Nearly every peak with a blazed trail leading to it in Yellowstone National Park has some sort of trail register. The popular Mount Washburn Trail just north of Canyon Village is an old Model T road, plenty wide and not too steep. On the peak of Mount Washburn is a fire watch tower with a viewing platform below. Supplies are still driven up when the tower is manned during the dry season. The black checkered composition book that serves as the trail register there fills up quickly with page after page of single spaced signatures and dates. The softly feathered pages curl back nearly to its broken spine while scattered throughout are the blocky printed names of kids who had skipped, run, or been dragged up the mountain with their parents.
The much more rugged trek to Electric Peak winds into the backcountry near Mammoth Hot Springs. After a long day of hiking and a scramble to the summit you’d be rewarded with a spectacular view from the highest peak in the Gallatin Range. You would also be able to sign its trail register, a small spiral bound notebook tucked inside a rusty metal box on the summit. That notebook has pages signed and doodled on, dates ranging back throughout the previous year or two. Electric Peak is a challenging hike and flipping through the trail register on the summit you feel like you really accomplished something. Not many people come out to Electric Peak, but you look at the notebook scribbled with name after name and feel part of a community. A group of people who will never meet but have shared that experience.
The highest peak in Yellowstone is named Eagle, it is a peak few visit and fewer summit. Rising up in the Absaroka Range east of Yellowstone Lake, Eagle isn’t the tallest peak in the Absarokas, several peaks nearby do reach higher kissing the sky at over 12,000 feet above sea level, but they don’t lie within Yellowstone’s boundaries. According to the grapevine, Eagle Peak has a registry as well. The same registry has sat on its summit for over twenty years. It is a single page barely full of signatures spanning two decades. If our group made it to the summit we would increase the number of names in the register by nearly fifty percent in a single day.
It was our second morning camping in the Washakie Wilderness of the Shoshone National Forest bordering Yellowstone National Park when Steve stood in front of me with dirty fingers and greasy hair. A toilet paper roll hung from one hand, a small orange shovel in the other. His mouth hung slightly open when he asked, “Did you just hear someone scream?”
Before we had left we had vetted our group fairly well. There was Mike and Christian, repeat summer staff and the strongest hikers among us. They are fast and wild, willing and able to really get out there. Kyle was a natural third with them. He had spent a lot of time hiking with Mike and the two of them had done day hikes together that would take me two or three days to do the same mileage. Alyson was a short and fierce college student. On a hike back east she and some friends came across a solo hiker with a broken leg. Stashing gear in the woods, the group carried the man for hours over ten miles of rough terrain. Looking for adventure with us was also two Taiwanese students, Becca and Jesse, who were working in the park for their second season while off from school. Close to one third of our staff at the general store were J-1 college students travelling abroad for the summer while studying back home. Rounding out our group was Steve, whose laugh, like his voice could boom through the woods. We knew, if nothing else, Steve would not be lost if we stopped for a second and listened for a Forest Gump impression echoing through the wilderness. Everyone with us had backpacked before. We had all camped in grizzly country and we had each hiked several hundred miles within Yellowstone itself. We felt prepared. We weren’t.
We had left before sunrise the day before, cramming gear and bodies into cars for the drive through Hayden Valley. Early morning fog rolled off the Yellowstone River and blended with the steam that rose from the backs of bison. The musty smell of wet animal hair blew through the car vents. As our caravan wound through the two lane road of Sylvan Pass the sun rose, spilling down the mountain peaks like a glass overfilled. To reach the trailhead we left the park through the east entrance, towards Cody, Wyoming, Eagle Creek Campground, and three days in some of the wildest terrain I could ever imagine.
It was July and it had taken us nearly two months of preparation to be ready to leave. Prepping for any of our previous trips into the backcountry usually consisted of flipping through Bill Schneider’s “Hiking Yellowstone National Park,” and heading out. The bright yellow Falcon Guide had led us through two summers of great hiking, but, like every resource we checked, it lacked information on Eagle. Even Google searches only yielded some personal perspectives and suggestions on the route to take to the summit. Our limited connection to the internet meant slow searches that returned only scraps of info. Our strategy took shape over many lunches in the dining hall. Mike had spent several seasons in the park and had a network of friends, both park service and concessionaires. Through the grapevine we heard reports of varied success that hinted at the impossibility of our endeavor. Some said the trail was hard to find, others suggested that it may not be possible at all. Weather was against us. Yellowstone had a wet and snowy winter that year and many of the high peaks in the park were still white, even in July, but the date was set and pushing it back wasn’t an option. Soon our group would begin to thin out as summer contracts ended and we scattered across the country to our next commitments. For some it would be heading back to school, others would be going to their next seasonal job. The stragglers of us would work until Columbus Day before finally being cut loose.
Steves’s mouth still hung open as we all stopped to listen over the crackle of the campfire. I stopped slurping my lukewarm cinnamon spice oatmeal and strained to listen while glancing across our camp. Was everyone there? The shriek ripped through the quiet, sudden and sharp like a clap of thunder. A softer, nearer rattle brought my attention back to our circle. My spork trembled in my mess kit as my hand shook with adrenaline. I retraced the fifteen miles we had hiked the day before in my mind. Remember, damn it. Was there any sign of another person outside of our group in the area? The only people we had crossed paths with had hiked into Yellowstone and away from us. The only footprints I could remember had been animal. The only sounds were the quiet rush of the creek where we camped and the deep howls of wolves as we fell asleep.
The wail pitched up to an inhuman level before it was cut to an abrupt silence. The echoes of the cry rolled into our ears and faded away to nothing. Then we heard the wolves. Ravenous growls and snaps of a hunting frenzy chased away the stillness that had settled around our camp and stirred a disquiet among us all. Everything we had just heard was north of us. Everything we had just heard was from the direction we would soon be hiking.