Day 9: July 17

The day broke calm and clear, but frosty.

I had pitched my tarp at the base of a west-facing forty-foot cliff so I didn’t get to enjoy the warmth of the morning sun. Instead, I shivered as long as I could and then packed up my chair and coffee kit and moved to a sun-warmed granite slab overlooking Lake of the Winds’ eastern shore.

After some fishing, we packed up and had a map session, using the big map spread out in an oriented position on the slab and secured at its four corners with granite stones. Now that we were entering the final 1/4 leg of our trek, we reviewed our exit options in case there was too much snow for us to safely cross Sky Top Pass. A doe and buck mule deer wandered into the back of our campsite and curiously looked on while we searched for more lakes with big trout prospects on the map.

We left camp and circumnavigated slabs and ledges around the lake’s south shore and then started a nearly direct line due NW towards Fossil Lake. Our first pass, a Kindergarten climb of only 80 vertical feet, dropped us into the beautiful Gallery Lake basin with a pretty waterfall cascading into the lake’s northeast shore.

From Gallery, we got distracted talking about silly things and got suckered into an inviting climb to the north of our target pass, which was going to drop us into our intermediate destination at Lake of the Clouds.

Instead, we found ourselves more than half a mile northeast of the lake in a little tussocky meadow containing the headwaters of the lake’s inlet stream.

Realizing our error, we decided to stay on this bearing and enter the Fossil Lake basin via a pass that was a a bit west of the route that most backpackers take from Lake of the Clouds, and upon our arrival at this seldom-visited 10,280-foot col, we enjoyed one of the finest scenic vistas I have ever seen in this range.

We stopped here for a long time, solving world problems and such (which seem easier when your packs are off and you’re restfully reclined in a patch of wildflower-laced tundra), as well as identifying all of the peaks on the horizon.

These peaks included a spectacular panorama comprised of some of the Big Ones of the Beartooths: Iceberg Peak (11,552′), Mount Wilse (11,831′), Glacier Peak (12,200′), Mount Villard (12,344′), the Montana High Point, Granite Peak (12,799′), and Cairn Mountain (12,200′).

While at the pass, we were able to recon our exit route over the Villard-Granite col and were surprised to see its east face choked with much more snow than we thought would be there. Giant cornices that we could see with the naked eye from five and a half miles away still protected the top of the col. And so, since we don’t have our snow climbing gear with us, we will have to formulate an alternative exit plan…

The route down was steep and a little precarious, as we walked “over an invisible fall line” to a deep, unnamed lake tucked away on a high bench overlooking Fossil Lake.

On the way down, we discovered talus litter: a deflated helium party balloon, undoubtedly released by accident by some crying kid at a four-year old birthday party down in Billings. This is the second balloon that we’ve found in high elevation talus on our Crew expeditions, so now we are wondering about the wilderness impact of helium balloons at parties down in town…

We reached Fossil Lake in the mid-afternoon and are camped on its exposed North Peninsula. We managed to catch several nice cutthroat trout, a half dozen of which made their way into our dinner stews.

I took a swim today in the lake and I think my heart stopped beating when I dove in. It was the coldest mountain swim I’ve had in a decade. I may be getting too old for this sort of nonsense. Once I recovered with a hot coffee and some time engulfed in my down jacket and sleeping bag, I came back to life and fished for a bit more. We were caught a bit by surprise as a thunderstorm moved in, so we scurried back to our tarps and broke down our carbon fishing rods just as lightning bolts flashed overhead.

As we are a late dinner under the nearly-full rising moon, a giant meteor streaked across the southwestern sky, in a flaming glory of orange, green, and blue. We saw bits break off of it and vaporize quickly, but the meteor disappeared across the horizon with no apparent intent of burning out soon. None of us had ever seen anything quite like it.

This brings us to the end of our ninth day. Ominous dark clouds are building up to the west, and thunder is booming, so it’s time now to batten up the hatches and brace for the next round of storms.

Tomorrow: Sky Top Lakes? After that, maybe we wander out to the southwest and walk into Cooke City, where we can get burgers.


Eric Vann looks at the horizon of Big Beartooth Peaks, with Fossil Lake in the distance.
Eric Vann looks at the horizon of Big Beartooth Peaks, with Fossil Lake in the distance.
Chase, Nikolas, Kristofer, and Erick descend into the Fossil Lake basin.
Chase, Nikolas, Kristofer, and Erick descend into the Fossil Lake basin.
Erick descending steep slopes towards a deep, blue, unnamed lake.
Erick descending steep slopes towards a deep, blue, unnamed lake.

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.