CDT 2021: Day 137, spring near Black Mountain to O'Keefe Mountain

Get up, stand up, stand up for your right

A wooden sign identifies a trail junction on the CDT in Montana

I spent enough time researching the Continental Divide Trail before my hike to know the trail has a narrow window of safe weather conditions. Northbound thru-hikers need to start before the New Mexico desert becomes unbearably hot. They have to finish before snow begins to fall in Montana. Starting or ending too late could be dangerous.

This is not fearmongering spread by other hikers. For proof, watch Dixie's video of finishing her 2018 CDT thru-hike. She shows what happens when you arrive late in Glacier National Park.

To avoid cutting her hike short or taking risks in treacherous conditions, she was forced to make a long walk on a highway to the Canadian border. She was successful, but her finish wasn't what hikers dream about.

DateFriday, August 27, 2021
WeatherCloudy with brief rain and freezing rain; temperatures from the mid-30s to low-60s
Trail ConditionsWell-designed trail with a few blowdowns, also a gravel road
Today's Miles24.5
Trip Miles2025.7

The early arrival of winter weather is a legitimate concern for me. Still, I didn't count on it arriving today.

To be fair, there wasn't much snow that fell. It was mostly freezing rain and sleet, which didn't last long. What I saw was nevertheless close enough to winter weather to add a little more anxiety to my hike planning.

Sun filters through some trees

I intended to hike at least 20 miles again today. The day started well enough, though we were ready to go a little later than expected. We left our campsite at 7 a.m.

The morning was chilly but not cold. We pitched our tents last night in a dense forest, which probably helped to moderate the temperature. On the other hand, not much sunlight filtered through the trees after it rose, and that kept the air cool longer than usual.

Our campsite was at nearly 8,200 feet in elevation. The first part of our hike today descended moderately, going down about 500 feet in the first 1.7 miles. This was the first of many short ups and downs of the day.

A spruce grouse stands on the trail

I caught sight of a spruce grouse near the bottom of that first descent. It was standing on the trail. I had seen a spruce grouse before, in Washington on the PCT, and this one behaved exactly the same way.

When I've come across some species of grouse while hiking, I didn't see them at first. They stayed in the protection of shrubs before suddenly and unexpectedly fluttering away when they sensed I was approaching. Some, like ruffled gouse, make a drumming sound by beating their wings against the air to declare their territory.

A male spruce grouse

By contrast, spruce grouse are fearless. They are tame around humans, and this behavior has earned them the nickname "fool hens."

They are mostly found at elevations above 5,000 feet in Canada, plus a few small areas of the northwest corner of the U.S.

The one I saw this morning was a male. He appeared to dare me to approach him, or at least that's the way I viewed his mannerism. He stood his ground at first as I walked closer, then politely took a couple of steps to allow room for me to pass by. I respected his right to use the trail and stayed over on my side. He never flew away.

The trail passes through lodgepole pine trees

The trail next climbed back to about the same elevation I started from this morning. This ascent was a little under three miles long as the trail went up a slope of Electric Peak.

This mountain was of course a different Electric Peak than the one I passed on Day 124 while leaving Yellowstone National Park. I suspect this mountain was named for the same reason as the other one, a lightning storm.

The sun was by now high enough to filter more light and warmth through the trees. This looked like it was going to be a pleasant day.

Clouds over a meadow

The trail skirted around Electric Peak's flank as it began another descent. It then made a sharp turn halfway down before dropping into a large meadow.

When I reached the bottom and walked along one side of the meadow, I noticed dark clouds were moving in. The meadow's grassy expanse provided a wider view of the sky, and I could tell a change in the weather was approaching.

Cottonwood Lake

The trail passed near Cottonwood Lake before making another sharp turn to begin another climb. This one went up a slope of Thunderbolt Mountain (8,597 feet), perhaps named during the same storm that resulted in Electric Peak's name.

These mountains were part of a range called the Boulder Mountains. They stretch between Butte and Helena and contain 69 named peaks. Thunderbolt Mountain and Electric Peak are two of the highest of these in the range.

A sign marks a side trail to a scenic overlook

As I approached the top of the climb, a sign pointed to a side trail for a scenic view. If I followed it, the trail would have taken me up another 200 feet to the top of the mountain, which used to be the site of a fire tower. There was no point walking in that direction today. By the time I got here, clouds had completely covered the mountaintop. There would have been nothing to see from the overlook.

