Top of the World: The Gallatin Crest

Strenuousness is the immortal path, sloth is the way of death.

H.W. Tilman

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THIS year. THIS month. THIS week…..                                                                        YES!! It’s happening! Two years in the planning. This year we have no medical issues, nothing to force a cancellation.IMG_3106

 The Players: Melanie, Julianne, Bob                                                                                       The Support: Fred, Yeti                                                                                                        The Plan: Beginning at SwanLake Flats in Yellowstone National Park, hike generally north for 6 days, spending two nights in the Park and three nights along the Gallatin Crest, coming out over Hyalite Peak to the Hyalite Peak TH.

Yeti drove Bob and Melanie to Gardiner. We pored over the maps, marking our route and discussing water sources, campsites, and daily mileage. One last dinner and night indoors and we were off. Fred delivered us to the trailhead and waved good-bye.

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Our first miles passed quickly as we cruised gentle terrain. As we hiked through a forested area, head down, I hear voices ahead. I look up and see two backpackers making their way  toward us. I stop and start to laugh, ‘Look who they let into the Park!’ Hobie and Erik stop and begin to laugh as well. Unexpected meeting of friends in the wilderness is always filled with joy. 

As was to become the norm, our final miles to Sportsman Lake climbed steeply then dropped even more steeply. The backcountry ranger cabin looked well-kept, but we kept our distance and found our designated site. Gratefully, we sank onto the logs and began the ritual of cooking our evening meals. Bob went simple: each night he added water to a different Mountain House meal. Melanie’s system was born of years on long trails: she boiled dried veggies with various boxed rice side dishes from the grocery store. I varied my meals: the Idahoan Potatoes were the best,—especially the Four Cheese. One backcountry dinner of pesto salmon was a bust—too difficult and too smelly for a supposedly simple backpacking meal. Some dinners, I found myself envying Bob his simplicity.

We fell into a routine: wake early, break camp and hike an hour or so before stopping for breakfast. For two serious coffee drinkers (Bob and Melanie), that first hour was a hardship, but they were good sports.   

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Climbing out of Sportsman Lake in early morning light

We knew the second day would be long, and it was. Our destination was Shelf Lake. Along the way, we stopped for lunch at High Lake (Shelf, High: read steep and up!). High Lake would be a lovely destination in its own right. But we enjoyed lunch and the view, shouldered our packs and trudged on (I trudged, Melanie and Bob cruised). Even Melanie commented that this is not an easy trail.         

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The final two mies to Shelf Lake were uphill. It rained slightly, but we arrived late in the day. Shelf Lake is a sweet little lake, just below the top of the Crest. It was well-worth the climb. Wind came up with a vengeance just as we began to set up our tents. I was pleased with my Big Agnes Copper Spur UL1. Self-standing, it went up easily in spite of the gusts, and I knew I’d be toasty and dry no matter what weather came in overnight. 

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Sunrise at High Lake

One might say that day 3 began the real Gallatin Crest Trail. From here on, we hiked through high mountain meadows, across narrow spines, up and down steep rocky ridges. Easy? No. Worth it? OH YES!

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Our next destination was Ramshorn Lake, a lovely lake at the base of Ramshorn and Fortress Peaks. I’d climbed Ramshorn a number of times. Sitting along the lake shore, I imagined the view from the top. I love having both memories.

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Ramshorn Peak above Ramshorn Lake

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We saw very few tracks, but this Grizzly Track stopped us in ours! Just as we climbed out of Ramshorn Lake….

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            We hiked into our Windy Ridge camp early on a day that became windier and more grey as the hours rolled by. We felt fortunate to enjoy dinner on the porch of the cabin, though we camped nearby. That night it began to rain and the next morning dawned soggy and drizzly. For the first time, we were chilly in the damp wind, and I could imagine how quickly this could become a dangerous route–we had some mist which made finding the trail ‘interesting’. Fortunately the mist cleared and we enjoyed a beautiful rainbow.

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We hiked on, meandering up and down. Sometimes steep, sometimes rolling, on we traveled. Our packs were getting lighter as we ate meals and our bodies were becoming used to all day movement. We stopped for an afternoon break and were treated to a small herd of elk grazing in the meadow. One would look up and watch us intently, but as we stayed still, she would lower her head and return to grazing. Then a second elk would stare intently. We stared back in awe, holding our breath at first. As the minutes ticked on, we relaxed and whispered. Melanie took photos. I took mental photos. Finally they moved on and we took this as our cue to move on as well. A short while later we came to our final campsite at Crater Lake. (You guessed it.. more up and down!)

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Along a ridge

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Afternoon at Crater Lake

Our last day was one of the most beautiful, though the wind was strong enough that when on the ridge, we had to stop and hunker down over our poles to keep from being blown off. We had planned on breakfast up high, but the wind drove us longer and lower than we’d planned. Up and over Hyalite Peak and down the other side, we finally found a spot out of wind enough to heat water for tea and coffee.

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The trail teaches many lessons. Each time I return home, I ask myself what I’ve learned… Many times I re-learn the same lessons, but as I keep re-learning them, I figure I am just a tough student regarding some topics, especially patience! This year, once again, I found that discomfort is temporary. A hill might feel so difficult, yet once on top, the pain is forgotten as I’m surrounded by beauty. The pain, this summer, has felt greater. I’ve had a tougher time with carrying weight and climbing. That pain is not only physical. I’ve gotten frustrated with myself, angry at not being able to keep up, feeling like I should be stronger. While I relearn the ephemerality of my physical pain, I know that I have many more lessons to endure in the inner turmoil category. So I’ll keep hiking and learning. After all, strenuousness is the immortal path.

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