Yellowstone’s Avalanche Peak

Day eleven of our 37-day sojourn began with an early morning drive down East Entrance road.  We arrived at a parking lot about twenty miles from camp, on the western shore of Eleanor Lake.  We parked amidst a handful of other cars.  After we got out, we stretched our legs and shouldered our packs for the hike.  Across from us, a stout middle-aged man with a bushy beard exited an old red pickup truck.  We nodded hello and passed him.  We would see a lot more of him later on the trail.

We crossed the street and started up a trail.  And I mean up.  From trailhead to mountaintop the ascent was relentless.  The path immediately entered a dense forest.  We proceeded alongside a small creek flowing casually through the forest.  The woods were quiet apart from the whisper of the water.  The trail’s difficulty and remote location greatly limit the amount of foot traffic it receives.

We were in the heart of grizzly country once more.  It seemed like we risked bear encounters on every trail we hiked in Yellowstone and this was certainly no exception.  The trail is frequented by bears, especially in the fall when they seek out seeds from whitebark pines.  Just knowing I’m in bear country can be enough to put me on edge.  Hiking through a thick, dark forest with blind turns, downed trees, and eerie silence can make the hair on my neck stand up.  All you can do is be as bear aware and prepared as possible.  We didn’t carry bear spray, but we talked loudly and made plenty of noise as we walked.  We clapped, sang, banged large sticks and I continually knocked my metallic hiking poles together.  The least we could do was make sure any bears in the area knew we were there.

The Avalanche Peak trail is only four miles round-trip.  However, it gains 2,100 feet in elevation.  That means there’s over 2,000 feet to gain in two short miles of hiking, which is a formula for one very strenuous hike.  That’s even more feet per mile to gain than the dreaded Half Dome hike we were preparing for, albeit over a much shorter overall distance.  Avalanche Peak’s summit tops out at 10,566 feet.  That’s a couple hundred feet higher than Mount Washburn, and the mountaintops differ like night and day.

It couldn’t have been a tenth of a mile into the hike when we had to take our first short break.  We drank some water and started back up as soon as we caught our breath.  We took many breaks along our ascent of Avalanche Peak.  I prefer short breaks to longer breaks.  I feel longer breaks can kill my momentum.  Most of our breaks on this hike were two minutes or less with a couple being about five minutes when we had a snack.  At one such break we met Curt.

Curt was the gruff, husky man we had seen in the parking lot with the white bushy beard and red truck.  He approached us with a slow, yet deliberate pace.  He leaned on his large walking stick as he came to a stop next to us.  A Digital SLR Camera hung around his neck.  We introduced ourselves to this burly hiker and I almost immediately connected with him.  We talked about Yellowstone and past travels.  He was from the Northeast like us, and had done lots of hiking throughout the region.  He told us tales of backpacking in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and hiking the knife-edge ridge of Mount Katahdin in Maine.  And like me, he was very passionate about both hiking and outdoor photography.

Certain we’d meet again along our hike, we parted ways with Curt.  We marched on, up through the woods.  We couldn’t see anything through the thick canopy of trees above us, not the summit of the mountain we were climbing or the surrounding peaks.  There was no way to figure out far we had come so far.

Eventually the trail leveled off at a small meadow with a break in the trees.  Here we crossed the creek that we had been walking next to for so long.  Our brief departure from the green canopy overhead accompanied an up close and personal introduction to an explosion of multicolored wildflowers.  Flowers ablaze with half the colors of the rainbow spilled out across the meadow.  It came totally out of nowhere.

Then just as fast as the meadow appeared, it vanished as we re-entered the woods at a steeper grade than before.  The trail began to switchback its way up the mountain through the pine-laden forest.  We continued to scatter brief water breaks throughout the hike.  The more the path steepened, the more often we were forced to rest and catch our breath.

About a mile into the hike we arrived at the base of a large bowl.  I felt like I had just hiked the longest mile of my life.  The massive amphitheater bowl afforded panoramic views of the surrounding Yellowstone area as well as our first view up to our destination since starting our hike.  We stopped there and met up with Curt again for a few minutes.  Then we trudged on once more.

From that point on we were above treeline and completely exposed to the elements.  We would soon learn that wind and cold can sweep across the barren summit despite beautiful conditions down below.  From the bowl we climbed several more switchbacks up to another small clearing.  This one, despite it being the 19th of July, was covered by snow.  We had a fun break there as we tossed a couple of snowballs before continuing.  The mountaintop was not only within view, but within reach.

A steep talus slope stood between us and the summit.  Multiple paths led to the knife-edge ridge atop the peak.  The slope and the peak itself consisted of small, multicolored rocks.  Most were jagged and about the size of a fist.  The “paths” were merely shallow indentations into the massive rock pile that made up the mountain’s face.  All lines were steep, but the most gradual was the farthest to the left.

