Friday, September 2, 2011

DAY #5: Beartooth Mountains Backpacking Trip

Our playground!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

So… Tuesday started out really, really early, but FUN. I awoke at about 4 AM to a “click-clackity” on the rocks outside our tent, and then a following “Meeeeawwwww.” It almost sounded like a cat. I whispered excitedly to Rachel, “CRITTERS! Think they’re goats?” She replied, whispering, “Not sure… sounds like it might be something smaller.” I guess we were both expecting goats to sound more like, well, a goat. She had to go to the bathroom, so she unzipped her tent fly and peeked out. “They ARE goats!!” We excitedly crawled out of the tent and watched them hop past our tent, jumping gracefully past us and almost out of sight around a boulder. I followed them with my camera, and they rounded the boulder towards Randall’s tent. When I came around the corner of the rock, I tried to snap a couple of photos, but all I got was glowing eyeballs and a fuzzy ghosted outline of a couple of goats. I watched them and tried another photo. The flash must’ve spooked them, because they took off running up the hillside. Well, that was exciting! We ended up with goats coming through that camp twice more that morning. How cool that was!

Before I left for this backpacking trip, I remember typing up a Facebook status that read, “I promise me that I’ll watch the sun come up over the mountains.” I held that promise. After the goat excitement, I crawled back into the tent and fell asleep for another hour, then woke back up, grabbed my sleeping bag, sleeping pad and camera, and found a comfy rock on the edge of the cliffside just off from our camp. I sat there facing East, cozy warm in my fluffy sleeping bag, in the dark with the clear sky chock full of stars above me and just zoned out. It was, well… ahhh. Just peaceful. Once the horizon above the mountains started to lighten up, I took a few photos. Before I knew it the whole sky had turned a pretty pink/purple color and the sky behind me was turning a faded light blue color. Then the mountains behind me started to take on the sun’s morning glow – a beautiful, indescribably golden hue. I kept turning around to look at the entire sky, the lake below reflecting all the colors, and the mountains that bowled up all around. I was in heaven.

It wasn’t long after I heard a noise behind me and realized it was my mom going to the bathroom! Haha! I softly yelled, “Hey, nice butt!” She let out a little “Whhoooop!” in surprise, then turned around and giggled. She had no idea I was there. I got up after that and joined the camp as another group of goats was making it’s way up the hillside just past our tents. We all watched in amazement as they bounded up the steep cliff and boulder with ease. I think we all had goat-feet-envy right then.

I decided to make up my one ‘non-oatmeal’ breakfast this morning, which was Quinoa with cranberries, walnuts, cinnamon, nutmeg, powdered milk, wheat germ… a bunch of yummy ingredients. It took a little while to cook, but it sure hit the spot! Also had my coffee, of course!

Once we were packed up and ready to go, Gary and I came up with a game plan. He and I were the quickest boulder-jumpers and hill-climbers of the bunch, so he and I would study the map and lead the group, splitting off when necessary to scout out the terrain ahead of us. By the time we decided the route we’d take, the rest of the group would be caught up and we could take any difficult ascents or descents together. We found navigating to be much more difficult that I ever expected it to be. In a lot of the place on the topo map that looked promising, we’d find a giant, steeply slanted snow field that met up with giant, sharp boulders far below. Think of slipping and sliding all the way down that snow into one of the rocks quickly helped us decided to find an alternate route. When the snow wasn’t too steep, it was pretty easy to cross by kicking in little level steps for our feet. A few of them were even level enough to just walk across… and it was usually a nice break from the boulder-hopping/scrambling.

This morning we first had to navigate what looked like a giant canyon on the topo map, across a river that ran out of Lower Aero Lake where we were camped. Gary and I found a pretty fun way down, almost switch backing perfectly down long, stretched-out boulders and patches of soft grass. Once in the canyon, we realized the river actually ran underneath the rocks, so we were able to easily get across… well, except that the boulders were the size of Volkswagens, so we actually used out hands for leverage in most places. Once to the top of the other side of the canyon, we looked over a new valley. Gary and I scouted a few places to get down into that valley, and his was sheer cliffside, so he met up with me and followed behind me. The hill was steep, but with rocks you could step down on.

Suddenly I heard Gary yell, “WATCH OUT!!!” I heard a rock shift and thought he was falling down towards me. My brain immediately went into “I have to try to catch him or slow his fall” mode. As I looked up, I noticed a rock about the size of a small dog bouncing and crackling down towards my head. I leaned over and watched it pass me though the air. The rest of the group was just over the hill, so they didn’t see what was going on, but heard it. Gary got down towards me and we were both shook up quite a bit. It took a while to get rid of the adrenaline rush! From then on we made sure to have a little more space between us. Just one of those things you gotta’ deal with out here, I guess!

And a sidenote: when we were camped at Lady of the Lake, a guy hiked by with a helmet strapped to his pack, and I remember thinking, “Wow, cool. A climber.” After the rock nearly hitting my head incident, I was suddenly wishing we all had helmets strapped to our packs! Thankfully that was the last falling boulder towards noggins on the trip!

