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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.