The Bob Marshall Wilderness Open is an event contrived and hosted by BPL’s own Dave Chenault. This hasty traverse of Rocky Mountains / Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex is intended in the spirit of the Alaskan Wilderness Classic – push yourself and your skillset to cross big wilderness as effectively as you can.
For me this held an allure as I really had no idea what my own abilities and limitations were. Was I capable of a 40 mile day? Two in a row? I suspected I might be, but I’d never hiked more than 25 miles in a day before. I entered this event hoping to learn more about wilderness travel and my own abilities while enjoying the grandeur of the Rockies.
The BMWO comes at a time of year (late May) when the conditions are highly variable and challenging. There’s definitely going to be travel on snow and weather is likely to be both cold and wet. Initially this was a concern for me – I wanted to see how far and fast I could hike, but I wanted to do it in nice weather on dry trails. I watched the NOHRSC snow depth projections hoping the snow would melt and I could put together a summer SUL gearlist.
As the event neared, I knew there was going to be snow travel and any illusions of balmy weather also faded. At the same time, I started to understand and embrace why the BMWO is held when and where it is. May is one of the most challenging times of the year in the Bob and thus this event would be a far better teacher than one held in August. This was a chance to test and hone a much bigger set of skills: snow travel, route finding, avy danger, high river crossings and extended cold and wet weather management. I was very nervous but finally eager for the challenge.
Food: Stoveless – energy bars, chocolate bars, dried meats, granola, pop tarts
Sleep/Shelter: Tarp, 14oz 35F down quilt, inflatable pad
Travel: Yupi Ski Shoes for snow, no packraft
My route for this event was focused on minimizing the number of miles. I hoped to incorporate a few off-trail sections and a swim across the Flathead river to reduce the total milage to around 80. Most others had planned routes in the 90-118 mile range to cover this 59 mile (as the crow files) traverse.
Red is planned route, Blue is where actual route differed from the plan
Participants John, Cyrus, Dave and Greg (mostly with backs to the camera) chat with Forest Service guys and significant others pre-trip.
Day One: Start to Mid-Rock Creek - 9am to 12:30am - Est. 39 miles
The morning of the event (and the night before) the weather was intimidating: Light snow/rain and temperatures around freezing.
Dusting of snow on the South Fork Teton Bridge
In total, there would be 7 participants this year after the challenging weather forecast deterred a few more. John, Cyrus, Dave and myself were joined by Greg (a previous Alaskan Mountain Wilderness Classic competitor) and two of Dave’s acquaintances from Kalispell, MT. Greg had planned a creative route that skirted the first (Sawtooth) range to the south to avoid the high elevation snow, while the rest of us were heading straight into the Rockies on the S. Fork Teton road towards to the Headquarters Pass trailhead. From there Dave would packraft south to a more appealing pass, while the rest of us planned to press forward over the Chinese Wall at Larch Hill Pass.
After a short delay at 9am to chat with a nice local enforcement ranger who had swung by to collect names, we were off around 9:15am. Dave and I settled into a nice pace together and covered the 8 miles to the Headquarters Pass Trailhead in a few hours.
Heading towards the Sawtooth Range
East Side of Headquarters Pass
As soon as we reached the trail, a few inches of fresh snow greeted us. Climbing higher meant the new snow got deeper and the hard crust from the winters snowpack became apparent underneath. As we approached the alpine, the fresh snow had been shaped by the wind into slabs of varying depths. In some areas it was foot deep on top of the crust, while in other areas there was challenging sidehilling on bare crust – I removed my Yupi’s for this. There was some avalanche concern in this area as the firm winter snowpack provided a perfect sliding surface for the new snow.
Dave Chenault side hilling on crust near Headquarters Pass
Dave C. heads for the pass
We reached the pass in the early afternoon and struggled with high winds and deep drifts for a few minutes before descending to more friendly conditions around treeline. Dave and I then descended the 8 miles to Sun River where we parted at 4:30pm.
Over the Pass and back in the trees
The Sun River valley was an amazing change from Headquarters Pass. The warm temperatures, clusters of elk and green fields felt strangely out of place after the harsh winter conditions a few hours earlier. At this point I headed on towards the Rock Creek trail and Larch Hill Pass while Dave packrafted the Sun River.
I headed past the impressive Ranger complex in the Sun River basin and walked towards the Rock Creek trail and Larch Hill Pass. I knew I had 5 hours until dusk and about 15 miles to the pass plus several more to get back down to the White River.
Unfortunately in my haste I made a large and frustrating error. At the trail junction near Rock Creek I didn’t break stride to fully read the trail sign, but rather I mis-read the sign and mistakenly headed up the wrong trail to Red Shale Creek - the drainage north of Rock Creek. I think I mis-read the first trail listed on the sign and thought "That’s the one” so I took off without reading the rest or confirming on the map.
Marching up the wrong (Red Shale) creek
The Red Shale Creek trail was a good one with no ambiguity or junctions, so I never had reason to stop and consult the map for hours. At one point I pulled out my compass and observed the drainage heading in a NW direction instead of W, but I dismissed this by telling myself the Rock Creek drainage likely has a curve or wiggle in it. I should have pulled out my map to actually check. Such is the danger of being so sure you’re on the right trail that you never stop to check.
