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Getting to the hostel in Grand Lake, we had to sign the most peculiar waiver which all of us found most amusing.

The waiver made sure we understood that the hostel sat at 8,500ft above sea level and potential health risks exist such as headaches, nausea, vomiting, etc. We had not been below 10,000ft in quite some time…at least 100 miles, so 8,500ft felt like a break where we could all breathe better!

We found Heartbreaker, Hiker Box, Flip, and Wide Angle at the hostel as well and it was nice to see a few other faces. Stereotypically, we all checked out of the hostel, but lounged in their reception area on the couches for another hour using the wifi and chatting about shoes, the Silverthorne vs. Breckenridge routes, and what we planned on eating next.

Meandering downtown, which conveniently, was also the trail, we went straight for the Fat Cat Café and their AYCE buffet. Since we came into town late the night before, we decided that we required beer before leaving town. Surprisingly, downtown Grand Lake does not have a large selection of bars like other small Colorado towns. Finally, we found an establishment called, “Grumpies,” which all of us deduced could not be anything except a bar. One beer, of course, turned into three before we decided that we needed to get at least seven miles out of town to get out of the National Park.

Following some roads out of town, we reached the trailhead where a large sign informed us that we could follow the Continental Divide Trail by following trail markers. I found that so hilarious that I took a picture of the sign. Trail markers! The thought! Maybe eventually.

 

Some slightly blurry bull moose.

We took the route that followed the lake closely at a fork and headed toward a dam near a campground filled with glampers (glamor campers). At the dam, we saw the glampers in their jeans with bikes and strollers and large amounts of stuff all gathering with cameras raised. Wildlife. Poking our way through the crowd, parting people with our wonderful smell, we saw two bull moose munching on some nearby willows.

Of course, the moose were slowly moving and munching in the direction that the trail went, so we hiked on, trying to get around them before they inevitably planted themselves in the middle of the trail.

Continuing along the lake, we saw all kinds of people illegally camping, so as we got tired, we decided to stealth camp as well. Right before finding a spot, we ran into a group of people who had put very large tents directly in the middle of the trail. They had a large fire and plenty of lanterns.

Camper: “Hey there!”

E.D.: “Hi”

Camper: “Do you guys need a flashlight…you don’t have one?”

Me: “It’s on my head…it’s just not on yet.”

Camper: “Why?”

E.D. and I exchange glances.

Me: “Because we can still see ok…”

Camper: “So, do you need a flashlight?”

IMG_1708We kept hiking and saw a few river otters splashing in the water at dusk, being able to see plenty with the light from their fire even half a mile later.

The trail then proceeded to go up on Knight’s Ridge the next morning which our map warned could be impassable due to blowdowns. We found another tid-bit of information online that the blowdowns had mostly been cleared. They were indeed and we only had to go over about a dozen or so before dropping down to a popular camping and day hiking area.

Supposedly, there was a tiny general store somewhere in the car mess, but I couldn’t find it. Memphis and E.D. were slightly behind me. I asked a few glampers where it was and discovered that it had closed, but sometimes the ranch down the way had sodas.

The ranch was closed for a private party. I gazed at the sign for a long moment before hiking on looking dejected. I didn’t *need* anything. I just wanted a non-crystal-light-energy caffeine boost.

As I passed a long fence covered in private property signs, I heard someone yell, “Hey hiker!” from the other side.

I turned and saw an old man walking up to the fence. We chatted for a bit and I learned of his grandkids, the campground, and the reasons why the general store closed. He saw that I was bummed it had closed and asked if I needed anything. I said no, I had just wanted a soda to give me some energy and he miraculously produced a coke from a nearby car trunk and handed it to me.

Delighted, I got to walk the dirt road stretch with a soda in hand which made the morning much better. I thought I would wait by Monarch Lake for E.D. and Memphis, so I tossed the can in the dumpster and went to walk past a man sitting on a beach chair near the lake entrance area.

Man: “Do you have your parking pass visible?”

Me: “I don’t have a car…”

Man: “You need a parking pass for anywhere you park around here.”

Me: “I walked here.”

Man: “There’s no place to walk from with free parking.”

Me: “Dude. My car is in Seattle at my Mom’s house.”

Man: “So you got dropped off somewhere?”

Me: “In Canada.”

