I woke up at 3:45am with a backache. That’s what happens when I make the mattress firm and sleep on my back. I rolled over and slept until 5am when the alarm went off. My clothes were dry–I had cooked them dry by body heat while I slept.
Jacob heard the alarm too and started packing as soon as I did. He actually went to the food prep area before me. I had to collect and filter water and apply sunscreen and bug stuff. Either way, the camp was already busy by the time we emerged from our tents. All but the last couple in was hiking out by or before I was ready to relocate to food prep. Everyone else must have started packing the moment they first saw even the tiniest bit of light.
Link and Smiles joined us at food prep just before we left. It was nice to not be the last to leave.
The first bit of the hike went up the valley over some rolling hills before crossing and recrossing Cataract Creek on suspension bridges. Jacob said the first of those was kind of scary since the cables on the side were too low to catch him if he fell sideways.
The trail switched directions and started climbing slowly up the canyon toward Triple Divide Pass. We were following a different creek and started having to do unbridged crossings. There were always well-placed rocks to hop across. Jacob borrowed one of my poles for these as he had forgotten his on a shuttle.
There were also a number of waterfalls both far and near. As the climb got more serious and the sun got higher, we got hot, so I made myself an ice pack at the first snowbank we came to. Soon after that, Link and Smiles caught up and passed us. We didn’t see them again.
Jacob noticed some animals walking across a distant snowfield, but we could not determine whether they were sheep or goats. We took a break just before the last climb up to the pass, and while we snacked (and I filtered some glacier melt runoff) some clouds rolled in.
The clouds were a great boon and made the last little climb to the pass like nothing. There were even a few moments of light rain but nothing annoying.
Halfway up, we were spooked by the sound of rocks clattering down from above, and we spotted a huge group of animals running across the hill. I think they were goats, but Jacob insists they were bighorn sheep. Either way, they were all female adults or kids. There were 13 in total, five of which were kids.
At the top of the pass was an incredible view on both directions. Jacob would later call it the most beautiful he’s ever seen. He was just in awe at the time.
There was also a handful of marmots at the pass, the only ones I saw in the park, though I knew they must be around. We got to hear one scream up close and personal; it was painfully loud.
Rain came again as we descended the other side of the pass. We had great views of Medicine Grizzly Lake and the array of waterfalls that fed it and the creek (Atlantic Creek) that drained it into North Fork Cut Bank Creek (and toward which we were headed). Even the rocks were interesting on the hillside, an ever-changing mix of red, yellow, and green layers, flaking off into traffic light themed talus piles.
But both of us were eager to get to Atlantic Creek Campground both because it would be a great stopping place to eat lunch and get some more water and because it had a toilet we were both desperate for. By the time we were close, I ran ahead to get to it first. Jacob was so pooped from having been so long and far since the last meal that he barely made out there–he was ready to give up just a few feet from the campground entrance.
The campground ended up having one major downside as a lunch stop: it was utterly swarmed with mosquitos. While I am fairly liberal with use of my bug net, pulling it out at the first sound of a mosquito whining in my ear, this was the only time I saw him put his on. I killed several dozen of them just in the hour we were in that spot, the first dozen just in the ten minutes Jacob was in the head. On at least two occasions, I killed one on accident just by brushing my hand across my skin. It was a madhouse.
Just a few miles up the valley was Morning Star Lake, and this was a beautiful campsite. Someone was already called there (and we would eventually find out it was one of the couples we were camped with), but we had plenty of evening daylight to reach the campground we were permitted for, so we just stopped for a snack.
We began the climb up toward the unnamed ridge in earnest there. It was slow going because it was steep, hot, and late in the day. To help with that, I stuck my head in the water and wet my shirt every time we came across or near a creek. It definitely helped. At one point I did it without warning Jacob and had to practically run up the hill to catch him.
