Category Archives: Trip Report

Forget Me Not

Forget-me-not Mountain rises to an elevation of 12,115 feet, making it one of Montana’s ranked twelve-thousand foot peaks.   Pictured in the featured image in the right-center, it appears as a precipitous cliff dropping sharply into the Black Canyon drainage, deeming its alternative designation as “Drop-off Mountain” on some maps appropriate.

I accessed the summit via a permanent snowfield at the upper end of Glacier Lake.  In an exhausting sixteen hour day trip, I was able to capture a series of striking photos from the rugged lake shore, a surly mountain goat, and alpine views of the incredible Black Canyon, making for a truly unforgettable day on Forget-me-not Mountain.

 

Pine Creek Lake

Pine Creek Lake is an alpine jewel nestled in a glacial cirque accessed about fifteen miles south of Livingston, Montana in the Absaroka Mountains .

The moderately difficult hike goes past beautiful Pine Creek Falls at the first mile.  This is far enough for most casual hikers since the trail then steepens to gain over 3,000 feet elevation in the last four miles. Of course, the wildflowers, cascading stream, and open scenery is so amazing, one might just forget about the difficulty of the hike.

The lake is a popular youth-camp destination, but overnighting on a weekday meant we basically had the lake’s one good camp spot and all of the its surrounding beauty to ourselves.  The most obvious photo op is at the outlet falls just below the lake, where I made a few successful compositions at sundown and early the next morning.

Trapper Peak

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin

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Trapper Peak 20130512-084At 10,157 feet elevation, Trapper Peak is the highest point in Montana’s Bitterroot Range. To see it looming from the Highway 93 point-of-interest sign nearly 5,000 feet below inspires a sense of awe to imagine touching the sky from its lofty summit.

I had actually been planning to climb Trapper for a few years, but the usual excuses always got in the way. Maybe you know the ones because you’ve used them yourself: not enough time, not enough money, no one to go with me, etc, etc. I suppose what it comes down to is risk, and how much of it you’re comfortable taking.

Maybe it’s just easier to hide from the fear of taking the risks we know we must in order to achieve what we really want. Sound familiar? If you’re like me, I’ll bet you’ve even made convenient excuses in other parts of your life, like career and relationships. And if you’re like me, maybe sometimes you wish you could get a second chance. It becomes a heavy burden to carry, and at some point it has to be easier to just drop it all and say, “F**k it! I’m going for it!”

That happened to me when I actually saw Trapper Peak in person after a recent trip to Missoula, and it inspired me enough to move it up my priority chain of must-do mountain hikes. I returned to the area last weekend and set off on 1:00 a.m. dawn patrol with my trusty snowshoes and lightweight camera to catch some sweet sunrise photos from the top.

Although Trapper Peak is not considered a technically difficult mountain to climb, the main route does ascend almost 4,000 feet in just four miles – plenty of difficulty for an average peak-bagger like myself on an early season outing. After a set of challenges that included a malfunctioning headlamp, some tricky nighttime route-finding, and a pair of unconditioned first-hike-of-the-year legs, I managed to make it above treeline just in time to catch these views.

About an hour later I found myself standing on the crystal-clear summit enjoying panoramas of snowcapped peaks that seemed to stretch forever in every direction. After spending a mostly uneventful winter in the doldrums making excuses, it was a great way to start off a new season of adventures, and great day to start the rest of my life.

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Home is for The Cat

Snowshoeing to Mystic LakeThe holidays came and went, and I once again found myself donning snowshoes and ringing in the New Year photographing a day of wintry landscapes around Mystic Lake in the Beartooths.  As we hiked along the peaceful, snowy trail, my thoughts drifted to an earlier conversation I had with a friend that week about making New Year’s resolutions.

I have to admit, I’ve never been big on resolutions, mostly because they don’t seem to stick.  Instead, I like to make plans.  Each year around this time, I pull out the maps and the guidebooks, and I start dreaming.  I write down an adventure wish list – places I’d like to go, mountains I’d like to climb, new activities I’d like to try.  Then I pull out the calendar and my bank statements and try my best to reconcile those dreams with reality.  Inevitably, some get tossed out the window; others are set aside for another time.  And somehow, each year I surprise myself at how much I am able to accomplish with seemingly inadequate supplies of time and money.

This year, I have no reason to expect things will be different.  I have no plans of winning the lottery.  I’ll continue to have the same responsibilities of family, work, and keeping fit.  And of course, I’ll have the everlasting dilemma of trying to squeeze in bits of recreation in between.  Sound familiar?

