The Rut 50K, Yellowstone, and Big Sky Adventure
The Warm Up
The Rut 50K marked the end of a busy 2017 of racing which included several events that have been on my mind for many years. The Rut was quite different from any race I have done in the past, and I knew that the course style did not suit my strengths. However, after seeing the elevation profile, the stunning scenery and its proximity to Yellowstone, I knew I should give it a try anyway.
The plan was to spend two days exploring Yellowstone National Park, then run the Rut on Sunday. Then following the Rut we wanted to do some exploring of the trails in Montana and Idaho before heading home.
Apryle and I made the long journey from Newcastle to West Yellowstone in a one day push and arrived at Raynolds Pass Fishing Access Site late in the evening. It was pitch black around us but we could see the steam rising off the Madison River as we set up the tent.
We awoke early as a result of the near freezing temperatures, threw the dew drenched tent into the versa and made our way into Yellowstone NP via the West Entrance. Our time in the park was focused on sightseeing; so we decided that day one we would do the lower Grand Loop.
Our first stop was a drive past Firehole Falls, followed by a stroll around the boardwalk at Fountain Pain Pots, which was my first glimpse of the hydrothermal features of the park. The third stop was a congested walk around the Grand Prismatic Spring. Then we looped the Firehole Lake Drive and caught a glimpse of the Great Fountain Geyser.
Our fifth stop was our favorite of the hydrothermal spectacles; Biscuit Basin. We meandered around the eerily deep blue hot springs and then completed the Mystic Falls Loop, which was punctuated by a stunning cascading waterfall.
Upper Geyser Basin marked the destination that I most associated with the disguised caldera. This was the location of Old Faithful, and even though it was not my favorite feature in the loop, it was certainly the most anticipated. After watching the predictable geyser spout, we explored Geyser Hill and marveled at natures animated gallery.
With as much sightseeing as we could handle, it was time for a relaxing secluded run on an obscure park trail. As we headed southeast from Upper Geyser Basin, Apryle spotted a trailhead, she pulled off the road and we hit the ground running. We noticed that the trail lead to Shoshone Lake and was a six mile out and back – perfect. The trail surface was smooth and flat, the temperature was ideal and the scenery was quintessential Yellowstone. When we reached the lake it was unexpectedly expansive but quite shallow, making it more appealing to wade through than swim. After cooling off and freshening up in the water we retraced our path back to the car and continued on with the Grand Loop.
Stop number eight was West Thumb; which was aptly named after the thumb-like appearance of this Yellowstone Lake appendage. There were many hydrothermal features at this geyser basin, and despite being jaded by the dozens of springs already, this collection was unique because of its interplay with the lake.
After turning north and entering Hayden Valley our attention diverted to wildlife. As we approached Mud Volcano, we spotted a small heard of Bison and decided to take a few minutes to observe them as they enjoyed some time grazing and playing in the dirt. Mud Volcano area drew us in with its billowing smoke and gurgling waters. We took to the boardwalk and enjoyed not only the unusual mud volcano, but the impressive Dragons Mouth his Black Caldron.
It was dinner time at Sulphur Caldron, which provided an unparalleled backdrop as well as thoroughly unappetizing location to savor our tortillas and salsa. The evening was capped off with a few hours of wolf viewing, in which we observed four black colored Wolves and two grey colored Wolves playing in the Hayden Valley below. This was an incredibly special experience that Apryle and I will never forget. We made our way to the parks northeast entrance as darkness descended upon us and set up camp at Pilot Creek, off of the Bear Tooth Pass Highway.
Day two began with more wildlife viewing in the famous Lamar Valley. Here we saw hundreds of Bison, several dozen Pronghorns and a handful of Wolves. Leaving Lamar Valley, we headed south to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Here Apryle and I hiked down to several vantage points of both the Upper and Lower Falls to capture differing perspectives of the impressive gorge.
As we made our way northwestward to Mammoth Hot Springs, we stopped briefly at Tower Falls and Calcite Springs viewpoint. Despite being outside the Caldera boundary, Mammoth Hot Springs had the most spectacular sites in Yellowstone. We walked the two and half miles of boardwalk, taking time to view the cascading terraces of travertine and hot spring pools.
We completed the northern driving loop with a visit to Artist Paintpots, which was a mile long lollipop with bubbling geysers, vents, and multicolored mudpots. Our Yellowstone adventure was over but our Big Sky experience was just beginning.
From the West Entrance we made our way to the Big Sky Ski Resort for the pre race briefing for the Rut 50K. The atmosphere was lively, with dozens of sponsor tents and speakers blaring music. After our fill of pre race excitement we headed into town to find some food and a place to sleep for the night. A microwaved pizza sufficed for dinner and a makeshift campsite between Gallatin River and the road of the same name was our bedroom.
Race Day! We woke early and I prepared myself for the race, stocking my hydration vest, testing my headlamp and doing a few calisthenics. The Elk Bugle sounded and myself and the wave of people around me took to the wide gravel trail. I settled in near the front, but I quickly relinquished this position when we reached a silty steep single track trail that climbed into the forest. After a 1200 foot 2.3 mile climb that took me about 25 minutes, a fast descent to the first aid station (Moonlight Lodge) at mile 5.6 ensued. Because I had only covered 5.6 miles, it was cool, and I already had two liters of water on my back, I blew threw the checkpoint on a mission to make up time.
