Hiking the Morrison Jeep Trail

This year, my old friend Springer and I decided to hike from Pahaska Teepee (near the East gate of Yellowstone) to the headwaters of the North Fork River in Silvertip Basin and then up and over into Sunlight Basin. But a heavy snow year plus unseasonable temperatures conspired to make July creek crossings unusually dangerous. After scouting the final (scary) creek crossing on our intended route, we decided to switch gears and do the Morrison Jeep Trail instead.

Since Springer was coming directly from sea level and we were starting at around 10,000 feet, we agreed to take a leisurely pace and simply enjoy the journey. We ended up taking four days to hike the trail, but it could definitely be done in three. On the first day, we shuttled a car, then drove up to the trailhead on the Beartooth Highway. We hiked about 5 miles in and camped at Sawtooth Lake. The terrain forced us to camp right on top of the lake, which was full of trout.

First camp

First camp


The second day, we woke up late, sat around drinking coffee for way too long, then started the 1000 foot ascent onto Dillworth Bench. We’d seen snow patches on the bench from the Chief Joseph Highway and planned to use those for water. The concern was that the trail would be dry from the bench all the way back down to the Clark’s Fork.
view of Sawtooth Mountain

view of Sawtooth Mountain


Thanks to the unusual conditions, we found plenty of running water high on the bench and so decided to keep hiking instead of camping there. The views were majestic and the wildflowers were abundant.
TopOfBench
We hiked six or seven miles, descended from the bench and found a pretty meadow to camp in, not far from a creek. After pitching our tents, we crossed the meadow to go cook dinner on the edge and walked right past a gigantic pile of fresh bear scat. We kept our eyes peeled as bear-thirty rolled around. A rain storm finally drove us into our tents. That night something chewed a couple of holes in my food bag (which was well hung in the trees on the edge of the meadow). Luckily it gave up before actually reaching my food.

Camp 2
The next morning, we woke up to stormy skies and a bit of rain. We packed up and followed the trail into deep timber.
Woods
From then on, the terrain alternated between pretty forests and beautiful open meadows. The views of Sunlight Basin were spectacular.
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Thunderstorms came and went all day and we hiked through steady rain for a while.
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I was hoping we could camp up high, but we eventually ran out of water. The creeks lower down were all dried up, so we had no choice but to descend all the way to the Clark’s Fork river.

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The switchbacks down were steeper than I expected and very loose and rocky. We both got a pretty good quad workout as we descended.

Me at the top of the second set of switchbacks

Me at the top of the second set of switchbacks


Looking down at the mighty Clark's Fork

Looking down at the mighty Clark’s Fork


Halfway down, I almost stepped on this baby rattlesnake. He was coiled up in the middle of the trail, just like a grown-up rattlesnake, ready to strike and darting his tiny head at me. It was a good thing I saw him because baby rattlesnakes are actually more dangerous than their parents.
Baby rattlesnake

Baby rattlesnake


After ten miles of hiking, we made it down to the river. At that point, we were only four miles from the car, but we decided to camp there anyway. Our feet were sore from the pounding on the switchbacks and we’d been looking forward to another night in our tents.
Looking down the Clark's Fork canyon at river level

Looking down the Clark’s Fork canyon at river level


The next day we hiked out before it got too hot. We crossed paths with a black bear and were glad we’d hung our food on the one available tree the night before. We had to go back up to the Beartooth Highway to retrieve the other car, so we detoured to Cooke City and pigged out at the Beartooth Cafe, which has come to be my go-to restaurant for post-adventure pig-outs in this area. The smoked trout alone is worth any extra drive.

Overall, this was a beautiful and very easy hike: roughly 25-26 miles and about a thousand feet of elevation gain if you start on the Beartooth Highway side. You could start on the Clark side, at lower elevation, but it’s a long haul up to Dillworth Bench from there. This hike is best before July 15th, when the road opens to jeeps and ATVs. Doing it the second week of July, we had the entire trail to ourselves. I’m not sure there’d be any water on the bench in normal years, though you might find small lingering snow patches.

My favorite new piece of gear on this hike was my Marmot Pulsar Tent
which I’ll review thoroughly in a separate post.

SAR Journal: Heart Mountain Evac

Hiker Rescued from Heart Mountain (press release)

Heart

A female hiker from Atlanta, Georgia was brought down off of Heart Mountain yesterday, by the Park County Search and Rescue Unit (SAR) after she complained of severe abdominal pains such that she was unable to hike back down the mountain.

The initial call came into the Park County 911 Communications Center at 11:15 a.m. The 17 year old was hiking with friends from the trailhead at the Heart Mountain Ranch which is owned by the Nature Conservancy. They had made it to within 400 feet from the summit when her condition deteriorated.

A SAR ground unit as well as a wilderness medical team from West Park Hospital was deployed and able to reach the victim at 1:15 p.m. They were able to stabilize her before walking her down the mountain on a “wheeled litter.”

Due to the elevation and rugged terrain, it took the teams approximately 3 hours to get her back to the trailhead. She was then transported to West Park Hospital by ambulance where her condition is unknown at this time.

