Montana Headwall » Head Trip

Oh, Pioneers!

A newbie backpack trip to Torrey Lake that would make Darwin proud



My original college major was animal behavior, but I gave that up and embarked on a circuitous path to a French-linguistics degree (long story) before settling on my personal training career in Missoula. Par for the course for this do-whatever-you-can-to-live-here town.

I like to think that personal training is a bit like animal behaviorism, as is life in general—only now, the animal I observe is Homo sapiens, including myself. Take, for example, the subspecies Long-ride-icus road-bikerus. It was with one of these spandex and windbreaker-clad groups atop carbon fiber bikes that I discovered the Pioneer Mountains and the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Each pedal stroke on the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway carried me deeper into the valley between the high, jagged eastern peaks and timbered, gently sloping West Pioneers. The paved two-lane road bisects the Wise River and Grasshopper Creek drainages, meandering past flowered meadows wet with streams, grassland ranges speckled with livestock, and thick lodgepole forests. The mountains captivated me—I knew I couldn't be satisfied with just one bike trip. I needed to get into them, on foot.

Unfortunately, detailed information about hiking trails in the Pioneers proved difficult to find. The area seemed mostly undeveloped and under-explored (read: if you hike there, bring a topo map).

But after much research and many discussions with my boyfriend, Jason, and two friends, a late summer backpack finally came together. The four of us agreed on what looked to be a moderate 8.5-mile trek in the eastern range, from the Mono Creek campground to Torrey Lake, a lonely cirque with the promise of good fishing. We could possibly even try to summit one of the nearby peaks, 11,147-foot Torrey Mountain or 11,154-foot Tweedy.

I had unknowingly planned the trip, however, with the dreaded Amigos flake-ius. As is to be expected with this genus, my friends canceled a week before the trip, leaving Jason and I peeved at the prospect of going on a trip we'd pushed back to accommodate their schedules when we would have preferred leaving earlier in the summer.

The weather for the weekend was not promising—forecasters predicted late summer snowstorms. I growled and grumbled and muttered and hemmed and hawed. I'd done my fair share, and more, of the trapped-in-a-snow-cave-in-a-blizzard routine and its variations: the climb up a mountain in frigid temps and gale-force winds; the wet hikes; the hikes during a tornado through wet clay; the hypothermia; the miserable campsites. I'd belonged to the Mugs Stump school of thought—"If you wait for the weather, you won't do shit." The famed mountaineer didn't mince words.

But at this point I knew what I could handle—and what I wanted to handle. I felt like I'd earned the right to go outdoors in warm and dry and sunny (oh, please dear God, sunny!) conditions.

And yet, for whatever reason—perhaps the old spirit in me, or the principle of the thing, or Jason's gentle coaxing—the two of us decided to shake our fists at the sky and go through with our plans. We figured we'd spend one night out instead of two, owing to the forecast. If it got really bad we could turn around and hike the 17 miles in a day.

The night before the departure we sat on my apartment floor sorting out what to bring.

"This will be the first time I've actually backpacked," Jason announced as we sat amidst the sleeping bags and fishing gear.

I paused, stunned. I was the transplant here. Jason grew up in the Northwest. How had he missed backpacking?

"Um...well...put the heavy stuff lower in your pack and close to your body," I offered, lamely.

At this point I took a really hard look at the gear strewn around us. And it hit me. There, surrounded by food, clothes, tent and other sundry items, Packus everythingius was about to make the mistake so common to that species.

We were going to be gone one night, and he was cramming enough food and clothing into his pack for a week-long expedition, including a thick, inflatable bedroll suitable for car-camping and a two-foot-long plastic, foam-filled, vinyl-encased box for his fishing rod.

"Are you sure you really want to bring all of that?" I asked. My spinning set was tied up with rubber bands.

"Why not?" he innocently replied.

Jason and I both enjoy sleeping till noon—something I loved about him after having been married to a fanatically early riser. Somehow we managed to hit the road by seven.

It only took a few seconds to load my stuff in the truck. I was bringing a daypack, an uber-light setup I'd used even on weeklong trips. Jason was still carrying enough for a trek up Everest, minus the sherpas, and with an ill-fitting, Costco-bought pack that dug into his shoulders. When I'd tried to give him advice the night before, he'd just smiled and said, "I can handle it," and went back to packing. I'd kept my mouth shut.

After leaving I-15 for Montana Highway 43-W, we drove the scenic serpentine along the Big Hole River toward the town of Wise River, the start of the 49-mile Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway. Fly fishermen cast their lines in the early light, appeasing the urges, common to Montana males, to stand in frigid waters hoping something would bite their lures.

