In the Beartooth Range of southern Montana, there's a hiking trail called the "Beaten Path". It traverses the range from north to south. From all accounts, it's a lovely trail. But I wasn't interested in the Beaten Path, metaphorical or otherwise. You may insert the appropriate Robert Frost cliché here. The alternative? A "High Route" of sorts. The "High Route" craze has been sweeping the backpacking scene in the past few years - it eschews trails to follow the main line of a mountain range or other geological feature. It aims to show the "very best" that a place has to offer.
Unfortunately, like everything else in the human enterprise, High Routes tend to become an occasion for people to bicker on the internet (note - these people would be much better served by getting off said internet and actually go outside). Everybody thinks their special unique little
I had a 7-9 day trip planned. From the get-go, I knew that weather was key. It's simply impossible to navigate, above treeline, hopping over washing-machine sized boulders, when it's socked in, rainy, and windy. If the weather deteriorated, I knew I'd have to bail.
I drove up Friday evening after work. It was a long drive, around eight hours, and I finally made it to the trailhead around midnight and crashed in the back of my car. As a side note, any outdoor-minded person should lay down in the back and make sure they can fit prior to purchasing a new vehicle. I'm 5'7" or so and I fit - but I wouldn't fit if I were 5'10".
The next morning I got up bright and early and started hitchhiking. The plan was to hitch to the start of my route, and hike back to my car. I had a little trouble getting a ride, but eventually a lady with three overly-friendly dogs picked me up. Obviously sensing my great love and affection for canines, a border collie cozied up to me and I ended up riding shotgun with forty pounds of fur snuggled in my lap. Utterly Impractical Hiking Item of the Week.
It was a beautiful day up Beartooth Pass, where the road crested. I hopped out and began walking. The Fun Route immediately revealed its colors - a short but very steep uphill, followed by endless talus hopping. Travel was slow. But the scenery sure was worth it. I hiked thousands of feet below innumerable glacial cirques, past snow-covered peaks, and past turquoise-colored lakes. While I wasn't moving quickly, the ridgetop travel would actually turn out to be some of the fastest hiking I did on the whole trip. But whatever goes up must come down, and soon I encountered a glacial valley that I had to descend into in order to get off the ridge. It was hard hiking. The talus was steep and not particularly stable. I crept downward gingerly to avoid disturbing any of the rocks, poised to tumble downhill. After a while I made it down to a small stream, that I would follow downhill to the lake where I planned to camp for the night.
Just one little problem though - the stream, at some point, turned into a waterfall, and I was again scrambling gingerly down boulders. At long last I reached my campsite, ate supper, and set up my shelter. I crawled into my sleeping bag, and browsed the day's pictures...
...and boy, am I glad I did! They all had a nasty, orange tint to them! What happened!? I turned over my phone, and found the offender - an orange gummy bear shard, stuck to the camera lens. Not ideal, but at least I was able to remove it and save any upcoming photos from the affliction of the orange haze.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny.The first half of the day promised relatively easy hiking - small ups and downs as I followed a long chain of lakes westward, beneath the main crest of the range. The afternoon turned out to be harder - the route went up and up. I hiked on a little lingering snow, and detoured around a small glacier that wasn't marked on the map. I'd call it a snow field, but when it has its own moraine and crevasses, I think it's graduated to "glacier" status.
Around 5PM, the clouds obscured the sun, the wind picked up, and the clouds built overhead. A little late for the afternoon instability to start up, but nonetheless it quickly grew very cold and started to rain. I set up my shelter in a hurry, and spent the evening at the inlet of an extremely remote lake, in an obscure corner of the range. It wasn't loneliness, it was aloneness. And not the bad kind, either.
Some time during the night, the rain stopped and the wind died down, and the morning dawned brilliantly yet again. I got up and hiked over a pass to Red Rocks Lake. My route led along the north shore of the lake, where I'd climb another pass to another, higher lake. When I was sitting on the couch planning it, this seemed like a great idea. However, as I stood there on the lakeshore, I realized that the north side was completely impassible. Sheer hundred-foot cliffs guarded the north shore. I'd have to circumnavigate almost the entire lake to get to the other side of the cliffs, just a couple hundred feet away. The circumnavigation was no small feat either, requiring numerous small elevation gains and losses to navigate around cliffs and steep terrain. But with time I made my way around, up to another lake, up to yet another lake, and so on. Eventually, I topped out. And then came the descent.
I though the descent was going to be worse than it was. It was about a thousand feet (perhaps a bit more) and the top 500 feet was very, very steep. I had no beta on the route and frankly wasn't sure whether it was doable. But thankfully, I found a series of grassy ramps all the way down the steep part. Just a couple scramble moves sufficed. From there on, it was a less steep, bouldery descent all the way to Fossil Lake.Fossil Lake is the lowest point on the Beartooths Fun Route, and the highest point on the Beaten Path, just on the fringes of treeline. I briefly followed the Beaten Path for less than a mile.
