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National Parks: Glacier

Rule #1 when planning a hike through this iconic park: Let your ambition match the scenery.

Two inches of wet snow blanket the grass around the lake the morning after the bull moose’s bluff charge, and the spires of the Citadel Peaks are obscured by low, baggy clouds. Trailside leaves hang heavy with snow, and everything underneath is ankle deep in mud. We went for solitude at the risk of early-winter weather, had packed light in order to make miles, and now we’re paying the price. We stay warm, barely, by wearing every layer we’ve packed.

We make first tracks out of the forest and climb away from the Waterton River on the western wall of Cathedral Peak, stepping deliberately when the trail winds around snow-slicked rock. We cross onto tundra and crest Fifty Mountain Pass, so named for the mountainous view, but we can’t see a single peak in the low-hanging cloud ceiling. It’s an eerie feeling, being up here with nothing but clouds and quiet, but this is one of my favorite things in the outdoors: Since I can’t see anything, anything could be on the other side of the clouds. I’m freed from my own expectations. It’s beautiful.

We reach Fifty Mountain Campground by 4 p.m. and I start to shiver after cooling down. I know Mike’s cold, too, but it’d be hard to glean that from talking to him. Like with the wire-assisted crossing of Cosley Lake’s outlet, he thinks hard and risky is more authentic, and up here in the wilderness, many snow-covered miles from the nearest ranger station, this is as authentic as it gets. It’s enough to make him giddy.

We wake up the next morning to ice. The tent’s yellow eaves are frozen solid, and frost covers our sleeping bags. We dress quickly and set out to finish the Highline Trail, descend from Swiftcurrent Pass, and close our loop at Many Glacier—a 20-mile day, all told.

On the Highline Trail—a famously gorgeous path that in summer is busy with dayhikers who start at Logan Pass—we encounter only grizzly tracks. We follow prints left by a mother with cubs, and much bigger tracks from an animal that seemed to travel alone. The tracks are so fresh we can see creases in the footpads. Then the big prints climb upslope to a deep overhang about 50 yards away. They don’t return. Snow clings to the northern aspects like late-afternoon shadows as we drop gradually into Mineral Creek Valley. With 6.5 miles of level hiking a few hundred feet below the Continental Divide, we slingshot past the frozen waterfall at Cattle Queen Creek and head toward Swiftcurrent Pass.

We eat on the move—no breaks—and what had been a manageable ache in my left knee becomes excruciatingly painful. Soon, every step feels like a razor-clawed mole is trying to burrow out of my kneecap. By the time we reach the Granite Park Chalet, a hike-in, historic log-and-stone lodge perched on the west side of the Continental Divide, I can barely bend my leg.

The place is deserted—the season ended days earlier—and we set up at a picnic table under the back porch as the rain starts again. I swallow the last of the ibuprofen and try to stretch my leg. For me, one of backpacking’s main thrills is self-reliance, that feeling of mastery and confidence that comes from navigating an indifferent wilderness. That’s why it hurts more than my knee to ask Mike for help.

I convince myself he’ll make a big deal of this. It doesn’t matter whether he can control his outbursts—I’m not in the mood. But he doesn’t make a sound. He takes my food, the stove, my sleeping bag, and the water filter and puts it all in his pack. Then he hands mine back to me, nearly empty. He showed me compassion when I could barely muster any for him. So who’s the sick one here, after all?

As we crest Swiftcurrent Pass and make our final crossing back to the Atlantic side of the Continental Divide, we see yet another new set of mountains. We descend along trail cut into the shoulder of a rocky slope. Glacier-fed lakes pool in the drainage in the valley between Mt. Grinnell and Mt. Wilbur.

Mike pulls out his camera. He starts taking pictures and doesn’t stop. His camera is so new he has no idea how to use it, so he takes a picture, adjusts the ISO dial one click, and snaps another. Over and over again he repeats the process, using boundless energy to compensate for what others might see as a deficiency. After hiking with Mike for a week, I better understand why he embraces his “condition.” His behavior may not always conform to accepted norms, but how many normal people can maximize every single step of a 56-mile hike the way he has? Sore as I am, I can’t help but share his enthusiasm as we cover the last few flat miles past Redrock Lake to the trailhead.

It’s a lesson that stays with me long after my knee heals. As I reflect on our mad dash through raw wilderness ruled by moose and bears and ice, I’m glad we bit off almost more than we could chew. When planning a trek through Glacier, I recommend using the same strategy: Be realistic about your experience, pick an able partner, and err on the side of epic. You’d be crazy not to.

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