The miles drifted away with each fisherman. So did my confidence.

"Did we already pass Wise River?"

"I don't think so ... maybe," Jason offered.

"Pull over, please," I said.

He stopped at the next sight of a fisherman, and I hopped out.

"Excuse me, sir, where's the Pioneer Scenic Byway?"

The angler turned watery eyes toward me, his nose red with the telltale signs of long years of alcohol consumption.

"Pioneer? There's no such thing. You mean the Pintler Scenic Loop. Well, you're in the wrong place. You need to..."

I interrupted him. "No, no—the Pioneer Scenic highway—it goes between the Pioneer Mountains..."

He stared at me blankly.

I sighed. "Where's Wise River? The town?"

He smiled a near-toothless grin and pointed in the direction we were heading. "Just go down there another half hour or so and you'll find it."

Five minutes later, and with a huge sigh of relief at not having been lost after all, we reached Wise River and its six buildings—two of which are bars—and headed south on the byway, past the mountains, pastures, and old homesteads in a landscape that has changed little in centuries. The meadows and hillsides, surprisingly, still clung to their early summer green.

Twenty-two miles down the road we pulled into the Mono Creek parking lot. The cold air froze my sandaled feet almost instantly upon our arrival, but the sky held some promise of sunshine, so we decided to camp at the lake. A group of horse packers studied us for a while as we organized our gear, then one of them walked over and asked about our plans.

"This is the time of year the bears are really out—you'll definitely see them," he warned, after noting that we did not have guns or pepper spray.

"Oh, we'll be fine," I said, cheerfully. Yes, this was an area I'd never hiked in, but I'd been in bear country many times. Sometimes I carried a gun, but mostly I didn't worry about it.

I could practically smell his skepticism as he went to confer with his group. Figuring they'd rather not read in the papers about the young couple who were brutally mauled en route to Torrey Lake, the group stopped their horses at our truck, handed us a can of pepper spray and asked us to please take it.

We did. Jason assured them that he'd bring his pistol, as well—not that it would do any good, as I saw it, but maybe it could be a noise deterrent. This seemed to ease their worries enough for them to wish us well.

Cattle were the only "wildlife" we encountered on the hike, and the vicious man-eaters kept their distance. The broad, well-maintained Jacobson Creek Trail 2 led us through meadows and across creeks (with bridges!) before turning right after 2.5 miles to Trail 56, taking us under craggy cliffs and into forests of fallen trees that reminded me of Bev Doolittle paintings. I kept expecting to see hidden faces appear in the lines of the jumbled timber.

The path climbed gently for six and a half miles. The final two miles were steeper—not calf-burning, since they ascend only 1,000 feet over that distance, but steep enough so that Jason became fully aware of his tonnage. The trip took less than five hours, but we were both thrilled to pop out of the forest at nearly 9,000 feet onto the boggy, flat meadow leading to Torrey. Since we were the only visitors, we had our pick of several campsites at the edge of the forest.

Looming over the lake like protective parents stood Torrey and Tweedy, the two tallest peaks in the Pioneer range. We arrived at the lake too late for a summit climb. Maybe next year.

My first thoughts now were warmth. Temps had plummeted along with the sun, and we were freezing. It didn't take long to get a bonfire roaring, so we thawed our fingers and then decided to cast our lines into the limpid water. I could see a few trout following my lures with interest and got a few test nibbles, but my fingers soon froze again and I could no longer tie anything to the end of my line. I gave up and celebrated with the more determined, less frozen Jason, as he brought in a small rainbow. After the obligatory "I caught a fish" picture, we released it and watched it swim away.

As an Eternallyius freezingus, the temperature rating on my sleeping bag makes no difference. I could be in a -40 degree bag in the summer and still shiver, so my night, like most camping nights in my life, was spent tossing around to try and stay warm. The morning dawned too early and too cold.

And then it really pissed me off.

"What the f---?" I yelled back to Jason once the call of nature had become stronger than my need for warmth. I'd stepped out of the tent to find snow on the ground. It was just a dusting, but it was still snow. In the summer. Any optimistic thoughts of early morning fishing disappeared. We were freezing again. It was time to move.

I'd lie if I said I wasn't happy to see the truck, but only because of the weather. Once I'd defrosted, Jason and I talked about returning next year, when it was hotter and we could stay longer. The allure of good fishing was just too promising.

"And I think I need a different pack," Jason pointed out.

I agreed. Jason was evolving, as did all of us who entered the backpacking world. "It is not the strongest of the species that survives ... It is the one that is most adaptable to change," as Darwin put it. Jason was ready to adapt and start traveling light. I think he'll survive just fine—and maybe even teach me a thing or two.

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