Worried Wives and Sleepless Summits: A Night on Mount Wood

Mt. Wood is the second-highest point in Montana, soaring to a height reaching 12,649 feet elevation, rising just 150 feet shy of Granite Peak. Seen prominently from Billings, its position at the northern end of the Beartooth Mountains boasts epic views of the range to the south and west, and an astounding vista of the seemingly endless plains to the North. This is a lonely place, receiving very few visitors due to its relative inaccessibility and lack of trails.  It got its name from A.F. Wood, a member of the pioneering Kimball Expedition that explored and made an unsuccessful attempt to map the area for mining purposes back in 1898.

On this trip, I was accompanied by my friend and coworker, Tad, whom I will take the brief pleasure of introducing here: Tad is a former all-state wrestler turned power-lifter who now runs marathons in his spare time and does grueling Cross Fit workouts just for the fun of it. In short, Tad Stichman can kick your ass. He’s also an experienced outdoorsman, well trained in wilderness medicine, and an overall friendly guy. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner for this crazy adventure. In fact, I think it might have been all his idea in the first place.

Our plan was to camp at the trailhead Saturday night, rise early on Sunday, ascend 4000 feet in about two miles, hustle four miles across a rocky, exposed, alpine plateau, climb the peak, and get off the mountain and home in time to catch a baseball game by 7 p.m. that evening. Sounds perfectly reasonable, right?

Well, we knew it was an ambitious plan, so we agreed that we would just “hike until we didn’t feel like hiking anymore.” We could always turn around at any time.

We arrived early to our camp at the Mystic Lake trailhead on Saturday evening, and we had some time to kill since we wouldn’t be starting our climb until early the next morning. So, we decided to take a quick hike up and catch the sunset over Mystic Lake, snapping photos along the way.

At the lake overlook we encountered an adventuresome pair of high-pointers who had traveled all the way from Rockford, Illinois. One was a very young lady and the other was an older gentleman of indeterminate age who we assumed to be her grandfather, although he could easily have been her father or uncle. They shared the same bright, round, blue eyes and friendly Midwestern accent. She was there to make an attempt at Granite Peak, and in doing so she would reach her 45th state high-point. Not impressed? How about this: She was only 14 years old! The gentleman had already collected all fifty state highpoints to his credit, including Granite Peak, and he was just there to help her achieve her goal.

After sharing laughs about their flatlander training regimen that included climbing on and off a farm tractor, we wished them good luck and parted ways back to our camp. We boiled up a quick supper under the stars, then crawled into our sleeping bags. Tomorrow would be a big day, so we decided we’d hit it early. I set the alarm for 3:45 a.m.

At around 4:45 a.m., the first rays of light shone through our sleepy tent. We awoke and wondered why the alarm hadn’t gone off. I had accidentally set it for 3:45 p.m. I smacked my forehead, “Doh! Idiot!” We quickly grabbed our provisions and headed up the steep gulley that we had scouted the previous afternoon. This approach would prove to be the most strenuous part of the day’s hike. At one point, it was so steep, I grasped a shrub to pull myself onto a ledge, and SNAP! The branch broke and I tumbled backwards through the bush scraping my legs and arms into a bloody mess. Luckily, Tad was there to catch my short fall, and the mishap was mostly forgotten.

We labored intensively for about four hours until we finally gained the plateau that would lead us to Mount Wood. From here, the mid-morning view of the Beartooth Range and the colorful wildflowers dotting the alpine landscape were phenomenal. Visible to the South were Granite Peak, Castle Rock Spire, Whitetail Peak, and numerous other craggy, snow-capped peaks that make up the heart of the Beartooths. We agreed that even if we didn’t reach the summit, this view was worth the effort and could be considered a successful day.

But, we still felt like hiking some more, so on we went.

We spent several hours exchanging stories as we crossed the alpine wonderland atop the plateau on our way to the final summit approach. The farther we walked, the better the views got.

Soon, Mt. Wood revealed herself in full view and we were finally afforded a clear sight of what would be our line to the summit. We would ascend a steep snowfield up the southwest ridge. By now it was mid-afternoon, so we knew the snow conditions might be questionable. But we reasoned that we could always turn back, and that we would just hike until we didn’t feel like hiking anymore.

We approached the foot of the climb as the huge mountain loomed ominously overhead. I announced to Tad, “This is it, man. The main event we’ve all been waiting for.” Tad exhaled forcefully a couple of times, psyching himself up for the task at hand. I imagined that’s what he used to do before a big wrestling match, sizing up his opponent, just like the formidable opponent that stood before us now.

The snow was soft, but safe enough to walk on without difficulty. We trudged up it as far as we could, then switched to scrambling over rocky Class 3 terrain on the ridge. We skirted through a moat between the snowfield and the ridge boulders on our left until we reached the first real objective hazard of the trip.

