west. If Cowboy was behind me (he wasn’t) then he’d know where I went. I walked up Indian Creek until it was dark. I found a sloped campsite and set up my tarp as the wind increased. I fell asleep to elks bugling, a crying scream that is hard to explain in words. I can’t even make that noise myself. It’s beautiful, so beautiful.

I woke up before light and almost bagged my Chinese Wall plans. I ate a poptart and packed up. As I walked back to the trail, I looked at the clouds lit up red by the rising sun and turned west. I was gonna do this. I already bailed on my Wapiti Ridge attempt heading over to the ranch in Wyoming. I seriously regretted that. I had to get up there and see if the Chinese Wall was at least do-able.

It was do-able… kind of. I had to scramble up a few cliffy faces in order to get up on top, but once I was past Haystack Mountain it was smooth sailing. That first view, when I got on top, took my breath away. That wall, the horizontal grey lines of different sedimentary layers, went a long, long way. I was walking that. “Yeah!” I yelled and set off. I had to climb down to the west a few times (the cliff face was on the east) to avoid some technical bits, but I walked along the edge for most of the wall. It was amazing. It felt so right. This was the most intense thing I have ever done on trail. It was so worth the effort. I saw some mountain goats. I saw some hikers down below me and yelled to them. They stopped and looked up, but I don’t think they saw me. I would later learn that it was Rampaige, Lucky, Handstand, and Boston Chris.

It took me all day to traverse the wall. The northern terminus was sketchy. There were two peaks before Larch Pass where I would rejoin the trail. I went up to the first peak and sighed as I looked downwards to the north. Getting down was going to be rough. I had the option of going way west, off map, in hopes of finding a trail that would connect me back up to Larch Pass, but I decided to attempt the sketchy descent. Big mistake. I found some mountain goat paths that took me down steep chutes filled with loose pebbles over bedrock. I had no sure footing. I grasped rocks and clung to occasional bushes as I crouched, crab-walked, and butt-slid down. I started breathing heavily. “What the hell am I doing?” I muttered. I found myself on a flat island in the middle of what felt like a cliff. I started down one way, but quickly stopped as rocks and debris that I loosened slid and rolled over what looked like a 50 foot cliff drop beneath me. I climbed back up to my little flat spot and sat down. I might be in a little bit of trouble here, I started thinking. Before I let myself spiral into a panic attack, I drank the last of my water and told myself out loud, “You’re here. You have to get down. Freaking out isn’t going to do anything. Calm down.” That helped. I walked back over to the chute I came down. It kept dropping to the east, toward the Chinese Wall face. However, it looked like there was some green space and some trees before the wall dropped off. There was a goat path down there. This was my only way down. I tried to swallow my fear and began my descent. I was on my butt as much as possible. I had to climb down a few 5 foot rock drops. Those don’t really sound bad or scary. They’re not, but I had a backpack on and was going down feet first, with my back to the ground. I threw down my trekking poles ahead of me and sort of had to hop down those little drops. If my backpack caught on the rock behind me, it could send me somersaulting forward and sliding down the 45 degree slope until I would eventually end up going off the wall and falling 1000 feet. One slip and I could die. That’s why I was scared and shaking and breathing and muttering, “frick, frick, shit, shit,” as I crawled downwards. My mind was blank. I focused on each footstep, each handhold. I made it. I was on a solid goat path that took me down the ridge a ways until I got to a place where I could descend to the west and away from those cliffy peaks.

It took a few minutes for the adrenaline to wear off. When it did, my legs started shaking, and I started thinking. I could’ve died. Actually. I’ve never felt so close to dying in my life before. In the San Juans, I had an ice axe for those intense traverses across icy slopes, a lifeline. Sure, I got scared down there, but the possibility of death never crossed my mind. Death is a funny thing. I always told myself I was never afraid to die. Death is inevitable and makes our short lives beautiful. So I thought. That changed after I came down off the Chinese Wall. I was scared. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to hurt. I didn’t want to face the infinite nothingness that could follow. I wanted to see my family. I wanted to laugh with my friends. I wanted a future. I wanted to hold a lover in my arms and never let her go. I wanted to close my eyes to the sound of music. I wanted to see the ocean again. I wanted to be a father, a grandfather. I’m not ready to die. I’m not ready to die. The tears started pouring down my face, and I collapsed to the ground. I could’ve lost it all. I’ll never forget that moment. I sobbed. I still haven’t quite processed it, and it haunts me as I write this.

