Monday, August 25, 2008

White Elephants

Ken arrived home Thursday night and couldn't wait to head to the mountains for a hike. On Friday he suggested we spend the next day walking back to our property from the top of the Beartooths. This is a hike we have done several times in the past and it is not for the faint of heart. It requires leaving a vehicle parked on top of the plateau and walking about 7 miles across the bumpy tundra to the edge of the mountain, then taking the old cow trail straight down
another 5 miles - a descent of almost 6000 feet - followed by a final 3 miles across the baked prairie desert to our home. It is a hike you only do every two or three years because it takes that long to forget the pain from the time before. Of course I said "let's do it!"

We parked the car and started walking about 10 am on Saturday. It was much cooler at an elevation of almost 11,000 feet but still warmer than we expected at 55* or so. The first few hours were extremely enjoyable with the rolling hills and arctic wildflowers still in bloom. The arctic gentian were everywhere. This is the only place I ever see them on a regular basis and it is such a treat. My favorite wildflower, though, has always been the elephant head. I remember the first one I saw near Banff back when I was still in my teens. I couldn't believe the amazing resemblance of each little bloom to the actual head of an elephant, complete with ears and trunk and even tusks. So imagine my joy when I discovered this incredibly rare occurrence at a remote location on the very top of the Beartooth Mountains - a cluster of albino elephant heads! I GPS'ed the spot so I could find it again when I had my close up lens in hand.

We stopped for lunch about 1:30 as we reached the front edge of the mountains. There are only a few routes off the top on this side and of those, probably half, like this one, are virtually unknown to all but a few. The trail we were on was the one used by the Tolmans to move their cattle up and down to their summer grazing allotment on the Shoshone National Forest. For a number of reasons - primarily losses due to predation by bears and wolves - they have not used the allotment for the last two years and there is some concern the trail will simply disappear from dis-use. The next 2 1/2 hours proved to us once again why this trail is used so infrequently. Going downhill at such a severe angle for a prolonged period of time is absolute hell on knees, ankles and hips. By the time we got to the bottom our packs felt twice as heavy as they had starting out and every muscle in my lower body was protesting in pain. One thing people tend to forget when getting ready for a big hike is to cut their toenails. Mine were fine but Ken had a big toe that was severely cramped the whole way down. He was limping badly for the last few hours and every step on the downhill was agony for him. His toenail was totally black by the next morning and I am sure he will lose it.

As we got lower in elevation the vegetation, wildlife and temperature all changed significantly. As we neared the prairie at the bottom of the mountain I heard the telltale ch-ch-ch-ch-ch of a rattle snake. Sure enough, there he was, stretched across the path in front of me until Ken chased him away with a stick. I tell you, I can find those critters anywhere! A friend once told me he thought my middle name should be Medusa and I think he may be right! A little further along I discovered one of my favorite high desert creatures. Horny toads are not very fast so they have to rely on blending in to avoid being eaten. They do a pretty good job of disappearing into their surroundings.

Once home we collapsed into chairs. It was a while before I could summon up enough energy to make a light dinner and then it was off to bed with the dirty dishes left in the sink until the next day.

The next day we woke up sore and stiff. We both know the best treatment for such a condition is a little bit of the "hair of the dog" so it wasn't too hard to convince Ken that we should take a short hike back to the white elephant heads when we went up to get the vehicle we had left behind. The plan was to take my close up lenses and get some photos of individual blooms but I was totally bummed to find that, despite a solid hour of searching everywhere I could think, I simply cannot find my lenses. I know where and when I had them last but they have disappeared. I am sure they will turn up eventually but for now it is a real disappointment. We went up and did the approximately 6 mile loop anyway just to stretch our sore legs and to get a few more photos of the area.

We have had three more Search and Rescue calls in the last few days and I am hoping we don't get a call for at least another day or two that requires a lot of hiking - particularly downhill. As it is, the three that came in have followed the path of the last few: the first was for a missing pair of horse riders that did not return to their vehicle after going for a ride north of Cody. The problem was that during the time they were gone the forest fire burning in the area had tripled in size due to strong winds. We were not looking forward to having to go into the fire zone to search but before we made it that far they showed up at another trailhead further north. They had been scared by the increasing smoke and had changed their plan. The second came at 11pm at night and was for a missing three year old. The child was located before we made it as far as the pavement. The third page woke us up at 3:30 am Saturday morning and was for a 17 year old who had been partying on a mountain near Cody. She had headed back to her car but became disoriented and had called 911 on her cell phone. We were at the mailbox when the call came in that she had been located wandering along a dirt road by a sheriff's deputy in the area.

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