Debating between two all time terrible scenarios to potentially save our lives over 9,000 feet up on a mountain pass, and running out of sunlight. Crossing over the top of the continental divide and staring fear in the face, we were forced to make a decision. It was a day that at its worst, I feared neither of us would survive. Together, my girlfriend and I set out to hike the world famous High Line trail. This is the story of one of the greatest and most terrifying challenges of my life.
~Decision Time on the Continental Divide~
Part I-Fear of Heights
My girlfriend and I went to sleep the night after the magical hike to Grinnell Glacier completely exhausted. I was under the mindset that I had accomplished far more than I had ever dreamed of within that one, 15 mile epic hike. We had even discussed the likelihood of just taking it easy the next day, maybe going for a short walk to a pond or something like that.
I woke up the morning after the Grinnell Glacier hike barely able to walk. Everything hurt. My girlfriend thought we should try hiking the High Line trail, and I honestly pretty much agreed. I will say, I was the one who originally proposed the idea of doing the hike while we were planning for our trip. However, things change. Even though my body was completely not ready to go out and do it again, my mind was telling me that I only had a few days here, and it wasn’t the time to take it easy.
Before our trip began, I noticed that two hikes in the park continuously stood out when it came to bucket list items while visiting Glacier. One was the Grinnell Hike, and the other was the High Line. In fact, the High Line is listed on nearly every top ten list of epic hikes in the country, and has become one of the most famous in the world. It was always mentioned for its second to none panoramic views of the entire park. The hike also ran alongside the continental divide that splits the National Park in two.
From my understanding, it seemed like I would just have to survive the first mile or so of the hike, and then it would be relatively smooth sailing from there.
The hike starts with a jaw dropping cliff walk along the Garden Wall near Logan Pass. The Garden Wall is literally a wall of mountain and rock that runs the length of the Continental Divide for much of Glacier National Park, with the trail sticking out of the side of its cliffs. It’s so jaw dropping and knee jerking that they provide a cable that is attached to the side of the cliff that you can hold on to in case you slip. This was obviously the part I feared going into the hike. Little did I know…
(Hiker photographed in front of the Garden Wall)
I have to say, that going into this hike, I was uncharacteristically nervous. My girlfriend and I had to take a shuttle to be dropped off at the beginning of the hike, and we left our car down by our campsite in the Many Glacier area. For some reason, I really didn’t have good feelings going into this hike. I almost felt sick to my stomach, but I wrote it off as simply worrying about that opening cliff walk with the cable. Now, I realize I can give my sixth sense some big credit points because holy guacamole, shit got real.
The plan was to get dropped off via shuttle at Logan Pass along the breathtaking Going to the Sun Road (honestly breathtaking). Logan Pass sits at the highest point of the road, so the hike starts at an extremely high elevation of around 6,000 feet. So back to the plan. We get dropped off at Logan Pass, hike 8 miles on the High Line trail to the Granite Park Chalet, and then cross over the top of the Continental Divide and hike down Swiftcurrent Pass into a massive valley where our car was waiting for us at the very end of the hike, which was estimated to be anywhere from another 7-10 additional miles.
(Taken from the Logan Pass area. Pictured are two grizzly bears a little ways down on a slope, but distant)
Starting our hike by viewing two grizzly bears walking around probably didn’t help ease the nerves. However, my main concern was that cliff I was going to have to brave, and then it would be smooth sailing the rest of the way.
Before setting off, we talked to a ranger about our plan to hike to the chalet, and then up and over the beautiful Swiftcurrent Pass. She calmly told us that the hike would take us a good million hours to complete. Even if we left now, we would be pushing our luck with running out of sunlight by the very end of our hike that she estimated to potentially be an 18 mile trek. One of the main problems we faced was that my girlfriend and I didn’t have flashlights, so we would be risking hiking through grizzly habitat and mountainous terrain in the pitch black.
Also, I’m tired of referring to her as “my girlfriend, it gets exhausting. In order to protect her from my overwhelming and swarming fans this blog has created, Ive refused to use her real name. So, I’m going to give my girlfriend a code name. She shall be named “Bruce Willis”.