Weak and defeated, I pulled out some nutella and started shoveling it into my mouth with my broken spoon head. I thought about how funny I must look: a dirty hiker, sitting in the rocks, crying, with nutella smeared all over his hands and mouth. I laughed. I have to keep moving.

I walked the rest of the way down to the west and had an incredibly claustrophobic bushwhack to the trail I was looking for. I finally made it back to the CDT and checked my guthook gps app; I had only done 18 miles over the course of nearly the entire day. I had some catching up to do, so I hiked down the Spotted Bear River until it was dark. I found a spot by a river crossing. I plopped down and spread out my stuff. I ate dinner and fell asleep as daddy-long-legs crawled over me. I used my food bag as a pillow. I’m too lazy for bear-hangs. I got through the Thorofare without hanging my food despite seeing two grizzly bears, so I figured I’d be fine now.

I got up early the next morning and pushed it. I passed a few hunters who said a group of hikers were nearly 2 hours ahead of me. Must be Rampaige, Lucky, Handstand, and BC. I kept pushing up and over a pass. I stopped for a brief lunch, consisting of cold bratwursts and cheese sticks, dipped in mayonnaise. It was yummy then, but I gag at the thought of it now.

It started raining that afternoon. I eventually made it to a ranger cabin (they’re all locked up) and made coffee on the porch as I watched the rain turn to snow. Not again. I still had a ways to go before East Glacier. I spilled my coffee. Ugh. I got up and walked as the snowfall grew thicker and wetter. Plants hung over the trail, weighed down by water. I walked through them as they painted my shorts and thighs with frigid water. I felt stupid for not having rain pants. I had long underwear, but I wanted to keep them dry for sleeping. My gloves were wet, and my hands were cold. I eventually made it to a good campsite where Lucky, Rampaige, Handstand, and Boston Chris were camped. Everyone was holed up in their own tents as I pitched mine. We all told each other how cold and wet we were. “The hunters said it should clear up tomorrow,” someone said.

It didn’t. I woke up to a winter wonderland for the second time. My tarp was coated with condensation on the inside and ice on the outside. My sleeping bag was damp along with my pad and groundsheet. I groaned. I moaned. Then I undid my neoair and let the air rush out of my pad; I had to get up and keep moving. If I didn’t move, things would get worse. I slithered into my cold, wet shorts and packed up.

“Slingshot, are you really getting up right now?” Rampaige called out from her tent. I replied yes and told her that I was just trying to get as far as I could because I was running out of food. I only had enough for an unsatisfying day and a half. Luckily, everyone demanded I take some food because they had too much: Rampaige gave me breakfast shake powder with chai in it, Lucky gave me some tuna and a peanut candy bar, and Handstand gave me some nuts. That ended up helping a lot. Thanks guys.

I set off on my own in oddly similar conditions to the snow day between Helena and Lincoln. I walked on my own through most of the morning until Handstand caught up with me.

“Looks like it’s you and me in the snow again,” I laughed.

“Yup, let’s do this,” Handstand replied. He was a great hiking partner to have when the going got tough, and I really enjoyed his company. I had the pleasure of finishing the trail with Handstand along with Cowboy Stripper and Boston Chris.

We walked through the snow, always moving to stay warm. Just like the previous storm, the snow sort of subsided in the afternoon, and we even saw snippets of blue sky. Still, it wasn’t good enough to dry out our stuff. I was worried. Tonight was going to be cold. The weather report when I was in Lincoln said that this night would be well below freezing. Wetness and freezing temperatures are a terrifying combination to thru-hikers who only carry enough stuff to get by.

