Day 4: July 12

I woke up at 5:30 am noting an orange glow through the wispy fabric of my Cuben Fiber pyramid shelter.

Unzipping the door, I was elated to see the day dawning clear with the first fiery tinges of morning alpenglow descending from the summit of Whitetail Peak.

I brewed coffee from the warmth of my sleeping bag, not wanting to brave the crisp morning air quite yet. After journaling and reading for a little bit, I fell back asleep.

The warm morning sun invited us to lounge around in camp, where we felt the need to thaw out after the past 60 hours, which have been very cold and wet. As such, we got off to a lazy start, not hitting the trail until, well, let’s just call it “mid-morning”…

We might question our lack of intention, not knowing what would be ahead of us today.

The climb up and over 11,037-foot Sundance Pass was steep and beautiful. We were treated to expansive views of the snowy Whitetail-Castle cirque that made it difficult to keep our eyes on the rocky trail. Near the top of Sundance’s interminable switchbacks, a cold wind funneled through the pass. I climbed the remaining 100 vertical feet in a down vest and rain jacket just to stay warm, in spite of carrying a 45 pound pack up a steep incline.

After snacking at the top we made a hasty descent to September Morn Lake, where we veered off trail. It will likely be the last time we travel on a trail for the next 8 days.

A steep bushwhack down a forested slope, with a little small talus, brought us to First Rock Lake and our third major alpine valley of the trip.

We spent a little time here in the mid afternoon enjoying more snacks and the pleasant warmth of being alone and remote in the Beartooths.

More bushwhacking and Class 2 scrambling through giant talus led to the headwaters of Second Rock Lake, a hopeful camp for us. We spooked a young and curious bear, who ambled up the talus above us with grace and ease that made me both envious, and awe-inspired.

Unfortunately, the meadows around the inlet were still swamped and the woods were thick with blowdowns, so we soldiered on up the canyon. By now, it was past our dinner time.

More bushwhacking and a steep climb up moose and bear trails. Cooling temperatures. Dark clouds heading our way. Running out of daylight. And the ominous black granite of the 3,000-foot NW face of Beartooth Mountain rising above like a sentinel protecting the upper cirque. We were tired, out of trail snacks for the day, and just about bushwhacked out.

Finally, we stumbled across a dry grassy bench rimmed by subalpine fir, just barely big enough for our shelters, and called it a day in the waning daylight.

We celebrated with “pizzas” made in fry bakes (fried cheese on the bottom as a crust, with tomato paste, pepperoni, and tortilla bits layered on top), and were just finishing dinner when the heavens broke loose. I hastily cleaned up and made it to the shelter of my tent just as the peak of high winds and driving rain hit our camp.

We are at 9,400 feet. The sound of Lake Fork Creek rumbles below through a boulder garden. Beartooth Mountain rises vertically, directly above our camp. I’m camped among willows, with bear scat underneath my ground cloth.

And the cold and wet have returned again. Wind howls through the treetops and ridges above.

Tomorrow we continue up valley to its head, attempt to cross the Absaroka-Beartooth Crest, and begin a weeklong traverse of the Beartooth Plateau.


Follow this live expedition blog as Backpacking Light’s Ryan Jordan, Eric Vann, and five others weave their way through glacial cirques, tundra meadows, and talus fields in Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness July 9-20. Dispatches will be posted to the Backpacking Light Facebook page, Instagram feed, and the home page.