Cycling the Carretera Austral

The Carreterra Austral is the southern-most section of road in Chile, approximately 1,200 kilometres of Highway 7, much of it unpaved and heavily corrugated. The brainchild of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, construction of the road commenced in 1976, finishing 14 years later. Pinochet felt the CA to be a testament to his power to create such a difficult road through a jigsaw puzzle of alpine mountain ranges, yawning fjords, and rugged forest-lined valleys. The road was designed to link towns where no town should probably ever exist – with no connection to the outside world and few natural advantages – they only had one real advantage: they were strategically located to prevent Argentina from claiming the land.

The CA has become something of a pilgrimage for cycle tourists – who come especially, we were told to our amazement, to ride the route before it is fully paved.

Starting Out – Chaiten to La Junta (2 days, 165km, 2,800m uphill)

Bleary eyed, we wrestled our rented bikes off the overnight ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaiten along with a handful of other cycle tourers. Our panniers were weighed down with about eight days worth of food that we’d brought down from Canada in anticipation of highly limited options in the small towns along the way, but as we struggled to get forward momentum even on paved, flat surfaces and looked at the elevation profile for the day, lentils and rice for three-weeks straight suddenly seemed much more appealing…

We had met Jens, a Norwegian hand surgeon, at our hostel in Puerto Montt the previous evening as we were all putting our bikes together for the ride, and immediately clicked with his enthusiasm and good sense of humour. We then met Jessica, a keen bike-tourer from San Francisco, as we were leaving the ferry. She was keen to join our small posse too, so the four of us set off together under bright sunshine, the (mercifully) flat road flanked with forested mountains.

After an hour of easy cycling, the road began to climb and after 50km we reached the gravel. It would be several days before we would see asphalt again. The steep elevation profile of the road, combined with the loose gravel, corrugations and our heavy bikes was punishing. If you skidded out in the gravel and put your foot down, you couldn’t get started again. So, for much of the next 12 or so kilometers, we were pushing our bikes on foot as we sweated and swore our way up the never-ending hill.

Despite rain being forecast the following day, the clouds did little more than threaten. Our ragtag ensemble grew as we joined a couple of Swedish cyclists, Stella and Wilfried, and their German friend Sebastian.

Although we were hampered by several punctures to Angie’s bike and several screws falling off Jonno’s, we made steady progress south, navigating a series of muddy road works to arrive at the township of La Junta late in the afternoon. Ravenous, we stocked up on alfajores and other goodies from a bakery near the main plaza and enjoyed a beer at La Casa de Te with Jens and Jessica, before rejoining Stella, Wilfried and Sebastian to cook dinner in the main plaza. As a group we decided to continue biking south , hoping to find a wild campsite along the way. No sooner had we left the sanctuary of La Junta than the skies opened up – at first a faint drizzle but slowly growing stronger. By dusk we had travelled 20km south of La Junta and reached a private campsite. Lured in by the promise of hot showers we negotiated hard for a spot for the night. By then the rain was bucketing down, and we were grateful for the warmth of a roaring fire and some dry shelter.

 

Wet, wet, wet – La Junta to Coyhaique (3.5 days, 277km, 4,800m uphill)

The following morning was grey cloud and drizzle. Nevertheless we were starting to get into our groove and made good progress on hilly terrain.

By the time we arrived at the village of Puyuhuapi at noon we were hungry. Clad in sweaty, mud-splattered cycling attire we settled down to a plate of delicious kuchen at the rather upmarket Hospedaje Alemania. As we sat around the fireplace warming ourselves with hot chocolate the cold drizzle persisted outside. Enthusiasm for continuing was, not unsurprisingly, low. Eventually our ambition overcame our procrastination and we cycled out of town about 4pm.

The road leading south from Puyuhuapi was a veritable construction site – heavy earthmoving equipment slowed our progress as we navigated our way around muddy potholes and trenches. About 25km from Puyuhuapi we finally selected a roadside site to wild camp. It was a raised patch of grass on the edge of a lake, and protected from the strong westerly wind.

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Roadworks, gravel and mud out of Puyuhuapi

After dinner we settled into what had become our routine of listening to a podcast. Following the podcast Jonno unzipped the tent and was surprised to see his and Angie’s shoes wobbling. Rubbing his eyes, his brain cells in overdrive, he noticed bags and other things bobbing about in front of him. A few seconds later he came to a startling realization…”We’re under water!” he yelled. Disbelieving grumbles followed.

What we had mistakenly thought was a lake had actually been a tidal fjord and the tide had come in fast – very fast. It was now 10cm up on the sides of the tent and rising at a rate of 2cm each minute!

Never has a campsite been dismantled so quickly. Within five minutes we had moved our bikes, tent and the rest of our gear to higher ground about 50m away. Fortunately for us we had managed to collect everything in time, and the waterproof underside of the tent had prevented a thorough soaking.

Jess had not been so lucky – a hole in her tent meant that it was soaked, along with many of her belongings, and one of her bike shoes had floated away in the flood frenzy. Angie’s notes from that day read simply “Beside lake windy and exposed. Previous campsites shit. Got flooded and had to move!!”

We woke early the following day, mindful of the steep climb ahead of us. By 9am we had set off into the mountains under an overcast, drizzly sky. The morning consisted of riding a lumpy, occasionally washed out road alongside the Quelat river, and was punctuated by several bike mishaps, from screws falling off to panniers falling off, as we bumped along the ripio. And I found a lone shoe lying in the middle of the road – size 7.5, right foot – which Jess was most grateful for.

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Late in the morning we switched into granny gear to begin a steady, switch-backed climb of 500m to a high pass carved into the cloudforest. It was slow, cold and gruelling work in the rain. After an hour or two we eventually crested the range and rattled downhill at a frightening speed all the way to the pretty village of Amengual, arriving at the town’s ‘sandwich bus’ in late afternoon sunshine.

