Prologue - Getting Crippled - August 3rd, 2014This past August I stood atop Mt. McGuire in the heart of the Bighorn Crags and could not see a damn thing through the wildfire haze. To quote Vince Vaughn a la True Detective Season 2, it was truely blue balls of the heart, in addition a waste of a valuable vacation day, and alas just one of several during a frustrating four days of fruitlessly seeking views during the worst of the 2015 wildfire season, flashbacks of which still fills me with pure, unadulterated rage and literally costs me whole nights of sleep.
All of this may have been the deferred price I paid, butterfly effect style, for the events winding down the past summer. I was on a roll after having surmounted Thompson Peak in the Sawtooths, by far my top aspiration for the year. With Thompson checked off my mental spotlight set on McGuire, a peak that Greg had gushed about after he did Labor Day weekend of 2013. Things were coming to a head overall in life in general; after Thompson I was working Tuesday and Wednesday, flying out to Savannah on Thursday, partying my ass off for a bachelor party until Sunday, flying back to Salt Lake and finishing my last week of work…all my planned prelude to climbing nonstop through the fall in order to get the mountains out of my system before moving back east. Certainly McGuire could fit in somewhere in between trips to Glacier, the PNW, the Oregon Coast, and the usual slate of Northern Rockies peaks?
Driving the rental back from Hilton Head Island to Savannah I had been musing about how I had just had one of the best days of my life. We chased off a relaxing first day of drinking, cornhole, beer bars, and more drinking by heading up to South Carolina and surviving a round of tubing in the ocean complete with old school gangsta rap in the background, which was promptly overshadowed by jet skiing with dolphins. I mean, shit, how awesome is that??
Drinks and appetizers before leaving Hilton Head, then an official dinner and drinks with the bachelorette group at a haunted brewery started off that fateful night. Things got fancier at the post dinner drinks at Rocks on the Roof, the outdoor bar atop the old Bohemian hotel. Then our jack and jill groups split off into the night and things transitioned to a blurrier state. One minute we were playing cornhole at the bar with a girl and her dad, the latter claiming to have been a benchwarmer on one of the old Orioles World Series teams, and the next moment I was apparently sprinting across a busy street under a deluge of a downpour just past midnight (perhaps due to the illusion of pizza on the other side). I got hit by a car, did ample damage to it for my part(or so I was told), got flipped upside down many feet in the air and landed on my back.
Well shit. My first thought was that I hoped my shirt was okay, because it was a nice shirt and I really liked it. Then, maybe while the EMT was asking me questions in the middle of the street, or maybe at some point during the ambulance ride I was like fuck, am I ever gonna get to climb a mountain again?
Somehow I ended up without a scratch or bruise on my body. Beneath the skin however, they said I had a mild MCL sprain on my right knee and a bone contusion. What devastated me more at the time was the fact that I had ruined my buddy’s bachelor party, having subjected them to standing outside in the rain for upwards of an hour, only to find out in the wee hours of the night that none of their phones would ever be 100% on fleek again.
They stuck me in some random room in the hospital and I got some sleep. What was most harrowing about the next day was the sight of my phone batteries dwindling down to 5% by the time my buddies picked me up. I had trouble getting it to charge all day, excruciatingly watching the damn thing linger around 4-7% until I landed back in Salt Lake. But first, we couldn’t let a mere accident (not even a flesh wound) ruin the day, so we headed off to Tybee Island, got some more fruity cocktails at Wet Willy’s (a true southern treasure!), I hobbled slowly behind everyone else on the beach, pausing every few yards to rest atop a grimy public picnic table, and we rented a little golf cart so that I could save a bit of walking, but also because the idea of renting a goddamn golf cart because one in five of us was a cripple seemed pretty hilarious to everyone.
I had a set of sweet new crutches that I would hope to hike with the rest of the summer into fall but first, the knee. It definitely hurt and more importantly the sensation of not possessing anything but nearly absolute complete confidence in my knees was a hundred percent a foreign and new concept to me.
I couldn’t really straighten the knee, much less bend it all the way. Sitting in a tight spot was the most painful process ever, which needless to say made the two legs of my flight back to Salt Lake torture. Not sure if I could even fit into the driver’s seat of my car, I asked Greg and Kadee to pick me up at the airport that Sunday night. I tried to stay active during the week by still going to the gym and lifting via the upper body machines. A visit to a knee doctor yielded a much better knee brace, but my first tentative walk to get coffee at the Barnes and Noble not far from my office broke no speed records.
