Lost in the Beartooths
It was like the fabled mountain man, Jim Bridger, once quipped, “I can’t ever remember being lost, but I do recall being considerably confused for a few days” While I can attest to not knowing exactly where I was on a number of occasions, the only time I really felt lost was nearly 20 years ago on a day hike in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains. The Beartooths are an extremely rugged range characterized by high plateaus of 10,000 feet or more, cut with deep and extremely rugged side canyons. These plateaus, although fairly flat, are above treeline and as such are barren, treeless and windswept. They make for spectacular walking and incredible views during good weather, but they offer scant protection when the weather turns bad, which it does rather regularly. Being prepared for the worst when walking on them, as I was to discover, is a most prudent precaution.
It was a beautiful Labor Day weekend when I set out for a hike across the Red Lodge plateau just northeast of Yellowstone Park. I had started out early on a circular route up the Mary Creek drainage, a climb of about 3000 feet to the top of the plateau and had planned on walking about six miles across the plateau before dropping down the Sienna Creek drainage where I had left my truck. Since the weather was perfect, the mid-70’s and not a cloud in the sky, I took only a light lunch, a poncho and a wool sweater. As was usual on easy hikes, my dog, a Labrador Retriever accompanied me. The morning was glorious, but about 2:00 p.m. when I was on the highest and most exposed part of the plateau at about 10,200 feet, the clouds started to roll in and a light drizzle began. Still, I wasn’t worried. I was more than half way through the hike and it was all down hill to the road where my vehicle was waiting. At lower elevations, trails in the Beartooths are typically well marked and easy to follow; however on the high plateaus they become faint or non-existent. Where the trail is not discernable, rock cairns are generally in place every 50 to 70 yards to mark the path. They work quite well in clear weather. However, that September day, as the weather continued to deteriorate, I began to get that nagging feeling that maybe, things would not turn out just as I had planned. The temperature dropped steadily and the wind and rain, which soon turned to a cold sleet, continued to grow in intensity. Still, I was not overly worried. I was getting closer to the actual trail and the shelter of tree-line all the time. However, within a 10-minute span, the clouds lowered to ground level and I found myself in a thick fog with visibility limited to no more and than 100 ft.. often less. Obviously, I could no longer make out the cairns marking the trail or any other landmarks. I soon became totally disorientated. To make matters worse, when I stopped to assess the situation, I set my small day pack which contained my lunch and map and compass down and went to reconnoiter the best route off the plateau. Big mistake. When I went to retrieve the pack, I realized I didn’t have the slightest idea where it was, nor could I see more that 20 yards in any direction. By now I was extremely concerned as the weather continued to worsen and I had absolutely no shelter. At over 10,00 feet I was well above tree line and was totally exposed to the increasingly heavy wind, rain and sleet. The temperature had dropped to around 30 degrees creating a textbook situation for hypothermia. What was worse, without my map and compass, I had not the slightest idea of which direction to go to get off the plateau. It began to dawn on me, that I was lost.
I knew that by now I was in a survival situation and that if I didn’t get to a lower elevation soon and find some sort of shelter I was in real trouble. With no idea of where I was or which direction to go and with not a cairn or trail marker insight, things were grim. After wandering around in the dense fog and sleet for about 20 minutes I came to a small stream, just a rivulet really, but I reasoned it had to flow off the plateau at some point. I started to follow it downstream. My hope was that it would eventually lead to lower elevation below tree-line which would offer some shelter. After following the stream for a short distance, it became obvious that it would lead off the heights, but in doing so, it plummeted down a side cut in the plateau wall that was dangerously steep, rocky and slippery. Under the best of conditions, it would have been a very difficult and questionable bushwack. In these conditions, it was downright dangerous. Still, to stay on the exposed plateau was not an option - so I started down with the lab following and continually whimpering and showing even more apprehension about the route than I than I had. As I descended, the defile became steeper and more rugged. The side walls , where I could glimpse them through the fog and snow, loomed dark and ominous like some landscape out of Mordor in the Trilogy. The stream continued to snake and tumble its way through and over the talus, boulders and, as we dropped in elevation, more and more deadfall. It was dangerous and exhausting to traverse. To complicate matters, while many spots were difficult for me to get across, they were impossible for a dog to negotiate so I ended up pulling, shoving and literally carrying the lab over obstacles on an almost constant basis. Almost any slip or misstep could have resulted in a fall and serious injury. Even a minor injury such as a twisted or sprained ankle could have created a potentially life threatening situation and by now I was certain I was nowhere near the route I had left in a note at home. If something did happen to me, no one would be looking for me in this area.
