The Beartooth Boogie

Running from East Rosebud to Cooke City.

“Just so simply, the currents carry time away, and we are left confused by the velocity of our lives.” —from Glen Barrett’s Off the Road

Tap, tap, tap. I rap my pen impatiently as the phone makes a soft hum against my cheek. “Well now, Miss Becky...” Gritting my teeth against the agonizingly slow cadence of this friendly southerner, I resist the urge to interrupt him with a curt “Spit it out, sonny!” Instead, I make quick time of tying my running shoes and locating my car keys. Exactly eight minutes later I’m slamming the car door and pulling my hair into a pony tail, pounding up the trail with the sun in my face and wind at my back. For me, lunch isn’t a soothing respite from the busy work day. I don’t sip iced-tea, ponder menus, or count carbs. I kick ass.

Like most recent inductees into full-fledged adulthood, a few years ago I was forced to get a job that actually required me to be in attendance five days a week. Thus, all of my recreation was pushed, prodded, crammed, and squished into a scant two-day weekend. With our conspicuously short Montana summers and my newly forged nine-five career, packing in all of the trails I wanted to hike, routes I wanted to climb, and rivers I wanted to run became increasingly difficult. If I wanted to experience a 30-mile trail through the mountains, for example, I no longer had three days to do it. I had to move faster.

An idea began to take hold: I would run all of the trails I wanted to hike or backpack. Not only would this give me more time to climb, cycle, and paddle while still experiencing all the breathtaking trails Montana has to offer, it would also be a great way to kick the burgeoning “cubicle chub.”

I first visited East Rosebud Lake in the mystical Beartooth Mountains many years ago with an old boyfriend. We canoed around the lake and celebrated the 4th of July with an extreme fireworks display provided by the owners of the cabins surrounding the lake. I pored over topo maps of the trails in the area, completely enamored with the beauty of the region. Just driving up to the lake through the forest of blackened, disfigured arboreal corpses sent chills down my spine. I knew of a trail that began at East Rosebud and ended near Cooke City, but I never had time to investigate it. After viewing some photos taken by a friend of twin cascading waterfalls that lightly splashed into a pristine blue alpine lake on said trail, I knew I had to do it.

beartooths east rosebud outside bozeman
East Rosebud Lake nestled in the Beartooths.

It was 3:30 am, an excruciatingly early Saturday morning, and in an effort to stay awake I was listening to Neil Diamond and belting out one of my favorites, “Cracklin’ Rosie.” I never could understand what exactly a “store-bought woman” was, and if it was a compliment or not. I was attempting the East Rosebud to Cooke City trail in a single day, from Bozeman to Bozeman with Ben, a friend from work, and my four-legged companion McKinley. We finished the car shuttle and pulled into the parking lot at the East Rosebud trailhead at 8:30. Butterflies fluttered against the walls of my stomach in apprehension of such a long run in a single day. I’d never even run a marathon before on pavement, and we were attempting the same distance on a rocky, twisting, challenging trail? It was still early in the summer, late June, and there would surely be snow on the plateau. I shouldered my pack and started off down the trail determined to give it a go.

It didn’t start well. Approximately one mile after we left the car we encountered some people on the trail. As we quickly weaved our way through them, I glanced back to see McKinley rear up and pounce, his nose twitching so severely it looked like it was trying to escape his face. I saw that he’d caught some sort of ground squirrel, much to the horror of the tourists from Texas we’d just passed. He pranced proudly back to me with the squirrel gingerly held between his teeth, eager to show me his catch. As McKinley got closer the squirrel squirmed and wriggled; he chomped down to get a better grip on the slippery sucker. I cried out “DROP IT!” and ran over to pry the defenseless creature from his jaws—but it was too late. While McKinley is absolutely ecstatic about his hunting prowess, I was mortified and shamed by the looks of scorn from the drawling Texans. I stumbled into an explanation that it’s in his genes and he can’t help himself as I nudged McKinley and Ben down the trail in a sprint, McKinley still licking his lips with satisfaction.

As we neared Elk Lake—the first of many amazing alpine lakes we would encounter that day—we rounded a bend and I saw one of the largest big walls I’d ever seen outside of Yosemite. While the rock looked a little rotten, the sheer size and power of the wall was entrancing. I froze and stared, desperately searching for possible routes on its face. It was a gorgeous day, one of those perfect Montana days, neither too hot nor too cold, with brilliant blue skies and a soft breeze to dry the sweat from your skin. We settled into a swift pace as glacier lilies poked out between patches of snow along the trail. The creek rushed past us on the right, swollen and raging with spring runoff. As we raced by a couple searching for trout, they yelled out, “It’s too beautiful to be in such a hurry!” I shot back, “You’re right, but we’re recreating on a schedule!”

beartooths mountains outside bozeman
The beauty of the Beartooths is a reminder to slow down.