Dumbfounded, I decided to ignore further questioning and simply walk past him to take a break. I found out from another person asking me to sign into the wilderness area that they were part of the wilderness society and were volunteering. They said that I had to get a permit to camp in the wilderness area and did not seem to understand that I could walk into the wilderness area and out the other side in the span of an afternoon.

Lady: Steps in front of my path, “You’ll need a permit to camp.”

Me: “I’m going past the wilderness area tonight.”

Lady: “That’s at least eight more miles and a lot of elevation gain.”

Me: “It’s about 2,000 feet of gain…and I’ve only hiked nine miles today…”

Lady: “They’re hard miles.”

I hiked half-way up the climb to a stream, laid my tent out to dry, and ate lunch wondering where E.D. and Memphis were.

The climb was well graded and had a trail the whole way, so I didn’t understand what the lady was talking about exactly.

With still no sign of E.D. or Memphis, I continued on, trying to get near Devil’s Thumb pass to camp. I got to within a mile before treeline and camped around 11,000ft in a spot just flat enough to fit my tent. The terrain had become increasingly rocky and I thought if I did not take what I could find then, I found I have to settle for a shittier spot later.

I had gained enough elevation that I could get enough internet to check the weather after hearing some of the day hikers mention something about a storm. Indeed, a large storm system was supposed to hit in the early afternoon and continue until about 8pm the next night. I was about to hit a 14 mile waterless stretch above treeline in the morning and pondered my options as I loaded up on water.

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My alarm went off at 3:30am.  I hit snooze.  The moon, however, had other plans.  Bright and full, it felt like someone stood above my tent with a head lamp.  My alarm went off at 3:40am.  This time I got up, stumbling out of my tent and filled a bowl with granola and almond milk.  As I munched, I pondered the map again.  I wandered over to the area in the dirt where a local rancher sketched another map in the dirt.  He wandered over around 8pm on a four wheeler with two dogs running behind.  I politely declined his offer of firewood telling him I planned to wake up early and hike up Sleeping Indian.  The locals all refer to the mountain as Sleeping Indian because from a lateral view, you can see a naturally carved headdress, a nose, then arms folded over the chest, then the belly down to the knees.  On a map, the summit says “Sheep Mountain” instead due to the amount of bighorn sheep in the area.  He told me to ignore the trail head and hike right next to his fence.  He mentioned that a lot of people get lost and end up hiking up East Minor Creek instead of the ridge.  His map, sketched into the dirt told me not to take the first left or the second left, but the third.

As I finished my granola, I switched the batteries in my headlamp.  While the moon helped significantly, I still would need the headlamp for the dense conifer areas.  Throwing my pack on, I walked over to the fence and began following it at 4am.  Knowing a bear had become too accustomed to humans at a nearby lake, I scanned my surroundings extra carefully.  I found the first left the rancher told me not to take.  That one, I could have figured out having not crossed two creeks yet.

The trail went into a dense conifer section with the fence a little further away and met up with the forest service trail.  Crrrrruuuuunch! EYEBALLS.  I froze, hand on my bear spray.  I watched the eyeballs and the eyeballs watched me, glaring in the light of my headlamp.  It sounded like a deer and the eyeballs were about the height of a deer.  We watched each other for another minute, then I slowly began to pass it.  Not something I felt like thinking about at 4:15 in the morning, but now I felt fully awake.

I hiked on and started to hike down toward the riparian area around East Minor Creek.  I paused noting the loudness of the creek, the thick willows, and the Gros Ventre mud.  The loud creek could muffle the sound of wildlife and the willows could obscure wildlife, not to mention that the riparian areas usually have the most wildlife.  Now, Gros Ventre mud has a mind of its own.  It has the power to stick to your feet like nothing else I have ever encountered.

I proceeded slowly, one hand holding my hiking poles and the other on my bear spray.  No eyeballs.  A log conveniently laid across the creek just like the old rancher said on his map drawn in the dirt.  The trail went up and over a tiny ridge.  On one of the switchbacks, a trail shot off to the left again like the rancher had said.  I figured if people get lost, they probably took that trail because East Minor Creek had two braids.

