BMWO 2015 – Thalwegs and Insomnia

Preface
I like a good challenge, so when I read last summer that no one finished the 2014 Bob Marshall Wilderness Open I knew I had to come back for another. Last week I did, which was my third BMWO, having missed 2014 thru-hiking the PCT, but showing up for the first two in 2012 and 2013.

The central aim of the BMWO is to challenge your wilderness travel abilities via a speedy spring traverse of the rockies. For me, the 2012 BMWO was a visceral experience which provided a “just barely” answer to the question: “Could I complete something like this?”. Entering 2013, the central question became “Could I complete something like this without making a total mess of my body and route?”. That trip actually went off quite smoothly, thanks in large part to docile weather. With those big questions answered I was less nervous going into 2015, although I still hardly slept the night before. My route this year contained a number of off-trail sections, something I haven’t tackled substantively before and an area I wish to improve. Further making things interesting was my unknown conditioning (I’d only hiked one 5+ mile day in the last 3 months) and a last minute decision to leave the snowshoes behind.

Strategy:
My gearlist is here, although I ditched the snowshoes and neoprene socks at the last minute based on mild conditions. Similar to years past, I carried basic sleeping gear (mid shelter, 20F quilt, Exped pad), rafting gear, cold food and not much else besides a few electronics. I opted for 8000 calories of food, which I figured was comfortable for 2.5 days and could be stretched to 3.

Route for the 2015 Bob Marshall Wilderness Open
My route for the 2015 Bob Marshall Wilderness Open

Route:
The course for 2015 was from Owl Creek TH (SW corner of the Bob Marshall Complex) to the Swift Reservoir (NE corner), which is the best course Dave’s chosen yet in that it provides a huge array of similarly efficient routes. It left me at an impasse.

After some coaxing from Greg Gedney, I decided to take my packraft and utilize the always efficient SF Flathead to cover some water miles. The night before I spoke with Greg and sales-pitched making things more interesting with an off-trail route to the Holbrook valley en route to the South Fork Flathead rather than walk down Big Salmon Creek, but I was trumped by Dave who had devised a similar but better route using Burnt Creek.

We all agreed to head towards Burnt Creek and Dave would part ways later. Greg and I would float to Mid Creek, hike over Whitcomb Peak to the MF Flathead and then up Cox Creek to the NF Birch Ck to the finish. The route totalled 104 miles which Greg thought could be done in 2 days. I wasn’t so sure because my easier 2013 route took 2 days, but I was keen to try.

Day 1: Owl Creek to Near Spotted Bear. 56 miles (30 walk, 26 raft)
The morning of the event I awoke at 7am after falling asleep around 5am. I was too nervous to be hungry, but I ate a little granola and mingled with the robust crew of 17 participants. After just 4 entrants in 2014, the turn out was impressive and it included several people who had ambitions of running the course.

BMWO 2015 Start Line (photo courtesy Sam H)
BMWO 2015 Start Line (photo courtesy Sam H). Yours truly in the blue hat.

Dave sent us off right at 8am, which was good because waiting around getting nervous is the worst part. I was eager to get going and started the climb to Upper Holland at the front of the pack. I settled into a 3.3 mph rhythm with Tanner and Derek, but it wasn’t long until a team of 3 runners passed us on the climb. We were impressed they were running up a 5.8 mile, +2000′ vertical climb to start off a ~100 mile trip and figured it was the last time we’d see them.

We got to Upper Holland Lake at 9:45am where Derek split off to tackle Pendant Pass. Tanner decided to join me on the off-trail climb over Waldbillig ridge, which was great company after getting ahead of Dave and Greg. I wasn’t sure where those guys were but I didn’t want to break the rhythm of climbing because my body was already struggling with waning energy. I think the climb surprised my body before it digested any breakfast calories.

At Upper Holland the weather was clear enough for Tanner and I to get a visual on the ridge and choose an ascent route. The climb went well with a game trail becoming obvious early on and leading to a panoramic pass. By now it took my maximum effort to keep up with Tanner which felt unsustainable, but I figured I might be able to keep it up long enough to get over the pass into Burnt Creek and then I’d be done climbing for the day.

