|| Background ||
In late May of this year, I injured myself in a ski accident in the North Cascades. Fortunately, I suffered relatively minor injuries:
- Fracture to tibial spine
- Bone edema
I headed back to Miami, FL, where my family resides, and spent the months of June and July sitting at home, watching my friends adventure into the mountains. I won’t lie…it was one of the hardest two months mentally for me in a long time. I felt envy, I felt like I was BEHIND…simply put, I had FOMO.
I poured every ounce of my energy into my physical therapy, biking nearly 2-3 hours a day on a stationary bike a family friend lent us during her time out of the state. I went to physical therapy every other day and stuck to my home routine religiously.
I had hopes of joining my friend Kyle McCrohan and his friend Logan Heine on their roadtrip across Montana and Wyoming in early August. Their plans were to scout a route they had been creating in the Beartooth range of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in southern Montana. I’d never been to the area, but the pictures BLEW ME AWAY! Endless alpine lakes, wildflowers as far as the eye could see. Now THAT is motivation for an injured adventurer!
By mid-July I got the clearance I needed from my doctor: no structural damage to my knee…”it’s game-time” he told me. When you put it like that I will run with it!
I flew back out to Seattle the last week of July and did a warm-up climb of Sloan Peak and the Easton Route on Mt. Baker to test out my knee. All good! My fitness definitely slipped a bit, but I could still crank out the vertical gain and mileage needed to keep up with Kyle and Logan on their roadtrip.
|| Route Overview ||
*Preface: I want to clarify that I did NOT come up with this route. This is ENTIRELY Logan and Kyle’s creation. Logan recently moved to Bozeman, MT and spent weeks beforehand hiking through the area, scouting out the terrain; Kyle poured over satellite imagery in Caltopo for hours, investigating what he could from Washington. I was along for the ride, and I am pleased to say I have NO qualms about it, probably for the first time in my life. I have purposely not provided very detailed route notes, as this is not my route. If you are interested in any beta, feel free to reach out.
Logan’s route was designed to traverse across the Beartooth Plateau, with the termini being the Beartooth Highway to the west and the Lady of the Lake trailhead to the east. We chose to start the route from the Beartooth Highway for a few reasons:
- The weather window was fairly normal and did not force us to start in lower, more protected terrain.
- The western edge of the route starts in the alpine tundra of the plateau, right off of the highpoint of the Beartooth Highway at nearly 10,500 feet. The eastern end of the route is below treeline at the Lady of the Lake trailhead at 8,800 feet.
Logan and Kyle designed the route to traverse the plateau from alpine lake to alpine lake, across hummocky and undulating terrain, remaining as close to the “crest” of the plateau as possible. We agreed to try and add in a summit of Castle Mountain from the south, climbing from Flat Rock Lake, as a peakbag of a Montana 12er. To finish the route, we could either exit via the Aero Lakes drainage or the Sky Top Creek drainage; either one would dump us back at the Lady of the Lake trailhead.
We gave ourselves 3 days for the route, which Logan and Kyle had measured at approximately 40 miles. The route was nearly entirely off-trail, with the exception of the final few miles from Lady of the Lake to the car. This meant we would be scrambling across boulders, traversing snowfields, and route-finding through alpine lake basins and hummocks. Overall, we were excited.
|| Trip Report ||
Day 1: Beartooth Highway to Flat Rock Lakes (13 miles, 3,000′ elevation gain)
We camped out at the Lady of the Lake trailhead the night before, in the back of our cars. We woke up before sunrise and began the drive from Cooke City to the Beartooth Highway, around 45 minutes in the morning before summer traffic of motorcyclists and RVers would clog the roads.
Logan parked his car at a pull-off just below Beartooth Pass and we were off! Within 20 minutes of hiking we were on top of the plateau, with expansive views in all directions. The “bang for your buck” on this route was already incredible…no 5,000′ climb just to get above treeline?!?!? Sign me up!
We took our sweet time meandering across the low tundra of the plateau, gazing at peaks to the north and lakes to the south. Logan scrambled up on top of a rock and we ate lunch under the high sun, nibbling on tortillas, peanut butter, and other munchies.
Our aim for the day was to get as close to Castle Mountain as possible, preferably near Flat Rock Lakes, so that we could attempt a summit the next morning. Castle Mountain is one of the “Montana 12ers” or 12,000′ peak in the region. From the southeast it is an easy Class 2 walkup, with a small snow ramp leading to a huge boulder field beneath the chossy summit plateau, a typical Rocky Mountain experience. The Beartooth area of Montana is notorious for fickel, afternoon thunderstorms, as is most of the Mountain West, and we wanted to camp close enough so that we could be down and off the summit before any poor weather might roll in.
We continued to traverse across the plateau until we neared Sky Pilot Mountain, before which we dropped lower down towards Jasper Lake to begin crossing alpine lake basins. We hopped from outlet to inlet, traversing around lake shores and endless boulders as we made our way across the plateau. Snow persisted in many short sections but nowhere that was difficult to manage. We had brought microspikes but did not use them initially, as the afternoon snow was mushy like potatoes and the traction would not do any good.
