Words by James Barbeau
I have hiked on and off for many years, more like walking my dogs in nature preserves. I went to Glacier in 2016 with my wife and son. I fell in love with the area and decided I wanted to go backcountry camping to see more of what this park offered! My wife thought I was crazy starting this idea at 47...not in the best shape, but not bad either. I am a Firefighter/ Paramedic just outside of Chicago.
Prior to my first solo trip I walked many miles down gravel roads to build stamina. I did this through the spring and early summer. I was doing ten miles a day thinking I would have no problems, other than the first time back country in grizzly habitat! The only way my wife agreed to let me go on my own was to have a Garmin Inreach.
The day came to leave and I was excited beyond belief! I drove straight through to Glacier in 24 hours! The plan was to do a few day hikes to further acclimate myself and then try and sign up for a couple of nights backcountry. I knocked out Scenic Point which was an out and back at roughly 8 miles total with good elevation gain. I found muscles that I didn't know I had, but it felt great and I couldn't wait to get back to the country. I stopped in the Ranger Station and secured an overnight for Elizabeth Lake. Not only a great site, but I would get to go through the Ptarmigan tunnel! I had one day to kill before I could make my way towards the backcountry. I went back to my tent and figured I would head out towards Pitamaken Pass on a nice easy day hike. I would turn around when I felt I had put some decent mileage in.
I woke up on my Birthday, to a beautiful day! I filled my water (5 liters), left my warm clothes, sleeping bag and a few other things behind to reduce my pack weight. I hit the trail early and was enjoying the great views. I met up with a younger couple, and we started walking together. We were taking pictures for each other and just having a good time. The husband was encouraging me to go all the way around to Dawson Pass and complete the loop. He would say "once you get to Pitamaken, you are halfway there and it is the hardest part, so the rest will be a cakewalk". I felt great when we approached the steep switchbacks at the base of Pitamaken. I decided to keep going to the pass. As I went higher the temperature got warmer, and the humidity dropped. I started to get winded and started to fall behind the younger couple. They were out of sight when I made the pass.
I did meet another younger couple, they were both 25. I sat and had lunch with them and realized I had burned through 4 liters of water. They gave me a couple of liters to help me out. I had a great time talking to them. They had been in backcountry territory for a few days and had to leave when the young man had a stick stuck in his leg and broke under the skin. They visited a walk in clinic, got bandaged up, given antibiotics and returned to the back country...a cool story in itself!
At this point I thought I was halfway. If you know the trail you probably know I was at about 6 miles in, of a 16 mile hike. I had a straight shot up into what looked like another pass. Just short of the pass was a small snow field. I had never been in snow on my birthday! I thanked the young couple for the water and some great conversation. When I hit the snow field, my legs felt like I had been through a very intense workout. My knees were pretty sore, but boy did I have a smile on my face. I dropped my knees into the snow and it felt awesome! I took a few selfies and was about to get up, when I looked up to the pass. I saw one figure come out on the ledge and then a second figure came out too. The second figure dropped to a knee and instantly I grabbed my DSLR camera and shot some pictures of someone proposing!
The adrenaline rush of seeing this had me spring right up and march pain-free into the pass where I encountered 2 young couples! I asked the male who had proposed, "if he just got engaged?" He replied "yes" with a beaming smile! I told him it was the stupidest thing he could ever do! The smile left his face and I said just kidding and started laughing! I told them I took some pictures I would share, if they gave me an email address. I asked where they were from and they said "Wisconsin'', I said sarcastically, "great...Packer fans!" They replied "you must be a Bears fan!" I said I was, and at least you aren't Detroit fans; as I said this two men came into the pass and said what's wrong with Detroit? Now I couldn't believe three teams from the NFC North were being represented on a mountain side in Montana!
They gave me their email address and I told them I would send the pictures when I got home. I wished them well and went on my way. My god the views were unbelievable! I was about six hundred yards away from the newly engaged couple and their friends on a steep side of the mountain when my quads cramped up. It was painful, but as soon as they passed I continued on and started to drink more water. Before I could even get to Dawson Pass, the cramps hit again and I knew I was in trouble. I was down to one liter of water. I dumped some electrolyte powder in and tried to decide how to ration it. I knew I was in some discomfort, but felt I could push through it. I continued on less than 100 yards when the cramps hit again.
At this point I wasn't thinking right. My training as a paramedic should have told me to keep going. In my mind I felt, I'll just take a break and then go. Luckily the newly engaged couple and their friends came upon me. I told them what had happened and what I had planned on doing. They asked if they could walk with me. I told them I would just hold them up. They made it seem like they really wanted to walk with me, so I said I would. I ran out of water shortly after that. They gave me over eight liters of water. They would stop and the girls would say they were tired and needed a break. It was bullsh*t, they were stopping to give me breaks. My cramps continued all the way down and it finally hit a point where I would walk like Frankenstein and power through the cramps. It was getting late and I was getting cold. It finally dawned on me what I had been through, I knew that these young adults had probably saved my life. When we hit the first lake, we stopped, filled every bottle, took a break and hydrated. I thanked them for what they did for me and they were extremely humble. When we arrived back at the trailhead, I saw the newly engaged male taking his shoes off. They were those shoes with the toes in them. He told me that he and his girlfriend had left Wisconsin and went to Minnesota to pick up his friends (the other couple)... when somewhere in North Dakota he realized he forgot his hiking boots!
That young man had some big brass you know what's! He had a plan to propose at a certain spot and he followed it through to the end regardless of forgetting his hiking boots. I couldn't thank them enough and even told several campers what had happened. The entire hike had taken me over 12 hours. I was wiped out to the point I didn't even make it to Lake Elizabeth. In fact, I didn't hit the back country at all. I did learn some very good lessons and have a great story from the adventure!
I did send the pictures to them. I said thank you again and explained my wife's sentiments. They replied back with an incredible note saying what a good time they had. I replied back that when my cramps hit, I didn't take many pictures after that and asked them if they minded sharing some of theirs. They replied back with all their pictures.
I haven't had any contact with them since, but do see highlights of their trips, on Facebook. I have been back to Glacier the last two years and completed a 60 and 70 mile back country hike. It is crazy how nice most of the backpackers are! This year I don't have any solid plans, but will try for Hole in the Wall at Glacier.
It's a beautiful adventure when nature provides a little trail magic and love.
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Taking care of your physical health is obvious when it comes to outdoor activities; if you’re injured, there is a set limit to how much you can physically do (and a much lower limit for how much you should do.)
Though we don’t always pay attention to them, mental health and emotional health are equally as important. Pay attention to the voice inside your head that is telling you to come down. You will not summit today. That is OK.
I’ve made the choice to dedicate my life to my passion, and that doesn’t come without sacrifice. There are more days than not that not having a wife, a family or an established career can eat away at me. I experience a lot of loneliness because of my choices. I’m 45 years old, and there are days I wonder if I’ll ever have a different response to the questions people ask me. Sitting on a mountain top, tent flap open, sun going down, a majestic aura all around me fills me with inconceivable joy, but it also has its moments of aching solitude.