Heading WestA summer trip to Glacier and the Missions in 103 degree weather made me want to camp in some snow and cold. I also had 2 other objectives 1. To watch the Wolves of Yellowstone (further inspired by James Halfpenny's incredible book-"Wolves in the Wild") and 2. If possible try to scramble to the summit of a decent peak. I invited 2 friends from here in NC, Dan the Man ( an avid outdoorsman) and Corey ( a top notch Medic, SAR, firemen, etc) Dan had visited the west last year but did not get into the backcountry and Corey had never been west of Knoxville TN. We decided that with an emphasis on wildlife and secondly peaks, the Yellowstone area would provide more than enough opps for 2 weeks.
Just 2 days before we were to leave, we looked up towards the Shinning Rock Area some 4,000 ft above our town, and saw a nice coat of ice. Leaving Brevard sunny and in the 60's we took the Blue Ridge Parkway to Black Balsam rd where it was in the 20's and howling wind. This we thought would be a good test of our clothing and give us a taste of the Rockies.
The BadlandsI am surprised there is not a page for the Badlands. They are pretty neat if you ask me, esp if you have spent the last 12 hours of daylight looking at TN, KY, IL and MO. What a difference to wake up to. I never feel like I am really out West until about Mitchell SD. Then the antelope and plains really give me the western feel.
Anyway the Badlands were bathed in fairly warm sunlight. We set out on a little hike with frozen ground underfoot. We hiked/scrambled to the top of a "pass" and then proceeded to climb the formation seen below.
Dan discovered a fossil in the mud way up there, but we, for some reason took no photos??? The exposure was pretty sweet up there, the truck looked like an ant about 1500 ft below us. But as the sunlight increased we found out why the Badlands are not a climbing/scrambling destination.....They are made of mud and clay. It would be no stretch to say that we carefully mud-skied down in about 3-5 inches of muck that had melted in the sunlight. Nonetheless the scenery, the wildlife, and the hike made for a great way to start the trip. Mule deer and bison are abundant with a few bighorns here and there. We did not see the rare black-footed ferret or the rattlesnakes advertised by the NPS at every corner.
After a night in Livingston MT, we made our way into YNP. Our 1st stop was to secure a permit for a backpacking trip. We pretty much had the entire park to ourselves as far as the backcountry. ( Why can't that happen at Glacier in the summer?) We enjoyed the drive to the Lamar Valley and met several folks helping to tract the wolves with radio collars. We learned that the Slough Creek pack had been ran out of Slough by an unknown pack (perhaps the reformed rose pack). The Slough Creek pack was now in the Lamar Valley. After a day of hikes on ridges near the road we retired to the sprawling jungle called Cooke City (pop. 200). Turns out there was literally 1 meal to be had in the whole town.
As we began the trail the sight of very large wolf tracks seemed to confirm that we were in for some good wildlife watching.
Then about 2 miles into the trail (snow covered gravel road to car campground) we shared the trail with bear tracks. We had heard that there were 1 or 2 male Grizz still out, looking for Wolf kills. From my time in Glacier I could say with certainty that this was not a big Grizz by any means, in fact it appears quite small, Or could it be a black bear? I would invite your comment on this.
The bear in question turned off and headed West right at the trailhead proper. We began the "climb" up heartattack hill and near the top we scaled a rocky point that had endless false summits but great views. Along the way Dan found the first Elk shed of many to follow. The sidetrip cost us alot of time and we rolled into camp (2S2) about an 1 1/2 hours after dark.
Exploring Slough Creek
The next day we went North. The views of Cut Off Mt were impressive. It was obvious that it was above our level as a winter climb but an un-named 10K footer to the southeast looked slightly do-able if approached from Bliss Pass. However using the binocs were figured it would not be the peak but the approach that would be the stopper. At the junction with the bliss pass tr. we saw a bald eagle, tons of nice Cuts in the creek and of course lots of bison. But no wolves.
Where is McBride lake????????Day #3 saw us try really hard to put a log over the creek to cross it, but finnally we sucked it up and shed our socks and boots and crossed the creek barefoot at 20 degrees and knee deep + water. It was great having a free day to explore, glass for wildlife, and know that there was not another human around for miles. ( even the Slough Creek Ranger was gone).
