[Note: This is the trip report I hastily wrote up after the 2017 Bob Open on BackpackingLight.com. I’m just now reposting it here so it’s more easily referenced for posterity]
The Bob Marshall Wilderness Open is point A to B, plan your own route, slightly competitive “non-race” event during the challenging off-season conditions of May long weekend in Montana’s Rocky Mountains. In other words, it’s an opportunity to really challenge yourself.
I don’t normally hike anywhere near as fast, hard and minimal [well sometimes I do], but I like to push myself in the BMWO to develop skills, put in a fast time and explore physical limits. Just doing the thing was terrifying back in 2012 and since then I’ve continued to try new things. Novel this year was the use of skis, leaving behind any shelter and carrying a mere 6000 calories in the food bag. My gear list (below) totalled just 16.6 lb, which isn’t much when you consider that 10.5 lbs of that was ski stuff.
This year I tried to plan a route suited to skis. It wasn’t really an “alpine” route, but rather one that used higher elevation trails likely to be under snow. I hoped some of the long descents would let me glide some quick miles. I also really wanted to get into the “heart” of the Bob – as far as possible from roads – which I consider to be the NF White River. In the past two BMWO’s I’ve crossed gravel roads (spotted bear, mid gorge) and these have hindered the wilderness feel. So I really wanted to stay in the meat of it this year.
Below is that 101 mile route. Note that it uses 4 passes: Washboard Reef, Switchback Pass, Wall Creek and Sunday Mountain – with 3 of those around 8000′. It also front loads those passes, with 3 on the first day.
Day 1 – 39 Miles – NF Teton River to NF White River
My hope for the first day was to get over Washboard Reef, Switchback Pass and Wall Ck Pass before dark (9pm), so I didn’t have much time for slippage. If I could do that, I might be able to hike all night and finish in the evening on day 2.
Things went as planned for the first 3 miles, but then I couldn’t find the turn off for the trail over Washboard Reef. The source of the problem here is embarrassing to admit on hindsight. In years past I had route planned using the Cairn Carto maps, which show the good trails in black while the sketchy ones are red, so it’s easy to distinguish which are derelict. When I planned my route this year I instead used the USGS maps on CalTopo.com, which I thought used the same color system, but actually all the trails – good and bad – are black. So unbeknownst to me, I had picked a poor trail which had actually burned a couple years ago and didn’t really exist.
Since I couldn’t find the turn off, I just shot off cross country where the trail should be. I actually did find a trace of it a few hundred yards later and it was moderately useful for 30 minutes until the snow started. There wasn’t continuous snow until 7000′ on Washboard Reef, so I only had the skis on the for the last 20 minutes / 800′. The whole reef was heavily corniced except for one small spot near the summit, so I slipped through there and snagged an awesome 1.5 mile or so ski decent. The fastest mile I’d ever done in the Bob.
Unfortunately when the snow ran out, there wasn’t a trail. I criss-crossed where it should be, but when I looking at the Cairn maps I was carrying, I realized my error and trail potentially didn’t exist. At this moment I also realized that I’d picked a whole bunch of these derelict trails for my route. Whoops.
So for the rest of the 6 mile descent down Wrong Creek (aptly named) I never found the trail. The valley was burnt and the going was tough. I motored pretty hard, but it was still slow going with perpetual the logs down from the fire. I reached the NF Sun at 1pm – only an hour behind schedule but I had expended a lot of effort.
Around this point, my left knee started to hurt and I realized I’d gone a bit too gung-ho with the hours of log jumping. I had inflamed my IT band. Knowing how bad this played out in 2012, I got nervous about the knee, but knew I had a good bail out at the Spotted Bear river.
Continuing, I headed up Open Creek towards Switchback pass. I was hoping the snow would start soon so I could toss on the skis – and it did – but at this point I realized my plan of just picking high elevation trails and hoping to ski them wasn’t as clever as I’d hoped. The skiing works, but following the trail when it’s buried under the snow and unmarked is hard. So following it is slow, but losing can be worse when the forest gets thick. So I hunted around for it and was slower than hoped as I headed up Open Creek.
When I got into the alpine of Switchback pass, it was both awesome and extremely hot. The mid afternoon sun blazing off the snowpack had me re-applying the sunscreen and thankful I’d been drinking lots of water. Sweaty. I was slowed by the dizzying heat and crested the pass at 5pm – 2hrs behind schedule because a huge effort couldn’t compensate for all of my misadventures. Still, the alpine around Switchback Pass is some of the coolest in the Bob. It was great being up there and the only person for many miles.
On the backside of the Switchback I traversed left on a shortcut I had devised into the Hart Lake valley. It looked really good on the map and shaved several miles, except for one part where the valley appeared to pinch off into a hanging valley with the creek heading over a waterfall. I hesitated dropping in, because a 5 minute 1500′ ski decent might mean an hour’s slog back up. But I had decided that this was a good idea when I planned the trip, and my decisions then are usually more sage than my emotion tinged decisions en route, so I dropped in and soon got to where the valley pinched off. At the falls, I took off my skis (with the snow perfectly ending here) and wondered how many unscouted shortcuts like this a man can take before getting burned. Thankfully I was able to solve the bottleneck with about 100′ of 4th class down scrambling to the valley below. I cut cross country to the trail out of Hart Lake and headed for the Spotted Bear.
