“Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.” Anita Desai
August in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has been a time to take advantage of mosquito-free backcountry. The friends have varied, but the plans have been the same: backpack into somewhere and enjoy mountain vistas and lakes. Smoke has entered the equation in the past few years, becoming a part of the August landscape as our climate warms and dries.
This year, we hiked high to avoid most of the smoke as we climbed into the Beartooths. The Beartooth Plateau is the largest high elevation plateau in the United States. It also supports many peaks above 11,000 feet, including the highest peak in Montana; Granite Peak, 12,799 feet. We hiked on, and clambered over four billion year old precambrian granite and crystalline metamorphic rocks which compose much of the Beartooths.
Choosing a more relaxed and sane schedule than some years, our itinerary included two days at Zimmer Lake, two days at Lower Aero Lake, and two days at Skytop Lakes, with off-trail day hikes on our lay-over days.
Our first campsite, Zimmer Lake, was up and over a high ridge. We climbed, slowly, no trail to follow, stepping around and over boulders. The climb was worth it as spectacular views rewarded our efforts. We made camp above the lake on one of the few flat spots in the area.
Grasshopper Glacier is known for millions of grasshoppers becoming entombed in the ice as they were blown off course over multiple years. Some species found in the glacier are extinct today, so of course, getting up to the glacier was on the agenda for our first lay-over day. Jane, Doug, Diane, Stitch (Diane’s 3 year old black lab) and I left camp and made our way slowly up to a further ridge at the base of Iceberg Peak, wondering if we would even find a glacier. We did find ice, but in patches, with a large lake below, which corresponded with a glaciologist’s observation that in 2005, Grasshopper Glacier was no longer in existence, having become a series of patches of perennial snow. It was almost painful for us to compare the earlier size of the glacier field on our maps with what we were seeing in 2016.
Diane headed back to camp with Stitch while Jane, Doug and I continued on, scouting a route for the next day’s move to Lower Aero Lake. Much climbing, route searching and boulder hopping later, we concluded that it would be best to take our alternate route back down the original steep ridge and then up ‘Cardiac Hill’.
Lower Aero Lake is a lovely lake just at tree-line. Most of the shore is rocky, but we were able to find a smaller no-name lake above the main lake where we camped. Flat tent sites, our own water source, protection from the wind and beautiful views…. I could have called this spot home forever! I returned to camp early the following day, after hiking to Upper Aero Lake. Time slowed that afternoon as I jumped into the lake and cleaned up, sat and looked, petted Stitch and journaled. Sometimes I feel more present with less activity.
The weather began to change as we packed up to head over toward Skytop Lakes. Again mostly off trail, we rock-hopped up and over ridges and around lakes then searched until we found a suitable campsite. The views from this site were again spectacular and for the most part we were protected from the chill wind that began to blow. The clouds covering the sun began to grow in size and to turn from white to grey, but for the most part, adding more clothing layers kept the chill at bay.
The following day, we decided to head up to a view of Granite Peak. We left camp about 8am and were surprised to see our first ‘other people’. A group passed us, wearing Lycra shorts and t-shirts carrying very small running-type backpacks. They told us they planned to summit the peak. We were skeptical as the weather looked ever more threatening and by now the wind was quite cold and blowing strongly. We knew the conditions on the mountain itself would be more severe. Shaking our heads at what we perceived as their folly, we watched later that day as they continued to climb. We returned to camp, had dinner and about 6:30pm the group came back. They had indeed reached the summit and were on their way back—not to a nearby camp, but to the trailhead still 8 more miles away! The team included a father and his two sons, celebrating the father’s birthday—he looked to be in his 50’s to early 60’s. They said they had had a blizzard as they climbed but that it cleared as they reached the summit. They were still in shorts with light shirts, and I just shivered in my long jons and down jacket as I looked at them awestruck.
The next day was Sunday and burger/beer were calling ever louder. We packed and headed down the trail, stopping for a quick breakfast break. As we passed Lady of the Lake, we ran into two hiking groups—and we knew people from each group. This is one thing that I love about Gardiner and Yellowstone: we are a smallish group of outdoor enthusiasts. It is common to see locals on the trails in the area. Experiences like these are how I know that I am in my right place.
“Not all those who wander are lost.” JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring