22 June 2011
Brandon and I set out to climb Echo mountain 2577m (8456ft). Brandon has a lot of history with the Bob Marshall wilderness (“the Bob”). He has wandered much of the Bob through the years and spent a good deal of his childhood in the area. I had no experience with the area having never been to Montana before this week. We began our traverse up the shoulder of Echo from the west, gaining access from the road that runs along the Kleinschmidt flats. In just shy of three hours, we climbed about 900m (3000ft) and were less than 30m (100ft) elevation from the summit.
For the last hour of the climb, we had been watching dark clouds form to the west. They were getting bigger and they were getting darker and they were coming our way. As we kept hitting false peaks, outcrops of stone that appear to be the top but are not, lightning strikes started hitting the mountains west of us. The lightning hit the far, distant ridges. Then closer ridges, then closer. The lag between lightning and thunder became shorter.
With less than a hundred meters to go, we turned around. With the lightning now at the ridge across the valley from us, a quick decent turned into boot-skiing the scree and bounding down the mountain. We made it deep in the trees just as the flash of light and roar of thunder were simultaneous, originating from the rocky peak which we failed to reach. We were safe, but for several moments I felt the hair raise on my skin. I could feel the static building in the air. It is – to date – one of the scariest moments I have adventuring. It formed my caution in backpacking and climbing in certain weather and pushed me to learn how to read the clouds.
25 July 2018
Echo mountain has eluded me for seven years. Any mountain I set out to climb, I climbed it. I know my boundaries well and can safely push my limits. In the seven years since we first attempted Echo, by no means a challenging climb, we have backpacked much of the Rockies, Cascades, Selkirks, Olympics… but we never went back. Maybe it was a convenient logistical thing, but I think it is more than that. Almost like “the one that got away”, something that pesters me in the back of my mind that keeps me focused and motivated. After seven years, we were ready.
The road that runs along the Kleinschmidt flats is well-groomed as far as dirt roads in Montana go. At the end of the road is a picturesque mountain lake, the kind of place you see in pictures and real estate magazines in California. The real estate prices reflect this. No washboarding and pot-holes for these tax payers.
Coopers lake is beautiful, please don’t get me wrong. There is a reason people pay 1,000,000$ for a cabin here. I do not hold these people with jealously or disdain, but it is not a secret that certain areas of the counties get a little better attention that others. Some roads get a road grader once a year or less while others are graded monthly, followed by a layer of calcium. When the plows go out in the morning, they have a path that hits certain areas first, always, even if it might not be the most straight-forward or economical route. The county knows how the taxes are distributed.
We took an unconventional route. We parked at the Dry Creek trailhead, a little ways up Huckleberry pass. This route took us several miles out the Dry Creek trail until we hit a “pass” where the trail crosses a low saddle. From here, we went off trail. First coming from the south, we bushwacked north up the shoulder of Daly mountain 2534m (8313ft). Near the top of Daly, we hit the scree fields just as the sun was getting low. We found a nice patch of bear grass to set-up camp.
We don’t use sleeping pads or tents. We search the area for grass, duff, pine needles, or any area softer than rock to sleep on. In the Bitterroots, we slept on a juniper bush.
We also do not use camp stoves. We don’t like how wasteful it is to bring gas cylinders, becoming reliant on a stove, or lose confidence and ability to provide for one’s self if external resources are not available. Bringing in a stove takes space, weight, and can be used just as irresponsibly as a fire. To cook warm food, we search for a spot clear of most debris and build a “pencil fire”.
This large rock in the ground provided a great back to the “fire pit”, the area we would keep a small pocket of embers.
First scratching away until bare-mineral-soil with no sticks or needles in it, we packed several larger rocks around making the fire pit.
Test-fitting our cups, I was satisfied with the shape. A small space between the large rock and the cups acted as a chimney and a small access area in the front allowed us to feed small, pencil-or-less sized sticks and twigs.
Sub-alpine fir are a great way to find dry twigs to burn, even when it is raining or in winter.
Using a few scrapes of pitch wood, I used a fire rod and my Morakniv in a bundle of dry grass to start the fire. The first few seconds are the largest flames as the dry grass burns.
With a small, bird’s nest worth of embers, we can cook lentils in a quart of water as fast as on a propane stove, about 15-minutes.
We slept well under the tarp which we only put up to protect from the wind. If there is little risk of rain, we almost always sleep under the stars or clouds. We woke-up in time for sunrise over the Scapegoat wilderness.
Bushwacking is our preferred way to backpack. There are fewer people – if any – and the trail is always wherever we want it to be. If we want to go to the north of this ridge instead of the south where the trail goes, we do it. With a Leave No Trace attitude and responsibility, we have no issue with going off trail. Sometimes, the going gets slow and the “trail” gets hairy. Between us and the top of Daly was a about 100m of dense sub-alpine fir.
Once at the top of Daly, we signed the register (a Kraft parmesan cheese shaker) and walked the ridge across Iron mountain to Echo. This ridge-run was mostly clear with a little bit of tree-wrangling on the north-slope of Daly.
The top of Echo was covered in butterflies and sweat bees. No real flies or horse flies to speak of. We sat at the top enjoying what we didn’t have seven years ago. We recorded a podcast, took a nap, and planned our route back. Our mission was complete.
Besides not using the latest and greatest camp stoves, we also don’t use water filters. In thirty years of combined backpacking between us, we have never been sick. Ever. We pick water sources carefully, small creeks with fast-moving water. We get as close to the source as possible, which is easy to do higher in the mountains. If everything looks fine, no funky algae, no weird scums, then we drink it and don’t give it another thought. Giardia & Co. is a risk, but if we were not carriers already, I’d be shocked. Giardiasis is a lot like chickenpox to us. Just about everyone in rural areas or those who adventure outside are carriers. Sometimes people are symptomatic. If either of us ever did present, then it is 50$ to the doc-in-a-box and we move on with our lives. I cannot express this deeply enough, if our water source is chosen carefully, we will probably never get sick. We train our immune systems to be top-notch. We drink creek water at home. In winter it is very fresh. In summer, it gets a little green. We drink it. We don’t get sick.
At this part in the creek, we found a nice patch of Micranthes odontoloma (brook saxifrage) formerly Saxifraga odontofolia. It tastes just like spinach and is a wonderful treat for lunch. Just a little farther down the hill, we found a few full Vaccinium membranaceum/spp (huckleberry) bushes. Not enough here to pick any appreciable quantity, but we had a great snack before hitting the road and walking to the car.