We decided to just start heading into the hills and go wherever we felt like and we had hoped at some point in the day to see McBride lake. A funny thing happened about a mile above the creek, we ran into a trail that was cleared and marked in spots and we assumed it went to McBride lake but after about 3 miles of following it uphill, we (OK Dan) determined it was not taking us to the lake. Where it did take us was ELK CITY we literally almost stepped on a resting bull as we rounded a crest and then the sheds and skeletons were everywhere. From here the trail proper dropped into the 1st meadow, but we continued off trail up the Buffalo Platuea. Here, up high we thought we heard the Wolves, a coyote "howled" but then we heard thunderous howls from the valley below. As it turns out the coyote had put himself in a spot that his howl , just thundered an echo for miles. He was real surprised to see me crest the ridge to see what was going on. So again, no Wolves.
The trip back to camp had us guess at which "canyon" might contain McBride lake and we guessed right. What a huge lake to be so hard to find just hundreds of yards off trail. As we filtered water some Bison were determined to pass us by on a narrow trail between the lake and the cliff above it. We tried to deter them but they were not stopping, so we watched peacefully, until Corey's trekking pole fell on the ice and started a "stampede" that shook the ground. Another icy crossing of the creek brought us back to camp after about 8 miles of exploring.
My old Tower map has no trail above McBride and neither did the newer one at the Albright VC. The 2 Rangers we asked had never heard of a marked trail on the west side of the creek except the Buff. Platuea tr. So if you know anything about this mystery trail, please post something!
Our exit out of Slough creek put us on more Wolf tracks on the "hill" near the trailhead. I spent some real quality time glassing from up high and saw nothing but bison, not even an Elk.
The Electric SlideOur plan had been to go into the Lamar Valley, since Wolves were often seen there, yet we had half joked about seeing how far we could get up on Electric Peak. Our first visit to the Ranger Station had a nice lady ranger tell us what we had suspected that while the ridge may be fairly clean the approach would be miles of post-holeing.
But this time our backcountry ranger was a young wirey guy who seemed actually crazier and more abitious than we were. He said Electric was definately doable but then backed off a bit when we told him we had no plans to rope up. Still he said it would be fun to go as high as we safely could and he practically assured us we would see Wolves in Gardners Hole. All this sounded great except we had got a late start that day and it was 1:00 as we sat in the backcountry office. The campsite near Electric would require a 1,000 ft climb up snow pass to start and then another 5 miles or so in knee deep drifts.
Still we set out. Once again we followed large Wolf tracks up snow pass and we felt good about our chances. However at the bottom of Snow Pass, Wind and snow caused us to follow a marked ski trail and get off track. We lost an hour finding our path again in the deep snow. The going was slower than Slough with the increased snow depth. We had 1 1/2 hours to go 4.5 miles and we knew it wasn't happening. We also knew a snowstorm was coming 2 days later so we only had 1 clear day to climb. After considering our options we decided to cross over into Gardner's Hole on the Fawn Pass Tr. and stay at a camp there.
Again we stumbled through the dark woods trying to find a bear pole and finally we did. Well after dark with increasing winds we set up camp and built a fire. When I made it to the fire the guys told me to check out the bear track next to the fire ring. There I saw a tract of such immense proportions that even if I were in Alaska I would have dismissed it as a clever fraud. Besides the insane size the toe marks were so well defined they looked like someone had mashed their palms into the snow to complete the faux track. The guys went on and on about the size of the bruin and I was too tired to play along with their prank. They kept asking me to photograph it before it got melted by the fire but I politley declined to waste my card space on such sillyness.
The wind rocked that night, I let them have my tent while I did the bivy thing. The trees creeked and moaned loudly all night.
We awoke to an awesome scene, we were on the edge of the forest and the meadow and we had a perfect view of mighty Electric Peak.
I watched a giant bull Elk cross the meadow just 50 yards from us until he saw me and made space between us. I realized that I had left my snacks in my pack which I used as a pillow ( including used Stinger Honey gel shots). I laughed when I realized it but the guys did not seem near as tickled at the thought of honey near their tent. After some exploring and glassing it became obvious that even if we had made it up to the Electric ridge the ice as viewed by my binocs told me that I had to admit we would not have made it very far with out roping up and so I was content to have the view of the peak for now and save the summit for warmer weather.
Lamar ValleyWe had had a great and awesome trip up to this point but I felt like we were due to see our Wolves. We had for a week now, been right before or right after them. A weird incident that we heard near snow pass between Elk and coyotes heightened our anticipation for seeing wildlife interact and so we put the Beartooth climbing trip back by one day and substituted a day hike in Lamar instead. In hindsight this may have cost us a 12,000 foot summit.
