Best Friend and I just completed the longest 20 miles in the world. Victorious, elated, proud, and relieved are few adjectives that describe how I am feeling right now. I had read much about how the 20 mile Paintbrush Divide loop trail in Grand Teton National Park was one of the most scenic and challenging day hikes anywhere in country. I wanted to see it, to be there and then taste the sweetness of success. Many people backpack in and camp and do not do the entire 20 miles in one day. But some people do. And Best Friend and I are two of them.
The loop began at String Lake then ascended up Paintbrush Canyon past Holly Lake and finally up to the Paintbrush Divide at 10,700 ft. The trail descends in steep switchbacks down the side of the mountain into Cascade Canyon passing Lake Solitude. It continues down lower into the canyon until it meets a fork and follows along the Cascade Canyon Trail until finally you can fork off to the side trail that leads back to String Lake. I knew it was long and challenging trail, but had been looking forward to this challenge and experiencing its beauty all summer long. After all the researching and planning, I suddenly found myself standing at the first trail head at String Lake at 6:15 a.m. ready to accomplish this goal. Eleven hours and forty five minutes later, it was done.
Now I tale the story of those torturous 11 hours and 45 minutes...
The trail began to gently ascend and despite the fact that neither of us had a decent night’s sleep, I was feeling pretty good. It seemed that we knocked the first of the miles out fairly quickly. We knew we were in bear country here so we continuously sang aloud and talked and occasionally let out a hoot or holler because that is what you do while hiking in bear wilderness to warn bears of your presence and prevent any dangerous altercations that might occur if you happen to stumble upon one and surprise it. I have said before that I am not afraid of bears and will not avoid hiking and camping in areas just because they are present. Still, I have to admit that I had an uneasy feeling about an encounter because of reports of aggressive bears in the area lately. (I think it has to do with the extreme heat and dry that the area has been dealing with this summer. Weather affects food resources and that will affect animal behavior)
. Despite the uneasy feeling, we began the trail and were well on our way to Holly Lake, the first major site on the journey. We were discussing our latest money-making scheme and laughing when suddenly we were interrupted by a black bear cub darting quickly ahead of us on the trail. I saw it before Best Friend and mouthed some sort of warning to her and we began to back away slowly. But before we even had time to locate mother bear, she suddenly charged us! It was a bluff, but she did not back away from us. As she stared us down, palpable fear spread through my veins; but reminding myself that survivors are the ones that do not panic, I kept my cool. Both Best Friend and I remained calm and followed the “aggressive bear encounter rules”. We slowly backed away, giving her space but standing tall and yelling to her. She then backed further into the woods and continued her foraging. The problem was that the cubs had climbed into a tree right next to the trail. Any time we attempted to proceed along the trail, mother bear would move in closer to us. We would retreat back down the trail. Then she began to follow us whichever way went! I absolutely didn’t know what to do. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, the bear moved in close to the trail and began to claw a downed tree leaning against another tree. She tore at the bark viciously and tore away with her teeth. Perhaps she was simply snacking on insects within the tree, but I couldn’t help but feel it was threat to us. I couldn’t help but think of those claws and myself in the tree’s position. This is going to hurt. I began to pray. Best Friend and I wished desperately that someone else would show up on this trail. Just like an answered prayer from God, three very nice men walked up behind us. They were the first people we met since we began. The safety in numbers theory proved true as the men joined us and the five of us humans together were intimidating enough to mother bear to allow us to finally pass.
Adrenaline was running high through my blood for a while as we continued on our trek. Before reaching Holly Lake, we saw a bull moose with a large rack chomping on some brush. We were averaging about 2 miles per hour on our climb until we reached Holly Lake. It took us two hours to trek the 2.2 miles up to the top of the divide from the lake. It was an incredibly steep climb at this point and altitude sickness began to kick in for the both of us. The nausea and vertigo I experienced were mild but the breathlessness was terrible. At times I hiked only a few yards before gasping for air. Finally the top of the divide was in sight. We crossed several snow fields. It did not bother me to slip and slide along the slick snow until I began to cross one that was long and slanted at an angle. If you were to slip, you’d have fallen down a steep slope and if the banging of your head multiple times and the breaking of your bones as you tumble helplessly down to the bottom didn’t kill you, certainly the freezing cold lake full of floating ice would. My right side was on the exposed side so I tried not to look anywhere except down at my feet that I was carefully trying to place in the footsteps left by other hikers as they crossed the snow. I slipped and I again I felt that panic-induced adrenaline. I dug my left hand into the snowbank for support. After what seemed like a mile, I had made it across. Though I did not know it yet, it was only the beginning of unstable material that I would depend on as I stood on exposed ledges.
