So, here’s how it was supposed to happen:
We were going to spend 7 days and 6 nights backpacking in the Beartooth Wilderness Area in south-central Montana. This is beautiful, rugged, wild country, full of mountains, lakes, trout, and mosquitoes. Our friends, Robert and Lynn, knew the area well, so all we had to do was show up, damn it.
And show up, we did. Thanks to Gary’s power-shopping and organization, all I had to do, after another week of work weariness, was pack my backpack on Friday evening and hit the road to Cooke City, Montana, the next morning. Gary’s pack weighed in at 47 pounds; mine was 36. Without water.
We made our way to West Yellowstone and through the Park to Cooke City, just outside of the northeast entrance, where we would meet our friends.
Robert’s pack weighed in about 36 pounds; Lynn’s came in around 23. They clearly had received a more recent memo than we had.
Gary and gear: He’s the master. For example, when he decided to start running again, at age 65, the day after his first run around the block, he bought a new Garmin running watch and $100 running shoes. You can’t fault his enthusiasm. He doesn’t really care what time it is, but he likes to measure things. Distance, time, rate. It’s a guy thing, as I’m sure you know..
Backpacking is a gear hound’s dream. Lots of little, tiny things in ziplocks, special foods, controlled hedonism. Our luxurious, 4-person Big Agnes tent weighs in at 5 pounds, 3/4 ounce, complete with groundcloth and floor protection. An amazing Helinox camp chair completes the ensemble, at just over 2 pounds. And of course we backpack with crackers, organic green olives, salt-dusted dark chocolate, and Laphroiag 10-year-old single-malt Scotch! Who doesn’t?
It should have been a clue when Gary’s altitude watch was DOA before we left the motel.
I knew the first two days would be the toughest, but once we got to our destination, we’d have several days to hang out before the two-day hike back out. All I had to do was survive the first day of elevation gain and mileage.
I knew I wasn’t at my best I was physically tired, mentally exhausted from work, and desperate to be unplugged for a week. We took photos at the trailhead and headed down the “beaten path” — the name of our trail for the next 10 miles.
And here’s what actually happened…
Elevation gain was followed by elevation loss. Repeat. The morning was still coolish, but not enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Every water break turned into a transfusion. Each breath and step was difficult, whether uphill, downhill, or on level ground. What the hell?
Late morning, we emerged from the forest portion of the walk and into the open. Time for the elevation gain up to Russell Lake. Our friends scampered ahead and Gary followed me. He loves backpacking and has been known to whistle and sing along the trail. But I could hardly hear him over the pounding of my overworked, little heart and my gasping for air. Hey, no worries; I can always put one foot in front of the other.
With temps in the 80s and no breeze, we headed up. I was walking in slow motion, like in a nightmare, when the serial killer is chasing you and you can’t scream or run. Yeah, it was just like that.
I flashed back to the time we lived in the mountains outside of Boise. Five days a week, we commuted from Boise’s mild elevation of 2700 feet to our house at 4100 feet. The only time the elevation almost killed us was the time a new bag of Lay’s potato chips expanded and then exploded at the top of the pass. We thought we’d had a blowout and damn near ran off the road.
Kinda like how my head was feeling on this backpack trip.
I started to fantasize about lying in the nearby creek. Or, really, lying down anywhere, including on a bed of nails. I wasn’t particular.
I tried to rally whenever we ran into other backpackers. They were all perky and happy. One hipster-backpacker dude carried a $3000 camera around his neck and a lone piece of grocery-store firewood strapped to the back of his pack. His girlfriend wore short shorts and braids with her Chaco sandals. Wow.
We stopped for a late lunch in the shade by a spectacular, rushing creek and massive rocks. I knew I was in trouble. With probably three hours left to go and another 1300 feet in elevation to gain, the only hope I had was to fuel up and keep moving.
I took one bite of food and thought I was going to throw up. I nibbled, took as much water and Nuun as I could hold, and told myself, for the thousandth time, that I could do this. Well, maybe so, but I still couldn’t breathe or think. I could stumble, however. Gary kept asking me how I was doing and I couldn’t find the words to answer him.