The ford across the Spotted Bear River was – perhaps naively – the section I was most worried about beforehand. I forget if Dave said this, or if it popped into my head, but the words going through my mind approaching the Spotted Bear ford was that it was a “not a gimme”.
When I got there it looked deep and fast. I realized it might turn into a swim, so I took my hat off and clipped it to my pack. The river didn’t look great for swimming, with some rapids and brush downstream, but I ventured out into the waters. I made slow but steady progress and once across, reckoned that if it was any harder a ford wouldn’t be possible. It was funny later to look back on those thoughts. I also seriously mulled over my knee at this point, as this was really the only good bail option on the route. My knee hurt, but wasn’t too bad. Okay for another 70 miles? I popped an Aleve and headed onwards.
At 7pm I started up the Wall Creek trail to the pass (6800′), thinking how easy 6800′ would be after the first two passes around 8000′. I was still 2 hrs behind at this point, so my ETA was now 10pm – after dark – at the pass. I wasn’t sure how that descent would go so I pushed ahead in the hopes of having some light. Soon the snow became patchy (5100′) so I figured the skis would go on soon, but unfortunately the snow stayed patchy all the way to 6000′, which made for slow post holing.
At 9:30pm I finally stopped to pull out the headlamp, eat a pepperoni stick and put on the skis. Thus far I wasn’t sure how I was doing with the small food bag, so I just grazed lightly on my mini eggs, 2 bite brownies, havarti when I felt hunger. The general food strategy for the trip was just to easy before/during climbs, and I can burn enough fat to make good time on flat ground.
I crested Wall Creek Pass at 11pm and was disappointed to find bare soil on the south face. I had been worried the snow would be scant, but there was none, so I walked down instead of gliding.
Unfortunately the snow did start in the valley bottom. It was abundant, but firm and patchy, so I kept the skis off and made slow progress as I hunted out the trail with the beam of my headlamp. Thankfully some elk and wolf tracks gave away it’s location in many places. I thought of the other group headed for this valley, and that I was probably doing them a big help by putting some nice footprints down the hard to discern route.
It was dark but starry at 1:30am when I did the first ford of the NF White. All river crossings are terrifying in the darkness, so it’s a challenge to separate the rational fear from the unrational. Fortunately I had been this way in years past,so I had an idea of what I was up against. It looked a little easier than the Spotted Bear, so I went for it. Once I across, I was getting a bit sleepy and realized that the next ford a few miles downstream would be even harder. I didn’t want to do that in the dark, so I hiked 100 yards off trail to avoid any night wildlife and rolled out my sleeping mat. The lack of a shelter was mentally a bit weird, but it looked like a nice night so I passed out.
Day 2 – 37 Miles – NF White River Babcock Creek
I awoke with the daylight at 5:30 and got ready for the next ford of the White River. My socks and shoes were frozen, so I skipped the frozen socks and went barefoot to keep my sleep socks dry for the next night.
There are a several fords of the NF White in the next couple miles, most of which aren’t too bad (perhaps they are just a single braid of the river?), but the 4th and final ford is a doozy. The river was humming at the point. It looked at least as hard as the Spotted Bear to me. Again I suited up for a potential swim, and was aware that such a swim would likely take a while because the banks didn’t look conducive to crawling out. Like the Spotted Bear, I made it across, but it was hard. You couldn’t ford straight across because it was so pushy – you’d get pushed a step downstream with each step forward. But I just made it.
After this ford, the pressure seemed to be off. After 3 passes on day 1 I just had easy miles for day two. Zero passes. Low elevations. Just about 40 miles out the White River, up the SF Flathead and up Youngs Ck. Unfortunately the knee definitely hurt more on day 2. At this point I tried all the knee stretches I know (one) and took out my stash Aleve pills and counted them: 6. Hmm. Not abundant for potentially several days. I was starting to limp so I took one, figuring that using the knee anyways was better than the assortment of bizarre injuries that show up when you start doing big miles while compensating for a bum limb.
A few hours later I was across the South fork of the White, which was a little tricky but much easier. The left knee hurt more. I unavoidably started to limp and thought about how I should have bailed at the Spotted Bear. Exiting there now was a good 35+ miles and several hard fords back, so I pressed on. I guess if I’m honest, I wouldn’t have gave up even if it was easier.
Thankfully when I reached the SF Flathead the knee improved. The river was awesome and huge. Such great country. It was super hot and the ponderosa pines where giving off that delicious vanilla pine scent that they do when it’s hot. Mmmm…. I cruised down to Big Prairie – hustling to make miles and because apparently there are no creeks until Lime Creek at Big Prairie so I was parched.