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Lunch on the sandwich bus

We set off from Villa Amengual after a relaxed breakfast, with sealed road and a gentle downhill most of the way until our salubrious lunch spot at the Copec petrol station, 58km later at Villa Manihuales. Manihuales is actually a cute little town with many supermarkets and some nice cafes, but our group-think mentality overcame common sense and we nonetheless dined beside the petrol bowsers with a killer view of all the cars coming and going.

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We set off again after lunch and were treated to epic views of rivers and mountains as we rode on for another 56km through the afternoon.

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As the sun began to ride low in the sky we looked in earnest for a good campsite, finding what we thought was an excellent, hidden spot by the Rio Simpson in a seemingly disused CONAF reserve. We set out tents and pulled out our food and cookers, and just as we were nearly set to appease our rumbling stomachs, a ranger appeared and in very clear terms told us to move on. We quickly ate our food, repacked our tents and loaded the bikes, and in the darkness rode on several more kilometers to finally find a CONAF campsite where we could stay for the night.

We woke the next morning to the pouring rain and after waiting a couple of hours to see if it would pass, we decided to head out into it regardless. We soon hit a steep uphill, the road grinding its way through a nerve-wracking tunnel that we shared with several large lorries and not much shoulder room. The hill climb seemed to keep going and going, around numerous bends and up teasing false summits. Finally, we hit the downhill and coasted into the large town of Coyhaique with enormous relief. Just before lunchtime we rolled into the Patagonia Hostel, where Jonno had stayed after his Ice Cap Crossing expedition (and ever since had not been able to stop thinking about the mountain of pancakes drenched in real maple syrup). We stripped off our sodden clothes and tried to thaw out our frozen fingers and toes in hot showers. Angie swore she wouldn’t pedal one meter more until she’d found some thermal covers for her cycling shoes.

We enjoyed a great lunch and afternoon in Coyhaique with the sun coming out, as we gorged ourselves on cake, good coffee and a fresh salmon dinner that evening.

Time for some R&R – Coyhaique to Puerto Rio Tranquilo (2.5 days, 210km, 4,500m uphill)

We left Coyhaique on a sealed road in bright sunshine, and for a couple of hours enjoyed the easiest riding to date. Like riding a rollercoaster we zoomed up and down the low gradient hills, easily doing 20km per hour. Then followed several hours of sluggish grinding up the Ruta 7 to the head of a valley surrounded by the picturesque Parque Nacional Cerro Castillo.

The final half hour of the day was a real highlight – perhaps the highlight of the entire CA. A beautifully crafted road (whoever knew there was such a thing) slithered down a valley nestled amidst cloud-draped mountains. The smooth downhill gradient and gentle curves of the road allowed the kilometres to fly by. At one point we covered 8km in about 10 minutes – a far cry from earlier in the afternoon. After 100km – some hard and some easy – we arrived at Villa CC on dusk and settled on a ramshackle private campsite, where we soon had a wood fire going and a bowl of lentil soup in our hands (except for Jens who continued his habit of eating cereal and milk for most meals).

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Our eighth day of riding, from Villa CC to the head of Rio Murta, proved to be our most challenging day yet.

Immediately upon leaving Villa CC we were confronted with very testing road conditions. The paved road had ended (we would be riding on gravel for the remainder of our ride) and within half an hour we were struggling up steep, corrugated ripio much worse than we had encountered before. Reaching a crest Jens and Jonno stopped next to a couple of female British cyclists who were less than amused that it had taken them 23 minutes to cover the previous 2km.

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We spent the remainder of the morning and early afternoon pedalling hard along the Ibanez valley, dominated by a stiff headwind. Making less than 10km per hour facing into the dusty westerly was soul-destroying stuff, and we were pleased to finally turn the corner and head south alongside the Rio Cajon.

Exhausted, we ground our way slowly up the ripio toward the head of the Cajon valley, finally reaching a wild campsite as the road began to flatten out. We had reached the plateau between the Cajon and Murta valleys and were grateful that the following morning’s short ride mostly consisted of coasting downhill alongside the brilliant turquoise of Lago General Carrera, all the way to Puerto Rio Tranquilo.

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At Rio Tranquilo we allowed ourselves a ‘¾ rest day’, and booked onto a tour of the Marble Caves. They were fascinating and beautiful. At the local cerveceria we also enjoyed some of the best craft beer anywhere.

 

The real Wild West – Puerto Rio Tranquilo to Cochrane (2 days, 150km, 3,000m uphill)

The jagged snow capped peaks on the eastern side of the Patagonian ice cap dominated the valleys to the south of Rio Tranquilo. The landscape was much drier and sunnier than we had experienced previously on our journey, the constant rain and drizzle of our first five days a distant memory.

Here, abutting the dusty carretera, the lakes and rivers were emerald and jade, turquoise and sapphire. Things had changed. The traffic was far less, the sense of wilderness much greater, and the scenery the most impressive yet.

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Just before dusk we entered the picturesque hamlet of Puerto Bertrand, arriving immediately afterward at undoubtedly the best campsite to date – a beautiful cleared site in the forest alongside the cobalt blue rapids of the upper Rio Baker. A couple of Belgian cyclists, Wim and Ramon (who has began their ride in Lima some months before) had already set up camp, so our crew joined them in front of a great log fire for some convivial conversation over a few glasses of château cardboard.

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We continued to follow the Rio Baker the following morning, past a number of cabanas and great wild campsites. Why were there no other tourists on such a beautiful stretch of river?

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The confluence of Rio Baker with the Rio Nef is an impressive site – just below is a narrow canyon of churning water fierce enough to scare the boldest of whitewater addicts.

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In the afternoon a ‘shortcut’ became a major detour, with a long, gruelling climb (under an even more gruelling sun) being followed by a hair-raising descent on a newly graded stretch of gravel. We woke the ferry master up from his afternoon siesta to convey us across Balseo Baker, and within an hour we had arrived in the frontier town of Cochrane (it felt like real cowboy country) keeping an eye out for a good saloon with cold beer.

Jens, Jessica and us enjoyed pizzas in town, while Stella and Wilfried, Wim and Ramon opted to wild camp further down the road.

