Eccentric but not insane (Dan and John weigh in)
Dan’s excellent trip report can be found at BackpackingLight. John’s is below.
Me traversing the steep slope at the beginning of Headquarters Pass, which John mentions below. Dan boldly scuttled across in trail runners and Lightrek 4s. I was very glad to have an axe. Photo by Dan Durston.
I’m not sure how I found myself at The Open. It might have been from being too long on the outside looking in at interesting adventures, or maybe from too much time on my hands after being laid off, or perhaps it just seemed like an interesting thing that I might be able to pull off with a bit of planning and luck.
However it happened, I found myself one Saturday morning in May standing in a whisking snow near a bridge over the Teton River with six other participants and a surprising number of bystanders, both the significant others of participants and curious parties from the community, as well as a representative of the Forest Service to take a headcount so that our names were in hand in the event of misadventure.
The beginning of the trek is a nine mile road march to the trailhead. As the parties started to separate out I found myself matching pace with Cyrus and we together took up the rear, arriving at the trailhead at 12:11 pm. After a few minutes of eating we began the climb up to Headquarters Creek Pass, elevation 8,000’.
There was a surprising amount of snow as we gained elevation. Around 2:00 we had reached the first obstacle: a steep, snow traverse to the trail cut going up to the waterfall. I had to back off of the traverse, put on my snowshoes to gain the benefit of their crampons, and make a second attempt. The snow was soft, but thin in the steepest places. On about a half dozen occasions a foothold blew out, but I remained secure through a combination of trekking pole self-belay and/or the crampon catching again. Cyrus was not as lucky, and took an unplanned glissade down to the bottom, forcing a repeat ascent. We made it to the small spring at the top without further difficulty. The going had been slow and nerve-wracking. Unfortunately, that was the first of three sub-passes that make up Headquarters Creek Pass.
Since neither of us had ever been over the pass before, and since the snow and wind had by now erased most traces of our predecessor’s travels, we had to do a bit of head scratching to determine where our route actually was. Luckily, Cyrus had a GPS that confirmed the route I suspected. With some effort we ascended the long slope up to the second “pass” and the shorter and more obvious true pass. I took a photo of the sign at the top at exactly 5:00 pm.
The top was stormy and hazy, and I started to chill. I had been looking forward to making up some time with a quick and dirty glissade down the west side of the pass, as the slope below us looked to be an endless series of rock rubble and slab. There was no sign of how our faster comrades had proceeded. The map indicated that the trail went left where a ledge had been blasted for the trail, a ledge that was now entirely covered in snow. Not seeing any other way down, I started to break trail.
To say I was sketched out at this point somewhat understates the situation. I was snowshoeing across a 40 or 45 degree slope, usually with a cliff band below me. At some point I had lost feeling in my left hand, but was too exposed to do anything about it. My sunglasses were covered with blowing snow. The visibility was certainly not whiteout, but was hazy enough that I had to use my poles to find the slope angle before committing to a step. The snow on the backside of the pass had been wind deposited, and was up to my waist in places. I kept having visions of a similar scene in the Lord of the Rings movie. I suspect I would have preferred to have gone through a mine tunnel at that point too.
By the time I had reached moderate terrain I had started to shiver. A field-expedient set of mittens fashioned from socks warmed my hands surprisingly quickly. Cyrus was suffering in his own way, apparently not as cold, but making slow progress following my trail. Once he had caught up and we had reached the headwaters of Headquarters Creek, I informed him that I had to pick up the pace to warm myself and we separated.
I hurried along toward the Sun River, passing through a burnt out forest. This turned out to be an advantage in the sense that there was a large amount of fallen timber, making it fairly easy to find the path through the snow by way of the saw cuts. Bare ground was not reached until about 6,000’. By 9:25 I had reached the pack-bridge over the Sun. Although it was getting dark I chose to press on to Gates Park. Nobody else had stopped there, so I encamped on the porch of the cabin to eat and recover. I was eight miles short of my intended destination at Rock Creek.
