Most adventurers to the Bridger Wilderness come away with memories and perhaps a few blisters. Me, I stumbled out with two fractured ribs from a self-inflicted mishap that is enough proof that idiocy knows no borders. It is highly transportable from North Carolina to Wyoming.
X-rays at an emergency orthopedic center Tuesday night confirmed the source of ache and soreness; ribs nos. 9 and 10 on the right side of my back were broken although not cleanly snapped through. The kindly doctor took the chance to remind me of balance issues “as we age.” Thanks.
This post marks two departures from standard practice involving the weekly letters. This is the first time in the more than two years of this blog that I’ve released a letter before both kids have had a chance to read it; London-based Reid has already viewed it as an attachment (he responded within 10 minutes of receiving it). Ellen’s snail mail copy should arrive tomorrow in St. Paul. Second, at one and a half pages, the letter below (including the sordid details of the oafish stream-side tumble) is well beyond the single page norm. Note: it was composed before last night’s excursion for x-rays.
July 30, 2012
Ellen/Reid: The Bridger Wilderness was as expected; wild, unpredictable, alternately cold and rainy or hot, full of fish, steep and hard and with views beyond my limited comprehension. We had the time you would expect but it is clear to me that backpacking for extended periods is really a younger person’s game. This seemed hard, hard work from the get-go.
If this letter was based solely on our trek of Sunday, July 22, my hiking career might well be kaput. It was the single toughest day on the trails in my long experience. I had this note all written out in my head as I slogged onward and upward on what seemed like an endless string of inhumane switchbacks and false passes – just when you thought you’d reached the top, another long and steep incline lay ahead – on a 10 mile day. It was sheer torture. Emma’s cold seemed to come along for the ride and it was just a battle to suck in enough oxygen. Tom, whom you met last year Ellen, and Richard left me in the proverbial dust. The closest I would get to them was on the hated swtichbacks, and even then I’d be 100 – 200 yards back. We motored on through heat, then finished in cold rain and wind the last few miles. When we finally reached Clark Lake, I was completely spent. My legs were muscle-less mush. Felicia says I walk like a cowboy anyway, swinging my legs out and then forward, and that long day exacerbated that highly inefficient motion. That night literally I got around camp like Festus on Gunsmoke. A painless hobble would have been an improvement.
Contributing to that might be a weight thing, too. Tom measures everything – food, fuel, rope, containers, socks, bags, his tent and ground clothe, etc. – to the gram, and he is totally focused on ultra-light gear. So while Richard and I are weighed down with 45 pound packs, Tom is relatively light at 30. It makes a difference. My boots felt like cement overshoes sometimes; Tom and Richard wore light footwear that was a notch up from running shoes. An ounce here and an ounce there, and pretty soon you’re talking real poundage. I’d never approached backpacking in those precise terms. If I do this again, and the jury is out, that will be the way to go.
Tom was the real ringleader on this enterprise once we got moving. He’s hiked Nepal, the length of Spain, the entire 2,500 mile Appalachian Trail, and big chunks of other noted paths. He looks at maps differently and makes on-map notes on waystops, mileage points, altitude, camp sites, etc. Me, I look at the map and go. He knew mountain and route names so in that regard his presence was good.
It was Richard’s first go in the back country and he more than acquitted himself. We all got along well and there was nothing that truly held us back.
Other than me. I had a couple of sloppy mishaps, balance issues, really, one of which could’ve cost us the bulk of the trip but didn’t. Our first night we camped at that rock-topped outcropping where we spend two nights last year, Ellen. As you know, it is a long way down to the stream, and while trying to navigate upward to the campsite with a pan full of water, this klutz slipped and slammed the tip of my right elbow on a rock. The water went flying and for a few seconds considered that my elbow was a goner. In a flash a ping pong ball sized knot popped out that stayed ping pong ball size the entire way, and for the rest of the trek there was no way to sleep on my right side. Episode two was after Sunday’s killer walk. We took a rest day – mercifully – and I was working a steep stream when I tried to rock hop to reach a pool, only to slip on a big, wet slab of granite. I went into a 4 – 5 foot free fall but was able to spin slightly so the meat of the right side of my back hit another big rock flush. I heard a small crack, and literally had the wind knocked out of me. I laid there for the better part of 10 or 15 minutes taking stock of what might be hurt. It was difficult to breathe. If either of my feet could’ve reached my butt, I might have kicked it hard. The camp was 500 yards up the slope, and finally got to my feet, collected my rod, and literally inched my way back up the trail. It was just awful. From that night forward there was no comfortable way to turn in the cramped confines of the one person tent without major pain. I couldn’t let out a groan for fear the guys would hear it and contemplate getting my sorry ass out of there via the nearest exit path. Amazingly, I could sleep in relative comfort on my left side. It was also amazing that once my pack was on, for some reason everything felt better and wasn’t too difficult to walk. Things could’ve been much worse. The incredible numbers of infernal mosquitoes – a real scourge that never seemed to relent in their attacks – preoccupied much of the time for the three of us.
From Clark we camped on successive nights at Summit Lake, then on to Borum Lake and finally Round Lake.
We caught fish all along the way, although it was frustrating for Richard because he dropped two bills on rental fly fishing equipment, and the act of casting was vexing for him. He simply needed more time to practice, and the cauldron of trying to catch fish for dinner really wasn’t the time to do that. He caught his share, but Tom really brought home the proverbial bacon. Since there was a ban on fires, we had to make-do by wrapping the Brookies in foil and cooking them in the pot over the MSR. Not quite the same as broiling over smoky wood, but it worked out just fine. It occurred to me at Round Lake that these might be the last mountain trout I’d ever catch in truly wild country.
Not that it was all bad. Far from it. We ran into the same group of genial cowboys from Utah twice over 5 days and who we talked to at length while admiring their beautiful horses, and for the first time ever elk could be heard bugling.
There was no hint of grizzlies and after a while we stopped talking about bears. We trudged out and down, down, down in a cold, steady rain on Friday morning and made it out in six hours in bright sunshine and heat. We had one final ford to make, and afterward I left my Tevas on for the final two miles. Those were the most comfortable two miles of the entire trip, so it goes to show what lightweight footwear can do. The traditional post-hike beer and food in Pinedale reminded us of what we missed, as did Friday night’s meal in Jackson. They say the feeling of pain is transient, and perhaps it is. If there’s another trek out there next year, it will be earlier in July, and this time maybe to the unexplored Southern half of the Bridger. But my back reminded me seconds ago that those mountains are probably best mastered by others who are younger and more balance-capable than your dad.