The home straight – Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins via Caleta Tortel (4 days, 275km, 4,700m uphill)

After a morning spent foraging raspberries and cherries from the backyards of Cochrane locals, we followed the meander of the Rio de los Nadis, cycling through pleasant rolling countryside interspersed with dark, cool forest. We camped on the banks of the mighty river.

Although flat and straight, the road was shockingly corrugated from the Puerto Yungay junction to Tortel, with Jonno acquiring his first puncture of the trip. Quickly fixed, we continued our 22km ass-pounding to Tortel.

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Caleta Tortel is a cluster of houses squeezed into an alcove on the edge of the Baker Channel, linked together by a series of boardwalks. There are many, many stairs.

After an hour of huffing and puffing we found ourselves a cabana for four, and cooked up as finer meal as we could put together from the supplies squished into our panniers. And plenty more châteaux cardboard. At Tortel we farewelled our friends Jens and Jessica. They had decided to spend their first proper rest day of the trip in Tortel, while we continued on to Puerto Yungay (where we had to catch a ferry) and then on to Villa O’Higgins.

The following morning we managed to hitch a ride 15km back to the Yungay junction, before spending a couple of hours on another ‘gravel roller coaster’. After two weeks on our saddles the riding had become much easier. We arrived at Puerto Yungay literally seconds before the infrequent ferry departed, clouds now blotting out the sky and rain beginning to fall heavily. Wim and Ramon had arrived there two hours ahead of us. We huddled inside the ferry cabin drinking cups of tea and eating biscuits with the Belgians as the rain poured down outside.

The remainder of the afternoon ebbed away in a shelter set up for waiting ferry passengers. Outside it rained cats and dogs. Needless to say, our plans of cycling an extra 50km were soon discarded and we spent the night in the shelter enjoying the company of the Belgians, three other cyclists, and part of a family of five that had missed the last ferry of the day. It was cosy.

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On our fifteenth day we were finally on the home straight – well, on the home run as the road could hardly be called straight. Snaking its way through the valleys and mountains, climbing and dropping steeply numerous times, it was a challenging ride of 101km for exhausted legs. Gasping for air after the steepest of the climbs, eagles soared in thermals high above us. With the weather holding and the finish line in sight, we pedalled strongly across the windswept mouth of Lago Cisnes and into the township of Villa O’Higgins. After nearly 1,200km this was the end of the line. We found beds in a wonderful hostel, El Mosco, and spent some time relaxing, socialising with other cyclists, and pondering how we might retrace our way back to Puerto Montt.

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100 Miles of Wilderness

With the summer warmth fading we decided we’d make one last hike for the season to take advantage of the leaves changing colour in fall. We decided to tackle the ‘100 Mile Wilderness’ – a hike spanning the final 100 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail (AT), and what many regard as the finest and most remote section of the entire AT.

This involved driving over 4,000 kilometres from Arizona’s Grand Canyon to the trailhead in northern Maine – with this epic distance of what felt like non-stop driving for 4 days giving us pause to think that the AT hikers had walked nearly this same distance: 3,500km.

As we drove through New England, we feasted our eyes on the incredible palette of reds, pinks, oranges and yellows that blanketed the landscape around us. Every twist and turn of the road seemed to bring an explosion of colour that outdid the last.

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Glorious colours of peak foliage on the drive to Monson, Maine

Day 1: Abol bridge – Hurd Brook Lean-To (3.5 miles)

We had arranged to leave our van with Phil, the owner of the 100 Mile Wilderness Camp in Monson, and to pay him to shuttle us up to Abol Bridge where we planned to start (contact details for Phil below). Phil showed us around the cabins that he was in the process of fixing up – we had tentatively booked to stay there when we got back from the hike, but the lack of rain in Maine (ha!) had depleted his water reserves, so we quietly decided that we might look further afield for somewhere offering hot showers…

After lunch and a repack of our bags, we were bundled into Phil’s car for the 2-hour drive up north, with a quick stop off to check out a dam across the Penobscot River – famed for white water rafting. Phil gave us a load of tips for the trail, and regaled us with tales of his bodybuilding, weightlifting and hiking prowess as we went – and told us we were lucky to have caught the tail end of ‘peak foliage’ (the first of our new leaf-based vocab) as the low rainfall had threatened to stifle the annual event.

We arrived at Abol Bridge around 5pm and set off immediately, as the days were getting increasingly short and we only had little more than an hour before dark.

We felt as though a royal carpet had been laid out for us across the path, with the fallen leaves forming a multi-coloured mosaic on the trail before us that made our brains tingle with delight. We reached the Hurd Brook Lean-to after dark, having walked the last half-hour with our dimly-lit headtorches (with Angie pining for her AyUp that she’d left back in Australia in preference for the very light-weight (in multiple senses) Petzl e-lite) to find a campfire already burning. There we met Daniel, the first of the AT through hikers we were to meet on the trail. We enjoyed a great night hearing about Daniel’s epic trip and grilling him on the best and hardest parts, and how he generated the grit to keep walking for 7 months straight.

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Hiking in on what felt like rose petal carpets

Day 2: Hurd Brook Lean-To – beyond Wadleigh Stream Lean-to (18 miles)

We woke to find that mice had eaten through our dry bag (that had, mind you, been suspended from the roof, with a plastic plate tied onto the rope halfway down so that the mice couldn’t just climb down the rope…), and helped itself to all our salted cashews…

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Not sure if this little guy had anything to do with the midnight feasting… (pretty sure the culprits were mice!)

We had a leisurely start, having breakfast at the shelter and starting walking around 9am. It was a pretty flat day of walking, although muddy a lot of the way with the famed slippery, wet roots to navigate. We rounded Rainbow Lake with a long and beautiful traverse and stopped for lunch on it’s shores, where we chatted to a couple of through-hikers, getting the low-down on life on the trail. One fellow had taken 10 months, and espoused the virtues of going slow – although admittedly, it sounded as though a large factor was that he would head to town for a resupply around every 4 days and would often stay a night or two with much imbibing taking place with fellow hikers. We found this to be a similar story with a few other AT hikers we met, although we certainly weren’t going to criticize as who knows how we would feel after hiking for so long!