Bear grass on the Waldbillig Ridge climb
Bear grass on the Waldbillig Ridge climb
On top of Waldbillig Ridge
On Waldbillig Ridge looking towards the Lena Lake valley

I hung in there on the climb and we crested Waldbillig ridge at 10:30am where we had a nice visual of the snowy off-trail section to Lena Lake. We did a sweet little glissade off the ridge and contoured around at 6600′ to the pass into the Lena Lake drainage. My confidence in navigating these off-trail sections has greatly improved over the past few years, due in part to the BMWO. It also helps when you have a second opinion along.

Tanner and Lena Lake
Tanner at Lena Lake

As we wrapped around the North side of Lena Lake a hunters’ trail became obvious along the shore but it was mucky so we stayed higher on the snowpack. After the lake we crossed the Big Salmon/Shaw Creek divide and started the final climb to towards Holbrook and Burnt Creeks. Soon we intercepted the main trail to Holbrook, which was awesome to find after an hour off-trail. We knew it was there, but the mental relief of re-finding the trail after an off-trail section never gets old.

Soon it was time for me to split off for the pass into Burnt Creek. I already didn’t like how circumambulatory the trail/pass to Burnt Creek was, but when I got a glimpse of the snow covered sidehill route I started to have serious second thoughts. Back in 2013 I did some extended side hilling and it was slow, exhausting work. I had a look at the map and noticed that I could continue another 1/4 mile and then cut straight east over a ridge to upper Big Knife Lake in the Burnt Valley. It looked faster but risky, as squandering even a few hours could shift the math against me with my small food bag. I made the call to go for it while wondering if the backside was cliffed out or not.

Unnamed pass to Burnt Creek above upper Big Knife Lake
Unnamed pass to Burnt Creek above upper Big Knife Lake

I reached the new pass at 1pm and got a great view of the Burnt Creek Valley. I also noticed a lot of cliffs below me. I started walking along the ridge looking for access to the valley below. Before long I found this great chute:

Chute into Burnt Creek Valley
Chute into Burnt Creek Valley

I dropped an awesome 250 vertical feet butt glissade down the chute and was standing at the lake in no time, saving at least an hour over the regular route. I was quite pleased with myself, but I also a bit disappointed that I had extinguished any chance of being caught by Dave and Greg, with whom I was hoping to share the hike down the valley. I reckoned from here on the hike was solo.

On the lower angle slopes I started to traverse east. I figured the trail would be solidly buried by snow until it was under 6000′, so I stayed confidently above the trail on the north wall until I could make a clean descent to intercept it below 6000′. Soon I did just that and found the trail right where the snow ran out. It was a good trail that was largely snow free by this point and let me cover the remaining ~7 miles to the South Fork of the Flathead in a few hours. I reached the end of the trail at 3:30pm and bushwacked down to the SF Flathead for a 4pm put in.

Blue Virginsbower

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I had previously told Tanner that if I met him at the river I’d give him a ride across. After 30 minutes of floating I came to where Holbrook Creek feeds in and there he was, ready to swim. I offered him a ride but he was determined to see the swim through. He dove in and spent 35 seconds front-crawling across the river with his pack on, while I sat in my raft videoing and laughing at the ridiculousness of the whole thing. For the first 10 seconds it looked like he was just getting swept away, but soon he was making clear progress. He stumbled and fell a few times as exited the far side, obviously tired. He told me later “I don’t think there’s anything else you could do for just 35 seconds and feel like that!”.

Tanner at the SF Flathead
Tanner at the SF Flathead

I continued down the South Fork, mingling with Common Mergansers bobbing in the river. I was making good time at 6-7mph and wondered if I could reach the Mid Creek take out, portage 4 miles around the gorge and put back in to float another 9 miles to Spotted Bear that night. The math for achieving this before dark was dubious but I figured I’d try. I wondered if I’m crazy enough to paddle this in the dark. I tried to imagine being on the river with 1/3 moonlight + 200 lumens of headlamp.

