Backcountry Baby

I ner­vous­ly stepped onto the scale. My heart sank as the red num­bers formed.

“How much is it?” Hei­di asked me.

I looked up, feel­ing sud­den­ly dis­il­lu­sioned. “Fifty-sev­en pounds. That’s half my body weight! We have to take some­thing out. I mean how many dia­pers does he actu­al­ly need?”

Hei­di shot me a defen­sive glare. “We’ve paired it down to the neces­si­ties, Bec­ca. Now, let’s weigh mine.”

It’s 11PM in Wil­son, Wyoming and my best friend Hei­di and I are doing some seri­ous last-minute pack­ing for one of the most scenic treks in the Unit­ed States: the 47 mile Teton Crest Trail. But this trip is dif­fer­ent than any­thing I’ve done before—really, real­ly dif­fer­ent. Heidi’s 14-month-old son, August, is com­ing with us.

Hei­di and I have both logged sig­nif­i­cant time in the back­coun­try. I’m a lifestyle and adven­ture pho­tog­ra­ph­er and she grew up with the Tetons in her back­yard. Since becom­ing a sin­gle mom at 23, she’s trans­formed from a casu­al adven­tur­er into a half-marathon-run­ning, hik­ing-obsessed moun­tain-machine that can eas­i­ly talk me into any trip—even one that requires haul­ing dirty dia­pers through rugged alpine. It’s an added plus for her that I enjoy a lit­tle suf­fer­ing on the trail.

Google search­es don’t return much help­ful logis­ti­cal infor­ma­tion about plan­ning a back­pack­ing trip with a baby, so we did our best to pre­pare based on Hei­di’s self-taught exper­tise. She’d spent all sum­mer com­plet­ing long-dis­tance hikes with August, hav­ing done 117 miles before we even set foot on the Crest Trail.

On paper, every­thing about the three-and-a-half day back­pack­ing trip looked good, but with all our gear laid out on the floor, it looked more like we were about to embark on a year­long expe­di­tion across Mon­go­lia.

I stud­ied the map on the morn­ing of the expe­di­tion, my ner­vous eyes falling on the topo­graph­ic lines lead­ing up to Phillip’s Pass, 8,946 ft above sea lev­el. The trail we’d cho­sen was steep, but it offered mul­ti­ple bailout oppor­tu­ni­ties through canyons in case of emer­gency. 

The dirty dia­pers scared me most. We’d done our best to dial the weight we car­ried and to esti­mate ounces of poten­tial trash we’d be car­ry­ing out. I crossed my fin­gers in hopes that we wouldn’t end up with heav­ier packs than when we start­ed.

With­in the hour we were off hik­ing, pass­ing two dif­fer­ent cou­ples who asked us if we’d ever hiked with a baby before. Heidi’s pack was an explo­sion of sup­plies held togeth­er by cara­bin­ers and the bear can­is­ter was rigged to the side of mine with a makeshift Swa­mi belt made of old web­bing. I don’t blame the cou­ples for the skep­ti­cal looks they wore as we marched past look­ing like walk­ing cir­cus­es.

A few miles in, there was a small fork in the trail. I grabbed the map from Heidi’s bag, wak­ing up August, who unleashed a lit­tle scream that felt high-pitched enough to wake dogs for miles. I went into instant stress-mode, and told Hei­di we should fol­low the trail to the left.

Hei­di argued with me, doing lit­tle bounces to calm August down. “Seri­ous­ly, Bec­ca. I know I’m right on this one. We go north.”

Too flus­tered to argue, I gave up and fol­lowed Hei­di down the trail, feel­ing a lit­tle less con­fi­dent in our abil­i­ties as a team.

Exhaust­ed, we final­ly arrived at camp after com­plet­ing some­where between 8 and 10 miles. Meals and set­up took seem­ing­ly for­ev­er.