Of course, the Logan Pass visitor center didn’t sell flashlights, because that would be absurd. They can sell hundreds of stuffed squirrels, but flashlights are simply out of the question. While planning the stocking of this visitor center, the board had a very important meeting while going over the inventory. “My fear is, given the massive scale of the hikes that depart out of this area, we don’t have enough flashlights to supply the hikers with the potential life saving supplies they might need”, said one board member. At that moment, an ominous member of the board who usually keeps to himself, rotated around in his luxurious business chair to face his peers. “Investors are calling for more squirrels, and only squirrels. Your flashlights, are simply out of the question” he declared.
I was saddened by the visitor centers lack of important supplies. “Fine” I said. “I’ll take a stuffed squirrel. They’re fucking adorable”.
Anyway, we set out for our hike on the High Line trail. We planned to maybe go a little ways down the trail, and then turn around and catch the last shuttle to leave Logan Pass around 4:00 (it was now just after 1:00).
So it begins…
We were immediately greeted by this sign at the trailhead. “There is no guarantee of your safety”. Well, I understand you can’t guarantee my safety, but thanks for rubbing it in. I’m already shaking about falling off this cliff, but let’s do this!
We started walking and it immediately turned into the infamous cliff walk with the cable that’s offered for support. I kept telling myself one foot in front of the other. Bruce Willis was gently whispering behind me to “take it slow…take it slow, there is no rush”. Yeah unless a grizzly shows up!! God damn you Bruce Willis!
What she didn’t understand was that I had already seen several videos of massive grizzlies walking this very cliff that hikers dread falling off of. Grizzlies…on a one way cliff that seems to be about 2-3 feet in width. Perfect. If you don’t believe me then check out this picture of a hiker who had to greatly risk his life by climbing down the edge of the vertical cliff to avoid an approaching grizzly:
One step in front of the other, and eventually I would be past this terrifying section of the trail. I held onto the cable for dear life. Sweat dripped down my face that I didn’t dare wipe off as it would involve me taking a hand off either the cable or my trekking pole that was acting like a third leg on the outside of the ledge. Finally, for what seemed like forever, it had finally ended. After finishing that chilling cliff walk, I told myself that there’s no way I’m going back to catch that shuttle and having to brave that ledge again. No way. Bruce wanted to hike the entire length of the trail anyway, and thought it only made sense to do so because of where our car was, so I was in.
If only I had known…I would’ve turned back and hiked that ledge back to Logan Pass. I would’ve done a handstand on that cliff.
Sadly, the fear hadn’t even begun.
I’m talking fear that is so overwhelming, that you have to find a way to force your mind to believe that it’s not real-there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Lets not forget, that MICHAEL IS TERRIFIED OF HEIGHTS!
So we continued..
The whole cliff walking thing didn’t end, nor would it. I walked on the very edge of a cliff for 8 miles straight.
This is my greatest fear! Standing on the edge of a cliff!
I want you to picture your absolute worst fear. Now picture doing whatever it is, or being around whatever you may fear for about 5 hours straight with no break. Maybe you fear spiders. Not me- fearing spiders is irrational and childish. Buttttt if you were to fear them, it would be like lying in a tomb filled with millions of spiders for 5 hours straight. At least with spiders though, you know you’re not going to die. I never knew I wasn’t going to die on this ledge. It all relied on me constantly taking a dependable step forward and not tripping. Do. Not. Trip. One trip, and I’m dead. People fall off this trail all the time, and many of the other trails in Glacier. A man actually fell off this very trail earlier in the year. It is a very, very real threat.
8 miles of relentless fear. On the Grinnell Glacier Hike the day before, the cliff walking was here and there, and you were offered numerous relief from the edge, as the hike covered all different types of terrain. Also, that hike was equally gorgeous as it was terrifying at times. It was more than worth it. This hike, was different.
Soon the views on the left opened up…like really opened up. Suddenly, the entirety of Glacier National Park came into view. The massive snow covered peaks of the Rockies surrounded us, and most were below us. If I had been sitting in a chair I probably would’ve admitted that it was one of the best things I had ever seen.
These views only made my heart race faster though. They served as a constant reminder to how high up we were, and how terrifying a slip would be.
The difference between The High Line and the Grinnell Glacier Hike was that I was really able to document the hike to the glacier, whereas with this one, I dared not take out my phone. I tried a couple times to capture the view, but vertigo would immediately take hold as soon as I looked out and to my left. My knees would buckle and I would fall into the cliff on the right side of me. Bruce Willis was behind me, and I couldn’t even turn around to talk to her. I would have to look forward if we were to speak.
The ranger did warn me that the hike was rather frightening, but they downplay everything! They’ll be like “yeahhh you might make it, you might not. NEXT!”
She did tell me though to exclusively look down at my inside foot when I was afraid. Well, I was afraid the entire time, so for 8 miles I basically only looked down at that inside foot. I also learned that one mile up in these mountains feels like 5 miles down on the ground. They are mentally and physically exhausting miles.
One foot in front of the other, do not look down, only look at the inside foot. Now the trail got worse, much worse. The ledge became a bone chilling test of nerves. It was far more terrifying than that opening cliff walk, only now, there was no cable. WHERE THE FUCK IS THE CABLE?! This shit just got way worse than it ever was! I kid you not, at times the trail was no more than a foot in width, and featured a good 4,000 foot drop off. On the right was the cliff that featured overhanging rocks, as in it wasn’t just simply a straight wall. I constantly had to duck under all the jagged rocks that were sticking out of the cliff to avoid getting knocked out, and falling to my death. Even a slight shoulder bump could be the end of me.
(Notice how narrow the trail becomes as it rounds the corner ahead)
Every now and then I would make the mistake of looking over at my outside* foot, down toward the drop off. My body was drenched in sweat. Mountain air whistled through the valleys below the ledge we were on as I felt a burning fear of what would happen if one of us were to misstep. A mistake here, would be our last.
I kept picturing the horror of having Bruce Willis slip and fall behind me, only to grab onto an overhanging branch at last second. I’d have to run over, dive down to the ground and desperately grab her at the last minute as I would be forced to curl her body weight upwards (my shirt sleeve would probably be rolled back a bit, revealing my bicep in its biggest moment) as stunned spectators from afar gasped and took pictures of the entire ordeal. Soon after we’d be brought back to Logan Pass where the press would be waiting for us, flashing pictures and screaming my name.
Back to the story!
At times water was pouring down the edge of the rocky cliff on the right, over the trail and dropped down the side of the drop off. So now, we would have to quickly cross a foot wide path of slippery, mossy rocks.
Still, I only looked down at my inside foot as I led the path, daring not let my girlfriend walk in front of me in case we were to run into a grizzly. One foot in front of the other. This continued for hours of relentless focus with the constant fear of tripping.
We continued our hike endlessly in the 70 degree heat, completely dripping in sweat (almost entirely because of nerves). Every now and then a crisp mountain breeze would blow past my body and briefly calm me down. Still, I stared down at my inside foot.
Suddenly, the hair stood up on the back of my neck as chills ran down my spine.
I felt a presence standing in front of me.
Part II-Travel Delays
As I stared down at my foot, I suddenly felt a presence. The hair stood up on my neck as I slowly looked up.
There, standing in front of me was a ram, no more than 10 feet away, and walking towards me. He must’ve been the Dwayne Johnson of rams. This guy was ripped! The rams we saw on the Grinnell Glacier hike were mesmerizing. This was different, and felt life threatening. This was the last place in the world I would want to see something like this. Bruce Willis and I had seconds to react. We only had a foot wide trail on the very edge of a cliff and no where to go, and the ram wasn’t stopping. These things are MUCH bigger than you’d expect. They’re bigger than the biggest dog you’ve ever seen, and look like they spend their entire day in the weight room. He walked toward me with his massive and heavy curly horns, looking at me like I needed to get the fuck out of his way, or he was going to abruptly end my life in the most terrifying way possible.
We quickly dropped our trekking poles and used our hands and feet to climb the jagged rocks above us. Rocks slipped from beneath our feet and hands as this was obviously not a safe thing to be doing. It’s odd what you’re capable of when you’re doing something to protect your life.
Also, this was all happening on a blind corner. We hung on and waited for the ram to pass. Of course now, he took his time and stopped. Other hikers showed up behind us and were forced to do the same climb up the rocks. The four of us now anxiously waited. One hiker recommended us climbing around the blind corner on the rocks above the ram, but I mentioned how I did NOT like our chances of these rocks not giving way beneath us, and that we should instead wait it out. The ram then passed beneath us on the trail. We climbed back down and continued around the blind corner. As we looked up we discovered that if we had continued on those rocks around the corner, we would have come face to face with four more rams that were standing just above the one we saw, but up on the same rocks we were clinging to. They were just feet away from us while we were up there.
