Although it lacked the absolute, almost adrenal novelty of my first Open, this was my favorite BMWO so far. Blue skies on a spectacular route that I would happily repeat as a five day trip set a high bar. It was a hard trip for sure, and I’m proud to have finished it on what amounted to a moderately injured knee, but it lacked intense trials of my first two. I still made a handful of small blunders and one really bad (but luckily inconsequential) decision from which I hope to learn, but I feel like I’m slowly getting closer to running a clean open. The trip also validated the concerted work I’ve put in to get my paddling to a point where I could safely integrate serious backcountry whitewater into a long landscape traverse, which has been probably my primary recreational goal for the last year and a half. Perhaps most rewarding was my partnership with Anders, to whom I owe a great deal of responsibility for the success of the trip and with whom I shared a lot of good conversation and laughter along the way.
A week or two before Memorial Day I saw Anders post on BPL looking for a partner and invited him to join me. I’ve been on the other side of that situation before, looking at a trip for which I needed/wanted a partner without any obvious candidates. I think in general it would be nice if there was less of a taboo around linking up with folks you don’t know, although certain kinds of trips obviously do call for a familiar dynamic and more tested partnership. His whitewater background also piqued my interest; I’m always on the lookout for folks with the skills and desire to mix technical whitewater and difficult wilderness. We agreed to start together with the assumption that we would split up if we wound up moving at different paces. While he modestly suggested that he usually doesn’t have trouble keeping up with people, it turns out that he’s not yet a decade removed from a stint on the U.S. national team of an endurance sport, and it was I who worked to keep up with him on my troublesome knee.
Before Dave moved the start I’d planned on finishing late on Sunday night by going over HQ pass, floating the NF sun, camping for four-ish hours somewhere along straight creek, crossing the divide on scapegoat plateau proper or on its Eastern flank, floating the dry fork and the whitewater section of the NF Blackfoot, and then finishing out the more relaxed NF and main Blackfoot section below the mountains by headlamp in the dark. When the start moved to Gibson I knew I still wanted to link the NF Sun into my route, so after connecting with Rob and Dan about a ride from Missoula I decided to start from the WF Teton trailhead. Stupidly I failed to consider the time that the handful of extra walking and paddling miles would add to what what I had figured from the SF Teton trailhead. More on that later.
Anders and I spent Friday night at WF Teton with his girlfriend Christa (sorry if I spelled it wrong!) along with Rob, Dan, and Amy. It was a bummer to miss the dinner (rolled in too late) and the big group start at Gibson, but it was nice to still have a bit of camaraderie at the start.
We got moving at about 6am and after burning about 40 minutes by missing the Olney creek turnoff we made short work of Nesbit pass, catching up with Rob and Dan, who had gotten out at 5:30 and had not started their trip with an obvious navigational blunder, on the back side of the pass. The descent into Nesbit creek was slowed by a combination of deadfall and terribly rotten snow down to about 6000 feet. I imagine that combination characterized many folks’ experience in that elevation range. Not a year to leave the snowshoes at home.
It was during that descent from Nesbit that my knee started to hurt. I had managed to bang it quite hard on a boulder two days before while scouting a rapid, and although it felt fine on Friday the descent rapidly aggravated whatever bruising and inflammation had taken place on the lateral anterior tendons and kneecap to the point that flexion beyond like 30 degrees became quite painful. You don’t want to need your first dose of Aleve six miles into a trip like that, but there I was. The tagline of my whole trip might well have been “Better living through chemistry”, as Anders put it. Luckily until the scapegoat crossing the route never moved too far from easy bail options (e.g. floating straight creek back out to Benchmark, walking to Gibson from the NF sun takeout, etc), so I didn’t have to think too hard about whether to push onward.
Diving off the route creek trail we found the travel across the plateau to the NF sun put-in surprisingly easy. While the walking surface may have been 30 to 50% deadfall, it was evenly distributed and the trees were small enough that it didn’t slow us down too badly. We put in on the NF above route creek around 1:45 (?). The first few miles contained several wood portages, and the next few below those remained surprisingly slow. Downstream of headquarters creek the river picked up both gradient and flow, and soon we were making good time in some of the most scenic terrain I’ve ever paddled through. After several hours Rob and Dan stopped to don drysuits, and not long after that Sun butte came into view and Anders and I took out after a streamside horse packer estimated that we were a mile from the gorge. That estimate turned out to be a bit off, and we wound up trading a mile of fast floating for 1.5-2 miles of walking.
We hiked up into the SF sun drainage in the exquisite late light with my knee again giving me problems. It was frustrating to have to work stay above 3 MPH since the rest of my body felt quite good and metabolically I still had a lot of gas. Usually a fast clip on the long flats is how I make up for generally slow transitions and a mediocre pace on steep climbs, but I wasn’t able to fall back on it this trip.
Rob and Dan caught up with us just before sunset and then passed us when we stopped to make dinners below the WF sun bridge. Anders overpacked on food and generously shared half of an extra dehydrated meal to supplement my butter-boosted mountain house. Throughout the trip he generously gave me several Lara bars, jerky sticks, and halves of two dehydrated meals. As it was I finished with 6oz of potato chips and 2oz of trail mix left, but without him I would have finished out of food and quite hungry. I packed significantly too much salty food and really not enough calories, despite bringing almost 10000 of my own. I really need to remember that for hard trips it’s better consider my caloric needs per mile/elevation gain/unit of energy expended rather than per day as I would on a more relaxed trip.
