backpacking

Wild Sage Summit / Women Backpacking in the Bitterroot Mountains / Part I

PART I

Jaymie whispered "Liz!" while nudging me awake. I could hear the fear in her voice even through my ear plugs. As I removed them, sound oozed back into my ears, and I realized everyone was awake through the eerily palpable silence. 

Then I heard it too and I froze. It was 5:56am on our final morning of Wild Sage Summit and I had naively thought: Finally we would have an easy day. How could this trip possibly get any harder?

...

Everyone was sent wild Montana sage with a question to reflect on prior to coming.

Everyone was sent wild Montana sage with a question to reflect on prior to coming.

When Alyx and I began dreaming up the first ever Wild Sage Summit, we thought, "Gosh, wouldn't it be awesome to gather a group of women to backpack through the rugged Montana wilderness?" I remember throwing in that word "rugged" because it felt appropriate for the kind of wilderness you find out here. But I didn't really think it would be RUGGED, like "full of hardship and trouble; severe; hard; trying." I guess that's exactly why every time I think of the Wild Sage Summit, a huge smile still forms on my face and I feel seated in contentment. Because overcoming hardship with people (in the flesh) bonds them. It does to our connection what digital double-taps and emojis can't.

So we came together to spend a few days steeped in the Bitterroot Wilderness. We had no idea what would unfold. We were simply journeywomen saying "YES" to an invitation, allowing our curiosity and passion guide us. 

Five women connected through our love of the outdoors met together for first time in Missoula, Montana. We knew each other through social media, but we had lacked the experience of meeting face-to-face. That kind of in-person connection really forges something that's impossible to create through screens. 

I remember picking Jaymie and Korrin up at the airport, our energy abuzz with excitement and the slightly awkward feeling that comes with meeting someone for the first time. Then Steph arrived, better known as @thedancingwind, fresh off her six hour drive from Idaho. Then Alyx. We were complete and the packing could begin!

At the trailhead.

At the trailhead.

We packed our new ultralight Gossamer Gear packs with our sleeping bags, pads and tents and shared what we'd be taking or not (like how many pairs of underwear we need for a 3-day trip). I shared that I only take two and trade off between the two and how eager I was to try a new pair of Dear Kates. Then there are all of our cameras. I latched on my new backpacking camera clip and hoped it would keep my camera secure. And of course, the food. We split up our Good To-Go meals, salami/cheese/pitas lunches, made our oatmeal selections and threw in a variety of Epic and Rise bars. Around midnight, we finally went to bed to get some rest before our journey the next morning.

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Our first day was spent climbing, and then climbing some more. We stopped to take an snack break underneath some aspen and pee in the woods. For some of the ladies, it was first pee-rag experience. (Yes! It's a game-changer ladies.) The rest of day felt particularly long as we hiked along an exposed mountainside, the sun beating on our bodies. And when it felt like "we should be there already"...we realized we finally were. All we had left was to crest the dam and find a campsite.

After seeing Bass Lake with first eyes, I sighed in relief. It always feels so good to arrive, doesn't it? Every time, it's the same feeling of a day well spent, of a weary body ready to rest. It's that feeling of coming home.

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We washed up at the lake, devoured our mushroom risotto, marinara pasta, and thai curry and made camp. Not before sitting around a fire and sipping hot chocolate. Of course. (It's a small luxury no group of women should go without on a cold night if they can help it!) Our site was fairly small so we decided to cowgirl camp and let the star-filled sky blanket us.

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In the morning, we realized the millions of stars evolved into a million drops of dew. My cold soggy sleeping bag woke me up earlier than I would've liked, but between my long blinks, I caught a glimpse of this early morning light. Thankfully sunshine dries wet things and all things are forgiven when you get to wake up to exquisite natural glory! We were looking forward to getting to our next destination (Kootenai Lakes) to swim and relax lakeside. The plan was to arrive while it was still nice and warm so that a jump into the alpine lake would be welcome. Ahhh....I was SO looking forward to our chillaxin time. With that hope in mind, we ate, made sure to pick up all of our trash (and micro-trash!) and started the trek. The views looking back at Bass Lake were fantastic and my heart kept yelping, "Wow!" I was feeling so grateful to be on this journey with these women. 

Jaymie is sporting her Gossamer pack with the  Goal Zero solar charger . 

Jaymie is sporting her Gossamer pack with the Goal Zero solar charger

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Our route was to be a short climb up to the pass, long hike down the valley and another short climb up to the lake. I knew this trail wasn't going to be as clear as the one we took up to Bass Lake, but the book I read made it seem straight-forward enough. We made it to the pass and took a moment to soak in the view. I remember saying, "If you had any doubt we were in the wilderness, we most certainly are" as I looked out into the expanse. 

