Compiled and written by Dave Chenault.
For a comprehensive set of links to trip narratives, please see below.
The Bob Marshall Wilderness Open (BMWO) was devised as a test of wilderness savvy, to be held over Memorial Day weekend each year. Choosing to traverse the Bob Marshall wilderness complex at this time of year maximizes the ambiguity of conditions on the ground and thus places a premium on the heuristic skills of participants. The guidelines, inspired by the 30 year-old tradition of the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, are simple: participants start and finish at designated points on the borders of the complex, and must be entirely self-contained while traveling a route of their choosing between the two points. No linear travel on the 5 paved highways bounding the complex is permitted. All other human powered means of transit are fair game.
Conditions for this, the first annual BMWO, were challenging even by the standards of late May. Warm temperatures starting a month previous had thinned the average snowpack at low and mid elevations, with rivers and streams running on the low end of normal. The days before departure saw substantial snowfall across the Bob, with preciptation continuing through the days of the event itself.
Seven participants lined up under snow squalls at the Teton-Bellview bridge the morning of the 26th: Dan Durston from British Columbia, John St. Laurent from Washington State, Cyrus Dietz from Minneapolis, Greg Gedney from Colorado, and Jeff Metsky, Casey Dunn, and myself, all from Kalispell, MT. All save Gedney headed over Headquarters Pass and down to the North Fork of the Sun River. Gedney planned a crafty route south through the prairie to Deep Creek, Gibson Reservoir, and the South and West Forks of the Sun, thus minimizing his exposure to snowy elevations. Durston and I led the pack up and over Headquarters, finding an impressive amount of windblown fresh snow over a hard crust. Dunn and Metsky were close behind us, with St. Laurent and Dietz a number of hours back by the top of the pass. All struggled with occasionally slick conditions on the ascent and spindrift gusts pushing 70 mph on the descent.
Once Durston and I reached the North Fork, we parted ways, with him heading up Rock Creek over Larch Hill to the White River, and me inflating my Alpacka raft to float down to the South/West Fork and White River pass. The conditions up high, and the continuous light precipitation throughout the day, had me planning on going over Stadler pass into the Danaher Valley rather than risk the steeper and higher White River pass. However a nagging flu made it impossible for me to eat much without becoming nauseous, and after a five hour bivvy near the South and West Fork confluence resulted in still further decreased energy I walked out to Benchmark and bailed by hitching a ride into Augusta. Durston made, almost immediately after our parting, a serious but innocuous wrong turn, heading six miles up Red Shale Creek until he realized and corrected his error, burning five hours in the process. When he awoke at 0430 the next morning, having slept a mere four hours, Durston realized that in his haste to run down the trail and get back on course he had stressed his right IT band, a nagging injury whose inflammation would haunt him for the next 36 hours. He followed Dunn and Metsky’s track up and over the confusing Larch Hill Pass, where a substantial snowpack and poor visibility had all three take a mistaken detour down the very headwaters of Juliet Creek. Durston finally arrived at the confluence of the South and North Forks of the White at 2030, having made 24 painful miles in 16 hours.
Meanwhile St. Laurent had left Dietz behind in the upper reaches of Headquarters Creek, accelerating in order to warm up after crossing back down into the trees. He made camp at Gates Park around 2200, concerned that the food supply and miles math was already against him. Waking up to several inches of fresh, low elevation snow made up his mind, freeing St. Laurent to enjoy the superlative walk down the North Fork valley and along Gibson Reservoir. As expected the trailhead was deserted, but St. Laurent enjoyed mixed luck and unmixed Montanan hospitality, being put up for the night in a cabin, getting a ride into Augusta, spending 5 unsuccessful hours hitching south before being picked up by the Bardwell’s, outfitters based in Choteau who had showed at the start to wish us luck. St. Laurent got another night’s lodgings and a ride back to his car in Condon the next day as a reward for his patience.
