On this, our second trip to Montana I was hoping to take in a climb up something above the ten thousand foot mark. Mike had selected a suitable hill and e-mailed me details of Emigrant Peak. This hill seamed to fit the bill, it was above the desired “ten k”, would guarantee us some snow and with five thousand feet of climbing it would certainly provide us with a test. As before, Shirl, Megan and I took a week’s holiday in Florida before flying across the States to meet up with Mike, Craig and Lynn (Shirl’s mate). I fully expected Mark to turn up; however he’d well and truly wound me up by inferring that he wouldn’t be making the trip. So when Mike stopped by at Craig’s (for no real reason) it was no real surprise when I the great streak of whitewash mopping the floor in the corner turned out to be Mark. What I didn’t expect was Shirl’s mate Lynn to be already there. Clearly, not only had Shirl and Megan kept Mark’s trip from me, but I seamed to be the only person either side of the pond who didn’t know. Never again will I trust my angelic little daughter. Either way this now meant that there’d be four of us on the Emigrant climb. So, the seven of us, Craig, Mike, Lynn, Mark, Shirl, Megan and I set off for a four day tour of Yellowstone and its delights.
Having travelled there in Craig’s sister’s jeep and been lucky with the weather we made our way to the Chico Hot Springs Hotel. Just before checking into the hotel Mike took us to the local saloon for a quick pint. What a cracking little place this was. It carried a mix of old time décor together with an easy going atmosphere. All along one wall there were a series of hunting trophies, an elk, various deer, a moose, an antelope and what on earth’s that up there? Craig casually remarked that the strange looking creature was a Jackalope. It really did look odd. Needless to say I had to ask, what it was? “Oh, it’s a cross between an antelope and a jack rabbit”. “See, it’s got the head and shoulders of a rabbit and the horns of an antelope”. Sure I thought, pull the other one. Mark then intervened and asked the bar tender, “Oh jeez I guess it’s one of those Jack… Jackalope critters”. Hmm, they were working together pretty well, but surely they were winding us up. After all how on earth would…. With this wind up fair making us chuckle we made our way to the hotel and an absolutely stonking evening meal. That being said, Craig still managed to find fault with the artichokes.
Back at the room, which Mike, Mark and I shared I incurred the wroth of Mike by farting once too often. That was as much as he could stand and with some chuntering he climbed out of bed and opened the window to let some fresh air in. The result was the worst night’s sleep I can remember for a long time. My head was barely a foot or two from the open window and all I could hear all night was the constant overflow of a blocked drain pipe. Somewhat knackered I got up and the four of us made our way back down to the saloon for a breakfast. I couldn’t really go for anything else and so wisely chose a “Shirley’s omelette”. Just what you need when you’re about to take a decent hike. Before leaving for the hill Mark and I got talking to one or two of the locals. They’d enquired of our plans and then filled us with extra confidence by saying we’d no chance of getting up there and that a year or two ago a family of four perished on the summit ridge. Not only that but two months ago two climbers had been rescued after another incident on or about the same point. They certainly knew how to fill us with confidence.
Our route would take us just a few miles down the road and then along a dirt track road known as Sixmile Creek and past a ranch owned by Denis Quade (apparently he’s a Hollywood actor who was once married to Meg Ryan). Needless to say Mark and I hadn’t heard of him. The over night rain had turned this muck track road into an ice rink. Ok, it didn’t look like ice, but it certainly acted like it. As Craig’s sisters Jeep slid from one side of the track to the other it felt at times that the steering wouldn’t take hold and we would slide sideways off the track and all the way down into the distant creek. To make matters worse, we’d missed our turn off and had return and negotiate this stretch both ways. I’m sure all four of us were a little apprehensive as we made our way up and down this track. Thankfully, having turned back onto the correct route we managed to pull up in a small clearing near an old abandoned hut and were able to climb out safely onto terra firma. Craig’s culinary skills once again came to the fore as he dropped the back door of the jeep, dived into a couple of cool boxes and proceeded to make a series of door stopping sarnies. Not since me dad last went darn t’pit have I seen snap like that.
By 10.00 o’clock we were ready for the off, the rain had stopped and rather lethargically we made our way up Gold Prize Creek. As a result of a forest fire this first stretch was quite barren. There were charred remains all around that were gradually turning from black to green. It looked really odd, seeing these blacked vertical spikes standing to attention, but still looking virtually lifeless. Over and above this, the low clouds hid the mountains and therefore gave us no idea of what lay beyond this creek. On such a route all we could do was follow Mike in single file. He really did seem to be going for it and to be honest my mind started to dwell on the five thousand feet of ascent that lay ahead of us and the question “would I be able to keep up with him”? He later told me that his frequent stops were because he was tired. Mark and I on the other hand believed that he was taking pity on the rest of us, especially Craig who had been suffering from sinus problems.