Luckily, Handstand and I made it to a patrol cabin where two wildlands firefighters were staying. It turns out they were fighting a small fire in the area before the snow hit and put it out. Now they were stuck here and hoping to get their 4-wheeler out in the morning. They let us come in to warm up around the wood stove and dry out some of our gear. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to sleep on the federal property. Bummer. Still, drying out our stuff was a huge help, and we confidently found a spot to camp.

It really was cold that night. Luckily all my gear was dry(ish), so I stayed plenty warm. It was just very difficult to get up in the morning. I eventually sucked it up and started walking with all of my clothes on: shorts underneath my long underwear, my shirt, fleece, puffy jacket, tattered gloves, and beanie. The sky was the clearest blue I have seen in weeks. It was beautiful. The trail was frozen at first with snowmelt, but as it heated up it quickly turned muddy and slippery. I ended up taking the official route up on a trail that no one had walked the previous day in the snowstorm, so I had to make all of my own footsteps in the snow and continuously pay attention to where I thought the trail was going. I encountered some bowhunters up there with gigantic packs. Then I ended up missing a junction right before Marias Pass and ended up way down on the highway below it. I decided to just walk the highway into East Glacier. It was simpler, I was sick of wet, muddy trail, and I really wanted to get into town after a long, grueling stretch. Handstand made the same decision and caught up to me a few miles down the highway. We made it into East Glacier and celebrated with a delicious bacon cheeseburger from Two Medicine Grill followed by some huckleberry pie.

Reunited with Cowboy Stripper, we stayed at Brownies, a hostel. I had an extremely uncomfortable top bunk, but it was lightyears better than what I had just endured in the Bob. We ended up taking a zero the next day for some extra recovery and to get our permit for our campsites through Glacier National Park. We were slotted to finish on September 19. It was really happening.

That last trip through Glacier was remarkable. I’m so glad I stuck to a northbound hike because ending in Glacier was more epic than I could have imagined. Those mountains are feared! Maybe even ultrafeared…

Our first two days were magnificent. The weather was warm and clear. Our first day was a big one, and we climbed way up high over a pass and took a high alternate that traversed the western side of the continental divide. The lingering snow made the walking a bit more technical that I thought it would be. The extra miles, extra elevation gain, and late start made for a night time arrival at our campsite. As we prepared dinner, Handstand pointed up and shouted, “Woah!” A comet soared across the sky from horizon to horizon. It was amazing. I wished for the same thing I had already been wishing for months whenever I saw a shooting star. The second day was chill, or chilean seabass as some say. We only had to do 15 miles up and over Triple Divide Pass, where the Pacific, Atlantic, and Hudson Bay waters parted. Neat! We ended that day at a lake where we saw a mama moose and calf grazing in the water.

The next day was grey and dreary. Rain was surely coming. The morning went by quickly, as it should have since we had 30 miles to do that day into Many Glacier. Around lunchtime, we crossed the Going-to-the-Sun Road as it began raining. It really came down, and we had to climb up and over the huge Piegan Pass before getting to Many Glacier. The climb up wasn’t too bad, but once I got over the pass, the wind began. I’ve never been in wind that bad. It must’ve been consistent at 40mph with sustained gusts that reached and went well over 80mph. Water found its way into every little rip and tear in my rain jacket. The water ran down my pack and soaked my butt. I’d try to step up over a rock on the way down from the pass, but the wind would blow me sideways to the point where I was involuntarily stepping multiple times before planting my feet in an athletic stance against the wind. I screamed into the wind at the top of my lungs. I was on the verge of crying from the absurdity of it all. Every now and then, the rain would turn to hail and sting my face if I looked up.

Miserable and hysterical, I ran down the pass into tree cover. That helped to curb the wind, but it was still dumping rain. I worried about my gear, especially my sleeping bag. It was in my trash compactor bag liner, but I lost my waterproof stuff sack down near Salmon, ID. At least we were going to be in Many Glacier that night.