Flat Rock Lake was disappointing for it namesake…NO FLAT ROCKS?!?!? We laughed at the naming of many of the lakes and streams, which we found to be dull and in need of some improvement. Names like Mirror Lake, Flat Rock Lake seemed too easy and simple to us…shouldn’t they be more inspiring for such an amazing region?!
We found a grassy bench above Flat Rock Lake for our camp and began to pitch our tents. I soon realized that the one-person tarp shelter I had brought was missing its inner bug net, a result of a previous trip where I did not need and it and removed it from its dry bag. Well, at least I had my mosquito head net to sleep with! In all reality, though, the bugs were minimal, especially with the wind at night that drove them away. At first I feared the worst, a swarm of bugs waking me up in the middle of the night; in reality, though, that never was the case.
Afternoon showers came in and out as sunset neared, but nothing too serious. We lounged near our tents, eating dinner and taking in the expanse.
Day 2: Summit of Castle Mountain + Flat Rock Lakes to Fossil Lake (13 miles, 4,000′ gain)
We woke at sunrise and filled our packs with some food, puffies, first aid supplies, and headed up towards Castle Mountain for a morning ascent. We climbed up the outlet of Flat Rock Lakes towards Varve Lake, where we gained a snow field just below Castle Mountain. The sun lit up the valley beneath us as we scrambled, hopped, and maneuvered our way through piles of rocks and boulders. We strapped on our microspikes for the snow climb, as the early morning snow was firm and crusty. Ice axes weren’t needed, as the slope wasn’t too steep, and we made quick time up to the chossy summit plateau of Castle Mountain. On top, we overlooked the northern Beartooths, rugged and stark against the backdrop of the southern Beartooth Plateau, which was a flat, hummocky collection of alpine lakes.
We descended back down the same way to our camp near Flat Rock Lake, nibbled on some snacks, and headed out for the day, as we continued our traverse across the Beartooth Plateau. From lake to lake terrain was similar to the previous day: follow the lakeshore, dodging large boulders and snow fields, climb up a small pass to the next lake, rinse and repeat. The micro terrain of the region made navigation tricky; our line of sight was limited to the alpine lake basin we were currently in, and there were DOZENS of them, all appearing the same to the eye. The terrain was not fast to move across; for most of the trip we averaged around 1.5 mph of overall moving speed.
By the mid-afternoon we were nearing Fossil Lake, the largest of the alpine lakes we had encountered yet. We picked an elevated bench a few hundred feet above the lakeshore for our camp, which gave us an impressive view over the lake and its surrounding basin. We were excited for the sunset and sunrise…
Day 3: Fossil Lake to Lady of the Lake Trailhead via Aero Lakes drainage (15 miles, 2,500′ gain)
Well…we were treated to quite the sunrise, as well as quite a peculiar night. We were harassed by goat in the middle of the night, who found our urine to be a delicious midnight snack. They gnarled at the grass near our camp where we had peed for HOURS until Kyle and Logan scared them away and they finally let us return to sleep. Initially, I laid in my tent, half-conscious of what was going on around me. I am normally a pretty heavy sleeper, so it took Kyle and Logan yelling at the goat to fully wake me up, at which point I realized the absurdity of what was going on.
The sunrise made up for the lack of sleep though. Kyle and I raced out to a prominent rock overlooking Fossil Lake and grabbed our cameras for the photography show. The morning glow was unbelievable. I snapped shots left and right, adjusting my aperture and shutter slightly from picture to picture until I got the exposures that I wanted.
After a morning coffee and granola, we packed up and prepared to head out for the day. We intended to head up to the Sky Top Lakes basin area beneath Granite Peak, where we would explore around a bit before descending back to the Lady of the Lake drainage towards the trailhead where we had parked our car. For a brief mile or so we had trail along the lakeshore of Fossil Lake! We quickly left the trail again and headed up the drainage towards Sky Top Lakes, where we found a beautiful rock for a lunch break and stare at Granite Peak, Montana’s tallest peak. Looking at it from the lesser climbed south side, we could easily see its rugged features and loose rock…something to come back to and climb!
The clouds began to roll in above us as we were finishing up our lunch break, a sign for us to begin heading down and out of the mountains. We chose to descend via the Aero Lakes drainage, though the descent down Sky Top Creek would have yielded the same end result. There was a faint trail on the shore of Aero Lakes, from hikers and climbers of Granite Peak, but certainly not a maintained trail. We crossed paths with two climbers of Granite who were on their way up to the mountain. It was going to be a stormy night for them!
As we traversed around the lakeshore of Aero Lakes we were SWARMED by HUNDREDS of gnats; at first we thought they were mosquitoes, but they weren’t biting!?!? We didn’t spare a second to actually investigate what they were, as the air was thick with them, but later on we found them dead on our pants and were able to see that they weren’t sucking our blood. GOOD!
