Total Miles: 60.4
Over a long enough time horizon, eventually everything becomes hard. Beliefs questioned, patience tested. On the Continental Divide Trail, there’s a saying: “Embrace the Brutality.” We all knew adversity was coming in some form or another, it was merely a question of when. I don’t think any of us thought that day 3 would bring the first abject lesson.
The quickening patter of droplets on my hammock after 5am was the first sign. Minutes later, tarps were pitched and we were back inside our hammocks but the tenor of the day had been set. Trudging off under and then into a layer of thick gray clouds, we knew that the cold front that had blown in overnight would make for some very cold, if not very wet, hiking as we climbed back up to higher elevation. Nearly 2,000 feet below the high point of the day, snow flakes already danced through the air leaving us to wonder whether they might multiply.
Fortunately, the snow never materialized though certainly not for lack of sufficient cold. The wind was the bigger problem. The higher we went the more it felt like being in a wind tunnel, constantly being buffeted by a side wind that routinely deflected us several feet. The sound was deafening, and at times I wondered whether by day’s end I’d remove my down jacket and wind shirt to find their hoods in tatters.
Despite the conditions, we weren’t the only animals out in the mountains today. For a path that more often resembled a game trail, comprised not of footprints but of hoof prints from any number of different ungulates, we finally spotted two of their makers: elk grazing peacefully high on the windy slopes, as if it were a perfectly normal early summer day.
As the cloud layer slowly began to rise, there was a beautiful effect of lighting on the distant valleys painted in hues of yellow, light green and dark green. To the southeast, the Tetons pierced the sky with their rocky summits still covered in snow.
Beautiful as it may have been, the reality was that our arctic wind blasting was only getting started. For hours, we climbed into the thickening breeze onto increasingly exposed slopes with nowhere to hide from the wind. What little vegetation there was was coated in rime ice, a product of the water vapor in the air freezing to their foliage. With the wind as fierce as it was, the frost was often knocked loose into a flurry of small crystalline projectiles—an effect that while beautiful from a distance, stung when a stray one happened to smack your face.
At its worst, the gale that curled over the highest portion of the ridge may have been close to hurricane force. Out of curiosity, I let one of my trekking poles dangle by its wrist strap only to watch it point just shy of parallel to the ground. I shudder to think what the windchill may have been.
The rays of sunshine that appeared and began to pry open the clouds was a wonderful sight, but it wasn’t enough to cut the chill. We marched on with down jackets on the entire day in light of the breeze which only somewhat abated as we descended from the wintry high ridges.
Looking back up at those same high peaks near the end of our day, having seen no other hikers yet again, we all felt it was safe to say that brutality, at least for one day, had been fully embraced.