Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, Montana - July 2015 - Part Two

please remember you can click on a photo to see a larger version

Cascade Campground sits about two miles from the end of West Fork Rock Creek Road and the Wilderness trailhead. The campground was all but deserted, even the host was gone. This was a sure thing and would work for one night. The area carries the scars of a burn several years ago. Many people may not appreciate the open feel to the place but it was a sea of fireweed and harebells still wet in the morning from the overnight rain.

Our backpacks were ready for four nights as we headed out from the West Fork Rock Creek Trailhead.

Our ultimate designation was a high basin with several lakes above timberline. It was seven and a half miles to the start of the off trail climb up to the hanging valley. This would take more than one day with big packs and we wanted a close look at the climb before committing to the steep haul. We are more concerned with the "getting back down", the up is usually easiest.

After five miles, we were at our first trail intersection in Quinnebaugh Meadows. It was before eleven am and we were making good time. It was a beautiful place.

We moved on to the south end of Quinnebaugh Meadows. The clouds had notably thickened and darkened. The rain would start soon. We consulted the map and the Lady found our location (yup, that is the carcass of a dead mosquito).

Knowing it was 2.5 miles further before the canyon opened up again at Sundance Lake and the next chance for a good camp spot. We decided to get a camp set up before the rain and then do scouting of the route ahead. We went to work.

We are very experienced. The Rocky Mountains and rain are nothing new to us. Rain was coming but we had time. The sky didn't look that bad........................................the tent was out of my pack and the Lady grabbed the poles. We were just hanging the main tent body to the poles when it hit, big, wet, hard drops. The tent and us were instantly soaked. I was about to remark to the Lady how waterproof the floor of the tent is, because, look, see all the standing water on the inside..............when we were bombarded with white buckshot. "And now it is going to hail on us," I said. The lady thought that was the funniest statement I have ever made. She burst out laughing. For the remainder of the trip, anytime a moment needed to be lightened, she would deadpan, "And now it is going to hail on us," and burst out laughing.

I stashed the tent under the thickest timber I could find. We dove under some trees and put on our rain clothes. We grabbed some snacks and prepared to wait it out. The rain stopped a half hour later and the sun soon appeared. We found a better place for camp with a good cooking spot the required 100 yards from sleeping. The Lady climbed in and dried out the inside of the tent floor and we set it in the sun. Always get a black tent body, they warm up and dry very quickly. Because quickly we needed, the next storm was descending on us. The fly was on and the tent staked down. Bear canisters and cooking gear were stashed at the cooking area. Clothing and bedding went in the tent with us right behind. Sheets of rain flowed across the tent fly above us. Even the mosquitoes were taking refuge from the storm.

We both fell into a sound sleep atop our thermarests and down bags as the storm worked out its aggressions outside. Sunshine on the tent fly woke us at 4 pm. We put together our daypacks and headed up the trail to do our scouting.

This is incredibly beautiful country. We found the off trail routes to Senal and Dude Lakes. We came to the steep creek that drained the basin we planned to visit, but the terrain was less steep another half mile up the trail, our planned route. We wanted to continue but round three was getting ready to hit. It would be best to turn around, get to camp, and work on dinner. The storm caught us. We stopped in a dry spot under trees and donned rain pants and jackets. Back at camp we cooked under thick trees. Rain dripped from our hoods. The booming and echoing of thunder up and down the canyon kept conversation at bay. We cleaned up and returned to the tent, the vestibule the repository for boots and our wet outer layers. We laid on our backs and listened to all the sounds of the storm - wind, rain, sharp cracks of thunder, torrents of water cascading down the steep granite walls. And then it was quiet. It was the last light of day. Robins started singing. This was the most glorious place on earth.

We explored the meadows below our camp.

The Lady discovered she had lost her watch, a special watch we had bought her in Jackson, Wyoming last summer. After scouring the tent, she was convinced it had come off two miles up the trail when she had changed clothes to get on her rain gear. What else did we have to do? We would repeat those four miles and enjoy the evening. 

The last rays of the sun produced wonderful alpenglow above us.

We didn't find the watch after a thorough search but did enjoy following a porcupine back down the trail.

It was dark when we reached camp. We dove into the tent. Round four was on top of us. This storm produced the closest lightning strikes. Most times we only got to "two".  We don't know how long it lasted. As its fury waned, we fell fast asleep.

The morning was clear. The sun came out. It was time to dry socks.

