Why You Must Do the Wendover Death March

Salisbury, NC

In July of 2015, while attending one of those requisite family events that attach themselves to the Independence Day holiday, I was telling a cousin about my upcoming Lewis and Clark trip, an enterprise that would be highlighted by the Wendover Death March. Seeing her grimace, I explained that I’d been training in the North Carolina mountains, that I’d worked hard, and that I felt prepared. She looked at me for a moment, shook her head, and said, “Why would anyone go on a vacation that they had to train for?”

I considered her question.  Why did I do the Wendover Death March?  Why did I do it a second time, and a third?  Why have I scheduled a fourth for 2016?  I set out here to answer these questions, and while I’m looking more to inform myself than to convince others, I hope that by the time you finish reading you’ll have some sense of why YOU should do the Wendover Death March.  Why you must do it.  At least once.  

Sometimes there are advantages to arriving late to the party.  The pain of being born too late to experience the Beatles live, for example, was somewhat ameliorated for me by instant access to their full body of work when they finally did invade my consciousness in the mid 1970’s.  Hearing the entire Fab Four catalog at once, with no waiting between records, was a heady experience, even sans narcotics.  Similarly, when I discovered The Thomas Jefferson Hour in 2011, hundreds of past episodes were already downloadable, ready for listening, no waiting.  Overindulgence ensued. I listened while working, while walking, wherever and whenever.  At the dinner table, in the car, on airplanes, life became one extended overdose of the third President. And in the myriad discussions that punctuated this Jefferson orgy one phrase pervaded, one idea kept recurring, etching itself into my subconscious.   Not the Declaration of Independence, not the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, not the University of Virginia.  No, for me all other things Jeffersonian took a backseat to the Wendover Death March.  Clay’s annual reports on the trip became favorite episodes, to be played over and over again.  They were full of the now familiar Jenkinsonian wit, but there was always something sinister, something unnerving, lurking beneath the humor.  The same words and phrases kept popping up in these accounts: “Appalling;”  “Nine miles, straight up!”  “All day long;”  “Cough up a lung;”  “Not fun.”  This candor seemed less than the best way to attract new recruits, and yet I couldn’t get the Death March out of my mind.

Then I read Clay’s book, The Character of Meriwether Lewis, and caught the Lewis and Clark bug.  Talk about being late for the party; I’d missed the celebrated bicentennial by about a decade. But again this just meant that the plethora of books and materials that this milestone produced were now available online, used, for pennies on the dollar.  So I bought more books, read more books, continued to sip the Lewis and Clark Kool-Aid, and actually started kicking around the idea of attempting the Death March.  I played the relevant Jefferson Hour podcasts for my wife Liz, who told me I was nuts.  I called Becky Cawley.  She assured me that “nobody has ever NOT made it,” and then she proceeded to tell me a number of horror stories about people who barely did make it.  She also told me that there were only a few spots left for 2013.  So I went to work, and through some combination of begging and pleading and beseeching and promising I persuaded Liz to go, a task only slightly easier than convincing her to marry me all those years ago.  We haunted REI for months, and in August we headed to Montana with lots of cool new gear in tow.

The Lewis and Clark Odyssey Tour begins in Great Falls, Montana, only a few miles from the area where Clay claims that Meriwether Lewis had the greatest day of his life.  The group comes together in a huge circle of folding chairs a literal stone’s throw from the Missouri River and begins to get acquainted.  Most are new and know no one else there.  Many are obviously dubious about what they have gotten themselves into.  I know of one guest a couple of years ago that literally broke down in the parking lot and screamed, “What have I gotten myself into?”  And yet, two to three hours later, everyone not only feels an integral part of this “Corps of Discovery,” but also has probably and unwittingly made friends for life.  This happens every time for me.  The guests on Odyssey Tours are friendly, intelligent, rational, pragmatic, curious, a microcosm of the enlightened world that Thomas Jefferson dreamed of, that Jefferson’s vision of this country aspires to.  You simply can’t not fit in.

There’s no sitting around; the first morning you hit the great Missouri River.  The Death March is always, ALWAYS, hovering in the subconscious, but when you’re giving a canoe and a paddle and told that camp is fifteen miles downriver, you concentrate on the task at hand.  By noon you begin seeing the famous White Cliffs, Lewis’s “scenes of visionary enchantment.”  A bald eagle sits in a small tree on the bank and watches you go by.  Ancient Native American teepee rings dot the rises along the riverbank.  You’ve drifted out of the civilized world, off the grid, and into one of the most extraordinary places in North America, where the Missouri River is still a river, where the rocks and cliffs and hoodoos look just like they did in 1805 when Lewis and Clark passed through, and where the only way to get in or out is by paddling your own canoe.