So at the crack of dawn, we set out up the Lamar River trail. We figured at this point we were just bound to stumble upon wolves after 10 or so days in the backcountry. It was supposed to snow that day but the visability wasn't as bad as we thought. The light snow was the 1st we had seen in the Rockies and oddly enough it snowed in the Smokies just after we left. Go figure. Anyway on that trail it seems like you have to walk 100 miles before you turn into the valley proper and get out of sight of the road. After we made the turn, we lost sight of the river as it dropped into a deep ledge. After about a mile into the "valley proper" we saw 2 backpackers coming towards us. We explained that we were out to watch the Wolves and they said what we should have figured. They watched a whole pack for an hour from their campsite and heard them all night! "Where are they now" I asked very jealously. ( We should have been at that campsite according to our original plans) They said they followed the river and we likely passed each other without knowing since the sightline was hampered by the low draw the river followed. We quickly set out to get a good vantage point on the river but by then it was only tracks. They had crossed near the ford for Specimen ridge. The couple had went into Slough after us and the guy had got so close to a kill that he sent the wolves running. ( yes that got him a lecture from a ranger, and I'm sure the wolf watchers weren't real happy either since they were watching with their spotting scopes.) Amazed at our ability to repel wolves and never see them ( maybe we should have bathed more), we headed back in disbelief. But we all agreed a bad day in the Rockies beats a good day at work anytime.
Changing GearsWe simply gave up on the Wolves. We knew our chances would be better if we followed the hardcore WW's around on the road, but we wanted to get out in the backcountry and I guess you take the risk of having an incredible encounter in the backwoods with no one around or simply missing everything by moving slow on foot and seeing less area.
So now we start to think about getting up in the rock and ice in the Beartooths. I am grateful for all the advice I got here on SP, it all seemed to point us to Red Lodge as opposed to Cooke City. We left the park and headed down the paradise valley. The awesome views of Emigrant and the other Absorkee peaks made us long to grab a peak before we went back. The Crazy Mts were so impressive and the ridges were so clean, we almost set off for them, but not having any beta we figured it would be better to go for what we had studied up on. After almost hitting 67 million deer between Columbus and Red Lodge we pulled into town on Thanksgiving night and stayed at the Yoddeler.
We hit rock creek road the next day having no idea how far we could get up it. Turns out after some 4WD we made to within sight of the trail head which was blocked by a big drift.
We parked the truck and set out. Two guys had just skied down which should have told us something. Corey asked me how far to our planned camp at Glacier lake and a quick glance at the map showed almost no distance. "300 yards" I said, "It's just a hop and a skip" I should have known everytime I say that it means torture, we quickly were post-holeing up to our waist only to climb out and fall on sheer ice or hard plastic snow. Snowshoes would have been nice but only half of the time. I thought about sporting my new crampons but we would hit long stretches of rock. Sometimes we were on the trail, sometimes we weren't, but we were always climbing and being slowed by drifts.
Gone with the WindCorey and Dan made a terrfic find, better than wolves or a UFO, or Elvis or even Elvis on a UFO, they found a RELATIVELY wind free spot. By this I mean that you could actually stand in this little area during the gusts and not be propelled into the stratosphere like a bottle rocket.
For some reason unknown to all, I still held the idea that perhaps we could summit something above 12K the next day before the expected snow came in later in the day. So I went on a little scouting climb up the shoulder of the 12Ker that flanks Glacier Lake to the northwest ( is this Metcalf Mt? . I went up and down and all around cliff bands and climbed some pretty steep snow but it allowed kick steps. At any rate I got pretty high up and found a nice ledge with a view of the lake as well as Little Glacier Lake and a small pond nearby and the slopes I hoped to climb the next day.
Without warning a sudden gust knocked me to my knees and proceeded to UNZIP my TNF parka and rip it off me. I caught it at the armpits or it would be in Iowa right now. The wind howled as loud as an Oasis concert and kept me on my knees. I have been in some wind before ( see Dawson Pass, Mt Helen, etc) but this was another level.Like most I probably tend to stretch figures ( that's why I bought a thermometer for this trip) but I would say the wind was easily over 70 or 80 mph maybe more. How many mph before you can't stand upright? And the temp had dropped to 5 degrees so my breathe quickly froze on my balacalva thing. Sitting up there on that ledge alone in the elements gave me newfound respect for that Bryce Neuberger guy, B., Mad Max, and the other B-tooth guys that go Solo in that stuff and WAY back in there. SHEESH.
I started to head down, I got cliffed out several times and got way off track. Some of the stuff I climbed I could not down climb safely. I did some short glissading ( that was fun, we don't do much here in NC). Now I had to find the little depression we were camped in. The problem was there were a million little ridges of depressions in front of me. I had a real adventure finding our camp.
