Ahhh… a full-length Montana fall. We’ve had quite the autumn this year so Julia and I have been trying to squeeze in as much outside fun as possible during this impeccable weather window. While we have accomplished a lot of “done-in-a-day” recreation, backpacking has fallen off a bit this year due to a few large life events. Thankfully, this long fall season has allowed for us to play a little catch-up with the outdoors. Two free coinciding days recently yielded a most amazing, 20+ mile loop that is not too far from our back door. And with what has amounted to a quintessential Montana Indian summer, it has been hard not to get out to soak it in.
Ridgelines are high on the list of fun, as well as loop/lollipop hikes that allow one to traverse different ground nearly the entire trip. Time is sometimes of the essence, and bang for buck has become an increasing theme in our (and maybe your?) ever-evolving backcountry strategy. This particular loop held just what we were looking for – distance not too far or short, miles of ridgeline travel above and at timberline, high and wide alpine vistas, peaks to incorporate just off trail, a logical campsite midway at an alpine lake, and enough up/down to keep us working for it. Everything you need and nothing you don’t.
The loop begins and ends at S Fork Spanish Creek TH (N end of Madison range) and can be easily figured out from there with a topo, as it is the only true non-redundant loop. It is a great overnight trip, or would also be a great longer run for those so inclined. Overall length is in the low 20’s for mileage and ~5000′ for vert. Clockwise or counter is the only major remaining question. My vote is for a counter clockwise run, based on water availability and terrain selection. It could feasibly be done with just a handheld w/ inline filter if ran in this direction. It could almost be done without a filter, except for one important, and semi-suspect water source. As for backpacking it, we put in the longer mileage day and Indian Ridge first, and thought that this may be the preferred method to camp. But either direction would still be most pleasing.
A cold, calm night on a bench sitting above the lake yielded, (go figure, yet again) significant condensation inside of our single walled/hybrid Big Sky International Mirage 2P shelter. You’d think we have had enough time over the three-plus years of use to just get rid of it, but no, we press on because of weight/space balance and the hopes for optimal conditions. We do have a double-walled Hilleberg for more serious weather but it is overkill for a lot of summer use here in the Montana Rockies. So along comes the Mirage 2P and then we end up cursing it about half of the time. And loving it the other half.
So, it may be time to rethink the 2P summer shelter situation come next year. We’ll have to leave that one for when the time comes though, so until next time folks. Winter is currently knocking on the door.
It’s now been two weeks since I participated in The Rut 50K and I am still very much enthusiastic about the whole event. If you are into mountain ultra running then this race comes highly suggested. All three races (VK, 12K, 50K) drew a total of over 1000 runners from all over the globe. Even a mountain running showdown of sorts between Kilian Jornet and Sage Canaday for the Ultra Skymarathon Series title took place with Kilian eventually taking the win with a stout 5:09:31 in the 50K. A gnarly time on a significantly challenging course. A bunch of elite international athletes competed and added to the already deep field of local and regional talent. The overall feel was one of a big, and well-organized event.
The race went something like this:
6am start (and a brisk 33°F) to the sound of an elk bugle. Cowbells, camera flashes, headlamps, and excitement in the air. Up 1500′ over the first two miles to get the blood flowing. Consistently up & then a fast next 5.5 miles down. Good stuff. I barely touched the 7.5 mile Madison Village aid except to refill my handheld. I did, though, see the maestro of irunfar.com , Bryon Powell and yelled a friendly hello to him out of race excitement. If you aren’t already familiar, and you are into ultra running, then his website is a great resource. And I’m of no affiliation, btw, just a fan.
Gradual climbing but mainly runnable singletrack persisted out of the 7.5 aid until the 12.1 mile Elkhorn water station. I stopped here to down a small cup and to top off my bottle. In hindsight I should have tanked up further here, as I only had a single 20oz handheld with me. The next six miles to the Tram Dock 18 mile aid is fairly demanding and involves the first major 1400′ climb to Headwaters ridge (c. 10,100′) before quickly descending 1800′ and then climbing 1300′ to the aid. Not too shabby given that the main 2K’+ climb up Bonecrusher to the summit of Lone Peak (11,166′) was still ahead. While Headwaters is amazing and technical, another notable section coming off of the ridge was a short downhill length of maybe 20′ of near vertical dirt with even slicker surrounding grass alternatives. Nearly everyone that I witnessed was on their ass and crab-walking on all fours trying their best not to tumble down the slope! One of many memorable Rut moments.
