It is one thing to conceptually understand that you have the gear to bivy at 7,500 feet in the Northern Rockies with a forecast of six degrees below zero. It is another thing entirely to find yourself in circumstances where you end up having to do exactly that. And it was in such circumstances that I found myself on the last night of 2015. Perhaps I shouldn’t have turned down that invitation to a New Year’s Eve party after all.
I left home that morning later than I would’ve liked and drove for more than five minutes but less than five hours to the trailhead. Montana, Idaho, Washington, Wyoming . . . all within striking distance given the equation of time and space using motorized transportation. Discretion is the better part of many things in life, including keeping special places special by not indiscriminately broadcasting their details on the Internet. Hoisting my pack and stepping into snowshoes shortly after noon, I began what would be one of the most challenging hikes I’ve ever had the joy of undertaking.
From where I parked to the lookout tower where I planned to spend the night was a bit over five miles. The last two miles gained over 2,000 feet of elevation in the final ascent to the ridge. Intimidating, but certainly not impossible. I had gone less than a hundred feet up the road (the first three miles were on a snow-covered road, the remainder on an indistinct trail) before I recognized the enormity of the effort that would be required. I was sinking in at least half a foot with each step and the weight of the snowshoes on each foot conspired with gravity to make each step forward feel like it used twice the effort, and twice the muscle groups, as it should have. Given the conditions, I made surprisingly good time on the first section, arriving at the “summer” trailhead in just under two hours. Blue skies and temperatures in the mid-teens made it a crisp, beautiful day. The sun glowed warmly without the faintest atmospheric obstruction and was high enough to allow me plenty of time to cover the remaining ground at a reasonable pace. I sipped some water, ate a quick snack, enjoyed some coffee from my thermos, and began the crux of my trip up to the lookout tower.
Two thousand feet of climbing in just over two miles, in snowshoes, with a winter-weight pack, is not a task to underestimate. Add in the fact that the guidebook noted some minor routefinding issues and it goes without saying that the last section of this hike required mental effort commensurate with the physical. In good shape and experienced with backcountry navigation, I deliberately and confidently began the uphill grind. And it was a grind in every sense of the word. I found myself having to stop much more often than anticipated simply to catch my breath. I also found myself having to stop much more often than I would have liked to make sure my sense of direction was functioning correctly. Attempting to follow the trail would have been a futile effort, although our paths did overlap from time to time. Two feet of snow made it indistinguishable for most of its length, even to a keen eye, but I did pick up on it for several sections of switchbacks as I climbed toward the ridge and the shelter of the lookout.
Sidehilling for a mile or so in snowshoes with a pack is physically demanding. On the bright side, it turned out to be a great warm up for bootkicking steps into ridiculously steep sections of mountainside to continue forward and upward progress. In a cruel twist of fate, just as the terrain reached its zenith of difficulty, I began to notice the unmistakable signs of fatigue and a hint of minor frostnip in my toes. It was taking me longer to get up when I fell; and I fell more times than I can count on two hands. I couldn’t catch my breath. Snack, water, and coffee breaks helped, but were a double-edged sword. The brief respite from activity amplified the chilling, damp discomfort in my toes. I’d figured my normal high-top, waterproof hiking boots would be sufficient for this trip. Wrong. Proper snow boots are now at the top of my fortunately short list of gear to buy.
It was late in the afternoon, during one of the bittersweet breaks, that I found myself confronted with the possibility that I might not make it to the lookout. This was concerning, but not panic inducing. Nothing I could do but continue on until I reached the lookout or an alternate reality for the evening was imposed on me. So onward I pushed.
An alternate reality was imposed on me about a half-hour before sunset when I reached the ridgecrest, exhausted, knowing that regardless of how close I was to the lookout that continuing vaguely toward it, with my right thigh cramping, my toes numbing, and judgment declining, would be foolhardy and unsafe. Part of good judgment is knowing how to avoid situations where you will be tempted to make a bad decision. Setting up a bivy seemed to be a more prudent choice than pushing toward the lookout in steep terrain, fatigued, in the dark. So that is how on New Year’s Eve I found myself stamping out a spot in the snow to throw down my bivy sack, insert my sleeping pad and sleeping bag, and spend the night under the stars.
I’d picked as nice a spot to bivy as possible -- reasonably flat, sheltered by a few trees, and oriented for maximum exposure to the warming rays of the morning sun. All things considered, I was rather comfortable after changing into dry baselayers, a midweight wool layer, a down jacket, and sliding into my sleeping bag. By the time I’d gotten myself situated and was ready to fire up my stove and make dinner the first stars were shining overhead.