Mike’s internet instructions (which, together with a low spec map were all we had to go by) advised that after a while we should head north up a washed out gully. Sure enough there it was and with it came our first decent ascent. The gradient wasn’t really on my mind; I was more concerned over what would be hiding in the woods. For months before our trip I had dwelled upon what I’d do if I came across a bear. This stretch through the woods had me watching every leaf that fluttered and had me imagining all sorts of sounds. I couldn’t wait to emerge out of the trees and into open countryside. We then emerged onto an old track which contoured around the hill side until yet again we had to huddle around our map and e-mail instructions. I say huddle, it was now raining and pretty cool. Again the correct choice of routes was made and yet again we made our way through more trees that again appeared to be full of all sorts of imaginary nasty man eating critters.
Then all of a sudden we emerged out of the trees into an alpine meadow that absolutely brimmed with a huge array of flowers. It was just how I’d imagine New Zealand to look. Although we still couldn’t see the top chunk of the mountain we at least had some degree of a view up the hillside through a great patch of trees and beyond. A little short of the trees we once again stopped for a breather and sheltered from the wind and sleet under a solitary bush. I was now starting to doubt that we’d be able to climb too much higher. As it was we were only at eight thousand feet and had almost three thousand to go. The weather continued to deteriorate and the snow became heavier. There was nothing for it, we’d get as far as the trees and take stock of the situation over a bite to eat. It was pretty clear that Mike wasn’t going any further, Craig who had been suffering seemed a little negative and Mark on the balance appeared to be prepared to give it a go. My mind was concentrated on something a little more pressing, once more I needed to excuse my self and leave my calling card.
As we stood by the first decent patch of snow and with Mike and Craig reaffirming their decision to go no further Mark set off on the hard work of post holing through snow that must have been two feet deep. Mike’s last words were that he expected to see the two of us return in ten minutes; alternatively he said he’d wait there for us. I happily followed Mark in the knowledge that he was doing all the hard work. Having spent no more than two minutes trudging through this soft knee deep snow I spotted a way out through an opening in the trees. Yes, the rocks that we found ourselves on seemed pretty precarious, but at least we could make decent progress upwards. With Mark taking his time gingerly picking his way through this jumble of masonry I realised that the best way of making progress towards the summit was for me to take the lead and force Mark into following me.
After a good fifteen minutes we found ourselves out of the trees and amongst the rubble and rock of the ridge. The snow had now ceased to fall, but the light covering it had left now made for a slippy surface and great care would be needed from hereon. Although we were now amongst the clouds occasionally we gained views down into the huge bowl to our left and across to another ridge that was rising towards us on our right. Gradually the snow deepened and gave more stability; however Mark was taking an age as he made his way upwards. Many a time I looked back only to see Mark in the distance tentatively moving from rock to rock and constantly checking his footing. Inevitably the statement came “you do know we’re not going to get up here don’t yu”. But at the back of his mind Mark knew that I had to at least reach the same height we’d achieved on Pigean a couple of years earlier. This fact would at least allow me to reach 9,210 feet.
With this first target behind us the snow had continued to deepen and so our progress became much easier. The next marker of note would be the magic ten thousand foot contour and again after a few carefully worded comments from Mark and equally stubborn but careful responses from myself we found ourselves going higher still. I had now told myself that my previous rating of 20% chance of getting to the summit had increased to a more optimistic 40% chance of success. I was sure that Mark’s attitude would be totally different. During the constant slog up this ridge unknown to one and other, both Mark and I were battling with the same mental problems. Back home in England when we climb the Lakeland hills it is quite easy for us to convert feet into metres or visa versa, however out here at just short of 3000 metres it was almost impossible. The process is to take the height in metres, multiply it by three and then add ten percent. Eventually when we’d managed to work out three times the height in metres we’d totally forgotten what the next step was. If by luck we’d remembered we couldn’t work out ten percent let alone add it to the first answer. By the time we’d come up with an answer (no doubt wrong) we’d have to start all over again because the calculation would be out of date and relate to somewhere way below on the ridge. The one redeeming fact was that we both suffered in the same way. Clearly maths and altitude do not go together. For a moment it made me wander what other senses would be dulled by altitude.
Then out of the clag we came across a great white wall. Although it wasn’t vertical this fifty foot high obstacle must have been inclined at an angle of sixty degrees. To cap this there was a snow covering at least two or three feet deep. All around this slope it was surrounded by crags that looked far too dangerous to risk. Mark, needless to say gave in and declared that he wasn’t going to budge and inch further. Well, at ten and a half thousand foot on a ten thousand eight hundred foot mountain I was at least going to have a look at this slope and see if there was any way I could reasonably make progress up it. Although it was snowing hard I could hear Mark hurling abuse at me in order to try and stop me going any further, however summit fever had taken over and by carefully using my borrowed walking poles as ice axes I was able to ensure that at all times I kept three points of contact with this snow slope. As I assessed every step for potential danger my thoughts ranged from what would happen if I fell and where would I end up, to wasn’t this an out of the world experience. Progress was measured, but slow and unbelievably through the snowstorm I could still hear Mark “don’t do it Chris, we’ve never been in a situation like this before”. To cap Mark’s comments I could also hear Shirl’s warnings from the night before when she’d wished me a good days walking but told me in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t to return to the UK in a wooden overcoat. Even with these comments ringing in my ears I had now ascended this snow slope and as the terrain became much easier I continued to make progress upwards. Everywhere I looked there were great rock pinnacles of snow and ice. There were crazy spires of rock that loomed out of the clag and seemed to disappear through the cloud into bottomless declivities. With these pinnacles there were ridges that were converging from all directions. Clearly I must have been close to the top.
