What constitutes a good day in the mountains?
Some will say any day in the mountains is good, or at least that a bad day in the mountains beats a good day in the office. Although I appreciate that sentiment, I’m not so sure I agree; while I’ve never had a day at work I wish I could live over and over again, I have had days in the mountains that I wish had never happened. A day of non-stop rain when I was backpacking in the Sierra Nevada once comes to mind. Low clouds devoured the views almost all day long, and the crappy cover I had for my tent proved to be both too small and a wonderfully porous conduit for water. That day sucked.
But back to the question. For a mountaineer, especially as his experience and ability grow, it is all too easy to judge the day by whether or not he made the summit. A shutout, no matter the reason, becomes a failure and a throwaway, a waste.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t. And I relearned that the afternoon and evening of July 1, 2010.
The day promised to be a frustrating one from the very beginning. Morning cloud cover hinted at thunderstorms later, and although skies were a pretty blue by late morning, I did not forget the old advice that the cloudier the dawn, the more likely there will be storms no matter how nice it gets in between. Because camp was going to be above timberline, I wasn’t looking too forward to those storms.
Getting to camp was supposed to be easy. About 5 miles on a rugged 4wd road would get me to a 9900’ trailhead for Goose Lake and Grasshopper Glacier, and then I would follow a good trail 1-4 miles and camp somewhere between 10,000’ and 10,600’. If the weather cooperated, I would climb Sawtooth Mountain that afternoon, Wolf Mountain the next day, spend a second night out, climb Iceberg Peak the next morning, and then head out.
That was the plan, anyway.
I made it about one rough mile on the 4wd road until deep, soft snow blocked the road, and the downhill, slanted slope had “stuck” written all over it. Not a huge deal, just an annoyance-- I would just hike the rest of the road and make camp closer to one trail mile than four. Normally, I don’t listen to music while hiking, especially in grizzly country, but my MP3 player promised to make a boring road hike more bearable.
That was the first real bummer of the day. But it wasn’t too bad.
The second was the mosquitoes. The western side of the Beartooths has the worst mosquitoes I have ever seen, though I admit I have never ventured into the Everglades during the summer (and entertain no thoughts of doing so). But that wasn’t too bad, either; while some shun soaking their skin in DEET, I don’t, so I hastily and happily smeared it on and enjoyed the rest of the day with not a single bite.
So down, or really up, the road I went. Within seconds, a huge group of ATV riders came along from behind me. As I watched them struggle through the snowbank that I had decided not to mess with, I thanked myself for listening to my inner voice this time.
Now, I am no fan of the ATV crowd, and I don’t buy into that “the vast majority of users are responsible” mentality because I’ve seen far too many riders plow across tundra, tear ugly tracks into once-pristine badlands buttes just inside wilderness boundaries, and venture into the great wild with cigarettes dangling from their mouths as their bellies spill over their belts. Nevertheless, I was sorely tempted to pull a twenty from my wallet and offer it to the one willing to haul me along to road’s end.
It was a damn good thing I didn’t. Those riders didn’t make it more than half a mile up the road from where I parked; the snow was just too “everywhere” and too deep. Even along the stretch that they could drive, I was actually hiking faster than they were driving. So that would have been twenty bucks pissed away unless the driver had been decent enough to honor the spirit of the agreement.
So the silver lining is that I had all to myself a part of the Beartooths that under “regular” summer conditions would have been permeated with the sound of machines and the presence of people. And judging from the visible impacts by other people that I found along the way, I think I can safely conclude that many of the people who would have been out there would not have been out there for the wonders of the pristine wilderness. Instead, I was all alone; in fact, since I saw no signs of other people having been through recently, I believe I was likely the first person out there since the season for snowmobiling and cross-country skiing had ended.
Quickly, I learned why perhaps only a few brave the area during such a shoulder season. The more I followed the road, the less road there was, and the deeper the snow became; after another mile, the road probably wasn't visible even a quarter of the time, and I sometimes followed what I assumed was the course and at other times just traveled cross-country in the direction I needed to go.
