Fishhawk Creek and Chaos Mountain
Get on Google Earth and check out the Glacier Basin, Chaos Mountain, Avalanche Creek, all part of the North Fork of the Shoshone River drainage west of Cody. This area lies 13 air miles south of the North Fork highway and slightly north of perdition. Or maybe in the middle of perdition. If this is not the end of the earth, I am not sure I want to go there.
In a bit of land, a few hundred acres, lying relatively flat at 10,200 feet, ringed by Chaos Mountain, Battlement Mountain, Fishhawk Glacier and Glacier Basin in a 180 degree arc to the north and Howell Fork to the southwest, lies a boulder-strewn pass between the Yellowstone River drainage to the southwest and the North Fork Shoshone River drainage to the north: Glacier Pass.
This is rugged country, you might have surmised from the landmark names. Contour intervals are densely packed. Avalanche Creek’s cirque is so stunningly vertical that neither man nor horse can descend it (at least without ropes and a high degree of death wish in this Absaroka volcanic unconsolidated junk-rock); one must hike or ride in from the bottom, through grizzly-infested ultimate wildness. Parts of this geology are upside down after a huge Yellowstone caldera explosion. Mountain climbers don’t come here; the rock is too rotten. Tourists are not often invited into these rugged highlands. It’s pretty quiet here.
What, ask readers, affords our desk-jockey columnist license to write about one of the most inaccessible places in the lower 48? Well, ahem, excuse me, I have been there.
And, by the way, what was I doing there? Well, basically I was being a self-absorbed, bird watching, sightseeing, thermos-coffee-drinking photographer aboard my outfitter’s saddle horse as we climbed out of the timber into the pass while hunting for trophy Bighorn rams. There are hunters who are totally alert and on edge 24/7, and there are hunters who rely on their guides for cues. Big confession, I am one of the latter. ADHD on horseback, that’s me.
We had climbed out of cold beds at 4, choked down a quick breakfast, ridden horseback in the darkness for two hours, climbed the forested trail to the surely-legendary Glacier Pass and broke out of the timber; I was hungry, bored, distracted, eating a granola bar and taking pictures of jays. We were probably the first humans there in several years.
We got off the horses and were leading them along; I didn’t know, I was dumbly following my guide. He stopped, pulled out his scope, took a peek and quietly told me to gingerly turn my horse around and slowly and nonchalantly walk back to the timber, pretending we had not seen anything. The “anything” we had not “seen” was a group of seven trophy rams lying in the grass on the other side of the rock-strewn meadow. As we shuffled slowly back to the timber, they exploded over a steep cliff and vanished north into the bowels of Glacier Basin.
This was the Ultimate Stupid Moment. I was not hunting with a neophyte; my guide is one of the best. Both of us just had a lapse of alertness during a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There were several record-class rams in that bunch. They were smarter than we were. At least I got to see them run away, forever.
After the rams dropped off a nasty escarpment into Glacier Basin, we flogged the horses to a little group of trees at timberline, tied them and launched into the most strenuous hiking day of my lifetime. Wind sprints on steep scoria outcrops are highly recommended as conditioning. I was actually in shape then, running a 5k in 21 minutes at 4,500 feet. However, Glacier Pass is 10,200 feet.
We skittered recklessly down steep snow pack, scree and talus slopes, wildly defying death, into Glacier Basin, searching in vain for a track, or a hair, or a scent; nothing. We went up, out of breath, we went down. No sign. So, without a clue, we dropped further a couple of thousand feet, hopefully seeking a glimpse of our ghost rams.
Chance favors the prepared. We were not prepared.
As we dropped below timberline we lurched into lush patches of huckleberries, too juicy to resist. Suddenly hunting rams was forgotten. For me it was an exciting and nerve-racking experience scarfing berries out of a thick berry patch of which the grizzlies had recently harvested one-half; we were scarfing the grizzlies’ remaining half. To the left the berries had been carefully bitten off just below the berry-twig interface; to the right, the berries were intact. We speculated about how proprietary grizzlies might be about huckleberries. The air was almost redolent with Chanel’s Grizzly No. 5.
Descending further below the steep, treeless no-man’s-land, we wandered into lush hanging valleys soaked by waterfalls, erupting with color: Lewis’ Monkeyflower, Fireweed, Paintbrush, raspberries, thimbleberries, wild strawberries, red and black currants, giant mushrooms, with huckleberries everywhere. I kept expecting something prehistoric, like pterodactyls or dinosaurs or King Kong to emerge. Shangri-La pales in comparison. Carrying binoculars and a .270, I had brought only a tiny camera to capture a few images.
This was fun for a while, forgetting the rams (and the painful embarrassment associated therewith) while drinking spring water and gorging on berries, surrounded by waterfalls, absorbed with nature’s lush largesse.
Then came the harsh realization: we had to hike back up the several thousand feet to the pass and the horses. Filling our water bottles, we started the long trudge.
We saw no people, no horses, no horse dung, no tracks all day.
But the grizzlies, they are everywhere. They dig up rocks for moths, they skin conifers for cambium, they root up stumps, they roar, they run for elk gut piles left by hunters, they are everywhere. We only saw three.
Postscript: when the grizzlies got home, they said “we only saw two”.