My Comments
this is a narrow and often steep trail with many rocky sections. Even with the wheeled litter, we needed lots of manpower to safely bring the victim down.

Whitetail Peak: Stormy Success

Whitetail

Earlier this week, we headed into the Beartooths, armed with a perfect weather forecast and some sexy new gear. Our objective: the north face couloir on Whitetail Peak, a mountain that sent us whimpering back home last time we tried it. The route is the big obvious couloir in the picture above.

We left late, but made good time in, despite the heavily drifted trail that eventually became impossible to follow. Much post-holing ensued, followed by a short but insistent rain storm and we picked a camp near Sundance Pass in time to dodge a succession of many more rains.

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We left the tent at 3 a.m. on summit day, picking our way toward the couloir in the dark. Rotten snow and unstable boulder fields gave us an early morning workout, accompanied by the clang of ice-axe on rock and the steady background noise of heavy breathing. By dawn we were close to the couloir, but sunrise revealed a black and yellow horizon. What happened to the forecast for clear skies and afternoon thunderstorms?

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After much debate, we decided to wait and see (a climbing technique used often in times of duress). We continued forward as the storm rolled blackly toward us. A flash of lightning declared the moment of truth–and the burst of thunder was 8 seconds behind it. I threw the pack cover over my pack and we hunched down to wait out the ensuing rain. It was over in 5 minutes and a clean blue sky opened up. This matched the prevailing weather pattern we’d been observing: frequent small rainstorms lasting 5-10 minutes, followed by periods of partly cloudy skies. We decided to continue.

Heading up the couloir

Heading up the couloir

The snow in the couloir was fabulous and we chose not to rope up. It steepened from about 40 degrees at the bottom to 51 degrees higher up, where a fall would likely have been impossible to self-arrest. As the Queen of Cowards, I would not have continued unroped had the snow not been in such excellent condition. We were kicking deep, solid steps and getting stonker axe plunges. But unfortunately our blue sky disappeared. From inside the couloir, we could no longer see the approaching weather, so we found out about the blizzard when it descended.

Blizzard descending

Blizzard descending

At that point, there wasn’t much to be gained from retreating, so we continued upward with many grim thoughts about NOAA. Visibility was pretty low, but all we needed to see was the snow in front of us. And the cornice above. Bypassing the cornice involved a short stretch of 60-70 degree snow, which was exciting.

Bill bypassing the cornice

Bill bypassing the cornice

And the top-out was even more exciting, as I pretty much had to back-step on the cornice, fling one leg over and yell for Bill to grab me if I fell.

Me about to climb past the cornice.

Me about to climb past the cornice.

After climbing out of the couloir, we met the full force of the storm: 60 mph winds and near white-out conditions. And we were still faced with finding our way down an unknown and rather nasty ridge, to locate the trail over Sundance Pass about a mile and a half away.

Our hero shot at the top

Our hero shot at the top

The first part of the ridge was a series of ugly boulder fields: wet granite now coated with an inch of slippery snow. The older, deep snow between the boulders was rotten and treacherous and we picked our way down very carefully, with visions of spiral fractures dancing in our heads. Navigation was tricky with the very low visibility.

High on the ridge

High on the ridge

creeping down the  ridge

creeping down the ridge

We got down eventually and found the trail and the whiteout lifted, but Whitetail wasn’t finished with us. Almost as soon as our boots hit the trail, the snow/hail turned into drenching, sideways rain. We raced for the tent as fast as we could, even jumping off the trail in the end for some high-speed glissades. But even our top-notch, much-trusted gear couldn’t save us from a downpour of that magnitude. Anything not in a dry-bag was thoroughly soaked.

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Luckily for us, the storm eventually ended and the sun (sort of) came out. We dried our clothes, had a good dinner and went to bed, exhausted. We made good time out the next day, despite the endless post-holing and a painful detour through boulders and deadfall to avoid two big moose grazing on the trail. We arrived at the car happy and hungry and only slightly damp, and not sure if we’d tangle with the Beartooths again in June.


GEAR I LOVED

I had several pieces of new gear that I tried on this trip and a couple of them really stood out.

OUTDOOR RESEARCH WOMEN’S CIRQUE PANTS

First, I was extremely pleased with my Outdoor Research Women’s Cirque Pants which stood up to some serious abuse. They kept me dry through two small rainstorms, a prolonged wet blizzard, lots of postholing and several wet glissades. I’m wearing these pants in all the pictures above.

The integrated gaiters worked better than I expected, though I did finally back them up with real gaiters (for postholing). The fabric breathes extremely well and I stayed reasonably cool on the hike in (60 degrees/partly sunny at the lower elevations). I was able to open the ankle zips and roll the pants up to my knees and they stayed put there. They did fail in the final drenching rainstorm, but I wouldn’t expect any softshell to stand up to that amount of rain. And the plus was that they went from wringing wet to dry in just a couple of hours.

The stretchy fabric and articulated knees allowed me to scramble over boulders and fling my leg over a bulky cornice with ease.

