Previously on the Bridger Ridge Chronicles…
The Haas family failed on their first attempt to navigate the trails and routes of the Bridger mountains. After hiking an impressive 17 miles on the wrong trail they decided to admit their defeat and drop out to another trailhead. With bruised egos and blistered feet, the Haas family’s tumultuous relationship with the Ridge began. Undeterred, they returned prepared to conquer the nearly 21 mile Ridge hike. They were not going to let a mountain make a fool of them twice – the mountains had a different plan in mind.
Missed Part 1? You can catch up and read the whole story here!
Second Attempt: July 2014
After our first attempt, it seemed like as soon as we got off the mountain people who had completed the Bridger Ridge trail were coming out of the woodwork giving us tips and advice for hiking the trail. This bolstered our confidence in hopes to successfully complete the Ridge. Navigation. Check.
I decided I was not going to allow the Bridgers hand me my tush on a silver platter again, so I trained. I lost 50 pounds and began hiking and backpacking regularly. Two weeks before our second attempt I went on a 52-mile backpacking trip through the Pasayten Wilderness. I figured if I can easily hike 14 mile days with a 60-pound backpack, then I should be able to easily hike 20 miles with a 20-pound day pack. Physical fitness. Check.
We camped at the trailhead at Fairy Lake and headed up towards Sacagawea at dawn – this time with trekking poles. Once to the saddle between Sacagawea and Hardscrabble, we stuck to the trail on the left to make our way across a scree-covered slope just below the summit of Sacagawea. This saved our legs and precious time – on the previous attempt we took a well-worn path to the right out of the saddle that added unnecessary distance and elevation loss and gains to our trek. So far so good. We learned from our mistakes and were picking the right routes.
This was our first glimpse of a route versus a trail. The faintly worn path edged along the top of an unforgiving cliffside. A fall to the left off of the sheer rock cliff would be fatal. A fall to the right would mean tumbling down the talus-covered mountainside with nothing to stop your fall except perhaps a mountain goat, and it would be a long painful recovery assuming you were lucky enough to live.
This was my first time hiking technical terrain where foot placement was a necessity. I was used to hiking on well-maintained dirt trails with occasional rocks instead of hiking on rocks with the rare section of dirt peeking through. We were all on edge (literally and figuratively) about the technical trail, loose rock, steep slope, and high consequence falls. Nonetheless, we successfully made it to the chimney cairn, took a right, and began our descent to make our way around Ross Peak.
As we descended, we realized it wasn’t getting any easier, in fact, the stakes were getting higher. When we were on top of the cliff we were sidehilling, now we were on the same unstable loose rock but walking straight down a steep hillside. We gingerly picked our way down checking the stability of each foot placement. Above the treeline and mountain goats, we knew there was nothing but God to stop us if we fell. I guess I lived a sheltered life growing up on friendly Washington trails where your biggest concern was a sprained ankle or a skinned knee.
With a couple of foot slips, we were getting closer to the treeline, more level ground, dirt trail, and safer hiking. I was in the lead with my mom close behind and my dad bringing up the rear. I heard a stumble and rocks tumbling behind me, I whipped around to see my mom in full Superman going head first off the trail. She looked like she was about to belly flop in a pool, but instead, she was about to skid face first down a steep slope of sharp rocks with nothing to stop her fall. I immediately screamed out for my mom and began to run back up the hill as she continued nose-dive down the scree field. After skidding 30 feet head first, the only scrubby little tree around managed to stop her from tumbling further. Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree saves the day!
My dad and I rushed to my mom. We threw off our packs and grabbed our first aid kits as she laid there not responding our questions. She was doing what we call “self-evaluating” – ya know when you eat it really hard and you just lay there dazed mentally checking each body part to determine if you’re actually hurt or if you’re just in shock from scaring the shit out of yourself. Considering how the fall looked from my perspective, she was in better shape than she should have been. She had a softball-sized hematoma on her thigh and two numb toes from the initial stumble (those tootsies are still numb 3 years later). Her hands took the brunt of the impact since she skidded hands first keeping her face and chest up. Thankfully, she had been wearing old lifting gloves to protect her hands from blisters from the trekking poles. Although she was pretty rattled and not laughing at the time, if you ask her today, she’ll laugh and tell you all she could think about was “Protect the face! Protect the face!”
