The Blowdown Lowdown

On the morning of the fourth day of our return to the Continental Divide Trail, Dad sent me the following inReach message:

“It’s taken me 1 hour and 45 minutes to go one mile. I might not make it today. Pack one day of [food] for me and head toward me. Bring your tent.”

Collage of 2 photos of the inReach MINI screen showing the message above
What I saw on my inReach MINI

Receiving that just after turning on my inReach at 9 was very alarming. The night before he was camped only 9.4 miles away, which under normal circumstances would take him just under 4 hours to complete—I’d expect him to saunter into camp around 10 in the morning. But I knew that things were not exactly normal when he sent me this message the previous evening:

“I’m hiking through BLOW DOWN HELL. It took me hours per mile. I’m stopping for the day due to sheer exhaustion.”

If the term “blowdown” is unfamiliar, you’re not alone. I’ll admit it’s hiking jargon I’d never felt comfortable using myself, because it’s something I’d never experienced, at least not to the degree that would warrant a special term. Put simply, a blowdown is a single tree that has fallen across the trail (or been “blown down”) forcing you step or climb over it, or, if the trunk is just too big or the branches too dense, hike off-trail around it. But it’s not a term usually applied in the singular. Nor is it something I’d thought to photograph. So a few days later, on a different trail, I captured one for illustrative purposes—even though it really shows 3 blowdowns (that fell as one) as well as several “leaning blowdowns” in the background.

Example of a blowdown
Example of a blowdown

Of course I’ve stepped over or hiked around many a solitary tree that’s fallen across the trail, but I’d never encountered blowdowns plural until the 16.4-mile dayhike I took up to Jackass Pass in the Wind River Range—coincidentally the same day that Dad was “hiking through [his] BLOW DOWN HELL”. Seemingly healthy pines and aspens had been uprooted and were strewn across the trail in such great piles over such great areas, that stepping over each ligneous morass was impossible—the only solution was one detour after another. Looking back over my photos from that day, I found only one that captures a sense of this. In the foreground you see the roots of a singular blowdown that fell off to the side, but if you follow the trail into the distance, it seems to dead-end into a massive wall of green. Blowdowns!

Example of blowdowns
Blowdowns on the trail to Big Sandy Lake

All that said, he was only 9.4 miles away from the promise of cold sodas and a hot, non-dehydrated dinner. I started to wonder whether there was something else wrong that he couldn’t fit into the inReach’s 160-character message limit. Regardless, I jumped into action, immediately switching from overland-mode (aka chill AF Jeep-camping) to serious backpacking-mode. As requested, I pulled together 2 backpacking dinners for that night, 2 Pop-Tarts for us the next morning, and a lunch for me on the way. In the rush, I forgot to grab granola bars for morning snacks and my sleeping mat. I did, however, grab a can of Squirt soda, thinking that if I met Dad a few miles in, perhaps these cold, bubbly calories (not to mention my presence) would give him the morale boost he needed to reach the finish line.

Just before I left, I received two messages from him, back-to-back, which gave voice to my hunch that maybe there was more going on than just blowdowns.

“Got back to we’re [sic] I dropped my InReach AND FOUND IT. Hiking north again toward creek.”

“I’ll stop for the day when we meet up. I’m already exhausted. I got cell signal back where I turned around, at the creek”

In my haste to pack up and go, I misread the second message as “I’ve stopped for the day where we’ll meet up…” so I had it in my head that he was staying put after going back to retrieve his inReach. He sent that message at trail mile 1757.0, exactly 2 miles north of where he spent the previous night—thus he was now 7.4 miles from me. I could only wonder how far he had backtracked before retracing his steps north again. No wonder he was “already exhausted”.

I was on-trail a little after 10 (heading south on the CDT from the Big Sandy Trailhead) and almost immediately I encountered miles-long blowdowns of such astounding proportions that comparing them to an avalanche debris field misses the mark. At times, I was bouldering the trail more than hiking it. The blowdowns were so thick that I’d frequently lose sight of the trail altogether, either because it was overwhelmed by tree detritus, or because several successive detours around stacks of life-size Lincoln Logs conspired to send me in the wrong direction. I took very few photos that day, but this one pretty well captures the chaotic state of the trail.

Blowdown hell on the CDT south of Big Sandy Trailhead in the Wind River Range
Not even a tree bearing the CDT blaze was spared

Every hour I sent Dad a message indicating my progress. At 11, I’d hiked 1.9 miles, at noon, 3.6. Around 12:20 I stopped before a river crossing to have lunch and filter water, and continued onward around 12:40. I received no further messages from Dad. As I got closer to where I hoped to find him, the blowdowns became comically thick, bordering on impassable. I was forced to spelunk through narrow passages between the fallen trees and their branches. To make matters worse, the air was hot and still. I began bellowing “Heyyyyy Daaaaad!!!” every so often as I got within a mile of his last message. Finally at 3, out of water, having hiked 7.4 miles through absolute hell, I reached the small clearing where he sent his last message. And there was no sign of him.

I felt nauseous, emotional, confused. Going farther south didn’t make sense. I could imagine that he might have tried to continue north after resting. Rereading his last message, “I’ll stop for the day when we meet up”, suggested that maybe he had kept moving (contrary to my initial misread). But if that was the case, how could we have passed each other? Slogging through blowdowns is not a quiet nor quick affair, there’s groaning and grunting and swearing along with branches cracking and hiking poles clacking. Even if we were not precisely on-trail at all times, humans in the wilderness are hyper-attuned to the usually rare presence of other humans in their vicinity. So much so that we often hear people talking or walking in the distance where there are none—just birds chirping and branches creaking.

