Publisher's Blog: Ryan Jordan's Backcountry
We slept under the stars last night, cowboy style, as the embers from our final campfire faded in the light of the full moon.
I couldn’t sleep.
I knew I wanted to finish the expedition and ride the high that comes with accomplishing what you set out to do. I was also looking forward to taking a hot shower, eating fresh fruits and vegetables, and sleeping under cotton sheets. I also miss my wife and can’t wait to see her.
But exiting the wilderness after such a long and engaging experience comes with the challenge of re-entry. I’m a bit envious of Walker, Aiden, and Chase, who are serving as youth staff at the Montana High Adventure Base next week, and head back into the wilderness on Monday for a week. Lucky kids!
We arose this morning at 5:30 AM and quietly packed our gear, strapped our inflated boats to the back of our packs, turtle-style, and walked the trail to portage The Gorge.
We put in a bit below the sweepers and paddled the remainder of the South Fork of the Sun River until the water no longer flowed, just above its confluence with the North Fork. We were now in Gibson Reservoir.
As the morning chill was replaced by sunshine, we paddled through Elbow Gorge, which was underwater in Gibson’s nearly full pool. Soon we passed the camp of another MOHAB crew who had just spent a week hiking up and paddling the North Fork of the Sun River.
We paddled on until catching a tailwind. We rigged sails with our rain jackets and enjoyed a break for our arms and shoulders.
Two and a half hours after putting in, we had paddled the 7 stillwater miles and arrived at the boat dock of Mortimer Gulch.
We enjoyed one last game of hearts in the bed of Justin’s pickup to begin our re-entry therapy. We waited for the other MOHAB crew to paddle in, and then shared stories with them. Luke met us with ice cold bottled water, apples, and oranges.
And of course, we stopped in Augusta for ice cream at Chubby’s (Mel’s).
We are now back at the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch, cleaning gear, cleaning our bodies, and decompressing in view of the mighty Wailing Reef rising to the west.
We are now reflecting on what we have just experienced.
One hundred and five miles.
Two hundred and forty pounds of food.
Fifty miles along four rivers paddled, including the South Fork of the Flathead that hadn’t quite exited its flood stage.
An off-trail traverse along the top of the Chinese Wall.
One big, beautiful, black bear.
No (lasting) injuries.
A shared experience of a lifetime.
And five Venturing Scouts who showed courage in the face of trials, honor to each other and respect for their differences, and leadership of the highest caliber in executing a wonderfully complex, uncertain, and adverse expedition.
Thanks for tuning in.
Godspeed – RJ
1. The final portage past the South Fork Gorge early this morning.
2. Chase taking a rest on Gibson Reservoir.
Today we packrafted the South Fork of the Sun River from our secret campsite near Pretty Prairie to The Gorge.
It may have been the funnest day of packrafting on the whole trip. The South Fork of the Sun is running at a healthy flow of around 550 or 600 cfs today, maybe. The waves are big, there’s lots of Class 2 water, and the rapids are splashy.
Our packraft repairs held up through the whitewater and limestone riverbed.
The day started off overcast, cool, and a little breezy, so we packrafted in our raingear to stay warm as waves broke over our heads and filled our boats with water. Eventually the sun came out and the day turned warm.
We ended our float above the mighty South Fork Gorge, which was *almost* runnable.
The rapids are about Class IV at these flows and only the exit rapid is problematic for the highly experienced whitewater packrafter, since it contains a razor sharp block of limestone in the middle that would shred your boat if you ran to its right.
But if you go left, the current slams you into a wall. After you bounce off the wall, you’ll flip and hopefully exit your boat and porpoise over the logs that are spanning the width of The Gorge before watching your packraft pop from the broken widowmaker limbs jutting out like swords from the sweepers.
We scouted the gorge.
I found my line.
I inhaled deeply.
We portaged the gorge.
We decided that bravery and stupidity are mutually exclusive.
We are camped at a scenic spot under a stand of lodgepole pines above The Gorge. Our cooking area is lined with a carpet of grass and clover. A grove of aspens are quaking in the breeze 50 yards away.