What was actually more painful at times were my left side ab muscles. They gave me by far the worst, breathless type of pain through the entire experience back at the beach in Tybee and on the flight back. I didn’t realize it then, but after experiencing the same pain sprint/hobbling across a busy street on crutches for my goodbye dinner at the office on Friday (the irony) I realized that such exertions were straining the muscles in the left side of my body, always abnormally tight and problematic (including a somewhat extensive history of lower back issues on that side), to extremely painful levels.
Peak #0: Logan Peak - August 10th, 2014So my first weekend free of a 9-5, smack dab in the middle of the best month to go after Northern Rockies peaks, and I found myself stuck writhing in pain in my abs all day Saturday. Sunday I felt improved enough to go after my first peak post accident: Logan, a Bear River Range drive up that I had neglected for so long due to its proximity and ease of access.
The drive up was still no gimme. A couple hours with my knee bent uncomfortably and stooping on my strained ab muscle in my usual shitty posture was not an appealing thought, but still I needed something to summit.
August is always Northern Rockies season, and this would be the first time I got a Utah summit during this most august of summer months. The bumps and bruises made for pain and aches the closer I drove the rocky road to the summit, but even on a hazy day it was gratifying to stand atop a mountain for the first time since the accident.
I hobbled around the summit in my crutches, taking pictures and enjoying the prime views north at the Bear River crest. While footing was good overall at the well developed summit, every step on something that wasn’t 100% level gravel was an adventure. A few other parties joined me at the summit and I’m sure they found the sight of some knucklehead limping around the summit an odd sight.
Peak #1: Mt. Washburn - August 14th, 2014The next few days weres beyond tantalizing…no job holding me back yet physically unable to tackle any peaks. What made it worse was the fact that Greg had just embarked that weekend for a weeklong trip into Montana, going for Stripe, Snowshoe, among others.
In the immediate aftermath of the injury I had contemplated moving back east early; what was the point of living another two months out west if I couldn’t take advantage of it? In the week to come I did feel that, as slow as it went, the knee seemed to be improving with every day, and I could still salvage something from the rest of the summer.
That Tuesday I thought about going after Wagon Road Ridge, a short walkup from the northern approach, but bad weather spoiled that plan. Still, as I found myself starting to stand unassisted by crutches during the week I began to plan for some kind of peakbagging trip, injuries be damned.
Greg was ending his trip that Sunday on Baldy Mountain, an easy walkup in Northern Montana that would facilitate his long drive back into Salt Lake. I figured I could try and plan a trip hinging on meeting Greg on Baldy, testing the knee beforehand by picking off some easy peaks along the way. As long as I could hobble, I could make forward progress, and as long as the weather was good, I’d resign myself to taking all day if that was what it took to make it to the summit one uneven step at a time.
My restlessness only grew with the no go on Wagon Road Tuesday and I starting playing connect the dots with easy peaks up north that I could potentially see myself hobbling up. Montana would be the general direction with Baldy Sunday, and I eyed a ribbon of easy peaks from Sacagawea near Bozeman north to Edith and Big Baldy in the Big and Little Belt Mountains. I zoned in on Sacagawea to start the trip Thursday followed by Edith.
Yet I had a problem. The number one assumption that had to be met for cripple peakbagging to have a chance was a clear weather window all day. Greg had been dealing with some rough weather all week up north, though in some cases the forecast bark was worse than the actual bite. My Thursday takeoff was hinged on a gradually improving outlook, but Sacagawea looked to be hazardous past 11 AM. The difficulties were myriad…the mountain was a long drive from Salt Lake and I didn’t have the benefit of chancing a late start knowing that I could zip up and down the peak before the storms hit.
I was on the road before 3 AM but still running late, especially as weather.gov did their usual update around 6 or 7 AM. Yup, it had gotten worse…good chance of storms by 10 AM. This would not do, and I scouted alternative options.
Idaho Falls was the decision point, and I decided to pass on Sacagawea. I actually ended up doing it later in the summer, and knowing what I know now about the route, I don’t think I could’ve made it up given my physical state at the time due to the steep and loose nature of the last hundred feet below the summit.
Mt. Washburn, with a much better weather forceast, became my backup plan. As much as it made sense for me, I hated to take this peak out of my back pocket since I had always envisioned it as a rest day peak following one of the many toughies (Grand Teton, Granite, etc) in the area.