Top O' had stopped at this side trail, and we ate lunch there. While we ate, my prediction of changing weather was confirmed.

Fog over Thunderbolt Mountain

First, light snow began to fall. That quickly changed to sleet. Top O' and I sat there in a moment of disbelief as it fell on us.

The precipitation soon changed again to freezing rain before becoming just cold rain. We didn't hurry to finish lunch, however. There didn't seem to be much point in that because we knew we would be walking in the same conditions.

A slight clearing on the trail reveals a partly cloudy sky

Thankfully, the rain stopped falling soon after we began walking again. Within the next 90 minutes, the clouds were breaking up. Then for the rest of the day, the sky varied from partly cloudy to mostly cloudy. We had no more snow, sleet, freezing rain, or rain.

A distant view of mountains to the north

After the missed opportunity for a view from the top of Thunderbolt Mountain, there weren't many others for several hours. The trail remained in thick forests of lodgepole pine and spruce trees.

When it was possible to see distant mountains in a gap between trees, I still didn't see much. Clouds and smoke obscured the view.

Dappled sun across the trail

I had only walked 14 miles by 3:30 p.m. The prospect of finishing the day with 20 or more miles was looking dim, though it wasn't yet out of the question. Completing that many miles would require us to walk later than we prefer to do.

The trail's ups and downs began to shorten and the weather continued to be nice. These conditions would at least make accomplishing my goal a little easier.

Cut trees scattered on the ground

The trail went through another area that had been badly impacted by mountain pine beetles. Here, a logging crew had cut down a lot of dead trees that were too young and small to be of any value for timber sales.

When I saw all of the dead trees lying on the ground, I was reminded of a game I used to play as a child called Pick-up Sticks.

A chain is wedged in a log

Shortly before stopping for dinner, I passed a log that caught my attention. What I saw made me feel sorry for the crew that had been here some time ago clearing the trail. It was obviously a frustrating day for them.

I could tell their first unfortunate moment was when the chain of their chainsaw became wedged in a log. When they attempted to pry apart the log to remove the chain, their tool also became stuck. Both were now rusting, still stuck in the log after the crew gave up in defeat.

Alpenglow on Three Brothers Mountain

I caught up to Top O' when he stopped for dinner, but I was low on water. The next source was a stream more than a mile away, so he gave me some.

Without realizing how much farther I would be walking, I began to slow down after we stopped for water at the stream. This had been a day with almost no views, and at last, I could enjoy some and take photos.

Across a valley were some mountains called Three Brothers. The last rays of the setting sun were hitting their peaks, making them appear to glow magenta, purple, and red.

Of course, that meant sunset was soon to follow, and I didn't see anywhere that looked marginally suitable for pitching two tents.

Sunset in Montana

By the time sunset came at 8:21 p.m., I hoped I was about to find Top O' stopped along the trail.

The sky soon became so dark I needed to put on my headlamp to see the trail, and I slowed down. I scanned both sides of the trail with my light to make sure I didn't walk past his tent. I stopped a couple of times to take a closer look when I thought I saw it. Each time turned out to be a large boulder, not a tent.

The trail became a little easier to follow when I turned onto a dirt road that went up a shoulder of O'Keefe Mountain (7,540 feet). This section looked a little more promising for where Top O' could stop because it wasn't thick with trees.

I finally found his tent at 9:30 p.m. on a wide spot in the road. He had been there for about 30 minutes and was already settled in his tent.

Though I accomplished my goal of hiking more than 20 miles, it happened accidentally. It took a couple of extra hours because we couldn't find a place to camp. Still, we not only walked nearly 25 miles again, but the extra miles also put us that much closer to MacDonald Pass.

Polecat will meet us there tomorrow, and then we will drive to Helena to resupply. Trimming some of that distance today means we'll have more time tomorrow for town chores. And after yesterday and today's long miles, I am ready for a break.

Oddly, Top O' and I never saw any hikers today on the trail. The ones we saw yesterday were all in their 20s and 30s and hike faster than us. Still, it seemed unusual to never catch up to them during a break or at a campsite. I wondered if they were also hearing an urgent call coming from the Canadian border, telling them to pick up the pace.

Preacher man don't tell me heaven is under the earth
I know you don't know what life is really worth
It's not all that glitter is gold and
Half the story has never been told
So now you see the light
Stand up for your right
Come on

Get up, stand up, stand up for your right
Get up, stand up, stand up for your right
Get up, stand up, stand up for your right
Get up, stand up, don't give up the fight


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.