After contending with a canceled flight to Missoula, The Red Fox, Fiber One, and Hanglider finally arrived in Montana and loaded up on supplies as quickly as possible. The rental car agent happened to be a Bob Marshall trail volunteer! He gave us a couple cans of bear spray gratis.
We rolled at highspeed to Benchmark after poisoning ourselves with Subway. Arriving at the final gravel road just as the sun set, we enjoyed a magical color display over the lakes bordering the wilderness complex.
Magic...that describes the scenery here. And we had yet to see it by foot.
We made it to the campground after sadly colliding with a suicidal hare. We met Paul, a Montana native, and friend of Jake’s. He had arrived just ahead of us and claimed a campsite. We chatted for a while after setting up camp within view of the benchmark airstrip.
[b]And we're off![/b]
The next day we were up early to bring order to the chaos that was our baggage. Eventually we prevailed and made the 5 minute drive to the CDT trailhead. It was packed! We grabbed the last two spots.
The weather was slightly cool; perfect backpacking weather. The gentle trail allowed an easy 3mph pace, so we made a casual stroll of it. Out of conservatism, only 12 miles were planned for the day. We encountered a hare, several black tailed squirrels and a grouse. All seemed fearless and barely flinched as I snapped quick photos.
The landscape was majestic and the trail relaxing. Waves of drizzle accompanied us. Sometimes we stopped to don our shells - only to remove them shortly after as we overheated when the drizzle stopped. This cycle repeated often. We never had a real downpour, but were never dry.
After a long lunch, we started to encounter other backpackers hiking out. The largest group had one dog per person, and probably as many firearms. We arrived at Indian Point Station and hung out for a while to wait out another round of rain. Eventually, we set off again in search of a campsite, settling on one mile later. It was an absurdly early 2pm! But it had been a long couple of days and we were eager for a warm fire.
We made camp with gusto, and then searched out a bear tree. A forestry ranger on horseback leading two mules happened by, on her way to stay at Indian Point for her 10 day assignment. My hammock tarp was new to her - and seemed to spook her horses. By some miracle the perfect bear tree presented itself, and we set about creating a complex hoisting system to lift the 50 some pounds of food out of the reach of hungry bears.
In short order we had a blazing fire going in spite of another round of rain. Dinners were consumed while we burned copious amounts of wood. The rain continued on and off - finally quitting a couple hours before backpacker midnight. Temps got down to just freezing this night.
[b]Into the muck[/b]
After a good nights sleep free from bear attack, we were up and off, hitting the trail a little before 9. Where yesterday was a relaxing stroll, today would be a slogging climb through never ending mud. This part of the CDT is heavily travelled by horse - resulting in torn up earth with lots of pockets to trap water. We would spend all day squelching, slipping, sliding, and climbing.
On the plus, around lunch time we received our first view of the Chinese Wall, which stretches for 20 some miles and towered 1000 feet above us. We would spend the rest of the day walking in its shadow. It was decided Chinese Wall sounded quite un-American - Freedom Wall was deemed better.
During a climb to our first pass, we went off trail to get a closer look - the Wall is truly a marvel to behold. It stands in stark contrast to the surrounding mountains. I thought I might have spotted our first bear prints in the gravel - but it was hard to tell.
After more sinking, sliding, and cursing we finished our "15" mile day in 18 miles (that felt like 30) at My Lake (really just a big pond) and made camp. We enjoyed another fire then turned in one by one. I got up around 1am to take advantage of the clear sky for some star shots.
[b]Into the brush[/b]
We hit the trail at 8:45, continuing north along the CDT. Within a few hundred feet, we turned left onto the Larch Hill trail. We warmed up fast, and were quickly looking down on last night's campsite. When the trail started to descend, we left it behind and made a beeline for the summit.
After a quick but intense climb along the ridge, we reached the cairn marking the top. We snapped some pics with the Wall as a backdrop, then plotted a course west to rejoin the Larch Hill Pass trail.
