Jorden Lake: A Different Kind of Special

Jorden Lake is perched near the western terminus of the Beartooth High Lakes Trail, which you’d infer to be popular simply because the trail is named on the old USGS maps.

In July, I walked the High Lakes Trail west from Island Lake and saw only 9 people, 6 of which were day hikers near its eastern terminus.

In late August, I walked the High Lakes Trail and saw another 6 day hikers near Island Lake, and only 3 other parties of backpackers.

So it was not a great surprise to find out that we’d have one of the Beartooth’s most spectacular lakes all to ourselves when we arrived.

Jorden is a neat lake. Superb scenery, remoteness, and an outstanding cutthroat trout fishery means that it’s worth being a destination.

Jorden Lake outlet stream (Farley Creek), July 2010. LEICA M9, ZEISS BIOGON-C 35/2.8.



However, on my trip in late August, it was only a stopping point.

We arrived late in the evening to calm skies and rising trout, and I remember the evening well: a pleasant breeze, a bright moon, a small campfire, grilled trout, a mule doe, and crawling into a dry sleeping bag on a crisp, starry night.

Jorden Lake cutthroat, caught with a Tenkara Hane rod after dark, during a stonefly hatch on Farley Creek, August 2010. We grilled these trout over fire using the 1-oz Zia Titanium grill. PANASONIC TS-1.




We woke up to something different.

Hostile winds, enveloping fog, cold temperatures, and sleet.

Our morning fire was to be a functional one: for cooking a hot meal, and warming up extremely numb fingers.

Morning fire at Jorden Lake, August 2010. There’s a pretty blue lake behind the fog. LEICA M9, ZEISS BIOGON-C 35/2.8.



This day, too, was to be a special one, marking the beginning of our three-day, six-mile descent of the Farley Creek canyon in conditions that could be described as being on the wrong side of pleasant.

It was one of my most memorable, and rewarding, three day treks ever.

The photo above tells only the beginning of that story, and I like its composition for its simplicity. I can feel the magic warmth that fire gave to me, and boy oh boy, did I like it. That, and knowing that behind the fog, lies one of the most beautiful blue lakes in the Beartooth Range. I felt strange when I took this photo (self-portrait, from a tripod): like it was just me, and the fire, and a few scrappy trees, and then – nothingness. It’s a weird feeling, being engulfed in mountain fog this thick – me and the fire. The fire and me. Me and the fire… (I’ve felt this weird fog-feeling only a few times before. Once was when I was caught in a dreary rainstorm on the Valhalla Traverse en route to climb the Black Ice Couloir in the Tetons. I was bivied on a desperate ledge, soaking wet, and there was nothing but fog around me – just me, the bivy, and a lot of dangerous exposure, and no fire.)

I’ve passed Jorden lake a dozen times before, but this time, because it marked the beginning of something special, it’s forever cemented into my memory as one of my favorite spots. If you ever have the chance, go to Jorden Lake …

… and then take a dive down the Farley Creek canyon for an adventure into the unknown, but beautiful, bowels of the Beartooth Range.


Lake Chain Packrafting

Slow paddling through mountain lake chains offers a unique type of solitude and an entirely different way of seeing “routes”.

In recent years, it’s become one of my favorite ways to travel through the mountains.

The Martin Lake Chain in the Beartooth Range is a case in point.

A traverse of this basin by foot, which is arguably one of, if not the most, scenic short trek in the Beartooth Range, takes only a day from what most people consider as the “top lake” (Rachel Lake, 9864′) to what most people consider as the bottom lake (Estelle Lake, 9182′), because it’s only 2.4 miles and is an easy enough day hike from a base camp at Martin or Wright Lake.

In fact, most people skip Estelle, and few go “up” to Rachel, so their day trek becomes less than a mile from the outlet of Martin to the inlet of Whitcomb, and they get to see four lakes in the chain (Martin-Wright-Spogen-Whitcomb).

Granted, the Rachel-to-Estelle chain is full of scenic awesomeness at every turn but it’s only a little piece of the pie, and can’t be appreciated fully in one day trip.

I knew that on my first Rachel-to-Estelle traverse in 2001, I had to come back and spend some time.

So in 2002, I came back and caught a fish in each lake, which required me to spend at least 10 minutes along each shoreline. I was done in a couple of hours.

So in 2003, I came back and spent 3 days camping in the chain at various locations, and knew that I was starting to appreciate its intimacy.

But it wasn’t until much later, while peering at the maps, that I realized that there might be stuff higher than Rachel and lower than Estelle that were worth visiting.

In fact, I went to the headwaters. The highest lake in the chain is actually Silver Tarn, at 10,846′, just SW of Grasshopper Glacier, and way, way off trail. I reached it via an ardurous off trail traverse that started in the Lake Fork of Rock Creek, and then climbed through dense brush, talus, and blowdowns to Black Canyon Lake. Six miles and seven hours after leaving the car, we bivied on a windy pass overlooking the lake.

After descending to and then paddling (via packraft) across the mile-long Black Canyon Lake (thus avoiding talus and cliffs), we reached the Grasshopper Moraine and more pain until we crested the hydrologic divide of the Beartooths just above Grasshopper Glacier wearing Kahtoolas and breathing a sigh of relief because we didn’t have to arrest with packraft paddles equipped with lashed picks of granite shards on the ends. We reached the crest at midday on Day 2 and enjoyed knowing that it was to be all downhill from here, with a view of Silver Tarn glistening below us.

