I regularly get lured into participating in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Open: a point A to B; plan your own route; wilderness event in the Montana Rockies during challenging off season conditions. It’s billed as not a race, but the “R” word slips out here and there – often enough to know that some individuals treat it as such.
Terminology aside, I try to move as fast as I can. With wilderness travel I haven’t been able to find a middle ground. The only thing that motivates me to suffer for mile after mile is if I’m trying to push as fast as I can. Otherwise I’ll slow dramatically to a pleasant pace. Moving fast isn’t a superior way to experience the wilderness, but it’s good to do occasionally because a stress test exposes weaknesses and amplifies the learning experience. If you can learn to go mistake free with your body, route and gear while pushing 40 miles a day, then you gain a nice safety buffer when you dial that back to 20.
The first BMWO was back in 2012 and I finished the 110 miles totally beat after 66 hours. I’d taken poor care of my feet, knees, shins, shoulders, gear and psyche. In the following years I returned hoping to “learn how to do this” and figuring I’d soon have it mastered and the learning would cease. Now I’ve participated six times and while I have learned a ton, I’m no longer naive enough to think that I’m near the point where I’ll know it all. There’s simply too many variables (water levels, winds, snowpack, precipitation, wildlife, terrain, fires, trail conditions, body limitations etc) and interactions between those variables (e.g. on what terrain does high snowpack disproportionately cause deadfall after a wildfire?). Every year I improve, yet every year mastery doesn’t seem much closer. If I stop coming to the BWMO, it won’t be because the event no longer challenges me.
The 2019 course started near the NE corner of the Bob at the Swift Reservoir, and ran 50 miles in a straight line to Swan Lake, with routes on the ground in the range of 80 – 95 miles.
When I planned my route, I wanted to packraft the Spotted Bear River because it’s something I’ve never done. Additionally, I wanted to link the valleys together with interesting passes to add a challenge with the potential reward of a short cut if successful. However, a weather forecast for substantial precipitation over the first two days put all that into jeopardy. Below is the route I executed, with the mode of travel colored coded by purple (on trail), red (off trail) and blue (packrafting), and with dotted orange showing high alpine routes that went unexecuted.
Day 1 – 38 miles (36 walk, 2 raft)
I awoke partially rested at the start on saturday morning after a night of sleeping on my packraft (good for snoozing) and worrying about the weather (not good for snoozing). It had rained briefly in the night, which served notice that the weather wasn’t going to cooperate this year. I had two passes planned for the first day, with the first one likely to be straight forward as it was a popular and low (6500′) route, but the second pass was intimidating. It was a novel route I had invented via Google Earth, and it was both high (7700′) going to be late in the day. Thus it wasn’t certain to go, and if it did it might be with the challenges of darkness, heavy rain, fog or snow.
With that weighing on my mind, I started briskly down the trail at 8 AM glad for company from Will, who put in a tremendous effort last year to finish hours ahead of me. Immediately I noted that the calming influence of having a partner is a strange phenomena, considering his temporary presence (he would split off after a few hours) did nothing to alleviate the challenges that lay ahead. Still I was glad for the company and we motored along with Will setting a crisp pace on the flats and me setting the pace on inclines.
We crested the first pass (Gateway) around noon after a largely snow free approach and worked nicely as a team to devise the best route through the soggy meadows and isothermal snow on the north side. In particular, we found a clever path through the otherwise mostly continuous snow by hugging the edge of the Gateway Creek gully:
Once back on good trail, the much feared rain started and we quickly reached Strawberry Creek. Soon after, Will and I put into Strawberry to packraft (downstream of Trail Creek). I figured I’d likely have to blow up the boat anyways to cross the Middle Fork Flathead in a couple miles, so if I could take a few miles off my feet here that would help. Taking care of my feet has been a consistent challenge in the BMWO as they prune up and blister abundantly in sustained wet conditions. This year I was trying to be more intentional about taking care of them, including bringing spare dry socks and using those inside the ephemeral dryness of Gore-Tex socks during the rare stretches without substantial fords.
