Bison Peak and McCurdy Mountain

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.—L. Cohen

A herd of bison grazes out the open window to my right.  A man dressed in an orange vest and construction helmet steps out into the dirt road with a stop sign.  Five minutes pass, then ten.  Last night was a late one, and this morning I was up early, anticipating the trip.  Fighting the urge to doze, I study the landscape surrounding me.  Eventually, a white Ford Ranger comes up with a sign that says Pilot Car Follow Me, and I’m led through miles of rough dirt road through the construction zone.

The day is warm at the Ute Creek Trailhead.  I cross a pedestrian bridge over the creek and climb steeply up a hot, dry hillside.  Though I’ve lightened my pack a bit since the last trip and have started to work out, I’m still feeling the exertion. Three thousand vertical feet later, I break out of the trees and ascend to Bison Arm.

~

~

Today’s destination was going to be McBison Pass, a couple of miles farther east, a place where water would most likely be available.  But Mother Earth has intervened in the form of a large bank of snow.  A search on the downhill side of the snow bank reveals a tiny trickle of water.

~

After finding a flat place well off the trail, I set up camp and take a nap.  In the evening, I wake up refreshed, eat dinner, and set out to explore the area.

~

~

~

~

Night falls, and I walk back to camp.  The almost-full moon shines brightly through the roof of my shelter.  Using a fleece neck gaiter as an eye shade, I block out the light, zip into my sleeping bag, and am out.

Birdsong awakens me early.  The first glimmers of morning light appear.  Skipping breakfast, I grab my camera and tripod and head back to Bison Arm.

~

~

This morning’s destination is Bison Peak.  Following the directions in a guidebook, I circle around to the back of the mountain. The instructions are excellent, giving just enough information to get you there, but not so much that it kills a sense of exploration and discovery.  On the first pass,  I ascend too high and am blocked. Scoping out the terrain, I drop down, circle around again and am soon on the summit. It’s 7 :00 AM.  My stomach starts to growl and I head back toward camp.  On the way back, I take the time to play on Bison Arm.

~

~

After breakfast, I start to get restless.  The plan was to head out in late afternoon to climb McCurdy Mountain and take advantage of evening light.  But I’m ready to go now, so I do.  After hiking a couple of miles east on the Brookside-McCurdy trail, I come to a spot where a small seep of water moistens the trail.  Looking to the left, I notice a broad gulch heading up with a window rock in the distance on one side and what looks like the highest point of McCurdy on the other.  Climbing off trail up the gulch, the window rock attracts my attention first.   I peer through the window, then climb through it like Alice through the rabbit hole.  On the other side are phantasmagorical granite formations.

~

~

After getting my fill, I return back through the window rock and head toward the top of McCurdy Mountain.  Once on top, the question arises: which is the highest point?  McCurdy Mountain is a broad plateau with a number of rock formations scattered about.  I scramble up one, then another.  Neither has a summit register.  I’m sure the third one is it, but no register here either.

~

All this time, I’m being buffeted by a cold wind that threatens to knock me over.  I give up.  A colorful rock wall catches my attention, so I go there to hide from the wind and munch on trail mix.

~

 While hiking back toward the trail, I notice another formation at quite a distance.  Could this be it?  As I get closer, my excitement mounts.  There is a north facing ramp and a short eastern scramble that matches the guide description. Once on top, I find the register and sign a piece of paper that happens to be the personal stationary of one of the co-authors of the guidebook.

~

It’s still early in the afternoon, so I take my time getting back to camp, stopping often, and going out of my way to explore the area around McCurdy Mountain.

~

~

By the time I get back to camp, it’s late, and I’m tired.  After a quick dinner, I trudge to the snow bank to gather water for tomorrow morning.  While there, something about the light catches my attention and draws me back up toward Bison Arm. Something special is going on up there.

~

~

~

The clouds blow away, the full moon shines brightly, and the night gets colder up here near 12,000′.  I burrow deeply into my sleeping bag to stay warm.  Another morning comes.  I grab the camera and hike toward a bristlecone pine forest I noticed yesterday.  For some unknown reason, everything I try with the camera now is disappointing.  Nothing is working, and I can’t figure out why.  Finally, I quit with disgust and tell myself that I have no business carrying a camera around on my mountain trips.  I walk back toward camp feeling both defeated and strangely liberated from the demands of having to capture images. And then I start to notice things.

~

~

~

~

After breakfast, I break camp quickly, shoulder my pack and head back down toward civilization.  As I pass Bison Arm, the granite formations sit silently in the harsh nine-in-the-morning light.  As if nothing even happened here last evening. As if nothing ever happened here. As if.

~

The sun beats down relentlessly as I lose elevation.  My lips are parched, and my skin feels like leather.  Stopping in the shade of an aspen grove, I drink in the coolness and listen to the quiet quivering of the leaves.

