There are six of us and thirteen horses. But no one is riding because the trail is simply too steep—at times pushing 50 degrees. We lead our mounts by their reins knowing that if one of them loses its footing there is no way we'll be able to stop it from tumbling into the boulder-filled cataract that plummets headlong to the valley floor. But it's either get over the pass or take a hundred-mile detour.
Two weeks earlier, Sawchuk nearly lost Leo, a young packhorse, while crossing a river near here. It wasn't the current that almost took the horse under; it was the glacial cold. It took five people—who nearly froze themselves as well—to man-haul the horse up the riverbank, and half an hour to thaw him out (and that was in July). It's a common hazard in this country, where you can make a dozen river crossings a day.
By the time we reach the saddle of Misery Pass, it is hard to tell who's blowing harder, the humans or the horses. We catch our breath in a wind-scoured trough dotted with shallow blue tarns and little else. The season's last lupines and moss campions are putting on a brave display. Symmetrical depressions in the lichen-speckled scree look like graves, but they're not; they're sheep beds, and they could be a thousand years old. Midway across the pass we come upon the first significant evidence of human presence we've seen in days: a plane crash. Nothing is left from the belongings of the occupants now but four pairs of sneakers, each shoe still neatly tied. "That plane didn't leave a mark on the rock," Sawchuk murmurs, his words practically sucked from his mouth by the wind. "The mountain is implacable."
This is the Rocky Mountain divide, two degrees south of the 60th parallel and, just like the people in that plane, all we want to do is get across. We don't know yet that the way down is almost as steep, which means we'll still have to lead our thousand-pound horses, only this time they'll roll right over us if their hooves fail to hold. This, I realize, is the price of admission into Sawchuk's world.
Whipcord thin, with fingers that seem to have the consistency of cold chisels, Sawchuk has been exploring this country for more than 20 years, winter and summer, and, like few others alive, knows what it takes to survive here. On the left side of his saddle he carries a cruising ax in a scabbard. Slung off the right side is a lever- action Browning .308 (no one, it seems, travels in here unarmed). A small chain saw rides atop one of the packhorses. Sawchuk carries a set of farrier's tools, two full sets of rain gear, spare horseshoes in four sizes, duct tape, copper rivets, buckles and leather for harness repair, and a miniature anvil.