This post was written in my sleeping bag at the end of a long day. Please excuse any errors.
Lightning flashes all night, but I sleep well despite it. In the morning, neither Wild Land nor I feel like hiking. There’s water and shade everywhere: a luxury after the basin. We’ve been pushing big miles too and our bodies are telling us to slow down.
I’m out in front after breakfast when I see an elk charging down the trail at me. At first I think it’s a moose and get ready to run. Once I realize, I yell at it and it decides I’m scarier than whatever is behind it. I get to a stream, stop to wait for Wild Land and remember the Pepsi I packed out. I drink it and fly for two hours, before the crash sets in and we shade hop from tree to tree, eating down our foodbags. We have a ten thousand foot pass to climb before we camp, but the afternoon thunderstorms have started. We wait each one out, moving forward each time. I’m slow on the hill as always, stuck in mosquito hell. But a view waits for me at the top of the pass. Craggy peaks with sheer faces rise from a lake, snow coating their flanks. I can’t get a good break in the trees to take photos, and I almost trip over every rock in the trail trying to get a better view. We camp by a boulder field at official mile 1800, though I have still walked less than that.
I’m awake at 6 and so is the thunder. We wait out the rain til almost 9, then head out. There’s a stream crossing that gives me trouble- so deep and fast that I turn around and walk across a log jam instead. We’re in the trees so I don’t pay much attention to the clouds, but our daily storm is a doozy. We hike in the rain, watching the clouds flash, until the hail pelts down and we throw my tarp over ourselves.
In the morning, I out and back to Cirque of the Towers. The bugs wake me early and I’m packed up before Wild Land. He’s faster than me on the uphill anyway, so I tell him I’ll see him up the trail. I want to make sure I’m down before the afternoon storms. I climb up and up and stop by a lake for a break. Wild Land doesn’t catch me. I know he’s short on food and time, so I assume he’s decided not to come. I’m sad not to get to say goodbye, but I understand. I reach the cirque by 9am and I have the place to myself. I take a few selfies and timer photos since I don’t have a photographer, and eat a cliff bar. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, with towering spires giving way to snowfield. Then it’s time to head down, passing day hikers and wondering if I should ask them for food. I’m back on the CDT as it winds through meadows, happy as a clam. I needed a good day, with good views. I can see thunderstorms coming, but who cares? I’m down low with massive lightning rod mountains just far enough away to make me feel safe.
I stop by a stream to filter water and see what the building clouds are doing, when I see a familiar ragged cowboy hat weaving through the trees. Wild Land! Turns out he did climb up to the cirque and we just missed each other in the boulders. We wait out the first storm wave in a grove of trees, then run through meadows to the edge of a river valley. The bottom of the valley is bare and I don’t want to cross it, so we wait in a stand of spruce on the edge of the trees. I see a bolt hit a mountain top a half mile away. Thunder rings like a gunshot. “That was close!” The storm moves on but we can see another wave building right behind so we stay put. Wild Land watches the lightning. “This is going to hit us.” He warns me. It gets to a second between flash and bang, so I assume my going to die in a thunderstorm position- hands over my ears, head bowed, crouching down. “Superman, Superman.” Wild Land repeats, hoping he’ll get super powers if he gets struck. I don’t see the bolt hit, but I feel the air tear itself apart around me. And then again. And then again. Wild Land watches and calls out the strikes- the trees to our left. A rock outcropping directly in front. And the meadow to our right. Each just a few hundred feet away. I’m shaking and desperately trying not to fall apart in front of Wild Land. The meadow is the lowest point we’ve seen all day. Everything I thought would keep me safe is a lie. Low routes won’t save me. Neither will forests. It is only sheer dumb luck that none of the bolts got me. I’m emotionally exhausted and Wild Land is freezing. We call it, Wild Land somehow starting a fire with wet wood, as we sit around and try to warm up while listening to the echoes of distant storms.
The storms keep coming all night, though none so close. Around five am, there’s a series of strikes just five seconds between flash and bang. I lie in my tarp and cry. If there was a magic button I could press to get off trail, to be transported to town and never come back, I would push it. I’ve never wanted to quit more. Around 8, there’s a break in the rain. “What do you want to do, Fun Size?” Wild Land calls out. I go over to his tent and tell him I want to go back to the last trailhead, to get to town. I cry a little, always embarrassing. Wild Land persuades me to go forward to the next exit point. He wants to get more food. We can take a break in Pinedale and regroup. We cross the meadow, where we watched the lightning hit the day before. Then we climb up to another alpine meadow. There is no cover. Ahead are blue skies. But I look behind me and it looks like the apocalypse has come. Dark storm clouds run to the horizon, lightning flashing across the plains. The storms end at the cirque, dark rock spires against dark skies. We walk out of the storm, though it will loom on the horizon all day. We walk around subalpine lakes, crossing rivers. The Winds had 300% snowpack this winter and it’s impossible to keep your feet dry. Wild Land fishes, pulling 6 little trout out of a clear blue pool. We roast them like marshmallows and are still hungry after. In the morning, we climb up and over hat pass. There is a non sketchy snowfield at the top, but it’s icy. I pull out my microspikes, which I’ve been carrying all this way, and find the rubber bindings have disintegrated. Well. I’m pissed, but glad I can still safely navigate the snowfield. We’re up and down, past more and more lakes, until we reach pole creek. The epic snowpack has left it high for July. Wild Land goes first, and its mid thigh on his tall frame. I follow and the water surges up towards my hips. River crossings are always crotch deep on me. I make it safely and then we are running for the parking lot. Wild Land stops for water and I wait for him a half mile down the trail. I stand on a rock in the middle of a meadow in the sunshine and dance, wildly happy. We pass a lookout that shows us the range still to come. I look at it, and while all I’ve wanted since the storm is to be in town, now I just want to stay in the mountains. Don’t leave, the CDT seems to be telling me. And I know, despite the fears, despite the storms, I’ll be back.