WEEK TWO: THE BEAR WENT OVER THE MOUNTAIN
The grizzly tore down the sagebrush hillside – a rippling mass of fur and muscle that seemed hell-bent on covering as much ground as possible. It reminded me of an escaped convict, as I could think of no other reason why something so fierce and formidable would be fleeing so recklessly. I urged my jeep Charlie forward, hoping I could intersect with the grizzly when it crossed the road ahead, but ruts and potholes hindered my plans. The beast got to the road while I was still a hundred feet away. It stood up on its hind legs for just a moment to assess the interloper, then dropped down an embankment and out of sight.
I parked where the bear had disappeared, grabbed my camera and ran to the edge of the embankment. No sign of the humpbacked creature. It didn’t seem possible that it could have reached the edge of the forest below in time, and that realization made me suddenly nervous. I spun my head towards every bush in the vicinity, making sure there were no bears lurking about. After witnessing their speed from afar, I had no desire to see a close-up demonstration.
Wildlife had been tremendously abundant in this part of the Absaroka Range, east of Yellowstone National Park. Herds of elk, deer, pronghorn and yes, cows – this was Wyoming cattle country, after all – roamed across the rolling grasslands, which were bordered by white-capped mountains on almost every side. I felt bad for Charlie, who had to deal with rocky roads and numerous stream crossings as we pressed onward towards one of those peaks – the 12,319-foot monstrosity known as Carter Mountain.
We were both sufficiently rattled by the time I called a halt and agreed to travel the rest of the way on foot. While I was packing my bag, a loud whuffing sound made me turn towards the trail, in time to see another grizzly exit the woods. This one seemed to be grunting and breathing heavily with every move. It also didn’t like the looks of my jeep and I, and it scampered up the opposite hillside, wheezing all the way. I guess I’d be asthmatic too if I had to carry all that weight around with me.
That made two bears. As I set off down the trail, I had a weird feeling that the third one was going to be a doozy. Many people recommend using bear spray to defend themselves in these situations, but the only animal I’ve managed to take out of commission with the stuff is myself. I once had a can of spray holstered on my hip belt, and when I was making a leap onto a trail, my hand struck the trigger and caused a jet of concentrated pepper to shoot straight up my nostrils. I had to spend half an hour with my head beneath a waterfall, rinsing out my nasal passages before I was able to think straight again.
Piles of shredded white fur lay to the sides of the trail, however, making me very conscious of being a vulnerable, minority species out here. And when I left treeline and began wading through the dry tufts of last year’s alpine grasses, I was astounded to see how many bones littered the hillsides. Leg bones, jawbones, vertebrae… far more numerous than I can recall finding anywhere in the wilderness. Strangely, there was no sign of the living. Green grasses were only just beginning to sprout from the mountain slopes, so perhaps the terrain was not yet attractive to the hooved grazers.
But besides bears and bones, I had other issues to contend with. Mainly navigational. I had come to Carter Mountain on a whim after seeing its giant profile from a rural highway. Carter was not just a mountain, but a massif - a colossal mass of rock thirty miles long with thirteen unnamed summits, none of which stood out among its neighbors. It was the largest mountain in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and successfully climbing it meant finding the one summit that rose a few feet higher than the other twelve. That would prove challenging.
The maps and vague directions I gleaned off the internet weren’t very useful. I couldn’t tell if I was approaching Carter Mountain by way of the right valley. From so far below, it was impossible to gauge the relative height of Carter’s summits, especially when the differences in elevation were so minor. I had to pick a summit that might be the highpoint of Carter and hope for the best.
I hiked up to the sheer face of the mountain’s upper slopes, then scaled a side ridge that promised an easier route to the summit. Unfortunately, a series of breccia towers crowded the ridgetop, complicating the final distance. I skirted some and scrambled up the others. The towers appeared to be constructed from layers of balloon-sized, rounded cobblestones, each of which seemed likely to come loose beneath my fingertips. Patches of gaudy orange lichen clung to every surface, however, and their flamboyant presence served to lighten the precarious mood. I felt somewhat reassured; if the mountain wanted to kill me, I didn’t think it would be so cheerful about it.