Three hours later I had gained 2000’ and covered ~6 miles. At this point the snow cover was obscuring the trail and I finally pulled out my map to locate myself and take a direction bearing. I could see the Chinese Wall but there was no indication of a pass. Everything seemed strange and I wondered why I hadn’t seen the Rock Creek cabin, so I pulled out my GPS and obtained my UTM co-ordinates - I wasn’t even on the map.
In disbelief at my error, I rushed back down the trail hoping to still make some distance up Rock Creek today. I half-jogged the 2000’ descent in 1hr 40 and arrived back at the junction at 10:30pm - 5 hours after I was already there. I then headed up Rock Creek for 2 hours until 12:30 and camping just below the snowline.
Light snow falls on the trail to Larch Hill Pass
Day Two: Mid-Rock Creek to White River Junction – 4:30am to 8:30pm - Est. 24 miles
The next morning I woke up and discovered I had a made another large mistake. In my haste and frustration at hiking the wrong trail, I had descended the trail too aggressively and aggravated the IT band in my right leg (which sometimes bothers me when I jog). My right knee was so sore that I couldn’t bend it. I took a few Advil but it was obvious my stride wasn’t going to be good today. I ended up having to swing my stiff right leg out and around instead of bending my knee to lift it. A stiff leg wouldn’t have been so bad on flat trail, but today’s hike was almost entirely on snow so I was somewhat dragging it.
I continued up Rock Creek toward Larch Hill Pass – albeit at a pace around 1.5mph., half of yesterdays. Casey and Jeff had passed me during my scenic detour, so I had their tracks up the remaining ~9 miles of Larch Hill.
Snowy ascent up Larch Hill while following Jeff and Casey's tracks
In the upper forks of Rock Creek I had hoped to take a more direct off-trail route to the pass, but the snowpack was still patchy at this elevation so off-trail travel with the ski-shoes wasn’t feasible. I continued to follow Casey and Jeff’s tracks for several hours up and over the pass. At Larch Hill Pass it was snowing hard and the fresh snow was deep. Still, I was only a few hours behind Casey and Jeff so their tracks were obvious.
Getting pretty snowy around 7600'
Plugging along near Larch Hill
The actual Larch Hill Pass isn’t nearly as obvious as I was expecting it to be. The trail undulates and wiggles for several miles before wandering over the pass, so it’s easy to miss the actual pass. When Casey and Jeff had gone over the pass they had mistakenly entered the wrong drainage to the N of the pass instead of to the W, which I then followed their tracks into. A few hundred feet below the pass I was out of the bad weather so I stopped to check my navigation and discovered the problem. The map showed this drainage would meet up, but it would cost me a few miles. I opted to carry on instead of re-ascending.
I followed that drainage down through the snow for an hour or two and finally met up with the trail along the White River. It was mid-day and my leg continued to hurt badly which held my pace to 1.5mph. I hobbled along past the awesome Needle Falls on the White River, seeing quite a few elk and deer in the area. I arrived at the Junction with the S. Fork at 8:30pm and after crossing this fork decided that 8 hours of sleep might be what my knee needed to perform better.
Looking down the North Fork of the White River near Needle Falls
My clothing was almost entirely soaked from the persistent precipitation today, but my sleep socks and down vest were dry so I changed into those and fell asleep in my down quilt in minutes. It was snowing lightly and I thought I might be too cold to sleep in my 35F quilt, but the next thing I knew my 4:45am alarm was going off. 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep likely played a big part in the success of the day to come.
Camped out at the S. Fork of the White River
Day Three: S. Fork White River to Finish – 5:00am - 3:30am - 43.9 miles
The third day started off like the second – a stiff knee and hobbling along at 1.5mph. The pace was frustrating but the scenery was great. The wet forests, grassy meadows and powerful White River were all awesome. I knew I was going to be hobbling beside excellent packrafting water for next dozen miles and I badly wished I’d brought my packraft. Instead of a painful 8 hour hobble, it could have been a fun 2 hour float.
Lush and wet along the White River
I covered the 6 miles of trail to near the S. Fork of the Flathead in 4 hrs (5-9am) and then a bit more off trail to reach its banks (9:30am). The Flathead is an amazing waterway. Some of the meadow areas along its banks are hard to believe with their grassy floors and loosely spaced trees. Naturally perfect spots for camping. The deer and elk seemed to like them too.
Meadows near the S. Fork Flathead
I arrived at the South Fork of the Flathead planning to swim it. The closest bridge was 12 miles round trip out of the way, which was not appealing with my knee issue. Dave had told me the river was about 6x as wide as the S. Fork of the Teton which looked right to me. Dave had said swimming this would be ‘eccentric but not insane’ which I now agreed with. I was quite nervous jumping in, but my brain knew I could do it.
