The small herd of bighorn sheep tensed at first glance of us. Wide-eyed, the sheep inspected the row of stinky humans straining with bulky backpacks on a trail above them. We must have been quite a sight after four days out. Their furrowed brows did not mask the disdain on their faces.
Whaddya doing up here? This isn't your home, their expressions said.
And indeed it wasn't. We were a short distance from the top of 9,932-foot Big Horn Peak, the jewel of the Sky Rim Trail, on the crest of the Gallatin Mountains. My mission, as a Big Wild Adventures backpacking guide, was to safely escort a British group of four through the wilds of Yellowstone National Park for a week. Jane was a nurse and Paul was a scientist, both from London. They were traveling with their daughter, Emma, a traffic engineer, and her boyfriend, Robin, who set up speakers at music gigs.
For now the gang was happy. We had been quiet for long enough to sneak up on some wildlife. The crotchety bighorns examined us a bit more, then begrudgingly stepped off the trail and trotted down a talus slope. They moved like smoke—smooth and flowing, as if their hooves never touched the shattered stone.
We walked farther up the trail—a ribbon of dirt along a rock wall hundreds of feet above the valley, barely wide enough for single-file traffic. I stood at the front, making room for everyone to get a view of the sheep. We strained to make out their forms below.
Suddenly, I heard a stone overturn nearby. Another bighorn had wandered around the corner of the mountain and onto the path behind us. It was an older ewe, her fur matted, horns thick. She didn't run. Instead she locked her eyes on us, squared her body and grunted. She was the herd's sentinel. She grunted again and stamped her hoof.
Five people stood bunched in a line. It was the worst possible spot for a bighorn ambush. One misstep could lead to a serious tumble. Closest to the angry sheep was the scientist, Paul, who had a fear of heights. He'd never seen a bighorn before. Now he faced one pawing menacingly at the ground 75 feet away.
"Come on guys, let's get moving," I said. Paul put a shaky hand on the rock wall. We began shuffling along. Our movement startled the ewe, or perhaps she caught scent of her herd. In one jerky motion she swung around and ran down the scree field after her flock.
"Is everybody all right?" I asked.
"That was the proper way to see some wildlife," Jane managed to answer. We had finally seen large animals up close—too close.
We pushed on to the grassy summit of Big Horn Peak for lunch and feasted on the views. To the east stretched the muscular Absaroka Range: stout, angular, sure. Behind those mountains was a mass of uplifted earth, the plateau of the Beartooths. The rugged backbone of the Gallatins extended to the north, and in the distance were the Crazy Mountains. A westerly view revealed the Taylor Peaks of the Madison Range, sharp with scraped, colorful cliff faces. And to the south, gazing across all of Yellowstone, the Tetons appeared on the horizon.
The Brits poked half-heartedly at the hummus and crackers I laid out for them. But there's no cook like hunger, and they eventually loaded the grub into their bowls. Sitting on the rocky pinnacle of Big Horn Peak, they were a world away from London.
"What a view," Jane said, leaning against her pack.
It's hard not to feel like a blip in the geologic record on top of a peak like Big Horn, with the Earth cinched into mountains all around. Twenty miles in the distance I could see Lone Peak and the sun reflecting off a car driving a mountain road. It seemed like cheating that people could reach a vantage point by pressing a gas pedal. My group had done it the hard way, and I felt we'd accomplished something special trekking to the summit.
I had met the Londoners at a hotel in Bozeman three days earlier, and driven them south on Highway 191 to begin the hike at the Specimen Creek trailhead in Yellowstone. We spent two days wandering up the broad meadows of Specimen, a drainage littered with petrified wood. The first night a massive storm lit up the evening with thick, purple bolts of lightning.