My thoughts shifted to a darker place. After what I’d just gone through, it was easy to imagine him losing his balance up high, falling backwards, and then yeah, not good things. I could have climbed right by him without realizing it. This macabre turn seemed to mesh with the fact that I’d received no inReach messages from him for over 5 hours. But my first priority was getting water, so I sent him a message, and steeled myself to the fact that I had to claw my way back from whence I’d come.

It took me half an hour to go half a mile, all the while apprehensively scanning left and right for Dad’s limp body. I could hear trickling beneath a pile of trees, so I climbed up the hill to a point where I could access the water. Before I started filtering, I had this funny impulse to take my phone off airplane-mode, thinking back to Dad’s offhand remark that he “got cell signal…at the creek”. In my addled state, I had the thought that if Dad was hurt, maybe he somehow got word to Mom. Having been offline for several days, messages began pouring in from parts far and wide, but it was the veritable flood of texts from Dad that brought me to tears. He was alive and well! But why was he texting me? THIS WAS NOT THE PROTOCOL! My relief gave way to frustration when I read his last text: “At [mile] 1758.3 at 2:44”. I replied that I was “at mile 1757.5 at 3:36”. In other words, he was 8 tenths of a mile north of me (as of almost an hour earlier). How had we crossed paths without realizing it!?

Justin is down with CDT blowdowns
How I felt about the CDT at that point

I finished filtering a liter and a half of water and rage-hiked with wet eyes back through the relentless blowdowns. It took me another half an hour to go just 3 tenths of a mile. I reached an overlook and decided to check if I had signal once again. I did, and Dad had responded to my last text saying that he was now “at Dutch Joe Creek mile 1759.9” and that he was “setting up camp” and “staying put”. Dutch Joe Creek was the “river” I crossed after lunch. This meant he was not less than a mile away as I was hoping, he was a staggering 2.1 miles north of me. I seethed. I sobbed. And I willed my body northwards, hiking hand over fist for the next 2 hours. When I finally reached Dad at 6pm, I handed him the can of soda, Mountain House Chili Mac, and Pop Tarts I’d been carrying all day, gritted my teeth, and began setting up my tent.

Meetup in the middle of blowdown hell
Look who I found!

Though we finally found each other (and it was a true relief that he was ok—save his pants and legs, both of which were shredded from the knees down), we were quite literally not out of the woods yet. Our campsite that night was 4.5 miles from the Big Sandy Campground where I left the Jeep. This meant we still had about 4 miles of blowdowns to slog through, which took us 4 solid hours the next morning. It was only towards the end of the ordeal that I thought to capture two shots of Dad among the blowdowns for context. Without these, I’m not sure my words alone could have really conveyed the full magnitude of what we went through. After 5 arduous days, Dad had hiked 41.5 miles.

Dad aka
Not easy for someone who can’t “balance”
Dad aka
Notice the state of his pants

The saga of our ill-fated 2nd meetup (and technically the 3rd, when we reached the Jeep and drove to Pinedale, WY to convalesce) is as good a time as any to mention that for the second year in a row, I’ll be supporting Dad as hikes the CDT and attempts to finish the 1,251 miles he has remaining between the middle of Wyoming and the Canadian border. On the afternoon of June 15th, I dropped him off where the CDT crosses WY-28 (astute readers may recall this being his starting point last year, heading southbound), and he decided to get going right then and there. For the sake of completeness, I should add that our 1st meetup was that first night, where the CDT crosses a dirt road 11 trail miles north, and compared to the one that followed, it was uneventful.

Wish us luck, clearly we’ll need it!

9 Comments

Anton Zuiker

Wow! What an ordeal, and what a detailed and gripping blog post. I so enjoy reading these posts, and seeing your photos, from your hikes and travails.

Claudine

Omg… good luck Justin and Tartan!

Margie G.

Take care of yourselves. Very glad this part turned out ok. Good luck rest of hike!

Christiane Soleil

While I was reading your story I had difficulty to breathe normally….. It was hell! You need protection so I am going to pray for you and your dad.
If you have time I’ll be happy to follow you on the map as you used to send me before.:-)
Many kisses Chris

David R.

Geez Justin. You and your dad are two tough SOGs! I’m praying for trees that stand up straight near the trail from here on out. Glad you both were able to get off trail and rest before suiting up again.

Art Rodgers

In summer of 1990 three strapping young men intended to do a loop trail over a saddle in the Wind River range. One got hypothermia the first night, and one got altitude sickness the next morning; both led us to turn back. I am thankful you and Tartan are patient, sensible and tough; and I am sooo jealous of your adventures and would have loved to be there for Tartan’s BDAY. All the best!! Art

Mark Rodgers

Justin and Brian, I loved the Bridger Wilderness but it didn’t love me back. Thank for letting us live vicariously through your blog. Take pix and rock on!

Cassidy

Wow!!! Love hearing about the adventures. Geez, what a trek!

Herman

What a trip glad you’ll are safe and manage to find each other.

Name

Email (optional)

Blog (optional)