Photos by Ryan Jordan, Don Wilson and Ryan Connelly
Click here to view a photo gallery from the November 2007 Wilderness Trekking III course.
Mike Clelland and Don Wilson discuss route options on day 1. The Beartooth Range was hit by a series of early season storms prior to the trek, resulting in the accumulation of up to three feet of snow.
When I first heard about Backpacking Light’s Wilderness Trekking III course I knew right away it would be a fabulous way to spend a week; big wilderness, avid hikers, and a curriculum designed for shared uncertainty and maximum learning. When I learned more about how the course would push our limits, I got even more interested. There would be no trails, no GPS, no watches, no canister stoves, no matches, no lighters, no toilet paper, no down-filled insulation and only a mysterious, less than complete map. Winter conditions were likely. Pack weights would be 12 to 14 pounds, even if we had to carry snowshoes and avalanche beacons. Perfect. Count me in.
It all started back in August when ten course participants were chosen for the program from a pool of several dozen applicants. All were experienced hikers, but they represented a diverse set of skills, ages, and geographic origin. Soon after selection an email dialogue began, focused on the gear and technique challenges we would face. Each person completed an online gear list, and all were challenged to minimize pack weight and the number of items we would carry. The two course facilitators, Ryan Jordan and Ryan Connelly, led a series of online discussions focused on navigation, sleep systems, packing systems, footwear and group behavior. Each participant posted a short online biography. By the time we all met in Bozeman, it was almost like a reunion of old friends.
Upon arrival in Bozeman there were still plenty of unknowns. We knew our trek would be somewhere in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but we had no idea of the specific mountain range or terrain. We knew there would be navigation challenges, but we did not know the scope of the challenge. We knew our maps would be “different”, but nothing else was shared with us about map content. The unknowns were all part of the course, and I think we all arrived with a sense of anticipation to learn more about the challenges ahead. I certainly did.
A week before our scheduled start date a series of early season storms swept through the northern Rockies. Notes from Ryan kept the group informed and a slew of last minute gear changes were put in place. Early on, it was uncertain whether we would carry snowshoes, but now there was no doubt. Avalanche danger also became a concern. We would have to carry avalanche beacons, probes and snow shovels, adding about 12 ounces to our pack weights. But for me, the storms were welcome. I have spent most of the past 20 years in the desert southwest, cursed with constant sunshine and warm winters. I relished the idea of snow and nasty weather - and the chance to learn from others in those conditions. Besides, it was easy to welcome the storms from the comfort of my cactus-filled patio in the Sonoran desert.
I flew into Bozeman a day early, arriving on October 8th. The storms had passed but the local mountains were decorated with significant snow. Good weather looked like it would prevail during the trek, with some possibility of storms on the third or fourth day. I enjoyed a delightful day strolling through Bozeman, checking out a significant portion of the local eateries. Most of the others flew in the next day. Late in the afternoon we were transported to a cozy retreat outside of Bozeman where we spent a full day in seminars and packing. It was nice to finally meet my coursemates. We were all excited by the prospects for the week ahead. After introductions and dinner, our first seminars focused on hiking in grizzly bear country and avalanche safety. Because the course had so many experienced hikers, it was more like a series of group sharing exercises than a one-way lecture dominated by a teacher. As someone who hikes solo or with my immediate family most of the time, I thoroughly enjoyed the sense of anticipation, passion and learning within the group of experienced, like-minded trekkers.
Ryan Jordan leads a group seminar. We enjoyed a thoughtful series of discussions covering avalanche safety and grizzly bears on our first evening at the lodge.
After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast we spent the morning in more seminars, discussing footwear, clothing systems, sleep systems and expedition nutrition. Finally we packed up and drove out of Bozeman, through the northern portion of Yellowstone National Park. Northern Yellowstone is a magical place: ground zero for wolf reintroduction in the Northern Rockies. The late afternoon drive was filled with golden light, roaming bison, magnificent elk and snow-covered wilderness as awe inspiring as anything else in the lower 48. We left the Park near dusk and soon arrived at our destination for the evening, an old hunting lodge near the starting point of the trek. Here we had a navigation seminar and were finally handed our maps. We were eager to see the mysterious maps. They had been the subject of much speculation for the past 6 weeks, and we dove right into them. They were topographic maps, but had no scale, no trails, no roads and no geographic names. In the lower right was a small red S - our starting point. In the upper left was a small red F - the finish point. Our task was simple, walk from start to finish in four days. By this time we had been divided into two trekking groups. Each group carefully probed the maps for weaknesses. But alas, the map was not complete. Much of the southwestern quadrant was blanked out. An obvious high plateau could be walked northwest of the start point, but soon the plateau dropped, and a jagged divide guarded the entire northern section of the map, with peaks up to 12500 feet and very complex terrain. In the corner of the map was printed a hint - go off the map. It looked as though we might have to enter the blank zone and cross the divide somewhere on the west side of the map. With that in mind we hit the sack, planning to rise at 5:30 am in order to be at the start of the trek by sunrise.
