The plan is to take a nine-day trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I’ll use trails to access Spotted Bear Pass and then travel off-trail via the Continental Divide, until striking trail again for the return. It’s an ambitious route, but I know it’s been done before.
This should be pretty straight-forward travel. I’ve topped the first pass. Keep an eye out for goats! They love this place, but the only goat I see is one much like myself. He’s out for just the day, and I guess him to be at least 65 and still playing in the high crags. I am inspired. A mile later, a backpacker tells me about two recent griz sightings in Spotted Bear Pass, which is where I intend to camp tomorrow night. Not to worry. By then those sightings will be three days old. Next up is a 10 mile march through an old burn and it’s scorching hot. I’ve found some scarce shade by lying under a fallen tree. The ants are irritating, but the alternative is a poached brain. Outfitters are passing by, and the livestock isn’t so keen on the talking log with gesticulating arms. I’ve caused a minor dust-up, so I get up and hike to Gates Creek for night one. A coyote cruises by at 50 feet, but it doesn’t notice me. Critters are not always on the ball. A short thunderstorm sends me into the tent for the night.
Time to get up. I “quietly” unzip the tent, poke my head out and observe 360 degrees. One never knows what might be lurking about. Sometimes, I get lucky – or unlucky. It’s a matter of perspective. Breakfast is a time-tested formula: coffee, an oatmeal bar, and Pop Tarts. Today should be 13 fairly easy miles to Spotted Bear Pass, where I will camp before starting the bushwhacking leg of the trip. About an hour in, my boots are swamped in Red Shale Creek. I truly hate that, but the alternative is a quite a production. I squish onward until I’m out of the old burn. It’s a bit gloomy in the trees, but visibility isn’t too bad. Old Ephraim has recently been seen in the area, and my radar is on. Scan right, scan left, scan right. There! 100 feet at the most. I’ve seen him about as early as I could have, and instantly recognize that he is still unaware of me. There’s nothing between us, and all he has to do is glance up to look me in the eye. Grab the bear spray? Nope. The Velcro fastener makes quite a noise, and personal experience tells me that Ephraim does NOT like that sound up close. If that’s his first clue that I am here, he will be angry. No question. I wait 3 seconds, which is probably longer than it would take for him to close the gap. Was he in the middle of a motion? Will he glance up? Tick, tock. He’s got to be well over 400 pounds – maybe closer to 500, with silver shoulders, hump, and back. Classic. I can hear him grazing: rip-rip-rip, munch-munch-munch. He remains preoccupied. Maintaining a line of sight on his rump, I fall back like a cartoon character doing an exaggerated sneak-away. I can see him, but he can’t see me. Think. I should be far enough away to carefully undo the Velcro. Pop, pop, pop-pop. Be vewy, vewy quiet. Elmer Fudd had the occasional good idea. Might as well grab the knife too. OK. Bears like trails, and this bear is pointed in my direction. Odds are pretty good that he is at least meandering toward me. There’s no discernible wind – he might catch my scent, or he might not. Uh-oh. He’s moved and I can’t see him anymore. Sure would like to get a great photo. (Shut up, bone-head.) I haul myself back for 10 minutes to buy a little time and ponder the angles. Terrain, dead-fall, and underbrush combine to eliminate the notions of going around or waiting him out. With no safe positions available for a line of sight, I can’t hang around to observe with binoculars. Even if I try again tomorrow, there have now been 3 sightings here in recent days. I’ve got to give up the pass and double back to Gates Park. Furthermore, my boots will be swamped again in Red Shale Creek. Thanks, Ephraim. I hiked 14 miles, and now camp 1 mile from where I started the day. There is at least 100 yards visibility in all directions. This won’t do much good after dark, but it is soothing for now. I see a sandhill crane keeping company with a cow elk. They buddy up for an hour, and I surmise that the elk disturbs bugs and the crane takes advantage. I hatch new plans and retire.
The crane is still on patrol. Gates Park is large, but this bird will see every square inch of it. I take the trail up to the headwaters of Red Shale Creek, and then begin the scramble up the cliffs to Sock Lake. The terrain is steep, but the game-trails are fairly decent. I notice something moving around, just underneath the ground cover. The movement of the plants suggests that this is something unusual. Despite the terrain and my load, I follow until the creature pops out onto a bare patch. It’s a toad! At 7500 feet on a steep, rocky mountainside, it’s got to be a boreal toad. It’s a rare sighting. I once spent quite a bit of time on a volunteer project to find these critters, but had no luck. Fifteen years later, I say aloud, “Yo! Finally found one!” Persistence can pay off. I set up camp at Sock Lake, and look up to see an eight-point buck making a classy first impression. He’s 30 feet away, with brush obscuring his posterior, but there’s no mistaking the posture. Let’s just say he would look comfortable holding a newspaper. I dub him Buck the Watch-Deer, and he will be with me well into the night. It’s a nice feature in a campsite, and not that unusual for me. As long as I can see or hear Buck, I know he’s watching my back. If Buck is suddenly gone, I must pay extra attention.