A mirage came to mind…of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon in 1969, with his cute little moon backpack on. And what was in that backpack, anyway? I’m guessing Tang and a hammock. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a hammock.
A few minutes later, we stopped to look at Russell Lake, at about 8800 feet (according to Robert’s GPS, not Gary’s ill-fated altitude watch). This suddenly was the moment of truth: If we motored on from here, there was nowhere to camp until we got to our destination. Three miles is nothing, I said. It’s a 5K. No big whoop.
I looked below me at a lovely campsite in the trees. I knew, that there was a good chance that I couldn’t go three more miles. Hell, I couldn’t go three more feet. I admitted defeat. Gary pitched the tent and I crashed for the next several hours, until I was awakened by a headache that convinced me that I either had altitude sickness or a rapid-onset brain tumor.
Hoping for the former, I laid low for the rest of the day, hoping that I would awaken the next morning, fresh as a daisy and full of energy for the long day’s hike to our eventual destination, Cairn Lake (elevation 10,400 feet).
But it was not meant to be. After an awful night’s sleep, hot, cold, and then, oddly, both at the same time, I awoke to the same pounding headache and a decided lack of enthusiasm. We opted to return to a lower elevation, the best cure for altitude sickness. Robert and Lynn continued on.
Gary even found some perfect porcini mushrooms along the trail. No, I don’t want to go mushroom hunting.
Five hours later, we were back at the car, tired, hungry, and wondering why neither of us could get our hip belts tight enough to take the weight off of our shoulders. At last, everything hurt but my head.
The whole way home, when we weren’t popping anti-inflammatories like Tic Tacs, we talked about the trip and how smart our friends were about their gear. They had taken “minimalist” backpacking to a level we had never before embraced. Their idea of a decadent treat was two Jolly Ranchers a day.
But, the longer we talked, the more we realized how smart they were and how much we had to learn. And, we had to admit, back in the day, we could carry this kind of weight and still have a good time. But that was then. Today, it was a whole different story.
After arriving home, we ripped our backpacks apart. We got out the kitchen scale and weighed everything, I mean, everything. That flask of scotch? It weighs 13.75 ounces. The accompanying glass? 1.25 ounces. (We had two flasks with us, by the way) Nine ounces of chocolate, 5.75 ounces of HIT cookies, 25.25 ounces of rain gear, 12.25 ounces of bear spray, 18.25 ounces of fishing gear, 4.25 ounces for the tripod,18.5 ounces of camera gear. It adds up.
We tossed back more anti-inflammatories with our scotch, and weighed our options instead of our gear. If we weren’t going to lose our extra personal pounds, we had to get our pack weight down. We started to look at backpacking food as fuel, not fine dining. We brought the Jolly Ranchers out and put the dark chocolate away. We traded half of our morning oatmeal and dehydrated fruit for lighter, more compact, and nutritious protein bars. We realized we had carried in about twice as much lunch as we ever actually ate.
Backpacking is a great sport, provided you don’t do it like we did. We finally have to admit that the only way to get in shape for backpacking is to backpack. Running on roads helps, but it’s not enough. Going on one backpack trip a year for a week, at altitude, in the heat, is asking for trouble, or at least a significant dose of misery.
And backpacking is an awful sport if you’re miserable. Never again will I tackle a long trip without several shorter ones under my belt. My pack will be lighter. My pack will fit better. If I’m going to be at altitude, I’ve got to acclimate first. See, you can teach old dogs new tricks.
Since we got home four days earlier than expected, I had a decision to make: Do I return to work? Stay unplugged? Yeah, you guessed it; I stayed unplugged.
Things have a funny way of working out. Staying unplugged made it easier to avoid the first Republican debate. And getting home early was very fortuitous when I discovered on Saturday morning that the compressor in our refrigerator had died overnight and almost all of our food was ruined. Imagine how sad it is for hedonists to have to throw out almost everything in a refrigerator.
So, all in all, it was a good week off. Not the one I had planned or hoped for, but it was good. We had a bit of an adventure, made new friends, learned a lot, saw some beautiful scenery, and stayed unplugged. Can’t get better than that.
Thanks for reading. I know how busy you are.