Hubris, obstinacy, self-deception.
Version 1: Lingering sickness meant I couldn’t eat enough, and while I did 45 miles in 15 hours on Saturday the next morning it was obvious that I should have stayed home. I bailed as quickly and cleanly as circumstance allowed.
Version 2: I’ve preferenced doing trips with others over big-miles training over the last month, and didn’t have the fitness for a no-sleep schedule. Should’ve brought a sleeping bag, more food, and planned to enjoy the scenery at a slightly relaxed pace. Perhaps a different, more modest route would have been wise.
Version 3: The weekend did not start on an optimistic note when it took me 15 panicked minutes to find my second neoprene sock. Not negotiable gear with an exceedingly challenging forecast. Fortunately the drive to Condon was faster than I remembered, and we were barely late to pick up Dan, Cyrus and John for the shuttle around to the Rocky Mountain front. An intense blizzard driving over Rogers Pass provided appropriate foreshadowing. We stopped for a few beers in Choteau. It wasn’t snowing out on the plains, but it was windy and on the verge of drizzling and not a good evening to hang around camp. As expected the group provided good conversation, but I was nervous and probably not the most attentive companion. As it grew dark we drove out past the national forest boundary and found a clearing for camp, arriving right after Casey, Jeff, and their respective SOs. A bit of conversation, everyone else set up tents and tarps, and M and I went to sleep early in the back of the truck.
I woke up the first time right before dawn to steady wind, and again two hours later to light and steady gusting snow. It snowed continuously until 11am, seemingly just cold enough to turn light mist into solid precip. Good hiking weather. M had to be at work later that day, so we four were dropped off at the South Fork Teton road turnoff at 830. We walked a few hundred yards to the bridge and met Greg from Colorado, who had done the Wilderness Classic last year and planned an out of the box route walking the prairie south to Gibson Reservoir to avoid the snow. A wise plan, as conditions would have it. Soon we were seven, joined by a few local FS employees who came out as curious observers, and a minute or two before 9, Travis the law enforcement ranger. He was friendly and expressed no quarrel with the event, merely collected names and contact numbers for potential rescues. We were off around 910, everyone save Greg road walking towards Headquarters Pass.
Dan and I fell into an easy pace off the front, though it was easy to see straight away he was more comfortable going up than I was. I bought two packets of gas station Pop Tarts the night before as breakfast, but only had the stomach for one before we started. These two taken together were not a good sign, but with days ahead and 20+ pounds of stuff on my back it seemed like I might as well see what happened. In a bit over two hours we reached the end of the road and were off onto snowy singletrack.
The pass surprised me, with substantial snow from the beginning and a foot or more of heavy new snow from 6000′ up. Dan had a pair of Yupis, which I’d never seen in person before. 2.25 pounds each, by his count, they’re burly plate aluminum with a pivoting binding and full climbing skin glued to the bottom. He had much more float in the deep drifted sections than I did with my little snowshoes, but lacked the support above the ankles to sidehill on the hard crust under the fresh snow. Just as I did with Hoks on memorial day last year, he had a rough time keeping them in control downhill. The aggressive crampons on the Shifts were very handy, and on one traverse in particular I was very glad to have an ice axe.
Headquarters is like many Bob passes, with two hanging basins oriented below the final pass. The wind picked up as we went higher and on the exposed traverse just over the far side was strong enough to rime our eye lashes temporarily shut as we waited for windows of visibility. A hasty downclimb on snowy talus got us back in the trees and out of the worst of the wind, but the substantial snow cover still had us lose the trail a few times before we found it for good as dirt reappeared. By the time we reached the North Fork of the Sun River it was almost 5pm, and I was rather behind schedule. A more fit me could have bettered that a fair bit, but it was obvious that the weather was playing for keeps. I had already crossed the higher and much steeper White River Pass off my list (no crampons, avalanches), and was contemplating a detour over either Camp Creek or Stadler into the lower Danaher.
Up to that point I had eaten two Pop Tart packets and a Lara Bar, and knew that if my stomach didn’t get better I’d be in trouble. I pulled out the stove and boiled water for coffee and my one Mountain House, and ate a whole Reeses Bar as well. 1300 calories in all, well over half of all I was able to eat the whole trip. Besides desperately needed calories, warm food would help keep me from getting two cold on the upcoming float. Jeff and Casey took a short break when they caught up, but were soon headed off across the stock bridge to follow Dan’s tracks up Rock Creek to Larch Hill Pass and the White River.
