Andy Magness had some time off for a trip around the start of August, 2008. Because he didn't have much time off, he planned a lot of adventure into a little time. The idea was to travel light and fast doing activities requiring lots of toys (gear). The goal was to climb up the north face of Granite Peak, then head down and climb the Beckey Couloir on Glacier peak, and then hike to the Stillwater river and head down the river in our packrafts to Absarokee. From there, we planned to get on our previously stashed bicycles and head back to the trailhead and our vehicles. All that encompassed well over 100 miles in 4 days. At least that was the plan, but of course things did not go according to plan.
We congregated in Absarokee the 30th of July and saw our first wildlife, a rather tame deer at the city park we went to to spread out and sort, pack, and prepare. In order to have a chance of completing this trip, we needed a lot of specialty gear like our pack rafts, crampons, ice axes, etc. but we also had to keep the pack weight down so that we could manage to do things like climb with all our gear. This meant some compromises had to be made. As you may imagine, comfort didn't usually win out in these compromises. For instance, we were taking tiny tarplike OR shelters, no sleeping bags, not enough food or clothing, etc. The rest of the team had harnesses that weighed only 95 grams and looked more like some sort of fetish lingerie than climbing gear. Our packs ended up weighing in around 30 pounds each, with about 5 pounds of food each (plus we had all tried to eat a lot for the days leading up to this trip). Needless to say, I didn't bring my Dslr and heavy lens. I couldn't bear the idea of not bringing any camera though, so I brought my older smaller and lighter one. Once we were packed up, we went to the river to stash the bicycles in a nice man's yard. Then we went for some greasy food and milkshakes and finally drove up into the mountains to the west Rosebud trailhead. We were Andy Magness, his twin brother Jason Magness, Sam Salwei, Daniel Staudigel, and myself (Tom Grundy). (Andy, Jason, Daniel, and Myself were on the 2005 Nahanni - Cirque of the Unclimbables trip along with Craig (who has since learned to avoid these sorts of trips)). We got to the trailhead after dark, set the alarm for 2:30 am, and fell asleep.
We got off - plan early, when the alarm that was set for 2:30 am wasn't the alarm that was turned on. In any case we still got up before it was light and soon headed up past the power plant. It was cold when we started, but the rapid uphill pace soon had us sweating. It was getting light enough to see as we passed Mystic lake and headed off of the main trail and up a climbers trail towards Princess Lake. We put on the crampons (thanks Kahtoola) for a small snowfield above a raging creek and then we hit the first of the serious talus. For those of you lucky enough not to be familiar or intimate with talus, it consists of rocks piled up. Often somewhat precariously. I usually categorize it by the size of appliance or other object that most of the rocks are. This section of talus was over a mile of large appliance to large vehicle sized blocks. (televisions to bus sized). We passed by Cold Lake and then continued on. Needless to say it was rather arduous with even our "lightweight" packs, especially when a wind gust redirected a step a few degrees. This brought us to the head of Avalanche Lake, where we started to head up to the snowfield and glacier on the N side of Granite peak.
Once again we strapped on our lightweight 10 point crampons (this means 4 under the heel and 6 under the ball of the foot and are not to be confused with 12 point crampons which also have 2 pointing forward and would have been appropriate for what we were doing). We took turns kicking steps up the snow of the glacier until we hit the couloir. There we were able to do a bit of rock scrambling before heading back to the now rather steep snow (45-50 degrees maybe). It seemed like it was a lot steeper, but in my experience snow always seems a lot steeper than it really is. The combination of lightweight boots and crampons was nice and light but not really what we wanted for this situation. Especially in the few spots with ice under the snow. The ice axes we had were also lightweight and short, which made them feel less secure even when plunged all the way to the head into the snow. We kept switching back and forth from the snow to the rock. I slipped once but didn't go far and only scraped my shin. Near the top there was even more loose rock, which was very hazardous as we were stuck in the bottom of the gully, and it wasn't uncommon to knock a few pebbles off or to be hit by them coming down from above. There was one bit of sketchy soft snow over hard ice that motivated Sam to cleverly call for a top belay. We threw him down a top rope and he tied into his ultralight harness. It did catch him when he slipped on the ice a moment later though.