My group consisted of Mike Clelland, from Idaho, Brain Doble, from Maine, Jorgen Johansson, from Sweden, myself, from Arizona, and Ryan Jordan, who would be our facilitator. Right away it was clear to me that it would be a fun group; experienced, relaxed, diverse, and eager to go. A day or two later we would dub ourselves The Beach Boys, a result of Brian and Jorgen both living at sea level. Brian, especially, would suffer from acute mountain sickness on the first day.
The other group was made up of Jim Bailey, from Massachussets, Darin Banner, from Oregon, Mike Martin, from Idaho, Kevin Sawchuck, from California and Ryan Connelly, their facilitator. Somewhere along the way they began to call themselves The Light Wipes. I don’t know where that name came from, and I’m not sure I want to know.
Expedition group dynamics was an important part of the course curriculum and was something we discussed in much detail in preparation for the course. On a group trek in difficult conditions, the dynamics of the group are critical to the success, enjoyment and safety of the expedition. Skills and fitness are important traits for team members, but so are other fundamentals such as empathy, work ethic, humor, persistence and humility. As we nodded off to sleep, I think both groups were curious how well they would function together in the days ahead.
For most of day 1 we could easily map our progress, but late in the day we would have to enter unmapped terrain in order to drop in altitude and camp near firewood. Here Jorgen, Don and Mike plot their route across the high plateau.
We were in the bus at 6:30 am, winding our way uphill, with snow depths increasing and the temperature dropping. I was excited by the beauty of the terrain; high peaks, clear lakes, and alpine vegetation. Though it is far from my home, I feel like I’m visiting an old friend when I arrive in high country. But I was still ignorant of even what mountain range we were in. Upward wound the road, cresting at nearly 11000 feet. Finally we reached a gate where the road was closed for the winter. Small snow drifts were already beginning to claim the road for themselves. It was just before dawn and it was cold. As we sorted our packs and got ready to walk, I began to shiver. The temperature was somewhere in the mid-twenties, thirty or forty degrees colder than a typical October morning in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona. I wasn’t used to the cold and I was anxious to get going. Our team huddled for a quick conference just as the sky began to light up. We scanned the terrain and chose to head northwest, across a small basin, aiming for the high plateau that was our planned route to start the day. The plateau would push us up to 11500 feet, but looked like easy walking once we were on top. It would give us a good look at the topography to the north and west, which we considered important since we would be walking along the edge of our map and had no idea what to expect to the west.
The route across the plateau was all we hoped for; easy walking and great views. The high divide that was evident on the map was visible to the north; complex, steep, daunting and not to be crossed until we had traveled further west. By mid-day it was clear that our suspicions were correct; we would drop off the plateau and head into the blank zone on the map in order to move west and camp near firewood. Our cook kits had only a small amount of alcohol and some esbit tabs - enough for an emergency ration or two of hot drinks or food. Cooking over wood using our custom titanium 2-liter Caldera Cones was necessary for the majority of our meals. High on the plateau we could see that the unmapped terrain to the west was a complex jumble of ravines and drainages. One very prominent drainage moved nearly straight west, but our preferred bearing was more northwest. We dropped off the plateau without a clear plan to cross the blank section of the map, and without gaining compass bearings to some prominent landmarks. We assumed we would be able to use high points on the divide to navigate, but this proved a crucial mistake; one that would leave us without a fix on our position for the next two days.
As we dropped down a steep and deeply drifted slope, another surprise reared its head. The snow got deeper - much deeper. At one point I sunk down below my hips. Though beautiful, deep snow would be a drag on our pace in complex terrain. In the back of my mind I began to wonder how much the snow would slow us down. I’m sure my teammates did the same, but we were silent on the topic. Everyone was having a good time, except Brian, who developed a roaring headache and nausea in reaction to the altitude. The quick rise to 11500 feet had given him a classic case of acute mountain sickness. He sat quietly during our breaks, but persevered and by the following morning he was much improved.