We can hear the roar of The Gorge from camp.
The massive Sun Butte rises 800 feet above is. Its base is a five minute walk from camp.
We fished this afternoon. The rivers are high and cold so the fish have to be earned. I caught two cutthroat trout, one 12 incher and one a few scales longer than 17 inches. I achieved my tenkara fisherman’s goal for the trip, which was to catch at least one fish using only one fly from every river we visited (Danaher Creek, South Fork of the Flathead, White River, West Fork of the South Fork of the Sun, and the South Fork of the Sun).
This evening, skies are blue and temperatures are mild.
We’ll sleep under the stars.
We have traveled about 98 miles and have about 7 to go.
Tomorrow is our last day. Today has been a happy, and playful day. It was a good type of day to have after the challenge of our Chinese Wall route and it’s ensuing physical, mental, and emotional hangover of the past few days.
We are playing hearts again. Aiden and Nik are starting the fire. We’ll be eating fish soon.
Our plan for tomorrow is to paddle our way to the finish. Our ultimate goal is to eat a lot of ice cream at Chubby’s (now Mel’s) in Augusta, take a shower, and enjoy the sunset over the Walling Reef back at the Boone and Crockett Club’s Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch in Dupuyer, home of the Montana Council BSA High Adventure Base (MOHAB).
Godspeed – RJ
Photo: Walker packrafting on the South Fork of the Sun this morning.
I don’t have a prosperous relationship with the West Fork of the South Fork of the Sun River.
Over the years, I’ve lost trophy trout in its submerged trees, slipped and swam in its slippery fords, and portaged its countless logjams with my packraft.
But the West Fork has an allure that is hard to resist. Deep green pools that harbor trout of untold size, beautiful and expansive mountain views that reward the persistent floater, and of course, good whitewater at high water.
This year I had the opportunity to share its beauty and misery with our Venturing Crew.
We left our camp on the West Fork this morning, paddling our packrafts with the expectation of a reprieve from the utter exhaustion we experienced on the Chinese Wall a few days ago. (We have still not recovered fully from our Wall traverse!)
I kept telling myself that this was not the West Fork and that we’d have an easy day.
Within minutes of taking our first strokes we reached our first portage. Within the first hour we had portaged more times than we had all day on Danaher Creek 8 days ago.
Then we came to the Reef Gorge, a fun series of Class 2+/3- rapids when the gauge on the S Fork Sun is reading more than about 600 cfs. After scouting the gorge, I knew we were close to missing the window but it still looked runnable.
I ran the entrance rapid first, which drops you several feet into a sharp bend followed by a fun series of maneuvers before the next drop into a longer series of whitewater.
I eddied out above the second drop while Andrew and Chase followed behind. The second boat group (Justin, Aiden, Walker, and Nik) came through seemingly without incident but when Nik arrived in the eddy, his packraft was filled with 10 inches of water.
That’s not normal, even on splashy rapids.
Upon further inspection, Nik’s boat had a foot long gash in its floor, terminating perilously close to the tube (the thing that actually holds the air – immensely useful). Andrew too came through the rapid with lesser damage, a floor gash of about four inches.
We opted to get out of the river and proceed to a camp on foot, where we could repair the boats properly so we could have a proper packrafting exit from the wilderness.
We repacked our gear into hiking mode and proceeded our way down the West Fork trail. After lamenting a bit about not being able to run the entire length of the West Fork, noticing the massive logjams at seemingly every river bend reminded me that perhaps our ripped up boats were a blessing in disguise.
We arrived at Pretty Prairie on the South Fork of the Sun River this evening to crowds of horse packers and their dudes occupying nearly every established campsite. After debating a bit about whether to simply pitch camp on the forested edge of the Prairie (far from the river) or continue on, we decided to try to find our camp from last year, in a hidden grove of pines on the river bank.
It’s a secluded, quiet, remote camp that is easier to find while floating than while hiking. Nevertheless, 40 minutes of traipsing through meadow, brush, swamp, side channels, and blowdowns led us to the firepit where we all shared bratwurst last year.