It was four miles to our second night's camp at the remote Shelf Lake, where the Specimen Creek Trail joins the 10.6-mile Sky Rim Trail. But we wouldn't tackle the whole Sky Rim at once. The owner of Big Wild Adventures, my stepfather Howie Wolke, is a cautious guy, and he'd mapped out an itinerary with short forays on the trail and overnights in the safer valley below, including a stay at Black Butte Creek and two nights at Daly Creek. It wasn't smart to subject clients to undue risk on the ridge, Howie knew. Even experienced backpackers on the trail need to be fit, fast, carry a gallon of water and start out at first light so they can get off the mountain before afternoon lightning storms hit.
The Brits had never backpacked before, let alone at elevations where they could get zapped by weather or stricken with altitude sickness, dehydration or heat stroke.
So here we were, on Big Horn Peak, well above the tree line. We'd been high and dry on the Sky Rim all day. We wouldn't be able to fill our water bottles again until we hit Black Butte Creek four miles below. Storm clouds began to brew.
"Time to leave this world behind," I called out.
It was hard to turn away from such a beautiful place. But we couldn't stay longer. For the next couple of hours we punished our calves and quads on the downhill, descending through the whitebark pines. Grizzly bears would be thick up here in September, gorging on the pine nuts. In fact, there could be a griz around the corner of the trail now, in late July. We all kept bear spray handy and kept moving.
The storm swept past us without incident, leaving nowhere to hide from the sun. Trail dust caked our legs. A layer of it sanded my teeth. My shirt clung to my body; the straps from the pack pulled. We kept walking, draining our water bottles to the last warm swallows. Whitebarks gave way to fir and spruce. Chitchat on the trail quieted; everyone found a different mind space to handle the discomfort.
Then the trail dipped into a forested draw. I crossed from hot, dry air into the fertile smell of moisture, moss and ferns. I felt a cool breeze coming off the creek. I could almost taste the iciness, bubbling from a spring up the hill: sweet, pure Rocky Mountain water. It's so clean here I rarely treat it, a decision many clients make as well.
I shrugged off my pack and plunged my face in the creek, the cold burning in my nose. I sucked it down like a moose, then pulled my head out and blinked the water out of my eyes. My British cohorts, a bit more civilized than their guide, looked at me flatly, filled their bottles, and sipped.
"How long 'til camp?" the daughter, Emma, asked.
We were only a quarter-mile away, but I gave her my standard answer.
"Depends on how many grizzlies we run into. Someone could snap their ankle. We could get pinned down by a lightning storm. A tree could fall and crush someone... "
They rolled their eyes. It was probably the 10th time I'd rattled off the list. But I wanted them to focus on the journey. I wanted them to feel self-reliance and wonderment, to experience the unpredictability, something they'd traveled halfway around the globe to feel. We were on our own. We were in the wilderness.
We made it to camp without a mishap. Our tents skirted a large meadow and we watched a herd of elk dine on a lush hillside nearby.
Fat blooms of flowers greeted us, one of the best blooms in meory. Fat clouds of mosquitoes also said hello, happy for a blood meal after the aperitif of the wildflowers. I was glad I'd packed my head net. I tied a bandana around my neck and covered the rest of my body in clothing.
"They don't show a horsefly buzzing past your face in the pictures of Yellowstone," Jane exclaimed at one point.
We hiked to Daly Creek for our next overnight, and woke on our sixth morning to fresh grizzly scat on the edge of camp. The day hike back up to the Sky Rim Trail was like enjoying the company of an old friend. Once again, the threat of a storm in the west drove us downhill to the wildflowers and mosquitoes.
The final morning we packed up. As we walked across the upper meadow of Daly Creek we spooked a small band of elk, antlers in velvet. We continued on until one of the clients spotted something large and brown—a grizzly?—in the nearby trees. I squinted. We tensed. It was a cow moose.
Relief washed over the group. Jane had been petrified of seeing a bear all week.
"This has been just an amazing trip," she said, flushed.
"Oh, c'mon Jane, let's find a bear," Paul said, teasing her.
"I could stay here for another week," Robin chimed in.
But we were just visitors here. A bald eagle watched overhead as we finished the hike out.