Our objective for the evening was a small clump of trees, the first trees we had seen since early in the morning. We moved quietly across the deep snow in the afternoon, surprised to see many lakes already frozen over for the winter. Late in the day we had considered pushing harder to cover more terrain. The snow would certainly slow us down. I was anxious to cover as much ground as possible and to hike until dark or even beyond. But Jorgen quietly reminded us of Brian’s headache. We wisely chose to call it a day when we reached a point with running water and a small supply of wood from a tiny collection of dead, waist-high subalpine fir. In retrospect, Jorgen’s subtle reminder was important; reminding me to focus on the needs of each team member. Health, safety, speed - in that order. It would serve us well in the days ahead.
By afternoon of day 1 it was clear that the snow cover was more complete and deeper than we had expected. We wore snowshoes for the majority of the trekking.
Once at camp, we split into two groups. Two people began the process of gathering wood and boiling water. The others prepared our shelter. My group was using a single GoLite Shangri-La 8 as our shelter. This is a floorless eight-person shelter that weighs about eight pounds with its two poles, and will be on the market in Spring 2008. The Shangri-La was easy to pitch in snow and offered cavernous space. No, that doesn’t do it justice. It was a palace. We delighted in having plenty of room for five people and all our gear. After a warm meal we headed for the shelter, knowing that we needed to take a close look at tomorrow’s route. Ryan said we had made excellent progress for the day. But after an hour poring over the map, we could see no better option than to continue moving west by northwest through unmapped terrain. We hoped to find some landmarks along the divide that would help us pinpoint our location. With that feeble plan, we dozed off. Uncertainty reigned.
We arose before dawn to take full advantage of the rapidly shortening daylight hours. We could have hiked immediately, but we chose to cook a hot breakfast in camp - a choice we would repeat every day. It would be less efficient to stop and cook later in the morning, and starting the sub-freezing day with a cold meal was simply unappealing. As we warmed water over the wood fire the sky lit up in a flowing swirl of red, orange, gold and white. It felt good to be packing up, going light, eating warm food and watching the morning alpenglow welcome the day.
There is a special feel to hiking in snow on a completely calm morning. Snow muffles the sounds of walking and adds a velvet smoothness to the wilderness. In this quiet world we started out the day, hoping to feel our way across this unmapped section of the Beartooths - maybe locating our position along the way and pushing the uncertainty into the far corners of our minds.
We were now well off the charted portion of the map, traveling across the blank zone. We joked that this was somewhat like early explorers, whose blank sections of map might be labeled, “There Be Dragons Here.” Dragons were not a concern, but complex terrain was most definitely a problem. We had a single good landmark to navigate from. The large plateau we had traversed the previous day culminated in a flat peak, which we dubbed Headache Peak, after Brian’s altitude induced headache. Using Headache Peak, we knew we could reach a large lake if we maintained a rough 280 degree bearing from the peak. Upon reaching the lake, which we named Finger Lake, we would be back on the charted portion of the map and we could take a northerly turn through several passes, then emerge into lower elevation valleys that would take us to the finish point. But first we had to find a way to stay on our heading, crossing a continuous series of small drainages.
As we entered the second day, both groups were navigating in unmapped terrain and moving slowly through the deep snow. Here, Mike Clelland takes a compass bearing to Headache Peak.
Early in the morning we came across a large fin of granite. At the base of the rock, walking in deep snow and almost invisible in its white coat, was a solitary mountain goat. We had been following the tracks of the goat for a few minutes before we came upon him. He paid little attention to us, looking up, but slowly continuing on his way. The goat traversed around the fin of rock to the right. But I saw a more direct line to the left and I suggested we explore the direct route. Exploring this line, I soon came upon a very deep ravine, which the goat had avoided, but we could explore if we wanted the most direct route. After a short discussion we reversed course, still following the tracks of the goat. Again, safety ruled over speed.
All morning and into the early afternoon we struggled with terrain and navigation. Following our desired bearing was difficult due to a maze of cliff bands and ravines. We considered dropping lower and following a major drainage, but that would reduce our visibility and take us well away from our desired objective. Mike felt pretty strongly that staying high was our best option, and we all agreed. Twice during the day we took long navigation breaks, scanning the terrain beyond for natural weaknesses and trying to locate peaks that we could use to triangulate our position. We could see Headache Peak quite often, but we lacked a second known landmark. To our north lay the 11000 to 12000 foot peaks of the divide, but many of these peaks were non-descript or were within the blank section of the map. Despite a lot of effort, we were unable to use the peaks to help us nail down our position. This was something we had not expected and which frustrated us all day.