The only out-and-back section of the course was a 1.5 mile stretch that centers on the Tram Dock 18 aid. It is entirely in the sun until the aid, where refreshments and friendly volunteers waited patiently. I had no drop bag and had carried all of my gear so I spent little time here before retracing my steps to the inevitable Lone Peak summit climb. This starts at around mile 18.7 and climbs over 2100′ in under 1.5 miles with 1000′ in the last 1/2 mile. Some steep ridgeline scrambling, for sure. A highlight along this section was not just the view, but also a 3-piece bluegrass band jamming out part-way up the ridge (!). Both of the ridgeline routes were something truly to take in and ones that I’ll surely recall for some time. Nice one, Montana Mikes.
At just over 20 miles and the summit of Lone Peak, was another aid station that I hung out at for a couple of minutes while discarding trash, eating a 1/4 banana, drinking some coke, refilling my water bottle, and snagging a gel. The amazing volunteers there wouldn’t even let me pick up a piece of dropped trash as they swooped in to take care of it while asking me what else they could get for me. I can’t even properly express my gratitude for all of the great volunteers but I do appreciate each and everyone. A big cheers to the folks who lent a helping hand.
Down from summit was pleasant, but in-the-moment dinner plate talus running with some friendly company for about 1/2 mile, then steeper, looser, and smaller scree by myself for another mile or so before hitting some more runnable single and doubletrack. This undulating trail weaved in and out of the woods, occasionally hitting a fire road but soon getting back to singletrack. There were even spectators at random spots with the ubiquitous The Rut cowbell to provide a surprise and needed boost. This largely downhill section is deceptive, luring the unsuspecting runner into thinking that it is all buttery, downhill singletrack from here on out. NOT so.
At mile 25.5 there is a very steep (or as the race literature states, ‘STEEP’) ~1000′ climb up to Andesite Mountain. It is rough in that much of the ascent is up a downhill mountain bike course that includes multiple fixed ropes (?!) to aid runners up the very steep, gullied track that is not really intended for uphill travel. While fairly difficult, I still grinned at the fact that I had to use the ropes to gain upward progress in the slick gullies. Sick, but kinda fun. After this grind, there is a final little slog on a service road to the top of Andesite and the final aid station. Here, I smiled at the thought of a mainly downhill final five miles, refilled my bottle one last time, swigged a shot of coke, thanked the volunteers, and passed a few runners with my over-exuberance on the way out of the aid. From here on out, I ran the nice singletrack by myself to the finish in 8:13:23. It was well off what I had hoped for but I was extremely happy with the overall race and how I felt throughout.
(I used and very much appreciated all listed below)
Gear worn and carried: UD AK Race Vest, Salomon Sense Pro shoes, Drymax socks, Dynafit shorts, Rab Aeon tee, Mountain Hardwear arm sleeves, Montbell Tachyon windshirt, OR synthetic gloves, UV 1/2 BUFF, MH brimmed cap, BD Spot headlamp, cheapo shades, Sony waterproof P&S. It was fairly cold and I had on arm sleeves, buff, and gloves for over half of the race. The windshirt was arguably not needed but still was worn on the final ridgeline to Lone Peak for about an hour. I probably would have moved a bit faster here had I not had it! The AK Race Vest was a winner, as it has been for me and many others for some time now. This, and the SJ Ultra Vest were the most seen vests during the race. Salomon and Ultra Spire took a close second/third with a few others like Mountain Hardwear, Nathan, and Osprey in the mix. While the majority of runners used a vest pack, some folks went a handheld only, or coupled with a minimal belt and/or in-short storage.
Fueling/hydration: GU, GU Roctane, Hammer gel, Bolt Chews, electrolyte tabs, a handful of potato chips, a few shots of coke, plenty of clear water. About one gel per hour, sometimes more. Electrolyte tabs with slightly less frequency. Bolt Chews intermittently throughout the race between gels. Crisps at Tram Dock aid. Coke shots at Tram Dock, Lone Peak, and Andesite aid stations. Everything worked well except my oversight for water need from mile 12-18 and from 20-26.5. My 20oz did not quite cut it and I could’ve used multiple more ounces for both of these stretches. I managed, though, and generally had a smooth time with fueling and hydration.
Technical mountain running, cruiser singletrack, an 11K’+ summit, a deep field of world-class athletes, amazing volunteers, a lot of psyched runners, even more equally psyched fans, and vistas for days. The course was wonderful, and the folks were even better. Much love, Montana. Please do keep ’em coming.