About where I swam the S. Fork Flathead
I choose a spot that was pretty deep right from the start, but led to an area on the far side that was shallow. I wanted to have a swim where once I was most of the way across I would be able to stand up, so didn’t have the challenge of trying to exit from deep water. I considered using my pack as a kickboard with the dry bags inflated inside, but in the end I wanted the full ability to front crawl so I wore the pack normally after securing most of my gear in dry bags. I tried to wade out a little ways into the waist deep water, but the river was too powerful for that. It quickly pulled me in and I was swimming. I used a front crawl stroke at a 45 degree upstream ferry position. Swimming felt ineffective compared to the power of the river pushing me downstream, but after a few seconds I could tell I was making progress.
The actual swim was pretty short – maybe 10-20 seconds. I moved about 2x as far downstream as I did across. Supposedly a nearby water temperature gauge indicated the Flathead was 38.5F. That sounds cold and I’m sure it was, but I was a lot more concerned about the power of the river so this wasn’t at the forefront of my mind.
I had been wearing rain gear plus leg tights for the swim, so I wrung out the tights and then added my baselayer top, synthetic jacket and other warm items. Just as my teeth started to chatter I warmed up and was quite happy about the swim (10am). Post-dip I felt quite refreshed and perhaps a bit less grubby from the trail miles.
Stoked to be back in warm clothes.
Wet but beautiful trail along W. bank of the Flathead
I proceeded North along the Flathead, having scrapped my initial plan to hike Holbrook Creek Valley to Feline Creek. I wasn't confident the snow pack would be consistent enough to allow efficient off trail travel with the ski-shoes in the Feline Creek basin.
I was soon caught by Jeff who informed me him and Casey had opted for the bridge (Big Prairie) and my swim had slotted me between them. They were due at work the next morning and unsure about the snowpack in the final Swan Range, so they were opting to hike North along the Flathead for 20 miles to a trailhead. The thought of an early exit was alluring, but 20 miles wasn’t that much less than the ~32 miles I had over the Swan range, so around 2pm I parted ways with Jeff at Big Salmon creek and headed west for Pendant Pass.
Hiking with Jeff along the Flathead
Final Look at the S. Fork Flathead
The trail along Big Salmon Lake was quite challenging with literally hundreds of trees down on the trail. It appeared that many trees killed by a forest fire had then been pushed down onto the trail by the winter snowpack. It was like this for miles. Thankfully at the same time the IT band inflammation in my knee miraculously relented and I was able to use the knee with only moderate discomfort.
Timber down along Big Salmon Lake
The final pass (Pendant Pass) was 20.7 miles away (from the Flathead) and it was 2pm. I realized that if I could maintain nearly 3 mph through these logs and the upcoming snowy sections then I would be able to clear the pass by sunset (9:45pm) and finish sometime in the night. I pushed hard through the blowdown and kept at it when the patchy snow began around 5000’. This section of trail was awesome....great creeks, lots of wildlife and at a really interesting time of year for animal tracks and vegetation.
Amazing trail along Big Salmon Creek
Loving the hike
There was some pretty wet sections of trail
The patchy snow went on for miles from 5000' - 6200'
Around 6000’ I put on the Yupi ski-shoes and at 10:00pm in the final minutes of daylight I made it to the pass, having averaged 2.6 mph for the past 8 hrs. I did the last few miles without my bear spray, as I lost it while crawling over a log.
Big Salmon Falls
Following Bear Tracks to the Pass - They sure walk in a straight line
Looking NW from near Pendant Pass at Dusk
The descent down to Upper Holland Lake was a bit trickier with soft, south facing snowpack often allowing me to sink thigh deep. I waded down to the lake and then traversed around it looking for the trail. Thankfully some faint animal tracks gave away its location and I followed those as best I could. I began the 5.8 mile descent to Lower Holland Lake.
Arriving at the lower lake was great with its warm temperatures and signs of civilization. There was still 6 miles to go though to the Hungry Bear. These miles would end up being some of the hardest of the trip mentally, as I felt like I was finished and I was very tired and sore, yet there was still a good while to go and slowing down could add an hour or two. If someone offered me a ride during these moments I might have accepted, but there simply wasn’t cars out at 3 am. The last 3 miles along Hwy 83 seemed to last forever, and even when I could see the faint orange light of the Hungry Bear sign it still took 15 minutes to get there. Finally at 3:35am – 66.5 hrs after starting – I had completed my traverse of the Bob. My trip here ended up being ~106 miles instead of the ~80 I had planned.
Overall, the BMWO was an amazing experience and I'm itching to go back next spring and give it an even better shot. I left a lot of room to improve this year. I reckon the sore IT band cost me 8 hours due to slow hiking and another 4 hours due to getting extra sleep hoping to heal it. Being more reasonable on the descents may eliminate this. Navigation errors also cost me 5 hours (Red Shale Creek) and 1-2 hours (Larch Hill Pass). Sub 50 hours seems easily possible on this route and sub-40 might be achievable - perhaps with a raft. The course may be different next time around though.
I hope to see many of you guys out there next Memorial weekend ^_^.
For a gearlist used in this event see my profile:
The aftermath of my BMWO diet