That whole thing ended up being a good 30 minute delay. Even though I needed the breather, we really couldn’t afford to delay if we wanted to make it down to our car before dark. The trail eventually became a little less intimidating with meadows on our right, but still a very steep hill on the left. It wasn’t like you were safe or anything. If you fell to the left, you still had about a 50% chance you weren’t going to be able to stop yourself and you would just keep falling until you hit a drop off.
Farther up the trail we now faced mountain goats that were blocking the path. I will say, seeing them was pretty beautiful. They’re completely white and look like magic. However, I was just too stressed out and exhausted to take it in. They also had a baby with them so we couldn’t get too close, because they had horns of their own and could easily knock you off the mountain. We would have to wait for them to leave the trail as well. This added on another 30 minute delay, and stress turned into serious worry regarding the time.
The hikers we met at the ram jam sort of became our hiking buddies. Their presence was much needed and calmed me. The guy told us that when we get to the chalet, there were two ways you could go. One option was Swiftcurrent Pass. The alternative trail was where they were going. Thing is, this path would involve hiking down through the infamous grizzly bear forest. Now, obviously grizzlies are present in all areas of the park, but this forest in particular is one you do not fuck around with.
The Granite Park Chalet at the end of the 8 mile trek offers a potential reprieve from the mountain. It serves as a safe haven for hikers who can even spend the night if they need to. For me, I was thinking about making it to this chalet for some time now and had built it up in my mind as a glorious place of milk and honey. A place rich with goods and smiling people, closely resembling Santa’s glorious and spectacular underground North Pole sanctuary in Tim Allen’s “The Santa Clause”. I couldn’t wait to get there.
Suddenly, the chalet came into view, and you could see it on a nearby slope. It was a beacon of hope. I swear I saw people dancing and children holding hands and singing songs.
We continued toward it, as it was still a couple miles away. The light hearted banter kept my spirits up as my body ached, my backpack felt heavier, and I grew tired of the constant worry of falling off a cliff.
Our hiker friends continued to lighten the mood. We all laughed about how dangerous this hike was, whether it was fearing a single trip on a rock, or avoiding a ram that benches 500 pounds and roams the cliffside looking for trouble. We learned about their backstory, and they learned about ours. They were understandably very impressed to hear that I was one of the most respected doctors in my field.
Hikers continued to walk by us in the opposite direction, warning us of the grizzlies in the forest that lay just south of the chalet.
One problem at a time bro.
Eventually, we made it. Bruce Willis and I rejoiced along with our two new hiking friends that finally we were off the cliff and in an area where we could actually walk around. Walking toward the chalet, I couldn’t wait for little elf children to open the doors for me, granting me my first vision of free flowing beer, songs being sung, and deer walking around playing trumpets.
It was closed. The chalet was closed.
However, we at least were off the cliff and in an open area. There were other hikers around who were just wrapping up their own personal lunch breaks, and about to embark on the rest of their journeys. I talked to a couple of the other hikers outside the chalet about various things that were of importance to us. The first thing they told me, was that we would need to get going immediately if we wanted to make it down through Swiftcurrent Pass before nightfall. Still, they didn’t like our chances. They informed me that it could potentially take us 4 hours to complete, and it was already getting late. Also, if you are alternatively to hike down through the grizzly forest, you’ll need to hike in groups of 4 or more, as this is a very dangerous area with a history of brutal attacks on humans, and there have been several recent sightings.
Some of these attacks are more famous than others. One such attack was made famous in the book “Night of the Grizzlies” where it is described that a young girl was dragged screaming into the night down into these woods and away from her boyfriend. Hikers went after her and could only hear her haunting screams echoing through the trees. One man looked down and found an ear lying on a rock. He described the human ear as having no blood on it, but rather looked like it had been sliced clean off her face. They eventually found her dying form and brought her back up to the chalet where she could not be saved, and she died. That same night, and just a few miles away, another grizzly bear killed a young woman.