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In that moment, I felt so grateful to be in the company of new friends standing thick in the wilderness.

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And when it wasn't all "oohs and awws," Jaymie stood on her head, on a rock! (That girl!)
(PS. If you like her shorts, use WildSageSummit30 for 30% off at Dear Kate!)

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On our way down the valley, the trail became more narrow, steep, and challenging to follow. Our trust grounded in the next cairn, well, until there were no more cairns. "Uh oh." I remember this exact moment looking south and knowing that was the direction we needed to go, but all I could see was a 7-foot wall of brush we'd have to get through. Could we really be in this predicament? 

Wild Sage Summit / Women Backpacking in the Bitterroot Mountains / Part II

This is a 3-part series. If you haven't yet, here's Part I. Enjoy!

PART II
"Here, take two," I said.

I offered some magic beans to each person. They're really just caffeinated Jelly Belly's, but they work wonders for when you're stuck deep in a forest and getting to be really low energy. (You know, the usual.)

After everyone took their share there were none left for me, but I didn't care. I was already heavily adrenalized and I didn't need an energy boost. I just wanted all of us to make it out without being too horribly traumatized from this hike-turned-bushwhacking expedition. 

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There were all sorts of terrain we had to navigate through. Going over deadfall was among the top. Korrin is leading the charge here. 

There were all sorts of terrain we had to navigate through. Going over deadfall was among the top. Korrin is leading the charge here. 

No kidding. We were making our way through stuff like this.

No kidding. We were making our way through stuff like this.

While the ladies were finishing up filtering water, I scouted out a "path" and lead the ladies over a really large boulder, deeper into the brush. Hours passed of this cycle of ducking under branches, stepping over deadfall and having our legs cut by a thousand dry branches. Then we finally saw it. One single cairn. Huh...??? I wish I took a photo of it. 

I was 100% perplexed. Aren't cairns supposed exist as a string of them? 

Steph cracked a joke about how someone was like, "Yeah, I'd take this trail again" and decided to build that single cairn in the middle of nowhere. We all bursted into laughter as we continued on. Humor has such a way of diffusing heaviness and lifting our spirits, doesn't it? I felt so grateful for the gift of laughter and the extraordinary attitudes each lady had through all of these uncertain hours.

Taking a break.

The joke(s) and positive attitude of each person gave us the boost we needed to keep marching onward even through the roller coaster of a false bridge sighting, super rugged terrain, and a bear (OMG!) that was probably more alarmed by our presence than we were by his. Until finally. FINALLY, after about 10+ hours of bushwhacking, we arrived at the intersection of Kootenai Creek trail.

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I finally felt like I could let my ultra-heightened guard down for a moment, while recognizing we weren't finished. We still hadn't arrived yet. The sun was setting and we had 1.6 miles uphill to get to the Middle Fork Lake. Maybe one more hour or so to go I imagined. 

Up, up, up we hiked while learning new cheers, singing call-and-response songs, and playing a storytelling improv game. All of us contributed to that sense of play and positivity those last couple miles. Meanwhile, I was just relieved no one was badly injured.

It was pitch black and five headlamps illuminated our path when we finally reached our campsite after 10pm. (I'm usually asleep by 8:30 in the backcountry, so this was a record late arrival.) We put down our packs and someone called, "Group Hug!" Like magnets our bodies drew together, arms wrapped tightly, my head touched another head and immediately my eyes welled with tears.

We did it. A five or six hour (max) hike turned a whopping 12 hours through the most rugged terrain I've had to navigate. But we made it home. Safe at last. 

I thought we would crawl into our tents and pass out with empty stomachs, but to my surprise, Jaymie, Alyx, Korrin, Steph and I all sat around eating dinner and recounting the day. Our achey feet and weary bodies didn't stop us from re-living our journey. We laughed and laughed at what we had just overcome and I finally felt like I could sigh in relief. This late night time together was salve for my previously fear-ladened soul. 

If you turn on your red light on your headlamp, and point it at the  Good To-Go Thai Curry  pouch, the white text disappears and you get this. HAHA, Very clever and fun to find! It's also the best backcountry meal currently on the market.

If you turn on your red light on your headlamp, and point it at the Good To-Go Thai Curry pouch, the white text disappears and you get this. HAHA, Very clever and fun to find! It's also the best backcountry meal currently on the market.

My eyes grew heavy as we sat looking at the stars reflecting in the blackness of the lake. It was time to finally lay my weary head to rest. It felt EXTRA GOOD to be horizontal! 