Backcountry_Baby

While one per­son cooked, the oth­er herd­ed August away from bear spray and knives—the only objects that seemed to inter­est him. When it came time to eat, Hei­di spoon-fed August tiny por­tions, as to not make his shirt a bite-size chili plate for bears. 

 

We bare­ly made it to moon­rise before all of us were asleep. 

My watch beeped at 6:30am and I rolled over on my half-deflat­ed sleep­ing pad, which had some­how acquired mul­ti­ple new punc­ture wounds overnight. Hei­di and August bare­ly twitched in their bag, so I got up to make cof­fee.

It took us two-and-a-half hours to begin hik­ing. Again, one per­son cooked, pumped water, broke down camp and cleaned while the oth­er watched August. It was an effort that felt comed­ical­ly slow, and know­ing we had at least ten miles to cov­er that day made our slug­gish start even more stress­ful.

By mid-day, our heavy packs start­ed to wear us down and they became increas­ing­ly more dif­fi­cult to lift. First, I would help Hei­di put on her pack so August would­n’t tip over. After she buck­led her waist strap, we would both lift my bag to my knee for the swing around to my back. I would almost fall over, stag­ger­ing to keep my bal­ance dur­ing the weight trans­fer. We are both strong women, but to a passer­by we would have looked des­per­ate out there.

Our trail talk became nurs­ery rhymes when August start­ed cry­ing, and after about six rounds of “E‑I-E-I‑O,” he final­ly dozed off to the rhythm of hik­ing and repet­i­tive vow­els.

Moments lat­er, Hei­di abrupt­ly stopped.

“I have to pee.”

I silent­ly wished for a beer. 

“What is it?” I asked, hop­ing for the let­ters “PBR” to come out of her mouth.

“I wrote down all the lyrics to our favorite Wu-Tang song!” Hei­di replied, enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly.

I broke out in laugh­ter, sur­prised that she had tak­en the time to write every line and slight­ly dis­ap­point­ed that it wasn’t a beer.

“Okay, repeat after me. M‑E-T-H-O‑D, man…”

As she trailed off, I par­rot­ted lyrics back to her, feel­ing extreme­ly grate­ful for our friend­ship.

Lat­er that night at camp August talked to the stars as Hei­di and I stud­ied the map. We were sur­prised to real­ize that we had cov­ered 13 miles, a much longer day than either of us had planned.

The camp­site was beau­ti­ful in the ear­ly morn­ing and we took a healthy dose of ibupro­fen for our swollen hips. It was the big day and the first two miles went notably fast, fueled by the knowl­edge that we would soon stare face-to-face with the Grand Teton.

When I final­ly crest­ed the pass, tears welled in my eyes. In front of me were baby blue glacial lakes and alpine wild­flower mead­ows nest­ed beneath the Tetons. We put our packs down for over an hour to teach August the names of every peak we could see.

The Top

Mov­ing quick­ly and con­fi­dent­ly on the descent, we came across a ranger who shared some bad news. He noti­fied us of a rock­slide on Paint­brush Divide, the final pass after our next camp­site. Going around the slide would add sig­nif­i­cant risk with poten­tial snow and scree fields. Hei­di and I strug­gled with our egos and dis­cussed our options, know­ing we wouldn’t fin­ish the full trail if we didn’t com­plete the pass. But with August in tow, it was a no-brain­er. We would cut the last 7 miles off of the trip and come down Cas­cade Canyon to Jen­ny Lake. 

We agreed to keep our last camp­ing site, a clear-cut patch of ground with a per­fect view of the Grand Teton.

After two din­ners and dessert to cel­e­brate our last day, we laid in our sleep­ing bags, talk­ing about the trip. Despite hav­ing to cut the trip short, I was beam­ing with pride, know­ing that we’d still accom­plished some­thing spe­cial.

I was drift­ing into sleep when I heard Hei­di sleep­i­ly say, “You know, I’ve always want­ed to do a bike tour with August.”

“Maybe next sum­mer,” I said.