Glacier National Park
Cam and I had been volunteering at a remote goat farm for a week, high up in the Rocky Mountains just short of a three hour drive from the Glacier National Park.
Read about that here.
We soon discovered that a past volunteer, Josh, now worked at The National Park, landing us a free lift with him on his way back to work. Cam and I made some hasty plans; we were heavily restricted on what to take with just two small rucksacks over five days - and mine already abound with camera gear - it was, essentially, (and I truly mean essentially), one. After spending several days convincing Cam that it wasn't possible to live off a multi-pack of Salt & Vinegar crisps whilst climbing 5000 ft altitude, we compromised a diet of the vital food groups; bread and salami-slimy processed turkey. With a quarter of the backpack left for clothes, we agreed to bring the outfit we were wearing, an extra shirt and a few sets of undies.
When Josh pulled up the next day, Cam and I were nervous: once again we were jumping into a car with a stranger, with no idea of where we were headed. As we pulled away in the dust, Josh plugged his phone into the speaker system, purring a playlist of relaxed, jangly chords out into the dust-drenched afternoon. The telltale intro of a Mac Demarco song started, and the initial awkward tension fell away – a mutual love of a cult artist is enough to bond anyone.
We stopped at the supermarket to pick up supplies: a 25 cent loaf, a whole pile of dodgy-looking 'Deli-fresh' meat slices (which were anything but), cheese, sardines, corned beef, peanut butter and a Snickers. Josh treated us to some beers and brownies - a bit of luxury to ease us into our minimal camping diet. All in all, it came to just under $40, equalling a grand total of $4 a day for living costs per person. That's less than your average Starbucks.
Josh took us to the motel where he worked, delighting us with tales of his mum sending him 'care packages': which included weed baggies stuffed inside bags of coffee beans to mask the smell! Josh brewed a pot of coffee, he only had one mug so we had to improvise with a plant pot. I chucked back his concoction and instantly felt as though I'd injected pure caffeine into my bloodstream; Cam and I both just sat there, our limbs vibrating uncontrollably in a pure reverie - perhaps Josh had forgotten to separate the coffee from his Mother's 'care package'.
Josh had told us earlier that he was going to have to drop us off quickly, because he had plans to climb a mountain with some of his friends. We had previously dismissed the idea of joining him, but suddenly through 'Caffeine goggles' the idea seemed a no-brainer.
We headed out, up to the unknown.
Perhaps one of the Glacier National Park's most famous features is the road that runs through it, aptly named 'Going to the Sun Road'. Cut into the sheer mountain face, waterfalls scramble and spill across it, and pieces of uncut rock narrow the so-called-road to one lane on most corners. There are no substantial barriers between you and the violently fierce drop but a raggedy, jagged mess of anguishing stones, which ebonise away down into the ink-blot of shadowed forestry below. It is regarded as one of the most beautiful roads to travel on in the world, and it's pretty obvious why.
We sped around the blind corners, determinedly chasing the ever-diminishing sun that was fast setting in the sky like a bruising berry. Terrified out of my mind Josh pushed 60 on the hairpins, deliberately swerving towards the yawning cliff edge to rattle us further. The only thing keeping me from emptying the contents of my stomach in the back of his car was the crazily lazy liquid-music that filled my ears.
As this song came on, I slipped into full zen mode. I can recall saying 'If we went over the edge right now, I wouldn't even care'. Whilst that was obviously total bullshit, I feel it was a nice sentiment.
We parked the car at Logan's Pass, the starting point of our hike. With Josh's friends nowhere to be seen we figured we'd set off anyway, taking a bottle of water and each gulping mouthfuls of brownie to keep us motivated. None of us were thinking particularly clearly - if at all - still seriously buzzing off the homespun coffee, and as we began to climb the rocks the sun, now just a glimmer the colour of burnt honey, was disappearing behind a sharp ridge.
The three of us in shorts and shirts and Cam and I sporting some battered plimsolls, we weren't exactly the model image of prepared hikers. But it didn't stop us as Josh set off at a blinding pace, almost jogging as he skipped from rock to rock. We followed behind, vacuous cattle trusting him blindly. We were led across rivers, around waterfalls and amongst the overgrown mash of narrow pines and bush, weaving our way up a route that whilst physically unmarked, was clear to Josh.
We had brought some bear spray, which we all thought was pretty pointless seeing as none of us had the balls to stand our ground and casually mace a bear. We took to clapping as we rounded corners in the woods, in the hope that it would alert any on coming unwanted furry friends to our presence.
Apparently, Josh was leading us along the yellow line below, and after climbing for about an hour we were informed that we had reached the end of the 'easy part'. We took a break at 2000 metres struggling in the high altitude, becoming enveloped in a choking embrace as the smoke from the raging wildfires below masked our vision.
I chucked over a disposable camera to Josh, which he turned to Cam and I.
We had stopped just before where, on the map, you see the line turn and head straight up the mountain. Our legs and lungs were ready to give in as we continued to climb further and further up this completely indiscernible path.
I had my MonkeyCanz Speaker blasting out some beats to keep us motivated. Eventually we suddenly stepped out onto the summit. The wood-coated smoke from the wildfires engulfed the mountain and cloaked the darkening night in a pungent isolation, and we looked out into the velvet-black abyss.
What I love about the images below are that they aren't posed, just real expressions of pure joy and awe at making it here.
We followed our new-found tradition of adding a sliver of thin rock to the summit, carving each of our names in.
The smoke hushed around us burning apricot-blue in the dimming dusk, reminding us that we were quickly losing light now the sun had set. Cam gave us a quick harmonica solo, and we started back down the mountain.