I fell asleep to the thought of being only 10 easy miles from the trailhead. Then we would be home. 

"Good night everyone!," I said cheerily through my thin tent walls. It was the deepest slumber I'd fallen into in the wilderness, ever, when I suddenly felt a nudge. 

Wild Sage Summit / Women Backpacking in the Bitterroot Mountains / Part III

This is a 3-part series. If you haven't yet, here's Part I and Part II

PART III
You could slice through our collective fear. It wasn't quite 6am, the light barely able to break through the forest. We had only one idea what that very large wild animal sound could be. Well obviously,...A BEAR!

I cued, "1, 2, 3, XENA!" and we all shouted our loudest, sharpest Xena call we could muster.

Silence. It must be gone...

It started again. Thumping and huffing.

I cued, "1, 2, 3, HEY BEAR!" followed by our collective "HEY BEAR!!!!""

Silence. 

Thumping and huffing continued. 

If there was any part of me still asleep, I was now sitting up wide awake. I could feel my tent mate Jaymie's heart thumping out of her chest. We Xena and "Hey bear-ed" a few more times, but this mysterious creature was never phased. (Why is everything so much louder and scarier inside a tent?! It's just a thin piece of fabric!)

Of course by this point, I had run through my mind the scenario of me jumping out of the tent and confronting the grizzly face-to-face before it could attack the ladies. It went something like: I jump out of the tent (you know that this is impossible to do from inside a small backpacking tent with any sort of ease), spray it with bear spray, then it bites off my arm. The bear eventually goes away and I'm bleeding profusely, talking the ladies through how to bandage me to stop the life-threatening bleed. We then calmly proceed to develop an evacuation plan.

:) Totally ridiculous, right?

I rehearsed it over and over during those moments of silence while IT huffed and thumped around. It helped me build the courage I would need if I actually had to act.

The forest waking up.

The forest waking up.

It seemed time wouldn't move fast enough, or more accurately, that the creature wouldn't move on fast enough. In the silence, there was finally a voice. She said to me, "I have to pee." (Really? Right now?) LOL. (I wasn't laughing in the moment.)

Jaymie and I crawled out of the tent and while she peed, I stood guard with bear spray in hand. Then Alyx and Korrin crawled out of the tent to go pee too. I guess everyone had been holding it during our "bear" episode or triggered by it. Either way, everyone was now relieved and the light began to illuminate the place we couldn't see before, the place that held such frightening mystery. It was actually quite calm and beautiful, full of stillness, an obvious contrast to the wild chaotic story of my mind.

As the wilderness woke up, I sat wrapped in my sleeping bag outside, unable to shake the early morning adrenaline rush. Everyone else rolled back into their tents. The episode was over. That big scary creature was gone and we could sleep in peace.

[Side note: If you're wondering what the "bear" actually was - thanks to YouTube - we learned it was actually a moose. Moose are still quite a threat in the wilderness. (In fact, more deaths are caused by moose than bears and wolves combined).]

The hike out felt easy. The trail, clear -- perhaps a bit too clear, too obvious. It was a welcomed respite from the day before, but my spirit didn't feel as alive as it did when we weren't sure where we were...when we had to pave our own way. Could it be that I actually preferred the wild bushwhacking adventure from the day before?

...

A journey like that doesn't just end when we all say our goodbyes. All it does is illuminate our deepest desire for community, depth of relationship and experiences, and our longing to meet again.

Now when branches reach out and brush against my legs (which still makes me cringe a bit, by the way), I'll remember those hours we bushwhacked, and I'll remember the way I felt in the company of new friends, of my trail sisters.

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All my love to the women of Wild Sage Summit!
Lizzy


Itinerary / Teton Crest Trail Itinerary

Have you heard of the Tetons in Wyoming? If you haven't, they're crazy famous and rightfully so. They are EPIC. I'll let this picture speak for itself. Tomorrow, I'll post a gallery of images from this hike. 

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The Tetons are often photographed from the frontside (photo on right), which is magnificent and highly accessible to visitors. The photo above, however, was taken from the backside standing as close as you're going to get of the Tetons. Let's just say, we were right up in their business.

All that to say, the Teton Crest Trail should not be missed. It's one of my favs! Here's everything you need to know to get yourself on that trail.

Overview
The day before we started the trek, we picked up our first-come, first serve permit at the ranger station and stayed at a hostel in Teton Village. The following morning, we started our trek straight from the hostel. The route we took was one-way, point A to B. We cut out the first few miles of climbing by taking a tram to the top of Rendezvous Mountain. (Side note: I had heard that first climb wasn't entirely worth it, so we happily skipped it based on that recommendation. Plus, the tram was super fun!) We started from the south end of the trail and ended north at Jenny Lake, five days later. We then took a bus from Jenny Lake into the town of Jackson Hole to eat celebratory pizza and chicken wings. From there, we took another city bus back to Teton Village where our car was parked. There are variations to everything we did, but this was my approach to an affordable and challenging but not crazy backpacking trip.