The history of viscous mauling’s in the forest gave me great reason to believe that hiking Swiftcurrent down to where our car was parked was definitely our best bet. However, it was getting late and we needed to get going. The hikers reiterated that if we were going to hike down through the grizzly forest, we would need to leave with the last group, as no one else was left on the mountain.
We took a 15 minute break at the chalet to rest, eat and drink water. The main problem was that we really didn’t have time to stop, but my body absolutely had to. On the Grinnell Glacier hike, we stopped at the glacier to rest for probably an hour or two, which gave us the right amount of energy to hike back. We simply didn’t have that luxury this time.
(Taken from the Granite Park Chalet)
Our friends we met during the ram jam waited for us as I talked to a man who was doing work on the outside of the chalet. I asked him to describe the hike down through Swiftcurrent. He told me that it featured cliff walking that was far more intense than what we had already done, and the entire thing could be up to 10 miles (2 more than the 8 we already hiked to get here). This was incredibly crushing for me to hear, but Bruce and I knew it was our only way. We hesitantly said goodbye to our friends. They honestly looked very nervous for us, and they wished us good luck. They departed with a few additional hikers down through the grizzly forest, as it is recommended.
Separating from them was not an easy choice, nor was it a wise one.
Part III-Decision Time
My girlfriend and I took a last sip of water, threw our packs on, and continued our hike. We climbed a few hundred feet in elevation in a relatively short amount of time. Already, we had gained 2,000 feet in elevation since the start of the hike, so continuing to climb when I was feeling dead was extremely difficult.
It was then that I started to experience something I’ve never felt before. My body felt like it was shutting down. It was similar to that feeling you get when driving a car on empty, right as you realize this is it, and its time to pull over because things are turning off.
Every ten seconds I would need to stop, and was essentially doubled over, desperately struggling to catch my breath. Ten seconds of walking felt like minutes of sprinting, and then trying to get your breath back as someone sits on top of you. I figured it had to be because of the elevation and the worsening air quality, mixed with my body’s complete physical and mental exhaustion. It worried me, because we had JUST taken our break, and I should be feeling slightly rejuvenated. Nonetheless, we climbed in elevation.
I looked at my girlfriend with a worried expression, not sure what was happening to me. All I knew was, it wasn’t ideal. Also, absolutely no part of me thought that at this point should we still be hiking higher.
Soaking wet and barely able to breathe, we did just that, and we hiked higher, and the feeling of solitude continued to creep in. Finally, we were nearing the highest point, which was the very top of the continental divide. Rain water that falls here either flows directly toward the Pacific or to the Atlantic Ocean depending on which direction it decides to flow down the hill that we now approached. Exhausted, we had at last made it to the very top. Drenched in sweat while struggling to breathe, and completely alone on the mountain, my girlfriend and I looked out over the top of the mountain pass and into the Swiftcurrent valley and saw something so unbelievably terrifying and heart wrenching, that it didn’t feel real. There, right in front of us and quickly approaching, was an absolutely petrifying storm. Like a 5,000 foot wall of darkness, it sped directly toward where we were and was already uncomfortably close. I couldn’t believe it.
We had come so far. We had hiked so high and had said goodbye to our friends and to our options. Now, right in front of us was a wall of dark clouds that you could see was covering miles in minutes and coming right for us.
In general, it’s typically a mesmerizing and sometimes intimidating sight to see the front wall of a big storm approaching you while you’re down on the ground, and maybe near your house of your car. Seeing the front wall of this storm rapidly approaching us while we were alone and at the very top of the Continental Divide was a whole different thing entirely.
Soon, we were being hit by powerful, gusting winds that brought absolutely freezing temperatures. On the High Line side of the Garden Wall, temperatures sat in the 70s. After standing on the east side for a few minutes and looking out into the belly of the beast, temperatures must not have been higher than the mid 20s. I was completely wet, freezing cold, and still struggling to breathe. Terrified, I watched as the front of the storm ate up everything in its path, and soon, it’s winds were upon us.
I looked at Bruce Willis who then looked back at me. We had come so far and had already committed to hiking Swiftcurrent Pass. Our car was waiting for us on the other end. However, we had some problems. Big, big problems.
It was now 5:00 and it gets dark at 7:30. The man down at the chalet told me that it would take us 4 hours to hike it, and that’s IF I were to be breathing normally. Of course, we didn’t have flashlights. Buttttt we did just so happen to have one, adorable stuffed squirrel. I took it out, looked at it, and put it back in my bag where it was taking up half the total space. The squirrel didn’t do much for us. In addition to the lack of sunlight, we also had a lack of company.