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Paddling conservatively, I gave all the rapids a wide berth. This allowed me to stay dry and warm until after Big Salmon Creek. Finally I got wet near Black Bear Creek, which was good in a sense as it freed me to paddle the best line rather than darting all over the river to tip toe around waves. Below Black Bear Creek are two narrow gorges that funnel the energy of 6000 cubic feet per second of water into a channel about half the rivers normal width. I paddled the first without event but the second was the spot where I flipped in 2013. I considered taking out before this narrow gorge, but I decided to give it a look and maybe face my fears. Arriving at the distinctive spot, which is so narrow a tree lies suspended 20′ over the river, I eddied out on the right and had a look. The entrance was guarded by a scary but substantially smaller wave than 2013 and I could see a nice line through it. Before I had second thoughts I paddled in.

I entrance was powerful but my line worked. I was briefly stoked to have made it through. Then the powerful hydraulics behind it came into view. I tried to paddle hard to punch through the gorge, but was grabbed by a hydraulic and spun around. As it pulled me in, the boat dropped 6″ in a down current. As quick as it started I was released and I escaped out the back of the gorge no worse for wear. It’s not something I plan to paddle again in spring conditions.

A few minutes later I took out at 7:55pm (26 river miles in 3:55). I hustled around the gorge portage, still thinking about paddling a bit more tonight. The more I thought about it, I knew that paddling in the near dark was stupid even if the river is pretty mellow. I knew I only had time to paddle maybe 2 miles before dusk at 9:45pm, so I made the correct decision to continue on foot.

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I started up Harrison Creek at 9:30pm, flicking on my headlamp at 10pm. As usual, night hiking proved to be an intimidating grind. I was wishing Gedney was here for company and because he’s a mentally stronger night hiker than me.

I pondered how long I could/should go. Making it to the Spotted Bear River would line me up for a 2 day finish, but I didn’t want to hike past midnight on the first night. At 11:30pm I was 56 miles in and 3 miles from the Spotted Bear, which I figured was good enough for a chance at a 2 day finish. I wasn’t sure if Gedney or Derek would come along in the night so I pitched my mid next to the trail where I could be spotted.

Day 2 – Near Spotted Bear to NF Birch. 41 miles walk
There wasn’t a clear distinction between day 1 and day 2, as sleep normally provides, as I laid wide awake for the full 5 hours in my shelter. Night hiking always puts the spook of the forest in me. This pseudo rest ended at 4:30 AM when I heard the sound of crashing and breaking branches coming down the trail. It wasn’t graceful enough to be an animal, so I figured it must be Derek or Greg. I looked out and saw the faint glow of an overused headlamp. I considered trying to jump out and scare the unsuspecting hiker, but no one hiking solo in the dark with a near dead headlamp deserves that.

From the grunts I could tell it was Derek. He seemed happy to get a break from the log hopping and sat down for 15 minutes while I packed up. By 5am we were moving down the trail to Spotted Bear. Derek had some good scratches to show for all the miles of log hopping, while I had the beginnings of a sore knee from ramming it into a log. The beauty of rafting became clear when I realized Derek had twice the miles on his legs than I did.

We parted ways soon after the trail began to parallel the Spotted Bear River as I wanted to bushwack down and cross in a spot that lined me up for a Whitcomb peak crossing over to the Middle Fork Flathead drainage. My route down to the river got a bit more epic than expected, as I ended up blowing up the raft on a ledge and then rappelling a sapling into the boat. The river looked pretty substantial and I was glad I wasn’t fording. I figured Derek was in for a swim. (Note: Derek ended up finding the river too substantial to cross safely so he turned back and bailed).

Far side of Spotted Bear River
Across the Spotted Bear River

I started ascending the steep slopes out of the Spotted Bear valley, feeling okay but not particularly strong. I hadn’t eaten a ton of calories by this point and the lack of sleep meant my body didn’t get a chance to recharge. I huffed my way straight up the steep valley side and was relieved to find the trail right where I hoped it would be. The trail was nice walking and I settled into a good rhythm on the climb.

Glacier lily
Glacier lillies
Whitcomb Peak in the distance
Whitcomb Peak in the distance

On the climb I started to realize that my lack of a water bottle might be a bit of a problem. I lost it while packrafting when I forgot it in a side pocket on my pack and it fell in. This time of year in the Bob there are lots of streams to drink from and I’d done the BMWO without a bottle in 2012, so initially I wasn’t concerned but now I was finding the streams so cold that it was hard to drink anywhere near as much water as I was sweating out. It was about this time that I came across a faded bottle of V8 juice beside the trail. It was gross with 10% of the juice remaining from probably last summer. I opened it and it smelled moderately bad. I deliberated and decided to try and clean the bottle at the next stream. I rinsed it a few times and shook it with sand/gravel. After 5 rinses it looked okay but still smelled a little funky. I filled it with stream water and let that warm up. It worked well for the rest of the trip, although it always tasted funky.

