I’ve noticed that I’ve rather neglected hiking in my recent posts. Unfortunately, I’ve been city bound for the last couple of months and my day hikes have been over trails I’ve already reviewed, so I thought I’d dig around in the old brain cells and write about my Montana trip back in May 2007. This was a military training trip to prepare my guys for an Afghanistan deployment and since I was due to change out of command that summer I decided to go with them. I don’t think they were too eager for the commander to tag along but I didn’t really give them a choice. Sometimes it’s good to be the boss. In the end, this was to be my last big event with the squadron so I was laid back and they warmed up to the idea once we hit the field.
This trip was planned for five to seven days in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness near Granite Peak in southern Montana. We were to hike in for a day or two and find a suitable training area for some high altitude hiking, glacier work and avalanche training. Our trip was fairly late in the season and the surface and weather were pretty unpredictable so we decided to pass on the glacier, but everything else was absolutely fantastic. Once we returned to Butte, we had scheduled another two weeks of tactical operations and high altitude parachuting. The trip was organized by The Peak, an outdoor school started by Rod Alne, a retired Pararescue Chief Master Sergeant. Rod has probably forgotten more about the outdoors than I’ll ever know and he brought in expert climbers and mountaineers for the snow and rock work, and a physiologist to track how we were reacting to the altitude. I’ll write more about The Peak in a later article. For now, I’ll just say that Rod has put together an outstanding school. Right now he primarily trains military and law enforcement personnel, but he is looking for ways to open things up to the civilian market. I’d love to put together a trip with him, so if you have any interest in survival and mountain training from some of our nation’s foremost experts contact me or leave a comment!
Much of the gear was new to many of the guys, so gear familiarization was an important training objective. Since we had crammed so many training events into our five day schedule, we had a lot of extra gear that we wouldn’t normally taken and our packs weighed 60-80 pounds out the door. Each of us carried 3-6 liters of water and our primary food was cold weather MREs. Team gear (ropes, snow anchors, search poles, fuel, etc) was crossloaded across the group, and we packed one water filter and stove for every three people. I will talk about individual gear items in a future post.
We had quite a large group, so it was easy to split up the team gear and technical gear. One of the fun things about large group expeditions is that you have a wide range of experience. This was this first true wilderness trip for several of our guys and it definitely showed in their packs! We made the guy to the left repack all of his gear, otherwise he would have been dropping bits here and there the whole way. There is no shame in being a novice, so don’t be afraid to ask for help choosing, adjusting, and packing your gear! If you are not traveling with experienced outdoorsmen like we were, then it is critical that you test and familiarize yourself with all of your gear before you head out!
Gear layering is another critical consideration. We experienced some pretty extreme temperature variations. Since we were equipped with various combinations of Capaline, Goretex, quilted jackets and pants, and other pants and shirts, we were able to easily add or remove layers based on our exertion level and the outside conditions. Don’t plan to “change clothes” in the wilderness, except for your socks and possibly undergarments, just plan to change layers.
The first hour on the trail was absolutely brutal as we tried to adapt to the weight, altitude, and terrain. At our first rest stop everyone adjusted their clothes and gear, and gathered their strength for the rest of the day’s hike.
We finally stopped for lunch near a reservoir. After that it was all uphill!
Once we got higher up in the mountains and off the trails we encountered a lot more snow. The surface was pretty well iced over so we tried to hike with just our boots, but everyone eventually we got tired of breaking through and sinking up to our waists, so we broke out the snow shoes. This was my first experience with snow shoes and I absolutely loved them. Honestly, we should have worn them much sooner. Not only is it easier travel but it is much safer! Many of the weak spots were the result of a buried rock or log, and it would be all too easy to injure a knee when you break through the surface, jam your foot against the rock and then lose your balance due to the 70 pound pack. We were equipped with MSR Denali Ascent snowshoes which were perfectly suited to the terrain.
As the sun dipped towards the horizon after a long day’s hike we set up camp not far from an alpine lake. We debated whether or not to push up to the glacier the next day, but Rod was worried about the surface and decided to use our current location as a base camp and make day trips to our training areas. If Rod was expecting an argument then he was disappointed since no one was all to eager to lug our overloaded packs up another 2000 feet just to camp out on the windy exposed plateau of ice. So our cozy little hollow became home for the next five days.
In my next post I’ll talk more about the training that we accomplished during this trip. In closing, I’ll just say that Montana is absolutely beautiful and anyone contemplating a true wilderness experience should consider this area. The land is rugged and unforgiving, but the shear vastness of the wilderness and the stunning views are just breathtaking. Our little five day trip didn’t even scratch the surface of the outdoor opportunities in this part of our country and I would love to lose myself in these wild lands. A month or so wandering across these mountains with a couple of horses and good friends would be heavenly indeed!
As I mentioned earlier, if you have any interest in setting up a trip with Rod and his team let me know.
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About the Author: Tucson, AZ Realtor & Investor. My true passions however are hiking and whisky (although generally not at the same time). If you have a question about any of these just drop me a line!