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At some point, every backpacker becomes a hardened veteran who can play fast and loose with the rules. Leave checklists and tidy piles of gear for the amateurs: The veteran shows up at the trailhead with nine—OK, eight—of the 10 Essentials and a will to succeed.
Sometimes, he even thinks it’s a good idea to spend the evening before an 18-mile epic playing poker and drinking whiskey with the boys.
When I woke up with a stomachache, a case of the spins, and the migraine to end all migraines, I briefly considered sleeping it off and bailing on my plans. But, you’d be a fool, no matter the circumstances, to bail on the Dawson-Pitamakan Loop in Glacier National Park . The circuit takes you along the Continental Divide, past toothy peaks and emerald-green lakes, on a high-altitude tour of the park. My buddies and I had slotted the trip for this August 1998 weekend for more than a year. When we didn’t score the permit, all we could do was concede partial defeat and agree to pull it off in a day: 18 miles, 7,000 feet of elevation change, and a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
What happened next can only be described as my own personal Vietnam: First, the ferry across Two Medicine Lake was sold out, so we had to walk 2 miles around to the trailhead. By the time we reached the base of the 2,500-foot climb up Dawson Pass, the mercury was already touching 90°F and the bourbon was oozing from my pores.
I knew the scenery around me was the stuff of wanderlust, but all I could manage was to keep my eyes down at my feet and blindly point my 35mm camera at the 10,000-footers around me. At the top, valleys and gorges fell away on both sides, and panic set in. I hyperventilated as I inched along the Continental Divide, crawling in places. The sun beat down on my back and, because this is the way things were going for us, we ran out of water around mile 8.
We plodded up Pitamakan Pass and descended a grueling ladder of switchbacks to Oldman Lake, where I abandoned whatever dignity I may have had left and staggered into the glacial water, gulping it like it was the last thing I’d ever do. Of course, it wasn’t, as we had to circle back to Two Medicine Lake, a 5-mile stretch that involved paralleling the aptly named Dry Fork for seemingly forever as I prayed for the sweet release of death.
A wrong turn added a few more miles, for a total of more than 20, and around 9 p.m., four sunburnt, parched, haggard ghouls emerged from the underbrush into the parking lot, the sole survivors of a hellish wartime airstrike of bad decision-making and too much whiskey.
Since I apparently misloaded the film in my 35mm, today I only have a series of blank frames to remember my first hangover in the backcountry.
—As told to Maren Horjus