Great Divide Trail Section A: Heat, Hardship and Humility

Posted on: Saturday July 17, 2021 Hiking Great Divide Trail

The GDT might just be the prettiest thru hike in the world. Despite heat, bears, tough climbs and constant bugs, I am completely in love.

I met Tour Guide on the CDT in 2017. We only chatted for a few minutes as we were going in different directions, but she was the first other solo female thru-hiker I’d met and we had an instant connection. I reached out a few weeks before we started, wondering if she wanted to get coffee when we hiked through Banff. Instead, she asked how we were getting to the start of the trail. She and her husband, Keith, swooped us up in Calgary to take us under their wings. As well as spoiling us with food and rides, they camped with us on Waterton while we ran down to touch the border.

I’ve already been to the boundary cut line in Waterton when I finished the CDT, but the landscape has completely changed. Fire swept through just days after we left, and the tiny tourist town was evacuated. Now, charred trees line the trail, with pockets of green where the fire skipped or changed direction.

We don’t get a very early start. It’s so hot, and I feel like I’ve just sat on a couch for two years (which is essentially what I’ve done). Every uphill leaves me breathless and the heat makes me pant. This trail is going to kick my ass.

We reach the monument and sit in the sun. We only have to walk back to town today, so we’re in no rush. Horse flies buzz around us in the shade, but it’s too hot to escape them in the sun. Day hikers filter in and out. One spots a black shape in the clear cut line that marks the border. Bear!

It’s not easy on the way back to town. I ran this section after the CDT, my mind on beer and burgers. Now I feel like my brain is cooking under the hot sun. There’s no shade in the burns, and by the time I get back to town, I feel the start of heat exhaustion. Burgers and cold soda help a little, but I’m exhausted. Shake’nBake and I go to bed well before hiker midnight, while small children run past our tent screaming.

In the morning, we say goodbye to Tour Guide and Keith. They’ve been so kind to us and I look forward to seeing them again in Banff. We’re up with the sun. We have a long climb ahead of us, and I’m doubting my abilities after the heat of the day before.

I work up a sweat as we climb, out of treeline, and past tiny Alpine lakes. I’ve missed this so much. I’m so slow, but Shake’nBake waits for me on every switch back. We yell back and forth, making as much bear noise as we can. We come up with new games to help us talk, even when we’re tired or grumpy. I’ve hiked so many miles alone, but I’m so happy to have Shake’nBake here with me on this trip.

We finally crest the pass, which is higher than many of the surrounding mountains, just as storm clouds start to swell. We race down, slipping and sliding in the scree. Thunder rolls far off as we reach the parking lot below, where tourists eat picnic lunches next to signs warning of bears.

We hang out for a while, eating dinner and relaxing, until the crowds become too much. We climb up and up, to a campsite just outside of the park in a shadeless burn. We’ll have to retrace our steps tomorrow to get back on the GDT.

I don’t think I’ll sleep much. There’s a problem bear in the area, and other hikers have reported it getting into the bear lockers. But just as dusk is falling, a group of four female section hikers shows up. I trust them to wake up if our bear shows up (Shake’nBake wouldn’t wake up for a nuclear bomb), and I sleep just fine.

Two minutes outside of camp, I see a huge black stump. I’m still half asleep, but something seems off. I grab Shake’nBake’s arm, and reach for my spray. Bear!

He’s large and utterly unafraid of us. We back up a little, and yell at him. He walks towards us. The safety is off my bear spray: my old Alaska reflexes still there. Then he saunters into the woods and walks right past us, maybe thirty feet off. We send him on his way with a few yells, mostly to warn the group back at the campsite.

We climb up and up, as the sun bakes the mountainside. I feel slightly less out of shape until the temperature soars and I soak my shirt with sweat. We top out on a ridge and sit on the saddle to eat lunch. Shake’nBake spots a far off grizzly bear. I think I see a cub with it. We’re only on day three, and we’ve already seen five bears.

We drop down and we’re back in the burn. Spooked from our bear encounter, we hoot and holler. The sun bakes us and there’s no shade or water anywhere. We huff and puff over a pass, skirt a snowfield, and drop down to our campsite on the shores of Lost Lake.

The group of women shows up after dark, waking us from a dead sleep. I check my phone: 11pm. They chatter for an hour, not bothering to whisper. I’m grumpy, and resolve to try and avoid camping near them as much as our permits allow.

The next day is easy in comparison to what we’ve hiked so far. The elevation profile has mellowed. We still have massive climbs, through burns with no shade. It would be a tough day on any other trail. But we make better time than the two days before. We leave Waterton National Park, so we no longer have to follow our planned itinerary so closely. We feel strong, so we push on an extra two kilometres to camp at the base of the climb to La Coulette ridge.

The trail disappears almost immediately. We pick our way up to the ridge, following animal trails and our GPS line. It’s so steep that I drag myself up with my trekking poles: planting them in the dirt to leverage myself up. We crest the ridge and suddenly everything is wonderful. We’re surrounded by peaks, with 360 degrees of beautiful views. The smoke blows in and out, obscuring the furthest mountains. The ridge itself is stunning. It widens out to flat shoulders, before narrowing to a knife edge. One side is scree, steep and ringed with rock bands. The other falls away steeply into a sheer cliff.

We pick our way along, route finding and following other hiker tracks through the scree. The route is frequently straight up or down. We scramble up, then ski down through loose rock, not even trying to fight gravity. It’s tough, but I’m having a blast.

Two thirds of the way up La Coulette peak itself, everything changes. We’re side hilling on loose, steep scree. Every step threatens to send us tumbling down the mountain. My mouth is dry, my palms sweaty. We make it to a boulder, and perch on it, trying to catch our breath and settle our nerves. When we get up to continue, the boulder rocks beneath us, threatening to slide down the mountain.

Somehow, we make it to the top, slipping and sliding our way up. We eat lunch at the summit, watching a ground squirrel try to get close enough to steal a bite. My water situation is dire: less than a litre left and the day is heating up. We don’t linger too long on the summit. We still have the rest of the ridge to traverse. Shake’nBake checks the GPS before we leave. We’ve done 5km in five hours.

The rest of the ridge is awful. Spooked by the scree on the main peak, we’ve lost our nerve. I lose the trail in a gully, and end up side stepping around on loose, chossy rock. I want to cry, but I’m so low on water that I don’t want to waste any. I’ve flirted with heat exhaustion for most of the trail, but now it reaches out and embraces me.

I run out of water two summits from the end of the ridge and 7km from the next water source. In over 8,000 miles, I’ve never run out of water. Swallowing is hard, and my brain feels like it’s cooking in my skull. Shake’nBake sees how rough I look and makes me take the last mouthful of his water. I do cry then, his kindness hurting my heart.

We find snow on the last peak before the descent. I drop my pack and lie on it, trying to cool off. Shake’nBake gets out the jetboil and packs it with snow. Once it melts, we have almost a litre. We sip most of it, being careful not to drink too fast. I almost immediately feel better.

It’s a long way down from the top of the ridge. We traverse the last bit of steep scree and join an old road. It drops sharply into the trees, so steep it makes my knees ache. We stop at the first stream to drink all we can, and camp shortly after, utterly exhausted.

We spend the morning yelling at the bears as we descend through the alders. No ursine friends pop out to say hello, but we see plenty of tracks and scat. The trail spits us out at Castle mountain ski resort, which is quiet but immediately overwhelms us in comparison to the wilderness we’ve been travelling through. We get a quick wifi break, and then we’re road walking in the sun. The heat builds until I feel floaty, disconnected from my body. I swear it was never this hot in the desert.

We leave the road on little more than a cow path, which winds through the woods before climbing steeply in the sun. I gag my way up the trail, before Shake’nBake makes me sit in the shade a few hundred metres from the summit. I sip my water until the world stops spinning.

We’re in the trees, until the trail drops out in a river valley. We camp just short of a paid campground to avoid the fees. Cows moo all night, reminding me of the CDT. In the morning, a bull blocks the bridge, and we have to wait for him to move on before we continue.

We climb up and up, but it’s early, so the heat hasn’t hit us yet. It’s much easier than the sun baked passes we’ve hit at mid day. Towards the top I see something moving in the burn ahead of us. I grab Shake’nBake’s arm, but it’s not a bear. It’s distinctively feline, but smaller than the mountain lions I’ve seen before. It turns its head to display tufted ears. Lynx!

It’s completely unbothered by us, and walks down the trail ahead, before turning and slinking into the bushes. I’ve only ever seen one lynx before, so I know how lucky we are.

It’s a long 20 kilometres into town after that, on hot atv tracks and dirt roads. The heat melts my brain, and I just want to sink into the shade. But town is calling, with showers to wash off six days of sweat and dust, with cold drinks and mountains of food. I hike as fast as I can, and we make it to Coleman by mid afternoon.

Eloise Robbins (Fun Size)

About the Author

Eloise Robbins (Fun Size) is a writer, triple crown thru hiker, and adventurer. She is a lover of the outdoors, hiking, canoeing, and most of all mountains.

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