Rain began off and on as we continued down the Aero Lakes drainage, but we never got anything more than some wind and few raindrops. Once we reached the outlet of the lower Aero Lake we picked up a better trail, which switched back and forth down towards Star Creek. We CRUISED through the final miles on trail…no boulders to cross!?!? It felt a bit foreign but we welcomed it after two days of boulder hopping. It was nice to feel the soft dirt under our feet.
Back at the car we looked back at where we had come from. With storm clouds above, we were happy to be out of the mountains but already missed our aesthetic line across the Beartooth Plateau. SO MANY LAKES! It was certainly an exploration of an amazing region, one where there are barely any trails and few people. For three days we had nearly every inch of terrain to ourselves, only coming across around 8 hikers in a few different spots. Wilderness…
|| Gear Notes ||
- We all brought some form of traction: Kyle and I brought microspikes, Logan brought strap-on crampons. For early August there was not much snow, and we only used them once, but having them in the back pocket was good peace of mind. By late morning the snow was already a slush pile where spikes did not benefit us at all, but in the early morning they were handy on our summit of Castle Mountain.
- We opted not to bring ice axes, as none of the slopes we traversed were steep enough to warrant them, in our opinion. None of the snow slopes exceeded 30 degrees, and few, if any, had any hazards below other than a lake where we might get wet and soaked.
- I opted to bring a single person tarp shelter, the outer rain fly of my Sierra Designs High Route FL1 tent (w/out the tent inner). It is a trekking-pole dependent shelter which requires stakes to set up. I forgot to bring the inner bug net that I bought from Sea to Summit, but in reality I didn’t really need it. Yes, bugs did get inside my tarp at times, but once I got inside and zipped it up, they flocked to the top of the tent and mostly stayed there. One-by-one I managed to kill off some mosquitoes, but in reality I did not experience any lack of sleep or considerable annoyance from the bugs. That said, if I was to do it over again I would opt to bring some form of a bug bivy or inner tent bug net, just for the peace of mind.
- I brought an air pad, a NeoAir X-Therm mattress, that I have been using for over 3 year now. At night I noticed that my pad was deflating slightly over the course of a few hours, not noticeable enough that it was a significant leak that I could hear but one where I would wake up in the middle of the night and feel the ground beneath me. After investigation I found that it was the valve that was leaking…GREAT?!?!? Each night we were able to find a grassy spot to sleep, but earlier in the season if there was more significant snow coverage it would have been an issue if were camping on snow. The lesson: for long and/or committing trips, bring a foam pad.
- I brought Aquatabs for water purification but being 100% honest we only used them once near Lady of the Lake at the end of our trip. The water sources were so pure and remote high in the alpine lake basins that we could see their headwaters, and we did not see any animals or their poop to make us fear contamination of the water sources high up on the plateau. Of course, drinking unpurified water is a risk that you may or not be comfortable with, so your choices may be different than ours.
- All in all, my base weight (with a 2.5 lb camera set up) was around 14 pounds. I try to follow a philosophy of light enough: i.e. “light enough” to carry a heavy ass camera, “light enough” to enjoy my air pad, “light enough” that I can manage the weight I choose to bring. While I certainly could have shaved off some ounces by bringing an alcohol stove versus a Pocket Rocket, or cut some of the food, it was comfortable enough.
- I brought a 20 degree sleeping bag, a Sierra Designs Cloud 20, that I was out on assignment to gear test. While the nights never got below freezing, in the Beartooth there is always the possibility of a REALLY cold night. Just a few weeks earlier Logan had been out on a trip where the overnight temperatures dropped into the 20s in mid-July. If I was to do it over again, I probably would have brought my 35 degree bag and used an emergency blanket if it got really cold.
|| Food Notes ||
- I opted to bring cold breakfast of granola with protein powder as “milk” and I found it DELICIOUS and super easy in the mornings. Over the years I have changed from a hot breakfast of oatmeal to a cold breakfast of a bar or granola as my preference, as I like to be quick and easy getting up and out of camp in the morning.
- I provisioned around 2800 calories per day and it was nearly perfect for the level of exertion we had planned for the trip. Each day was around 13-15 miles, with 3-4k vert per day, which for me is a “moderate” backpacking trip. I never felt overly hungry and at the end had a couple of bars left in the tank. The one thing I left out: candy/chocolate for after dinner but oh well, not a huge deal.
- I brought hot dinners of Knorr’s Rice Sides with some extra freeze-dried vegetables I had purchased at Grocery Outlet. To my dismay, the Rice Sides did not fully hydrate in the impatient 5 minutes I gave them in the freezer-grade Ziploc bags I had re-packaged them in. That’s my fault though…if I had let them sit for longer they would have been fine. I would have preferred a more “instant” dinner like potatoes, which is normally a staple of mine, as I am normally very impatient at dinner time and don’t like to wait very long. Oh, and I forgot to put in freeze-dried refried beans…next time.
|| Final Thoughts ||
The Beartooth Plateau BLEW ME AWAY and I need to go back. The “bang for your buck” is incredible for this area; just 20 minutes from the highway and you’re already in the alpine!?! Amazing. The off-trail travel is rugged but manageable and the peakbagging possibilities are endless, with dozens of 11,000′ and 12,000′ peaks along the way.