It was easy running to Moonlight Lodge 2 at mile 11.5. There was a slight uphill grade to the aid station and beyond, but at 14.5, the real ascending began. The grade started to pitch up and the surface switched from gravely dirt to talus field. My pace slowed to a crawl, my heart was pounding out of my chest and all my pursuers were pushing past me. The mile long climb spit me out on a top of a 9800 foot talus ridge and I tried my best to run over the sharp rocks. My competitors were out of sight and obviously much more skilled over the talus rocky technical surface.
The steep 1.5 mile descent was challenging running and as soon as the grade pitched upward slightly I was relegated to a walk… my race was over but I knew I had to continue to give it my best shot. I heard Apryle cheering as I approached Swiftcurrent (mile 18.7) and was excited to give her a hug before I started the slow trudge up to Lone Peak. Even though I was not climbing well, I was strangely excited about the stark steep ascent to the marquee in-race destination.
The climb matched my expectations, difficult, technical and something that would have caused me to become paralyzed in fear if I had attempted it three years earlier. Growing up in Ohio, and being terrified of heights for the majority of my life, only recently have I become bolder in my outdoor pursuits with rock climbing and scrambling. At any rate I was elated to be at the summit but did not linger at the aid station (19.9). I picked my way back down from the 11,100 foot prominence, awkwardly stumbling my way over talus and glissading down the dirt and scree.
After about 5 easy miles where I was able to manage about a 12 minute mile pace, we started another climb to the final aid station at Andesite (26.5). It was a short mile long climb but it also added another 1000 feet of vertical to the legs. This combined with the increasing heat caused me to drain my 2 liters of water rendering me unable to run. Fortunately the Andesite aid station volunteers were quite helpful and I was back to a trot very quickly.
After a smooth switch-backing four mile descent, there was one four hundred foot climb before a downhill half mile finish. I kicked it in as fast as I could for a disappointing 36th place finish in 7 hours and 10 minutes. The race was quite possibly the most difficult I have ever done. I have never completed so little distance in such a great amount of time. Overall, I am happy that I gave it a try and experienced the infamous Rut 50K. The race directors and volunteers made it an unforgettable experience and I am grateful for their efforts. I am also grateful to Apryle for being there once again and also at a point in the race when I needed to see her most.
The Cool Down
After the race Apryle and I broke down and got a hotel in Bozeman. We were able to clean up, restock our food and water supply, and get a good night sleep before heading back into the wilderness.
We decided to explore the Custer Gallatin National Forest, just to the south of Bozeman via Hyalite Canyon Road. The canyon got its name from the translucent opal that was discovered there, which held little value as a gemstone. The rock was created from the Yellowstone supervolcano that erupted fifty million years prior.
The road through the canyon was quite scenic with red towering canyon walls flanking us, a meandering Hyalite Creek to our southwest, and conifer/deciduous mixed forest covering the immediate landscape. We hit the trailhead late morning and started up a wide dirt/gravel trail which was surrounded by a moderately thick forest. The trail ascended gradually making the hike/run proceed quite efficiently.
We were surprised with the quantity of waterfalls along our route, starting with the wide Grotto Falls, followed by the architecturally unique Arch Falls, the thin Silken Skein Falls, the circular Champagne Falls, the narrow Chasm Falls, the steep Apex Falls, the inviting Shower Falls, and the finale – S’il Vous Plait Falls. Typically I am less interested in the forested sections and anxiously awaiting the alpine, but with the tumultuous Hyalite Creek I enjoyed the entire 17.5 miles!
About 5 miles into the hike we enjoyed a funneling view into the Hyalite Canyon and at mile 6 we reached Hyalite Lake. Then we took another fork of the trail an additional 2 miles to Hyalite Peak. This alpine section meandered around green upland streams and low riparian shrubs, then the grade pitched upward into a talus/scree field. We followed switchbacks to the saddle, then ascended the 10,292 foot peak. Despite the smoke from the fire, we enjoyed far reaching views of the rest of Gallatin NF to the south. Our route back was a smooth descent to the trailhead. The total elevation of the hike was only 6575; quite mild considering we bagged one of the higher peaks in the region.
After an extremely uncomfortable nights sleep we headed into Bozeman Fish and Wildlife Department for Apryle’s morning meeting and then got on the road. After covering about 300 miles nonstop from Bozeman, MT to Mullan, ID we stopped at a trailhead in Idaho Panhandle NF to stretch our legs.
The smoke was thick in the air when we started the hike and though dusk was approaching the temperatures soared in the panhandle. The hike started at the junction of NorPac Trail and Willow Creek Road. We started up the West Fork of Willow Creek and followed an old forest service road until it became overgrown enough to be considered single track. The trail was surrounded by a greatest hits of Pacific Northwest vegetation which Apryle and I identified all the way to Lone Lake.
The dull dusty trail gave way to a stunning array of greens, golds, and burgundies of the autumn alpine meadow. The backdrop was a gray, tan, and beige cirque punctuated with towering jagged peaks. We picked our way around switch backing vegetated cliff sides while appreciating trickling streams and ripe blueberries. All the while we were careful to make our presence known in these thick meadows where spotting a Grizzly or Black Bear seemed almost inevitable.
Lone Lake was stunning, reflecting the mountains in its turquois waters. The trail begged us to continue onto the cirque and corresponding body of water beyond. This next section was full of bushwhacking and route finding, but the view was worth it. The narrow lake did not have a name from what I can see, so for purposes of this blog I will refer to it as Apryle Lake. After reaching the stunning 5500 foot Apryle Lake we made the 2.3 mile 1690 foot descent back to the car and finished out our great Big Sky adventure!