It was almost six by the time we had climbed up to the outflow of Pitamakan Lake. Jacob needed water anyway, so I just got out my stove and started cooking dinner. When it’s dinnertime, you make dinner. We were briefly joined by a northbounder on his first night out, heading up to the Pacific Northwest Trail to walk home on. He told us this side of the pass was much more difficult than the other side.
When we packed up and began climbing again, we could confirm the trail up was extremely steep. Jacob had to take frequent breaks. It was clear he was flagging, but there was good reason to stop often anyway. The views were incredible from up there.
It was only a mile and a half from the pass down to the turnoff for Old Man Lake and our campsite. Jacob was moving even slower on the descent. It was pretty late in the day, and he said it was probably the most elevation change he’d ever carried a pack over in a single day. Basically, he’d just used up all his calories.
The campground was beautiful. We only had to stop at food prep long enough to brush our teeth before we could find a campsite. I couldn’t resist running down to check out the lake first though. Then I had to figure out which of the four campsites had soft enough ground to get stakes into. We had the whole campground to ourselves, so we had our pick of the bunch.
One thing that had started around the time of our stop at Pitamakan Lake and continued until this point was some intense wind gusts. Everywhere across the valley floor, there were frequent gusts through the tops of the trees that made them sound like passing cars. This kept up all night and kept Jacob from getting a decent night’s sleep. I got used to it eventually, but there was a brief heavy rain an hour or two into the night that woke me up. The drops on my tent were unignorably loud. And I was worried it would get worse and that I had left something out to get wet or my rainfly would leak. You know, the normal things that keep you awake at night. But it stopped after a few minutes and I slept well after that.
Trail miles: 17.8
The Jacob version:
Today provided me both the best experience of the hike so far and some of my biggest struggles. We got up earlier today and were out of camp by 6:30. Despite that early start we wouldn’t arrive at our camp until around 8 pm.
Part of what took us so long is that we did around 18 miles, which is up there for one of my longest, if not the longest hike with a full pack I’ve ever done. The other reason is that we went over two passes. Both involved miles-long climbs and both from a distance looked like the trail was taking you up a wall. In both cases, the trail on that steepest section was switchbacked and contoured so that it was actually easier to hike that section than it was the less intimidating section before you got to the wall, but the time you spent climbing with that pack means it’s never really easy going up.
The second pass that we had to cross wasn’t anything special. Well, let me say that some people would pay money for that view, but it paled in comparison to the Triple Divide Pass that we crossed earlier in the day. This pass is next to the peak of Triple Pass Mountain where water from one side of the mountain flows to the Pacific, another side to the Gulf of Mexico and another side to the Hudson Bay. This pass is really rocky and devoid of any larger plants long before you get close to the pass. I think this is because of the rocky conditions and not elevation at the lower parts though. On the initial approach through the valley, we saw pale specks crossing a snow field and onto what looked like a sheer wall. I’m not sure if these were bighorn sheep or mountain goats since we never got close enough to see them clearly. That didn’t matter, though. Less than a mile later we’d start up the switchbacks and hear something charging down the rocks toward us. It turned out to be a small group of female bighorn sheep and their lambs. They weren’t very skittish and didn’t really move as we passed them on the trail. They seemed more curious than wary. They looked a little mangy, but only because they were shedding their winter coats.
Not long after we left the sheep, he hit the top of the divide. The views here we’re the best of the trip. Either side was just dramatic mountains and glacier-carved valleys. The marmot family was even less concerned about us than the sheep. Their whistle is also LOUD.
The only real downside to this day is that I’m just not fully physically prepared for it. I’m not saying I can’t do it, but I can’t do this terrain at this distance comfortably right now. At the end of the day I started having trouble getting food down. Part of it is that I was trying for a no-cook menu so I wouldn’t have to deal with the hassle of getting a stove and fuel through TSA, and part was the fact that I always find it hard to eat when I’m really exerting myself. But I made it, and weirdly, I woke up this morning feeling totally refreshed and not even sore even though I was in a similar condition the night before, so I’m optimistic.