Even the easiest route to the top was intimidating.  Not only was it very steep, but a ferocious wind was now roaring down the mountaintop in violent waves.  We carefully trudged up the scree slope, Joe steadying himself with a large walking stick, while I used my trekking poles.  Just before the ridge, I reached a small bunker built into the side of the mountain.  It was a wall assembled of larger rocks by past hikers for protection against the unforgiving wind, if only for a brief respite.  I got there first and ducked into the bunker.  I had to sit down to maximize the protection of the wall, as it was only a few feet high.  The sharp, uneven rocks made the experience uncomfortable, but worthwhile.  The wind scouring the peak caused a dramatic plunge in the temperature.  I had to put on a long-sleeve shirt to keep warm.  Soon Joe joined me in the rock fortress and we both quickly ate sandwiches we had brought.

After our quick meal we were ready to reach the summit.  We climbed out of the bunker and back into the howling wind.  A few more steps and we were atop Avalanche Peak’s summit ridge.  This was a serious knife-edge ridge, with a sheer drop off on both sides of a slim path not more than a couple feet wide.  The ridge line stretched out for maybe 100 feet with the summit point at the opposite end from where we stood.  Slowly and cautiously we started across the ridge.  Between the strong wind and my fear of heights, it was a daunting task.  I leaned on my carefully placed hiking poles and stayed very low to the trail to minimize exposure.  I did my best to avoid looking down.  I knew that if I slipped or lost my balance I would surely fall several hundred feet and that would be it.  Joe was slow going, too, but not nearly to the degree I was.  Eventually we made it all the way across the ridge to the top of Avalanche Peak at 10,566 feet.

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This was the highest mountain each of us had climbed.  Unlike any of the especially difficult hikes we had tackled in the past, I felt absolutely great on top of the mountain.  Normally I was pretty sore, whether it was my shoulders from the pack, my legs, feet, or back.  This was the first time I wasn’t aching.  On the contrary, I felt on top of the world after crossing the narrow ridge and conquering my fear of heights.

Just past the summit there was another small bunker with a few people inside.  This was the most people we had seen on the hike.  We dropped into the rocky alcove and hunkered down with the others.  We got to talking with them and eventually got a brief lesson in orienteering.  Our instructor was a man a couple years older than us with a passion for the mountains.  Using my compass and topographical map of Yellowstone I had in my pack, he pointed out several of the surrounding peaks by name and showed us how it’s done.  It was a unique setting for such an experience.

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After our high altitude seminar ended most of the others started back down the mountain.  With the area clear, we had a better chance to explore and appreciate the extreme environment.  We were isolated atop Yellowstone.  Joe sat down on the edge of the ridge overlooking the miles upon miles of pristine scenery laid out below us.  I took a few steps in the opposite direction before taking out my camera and photographing the 360 degree panorama.  Closest to us, amidst the Absaroka Range, were the tallest peaks in the park.  To the west, straight along the ridgeline was the sprawling pale blue Yellowstone Lake.  Past the mountains to the south was the most remote area in the lower 48, the Thorofare region of the park.  Beyond the mountains to the north was the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and then the Lamar Valley.  In the southwest, far in the distance, I saw the snow-capped peaks of the Teton Range.  Sadly, after just a few photos, my camera battery died.  We had slept in a tent for the last week so I hadn’t charged my camera.

I was upset that I couldn’t thoroughly document our hike with my camera, but I was still at an awesome vista I couldn’t help but admire for a few more minutes.  By then Joe returned from his post.  We were both cold from the unrelenting wind, so we decided it was time to begin our descent.  Joe led the way back across the ridge.  I swear that as bad as the wind blew before, it was even worse when we turned back.  My body was so low to the ground that my butt was nearly dragging on the rocks.  When we neared the opposite end of the summit ridge I was in a glorified crawl.

I fully extended my hiking poles to assist my descent down the talus slope.  I again took it slow, putting a burden on my knees.  I may have felt great atop the mountain, but by the time I would make it back to the trailhead I’d be in a world of pain.

We stopped at the snowfield again for a quick break.  Sometime when we were higher up someone built a small snowman.  That was not what we expected to see on a mountain in mid-July.  After a quick meet and greet with the snowman we continued down the mountain.  We picked up our pace and started to coast down the trail.

We took very few breaks on the way down.  The fast stride was a breeze for me with my trekking poles and water bladder-equipped backpack.  I drank water as I moved and flew down the path.  We didn’t talk much because of how fast we were going, but we were careful to make enough noise to keep the bears away.  When we were almost to the bottom I tried to slow down on a particularly steep portion of the trail and fell right on my butt.

I had to drastically slow my pace near the end.  I had quickly gone from power walking to a snail’s pace.  My knees were on fire.  Flying down the mountain at such a fast rate finally caught up with me.  I tried to put all my weight on my hiking poles for the homestretch.  By the time we arrived back at the trailhead I was fully exhausted.

 

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These are my previous Yellowstone posts:

An Old Faithful Eruption

Sharing the Trail with a Beast

The Best Hike in Yellowstone

One Very Big Backcountry Lake

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