I made it to a little shelter thing where I found Cowboy, wet and downcast like me. “Everything is wet. I’m completely soaked. This is ridiculous,” he said.

“Me too, my rain jacket didn’t really work to begin with,” I replied.

We hiked around a lake and eventually made it into Many Glacier. We headed for the restaurant where we saw Handstand and Boston Chris dripping wet at the bar. I ordered a hot chocolate and buried my face in my hands. How was I going to make it to Canada on the route I wanted to go? It was supposed to storm tomorrow, too. High wind advisory. There were no rooms available tonight. The campground was pretty badly flooded, and it was still pouring outside. Ugh. I went outside and checked my sleeping bag; it was wet. Shit. I went back inside. I got wifi and exchanged texts with my friend, explaining my situation. She sent me words of reason and encouragement and also made me laugh about something from her day. I don’t think she realized how important her words were to me. They gave me something to hold, something to look forward to.

We bought laundry tokens and threw all of our wet gear into the dryer. I took a steaming hot, 8.5 minute shower. Ah, much much better. We decided to sleep on the bathroom floor at the trailhead. It was warm and dry, and nobody was going to go there at night. I reached a new low. We redefined the definition of hikertrash. And it felt good. It felt so good, despite waking up to the view of a toilet bowl three feet from my head. That was kinda gross.

The weather the next day wasn’t that bad. We climbed up and over another pass and got on the highline trail on the west side of the divide. There were lots of stormy clouds, but we would get little waves of light rain and light hail — very manageable. We made it to our campsite that was only 7 miles from the border after a gorgeous day of hiking and even seeing a wolverine. It was a great last campsite right on a lake. We had a fire. I made a delicious trail dinner. I read Shantaram into the night and slept well. I had hot nutella cocoa for breakfast and set off for the final miles of the CDT.

I wish I could tell you about some profound inner dialogue I had through those last hours of hiking. Like the rest of the trail though, I didn’t think much, and I didn’t think much about not thinking much. Sure, I thought back through the whole trail: meeting Cowboy before Lordsburg, wading through the Gila, fun times at the Toaster House, the desert beauty of northern New Mexico, the epic beauty of the snowy San Juans, good friends throughout Colorado, setting off on my own from Steamboat through Wyoming, wild horses in the Great Divide Basin, the Wind Rivers, soloing the Thorofare to Rimrock, hiking with Zoe and Mary-Clare through Yellowstone and Eagle Creek, catching up to Cowboy before Leadore, aqua-blazing to Darby, walking the Chinese Wall. Those memories were with me and will never leave me. Still, I didn’t linger on them long. My mind was filled with the thought of getting to the border and what was next. I was seeing Boz in a few days. I was going home. I was going back to school. I was planning my next hike.

What I’m about to describe might not make sense, but I want to try to explain it, at least a little bit. Walking the divide, I reached a special state of mind. When I walk, my mind shifts into a different gear. It hums. It’s simpler. It does not worry or think too deeply about meaning and purpose and life. It sees the path in front of me and all the beauty around me, swallowing me. It dwells on good memories, on smiles, on laughter, on love, on green eyes, on morning sunlight. It is utterly present yet also hugs my past — the people who love and support me — and feeds on my potential future.

I made it to the Canadian border around noon on September 19 and hugged my hiking comrades. It felt great. I set out to accomplish a goal, and I did it. That’s cool, I guess. I felt a little numb and overwhelmed at the end. It’s hard to process 2700 miles of your life. I probably won’t make sense of it all for a while, but I’ll try. Maybe I’ll figure it out on my next hike, which I’ve already started thinking about.

To those of you who have followed and read my story, thank you. It means so much to hear that people enjoy and are inspired by my adventures. I definitely encourage going on a long walk. Thru-hiking taught me so much. At the same time, there are so many different ways to capture the spirit of a thru-hike in everyday life. Hug your friends. Cherish good food. Help out someone who is having a bad day. Think about the next step forward. I’ll be trying to do the same thing.

