Previously on the Bridger Ridge Odyssey…
The Haas family found themselves defeated a second time by the ruthless Ridge. After a nasty fall and finding themselves precariously balancing on the narrow spine of the Bridger mountains they decided to call it and dropped out at the halfway point. Their determination to complete the one day trek brought the family back to Montana for the third time. This stubborn family was going to finally complete the grueling trail that stretches for nearly 21 miles over rugged unforgiving terrain.
Third Attempt: August 2016
This was the year. This was going to be the year that we finally completed the Bridger Ridge hike which has been eluding us. We were mentally and physically prepared – or so we thought. I had been doing a lot of big mountain and technical hiking up in Canada, and I was ready to show this mountain range who was boss.
We headed up at dawn and didn’t waste any time. The weather forecast looked good with light showers in the morning and clear skies in the afternoon. We were treated with spectacular views of mountain goats, rainbows, and rays of sun bursting through the clouds. It felt like God and Mother Nature were smiling down on us.
We booked it to Ross Pass, refueled, and headed up towards Bridger Bowl. We were pumped! The further we hiked the more confident we got and the clearer the skies got. Once we got to the top of the Ridge we immediately dropped off to the right – we learned this after the previous attempt. Dropping down 20-30 feet off to the left of the spine where there is a much safer route across to Bridger Bowl. We weren’t dawdling and made decent time. We stopped at Bridger Bowl to refuel and head up Saddle Peak which was our second to last big pull before the downhill.
Halfway between Bridger Bowl and Saddle Peak, an afternoon thunderhead rolled through. We were lucky enough to be in a small patch of trees. We stashed our trekking poles down the trail and hunkered down in the small pocket of vegetation.
The wind howled. Sheets of rain pelted our skin and soaked our thin layers. Thunder boomed around us. Lightning flashed in front of us. We saw a bolt of lightning strike the foothills below. We exchanged nervous glances when my dad said “I bet that starts a fire.” Minutes later smoke began to spiral up from the tree covered foothills below.
Shortly after, the storm began to fade and the sun began to shine. We had a team meeting. Do we turn around, hike back into the storm, and drop out at Bridger Bowl? Or do we continue on the Ridge towards the sunshine and our end goal of the College “M” trailhead? It didn’t take us long to reach a decision. Of course we were going to hike toward blue skies and the finish line! It seemed like a no brainer, but we were gullible and easily duped into thinking weather was predictable and the Ridge was tameable.
We shook off the rain and headed up Saddle Peak towards blue skies away from the storm. As we climbed to the top of Saddle Peak, the sky and weather began to rapidly change. A massive storm came out of nowhere and fast – the storm unleashed and the temperature plummeted. We did our best to cover our exposed skin because we were being sandblasted by the rain. We couldn’t walk on the trail across the bare ridge because the gale force winds were catching our packs and our feet knocking us off balance. Instead, we had to sidehill on loose shale below the trail for fear of being blown off the Ridge. We hiked through these conditions for 4 hours.
After sidehilling for hours and hiking 13 miles and counting, my knees were swollen and burning – I had a severe case of hiker’s knee aka runner’s knee. I wasn’t the only one who’s knees were barking. Having previous knee issues and an ACL repair surgery, my dad’s knees were barely hanging in there even with the help of trekking poles and knee braces. We were still hiking, but gingerly and slowly. My dad and I were becoming progressively slower and my mom was hiking progressively faster. She turned into a hiking machine. There were times she was easily a half mile ahead of us.
My dad and I were becoming progressively slower and my mom was hiking progressively faster. She turned into a hiking machine. There were times she was easily a half mile ahead of us. It had been in the 80’s earlier that day, and now temperatures were taking a nose-dive. We were not prepared with our layers to handle such a temperature drop combined with strong winds and being soaked to the bone from rain and sweat. My mom was freezing and it lit a fire under her tush, but my dad and I couldn’t keep up. My mom would stop and wait to make sure we were okay, she would get colder, my dad and I would hustle to catch up and punish our knees more. It turned into a vicious circle.
We began our descent of Baldy Mountain toward the treeline, it was 9 pm and the sun was about to completely disappear below the horizon. In my mind, things were getting out of hand. I knew I had precious and rare cell coverage. I knew I couldn’t hike any faster with my knees and my dad was one wrong step from a blown knee. I also knew my mom was on an uncatchable death march heading into the trees, in the dark, on an unfamiliar trail that had proved to be no cake walk. I love my mom, but leading on the trail is not her strong suit. She is always asking my dad or me to lead the way because she is unsure of the trail. At this point, my biggest concern was that my mom would be too far ahead of my dad and I, get disoriented in the dark, and get lost.
I asked my dad if we should call Search and Rescue and before I could finish my sentence he said yes. Uh oh! If my dad thinks we need to call for help we might be in deeper than I thought. I had to holler through the wind at my mom to stop. When I finally caught up to her, I asked her if I should call 911 she said yes followed by an immediate no followed by an immediate yes followed by an immediate no – this Jekyll and Hyde behavior was a symptom of mild to moderate hypothermia. This was my first experience with someone in the throes of hypothermia.