We discussed our options. It would not be fun battling four storms a day. One or two were tolerable. We were going above treeline with our vestibule our only shelter for cooking if tent bound. We decided to bail. We still had lots of days ahead for us and the possibility for exploration almost limitless.

The morning was clear and bright, not a cloud in the sky. Was our decision a mistake? Rain hit the Beartooths again at noon.

We stopped in Red Lodge for fresh food and headed up the Main Fork Rock Creek Road to find a suitable dispersed campsite. This was also the road to the Glacier Lake trailhead. It was Wednesday afternoon and the area quiet. We found a good spot. We expected to spend about four nights here so we set up the tent "to mark our territory" while we were away in the truck. I lit a pile of charcoal briquettes. We had bought four ears of corn on the cob from the Beartooth Market in Red Lodge. Placed right on top the hot coals in the husks, twenty minutes with an occasional turn, they were perfect, some of the best corn on the cob we have ever had. "This is the first corn on the cob I've had since I got my new teeth!" the Lady said and beamed. I burst out laughing. This was one of the funniest things she had ever come up with. For the remainder of the trip, anytime a moment needed to be lightened, I would say, "This is the first corn on the cob I've had since I got my new teeth!" 

We climbed in the camper just as the storm hit and pelted the roof with rain and we quietly counted from flash to thunder. Wind rocked the camper as we fell into deep sleep.

We finished breakfast in the morning just as the rain started anew. The answer for today? - road trip! "How about I buy you an arsty-fartsy lunch in Cooke City today?" I asked the Lady. "We'll drive the Beartooth Highway again."

First we wanted to check out the trailhead at the end of the road, not an easy task we found out. Although fairly wide, this is a rough, rocky road that makes for slow going. 4x4 is not needed but figure a hour to drive the eight miles up. It will also take you an hour to return. Rock Creek is a very pretty classic U shaped glacially carved valley. Equally impressive are the hanging valleys, heavily shrouded this rainy morning in clouds.

A little later I'll have a photo of the upper portion of this valley.

Slowly working the truck back down this road, we came upon two large White-tailed deer bucks.

Near the top of the first set of switchbacks crawling their way to the top of the Beartooth Plateau, we stopped to look back down into Rock Creek.

Here's the view into the previously mentioned basin containing Twin Lakes.

This spot is well above 10,000 feet in elevation. It was spitting rain and blowing in gusts up to around 45 miles a hour. Cold and wet, to say the least. As I took this photo with my rain jacket and hood tightened securely, a young small woman hopped out of a car with New York plates. She was clad in tight shorts, a sleeveless top, and flip flops. She ran to the edge, the driving wind and rain pushing at her back. Her flip flops lacked adequate purchase, she slipped, the wind caught her. She was one frightened little girl. A minivan with Florida plates pulled in as we returned to the truck. I said out loud into the wind, thinking of the driver, "Do not open your door. Don't open that door. It will be ripped right out of your hands." I was relieved when the side door slid open and the three people exited fully "suited up" for the weather. They had already learned the lesson.

Cooke City was fun. It rained most the time we were there. Its streets were lined with dozens and dozens of motorcycles. Riders were under the eaves or any shelter they could find, waiting for a break. We had a great lunch and then walked down the street to the Orvis fly shop. The woman was alone and seemed to enjoy a chance for conversation.

The Lady had noticed on the drive a couple of places she'd like to stop at on the way back if the weather broke. It did and we made the drive up.

The fire lookout has been decommissioned and is now run as a small visitor center by the Friends of Clay Butte.  We chatted with a delightful couple from Kansas City, Missouri (attorney and middle school teacher) who do a two week stint every summer manning the lookout and living in the spartan quarters below.

The lookout sits on a high shoulder of nearby Clay Butte.

Two weeks with views like this; it would never get old.

A redtailed hawk also was taking advantage of the break in the weather.

The drive back was spectacular. We enjoyed checking out the trailheads at Beartooth and Island lakes.

At the "Bears Tooth" viewpoint we looked down at the road in the upper part of Rock Creek.

Glacier Lake was just visible.

We were happy to get a view of the Bears Tooth.

In the coming days we would explore both of these high basins.

We returned to camp, happy with the clearing weather. The Lady was adamant, no matter the weather tomorrow, we were hiking! Would tomorrow be a nice day? We walked in the late evening. We were no longer in Utah so we were alone. The classic switchbacks of the Beartooth Highway climbed the south wall above us.

We slowly walked hand in hand back to camp and our comfortable, cozy camper. We wondered if we'd be able to sleep without the sound of rain against the roof.

Our adventure continues in Part Three. Please Click Here


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