Permits
(1) Apply for a permit between January and May 15th OR
(2) Show up to a visitor center and get a first-come first-serve permit the day before
$25/permit for the group for the entire trip
TIP: Show up as early as possible the day before, to get the best pick

Itinerary

  • Day 0: Go to Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center to pick up a permit; stayed in Teton Village to be at the trail head the next morning
  • Day 1: Rendezvous Mountain (End of tram ride) to Marion Lake (~6 miles) - When you get off the tram, first stop and use the bathroom at the little cafe up there. Then head left to the ridge line toward the service road. Follow the trail makers toward Marion Lake. You might get a little confused because it's not marked "Teton Crest Trail." Walk away from the tram.
  • Day 2: Marion Lake to Hurricane Pass (~10 miles) - Strenuous day of climbing two passes. People typically stay at Sunset Lake to make this an eight mile day, but I wanted to see sunset and sunrise at the pass (see pic above), so we took on two passes that day. 
  • Day 3: Hurricane Pass to Holly Lake (~10 miles) - You'll hike down down down down and then up up up up. Solitude Lake is gorgeous and worth stopping at before your uphill trek up to Paintbrush Divide.
  • Day 4: Holly Lake to Leigh Lake Site #13 (~6.5 miles) - Mostly all downhill. You'll see many day-hikers going in the opposite direction. When you get to the bridge, don't cross. Keep going north to Leigh Lake. The trail isn't super duper clearly marked, but clear enough. Trust it because campsite #13 is EPIC. It's a white sand beach, completely private with two established tent sites and a fire pit. I would highly recommend it.
  • Day 5: Leigh Lake Site #13 to Jenny Lake Visitor Center (~5 miles) - Wake up early and watch the sunrise. If you're there in the fall, the elk's prehistoric bugling is a sound like no other. You will feel transported into another world. The hike to Jenny Lake Visitor Center is beautiful with not a lot of elevation gain or loss. You'll see more day-hikers and cars along this hike because there's such great access to see the Tetons from the front. You will definitely appreciate that just two days ago, you were standing behind them. It's a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and gratitude. 

*Note: There are other options for how to hike this trail. I personally loved this approach because I felt like we saved the "best" for last.

Total Miles (~37.5 miles)
*Note: I did not use a GPS device, so this is my best estimate for what we hiked

Recommended Map
Trails Illustrated Grand Teton Nation Park Map

When to go
July could be buggy and still be pretty snowy. Check with the rangers for trail conditions.
August could be pretty buggy, but bursting with wildflowers (recommended).
September has little to no mosquitos, but most of the wildflowers are gone; weather can be fickle (recommended).
October has high risk of very unpredictable weather.

Difficulty level
It was a fairly challenging hike. Climbing up the passes were somewhat lengthy and difficult, however there were also portions that felt easy. If you're prepared mentally to do a fair amount of uphill hiking, you'll be fine. The endless amazing views will energize you to keep going.

Weather
It's impossible to predict weather, but when I went in mid-September it was supposed to be 50s-60s during the day and drop down to the 10s-20s in the evenings. It actually turned out to be 32 degrees when we got off the tram, with some snowfall. It snowed lightly all day and stayed in the low 30s. That night, it dipped down into the single digits. We were VERY COLD. Each subsequent day was warmer, but that unexpected cold snap was pretty harsh. Definitely call the ranger station to get the most up-to-date info to plan your clothing appropriately. Be prepared for anything to happen in the backcountry! Weather is always unpredictable.

How to get to the trailhead
Use your favorite maps app to get to Teton Village. Make sure to find a parking spot that's okay to be parked at for a few days. (In the fall (low-season), we parked near The Hostel, since we were paying customers.) From there, we walked to the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort tram ticket window to pick up our prepaid tickets, and hopped on one at 9am. It will take you straight up to Rendezvous Mountain where you'll begin.

Tram info
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort
Book online or buy tickets at the window.
Tip: It's $5 cheaper to buy your ticket online and pick it up at the window.
Open 9am-5pm
15 minute ride up to the top of Rendezvous Mountain with awesome views of the valley. 

Cheapest accommodation in Teton Village
The Hostel 
High Season - Winter & Summer ($34-$40/night for shared bunk room)
Low Season - Fall & Spring ($20-$28/night for shared bunk room)
*Tip: Since there were three of us, we got a private bunk so we could sprawl all our gear and food and distribute accordingly. We ended up paying $38/person for one night for the private bunk room.

