Day 7: July 15

In spite of yesterday’s “short mileage rest day” I am more fatigued today than I’ve been so far on the trip, and more fatigued than I’ve been on any backpacking trek since the day after we finished the crest of the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness two years ago.

My strength seems to decay a little every day, and I wonder if I’m in need of a true, do-nothing rest day at this point. I didn’t start the trek strong or rested and the first several days were accompanied by some unusual intestinal distress, and maybe it’s catching up to me. I’ll see how I’m feeling in the morning and play it by ear. There were points in the day today where I simply wanted to snap my fingers and be home.

We started the morning with a Crew meeting at our camp at Flat Rock Lake.

I like to do these meetings at the halfway point of our expeditions. It gives us a chance to regroup in an intimate setting as a team, take inventory of physical, emotional, and mental stock, and provide some food for thought on topics related to expeditioning and leadership.

This morning’s conversation focused on the concepts of “team vs. community”.

In our discussion, we came to the realization that “team” is a group of people working towards a common goal, and that “community” is a group of people having shared values and respect for each other. In expeditioning, both team and community must exist. One of the most powerful things I’ve watched on these last three annual Crew expeditions is that we operate with a peer leadership model. There is no captain or patrol leader, no duty roster, and no assigned roles, as occurs in more traditional Scouting settings.

The diversity of expertise that each of our 14-18 year old members bring, combined with the community that already (and previously) exists, makes for a cohesive team framework that has allowed this group to accomplish some incredibly challenging wilderness travel objectives over the past few years. This year we are further learning that competition and scorekeeping kills expedition community and fragments the team, compromising our goals. This morning we renewed our commitment to preserve these values on our expeditions.

Today we traveled a high route between Flat Rock Lake and Desolation Lake via Copepod, Till, and Big Butte Lakes.

The terrain throughout most of the day was talus (much of it loose and sharp) or snow (much of it rotten and lying atop cavernous talus). We traveled five or six miles, and they were hard-earned.

We actually took a wrong turn at one point and ended up down a drainage we weren’t expecting. None of us bothered to look at the maps, because the “route” that was naturally revealed to us was so inviting

Up here on this part of the plateau, the terrain is a jumbled mass of seemingly random granite domes and talus piles. They hide drainages and seams, creating convoluted passageways from one basin to another. Our GPS has been useful (when we look at it; sometimes we get distracted by the fun of endless talus-hopping).

In the mid afternoon, one of our Crew Members slipped on loose scree and his trekking pole fell down to the bottom of a small ledge. I went down to retrieve it and stumbled in some loose, sharp talus and fell into the rocks. The whole thing happened quite fast and I wasn’t too sure what was happening until I felt various bits of piercing pain in my knee, shoulder, ankle, and hand.

I regrouped a few minutes later on a soft patch of tundra and discovered the injuries to be not so dramatic but rather annoying. The worst of them was a broken pinkie finger accompanied by lots of blood from the flesh stolen from it by the offending talus rock. I dressed and taped it to its neighboring finger, and it seems only to interfere moderately with scrambling for now. Its constant throbbing reminds me that we are off trail and remote in a relatively hostile mountain environment.

The ankle bone and shoulder are only bruised but the knee is rather troublesome when trying to balance on one leg while carrying a 40 pound pack. Another argument for a rest day, perhaps. I found myself talus-hopping quite gingerly for our last mile and a half to camp.

Tonight we are camped on tundra at the expansive mini-ocean of Desolation Lake. My last visit here was on an epic winter traverse of the Plateau eight or so years ago with Jörgen J., Mike M., Mike C., Ryan C., and others. Desolation Lake was a fitting name then, and remains so today. We are alone here tonight and there is no apparent sign of frequent human visitation to this beautiful, high-altitude golden trout fishery.

There is more snow up here than we thought, and we’re eager to see what the conditions on the east-facing couloirs and slopes look like as we travel further west towards our exit. We need our exit over Sky Top Pass to be mostly snow free as we are not prepared to travel steep and exposed snowfields since we have no axes or traction.


Camp at Desolation Lake.
Camp at Desolation Lake.
Climbing out of Flat Rock Lake this morning with the massive west face of Sky Pilot Peak in the background.
Climbing out of Flat Rock Lake this morning with the massive west face of Sky Pilot Peak in the background.

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.