Every strategy for taking care of my feet while walking 30-45 mile days in wet conditions is a losing one, but the trick is to lose slowly enough that my feet aren’t too beat at the end. Back in 2012 my blister strategy was simply to let it happen and keep walking, which resulted in a supremely painful final 24 hours. Most notable was the time a blister on my pinky toe expanded under the pounding of my footsteps until it encapsulated the entire toe in one big blister. Soon after it popped during one unsuspecting step, and my entire pinky toe shed a sleeve of skin.
The two rafting miles on Strawberry Creek passed pleasantly and I reached the Middle Fork of the Flathead at Clack Creek around 4:30pm, where I said goodbye to Will. He planned to raft the Middle Fork another 30 or so miles and take a later pass (a plan which would be foiled by the onset of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever from Will’s recent tick bite).
On my own, I got serious about the upcoming pass. The plan was to hike 5 miles up Clack Creek and ascend a steep slope on the headwall which appeared to form a break in the otherwise continuous cliff band of the Trilobite Range – at least on Google Earth. Once on top, I would follow that ridge with the option to descend after two miles into the Pentagon drainage (where a trail would await), or continue on ridges all the way to the Spotted Bear River at Dean Creek. The latter was the route with good style, but now with heavy rainfall and diminishing daylight hours I reset my ambitions to just completing the former, which in itself looked dubious with the potential for snow, rain and white out conditions on the likely corniced ridge.
Heavy rain continued as I moved up Clack Creek and disappointingly, I was greeted by substantial snowpack as well. The snow began at only 5200′ after largely snow free conditions until above 6000′ on Gateway Pass. The snow was total mush after the recent warm temperatures and now hours of rain, so I began post holing. I had MSR Shift youth snowshoes but I hesitated to spend 2 minutes putting them on, thinking they would sink through the isothermal mush just as badly. Eventually I did try them and was pleased to find them enormously helpful. In the span of a few hundred meters the weight of carrying them paid off.
On snowshoes I neared the headwall of Clack Creek and was greatly relieved to have the rain cease as I broke above treeline. With the dropping temperatures, I was worried about handling rain – or perhaps snow – on the high ridge. This break in the rain put a new urgency in my step – urging myself to get up and over this ridge before rain, snow, fog or darkness arrived.
Soon I caught my first glimpse of the corniced headwall (below). It was clear that the route would go – even if I had to tunnel through the cornice – and also clear that this was my only option within miles for getting over the Trilobite Range, with impressive cliffs on either side.
At 7 pm I was on top. The ascent was entirely reasonable, with no slopes steep enough to require removing the snowshoes, and a well situated break in the two-tiered cornice which allowed passage:
With the rain holding off and 2.5 hrs of daylight, I had conflicted feelings. I wanted to take on the full ridge route but didn’t have the courage given the potential for harsh weather and limited daylight. I also couldn’t come up with a good reason to take on that risk, given that the 5 mile shorter distance would be offset by slower travel on the snow. I calculated that the full 9 mile ridge route would take 4 hours on snowshoes, which would leave me navigating complex terrain in the darkness, even if the rain/snow held off. With another hour of daylight I might have risked it, but the pragmatic decision was obvious, so I turned my focus towards completing the still stunning 2 miles on the ridge to the Pentagon drainage. As I sit here now, I do regret not trying it because I could have pulled it off.
An hour later at 8 PM I reached my departure point from the ridge, still regretful I wasn’t doing the full ridge but not seriously considering it. By dropping off here, I had 1.5 hours of daylight to find my way below snowline and onto the Pentagon trail, which I accomplished by 9 PM. Getting over a pass and back onto terrain I can handle in darkness or bad weather is always a relief. As a side note, several other participants would go on to execute high passes well after darkness on this night and my hat is off to them. Maybe next year I’ll plan a really hard pass for 2 AM just to challenge myself.
Back on trail, my focus shifted to the next obstacle: packrafting the Spotted Bear River. I planned to put in 5 miles downstream at Dean Creek. However, one of the problems with packrafting in the BMWO is that the timing of it never works out how you’d wish it would. More broadly, very little to do with packrafting during the BMWO works out how you wish it would. Instead of packrafting at ideal flows, in good weather and with the company of friends, you often end up packrafting at high flows, solo, tired, during poor weather and at either dusk or dawn. I’ve realized the hazard of this, which is the first step in staying safe.
