Monday, August 24, 2015

Beyond the Caldera – Breathtaking Beartooth Loop

I knew I would return before the summer faded into fall (I said so here). I just had to find a victim Hiking Buddy willing to accompany me. 
Hey, Brian! Do you want to go hiking in the Beartooths?
The trail head is around 10,400 feet above sea level.
No problem.
The loop is about 10 miles long.
OK, whatever.
I pose at the trailhead, blissfully unaware of the hiking nightmare that awaits me
Well. that was easy. However, the critical detail I neglected to mention to my victim Hiking Buddy is that the route steadily loses 1500 feet elevation in the initial five miles of the trail. Therefore, the most difficult part of the hike would find us trudging our way back up the final five gruelingly picturesque miles (We’re gonna die out here!!!). We would be gasping for air during the entire high elevation ascent until we collapse in complete exhaustion at my car.

Oh, that detail. 
Brian heads to Gardner Lake, blissfully unaware of the hiking nightmare that awaits him

Initially, all is bliss in the out-of-doors. I am beside myself with elation (Seriously? Elation? Who uses that word these days?), surrounded by glacially sculpted 2.7 billion-year-old  metamorphic rocks of the Beartooth Plateau of northern Wyoming. 
Dancing past Gardner Lake

Have you heard of the Ten Essentials? This is a list of the most important things to carry when hiking in the wooly Wyoming wilderness. My pack feels like my Ten Essentials weigh forty pounds. In addition to the several layers I wear, the hat on my head, and the poles I use, I have packed my rain jacket, rain pants, extra hat, gloves, earmuffs, thermal top, bandana, eight pounds (one gallon) of water, a lighter, head lamp, whistle, extra glasses, emergency tarp, map, granola bars, cheese, nuts, dried fruit, fruit snacks in tiny bags, macaroni salad in a plastic container and a spoon to eat it with, snack-sized snickers bars, camera, and the requisite canister of pepper spray. It is a wonder I can even stand up straight, much less walk away from the car and down the trail without toppling over. 

Rocks everywhere! OLD rocks!
At the first trail junction, I point to some rocks. We read the sign. We point to our map. Something about that sign is perplexing but we cannot quite put our finger on what it is. 
Brian ponders the signage situation
Ever the vigilant outdoorsperson, Brian is the first to comment on the obvious.
This trail seems to be going down.
Tibbs Butte 
I look vigilantly around at the outdoors. 
Why yes, I do believe it does.
Onward and downward!
We proceed nevertheless. I didn’t get up at 0500 and drive for three hours to turn around now. Onward and downward! 

Snow lingers in late July at this elevation
Spine-tingling tracks appear in the muddy trail.

Brian's paws did not make these tracks
It’s getting past lunchtime by now. Do we really want to park ourselves where the owners of these spine-tingling impressions may be lingering hungrily in the underbrush? I feel the need to refuel, though. We decide to have a bite (Oooh, bad choice of words?) after crossing Little Rock Creek, which in my case becomes falling into Little Rock Creek. As Brian scampers adeptly to the other bank, I hem and haw about where to cross. Taking off my boots and socks and wading barefoot across slippery, slimy, broken, bowling ball-sized boulders is not the best idea in the world but I do it anyway. Of course, I go ass over teakettle into the ankle-deep drink and lose hold of my boots. I save my camera from drowning in the nick of time and use a hiking pole to lasso my boots and socks before they float downstream, never to be seen again. I do not relish (Seriously, again? Relish?) the prospect of hiking five miles barefoot. I eventually stand up and waddle my wet self across the rocky remaining width of Little Rock Creek, but not without additional drama. What made the whole episode especially exasperating is that I missed seeing a nice, narrow spot to cross, a few yards downstream.

Little Rock Creek - the scene of my exasperation

I plop myself down on some rocks and dry my feet while Brian hangs my squeezed-out socks on a branch. I am no longer hungry. It is not a comfortable situation, sitting there with no shoes on, in wolf and grizzly bear country, especially after seeing those tracks. Wet boots and socks being exponentially better than no boots and socks, I slip on my soggy footwear and we take off down (still going down!) the trail. Fortunately, the stream crossings we encounter from here on in do not offer quite this variety of white-knuckle thrill.

Little Rock Creek
We come upon more tracks in the muddy sections of trail, and I wonder if it is one wolf or several. I also wonder if they know we are here, or if they are watching us right now. Together, Brian and I make enough noise to register on a seismograph, but you never really know what is lurking in that thick vegetation. To add another element to this already edgy mix, these tracks look quite fresh. I fondle my pepper spray canister frequently and move along.