Love,

Slingshot

 

I’ve written a little poetry on trail and thought I’d leave it here:

I’ve learned the smell of aspen trees

I peer into their eyes of broken bark

their hearts on display

I’ve learned to see again

their bright green hands

unlike my body

drink the rain and dance the wind

they live together

one

they love

even me and my loud footsteps 

planted in the dirt

head down

they watch me

 

another one:

I’m nowhere closer to the man I want to be

to the boy I was

I’m nowhere closer to the secrets of the universe

or why we fear death

I haven’t discovered the secret formula to happiness

except, maybe, a snickers at 10:10 or a dreary-eyed sunrise

a stubborn pine tree in the middle of a meadow

a towering jagged peak

i’m small.

and nowhere closer to where it all began

but I am here, now, and that’s all there is

maybe all I need

all I want

 

an appropriate song:

“It’s gone away in yesterday
Now I find myself on the mountainside
Where the rivers change direction
Across the Great Divide”

– Kate Wolf

 

 

video made by Handstand, from East Glacier to Canada

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Handstand having fun in the snow
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I really did smile all day it was weird

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Hey there cowboy
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Meltage in the afternoon
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Above the clouds
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Sitting in the back of the sheriff’s truck headed into Lincoln
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Entering the scapegoats
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Weeeee
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After getting nailed by sideways hail and gusts super exposed
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Much warmer down lower
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5 rams!! So cool
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View from hoadley reef
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The start of the Chinese wall!
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Timer photo fail
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View of the Chinese wall from cliff mountain
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More wall, at some point I was yelling down to rampaige, lucky, handstand, and Boston Chris
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More Bob Marshall beauty
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It’s happening again
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I was happily cold?
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Lots of bear tracks out there
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Handstand and I pushed it to east glacier together
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Cowboy Stripper is known for his hat
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Glacier epicness
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What is this, the Sanny J’s?
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Legs and a view, sums up my pov
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Taking it in
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Super stoked we went around this side of the divide
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Got to see this bighorn
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I thought this was cool
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One of my favorite peak shapes
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On the way to triple divide pass
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Other side of triple divide pass
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Mama and baby moose
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So many waterfalls
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Stormy clouds leaving many glacier
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Fall colors
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We have to go up there?
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Views on the highline
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This wasThe last legit up on the CDT
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Pictures of picture taking
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Heavenly clouds just before descending into Waterton valley
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Pretty large
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Goat haunt ranger station
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The lake we walked along in the end
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Yay!
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More yay! With purple hair and beer!
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My professional CDT ending photo, featuring the Cuban Zoe gave me

getting there

Well I’m sitting in the luxurious Budget Inn, here in Helena, watching TV, drinking coffee, and resting my legs and feet. It’s my first zero day in a while (since Club Brooks in Wyoming), and man, does it feel good.
The last two sections have been great. Darby to Anaconda turned out to have some beautiful lakes and passes. Walking through Anaconda involved lots of miles on a highway, but that’s okay. Cowboy and I ended up walking in at night, stopping at bars along the way, only to discover the motel office where we were gonna stay was empty and unresponsive. We ended up sleeping behind a bowling alley… didn’t get much sleep. Not one of my prouder moments. I got a new shirt, a long sleeve button up with little logos of confetti-kabobs all over it. It’s pretty sweet. The next section to Helena (Macdonald Pass) went smoothly. The forests we walked through were gorgeous, and the foliage on the ground was starting to turn crimson and orange. September 1st clicked by. We had a stand off with some cows at one of our campsites. Good times.

I now have about 360 miles until the Canadian border. I’m still processing that. I can only really say it out loud, look at my watch and count down the days. Still, no matter how much I think about flying home on September 26 or getting back to Claremont in October, I can’t escape the present. That’s the beauty of the state I’m in after walking so many miles. In the words of Calvin Garay, I am truly “here, now”, and I love it.

some lyrics I’ve been listening to a lot by Dawes from “My Way Back Home”:

I admit that these answers that I seek
Are the questions I’ve never known
But I plan to keep on looking for as long as I can roam
And when the world finally fulfills me
I will not forget my way back home