As I contemplated the day in my sleeping bag it started to look doubtful that under current conditions I could continue over at least the two (and possibly three) more passes needed and maintain the split times to exit before my consumables ran out. I was beaten up and cold, but on the plus side my feet were in good shape. I went to sleep on the fence about my prospects thinking “let’s see what tomorrow brings.”
The decision proved easy when I woke up to a winter wonderland. While the snow was not troublesome where I was at, I knew that conditions would be worse higher up, and all signs were that the weather would either remain bad or continue to deteriorate. There would be no viable bail routes once I was beyond Larch Hill Pass. It was time to hit the eject button.
About 8:00 am I was packed up and on the trail, backtracking to the Sun River, then south down the river to the Gibson Reservoir.
The river valley is quite flat and open, although the trail is heavily used by stock and was soft and muddy. The amount of game I saw was striking.
The snow thinned as I moved south, although the ground remained muddy and the weather windy. By 5:00 pm I had made the far side of the reservoir and emerged at the campground intending to catch a ride with a returning Memorial Day vacationer. Because of the weather there was not a single camper, but a couple of passing guys named Jeff and Sam invited me up to their cabin around the corner, where I had enjoyed good company, beer, and heat.
In the morning we headed into Augusta for breakfast. We were heading different directions, so I went to the edge of town and positioned myself to catch a ride down to MT 200. Five hours later I was still on the side of the road wondering if maybe The Hitcher had played recently on the local cable station. By a turn of good fortune, Ian and Yve, who had been among the crew that had seen us off at the start happened along. They offered to put me up for the evening and even called around and arranged a ride for me with their friend George, who would be going into Missoula the next morning. George even took me to Condon, saving me the trouble of trying to catch a ride at the MT 87 junction.
I was generally pleased with my gear selection. A few thoughts:
- An aluminum ice axe or perhaps something like a BD Whippet would have added confidence-induced speed (and safety) to negotiate the passes.
- Snowshoes proved essential but were my heaviest single item. My Atlas 1025’s were overkill and something shorter and lighter could have been substituted.
- Given the snow, shell pants, and more socks and liner gloves would have been welcome.
- A heavier sleeping bag and full-sized tarp might have maximized recovery time better, but would only have been worth it in the sort of weather we experienced.
- A canister stove would have been more appropriate for the conditions. My alcohol stove worked great, but I really longed for a stove that could crank out BTU’s faster than I could drink them.
- Cairn Cartographics makes a beautiful map of the Bob, but in the absence of first-hand experience with the route, detailed maps (and other beta) of the passes would have been handy to have.
- The NRS Hydroskin + sock + Dirty Girl gaiter combination proved surprisingly successful given deep snow conditions.
- The NB 461 shoes (sized wide) proved successful in the sense that they fit well without any rub spots. My biggest fatigue component seemed to be foot soreness, so an upgrade to a shoe with a more robust sole would be beneficial.
My hydration, and on-the-go nutrition plans were lacking. I had deviated from my usual hydration hose system to save weight and pack volume, but this proved to be a mistake for me. I had increased my use of gels for this trip and will likely explore that further.
Overall efficiency was hampered by a self-imposed race mentality. This wasn’t a race: I wouldn’t have gotten a cash-prize or even a T-shirt for “winning”, so I’m not sure why I was in such a big hurry. My mindset should have been to pace myself in the most energy efficient manner possible. Regular rest stops would have increased my endurance significantly.
For planning, I used the formula of 2.5 mph + 1 hour for each 1,000’ of gain. I assumed about 25 miles of linear distance would be the limit of my endurance each day before needing a break. As it turns out, that proved to be pretty accurate for me.
Although I didn’t develop any blisters at all, my biggest physical limitation proved to be foot soreness. I was off-peak physically, but never red-lined my heart-rate during the ascents. The only other discomfort was some shoulder soreness from the pack on the second day.
That’s about it. When I distill my thoughts, it boils down to this: a) I’m really glad I participated in this event, b) I would do it again and c) I will need to change some of my assumptions when I return.