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The Beaten Path

By Grant Donaldson

Author’s note: The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in Montana is not a high value tourist attraction because it is overshadowed by Yellowstone National Park next door, but its beauty and majesty rival that of even Glacier National Park. It is considered a private treasure by many Montanans.

I was standing outside my snug cottage on the banks of East Rosebud Creek in south-central Montana watching a storm front roll off the Absaroka-Beartooth mountain range 15 miles to the southwest. Thirty minutes later the cauldron enveloped my little valley. The temperature dropped 30 degrees. Snow and rain reduced visibility to zero and the downdraft of wind off the mountains exceeded 100 miles per hour, leveling evergreen trees in neat rows.

I retreated to the security of my sturdy cottage and experienced another typical late-September Montana snowstorm.

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

The battering of the wind on the windows reminded me of another experience on the top of that same mountain range a few years earlier in which the only protection between nature’s wrath and myself was a thin layer of nylon tent fabric. I was hiking with my co-worker and friend Rod Plowman and we had stood at the base of the Clarks Fork Trailhead  near Cooke City off Highway 212 in our hiking shorts, boots and backpacks, ready to embark on a six-day hike across the largest plateau above 10,000 feet in the lower forty-eight states.

We were most concerned with grizzly bears and had our bear spray canisters in our hands and revolvers strapped to our thighs as we stepped into the silent forest. But we would soon realize that bears were the least of our challenges. The standard backcountry joke is that the spray is for the bears; the revolver is to be used on you if the spray fails.

We’re Florida boys, unaccustomed to the steep grades of the mountain west and we were determined not to be one-upped by Montana locals who glided up and down the grades with the ease of mountain goats. For weeks we had both trained in our own way to get fit. The workouts would prove beneficial but hardly sufficient for the abuse our bodies were about to endure.

One day after work I had spied Rod striding down Tampa’s yuppie promenade of jogging political correctness (Bayshore Boulevard) clad in hiking boots, shorts, and a backpack full of bricks. He was oblivious to the multicolored, Lycra-clad joggers streaming past him.

I had spent my training time on the steep stairs of Plant Hall, a historic landmark on the campus of The University of Tampa. We were both confident of our lower body strength as we started up the gradual grade ascending the Plateau. And we were comforted somewhat by the trail description of the Beaten Path: “long and strenuous, but not technically difficult or dangerous.”

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Rather than doing the sensible thing and hiring a guide, we had stubbornly decided to navigate with a “topo” map, compass and a few pages of the hike description from the Falcon Guide series. The ubiquitous Falcon series covers almost every trail in the West with accurate descriptions from author Bill Schneider who seems to have personally hiked most of them during a long career.

I had toured the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness by car via Highway 212 a few years earlier and I was vaguely familiar with some of the trails that laced the plateau. I offered Rod two options. We could drive from Red Lodge, MT to the top of the range in Wyoming and take a series of trails that would lead us back to the car, or we could take the Beaten Path that would terminate on the northwest side of the range at East Rosebud Lake  in Montana where we would be more than 100 miles from the car with no way back.

With a predictable indifferent shrug Rod picked the Beaten Path route that would take us over 26 miles of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the lower U.S., featuring remnants of ice age glaciers, hundreds of fish-filled alpine lakes, unnamed waterfalls and the state’s highest mountain at more than 12,799 feet, Granite Peak.

We were both tired of Tampa’s horizontal glut of traffic, general congestion, heat and job stress and we longed to withdraw, if just briefly, to a few days of basic essentials like sleeping, eating, and walking in the company of our friend Jack Daniel’s.

Bourbon was our weightiest commodity but we were willing to bear the extra poundage in our backpacks.

Long distance trekking is all about the weight you carry. Unlike many specialties that produce useless products, the backpacking industry has miniaturized almost everything. High tensile tents that protect you in a gale have been reduced to three or four pounds. Tiny gas-powered MSR cook stoves weigh just ounces and will cook food for several people. A folding saw is essential. Sleeping bags must be light but warm at zero or below. A lightweight water filtration pump is a must to protect you from Giardia lamblia that has infested even the alpine water sources thanks to the introduction of livestock grazing.

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

A tube of toothpaste can feel like five pounds by the second day. Two pair of shoes: one to wear and one to dry. Jeans are heavy and don’t dry easily. “Cotton kills,” goes the saying. And it’s true in more ways than one. Lightweight, lined polyester and nylon shells dry fast and protect against the cold. A roll of toilet paper ranks up there with bourbon, and the carrier of this commodity is given special deference.

Even with careful planning, we were never able to get our packs below about 60-70 pounds and we’ve suffered the consequences many times at 10,000 feet in thin air with our legs burning and lungs screeching.

As we made camp in a box canyon about 1,000 feet below the plateau rim that night, we got our first taste of changeable Montana weather. Within minutes the sun blotted out, temperatures dropped, a mixture of rain and snow descended. The thunder was like the constant roar of a stream in snowmelt, amplified as it rolled around the walls of the small canyon. The savagery of it made you feel naked in your flimsy tent. Whole trees were blown off the sides of the cliffs and came crashing down. The next day we would be exposed to the full force of the summer weather on the open plateau.

The following morning we saw splinters of trees and entire trunks on the ground, but no fire.

As we broke camp we stumbled over the putrid carcass of a winter-killed moose not 20 yards away and out came the bear spray again.