Our other option was to turn around and hike down through the infamous grizzly bear forest just south of the Chalet. It’s the same forest that everyone before us had been hiking down in with groups of 5 or 6 so that they would greatly reduce their risk of an attack. It was the same forest where a young girl was mauled and viscously killed, among others. It was getting late, and I wasn’t sure if hiking through that terrifying forest with just the two of us at dusk was that appealing of an option. Also, we had no car at the bottom of that side of the mountain. Even if we got through and past the forest, we would be standing at the bottom of the mountain in the dark, with no car, and about 50 miles from where we needed to be, and no way of heating up my rapidly dropping body temperature. I already had the chills (probably for more reasons than one).
Suddenly, dread began to possess my body and my bones. I had never felt so alone. There was a storm blasting us in the face with freezing cold winds at an elevation of around 9,000 feet, and our only company consisted of man eating grizzly bears who were just waiting for us to enter their domain.
We looked at each other, realizing that a decision had to be made. It was….decision time on the Continental Divide, if you will…
Seriously though, this was an absolutely terrifying and desperate moment. Desperately willing myself to the top of that mountain with every last bit of my strength, only to come face to face with one of Glacier’s legendary storms was easily one of the scarier moments of my life. I honestly began to fear for our lives. I asked Bruce Willis what we should do. She looked at me like she had forgotten every word in the human language. I had actually seen this behavior once before, when I was trying to drive a boat out of a narrow inlet, and all we did was spin around in circles over and over and crash into other docked boats while a group of people watched and judged from the shoreline. In that moment, she looked at me and turned to stone…she didn’t make a peep..not even a flinch, for the entire experience (by the way, this story should be blogged about some day).
So as my girlfriend tried to remember human words, I spoke out loud, running through our options, as freezing cold wind continued to blast us from the valley. The prospect of our car waiting for us was so incredibly tempting. Also, I began thinking that if I only came out of this with hypothermia, but am somehow alive, then it’s a win. We needed to make a decision fast, as the sun continued its descent over the western mountains.
Finally, she spoke. She described in detail the terrible options of both trails off the mountain. It was clear that she was as unsure as I was. However, I needed her to volunteer the grizzly forest route. I simply couldn’t be the one to push for it. If I pushed for it, and something were to happen to her, I would be so emotionally disturbed that I’d probably run away to join the circus and change my name to Penny Cupcakes, never to be heard from again.
It was then that I looked down toward the Garden Wall. I noticed that further away, the storm was now pouring over the top of the ridge line, and racing downwards toward the High Line and beyond. It honestly looked like an avalanche, and was truly one of the scarier things I’ve seen, given the unique situation we were in.
We had to hurry up and commit to a plan , when both options were terrifying. Even if we hiked down through the forest at dusk with just the two of us, we would still be trying to outrun the storm, and be stranded once we got down. Bruce didn’t volunteer the forest, so I hesitantly lead our hike directly into the storm.
Every instinct in my body was screaming for me to turn around. I was wet, cold, struggling to breathe, and worrying about cliff walking on ledges that were apparently worse than what we had already done, but this time through extreme winds and white out conditions, and eventually darkness. Storms up here also tend to carry hail and lightening with them as well.
My girlfriend told me to listen to my instincts and what they were telling me. I turned around to face her, and told her that we were hiking back, and down through the forest.
So we did.
We turned around, and hesitantly hiked down toward the infamous grizzly forest of Glacier National Park.
Part IV-Familiar Faces
Bruce Willis and I quickly hiked down the mountain and back to the chalet. I actually felt a good amount of relief given that we were hiking away from the storm, but I told myself not to take the bait. I knew what lied ahead.
Sure, there were many ways in which we could’ve died if we had continued our trek right into the heart of the storm, but I can think of none scarier, than death via grizzly.
Glacier averages around 3 deaths every year. Ever since those two girls were killed in the area we now entered, human behavior around bears has changed. Yet, in that timeframe, grizzlies have still killed 10 people within the boundaries of the park, and many, many more have been attacked. Hiking in groups of two is not allowed, and if you choose to do it anyway, you’re putting your life at risk. Hiking down through this particular forest at dusk (when bears are most active) with just the two of us was borderline psychotic. However, we had no choice.