~

A butterfly with large yellow wings comes fluttering down the gulch.  It weaves among the shaded white aspen trunks and lands on a flower.  It stays for a second, then floats down the mountainside and is gone.

Advertisements

14 thoughts on “Bison Peak and McCurdy Mountain

    • Thanks, Zed. This is the first time I slowed down enough to really explore the area around the two peaks and have to say that I was blown away.

  1. Just don’t get that sort of terrain in the UK – would love to do some serious trekking the US at some stage before I’m too old…! Great images and what great weather. Sounds like a superb trip Dondo. I like the idea of an afternoon nap and an evening assault on the surrounding area as the light is perfect for some dramatic pictures. Great stuff.

    • Thanks, Maz. I think you would enjoy trekking here. There are lots of different kinds of landscape to explore. Yeah, it was a great trip. It was one of those times when the light, the weather, and the landscape all come together to create something magical.

  2. You’ve outdone yourself this time, Dondo. Absolutely wonderful photographs! You seem to have completely lost yourself in the moments of imaging the scenes. What photography and wandering the hills is all about…

    Thanks for another great story.

    What did you lighten up in your pack?

    • Miguel, thanks. It’s funny, but something you recently said on BPL about taking naps was a big part of the success of this trip. The nap the first afternoon after the steep ascent from the valley was just the refreshment I needed to chase the light with vigor when the magic hours came. And you’re right, I did get lost in the moment; it was as if someone else was creating the photographs.

      Lightening up: It wasn’t anything big but an accumulation of saving one ounce here and a couple there. For instance, I took the handles off my .9l Evernew pot, replaced the lid with a MYOG one made of aluminum flashing, and eliminated the stuff sack. Similarly, I replaced my original Petzl Tikka with spare batteries with a Mammut S-Flex with no spare battery. My Leatherman Micra was left home in favor of a single-edged razor blade holder. I realized that I was always bringing home some extra food, so I carried 20 oz. a day instead of my usual 24. And so on. All together, it saved about 24 oz.

  3. Dondo,

    It’s always a pleasure being walked through one of your solo adventures, this one was most excellent. Great use of the sky in your images, they’re breathtaking.

    Eugene

    • Thanks for your comments, Eugene. Yeah, those skies were amazing. It felt really special to be a witness to such a spectacle. I’m glad that I was able to capture some of the magic and share it.

  4. Another wonderful report and photos Dondo, I just love the blue/grey photos of the wood and the pine cones. Sometimes it is those random trips with no sense of purpose that bring the greatest intrinsic rewards. Thanks

    • Roger, thanks. Those two photos are personal favorites. You never know what you’re going to come up with when you get into a receptive frame of mind and really start to pay attention. I know that you’re about to embark on your long walk and want to wish you the best of luck. Looking forward to your trip report.

  5. Hey Dondo I see you are taking full advantage of the early melt out in LCW. My friend Phil and I did a 37 mile loop that area 4 days ,June 22-26. The highlight of the trip was our camp on Bison arm at 11900 ft tucked into a rock outcropping. We also melted snow for water and yes there is something magical happening up there, the light ,the far vistas , the sunset , the rocks emerging from the tundra grass . Now I want to explore McCurdy Mt as well , a writer for the Summit Post says that it is his favorite Peak in that area . I have some photos at http://www.earthwalk.shutterfly.com Glad to see that you found your way out of the box canyon last week. Does this mean there is no passage thru to Refrigerator Gulch ?
    Cheers David Heath

    • Hi David, thanks for sharing your trip pics. Looks like you had quite a light show up there at Bison Arm. McCurdy is awesome. So much to explore there. I felt that I just scratched the surface. There is a passage over to Refrigerator Gulch, I just didn’t find it this time. Back in May, I did get in and out of the canyon from Refrigerator Gulch from the bridge pictured on the #16 photo of your latest trip.

  6. I am thinking about taking a group of boyscouts to Bison Peak. Any suggestions? Was this a loop of sorts and about how long is it? I just think the rock formations are incredible and that they would like it but we are looking for a 2-3 day hike. Thanks for the post, I have been trying to find information on the Lost Creek trails and how to do a loop including Bison Peak.

    • Hi Rob. This was actually an out-and-back trip. Sorry, I don’t remember the mileage. You can make it part of a loop if you don’t mind about five miles of road walking to connect the Twin Eagles and Ute Creek trailheads. Keep in mind that the the water situation is spotty up near Bison. I was lucky enough to find snow, but it’s mostly very dry up there. If I were taking a group of scouts to Bison, I’d probably do an out-and-back from the Lost Park trailhead, camping near the head of Indian Creek. Get a hold of the Trails Illustrated #105 map to see what I mean.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s