Brutality, Beauty, and the Day I Could Have Died on the Continental Divide Trail

The CDT is off-the-charts gorgeous, a great challenge, and it is my favorite of the big three long-distance trails. However, as with the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails, the CDT is not without its tricky areas.

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by Chris “Freefall” Sanderson | 2011-03-15 00:05:00-06

Hordes of blood-sucking mosquitoes thrive in the Beaverhead and Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness areas in Montana. Heavy snow and bone-chilling temperatures haunt the high elevations in Colorado, and magnificent thunderstorms chase hikers off the spines of mountains. Yes, the Continental Divide Trail has a ruthless reputation as a brutal thru-hiking experience. In 2009, I had some hard moments out there, but honestly, I don’t think the trail is as savage as it has been billed. I think the CDT is off-the-charts gorgeous, a great challenge, and it is my favorite of the big three long-distance trails.

However, as with the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails, the CDT is not without its tricky areas. I hiked through one such area just south of Togwotee Pass at Lava Mountain.

Brutality, Beauty, and the Day I Could Have Died on the Continental Divide Trail - 1
Boulder-hopping for the trees.

I left Dubois, Wyoming without my hiking companions. There was a lot of confusion and miscommunication getting out of town, and to make a long story short, I hitched a ride to the pass by myself. My friends were more than an hour ahead of me, and I had a lot of hiking to do to catch up to them.

Out of Togwotee Pass, I hiked down Forest Service Road 537 for a few miles, then turned east on another old road to a shorter cross-country route that I wanted to take. I overshot the route and continued walking down the road, which began to skirt around Lava Mountain from a distance. Since I “misplaced” the route I wanted to take - not unheard of on the CDT - I thought I’d just go ahead and make a bee-line towards a distant escarpment, which I recognized on my map.

I left the road, and hiked through a small meadow, which gradually transitioned into a boulder field. At first, walking through there had this cool, novelty feel to it. I saw beautiful, unusual patterns of broken rock, and like a kid with reckless abandon, I hopped from one gigantic boulder to the next.

I began to tire of the boulder hopping, since I had seven days' worth of food in my pack for the long stretch through the Wind River Range. My knees couldn’t take any more of the pounding, and my feet were sliding out from underneath me on the rocks - my shoes couldn’t get traction! I then started stepping on shifting boulders, some the size of refrigerators... seriously. All I could think of was Aron Ralston, the adventurer who in 2003 cut his right arm off with a dull knife after getting pinned by a boulder. Yep, I started to worry.

Brutality, Beauty, and the Day I Could Have Died on the Continental Divide Trail - 2
Scree.

I reached an oasis of trees, which gave me a chance to survey my maps and my situation. I could still shoot for the escarpment, which was across a wide, vast boulder field (I had no desire to cross it!), or I could turn around, and hike back to the road to find a better route. I was already too deep in this field to do that. The other option was to hike through some trees, and up to the scree-covered base of Lava Mountain, which I could contour, and avoid shifty boulders. I chose the latter option.

When I got to the base of the mountain, I discovered that the scree was terribly loose. With each step, my foot sank ankle high into the ground. Soon I gave up on the idea of contouring around the mountain. Again, I studied my map and GPS, and noticed that the top of Lava Mountain looked flat (and perhaps boulder-free), so I decided to take a gamble by climbing several hundred feet to the top.

Scree continued to be problematic on the ascent as it became smaller and more like quicksand. I couldn’t climb more than 50 feet without stopping to catch my breath: my pack felt so heavy on this climb. Above me, I saw rocks and ledges which meant solid footing, or so I thought. Large, television-sized rocks that I wanted to use for hand holds came loose out of the ground, and tumbled down the mountain. I was, in fact, causing an amazing, massive rock slide below me. With the ground being so loose, I wondered if the mountainside above me would crumble at any moment, taking me down with large, toppling boulders and burying me in a rubbly grave. It truly felt like this was one of those moments where I just might die on the trail.

Brutality, Beauty, and the Day I Could Have Died on the Continental Divide Trail - 3
Brief respite.

I climbed further, again breaking off more large chunks of rock and causing more rockslides. At one point, I lost my footing and slid down the loose scree for 10-15-feet. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I summited the top of Lava Mountain. Fortunately, there were stands of trees on top of the long, deep summit, so my gamble paid off… somewhat. On the summit, there were still more boulders and shifting rocks, but they were not as daunting as the larger ones below the mountain.

I reached a grassy stretch and the true summit of the mountain, where I climbed to the top for a break. I sat down, ate a snack, and appreciated the distant, hazy view of the Tetons to the northwest. At this moment, I didn’t care where my companions were - I would catch up with them later. I savored each breath of mountain-fresh air and gave thanks that I was alive another day to enjoy the beauty of the Continental Divide Trail.

Read more about my adventures on the Continental Divide Trail.


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"Brutality, Beauty, and the Day I Could Have Died on the Continental Divide Trail," by Chris “Freefall” Sanderson. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/brutality_beauty_continental_divide_trail.html, 2011-03-15 00:05:00-06.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Brutality, Beauty, and the Day I Could Have Died on the Continental Divide Trail


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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Brutality, Beauty, and the Day I Could Have Died on the Continental Divide Trail on 03/15/2011 13:37:04 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Brutality, Beauty, and the Day I Could Have Died on the Continental Divide Trail

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Brutality, Beauty, and the Day I Could Have Died on the Continental Divide Trail on 03/17/2011 09:54:22 MDT Print View

I've done a fair bit of splitboarding in this area but no backpacking. Let me tell you, the off-trail travel is MUCH easier in the snow. Nice to see some photos and read a description of the area in the summer though as it is on my list of places to hike.

Tom Clark
(TomClark) - MLife

Locale: East Coast
Re: Brutality, Beauty, and the Day I Could Have Died on the Continental Divide Trail on 03/17/2011 16:51:07 MDT Print View

Very entertaining...always nice to hear about others misfortune on the trail. ;)

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Brutality, Beauty, and the Day I Could Have Died on the Continental Divide Trail on 03/17/2011 17:27:09 MDT Print View

> off-trail travel is MUCH easier in the snow.
Yeah, we have a place like that too: huge scree field right where you want to go up or down a major gully. But on skis ...

Cheers

Thomas Trebisky
(trebisky)

Locale: Southern Arizona
stockpiling mosquitos on 03/30/2011 19:20:16 MDT Print View

I have heard of hordes of mosquitos, but this is the first time I have heard of anyone hoarding mosquitos!