Think baby steps.
Take tiny steps and keep moving up, up, up these damnable mountains.
My hiking boots step and stumble on some of the oldest rocks on the planet as we hike into the clouds of the Beartooth Mountains.
We’ve already gained 7,000 feet in elevation, and the air isn’t exactly Gulf Coast thick and humid.
I need water.
Man, this is fun.
My Mountainsmith pack weighs about 40 pounds, a small child’s weight; less than the first time we hiked the mostly eroded, round, granite hulks that rise northeast of Yellowstone National Park. If you look east while standing near the weird salt seeps on a hill of travertine at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone, you can see the 12,000-foot high Beartooths, an organ of the Absaroka Mountains which rise mostly in Montana.
We are outside the park boundary now, though. My brother, Brett, and two friends, both of whom have mountain goat genes, are on our way up to Lower Aero Lake. In our minds, the hike is a hop, skip and a tumble or two. Right now, the weeklong trip has been reduced to nothing but baby steps. We trust each other on our adventure to rocks that are both taller than us and our circumstances.
I can’t speak for the other two goats, but my brother isn’t exactly setting a speed record either. All I know is my lungs burn hotter than orange charcoal in the bottom of a perfectly prepped grill; my right heel blister leaks fluid again gawd dammit; my calf and thigh muscles whine worse than any presidential Tea Party candidate, but we keep climbing.
Remind me again why we are doing this.
Oh yes, we are hunting for schools of brook trout — fat, blaze orange autumn fish the size of footballs, fish that run and tug and battle and taste as good as they look, a 3-pound fish or more on every cast if you know how to catch them. But they’re up there and we’re down here. There’s another 3,000 feet to climb. We won’t see another soul because it’s early September. This is good. People make us owly.
The destination is a two-day hike for flatlanders like us. The last leg is damn near vertical where a very possible fall would be a bit problematic. The Beartooths aren’t Everest or Denali or Rainier or even Hood, and that’s a good thing. For 50-something-year-old bodies, the Beartooths are enough of their own peculiar challenge.
But now, like the fish, I need water.
Baby steps are all my legs and lungs can muster and I’m in pretty damn decent shape, or so I think. Despite all the bike riding and practice hikes with a backpack (I even mowed the lawn wearing my pack), we aren’t prepared for elevation’s cruelty.
The altitude tortures our bodies in stealthy, invisible ways. We simply aren’t used to height, where blood thins and symptoms of altitude sickness surface. Even at 8,000 feet, headaches happen, nausea stalks the stomach, nights become sleepless and humans become owly. Of course, if we had acclimated for two days before heading up, most of these altitude side effects wouldn’t happen. But no, we arrived in Cooke City after an 18-hour drive, slept, got up, ate breakfast, hit the trailhead and with adrenaline driven high fives, we were off like a herd of elk for the high country.
Baby steps. God I’m thirsty.
# # #
The last section of the climb is what the locals call Cardiac Hill. The climb isn’t recommended for the vertically challenged, even though the trail contains plenty of soft switchbacks. I’m sure the locals sprint up the thing and think nothing of it. We from the land of forests, trees and prairie aren’t so fortunate.
At the top, you follow the trail a few dozen steps east and there it is. The initial blue view of Lower Aero Lake shocks the senses and melts all pain. Every time we see it we wonder how the hell a lake that large can be hidden that high in those mountains. It’s a mile long and 300 feet deep. I’ve said it before: heaven is a hard, high place and hiking to it is hell.
We don’t bother setting up camp. You can almost hear the brookies calling our names while whispering “catch me, catch me!” I tied my favorite chartreuse and silver Northland Tackle spoon onto my line and cast the lure into the crystal aqua lake … and let it fall, 20, 30, 40 feet and bam, a brook trout strikes.
Let’s just say the fish were where they were supposed to be that trip, but we didn’t find them schooled up in awesome numbers like we had encountered on the far side of the lake two years prior. But battling that first brook trout at 10,000 feet quickly pushed the monotony and pain of the hike into the land of the forgotten.