Wolf track!
More wolf tracks!
Dropping still further in elevation, the trail contours through dense forest and skirts large outcrops of ancient granitic gneiss. I would love to linger here except for the fact that we have at least another five miles to go and 1500 feet of elevation to gain.
Lingering briefly at the metamorphic rocks
At the low point of the trail (around 8900’), we pass a spur to the old Camp Sawtooth and then traipse across a wide grassy wetland. Grizzly tracks are spine-tinglingly evident here so we avoid lollygagging. We noisily aim for a saddle between two large hills and thus begin our exhausting ascent back to the Beartooth Highway and my car. There is another trail sign but it is old and misleading, so after checking the map we take the right fork.

Grizzly track

Precambrian trailside loveliness

Get out the map!

Walking and breathing are definitely a struggle in this land of thin air. I read somewhere that there is 15% less oxygen at this elevation than at sea level. Why do I think of these things now? Step. Step. Pause. Step. Step. Pause. At this rate, it will be next week before we get back to Yellowstone. 

Step. Step. Pause.

We pass another sign. I admire how some are lashed to the tree with what appears to be old shoelaces. With our inherent route-finding abilities and natural inclination to point north, Brian and I pick a trail and go for it.
Stockade Lake - at last!

After what seems like thirty miles of switchbacks but is probably only one, the trail levels out. Water shimmers like a mirage through the evergreens. Eureka! We have reached Stockade Lake! There is actually someone sitting by the water’s edge. It looks like an angler. How did he get here? Did he walk in from another trailhead? Did he ride in on a horse? I want to steal his horse. I will sneak up silently behind him, bop him over the head with my forty pounds of Ten Essentials, and finish our gruelingly picturesque hike in equine comfort.

Step. Step. Pause.
Now we're getting somewhere - Losekamp Lake
This place definitely gives new meaning to the phrase “breathtaking scenery.” At the edge of Losekamp Lake I vigilantly step over Brian and vaguely wonder if he will ever get up again.
The elevation finally got to him
The distance from here to the trailhead is slightly more than three miles. Upon closer examination of our trusty map, however, we notice that the contour lines are awfully close together. Those 3+ miles will be steep. We’re gonna die out here!!!
Step. Step. Pause.
A last look at Losekamp Lake

Open tableland near Tibbs Butte Pass
Dark clouds move ominously across the expansive sky as we inch our way up and across the open tableland to Tibbs Butte Pass. A solitary clap of thunder warns us that we need to hustle. Luckily there is no flash of lightning, and the clouds drift away on the wind. I keep mumbling “We’re almost there. We’re almost there” mainly to keep myself from passing out from exhaustion. 

Step. Step. Pause.
 The Endless Trail

Rest  stop at Tibbs Butte Pass

Lovely lavender lupines blanket the rocky hillside. The car is somewhere on the distant ridge; I estimate two hours travel time. I cannot bear to think about that final 400’ uphill trek from Gardner Lake. Whimpering pathetically, I tell Brian to go on ahead without me. I will just lie down on this cushion of lovely lupines, take a nap, and snooze until spring. Be sure and cover me with my emergency tarp. Winter gets cold up here.

My bed for the winter

We work our way down the pass and arrive once again at our first perplexing trail sign. We figure out what the problem is. The arrow to Losekamp Lake is pointing in the wrong direction. Additionally, what is up with the Hauser Lake trailhead arrow? It, too, is pointing in the wrong direction. Who is in charge of signage here, anyway? 
It's a good thing we have a map!
 Step. Step. Pause.

We're almost there. We're almost there.

Heading towards the headwall of the Gardner Lake cirque
My feet hurt. My head hurts. Every muscle in my body aches. We are stopping approximately every 17 feet, gobbling as many of those pesky oxygen molecules as we can inhale. My legs feel like lead posts. We are almost there! We sit for a spell. We sit for another spell. Dark clouds are building up behind the headwall of the Gardner Lake cirque but I really cannot walk any faster. I am ready for this hike to end but I do not want to leave this beautiful place.
Collecting wildflower seeds
These tired feet walked me around Tibbs Butte!
Cresting the hill to the parking lot, I spot Brian crumpled in a heap on the ground. We made it! I have never been so deliriously happy to see my car as I am at this moment. In all my years of hiking, I do believe this is the most arduous hike I have ever completed. I tell myself that if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. That I endured is an accomplishment for this old girl. Thanks for sharing the adventure, Hiking Buddy! 

Brian is the crumpled heap next to the trail sign
Yes, I am kissing my car
Arctic gentian - seen somewhere between a rock and a hard place


  1. So how many hours did this hike take? I am seriously impressed! And I love reading about your adventures!

    1. Thanks, Marty! We started around 10am-ish and finished at 6:30pm, so around 8 1/2 hours. A long day, considering the 6 hours of driving (round trip). It was absolutely worth the effort, even though I was so exhausted that I didn't even want to stop for dinner afterwards.

  2. you missed one: seriously? who says they fondle their pepper spray canister?

    1. Nobody says it...but everyone does it! Especially seeing all those tracks!