The hardest trip I’ve ever done (yet)
Let me begin at the end. After catching a wrong turn and finally making it out of Holland Creek canyon, the horse trail contoured around the hillside and dropped into the foothills. The lake was somewhere off to the right in the haze of lodgepoles. I had 1.5 to 2 miles left. My feet hurt and I was in go mode, trying to keep a rapid cadence, not trip on a rock, and not be too preoccupied with either identifying which turn was our turn around point from skiing earlier this year, or on just how much I was going to yell when I could finally take this fucking pack off.
Suddenly M appeared around the next bend. She kissed me but wisely did not hug (she knows how icky I get). We walked back at the much slower pace. She took the camera and stopped to take pictures of flowers. She took my pack. Life came crashing back to normal. I took her picture with the pack on by the Owl Creek TH sign, sat in the grass by the truck, and quietly cried tears of relief and exultation.
She drove home, It got sunny. I decided putting my soaking shoes back on was worth it, and we stopped for soda, beer, and a cheeseburger at the Hungry Bear Bar, and on the long straight road north to Swan Lake I spent a lot of time staring blankly out the window.
I was more nervous about this trip than any since the Thorofare trip last May. But unlike that trip, where I was able to relax by late the penultimate afternoon, having passed all major obstacles, this route applied tension right through to the end. I never relaxed out there, and for a while this edginess annoyed me, as given the cold and rain and postholing and deadfall this weekend didn’t need to be more taut. I’ve now decided that this was entirely appropriate, and the right way to go through with it. There were a lot of ways and places to mess up, and the consequences of a turned ankle, fall, or swim were ghastly.
So I was glad to get underway Saturday morning, if wracked with doubt. The glory of a traverse is that retreat is sufficiently inconvenient that you’re unlikely to indulge without very good reason. I thought about not bothering with the trip at all below Limestone Pass. After passing through the slow snow and tough mid-elevation route finding over that pass I thought about bailing over Dry Fork divide and down to the North Fork Blackfoot TH. I especially thought about bailing down to Meadow Creek when I discovered how nice a level the South Fork was at (fast, but not pushy, ~3000 cfs I’m guessing very roughly).
I never had a good enough reason to do any of these, so I didn’t.
After a mile the trail up to Limestone ran into snowy meadows and I lost the trail. I rounded the ridge to the left too soon and ended up with some skis-off, steep and icey postholing in lodgepole thickets. Eventually I ran into this conveniently melted avalanche chute and went up it until I found the trail on the melted side.
There were four levels of snowiness on this trip, each with its own route finding demands and imperatives. At roughly 6000′ and above (lower on north facing aspects, and bit higher on southerly ones) there was enough snow, say consistently 6 or more feet, that deadfall and other irregularities wer buried along with all signs of the trail. Trying to follow the trail was largely fruitless, skiing was easy, so going from A to B line of sight was best. Below 5000′ (again, very dependent on aspect and sun exposure) the trails were either clear or with only intermittent patches of snow. Occasionally enough to be slow and annoying, but never enough to provide even a hint of route finding trouble. The ~1000′ between was a pain. Not enough snow to cover impediments, so you really want to be on the trail, but melted out enough (tree wells, weird drifts, snow bridges over streams) that skiing was not especially safe.
I got punished by all of them. The 8.5 miles up Monture had flowers, mud, and the middle Monture gorge running high and fast. It also had plenty of unpleasant postholing. As mentioned above I miffed the first transition heading up to Limestone, and if anything did worse on the way back down, dropping out of the nice snow zone into mandatory postholing and bushwacking back and forth along a stream drainage. Finally I said fuck it and climbed up the north side to look for the trail, and in a classic head slapper moment found it within 50 meters. Thankfully day 2 was all dry or almost dry trail (and by dry I mean snow free) and river, though log jams in the lower reaches of Danaher (thanks Ryan!) kept the excitement high.
Prepping to put in to Danaher Creek at upper Basin Flats. I hiked until almost 10pm the night before, and though about not pitched my tarp. It started drizzling sometimes in the night, and that rain turned to snow around 3am. I woke up to a sagging tarp and 3″ of wet fresh.
I had the first big celebration of the trip when I floated into the confluence with Youngs Creek at 11am on Sunday. The next few hours would be the easiest moving hours of the trip, and the upper South Fork is already one of my favorite places on earth. So big, so powerful that describing it with words or images is today still too daunting. After making a video of my trip last August, I gave up, and hardly wrote a word. The caliber of experience was the same, with vastly higher water. I made quick and easy time, five hours from confluence to Big Salmon Creek, including a 45 minute warming fire and soup break on a gravel bar. I floated past my awesome first camp from last year, the long I built my fire next to was almost under water (it had been ~25 feet up the shore), and the snag from which I caught my dinner was visible as only the subtlest of ripples on the surface. The numerous places where, last August, I had been forced to haul the boat down gravel bars were this weekend swift and smooth. I was cold, that damp all-pervading low-level cold that goes with packrafting in the rain, and avoided all the waves and riffles I could to keep from getting colder, but as always packrafting added a surprising dimension and profound depth to the trip.
