A couple years ago I wrote an article with some short history about the Bridger Ridge Run. The August 2009 issue of the Big Sky Wind Drinkers newsletter carried the article titled Ridge Run Reminiscing. As soon as I figure out how, I’ll post that issue of the newsletter on this blog for all to read.
That article briefly mentions that my first sojourn across the Ridge was in the summer of 1986 – a year after the inaugural Ridge Run. That single day deserves a bit more story telling than I covered in the newsletter article. My first Ridge hike captures the magnitude of the Ridge and what can so quickly go wrong. On all accounts, it was a bad day. It ended with the sheriff’s posse and search and rescue gathering at the M parking area just as my first wife and I sauntered into the parking lot at dusk.
It all started off innocently enough. A group of loose knit friends and acquaintances invited me to join them on a hike from Fairy Lake south along the crest of the Bridger Range ending at the “College M” picnic area parking lot (as it was called back then). It was “just a day hike” they all chimed in as they sold the idea to me. Most of the group had done it before. Some had done it several times before. One, Steve Brigham, had actually entered the very first official Ridge Run the year before.
Back in 1986, the idea of hiking 20 miles in one day over rough terrain intimidated me. I had never hiked that far in a single day. My prior record, 16 miles in one day, was set 10 years earlier on a day hike from Mammoth Hot Springs up Electric Peak and back down. My weakness is my feet. Not only are they flat, they are additionally weakened from immobilization in Alpine Ski boots for a good portion of their life. Even the hike up Electric Peak in 1976 trashed my feet. Long before we got back to Mammoth, my feet were complaining like they never had before. In 1976, I was still a teenager and too proud to let on, that my feet ached. Besides, I was with a group of park employees that included Judi Falk my first true love who I was trying to impress. Three time Ridge Run Winner Liz McGoff’s older sister Rossa was also on that Electric Peak hike way back in 1976. Small world eh? I must have covered up my weakness and impressed Judi as somehow I convinced her later that summer of 1976 to quit her job and hitch hike with me up to Glacier Park and the Canadian Rockies. I’m getting off track here. Perhaps that is another story worth telling.
The point is, that for 10 years, 1976 to 1986 I had successfully avoided long hikes and their associated foot pain. In the back of my mind, I made an agreement with myself to not hike more than 10 miles in one day. Now I was about to tempt fate and push way beyond my self-imposed limits with a 20 mile hike!
The Bridger Ridge dominates the scenery when looking east from just about anywhere in the Gallatin valley. Maybe it is this force of presence begging to be conquered that helped compel me to agree to do the hike. In 1986, I was with my first wife, Nancy, or as she prefers to be called, Princes Pualani. Nancy was not a hiker, climber or skier. On the surface, she was even less suited then me to hike the Bridger Ridge. Nevertheless, she wanted to come along. Nancy could dance all night long, but that fact did not ease the skepticism the group had of her abilities. She wanted to do the Ridge and I could not dissuade her otherwise. No one else was in a position to forbid her to come along. So come she did.
Here is a picture taken of most of the group at a rest break near Ross Pass. Not pictured is Steve Brigham, Forest Service Tim, myself and another guy I do not remember. Of the people that were on that hike, I believe Rhonda (red hair) and Kathy (shorts) are the only people that still live in the area besides me. Last I heard, Rhonda is still the director of admissions at MSU and Kathy is an elementary school teacher in town.
We got a fairly early start at around 8:00 AM. It was a typical summer day in the Bridgers, starting off clear and increasing overcast as the day progressed. From Fairy Lake to Bridger Bowl, the hike pleasantly progressed with friendly conversation and reflection on the views. Nancy was enjoying the adventure, but by the time we got past Bridger Bowl and were headed up Saddle Peak, she was noticeably slowing and getting fatigued. The following picture shows Nancy on the climb up Saddle Peak. At this time, worries about the weather set in. The sky weighed heavy with that pregnant feeling of expectation of something coming. Already the atmosphere was charged with electricity and the picture shows Nancy’s hair starting to stand on end.
