Unfinished Business FinishedIntro
Solo mountaineering in the North Absaroka Wilderness is really not that great of an idea. Most trails aren't heavily used. The peaks are remote and usually require long and/or difficult approaches. Rugged terrain predominates. Major stream crossings are abundant. Capricious weather is to be expected, not merely planned for. Grizzlies roam the thick forests, and surprise encounters are always a possibility, if not a likelihood. Only a handful of small glaciers exist, so falling into a crevasse isn't much of a concern, but loose rock is almost everywhere and presents a serious risk once the going gets vertical.
In short, it's a bad place to get into trouble, and especially bad if you're alone.
So what to do if you find yourself on your own where you shouldn't be on your own because your partner has had to turn back due to an injury and the weather is sending all the signals that it's about to go all to hell?
Considering the effort it takes to reach Dead Indian Peak, if that is your objective, you keep going, especially if you live almost 2000 miles away and if you have previously failed to reach the summit.
Don't get me wrong-- Dead Indian Peak is not an expedition-style peak, and I'm not making solo mountaineering in the Northern Absarokas out to be something harrowing on the level of getting hit by a storm at 26,000' on K2. Dead Indian is not even like ecosystem neighbor and monarch Gannett Peak, which takes most people at least three days and two nights to climb (from car to peak and back to car) and sometimes requires (easy) glacier travel, although Gannett, despite being harder to climb, is probably a better place to get in trouble due to its popularity. While it can be done as an overnighter, Dead Indian can also be climbed in a day, which is what I set out to do, and did, my second time. It makes more sense, due to distance and weather, to spend two nights out, but much of the approach is a steep and miserable bushwhack that is pure hell for someone with a heavy pack, and that is why I wanted to do it in a day on the second try and why, even though I knew the smart money was on turning back after my partner, musicman82, had to call his day over, I didn't want to have to come back yet again.
Heading Out and Turning Back
Tim warned me at the outset that his leg was in bad shape and that he might not be able to do the climb but that he would give it his best. He was obviously in pain, but we proceeded. Before long, we were off the trail and up the spur from Gravelbar Creek that we had decided was probably the best one to use to reach the main ridge leading to Dead Indian Peak. Later, I would discover its own shortcomings as compared to the spurs we had used the year before, but for a good while, it was a nice route with a good game trail much of the way and not very much bushwhacking at all. There were some annoying ups and downs, but the relative ease of the terrain made up for them.
Among the many things Tim knows about me as a mountaineer, these two are some of the foremost: I will do almost anything to avoid hiking up loose talus, and I will do almost anything to avoid giving back gained elevation.
And so it was that when we reached some gendarmes and large outcrops along the spur, I stubbornly sought and found some nasty Class 4/5 ways through instead of dropping below the spur, contouring, and then reclimbing once past the obstacles, which was what Tim did, and although it took him longer, he was a hell of a lot safer.
But it took a toll as well. Tim was not falling behind just because I was taking things on more directly than he was but also because his leg was getting worse and worse and making every step agonizing. When I stopped and he caught up, I saw the look in his eyes and knew what was coming.
He was going back. It was killing him since he'd been after Dead Indian for a long time, longer, in fact, than I had been, and it had been the main course for us for two summers in a row.
"What about this leg thing?" you might ask.
In a way, I blame myself.
The day before, we had climbed Cutoff Mountain in one day. It was an 18-mile, Class 3 affair with over 5000' in elevation gain in all, not exactly grueling for an in-shape mountaineer as a day climb, but not a stroll, either.
Somewhere on the way down, Tim planted, and the leg went a way it shouldn't have, bringing steady pain with each moment of pressure put upon it. Forthright about it but optimistic nevertheless, Tim did warn me that he might not be up to Dead Indian the next day.
So why blame myself? Tim hadn't done any big days yet that summer and wasn't sure if he'd be up to back-to-back days of Cutoff and Dead Indian; at the time, we were also under the impression that, as the guidebook we both own indicates, the round-trip distance would be 26 miles. But I really wanted to do Cutoff (so did he), and the alternatives, though much shorter, just didn't appeal the same way, so I pushed, not too hard but just enough, for Cutoff. It wasn't exactly a wrenching decision for Tim to make, but if we'd done something shorter, gentler...well, no use pondering it now.
Knowing from the previous year that getting a decent signal and having it last long enough to complete a call out there was highly unlikely, a part of me wanted to ask Tim to wait back at the cars until I got back and go for help if I failed to return by dark, but the rest of me knew that would have been incredibly unfair and selfish to do. How could I have asked him to sit around and kill time for up to nine hours? How would I have felt had the same been asked of me? I know damn well.
No, I had to accept my choice and the potential consequences entailed by it. Tim said he might come back the next morning if his leg was better so we could attempt Sunlight Peak, but I think we both knew that was a formality and a way of reducing the sting of having to turn back. And it was a good thing it was bullshit, anyway; later that day, I found that the stream crossing the road close to the takeoff point for Sunlight was virtually impassable either by vehicle or by foot.