As we struggled to locate our position, Ryan, our facilitator, posed a few questions. But he was admirably quiet as we discussed options, not giving the slightest hint, even when we made bad decisions. At times I felt like a lab rat in a cage as Ryan watched the group discuss our decisions. We all knew that he had full knowledge of our position and that he had a complete map. Though he was silent about navigation, in all other aspects he served as a normal member of the team. The facilitators both carried a GPS to plot our courses and a satellite phone in case of emergency. But they did not share any of that information with us.
In early afternoon we reached a high ridge and Mike pointed out a possible break in the terrain. It looked as though this natural cleft also closely followed our desired bearing. We would have to drop across a valley to reach the weakness, then climb back up the opposite side. The valley below harbored a series of lakes, and was blocked on the north side by a wall of streaked rock. As we scanned our route, a Bald Eagle glided silently across the void, looping effortlessly above the range with no apparent destination. Dropping into the valley through deep snow was loads of fun. Silently, each of us was wondering about the uncertainty that lay ahead. We were moving very slowly. With only one landmark we did not know our exact position and we had no idea if we were getting close to Finger Lake. Could we make it to the finish point? I doubted that we could. But for now, I kept my doubts to myself. I was thoroughly enjoying myself, regardless of the uncertainty.
The Light Wipes, Kevin, Jim and Darin, gather around their maps to assess their route and locate their position. Both groups suffered navigation problems from failing to locate known landmarks on day 1.
Nearing the valley floor, five figures came into view, hiking downstream. It was the Light Wipes, whom we had not seen since early the previous day. Our reunion proved to be a pivotal moment in the trip. The Light Wipes were clearly concerned about their pace, and struggled with the same navigation challenge as we did. Neither of us knew our specific position but both groups had a strategy to get back onto the charted portion of the map and head north to the finish point. Our question now was simple. Was the slow pace of snow travel going to keep us from the planned finish point? Ryan J. and Ryan C. held a private mini-conference and soon we all met to discuss a change of plans. The deep snow was indeed slowing us down. A new finish point was drawn on our maps. The new point was further south, but still in line with our plan to reach Finger Lake. We chose to continue on our planned exploration of the terrain weakness above the lake. The Light Wipes chose to follow the drainage of the valley, a more circuitous route, but possibly also more efficient. We wished each other good luck and headed our separate ways.
Our choice would keep us on high ground with good visibility, which we found aesthetically pleasing. But it was a risk. We crossed the river and climbed a steep, grassy slope. Happily for us, this geologic cleft turned out to be many miles long. It was an obvious stripe in the rock that happened to follow almost exactly along our desired bearing - a stroke of good luck. All afternoon we moved quickly, up and down small valleys and around lakes and rivers. Uncertainty was pushed a little more into the background. Just stay on this bearing until we reach Finger Lake. Simple.
Jorgen extracts his leg after plunging into a gap in a snow covered boulder field. Crossing these boulder fields was slow and a source of concern for both groups.
But a new challenge for both groups now arose from the terrain. Each valley harbored a lake, and each lake was bordered by fields of talus and small boulders. Sometimes a steep cliff completely closed access to one side. These boulder fields were covered with shallow snow, treacherous to walk on. South facing slopes could sometimes be crossed more efficiently without snowshoes. Navigating these difficulties was slow and littered with many group decisions. Which way around the lake? Snowshoes on or off? At one point we reached a large lake with a dubious band of rock slabs protecting the short way around. We suspected we could traverse it, but we were not certain. The longer route involved another series of nasty, snow-covered talus. After a long discussion we again chose safety over speed. Again it proved to be a wise choice.
Late in the day we chanced upon a perfect campsite. Perched on a small ridge between two lakes, it had flat ground, fresh water, dead wood, and a stunning view. It took no time at all to reach a decision to camp at that spot. As we prepared dinner and set up camp, clouds began to fill the sky. We felt better about our progress during the afternoon, and we knew our plan for the next day was to continue our march toward Finger Lake - as long as the terrain would allow us.