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Shuttle back to car
Alltrans Park Shuttle
$14/one way from Jenny Lake Visitor Center to Home Ranch Parking Lot in Jackson
~1 hour ride
307-733-3135

START Bus back to Teton Village
~22 minute bus ride for $3 one way
Catch the red or green bus at Pearl and Glenwood.
The bus stop has old school auditorium seating.
Check schedule here
Check STARTBus website for latest fee info

Post-trip eats recommendation
Pinky G's Pizzeria
We had a delicious pizza, chicken wings, salad, soda and beer to celebrate when we got into Jackson. It was reasonably priced, delicious, and very filling!

Get the most up-to-date info here about Grand Teton National Park
http://www.nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/index.htm

Ranger station contact 
Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center
8am-5pm
(307)-739-3399

Most convenient airport
Jackson Hole Airport (JAC), Wyoming

Do you have any questions? I'd be happy to share what I learned.

Firsts / Taking the Plunge

Written by: Stephanie Baker of The Dancing Wind
Stephanie is the Office Manager at Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center and an phenomenal artist. Reflected in her photography is her love of the wilderness, wildlife, backpacking, skiing, hiking, snowshoeing, reading, peace and quiet.

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My first backpacking trip was the Agate Creek Trail in Yellowstone National Park. I enjoyed hiking so much that I really wanted to experience the temporary autonomous zone of being in the wild for a longer period of time without having to worry about getting back home by dark, or any of the demands of civilization. I wanted to get out there and just be for at least a full weekend. The Agate Creek Trail promised just that – it was a short (but steep) trip that would be a good introduction to backpacking. Two days, one night.  

The biggest obstacle to getting started with backpacking for me was carrying the weight. I remembered my brother having to carry a 45-pound backpack for a Boy Scout backpacking trip that he went on, and that just seemed so insurmountable. Backpacking must not be for small people, I thought. How am I supposed to carry a pack that is nearly half my body weight? It didn’t sound possible, and it didn’t sound fun.

In researching how to make carrying my pack possible, I discovered the world of ultralight backpacking. What a brilliant idea! It would take me some time to be able to afford a full set of ultralight gear, but I was able to start off by purchasing a backpack that weighed only 2 lbs, 6 oz to use for my first trip. I had to make do with the heavier standard camping gear that I already owned for everything else, but an ultralight backpack helped. I also pared down my list of what I intended to bring to only the pure essentials to keep my pack weight down. My husband did the same, and also purchased an ultralight tent, which he carried.

The trip itself was an experience I’ll never forget, and one that had me planning my next trip as soon as I got back. The views were stunning. The trail was sometimes hard to follow, with bison trails branching off here and there, adding to the adventure. When we stopped for lunch, a herd of pronghorn with their fawns appeared in the distance. They galloped across the vast open range in a line, which was amazing to witness.

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Later that day some biting flies joined us for the hike, and I learned that carrying bug spray would have been worth the weight. I also learned that my organic, non-toxic roll-on bug repellent was unfortunately not effective. The final portion of our hike to camp was very steep, dropping over 1,200 feet in 1.8 miles, with some of the trail covered in loose rocks during this descent. As I found my feet flying out from underneath me and landed on my butt, I wondered how I was ever going to get out of there the next day
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But once I was at our stunningly beautiful campsite next to the Yellowstone River, the struggle and the sore shoulders were all worth it. This wasn’t a place that I would just be stopping at for a quick break to enjoy the view before needing to get back to the trailhead again; I would get to sink in and enjoy this place overnight.

Mother Nature decided to test that sentiment by sending an ominous-looking thunderstorm our way quite promptly. We had just enough time to set up the tent before the torrential rain began. Fortunately, we were too tired from our day of exertion in the July heat to eat dinner anyway. There was something soothing about the sound of the rain on the tent and the roaring of the river next to us. And something that made us both have to wake up to pee in the middle of the night. Nervous about stepping out into bear country in the pitch darkness, we stuck together with headlamps furtively beaming around, and made haste of the situation. Note to self: less hydration before bed next time.

In the morning we were treated to a magical misty sunrise. The hike back up that 1,200 vertical feet in 1.8 miles was steep, but I didn’t fall again, and I felt a huge sense of achievement at the top. The rest of the hike back seemed like a breeze in comparison, and we were treated to a visit from some bighorn sheep and another pronghorn on the final leg of our journey. After this trip I was hooked, and couldn’t wait to backpack again.

Follow Stephanie on Instagram for some serious inspiration.