We killed two fish and ate them that night. Nothing — nothing! — beats the taste of brook trout cooked over a small fire in an aluminum foil pouch with a little herb butter. Five-star restaurants can kiss my anal fin. We ate in silence as we gazed at the lake’s walls. The color blue saturated the land and the sky. Only the brown and grey of the lake’s bowl like cliffs interrupted the blues fest.
Rejuvenated, yet mellow, we set up camp. We spied a female mountain goat and her two kids as they watched us fish some more.
No motel bed can compete with hard rock, a comfy pad and down sleeping bag when muscles cry and middle aged men groan.
The full Harvest Moon rose, and its silver light illuminated the green, slippery silicone fabric of the TarpTent. Yet sleep remained elusive. For my brother, lying prone was a curse. He was restless. I drifted off to sleep.
We heard the sound of foot steps outside the tent around midnight. We were way above treeline, and we thought the threat of grizzly bears was below us. (The trailhead’s location forces you to hike through a grizzly bear management area.)
More foot steps. Baby steps?
And then we heard licking. We watched as the body of something brushed up against the tent. Bob and Quint in their tent heard it, too. Through the unzipped window we saw the source of the noise: the three goats had descended from the cliff and were wandering around the campsite and licking the ground. Turned out, we heard later, goats have an appetite for licking where humans urinate — I’m not making this up.
Clearly, like me, many creatures have a thing for salt. I prefer mine from the sea and a grinder.
At 3 a.m., the sound I heard was much scarier than unidentified beasts: I could hear my brother rasp and gurgle as he breathed. He had just lurched into a sitting position.
“I can feel the capillaries in my lungs bursting,” he said. A cop with EMT training, I trusted he knew what his body was revealing, medically speaking, in his lungs. Altitude had raised its ugly head and was striking again. His lungs were filling up with fluid.
Our mother frequently accuses us of doing stupid things, but we respect the wilderness and have learned a thing or two from making a few hundred mistakes in the wild over the decades. We grew up hiking around Mount Hood in our teens, climbed Eagle Peak in Mount Rainier National Park before at an even earlier age, capsized in a 16-foot boat on the day before the walleye opener on Lake Kabetogama, etc., etc., etc.
I knew Brett was in deep trouble and our only recourse was to hike down and out — if he could. But the moon sets quickly in mountains and we weren’t going anywhere for a few hours. He rested propped up in his sleeping bag as we waited for enough light to descend Cardiac.
I’ve never torn down a camp that fast. The plan was to head down to the base of the cliff and rest and see if there’d be improvement. Brett could barely walk. Bob carried his pack.
Using baby steps and bracing against the incline with sturdy hiking poles, we eased our way down in predawn light. He crashed for two hours by Zimmer Creek but admitted he still felt like crap. We had no choice but to retrace our path all the way back to to the trailhead — to head down toward what we hoped was safer air.
After a dozen rest breaks, shadows were taking shape by the time we got to the truck. The lower we got, the better Brett felt, but he still moved like a puddle of goo. So, I gave him a choice. Either we sleep in the truck, pitch the tent or head to Cooke City and catch a hot shower and soft bed.
I could hear his lungs rattle that night in bed, but morning brought much improvement. The mandatory descent was the right decision, the only decision we could have made.
That was the third time my brother had faced death and walked away admittedly without a smile. I might tell the other two stories some day, maybe after I tell my own. Let’s just say he and I have shared episodes with death one too many times.
Brett needed two weeks to fully recover from the sickness 10,000 feet can produce. For the record, Everest’s summit is nearly three times as high, although I read last week’s earthquake shaved off a few baby steps. His doctor told him he was really, really lucky to be alive.
That trip took place 10 years ago. We’ve had quite a few more adventures since then.
But time corrodes bodies and the process of aging can inflict some nasty surprises.
Brett had total hip replacement surgery a few weeks ago. He was grinding bone on bone, but a titanium socket and rod repaired years of abuse. I spent two weeks at his house assisting him during his recovery. It’s the least I could do. (The Minnesota Wild lost two in Chicago after I left; what does that mean?)
After a week on the rebound, we relived that trip and many others and talked about another Beartooth adventure.
If we do head west to hike, the trip would be more casual, much slower, more deliberate. This time, we’d both be content if the adventure turns out to be a hike of nothing but baby steps.