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Such a divine feast of colours!

We continued past Nahmakanta Lake to just beyond the Wadleigh Stream Lean-to (where the stream that normally provided water was dry, thanks to the lack of rain) to a makeshift campsite on the shore of the Nahmakanta Lake. After a quick, chilly swim in the lake, we set up our tent just as it began to rain and get dark, and cooked a quick but tasty meal of cous-cous, TVP and rehydrated veg (our current staple…) before turning in.

Day 3: Beyond Wadleigh Stream Lean-to – Antler’s Campsite (13 miles)

We tag-teamed today with two American ladies who were out walking with their dog, walking past the well-equipped State Campsite on the southern shore of Nahmakanta Lake before heading over Potaywadjo Ridge. This has pretty minimal elevation gain, but still was a good puff to get up and over. We went past Pemadumcook Lake and the nearby lean-to, dodging through mud bogs and trying to not twist ankles on the slippery roots.

We arrived at Antler’s Campsite before 3pm, and Angie insisted on going ‘just for a look’, before proclaiming that it was so beautiful there, that we should pull up stumps and enjoy the views, serenity and a campfire there. The campsite is built on a narrow isthmus on the Lower Jo-Mary Lake, and surrounded on three sides by the water. The lake is large and pristine, with the orange and red trees ringing its far shores. We were ahead of our planned schedule by that point, and Jonno was admirably successful in suppressing his natural desire to go as far and hard as possible 🙂

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Sunset over Lower Mary-Jo Lake from Antler Campsite

We scoured the beach for driftwood and got a fire going, set up our tent, and tucked into a dinner of mashed potatoes with the standard TVP and veggies before an early night.

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Jonno manning the fire

Day 4: Antler’s Campsite – Logan Brook Lean-to (20 miles)

After the shorter day yesterday – and long night’s sleep, we got up early to set off.

Jonno – who’s blood sugar levels seem to be consistently stable no matter what he has or hasn’t eaten – started out immediately, planning to have breakfast after an hour or so, while Angie sat by the lake to enjoy the views over breakfast and get some fuel into her belly.

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Early morning sunrise from Antlers Campsite

We both really enjoyed the 1.5 hours of solo hiking in the morning and chance to collect thoughts and enjoy the beautiful views along the Cooper Brook, before meeting up at the Jo-Mary road crossing a few miles along.

From there, we started a steady eight miles of uphill towards Little Boardman Mountain (approx 2,000 feet high), before dropping back down to the Pleasant River. We then continued our ascent up White Cap Mountain with some very steep uphill sections and big steps up large rocks and tree roots. We stopped around 1250 feet short of the summit at the Logan Brook Lean-to before dark – and mindful of our first night’s experiences with the noisy and hungry mice, set our tent up nearby. We were soon met by Matt, a chatty New Yorker, who recounted tales of his adventures in the Adironack Mountains, before calling it a night.

Day 5: Logan Brook Lean-to – Chairback Gap Lean-to (17 miles)

We woke up early to find our legs stiff after the previous day’s exertions, and set off keen to summit White Cap Mountain (3,654 feet). After a little rock scrambling we reached the summit, and were treated to great views including Katahadin Mountain – the famed final summit for the AT hikers – to the north.

We then had three smaller peaks to summit that were each slightly lower than the last- Hay mountain (3,244 ft), West Peak (3,178 ft) and Gulf Hagas Mountain (2,683 ft) – followed by a steady descent to the West Branch of the Pleasant River.

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We stocked up on water here, having been told that the stream at our planned campsite at the Chairback Gap Lean-to was dry, and were soon ascending again, up the base of the Barren Mountain Chairback Range and over Chairback Mountain.

We had a short but steep descent down Chairback Mountain (2,219 feet), before reaching the Chairback Gap Lean-to just on dark. We found a crew of AT hikers there already, with a steady fire going, and despite their invitation to join them and sleep in the Lean-to, we found a little campsite for a tent just above them, finding this a generally warmer (and rodent-safe) option.

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We enjoyed a good yarn with the hikers that night, learning about the staple diet of the AT hiker: 2-minute ramen noodles, and HoneyBuns – a sickly-sounding sweet bun that crams nearly half a day’s calories into one of the supersize versions. Despite the monotony of our dinners, they were nutritious by comparison, and several of the hikers admitted to malnutrition after 8 months of focusing primarily on calories with limited fibre or vitamins. We also were given insights into life and lessons of the trail, including the bestowing of ‘trail names’ (the nickname you acquire early on and are stuck with for the duration of the AT) and the much frowned upon practice of ‘yellow-blazing’ (i.e. avoiding large sections of the trail’s ‘white blazes’ to instead hitch a lift and follow the ‘yellow blazes’ of the centre lines on roads), particularly when you’re not honest about having done so.

Day 5: Chairback Gap Lean-to – Wilson Brook (17 or so miles)

We were up and about early the next morning, with Jonno convincing Angie to hold off breakfasting until we’d walked a little distance, and started heading up towards our next objective – Columbus Mountain (2,326 ft). We found a small patch of sunshine in the forest to have some breakfast on the way, and then continued with the day’s many ups and downs over Third Mountain (2,061 ft), Fourth Mountain (2,383 ft), and finally the summit of Barren Mountain (2,670 ft). On Barren Mountain, we were treated to sunshine and fantastic 360-degree views, as we had a late lunch beneath the old fire tower and pondered how this was actually used in some relation to fires.

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Views from Barren Mountain

Having achieved the last of the major uphills (or so we thought…), we happily descended Barren Mountain, crossing the Wilson Brook (happily, what is normally a mid-calf fjord was now rock hoppable due to low water levels), and continued along it’s western bank before finding a beautiful campsite as the sun went down, just beyond the junction with a little creek.