My heart sank as I saw the trail wind up through loose scree (rocks) with nothing to grasp for support except for the few solid rocks holding the loose ones in place. I managed to handle it fairly well, though very nervous, until we reached a part where the trail sort of split up and you had to choose your own way. We chose the wrong way. I found myself stuck and then sliding down with loose rock. I was able to catch a stable rock with my foot and then reach out to it. I was stuck and I knew it. I reminded myself again of how to stay calm and be a survivor. Best Friend was on a rocky ledge above me and was able to see that there was a more stable and easier trail that was only a few steps away from me. She scrambled down onto the tail and walked back down to where I was so that I could see which way to go. I allowed myself to slide down to where she stood and scrambled along the “real” trail. It was so much easier, though I was still quite nervous. Finally after reaching the top of the divide at 10,700 ft., I cried tears of joy. Sure I was only half way finished, but I had survived an angry bear, a slanting slope of snow, and loose rocks daring to throw me down to the mountain’s foot and best of all, it was all downhill from here!
It was a steep downhill from the divide to Lake Solitude. I know what goes up must come down, but I couldn’t believe just how far we had gone up until I followed the steep switchbacks and it seemed the valley floor wasn’t getting any nearer! Resting and snacking by Lake Solitude (elevation, 9,035 ft) was a sweet treat. We did not rest for long as we felt invigorated for having made the divide and we ready to hike the rest of Cascade Canyon. We had hiked Cascade (in reverse) up to the forks two years ago so we knew what a scenic treat we were in for. We had only 2.7 miles to reach the forks.
We covered those 2.7 miles quickly and happily. It was very pretty, though we were still in the open sun and I was looking forward to reaching the forks, as I knew it was shadier there. When at last we did reach the forks, I saw the trail sign informing us that we had a mere 6.2 miles left until we were done.
Cascade Canyon was as beautiful as ever, but it somehow seemed longer than ever, too. About halfway through those 6 miles, my body was really beginning to feel the exhaustion and hell that I had put it through. My several-times-twisted ankle was sore as well as the ligament behind my right knee. My thigh and butt muscles were tight. Still, knowing that the parking area was growing closer with each step we trudged on. Along the trail we spotted marmots and pikas and even a cow moose. It was a beautiful walk but I was ready for it to be over. Exhaustion began to rule me. I was done.
The trail that lead back to String Lake finally came into view on the left. That 1.7 miles was pure misery and the longest 1.7 miles I ever walked in my entire life. Even considering my slowed stride, it should not have seemed this long. Every bend should have been the end in my mind. It never was. I was developing a bad attitude. My body was collapsing. I didn’t want to see another cascading stream, moose, flower, and certainly not another bear. All I wanted to see was the car. And I wanted a Frosty from Wendy’s.
I came around another bend and saw a sign. I knew that if I read it and it said that String Lake was still a mile away, I would have screamed. To my relief it informed me that I had .3 mile left. Soon I saw the bridge crossing the water and leading to the parking area. Then I saw the car as I crossed the bridge. I wanted to again cry tears of joy, but I was too tired.
I was so proud of myself for making it. I was so elated to know that I could sit down and rest. I was so relieved that my body wouldn’t have to endure another painful step. Sweet victory! I couldn’t get to Wendy’s fast enough.
That Frosty was the best I ever had as were the chicken nuggets, fries, and biggie sized diet coke that I scarfed down. Sweet, delicious victory!
In the beginning...there was String Lake. What a beautiful morning to begin our hike!
Here's the bear showing off her clawing skills. Yes, I took the pic despite the fact that I was wondering if it might be the very last one I would take!
This is the snowfield that tried to claim my life. It doesn't look that bad in the pic but that's because you can't see the exposed sloped side and where it lead to if you should fall.
If you click on the photo to enlarge it, you can see the faint line going across and that is the trail. You can also see the tiny hiker making his away across it. It was right above this area that attempt number three to end my life ocurred. That's three stikes and you're out Grim Reaper! I'm a survivor, sucka!
This was only the beginning of the scary section of loose scree. It was fairly stable in this section.
YAY!!! We made it! Best Friend and Outdoorsy Girl celebrate on top of the 10,700 ft. Paintbrush Divide!
The descent was long and steep down the switchbacks to Lake Solitude.
Moose in Cascade Canyon.
The end of the trail!!! After 20 miles and 11 hours and 45 minutes later, we were finally back at String Lake.
2 weeks ago