Josh decided to lead us down a different route on our return journey. It seemed easy enough at first, him dancing between the irregular stepping stones, just metres away from the sheer drop. Josh suddenly took a leap, and then disappeared.
Panicking like hell Cam and I sprinted to the spot at which we assumed Josh fell to his death.
We arrived at a gap in the rock. About 5 feet wide, with an 100ft drop in between. There was Josh on the other side, beckoning us over: "Jump guys!" he grinned as if this were something as mundane as crossing the road without the green man. If the gap itself wasn't bad enough, the rock we had to jump onto was just about a metre wide. If we landed badly, we would undoubtedly fall into the endless, smokey void below.
I didn't photograph the gap, but I did find a photo of someone else taking the leap in daylight.
The longer we put it off, the darker it got. Cam went for it, taking a huge leap and only just making it stumbling a further five steps onto the landing rock.
My turn. "Chuck your backpack first!" Fat chance I was about to do that Josh, with close to £2000 of delicate lenses in my bag. Seriously concerned how this would affect my jumping ability, I took a small run up and jumped. My feet hit the rock at an angle, and I felt myself carrying on forwards, with the added momentum from my backpack. I knew I had no room to fall any further unless I wanted 'fuck it' to be my last words, so I chucked myself down onto my hands and knees. I stopped and steadied myself, worryingly close to the edge. Slowly I stood up, my heart ripping through my chest. We all looked at each, grinning and shouting variations of "That was fucking CRAZY!".
We continued trekking down on a massive high, exchanging nervous adrenaline giggles. A few minutes later, we arrived at a ridge; the valley dipped away from a jagged ice-blue horizon, sleeping in silence under the blanket of smoke. The moon was all that was guiding us now.
This photo is now available as a limited edition of 45 here.
As it progressed into nightfall, everything we did became dangerous. We skirted across the side of a steep ridge, which was covered in loose rocks. Each time you put a foot down, the rocks would give way, your feet sliding down the ridge.
At one point I thought we had lost Cam; he had stepped forwards, and a pile of rocks cascaded down under his foot, carrying him down the mountain a couple of metres before hitting something solid. I was shouting out to him to dig his heels and hands into to ground, knowing how quickly he would pick up momentum down the mountain.
We arrived at the top of a small glacier. Josh, with his proper walking boots, could walk on it easily. Cam and I however, both had our plimsolls on which lacked any form of grip. Luckily the ice was a gentle downhill, because as soon as we stepped onto the glacier we were skiing down it on our shoes!
Somehow still alive, we arrived in a heap at the top of a waterfall. This was the glacier melt stream. It gushed softly, the strong moonlight casting an ethereal glow on the water, and glinting off the still pools below.
We splashed through the shallow waters, slipping across the dampened rocks. By now it was completely dark, the tiniest flood of crimson moonlight smudging-out the silhouette of my feet. We clambered up a steep footpath, a little over a foot wide with that familiar sheer drop of decayed rock gaping on our either side. The lack of food and water was getting to me. Every time I moved my head from side to side, I would see in flickers.
After fifteen incredibly tense minutes, placing foot in front of foot, we saw the boardwalk that led back down to the car. Sliding and sprinting in a muddle down the loose rocks we hit the boardwalk with whoops of victory, rejoicing that we had made it back to solid ground.
We ran along the path, Cam anxiously blaring away on his harmonica as Josh scared us shitless with bear attack stories that happened on nights just like these.
Finally, we made it back to the car, and headed back to our tent. We asked josh to stay for a while, to come and sit with us by the lake.
We walked to the lakeside, and out onto the jetty. Although it was midnight, we took our shoes off and sat on the end, with our toes brushing the surface of the cold water. Realising none of us had a bottle opener, we cracked open our beers on the edge of the dock, managing to soak everyone in Corona.
* * *
The next morning, Cam and I woke up wet with condensation in our clammy little tent, all our clothes and bags we couldn't be bothered to deal with last night strewn in soggy heaps around us. Breakfast left us no option but to devour the last of the brownies whilst we prepared our first sandwiches, which would become all too familiar later in the trip.
Leaving our tent, we walked over to the side of Lake McDonald. The smoke from the wildfires was still dense, so we were left to imagine what the other side of the lake looked like.
Cam and I explored the pebbled beaches as the day warmed up, reverting to the old childhood adventures that we miss in our everyday lives.
Even with the knowledge that this lake was formed by the melting glacier water, we decided we had to swim in it. Stripping off to our waist, we jumped in, wearing the only pair of shorts we had.
As the pure, glacial water soaked around us, so did the feeling of rapture and liberty; immersing ourselves in the last halcyon days of our youth.
Eventually it had to end, mainly because we were both nearly blue. Whilst we drip dried, I thought it would be a good idea to take some photos for my sponsors SunGod. They make adventure proof sunglasses, made from high-tech flexible plastics, and each set comes with a lifetime warranty. All I will say is that these sunglasses take a hell of a beating, so if you too think you might find yourself dodging death at 10,000ft, go design yourself a set!
We returned to our tent, to find a hand written letter from the campground warden telling us we had to pay for the next night, as we had over-run our clear out time from the previous night.
Being the thrifty teenagers we are, we couldn't be dealing with that. Fearing the warden would appear from the smoke any moment, we tore down the tent in seconds, rammed it in it's bag and jogged to the bus stop.
Waiting for the bus, we met a native american man, who told us about the bike/hike camps which were available for just $5 a night and great for meeting people.
We hopped onto the mercifully-free shuttle, and headed to Avalanche Campground.
Special mention to Tash Fry for helping to transfer my memories into words.