First I took a detour to Driggs and my namesake town a few miles away, enjoying the view of the Tetons on a cloudy, overcast morning. Following that, I swung west, taking some county roads to the town of Ashton, where I took the sidetrip to Upper and Lower Mesa Falls. The Lower Falls were rather dull from the vantage point high above near the highway, but the Upper Falls were gratifying. The area is well developed with a visitor center, still closed in the early morning.
I was the only person at the overlooks, which was just as well, seeing as there would be no witnesses to my limping efforts up and down the various stairways, quite challenging for me, to the brink of the waterfall and back. The vantage point you get of the broad falls at its event horizon is really quite special, and I recommended this side trip for anyone on their way to and from West Yellowstone and Idaho Falls.
I got a ridiculously overpriced breakfast sub from Subway in the God awful tourist trap of West Yellowstone, kicking myself for passing up the cheaper one a few miles back in Island Park solely because it was located on the left side of the highway. It was past 9 AM and the circus was already starting anew in Colter’s tourist hell. The Washburn parking lot was mostly full by the time I pulled up in the mid afternoon, but there were enough basic tourists coming and going for me to find a spot.
I packed up, checked my knee brace to make sure it was extra tight, and got my crutches ready to go. No, I wasn’t actually limping that badly with the crutches tucked under my armpits, but rather I used them as a more secure set of hiking sticks, allowing for constant support. To be honest I’ve hated my hiking sticks ever since I acquired them in June…they were ski poles constantly chipping paint, a constant irritant stabbing and pricking my hands during every hike. Those poles were way too long as well, while my crutches gave me the option to grip at the top or the middle depending on circumstance.
I progressed at a very slow speed, watching in dismay as scores of out of shape tourists pass me by. Washburn was as good of a route to reintroduce myself to, with the “trail” being in actuality a former and very well groomed gravel road. Still, every stray rock that I bumped against or gave way below my right foot hurt like hell.
All in all pretty great views of the surrounding countryside, the broad meadows stretching down the mountain and the yawning chasm of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in view often during the hike. The lookout tower taunted me from above as I slowly made my way switchback after switchback to the crowded mountaintop.
Luckily for me, the clouds burned off while I enjoyed a granola bar atop the lookout, and I took in the distant views of the Beartooths and Absarokas, indistinguishable from my vantage point.
On opposite ends were Yellowstone Lake and Mt. Sheridan beyond, a glimpse past adventures and Electric Peak to the right, perhaps a peek at ghosts of Yellowstone future?
I walked down to the small hill east of the lookout, travelling along a smaller but still manageable trail to get some unobstructed views east, then limped down to views of distant rain showers.
My legs were very sore and my left calf muscle tight to the point of absurdity as I unpacked and undid my brace in the parking lot. Physically worn from an easy walkup, I was nevertheless encouraged by the mere fact that I had made the 6 miles and, despite spots of pain and soreness, neither endured or caused any real structural damage. My hopes for a successful trip were buoyed, but what killed was still the uncertainty. I had no clue what my body would bring me the next morning, or whether one bad slip, bump or fall would result in a serious setback and put a premature end to this crippled peakbagging fiasco. But at least I had one hiked peak in the bag and more importantly, knew the lower limit, the bare minimum of what I could physically accomplish.
I had the rest of the day to basic-bitch it around Yellowstone. First, a walk to Tower Falls, which on tired crippled legs, once more took more out of me that it should have. I drove the Blacktail Plateau dirt road, a rocky tumbling dirt road that offered some good views of Electric Peak but not much more. It was getting late in the day, so I decided to skip checking out the Mammoth Hot Springs. Road rage accompanied me out of the park and into Gardiner driving behind retarded tourists driving 20 miles an hour below the speed limit. My temper calmed driving through the remarkable Treasure Valley, admiring the intimidating profiles of Emigrant Peak and Mt. Cowen to the right, peaks that may very well be on the moon to me at this point.
It had been an exceedingly long day by the time I pulled into White Sulphur Springs several hours later. My plan was to get a motel here before Mt. Edith the next day, but rates were outrageous. I called a motel in Townsend, a town on the other side of the mountains, and booked a much cheaper room. The Mustang Motel was a gem, great rooms, excellent wifi speed, and a cute girl at the front desk to boot.
Townsend seemed like a nice little honkey tonk and I would have loved to have hobbled my way to a bar for a crippled drink or two, but another ominous forecast meant another requisite early start.