Ahead of us was a steep 1,000-foot climb of switchbacks to the undulating plateau above the timberline. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness alone is 943,377 acres, but it is contiguous to the Yellowstone and Wind River ranges that stretch 100 miles to South Pass, WY, that comprise more than 5-million acres of wilderness. The Beartooth Wilderness is so large it creates its own weather. In summer, the high plains can be baking under searing-dry heat for 100 miles in any direction and snow and rainstorms will be raging in the Beartooth with temperatures in the 20s and 30s.

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

It is one of the world’s largest hydrological machines, spewing water out through nine major drainages to the thirsty desert year round.

After we topped the rim of the plateau on the second day the going was easier. Lichen covered rocks and fields of wild flowers poked through the snow patches and a relatively gentle 20-knot breeze kept the mosquitoes at bay unless you stopped in the lee of a scrubby tree. The mountain mosquitoes are gentle compared to Florida’s saltwater variety that provoke instant flailing. These cold weather cousins just sit there and drink until you run your hand over them. Their bite is hardly worth noting.

The literature says the Beaten Path and its network of trails can swallow a thousand hikers. We saw only three or four parties in our six-day crossing and all but one party were day hikers at either end of the trail.

We were grateful for the one party that had preceded us because they broke trail through a two-mile field of knee-deep snow along the edge of Fossil Lake, the highest elevation of our trek. Even at 10,000 feet, the peaks still towered above us. One end of Fossil Lake flows into the Rosebud drainage of Montana. The other end connects to a lake chain that feeds the spectacular Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone that flows east onto the Great Plains of Wyoming and north into the Yellowstone River of Montana.

We set up camp on a dry spot beside Fossil Lake the second night in anticipation of a trail dinner consisting of a brimming pot of macaroni and cheese sauce, topped off with candy bars and hot coffee with a splash or two or more of Jack Daniel’s. Freeze-dried soups, pasta, rice and other condensed foods sound ghastly back in urban society but they are epicurean delights when your life has been reduced to the essentials of food and shelter.

The Montana night sky at 10,000 feet glows with luminescence that appears to be obscured by dust clouds until you realize the clouds are actually shoals of stars and galaxies whirling through space. The magnitude of it humbles the soul and reminds you of your insignificance.

I crawled from my tent the next morning to see a plume of black smoke rising into the clear, still Montana sky. The source of the plume was our campfire as Rod incinerated a pair of heavy black boots he had been lugging for three days. The scene would have driven a Sierra Club member into seizures but Rod had carefully weighed the amount of the environmental damage against the strain on his back and arrived at a logical conclusion. He was pleased with himself.

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Most afternoons we were chased by sudden soaking rain and snow flurries, high winds and swollen streams. We learned that Gortex-lined waterproofed boots are of little value if the stream depths exceed the height of the boot. So we sloshed along, absorbed in the knowledge that we were seeing pristine country as it was when Lewis & Clark came through in 1803.

We had saved the best for last, which is why we had started at the Cooke City end of the trail. As we tipped over the northwestern side of the plateau at the Fossil Lake outlet we descended through a nine-mile canyon of thunderous waterfalls, each one spectacular in its own way. And each one, had it been located back east, or nearer civilization, would be a major tourist attraction.

We camped amidst the roar, tried to dry our boots and finished off the last of the Jack. “No Trace” camping is the rule out West, a concept that seems to have escaped the Eastern hiking mentality. During six days along the trail we had picked up a single crushed beer can that had perhaps fallen out of a saddlebag.

The trail terminated at a deserted campground and a community of cabins built around deep, clear East Rosebud Lake. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that we were still 20 miles from the nearest paved road. There was one occupant in the state campground. But he was packing up and offered to drop us at the small community of Roscoe, home to the famous Grizzly Bar and its platter-sized steaks, gigantic hamburgers and inexhaustible quantities of beer.

Satiated with the glories of red meat and beverage, we stumbled down to Highway 78 with our gear, which was now becoming burdensome. An early model Ford LTD the size of a yacht cruised by in the opposite direction, turned and stopped next to us. It was driven by a mid-fortyish piano teacher on her way to a lesson but she would be happy to take us 20 or so miles into Red Lodge where we could find beds, showers and food.

Montanans are famous for their generosity to fellow travelers. A cynical friend of mine says it’s because people know that if they don’t lend assistance, especially during the winter, the stranded traveler could be dead from hypothermia in an hour. I have witnessed a car go over an embankment and within 10 minutes there are half a dozen cars and pickups stopped. Ropes, shovels, and chains come out to assist and within minutes the driver is either back on the road, on the way to a hospital or at least out of the ditch.

Grant Donaldson nears Cooke City

Grant Donaldson nears Cooke City

After a night on clean sheets and a soak in a hot tub in Red Lodge it took us two more rides to get back to the rental car. The first was with a young man and his kids and dog, towing a boat who stopped to let us pile into the truck bed on top of his camping gear. A family from Iowa on their way to Cooke City took us the rest of the way to the car.

We would be back in Tampa before it dawned on us that the headaches, dizziness, extreme exhaustion and sense of motion that we experienced for days afterwards were all symptoms of altitude sickness. Maybe it was better that we didn’t know. But it wouldn’t have changed our plans anyway.

The author is an outdoor writer who has fished and hiked the remote reaches of Florida and the Western states for 25 years. Grant Donaldson can be reached at: Stillwater2007@verizon.net


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