Rocky Mountain Fever
Camping can make or break relationships.
As I recently found, it's more the former that I'm in.
When camping, you see your significant other in the rawest of forms. You're both roughing it, contending with nature and all that she throws at you. You're short of temper, short of patience, just after hoofing it over that ridgeline and fording the partially frozen glacier stream. You're sweating, gross in your presentation, body odors that you wish you could hide from her barreling to the surface. Your legs ache, your back hurts, and the food is sub-par at best. Compound this with the fact that the campfire won't light, the bugs are descending on you in swarms, and you swear to god something big just broke some twigs over in that copse of trees. You've snapped at each other a few times, the tent poles aren't quite fitting to the tent, and a storm is coalescing on the horizon. You said this would be fun but dammit, you're tired and achey and all you want is to nurse your wounds by yourself.
Seen in this light, camping does sound like the last thing a relationship needs. In fact, some could argue it should be avoided.
That, at least, is how I envisioned camping with a girlfriend. As someone who camps with friends or by himself, or one (easily forgettable) time with an ex who was adamant that we buy an aero-bed, I've never had the trial by fire that I almost looked forward to. I wanted to test my mettle with someone by my side, someone who could not only keep up with me, but push me past my usual endurance. Camping brings out the best and worst in some people, but for those willing to enjoy it and go with the flow, it brings out the best.
Camping, especially in the backcountry of Montana, tests your endurance and shows you how unprepared you truly are. You aren't near civilization, help, or even fellow hikers for the most part. You are self-reliant on you and your companion, and that was something that I was missing in my life and sorely wanted to be met.
That is until I explored the Rocky Mountain Front with Emma for the first time. And I'll say that not only did we survive bear country, unexpected detours, 6,000-foot bushwacks, and a late hailstorm, but we grew deeper, stronger, and more comfortable because of our perils. In fact, I couldn't imagine facing these unforseseen obstacles without anyone else, a smile plastered on my face the whole time even as hail pellets the size of ball bearings imprinted themselves onto my skin.
When we stumbled back to Helena, nursing our bruises, we were met with astonished reactions from our friends. Questions of how much did that suck or did you even have fun were met with laughs and smiles from Emma and myself. Because in the end, all things considered, we both had fun every (sodden) step of the way.
For those of you who want a more in-depth look at what we went through as we explored the Rocky Mountain Front, located about two hours north of Helena, and are too lazy to read, here's a quick little video I put together from my GoPro. What follows in print, though, will provide a deeper insight into our adventurous wanderings.
At no point were we lost.
We were just exploring.
Mount Wright, to the right of Emma's fabulous stride, was the first stop on our trip in the Rocky Mountain Front. I'd like to reiterate that it's the peak to the right because Emma and I both decided to go left. This was after following the wrong valley trail, going north instead of west. Took us a bit but we finally got on the proper trail, a trail that was covered with black bear prints the size of grizzly paws. After backpacking, we hopped onto the trail up, traversing rock scrambles, snow patches, and burn areas, while also catching a glimpse of two mountain goats as they ate lichen off the cliff face.
The view from the almost top. Sad to say that the snow kept us at the saddle and prevented us from reaching the actual peak. Low on water and Cliff bars, we had to turn back. But not before Emma got her Blackfoot promotional gear into a shot for their social media.
The gateway into Volcano Reef Loop, located about an hour north of Mount Wright. Those cliff faces would come back later to haunt me as, at mile 10, head down, bulling our way through the hailstorm, I thought we'd hit this entrance. Little did I know how similar these various reefs are to each other, and little did I know that we still had about two miles left in the stinging hail and torrential rain.
We made it up the hill, the first of many. And it's definitely a hill compared to the small mountains in the background, but damn did that initial climb with my pack do me a doozy. Much to my chagrin, I had to stop a few times to catch my breath. Emma, as you can see, didn't have much of a problem.
Emma the firestarter. Pro tip: don't try throwing the hot rocks into the nearby river until they've cooled. We'd already come down the hill and into the valley at mile 6 to cook a lunch of sausages and dehydrated mac n cheese. One of the best lunches I've had. And good thing because little did we know that we'd need the energy for the 6,000+ foot rock scramble bushwack...
Near the top of the 6,000+ ridgeline. To give you a sense for why this happened, the Volcano Reef Loop goes off-trail for about a mile due to the cleft carved by the river down by the right. If Emma and I had actually read the trail description, we'd have known to take the jeep trail further up the valley. However, we decided to bushwack it up and over the ridgeline, 40lb packs and all. We scrambled up the rocks and ended up in what I termed Mirkwood, branches scratching, clawing, and catching at our packs. At one point we split up, both of us needing time to explore ourselves without getting annoyed. That being said, we still came together at the saddle where we were supposed to be in the first place.
"Yeah, we're just out huntin' black bears. But be careful, we saw a grizzly sow and two cubs in that valley over there." So said the two cowboys who partially rescued Emma and myself from possible starvation and death. Walking up from a forested ridgeline after reconnoitering the nearby valley to stumble upon two cowboys, three horses, and one dog was a major surprise, to put it mildly. Each was sporting a walrus mustache, cowboy hat, gilded rifle, and flannel tucked into large-belt-buckled jeans. Long story short, they thought that Emma and I needed a call out of the wilderness instead of directions on how to get down from the ridge. After a bit of back-and-forth we were pointed back towards our trail.
Speaking of trails, I've come to realize how unmarked and rugged they are in Montana. Pictured is Emma's elation at thinking we'd finally found trail 191, which comprised the final 3 miles of our loop. But after crossing the river we soon realized that we still hadn't found the true 191. At this we each needed our space, time to gather our thoughts and not give into the frustration that was slowly building to a boil. But poorly-marked trail markers saved us, even though I had to fudge the answer to Emma's question when she asked if the marker said 191. It said 19, so close enough.
I had plenty of cheesy closers to this article about hiking with your girlfriend for the first time, so to avoid boring you further, dear reader, I'll just say that I can't wait to hit the trails again with Emma. Because I can't imagine exploring them with anyone else.
Beer I drank: Kirkland Signature Light Beer (read the sadly non-ironic reviews for a laugh)
Song I heard: Run by Foo Fighters
Book I read: It by Stephen King