Peak #2: Mt. Edith - August 15th, 2014One of the benefits to Montana hiking is a plethora of pleasantly graded dirt access roads spread through the state's mountain flanks, all thanks to the active logging everywhere. Edith is no different, featuring a smooth ride to the trailhead coming in from quality roads on either side of the Big Belt divide of US-12 to the trailhead. I took the western approach from Townsend; cutting off the highway near a ranch, I found the initial roads confusing but once the access road cut up sharply onto a plateau above the highway the rest was easy going. Of course, travelling logging roads means occasionally finding yourself behind a logging truck. Fortunately the ones I encountered were pretty good at pulling off to the side to let me speed by.
Each hike I did on this first leg of the Cripple Peakbagging Tour featured a new aspect to hiking that I would be rediscovering. Edith was my return to a true trail, what with Washburn being a glorified road walk. Still, at four to five miles round trip I hoped that it would prove more than manageable. I was glad that despite the pains fromm yesterday, I woke up with my knee feeling still a day stronger than the last. After a good stretch at the small trailhead I managed to make good time up a good trail, as close to fast walking as I could get.
The sky was bluebird clear in the morning but I could see distant wisps of baby thunderheads forming Colorado style. The trees thinned near timberline and the trail emerged above timberline as it traversed towards the Edith/Baldy saddle, the rockstrewn tundra as crisp as the morning air.
Reaching the saddle meant embarking on another first: off trail travel. The route to Edith is nothing worse than the easiest of class 2’s, but bearing in mind that I literally couldn’t climb (put any pressure) on my right knee, it might as well have been class 4, albeit with zero exposure. My knee allowed for slow progress along a road or trail, but it could not handle anything more than smooth terrain. Anything that required my knee to support and carry me upwards was out of the question, which meant every piece of talus was a tedious effort to step on the rock with my left foot, carry my body upwards, then tentatively with the crutches supporting move my right foot up correspondingly. This meant a decelerating rate to the summit as the rockpiles built up. Even the grassy areas were not entirely composed of even surfaces and as a result, cause for caution.
I made it to the top. This was my first summit in this area, and I realized that this part of the great state of Montana was more Great Plains than Northern Rockies. Baldy and Baldy Lake made for pretty cool views west, but vast valleys much larger than what I was used to, made for distant visages of any of the surrounding mountain ranges including the Crazy’s and the Bridgers.
Fortunately it was a clear day, and I could see leaps and bounds in each direction. Edith, a P4K, towers above everything else in the area, however, and besides neighboring Baldy the rest of the Big Belts looked like little more than minor foothills.
Not that I was running late by any means, but I decided to take a shortcut on my descent. The trail ventured west past the Edith summit to the Baldy saddle, then the subsequent cross country jaunt to the summit had looped back east to a significant extent. I decided that, despite the increased exposure to rocks and cross country travel, it was worth cutting out half a mile or so by beelining it directly towards the trail from the summit. Having seen much of the terrain on the traverse over, I was pretty confident that I would not encounter any truly difficult sections.
The worst of it was still descending the assorted arrays of talus near the summit, each rock its own crux requiring a careful landing of the left foot followed gingerly by the right, and God help me on the occasional loose step. I angled in a southerly, slightly southwest direction, taking advantage of a few broad drainages to return to the trees. The landscape, with alternating green and granite slopes as far as the eyes can see, was startlingly pretty, and I was lucky enough to find the trail in the trees without encountering any deadfall.
The hike up had been 2.7 miles with 1,900 feet of gain, 500 feet of which were off trail. I was glad to have tested my limits once more without repercussions on the way down, having descended 900 feet cross country without incident. This carved my return trip to only 2.2 miles back.
Once more my left calf bothered me on the return to the trailhead, cramping up so badly that I found myself unable to take off my boot until after some aggressive stretching. My legs once more were sore and worn overall, but once more my key takeaway was that, despite all the work I was putting my knee through, it still felt like it was healing and getting stronger by the day. The pains on my left side were obviously a result of my overcompensating, and probably connected to the underlying tightness that affects that entire left side from the abs to the hips to the hamstrings to the lower back to a chronically aching shoulder, all of which bothers me still today.
