Our first day brought us twelve miles along Eagle Creek, a winding waterway that we crossed four times and never easily. The trail constantly eluded us. We crawled on downed trees over the creek and bushwhacked up hills too steep to stand on while we constantly looked for packed earth or an orange blaze. We were approaching Eagle Peak from the north, a route where the mountain would never really reveal itself until we stood upon it. Each turn in the trail revealed another mountain larger than the last. Each peak we were sure was Eagle until we slowly approached it and walked on only to see the next cutting into the sky. We slept tucked in a grove of lodge pole pines along a bend in the creek. We were just four miles by trail from the summit and were still unsure of what we would be climbing the next morning.
Our goal was simple on the second day of the hike: wake up early, hit the trail, and climb. We were nearly there, but what lay in front of us what would prove to be some of the steepest, muddiest and most rugged switchbacks any of us had hiked. The trail led up to Eagle Pass, the official line where the park began and our trek would become difficult. From the pass the blazed trail wound away from our destination and back down into Yellowstone National Park, into the “Thoroughfare”, the wildest and most remote place left in the lower forty-eight. We left the designated trail somewhat together as we looked only forward, trying to figure out the best approach for the summit.
We stopped together at a flat spot to rest and take in the best view of Eagle Peak we had so far. The place seemed like a natural setting for a group photo, so we lined up as Christian bent down, struggling to balance his phone between a rock and a downed tree limb. He punched the timer function, placed the phone down, and scurried away towards us, just out of reach as the phone tumbled to the ground and clicked photos of the clouds rolling across the greying sky.
“I’ll take the picture.” Shouted Jesse, stumbling towards Christian during another failed photo.
“I’ve almost got it.”
“No, I’ll use my tripod.”
The confusion rolled through us and down the mountainside. Tripod? Jesse shrugged his oversized pack from his shoulders. After the harassment we had laid on him for his pack size, he now reached into it and pulled a full size tripod from the main body of the pack. Every other person on the trip had only bothered to bring the built in camera on their phone. Jesse had not only brought his Nikon digital with a selection of lenses over miles of rough trail, through rivers, and up mountains. He also packed a full tripod and remote setup for just this occasion. It was the only time he used the tripod in three days, but it is a hell of a photo.
The terrain spread us out as I lagged behind, feeling more shaky than anticipated. The faster ones in the group pressed on, putting more and more distance between us as I continued to make the mistake of looking down. The ongoing falling of loose rock tumbling away from each footstep took its toll on my confidence. It was less than a mile from leaving the marked trail when I had to reevaluate my attempt for the summit. I’d never felt afraid of heights or scared on any of the hikes we’d taken on before, but something about the uncertainty of this peak, the lack of trail, and the inability I had to figure out the best route forward all racked my brain. I could feel my mind spiraling into a dangerous pattern of nervousness and uncertainty. A good portion of our group sat on a rock nearly a half mile ahead of me when I shouted out, “I’m done!” while cutting across my neck with my hand in case they couldn’t hear me.
I had started this hike knowing that I may not summit, though I hoped I would. As I turned around I felt at first relief followed by a wave of nausea. Each step back was meticulous as rock crumbled down the steep mountain side under my feet. My pace slowed to a crawl as the mile back to the pass took nearly an hour. At the pass I napped and listened to music while my friends trudged on without me. I waited for two more hours before anyone else returned. I shot up at the sound of boots crunching on dirt eager to hear who had summited. Mike arrived first. We sat and over trail mix and candy he told me just who had made it to the peak of Eagle that day: no one.
We chewed as Mike sipped crystal light and recounted how close our expedition had almost become a disaster. They had continued up without me, making decent time until snow slowed their pace. The steepness of the mountainside continued, the weather threatened with a grey sky, and daylight faded quickly. The pace slowed and the ability to reach the summit safely passed as the sky darkened. Maybe the strongest hikers with us could have summited with a smaller, quicker group, but it was clear that as careful as we thought we had been, our overall pace was too casual for such a daunting peak. With a collective sigh the group began to make it back to me and the pass when Kyle, a strong and confident hiker who had crushed the previous day’s hike, slipped on a snow bank. He skidded down with a slap and careened across the packed snow. His heals tried to dig in as a collective gasp rushed through the group. The snow bank he raced down ended at an abrupt cliff.
Death was no stranger to Yellowstone. Anecdotes abound of groups just like us, seasonal employees out for adventure, overconfident and under skilled. We had thought we had known what we were doing but as Kyle’s ass skidded over the snow everyone knew how wrong we had been. At the last second his heels made purchase and brought him to a stop mere inches from edge.
So as I sat with Steve that morning, over now cold oatmeal listening to a pack of wolves eat their breakfast, the hike out seemed more daunting than the trek in and the wildness of the place we were in was hard to ignore.