The campsites on the river are spectacular, and are actual Lewis and Clark campsites.  If you’re skeptical of this bring the journals and observe the landmarks noted by Clark; it’s not difficult.  Clay often uses the phrase, “literally in the footsteps,” and so you are.  And if you’ve never camped under cottonwood trees on a windy night. You’re in for one of the most sublime experiences of your life.  You’ll see a night sky you never knew existed.  Slot canyons, Native American petroglyphs, cold beer and ribs and wine and cheese . . . and all of that on the first night.  Finally, there’s nothing like a moonrise in the White Cliffs.

In three days you paddle almost 50 miles, the scenery growing more breathtaking with each stroke.  Canoes string out for a couple of miles along the river - you can have all the quiet and alone time you desire - and the winds and river conditions make each day a unique adventure.  The sad thing about the river portion of the trip is that it’s over so quickly.  Before you realize it the transition to the second part of the expedition, the Bitterroot Mountains and the Wendover Death March, is under way.

There’s a bonus though.  After perhaps the best shower of your life, a night of great food and music and first class accommodations await you in Fort Benton.  This is followed by a day of rest that sort of lulls you into a false sense of relaxation.   Much of that day is spent at Lochsa Lodge, just a few miles from the Wendover trailhead, relaxing in the Lochsa River.  As the sun sets, however, voices start to lower, apprehension becomes palpable.  Rumors circulate that Chad, the legendary guide who mysteriously appears in Montana each year just for the Wendover climb, has arrived at the Lodge.  Game plans are discussed, war stories are told, nervous laughter abounds.  The crowd around the fire breaks up early.  Until now some never thought this would really happen.  A few hours of restless sleep is all that remains between you and the Wendover Death March.

Strategies abound at breakfast.  Carb loaders, heavy hydrators, everyone has a plan.  An eerie early morning quiet hovers outside the lodge as backpacks pile up by the vans.  I’m not sure which is worse, knowing what is ahead or not knowing.  And then, after the short drive to the trailhead, a few last photographs to send to relatives in case you don’t survive, and final instructions from Chad, the thing is upon you.  In a matter of minutes the reality of Clay’s oft-used phrase, “straight up,” hits you right in the gut.  The trail is narrow, it’s single file all the way up, and since you begin at 3300 feet the air is thin. For the first hour you’ll hear one of two sounds:  your own gasping for breath, or that of the person behind you.

The first two miles are demanding, steep and relentless.  This is the point, or at least the first point, where you hate yourself for agreeing to do this, the point where you promise yourself that if you ever make it to the top, you’ll never do anything this stupid again.  This is where you wonder what sort of sorcery Becky employed in convincing you, in convincing everyone, to PAY to do this.  The first two miles are painful.

Then something happens.  Your body begins to hit its stride.  The breathing becomes easier.  Ripe-for-picking huckleberries line the trail.  The views become more spectacular with each step.  Occasionally the trail even levels out for a stretch.  Individuals begin to set their own pace, to string out up and down the trail, to adapt in their own personal way to the challenges of the mountain.  Some choose to hike alone through the day.  There’s no way to get lost - the trail is narrow and along the ridge line - and groups come together throughout the day, for lunch, for breaks, to take in the views.

Late in the afternoon comes the last major challenge, the so-called Dinosaur Backbone, a desolated area high on the mountain that burned out years ago in a forest fire.  It’s steep, rocky, and strewn with fallen trees.  There’s no tree cover remaining, no shade.  The sun is high, your legs are jelly by now, it’s cough-up-a-lung territory.  You count out ten steps, stop, grab your knees, and try to catch your breath.  It’s worse than the first two miles, except for one thing.  Once you slay the Dinosaur, you’re essentially home free, and you’ve earned one of the most incredible views you’ll ever take in.

At the top of the ridge you meander a little ways down a rudimentary dirt road to camp.  It’s a little quiet time, a chance to catch your breath, to collect your thoughts, to reflect on what you just accomplished.  Take advantage, because once you get to camp you’ll be subjected to rock star treatment:  backslapping, applause, photo ops, cold beer.  Wendover Camp is the apex of the trip, literally and figuratively.  Becky was right, nobody doesn’t make it.  People pitch in.  You get to the top.  Everyone does.

Perhaps all I’ve demonstrated here is that I lack the eloquence to describe the Death March, to make it come alive.  But think about it, ten days wandering about the American West, with the best people you’ll ever meet, in places you can only access by climbing, by canoeing, by earning with your sweat and tears.  A chance to reconnect with your body, your mind, your spirit, to jettison technology, to take a little risk.

Never is the trip more alive than at night around the campfire.  Some of the best discussions you’ll ever have, about Lewis and Clark, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry David Thoreau, the American West, Native Americans, take place every night, miles from nowhere, far off the grid, interrupted only by the occasional meteorite flashing across the horizon.  And the trip begins to transcend Lewis and Clark, Jefferson, the West.  It becomes about you.  Whatever you believe in, you’ll find it out there.

And who knows, you might find one of Clay’s cameras out there too.Life is finite.  Do the Death March.