I took the eastern leg of the roads back to US-12 in order to get a picture of Edith from the east, an impressive vantage point of the mountain from rolling meadows just after the road drops back down out of the trees. The overdue thunderstorms were building by the time I returned to Townsend, and the rest of the drive amidst violent gusts and lightning strike made for an interesting ride to Helena
Peak #3: Old Baldy - August 16th, 2014I was glad to be returning to civilization. Big Baldy was another nearby easy peak, but it was out of the way to the northeast, while I needed to travel west to reach Baldy near the town of Plains on Sunday. I had always been curious about the town of Helena and was grateful for a chance to check it out. It was cold and rainy, I was exhausted mentally and physically, but I pushed myself to my limits, all heart and guts, to sample my fair share of the local eats and watering holes.
Saturday was a rest day. I caught up on sleep and decided that my only goal of the day was to reach Missoula. I also decided that I needed to maybe, possibly, somewhat try to perhaps get a peak, if possible. No rush though, so I checked out the really cool St. Helena cathedral in town, then reluctantly made my way west on US 12. I would’ve loved to have stayed another night, but an early start on Baldy Sunday necessitated the farewell.
MacDonald Pass was ridiculously pretty, as was the rest of the drive down to I-90. Dean had mentioned Old Baldy, which hadn’t initially been on my radar when I left Salt Lake. But it had a perfect spot along the drive and seemingly offered easy access for a cripple on a rest day.
Again the access roads were great via the Brock Creek Road, though this one really seemed to stretch deep into the hinterlands. My DeLorme map wasn’t all that clear, I didn’t really do much due diligence, and having not uploaded the area topos into my GPS I was reduced to inquiring with spare ATV’ers and hunters to verify whether I was on track or not.
Though I had all day on a peak that required only 500 feet or so of elevation gain, a moderate chance of thundershowers still struck a mild sense of urgency in my ass. I eventually found my way to the clearing below the peak proper and parked with the summit in view. Continuing along the road would take me directly below the peak, but that approach seemed to require a steep and rugged ascent through thick woods that this cripple couldn’t yet handle.
I hobbled my way through a clearing up the slopes to some type of roadbed cut, dodging all sorts of downed trees along the way. The rest of the way was easy, following the obvious ridge spine to a pretty chill open and rocky summit. Great views from the highway all the way to the summit of Mt. Powell and the Flint Creek’s to the south, a distant memory for me now.
The nearby Garnet hills made for a good backdrop, including Black and Nevada across the valley, but what really intrigued me were the distant views into the great northern frontier. Countless peaks loomed below the clouds in the north, and I wondered if Red Peak in the Scapegoats were one of them. Red, the Swan Range, the Bob…those were all foreign concepts to me, lands I’ve only seen in my imagination (and SP and other various internet sources of course).
Having obtained my first taste of the true north, and indeed Old Baldy was the northernmost summit I had done up until that point, I started down and, like the day before, I ended up half wittingly testing my limits.
I found the initial downclimb manageable and, following the reasonable terrain, ended up straying from my ascent route. The downclimb quickly escalated in steepness and brushiness, and I gripped my crutches tighter with every step down. Hell if I was gonna climb back up a hundred or so measly feet in my condition, so I took my chances, following my momentum down.
My knee held up as I emerged from the last few clusters of trees, and I did my best zig zag through the fields of flat deadfall back to the car. I drove back to I-90 rest assured that I was on the right road, and happy that I had gotten a peak on my rest day.
The spectacular views of Mt. Powell and the Crater, a geological feature I had only glimpse from the summit of the former, faded into hazy foothills, then washed away in a gentle burst of summer showers as the same highway gracing my home state wound its way towards the promised land of Missoula.
The sun was shining but the traffic clogged by the time I emerged back into civilization. I was eager to check out Missoula, a town popular with both hippies and Greg. Downtown seemed like it had potential, but after finding a motel I decided to take it easy, heading to the western strip mall side of town to unwind for a few hours at a Barnes & Noble, reading up on books about the local trails and folklore.
Peak #4: Going Bald(y) Again - August 17th, 2014My early curfew allowed for an alpine start of out of town the next morning. Greg wanted to be on trail early, so my goal was to meet him at the trailhead of Baldy Mountain, north of the town of Plains and maybe 1 hour 45 minute drive from Missoula, at a reasonable time, especially seeing that he would have to wait for me to hobble extra-slow up and down before he could start his drive back to Utah.
