Because of this mountain hike, it was imperative to be up early and on the trail as soon as possible. Everyone arose around 7:15 to find Zach making a delectable breakfast: Hash Browns and Cheese! This would our last time consuming the grand mix of potatoes and pressed, coagulated milk. And it was the best we'd had yet, lucky enough for us.
The hike started around 9:45, and we instantly began to climb. We walked around the peak that we ascended the day before and emerged into an eerie, barren, brown landscape. The eerie feeling was borne of the significant haze clouding our view in all directions. We had been told before leaving that there was a fire in Montana over 70 miles away, and that any haze we would see would most likely be because of this. As we continued to hike up the gradual slope, the scenery became more and more reminiscent of Tatooine (Star Wars, anyone?), being very rocky, full of steep jagged cliffs, and with mountains surrounding us on three sides. Our trail got extremely steep all of a sudden as we began our ascent to the saddle. We could make out a large wooden stake which marked the top of the saddle, but it would only be reached at the end of a 350 foot climb over a quarter mile.
Things got a bit scary as Lily started to have trouble breathing about 100-150 feet from the top. It was windy and a bit cold and the mix of that plus our suddenly steep elevation gain was deemed to be the culprit. I was adamant as were others that we stop until we could be sure she was totally fine. Thankfully, all was well after we took a 15 minute packs off break, which everyone really needed anyway. A couple minutes later, we crested the saddle at 10,700 feet to see a far-reaching valley in front of us. To our surprise, the trail disappeared at the top of the saddle even though it was supposed to be there on the map. Go Go Gadget Compass!
The trail would re-appear suddenly and disappear just as suddenly for the rest of the day. This was a bit disconcerting as we'd expected to have a 9 mile trail walk instead of a 2 mile trail walk and 7 miles of off trail or cairn navigating. The next 2-3 miles were without incident, though trail-less in favor of cairns, as we trudged across the ever so slightly declining mountain to the Bear Creek River Valley. We had to go down some short, steep rock faces at points, but the danger was very minimal. Upon seeing Bear Creek, we also caught site of a trail marker that officially told us we were going the right way. Woohoo!
Once getting to Bear Creek and refilling our water bottles, it was time to begin the final climb. The trail at times was the steepest we'd ever hiked. At one point, we were on a thin game trail, the only flat walking surface across a mountaintop, and one of the guys slipped. Luckily, Zach was there to catch him and, after a minute's daze, resettled himself, put his pack on, and continued along. The team was working very well together in a tough environment. Everyone was tired from climbing and the massive uphill in front of us was no serious motivator. But we continued along. We used maps and compass numerous times to validate our direction. There were cairns along the way as well, but because they weren't next to an established trail, we couldn't fully trust them. They could have been cairns for some other trail.
Finally, after an hour of climbing, we were able to confirm that we were heading in the right direction, that the saddle in front of us was the saddle for which we were looking. We hiked directly up from cairn to cairn, in 80-100 foot increments, taking breaks to catch breath, the goal in plain sight. When we got to the final cairn before cresting the mountain, we had another scare when Lily began to lose her breath again. Noah, who is actually a Wilderness First Responder, did an awesome job of calming her down and assessing the situation. While we waited with Lily, a couple guys went to the top of the saddle and screamed with delight to find that we were going the right way! After another 15 minute break, Lily felt better and the whole group ascended to the top, together.
It was another beautiful sight, as saddles often provide. And we could see our trail going down the mountain! As I'd hoped to do when I got them, I unveiled the candy bars to the group so we could enjoy them in this majestic place, reveling in the beauty of Nature and Nestle at the same time. We relaxed on top of the saddle for at least 20 minutes, during which a horsepacker with 3 horses and a big gun appeared, saying a slight "Hello" as he rode past. He was clearly out there for solitude and none of us had any desire to interrupt with casual conversation.
Though we had ascended our last climb, the day was not done providing its share of obstacles. We had walked on trail for a mile or so when it suddenly disappeared. Given that this was modus operandi for the day, it didn't concern us. We broke out the maps and continued our hike. But the maps decided it would be a randy time to fool us, 7 miles into a very long and strenuous hike. We knew the trail turned to the West at a drainage and descended to our X. The trouble was that we lost the trail before finding this turn and walked past the correct drainage to another drainage over 3/4 mile away. Given that the group was getting tired and some weren't feeling terribly well, I reluctantly used our GPS. I didn't want to use it because I wanted us to find the X without technology, but sometimes you have to make the right decision, not the one you want to make. Just as we found out our position with the GPS, Eric discovered our mistake with the maps and it backed up what the GPS had told us. The GPS was now merely a confirmation
instead of a need
About an hour later and a 1,000 feet of elevation decline, we were in camp. We all rejoiced thoroughly and began to look for camp and kitchen with earnest. We found them almost immediately, being in a pretty flat meadow near a trail and water. With haste, we got water, began to boil pasta, and set up the tents. Interestingly enough, after I finished getting water at the river, Noah noted that there were two people at the other end of the meadow, about a half mile away, who appeared to be camping as well. They seemed to be staring right at us. So he and I went down to have a talk with these people to let them know who we were and that we'd be quiet (unlike the night before with peak ascents and kid-like shouting and fun of that manner).
To my amazement, they were none too pleased with us. They stopped us about 50 feet from them so that we had to speak very loudly in order to communicate with them. I let them know we were from NOLS, on Day 27 of a 30 Day expedition, that we would respect their privacy, and that we would be as quiet as possible. The lady insinuated that they were in the mile-wide meadow first, and that it was her personal code of honor that you should never set up camp within sight of people who were there first. I agreed, letting her know that although we would have no problem moving as individuals, this was our X and we were unable to move because there were two other teams who had our positions. If something went wrong they would need to know how to find us. She didn't seem terribly pleased with this, so I said that we would try to move if we could, then left. We couldn't find any other flat places out of sight. Oh well, you can't please everyone. I'm not sure why, but I expected a better understanding from them, being in the wilderness just as we were. Guess these wilderness types come in all shapes and sizes :).
The day ended well, with our bellies full of another great meal of Mac and Cheese. It took us a long time to make and I was famished, just as everyone else, by the time it was ready. I swore I would never take food for granted again, about the 287th time I had on the trip. For dessert, Zach made a yellow cake with chocolate frosting. Tasted about as sugary as any cake can taste. Which means I am in favor of it.
This day will always remain in my memory for the fact that so many obstacles hit the entire team with ferocity, but we managed to get through it and end the day on a positive note. Team awareness and hard work prevailed. We put all of the skills to use that we'd learned and/or practiced over the last 27 days: Navigation, Leadership, Off-Trail Confidence, First Aid, GPS, and of course, good cooking. It felt like a lab practicum at the end of the semester. And based on the fact that we got to the X safely and were going to bed with bellies full, I'm inclined to give us all a big, fat A+ :).
With every easy day, a hard day must follow, sooner or later. And this was that hard day. We had a very tough 9 mile hike ahead, mainly because we had to cross 2 mountain passes. There wasn't a particularly good place to camp before the valley at the end of the second pass. However, the cresting of the second pass would signal our final large climb on this trip. From then on out, we would be hiking downhill to our pickup point.