Friday, September 2, 2011

DAY #6: Beartooth Mountains Backpacking Trip

On our way down to Cairn Lake, before we realized we'd have to climb back up. It's okay, the smiles stuck, anyway. :)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Where we camped last night was this smaller lake with a giant snowfield going right down to and hanging over the water. At one point as we were all sitting there, we heard a big “Crrraaack!” and a “Sploosh!” A section of the snow cliff hanging into the water cracked and started to fall into the water. It didn’t make it all the way, but it sure made a loud, eerie sound. Maybe all our chitter-chatter and flatulence helped it give way. ;)

In the morning… I mean early, like at 2:00 in the morning, Rachel and I woke up to my dad yelling, “GET! Get OUTTA here!” … that meant GOATS!!! Rachel and I opened the flies on the tent and peeked outside. Two goats were roaming around between our tents looking for a pee spots to dig in. They like the salt. Apparently the baby one was digging around their tent where my mom stepped out in the middle of the night to pee, and the adult goat was sticking her nose under their tent fly and licking the salt off of my dad’s trekking poles! Too funny! Gary was up right away – he’d been so excited to see some goats. But when he got out of his tent, he realized the goats were sort of following him. He walked off a ways into the dark where we could no longer see him, and all we heard was him saying, “Hey… get…” then he’d make a fake goat sound, and you’d hear the goats kind of jumping around. Then Gary showed back up in our headlamp beams, watching behind him, with the goats still following him. He must’ve smelled like a giant salt lick to them! He was even flashing his headlamp at them saying, “Hey! I’m human!” I think that was enough goat exposure for Gary!

Then Randall and Leo were up to go to the bathroom, and I have the funny scene stuck in my head. Both guys up on top of the hill past our tent, their backs to us, hands in front of them… as they went to the bathroom. The goats came closer and closer to them, and they both started to shift very uneasily and started “baaaahhhing” at them and hollering for them to go away. These sure were some persistent ones! They were really fun, though. We all got good laughs out of our early morning visitations by the friendly beasts, and the baby’s “MEH” sound he made stuck with us the rest of the trip. At any point (which was VERY often) that we were scrambling on tricky terrain, someone would usually let out a little “Meh…” and we’d all laugh. Rachel kinda’ started that, and it stuck for the whole week. We were just wishing we’d had the steady feet like the goats!

I ate breakfast, which was oatmeal and coffee, of course… I never get sick of the stuff, thank goodness! After I was done eating, I washed my hair in the FREEZING cold water. I felt like my brain shrunk to the size of a peanut! Then I washed a pair of my undies and a shirt. They hung on my pack for the first half of the day until they dried.

Margie rearranged her pack this morning and was commenting how she felt much more stable. She was crawling over boulders with ease early that morning!

Everything went to plan that morning. Gary and I were scouting out the route to a saddle we agreed looked like the most subtle incline and decline down to Cairn lake where we hoped to sit and have lunch, then walk around and back over to the other side (where we originally were going to camp), and then on towards Dewey Lake and the Rosebud Trail.

We did great… until we started down the loose rocky slope towards Cairn. It was super-slow going anyway, since the descent was so steep – I would guess at least 45 degrees – and so many rocks were loose, and smaller… some sections of scree even popped up making it a little scarier yet. Gary went ahead almost all the way down to the lake – he looked like an ant down there, and we couldn’t really make out what he was trying to communicate back. He started his way back up towards a different hill that we might be able to cross over, and when he got closer I heard him say, “We can’t get around that way. We’ll have to go up and back down the other side.” By that time I already realized this, and was feeling nervous that we’d have to climb back UP that crazy-dangerous rocky slope. That would be the WORST! So I told the crew to hang tight, have a snack, and that I was going to go around and see if there was another way around. Gary took the high slope, and I took the low route. There was a sheer cliff that jutted down straight into the lake. There would be no way to climb around it. The only way to get around the cliff would be to literally wade through the water while trying to hang onto a wall coming perpendicularly out of the water. I saw rocks and the possibility of stepping through, but it looked like it dropped off, so I had no idea of the depth of the water… I was familiar with the temperature of the water, and that was nothing to mess with, either. It was way too risky of an option. The second thought was to ascend up a huge snow field, which was even more steep than the rocky terrain we were crawling down, and one misstep would send a hiker sliding all the way to the bottom, dropping off about a 10-foot snow cliff, landing right in the water with their pack on their back. At the point I decided this was also a way-too-dangerous option, Gary hollered down that there was no way to get around from up high, either. It was a straight drop-off.

I was making my way up the insanely steep snowfield to save some time (and unfortunately alert the crew that we had to turn around – UGH!), and I stopped for a minute to catch my breath. I dug little steps in the snow for my feet so I could rest, leaning against my trekking poles, and I looked down just ever so slightly and realized I was looking straight down (waaay down) at the water from between my legs. MAN! That was STEEP! A fear crawled into my stomach and up into my throat as I visualized my foot slipping. At this point nobody could see me, either. I was too far past the rock slope for those that were waiting to see me, and I was too high for Gary to see me over the ledge. I felt really scared! I said a prayer – out loud – took a deep breath and just took my time, digging a step for each time I picked up my foot. I eventually made it across the snow field with a sigh of relief. Until… I reached the end of the boulder field. The boulders were ginormous, and I looked down between a couple of them and couldn’t really tell where the ground was below them. If I’d slipped and a rock shifted, I would have slid down in there and been stuck and nobody would’ve heard my scream or seen me. It was a super-freaky moment for me. The rocks (thankfully) were very stable, but each step I took led me to a new crevasse in the rocks. I was soooo happy when I saw Leo around the corner. I hollered to him to have everyone start back up the hill – there was no way out.

