Walk Across the Rockies Alone

Imagine the Goal, then Work Your Way Back

When I talk about Adventure, I’m talking about the whole thing; the imagining, the doubts and the planning around them, the actual doing of the thing. It all starts with that idea; the one that scares you just a little less than it makes you smile.

Nine years ago, one of those ideas wrote a new chapter in my story. I was tired of a life that wasn’t working anymore. I needed change; not the incremental adjustments I’d been making, but something big to bounce me out of a rut. A return to the mountains would give me the freedom I craved, but not a climb. A long hike or trek, something out-of-the-ordinary. Maybe I could retrace the trail of Lewis & Clark.

Captain Clark’s Map of the Rocky Mountains

It wasn’t the first new chapter for me; the story of my life has lots of chapters… by design. Since each of us writes his own story, I decided to author something uncommon; lots of change, lots of growth, and every imaginable adventure. It needed the normal chapters about work and family and friends from childhood, but there were other inspirational ideas that I wanted to act upon, as well. Not all preconceived; I remained open and filtered a lot of possibilities. I tried to always keep something worthwhile top-of-mind; ideally, a goal or great adventure that demanded my good attention. Then my days were busy with right thoughts & actions as I moved inevitably toward some goal. It’s fun; I’ve written so many chapters, the process has become natural for me.

I looked at maps of Lewis & Clark’s 1805 route through the Rocky Mountains. Lolo Trail was the most difficult part of their two-year traverse of the continent. I wasn’t interested in hiking across the plains; just their trail through the mountains. I charted where they started in Montana and finished on the western edge of Idaho… the narrowest part of the Rockies, less than 200 miles. It was hard to imagine walking that far, but I had done 20-mile trips so I looked at the map through that lens. Smaller pieces were more digestible; it made the larger goal seem attainable.

High on Lolo Trail with Many Mountains to Cross (November 2013)

What was a reliable pace – 20 miles a day in the Idaho Rockies? With a 60-pound pack in the snow? Maybe 10 miles a day was more realistic; eight seemed reasonable. That calculated out to 25 travel days, but there would be rest days, too. If I travelled every other day for 8 miles, it would be a fifty-day trip. Call it sixty; treks were always further, higher, and harder than they seemed.

Sixty days. What about food? The Corps of Discovery had boats or horses to carry food, and some of the men were professional hunters. I might catch a couple fish but would have to carry all my food. And how much food would I need? How much could I carry? I found solutions, refined them and, in doing so, believed more strongly that the goal was within reach.

Thirty servings of instant oatmeal were opened and emptied into a one-gallon Ziploc bag. Thirty scoops of protein powder filled another big Ziploc bag. Two more were stuffed with custom trail mix. In addition, I carried thirty foil pouches of tuna and two jars of peanut butter. My Jet Boil was used in the morning for oatmeal and tea; everything else was eaten cold. I ate the same thing every day but could carry enough food for a month.

“I can handle thirty days alone on the trail. Just a little longer than the trip to Washakie in Wyoming.”

I used the fact that I’d already trekked alone backcountry in deep winter as a building block for the Lewis & Clark traverse. I soloed Wyoming’s Washakie Wilderness in February 2007 and so possessed experience that I could leverage to cross the Rockies.

Washakie Wilderness, Wyoming (February 2007)

“I can carry food for a month, but the trip might take two. Seven weeks, for sure. I’m going to need a drop or something. A single reprovisioning of food and I can make it all the way across.”

They weren’t far-fetched rationalizations or delusions, but serious answers arrived at by considering the facts. I had experience in the high country in winter and understood wilderness navigation. I could carry enough food. It may have been years since my last edgy adventure, but I was still a mountaineer. My plan was a good one; there was risk, but I was ready.

It’s like that with any adventure… whatever the motif. In the mountains, in the office; start with the goal and work your way back. Anticipate the obstacles and plan, train, solve for them. Each time you fit another piece of the puzzle, it builds momentum and confidence until all that’s left is action.

Ready to Trek the Lewis & Clark Trail

On the last day of September 2013, my cousin dropped me at a trailhead outside Hamilton, Montana and I began a 7-week trek across the Rockies alone. I hiked through the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, climbed Wendover Ridge to the Lolo Trail, and followed Lewis & Clark’s path across the mountains.

Can you imagine?

To be honest, it required a of fitness, a variety of obscure skills, and a high tolerance for risk. I travelled alone through the wilderness on trails that were hard to find. There was no maintenance on Lolo; it disappeared for miles on many occasions. Advanced navigation and pathfinding were a requirement for the crossing.

The first couple weeks were spent tuning up in the wild. My body acclimated to the weight of the backpack and the work. It didn’t take long to get used to being alone. Deeper into October and closer to my rendezvous with the Lewis & Clark trail; it was perfect autumn weather, so I travelled many miles.

November on the Lolo Trail presented greater challenges. Progress slowed when big weather came in… I was breaking trail in knee-deep snow, then sheltered by a trapper in the most unlikely place. A week later, I got down out of the deep stuff but the trail disappeared in a primal forest.

Deadfall Cluttered Lolo Trail for Miles

My location was a dot on a GPS screen with no recognizable landmarks for miles. Just forests and mountains covered with snow, but I was able to work my way out. Seven weeks in a tent in the Idaho backcountry but, by Thanksgiving, I was back in Salmon cleaning gear and making final journal entries. It was a great start on a new chapter in my life.

I am an amateur adventurer. No sponsors, no corporate funding, no money from friends or family; I’ve financed all my own adventures. My little expedition set no records and garnered no interest (except when I published the journal “Lost on Purpose”). No one was waiting for me at the end. I had to hitchhike to the nearest lodge. It was a personal adventure… I did it for me.

At Obia’s Cabin…

People need adventure in their lives to give the day-to-day struggle more meaning, to create a purpose greater than going to work and paying bills. It’s easy to forget – and it almost happened to me – that we must make time for adventure or run the risk of living without it.

Imagine something cool to do,
then work your way back to adventure.

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One comment

  1. You planned everything perfectly. You did it in style. In your style. Congratulations

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