Probably the scariest moment of the climb came when we all heard the distinctive rumble of a really big rock falling from above (as Jason slid down on it). Then he managed to jump off, but it continued on down towards Daniel who was in the bottom of the gully (luckily the rest of us were a bit off to the side). I saw it come around the corner, maybe a foot wide, by 2 by 3 feet, it rolled, hopped, and pinballed down exploding off of the rock walls. Daniel made himself as small as possible (he is the biggest of us) and it slammed into the rock he was trying to hide behind and bounced over his head to everyone's great relief. The rest of us took turns heading up those loose blocks and hiding out of the couloir up to the saddle at the top. From there we had some real rock climbing to do. We were all relieved to take off our packs, and Daniel decided he had rolled the dice enough that day and would wait there. The rest of us tied into the ropes and headed up. 2 easy rock pitches brought us to a point where we unroped and scrambled up to the summit of Granite Peak. At 12,799 feet, this is the highest point in Montana, and many consider it the hardest of the contiguous 48 state highpoints to get to (via the easier E ridge). I was certainly tired at this point (around 5 pm), and I suspect the others were too. Our plan from here was to head back to the notch, and then continue west along the west ridge and then down south towards Glacier peak... that was the plan anyway.
We rappeled back towards the notch, but of course the ropes got stuck. I soloed back up and was able to free the ropes without going all the way back up. Then the rest rapped back to the notch, and I cleaned the second gear anchor and soloed back down to the notch. (it felt like easy 5th class, but I have heard as high as 5.7). I felt solid on it in rock shoes without a pack. The way west did not look easy though, so we decided to head down a couloir to the south. Some scrambling and a rap got us into the softer snow, and from there we glissaded down as far as the snow went. A little more talus brought us to more snow and finally it leveled out onto a glacier. We camped on a small morraine below Granite Peak on a snowfield. Getting there just about dark, some 16 exhausting hours after we started that morning.
From our views of Glacier peak, the map, the conditions encountered on Granite peak, etc. etc., we decided that it would be wise to abandon our plans on the Beckey Couloir and just try to get to the Stillwater River to get back on schedule. We all thought it would be nice to have an easier day tomorrow. After a small but dense meal of couscous, we put on just about everything we had and tried to sleep. I actually managed a few hours before the cold woke me. Despite various attempts to insulate myself from above and below (feet in the pack, neoprene socks under my hips, life jacket under my shoulder and body, pack liner over me, raincoat on...) I was unable to sleep much, and was glad to finally get up as the sky began to lighten the next morning. Here I will reiterate that our shelters were small. We probably would have taken bivy bags, but we wanted the option of cooking if it was raining. We had two Outdoor Research "lighthaven" shelters. These are designed for temporary shelter during ski touring or other activities and "seat 3-4 people". With just under24.5 square feet of space at 1.5 M on a side (under 5 feet square), things were pretty tight for Daniel and I wedged from corner to corner. The other (shorter) 3 were packed into one shelter with their feet in their packs sticking out under the edge. Luckily we didn't have to ever use them to cook in the rain, but when closed up tight they got quite humid inside, and there was a lot of condensation. They had ventilation, but we opted for the warmer "steam bath" effect.
I woke up very early because of the cold but we didn't actually get packed and moving all that quickly. Soon enough we were tromping over glaciers, morraines, and talus up to the col between Granite Peak and Mount Villard. From there the Beckey couloir we had planned to climb looked very forbidding. We descended over 1000 feet of steep loose gravel through large shoebox sized talus to below the N face of Glacier.
This time the pain came in the form of the remains of a forest fire. Lots of downed trees and little scrubby plants. A suggested route involved traversing high above the downed trees on lots of talus before dropping nearly 2000 feet into the Stillwater River valley.
Once again we set up and ate dinner in the dark rather exhausted from travelling over 14 hours straight. Although it wasn't ever mentally draining (terrifying), the constant difficult terrain took its toll and probably caused us to walk 50% more than the map distance in many locations. We thought tomorrow we would be paddling on the river, and it would be an easier day other than a few portages. It was a little warmer by the river that night, so I managed to get a fair amount of sleep (well, maybe 4 or so hours) before the cold woke me up (still before light).
I packed my camera up before we got on the river, so the pictures of the rapids are thanks to Daniel's waterproof camera, and often the work of Sam. Still, I got a few pics before I packed up the camera, including the moose that wandered past on the other side of the river.