Early in the morning on day 3 we continue along our bearing. The natural weakness we followed for much of days 2 and 3 is obvious to the left of Jorgen.
A dusting of snow coated our shelter in the morning. It was warmer than the previous two mornings. We were all sleeping reasonably warm during the nights, with the possible exception of Mike. Mike carried only a single quilt and a half bag, and also lacked synthetic insulated pants. In the early mornings we could hear Mike doing a few abdominal crunches to keep himself warm in the last hours before dawn.
Early in the day, we were delighted to see that our natural path kept on going. We would climb to a small pass, then peer over to see the stripe of snow continuing on; down to a valley and up another rise. Our team was getting along well. We were constantly sharing ideas and comments about techniques, gear and navigation. While we were still struggling with navigation woes, the course objectives of maximum learning while pushing us out of our comfort zones was clearly working - and we were all pleased to be in such a beautiful environment and doing the thing we loved. Throughout the morning Mike entertained us with a mind-boggling array of palindromes that he spouted from memory. Here are a couple of samples:
Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog.
Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to a new era.
He went on and on with these. Good fun.
We expected that by the afternoon we would reach Finger Lake or cross to the south of it and reach other charted portions of the map. We moved reasonably well all day, slowed only by navigation around lakes. But we were able to stay close to our desired bearing. Late in the afternoon there was still no sign of Finger Lake and we assumed we had passed to the south of it. Uncertainty began to creep back into our conversations. In late afternoon we reached a cold and windy lake and stopped for water and some food. The fissure we had been following seemed to end here. What next? Only 24 hours remained to reach our finish point. We held another group discussion and Ryan gave us another update on our exit point. He revealed that our pickup would be in Cooke City, and Cooke City lay 8 miles southwest of Finger Lake. We asked for one more piece of information - our bearing to Finger Lake. We were surprised to learn that we were almost due south of the lake, revealing that we had not traveled as far as we thought. Unanimously, we decided we needed to turn south, dropping in elevation, looking for a drainage that would lead us to the south and west. This was a turning point, as now we were headed out of the wilderness, downhill. We dropped down a treacherous drainage full of slick rock and deadfall, targeting a lake below. Reaching the lake before dusk, we felt confident that we would soon find a trail. We came upon a nice campsite that was obviously heavily used during the summer.
I took a turn that night at firestarting and cooking with the Caldera Cone. Cooking over a wood fire is fundamentally satisfying; it feels more like a primitive art than a technologically enabled meal system. I learned a few tricks about starting a fire in wet conditions and efficiently keeping heat on your pot as you work to boil the water. I enjoyed the wood fire cooking and committed to build more experience with it on future trips.
Hiking though varied terrain in snowshoes quickly became a habit, but we stressed our lightweight snowshoes to the limit, and beyond.
The next morning we picked up a trail at the outlet of the lake, as we had expected we might. We dropped rapidly, heading south, then west. Ahead of us on the same trail were the footprints of the Light Wipes. We passed their campsite and followed them out of the wilderness. The challenge was mostly over now, though we were still on terrain for which we had no map. Uncertainty melted away and we began to discuss our thoughts on the course and future trips. I had enjoyed each and every one of my teammates and hoped to cross paths or share trips with them again. We walked the final two miles into Cooke City along a road, completing our transition out of the wilderness. Not everything had gone smoothly, but there were smiles all around.
Walking into Cooke City, we were greeted by the Light Wipes. They had chosen a lower route along natural drainages that would have taken them slightly south, then west. They had planned to walk around the highest portions of the divide, then follow an easy route north to the finish point. In good conditions their route might have been more efficient than ours, but they suffered from difficult navigation around several lakes and the same fundamental navigation issues that my team faced. But they too were smiling.
On the warm ride back to Bozeman I reflected on the week and how it might impact my thinking. Most significantly, the course reinforced my growing belief in the value of wilderness and the types of experiences that it can provide. Exploring the Beartooth range on the edge of winter, with a few kindred spirits, carrying only the simplest of essentials, is rewarding in ways that can’t be duplicated outside of wild places. Good learning experiences also open up new possibilities and expand the horizons of your future. This experience had done exactly that for me. Already I’m planning new trips that will push me in fresh directions, perhaps being joined on those trips by some of my coursemates. And I have a newfound respect for outrageous palindromes.
In part 2 of this series we’ll explore the details of the gear we carried, techniques we used and our approaches to navigation during the Wilderness Trekking III course.