I was looking forward to packrafting the North Fork of the Sun, and it did not disappoint. The first quarter started immediately with splashy rapids, several of which had holes big enough to be worthy of attention. After relenting briefly the rest of the first half headed into another bendy section with a number of fun bedrock rapids, which at my almost bank-full levels formed some holes I emphatically avoided. The second half, once Elk Hill came into constant view, was easy meadow floating with fantastic views. It didn’t rain much while I was on the water, the wind was gentle, and between my layers and the hot food I wasn’t too cold when I took out and the cold blood recirculated out of my legs. I did wait too long to take out, and had to wade a chest deep bog to get over to the trail, but the fact that the float took two hours had me closer to being on schedule and at a high point of optimism about the route actually being possible in the fashion I had chosen. I filled the Grabbag with food and stuffed down a bar as I walked myself dry during the first few miles.
Unfortunately, the momentum was not to last. The trail all the way to the South/West Fork split is great walking through a scenic mixture of open forest and huge meadows. Spooking dozens after dozens of elk walking through Pretty Prairie right at dusk was a highlight, as was seeing a healthy, small adult Griz in a meadow an hour before. It stood up as I rounded the corner, and I took the minute it needed to figure me out and run off to stand quietly and observe. The first Griz of the year was a good one. On a mostly flat trail like that one my legs have been trained to the point that I can knock off 3 mph without much thought or effort, even when far from top shape. Which was handy, because after that bar my stomach was refusing to have more food in anything but tiny amounts. I never came close to puking, but likely only because I didn’t force the issue. The pressing concern was becoming increasingly clear; if things didn’t improve it would be a matter of when, not if, my pace and ability to keep warm plummeted. Once I turned on to the South Fork I had 46 miles of walking to the road, on the new route over Stadler and Gordon Passes I had plotted while I walked. The passes would be straightforward but snowy, and walking broken into stretched of 20 and 26 miles by a 6-8 mile float I had done before. The math worked out, provided all the wheels stayed on.
I was not willing, under the circumstances, to take that chance. Around midnight I had crossed the South Fork and was back into unburned forest, where firewood wouldn’t be too hard to find. I pitched the tarp 60′ off the trail, gathered a bunch of wood, built a fire, dried off, tried with little success to eat, and slept fitfully. It was cold, light rain edging into snow between 2 and 3, and I had to gather more wood to stay warm through to dawn. I got moving quickly in soft light on an inch of new snow, trying to eat and failing utterly. Unlike the previous night, autopilot failed and my legs felt sluggish and weak. After four miles of walking with not a thing changed the decision made itself, and I crossed the bridge and rolled onto the road at Benchmark, defeated.
I was resigned from my goal, but the trip was far from over. The TH and campground and administrative site were deserted, and the snow deepened dramatically as the road gradually climbed the divide back towards civilization. The first live people I saw, after 8 miles of road walking at a max 2 mph, were Jaden and his crew, worried about getting their RV trailer out of the 16″ of snow that had fallen the previous night. I offered to shovel in exchange for a ride, but they were friendly and generous and my real worth came when I helped chop out two huge trees which had fallen over the road on the drive out. They insisted I join them at Chubby’s in Augusta, and hot coffee and an end to the adventure had me feeling good enough that I got down a cheeseburger and a few sweet potato fries before the nausea returned. The rest of the afternoon was spent sitting, chatting with locals and the very kind owners, drinking liters of coffee, and watching the last half of Ace Venture and all of Son-in-Law on the television. Thankfully M arrived shortly after Bio-Dome came on. Why CMT did a Pauly Shore marathon on a Sunday afternoon is beyond me.
So I’m left contemplating a number of things, foremost the error in judgment which had me line up in such a manner in the first place, but second and perhaps most important what I was trying to get out of the trip by foregoing comfort and a fatter safety margin for the sake of fast and light. The vision quest fun had at the Classic last year is not at all evident at the moment, sitting on the couch with a heinous headache and feeling run down. Come July I may take a few more days food, an additional 26 oz of sleep gear, still hike hard 16 hours a day, but have a backpackers mindset and perhaps more fun in the process. But disillusionment is a poor stance for decision-making. It was a fantastic trip nonetheless, the moments of failure remarkably (or not?) providing their own unexpected fulfilments. I would have preferred to have completed the route, but I’m disappointed in myself for being reckless and causing M to spend too many hours driving around to drop me off and pick me up. I’ve got a lot yet to learn, but just what it is I’m not yet sure.