It was when I attempted to pressurize the stove (MSR Whisperlite) that I experienced an “Oh, crap . . .” type of moment that can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. This was due to the fact that the plunger on the pump system was seemingly stuck and nearly impossible to operate. I figured maybe it was frozen, so I wrapped it in a bandana and put it against my body, ate a large chocolate bar, and waited for it to warm up.
Fifteen minutes later and still no luck. This was going to take some troubleshooting. I’d spilled some curry paste on the plunger last winter during a cross-country ski tour, but had replaced everything affected by that culinary catastrophe, including the rubber pump cup. But this problem showed eerily similar symptoms, and lo and behold, it was a faulty pump cup. Tired as I’ve ever been, in single digit temperatures, I replaced and lubricated the pump cup by headlamp and hoped for the best.
The sight of the flame priming the fully pressurized stove was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. That flame meant warm food, warm drinks, and plenty of water from melted snow. It’s absence would’ve meant gorging on Clif bars and trail mix, rationing my remaining half-liter of water and mixing it with a handful or two of snow at a time to melt inside my sleeping bag, then hiking out the next morning. But the flame was there, the stove repaired, and I enjoyed perhaps the best tasting pasta and tuna, with fresh spinach, mushrooms and grated cheese mixed in, that I’ve ever had. After devouring my dinner, I filled my thermos with hot chocolate, filled two Nalgene bottles with warm water from melted snow and dropped them into my sleeping bag, organized my gear as best as I could, and then took two sips of single-barrel bourbon before laying down and gazing at the stars until I feel asleep. Happy New Year’s.
I slept soundly and warmly through the calm night, but woke up a few times just long enough to notice that the constellations had shifted and that time wasn’t standing still. I awoke around sunrise and laid in my bag patiently waiting for the warming promise of the sun to be fulfilled. Taking it slow, it wasn’t until 10:30 a.m. that I found myself packed up and heading toward to the lookout.
In an amusing twist of fate, I’d camped less than a quarter-mile from the lookout. From the time I left my bivy site to the time I was opening the door on the lookout was no more than half an hour. I don’t think I’d ever been so glad to see a manmade structure in all my years of backpacking. And what a setting the structure was in! Endless mountain views, with several mountains above 9,000 feet pushing skyward, and one peak over 10,000 feet being the focal point of one of the grandest skylines I’ve seen.
The lookout tower is an indescribably special place. No locks, no fees, no reservations. Officially abandoned by any government agency, it is for use at your own risk and for your own pleasure. Some great stories are recorded for posterity in the logbooks and the worn floorboards and weathered shutters tell a story of their own. Unsung heroes keep up with the constant maintenance informally but effectively.
I entered the lookout and set about reversing the task I’d completed less than an hour before, pulling gear out of my pack and arranging it in some semblance of order. While nothing was exceedingly damp, I took advantage of the clotheslines stretched across the ceiling and aired out all the gear and clothes I wasn’t using or wearing. As I made my way around the lookout’s catwalk and opened the shutters, I took time to appreciate the stunning vantage from each cardinal direction. Sun filled the lookout as I organized my gear and my thoughts, spending much more time with the latter than the former.
The day unfolded at a perfect and purposeless pace, with my only accomplishments of note being much needed stretching, reading all the log book entries (including one dated September 11, 2001; the author completely unaware of the tragic events unfolding in the world at large) and arranging the notebooks in chronological order. I arranged the entries in subject order in my head; you can take the man out of the library but you can’t always take the library out of the man.
Although there was a cast iron stove and plenty of firewood, I decided to forego that luxury and simply wore enough layers to be comfortable. Although it was in the low 20s outside, the sunlit sanctuary of the lookout was noticeably warmer, or at least it felt that way. I paged through a year-old issue of Outside Magazine, reading an enthralling article about ancient manuscripts saved from looters in Timbuktu, and ate a delicious mid-afternoon snack of white cheddar cheese, gouda cheese, and jerky, washed down with a few sips of bourbon. It was New Year’s Day and, in my defense, my ability to celebrate on New Year’s Eve was a bit hindered by location and circumstance. Here’s to hard-earned and delayed gratification, the best kind in my humble opinion.