Upon arrival to camp, we repaired the packrafts by sewing the gashes closed with a tapestry needle and Glide dental floss (peppermint), then urethane-sealing the seam and covering both sides with cloth duct tape. The wounds will cure overnight and we are confident the boats will get us to Gibson Reservoir – our exit in two days.
We have a nice warm fire going here tonight, and we are sharing a bit about our experiences on this expedition – the physical, mental, and emotional challenges – and reflecting on both the highs and lows. It’s clear that this trek has had transformative impact on all of us. We are looking forward to the finish, but also know that it will be bittersweet.
We have completed about 91 miles and have about 14 to go.
Tomorrow we hope to camp somewhere on the lower South Fork of the Sun River, perhaps in the vicinity of the lower gorge…
Godspeed – RJ
PS: No photo today, we have poor sat reception at our camp.
We have stopped for the day after a short hike to take a half day to recover from our arduous trek across the top of the Chinese Wall.
We are camped on the banks of the West Fork of the South Fork of the Sun River in a shady grove of lodgepole pines. We have a nice beach, good sitting logs, a stone firepit, a bear pole, and green luxurious grass for lounging. I am drinking coffee and the boys are playing a game of hearts.
We have looked forward to being off of our feet for a few hours to rest them. The dogs are weary!
As we reflect on the past few days and the expedition leadership curriculum that we teach at MOHAB, we have learned an invaluable decision-making process.
We evaluate risk at every opportunity. Decision-making is based on a framework created by a matrix where one axis is the probability that an event will occur (e.g., flipping a packraft in a rapid or falling on a steep slope) and the other axis is the probability of a consequence resulting from that event (e.g., a dangerous swim in the case of a flipped boat, or a broken bone in the case of a hiking fall). Each cell of the matrix is the decision we make. If the probability of the event is low and the probability of the consequence is low, then our decision is usually “Go!” If the probability of both the event and the consequence are high, then our decision is usually “Stop!” Combinations of low probability of the event combined with high probability of the consequence are the scariest combinations. This is what we faced yesterday when making the decision on whether to take the mountaineer’s route (low probability of a fall, but with really bad consequences if it happened) or a longer, alternative route (with a high probability of exhaustion and night hiking but low probability of bad consequences). We take a conservative approach and don’t want to be put in a position where we have to manage a bad consequence.
A strong tolerance for uncertainty is critical in wilderness expedition travel, and we have had our fair share. High water levels, logjams, bushwhacking, routes not going how we expect, heat, not knowing if or what creeks are flowing, weather … The list is long.
This uncertainty causes what we call “expedition stress” – the combination of physical, mental, and emotional states that respond to uncertainty and adversity. Every one of us has undergone “expedition stress” at various levels at various times. Learning how to manage it and how to respond to others going through it is one of the most valuable experiences for youth to learn. It’s a beautiful thing to watch people face their trials and come out the other side, and even better to see that an internal transformation has occurred as a result of the process.
Being able to make decisions where you understand the probability of events and consequences, and being able to manage stress by increasing your tolerance for uncertainty and adversity – these are the hallmark skills learned in the context of a long and difficult expedition. These are the lessons I hope our Crew members will learn, so they can take them into adulthood and be productive citizens – employees and employers, fathers, and husbands.
We have blown up our packrafts and are ready to paddle tomorrow. We hope to complete the West Fork tomorrow and camp somewhere on the South Fork of the Sun tomorrow night.
Walker under the upper cliffs of the Chinese Wall on the bench near Sphinx Mountain, yesterday.
Godspeed – RJ
Day 8 & 9 – The Chinese Wall
On Monday we left the cozy shade of the lone pine tree at our meadow camp on the Upper White River and immediately started bushwhacking through a forest understory dominated by huckleberry and deadfall.
We soon emerged into steep meadows and then onto a mixture of limestone scree and isolated stands of subalpine fir.
2,000+ feet of elevation gain later we were standing atop the Chinese Wall at its terminus just south of Larch Hill Pass. The temperature was 80 degrees and our trek along the wall would remain in unshaded heat for the next two days. Water is sparse on the wall. We carried heavy water loads “just in case”. Refilling water means descending off the wall to the headwaters of a creek drainage where you hoped water would be flowing. Finding water was always met with whoops of joy.
