Day 1: Benchmark Campground to Sun River Pack Bridge
Being a returning participant, preparing for this year’s Open contained a bit less uncertainty (being familiar with the geography and other conditions) and a bit more apprehension (having a better understanding of what I was getting myself into). Even the apprehension dissolved as I began to interact with fellow travelers at the carpool, dinner, or camp, absorbing their infectious energy. By the morning of the start all that was left was the knowledge that the time for talk had ended and the time for action had arrived.
My route this year was a straightforward 96 miles by foot: up the Sun River valley, over Sun River Pass, down the Middle Fork of the Flathead River valley, with several large stream crossings expected.
While I had planned a solo traverse, I found myself matching pace with Chris and Andrew, the team from California. The first day’s miles passed quickly in pleasant weather. The West Fork looked like a wonderful float, and I found myself envying the packrafters.
We decided to follow the east bank of the river since I knew from the previous year that it would likely be free of deadfall, but this necessitated crossing the river at the ranch, which led to some detouring around private property. From there, the route followed my bail route from last year to the pack bridge near Gates Park. Like the previous year, large amount of game was encountered, although in this case too many to fit in a single camera frame. I counted 45 head at one point.
As planned, we stopped at the pack camp near the bridge and enjoyed a fire. That night would prove quite cold, with several items freezing overnight.
Day 2: Sun River Bridge to Strawberry Creek
In contrast to the previous night, Sunday turned out to be quite warm, so much so that sunburn became the unexpected frontrunner in the list of environmental challenges. As the day developed, a new nemesis emerged: deadfall. The upper Sun River valley is littered with it. Still fresh, the obstacles were crossed with alacrity and I considered how Parkour for Deadfall would make an excellent niche publication.
As we neared Sun River Pass I fell back to take some photos and make some adjustments. Skirting a marshy area, I didn’t realize that the trail junction was underwater and passed it, realizing something was wrong at Round Park. After some head scratching I deduced my location from the bearing of the trail and the direction the streams were flowing, paced back to where I expected the junction to be, and realized why I had missed it.
With only the traces of snow the pass was easy going, although I neglected food and hydration in an effort to catch up to Andrew and Chris. At Grizzly Park encountered a pack-rafting trio who had seen my companions pass through. Being late in the day and knowing I wouldn’t catch up to them, I stopped for a welcome dinner in a slight drizzle.
It was when I finished my dinner that I encountered my biggest obstacle of the trip. Getting to my feet there was an excruciating pain in my Achilles tendons, particularly the left one. There had been no trauma like a fall or twisted ankle, nor any friction (I had prophylactically armored my feet with Leukotape, including the heel). The cumulative effect of 45 or 50 miles in 36 hours seems to have been the cause, although I do have a history of tight hamstrings, which may have contributed. In any case, my pace was quite alarming, making a slow shuffle. Fortunately, after 15-20 minutes things would loosen up and I would be capable of a steady pace, largely pain-free.
My goal for the day was Gooseberry cabin, a few miles beyond Strawberry Creek, the first major water crossing. I emerged at the creek about 9:00 PM and saw that it was sizeable but shallow on the near side. Not being able to assess the far half in the failing light and knowing that I was fatigued and liable to make an error in judgment, I chose to camp on the near side. A steady rain began, but by then I was safely enclosed in my 8x10 tarp.
Day 3: Strawberry Creek to Lodgepole Creek
I had set markers to see if the water level rose or fell during the night, but there was no change. I prepared a bottle of hot coffee, carefully packed for a water crossing, and set across with the water never going much above the knee, an excellent outcome.
I continued on the Gooseberry, stopping for breakfast. At this point I knew I’d be travelling solo and set to my best sustainable pace. Today was slated to contain several other crossings, the first being Cox Creek which turned out to be waist deep, but slow moving. Miles ground on. I ate an early dinner at the Shafer ranger compound. At one point I encountered a trail crew who I conversed with for some while.
The final planned obstacle for the day was Lodgepole Creek, which the trail crew warned might be quite large. They were right, at least at the Morrison Creek Trail crossing (there are two trails that cross within about a mile of each other). There was not suitable crossing near the trail, so I headed upstream in the hope of encountering a log jam, a braid, or even a straight section that might be crossed with a short swim. Instead of any of these I found Andrew and Chris.
The pair had been scouting the lower crossing earlier and had been frustrated with the lack of possibilities. The option of bailing was voiced. For me, the idea adding mileage in order to not finish was more horrific than the idea of drowning in a crossing, so we continued to scout, eventually encountering downstream a downed tree that spanned the creek. With a bit of apprehension the three of us crossed a ’cheval. Not we just had to bushwhack the two miles downstream to the main trail. We made steady progress but eventually lost the light just as we neared a cliff bypass, electing to spend the third night in a pleasant meadow on the floodplain.
[My camera batteries were dead at this point, so the rest of the narrative will lack visuals.]
Day 4: Lodgepole Creek to Bear Creek Parking Lot
Since we had to gain elevation to bypass some cliffs, we intercepted the Red Plume Mountain trail and were able to follow it down to the main trail. GPS proved invaluable in this sort of bushwhacking.