Wanting to make the most of the amazing view from the catwalk, I brewed up some tea just prior to sunset so I’d have a warm beverage to sip as I soaked up the sunset with every sense available to me. Tasting the air, seeing the colors meld together and simultaneously lighten and deepen, truly hearing the silence and the creaks of the catwalk which occasionally interrupted it, feeling the chill breeze across my face. That was the easy part. Trying to fully contextualize myself and better appreciate such a vast landscape proved impossible. Gazing out at mountains near and far and mulling over the passing of another year, one of millions seen by the mountains and one of less than a hundred I’ll likely see, themes of timelessness and endlessness were hard to avoid. The phrase “Forever ain’t as long as it is wide” came to mind and never really left for the rest of the evening.
I ducked inside to enjoy dinner, then put on all my insulating layers and took my closed-cell foam sleeping pad out onto the catwalk for a four-hour shift of stargazing. Artificially and unnecessarily aided by a choice selection of music and bourbon, I laid outside from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., moving from one section of the catwalk to another and laying on my back gazing up at the stars with an attentiveness bordering on entrancement. After seeing a dozen shooting stars and the Milky Way establish itself with awe-inspiring intensity above the silhouetted mountains, I called it a night. Zipping myself into my bag in the shelter of the lookout was a much more reassuring way to transition to a night of sleep than crawling into the bag inside a bivy sack.
My first night of rest in 2016 was blissful. However, determined to use the perspective of the lookout to its full potential, through sheer force of will I removed myself from the comfort of down feathers and synthetic fabrics, placed my feet on the frigid floorboards, arose and dressed, and exposed myself to the elements to witness the beauty of sunrise. The second day of the new year dawned crisp, clear and full of promise -- my spirits rising with the sun and my soul swelling. The power of place and rejuvenation resulting from a pure focus on the beauty of the workings of the planet cannot be understated.
As the sun rose in its inevitable arc above the mountains and it rays illuminated the landscape, I packed up my gear and attended to closing up the lookout. Shutters were lowered and latched. The floor swept, the tables wiped down. Leaving the lookout was an emotional challenge on the same level with the physical challenge of arriving. It’s always incredible to me the sense of comfort and sanctuary that can be gained from spending less than 24 hours in such beautiful and special places.
I followed my tracks on the descent, but also opted to shortcut them in a few places. Owing gratitude in no particular order to gravity, a substantially lighter pack from consumption of food and fuel, and the lack of routefinding, my descent took half the time as my ascent had two days prior. For the second day in a row, the sun shined with a pleasant ferocity that allowed every aspect of the environment -- the snow, the ponderosa pine bark, the spruce needles -- to shine with a radiant and contagious joy. I made it back to the trailhead early in the afternoon, stretched, changed, and put the wheels in motion to return home.
This brief trip gave me much to ponder on the way home. I’d ended up with more “adventure” than I’d planned on, but not more than I was prepared for. Not necessarily a bad thing in backpacking or when applied to most aspects of human experience. The passing of one year to the next and of life and time in general weighed heavily on me as I traveled along the highway at 55 miles per hour, which was about 55 times faster than my pace had been when I was passing through the forest on my way to the lookout.
The thoughts on existence and emotion that I’d found myself immersed in at the lookout continued to run through my mind on the drive home. While the drive had an end in sight, the sentiments seemed to be infinite in nature. As usual, I found myself comforted by poignant lyrics which fit the time and place perfectly, and which seem a perfect way to end this particular trip report:
There’s a stretch of road in Wyoming across a timeless interstate
You can drive a hundred miles and not see a Wyoming license plate
Just some truckers and some hard-luck bands on tour
In stormy weather
Nobody actually lives there, they’re all just passing through . . .
We’re only passing through
We’re all just passing through
We’re passing through indeed, through life and landscapes, with people and places changing at varying paces. Sometimes predictable, sometimes not. I can only hope that I pass through more places as special as this lookout and remember to truly value the people in my life who are passing through it with me and to whom I return from my journeys to the backcountry.
Information: For liability, specific information about this lookout is not included. Many books, listed below, provide information about lookout towers and information about visiting and/or renting them if available. You can also search recreation.gov for "lookout" and see which lookouts are available for rent.
Maps & Books: Numerous books provide information about lookout towers; this list is a great place to start. Searches using Google or on Amazon.com will also yield plenty of results. The Forest Fire Lookout Association has a wealth of information on their website.
The Author: Mark Wetherington is an avid backpacker and occasional writer. Since 2008 he has attempted, with varying degrees of success, to spend 10% of each year on backpacking trips. Born in Tennessee and raised in Kentucky, he now lives on the edge of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Montana.