in early August
! But we were camping at 10,000 feet, so I guess that's to be expected.
Luckily, as usual, we only had to wait for the sun to rise before the temperature shot drastically up to a more comfortable level in the 60s. Breakfast consisted of cornmeal pancakes made by Chef Eric which, when combined with a significant amount of raw brown sugar, quell the desire of the most wicked sweettooth. I worked the frybake and I'm none too humble to call myself a budding master at the art of Corncake Flippery. Yes, that's a real word. Probably.
There "ain't no rest for the wicked" as Cage the Elephant among others once exclaimed, and the day presented itself with another very long hike. During the first two miles, we climbed about 1,000 feet over a very consistent incline. This brought us to a picturesque saddle where we got a great view of the tallest peak in the Southern Absarokas: Younts Peak. We also found ourselves next to a small, clear lake. It struck me as pretty amazing that such a lake could exist at 11,000 feet with no obvious feeder creek. In any case, it just looked really nice as it sat serenely at the foot of countless peaks.
We proceeded through the saddle onto a trail that sent us due south towards Marston Pass. The view was astonishing. Snowpacks dotted the multitude of mountains in our view as spots dot a leopard. We had a view of 10-15 miles to the south and east. At one point, we identified a very thin, light-brown line dancing around a mountain. After a quick map check, we determined that the thin line we were seeing was our trail! It was pretty awesome to see a trail we'd eventually be walking on, especially with a 1,000 foot dip in between, from only about a mile away. About a 1/2 mile from Marston pass, the trail crossed a snowpack, which meant that we got to walk on snow! In August! I thought that was pretty nifty.
Descending upon Marston Pass was quite fantastic. It was a very flat valley about a 1/4 mile wide in between two mountain ridges. At one end of the pass, a mountain rose with almost perpendicular edges, forming a 90 degree angle and a perfect peak at the top. On the other, the flat valley extended for miles, with various peaks and snowpacks spotting the otherwise green landscape.
We descended 900 feet over the next 3 miles, hiking down switchbacks and across the trail we'd seen earlier in the day. The terrain continued to gloat contemptuously of its own beauty, giving us views of sharp rocky declines below our feet, lush green grass, and jagged peaks formed by a landscape artist of great talent in an eon past. Our decline stopped momentarily in a large valley after a 6 mile hike. We hoped to camp in this general area and had the joy of encountering a couple on horseback who, with their 2 puppies, were enjoying a weekend in the clear wilderness air.
Everyone had hoped to find a suitable campsite and kitchen in this spot, especially after the exertion of the last 2 days. However, after an hour and another 2 miles of walking, scouring the landscape for something far enough away from water and the trail, we came up emptyhanded. So, in the searing heat of the day, we put our packs back on and continued to our backup X, about 2 miles away. By this point, I was very tired and a slight dose of "hangry" found its way through my veins; it was time to take a chill pill. But the show must go on. My thoughts drifted to dinner, as they tended to do when a bright spot needed to be found quickly in the middle of a long day. Large bites of Mac and Cheese drifted through my mind's eye with reckless abandon. I look back with a hearty cackle at just how many moments on the trip I spent pondering food. I suppose that happens when you're hungry and good food is only a hike away.
About halfway to our X, I suddenly heard Nan do a bear call ("Hey Bear!") a good bit louder than usual. After 2 or 3 more my growing curiosity of her increased volume was cured as she said "There...There...THERE'S A BEAR!" Sure enough, a Black Bear was standing about 100 feet away. And this Black Bear just so happened to be a Momma Black Bear. Her little brown cub was up in a tree, and she stood frozen, staring coldly at us as her little cub shimmied its way down (which, incidentally, was ridiculously cute, despite Momma's impending pose). Everyone had their bear spray drawn just in case, but she made no advance toward us. Since we were on switchbacks and the path would quickly bring us close to the bear, we waited for about 15 minutes, hoping the bear would go away. But just as we started walking again, we found Momma and Cub right on the trail. When they saw us, they darted up into the forest above. We slowly walked by their previous position and continued to our 2nd X. That, on Day 17, was the first wildlife outside of the occasional deer that I had seen. Pretty cool!
Another mile of walking brought us to a spot that we believed to be our X. By this point, everyone was tired, hungry, and ready to stop and relax after a 3rd consecutive 8 hour hiking day. This actually caused us, for the first and only time on the trip, to miss our X. Though we didn't know until we took our packs off and scouted camp/kitchen, we were actually about 1/4 mile east of where we were supposed to be. The instructors understood our mishap (they were letting us find the X without help) and simply said that it couldn't happen again lest it potentially jeopardize participation in the upcoming independent trips. Thenonto eating we went!
The Mac and Cheese made by Asante was certainly as good as I envisioned it earlier in the hike. He and Avery made it with a "Whiznut" crust, which contains fried cheese and Perkys. Great way to spice up the meal. Not much else to say here...I was hungry and devoured it and it was awesome and I could have eaten about 3 more bowls :).
Since we had no snack food for lunch left, I decided to stay up and make Lentil Rice Cakes for tomorrow's midday meal. This presented more of a challenge than I imagined, as the stove stopped working right after cooking Mac and Cheese. It took us another hour and a half to finally get water boiling, which turned out to be around 10:00. This hour was quite late for me, not just because I was usually in bed by this time or earlier, but because I was bushed. But, duty calls, and I certainly didn't want myself or my team to go without lunch the next day. So Asante and I stayed up late into the night, he flipping the cakes and getting them crispy while I dug my hands into the dough and formed them. It felt like a real Saturday night party, staying up late, swapping stories, and just having a great time with a friend. I do enjoy a Slaphappy (when you're super tired and everything is funny) Saturday night. And it's extra funny for some reason when the only light you have is provided by a full moon and 2 head lamps. We kept doing bear calls, thinking the growing pile of cakes might attract animals. In our state of hunger, we were ready to conduct fierce fisticuffs with any animal that made the unfortunate mistake of crossing our path. Luckily, the wildlife was smart enough to leave us be. We finally finished around 11:45, the latest I stayed up by far on the whole trip, and we retreated to the tents feeling quite accomplished on the day. It really was a good day of hard work, fun conversation, and tasty food. A good day to have lived!
The world outside of the sleeping bag didn't matter. Poking my head into the air of the tent, I encountered a chill quite unbecoming to my senses and quickly retreated into the cozy warmth of my sleeping quarters as a turtle retreats into his shell. Boy, was it cold. But, the day had to begin, for laziness is not a quality appreciated either by the wilderness or by myself. Though, that truth does little for one's mood when waking up to a 30 degree frost-laden day