miles, mountains, bears, and tears through the Winds and Thorofare

Whew. What a walk!

My route through the Winds and off-CDT expedition through the Thorofare to Rimrock Ranch took me about 11 days, and they were some of the most intense hiking days of my life. Ha, I feel like I’ve said that multiple times on this journey: the San Juans, the ridiculous ridge walks north of Breck, and now these two mountain ranges.

They’re very different, the Winds and the Absarokas. The Winds are super granitic, and you often find yourself staring up at huge hunks of rock and spires and towers and alpine lakes so blue. There are a decent amount of backpackers up there, too. I didn’t see any NOLS crews, but plenty of people were out there for a few days near Cirque of the Towers and Gannett Peak (highest peak in WY). The lakes and streams were full of trout. The flies and mosquitos got close to unbearable around dinner time, but I didn’t care I was so tired.

In order to keep to my schedule, I was pushing a 28 mile per day average through the Winds. It was tough, especially considering I was taking two very steep alternates through Cirque of the Towers and one over Knapsack Col. I highly recommend walking them if you find yourself in the Winds — they were breathtaking (both by their physical demands and their beauty).

Through the Winds, I was pretty much on my own, but sort of bounced around with Handstand in the beginning and Shortcut throughout. I camped alone every night. I was pretty beat up after doing huge miles through the desert with no rest. My big toe joints were swollen from the heat and miles and maybe from my arthritis (I really do have arthritis it’s weird) and rubbed against the tops of my shoes. I ate ibuprofen twice a day. I had a pretty bad blister on my left toe joint.

None of that stopped me from recognizing this little solo-venture of mine to be one of the most important and unique parts of the trail in the grand scheme of things. More on that later…

I woke up and tried to start walking before 7am everyday, finding it more difficult as each morning passed. I walked with few breaks except to eat or filter water or stare and say “how neat is that” out loud. I cold soaked my Knorr’s rice and ramen mix around 5, stopped to eat around 7, and walked until 9 or so every night. I set up my tarp half of the nights and always had to wrap my head up in my rain jacket with a little deet to prevent getting eaten by mosquitos.

The walking was great. I was never bored with amazing views around each bend. The trail was in good shape.

Getting over Knapsack Col by myself around 7:30pm at the end of a long day was a pretty big moment for me. It’s basically a little notch of a mountain pass and a way for mountaineers to approach Gannett Peak and others in the area. On the east side, my ascent, I had to scramble up an enormous boulder field and around some snow. I was moving slower than 1mph and using my hands to shimmy-shuffle and slide up them big ole rocks. It was a pretty fun challenge, and it wasn’t that sketchy, considering granite is so grippy and solid (unlike the Absaroka breccia…).

Reaching the top and looking west, I raised my eyes toward the lowering sun, framed by massive peaks. Rays of light shined through soft clouds, those clouds which held so much power out here. I felt so small. Yet, I gained a new sense of hope and came closer to understanding, for a moment, what’s drawn me out here and why I find the need to walk this trail. I looked to my left and right, disappointed that Cowboy or RightOn wasn’t there to say “dude, this is amazing” and then crack a joke about how tired and sore we were in the presence of such sublime beauty. I felt my chest tighten up, and I swallowed a knot in my throat. A dry tingling rose up behind my nose and eyes. I began to cry. I started to sob and smile and laugh like a maniac, wiping the snot with my fleece sleeves and turning my face up toward the warm light and exhaling. It was one of those times I couldn’t fathom how sad beauty could be. All I could do was shake my head, chuckle about how I was a sensitive guy, and descend steeply to find a campsite.

I was hit by a heavy storm that night, but my tarp did a great job. I was drier than dehydrated refried beans. I felt a resurgence of strength and energy after Knapsack and spent the next couple days walking around a fire burning near Dubois. Shortcut saw a grizzly bear from a distance near where I was camped one night and saw momma bear and cub prints over my prints the morning after that. What fun.

I picked up a food drop at Brooks Lake Lodge (thanks mum) and kept walking north towards Yellowstone. My plan was to go to Two Ocean Pass and walk into the Thorofare from there, but I made a few changes on the fly. It turns out south buffalo fork heads towards Marston Pass, where I could drop over to south fork Yellowstone River and over Thorofare Mtn. My maps didn’t completely show all of my path, but the way there was pretty simple. Go up a stream and take a left then a right then a left, something like that.

Let me back up a bit. I was leaving the CDT to do a little side trip through this area called the Thorofare (which I say as if everyone knows about it) and to head over to Rimrock Ranch, where I used to work as a wrangler in the summers. I wrote about this a bit earlier in my blog, but Rimrock is sort of a main foundation to my obsession with mountains and getting up in the wilderness. I felt a necessity to go there on this trip.