Back at Camp the temp had dropped to around 2 or 3 degrees where it would stay for the night. My new Sierra Designs Omega tent did fantastic in the wind and it was incredible warm. A big surprise was that my Snow-peak stove which EVERYONE had doomed to failure was melting and boiling snow at 10,000 ft and 2 degrees! Not fast but it was working. WOW. Maybe the Primus winter blend had something to do with it, but it was not pre warmed, it came straight out of my pack and into the snow. All this while 2 MSRs sat idle. ( 1 stopped working)
Night comes early and stays long up there. It was pitch black at 5:00 and that is a long time to be in a bag. I let the boys have the Omega, I decided to bivy.
The next day was not what I had hoped for. My visions of summiting were buried under new snow and more coming down. The wind had died a little ( now back to category 3 hurricane strength), the temp was holding steady at about 4 degrees, but the snow had cut visability to maybe 20 feet between gusts. We packed it up and did the slip and slide thing back to the truck. We had seen no wolves and climbed nothing of note, but still had a great time. I informed my wife that she will have to help me do all those things but maybe in warmer weather. If I had taken her in the B tooths we would be going to the big D. (don't mean Dallas). Not really, but she likes things above freezing for the most part.
Back in WNC I did my first hike here in Tevas and shorts. The midwest got slammed just after we got back.I imagine that in the plain sight of hudreds, the wolves and Grizz teamed up and took down a Bull Moose as a rainbow touched down over them in perfect light and a Mt. Lion wandered by. Oh well.
Final Notes by the numbers2 lowest temp we had.
53 approx highest temp we had
5 rating on my bag, which I agree with
4700 miles on the truck
3 Railroad Earth CDs that helped with the drive
2 sets of bear tracks
2 stops at Golden Corral in Rapid City
47 approx number of times Corey and Dan went back to the steak bar at GC
9 number of states we were in
39 hours on the road without stopping to spend the night
3 number of times we ran bison off the trail
1 number of times bison ran us off the trail
2 number of gloves that fell victim to the campfire
0 number of fish caught
2.29 average gas price
11 number of bison burgers consumed
Gear ReviewsNot exhaustive but a list of certain gear and how it did
Celestron 10x42 Noble Binoculars--- 1st class. Awesome value. In the ball park of the big boys ( Swaros, Zeiss, Leica, etc) without the price. Sharp and tough.
Canon EOS 2x converter---- Extra power was nice, but boy did the sharpness suffer.
SOG Seal Revolver Knife------ Super Hard Core. Cut through 3 inches of ice on McBride lake like it was butter, flip it around and the saw will cut through wood, bone, anything. If you like knives check it out.
Sierra Designs Omega light (3/4 season convertible) 5 stars. Great tent. 2 man tent that could have slept 3 in a pinch ( we all 3 ate supper in it) Held up to insane winds with out the use of guylines, was very warm, easy to pitch, lightweight (6lbs), tough, and did I mention roomy? Funny thing I still haven't slept in it.
Feathered Friends Hyperion Jacket--- The jacket weighs like 10 onces, packs down to softball size, and is very very warm. Makes a great pillow, but the toughness ( or lack thereof) scares me around the fire and while gathering wood. Overall good bet, might have been better off with MH Sub zero.
MH Windstopper Tech jacket----- Tough, functional, stops wind, nice pit zips, not real warm on its own, but a great all around jacket.
Arcteyrx Bora 95------- I can't begin to imagine a better built pack. Super comfy and easy to load. True Hard Core stuff.
Teko socks----- If there are better socks out there, let me know.
MH Tioga down bag------ rated to 5 and that's where it bordered on cool after 10 hours, so no complaints. Lacks the impressive loft of FF or WM bags. Might be a tad wide for single digit temps.
Snow Peak Stainless stove ----- put the MSRs to shame. SO much easier. use a heat shield and this thing will surprise you.
MH scrambler pack---- used it as a sleeping bag stuff sack and day pack. Looks frail but holds up. Super light. Nice item. A bit overpriced but nice.
Old school (early 90's) TNF Gortex bivy. Little over a pound and tough as nails. Does its job. From the time when TNF was all hardcore.
MH windstopper dome hat----- kept wind at bay but 2 complaints 1. really muffles sounds and 2 head on the wind will peel it back or even off, needs strap (of course if your'e wearing a helmut it would stay)
UDAP Grizz Spray----- didn't get any action on this trip, but if we get attacked by a possum in the blue ridge we'll be ready!