We had a beautiful evening, serenaded by water rushing through the nearby rapids and crackles from our campfire.

Day 6: Wilson Brook– Monson (10-ish miles)

With a relatively short day ahead of us, we enjoyed breakfast with our priceless views of the river before us, before packing up and setting off. The trail had many more ups and downs than we had counted on, having optimistically ignored the much smaller bumps in the elevation profile on the map in comparison to Barren Mountain.

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Along the way, we met Dave, an 80-year old Yank who was on the cusp of finishing the AT trail with his dog, Howard, having taken 10 months. Like many folk hiking with dogs that we’ve met in the States, Howard wore a vest with saddle-pockets, so he could carry his own food – and in this case, also Dave’s water. Smart! We were so impressed and inspired, and certainly hope to be fit and able to take on such challenges when we’re Dave’s age!

Before we knew it, we had crossed a couple of streams and arrived at a carpark. We had realized by this point that our van was still another 4 miles on at the 100 Mile Wilderness Camp, but some lovely people doing a day-walk that we had met on the trail arrived back at the carpark soon after us, and offered us a lift back into Monson – and ended up driving us all the way to our van.

We were soon back in Monson at the Lakeside Pub, enjoying excellent meals (highly recommended!) and drying ourselves out, before heading around to Shaw’s Hiker’s Hostel were we were able to book a room for the night. Kim and Jarrod, who have taken over ownership of the hostel, were incredibly hospitable and we had a great night there chatting with them about their experiences of swapping conventional work and lives for the beauty of the wilderness and helping out hikers.

Tips:

Timing: We hiked from the 13-19th October, which was really the tail end of the season. It was chilly, but we were treated to the incredible foliage! Apparently it was even better a week earlier. Six days was plenty for the hike, especially as the first and last days were so short (less than 2 hours the first day, and about 4 on the last).

Camping: Our favourite campsite was Antler’s, try to stay there if you can manage it in your schedule! There are plenty of places to camp besides the lean-tos, Phil marked many of these for us on a map and it was super helpful. Make sure you double check on water availability from other hikers as you go. Take a solid dry-bag for your food, the mice will get into everything!

Shaw’s Hiker’s Hostel: This place was the bomb. Kim (Hippie Chick) and Jarrod (Poet) were so welcoming and friendly, and the hype about the hiker’s breakfast (from memory, $9, includes piles of blueberry pancakes, bacon, home fries, toast and eggs) is well warranted. They will drive you out to the start of the hike for $110 and have private rooms (for 2) for $60.

Phil from 100 Mile Wilderness Camp: You can also stay and/or camp with Phil, and he will shuttle you out for $125, and leave your car at his place. He was in the process of a lot of work there, so the cabins should be pretty good! His place is about an extra 3-4 mile walk from the end of the 100 Mile Wilderness, so be prepared to either hitch or do the extra leg.

Eating in Monson: The Lakeside Pub, in the centre of town, was bloody brilliant. Rebecca who owns and runs the place was an absolute treat and made everyone feel welcome, and the variety and quality of the food was exceptional.

Going to the sun

Glacier National Park is the southern, US section of the conjoined US-Canadian Glacier-Waterton park, which spills across northern Montana and southern Alberta.

It would be hard to top the Wind River Range for pure north American wilderness beauty – but the rugged mountains and crystal blue lakes of Glacier National Park come close. Glacier seems more famed, though, for the rather prolific populations of bears – both black and grizzly – highlighted by the tragic death of a mountain biker a couple of weeks before our visit, who had had the severe misfortune of rounding a corner and riding directly into a grizzly who was crossing the path.

We were keen to tackle the Northern Traverse – a 70 mile hike on good trails over 4 days that – unsurprisingly – traverses the northern-most section of Glacier.

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Coming up Lee Ridge

Day 1 – Chief Mountain to Slide Lake

We arrived at the St Mary visitor centre in Glacier mid-morning seeking permits for our intended route. Our first six choices for campground on the first night were unavailable so we settled on our seventh pick – a slight deviation from our intended route to Slide Lake, requiring a double-crossing of Gable Pass.

Despite its brevity, our permit took quite some time to acquire as old Fred the post-retirement-aged ranger wrestled with the computer keyboard, while his only-just-post-adolescent companion, ranger Mat, blithely surfed various websites searching for his next tattoo design. We waited anxiously, and then sat through the wilderness induction video, eyes on our watches as they ticked precariously close to the 12pm shuttle departure time that we needed to catch to the trailhead.

Finally, with 20 minutes to spare, we raced out of the visitors centre, packed our bags with lightening speed and were en route to the Chief Mountain trailhead, a 2-hour ride north. The block-shaped prominence of Chief Mountain greeted us there, rising high above the northern plains, is sacred to the Blackfoot tribe, and provides a notable landmark for hikers and climbers.

Our hike began on a well-worn trail through coniferous forest blanketing the lower reaches of Lee Ridge. After a couple of hours we broke out of the forest, following rock cairns up the open spine of the ridge. Having just climbed 1000 metres we hesitated about descending from Gable Pass – we were feeling the effects of the altitude and didn’t enjoy the prospect of having to climb back to where we were standing the following morning. After several minutes of debate we decided to descend – and were so glad we did! The wildflowers were absolutely spectacular – the best we’d seen yet! Within an hour we had spied Slide Lake through the trees and found ourselves a gorgeous secluded campsite.

Day 2 – Slide Lake to Mokowanis Junction

It took less than an hour to scramble back up to Gable pass the following morning. By the time we reached the top the sun was belting down and we were glad to be descending to the Belly River for the remainder of the morning. Once in the valley, we spied a sign for a short detour to Gros Ventre falls – and were delighted to find a surprisingly broad and picturesque waterfall, with a crystal blue swimming hole at its base. We ventured into the glacial water for a skinny dip, lunched, then launched ourselves up the valley past a series of large, blue lakes to Mokowanis. Along the way, we tiptoed around substantial amounts of bear scat, whilst nervously casting glances at the skies above as the roar of approaching thunder and the grey clouds crowded in.

