As part of the Backpacking Light Wilderness Adventures program, Trek Director Kevin Fletcher and I led a guided trip across the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in Montana in September 2018.
This program, dubbed the “Whitetail Trek”, was a new program for us where we gave the group a start and end point and let them plan their own trek across the range.
The process framework for planning the trip generally followed what is described in my recent article about off-trail route planning.
This photo essay originally appeared on Instagram – please follow Backpacking Light on Instagram for more visual inspiration, stories, and BPL news.
Day 0: Route Planning – For the final Wilderness Adventures Trek of 2018, 11 of us are convened in #redlodge #montana and staring at satellite imagery to see if we can find a route across the northern Absaroka-Beartooth #Wilderness.
Day 1: “Consider Your Future” – We leave the trailhead mid-morning and start working our way towards the end of a giant alpine lake. At the end of the lake, we’ll take a left at a creek, leave the trail, and begin our ascent into the heart of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
Day 1: The First Bushwhack – After 6 miles of trail, crossing the creek, and leaving the lake, we start our forest bushwhack. Up, up we go.
Day 1: Racing the Sun – With the steepest part of our first-day route still ahead of us, we are racing against the setting sun. A good off trail route is measured by the extent to which we use our hands for upward propulsion, and this is indeed a good one.
Day 1: Dinner at the Talus Cafe – After 3,000 feet of elevation gain, with most of that off trail through forest and boulder fields, we arrive at an alpine lake near the treeline at dusk and enjoy a hard-earned dinner on the talus-y lakeshore. Kevin (foreground) fiddles with ramen, Andrew (right) chews fuel, and Jim (left) wisely ponders what the next day might bring as he looks upward.
Day 2: Logjam – We start trekking at dawn and begin the tedious process of finding a route from our camp in the trees to the talus and tundra a few thousand feet above us.
Day 2: Tundra Must Be Earned – We want to reach the tundra – the high grassy plateaus that are the hallmark feature of the Beartooth Mountains. But getting there requires some hardship. This morning, father-son duo Chris and Nick crawl their way upward on steep talus and scree.
Day 2: The Plateau – Another few thousand feet of elevation gain through talus, scree, and cliff bands finally spits us out on the incredible tundra of one of the Beartooth’s many high plateaus. Now, a traverse across the plateau leading to an exit back down to the tree line before the storm hits.
Day 2: Descent – With three options to choose from and a storm system coming, we make the decision to traverse the entire plateau and exit at the far end. Tonight we will descend and camp below the treeline after 12 hours of trekking today.
Day 3: Storm Day – As we expected from the forecast, today a storm rolled in and would be howling snow and other such drama up on the high plateaus, so we’d spend our time down in the trees, walking trails down a valley and then up and over a high pass to our hopeful destination. This would be another “all-day walk”, required if we are to complete the traverse and reach our ultimate destination, where our exit vehicles are parked.
Day 3: In the Clouds – As the day wears on, the temperatures drop and we are hiking in a cold, wet, misty cloud all day. Now it’s time for the climb up into it as we head for a pass that is 3,200 feet higher.
Day 3: Where? – As evening approaches, and light fades, we are still climbing towards a pass in the soup.
Day 3: Nightfall – Our final stream crossing brings us to the lakeshore of our hoped-for destination as the last bits of daylight escort us to a camp.
Day 4: Wet – This morning we are up before dawn and trekking at first light. In the midst of our bushwhack to get up and away from our forest camp and into the mountains again, we find ourselves in the meat of foul weather. Cold temperatures, snow, and wind accompany us through game trails, bush, talus, and blowdowns. But alas, up we go.
Day 4: There? – Through the unfocused aperture of minor breaks in the storm, we try to visualize a route through the talus and find our way to the mountain col that will deliver us to the next valley.
Day 4: Breakup – As the storm starts to lose some energy, a brief respite reveals the ominous and beautiful spires across the valley.
Day 4: The Pass – After intermittent whiteout, wind, snow, and graupel, we make the final push to the pass.
Day 4: The Pass – We finally reached the high pass in the face of a driving blizzard where snow and graupel stung our faces as we climbed and winds strong enough to knock us off balance greeted us at the little col.
Day 4: Down -Thankfully, we decoded the off-route signature that brought us over the final pass that would lead down to our exit valley. The storm broke, but high winds and cold temperatures kept us bundled up. Now, a few thousand feet of descent and one more exploratory journey up the valley before we exit.