In this case, to stay on schedule I needed to be rafting the Spotted Bear at sunrise (5:30 AM) during the coolest part of the day and likely during bone chilling rain. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stay warm enough to paddle all 28 miles, but I figured my best approach was to lay up a few miles shy that night so I could hike a few warm up miles before my dawn put in. Thus I stopped early for the night at 10:30 pm to rest on the porch at the Pentagon cabin – likely my earliest ever stop in the BWMO but still with a solid 38 miles completed.
Heavy rain started but I was comfortable on the protected porch and was able to partially dry some gear near a fire while I semi-napped on my raft in my 20F quilt. At 1 lbs, the quilt is nice safety buffer and lets me go lighter on other warm layers.
Day 2 – 53 miles (28 raft, 26 walk)
I woke to my alarm 3:45 am after a largely sleep free night thanks to the worries ahead and company of a persistent packrat which lived under the porch. I wasn’t too concerned about the lack of sleep because I’ve experienced enough sleepless nights during the BMWO to know that I can do without as long as I get some time off my feet. I was concerned about the packrat though. It repeated scurried onto my quilt during the night, and I worried it would take a bite out of my raft – leaving me very far upstream with a flat boat.
The raft did survive the night of rodents, but much of my other gear fared worse. The rat sampled a variety of my stuff sacks, as well as the buttons on my InReach satellite device. Hardest hit was my inflatable life jacket which was no where to be seen. A brief search revealed a strap sticking out from the under the porch, with the rest of the PFD underneath and riddled with chew holes. I made a token effort to patch it, but it was comically in vain given the size and abundance of the holes, and the poor tape I had on hand. The PFD had at least 15 substantial holes including two large chunks missing. I contemplated what that meant (or should mean) for the upcoming rafting, and decided I’d paddle anyways. My mishaps when rafting almost always happen from a lapse in attention or judgement, so I used the lack of a PFD as a rallying cry to stay laser focused on hazards ahead.
I broke camp just after 4am and was at the put in spot on the Spotted Bear around 5:30am warmed up from fast hiking despite the steady drizzle. The river looked more sporty that I was hoping it would with the rain of the last 24 hours obviously driving up the levels, but likely manageable.
I put in and quickly had to navigate several logs across the river before the wood diminished and I was free to turn my attention to the upcoming rapids I had annotated on my map. One in particular was a must-make take out. The river grew steadily sportier and larger, with the latter not being my preference. A rowdy little creek is fun, but the whirlpools, boils and strange currents of a large river at high water are just unnerving.
Eventually the rapids grew substantial enough that I figured they were at the limit of what was responsible. I checked my position and was relieved to find I had just passed the most substantial rapid I had planned on paddling. From here the rapids were relatively continuous but shouldn’t be any harder. Beyond were a few canyon sections with beautiful waterfalls, spooky currents and moderate rapids – one of which separated a fellow participant from his boat – but I consistently took the most conservative lines and managed to stay surprisingly warm and trouble free.
Beyond the Spotted Bear River I had two route options over the final mountains – the Swan Range. Like the previous pass, I had left myself a choice between a grand line, or one that were merely good. Here the grand line was heading up straight up to 7000′ and remaining there for what would be a stunning (in good weather) 10 mile ridgewalk over 4 summits. Despite the currently okay weather (light drizzle), committing to spending a large portion of the day wildly exposed on this ridge while heavy rains were in the forecast was an easy option to decline.
I paddled another 8 miles downstream from where the Spotted Bear River joined the South Fork of the Flathead, and was relieved to be clear of any substantial hazards. Those 8 miles passed quickly in about an hour, and I reached my take out at Soldier Creek around 10 AM.
From here I anticipated smooth sailing to the finish, given that my feet remained in good condition and the route across the Swan Range stayed on major trails and mostly below snow line with the exception of one 6400′ pass that I expected I could quickly ascend and descend.