Dawn hit after the dark silhouettes of McLeod Peak and the Rattlesnake Mountains passed me by. Somewhere north in the azure valley lay the allure of the Missions, yet another vague concept for me. MT-200 to Plains was dimly pretty but none too exciting, though I was struck by how the few small hamlets dotting the road reminded me of some counterparts in Maine. I’d imagine though, despite the distance in miles and culture, the old timers from either end of the country would be surprised by how much they may have in common, perhaps starting with their disdain for carpetbagging tourists such as myself.
Greg had had himself an interesting week too, fitting in a dayhike of Stripe Mountain, a 30 mile round trip effort deep in the Magruber Corridor of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, on his way up north. He had some uncharacteristic misses too, passing up St. Joseph’s after having too much to drink one night, and the day before Baldy, turning back on Snowshoe only a thousand feet plus from the summit due to bad weather and low visibility after practically bushwhacking 8 miles in to Snowshoe Lake via the peak’s brushy western approach.
I met him and Oquirrh at the upper trailhead, perhaps coming half circle at this point meeting him a day’s drive north and 3 peaks (for myself)...a far cry from when he picked me up at the airport when I was incapable of bending my knee far enough to drive myself home. We started up and among listening to his war stories from the prior week he regaled me with tales of huckleberries and how amazing and delicious they were. I had never realized the huckleberries were a real fruit, figuring them as simply a figure of speech or an anachronism from 19th century American Literature, but apparently they existed, Montana was huckleberry territory, and mid-August was huckleberry season. So I hesitantly picked a berry from one of the ample bushes lining the Baldy trail and found it to be tart but graced with a unique, rich flavor that quickly had me hooked.
And as for Greg, he quickly found himself running back to the trailhead on my accord. You see, half a mile or so into the hike I realized that I had left my camera back in the 4Runner. I’d be hard pressed to make a return trip and catch up to Greg fully healthy (re: hard pressed = don’t even dream about it), so in my current state I had no other choice but to beg him to run back down and the grab the camera for me. He assented, as I figured it would be a win win: I’d get my camera, he’d get an extra mile of workout out of the hike, and we’d finish at the same time regardless.
I was stuck with my own thoughts up the delightful trail for the next mile or so, emerging through the trees as the terrain got a little rockier and views opened up towards prominence peaks to the west: Cherry, Big Hole and Headley. At a point where the trail cut back north an overlook provided a good view to Thompson Peak in that direction.
I knew Greg was on his way when Oquirrh brushed past me and sprinted out of sight. Another quarter mile or so of hobbling I caught up with Oquirrh, which isn’t a clause that I should ever have to type. He was looking back on the trail, crying a little bit, so I figured that he sensed Greg’s approach and sure enough, he was jogging up not long afterwards.
A small cairn greeted us upon arrival on the broad summit plateau. The best views were south towards the subtly sublime colors of the water and rocks surrounding Baldy Lake.
McDonald Peak and the Missions were barely visible in the glare of the morning sun, and to my dismay haze, clouds, or maybe just distance blocked any view of Snowshoe and the Cabinets to the north.
We gorged on more huckleberries on the way down, and perhaps I got a little cocky. My fourth day crippled peakbagging and my knee felt consistently stronger by the day. The brace I had received from my knee doctor was sturdy as hell which, on the other hand, was tight as hell. The last two days I let hang casually between my knee and my ankle on easy (trailed) ascent sections and wore it only on the downhills. After dropping down from the only talus-y part of the trail I slipped it off, hoping to make it down quicker so that Greg could get a head start back. The Baldy trail is chock full of horizontal wooden berms, I’m guessing to prevent runoff and trail erosion, but they could be slippery, especially on a dewy morning following a stormy week.
One second I was a born-again huckleberry connoisseur, the next I was lying on the ground screaming in pain and anger. I had taken a slip on one of those berms and bent my right knee at exactly the most painful angle. The pain was unrelenting and I cursed on the ground for a solid minute, but then it magically relented. I was lucky as hell I guess; Greg had to help me up and the knee was stiff the rest of the day but gradually the pain faded and we made it back to the trailhead, where I stretched the shit out of it hoping for no major structural issues for the remainder of the trip.
Peak #5: Blacktail Bonus - August 17th, 2014I bid goodbye to Greg and, feeling better, hightailed it up to gorgeous Flathead Lake to sneak in a drive up, taking what was practically a superhighway up to the summit of Blacktail Mountain.