This is where The Plan comes in.  It’s my weapon against those formidable, would-be usurpers of motivation, Not-Enough-Time and Not-Enough-Money.  Without The Plan, I might as well join the legions of American couch potatoes and watch my life from the sidelines, passing by one weekend at a time.  Instead, The Plan gives me goals and a structure to help me manage what time and money I do have so I can participate in my own life.  And throughout the whole process, I almost always end up achieving objectives that might otherwise have been resolutions – like getting fit, getting organized, or learning something new.

By now you might be wondering, “So, what does this lecture have to do with a trip report from Mystic Lake?”

Because this trip started with a plan!  It was an adventure, and it was awesome!  Life is also an adventure, and adventure happens outside.  It’s not in front of the television.  Not on Facebook.  Not on the couch.  I don’t know about you, but there’s usually not much going on at home.  Home is for the cat, and as long as we stay home, we know how the story ends.  But once we venture out the door, our futures become unwritten.

So what’s your plan?  Maybe you’ve always wanted to race in a triathlon.  Or climb a mountain.  Or start a business.  Or take a trip to reconnect with an old friend.  Whatever it is, life is happening right now, right outside your door.  What are you waiting for?

Rearview Mirror – Looking Back at 2012

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the best things in life are never convenient. Take landscape photography, for example. The best photo opportunities always seem to come at the most inconvenient hours of the day – early in the morning when I’d rather be snuggled in a cozy bed, or later in the evening during suppertime. Finding the best shooting locales is a game of chasing the light over mountains and valleys and hauling heavy camera equipment far into the backcountry. It’s strenuous work, sometimes dangerous work, and often full of disappointment.

But every once in awhile, careful planning and early waking coincide with perfect light to create a magical moment that makes cold mornings, bad coffee, and sore muscles worth the effort.

At the start of this year, I made a personal resolution that I would wake up earlier, climb higher, and go farther – in short, to inconvenience myself – more than ever before. If not for the sake of making remarkable photos, then at least for the sake of getting myself out there.  Because the best things in life are never convenient.

Here I present, in order of occurrence, my Top Ten Most Memorable Adventures of 2012.

Mystic Lake in Winter

Frozen Mystic Lake Mystic Lake is a popular summertime destination for many backpackers and dayhikers in the Beartooth Mountains. But donning a pair of snowshoes to see the deepest lake in these mountains completely frozen over makes the three-mile uphill trek a worthwhile destination in winter, too. We rung in the New Year by leaving town before 4 a.m. to arrive in time to see the surrounding snowcapped peaks awash in pink alpenglow, and spent the rest of the morning feeding our curiosities checking out mysterious air bubble formations encased in thick slabs of blue ice.

Winter Camping on Hellroaring Plateau

Hellroaring SunriseHigh in the Beartooth Mountains, far above where trees can grow, sits the Hellroaring Plateau, a landscape of wind-scoured alpine tundra and rock. In winter, it is only accessible on foot or snowmobile via a steep, 8-mile long forest service road that twists along the mountainside to its terminus near the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness boundary at over 10,000 feet elevation. Lacking a snowmobile, I spent most of a day trudging up the road and spent a cold night gazing at stars from my lofty campsite. The next morning brought fierce winds and blowing snow that threatened to freeze uncovered flesh in seconds. But sheltered behind a large rock, I huddled in relative comfort to enjoy a golden sunrise over a purple expanse that justified every reason I might have had for going there in the first place.

Utah Road Trip

Mesa Arch SunriseEvery once in awhile, it’s useful to ask yourself the question, “If I didn’t have any responsibilities today, I would _________.” For me, whatever activity I might choose to fill in the blank, the high deserts of Utah seem like the perfect place to do it. Every few years, I find myself drawn to make the long drive to clear my mind of the routines of day-to-day life and come here to simply play. This year’s travels took me to Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef National Parks, as well as Colorado National Monument. Whether it’s mountain biking on slickrock, exploring slot canyons on foot, or just sitting on a ledge letting thoughts drift across distant horizons, there’s something about this wide-open landscape of juniper, rock, and sky that gives me clarity, and reminds me of my place in the universe.

Big Horn Canyon

Big Horn Canyon Alpenglow

There’s a parable of a man who, despite his wealth, wasn’t satisfied and sold everything he owned and wandered the world to find diamonds. Penniless and hopeless, he took his own life. The new owner of his land ventured out into his back yard and found lying next to an old fencepost a cache of diamonds and every gemstone you can imagine. It’s so tempting to dream of something better in far-off places and overlook the gems close to home.