At first the river was quite nice. The main challenge was to stay in the deepest part of the channel and to not get too distracted by the pretty rocks sliding by below the bottom of the raft. The water was really clear, the sun was out, the birds were chirping, and life was good. Of course that didn't last. We had to get out to portage around some log strainers that went all the way across the river. That was a bit of a pain, but not too scary. Then the gradient increased and the river went into a bit of a gorge. The water got whiter, and changed from class II to class III, maybe with a bit of class IV. We started scouting some stuff, and even portaging around some sections. I took my first swim when I was scouting a section past a log, and slid off the rock into the water. luckily there was a pool right there, so I only got soaked and chilled.
That last section of pictures was a section where Andy and Sam lost their boats, luckily they ended up in the eddy just above the drop we were scouting in the last picture. That actually turned out to be a lot of fun, with maybe a 3 foot drop into a pool. I thought I was going to flip over in it, but miraculously I stopped flipping and managed to right myself. I think the nose of the raft hit a rock overhang which stopped the flip.
We got a bit of a reprieve before things got hairy in another gorge. I made the mistake of paddling ahead to where I could see a good eddy, then Jason lost his raft going down to the next eddy and it drifted around the corner over a drop and out of site. I was stuck beneath some cliffs, as was Jason without a raft, and Andy was below me on the opposite side of the river with his raft. After much yelling and whining, and gnashing of teeth, I paddled one eddy lower and started to portage. Jason scrambled upstream and climbed the cliffs to head down to look for his raft. Andy did the same but carrying an inflated pack raft on his back, while the last 2 that were upstream on my side of the river let the air out of their rafts and started hiking around the canyon.
After taking my boat down, I went back to help the others out, and climbed up to see exactly what we were portaging around... It was a pretty ugly series of up to 10 foot drops and twists in the river with a few logs thrown in for good measure. Definitely not something we wanted to paddle or swim. I didn't see Jason's raft though, and he headed off downstream to look for it while we reinflated the rafts and prepared to head on down. When we caught up with Jason, he had found his raft on a shallow island, and we were back in business, although a bit shell-shocked.
We got a bit more relatively flat water before things got steeper again. I fell out of my raft backwards when my foot got caught getting out of my raft. Until this point I had been doing well, running everything without flipping, and only the one swim where I slipped off of the rock. For the next rapid Andy was scouting and he said it looked ok. This made me feel pretty good about it, as he had been rather timid up to this point. He pointed at me, and said "down the middle, you first" (I had run many of the rapids this day in the pole position). This rapid started poorly and went downhill from there. I didn't have a good entry, and rapidly got turned around and my sprayskirt popped loose (which had happened in nearly every other big rapid before). I ran a few drops backwards before getting into some sort of toilet flushing hole. That spun me around like a top before I flipped over backwards. I caught my foot on the way out, but managed to grab the loops on the back of my upside down raft with my right hand. I clamped on with a rodeo grip and held my paddle with the left as I trailed out behind the raft bouncing off of every rock in the river. Sometimes I managed to do a bit of a curl-pull up and get my head up on top of my raft, but the rapids were fast and furious and that never lasted. I remember at one point my raft dropped over a 3 or 4 foot drop and I was yanked along behind it by my right arm. Finally the whitewater eased enough for me to flip my raft back upright, and I was dragged along behind it for a bit more before I was able to get back in and paddle to the side. I was pretty cold, bashed, and worked. The others were yelling at me about something, but I couldn't tell what until I saw a raft coming down towards me. I waded out a bit and tackled this raft and manhandled it out of the water. Then I stumbled out myself, shivering and battered.
I thought I got pretty worked by that rapid, but Andy had gone through about what I did, except without a nice big raft to hang onto and keep his head out of the water. He was even more bashed, cold, and worked than I was, plus he was on the wrong side of the river and had lost his paddle. Downstream we found a place where he swam 3/4 of the way across and I managed to get the throwbag to him to pull him the rest of the way before he was swept downstream again. I was so cold and worked that I was barely able to walk, let alone balance on the logs to get around on the shore. Andy and Sam packed their rafts and started hiking downstream while the rest of us prepared to paddle down looking for Andy's paddle.