I took in the great views of the lake and my first glimpse of the Swan Range, gazed north and imagined the high peaks of GNP beyond, and walked around the summit sans brace and donning sneakers, a perilous task at times while wandering uneven surfaces trying to find the best viewpoints through the trees.
After stopping by the historic St. Ignatius Mission church, the namesake of the Mission Range, I returned to Missoula, grabbed a few beers and chatted with some friendly locals at an empty dive bar amidst a dead and drizzly Sunday night scene.
Peak #6: Ch-Paa-Qn Peak - August 18th, 2014Monday morning was my day to sleep in, and well I did, not arriving at the Ch-Paa-Qn trailhead until around 10 or 11 AM. Once again I enjoyed the benefit of amazing logging roads to arrive at the trailhead, which was not well marked but obvious enough based on its spot along the high point of the Reservation Divide, an odd name for the very tangible and prominent mountain range between I-90 and MT-200.
My main concern was talus, namely the few hundred feet of “hardcore” scrambling that would comprise my first persistent exposure to it on the CP tour. The rest of the hike was pretty dull, a long and flat walk through thick woods for three miles.
Leaving the trail as it approached the E/SE ridge, I approached some gentle slabby slopes, moving slowly testing one small, rocky step at a time. Dean had mentioned class 3 terrain on one of his TR’s, and I was wary of encountering a crux I couldn’t handle. Fortunately the toughest part of the route, some larger and slightly wobbly blocks of talus not far below the summit was manageable, but the views from the summit were limited by haze.
I enjoyed the views of some small lakes in the cirque northeast of the summit as I very carefully descended the talus on the east ridge, sitting down to descend each of the larger blocks. Mountains out of molehills aside, I felt like I was starting to get the hang of this mountain thing again, and really felt a sense of momentum and hope that I could restart my more ambitious plans for the rest of the summer.
But this first leg of the crippled peakbagging rehab tour was nearing a close. After a good stretch of weather the storms were now moving in, and I started thinkng about how and when to return to Salt Lake. First, I capitalized on one more day in Missoula, checking out the Kettle River Brewery and getting my life changing first taste of Cold Smoke beer, trying out the famous burgers at the Missoula Club, getting dessert/appetizer with huckleberry ice cream at Big Dipper, and closing out the night watching some NFL preseason games and supping on a delicious pita wrap and beer flight at the Tamarack Brewery downtown.
In between all this I spilled some water on my laptop at the motel, frying the motherboard and causing it to conk out. Aghast, I realized the need to return to Utah to get it repaired and/or look for a new laptop. I planned a jaunt up Saint Mary Peak in the Bitterroots to close out this first crippled trip, one that Greg had done (hungover) just the past week and had raved about.
Peak #7: Saint Mary Pilgramage - August 19th, 2014Yet once more I enjoyed the well graded gravel roads to the trailhead. At 7.5 miles round trip and 2,500 feet of elevation gain, this easy peak in any other circumstance would be statistically the most ambitious of my trip. Fortunately a good trail led all the way to the top, and I tried my best to replicate my fleeter ways of old, but to my dismay several weeks of partying, followed by inactivity then slow hobbling across Montana took a lot of the air out of my lungs. I was huffing and puffing the last 800 feet or so above the trees and, like my first peak of the trip, found myself taunted by a summit lookout that lingered out of reach.
Greg was right. Though Saint Mary itself is an unintimidating lump with the profile of a whale, its summit had views grand enough to literally have inspired congregations hundreds of years ago, when a missionary down in the valley regularly led his flock to its summit for mountaintop sermons.
I talked to the volunteer lookout for a good while, who seemed befuddled to have seen me limping up to the summit in crutches. Walking west of the lookout I ventured towards the edge to take pictures of classic Bitterroot Peaks such as the Heavenly Twins and Sky Pilot, but the found the footing on talus piles a wee too precarious for my liking.
Despite a week of seven peaks, Saint Mary was my first taste of truly alpine summit views since Thompson and getting tackled by a sedan. Satisfied, I returned down the trail without incident and sped through Hamilton and the rest of the Bitterroot Valley to make it to the Big Hole Battlefield before it closed, paying my respects on yet another piece of hallowed ground on a muggy summer afternoon.
The remaining drive through idyllic hay fields below Montana Pioneer Mountains, a range I had climbed (Tweedy) years ago but had yet to truly see with my eyes (haze), made for a fitting close to as good of a rehab as a dumbass also-ran candidate for the 2014 Darwin awards could reasonably expect.