Once we cleaned up her road rash and collected our wits, we hit the trail again. We made our way around the base of Ross Peak and out into Ross Pass. This time we took the correct trail and headed up the faint center trail towards Bridger Bowl. This section of trail has to be my least favorite because it’s steep and deceivingly long. Just when you think you’re about to get to the top you see you have another couple hundred feet to go – it a daunting uphill grind.
As we came out of the trees and saw a giant stone pile in front of us. We were overwhelmed. Shaken from the close call with the fall around mile 3, bushed from the hard pull up, and now faced with hand over hand climbing to God knows where. We were unsure if this trail was going to let up. This was the first glimpse I had of my mom losing her mental strength. She is hands down the toughest women I know, but the mountain was taking its toll.
At this point, we still had a trace of naive hope that the Bridger Ridge would turn into a gentle and beautiful hike. We were very wrong. We assumed that when we got to the top of the Ridge it would be more level and a straight shot to Bridger Bowl – which marked the halfway point of the trail. We underestimated the Ridge once again.
When we got to the top of the spine and it was beautiful indeed, but far from gentle and far from a level straight shot to Bridger Bowl. To be honest, we weren’t even sure where the trail was, but we spotted small cairns that led the way. We followed the route markers straight over the top of the rocky spine. Later we would find out there was a safer route across the backbone.
This is probably a good time to tell you that my mom is terrified of heights. Not having been on this section of the trail before we were caught off guard. Just when we thought the trail couldn’t get any wilder, the Ridge said: “hold my beer and watch this.” We were shocked to see such treacherous terrain laid out in front of us – it’s hard to believe there’s a trail run up here! We began to delicately pick our way across the rocks trying to find the safest route. As we shimmied across 6-inch ledges and jumped across gaps in the rock, it became obvious that the danger of the trail was dominating over our mental strength. I stopped to take a picture of my feet on a ledge, and my mom about had a heart attack just watching. To be honest, I am not what is stronger her fear of falling or her fear of seeing someone else fall – this comes back into play later on with this attempt and with attempt #4.
Naturally, as we teetered on ledges we discussed what would happen if someone fell. We all agreed you would not survive and you would be lucky if they could recover your body – sounds fun right? Not the ideal scenario for a family hike, but then again we weren’t on an all rainbows and butterfly’s type of hiking trail.
When we finally made it to Bridger Bowl ski resort, we stopped to eat and let our adrenaline wane to safer levels. Without knowing what was to come next and being overwhelmed mentally by the first half of the hike, we begrudgingly decided to drop out at the ski resort while we still had a chance.
As we made our way down to the chairlift, I barely stumbled on the steep slope and barely fell up against the near verticle hillside. Truly not a big deal, but my mom screamed like Jamie Lee Curtis in a horror film then immediately tore me a new one for scaring her – by her reaction you would have thought I drop kicked a puppy off a bridge! I tried to get her to relax, but as you can assume if you tell a woman to relax it’s guaranteed to blow up in your face. It became glaringly obvious that we had made the right choice to drop out when we had the chance. Thankfully, it was a short distance from the Ridge to the top of the chairlift, and we were able to walk the rest of the way down on a nice wide family-friendly cat track. For the record, I would have paid good money to ride down on the lift instead of zig-zagging for miles on said cat track. Cat tracks are just as boring in the summer as they are in the winter.
Once again with tails between our legs, we trudged down the mountain smelling ripe with sweat and defeat. Another long day of hiking umpteen miles (15+ miles). Another attempt falling short of our goal. Back at camp and too tired to cook we ate cold hot dogs straight from the package, climbed into our sleeping bags, and drifted off to sleep dreaming about attempt #3.
Moral of the story? Save the trees – even the Charlie Brown trees.
Bridger Ridge 2. Haas family 0.
Part 3 coming Friday, August 25th – Third Attempt: “The Storm”