MMMmmmm.........aged V8 juice.
MMMmmmm………aged V8 juice. The bottle should be the color of the neck band.

Continuing the climb, I spotted a black bear browsing the first tender subalpine greens on a slope far away. He didn’t pay me any attention if he noticed at all. The snow pack started as I climbed past 6500′. The south facing aspects were clear, but east facing slopes had enough snowpack to make sidehilling tough. I largely abandoned the trail in each east facing basin, choosing to either climb to the ridge or decend to the lower angled basin bottom. It worked well and I crossed the pass at 11am having walked about 2 miles on snow.

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Over the pass the trail crossed a lot of steep angled snow, so I chose an lower line through the alpine than the buried trail offered. I wrapped into the Schafer drainage and contemplated how best to navigate the terrain. I estimated the snowline at 6100′ and chose a bearing that would keep me above the trail until that point. It’s better to be reliably above or below the trail, than uncertain about which side you’re on. For the third time the off-trail navigation worked awesome and I stepped onto the trail about 20′ after the contiguous snowpack ended. I was starting to feel confident at this stuff.

The 10 mile trail out Schafer Creek was great walking and I made good time. I didn’t see any wildlife but the evidence was clear in the mud. The fords of Schaffer creek (groin deep) and Dolly Varden Creek (thigh deep) were cold but uneventful.

Bear, wolf, deer and elk tracks.
Bear, wolf, deer and elk tracks.

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I arrived at the Middle Fork of the Flathead and marvelled at how Malto had managed to ford here in 2013 at higher water levels. Blowing up the boat was a no-brainer, so I did and was soon across. On the far bank I sat down and crunched the math on finishing tonight. It was 3:15pm with 26 miles to go. Further than I thought. At 3mph that’s a theoretical midnight finish allowing for no delays. I figured I’d push to get over the last pass before dark and take it from there. There’s not much point making firm decisions when the wilderness hasn’t played it’s hand.

Reviewing the route at the Middle Fork
Reviewing the route at the Middle Fork

I headed upstream, surprised not to find any grizzlies foraging in the seemingly delicious adjacent meadows. Six miles later I reached my Cox Creek turn off where I stopped for a 15 minute dinner break (2 bars + pepperoni sticks). It was my first non-sleep break of the trip. My feet were starting to show a few blisters so I pulled out the Swiss Army Classic knife and snipped them so they wouldn’t grow further. A good snip with small scissors is technique I prefer over lancing, as it ensures the blisters won’t reseal and reinflate to cause a bigger problem.

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Horses on the Cox Creek trail
Horses on the Cox Creek trail

The trail up Cox Creek was easy but absolutely trammelled by horses. I contemplated why American’s allow horses but not bikes in the wilderness, although there’s not much lure in biking a trail after the horses are done with it. I also considered how the trails are funded in the Bob – supposedly with fees charged to outfitters. It’s a funding model that isn’t substantially used in Canada that I’m aware of, and it does seem to allow for a higher quality trail network than the user fee funded approach most Canadian parks use.

Spruce grouse
Spruce grouse

I reached Beaver Lake at 8:30pm, not a particularly fast pace up Cox Creek but fast enough that I figured I could cover the last 3 miles to the pass before dark. Continuous snowpack started soon after the lake but it was firm and animal tracks made it easy to follow to Badger Pass. At Badger I turned east for the final push to the NF Birch drainage. The trail stopped being obvious here, so I stopped trying to follow it. I climbed straight east towards the pass but couldn’t get a visual on it. I wanted to consult the map but didn’t stop because daylight was running out.

I should have been more careful as I reached 7100′ but couldn’t see the pass. It was 9:30pm and darkness was falling fast, so I was torn between properly studying the map and needing to keep moving. I spent a few minutes doing the former and realized I’d drifted too far south. I glissaded back down to 6900′, contoured north and found the now bare trail above treeline and climbed back to 7100′ as it grew dark. After all the previously successful off-trail bits on this trip, this little mishap gave my off-trail confidence a healthy shake.