I continued and plunged down into the second riparian area around West Minor Creek.  The vegetation seemed thicker around this creek and I hiked slowly.  The Gros Ventre Mud became thicker and mushier.  After the creek, the trail showed no human footprints — only ungulate footprints (moose, elk, deer).  Great.  Still no more eyeballs.

I went upward again and crossed a very small creek.  I still saw no human footprints.  Then right around where I thought the junction should take off, the trail forked.  No signs.  I decided to follow the one that I thought would go to the lake for a few minutes to make sure I needed to go the opposite way.  When I saw the swamp and the mud became even thicker, I knew to go back and take the other fork.  On the way back, fifteen feet from the fork on the Grizzly Lake side, I saw two signs bolted to a tree.

From the fork, the trail went steeply upward along a very slim ridge.  I felt better in the thick conifers away from the water.  At least there, I could hear better.  About three quarters of a mile up, I crossed into the Gros Ventre Wilderness.  Not long after, I found a viewpoint where I could see the nose of Sleeping Indian as well as the sunrise to the east.  I sat down and watched the sunrise while eating a good old cliff bar.  My watch said I had climbed about 1000 feet already – only 3200 vertical feet to go!

I continued down the trail and the ridge slowly became wider and wider.  The conifers began to give way to large meadows covered in wildflowers: Indian Paintbrush, Harebells, Brown-Eyed Susans, Canadian Thistles, and so many more.  I could tell that water flowed down the trail because it indented in the middle.  Meadow after meadow, I finally made my way up to the pyramid shaped cairn marking the descent to Blue Minor Lake.  I stopped there and ate quite a large helping of cashews while I examined the map.  The trail stopped at the lake, but one of our faculty at TSS had provided me with beta on how to proceed from exactly where I sat.

“Don’t go down to the lake” he said, “just continue to follow that ridge and you’ll find a climber’s trail that goes up to the knees of Sleeping Indian.  From the knees, you can make your way up to the belly, then onto the arms.  You probably do not want to go adventuring on the nose; its very unstable scree and messy over there.”

Blue Minor Lake

Blue Minor Lake

The lake shown a brilliant blue and I could see the arms of Sleeping Indian above it. I saw no climber’s trail from there, but went where I thought I would put a trail to follow the ridge back up.  Low and behold, about two minutes later, I saw three rocks stacked up and a rough climber’s trail.  How convenient!

As the wildflowers increased, I watched the lake.  Then, I heard the very distinct sound of a red-tailed hawk.  Stopping, I searched the skies above, only to find it gliding below me, its orange-red tail glistening in the sun.  I have never stood above a red tail hawk before and took in every minute of it.

Soon, I hit the end of the ridge I walked and went onto the knees of Sleeping Indian where I heard something else I did not expect: running water!  A divot in the long ridge that made up the body of the Sleeping Indian had a stream in it!  Some pink snow fed the stream.  I just had 1,200 more vertical feet!

The climber’s trail seemed to end there.  I picked a path with the most rocks to walk on and made my way toward the arms.  Here and there a cairn would pop up with about 20 feet of something resembling a trail, but then they always ended.  I had a clear sight line to the arms, so I just proceeded up there.

The arms of the Sleeping Indian reminded me of a lot of peaks in Colorado.  The end inevitably became much steeper and some sort of path cut through the talus and winded its way up to the summit.  The last push!

Summit photo toward the Tetons in my Teva Sandals!

Summit photo toward the Tetons in my Teva Sandals!

Reaching the top, I had sweeping views of the Gros Ventres, the Tetons, the Jackson Hole valley, Jackson peak, Mt. Leidy, and so much more.  I dutifully took lots of pictures and scarfed up a bagel with peanut butter and honey.  At only 10:30am, I had already hiked 11 miles and 4,200 ft of elevation.  Not too shabby!

After a solid break on top, I reversed the route.  I ran into a father daughter team who had camped at Blue Minor Lake the night before and went up to the summit in the morning.  Other than that, I ran into no one until I got down toward West Minor Creek.  There, a group of five people with large packs passed me.

“Did you go up Sleeping Indian?” one asked.

“Yeah,” I replied, “It’s amazing!”

“In a day?” another asked.

“Yeah…” I said.  After all, my watch only read 3pm.

“You know,” one started also looking at her watch, “Most people do it as an overnight backpack via this route.”

“Huh.  It was a good long day,” I said as we finished passing each other.