One especially nice feature of these pants is that the waistband is adjustable via velcro tabs, so you can ensure a good fit. I was able to fit my Capilene 4 thermal underwear beneath them and forget I was wearing it.

NITPICKS
The only real drawback to these pants is that they’re heavy at 19 ounces and include an unnecessary crampon patch that adds weight. Any time I’m wearing crampons, I’m also wearing real gaiters so I find a patch on my pants to be unnecessary. The belt loops are also thicker and bulkier than they need to be. I was afraid they’d bunch up under my pack and maybe cause chafing, but in the end they didn’t.

These pants do seem to run slightly big. At 5’7″ and 125 lbs (give or take, ahem), with an athletic build, I fit comfortably into the size Small with some minor cinching of the velcro when I wasn’t wearing thermals.


TETON SPORTS HIKER 3700 Ultralight Backpack

Pack
This 60 L pack was actually loaned to me by a friend, who happens to be an ambassador for Teton Sports. I’m a hard sell when it comes to backpacks and I’ve been pretty loyal to Black Diamond packs for several years. However, my current 60 liter is nearing the end of its life so I decided to give this pack a try when my friend offered to lend it to me.

The first thing I noticed was how nicely this pack loaded up. I took it on a training hike and was very pleased with how well it carried. At 4lbs, it’s only 3 ounces heavier than my 60 L Black Diamond, but the extra weight goes into extremely strategic padding in the shoulder straps and hip-belt, which allowed me to carry 40 lbs without bruising my hips or collarbones (an ongoing problem for me).

The torso length is adjustable (16″ to 21.5″), which meant I got a very custom fit. The lumbar support is excellent and I love the “wrapped” feeling of the cushy split dual wishbone hipbelt. There are lots of pockets, sleeping pad straps and two ice-axe loops. I easily carried a full load of backpacking gear, plus a snow picket, avalanche shovel and ice axe all attached to the outside of the pack. To climb the route, I used the compression straps to cinch the pack down as skinny as it would go–it carried my load tightly and never shifted or got in my way.

For such a light pack, it really has a lot of features, including a built-in rainfly, which I used repeatedly on this trip. With most packs, you’re forced to drop another $30-$40 on a rain-fly and the after-market ones may or may not fit. And, while there are lighter packs available, they’re usually so stripped down as to be annoying (no pockets) and uncomfortable (skimpy padding). To me, 4lbs is a fantastic weight for a full-featured, comfortable pack like this.

Perhaps the best part of this pack is the amazing price! At only $90 on Amazon, it blows most other packs of this size and quality out of the water. For comparison, my current 60 L retails for $229 (though I bought it on sale for about $170). Now that’s a good deal!

NITPICKS
The only thing I could really ask for with this pack would be the ability to pull another inch of slack out of the hip-belt. Also, the fabric is not very water-resistant, but I can fix that with a coating of Kiwi Camp Dry. Other than that, this is a truly well-designed and comfortable backpack that I would recommend to anybody.


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Alpine Spankings

I decided that the first day of summer would be the perfect time to launch my new blog. But then I tackled a long hike instead and my pager went off and tangled me up in a SAR mission. So the third day of summer will have to do instead.

I’m caught, as usual, between a trailhead and a time crunch, because tomorrow we’re heading out into the Beartooth Mountains. We’re going for a second attempt on Whitetail Peak — a mountain that thoroughly spanked us several years ago. Last time, we made our attempt in July, hoping for a technical ice-climb, and we got ice alright, but not the kind we wanted. Much of the route was melted out and it turned into a rockfall bowling alley as we climbed.

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We ended up bailing — a series of frightening rappels — and right at the bottom, a rock slammed into my back. It was big enough to knock me down and break the skin through several layers of clothes. Bill thought it had killed me.

It hadn’t, of course, and I managed to stagger to camp, bruised and half-blind from a fine glaze of sand in my eyes. I was shocked that the mountain had almost taken me down. I couldn’t shake that feeling I’d had when I saw the rock coming and knew I couldn’t dodge it. Those are the moments that change you in tangible ways, that leave you a scar of fear, or a twist of gratitude.

Still, we had to admit defeat and it was certainly bitter. We’d carried in way too much gear for the route, not knowing what we were up against, and our aching shoulders and hips were all we took home. It was a long hike out.

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So tomorrow we’re heading in again, with smaller packs and a better sense of the mountain. The forecast looks good and I believe the snow is stable.

But I might be wrong. The mountain might kick us off again, with or without a rock to the back of the shoulder. We might come back feeling small and stupid, having to tell our friends we failed again.

But that’s okay. For one thing, they’re pretty well used to our epic failures and, for another, it’s the failures that make the best memories. The mountains that are easily climbed are not the ones we remember–it’s the ones we have to go back for that tell our story. Remember that time? With a nod and a grin and a shiver.

WhitetailApproach

You haven’t really failed till you stop trying, right? That’s what we tell ourselves. This time we’ll be fitter and braver and smarter. OK, probably not too much braver, but maybe a little bit smarter?

Wish us luck!