Unfortunately this would be another year where my optimistic plans were waylaid by the important distinction between red and black trails on the Cairn maps. Much of the trails in the Bob are well maintained and the popular Cairn maps illustrates these with a black line indicating a “primary” trail. Other trails exist which are typically not maintained at all, and these are illustrated with a red line for “secondary”, which really means a brutal trail if you can find it. I’ve previously suffered the ill effects of opting for a red trail in both 2013 and 2017. In 2013 I was naive at how bad these could be and intentionally chose one, while in 2017 I had hastily planned the route from a USGS map that unbeknownst to me had used black for all the trails. That year I never even found the trail.
This time around I was ensnared by a mistake from the map maker. I had purchased my maps from Cairn back in 2012 when they first came out. Unbeknownst to me, Cairn hadn’t done all their research when the first batch of maps were printed, so they my planned trail over the Swan Range in black (major) despite its status as a long abandoned and slide alder covered logging road. Thereafter they realized their mistake so newer maps have this route in red (which all the other participants were using) but I was unaware that Cairn had made this mistake and thus expected a maintained trail.
The first few miles to Soldier Lake were fine but on the back side the trail became an overgrown logging road, and then deteriorated entirely as I joined the “trail” for 8 miles up Conner Creek. It was immediately obvious this was going to be a horrible alder bash, but back tracking now was out of the question so I turned to the task at hand. I’ve been through horrible alder bushwacks before. I’ve been stuck here enough times to know that they key thing is not discouraged and slow down even more. Making 1.5 MPH when you wanted to make 3.5 MPH is disappointing, but if you slow further to 1 MPH or 0.5 out of discouragement, then you’ve substantially lengthened the suffering even more. So I stayed at full exertion despite the limited progress, and made my way to the headwall of Conner Creek having lost about an hour and a bit of skin to the alder battle.
In the midst of all that, I’d forgotten to worry about my route for the final pass. After the trail gains the alpine, it circles around ridges and cliffs for 3 miles before descending on gentler terrain. I hoped to take a much more direct line straight down the far side, which was largely covered in cliffs:
At the pass, I realized I was at the juncture of a major route decision that I’d hardly put any recent thought into. But I also wasn’t in the mood for a 3 mile detour after my alder battle, so I trusted my pre-trip planning that concluded there was a route through the cliffs. For a bit of context here, I quote the words of a fellow participant who would follow these tracks a few hours later:
“On the top of the ridge Dan’s tracks should have turned north to follow the trail. Unfortunately, I saw that they turned south, and then west. Pulling out my map, I quickly realized what that tricksy guy was up to. He intended to shortcut straight down the cliff face to Bond lake. I had taken one look at that section while planning my route and concluded that it was impossible.”
As I reached the edge of the precipice, it was clear that an impressive vertical drop awaited. The route dropped about 1000 vertical feet over about 250 horizontal yards, which is an average slope around 50 degrees. The trick is to keep the slope near that, and not hit spots that are substantially steeper still. I reminded myself of the plan “cut left and if you get to a cliff, cut harder. Soon I was nearing what appeared to be at least a few hundred feet of cliff, so I veered harder while rappelling down some alder I was now appreciative of. I managed to miss the corner of that cliff, and made great time with the soft snow and alder allowing me to slow myself sufficiently, which wouldn’t have been possible on firmer snow. In minutes rather than hours I was down to Bond lake.
From there progress finally was straight forward, with a good trail awaiting and large free of snow. My feet had only one blister to to this point, so I picked up the pace and finished the final 9 miles in 2.5 hours to stride into the Swan Lake Campground finish at 7:30pm (35.5 hours). That’s a new best time for me in the BMWO (having taken 39 hrs in 2013) albeit on a shorter course (91 vs 98 miles), and also the most brief trip of the finishers this year.
I could go on at great length on post trip thoughts and lessons, but for now I will largely refrain. In brief though, I was glad to arrive at the finish in good shape both mentally and physically. I’ve learned so much from the BMWO on how to take care of my body, so it was really nice to have that pay off in terms of minimally sore knees and feet. I could have legitimately gone for a jog the next day, which is something I can’t say of any previous BMWO. Still, it’s clear to me the learning is nowhere finished. In the years ahead I may leave the raft behind and push further on what I can do on foot alone, including exploring whether my worries of taking on high passes and long miles at night are rational or fear based.
Video of the 2019 BMWO: