Mist hangs low over the river in the morning. We cross the Chown what feels like a hundred times. Our feet freeze to painful stumps in the cold water. There’s just enough time between fords for them to warm to pins and needles before freezing again. Chown Glacier hangs in the end of the valley, feeding the rushing water. It calves for us, sending down a spray of snow and ice. Finally, we leave the valley floor, climbing through overgrown alders to Mount Bess shoulder. Clouds build over high peaks as we spread our sleeping bags to dry in the wind.
We drop down to another valley split with waterfalls, then climb high to Jackpine Pass. The climb is difficult purely because I can’t stop looking over my shoulder at the view. Mount Robson presides over a glacier filled valley. Clouds add dramatic lighting, with sun filtering through in rays. I want to build a cabin at the pass, and spend the rest of my life staring at the view.
Someone is already at the pass though. She introduces herself as one of the SoBo hikers Keith dropped off. We’re confused: aren’t there supposed to be two? She tells us they had a slight navigation problem and spent the night apart. Her friend has the tent, but she has the inreach. She explains her friend is on the way, and we’ll probably see her between here and our campsite. I worry a little. It’s only 10km to the next campsite where her friend spent the night, but there’s no trail. It’s now 3pm. How hard is the navigation, to not only separate two of the most experienced hikers in the world, but to also take all day?
I needn’t have worried. We crest the ridge, and the navigation is so straight forward I actually am concerned that Guthooks is broken. Despite the lack of trail tread and cairns, it constantly shows us as being exactly on trail. After a while, I relax and spend the time enjoying one of the most beautiful sections of the entire Great Divide Trail. We drop down to equally stunning Blueberry lake, where our friends join us as the sun sets behind stark, rocky peaks. A trail crew that’s been working on the Jackpine River, tomorrow’s problem, comes up to say hello. We thank them profusely, having heard stories of just how bad the alders on the river can be. While drifting off to sleep, I realize we haven’t seen the other SoBo hiker. Where could she be?
The moon shines all night, painting patterns on the walls of our tent. By morning, clouds have formed, blocking the first rays of sun. We climb up and over a pass, before dropping down towards Jackpine River. The trail becomes more and more muddy and overgrown as we lose elevation. We chat about the SoBos as we hike, concerned as none of our friends saw the missing hiker either. Shake’nBake stops for a second to inreach message Keith, to ask him to check on them. Then, we burst from the alders onto the banks of the Jackpine River. Sarah is there, and she tucks in behind us, while we navigate the faint and disappearing trail. Conditions worsen as the day goes on, until we’re fighting our way through alders taller than me with no hint of a trail.
We reach Spider Creek, where the trail crew told us the trail gets better. Clouds have been building all day, and now they break. Thunder rolls out, and lightning flashes across the valley. We give up trying to find the trail, and take shelter in a grove of trees. When the storm moves off, we bushwhack back down towards the river, wet and grumpy. Finally, two kilometers past Spider, we see the first few signs of cut alders. Then, clear trail! The crew has only cut the brush and the blowdowns, so we still have to deal with muddy, swampy trail tread, but we’re so happy to not have to navigate between unclear game trails. We fly over the last 5km to camp. The site itself is the first flat spot for most of the afternoon, but there’s no shelter and not a lot of room for tents. We leave space for Joe and Alison, who show up a little later.
It storms all night, lightning flashes making it hard to sleep. In the morning, snow dusts the highest peaks: a reminder that winter is coming. The snow combined with the smell of pine trees cut by the trail crew puts Shake’nBake in a festive mood. He belts out White Christmas as we head out in the spitting rain. The weather mostly holds as we climb over Little Shale Hill. Low clouds are dramatic against the partially hidden mountains, still white with fresh snow.
We drop down again to Pauline Creek. Three flip-floppers had warned us it was waist deep. The morning is still cold, and I’m not excited about the idea of soaking my hiking clothes. We agree to strip if we have to. When we get to the creek, Sarah has just finished crossing. She yells across the muddy water that she forded further down and it was only knee deep. We bushwhack down to a gravel bar, but yesterday’s storms have obscured the line. Shake’nBake crosses first, the water creeping up towards his hips. He pushes through, lifting his pack over his head to protect his gear. He comes back for my pack as I strip to the waist and wade in after him. The water is deep and cold, but the current is gentle, and before we know it, we’re across. I shiver as I dress again, and we hike fast up towards Big Shale Hill to warm back up.
As we go up, the clouds come down. A ghostly figure emerges from the mist as we crest treeline. It’s Sarah, staring at her phone, trying to figure out where to go. I check Guthooks, the contours on my screen lining up with the ridge half visible through the clouds. I lead the way up to the summit. Half melted snow dots the shale, and as we crest the ridge, the wind blows fresh flakes in our faces. I whoop and holler, from sheer joy rather than to scare the bears for once. Up here, hands half numb from the bitter wind, I feel more alive than I ever do in town. Shake’nBake shares my enthusiasm, pointing out a glacier below us and singing Christmas carols into the start of the storm.
We drop back down, the snow turning to rain as we cross the line between freeze and thaw. The rain comes harder as we lose elevation. Before we’ve really realized what’s happening, it’s coming down in sheets. The temperature is barely above freezing, and there’s sleet mixed with the rain. We’re still 10km from camp, so we put our heads down and hike as fast as we can. It’s a race against hypothermia. Neither of our rain jackets are particularly waterproof anymore, studded with a hundred tiny holes from bushwhacking and blowdowns. An hour from the summit and I’m soaked, shivering no matter how fast I hike. We keep losing the trail every time we come to a meadow, where the faint tread disappears. Every delay to check Guthooks makes me colder, until my hands lose all feeling and I almost drop my phone. Sarah is somewhere behind us and I worry about her, although we can’t stop for even a second to wait.
We reach camp just as the rain turns fully to snow. It takes me forever to get my pack off. My hands have lost all strength, and each buckle takes five times as long to undo. We get the tent up, fumbling with poles and stakes. Shake’nBake pushes me inside and tells me to get out of my wet clothes. Everything takes so long to do with numb fingers. I feel like I’m moving in slow motion, but I finally get into my warm layers. The inside of the tent is wet from the storm the night before, and I try to dry it as best I can with my spare socks. Shake’nBake passes in hot soup, despite our strict no eating in the tent rule. “Hypothermia will kill us faster than the bears,” he tells me. I’m shaking so hard I can barely hold the cup, and the spoon chatters against the rim in my trembling hands.
Shake’nBake rolls into the tent, and starts the painfully slow process of getting into his dry clothes. I try to soak up the water dripping off of him onto the tent with my socks. Condensation is already forming on our fly. Everything is cold and wet. Fat, wet flakes are building on the outside of the tent, and I can see the snow accumulating on the ground. Finally, we judge the inside of the tent is as dry as it’s going to get, and pull out our sleeping bags. It takes a long time for me to stop shivering. Shake’nBake and I huddle together, sharing as much body heat as we can. And still the snow comes down, a soft, cold blanket over everything.