This year, I discovered a gem in my yard known as Big Horn Canyon National Recreation Area. Over the course of several trips, I encountered rattlesnakes, nearly got swooped by a golden eagle, saw an incredible meteorite blazing through the daytime sky, and was repeatedly enticed by changing scenery around every corner. The expansive canyon views, abundant wildlife, rich cultural history, predictable weather, and endless recreational opportunities will keep me coming back for more of these unforgettable memories for years to come.

Terry Badlands

Sunburst RockA couple of years ago, I came across a tourist brochure in the local outdoor shop touting the rugged beauty of eastern Montana’s Terry Badlands. So one weekend last May, I thought, “Why not?”

When I first arrived, it seemed like the three-hour car ride might have been a total waste of time. By all appearances, there is nothing out there but ugly hills and dry sage brush. But appearances can be deceiving. When the sun began to sink low on the horizon, that’s when the magic began. As my eyes watched the drab brown landscape morph to shades of magenta and purple, my ears were filled with eerie coyote calls echoing across the prairie. After sundown, I was caught off-guard by ghostly green curtains of the aurora borealis shimmering across the black sky. Nighttime is when this place comes alive, and I can remember few trips when I have felt more alive myself.

Climbing Middle Sister

South Sister Sunrise

In June we took a family trip to Bend, Oregon to attend a wedding. On previous occasions, my visits there had been mostly consumed by family activities. But holding true to my 2012 resolution, I decided to take advantage of some of Bend’s expansive outdoor rec opportunities by spending a night in the Three Sisters Wilderness and climbing a volcano.

After camping on the snow and enjoying some of the clearest views of the Milky Way Galaxy I’ve ever seen, I started up Middle Sister before dawn and paused partway to observe a breath-taking purple and orange sunrise over South Sister and Broken Top. I finished the rest of my solo climb and descent without incident, but managed to get myself lost on the hike back to the car. After wandering alongside a stream for most of the day, I finally found my way and returned back to town completely exhausted, but richer for the experience.

Bowback and Elk Mountain Double Summit

Bowback MountainWith the lowest snowfall in the Rockies in recent memorable past, some of the high peaks of the Beartooths became accessible several weeks sooner than usual. So, I teamed up with my adventure buddy, Super Tad for a one-day epic that took us over two little-known 12,000-foot peaks in the West Fork named Bowback and Elk Mountains. On this trip we encountered moose, porcupine, raging streams, remote lakes, and alpine vistas. By day’s end we had covered almost twenty miles and over 8,000 feet of elevation change. A lifetime of memories paid for by a week’s worth of sore knees. I’d call it a fair exchange.

Upper Aero Lakes Basecamping

Upper Aero LakeFor four nights in July, I shared a tent with my brother in the heart of the Beartooths at Upper Aero Lake. We spent our mornings knocking off peaks and our afternoons bailing rainwater out of our leaky tent. At least the rain kept the mosquitoes down, and aside from a pair of bighorn sheep, we encountered no other souls the entire time. In between rain showers, the sun would peek out long enough for us to cook meals and snap photos around our makeshift outpost. We sang together, we laughed, and we fought as brothers will. After four too-short days, it took awhile to assimilate back into society. After four too-short days, the memories changed our lives forever.

Hiking in the Crazy Mountains

Boulder CanyonHaving spent a fair chunk of my summer weekends exploring the Beartooths, by August it was once again time to broaden my horizons and seek out some different hiking locales. This time my wanderlust took me into the Crazy Mountains, an island range that juts out of the plains north of Big Timber, Montana. On this day I was in no hurry to rush off to a distant peak, so it was a treat to take an easy stroll several miles along Boulder Creek just for the sake of it. I would return with a friend a few weeks later to climb to the highest summit, Crazy Peak, but dangerously loose rock made it seem less like climbing and more like dumpster diving. We turned back and vowed to return in the Spring when packed snow might pave our ascent. So it seems there’s at least one dream leftover for 2013.

Glacier Lake and Spirit Mountain

Glacier LakeThe trek around the shores of Glacier Lake to the summit of Spirit Mountain would be my last big adventure of 2012, and possibly the most strenuous. The cumulative fatigue from a long season of adventuring had already taken its toll, and I could certainly feel it in my legs and lungs as I plodded up the rocky slopes. Ordinarily this wouldn’t have been too difficult a hike, but I found myself stopping several times to take a breather. I vowed to finish the job that day and forced myself to push through the pain, because let’s face it, the best things in life are never convenient.

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Here’s wishing you the very best of your own adventures in 2013! –Jeff