Beyond the towers lay a rounded summit cloaked in a thick blanket of snow. I reached the high point with little fanfare, then continued just a bit further, fighting the intense wind so I could peer down the western slopes. The mountain fell away steeply, breaking apart into a series of towers and spires until it reached the shore of the Shoshone River, six thousand feet below. Beyond lay more snowcapped ridgelines as the Absarokas stretched into the eastern reaches of Yellowstone Park.
My triumph felt incomplete, though, because several summits to the south looked higher than my present position. I must’ve followed the wrong creek into the wrong valley. Bad luck. But since there was still time in the day, I trudged along the snowy backside of Carter Mountain until I reached the next high point.
I feared I could go no further. The true summit lay some distance away, separated by a short, but dangerous stretch of steep snowbanks and knife-edged fins of rock. Without crampons or an ice axe, there was too great a likelihood I would slip and slide out of control, tumbling through the towers and ricocheting down to the valley floor. There was nothing to be done about it, so I continued a short ways further in order to find a slope I could use to return to lower elevations.
I don’t know what caused me to reconsider. I was all set to return to the trailhead, but something inside me managed to tip the scales away from common sense towards foolhardy adventure… though only just barely. I found I couldn’t stop staring at a solitary line of elk tracks that traversed the entire length of the dangerous ridgeline. The feat looked impossible; at the least, I couldn’t fathom why any creature would do such a thing. I needed to see for myself.
Soon I discovered that the snow slopes, though steep, were thoroughly wet and soft. Even if I slipped, there was a good chance I could claw my way to a stop before I built up too much speed. During the more vertical sections, I diligently kicked steps into the snow with my boots so I could center my gravity and not fall backwards. The animal I’d been following appeared to have done the same, for the tracks went deep, and - wait a second… those are bear tracks!
What I’d thought were the prints left by an elk’s hooves now showed the unmistakable indentations of five claw marks in front of a rounded pad. Here was my third grizzly, and wouldn’t you know it… the beast was just as much an adventurer as I was. I couldn’t fathom why the creature felt it needed to haul its bulk up and over one of the trickiest routes on the mountain when any number of alternatives – such as going around the massif – would have been easier. Whatever its reason, I was grateful for the company. And jealous that bear claws work like natural crampons.
To compensate for my lack of claws, I moved to the exposed rock of the cliffs where the melting snow had revealed some handholds and footholds. Eventually, the ridge came to its narrowest point, dropping steeply away on both sides so that any slip would trigger a long tumble towards disaster. In addition, a layer of snow disguised the rock features so I couldn’t tell where solid ground existed or where the boulders were likely to break loose. I had to hunch over and grasp the ridge with all four limbs, essentially giving the mountain a bear hug and making slow, careful adjustments to my weight as I inched my way forward. Panic fought to disrupt my concentration, but the tracks of the grizzly provided silent encouragement. And when the ridge widened, I stood up on two legs and approached the summit as a human once more.
From there, the highest point on Carter Mountain was just an easy jaunt across a half-mile of snow. The wind at 12,319 feet was absolutely ferocious, however. I huddled behind a battered weather station, ate a victory snack and peeked out to snatch occasional views of a mountain range still struggling to free itself from the grip of winter.
The bitter wind encouraged me to move along, so I dropped down the east side of Carter and enjoyed a soft descent through a snowy basin to reach the left fork of Pickett Creek. A few hours later, I arrived back at Charlie and was relieved to see that Bear Number Two hadn’t broken through a window and ravaged my food supplies while I was away. The bears of the Absarokas had been good to me. Wherever they had gone, I wished them all full bellies, warm nights and safe passage to whichever parts of the Rockies their big paws might take them.