Your own kind of dumb: Bob Open DNF report

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.

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24 thoughts on “Your own kind of dumb: Bob Open DNF report

  1. I love reading your posts Dave. Bailing is hard. Glad you made the safe call. I was seriously considering participating in this adventure but decided to go on a couple month bike tour in south east Asia instead.

  2. In difficult endeavors, there seems to be a line between suffering that becomes meaningful, and suffering that is simply suffering. I still don’t understand how and where this line is drawn through my psyche. I went into the Stagecoach 400 with a sort of “backpackers mindset” and ended up having to dig pretty deep just to get through each day. In the end I suppose it was meaningful to me and I’m glad I did it for several reasons, but there is still sort of a gray shade cast over my memories of those four days. In my opinion, there’s really only so much we can mentally and even physically prepare for, and after that, as my friend Dave Johnston says, “The rest just hurts bad with many mental sacrifices.” Why do we keep at it? Damned if I know.

  3. Good to hear you made it out Dave. I had pretty a pretty rough time of Headquearters Creek Pass and arrived at Gates Park just after dark, 8 miles short of my first day’s split. I went to bed wondering if I’d be able to keep pace crossing the other passes before I ran out of food, and when I woke up to fresh snow the decision to punch out was pretty obvious.

    Walked out the Sun valley to Gibson Reservoir and was put up by a couple of local guys in their cabin (my movie was Crimson Tide). They drove me into Augusta Monday morning, where I spent five hours on the edge of town trying in vain to catch a ride to MT 200. By a stroke of luck, Ean and Yve, the couple who were at the start to see us off, happened by. I stayed with them last night and called around to arrange a ride for me (who should be turning up in a few minutes) to the MT 87 interchange. I’ll hopefully have better luck catching a ride from there up to my car in Condon.

    I’ll regale you with more of my tale when I get back to my own laptop.

  4. Youch! Best of luck on the rest of the hitching John. Brutal conditions for sure.

    My intention is to post everyone’s report (who cares to write one) as well as an executive summary. That will be done when it is done! My assumption is that Dan, Casey and Jeff finished sometime yesterday.

  5. Got word from Casey a little while ago. He and Jeff walked the S Fork out to Spotted Bear yesterday, presumably to avoid tons of snow up along the Swan Crest. Reportedly Jeff ran into Dan at Salmon Forks yesterday, Dan having swum the S Fork and being on his way up Big Salmon Creek to the finish. That’s the route I took last year, and while it promises miles of snow, it’s mellow terrain without too much potential for navigational hiccups. We ought to hear from him by this evening.

    For the record, the cold weather had all the forks of the Flathead down to very low (for this time of year, probably ~3000 cfs just below the White River)) levels over the weekend. Nonetheless, I can’t see Dan having swum much less than a 20-30 yard channel, with deep wading on either side. A very bold and cold move to save quite a few miles, in a very commiting position.

  6. I was able to reclaim my car at about noon today and am now in Missoula. Dan and Cy’s vehicles were already gone, so presumably they made it out OK.

    I’m eager to hear of Casey and Jeff’s travels: I have no idea how they made it over that pass without snowshoes!

  7. After seeing you all take off from the bridge on saturday, spotting Cyrus (90% sure it was him) walking near Lincoln on monday and hosting John for monday night. I’d have to say you guys are all your own special kind of crazy, but we were certainly inspired by your goals and impressed by your decision making. I’m glad you could find this kind of challenge in the Bob. Best of luck in the future.

  8. I’ve often wondered why there’s so much emphasis on wading rivers safely and so little information on swimming, as either a planned choice or a safety measure in case a fording goes wrong. Not that it’s an ideal choice for everybody or always appropriate. I was a swimmer and lifeguard, done open water swims in salt and fresh water, and scuba dive, so my resume is probably stronger than most. Nevertheless, I’d think most backcountry travellers would at least be competent swimmers if they hike in areas where it’s a possibility? Yet this is the first I’ve heard of someone choosing to do it. Congrats to Dan for the gutsy choice; the USGS gauge at Columbia Falls has a current temp of 38.5F. That’s pretty brisk.