Weather and Labor Day plans don’t always see eye-to-eye when living in the Northern Rockies. While a lot of the US is heading into an ideal backpacking season, Montana can be getting snowed on this time of year. Despite the definitive forecast of rain/thunderstorms/snow up high, Julia and I packed our rain gear and headed into the Beartooth this recent holiday weekend.
While we planned to hike a bit further on The Beaten Path via East Rosebud, we stopped short at Rainbow Lake after being properly soaked for the duration of the hike in. Berries, bear scat, moose, and the surreal scenes that occasionally crept through the clouds kept us occupied along the way. It ranged from a steady drizzle to a full-on gale during the walk and we soon realized that wet was going to prevail. The early stop allowed us to properly set up camp, attempt to dry out, and have a fire with dinner. We even utilized a high-pitched HMG Flat Tarp for standing protection when away from the fire. The decision to stop early resulted in quite the enjoyable evening.
The next morning we eased into things – lying in and listening to the constant patter of rain on our silnylon shelter. The rain eased up and we slowly broke camp while enjoying coffee/tea and shortbread. We then hiked a couple of miles up the trail to scope the next alpine lake prior to turning around to head back. We lucked out with a little bit of clear skies at Lake at Falls which was soon to be socked in on our way back. The rain heightens the colors and the experience. Not every trip can be with bluebird skies and waist-deep wildflowers. At least that’s the mantra when in the thick of some nasty weather.
The gear highlight of the trip goes to the new MontBell Ex Light Down Anorak. This hooded, UL down pull-over has a big kangaroo pocket and a draw hem. My men’s medium (sans stuffsack) comes in at 173g/6.1oz with a claimed 65g/2.2oz of 900 fill power goose down. At over 35% down and just a hair heavier than its predecessor, the Ex Light Down Jacket (160g/5.6oz), this new anorak has me grinning. This little number was unleashed soon after arriving at our soggy night’s camp and provided plenty of warmth as part of my layering system throughout the night and into the next morning. Low temps were around the upper-thirties (°F) based on overnight snow levels. While not the burliest or warmest, it is one of the most viable UL jackets currently on the market. Nice job, MontBell.
It just snowed again (!) – this time to the valley floor, but will be trending back to traditionally warmer end-of-summer temps come tomorrow and for the next week or so. In the meantime I’ll be participating in Big Sky’s 2nd annual The Rut 50K on Saturday along with a slew of other runners. Best wishes to all involved and a big thank you to all of the folks who manage such an event – here’s to a great race and a wonderful autumn!
One of my favorite places in the lower 48 has yet again, lived up to its hype. Glenn Owings and myself recently both jogged the Teton Crest Trail from Phillips TH to String Lake TH. Although finishing at String Lake, we cut off the last pass (Paintbrush Divide) due to time limitations. So instead of ~39 miles, we did ~33 point-to-point. Regardless of the deviation, it was a beautiful trail and a wonderful day in the mountains with a friend. That’s what’s up.
We both carried and wore similar gear for the day, with the standouts being the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 and the Sawyer Water Filter Bottle. First up, the UD SJ Ultra Vest. Now in it’s second iteration, the SJ UV has just enough volume (7L) and compressibility for a full day in the hills. The SJ UV also has front bottle carry, ala the rest of their signature series of running vest-style packs, which allows for a well-balanced and efficient method of water carry. And as in this case, bear spray can go up front in a bottle pocket when running in grizzly country. The vest has very little bounce when loaded and fit properly, which is a key component to this style of carry. I also carried a pair of Ultra Distance Z-poles collapsed on the back of the pack for over a dozen miles and didn’t notice them there. Both Glenn and myself used the SJ UV to great success and would definitely use it again for similar long-day outings.
Next up, but no less successful is the Sawyer 24oz Water Filter Bottle. I’ve mentioned this dip/sip method before but the latest version incorporates Sawyer’s Mini Filter into the equation, thus lightening and lowering the volume of the system. The only modification that I’d suggest is doing away with the stock Sawyer bottle due to it’s stouter profile and hard plastic, and replacing it with a cheapo bike bottle of your preference. Most that I’ve found have a universal thread that mates up with the Sawyer lid. This way, the end result is trimmer for front vest carry and also facilitates being able to squeeze the bottle for increased flow. Glenn and I used this system to great success for the entire length of our Teton Crest experience. I’ve been using it for over a year now and find it to be a very time-effective solution to water filtration in the backcountry. Dipping and sipping, we carried no extraneous water weight the whole way.