The snow was awful. Third real bummer of the day. This was not hard-packed deep snow that makes for good travel conditions; it was rotten, posthole-quality snow, and I did a lot of sinking to my knees and deeper. What should have been an easy 4.5-mile hike turned into an exhausting, frustrating affair. And two of the three stream crossings were almost wades.
But the scenery took a lot of the pain away. Snowy peaks formed majestic backdrops for glistening lakes that otherwise would have been ringed by campfires and anglers. Out there, it was just I and the sun, the wind, the wildflowers, the water, and…the thunder.
Yeah, those clouds presaged by the morning skies arrived, followed by ever-approaching rumbles of thunder until lightning and rain became my new companions. Fourth, and final, real bummer of the day. Fortunately, the storm was both short and not intense, and sitting it out in a stand of trees did not cost me much time and did provide some much-appreciated rest.
At last, I approached the trailhead, but instead of dropping to it, I ascended a low ridge nearby to have a look at things.
It was still winter in the Beartooths here. Snow buried the entire basin holding Goose Lake, and it buried all but the steepest mountainsides as well. The actual trail was nonexistent except for a brief section right after the trailhead.
Change of plans.
Although Wolf Mountain was the highest and most challenging of the peaks I wanted to climb, it also had the longest approach, and all of it was across the snow-filled basin. Knowing the quality of the snow I had just trudged through for nearly five miles, I knew I wanted no part of yet another 10 miles of it in addition to the hike back out along the "road."
New plan: Make camp on that ridge, which, at timberline, had superb views in all directions and a few flat, grassy spots making great campsites; rest for the remainder of the day since I was so tired from the snow slog to get there; climb Iceberg Peak and Sawtooth Mountain the next morning, very early when the snow would hopefully be a lot harder; and then head back out.
One of the reasons I don’t really like backpacking is that I get bored out of my mind during the downtime. Yeah, I read, do crossword puzzles, bask in the sun, and doze, but it’s still not enough to keep me happy for more than a couple hours. And, as often is the case for me, after about an hour off my feet, I get my energy back and become antsy to do something.
What to do?
I considered tackling Iceberg Peak so that I could lighten the workload for the following day, and I even studied a traverse route high in the basin that would keep me off the deepest, and softest, snow, but it was by then 6:00 and I doubted I’d have time to finish what might be another 8-10 miles before dark. Much closer to me, though, was Mount Zimmer, and from camp I could see a good way up to the south ridge and from there to the summit itself (or what I thought was the summit); I also knew that barring a major surprise, it would not be trouble to return to camp by dark.
Following the storm, the skies had cleared dramatically, setting the stage for one of those heartbreakingly beautiful late afternoons that only the mountains can deliver so well.
Gaining the crest of the ridge was easy enough. After approaching the steep flanks, I found Class 2 going up them on tedious talus, with some Class 3 near the crest itself. Something seemed awry, though, because from the base of the talus slopes, it should still have been 1000 vertical feet to the summit, and what I had pegged as the summit was more like 500 feet above me.
From the ridge crest, it was easy scrambling to what from camp looked like the highpoint but from closer up clearly was not.
End of day. It was more easy scrambling to what I had determined the “real” summit to be, and I actually fancied that I could make the real summit before dark and still easily get back to camp after sunset courtesy of the clear sky and the gleaming snow. Unfortunately, as I descended the ridge north from that second false summit, I came upon a deep Class 5 notch that was way beyond what I was willing to take on without roping up.
(The next day, from the basin below, I spied what looked like a way to reach that notch, but exploring that route will have to wait for another day.)
So I had to admit defeat, sort of. Of course there was deep disappointment. But then I looked at the bigger picture-- the majesty of Greater Yellowstone, including some of its wildest country, in all directions, the fact that only I was witnessing that exact scene, and the fact that I had reached two summits that day, even though they were false summits-- and disappointment turned to satisfaction.
It had been a good day indeed, even a great day, for I had found communion with the mountains I love.
And cold beer lay waiting. I had buried some bottles in the snow by my campsite, and the sunset was just going to be that much better.