It was a bummer to have to go back up that hill, and I had a sinking feeling having to tell everyone to turn around and redo all the work they just did working their way down… but it was the safest option. I felt good about the decision, felt as though we exhausted every possible option to save our steps, and I knew we were making the right choice.

Once we were all back at the top of the saddle, we met up with two other hikers that were planning on heading down. It was weird to run into anyone back where we were – and it turned out these were the only two people we’d see the whole time we were off-trail, which was really cool. We told them the situation we found heading down to Cairn Lake, and they eventually chose to go back and try to make their way around the other side of the lake. The area that one would normally take around Cairn Lake was covered in snow. Normally we’d be able to boulder-hop all the way around… but not today!

We all met back up at the saddle on top of Cairn Lake. We ate lunch, laughed and enjoyed the afternoon. Even though our group had to scramble back up a tough slope, everyone was in a great mood. I was just looking around and realizing what an awesome chemistry we all had! A situation like that could so easily make someone a little crabby… but not us. I felt so blessed and thankful for having such a great crew to be hiking with. *smiles!*

After Cairn the day just got better. We worked our way down a much more gradual slope into a valley spotted with little lakes. Each lake had an outlet that ran off the edge of a short cliff down into the next little lake. It was like we were taking giant steps down from lake to lake. The wildflowers were everywhere – and a quick sidenote: the two hikers we met earlier explained to us that one of the cool flowers we were seeing around – a white, upside-down, bell-shaped flower with purple stripes and speckles – was a rare Montana flower they don’t see too often. It was called an Arctic Gentian. We were even more careful not to step on any after we learned that!

Once we made our way down the valley, we all started to feel fatigue. We weren’t going to make it to Dewey Lake and the Rosebud trail, but close. We were all okay with that, too. One more peaceful night in the backcountry… we looked down at Oly Lake and decided we’d find a place to camp there. My dad pointed out a spot on the north-west side of the lake and said, “See that there? There’s dead wood down there to maybe make a campfire with.” Yippeee!!! SOLD! And… it was closer to where we were than the spot across the lake I was originally scoping out. As it would turn out, it was a great decision, because the scramble to the other side of the lake was kind of tricky, and had we decided to go on, we’d have been doing some of it in the dark. This scenario happened to us pretty much every day. It was almost weird… we knew when to stop, and it was also the best decision we could’ve made each day.

But, of course, the excitement still wasn’t over. On our way down to our sweet camp spot on Oly Lake, we came across a pretty waterfall… that we had to make our way down somehow. There was a steep, nasty-looking snow field we were avoiding, so we ended up taking what was probably even more dangerous than that snowfield, after looking back at it. We scrambled down a crack alongside the waterfall, and once I was half-way down I realized it was MUCH steeper than I’d thought it would be. I was first to head down, and there was a giant rock I was about to step onto, but before bearing my weight, something stopped me. Something didn’t look quite right. I tapped it really lightly with the tip of my boot, it gave way, and rolled down the hillside, crashing and shattering corners off of itself onto other rocks, before it smashed into the snowfield. It dug out a giant gash out of the snow, and slid the rest of the way down. The sound of that huge rock crashing, bouncing and rolling down that hill was really scary-sounding, but so incredibly awesome at the same time. It sure made everyone’s heart jump a little, that’s for sure. I think we were thinking, “That coulda’ been me!”

It took a long time for us all to make our way down the waterfall’s slippery, rocky slope, but we did it. My dad even stopped mid-way, put on his pant legs, and came down backwards, which I imagine was much easier on his hip (he had it completely replaced in March this year!!! He’s one incredibly tough dude!) That slope left us with a few scrapes and bruises, but once down, there were smiles all around and talk of war wounds to show off once we got home.

After our tricky slope, we worked out way down even further to a double river crossing that totally butchered our bare feet… even though Crocs can get slippery in the water, I vowed to use them for any more river crossings! At the end of the day, that was tough on our sore feet and our mental state. We were exhausted in every way possible. We all agreed, though… the adventures and views we’d had up to that point made it worth every single bit of it.

At our meadow, there was a rock fire ring already there, and plenty of room for all of us to pitch our tents. We set up JUST in time for a storm to hit. Rachel and I crawled inside and listened to the rain pelt on the tent (and we were staying dry!). The wind picked up and blew a couple of really strong gusts towards us, and the tent would lean one way, then the other. It held up perfectly. Then thunder would roll all around us, then hail! We just laughed at the crazy noise it all made. It didn’t last long, either. It was a perfect high-elevation mountain storm. Short, strong and really cool. We all made our way out of our tents after it passed and started our dinner. My dad already had a small fire going – I think he might’ve been working on it through the storm – because he’s just crazy like that!

For dinner I made up some mashed potatoes with real bacon bits. It was spectacular. I also enjoyed a cup of hot cocoa spiked with peppermint schnapps. Yummy!

Once dark laid itself down on our pretty little campsite, Randall led some of us up the hill behind where we were set up and showed us where the space station would show up in the night sky… low on the horizon. Sure enough! It came into view and ran across the sky at a pretty quick pace until it fell back below the horizon and we couldn’t see it any more. Right on schedule once again! It was so neat to see that stuff so perfectly predicted. Thanks Randall!!

With bear canisters securely wedged between rocks a ways away from camp, we all laid down in our tents and fell asleep to the sound of two rushing creeks off in the distance.

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