The Thorofare is a wilderness area southeast of Yellowstone National Park. It is a collection of creeks and tributaries to the Yellowstone River that cut through the rugged and jagged Absaroka mountains. There are huge meadows and vast forests, some completely burnt from the frequent wild fires. It is famous for being the most remote point in the lower 48 states and for its hunting camps for elk and bighorn sheep. It is grizzly bear heaven. I came to learn this the hard way, but it really is huge and lonely and scary. That said, my dad, who worked a hunting camp there once and also took many pack trips there with Rimrock Ranch as a guide/cook/wrangler in his college summers, often described it as the most beautiful place on earth.

I caught a glimpse of that as I came over Marston Pass and stared down at the south fork of the Yellowstone. Above it loomed Younts Peak and Thorofare Mountain, two 12,000′ peaks. I descended into the basin, keeping my eyes out for bears, and filled up my water bottle in the headwaters. Darn good water. I climbed up to a saddle and then up and over Thorofare Mountain. On top, I looked down below, where I would be heading, to find a large grizzly bear running away, stopping to look up at me every few seconds. He ran the direction I needed to descend. I had bear spray and a loud voice when I needed it, so I followed and kept making noise (I yelled out “hey now” “coming down now” “can you take me higher *creede voice*”).

That night I made it down to Thorofare Creek and camped at Woody Creek, the site of a good hunting camp, the one my dad and so many other Rimrock people have worked. There was no one down there. There were more bear turds on the trail than horse turds.

The next day I slept in. My pad popped the night before, and I had to sleep on the cold ground. I just couldn’t get up and moving that morning until 9:30 or so. I went up Pass Creek and got up to a ridge that afternoon. I was trying to see if I could walk Wapiti Ridge all the way back to the ranch, but I couldn’t get around this mammoth of a mountain, Ishawooa Cone.

The Absarokas are full of super loose, rotten volcanic breccia. When you have to scramble up and down steep faces and little cliffy chutes, you risk losing your footing or a rock breaking off and crumbling underneath you. To get around the Cone, I was walking on a ridge with cliff drop offs on both sides of me. I made it to the last dip before the peak, but it cliffed out real bad. I was done with sketchy rock scrambling at that point after a few close calls and slides. I knocked a hole in the bottom of my guitar falling on my butt down a 5 foot drop. Instead of Wapiti Ridge, my original goal, I decided to take a route over Rampart pass and down the Elk Fork, which would spit me out on the highway a few miles west of the ranch.

Coming down off that ridge, I descended into Silvertip Creek. It was around 6 or 7pm. I was tired, not making noise, and coming down some switchbacks. I pulled out my maps to study them for a bit. I heard a few sticks rustle behind me to my left. I thought it was just the wind going through some of the dead trees, but I felt an urge to look behind me. I wasn’t alone. I peered underneath a branch and locked eyes with a grizzly about 15 feet away on the switchback behind me. He was about the size of a black bear, so I figured he was 2 or 3 years old. Still, he was definitely big enough to kill me. He had less color than I would have thought and appeared to be more dark brown to grey to silver on his back. I guess that’s what a Silvertip griz is. Hey I’m going down to Silvertip creek right now, what a coincidence. Anyways, as I freaked out and reached for my bear spray, the bear did a 180 in a split second, gave the weirdest, exhaling, huffing noise, and was gone before I blinked an eye. Wow. My legs were weak for an hour after that. I talked out loud constantly for the rest of that section. That was too close for comfort.

The day after that I went over Rampart Pass, bushwhacked for a frustrating 6 hours over fallen trees (to the point where I was utterly defeated and crying hysterically and shaking trees shouting “where is the trail? Are you a cop? You’re a cop!!” in a Boston accent) and eventually found a trail going down the Elk Fork. I camped a mile from the trailhead and walked into the ranch the morning after that.

Overall, my walk through the Thorofare was ridiculously beautiful, but tiring, frustrating, and terrifying at times. Looking back on it though, it was everything I could’ve wanted and more. The only people I saw back there were two sheep hunters scouting out for the season start on September 1.

Coming to the ranch was so great. My former bosses invited me in and had a place for me to stay, which was so nice of them. I met some of  the guests from that week, met some new people on the staff, and caught up with old friends who were still there.

Zach and his brother were in the area driving to Bozeman, so they came by and yesterday we drove Chief Joseph highway, beartooth highway, and through the park where they dropped me off in West Yellowstone. Today, Mary-Clare and Zoe are joining me to walk through the park! Should be a blast.

In general, I’m still in shock about how epic the last few hundred miles have been. Being alone out there is a different ball game. It’s rewarding in many aspects, but I’ve come to realize that those amazing moments you have on trail are meant to be shared with people. That’s when I’m truly happiest. It’s a lesson I’ll take with me and embrace for the rest of the trail and also throughout my life.

By the way, my phone was dead for much of the Thorofare, so I only got a few pictures from that section.

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cirque of the towers
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handstand taking it in

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heavenly view from knapsack col

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Moose on the green river
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Back to cows
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Brooks lake lodge

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Absaroka morning
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South fork of the Yellowstone River
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Younts peak, where the Yellowstone begins
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Trying to get over Ishawooa Cone
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Looking down at Silvertip creek
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Zachy here!
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