For the next few miles I mulled over their comments. I’ve lived so long in the climber’s “light and fast” mentality that I’m not sure how to separate that from the rest of my life. While lounging on the beach sounds like fun, I always seem to find myself bored and eager for the next adventure. I’ve spent hours, days, even weeks focused on something as arbitrary as the summit of a mountain. If and when I actually get to stand on the top and enjoy the fruits of my labor, there is not a long-awaited party on top. After some water and a snack I’m off, back down to the chaos of the valley below, running from the weather or fatigue or toward the next objective. Never able to live in the now, I’m always focused on what is ahead or what might catch us from behind. Speeding down the trail toward a distant Cooke City, I felt a seed of jealousy grow inside of me for that couple and their ability to just “be.” Is it better to do more by being light and fast, or is it better to see more by being slow and content?

While my head was stuck in theory and conjecture, McKinley’s head was stuck in my Nutter Butters. Ears down, tongue hanging out in a heavy pant, he landed my sympathy; I forked over the last four peanut butter delicacies to him. After a quick perusal of the map we figured we were about four miles from Fossil Lake, which would signify the top of the plateau and also a little over half way. As soon as we started running again we came across a creek. Barely noticeable on the map, the runoff-heavy stream was now a raging liquid freight train. I picked my way across the waist-deep icy torrent and looked back for my dog. On the far bank, McKinley was clearly agitated—he hates water, especially water deeper than his chest—testing the water at several spots along the bank but not able to commit to the consequent drenching. After much howling and looks of utter fright at being left behind, I waded across and half carried, half drug him across to safety.

A few steps later we lost the trail. I’d noticed it shrinking the farther we delved into the bowels of the Beartooths, and it finally ended at the mouth of two amazing canyons. We had only a vague inclination of which direction to take. The looming peaks around us seemed to be daring us to go farther, to get lost in their enormity, to become so entranced with their beauty as to forget life outside of that mountain range and become swallowed in their grandeur, in delight or adversity or whatever else they decided to throw our way.

We sat down in the snow and pondered our next step. With compass and map we settled on a direction—but it was getting late in the afternoon and we had no bivy gear and very little food. What if we were wrong? I looked across the snow for tracks of other parties; out of the corner of my eye I spied ice-climbing boots clunking toward me. Following the boots up I smiled at a group of five people and two dogs who were lugging more gear than I’ve ever seen outside of expedition climbing. A grimace inadvertently came across my face—this guy was hiking in those torture devices? I’d lost two toenails to my own ice-climbing boots and I was stunned that someone was wearing them outside of an icefall. In addition to ridiculously cumbersome boots these people had everything: GPS devices, freeze-dried meals neatly labeled and stored in dry bags, fancy map holders that made my zip-lock seem meek, mammoth altimeter watches, and gigantic backpacks that both McKinley and I could have climbed into. After exchanging pleasantries we turned heel and went back down the road already trod, for fear of wading through hip-deep snow to an uncertain destination.

As we raced against the sun to retrace the 16-odd miles back to the car, I thought about the techy-geeks’ smiling faces. They were happy, enjoying good times with good friends in the hills, forgetting about real life for awhile. Just like us. The cynic in me couldn’t help but wonder why in the world they brought all that gear along; but then again, their trip wasn’t mine. Their experience on the trail will surely be much different than ours, and who’s to say that one is better than the other? As the late, great Alex Lowe said, “the best climber is the one who is having the most fun.”

After numerous rounds of “99 bottles of beer on the wall”; renditions of our favorite songs from the Clash, Johnny Cash, and the Grateful Dead, a few Power Bar breaks, and mindlessly following a bobbing headlamp the last five miles, we arrived at the car utterly spent.

I returned to the trail several weeks later and completed it, this time beginning in Cooke City and ending with a grateful gaze into the tranquil waters of East Rosebud Lake. I drove home in exhausted euphoria, feeling that for one day, at least, life was perfect. I realized that while light and fast may not be for everyone, it works for me. I’ll still return from lunch sweaty and smiling. I’ll still blitz a trail in a day instead of stopping to smell every flower along the way. And in my world, I’m having the most fun.

Global Positions
Bozeman, MT
TerraTopo - $5

For detailed topography on the East Rosebud to Cooke City route—as well as the rest of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness—pick up a copy of Jere Folgert’s excellent TerraTopo map from any local bookstore or outdoor shop. Combining navigational readability with colorful, elegant renderings, the TerraTopo covers everything from trailheads and campgrounds to the naturalist information about the area. An artful blend of cartographic techniques results in an accurate elevation guide with a striking three-dimensional appearance. The TerraTopo also provides full-color drawings and descriptions of large mammals and fish species common to the area. Plant, lichen, and mushroom identification charts; a first-aid section for emergency treatment of minor injuries; and a waterproof coating round out this excellent map’s offerings. Mike England

45.197068687201, -109.63532924827