Leaving the chalet, we hiked down and reluctantly entered the forest.
It was disturbingly quiet.
We had hiked through grizzly habitat before, and had even been warned of a grizzly that was on the Grinnell Glacier trail while we were on it just the day before, but this felt different. There was no one around to even hear us scream. It was simply terrifying.
During that particular section of the Grinnell Hike, I held out my bear spray in front of me for around 15 minutes, ready to spray it on a moments notice. While hiking through the current forest, I held it out in front of me for two hours straight.
Tall lonely trees surrounded by golden brush and lush grasslands filled our surroundings. The trail would take you through blind corners in which you couldn’t see what was in front of you until you actually turned the corner.
Soon after entering the forest we saw bear scat right in the middle of the path, and it was unfortunately fresh. Looking around I noticed massive grizzly paw prints filling the area. It didn’t feel like they were around, we knew they were around.
While I tried to stay sharp and focused, I also did what I could to think of other things that could potentially get me through this moment. Just as a false sense of security would take hold, I would notice grizzly claw marks on trees that ran alongside the narrow trail. They would serve as a harsh reminder that not only am I terrified of one of the most dangerous animals on the planet running out of no where and ripping my pristine and pure body to shreds, but that I also felt responsible for the life of the person whom I love most in the world. Someone who represents nothing but kindness and all that is good in humanity (aside from her cheering for the Yankees), so the thought of having her here in this place was making me sick to my stomach. Clinging on to a can of spray, I’ve never felt so defenseless in my life.
(Grizzly claw marks on the tree)
Also, lets not forget that the entire time my girlfriend and I are trying to outrun a massive storm that has now breached the top of the Continental Divide and looks to be heading after us.
The good news was, it was much warmer on this side of the mountain and my body temperature was returning to normal. I think the threat of a grizzly mauling also helped raise the temp.
Blind corner after blind corner. Shouting “Hey bear!” every ten seconds for two hours straight. Sweaty palms and internal praying, and eventually, we were out of the woods.
Technically, we were very much still in the woods and mountainous terrain. We now were actually entering an area that had been wiped out because of a massive forest fire, but in its wake of devastation grew absolutely beautiful shrubs that were peaking all over our lives with fall colors. Most of all, we were thankfully out of that terrifying forest, which meant-picture time!!
Of course I didn’t feel like posting to instagram that we had just escaped death several different times and that various parts of this day had me proud that I hadn’t peed my pants.
About 45 minutes later, my girlfriend and I had hiked down the very steep trail and off the mountain. We had escaped! The storm seemed like it was lying dormant near the top of the pass. Apparently it came over the top of the ridge line, and decided to just hang out where it was.
So we looked at each other, happy to be alive, and said, “now what?”
We walked to the nearest and only road, which was the Going to the Sun Road. Our plan was to hitchhike the length of the world famous road to the eastern entrance of the park, and take it from there if we could manage to get that far. That’s when we met a nice woman who just so happened to be on an adventure of her own.
She was traveling alone from Spokane, Washington to a destination she had not yet determined. All she knew was that she wanted to travel the Going to the Sun Road (its honestly that beautiful. Most scenic road I’ve ever seen). We looked dirty and exhausted. After talking to her at a scenic pull off for a while, she agreed to take us to where we wanted to go.
We tried to tell her what we had just been through, but it was nearly impossible, so we kind of didn’t really get much into it. One of the things that took me by surprise and filled me with an unexpected joy was hearing the stories of other travelers. She owned her own coffee shop in Washington and was greatly looking forward to getting in some fly fishing while visiting Montana. She couldn’t have been nicer.
(Ultra HD picture of a bear we saw while traveling the Going to the Sun Road)
After driving the scenic road for a while and climbing in elevation, we entered some world class fog. It became clear that the storm had dropped further onto this side of the divide, and was now filling the area with complete white out conditions. I’m talking the worst fog I’ve ever seen by a long, long shot. You couldn’t see one foot in front of the car. Every other car pulled over until the fog passed, but she just kept going, and I loved it. At this point, I said fuck it. If I die now I die now.