I was pretty worked mentally and physically from the swim, and it wasn't long before we got to a stretch of water that I just didn't feel comfortable running. I couldn't really see an easy place to eddy out, especially if I flipped, which was entirely possible in the kind of rapids these were (I'm saying class IV). Jason wanted to keep running it, but I managed to stick to my fear-convictions, so we rolled the rafts up and started bushwhacking towards the trail that was parallelling the river at this point. Once we made it to the trail we didn't have to go far to catch up to the others. We could see the section that I was scared of running from another angle, and I felt vindicated. Not only was there nowhere easy to get out, but the rapids continued to get a lot bigger and scarier as they went downstream with a few logs thrown in to up the danger level. The sun was setting, and we still had some 12 or 15 K to get to where we wanted to be that night. So, we packed up a bit better, changed into dry socks (which didn't last long with our soaked boots but beat neoprene socks), and started hiking on into the night. It was so much faster travelling on a decent trail, but we were still hiking and carrying wet gear up and down on a trail. Finally just before 11 pm we got to where we wanted to camp at the head of the pots (the final rapids section before the road and campground). While eating dinner we all agreed that it would be nice to paddle and float the easier whitewater we would get tomorrow. That evening my left wrist started hurting in a dull achey sort of way when I moved my hand, I must have whacked it on something during my swim. It was quite a bit warmer here so I managed to get to sleep fairly easily.
Between the increasing warmth and exhaustion I didn't wake up until it was starting to get light. We got up and packed for a bit more hiking. We oohed and ahhed at the class V rapids of the pots as well as some cliffs as we hiked through the final gorge. Exiting the gorge we saw the parking lot and Dan with his pack raft inflated ready to join us for some fun. Sam skipped out of the paddling this day and lent his paddle to Andy. This also meant that Sam would drive the car back and we wouldn't have to shuttle.
The first few miles of the river from here were described as class I through V, and the V was supposed to start with an obvious horizon line. We didn't really know what else to expect though. Things started poorly with a number of flips in the opening rapids. Then we got some nice class III before things got a little more exciting again. A little too exciting really, and we portaged a bit. Then we kept stopping at the start of anything rought looking in case it was the class V bit, but that was quite obvious after a water inlet dam pool. Needless to say we portaged around it, although any given 30 foot section looked like fun, the fact that after a likely flip, you would be looking at a lot of rough swimming made the decision to portage even easier.
After a bit of dodging rocks when we put back in, the river got a lot mellower. Probably easy class II. The main difficulty was avoiding sleeper rocks that were hiding under the surface to smack you in the butt, or stop the raft, and staying in the deeper channel when the river spread out. And of course we had to keep paddling and paddling. Every once in a while we would see Sam on a bridge or on the side of the river, and he would tell us that we still had many miles to go. We would also occasionally ask fishermen or people on the side of the river, and although their reports were somewhat conflicting, they did indicate we had a long way to go.
We came around one bend and there were a bunch of people perched partway up a cliff. They all leaped into the water when we went by, and it turned out one was Sam. He also mentioned pizza in the car, so we all pulled over and scrambled up the bank to get a slice. mmmm. I think we had 10-15 miles to go at that point. Luckily, as my wrist started to hurt more, the current picked up a bit, so continuous paddling to keep up was less critical than staying in the main current. Unfortunately my sleeping pad/raft floor was leaking at this point, so I felt like I was sagging deeper into the water and hitting more rocks. Things were getting pretty tiring by now, and a cloudbank had come up and covered the sun. Luckily the river water was much warmer than it had been, so I wasn't all that cold. We even saw a few people tubing on the river. I was starting to think of excuses for why I couldn't ride my bike back to the cars. They mainly centered on my hurt wrist.
Finally we came to the bridge marking the end of our paddling. It was after 6 pm, and we were all ready to get off the river. I tried out the bicycle Sam rode over to us as we pulled the rafts out, and it didn't hurt my wrist, so I joined in getting on somewhat dry clothes (socks), and preparing for the biking leg (packing headlamp, some warm clothes, etc.). I figured I'd better bring enough clothes that I wouldn't freeze if I had to abandon the biking because I couldn't keep up.