Then out of the blue I looked forward, there in front of me was the summit, not more that fifty feet above me. Looking at the terrain between myself and the summit my excitement was short lived. To get to the summit I’d have to traverse a narrow ridge. This would have been great in the sun on a nice dry day, however with unbelievably steep slopes down both sides and no idea of where the cornices were I surely couldn’t make it. By now I couldn’t hear from Mark. Whether he’d given in or the weather had engulfed his warnings I wasn’t sure. Either way I couldn’t get rid of Shirl’s words of concern. I was also aware of the comment received in the saloon from the old timer who’d told me I wouldn’t get to the top and then gone on to tell me about all the casualties there’d been on this summit ridge. Perhaps the right thing to do would be to call it a day. After all I was now up near the top of a big mountain in pretty hostile conditions and entirely on my own. Perhaps I’d come back and have another go. With my mind now made up I took out my camera, outstretched my arm and took a couple of shots of myself with the vague outline of the summit in the background.
Initially I thought it’d be a straightforward matter of ambling down the ridge. Unfortunately I’d forgotten about having to descend the snow slope. To put if bluntly I was egging myself, however on this occasion fortune favoured the brave and I eventually made it down to the rocky section and Mark’s footprints in the snow. Even though I’d been a little irresponsible (Ok maybe a little reckless) I still expected Mark to have hung around for me. No such luck, he’d cleared off on his own either in the full confidence that I’d be fine or simply to teach me a lesson. What a place to be Billy No Mates. Why
should it matter? The snow had stopped falling, Mark’s tracks were pretty clear and if he was going twice the pace he had on the ascent I’d be with him in no time at all. Sure enough, I soon caught sight of him through the clag. No doubt he’ll say he waited.
The remainder of the decent as far as the treeline was uneventful. It seemed to go on and on, but thankfully for some reason I was still quite fresh. “Now where did we say we’d meet Mike and Craig?” Search as we might through the trees we couldn’t find anything that looked familiar, whether it be a clump of trees, patch of snow or even my earlier dump. With Mike’s last words of “I’ll wait here for you” ringing in my ears I couldn’t quite grasp that after all these hours he’d cleared off. In the knowledge that we hadn’t found the rendezvous point, although slight, our dilemma was that if we continued on down, Mike may have been waiting for us somewhere amongst the trees. Whereas if we continued searching in the trees we were probably wasting our time. Common sense prevailed and we once again found ourselves in the open meadow.
Unfortunately my energy reserves had now subsided and all I wanted to do was make my way back to the car. Mark however had other plans. He was doing a damn good impression of David Bellamy, moving around from plant to plant, enthusiastically examining and taking pictures of them. Meanwhile I was preoccupied by Mike’s whereabouts. Instead of bending down to examine pretty flowers I was looking for Mike’s footprints. Eventually I spotted a few that were clearly making their way down the hill. Given that we’d seen no one else all day it was now highly likely that we hadn’t left them in the woods awaiting our return. Confirmation came when I found a few old bones that had been placed in the pattern of an arrow. At regular intervals on the remainder of the path yet more of this poor critter was left as a marker for us. I wouldn’t have minded, if I’d have picked them all up I could have had some form of macabre fun with the jigsaw and seen what type of critter they were from. Apart from Mark doing an impression of a stag (by holding a series of forked branches to his head) the descent passed without further ado. The next thing we saw was Mike and Craig appear from the truck. Craig had spent his time looking through his telescope for sight of us and Mike had apparently kipped for an hour or two. All in all it was clear that they’d waited for no time at all before they retraced their steps to the comfort of the jeep.
Half an hour later we were back at Chico enthusing about our day. In my case I’d got so far, but hadn’t quite reached my goal. That being said a couple of months later back home in England I’ve just logged off the internet after viewing a site that detailed the summit ridge. Their comments regarding this final stretch were that “it was not for the faint hearted if covered in snow”. Perhaps I’d done as much as was realistically possible. As they say it’ll still be there for me another time. All in all, even with the cloud and snowy weather both Mark and I had had a cracking day. Mike had apparently felt a little off it and Craig had been suffering with his sinus problems. Well, that’s what they told be. I just think they weren’t up to it!