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Outdoors

The Big Hole

Adventures in autumnal adversity

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

When you’re cloistered in the mountains working on a trail crew all summer, fall has a tendency to sneak up and whomp you from behind. 

One minute, you’re as happy as a marmot in a polyester T-shirt just trying to finish up your final trail construction project of the season in a tranquil, sun-kissed mountain meadow and the next, you’re slopping through greasy, half-frozen mud trenches in multiple layers of patched-together rain gear with the hoary ice-breath of Old Man Winter benumbing all your exposed fleshy bits.

“CRAM” is what one of my earliest trail builder mentors always used to call it—Cold, Rainy And Miserable.

However, as I quickly discovered, CRAM is much more than just acceptable job site parlance for deteriorating weather conditions. It’s also a state of mind. 

No matter how hard any particular crew might work over the summer, the deeper you keep them working into fall, the CRAM effect will inevitably take its toll.  

Especially, for instance, if it happens to be the first week of October and you’re working at a remote backcountry location 8,000 feet above sea level on the Continental Divide near a notoriously inclement, steppe-like valley in southwestern Montana called the Big Hole.

Out of my many harrowing encounters with CRAM over the years, the CRAM I encountered in the Big Hole takes the cake.

There were seven of us building turnpikes and drainage features on the Rock Island Lakes section of the Continental Divide Trail—our fourth and final project of an exceptionally grueling season in Big Sky—when the first storm cycle hit. 

The previous night I’d crawled into my tent under a cloudless, star-filled sky feeling reasonably confident we were running on schedule to finish up within five, maybe six more days.

But when I emerged from my shelter the following morning into whiteout blizzard conditions with an ankle-deep blanket of fluffy-fresh snow already on the ground, my hope diminished considerably.

Before I even managed to put my boots on, I lost Gator and Sledge—two of my most stalwart crew members—right off the bat.  

“Where on earth do you think you’re going?” I asked the deserters as they frantically dismantled their soggy, snow-laden tents and prepared for imminent departure.

“Home,” Gator chattered, “And then to the bar!”

“Or possibly the bar first, then home,” Sledge said. “Whichever is closest.”

“What about your production bonuses?” I countered.

But apparently, at that late juncture in the season, money was the last thing on their minds.

“Bonuses?” they replied, chortling fiercely in resonate unison. “Just beating tail out of these goddamn, frozen-ass mountains right now amounts to a righteous fair bonus to us.”  

From a production standpoint, I couldn’t afford to lose either of those boys. But since there were still five of us left, I ruefully collected their time sheets and bade them a fond, if somewhat pensive, adieu.

I then resolved to dissuade any further defections by instituting a foul-weather contingency policy based on a concept that I have henceforth referred to as CWAD (Cozy, Warm And Dry).

Every day, while three of us marched off to the job site, two crew members stayed behind to tend a sizable fire, cook warm meals and generally retrofit our camp with as many creature comforts as they could scrounge.

For the most part, it worked. By the start of the third storm cycle, only one more person had endeavored to depart prematurely. And who could blame her?  Down to four by the end, it took us clear up to Halloween to complete the project. And by that point, nary a single one of us could have told you the difference between CRAM or CWAD—or the half-frozen toes in our boots—even if we tried.

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