I think the summit of Saddle peak was the last time the group was together. The weather indeed threatened as the clouds thickened and lightening danced in the sky off to the south west. There is nothing like lightening to inspire a quickened pace by everyone. But soon Nancy and I were lagging far behind the others. A bit past half way between Saddle Peak and Baldy is where I lost sight of all the other people in the group. From this point on, it was just Nancy and I. Without the visible peer pressure of holding up the others and probably because of tremendous fatigue, Nancy and I slowed our pace even more.
Before reaching Baldy, the wind picked up, the clouds lowered to ridge top reducing visibility to 100 feet or so. Next came the hail, further reducing the visibility to zilch with white out conditions. Fortunately, it was only pea size hail. Despite the hail’s pedestrian size, it was a constant horizontal bombardment and stung any exposed flesh with a vengeance. The hail was only a precursor as the main act of the storm was the lightening and rain. A wind driven rain power washed us and instantly pounded the rocky ground into a state of saturation. Ground currents of electricity tickled our feet every time lightning struck the Ridge. The thunder was nearly continuous so it was hard to distinguish one strike from another. I was not about to hang out in this mess to contemplate things. My instinct was to get down off the Ridge fast.
To me, pressing south along the Ridge was not an option. We were above tree line, it was zero visibility and being struck by lightning was a serious possibility. I knew the foothill trail lurked down below in the trees off to the west side. So that is where we went – downhill to the west. We soon encountered the false comfort the trees. But we were not out of the woods yet and the only relief they offered was from the wind.
The trees presented their own set of challenges. We were soaking wet, cold, tired, out of food and water. Nancy at this point was totally exhausted. She was also hypothermic. She was shaking uncontrollably and very weak. She could barely walk and did not have the strength to climb over all the deadfall we encountered on our hasty retreat off the Ridge. The forest greeting us was your typical lodge pole forest with trees as thick as hair on a dog’s back and littered with deadfall.
Nancy’s weakness and hypothermia put us into a serious life altering situation. Somehow we needed to clamber our way through the forest down to the foot hill trail and soon. Sitting around would not improve Nancy’s condition or mine. It is situations like these that strip one’s personality bare exposing the mettle of the soul. I was cold, wet and tired, but not hypothermic yet. Nancy was in trouble. Here lips were blue, her skin had a pale blue cast. Even the white of her eyes had a blue tint. She could barely talk coherently. When she did talk, it was to express her desire to quit, give up and die. Hmmm. My conversation consisted solely of efforts to convince her that we just needed to keep moving and eventually all would be well. The foothill trail had to be very near.
So keep moving is what we did. It was slow going, but it was going. Getting over each fallen log was a real process. I would lift Nancy’s legs, one by one over the log to get over the low logs. Logs higher than knee high required me to pick her up in my arms, swing both her legs over the log and place her down on her but on top of the log. I would then crawl over the log holding onto her so she would not tip over and then help her off the log. After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a couple hours, we reached the foothill trail. Reaching the trail brought Nancy back to life. It was concrete evidence that we would make it. Up to this point, it was just my words. Well before we hit the foothill trail, the rain abated, but the trail gave us much appreciated relief from slogging through wet underbrush and dead fall.
As we sauntered south along the foot hill, trail Nancy was already philosophizing about the ordeal. She was relieved it was near over. I sensed that she also felt like she had really accomplished something and conquered her own limits. She was admonishing me about the importance of staying on the path. Perhaps we could have pressed on through the storm and stayed on the Ridge. Maybe we would of gotten zapped by lightning if we did maybe we would of reached the M hours earlier. Who knows? It is all speculation at this point.
Interestingly, my feet were the last thing on my mind and I did not notice them complaining. There were other more pressing issues.
We still had to walk the foothill trail back to the M parking lot. That took another hour or two. I did not have a watch so I really do not know. We did get back before it was totally dark. Probably before 10:00 PM. Everyone from our group was still there waiting for us. Most had made it past Baldy before the storm really hit hard. Another couple did not make it past Baldy before the storm and bailed off to the east Bridger canyon side. They did not get back to the parking lot much before us. They had to walk all the way out to the Bridger Canyon road and hitch hike back to the M.
My first sojourn from Fairy Lake to the M took over 12 hours.
The following picture shows Nancy recovering that night in bed exhausted but proud of her accomplishment.
Of course as is so often the case in Montana, the next day was a perfect clear day. Here is Nancy with son Elijah posing with the conquered ridge in the background.