I was excited to see the extensive corral fence of the Big Salmon ranger station, which meant I could get out, dance in the sand to wake up my sleeping feet, pack up, and get moving to get warm. I visited the ranger station, used their outhouse, read a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks magazine from 2000, and kept moving. All day it had, in classic Bob fashion, gone back and forth between raining and not with little discernible pattern, but along the shores of Big Salmon Lake (picture a slightly shorter Bowman Lake without a road leading to it) it stopped raining and warmed enough that for the first time all trip, I took off my rain shell. Fighting through the deadfalls with skis on my pack kept me honest, but I nonetheless made the head of the lake, my theoretical destination, by 630pm. Still in go-mode, I pushed on, resolving to hike at least another hour. Banking miles against tomorrow would prove to be wise.
I found a gorgeous meadow camp at the base of an avalanche chute, ran a few elk out of trees, made dinner, hung the food, pitched the tarp, and collapsed. It was still light enough at 945 that I could read the map without a light under my light blue tarp. There were miles to make tomorrow, but I was in a good position, and Pendant Pass into Upper Holland was a thousand feet lower than Limestone. I fell asleep fast, and slept hard, well, and easily until dawn.
Skis and Black Bear tracks on the last mile of trail before the Pendant Creek junction. Bears are excellent route finders, and can save a winter traveler a lot of bother when trying to follow a snowed-in trail.
It is tempting to glow over the ~10 hours of work the last day entailed because, even though my mind was focused on particular after particular in the effort to secure the easiest footing and stay on the trail, the all-enveloping process of such hard travel blends the salient moments into one large sea of remote struggle and achievement. It is not the state of mind often found amongst cars and buildings, and thus writing about it seems a bit obscene. None of the miles yesterday, save the last three on bare dirt, were easy. Big Salmon Creek curved a hair almost immediately after I left camp, and that in combination with dropping to a gentler, more treed slope allowed the rotten drifts to proliferate. I was in for miles of slow and steady slogging and cursing before I finally found enough snow to ski.
When I finally did put on skis, right after this waterfall, following the trail became a concern. I figured that until I got established in Pendant Creek, I ought to try and stay with the official program to make my life easier. Fortunately, the aforementioned bear gave me a tow all the way to the junction, and after dealing with the hardest creek crossing of the trip (6-10 foot snow walls on either side) I was wandering up the final climb before the final descent. I lost the trail, found it, and lost it again, but that was only just a distraction from the amazingly sloggarific going. The skis, heavier by far than snowshoes, carried more than used, and thus up to that point of questionable worth, proved themselves in 4-8″ or fresh snow turned that day into sticky mashed potatoes by rain. The Hoks slide right out of each trench, and have just enough float to get by. I crested the pass in a micro-blizzard, sent a Spot point to signal M to come get me, and linked long diagonal skid-turns down to the still-frozen lake.
The last navigational challenge was to be the cliffs and switchbacks on the initial descent from Upper Holland. I took of skis and put on crampons, and began an interesting act of exploration: who would be the better route finder, griz or moose? Sometime within the last few days a fair-sized griz had come down from the lake, and even more amazingly, earlier that morning a moose had come up to the lake (still frozen solid and drifted in thick, what was it hoping to find?!). Their tracks occasionally diverged, but mostly conspired to help me find the trail. I was glad to have hauled the weight of crampons on a few steep and hard sections with nasty drops. But soon enough the ‘pons were off and I was moving downhill on mud and rocks as fast as my tired legs would go. A bit below the snow line I saw fresh sneaker tracks in the mud (women out morrell hunting, according to M), and soon enough ran into M herself, was at the truck, and was home on the couch drinking soda, showered, with a massive spread of gear drying in the basement.
Why the hardest trip yet? Because difficulty lives on the sliding scale of experience and imagination. Two years ago I never would have even thought of this trip. Then I did Le Parcour with Kevin, the Thorofare trip, and my eyes started to be opened. I started packrafting. A year ago I might have thought of this trip, but never would have had the boldness to do it. Starting out Saturday I knew I could do this trip, and for all the doubt and lurking hazard and suffering going back into the tunnel which is the slogging execution of grand plans was visiting a familiar friend. For all the misery of slow miles, especially on Monday, I never doubted that I would make it. I just wondered how much would be required.
And that is, in the end, the point.