We continued down a steep side of the mountain until we hit green and trees started to show up. We could see Sky Top Creek down below and decided to head for that, as someone pointed out an actual trail below! We got to the creek where the trail started, and sat down for a wonderful lunch by the rushing creek. I had bagels and hummus with Babybel cheese. I love hummus any time of the day! Some of us filtered water and some of us napped in the grass with the sun beating down. It was a beautiful day, and the streams coming down the mountainside from the snowmelt were scattered with splotches of vibrant color from wildflowers.

We hit the trail, most literally. It was nice to be on trail for a little while. We hiked up and up and up, following the creek full of waterfalls, and joked that it was “Cardiac Hill Jr.”. It was steep, but didn’t last quite as long.

Once at the top, we arrived at Lone Elk Lake, which was a pretty little mountain lake at around 10,000’ still. We hiked around the left side of it and crossed the wide, rushing creek at the north end, then worked our way around the east side of the next lake, which wasn’t that far… It was called Rough Lake. Appropriate!

It was getting later in the day, and we were all getting tired from all the steep downs we hiked on the sides of our feet, shuffling one foot, then another, then another, and so on. Then back up we’d go, huffing in as much of the thin air as our Wisconsin lungs could take, until we’d have to heave over our trekking poles, catch our breath, take a drink and continue on.

We reached a boulder field that we had to cross to get across to where we might have a campsite. Our group got a little bit split up, as Gary and I went ahead to see what the terrain held for us. The rocks were getting a little bigger, some were getting looser, and the hill down to a rocky creek below was getting steeper. Crossing these boulder fields really took some time because we really had to get our footing before taking each step. It was really technical and tricky. At one point I stopped and waited for the rest of the group to catch up while Gary ran ahead to scout out the next section. I saw Margie sitting down for quite a while, and I realized she wasn’t just resting when Randall actually turned around and walked towards her. They stood there for a while, so I dropped my pack and head over there. Turns out a rock – a big rock – let loose below her and caused her to fall forward. She caught herself with different limbs, bruising her arm in a couple of places, and landing on her shoulder and hip. She was really shook up… and who could blame her!? If she’d kept falling, she wouldn’t landed on a scree slope straight down about 200 yards into a rocky creek bottom. And with 40 pounds on her back, she probably would’ve done a little tumbling on the way down. Scary stuff! Sometimes as adults, I think our imagination for visually the worse-case-scenarios might be a little too vibrant for our own good… but we all had these moments throughout the trip… for some it was falling into a rushing creek, or sliding down a giant snowfield, or tumbling down a loose, rocky slope, or even coming face-to-face with a grizzly sow and her cubs (which thankfully never happened, by the way!).

After giving Margie the time she needed to calm down, she got up and we all teamed up to help her over the next section of boulders. Her legs were shaky, as were everybody’s at that point in the afternoon. We scrambled in a team effort to the next little lake, which was the bottom portion of Sky Top Lakes and found a really cute little camping spot with just enough area to place all of the tents. Whew. What a day!! We were all very happy and smiling at camp… and mostly just glad to rest for a while.

Our original plan was to hike to Cairn Lake and camp there, but the terrain was in control of our itinerary. We weren’t far from it, though, so we figured after a good nights’ rest we’d able to tacked Cairn in the morning.

At this point in the hike we started to notice a few elevation side-effects as well. Margie had a slight loss of appetite, but we all knew that was something to watch for, so she forced herself to eat her backpacking meal, and we all drank a TON of water. Rachel was suffering from a headache and a little dizziness, or just awkward-feeling-ness. Gary acquired a nasty dry cough that got worse when he rested. If I had known then what that meant, I would’ve been much more concerned, and wouldn’t considered heading down in elevation the next morning. High Altitude Pulmonary Edema has symptoms like dry cough and chest tightness… we didn’t realize this until after the hike was over. I’ve thanked God a million times for getting Gary and all of us out of there safely. I feel like we got luck quite a lot. The blessed boot pins may have helped. J

For dinner I had Mac & Cheese with tuna and hot sauce. It was incredible. I sometimes wonder if I’d eat the same thing at home and enjoy it as much as I do in the backcountry… ah, who cares. It was amazing!

Thoughts from today: This is the most technically difficult hike I’ve ever been on with probably the most rewarding views. Even though we’ve only covered about five miles, nobody except for the 8 of us will ever know what we’ve encountered and what terrain we’ve dealt with. Those 5 miles were more difficult than any 17-mile day I’ve done on trails. It’s incredibly humbling. And I am feeling incredibly hard-core and pretty awesome, to be completely honest. I think we are all gaining a confidence from this hike that will never be taken away. We are strong individuals, and an even stronger team. We are becoming a family very quickly, and the love I’m feeling between all of us, and the deep friendship give me goose bumps. With sensory overload from the beautiful wilderness around us… well, that’s when I lose the words to explain it…

Tomorrow… one boulder at a time.

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