At the same time that Durston was grinding out the crux of his route, and St. Laurent was proving discretion the better part of valor, Gedney was enjoying the fruits of low elevation, though not before getting boxed out walking up the streambed in Deep Creek. He hiked through the night along Gibson Reservoir and crossed through the K-L Ranch at 0600. The rest of the day, and his intended route up through Pearl Basin and over Camp Creek Pass, went less smoothly, as snow-caused route finding difficulties had him bivvying through the night around a fire at 6300’, waiting for a snowstorm to pass. By this point in the weekend 2 feet of new snow had accumulated at this modest elevation. Gedney, like myself but in contrast to the others, had not brought a sleeping bag. The next morning necessity proved the mother of improvisation as Gedney threaded the needle through a 7900’ pass north of Junction Peak, dodging wet slides as the day warmed by staying on westerly aspects down the length of the South Fork of the White. This must have made for laborious and stressful snowshoing, evidenced by the late hour Gedney reached floatable water on the Main Fork of the White. He inflated his Alpacka raft and floated down to the South Fork of the Flathead, arriving at dusk and mistakenly taking out on an island rather than the west bank. Not wanting to raft the river or ferry the far channel in the dark, he enjoyed another bivvy around a fire.
Dunn and Metsky had reached the Flathead first, detouring south to cross at the Big Prairie pack bridge. This 12 mile round trip had Metsky and Durston coming back together on the west bank trail between Holbrook and Salmon Forks after an extraordinary set of events. Dunn and Metsky were expected back at work on Tuesday, and didn’t like the look of the snowy high country up in the Swan. Additionally, the carbide spikes in Metsky’s Salomon Spikecross shoes were causing serious pressure points, at worst slowing him to 1 mph on hard-packed trail. The pair elected to hike the 32 miles (from Big Prairie) north to the Spotted Bear ranger station, where friends were on staff who could deliver them back home. Durston had been hours behind, and after rising at 0500 after 8 hours of sleep Sunday night and hobbling at 1.5 mph down to White River park, made up that time by swimming the South Fork. Wisely selecting a channel which was deep on the near side but shallow at the far, and choosing to swim in raingear with his pack on, Durston estimates the actual swim took 10-20 seconds, during which he traveled twice as far downstream as he did across. Though the weekend’s cold snap had dropped the South Fork to around 5000 cfs that day downstream at Twin Creek, Durston was still dealing with around 3000 cfs of snowmelt river with no space for second thoughts or rescue should he come up short.
Perhaps even more extraordinary, Durston eschewed the temptation to bail north on predictable, dry trail once he ran into Metsky, electing to continue up Big Salmon Creek and over Pendant Pass to Upper Holland Lake, Holland Lake, and the finish at the Hungry Bear Steakhouse. Enjoying a improved knee, Durston made good time through the deadfall and snow, reaching Upper Holland shortly after dark and the Hungry Bear parking lot at 0335, having done 106 miles in 66 hours and 20 minutes. Durston reckons that a clean run with better conditions and perhaps a packraft could shave a full day off this route. Metsky continued to struggle with his shoes, making it to the Meadow Creek trailhead and a waiting truck about the same time Durston was finishing up in Condon.
Gedney used the same route through the Swan as Durston, starting up Big Salmon roughly 15 hours behind at 0630 on Tuesday morning. Deadfall, fatigue, and tweaked feet from the miles of rough snowshoing slowed Gedney, who bivvied one final time in the upper reaches of Pendant Creek, waiting until 0200 for cold to solidify the snow and make the hated ‘shoes not necessary. Gedney made the Hungry Bear in time for a late lunch a little after 1400, having traveled around 113 miles in a marathon 101 hours and 14 minutes. The final seven miles of dirt and paved road took his wrecked feet over five hours.
Most participants have already expressed interest in the 2013 BMWO, which will be held on Memorial Day weekend, with similar start and end points, and perhaps less road walking. Though the completion rate this year was quite modest, the level of adventure and personal satisfaction was both high and universal.
The BMWO home page:http://bedrockandparadox.com/bob-marshall-wilderness-open/
John St. Laurent’s report: http://bedrockandparadox.com/2012/06/01/eccentric-but-not-insane-dan-and-john-weigh-in/
Greg Gedney’s report: https://docs.google.com/a/backpackinglight.com/file/d/0B4EhuD5RFBfYeFVldXlaTmpKaEU/edit
Dan Durston’s report: http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/forums/thread_display.html?forum_thread_id=64764
Dave Chenault’s report: http://bedrockandparadox.com/2012/05/28/your-own-kind-of-dumb-bob-open-dnf-report/
Casey Dunn is currently working on a story about the Open which will run in Montana Magazine.