Solo Alpine Backpacking

It was a beautiful mid September morning when I left Badlands National Park in South Dakota heading to Custer State Park near Mount Rushmore.  After setting up my tent and heating up dinner on the camp stove I met my neighbors who were starting a camp fire.  They offered me a beer and told me to stay awhile to enjoy the fire. I told them I was road tripping by myself out West after working as a canoe guide all summer in the Boundary Waters.  They had just come from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks which is where I was headed next to do some backpacking. They suggested doing a backpacking trip in the Big Horn National Forest instead of the big parks which were very crowded.  I had no real time constraints and decided to check into it.

The next day, I stopped at the ranger station in Buffalo, Wyoming to get a topographical map and talk to the ranger. He suggested a good hike that was 6 miles to a glacier and back and showed me on the map.  I asked if there was any loops and told him I would rather not walk the same trail there and back, and was looking for more distance and had 3 days/ 2 nights. He started a long conversation and asked me many questions about my outdoors and hiking experience before he told me I could hike the 6 mile trail, camp at the glacier for the night and then get off the trail and do some map and compass work for 3 miles over rock fields and ridges to find a different trail that was 8 miles and get back to my car. As he was talking I thought “this sounds like what I want to do”.  He made me register and get a permit that I was going into the woods by myself just in case I got lost and I also bought a map of the area to use for the no trail section of the hike.

On the way to the trailhead I stopped off at a grocery store to pick up some more supplies.  I started hiking in the early afternoon and the weather was partly cloudy and warm.  As I got closer to the glacier the weather started getting worse, it was really windy and the clouds were rolling in. I got worried I’d be rained on before I got my tent up, but I made the 6 miles to the glacier at 11,000 ft.  It ended up not raining but the winds were blowing so hard my tent poles were bending and I thought they might break.  Regardless of the weather the place was so beautiful and remote.  I was all alone; there was not even another car at the trailhead.  I made dinner in my vestibule to help block the wind and after got cozy in my sleeping bag for a cold night.  Luckily I had planned ahead with some warm clothes, knowing that I was going to be in the elevation and anything can happen.

I woke up in the morning, looked out of my tent and couldn’t see the glacier that was only 50 yards away. I was in a cloud and the fog was super thick. It was also below freezing. This was the part of the trip where I had to climb over a rock boulder ridge and scout out a lake, climb another ridge and find a stream to a second lake that had a trail leading out. If I couldn’t see but 20 yards in front of me I thought I might not find my way doing the map and compass work.  It was pretty much due north over both ridges to the second lake and then east around the lake to the trail.  It’s quite difficult to keep a heading of due north when I’m trying to find the best route through car size and weird shaped rocks.       I knew from experience I would have to jump up on a rock then scout the best place to climb up the next rock by traversing sideways. I considered going back to the car via the trail I took yesterday. I didn’t feel like getting lost, I have heard and read too many horror stories. I ate breakfast and thought about all the other times I had bush-wacked, or climbed over the same type rocky passes. I was confident that even if I climbed the rock jungle and couldn’t see the lake I could make it.  I had the skills, plus I called my mom before starting the hike told her I loved her and if she didn’t hear from me by Wed night to call the rangers in Wyoming. (I started the hike on Monday afternoon, and planned on finishing Wed afternoon.)

I packed up and with Visibility being 50 yards at best 20 yards at worst I climbed over the rock ridge and my fear was confirmed, I could not see the lake. I had an idea of where it was and continued trying to keep a northern course even when I was dodging rock obstacles. I eventually found the lake and sat down to take a look at the map. I was on the southern shore of the lake, if I circled to the north end and climbed another ridge I would find a stream between that and the next ridge that ran east to west. Around the lake I headed north again, up and over another rocky slope. When I started down I was looking for the stream that flowed between the second ridge I climbed and the third one farther north. I decided to start heading north east the way I needed to go anyways.   Finally I heard the stream and was elated, I realized I couldn’t see the stream because it was under a jumble of rocks and vegetation and even ran underground for a bit. I followed the stream and came to another lake, which meant I only had to circle around that lake and would find the trail out. The visibility got worse after I got to the trail, at times I couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of me. I was glad I had finished the part of the hike with no trail and that I had a good topo map.  After a few miles on the trail it started to snow!  I decided to camp for the night and quickly put the tent up and got out of my wet clothes.  It was hard to even cook dinner because the snow and ice was ridiculous. Overnight temperatures went down to around 25 and it continued to snow.

When I woke up it wasn’t snowing and I was ready to get back to my car and have a shower. I hiked out in my long underwear because my pants were soaked from walking in the snow and wet trees hitting my legs the day before. When I reached my car it was snowing again. It was melting as soon as it hit the ground but still it was the only middle of September, not quite winter.  I snapped this victory picture of myself from my truck tailgate, threw my bag in the back and drove off.

It was my first Solo alpine backpacking trip.  It was very similar to what I have done in Alaska, Montana, and New Mexico on other trips with a group; otherwise I would have turned around at the glacier and not hiked alone into the fog. I was confident with the skills I had learned in life and luckily everything worked out. Leaving the forest, amazingly the first town I arrived to was Thermopolis home of Hot Springs state park. I pulled in and there was a free hot spring tub and shower house. It was just what I needed to warm my body and clean up. Then it was off to Grand Teton and Yellowstone — Another adventure…

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