Within half an hour thumbnail-sized hailstones were pelting us. The forest canopy was protecting us somewhat from the full force of the hailstorm but still we felt the wet and the cold after such a hot walk under the searing morning sun.

Fortunately the hailstorm was short-lived, although the sky remained overcast. Mist could be seen high in the valley to the west – the picturesque valley of waterfalls leading to Stoney Indian Pass appeared to take on mystical – almost mythical – qualities.

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Angie battling the overgrown vegetation

We took a detour to Mokowanis Lake for dinner – to be regaled with close bear encounter tales from a friendly local we met there – before heading back to our campsite at the Junction, where we met an inspiring Washington State couple out hiking for 6 days with their 4 year old and 15 month old daughters. As their girls romped happily around the campsite, we gleaned a lot of tips and insights into taking toddlers into the wilderness, including biodegradable nappies, treasure maps and plentiful supplies of bribes chocolate.

Day 3 – Mokowanis Junction to Francis Lake

We began the ‘climb’ to Stoney Indian Pass just before 8am. Long, low-gradient switchbacks through knee-deep foliage dripping with morning dew dominated the next two hours of hiking, and we enjoyed the climb in cool weather up toward the plateau…

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Splendid views again…

Numerous waterfalls cascaded down the giant walls of the amphitheater that surrounded us. Paiota Falls and Atsina Falls tumbled down the sheer rock face into the turquoise Atsina Lake, and the melting snows of the Shepard Glacier enrobed the eastern flank of Cathedral Peak ahead of us. At one point the heavy river flows required a barefoot crossing of the icy water.

Angie and I stopped for a snack and to soak in the views at the top of Stoney Indian Pass, although to any casual onlooker, it must have looked more like an old-school slapstick pantomime. The mosquitoes were voracious, and for each bite of our muesli bars, it seemed that they got in at least five of us. We took it in turns to slap each other’s backs and limbs, competing for how many of these dastardly creatures we could kill with any one slap. Angie was by far the winner, collecting 5 mosquitoes in one, single slap to my back– or so she said…

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The trail zig zags from right to left and right again – Stoney Indian Pass is top right

Descending slowly to Stoney Indian Lake, and then to the curiously named Goat Haunt, I wondered just how much longer Glacier National Park would keep its name… In the 1960s, there was clear evidence that the 150 glaciers known to have existed in the park a hundred years earlier had greatly retreated, and in many cases disappeared altogether. By 2010, 37 glaciers remained. If the current warming trend continues, all of the remaining glaciers in the park will be gone by 2030.

We arrived at the southern shore of Waterton Lake in the early afternoon, to be jolted out of our wilderness serenity by a gaggle of day tourists arriving by boat from Canada for half an hour’s jaunt on the US side of the lake. Undeterred, we sat on a park bench eating our tuna wraps just like Forrest Gump eating his box of chocolates, with our socks and shoes out to air and our bags disemboweled around us. By the end of our lunchtime the day tourists had departed and an inquisitive, albeit slightly anxious deer appeared on the sandy shore.

We turned west and headed up a bear-scat laden trail toward the beautiful Lake Francis – a sapphire blue pool of glacial melt hugged by giant vertical cliffs, embroidered with ribbon-like cascades. As luck would have it, it was to be our campsite for the night. A quick skinny-dip upon arrival gave us an indication of both the source and temperature of the water, and the frailties of the human condition. “If I can find it, I can wash it”, I said to Angie in a slightly too high-pitched voice.

Day 4 – Francis Lake to Kintla Lake

Leaving Francis Lake was tough – it was such a beautiful spot. With two passes ahead of us, we woke early to begin with an hour of uphill. The air was crisp and fresh, and dew clung to the knee-deep vegetation lining the trail. This brought us to Browns Pass and the beginning of a fantastic section of trail that traversed steep mountains and a picturesque alpine amphitheater before a final climb over the snow-encrusted Boulder Pass. We were absolutely stunned at how this trail had been carved into the side of the mountain – a narrow trail cut into the side of an otherwise nearly vertical cliff-face, providing access to the otherwise unreachable pass to the east.

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The view from Brown Pass to Boulder Pass.

At the head of the amphitheatre we snacked whilst admiring the splendid views of Thunderbird Mountain, Mount Custer and the myriad waterfalls and cliff faces surrounding us. We had to bypass a couple of patches of steep, slushy snow before scrambling up a series of rock benches – following large cairns – to the lunar-like crest of Boulder Pass.

The views from Boulder Pass to the west were only slightly less impressive. Striated, coloured rock dominated a high alpine basin where the heads of two valleys met. We lunched on a rocky ledge amongst marmots and squirrels before spending the remainder of the day walking in sunshine down through a pine and fir shaded valley to Kintla creek and the cerulean string of Kintla lakes.

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Views from Boulder Pass to the NW

As we wandered along the lower-lying trail, the fiery-red centres of the flower-like berries beside the trail grabbed at our attention. They were the deepest of reds, and gleamed in such a way that it almost seemed they were crying out to be eaten. It was more than Angie could handle, and before I knew it, she had reached down to pick one, and was tentatively tasting it. Her love for foraging knows no bounds… to my relief, her eyes lit up, and she proclaimed it the most delicious berry she’d ever tasted. Soon, I was hip-deep in the bushes too, scrambling around for these little morsel’s of nature’s candy – which we later found out are thimbleberries (we also enjoyed plentiful snacks on the wild raspberries and huckleberries that grew along the way!).

By dusk we had bathed in the upper lake and settled into our camp clothes, happy but exhausted after a foot-shattering 20 mile day containing mort than its fair share of ups and downs.

Day 5 – Kintla Lake to Sherman

An easy stroll of a couple of hours along the shore of Kintla Lake took us back to the Kintla Lake trailhead – the end of our hike. There we learned that there is apparently no retirement age for Glacier park rangers. 96 year old Lyle Ruterbories, a seasonal park ranger welcomed us to back to civilization with his broad, kind smile.