Soon enough, it was time to leave the Beaten Path for the more comfortable environs of trail-less terrain. I stopped for a while and set up my shelter at tiny Oly Lake, as threatening clouds billowed. Of course, it didn't end up raining. Finally I decided to press on toward Lower Cairn Lake and camp there for the evening. My delicate Achilles was starting to remind me of its existence, and progress was slow over the rough terrain. But finally I arrived at the the lake, and was blessed with an absolutely perfect campsite. I set up my tent under threatening skies and distantly booming thunder. Perhaps ten seconds after i finished, the storm broke overhead and skittle-sized hail started pounding. I waited out the storm for a half hour, and to my amazement, the weather cleared up shortly thereafter. I grabbed my still-too-heavy food bag and my phone and sat on a rock, reading the Bible as the sun set in the beautiful and rugged basin.
That evening I made an important decision Originally, I was planning to cut across lower Sky Top basin, head west, and circle back several days later to hit upper Sky Top and Granite Peak, the highest in Montana. However, my most recent weather forecast had indicated that the weather was supposed to break down in the next couple days. I was fairly confident that 1) the weather would flake out, forcing me to shorten/modify my trip and 2) I would have cell service on top of Granite Peak to check the weather. So I decided to detour slightly and climb Granite on the front end. It turned out to be a wise choice.
But first I had to get out of Cairn Lake Basin. Easier said than done, as the walls of the basin were steep and numerous cliff bands dropped into the lake. I ended up side-hilling on some very steep terrain, but with a little grunting and groaning on rock-hopping, I eventually made way up and over the ridge into Sky Top basin. I kept hiking at a pretty good clip, eager to start the climb as soon as possible. My six-day-old forecast seemed to indicate that today would be stable weather-wise, but I know better than to trust a mountain forecast, much less one from the better part of a week ago. So I kept moving all morning and reached the base of Granite Peak around 11AM. The face looked sheer and vertical - simply undoable - but there was supposedly a route.
While I was stashing my stuff under a rock and preparing to ascend, I heard a crashing sound - somebody had kicked a rock. It bounced and rolled at terrifying speeds all the way down the steep side of the mountain. I was content to wait a few minutes and let them get out off the ramp prior to starting my climb.
Ah yes, the ramp. Among the 50 state highpoints, Granite is typically ranked anywhere from #2-#4 in terms of difficulty. The standard route is high-end class 4 climbing and merits the use of ropes, however there's a route on the southwest face that's rated class 3. This was the route that I climbed. The route climbs through some very steep and loose talus and rockfall danger is not something to be taken lightly. The route climbs up a "ramp", essentially a weakness in the cliff-like southwest face. The climb itself didn't take as long as I thought - the route ascends very steeply. It was a mixture of slogging through unstable talus and scrambling on solid rock. The scrambling was fun, but the talus slog was a little scary. Although I was fairly confident hat nobody was below me, I was still paranoid about sending rocks crashing on their heads. Near the top, I met a couple guys - the same ones who had dispatched the rock I had seen tumbling earlier. They were the first people I had seen in four days.
The weather on the summit was simply gorgeous - clouds were building very slightly, but nothing to worry about. The views were stunning - glaciers, high plateaus, milky-blue lakes, and distant horizons. But despite the beauty, I wasn't entirely relaxed - I knew I had to go back down the steep, loose, unstable ramp. Fortified with more than a little prayer, I began my descent. It turned out to be fine - the difficulty had been more a result of my mental state than anything else. Soon enough, I arrived back at the base of the mountain, grabbed my pack, and headed back down the way I came into lower Sky Top basin.
Smoke moved in that afternoon, the result of a wildfire burning to the southeast. The sun grew dim and red and everything smelled like campfire. I made camp behind some rocks next to a lake and hardly had energy to eat supper before falling asleep. I heard the chewing of mountain goats on the local grasses in the middle of the night, twice getting up to throw some rocks at the shaggy white creatures to keep them away from my camp.
The morning dawned bright and clear, once again. Atop Granite, I had taken advantage of unlikely cell service to check the weather. And the decision was made for me. The next three days were supposed to be cold, rainy, and windy. There was no way I'd be going anywhere, not above treeline and off-trail, in that kind of weather. I had to bail. So I headed over one final off-trail pass to the absolutely beautiful Aero Lakes, a pair of huge alpine lakes situated beneath picturesque rock spires. I made my way around the lakes. This is where the Fun Route ended. It would be seven miles, on-trail, to the highway just outside Cooke City.
Once at the outlet of the lakes, I lost my way - I couldn't find where the trail picked up! I wandered around for at last 45 minutes trying to find a trail. After having hiked without a trail for 5 days, it was jarring to have to find a designated footpath. Finally I found it, and headed down the trail. The miles passed quickly and my feet, not used to the repetitive motion of walking on a smooth trail, started complaining. Strange how that happens! I walked through some burn areas, dead tree corpses everywhere, and ended up at the highway. From here it was a fifty-mile hitch back to my car.
Overall, the Beartooths Fun Route was amazing - simply outstanding. For the experienced adventurer, one of the most enjoyable things is to chart one's own course through a beautiful, harsh, wild landscape. I had five days of very good weather, and a route like this can only be undertaken in good weather. I saw more mountain goats than people. I camped in sublime locations. I crossed glaciers and skirted lakes. It was truly the trip of a lifetime.