I called 911 and told them I was hiking on the Bridger Ridge, the dispatcher interrupted me and said “are you calling about the wildfire because we already know about it.” I chuckled and said “no, I did see the lightning that started that fire though…” and I proceeded to tell her of our situation.
With Search and Rescue on the way, we needed to stay put. We were on the edge of the treeline without any sizeable tree coverage, so my dad and I went to work to make the best of the situation. My dad and I got out our survival kits to get fire starters, space blankets, and anything we could find to use for warmth. I had some dry layers in my pack so I gave them to my mom. Unfortunately, I believe that was a mistake on my part. I wanted to help my mom, but I ended up putting myself at risk because I gave her what I needed to avoid hypothermia myself. Sometimes the best way to help others is to make sure you can take care of yourself so you can continue to assist the group.
It had stopped raining, but the wind hadn’t let up. We struggled to keep a fire going between the wind, loss of finger dexterity, and lack of proper fuel – in case you didn’t know twigs aren’t ideal fuel. We set out our glow sticks to flag down SAR, huddled together, and waited.
Around 10 pm a helicopter circled us, flew to the bench above us, hovered for a few minutes, and left. SAR told me on the phone that if a helicopter couldn’t land, then at the very least they would drop a ground crew to hike to us. Around 11 pm, a ground crew still hadn’t shown up. I called SAR back, and the guy answered the phone with a laugh and said “did you think we forgot about you?” and I chuckled replying “umm yeah!” He said that the medical helicopter couldn’t land because of the wind and the slope and SAR helicopters don’t fly at night, so a ground crew was hiking up to us from the College “M” trailhead to camp with us until a SAR helicopter to get to us in the morning.
Shortly before midnight, hypothermia and total exhaustion were taking its toll on all of us. The temperature was now in the high 30’s low 40’s. All three of us were hypothermic, but my mom had stopped shivering which wasn’t a good sign. Between the smoke from our small fire and being hypothermic, I became nauseous and began vomiting uncontrollably. My parents weren’t doing much better after hiking all day then suddenly stopping and sitting in the cold they were both overtaken by debilitating muscle cramps in their legs. Our situation was becoming more critical by the minute.
Suddenly like beacons of hope in the night, we saw head lamps bobbing on the ridge below us. The headlamps flickered like fireflies as the SAR ground crew made their way through the trees. At midnight, 4 knights in shining armor appeared out of the darkness. Ladies, you know when you were little and you hoped to be saved by a hot fireman or sexy lifeguard? Well, this was the adult real-life version of that times 4, but I digress.
Our SAR ground crew consisted of a paramedic and 3 SAR volunteers that specialized in alpine rescues. They were quick to treat us and devise a plan to get us off the mountain. We decided to hike down a 1/4 mile to the shelter of the trees, then depending on how we felt we could either camp there or continue on another 3/4 of a mile to a helicopter landing zone and set up camp. The crew was all smiles with the rare opportunity to camp and hike out with the people they were helping. Happy to serve and be in the mountains, they informed us it was a wild night for Gallatin County Search and Rescue. We were one of 3 simultaneous SAR missions in the area. All because of the unpredicted storm that rolled in. Imagine that! Unpredictable weather! Who would have thought such a thing existed.
They carried our packs and we began hiking. In the dark and wiped out from hypothermia and total physical exhaustion, it took us 1 hour to hike the 1 mile to the helicopter landing zone. Once to the landing zone, the SAR crew made quick work of setting up a tent and making a fire. My parents and I retreated to the tent, but on the cold rocks and away from the fire it didn’t last long. We ended up joining the SAR crew sitting around the blazing fire.
The crew was absolutely amazing – it was like sitting around a campfire with friends. Under clear skies, we picked out constellations and shooting stars. We exchanged stories of travel and adventure. We repeatedly apologized for calling them, and they graciously reassured us that we did everything we should have, and one of them told us about the time he got into a tight spot while adventuring in Alaska and had to call Search and Rescue himself. They commented on how well we worked together as a team and laughed saying they didn’t think they could have been so cool, calm, and collected if they had been in the same situation with their parents. For a hike that had gone so awry, it was turning into a great night with new friends.
We sat around the campfire waiting for sunrise when the SAR helicopter would be able to fly again. Shortly after 6 am, the helicopter landed in the small clearing. The SAR team laughed telling us our chariot had arrived. My parents and I boarded the helicopter and took off. We heard the dispatcher tell the pilot not to “do not dilly dally” because another thunderstorm was heading our way fast. After dropping us off, the helicopter returned to pick up the ground crew which was rare. With the impending storm, they wanted their guys off the mountain as soon as possible.
As we landed at the SAR station, I told my parents that I was coming back the next year to finish the Ridge once and for all. They scoffed and said something along the lines of no way in hell.
After the 26 hour ordeal, we were glad to be off the mountain but at the same time embarrassed to have made it so close to the end without finishing. Our camp was less than 3 miles from the end. SERIOUSLY?!?! So close yet so far away! I wanted to show the Ridge who was boss, and she bitch slapped me to remind me that Mother Nature will always win. The Ridge was not to be dominated, it was to be revered.
On the drive home, we planned our next and final attempt of the Ridge.
Moral of the story? Never trust a weather forecast or blue skies.
Bridger Ridge 3. Haas family 0.