We were offered a lift from the trailhead to the nearest shuttle station by Rhonda, a local Montanan we had met the previous evening at camp. She had been paddling the lake with her family. She was a wonderful, strong-hearted woman, who had moved to the region in her early twenties for its rugged wilderness and her love of climbing, hiking and kayaking – and had never wanted to leave.

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Celebrating the cresting of Boulder Pass

Epilogue:

The byline for this story originates from the Going to the Sun road that bisects the lower reaches of Glacier NP. Construction of the 80 kilometre ‘Sun Road’ began in 1921 and was completed in 1932. It was, and still is, a civil engineering marvel – built for the sole purpose of attracting tourists to the park’s interior.

So later that day, having spent the searing hot afternoon travelling the Going to the Sun road in the air-conditioned comfort of a park shuttle bus, Angie and I enjoyed a pleasant dinner overlooking the glassy Two Medicine Lake.

We were driving out of the deserted parking lot – in the wrong direction as we soon discovered when we were stopped by a certain Ranger Griswold – a short statured but overly officious guardian of the park rules that looked like the love child of Chevy Chase and a chipmunk. Actually to be fair, he looked like Ned Flanders’ twin brother. After being ‘apprehended’ Ranger Griswold started me on a series of tests to prove to him that I was not drunk and was capable of safely operating our ‘vee-hickle’.

He frisked me to be sure I wasn’t armed, then pulled out his battered notebook and read out a series of instructions of what I was to do. A few seconds later I realized this was for his benefit, to re-acquaint himself with what was required of a suspected infringer of the park rules. While Angie tried unsuccessfully to not fall about in hysterics in the van, Ranger Griswold had me perform a string of sobriety tests, while he waited for his reinforcements to arrive.

First I was to stare at his index finger for several minutes as he waved it from side to side and around in circles in the air. While I tried to recover from the dizziness of this, I then had to stand on one leg with the other held at precisely 45 degrees, and count to 30 – slowly. For someone with a high degree of disinterest in all things yoga-like this is not the easiest thing to do at the best of times.

This was followed by walking heel-and-toe along a straight line, turning circles on the spot with one leg in the air, and just as our friendly park ranger was to have me hop on one leg, rub my tummy and pat my head simultaneously, his reinforcement (who had arrived some time earlier and was clearly feeling his time could be better spent elsewhere) gratefully cut the sunset gymnastics session short so that I take a breathe test. 0.00.

Not to be put off, Griswold still pronounced that I may not have performed his tests quite up to scratch, and suggested to Angie (who had tears of barely-suppressed laughter rolling down her face by now) that she’d better keep an eye on me, as I was probably fatigued and not at 100%. We rolled out of the park sure that we were about to find the hidden cameras and a reality TV crew around the corner. We were on our way. We rolled past the combined petrol station-liquor store-casino, toward a bend in the road that would be our campsite for the night…

Into the Winds

Our next adventure was into Wyoming’s Wind River Range. And what an adventure it was. We both agree that it was one of the best – if not the best – multi day hikes that either of us had ever done. The 80 miles of spectacularly beautiful alpine terrain that alternates between following existing trails and breaking out off-trail across unmarked terrain makes it challenging in terms of navigation and route finding, and so rewarding to feel like you’re really discovering this untouched wilderness. And it is peaceful – it is difficult to recall a place where solitude was more profoundly embodied.

Day 1 – Green River Lakes Trailhead to Peak Lake

An hour’s drive along a 40-mile corrugated dirt road brought us to the appropriately, if not particularly imaginatively, named Green River Lakes trailhead. To the south, standing proud above the emerald lakes, is the imposing profile of the also very literally named Squaretop Mountain, which guided us for much of the first day as we sidled the lakes and valleys leading up to the high country.

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Squaretop Mountain standing proud above the Green River Lakes

The weather was brisk as we left the van and began our walk. In the first few hours we passed a few other hikers and fishermen returning after a night out in the woods. We also bumped into an English lady partway through hiking the Continental Divide Trail, and she regaled us with her account of the rain, hail and sleet she had endured whilst walking the previous day.

After spending the morning ambling along the eastern shore of the lakes and linking streams we began a steady, gradual ascent toward a basin at 10,000 feet. This was marked by stunning Vista Pass and indicated the start of the hard work – we would be hiking up and down mountains and passes for the next five days – all at an altitude of around 3000 metres above sea level and with a total elevation gain of about 6km.

We continued upward, making our way through forests dominated by lodgepole pine, whitebark pine, subalpine fir, and Engelmann spruce.

We had hoped to cover as much as 25 miles that first day to give us a headstart on our itinerary, which to be honest was perhaps overly ambitious, however by late afternoon we had covered only slightly more than 20 miles and our feet and legs were emphatically clear that this was enough. We found a good campsite just above the sapphire waters of Peak Lake. While Angie prepared what soon became a standard dinner of couscous, rehydrated veg and TVP, Jonno hunted out a suitable spot to hang our bear bag (although to be honest we were much more concerned about rodents and other critters trying to get at our food than bears). The sun stayed out until around 9pm, with the long days giving us a much-appreciated chance to relax and enjoy the last of the sunlight and warmth before we hit the tent.

Day 2 – Peak Lake to Indian Pass (almost)

The beginning of our second day presented the first serious challenge – the ascent and descent of a snow-covered pass called Knapsack Col, dropping into the picturesque Titcomb basin. After a few hours of steady climbing and reaching the picturesque pass, Angie donned crampons to manage the descent through the glacier on the other side, although even by 9am the snow had already softened and the going was easier than expected.

After descending the glacier to the Titcomb basin below, we spent the next few hours wandering down a rocky valley, past the azure Titcomb lakes – some surrounded by mosquitoes, some not.

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Walking through the Titcomb Basin

After lunch – which an overly friendly marmot joined us for, we veered off to the east, heading gradually up a valley along a well-maintained trail to Indian Pass.