The top of the Chinese Wall is otherworldly. A 2,000 foot cliff may lie to your left and a slope steep enough to drop off that you don’t see it’s bottom is to your right. You are walking atop the Continental Divide – for the boy this means the grand opportunity to pee on soil that drains to both oceans in a single swoop.
Our snacks and water ran out on Monday as we reached the summit of Salt Mountain and cliffs that provided an impasse.
We descended into the headwaters of the aptly named Cliff Creek, where we found water in a tiny snowmelt brook, and cooked dinner. We had a few hours of daylight remaining so after a lengthy debate of “Should we camp here?” we saddled up and starting trekking back up the hill.
A few hours later we found ourselves in a tiny meadow just big enough for our shelters, and with feet starting to blister and legs getting tired, we’d call it home for the night. Another tiny snowmelt creek flowed adjacent to camp, which had expansive views of the massive Sphinx Mountain to our south.
During the waning light of dusk, Andrew was pointing up hill and saying “bear…bear…bear…” It took a second to register but I grabbed my bear spray as I caught a glimpse of a large black mass happily jogging into camp. We came together to watch a large healthy black bear stand up, size us up, and then proceed to run off in a panic.
Nobody went pee alone that night.
Tuesday morning we arose early to begin our trek around the east side of Sphinx Mountain. Meadow walking and a little bushwhacking took us through a “sneak” in the Wall – a bench that splits the wall, where the cliffs fall away on the downside and shadow you on the upside – with beautiful flat meadows and snowfields in the middle. We stopped on the bench to drink and refill water at a small spring bubbling up a clear Rocky Mountain brew as the morning sun lit up the golden limestone of the Wall’s upper cliffs above us.
After leaving the bench we made our way back to the Wall’s crest and the ethereal world of being on the highest point in the land.
We then reached our next crux – Haystack Mountain – and more impassable cliffs.
We descended The Wall to a gully filled with house-sized limestone talus and sent a scouting party ahead to find a route through the next set of cliffs. Justin, Nik, and Andrew returned with good news that would prevent us from having to descend several hundred feet, and we were able to snake our way through the cliff band on safe ledges and steps.
Once past Haystack, we faced the crux of our Wall route, and perhaps, of the entire trek.
There aren’t many options for getting off the south end of the Wall and getting to White River Pass.
The common option is to descend the Haystack Mountain trail to the South Fork of the White River 3,000 feet, and then re-ascend most of that elevation back up to White River Pass on the South Fork White river trail. That option is about 8 or 9 miles.
Option B is the mountaineer’s route – a scramble through a notch in the wall that leads to a ridgetop bushwhack directly to White River Pass. This option is the shortest and has the potential to save hours of time.
On the slopes of Haystack Mountain we crossed the trail and resisted the temptation to take it down. We had weather, daylight, and the pride of youth on our side. We’d stick to the high route.
After passing Haystack, we reached our decision point at a pass that would then lead to a summit that would then lead to the mountaineer’s route.
The rest of the party stayed at the pass searching for the herd of bighorn sheep we had spooked earlier while Andrew and I climbed the next summit to search for the mountaineers route.
We found it.
It was a tiny notch in the wall that led to a system of ledges that descended a cliff band. We completed the descent without packs to prove that it was “possible” by mortals but decided that the descent would carry too much risk with it for our party. I rate the scramble as class 2+(R) with one class 3 move.
Heavy packs, inexperienced scramblers, one scout with a vertiguous fear of heights, a very steep and loose scramble, and the high consequence of a fall (tumbling over a cliff) meant a that we’d have to find another way.
We returned to the pass and our party at the end of our scouting mission and broke the news that we’d have to find our own route to White River Pass.
By now it was early evening and we knew that the chance of finding a camp between here and White River Pass was slim. We donned our packs and proceeded to descend a steep gully to avoid cliff bands and dangerous exposure on the wall crest.
Once in the bottom of the gully, we snaked our way through yet another cliff band and made a very steep ascent via forest bushwhack on the top of the cliffs to a tiny notch where a creek was flowing.
