The Bridger Range Traverse
Trekkers:Carol(Ripley)Sisk, Gary Hehn
Transportation provided by:Roy Tunby
“I” is – gary hehn
Misery (and Joy) Love Company
I’d been thinking about this trek for some time, a number of years, a full traverse of the Bridger Range. I invited four friends that had previously expressed an interest in this sort of thing. Three of the invitees had conflicting commitments. Carol took the bait, that is, got lured into something with some degree of uncertainty. Most of the uncertainty had to do with the northern half of the range, most of which has no established trail following the ridge. And, I suspect the area receives relatively little travel from bipeds except, I suppose, possibly during hunting season.
Carol wondered if I might be interested in considering something other than the Bridger Traverse. My response had to be no, the Bridger Traverse is what I have been contemplating for so long and if I’m going to be sure to do it I feel I’d better do it soon. To that she replied, “Ok. So I am reassured you are retaining at least some of your old crazy traits.” 🙂
Our basic plan was quite simple really: Carry food and gear for four days travel, traverse the full Bridger Range by foot, use the ridge and my “Gallatin National Forest – Bozeman Range District” 1971 edition map as our guides. Start by ascending Blacktail Mountain, follow the ridge to the “M”. I did feel that we needed to find an entry point where National Forest Land intersected a road so as not to rile up the rile-able locals.
Water Is Sacred
One major logistical challenge we faced had to do with water. The ridge is dry, once the snow has melted there are no water sources available without having to drop far down off the ridge. In advance of our trek I spent a couple days caching three gallons of water at each of three locations along the ridge, on the ridge above Bridger Bowl, at the top of Flathead Pass, and on the ridge above Fairy Lake. It seemed these locations happened to be good positions for breaking the trip up into a four day excursion.
Day1 – 13Aug2019 – Dehydration
Roy graciously provided early morning transportation for us to our starting point off the Rocky Mountain Rd north of the Morgan Cemetery. I had talked Carol out of taking a third one liter container for water so, we both drank a liter of water before getting started. We took a parting picture, negotiated a barbed wire fence, said our good byes to Roy, he wished us luck. With that we were off, working our way up through sage brush, watching out for rattle snakes as we went.
We had a three thousand foot climb ahead of us to get to the summit of Blacktail Mountain. We followed the steep ridge that runs between Little Rocky Canyon and Rocky Canyon. Then, there was a wonderful big meadow along the traverse following the ridge to Zade Mountain. Beyond Zade Mtn we continued along the ridge for about two miles. The going was a mixed bag, at times pleasant, other times having to zigzag our way back and forth from one side of the ridge to the other trying to find the way around and through rock out crops positioned on the ridge. The slopes on each side were steep and the side hilling was often tedious.
The day was getting long, we were getting tired, and we were getting dry. We were running out of water and still had to get to Flathead Pass and our first water cache. I wouldn’t say that our dehydration was severe, but we were beginning to fixate on getting to that water. Finally, we got to a position on the ridge where I felt we could drop off to the east and head down towards Flathead Pass, according to what I had observed while I was securing the water cache three days prior. We worked our way down about fifteen hundred feet to the pass, retrieved our water and immediately drank a liter each, found a bivy site, had dinner, hung the food bags, and called it a day. We were worked, but now content.
Day2 – Desperation
This was a tough day for us. We could see looking across Flathead Pass the previous day that the ridge beyond became rather convoluted with an arm reaching across the head of Mill Creek Canyon. Because of the unknown nature of it we felt that our best bet was to climb to the main ridge, drop down into Mill Creek Canyon, gain the opposite ridge and follow that. This was an unknown as well, but from what we could see it looked like a go. After a quick breakfast we were back at it making our way up to the ridge on the south side of Flathead Pass. This was about a sixteen hundred foot climb and we stayed near groups of trees mostly for the shade from the morning sun.
Soon after climbing to the main ridge the going became a challenge. It was hard to see the route ahead as the ridge ran straight and we were in trees. There were rock outcrops on and down the sides of the ridge. We could pick out a red streak that seemed to mark a possible descent route. Once we got to “a” red streak we began descending. After dropping a ways we got “cliffed out.” I took off my pack and scouted around a bit. The slope was loose rock and steep with edges to open space below, we had to back track. I spotted a slope with a prominent tower like feature back from where we had come that looked encouraging. I pointed it out to Carol and we headed back up the ridge watching for it. It turned out to be a short fin, I climbed it to get a better view of the slope, and from there I could see that it ran all the way to the canyon bottom.
Cell service was good when we were close to the ridge so, in the mean time, Carol had called her husband to report to him our day two “lack of progress” so far. His response was something like, “Oh” with a pause and then, “It isn’t a walk in the park.” He was right, this was no walk in the park, and now we were about to potentially get in deeper by dropping down off the ridge into the Mill Creek drainage.
By this time it was probably close to mid-afternoon and it was becoming clear that we weren’t going to make it to our water cache above Fairy Lake. Running out of water here would have ended our adventure with a forced march out. We joked that we would have to have Roy pick us up two miles down the road from where he dropped us off! We thought we could hear the sound of running water from down in the canyon.
We started working our way down the slope to the canyon bottom. I had introduced the term “vegetable belay,” meaning using plants (e.g. branches, roots, brush, grass, etc) as holds, to Carol the day before and it became the word of the day, that and desperation. We planned our next moves dependent on the “vegetable belays” available. It was steep, loose, tedious work so, we moved methodically and carefully down. And yes, that was water we were hearing. Good thing as we were running low and nowhere near our next water cache! A forced march out would have been unpleasant at the least.