Day 4: Valley Meandering – After dropping a few thousand feet of elevation and zipping up the valley on a trail, we leave the trail again and work our way back to the high peaks for the next few days.
Day 4: Camp – We trek well into the evening hours to reach a tundra camp at treeline, at the base of the steep slopes that will take us back up to the alpine country tomorrow.
Day 5: Small and Big – This morning starts off once again with another big, steep climb, leaving the shadows of the valley below and working up to a more hostile environment dominated by rock and ice. As we ascend, we turn back and look at the massive wall of mountain flanking the other side of the valley and can’t help but think how we are so small, in this land that’s so big.
Day 5: Rubble – Taking a moment at mid-day to stop and wonder at the sheer scale of rubble found at the highest elevations in the Beartooths.
Day 5: High Pitch – Amidst a sea of rock, we discover small alcoves where our little tents can be pitched. Here, high above the treeline, the fall winds are a constant reminder that ultralight shelters can be a limiting factor when it comes to nighttime comfort and safe protection from the elements. Two years ago, our group of September trekkers spent the night huddled behind a large boulder because their shelters wouldn’t remain standing in response to the extreme winds that the Beartooth Plateau delivered to them. So today, we hedge our bets by building rock walls, tucking into little depressions in the topography, and using all of our guylines and stakes.
Day 5: Celebrate? – As the evening light faded on our last night on the trail, we celebrate the challenge of weaving a non-obvious route through challenging terrain in one of the rockiest landscapes in the West.
Day 5: The Final Night – As the night sky fades and we seek reprieve from the wind up here, we begin to settle into the tension that comes with tomorrow being the last day of our trek. The finish brings with it the dichotomy of tomorrow’s unknown route off this plateau vs. the anticipation of pizza and beer at a Red Lodge tavern.
Day 6: Finding a Way Down – On our final day, we still have a ways to go, and need to solve one final off-trail puzzle to get us back down to the valley trail. From our camp, we discover granite benches and grassy tundra ledges like this one that @wentworthphoto is walking on – towards the cliff edge. What will we find there?
Day 6: Solving the Puzzle – Seemingly, we are cliffed out, but Tim scouts the cliff edge and believes he “may” have found a way down. We won’t know for sure until we give it a shot, because the slope is too steep to see all the way down.
Day 6: Into the Abyss – We cautiously make our way over the cliff edge and find a line downward that only reveals itself a few dozen feet at a time. But we have faith. And if that doesn’t work, I guess we go back up!
Day 6: The Chute (Oh, snap!) – After snaking our way a few hundred vertical feet through granite slabs and cliff bands, we find a steep chute that we believe to be our last obstacle before the bushwhack down to the valley trail. The chute is choked with vegetation, talus, scree, and slabs. We make our way downward, crab-walking. Near the bottom, B yells, falls, and hearing the snap of her ankle, goes into shock. // Clinging to the side of a steep mountain isn’t a great spot for an evac, so after a half hour break, we give B some ibuprofen, trekking poles she can use for crutches, and slowly soldier on, hoping the swelling in her ankle holds it together until we reach the trailhead. // (Post-Trip update: the ankle injury was a torn ligament and broken bone, requiring a few months spent in a walking boot.)
Day 6: C’est fini – After a bushwhack through the forest, we arrive at the exact switchback in the trail where Ryan left his titanium spork sitting on a log some time ago. After picking up the utensil, we meandered down the valley trail to our cars, feeling the immense satisfaction that comes with completing a trek full of adversity, uncertainty, incredible scenery, sketchy weather, and great people. // L to R: Ryan, Chris, Andrew, Kevin, Tim, Les, Barbara, Jim, Rhondel, Paul, and Nick. // Average pack weight for this 6-day Trek was about 25 lbs, range was 23-27 lbs. // There’s beer and pizza waiting for us in Red Lodge, so we gotta go now. Thanks for following our trek this year!
- Learn more about the Wilderness Adventures program.
- Early enrollment for 2019 Wilderness Adventures treks will be available to Unlimited Members starting November 16, 2018. Join or upgrade to Unlimited to enroll early!
- Public enrollment for 2019 programs will open November 26, 2018.
- See what gear our guides recommend for these treks.