So, those two pieces were the winners used for this trip. Everything else was fairly standard and trusty, with a windshirt, small emergency/FAK, LW gloves, buff, headlamp, and extra calories being carried inside the vest back. All other stuff, such as camera, gels, chews, electrolyte tabs, water, mini-map, and bear spray were carried somewhere in the external front and lat pockets. The system works pretty damn nicely.
The route went something like this: Headlamps, running, and the rising sun. Wildflowers and surrounding mountains begin to show themselves. Wildlife as well. Six moose in the course of a mile. Deer on the trail. Ten miles and Marion Lake, the day has just begun. Shelves of flowers and the first glimpse of the Tetons. Death Canyon Shelf was awfully nice. Granite, Whitebark, and elephant’s head in AK Basin. The best flowers of the trip out of said basin. Cheeky marmot and the three Tetons from atop Hurricane Pass. Schoolhouse glacier and the best of moraines. Old growth Whitebark and Doug fir, huckleberries, tourists, Jenny Lake, tired feet, no shade, String Lake, and a celebratory soak in the outlet. Pica’s in town for the best burrito and margarita combo around. Campfire back at Gros Ventre with Julia, shooting stars and the milky way to accompany. A sound night’s sleep.
We really couldn’t have asked for a better day in the mountains. I can say it was training for The Rut 50K, but it was really just a gorgeous day out in some pretty nice wilderness. Just how we like ’em.
Ahh, summer. It comes and it goes around here. It’s been a while (recently married! and a house purchase!) but here are some late thoughts on my first official ultra. The Old Gabe did not go as I had expected but I still finished and learned quite a bit in the process. Held on the summer solstice with perfect weather, the OG50 provided participants a full-value run in the mountains. The week prior it was snowing up high and raining down low so a break for June 21 was very much appreciated. The course was a little wet in places, but a lot of it was dry and somewhat runnable. Some of it not so.
The race was rough and I experienced cramping early on that I then fought for the next 20 miles of the race. Much of this was due to an early and fast ascent-descent-ascent. By the time I was cresting Middle Cottonwood’s Saddle Pass for the second time (mile 12), my quads ceased working as I had expected them to. This was awfully disconcerting and it took me a few minutes to get going again. I still somehow held on and managed a sub-8 hour finish despite the cramp troubles. I kept the pace as manageable as possible and stuck to a good regiment of GU, GU Roctane, Bolt Chews, electrolyte pills, and water. There was mud, blood, snow, sweat, abundant stream crossings, wildflowers, wildlife, amazing volunteers, and great company. Even a stout 7-year old Scott Creel 50K record was broken by a very fast, Jim Walmsley of Black Eagle, MT! (results here)
Regarding gear, I’ll tell you what worked out nicely. I’ve been happy with these for numerous training runs as well as for the race. I’ll also be using them for the upcoming Rut 50K. After sitting pretty deep on the wait list for months as penance for a late registration, I recently received an email notice with entry confirmation. I am very excited and appreciative to be able to compete in such a world-class event here in my backyard. The Rut (VK, 12K, 50K) is hosted by The North Face athletes and fellow Montanans, The Mikes (Mike Wolfe and Mike Foote). It is part of the Skyrunner World Series and will host a deep field of elite mountain runners from across the globe. It’s bound to be a blast! Anyway, here’s the gear highlights from an otherwise pretty difficult Old Gabe 50K:
Ultimate Direction is the standout. I’ve been using numerous products of theirs for a couple of years now and I’m rarely disappointed. The two winners this time around are the Jurek Essential and the Jurek Grip. Both are lessons in simplicity and are obviously well thought-out pieces. The Grip is a no-frills 15g, 20 fl oz handheld solution. The Essential is a 59g waist belt that has two fixed pockets (one stretch and one nylon) as well as a small, stretchy, removable valuables/electrolyte pocket. It is built on a 3/4″ belt and can be worn next-to-skin and over a shirt. I personally carry a small emergency/FAK, 2-4 extra gels, one packet of chews, and electrolyte pills in the Endure with room to spare. There is virtually no bounce and I barely notice it is there for dozens of miles on end. It had become a staple of my mountain running kit. Paired with the Jurek Grip, I have quite the duo to get through most ultras that have regular aid.
So that’s it for now. It’s three weeks until The Rut and it’ll be taper time soon. Summer is winding down here with rapidly dropping temps and days of rain. I’ve got more than I had bargained for this go round, so I’m looking forward to the changing of seasons and the upcoming snow. But until then, there’s some more mountain running to be had!