After dinner we pushed on in the dark to the SF Sun trailhead, passing Dan and Rob’s camp a mile before we made our own. It was a cold night and the valve on my sleeping pad failed. At 12:30 I failed to summon the energy to inflate my boat and effectively pad it out with insulation (pack, PFDs, etc) as a makeshift pad, instead opting for a more hastily constructed and much less comfortable “system” using similar parts on the ground. As a result I got about an hour and a half of sleep throughout our four and a half hour break. Not enough, but in my experience even that much is so, so much better than nothing.
We got up at 4:45 and were moving again before 5:30, making reasonable although hardly impressive time up straight creek to the green fork. We split some rehydrated potatoes at the cabin before the climb up scapegoat. I find that I bonk much more suddenly and easily when sleep deprived and struggle to eat enough dry food to stave it off while working hard, so this was a critical calorie infusion.
Predictably we hit the garbage snow and deadfall on the green fork at just over 6200 feet and thrashed our way up to the headwall. We were significantly aided by the tracks of a prior group that had clearly either followed a very accurate GPS or had a member who knew the trail well,we were consistently amazed that the bare patches of ground between drifts of snow showed that we were following the trail exactly despite the chaotic terrain in the forest. I also really appreciated Anders leading through this section since both post-holing and deadfall-hopping significantly aggravated my knee and following in his compacted tracks helped a lot.
We reached the climb proper of the headwall at about 12:30, which was far, far too late for a hot, sunny day on rotten snow.. While looking for our route ukp we watched a mama grizzly and cub scamper up an impossibly steep snow slope to the plateau which was very cool and really drove home how poorly adapted we were for the terrain we were trying to cross. While we got up the steep ramps through the cliff bands, we both felt that we had gotten away with one and I’m not at all proud that I decided to go for the scapegoat route despite knowing the hazard it would present once the snow warmed up. It wasn’t cool, we should have gone over the eastern flank instead, and that’s about all I’ll say about that.
The crossing of scapegoat plateau wasn’t worth the risk we took getting up there, but it was of course phenomenally beautiful and an awesome place to see. We also didn’t win any speed awards for the crossing, and it was 3:30ish by the time we made our descent towards cabin creek. Here we encountered the worst and by far the most demoralizing deadfall+rotten snow combination of the trip. By this point in the trip Anders had lost his water bottle, dropped his coffee mug on the ascent up to the plateau, and my water bottle had fallen out of my side pocket somewhere on the descent, so we were sharing the cook pot to drink out of at stream crossings.At the open meadow below the snow line Anders decided to trot down to the dry fork, scooping water by hand along the way, and I would limp down on my very painful knee. He would put in there before me but portage the hard 6 miles of the NF blackfoot, while I would put in after him but paddle the whole section. Hopefully we would reach the road bridge within 30 minutes of each other, agreeing that if either of us waited more than 30 for the other we would continue on.
I made it to the dry fork put-in just as Anders was putting on, and I was on the water by 7:15. I could feel the chances of finishing late that night slipping away, but I couldn’t remember if the real rapids on the NF transitioned into class 2+ at the road bridge or at the end of the mountains. If we could get to the road bridge before dark I though there was still a chance we could look at the river and put on if it looked good for a night float. This would set us up for a 3am finish and a more than 120 mile route in under 48 hours.
Th Dry fork was beautiful and brisk with the exception of two wood portages (and some tight wood sneaking), but as I rounded the bend to the NF confluence and saw how little light was left on the west facing peaks above the river I had the feeling that a sub-48 hour finish was shot. As the rapids began in earnest I felt good and fully in control, but the river also felt much pushier and more powerful than when I was on it last at 1200 cfs. The action picked up below the bridge, and while I ran everything okay I could feel my lines getting sloppier as I got more and more worked from the truly continuous, stompy IV+ rapids with the occasional V- move thrown in. Two or three miles below the bridge I could tell that the sun had properly set and I decided to get off the river to the trail. While I knew that the river would gradually let up I remembered some serious stuff before the road bridge and I really didn’t want to get caught in the gorge in the dark. I also knew that even if the light held long enough for me to get to the bridge, any flip could be truly disastrous. My roll has gotten pretty reliable in the last year but a true combat roll in a packraft is at least a bit of a toss-up, and I could tell that I was out of breath enough from the continuous whitewater that if I missed my first roll attempt I would likely be swimming. And an exhausted swim, out of breath, at dusk, with an hour and a half of sleep and 80 or 90 miles behind me, could have been truly disastrous.
Amazingly, just as I got out of the boat and got ready to scramble up to the trail, Anders rounded the corner to a river overlook and saw me. We walked the last 2ish miles (which felt like 5) to the road bridge together as darkness fully settled in, me with my boat on my shoulder and him with his gear packed away. From the bridge we took a listen to the river and a quick glance at the first 200 feet downstream with our headlamps and quickly and easily decided we would be spending the night there. We found Tim from Salt Lake on the bench below the bridge and scored a bag of Fritos and a snickers, respectively.
The next morning we slept in and got on the water just after 7am, making it out of the mountains and through the deciduous transition zone, into the ponderosa-dominated high desert and down to the Clearwater bridge by 12:30, where Anders heroically walked the 4 miles to his car at Clearwater junction.