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As I was steps from the pass a large male elk popped into view, cresting the pass at near the same moment but from the opposite side. We were 10 yards apart. He dashed laterally down the ridgeline, keen to get away from me but understandably not wanting to give up his hard earned vertical. I was surprised how developed his antlers were for this time of year.

The pass itself was awesome, with the NF Birch valley having the most dramatic mountains on the trip. It was 9:50pm, cold and windy. I knew it wouldn’t be fun camping here but I also wasn’t sure there was enough light to navigate down the steep snowpack and possibly cliff strewn slopes below me. Fortunately I could just make out the trail 500′ below wrapping around the north wall, so I followed the elk tracks across the snowpack, rejoined the trail and flicked my headlamp on. I was on pace for a 2am finish but I figured no one else was getting over the final passes any later than I did that night, so I could catch some sleep and still stay ahead of anyone behind by getting up with the sun. I reached the valley bottom at 11pm and camped where Steep Creek feeds in (5600′).

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Day 3 – NF Birch to Finish. 8 miles (5 walk, 3 raft)
The 4:30am alarm went off again but this time I’d slept at least half the night. For having ~6 hours combined sleep in the past 3 nights, getting up was surprisingly easy. Perhaps it was the lure of a little 5am whitewater. I almost blew up the boat at camp, but figured I’d walk the 200 yards to the creek first and have a look. Good thing I did, because the creek didn’t have nearly enough water to float. It would need probably 2x the flow to have any shot at floating it, and 4x to be ideal.

North Fork of Birch Creek
North Fork of Birch Creek

Disappointed, I walked along the beautifully meandering and wood free creek. I had reckoned this 3 mile stretch between Steep and Killem Horse Creeks was the best bit, so I wasn’t sure if I’d raft at all. When I passed where Killem Horse Creek feeds in the NF Birch looked a little bigger. It seemed a little crazy with all the rocks poking out but I figured I’d blow up and give it a shot.

My put in spot. Killem Horse Creek feeds in top right, then double drop on the NF Birch.
My put in spot. Killem Horse Creek feeds in top right, with the NF Birch at top left.

The floating was really awesome. I scraped on hundreds of rocks, but I was still making about 3 mph on the water. I came up to the first rapid I had identified on Google Earth. It was a pretty clean 3 foot cascade/drop with low consequences so I ran it. That gave me the confidence to run a few more Class III bits including some really neat gorges scarcely wider than the boat. I got out to scout one section, but I ended up running everything but two sweepers (which were easily foreseen) on that 3 mile stretch of river. I highly recommend this bit of water, particularly at higher flows where you could put in earlier.

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I took out where the creek drops away from the trail and enters a long gorge to Swift Reservoir. I assumed this would be too rowdy to paddle, although the bits I could see from the trail mostly looked like fun Class III. Someday I’d like to come back and explore this further.

I walked the last 2 miles around the reservoir not sure what I’d find. I wondered if Tanner or maybe the trail runners would be there to chat about the trip, but when I rolled in at 8:45am there was just everyone’s cars in the parking area. Reaching the end is always anti-climatic after the relentless intensity of a long traverse (105 miles, 48.75 hrs). It’s also a nice relief, so I laid on the grass for an hour soaking it in. I drove away at 10am and made it to Marias Pass on Hwy 2 before the intensity wore off and fatigue set in. I pulled over for a few hours of sleep. (Post script: Tanner finished about 3 hours later. His route was just as fast but he caught more sleep than I did. Full results here).

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Epilogue
I counted my food bag when I got home and found 1700 calories remaining, meaning I ate 6300 over 2 1/3 days. My wife says I look skinny and my belt is too loose on the tightest setting. The fuzzy peaches were awesome and I liked the pepperoni, but all the normally tasty bars were unappealing. Next time it’s all fuzzy peaches and sour patch kids 🙂

Physically my body did well. My left knee still hurts a little from hitting it on a log and my feet were a little puffy after the drive home, but 48 hours after finishing I felt pretty normal.

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