Ever since I pulled over to snooze instead of hiking right through the night, I knew a 2 day finish was out. Actually that plan was on the rocks halfway through day one when I was 2 hrs late to Switchback pass. So my goal for day 2 was to do enough miles than the final 3rd day would be shorter than the previous two. I crossed the SF Flathead on the Big Prairie bridge, glad to not be swimming the river this year, as the flows looked massive.
A couple hours later I reached Gordon Creek. Or at least I reached where Gordon should be. I couldn’t find the creek, I could just see where the SF Flathead meandering into this valley – presumably merging with Gordan creek, and then exiting as one. So I hiked upstream looking for where Gordan Creek split off so I could cross it. I walked and thought, and realized that all of this must be Gordon Creek. I’d never seen Gordon Ck before so I didn’t know what to expect, but I was blown away. It was huge. I thought of how unimpressed the folks would be that detoured 12 miles around the Young’s ford just to find this massive “creek” blocking their way instead.
On the Spotted Bear and NF White River fords I had prepared to swim, but this time I really prepared. I put the trekking poles away – knowing they were likely to be lost – and replaced them with sticks, and did up the roll top tight on my pack. I felt silly for worrying about the Spotted Bear ford. I ventured out in the water. It was above the waist and fast enough that I couldn’t stand still in it – I had just enough weight and friction to remain upright while slowly sliding along the river bottom like a moon walk. I was losing 3 feet downstream to every foot I made it progress. Thankfully the first 1/3 was the deepest, so I just kept sliding/slipping/moon-walking forward while waving my arms to stay upright.
Half way across, I knew I had made it and realized that what I thought was the upper limit of fording rivers at the Spotted Bear was wrong, and the true limit is higher still – probably here at Gordon Creek, but who knows. That’s the great thing about the BMWO. I never would have thought you could ford a creek like Gordon before this moment. Looking at the gauge info post trip, the SF Flathead was ripping at 10500 CFS at the time. Kinda funny how the hardest obstacle on the trip was one I didn’t even worry about before hand.
As evening fell, I did more miles up to Young’s Creek and split off into the Babcock Creek valley towards the final pass. My plan was to continue as far as the trail went, and then once it faded out, gain the alpine and then invent my a pass over the final Swan crest to save miles compared to detouring through the Grizzly basin. Thinking about this plan once in the headwaters of Babcock, the words of John rang in my mind. He said it “looked brushy” when he peered into the valley from a nearby pass a week early. These words, combined my previously confessed error of thinking this was a good “black” trail, when it was actually a red “secondary” one that deteriorates until it ends entirely about 8 miles from the pass, got me quite nervous. I realized the going would be tough, but the bail opportunities were grim because they all headed off to the south and years ago I cut off this lower portion my map. If I headed up Young’s Creek, I’d be navigating blind, but turning around meant fording Gordon again, and then big miles thereafter. I wondered if I’d finally gotten too ambitious with the route. Funny how something that seems clever when sitting behind a keyboard, seems much more scary alone in the woods at dusk.
John’s words that it “looked brushy” rang in my mind all evening, and the trail did indeed degrade. It went into a burn zone with tons of logs down. The high rate at which it was degrading had my worried. At 9:30, I had 26 miles left and was tired of log hopping with darkness falling. So figured that was good enough to ensure a finish on day 3. I pulled over for 6 hours of sleep (and 2 ticks) from my 2nd night without a shelter.
Day 3 – 25 Miles – Babcock Creek to Lake Inez
I awoke at 4:30 and resumed jumping logs. Thankfully the burn zone ended after a few miles and the sun came out, and I got a bit more optimistic that my foray up Babcock Ck would turn out alright.
As expected, the trail eventually petered out. And when it did, it was right into a massive section of windfall. It was wild. Probably 1/2 mile where every tree was down. I crawled, jumped, teetered and crashed for probably an hour. This is also where I lost my camera, as some branch presumably yanked it out of my velcro shut pocket via the wrist strap. I knew there was no way I could re-trace my route though that mess to search for it – hence the lack of photos in this trip report.
Soon after the windfall mess, I started gaining vertical up the north wall of Babcock to upcoming cliffs at the valley head. I climbed from 6000′ to 7000′ and the forest opened. It was sunny, gorgeous, good travel and I was so relieved that I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my days swimming through trees in the Babcock. I tossed my skis on at 7000′. Awesome touring. I cruised through the sparse sub-alpine, loving it. I dipped through a bunch of bowls, eyed my intended pass just south of Sunday mountain and hoped it would be snowy enough on the back side to ski down. I’d much rather ski than scramble a 40-50 degree slope.
At this point I looked back down Babcock valley. I could see perhaps 20 miles to the South Fork and it was wild to think I’d walked all that. I wish I had a picture to share. I crested the ridge – the pressure off – and found continuous snow for the descent. I cranked it out in no time on the skis, leaving just a 10 mile road walk between me and the finish. It was 1pm.
Well Starbucks is closing, so I gotta go. The last 10 miles sucked. My blister count on my soggy feet went from 2 to 8, but I made it in for 6pm for a 58 hour trip. Today I’m sore. I didn’t touch on the knee thing too much on the last day, but that last day I polished off my Aleve supply and the knee is going to be sore for a few weeks.