Bounce Across The Beartooths, September, 2010:
The daily log of an intrepid expedition.
Easton and I are met in Minneapolis by the third of our four-man party, Captain Bob Bley. He mentions that his real first name is William, but that he changed it after “some issues with subordinates on a little trip we took once.”
In Minneapolis, our first delay is encountered, and Bley and Easton wisely counsel that it should be viewed as an opportunity for provisions. Thus several pints of provisions are consumed.
Following the flight into Billings, a rental Tahoe is procured and we begin the final leg of our engine-aided portion. Why we are not using engines for the entire trip, I cannot imagine. Captain Bley handles the wheel and we get our first glimpse of the Beartooths – visible in all their majesty for as many as eleven feet in front of the vehicle before disappearing into the blowing snow. A fine sign. Bley and I discuss the group’s readiness for such weather and arrive at a similar conclusion: it would be best to leave wills and testaments behind.
We clear the pass and arrive in Silver Gate just after six, where we find our host and commander, Mike Hefron, missing and the door to his cabin locked. Fortunately, he left no note. After admiring the beautiful sight of our breath fogging in the air for a time, we venture back into town in search of our commander. Unable to locate him, we determine that it is a fine chance to stock up on provisions. The Miner’s Saloon is our first stop, and all of the lights are off. It is unclear whether this is a power outage or simply a courtesy to those who dine on the Miner’s cuisine. We settle for a few bottles of provisions and then return to the cabin.
This time our commander is present. While he cooks us a light meal of 48-ounce strip steaks, he informs us that all supplies in the cabin are to be cleared before he leaves for the winter, including the contents of the beer fridge. Easton and I exchange a confident nod, knowing for the first time that Hefron has indeed called upon the right team for this mission. Easton has been training for months by drinking beer with sandbags on his back.
Day Two: We rise to a beautiful dawn, and I imagine the radiant sunlight could be seen for miles if not for the sleet and clouds. Having just had a large dinner, we settle for a light breakfast of a dozen eggs, seven pounds of pepper bacon, two loaves of toast, and a dairy farm’s supply of butter. Properly energized, a journey is made to see our outfitter, Jay, who apparently is nicknamed Jesus. I think this more than a good sign, as survival will clearly require the hand of the divine.
While Easton and Bley and I purchase our final goods (Jay has not the faintest idea of the prices of his own equipment, but he is willing to accept small amounts of cash for them, though he views the pieces of green paper curiously and would clearly rather barter for pelts and beads) Hefron learns how to assemble his pack. And then another pack. Before going back to the first pack. Or maybe it was the third. After a time, it becomes hard to keep track. Bley and I stand together at the window and watch as the day warms and the beautiful sleet turns to gorgeous hail.
Our outfitting complete, Jay wishes us well and assures us that the trip will be a wonderful time. Hefron, remarkably, seems to believe him, but I am able to detect a powerful sorrow in Jay’s gaze, perhaps because he knows he will never see us alive again, perhaps because he has traded perfectly good equipment for strange green pieces of paper.
We return to the cabin and ready our packs. With careful gear selection and wise choices on what to leave behind (one of the three sinks and the recliner) we get our packs down to an easily managed 230 pounds each.
Our final day at base camp concludes with a light five-course meal at the Log Cabin (also owned and operated by Jesus Jay). I am initially surprised to see that Bley orders yet another steak, but in conversation he reveals that he ordinarily burns 17,000 calories per day, done through a simple routine of 200-mile bicycle rides, log-rolling, and trapeze work.
We return to the cabin, where Easton and I continue to assist on emptying the beer fridge, reassuring Commander Hefron and Captain Bley that when given a task we will pursue it with dogged determination.
Day Three: To my deep horror, I wake to discover that the other three are actually intending to go on the hike. Perhaps they do not understand what this entails: hiking. With packs. And sleeping in tents. On the ground. And then hiking again.
We set out from the Clark’s Fork trailhead, and initially all seems well, as my perfectly balanced pack manages to keep my feet from actually touching the ground and allows me to move along using the vertebrae instead. Then, disaster: the trail begins to move on a strange incline. We take our first break, bewildered, and discuss the unanticipated appearance of an uphill slope on a mountain trail. I vote for giving up and turning back, as the Tahoe is only nine strides behind us and I believe I can make it that far before darkness, but I am overruled.
