August 27th, 2016
Every year the Big Sky Wind Drinkers facilitate a foot race that runs the entire 20 or so miles of the Bridger Mountain Range Ridge, just north of Bozeman. The “Ed Anacker Bridger Ridge Run,” or, “the Ridge Run,” for short has been held for 32 years now, and apparently was named one of the top 31 races in the country by Runner’s World Magazine (2012). It’s one of those crazy things that I’d heard about Bozemanites doing, but had never considered even attempting myself. I’m still not sure about the whole, “running twenty miles over some of the most rugged and exposed terrain in the country,”thing, but I certainly have walked it now, and walked it quickly.
The evening before we started the ridge I sat on the floor of my temporary room, staring at my sleeping bag as the sun turned orange from the wildfire smoke in the air. My brain felt like a front loading washer as it went over and over the list of things I thought I would need. The longest I’d ever walked in a day was 17 miles, and while 17 and 20 are numbers that are close together, that’s still three more miles than ever before. An inkling of self-doubt, nervousness, and something akin to dread began to creep into my stomach as I thought about all the unknowns.
Unlike my previous approaches to new challenges, I had not flown into extreme research mode with this hike. I had skimmed a trail description, knew generally where it went and honestly didn’t really think any more about it. I figured it would be obvious enough, I mean, it’s supposed to be on a RIDGE. It was only when Katie and I were driving the harrowing road up to Fairy Lake at the base of Mt. Sacajawea the night before we left that I thought, “Hmm…I wonder if this trail is going to be as straight-forward as I assumed it would…” And there was the self-doubt again.
We had a fitful evening of trying-to-sleep-through-our-obnoxious-campsite-neighbors-singing-“All You Need Is Love”-far-too-loudly before packing up and heading off at 5:00 am. The dark woods were eerily quiet at we approached the first switchbacks of the Mt. Sacajawea trail and I almost jumped out of my skin when my headlamp landed on a broad white figure ahead of us on the trail.
“GOOOAAATS!” said Katie excitedly, and indeed, the mountain goats that I’ve long heard about but never seen on Sac were right there in front of us. Goats in general are not very intimidating creatures, but one could still pretty easily end you if it wanted to. So we chatted with the goats for a bit until they decided it was time to move uphill and we continued on.
I’ve hike Sac a number of times now, so the ascent to the tallest mountain in the Bridgers was nothing particularly new; however, the sunrise view from the top was pretty darn special.
After Sacajawea, the trail heads over to Naya Nuki, and then descends rapidly to meet up the the Bridger Foothills trail, which is an official national recreation trial. Once down, the trail evens out and runs through beautiful foothill greenery mixed with tricky scree fields, though the trail itself stays fairly level. It eventually walks back up to Ross Pass, which was possibly my favorite area on the trail. The pass is still relatively low in elevation, but is made up of a wide open, grassy meadow- something that always makes my heart sing. Also, Ross Peak is a gorgeous behemoth and I can’t wait to climb it someday.
The fun ended there, though, my friends, as we then had to make up all the elevation we lost in a very short amount of time. The trail becomes unofficial again, and, despite its frequent use, it was rocky, technical, full of extreme ups and downs, and overall some of the most rugged hiking I’ve done. And I grew up hiking in New Hampshire, where the only way is up, and there’s always a rock or root waiting to break your ankle.
It was as we were crossing through Bridger Bowl when I heard a kerfuffle in the spruce trees to my right and looked around just in time to see a little black bear burst out of the bushes and sprint away. A series of curses escaped me as I have never actually seen a bear in Bozeman. It was also small and running away from us, and so it was all very exciting. A small bear running towards me would not have been as exciting.
Once we had successfully stumbled through the relentlessly rugged Bridger Bowl section of the ridge, we ascended Saddle Peak, and found ourselves once again in the scree fields of the high alpine zone of the Bridgers. After a gnarly descent, the trail turned into a magical, wonderful ribbon of easy walking bliss. As the wind ripped across my body, my left knee started to strain, but I still found myself saying, “Hm. I can see how people would run this, now.” All that was left was Mt. Baldy.
Mt. Baldy and I have had words in the past. It was one of the first major hikes I did on my own in Bozeman, and it involved a moment in which I screamed some pretty foul language at the mountain, after which a kindly older man who was coming down asked me if I was okay. I cried once I reached the top, and I got myself two whole feet full of inter-digital blisters on the way down. Baldy is not a mountain for the faint of heart.
We glided to a stop at the summit marker of the mountain, and sat for a moment to have some sugar. I felt as if I had finished the ridge at that point because I knew the rest of the way to the “M.”
Ha! Ha! HA.
The descent from Baldy is brutal. That’s the only way to put it. Switchback do not exist on Mt. Baldy. The trail looses 4000 feet of elevation in 4.5 miles. I have NO. IDEA. how people RUN it and don’t end up just rolling down a la “The Princess Bride.”
The only reason I wasn’t totally trashed by the last 4.5 miles of the ridge was because I happen to rely heavily on trekking poles, and I developed an interesting vaulting move that allowed me to prevent my knees from bending too much. All other parts of my body were pretty numb at that point.
Even so, once we reached the college M, we ran the last mile down to the trail head. What can I say? I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.
Thanks Bridgers, for making me tell my self doubt to sit down.
Congrats to all the Ridge Race 2016 Runners!