Since backpacking in Glacier National Park this spring, I’ve been eager to explore more of Montana. So, when the opportunity to do a trip with BackpackingLight came up, I couldn’t say no.
The night before starting the 3-day trip onto the Hellroaring Plateau in the Beartooth Wilderness, we all braved a snowstorm to meet up for dinner in Red Lodge, a small town seemingly full of Trump supporters. With a few inches of fresh snow sticking to the ground in town, we wondered how much we’d have to trudge through once we got up high on the plateau. Trip leaders, Eric and Pat, reassured us that we’d manage without snowshoes. The great thing about backpacking in a wilderness area rather than a national park is that you can easily change your plans and camp anywhere you like.
On our first day we worked our way up a talus field partly covered in snow, which made for tricky but fun walking. The Beartooths have countless little lakes and we decided to camp at the first one we came to. The wind gusted pretty strongly on the shores of the lake so we all found sheltered spots in the nearby trees. Eric started a campfire and we sat around sharing stories. There’s nothing quite as nice as a campfire after a long day’s walk.
The next day we did a short walk up to a beautiful alpine lake at the base of Mount Rearguard. I was keen to get to the summit and was happy when Eric and Andrew agreed to join me. The wind gusts we’d had the day before were a lot stronger here and when we ascended the ridge above the lake the wind became intense, but we figured that just made sense since we were on exposed terrain. We climbed over countless boulders to reach the summit plateau, only to find three pillars, not knowing which was technically the highest. We scrambled up what looked like the tallest, only to see that the middle one was at least a touch higher.
I really wanted to get to the top but when we climbed up the tallest pillar and reached the crux move – a 12-foot bouldering problem that you wouldn’t want to mess up – I decided not to risk it. Even a sprained ankle on the summit of a boulder-covered mountain with a cold blowing wind and not much daylight left would be big big trouble.
The way down was trickier than the way up. The whirlwinds of snow that had pelted us earlier now left an icy layer on the boulders and avoiding them invariably meant stepping into deep snow that just might not hold you. We made it back to the lake, rejoining the rest of the group, shortly before sunset. In our absence they’d decided it was too windy for our lightweight tents and decided to head back down to where there were some trees for cover. They were just waiting for us to return.
As soon as we left the lake, the wind seemed to turn on full-force. It got so strong that it literally knocked me off my feet, forcing me to hunker down and wait for a short break between gusts. The constant blast was deafening and made it nearly impossible to hear each other. Then it got dark. Somehow, half of our group went in another direction. I could see it happening – one headlamp heading away down the slope – but there was no way I could reach them and get back without becoming separated myself.
With no way to reach them (but we did have satellite phones in each group) we did our best to make it down to safety. As soon as we dropped into the trees, the wind abated to “normal storm levels” and we set up camp at the first good spot we could find. Those in the other group weren’t so lucky. Unable to stand up in the wind, they took shelter in the crack of a large boulder. I don’t think they slept much but the next morning they strolled into camp, proud to have survived and with stories to tell.
The wind continued the next day, although not quite so intensely now that we were lower down. Rather than going back up onto the plateau where there’s a trail to the road, we bushwacked down a steep slope, protected from the wind by trees the whole way. Eric and Pat did a great job of managing the situation and keeping everyone upbeat – thanks guys!