We were all a bit reticent about getting started on the bicycles, but finally the four of us bicycling passed around a full throttle energy drink, and then started peddling around 6:40. Sam, Jason, Andy, and myself were the bicyclists, as the others did not have their bicycles and someone needed to watch the boats and other gear we were leaving behind. Soon Sam called back to Dan to bring the video camera so we could record this leg of the trip too. I think the pace at first was around 14 mph, although that soon settled down to more like 11-12, as we started heading a bit uphill. I mainly drafted as best I could and tried not to get dropped. Jason did a fair amount of video taping, but then packed it up to concentrate on riding. I thought I was a goner when we started up the first long hill and the speed only dropped to 10 mph or so, but luckily before my legs exploded someone else commented on the rediculous pace and we slowed down marginally.
It started raining, but it was more of a gentle misty rain, and I just hunched over my camera to keep it mostly dry. Actually the rain felt sort of nice, and probably helped to keep the dust down on the dirt road. We did 15 miles on pavement before we hit the dirt road. At first it was fairly smooth and we were able to avoid the washboards mostly. This was especially important for me, as I do not have suspension on my bicycle and the bad washboards did bother my wrist somewhat. We stopped to pull out the video camera to get some footage of the dirt road before it got too dark. Somehow while pulling over to avoid a car, Sam and Jason's handlebars got locked together and Jason went over into the cobbly side of the road at slow speeds. It was nice of Sam and Jason to take the dive to give me another chance to catch my breath.
The pace on the dirt road wasn't as fast as the pavement, but drafting didn't do as much good as we went higher into the foothills. Also as the light faded it got harder and harder to see the washboards or the softer sandy parts of the road. Once more I was in danger of exploding my legs and getting dropped from the group. This time my salvation came in the form of a short break to strap on my headlamp. We also got a few longer downhill sections which were quite nice untill I hit sections of washboard and almost got bounced off the road. Finally we could see some lights ahead which were only a few miles from the end. It took forever to get there. Then the last leg took forever too, but it did end, and we made it back to the car 29 miles and a lot higher from where we started. It was 10:06 and I was a wreck. This was my fourth time to this trailhead, and I still haven't seen it in the daylight.
I stumbled around like a zombie clearing out my front seat and strapping two bicycles on my rack. Then we started driving back towards a camping area that the others had found. It was hard to stay alert, but the many deer poised to commit suicide on our vehicles helped. Finally around midnight we found the other guys and were able to sleep. It was very nice to have an actual sleeping bag to crawl under.
We all managed to get a lot of sleep that night, and I woke up much refreshed some time in the morning. We had to head to Billings to drop Andy off, so we headed there. We ended up at South Park exploding our gear out across the lawn to dry. Of course we also set up a slackline and did some acrobatics and cooked a heap of spaghetti and some Indian food, and some hummus. This park was in a bit of a sketchy section of town, and we were hit up for money a number of times as well as warned about getting attacked. Of course our gear was spread out all over by that point. Finally we we packed up again and went for pizza. Then after dropping Andy off at the bus station, we looked for a coffee shop with internet. It seemed like all of Billings shut down around 5:30 or 6 pm. Finally we found one though, and ate our 2 cartons of ice cream and worked on photos and catching up on things online. That night we camped out in a field NW of town, and Sam and Daniel played with kite-boarding at midnight. Unfortunately the wind was nonexistent the next morning so I didn't get to play (I was too tired the night before). We did some slacklining and cooking by the airport before dropping Daniel off, and then the rest of us headed West and then South to Salt Lake City for the big OR show.
Billings Gazette article which ran while we were on the trip
google map Andy put together before the trip
Video and spray on the Yogaslacker blog (no I didn't nearly die free soloing after the stuck rope, but 4 days 3 ways doesn't have the same ring)
I'd like to thank all the participants of this trip, especially Andy for his hard work and planning which brought it all together and the bikers for not dropping me. Also some of the sponsors such as Inov8 (for the excellent lightweight boots), Kahtoola (crampons), Raw Revolution (the bars we ate for lunch every day), and I am sure some others I am neglecting. Although it was only 4 days, I feel like we packed at least a weeks worth of adventure in there. The suffering was all I imagined, with a bit more terror than I expected thrown in for added spice. I still may throw in a few more pictures and links, but I am declaring this trip report finished.