The next time I plan to hike over 20 miles on less than three hours of sleep…someone please pinch me. A van full of us left at 3:30 a.m. to conquer Tempest Mountain on Saturday, June 20, 2009 but Tempest set it’s will against ours. This trip was to be a training expedition for the one-day trip to Granite Peak that we’re attempting later this summer. The early morning light misled us into believing it was going to be a beautiful day.
The elevation at the Mystic Lake trailhead is 5800 feet above sea level. More than a few well-intentioned people thought the best route to the Plateau would be from East Rosebud on the Phantom Lake Trail. The rationale behind taking this route is more sunlight bearing down on the south side of the range where there would be less snow to contend with. However, getting to East Rosebud requires driving on more gravel road than West Rosebud. I had some friends who camped at Mystic Lake last week tell me there wasn’t much snow in the area although they didn’t attempt the switchbacks. I don’t know if it was stupidity, stubbornness or both but we opted for the path from the West.
We made the three-mile hike to Mystic in record time. The water level at the lake was surprisingly low and Jazzy wasted no time getting into the water for an early morning swim. We passed a few comatose camps littered with beer cans as we hung a left onto the Phantom Creek Trail #17. From Mystic Lake there are twenty-six switchbacks to get to the Plateau. After switchback number two we encountered small amounts of snow. Every switchback from there was more unforgiving than the last. By switchback number seven the trail was impassable because of snow pack. We had to pause. After a short conversation, consensus guided us straight up the mountain as we intersected the man-made aisle through the trees a half dozen times. There’s a section of the trail that heads east for some distance and leads you through a bowl with a small creek spilling over the trail and down the ravine. Above the trail is nothing but a scree field. It’s as if two mountains collided and the explosion scattered chunks of granite over a couple square miles of steep hillside. The trail is buried by snow and the broken trees below it is evidence that more than one avalanche slid through the area during the last few months. There was really only two ways to go – back or continue up.
Choosing up, I should have remembered that freezing and thawing ice leaves scree unstable. A couple hundred yards into the charge, the large piece of granite I was hiking over gave way and sent me toppling end over end down the hill. After two rotations I landed on my back and slide another few feet down the mountain. I stood up and instantly felt the pain in my right leg. Looking down revealed blood soaking through my torn pants. My right elbow and left hand were also dripping. The education I received during the last 30 seconds caused me to reevaluate my heading. Down and over a quarter mile I could see the trail was mostly open with only a few patches of snow obstructing it.
Remember that I have my dog with me? I just figured out that dogs could go up and over a scree field way better than they can go down. Three of us basically had to carry Jazzy down the hill trying to balance our own weight and hers until we found more stable ground. In the process Jazzy tore her leg on a sharp piece of granite. Even now she’s licks it as I type.
There’s a large cairn on the trail as you approach the Plateau. We stopped to feed a chipmunk some nuts from our trail mix as it scurried around base of the cairn. After a couple hundred more yards we decide to eat lunch too. The scene and elevation of the Plateau is simply breathtaking. The air is clean, thin and cool. After lunch we head southwest toward Tempest Mountain. The Plateau shows evidence of winter’s brutality and is mostly covered with snow pack. The trouble we experienced with the drift on the switchbacks helps us decide that Tempest would have to wait for another day. But, we can see a clear path to a peak sitting to the east. We head there instead.
One piece of equipment you should always take to the Plateau is a GPS. I had one but forgot to click a waypoint. Dumb. It’s more than a little jaunt from the cairn to our new destination. About half way there we experience our first low hanging clouds. At first, they’re beautiful and provide a scent that is incredible. We drink them in as we continue hiking. Standing on the summit at 10.4k, we’re completely engulfed in brume. Even though our cameras can’t prove we were there – our sore limbs and butts remind us.
With only 25 feet of visibility a GPS with that waypoint I mentioned earlier would have been helpful. We struggled to get back to the cairn but eventually found it after hiking in the rain and clouds for over an hour. I heard the first peal of thunder at 2:04 p.m. just as we were about to leave the Plateau. Just in time because you don’t really want to be on the Plateau during a lightning storm. The only thing taller than you are a handful of furry, white Mountain Goats. After the goats are glacial wild flowers and alpine grasses which are both twelve and six inches tall respectively. It’s just not a good place to be under these conditions. We quicken our pace down to Mystic Lake.
During the three hour descend we were pounded by rain and fatigue. I was only nervous once during the plunge when we had to march through fifty feet of snow steeped at a forty-five degree angle that cleverly hid the trail. Slipping there would have been a quarter mile ride to the bottom of the ravine and a few broken bones or worse. We all safely navigated that segment of the trail.
Surprisingly we passed a few people, driven by aspiration, hiking up as we hiked down. I hope they made it. I’m glad that we weren’t the only idiots headed to the Plateau that day because misery loves company.