Tim has more sense and better judgment than I do. Only he can know how bad his pain was, but I know I probably would have kept at it. All my life, I've been one of those people whose pride wants to admit no pain and who will "play through it" even though doing so sometimes has made matters worse (I remember in high school football trying to keep going despite a pulled or badly cramped hamstring only to end up missing three games for the additional damage I did out of pride's sake). Tim swallowed the bitter pill of disappointment and saved his leg for the rest of the summer; I would have scraped my way to the summit and hobbled back down, wrecking the rest of the summer.
Then again, Tim had a nice young lady waiting at home for him; all I had waiting for me back at the car was a cold beer. Tough choice? Maybe. But he also had cold beer in his fridge. End of argument. Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it, too.
By the way, Tim is The Man. Flying out to Jackson Hole, I'd packed light to cut the baggage fees, which meant the cooler I had was a small one that doubled as a carry-on bag, and it didn't keep ice for more than a few hours in the summer. When we got going that morning, I put some beers in the real cooler inside Tim's car.
Of the many concerns in my mind as I spent most of that day alone, not least of them was whether Tim would remember my beers and stash them by my car for me, and, if he did, whether some jackass would happen along and steal them.
Tim not only remembered but also donated one of his, a favorite IPA of mine that I was craving but hadn't yet found in stores out there.
So tip your hat to Tim and buy the man a drink, would ya'?
Now where were we? Oh, the mountain...yeah, I went on.
As I started off alone, I occasionally looked back to where Tim was perched on a rock outcrop, probably good and pissed at the state of things. In my mind was this faint hope that suddenly the pain would go and he would be back in.
Not long after I lost sight of Tim, the bad weather came. First, it was rain, and then the snow pellets were falling. Disregarding my abhorrence of giving back elevation gained, I dropped about a hundred feet to some trees and took cover.
Because of the distance left to go and the hours of daylight remaining, I imposed upon myself the requirement that if the storm was still going after 30 minutes, I would go back.
Truth be told, I would have kept on even after an hour, figuring that I could make up a lot of time on the descent or spend the night out there if I had to (on any real day hike or climb, I always pack for the possibility of having to spend an unplanned night in the wilderness). Besides, with Tim not expecting to hear from me or see me for at least another full day (remember, we both knew he wasn't going to be back in the morning), I knew I could afford that night out without having someone get worried about me.
However, the storm got quiet before the time was up, and even though the sky still promised trouble and I obviously could not know for certain whether the calm was a lull or a true break, I pressed on.
In short order, I learned that my route, which I had hoped was the standard route used by scouting and other groups, was not. Finding myself in steep, loose terrain that was no worse than Class 3 (but still not what a responsible leader would take a bunch of kids on) yet made worse by the fresh precipitation, I eventually clawed (almost literally) my way back to the crest of the spur past the difficulties, where I soon found a bighorn sheep trail leading me off the spur and into a small basin that afforded a loose, easy scramble up to the main ridge above Gravelbar Creek and leading to Dead Indian Peak.
Then I traversed the ridges and the basins, past our campsite of the previous year (and cursing even more than I had the first time about how close we had been), to the scree slopes below the distinctive summit nipple of Dead Indian Peak. It was finally within reach, and the weather was holding. The hike up the scree to the final scramble was tiring after all the work it had taken to get there, and I paced myself by taking 50 steps at a time, stopping and cursing, taking 50 more steps, stopping and cursing, etc. Finally, the scramble to the very top remained, and although it was definitely Class 3, it was, disappointingly, much easier and far less exposed than descriptions had made it sound.
But it was sweet nonetheless. No, it was elating. It almost seemed absurd to feel such gratification for a Class 3 summit, but feel such gratification I did. Much planning, effort, and frustration had been involved for nearly three years, and at last I was there.
And not to stay long. Moments after my arrival, clouds hinting at snow from the west did come in, and they did bring light snow, but I took it as a sign to leave. I took some pictures, including one of the register tube that I was unable to twist open (normally, I eschew registers and detest their existence, but this time, I felt it merited an entry, so it was quite ironic that I couldn't open the damn tube), and left.
Luck was with me during the alpine part of the descent. The sun actually came out as I was heading back to the spur I ascended from Gravelbar while on the other side of the Dead Indian Creek drainage, a thunderstorm was blasting the ridges and peaks; we are talking a distance of 2-3 miles away at the most. Somehow, that storm stayed off me, and it was only when I was well on my way back down to Gravelbar Creek and back in the trees that rain hit me, somewhat hard but not too long, though enough to saturate my pants and boots as I waded through the soaked brush.
And what a rugged descent! No, it was no Class 5 affair with desperate rappels and sketchy anchors, but I decided to try a different spur, which worked out wonderfully until it ended well before the trail and plunged me into bushwhacking terrain out of the Pacific Northwest. Saying that this dense, wet, and slick terrain slowed me down is a slight understatement.
But I finally got back to the car, tired and wet, and found those beers. The first I had was a nice hefeweizen by the Teton Brewing Company; sweet and refreshing but not too strong, it was perfect as an afternoon treat. I opened it, took that long, beautiful first taste, and then headed up the road. Drinking and driving? Yeah. Hell, driving after being beaten up by a mountain is probably worse than driving while drinking a beer.
Oops, I was doing both. Please don't tell.
Oh, and late afternoon turned into the kind of achingly sunny and lovely affair you see in a postcard. Figures.