Since I was moving slower, we discussed travelling together to Granite Creek, the last expected crossing, then the others could break away to make the best possible time. As it turned out, Granite Creek was a non-issue and we spent an extended break in the sun on the far side cooking, drying, and resting. We exchanged best wishes and Andrew and Chris were off.
But not for long, Twenty-Five Mile Creek had not been on my list of difficult crossings yet here it was in front of me, flowing through a box canyon, un-crossable. Chris and Andrew emerged from the brush having not found an obvious crossing nearby. However, Andrew noticed on the map that the contour profile leveled out upstream and the valley widened as well. The journey to this area turned out to be some of the toughest cross-country travel of the trip, having to climb high above the box canyon through continuous deadfall. After about a mile we dropped down and found a wide, easy ford reminiscent of Strawberry Creek. A trail serviced the other side of the creek, allowing a fast return to the main trail.
The bypass had cost us perhaps two hours while tantalizingly close to the end. With 12.5 miles remaining I had decided in my own mind to push for the exit in a single grind, which would involve some night hiking through bear country. Soon the headlamps went on, with periodic noise-making efforts to avoid surprise encounters. The trail crew had said that Spruce Creek was a stout crossing several weeks ago, during peak runoff, but was bridged by a tree within sight of the trail, but the fording turned out to be an anti-climactic splash-across in the dark.
The last 3.6 miles seemed to exist within Zeno’s Paradox, whereby the remaining distance keeps getting cut in half for all eternity, with each half taking the same amount of time and energy as the one preceding it. Sleep deprivation began to manifest. At one stop I was amused to see that the tree in front of me was rocking, as if at sea. It’s very likely that each of us fell asleep while walking at least once. Efforts to call out to bears had long since ceased. Finally, at 1:04 AM we crossed the bridge at Bear Creek and walked into the parking lot.
Physical preparation turned out to be excellent, with no cardiovascular or muscle endurance problems at all. Achilles Tendonitis and, in the final hours, general foot soreness were the sole physical limitations.
Given that water crossings would easily be the most dangerous undertakings during my traverse, a study of technique had been made in anticipation of the 2013 route, but this continues to be an area of interest. My comfort with different volumes increased as the event progressed. There might be an advantage to Swiftwater training in developing theory and experience with river mechanics.
As a solo traveler, I continue to develop what I call the “small disciplines”. Did I zip that pocket after putting my hat in it? Did I lock the headlamp switch after I turned it off? Prep my pack before a crossing, in case I take a face-plant? Do the “idiot check” on my campsite or rest area before walking off? In classic application of the Pareto Principle, an extra 20% of effort might prevent 80% of the problems that might arise through lack of mindfulness. This trip showed good discipline, with a few lapses. Perfection continues to elude.
Experience continues to demonstrate that companions are a source of energy. There really wasn’t anything on this trip that I wouldn’t have attempted had I been solo as planned, but everything seemed easier. Certainly the emotional lows seemed to flatten a great deal. This is in addition to practical benefits, like having multiple sets of eyes to notice a sign, bouncing route-finding ideas off each other, or sharing gear.
One of the themes of my planning was energy conservation, of which weight savings is but one component. The question becomes: does taking a given item of gear save more energy (in terms of stress, time, simplicity) than the extra physical energy of carrying it around?
Overall clothing selection was just adequate for the journey. Other than redundant socks I would neither add nor subtract from the list.
DWR could be applied to gaiters and pants. Both were wet continually. The finish doesn’t need to be robust, just speed up drying a bit.
My supplex pants are toast after this trip with a knee to ankle tear on the left leg, another bushwhacking victim. They had a good run, but I had already desired something with a tapered leg.
Compression shorts developed chaffing by the end of the first day and most of the second. I removed them and used only capiline long underwear for the remainder of the trip, to good effect.
Garmont boot insoles were used with LaSportiva Wildcats, to good effect. What I’d really like is a gel insole, for no other reason than that wouldn’t absorb any water, but I continue to be unable to find a flat, no-cut model that doesn’t have either a large heel lift or which isn’t encumbered by hard plastic.
The shoes themselves worked well, although the outer mesh fabric was shredded by the end of the journey.
The combination of Inijini sock as a liner combined with NRS sock (when cold) or Smartwool light hiker (when not) continues to be successful. The biggest change to the gear I took would be to have brought more Inijini socks, perhaps a pair for each day. With dawn to dusk hiking it was difficult to keep the socks rinsed and free of crap.
Leukotape is king. With Inijini socks used there was no need for hydropel, although the small toes continue to have problems.
Overnight Gear & Housekeeping
The 5x7 poncho tarp last year proved unappealing in prolonged rain, while the 8x10 tarp this year was pure luxury, although a catenary cut would have been welcome. Nite Eyes line fasteners earned their place as part of the cordage.
Hygiene was generally lacking. Soap, sanitizer, were absent and not nearly enough wet wipes were carried to make up the difference.
The Summerlite, supplemented with clothing, was adequate each night. A Titanium Goat bivy sack was used in conjunction with the bag.
Four days of food was carried, at 30 ounces a day. A little more than half was eaten (although all four Pro-Paks were consumed). There was a strange lack of appetite for the amount of exertion, although without any nausea or illness. Odd.
Cytomax is my friend. This was one food item I wished I had more of.
While out of favor with much of the UL community, a water bladder and hose proved invaluable to on-the-go hydration. This was a vast improvement over last year.