After about three hours of exhausting, wet and frustrating scrambling, the terrain began to level out and I reached tree line. At about 6:30 p.m. I found a large spruce with low thick branches – you know the kind you used to make forts under when you were a kid. It offered what turned out to be the perfect shelter – dry and sheltered from the wind which was now blowing down the canyon at gale force. I immediately crawled under the lowest branches with the dog close behind. The storm continued to intensify and evening was quickly closing in. The combination of weather, approaching darkness and my exhaustion, made for no chance of continuing so I tried to get as comfortable as possible covering myself with spruce bows and huddling next to the dog, who gave off a surprising amount of warmth, somewhat redeeming herself for the struggle of having to haul her off the plateau. Surprisingly enough, I actually slept through most of the night and at first light emerged from under the tree to be greeted by nearly four inches of new snow. It was still snowing as I headed down the now relatively wide and gentle canyon where after a couple of hours I picked up a faint hiking trail as I continued to move to a lower elevation. As the elevaton dropped, the snow began to diminish. The trail became more distinct and eventually ended at a dirt road which I followed for several more miles until I came to an area of summer homes. One had smoke coming out of the chimney which made for one of the more pleasant views I’ve had in my hiking career and I didn’t think twice about approaching. After graciously being admitted inside and given coffee and chocolate, I discovered that I had descended the east face of the plateau rather than my intended route down the south side and was nearly 30 miles by road from where I had intended to end the hike.
In retrospect, it’s obvious that I did some things right and just as many wrong. Probably, before I left for the hike I should have gotten an accurate weather report rather than just assuming the weather would hold. Although this was a mistake, such a precaution would have only partially alleviated the situation. The Beartooths are a high enough and large enough range that they can create their own weather and the report may have indicated that the weather would have been stable in the region, while at the same time a storm could have engulfed the mountains. In fact, this is what happened. More significantly, I was hardly prepared for severe weather with just a sweater and poncho. If I learned one thing from this experience, it was to always, just like I had read in numerous articles, take enough equipment to spend the night safely in adverse conditions. Of course, leaving my pack with lunch and my map and compass didn’t help matters either although I’m not sure how much good they would have done with such poor visibility.
On the plus side, I did do a few things right that may have just saved my life. First and foremost, I didn’t panic and was able to correctly asses the situation. Consequently, I made the right decision to follow the stream off the plateau and eventually find shelter below tree line. While the route down the canyon was dangerous, it was preferable to remaining completely exposed to the elements on the top of the plateau where it would have just been a matter of time before hypothermia set in. Finally, upon finding adequate shelter, I had the presence of mind to take advantage of it rather than push on through the night. Taking the Lab with is a debatable move. It’s just something I always did since I enjoyed her company and her feelings seemed to be mutual . Admittedly, carrying her over the rocks and deadfall during the descent off the plateau was dangerous, but once we made it down, the extra warmth she provided while we huddled under the spruce did prove significant. I suppose there was some psychological boost provided as well since she did provide company. To be truthful she was probably better company in the situation that some of my regular hiking companions might have been. Overall, by thinking the situation through and with a little luck, what could have been a disastrous and tragic event, turned out to be a merely uncomfortable and long, but educational, night. The worst part came the next day when I had to explain my absence at work by admitting I got lost. Those things, I found, take a long time to live down.
About the Author
I've lived nearly all my life in the shadow of the Beartooths. While I have been lucky enough to visit a wide variety of mountains all around the country, I remain convinced that the Beartooths offer what are among the best hiking opportunities that exist. The only other area that comes close, IMO, is Glacier Park. That, indeed, is tough call.