The email from my manager, stern but instructive, arrived Wednesday afternoon. I had too many vacation days, and I had to use ’em or lose ’em. Did I understand? Yes, quite, and I would not be losing them. I set to planning.
Three hours later, my lover and adventure partner Kara McMahon flipped open the gazetteer and asked, “Where should we go? And what should we do?”
The answer was: anywhere, and whatever we wanted. We could go north. Or south or east or west. We felt free and ready.
Our first requirements: explorable terrain, above the tree line and unknown to us. Alpine exploration has long fed our souls, and too much time in the valley causes our relationship to suffer until we get our next fix. The second requirement was water—a clean remote lake for skinny-dipping. Lastly, we wanted to see elk in a season other than autumn. We regularly chase them on fall days, trying to get one in the freezer. But outside of hunting season, our adventures tend toward summits and ridges, where elk are only occasional. We hoped to observe these social creatures without a rifle in hand, without killing in mind.
To satisfy the “new to us” component, we decided on the high ranges of south-central Montana—the Madison, Gallatin and Beartooth ranges. The hunting season prior I had tromped through a drainage in the Madisons, finding lots of elk and grizzly sign and thoroughly enjoying the raw, rugged country. We had shooting opportunities every day, and two in our party harvested fine animals deep in the range, but well below their soaring summits. These mountains are high by western Montana standards (over 10,000 feet) and met all our requirements. We had our destination.
Kara has a past in the area as well. In 1855, her great-great-grandfather George Thexton moved to the states from England. He settled near Ennis, working as a blacksmith and gold miner and raising horses and cattle on a ranch that’s now on the National Register of Historic Places. His name can still be seen where he etched it onto a wooden sign at the Star Livery in Virginia City. The ranch occupied broad, dry flats on the valley’s west side, above the Madison River a few miles south of Ennis.
Across the valley and east of Thexton’s old homestead lies Cedar Mountain. This towering mass appears from the valley as a jumble of peaks separating Fan Mountain from The Sphinx, an unmistakable summit. Viewed from the valley, Cedar is hardly dramatic, but the map revealed a consistent three-mile ridgeline horseshoeing around Cedar Lake. The summit tops out at 10,768 feet, and the lowest saddle lies less than 400 feet below. It appeared to be a perfect destination for an alpine stroll. We’d just have to get there. A nearby trail led to a small tarn known as Lake Cameron (8,947 feet), just four or so miles from the North Fork Bear Creek Trailhead. This meant we’d be able to log trail miles for the first part of the trip, then go off-trail for the alpine segment. In other words: ideal. Early the next morning we threw packs in the rig, coffeed-up at Bernice’s Bakery, and before we knew it we were pulling into the dusty trailhead. After a quick repacking of bags, we headed up the trail.
The trail’s first half-mile follows Bear Creek's swift-flowing north fork east into the Madisons. Then it turns north, climbing 2,400 vertical feet up a sun-baked, south-facing slope, through wildflower meadows and towering old-growth conifers. After four miles the trail drops into the lake basin, nestled among forested ridgetops, magazine-quality campsites and incredible wildlife habitat.
We took our time on the ascent, frequently stalling to watch the late-afternoon light dance across the far-as-you-can-see landscape. Cresting the last steep section, my eye caught the unmistakable brown of animal. I froze mid-stride, Kara bumping into me. Two elk calves bounced about a meadow 30 yards away, stopping when they saw us. Deeper in the woods more brown moved, slowly grazing across the trail. The 20-animal herd was composed of cows and calves, but only the two calves could see us. We didn’t think they knew what we were.
I slowly pulled a small camera out of my pocket and began taking pictures. My movement seemed to spook the calves, which ran down the trail right at us before veering off and stopping 15 yards out. The calves were now quite far from their herd, and we could hear the cows mewing and chirping. We remained frozen, watching and enthralled. The two youngsters slowly began walking toward us again, stopping just five feet from me. I could nearly touch the smaller one, and it looked so relaxed I wondered if we were the first people it had ever seen. The four of us stood motionless, staring into each others’ eyes for three minutes that felt like 30. Then the cows charged in, stopping 20 yards out. We averted our eyes but the herd bolted, calves and all, crashing off through the woods.
Invigorated, we resumed our walk and quickly arrived at Lake Cameron, with just enough daylight left to pitch the tent and snap a bunch of hot-burning branches off beetle-killed pines for a fire. We poured some G&Ts as the sun set over the lake, crawled into our bags, and dreamed of elk.
The next morning dawned clear, and we tried to find a route via our sole guide: a Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest travel map. It’s meant to be a road map, with no elevation contours and a scale of 1-inch per mile. With perfect weather, some French press coffee and Kara’s pumpkin muffins under our belt, we hung our gear in a tree and headed straight uphill with light packs. We planned to summit by noon, return to camp mid-afternoon, and roll out in time to catch dinner in Ennis. The route was trail-less, but the traveling was straightforward, weaving through open parks and around funky rock towers. Within an hour we were above the tree line in a world of seemingly endless boulder fields and talus ridges.
