Although we slept soundly with rain against the roof and wind rocking the camper, the morning was clear. The Lady kicked me out before dawn. She was busy with the morning chores until the camper door opened, she handed me my old blue mug steaming with coffee, climbed down, and joined me outside. We watched the sky change as we walked.
This was going to be an interesting day in the Beartooths.
Our plan was another backpack trip, using the Phantom Creek Trailhead down about a mile from East Rosebud Campground. Our planned route would be a challenge with a full quota of steep off trail climbing. We wanted to check it out first with a long day hike. There was also this weather trend........................
A grouse - we call 'em Mountain Chickens - greeted us at the trailhead.
The trail gains elevation very quickly and allows glimpses into hanging valleys across the East Rosebud Canyon.
Slough Lakes is a wide spot in Armstrong Creek and where the terrain opens up ahead.
The high basin left center is where we are heading. You can just make out the white ribbon of water falling in a continuous series of waterfalls. The Phantom Creek Trail climbs into the basin right center and tops out on Froze to Death Plateau.
The Slough Lake area is excellent habitat for moose.
We spoke with a young woman Wilderness Ranger ending a five day patrol over from West Rosebud. She lives in Red Lodge and works winters at the local downhill ski area. She was questioning how much longer she wanted a career carrying a heavy pack, a Banana Slug with a degree in Environmental Science, the Lady suggested she get into teaching.
From Slough Lakes the trail climbs at a steady rate. The clouds rewarded our climb up by coming down to greet us.
The Wilderness Ranger provided information about the route up into the basin we wanted to access. There was a use trail that led part of the way that we easily found. It traversed steep terrain and then dropped into a steep gully with a stream crossing.
"What would be the consequences of a fall?" is a question backcountry travelers should always ask. It was beginning to spit rain. We were now in the clouds. We donned our rain gear.
In researching the route, this description stood out in my memory - "Climb the long chute to the right of the waterfalls. You may be able to find the use trail again at the saddle." This did not describe a fun retreat in a mountain storm. We had seen enough of the route with this reconnaissance and we returned to the main trail.
"Let's go up to the top," the Lady said. "A day in the mountains in any conditions beats being back at the truck."
"We aren't going to see anything." I stated the obvious.
"So what?" She stated the obvious. "And we can take care of ourselves."
Up we went. Visibility was perhaps 20 feet. It spit and drizzled rain. Walking in the clouds all day heightens your senses. At one place we were in willows, indicating a wet area. I heard a large animal move away from us and made sure the Lady and I were together and not separated on the trail.
We reached our turnaround time of one pm. We could see nothing, dense clouds around us. If the ground had been covered in snow, this would have been a classic mountain white out. We sat down on the side hill and added a layer. I asked the Lady for the topo map and pulled out my compass. I went to work taking a bearing in the field and then taking that information to the map.
"We are 300 yards from the top. Want to go for it?"
A few minutes later we were on the crest of Froze to Death Plateau.
We recently received a wonderful complement from a friend. He is a recognized and honored Sierra Club National Trip leader and has received many awards. We expect, with his upcoming retirement, he will soon be leading rugged International trips. He told us he is known as "Mr. Map & Compass" among the national trip leaders. "This is because of the classes I've taken from you two," he very kindly told us.
We stood on the top of Froze to Death Plateau. We could not see a thing. I knew, I just knew, this fact would play a part in our future explorations in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness.
It rained harder as we dropped back down the trail. The moose was back out above Slough Lakes. This time her little one was visible. I consider Momma Moose one of the most dangerous animals in the woods.
They were about 25 yards away and across the river. We walked out in the open so they would see us. After a quick look, Momma Moose returned to browsing showing she was calm and unconcerned. We dropped our packs, added a layer under our rain gear, and snacked. This was a great spot to relax.
A short while later the little moose alerted on something.
Soon Momma Moose alerted on it also.
Whatever it was, it was moving.
The little moose moved to the safety of mom.
The Lady saw it first, moving fast behind the trees along the wetland.
"It's a bear!" she whispered. What happened next took less than a second. The bear was in a fast lope behind the trees. It saw an openning that led to the river and turned, now at a full gallop, heading right at Momma Moose. We have never seen an animal stop so fast, turn around, speed off, and disappear. It never hesitated or looked back. It wanted nothing to do with that moose. The bear is in the upper right of the photo below in full retreat.
The moose stood still for a moment and then the shot of adrenaline took effect. Ears back and agitated, they started in our direction.
"Don't come looking to us for help," I said. They changed course and started to settle down, but still wanted to move.
They rounded the deadfall behind them in the photo above and took off in the direction the bear ran, perhaps to go kick some bear butt.
The rain fell hard when we reached the trailhead. With a mile back to the truck, we detoured over to the small general store. We picked up some local roasted coffee and a jar of huckleberry jam. The weather broke enough for our showers and dinner outside. It had been a wonderful hike covering around 16 miles with a 4000 foot elevation gain and loss.
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.
It rained off and on most of the night. It was quiet on the roof in the morning. I looked at the outside temperature and did a saturated adiabatic lapse rate calculation in my head. First look outside confirmed it, the high plateaus received snow overnight.
The wind picked up as we had breakfast, with whitecaps whipping up East Rosebud Lake. This was the clearing wind after a front passing through. The wind continued to increase and would be a gale most of the day. We decided to move over to the West Rosebud trailhead and explore the trails as the weather improved.
On the drive we saw this pair in a ranch pasture, two whitetail fawns. We never saw the mother.
We found the Emerald Lake Campground, a couple of miles from road's end, quiet and suitable. We settled in and enjoyed our evening walk. The winds had done a good job blowing clouds away.
A osprey searched for dinner as it grew dark.
Up canyon from the campground is West Rosebud Lake, an afterbay impoundment for Montana Power.
The trailhead is just below a hydroelectric powerhouse, the project dating back to 1924 and pre Wilderness designation. The grounds are immaculate and beautiful.
The area and power project has a rich history, both in human and in engineering.
Thus far, although mostly reverting to alternate plans because of the weather, we had an incredibly good time in the Beartooths. Many trips, as we all have probably experienced, can have one day that outshines all the rest, that is just unexpectedly outstanding, and defines the trip. The next day would be ours.
Our adventure continues in Part Five - Please Click Here