We took a break at the notch to make dinner and drink. We contemplated camping there in the open (there was no room to pitch shelters) but instead decided to make a final run for White River Pass.
We left the notch at 8 PM.
Another steep bushwhack, slogging through snowmelt-flooded bogs, and seemingly at the end of our energy reserves delivered us to White River Pass as the sun was setting. We celebrated with handshakes, whoops and hollers, and excitement as we watched the setting sun and retrieved our headlamps.
We left White River Pass at 10 PM singing songs and frequently shouting “Hey Bear” as twilight turned to blackness. We passed waterfalls, crossed snow bridges, and like zombies finished our trail walk at the valley of the West Fork of the South Fork of the Sun River.
We stumbled into a serene timbered campsite at 12:45 AM.
We erected our shelters and hung our bear bags, chit-chatted a bit about the day, and promptly fell asleep.
We trekked for 16 hours today, most of it off trail on some of the steepest and most difficult terrain we have ever encountered.
Our feet our sore, macerated, and blistered. Our quadriceps and calves and glutes are fried.
But our attitudes are sky high. What an adventure this has been!
We are otherwise healthy, happy, feel accomplished, and excited to begin the final leg of our expedition via packraft down the W Fork S Fork Sun, S Fork Sun, and Gibson Reservoir.
We have completed about 85 miles and have about 20 to go.
We hope to camp somewhere on the W Fork S Fork Sun River tonight.
Godspeed – RJ
PS: No photo today due to poor sat reception here in the valley.
We are now traveling atop the crest of thee Chinese Wall.
There is no trail here. The terrain here consists of spartan landscaping dominated by sharp, limestone shale.
There is a 2,000 foot cliff (the Chinese Wall) and huge snow cornices to our left. There is a steep shale slope to our right.
It’s beautiful and remote up here. We feel alone.
Godspeed – RJ
Day 7 – Staging for the Wall
We spent a great part of the morning today … “managing a medical issue.” Nothing terribly urgent, but one of those things that if you get it wrong, the consequences can be fatal. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to live blog about it, so as to protect the confidentiality of the patient and the Montana High Adventure Base, but we are monitoring our patient under the close consult of our Camp Director and Health Officer via sat phone. There is no drama at this time and “the issue” seems to be resolving itself. We are otherwise proceeding along our route normally and we are in fine health overall. This evening, our patient is happy and feeling much better.
Any talk of wilderness medicine is interesting and engaging for our participants. All of us (youth and adults) hold active certifications in Wilderness First Aid or higher and we are fascinated by everything from internal medicine to the skin peeling between our toes (“packrafter toes”).
After a late start from camp as the temperatures began to climb, we finished our descent into the beautiful White River valley. After reaching the river and turning north, we enjoyed the wettest miles of the trek. The White is flooding its banks and carving new channels near Brushy Park, and in some locations, the river is sharing a side channel with our trail. Hip-deep river crossings, walking through mucky side channels, schwucking through mud bogs, and icy cold water that numbs the feet – these were today’s defining moments.
Oh, and predator tracks.
Our footprints followed grizzly bear and wolf tracks the entire day today. Many of those tracks were fresh in the mud. We have yet to see a bear on this trek, but we did notice a “brown thing” on the hillside above us … that disappeared a bit later when we tried to find it again.
We are camped in a meadow adjacent to the river and far away from the main trail. An 80 foot tall lone pine stands sentinel in the meadow and provides our shade while we rest and scout the beginning of our route to the northern crest of the Chinese Wall, which looms 2,000 feet above us directly to the east of our camp.
We have now traveled a little more than 70 miles and have about 35 remaining.
Tomorrow morning we make the 2,000 foot climb to the crest of the Chinese Wall and begin our off trail traverse to White River Pass, which we hope to reach in a couple of days.
In preparation for what will be a tough but spectacular few days, we are playing hearts, cooking noodles, and dropping a fly in the stream for one of the little cutthroats that inhabit this icy river.
Godspeed – RJ
Photo: Large Wolf Track