Our day was pretty much used up and we had only gone about two miles as the crow flies. By the time we refilled our water supply, fortunately found a great bivy site, prepared dinner, and hung our food supply it was getting dark.
Day3 – Renewed Hope
Both of us commented on having taken a while to get to sleep the night before despite being worn out. Our minds were full of “what-ifs.” None the less, a brand new day. A day to see what the next ridge top had in store and if it really did make a clean connection to that arm stretching across from the main ridge about a thousand feet above us. After breakfast and breaking camp we headed up towards the top of the west ridge of Mill Creek Canyon. Again, there were steep slopes encountered, but the footing for the most part was good and once we got to the ridge we followed it through a pleasant green mix of grasses and trees. And, sure enough, the ridge led us up over the arm extending from the main Bridger Ridge and down into the North Cottonwood Creek drainage. What a huge relief this was, things were looking up, hope was renewed! Maybe we were going to pull this thing off after all. We needed to make up for yesterday in the next two days.
We stopped to take a break and take in the view that revealed a trail winding up the far side across the drainage, and then we spotted the first person we encountered since we started. It was a bow hunter with practice arrows. We had a nice visit, he was impressed when we told him how we got to where we were, and he gave us some advice on how to work our way down into the drainage from this position, that alone probably saved us a good hour.
There was a crude trail that lead us straight down into the drainage and water in the creek. We retrieved water from the creek and continued watching for the trail we could see from above as our current objective. It wasn’t long before we found the trail and ran across a lady that Carol knew at the same time. We chatted a bit and then continued on, what a luxury it seemed to have a trail! We covered a lot of ground and climbed about thirteen hundred feet getting to our next water cache located above and over the ridge from Fairy Lake. What a far cry from yesterday. Yes, hope was renewed. But, we felt we needed to get as far as Ross Pass to be in a good position to finish our trek on schedule. We took a short break retrieving our water and then hoofed it for Ross Pass.
It wasn’t long before the trail we were following joined with the Bridger Ridge Trail. This is the trail that is followed for the Ed Anacker Bridger Ridge Run (EABRR) that has been considered one of the toughest trail runs in the country. Side note1: Ed Anacker was the one who introduced me and his son Eric, that I still consider one of my best friends, to mountaineering. Eric was one of the friends that I invited on this trek. Side note2: Carol has run the EABRR twice and was the first female to finish both times, bettering her first time by an hour the second time.
We made it to Ross Pass before dark, found a camp at the pass, prepared our freeze dried dinners, hung the food bag, and crashed.
Day4 – Redemption
The trail the next morning started by leading us across the large gentle meadow that is Ross Pass and a split, left/east branch to Bridger Ridge Trail, right to Bridger Foothills Trail. We go left towards the steep one thousand foot climb up to the ridge. Once we were on the ridge we were able to make good progress. There was a good bit of exposure at times and that demanded keeping close attention to the trail.
By the time we got to the area of the ridge above Bridger Bowl dark clouds were forming to the west and south. We knew we were in a race with storms brewing. We quickly retrieved our water, pounded down food and a liter of salt tablet treated water each, filled our water bottles, and left one gallon of water labeled as a donation to the EABRR that was going to take place the next day. Our objective was to get over Baldy Mountain and down the ridge into the trees before a storm broke loose. But, we still had a ways to go and the weather was building quickly.
We ground our way up Saddle Peak and started down what looked like the trail, a well worn path. Just then two fellows, and two dogs emerged. One of the fellows who seemed quite familiar with the area said that our trail branched out just back from where we came. We ended up not finding the branch, climbing back up, and realizing the ridge trail lead right off the summit, it was very faint but became obvious just a short distance down.
We really were in a race now, the clouds were looking ominous. We had both determined that we were prepared to spend another night out if necessary. We scouted ahead to see where we could find shelter off the ridge to sit out a storm; much of the time these storms burst at the seams, blow off their steam, and are done. We did drop a short distance off the ridge at one point when it looked like “things” were about to happen. We waited and watched. Nothing seemed to change for some time so we decided, let’s just run for it and drop off the ridge when forced to.
We stepped up our pace and made it to Baldy Mountain in what seemed like the nick of time! We took pictures and hurried to get down the ridge as far as possible before the sky broke loose, there was darkness and thunder and lightening to the south and east beyond the Bridgers. Soon after making it to trees the sky ripped loose surrounding us with rain and clouds and wind. There was a barrage of thunder and lightening mostly at a distance to the south and east. We continued down after Carol made a quick call to her husband saying that we were down off Baldy Mountain and the high ridge. My gosh, barring still the threat of a lightening strike, a twisted ankle, and countless other potential mishaps we had made it! There were still about two miles of about as steep and crappy a trail one can imagine then, about two more miles of beautiful trail to go before the “M” parking lot.
I called Roy, my other best friend from before we were even in school, to see if he could pick us up and again he was there for us. When we made it to the parking lot we stepped across the finish line for the EABRR to be held the next day, met Roy, took a picture, called my wife, headed for the Hauf. Thank you to Roy for transport. Thank you to the Bridgers for being there and for being the view from our picture window as I was growing up. Thank you to Carol, I couldn’t have had a better companion for this experience. What a joy!
This from Carol after reading the above report
Such a wonderful fairy tale you have written…..basic lessons about life’s difficulties and how adversity can be overcome by perseverance………hey wait a minute! This isn’t a fairytale – it’s the real life story of Gary and Carol’s Epic Adventure! One that will live on in my memories as one of the best I’ve had and ever hope to have!