Feb 27, 2011

The assault on Bomber Mountain - 6, hike to Lake Helen


Sunday, August 27
6:30 am:  I whip open the Good Book, read a couple chapters, pray, then peel from tent into the crispy 30 degree morning. 

Anxious to motate, we speed pack as if sacking groceries while Fish brews a vat of hot chocolate. He stokes the amber sparks to flame, we sit for 20 minutes absorbing warmth from burning pine and plan today's six mile hike.  

Pants and packs on, we mosey over to the trailhead and deposit our registration card.  A ranger is emptying the box and quizzes us on multiple survival scenarios we might face in the boonies.  He yaks on about animals and hypothermia and getting lost.  A faint warning klaxon sounds in my mind.  We dish out the answers he's looking for and away we go. 

We'd geeked the books for months to learn how to decode topographic maps and navigate by compass.  How to handle the terrain, temps and weather patterns.  What to do when a black bear, mountain lion, rattlesnake or squawking marmot wishes to engage in hand-to-hand combat.  The books said the animals would leave us alone unless they were towing babies, and bears get cranky and hungry if the berry season is bad.  In these rare situations, there was little hope.  Experts pretty much said to raise your hands up real big and yell "NO NO BAD BEAR!  DON'T YOU EAT ME, I MEAN IT!!"  If that fails, then you are screwed.  You wet your pants and pray while not looking the she-beast directly in the eyes as it detaches your legs and feeds them to her fluffy cubs. 

We’d return to this spot in five days.  A month before the trip, I was joking with Fish that the before picture of us as we embark would show the three of us smiling, clean shaven, naive, and rearing to go. The after photo would show just Fish and me, partially mauled by some crabby mountain goat and missing miscellaneous limbs, with Sherpa nowhere to be found, M.I.A.

Although mountain virgins, we at least looked the part.  Posers, every last one of us!

We started down the West Tensleep Lake/Lake Helen trail, into the Cloud Peak Wilderness area.  The term “wilderness” in mountain speak has a distinct meaning.  The "wilderness area" is delineated on topo maps with a thick black line.  It's a place where man has not defiled the land, the lakes are clear and unpolluted and you most likely are outside of radio, TV and cell range.  You're on your own if bad things happen.  We'd be three hours from help if something ate Sherpa.

The trail was shaded and inviting, a path Red Riding Hood would skip down on the way to grandma's house to be eaten by a wolf. 

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A half mile in, we came upon West Tensleep Lake.  Not a person in sight, a chipmunk's chatter reverbed as the lake blew fresh air.   


My straw hat blew off, I put it back on.

We continued on, a couple of miles into the hike, the weight of my pack bit into shoulder meat.  I’m a fairly sturdy beanpole with good resolve, so shrugged and trotted on.  Sherpa and Fish looked good at this point.

“Beard, take the pita bread!” Fish barked.

“I don’t want the stinking pita bread, you take it!” I snipped. 

“It’s not holding in my pack well, here you go!”  He slung it at me.  I reluctantly jammed the eight-pack of pita into the top zipper of my pack as I scoffed and muttered.  Sherpa grinned.

The trail was chunky but not very steep, we'd gain only gain 1,000 feet today.  The footing was slippery in spots and balancing bricks on the back while traversing stones made for an interesting hike.  I’d run a solid 17 miler a few days earlier, so the legs were ready to work. 

The footpath was superb and different than I imagined.  The smells were an unexpected treat. It was like sliding into a car with a couple pine air-fresheners swinging from the rear view mirror.  But less artificial and more concentrated. 

Refreshing. 

Where are the birds and bugs, I wondered?  There were no whippoorwills calling from the trees, no flies or mosquitoes injecting us.  Stark silence, broken only with a swirling breeze.  I'd solve the mystery of the missing birds and bees later that evening.


A trek through Iowa woods is mud, mushrooms eating downed oaks, poison ivy vining up ash trees and thick brush wrapping around ankles.  Mountain woods are the opposite:  clean and dry footing, cushioned with an inch of decaying pine needles, thin vegetation, no weeds and fresh expanse.  The trees were worn, weathered and stout, and shrinking the higher we climbed.  They started looking more like pumped up bonsai trees as we neared 10,000 feet.

My hat blew off.

We hiked for an hour, then rested in an open meadow. We could see the mountains that surround Lake Helen in the distance.  We also heard mooing. What were cattle doing at 9,500 feet?  They were oddly out of place, as if airlifted from a Midwest farm and cruelly dropped off in the hills.  They seemed content enough, but were skinny.  We mooed back and trekked on.

Lunch was at the two hour mark.  Fish and Sherpa looked shot and were mute.  I felt okay and offered to grill steaks.  Lit the JetBoil and cooked two packs of chicken ramen noodles.  They tasted good, we relaxed for 45 minutes.  Fish fingered the map and confirmed "we are close, under an hour to go."  This gave us the prick of adrenaline we needed to get off our butts and finish it. 

My hat blew off, I replaced it.


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