It was then that I looked over at Bruce Willis and reminded her that we would have been cliff walking for up to 10 miles in these complete white out conditions, and back up at that elevation there was extreme wind. These unpredictable Glacier storms also tend to carry lightning and hail. I honestly don’t think we would’ve made it.
Still, our driver pressed on through the thick and ominous fog. Eventually, we arrived on the east side of the Going to the Sun, and it was time to part ways. We thanked her, grabbed our stuff, and wished her safe travels as we departed the car.
At this point we really didn’t have a plan. Rather, we were just taking things as they came. We decided to enter one of the many hotels that operate by the east entrance to the park, and to see if we could use the bathrooms and get something to eat.
Once inside, I immediately limped downstairs to the bathroom where I could change into whatever else I might have in my bag. I remember standing inside one of the narrow stalls, moaning with every movement my sore body made, when I heard excited shouting coming from outside the bathroom. I thought to myself “whatever. I don’t care about anything right now”.
After changing I walked out of the bathroom and Bruce Willis looked at me and said, “look who it is!”
Somehow, someway, we had reunited with our hiker friends from way back up on the High Line. At first, it was just the woman. Then, her husband saw us and couldn’t seem to believe his eyes. We were incredibly surprised to see them, but they were in disbelief. The guy told us that he thought we were dead! Also, how the hell did we get here??
It was a serendipitous experience. Out of all the hotels we could’ve entered, and all the places we could’ve gone, the chances of ever seeing them again was next to none. There was excited screaming, shouting and story telling. We then all sat down for a beer to reflect on what was a truly wild day.
They told us that they saw the same storm coming over the ridge line once they were hiking down through the forest (which we all agreed was incredibly sketchy) and became deeply concerned. After over hearing the conversation I had with that man at the chalet who explained to me the difficulty of the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail, he told me he honestly thought we probably weren’t going to make it. They said they were both praying for us as they hiked down. They even joked that they were planning on reading the paper the following morning to see if any hikers had gone missing.
After we all had experienced the deep fog that blanketed the landscape, they told me we very much made the right decision, and probably a life saving one at that. Joking and reflecting on our experiences together over a beer was really an all time experience. We met each other about 6,000 feet up while desperately clinging to rocks on the side of a terrifying cliff to avoid an approaching ram, and here we were now looking back on it all, reunited by pure chance.We had a great time, but it was now time for my girlfriend and I to continue our trek back to our car. We said our goodbyes, left the hotel, and stood out by the main road hitchhiking once again.
It was pitch black, and there weren’t nearly as many cars as I thought there would be. Car after car passed us, and I didn’t blame them. I was planning on murdering whoever picked us up anyway.
Then, one car came over to us and pulled over. “Get in!” It was our hiker friends.
We hopped into their car and they took us the remaining 25 or so miles to our campsite. They kept reiterating that they really thought we were going to die up there, which was good because it reassured me that I wasn’t crazy for fearing the same thing. We even discovered that the woman basically has the same exact job as my girlfriend. Obviously, I was also being showered with compliments for being the most brave and handsome man they had ever seen.
We finally entered our campground, and said goodbye to our friends. It was a day that I will remember for the rest of my life. I’ve never felt so many varying emotions to the backdrop of such an incredibly beautiful day, while also being dominated by terrifying moments and the fear of death. We hiked 8 miles straight on the edges of cliffs that featured straight down drops for thousands of feet. We made friends while climbing rocks with our hands and feet in an attempt to not be rammed off the mountain (if you will). My body was pushed to its absolute limit, and so was my mind. Seeing that storm directly in front of us after using every last bit of energy to climb over the top of the Continental Divide, was a gut wrenching feeling of fear that I’ve never felt before. Hiking 5 miles down through the grizzly forest at dusk, completely overcome with fear as a storm stalks us from behind was something I hope to not repeat any time soon.
Last but not least, what might have been most unique to this day were the people we met, and whose lives we learned about. I loved our ride with that nice woman from Washington. She was so kind and was exactly what we needed in that moment. It might have been one of the most challenging and terrifying days of my life, but I got through it because of my girlfriend and the people whose words kept my head afloat.
My girlfriend and I limped to our tent at the end of one of the most dramatic days of my life, and lucky to be alive.
So obviously at this point, the only thing left to do would be to sleep, wake up, and go skydiving.