Buck abandoned me before dawn, but he took no wages and his work is appreciated. It’s only 3 ½ miles to reach the crest that I seek, but the terrain is challenging and there is no trail. On the first shoulder above the lake, I am presented with a scree slope to cross. The angle is serious, and a mistake would induce much bouncing. These things aren’t so bad if I can sink my boots or my fingers into it a bit, but this stretch has been baked solid this summer. I can’t justify it. I give up a few hundred feet of elevation and gain it back as I climb into a saddle a quarter mile ahead. From the saddle, I can see the promised land about 2 ½ miles away. I’ll need to give up 800 feet of elevation, and then gain 1000. There is only one fold in the landscape that I cannot see, and everything else looks at least doable. Of course, this sort of country always looks friendlier from a distance. I descend from the saddle on the only game trail available. Navigating a patch of dead-fall, I spook about 30 head of elk and they head out in my intended direction. It’s a good idea to watch and get some idea of where the easiest route might be. It seems to take them 10 minutes to reach the crest, but I know it will take me at least a couple hours. Reaching the blind spot in the terrain, I follow the elk. It was smooth sailing for a while, but now there is a trench etched into the mountainside. It’s no problem for the elk, but it’s just enough to stop me. There are only two or three steps here that look a little too sketchy. However, ninety percent is not sure enough, and the penalty for failure is certain death. I climb up to the next game trail. Same story. Up to the next trail. Same story. This is getting to be a strain. I look above, and notice a shelf of rock that looks promising. If I can angle back and get onto it, it could be the answer. I’ll go for it, but this is the last shot. It’s tiring. Finally, I admit that it’s becoming too dangerous. I’ll give up and retrace my steps. I look behind, and see that it’s just as bad as anything else. I notice that the slope is steeper now and angled more toward the South. Conditions have seriously changed. It is baked solid, with crumbling bits spread about for some added spice. Damn it! I’ve been so focused on avoiding one hazard that I have blundered into another. It’s been 17 years since I’ve made a mistake of similar magnitude, but I’ve succumbed again to alpine tunnel vision. Panic rises for a brief moment. (NO. Put that way. Sit down. Rest. Think.) My legs quake a bit from the strain. I squat down on my tiny, slanted perch, with just enough space for two feet, one butt, and the bottom of my pack. There are about 120 yards of steep slope below me which ends at a 300 foot cliff. There are no trees. There are some sketchy hand or foot-holds scattered about, but they are few and far between. Excellent accommodations. As I examine the surface around me, I see a red ribbon. (What? Even the animals aren’t silly enough to be in this spot.) My eye follows the ribbon until I see the withered remains of a balloon. Oh, I get it. I could use a balloon right now. A big one. I know this is weird, eerie maybe, but I can’t process it right now. I’m more interested in saving my life. The weather is ok and I’ve got plenty of daylight, so there’s NO RUSH. A darn good idea strikes me, and I make a point of scarfing down a couple of energy bars and hydrating myself. It’s something that is easily forgotten under stress, and right now it’s seriously important. The bars should kick in after 20 or 30 minutes. What’s the plan? For starters, there is no way I’m getting out of this with my pack on. I’ve got rope. A guy could lower his pack on the rope (MAKE SURE you pick a spot that you think you can reach.), then scramble down to it and repeat as needed. Better hold on to the rope while descending, so I don’t lose any gear. Then again, this pack may be heavy enough to pull me off the slope if it shifts. I’ll have to do it in three pieces, which means 2 pieces will have to remain below without any rope attached while I scramble. Better be sure about my placement each time. The rope is in the bottom of my pack. I’ll have to disassemble and partially unload the pack. On this perch, that alone is risky, but I’ve succeeded. OK. The top portion of the pack goes first. It’s a bit like playing Plinko on a certain game show, but the stakes are higher. It doesn’t go where I want at first, but a second try succeeds. I think there will be plenty of re-tries on this aspect of the operation. The tent goes next. Two pieces are down, and they don’t look like they’re going anywhere. Now for the main pack. I get it about half way down, and a rock is kicked loose. Doink – doink, then a nice high arc, and DOINK! Against all odds, it’s a direct hit on the other portion of my pack. It tips over. It rolls, and rolls. All I can do is watch and hang on to the rope. Look at that bugger go! Snag on something! Come on, you can do it! It disappears for a moment in a depression, and I think maybe I got lucky. But no. It flies over the edge like it’s been shot out of a cannon and cartwheels into the void. Very impressive. I know I’m an idiot for putting myself here, but that was entirely uncalled for. I run a quick inventory of what I’ve lost: Rain/wind shell (ouch), thermal top, warm hat, gloves, gaiters, pants, long-johns. I say aloud, “Yeah, but not now. Right now, I still have a whole lot of not-falling-down to do.” On the upside, I don’t have to play as much Plinko anymore. Not funny. Well, maybe a little. I finish lowering the remainder of the pack. It’s time to move myself now. I don’t know for sure if I can do this, but it has been said that I’m part goat. I run a mental checklist: Care, concentration, calm and confidence. Don’t abandon the planned route for each leg. Maintain at least three points of contact at all times. Test every contact point before committing. Maximize friction by placing your sole as flat against the slope as possible. Finally, I decide not to hang on to the rope. I need a completely free hand, and a shifting pack would probably be deadly while I’m clinging. I’ve been extra careful with the gear placement, but if it rolls off the cliff, so be it. I could still get out of here with the clothes on my back in a couple of days, and maybe I would still have the tent. Here I go. It’s as nasty as it looks. I’ve completed half of this leg, and as I reach with my foot, I begin to slide. (I’m DONE.) But no! I still cling. I don’t know how I managed that, but I’ll take it. I want to stop and collect myself, but it’s not an option. Gravity is still on duty, and fatigue could become an issue before this is done. I refocus, carry on, and come to a point where my instinct must be overcome. There’s nothing to do but face downhill, slide about 10 feet, and catch myself on one of the few decent looking foot holds around. It is doable though. I take the exhilarating ride and succeed. It takes three rounds of Plinko-and-scramble to remove myself from immediate danger, and I have another episode of unnerving slippage. But after nearly an hour, here I am. That was stressful. My thighs are burning, but they’ve still got juice. Hmmm. I know there’s a trail below. If the cliff here is a clean drop to the next level, there might be a worthwhile chance of finding my gear tomorrow. Peering over the edge, it’s clear that there is only one place it could have gone: into the apparently bottomless limestone shaft below. That closes the book on the gear, and it occurs to me that I will suffer a stiff financial penalty for my blunder. Improvisation is required to put my load back together without the missing piece, and then I make the trip back to my previous campsite. Once again, I have hiked all day only to return to my starting point. Who says this is no fun? Not me. I set up camp, stuff my face, and intend to relax with my book. But wait: that went over the cliff too. Aw shucks – or something like that. With the wind picking up, a make myself a garbage-bag shirt, wear a bandana over my ears, and take a self-portrait. The look is not glamorous, and I resolve to keep an eye toward fashion the next time I buy trash bags.
The weather is still good and probably will remain so, but considering a missing parka and yesterday’s events, I’m inclined to be conservative. Besides, this itinerary has become so warped that my remaining options aren’t that attractive. It’s time to crank out some miles. At Gates Park, I decide to push on to the base of Headquarters Pass. It’s a 10 mile climb with no shade, but it will put me in a nice basin just below the summit. From there, it will be only a few hours to the trailhead in the morning. I reach the basin in the early evening and take off my boots. Nice. Very nice. I’ve cruised 20 miles in 9 hours. Not bad for a near-geezer. Goats have been a regular feature on trips over the last several years, but it seems I’m finally going to get skunked. Less than a minute later, I catch a movement and turn to see a goat strolling my way. Hello buddy, nice timing. They have sent an emissary, as is typical with these beasts, and I’ve been through the drill before. He approaches to within 10 feet, looks me over, and does a U-turn to report back to the herd. In minutes, goats materialize all around. I’ve been deemed acceptable, and chances are that I will have an entire neighborhood watch group tonight. I watch the show until bed time, and hear them around me through the night.
At dawn the goats are still on duty, and the kids are bouncing around like ping pong balls. It’s just a hop and a skip to go now. As I begin the climb into the pass, there is a grouse with 5 chicks on the trail. Momma is trying to use her camouflage, but the chicks are not organized troops. Look at the size of those feet! It’ll take some doing to grow into those. At the summit, I notice that a few of the goats have accompanied me. I do feel a certain bond with these animals. As I begin the final, 3-mile descent, a familiar face approaches. It’s the same guy I saw on day one, in the same place, but our directions have been swapped. He’s out for another run with the goats, and he intends to follow their trails to Our Lake and make a loop of it. We are two old goats, following old goats. The remaining descent is over, and I’m back at my truck. It’s disappointing to last only 6 days, but it was quite a ride. Make no mistake: I intend to tee this one up again someday and take another whack at it. No more tunnel vision. Aside from the obvious, it’s just plain embarrassing. And how about that toad sighting? Outstanding.