As we crested Point 10,412 we saw our first crux: a tall, apparently impassible cliff separating 10,412 from the rest of the Cedar summit. I went left, looking for routes, while Kara went right. Before long I spotted her a quarter-mile away, already ascending the next section and yelling something about the cliff in front of me. I backtracked, found Kara’s delicate sneaker route, and joined her 20 minutes later on the summit, where she was sprawled out smiling in the sun. We slipped on warm clothes and gorged ourselves on elk jerky, cheese and crackers while basking in tremendous 360-degree views.
Some maps mark this point as Cedar Mountain West; eyeballing it, we couldn't tell if it was higher or lower than Cedar Mountain East. To the northeast, the ski runs of Yellowstone Club and Big Sky stood out from the surrounding wilderness, broad, elk-filled meadows spread out beneath them. Towering to the north beyond Lone Peak stood the Spanish Peaks. To the south, we were surprised to see how far below us Sphinx Mountain and its smaller sibling The Helmet appeared, while unidentifiable snowcaps sparkled in the sun beyond. Even lower in the greened-up Madison Valley to the west we spotted Kara’s old family homestead.
The views were just a bonus.What we cared about most was the ridge, snaking a mile northward and two miles eastward from our spot near the center of the horseshoe. After a summit catnap we descended the narrow, windswept arête toward Cedar East. Though it was mostly a stroll, a thin, rotten section of steep white rock near the ridge’s low point gave us a solid but surmountable challenge.
Soon we summited Cedar East and were surprised to find no summit cairn. Were we the first? It’s unlikely, but we'd seen no sign of people since leaving the lake, and we were glad regardless to be atop such a pristine peak. A cold and persistent wind kept our daydreaming in check, so we tucked behind some boulders to finish off the last of lunch and discuss descent options.
The fastest retreat would be to backtrack. If we wanted to make it to the car (and dinner), we should go that way. Instead, adventure called, so we chose a lower line that would loop back to Lake Cameron—sort of. From the summit it looked to be the route of least resistance, with long ribbons of dirty spring snow perfect for glissading. The sun was falling, so we quickly boot-skied 2,000 vertical feet of mountain, keeping an ear out for running water gathering beneath ever-thinning snow. Every so often the subsurface creeks were loud enough to scare us off the speedy corn, and we were relieved when we finally stepped off the last of it without punching through.
We spent the next few hours sidehilling progressively more challenging terrain, and eventually hit the well-used trail, just a couple hundred feet below our lakeside campsite. (This sidehill traverse is not recommended.)
With the sun almost set, we stripped and charged into the lake to swim and bathe. The cold water recharged us and washed us squeaky clean. Near-exhaustion returned as we dried off with T-shirts, accompanied by a deep-belly clamor for calories. But we’d run out of those three hours earlier, and ever since I’d been mumbling about burgers and beers at Ennis’ famed Long Branch Saloon. Would one be enough?
But as we dressed and the stars came out, a four-mile slog to the car became less and less likely, even if that meant a night out without much dinner. I found the food bag and lowered it from the tree. It felt flimsy and thin, almost empty. Dumping the contents on the ground, I took inventory: a small bag of gorp, a few broken crackers, enough coffee grounds for a single press, and three nips of gin. I can survive on caffeine and alcohol, but Kara doesn’t work that way. She needs “real” food. I figured we'd have to walk out by headlamp, and since it was already almost 10 p.m., we’d still likely miss dinner in Ennis.
After weighing our options, we both agreed the evening was so perfect we should stay one more night. I got a fire going while Kara pitched the tent. As the dry wood blazed we shared the last handfuls of our heavily mined and peanut-rich trail mix. It wasn’t burgers and beers, but it quieted the rumbling. The fire dimmed, we nodded off, and crawled into the tent to crash.
I woke in the predawn, thinking of bacon. With Kara still snoozing, I boiled the thin coffee remains extra-long, trying to darken it up. The aroma combined with hot morning sun finally rousted Kara from her bag. I treated her to “breakfast”—our last three crackers, slathered in GU energy gel. Kara called it “alpine biscuits and gravy.” Suddenly a tremendous racket shattered the meadow's silence: The elk herd had returned to splash in the lake, 100 yards away. Calves chased each other in and out of the water while cows took long drinks from the shore. They never saw us, but seemed to know something was amiss, and after about five minutes they spooked and quickly disappeared from view. We felt blessed to share their breakfast nook.
Now entirely satisfied, we took another dip in the lake before packing up and heading out, following fresh grizzly tracks down the trail. The prints—clear depressions in the tinder-dry and dusty trail—hadn’t been there 36 hours earlier. They were as long as my size-12 shoe. We made plenty of noise descending and never saw the bear. Soon enough we arrived at the truck—the one we didn’t yet know had a dead battery. But a few hours later, bellying up to the Long Branch bar and downing bacon cheeseburgers, we'd forgotten all about it. Long Branch makes their burgers big. I still ate two.