After a couple of hours walking on fairly good use trails, we arrived at what we thought was Indian Pass. We sat and pored over the maps, trying to locate our next objective – Alpine Pass – however try as we might, we just couldn’t quite correlate the map and notes with what we could see around us.

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An inquisitive lunchtime visitor

The route description was consistent with a few of the features we saw before us, but not all. We could find some reasonable explanations for the differences – extra snowcover due to hiking so early in the summer, slight differences in the compass bearings due to magnetic variation, and possibly small errors by the author of the notes. We scouted around to see if we had possibly landed in the wrong location, but eventually decided that we must have been correct – and that Alpine Pass was the obvious pass in front of us.

For the next hour and a half, we gingerly ascended a field of large, loose talus and snow to an alpine pass and around a stunning, temporary lake sitting deep in a hole within the glacier to the east. No sooner had we arrived at ‘Alpine Pass’, than we could plainly see the error of our ways. The landscape below did not match at all with our map, and as we looked back from where we’d come, the real Indian Pass now obviously lay slightly to the north of where we had been. The sun was now hovering behind the mountains to our west and we didn’t have time to retrace our steps, so we decided to make camp on the snow at the base of Knifepoint Mountain, and tackle the ‘proper’ Indian and Alpine passes early the following morning. It was a very cold night.

Day 3 – Indian Pass to Camp Lake (sort of)

We rose early the next morning and immediately began climbing the snow up to Indian Pass, where we could see the sun warming the rocks. By 8am, we were breakfasting on the pass, thawing ourselves out, and feeling glad to have rejoined the route. Under what was now a scorching sun, we traversed the Knifepoint Glacier that lay on the other side of Indian Pass with ease before clawing our way up the steep snow slope to the proper ‘alpine pass’. The views down the valley were breathtaking. The upper alpine lake was half iced-up, the remainder was a deep bottle blue. We could have sat there for hours. Finally, we scrambled down the snow and large talus that dominated the southern flank, and enjoyed lunch on a small rock outcrop next to the frozen lake-edge.

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Angie ascending the steep slope to Alpine Pass
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Views of the unnamed upper alpine lake from Alpine Pass

As promised in the route description, this was to be our most challenging day navigationally – and given our experience of the previous day, we were constantly recalibrating our position with the map and mountain features. Thankfully the weather was beautiful and so long as we stayed above the treeline we were able to see the way ahead. We sidled three long lakes, then skirted along the base of some cliffs to follow a small stream to another side lake. In this side valley the wildflowers were in full bloom everywhere. We crested a high alpine plateau, containing yet more water, before dropping down into a pine tree-filled valley way below. The remnants of a trail appeared before we us and we followed the trail to a grassy knoll near to Camp Lake. The mosquitoes were voracious and we wasted no time in dining before hopping into our tent.

Day 4 – Camp Lake to Halls Lake

An hour’s scramble on a half-visible trail took us to a hanging lake where we enjoyed breakfast with the early morning sun at our backs.

The terrain became easier to walk through, but the navigational challenges still kept us on our toes. We dropped into a valley of pine forest and green grass.

In the afternoon the wind picked up and we hastened through the swampy terrain under a blanket of broody clouds.

Rock cairns led the way to the southern shore of Halls Lake.

Day 5 – Halls Lake to Shadow Lake (almost)

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Angie tackling the talus below Raid Peak

Thanks to a cold snap, this proved to be our toughest day. We woke up nearly frozen after a heavy overnight frost, and the morning consisted mostly of being blown around by the strong wind from the SW. It was bitterly cold – Angie’s hands inside her gloves had turned white and without gloves I had to resort to wearing my spare socks on my hands as mittens. The sky remained overcast until early afternoon, and the mountains remained ominously shrouded in thick grey cloud. It would not be a good place to lose your way.

For much of the morning we were plodding uphill, navigating off-trail toward the jagged nose of Pronghorn Peak whilst battling a strong headwind. We kept our heads down and focused on plodding forward, stopping only to read the map and have a moment of celebration when we reached the right pass.

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After that we had to navigate our way off trail around Mount Bonneville and Raid Peak. The afternoon was completely off marked trails as we hopped across the large talus field that marked the ridgeline just below Raid Peak. On the far side of the pass, we crossed into the East Fork River valley and chatted briefly with a handful of outdoor leadership students – on their 26th consecutive day in the Wind River wilderness! Despite their tales of braving sleet, snow and hail storms they didn’t look as washed out and weather-beaten as one might expect – we were both thoroughly impressed! We walked quickly past Pyramid Lake where a faint trail appeared – we followed it to Washakie Creek and then to a broad meadow where we set up camp, with a small fire, just as the sun began to set.

Day 6 – Shadow Lake to Big Sandy

We awoke to another crisp morning. The sun inched its way above the high peaks to the east of us as we packed up and began a gentle stroll up the valley toward Shadow Lake and the lakes beyond. We then followed a series of rock cairns up toward the highest of the valleys’ alpine lakes: Texas Lake. From the lake a steep scramble up scree, talus and snow led us to Texas Pass.

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Angie ascending the steep route to Texas pass
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The Cirque of Towers

Cresting the pass we were immediately humbled by the immensity of the Cirque of the Towers. This beautiful and famed cirque of granite spires includes mountains with such names as Warrior Peak, the Shark’s Nose and the Wolf’s Head – the highest being Lizard Head Peak, and most being very popular amongst rock climbers for some epic, multi-pitch routes.

A steep trail down from the pass led through pine forest and across numerous streams to Lonesome Lake, and from there we hiked up to the final pass – curiously named Jackass pass – for an enjoyable lunch on the rim of the other side of the cirque, sheltering from the wind behind a rock and enjoying the views to the north under a bluebird sky. A bird of prey, a falcon perhaps, circled the sky far above us.

Our final afternoon involved walking down the Big Sandy river valley – where we encountered dozens of people on their way to camp on the shores of one of the giant lakes. It was such pleasant walking, alternating between lake shores and forest trails, and a good way to ease the legs out after the previous 5 days.