We march on, and Captain Bley casually mentions that he once crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a small boat with one other man. No, really. Bley has crossed the ocean in a two-man boat. Easton and I crossed Lake Monroe once, but it can’t really be considered a two-man effort since the guy who towed us had something to do with it.
The farther we hike, the steeper the trail becomes. Fortunately, Hefron is able to intimidate the slopes with spectacular shows of profanity, and they yield enough to let us pass. He sets the pace, and Bley follows, usually walking on his hands to increase the degree of difficulty. He is concerned because his heart rate has not moved from its standard resting rate of 30. I walk third in line, which is troubling because being wedged in the middle reduces the likelihood that I will be allowed to wander off the trail, fall to my knees, and wait for death.
I am overwhelmed by fatigue, and try to distract myself by engaging Bley into conversation, asking if he has ever hiked before. He mentions that he once crossed the Alps while blindfolded and carrying a canoe, but reassures me that “no, don’t feel bad, this trip is hard for me, too.” I would have an easier time believing him were I not slung over his shoulder at the time.
Following lunch we continue to climb. And climb. And climb. Initially, I attempt to gauge the elevation changes through the numbers on the topographic map, but then I determine that it is simpler to use Hefron’s sliding scale: the more profane adjectives (or verbs) attached to the word “mountain,” the greater its height.
We pause a few times along the trail, and at one point Bley and Easton are kind enough to prop me up onto a rock for a photograph so that it will appear as if I, too, have been walking. If they have tired of carrying me yet, they have not said anything.
We reach a campsite just past Ouzel Lake, which would be a lovely spot to spend the night if protected by four walls and a roof. Easton and I set up camp and prepare to lift the food bag to protect it from bears, using a simple technique involving seven trees, 600 feet of parachute cord, a camp saw and two guns. Things are going along just fine and we’ve hardly been at it for two hours before Bley wanders down and observes that the bag has been hoisted nine inches off the ground and is still at risk of being plundered by moles. He then suggests a technique using one tree branch, fifteen feet of rope, and thirty seconds of preparation. Easton and I exchange a bemused shake of our heads, as the man clearly thinks all of this is as simple as crossing the ocean in a 30-foot boat, but we know that it will be good for camp morale if the rubes are allowed to feel useful and involved, and so we decide to use his method just this once.
After dinner, we relax by the fire. Commander Hefron has demonstrated faint traces of fatigue at times, but he quickly buoys himself with analgesics and returns to form. He mentions that our outfitter, Jesus Jay, has just been married, and Bley asks if there are plans for any little jesuits. With our keen wits, it takes Easton and I only 39 minutes to get this joke and begin to laugh. Hefron takes the opportunity to do a bit of wondering aloud about religious theory.
We retire to our tents after the campfire burns down, and I am relieved by the knowledge that hypothermia is a silent killer and I should go peacefully in the night. Easton and I have shrewdly positioned our tent on a 70-degree decline, which allows us to slide gracefully into the foot of the tent throughout the night, thus helping to build a higher degree of warmth and keep the muscles limber. It’s working perfectly until I make the mistake of beginning my backstroke with the wrong arm and feel a neck tendon shear in half. Fortunately, this is where my pack strap will rest for the remainder of the trip.
In the other tent, Hefron carries on a fascinating, albeit hostile, dialogue with various zippers. Bley, exhausted from the rigorous day, performs only 5,000 jumping jacks before going to sleep. It is a wise choice – for the remainder of the night, their tent is filled with the sound of what is clearly an enraged grizzly and the occasional bugling moose. Bley insists this is only Hefron snoring. He has surprising wit.
Day Four: I am dejected to wake, having felt certain that death’s soothing hand would come for me in the night. Easton and I lower the bear bag, laughing at the absurd simplicity of Bley’s design, which allows the bag to be dropped from the tree without the use of even a single catapult. The temperature could not be lovelier; at times, when the wind drops to 50 miles per hour, it must reach nearly 0. Easton prepares for breakfast by boiling water, and it occurs to me that dipping my feet into the pot might warm my toes. Sadly, it causes the water to freeze instead.