Presently we encountered a Buick-sized boulder smack in the middle of our intended path with no feasible way to scramble over it. At first glance, going around it didn’t look feasible either. To the left side, there was a 4,000-foot drop that led to certain death. The right side was only slightly more optimistic, abutted by steep, slushy snow that hid invisible foot holds. A slip off this precarious perch would spell a long, disastrous tumble down the snowfield and an icy plunge into the blue waters of a glacial pond 2,000 feet below.

This was the last real crux, the final obstacle standing between us and reaching the summit. I could see that it was only a short distance from where I stood to a spot where we could reach solid footing. From there, the rest would be easy.

As we stood there gripped in contemplation, it would have been so easy to turn around and call it a day. But we had already come so far. I thought back to all the times in my life that I had come so close to achieving success at something, only to get scared and give up.

Tad looked at me. I looked back at him. “Do you feel like hiking some more?” He grinned. I promised him if he died, I’d sign his name in the summit register. He agreed to do the same for me, and we decided to go for it.

The Buick boulder featured a perfect solid flake that I was able to partially hang from as I kicked a few test steps into the slushy snow. I packed it down with my boots and managed to gain solid footing. I clung to the flake and shimmied along, kicking steps as I went with Tad following my lead. After a few intense moments mixed with fear and focus, we made it across. The rest of the climb would simply be a brute force scramble with little technical difficulty. About 30 minutes later, we topped out.

On the peak, we spent a short time trying to locate the summit register without success. The late afternoon rain clouds had suddenly swarmed all around us, and the wind was eerily calm, just as it had been all day. I set up my camera to pan across the jaw-dropping scenery while Tad rested and snacked on a bit of stale beef jerky. A few raindrops began to fall, so we agreed that now would be a good time climb down. I knew from previous experience that a bald, 12,000-foot summit is no place to be during a lightning storm.

It was late in the day, and we knew there was no chance of making it back in time for the baseball game. In fact, we knew we probably wouldn’t make it home until at least 11:00 that night. And we knew that was a very optimistic estimate, because you see, we also knew of the incredibly steep, dangerous, forested bushwhack that we would have to endure to get back to camp.

What we didn’t know was that the most notable part of the adventure was yet to come.

By the time we waited for the storm to pass, the sun was setting low on the horizon and we still had a long way to walk. Nightfall squeezed the last drops of light from the day, and soon we were stumbling along in complete blackness. Navigating the plateau became impossible. Our headlamps could barely pierce the vast darkness that seemed to stretch forever in all directions. We found ourselves stuck on an outcropping of boulders, and we found ourselves left with few options. After some debate, we decided the option that sucked the least would be to hole up here for the night.

We had no tent, no sleeping bags; just the clothes on our backs. I removed my boots, slid my feet and legs into my backpack, and used one of the boots as a pillow. Lying on the cold stone, I could see the lights of Billings in the far distance, and I wished I were there instead of on this rock. I imagined my wife there at home, sick with worry, waiting for me to walk in the door at any moment. I wondered, how long would she wait until she got scared enough to call the authorities? Or worse, file for a divorce? After all, who would blame her? She didn’t need this stress. But what else could I do?

Meanwhile, Tad was sawing logs like a lumberjack. I closed my eyes and slipped into restless slumber.

Now, as an aside, some of you who’ve heard this story before have already insinuated that there may have been some ‘Man-On-Man Spooning’ during the course of this event. Let me be clear: NO SUCH ACTION EVER OCCURRED! Weather conditions that night were atypically mild considering our location, so there was no need for Tad or I to unnecessarily risk our manly reputations by engaging in any suspicious “Brokeback Mountain” behavior in order to stay warm. So now that we’ve expelled that rumor once and for all, on with the story, okay?

Actually, there really isn’t much to tell about the rest of our trip. After enduring an impossibly long, mostly sleepless night waiting in hopeful anticipation for the sun, we stirred ourselves at the first gray light of morning and continued the grueling, steep descent down the ridge to our camp uneventfully.

By the time we reached our camp, it was mid morning on Monday, and both of us had been expected to be at work hours before. Tad was afraid he’d lose his job, and I was afraid I’d sacrificed my marriage. We trudged back to the car in silence, physically drained and psychologically burdened by the foreboding doom that we would face upon our return to home and work. Fortunately, we work and live with some very forgiving people, and everything turned out just fine for both of us.

Later that night Tad phoned me at home. He’d been on the internet GPS-ing our route, and he was excited to report our stats. He said we had walked for a total of about 22 hours round trip, with over 12,000 feet of elevation change in approximately 14 miles. “Wow, not bad,” I said dryly. We spent a few minutes debriefing each other on the previous day’s events, exchanged the usual mutual congratulations and “see-ya-laters,” and hung up. I sat in silence for a few moments, my mind too fatigued to process the enormity of our accomplishment.

Now, after hearing a story like that, I suppose you might expect there to be some moral, a relevant philosophical insight, or even an inspirational quote. But honestly, I got nothing.

Except to say, “Hey Tad, feel like hiking some more?”


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