  9. I made it to the Hungry Bear at 3:35am this morning (Tuesday). Just got home to Whistler now. I’ll post a longer/better trip report on Thursday….gotta run now. Basically due to a few mistakes and some adjustments for the conditions, I ended up hiking ~110 miles (total guess – I’ll measure later) instead of the hoped for 77.

    Most significantly, I made two big mistakes shortly after leaving Dave at the Sun river. I was hurrying to get over Larch Hill Pass that night and pulled an incredibly frustrating brain fart at the Rock Creek trail junction. I mis-read the sign and headed up the drainage to the north of Rock Creek. I wasted 3 hours (2000′ vert and 6-8 miles) before arriving at the Chinese wall and finding Larch Hill Pass strangely missing. In my frustration at such a stupid move, I pounded back down the trail in just 1 hr, 40 – which I would find out the next morning took a huge toll on my IT band.

    I made it half way up Rock Creek Saturday night, stopping at 12:30pm. I woke at 4:30am and discovered I couldn’t bend my right leg. I limped up Rock Creek at ~1.5mph and over the pass. Unfortunately at the pass it was snowing hard so I just followed Casey and Jeff’s tracks instead of navigating for myself. Casey and Jeff had entered the wrong draining on the northwest side of the pass, which added several extra miles as well.

    When I got down to the White River, I was still limping pretty bad and unable to bend my right leg – and couldn’t do much better than 1.5mph. I took me until 8:30pm to reach the S. Fork of the White River. At that point I decided 8 hrs of sleep might cure the knee, so I went to bed.

    The next morning (Monday) I rose at 5am and the knee still sucked. I did the 6 miles to the S. Fork Flathead in maybe 4 hrs. Then I swam the Flathead which went pretty well. It was cold and moving faster than I was expecting – I probably moved about 2x as far downstream as I did across. It was a bit intimidating but it went well. I’ll post up pics later.

    Swimming the flathead put me between Casey and Jeff, who were about an hour apart. I was still limping and Casey soon caught up. I followed him to the Big Salmon drainage and then parted. Perhaps it was because I was pushing really hard to keep up with Casey, or maybe the uber-doses of Ibuprofen finally kicked in, but in any case my IT band suddenly relented and I was able to hike normally again at Big Salmon. I quickly calculated that I could hike the 20 miles or so to Pendant Pass by sunset if I held 3mph. I pushed really hard to average 3mph – which was tough with the non-stop blow down on the trail and the intermittent miles of snow. I reached Pendant Pass at 10pm, lost my bear spray (crashing on the Yupi’s), gave up on the Yupi’s, stumbled down to upper holland lake in thigh deep soft snow and then struggled to find the trail. There was no way I was camping at this point, I so hiked down to the ~6 miles to lower holland lake and then staggered the last 6 miles to my car at Hungry Bear at 3:35am….

    1. Sorry to pollute this thread with a question, but what is it about the Bob that makes experienced trekkers and navigators choose the wrong drainage to ascend/descend, to ascend when they meant to descend, etc.? Having done this (to) myself during solo travel there, I have often pondered the subject. While there are myriad factors at play, in my own non-racing case I also had a lot of walking and floating miles to cover in a limited timeframe. Does the combination of being convinced of one’s most excellent plan and needing to be on-time lead us to put our blinders on and just charge ahead, focusing on execution and maintaining a pace instead of thinking about what we are doing? Maybe the sheer vastness of the place exacerbates this phenomenon; in that even to just enter and exit, there really is no choice but to make pretty good time. Any secrets to distill for finding that perfect balance between strategic/tactical/execution while still enjoying it?

      Congratulations to all of the participants for getting out there….

  10. Congratulations Dan! You really pushed hard through some adverse conditions. And so nonchalant about swimming the flathead. No doubt the defining moment of the race and not something many of us would do (more details later please). What a great concept/event the Bob is.

  11. Spelt, I do think advanced river crossing is a good topic for more discussion. The textbook techniques work well enough, but are quickly overwhelmed in certain circumstances.

    As for why the Bob can be so confusing to navigate, I think it’s a combination of the thick forest and weird, multileveled and often very gentle passes. The Larch Hill-Spotted Bear passes complex is a perfect example. Compared to the Sierras or even Glacier that place just doesn’t play by the same rules.

    Btw, walked into a school meeting for work this AM and overheard a cluster of staff talking about this event. Word is getting out.