From here we had a rapid descent down to the base of the wall, losing all our hard won elevation. We then turned south along its western side and had an easy stroll through pine trees, and found our first positive signs of bear. A very big bear!
In a large burned area, we had a long lunch next to a crystal clear stream, before continuing south through the low valley. This trail was pretty good, not as torn up by horses as the CDT had been. It however had no markings at all, like most of the trails in The Bob.
Around 2pm, we reached the turn where we would go off trail again. We finished the first climb quickly, but then things got tough.
The brush was thick, and made climbing difficult. After 4 hours, we had only covered 2 miles of the 3 to Diamond Lake. I regretted immediately not calling a halt and choosing a new route. I must confess to a certain amount of summit fever. But it seemed that any moment we would break through the brush.
We finally did, but at this point we were beaten, tired, and running out of daylight. I admitted defeat, and with a last look at Gladiator Mt., turned and descended a couple hundred feet back into the trees.
We bivouacked near a lucky stream, had dinner and called it a long, stressful day. The bear hang was a challenge. We ended up lassoing a small pine and bending it down to create a hanging limb. Surprisingly, this was our warmest night - despite being the highest elevation we camped in.
[b]Down, then up again[/b]
We had a couple of foot injuries, so getting out of the wild became the first priority. I picked out a path southwest that I judged would take us down and (hopefully) avoid any severe bushwhacking or steep descents.
We broke camp as the morning rain subsided, then set off. We were quickly soaked by the wet brush, but soon enough broke out into the open for a high vista that few see. We climbed for a while, skirting our way around Moccasin Butte, then started to descend. We followed game trails when we could to make the going easier.
One of these led us to a clearing that we presumed was a hunters camp as it had man made watering holes for stock. We picked a well establish trail that went in our direction of travel. It wound and curved, but eventually dumped us into the valley trail where we headed south. We saw our first big animals along the way, a couple of mule deer. We passed an avalanche path littered with downed trees. Soon after the trail turned to mud again.
Heading south, we had great views of the valley. At the bottom of this section we came upon a large hunting/outfitter camp. It was closed but had a couple tending to it. We chatted for a while, they seemed happy to see visitors!
After saying our goodbyes, we started the long 6 mile climb to White River Pass. It was a steep one, as we gained about 3000 feet of elevation. We had lunch half way up, then spread out as we climbed to the top.
A cold front moved in as we neared the pass. The wind picked up, the clouds lowered, and it started snowing! It didn't last long and turned to a light rain. The dropping temps motivated us to descend rapidly, and we did.
A couple miles from camp, eagle eyed Jake spied a bear! I raced to get my dslr out of my pack where it was buried, naturally, safe from the rain. Jake assessed the bear to be a 1 year old juvenile brown or grizzly. The little guy seemed utterly disinterested in us, and went on his way after staring at me taking his picture.
Elated that we had finally seen what we had been looking for, we finished the day’s hike with aching feet and a roaring fire. When I peeled off my shoes and socks, I found a pretty bad case of trenchfoot. 5 days of continual wet was taking its toll.
We awoke to freezing temps again. After a fast breakfast, we hit the trail at 8:15 and set a blistering pace. For once, we had clear blue skies the entire day. We were on the easy stretch of trail from Indian Point to Benchmark, and cruised at 3.5mph. Elks bugled nearby, but we never saw them.
We passed a couple groups of hikers headed into the ob, one looked like a CDT thru-hiker. We also passed a trio of mounted hunters with pack mules in tow. They were headed for the camp we had visited yesterday at White River.
We were on a mission, with refreshments on our minds. We only stopped once more for a quick pic at The Bob Marshall Wilderness sign, and hit the benchmark trailhead at 12:15.
Happily, the rental was unmarred by grizzly and we blazed out on the gravel road to Augusta to grab burgers and beers. We said goodbye to Paul here and headed back for Missoula, racing across wide open Big Sky Country.