View from the summit of Sleeping Indian toward the Gros Ventres

View from the summit of Sleeping Indian toward the Gros Ventres

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There comes a point in a thru-hike where a hiker’s metabolism passes the amount of calories that the hiker can carry.  Thru-hikers often run on a calorie deficit while in the woods, then need to binge on food in town to make up lost calories.  Let me say clearly that hikers will eat as much as they can carry comfortably and by no means try to limit the calories eaten on trail.  In fact, most food goes through a filter: each food item carried should have a minimum of 100 calories per ounce in order to maximize calories and minimize food weight.

Usually, I realize that I’ve come to this point when I need to eat three scoops of straight peanut butter immediately before bed or I’ll wake up at 2:00am so hungry that I have to eat.  Awhile later, there comes a point where I must find other foods with high calories because I’ll start to gag on peanut butter after eating one pound of it every four or five days.  The point without peanut butter becomes a critical one because it’s hard to beat 190 calories and 7 grams of protein in two Tbsp.  When this happens, I need olive oil to add to all food and I’ll drink the extra olive oil before leaving town.  On top of all the calorie deficits, my feet are probably starting to hurt again more than usual.

During the winter at TSS, I became so busy that I didn’t even have time to shower.  Between an intense class, Ecological Inquiry, and our Winter Teaching Practicum, I found myself accidentally going five or six days without showering.  I field taught for the first two weeks of the Winter Teaching Practicum as well as trying my best to spend my evenings working on Ecological Inquiry work.  After spending a whole day teaching kids how to cross-country ski or snow shoe while simultaneously teaching them about winter ecology, mammalian survival strategies, winter plant adaptations and keeping the kids warm when the temperature barely reaches -5 degrees Fahrenheit, the last thing that I wanted to do was homework for another class.

But wait! There’s more! The entire Ecological Inquiry class based itself in student group inquiry.  While I field taught in Kelly, two of my teammates taught young kids in Idaho, and another taught high schoolers in Jackson.  We had to communicate via google docs, email, and Facebook.  Let’s not forget sleep!  My brain began hurting again a bit more than it had.

There’s even more!  This winter, TSS popularized the term “flexi-pants.”  Every time snow changed our plans, all we would hear from any higher-ups was “Get your flexi-pants on!”  Imagine hearing that after not having time to shower for five days.

A moose outside my window.  The snow came up past the bottom of the window.

A moose outside my window. The snow came up past the bottom of the window.

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At the beginning of every thru-hike, my feet hurt so much that when someone asks, “How are you?” I can think of no other response besides “My feet hurt.”  It takes my feet several weeks before they either stop aching or I just become accustomed to a constant foot ache. I consistently find myself walking down the trail talking to my feet.  “Feet, you’ve done this before, you can do it again!”  “Come on feet, we have miles to walk before we sleep.”  “There’s a stream in four miles you can soak in, feet, just keep moving.”

"Hippie TV"

“Hippie TV”

At the beginning of grad school, we were told that if we felt slightly overwhelmed, that was normal.  The first few weeks, when asked “How are you?” I could only say, “My brain hurts.”  We had class from 9am-5pm Monday-Friday and sometimes we would hear, “Oh, you gus don’t mind a working lunch, do you?”  Topics ranged from WFR scenarios to aspen regeneration to TSS systems to risk management to glaciers to fire ecology and so much more.

My brain felt like it would explode.  I had to take notes or I could not remember everything.  I had to tell myself consistently, “I chose to go to grad school.”  I had to tell myself “keep listening” and “keep drinking yerba mate” in order to stay awake.  I had to tell myself “don’t worry, the weekend will come soon.”  TGIF had a whole new meaning.  At the very minimum a weekend meant that I could process information in my own way, at my own speed if nothing else.

Moose through a scope

Moose through a scope

After two years off from undergrad, my brain felt like it went through a blender.  Adjusting to going to class and doing homework made my brain just hurt, especially because class now lasted eight hours, not a series of hour and twenty minute sessions.  My body had become accustomed to physical challenge, not mental exhaustion so thorough that I would need extra sleep to recharge my brain.  Each night, I went to bed absolutely exhausted mentally, but restless physically.  My body did not know what to do.  I did not understand why I would become so tired when all I did was sit in a classroom or outside and listen.

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