  12. I would love to see a discussion led by people with more backcountry river experience than I! I wonder if my willingness to get wet is foolhardy or just confidence in my water skills.

  13. Dave and all: Had a fantastic trip that I am willing to write up in more detail in a few days. 128 miles in 102 hrs, 14 minutes, getting to the Hungry Bear a little after 2:00pm today. Weather was all I had planned for (some would call it crappy, I found it appropriately challenging.) Dave, I noticed the lack of your footprints right away Sunday morning on the west fork of the Sun River so I knew there had to be a change in your plans. Picked up your trail and the prints of one other just before the bridge to Benchmark .
    Going the southern route seems to have been a good plan as I did not have that much hassle on the lower passes of the Blacktail Trail down to Gibson Dam. Lots of active bears along that stretch, no contact. Did have a large (they are always large, right?) Grizzly amble down the trail about a mile upriver of the confluence of the Sun RIvers. As fate would have it, I had stopped to make a fire (the first of many) and I suspect all the breaking sounds from getting dry branches out of the base of the pine trees alerted him to my presence. When I continued upstream, I came across his prints about 300 feet from where I had been. I’m sure had you rafted the North Sun River and headed up the South Fork you woudl have run into this guy, the timing was right.
    Took a little unplanned detour up Ahorn Creek and the Pearl Basin and cut short the ascent of Camp Creek Pass, electing instead to cross over an unnamed pass south of Junction Mountain. The trail up to Pearl Basin was totallly snowed in. Similar to your adventures last year, a small Black Bear had worked his way up the valley and seemed to know where the trail was. At least until it all became buried in up to 8 feet of snow. Had to pull a spike camp at the 6300 level n my bivvy bag and space blanket during a snow storm (fire good! I had stopped to pick up a bag of birch bark from around Holland Lake before the Open. This saved my butt several times when making a fire right the first time became a necessity.)
    At first light (5:25 am) I started the climb up the Ahorn valley, reaching the summit at 10:00 am. Through this I was able to drop in the head valley of the South Fork of the White River and follow it down to the confluence with the North Fork of White RIver but not before dodging a number of avalanches that were coming off the west facing slopes/cliffs of the Ahorn Basin. Lots of little “snow balls” rolling down the east facing slopes, the west ones, however, held the bigger danger. By 9:30 am on day three things had warmed up enough to really make the west facing slopes unstable. By traveling along the east slopes I was on the far side of the valley and the slides would pile to a stop on the west slopes, about a 1000 feet away and downhill from me.
    Rafted the lower five miles of the White River, setting in at exactly sunset. Reached and crossed the Flathead River at last light on Monday. Unfortunately, what I really reached was the east bank of an island. Did not discover that until 11:30PM when I had packed up the raft and repacked the backpack and tried to reach the trail that parrelled the river. From the glow of the moon I could see the way was blocked by a channel larger than one I had already crossed. After getting a few hours of manditory rest, I rafted the Flathead River, starting at 0600 am. Thirty-five minutes later I was at Big Salmon Creek. Speaking of which, the trail up Big Salmon Creek was blocked with literally hundreds of fallen trees, slowed things down quite a bit.
    Ran out of daylight getting over Pendant Creek Pass at the end of day four. Had to pull another bivvy sack camp unitl 2:00 am when the snow conditions froze up, making it possible to cross without snow shoes. Snow shoeing over Blacktail Pass and the unamed pass in the Ahorn Valley had really, really stressed the tendons on the front of both feet (writing this now with impressively swollen feet!!!). Want to thank whoever was the first one over Pendant Pass as I followed their trail by headlamp throughout the nght last night. You, my friend, are a good trail finder/keeper!
    Did not find a sign-out sheet at the Hungry Bear..was one there? Did eat lunch there and smelled up the place with four days of campfire smoke.

  14. Great to hear you made it through Greg. Awesome adventure.

    “….the trail up Big Salmon Creek was blocked with literally hundreds of fallen trees, slowed things down quite a bit.”

    Yeah whoever has to clear that trail this season has their work cut out. I got some good pics which I’ll post up later today in my trip report.

  15. “Yeah whoever has to clear that trail this season has their work cut out. I got some good pics which I’ll post up later today in my trip report”

    That would be Ian, the FS fellow who saw us off and put me up for the night 🙂

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