The initial portion of this day’s trek is discouragingly vertical. I detect a new variation on Hefron’s altitude assessment formula: lack of creativity joined with redundancy = steepest slope. “This f&^%* up is f&^&^ up.”
The trail here is at least three inches in width, sometimes four, but with the night’s snow melting over the loose rocks it isn’t quite as safe it appears. The ascent is steep and the altitude makes the climb more difficult. Even Bley is affected; his heart rate has soared to 42.
While the others hike, I work on perfecting a technique known as the stumger, a unique personalized hybrid of the stumble and the stagger, designed to put maximum stress on the knees and ankles. It appears to working magnificently. Bley mentions that he recently completed a 3,000-mile bike ride through the Canadian Rockies and into California. It would be nice if he’d keep his mind on the intense difficulty of the task at hand, as these 26.5 miles won’t hike themselves.
Easton, still guarding the rear of the expedition from mountain lions, bears, and apparently the threat of insurgent combatants, routinely stops to pick up the jackets, water bottles, and food that fall from my pack. Eventually, I grow frustrated with his repeated hindering of my efforts to dump weight and give up that approach. Easton has shown remarkable strength throughout the journey, and I finally discover the source: he consumes a Power Bar every nine minutes.
After a pause for lunch, Hefron reveals that the “Bounce across the Beartooths” was not a nickname for the trip but a plan. I suspect, after the second rib breaks, it is a plan he regrets, but it does provide him with the forum for the line of the trip. After hoisting himself out of the rock pile in which he landed, he gathers his toilet paper and trowel and announces: “I’m going to go over that hill and take a shit.” And so he does.
Once we return to the trail, Hefron takes 11 prescription painkillers and suddenly is bounding across the rocks like an NFL kick returner. The rest of us struggle to keep up; even Bley begins to use both feet. This scorching pace lasts until we reach the lake where we will camp for the evening. If there was flat ground upon which to camp. Which there is not. Now phrases such as “we’re going to run out of water soon,” and “we’ll have to put on the headlamps to see the trail” are being said in total seriousness. I try repeatedly to plunge to my death but cannot move the weight of the pack enough to fall off the trail. After descending through a series of switchbacks that have to number in the hundreds, we actually reach a suitable campsite. Tents are assembled, dinner is cooked, and the bear bag is carefully stowed by leaning it against a tree branch that is at least four feet from the tent. Fatigue is savaging us all; Easton climbs into his sleeping bag fully dressed, deciding only after he is in the bag that he has enough energy to at least remove the camp saw. Considering that I’m sleeping four inches away and he thrashes a good deal in his sleep, I support this decision. Pondering the potential dangers of the day ahead, knowing that there’s much trail left to hike and that our commander is wounded, Easton and I take stock of our emergency equipment, and he is vastly reassured by the presence of cartoons on my cell phone. I have not gone into this mission without some forethought. We fall into an exhausted sleep, lulled by the wind in the trees and the sound of Bley counting out his one-arm push-ups.
Day Five: The homestretch looms ahead of us, and Commander Hefron, now known as “Mikeodin” breakfasts on painkillers and fearlessly leads the way. If the grinding of his shattered ribs over his internal organs is a problem, he does not speak of it. In fact, he does not speak of much at all, except to conjugate all possible forms of his favorite word. When it comes to grammar, the man has no equal.
As we near the end of the journey, it becomes clear that Easton has tired of the reconnaissance mission and hungers for combat. He engages a pine tree in battle and loses. Bleeding, he retreats to study its tactics and look for a weakness.
We pass a few fly fishermen who assure us that it’s all downhill from our current point. Interestingly, their version of downhill requires climbing. I establish a rhythm by counting along with the clicking sounds my knees make where once pesky cartilage existed.
It is but a few short hours more before we reach the trailhead and discover that Jay has indeed driven Hefron’s truck around the mountains, and it awaits us in beautiful splendor. Victory is ours. We head to the Grizzly bar and grill in Roscoe, driving like mad fools in our dash for beer. Bley runs beside the truck, finally pleased with the pace.
WINNER: Hardest-working, best-dressed: Ryan Easton.
WINNER: True Grit: Michael Hefron
WINNER: Best Bear Bait: Michael Koryta.