A short descent down the glacier brought us to the tarn, where we bivied for the night on a big, sloping granite slab.

From here, we inflated our packrafts and kept them inflated for the rest of the trip (with a few notable exceptions), strapping them to our packs for the interim treks between the lakes that included a lot of talus hopping, scree sliding, blowdown limbo-ing, and bushwhacking.

We rafted from the inlet to outlet of every lake in the chain: Silver Tarn (10868′), Two Bits (10211′), Triskele (10190′), North Cloverleaf (10130′), West Cloverleaf (10110′), Rachel (9864′), Martin (9658′), Wright (9630′), Spogen (9583′), Whitcomb (9542′), Estelle (9182′), Granite (8630′), and lots of wide spots, and fast spots, in the wild outlet creek of Granite Lake down to its confluence with Highway 212.

The final route was only 25 miles (with five miles on trail at the beginning and less than a mile of “faint paths” en route), with immense – and I mean immense – on the ground routefinding challenges. I mean, how hard can it be, right? You’re just following a stream — all the way! If not for the faint trail sections here and there created by hardy fishermen, bear, and elk, we might still be trying to find our way out of there.

But that’s not the important or dramatic part.

The best part of this trek was using packrafts to navigate lakes along a natural route corridor. I think this is one of the most spectacular and gratifying means of wilderness travel style: you really do become one with the drainage.

From the ice fringed shores of Silver Tarn to the cliff-rimmed waters of Rachel Lake to our thunderstorm-trapped bivy on the island at Martin Lake to the waterfall at Spogen Lake to dramatic scenic beauty at Whitcomb Lake to the West Wall of Estelle Lake to the exciting paddle of Lake Creek as it fed into Granite Lake to the camp in a bay of Granite Lake that we were convinced had never been visited by man to the 3.5 mile paddle through Granite Lake and its outlet creek and lakes, to the almost-accidental-drop over waterfalls on Lake Creek to trout-infested waters deep in the low country to the hand over hand descent of waterfall chains near the end, to the horrified looks of tourists in a passing Eurovan as we emerged from trees onto Highway 212 with torn up packrafts, dried blood on our clothes, and shoes with half soles…

Packrafting the Beartooths can sort of be like that.

My Favorite Treks: The Trident Traverse from Cody, WY

Trident, Northern Massif from Mountain Creek, Yellowstone National Park

Sigma DP1, ISO 100, f/11, 1/30 sec. Click for a little bit bigger.

In addition to flanking the remotest spot in the CONUS, the Trident (the mass of peaks and ridges making up the Trident Peak Massif) may be YNP’s coolest peak, due its sheer size (volume) and complexity. The photo above shows only about 15% of its total ridgeline. There are four other main ridges you can’t see, behind, and to the left.

The massif itself is rugged, and a traverse of it is not for the faint of heart, or inexperienced, or acrophobes, but successful completion of one will rank high in your list of all time best wilderness experiences ever.

If you don’t have rock scrambling experience, this would qualify as a Hard Walk. If you can handle Class 3 scrambling on rotten stuff and serious mosquitoes, and are willing to carry a Tenkara fly rod and a packraft, and have some tolerance for suffering, you’ll have a Pretty Good Time with this.

I’ve made a few traverses of the Trident, but my favorite is what I think is the proper one, because of its elegance and the level of engagement required to complete it, and the fact that it’s nice to have both an ice axe and a packraft.

It starts and ends with non-simple transportation logistics, but if you don’t have a car, you can start and end in Cody, WY with a little creativity that makes for good stories.

From Cody, hitchhike up to Deer Creek, then walk into the headwaters of the Thorofare River. Packraft for a day or two (depending on how good the fishing is) until you’re about at the foot of the Trident’s SW ridge, near campsite 6T1 in Yellowstone. Here’s the view from there in a carelessly shot and poorly processed hand held panorama but it shows you the S side of the massif, and what the Thorofare River looks like when the packrafting is good, and what sort of low-el bush you might have to deal with.


The Trident from 6T1. Sigma DP2. Click for bigger.

Then, bushwhack, nav through matchsticks remaining from the Big Fire, then gain the ridge and enjoy the scramble to the plateau. Traverse the plateau, making sure to find a nice camp (I recommend two) up there on the grassiest benches on the E flanks, where there’s lots of waterfalls below you and pretty cliffs above you, and really neat sunrises. Then, drop down into Mountain Creek if you’ve had enough, or continue NE to Overlook Mountain, which is Hard but really inspiring, and descend into Glacier Basin, where there is whitewater and good packrafting on Fishhawk Creek when the water is high, and lots of dangerous wood regardless of water levels. But you’ll feel like a hardman for doing it, or you’ll get fed up with stress and walk the trail (you’ll boast about it later, so it will be worth any time you do spend in the water). Fishhawk takes you to all the way to the North Fork Shoshone where it’s a cruise (except at high water, when there are serious holes to deal with) to Cody and good food, and rodeo.

Give yourself about 7 days if you are going to be intense about this, and 10 days if you want to enjoy yourself a bit.

If you do this in October – and you can (“trust me” comes with wide latitude, FYI) – be sure to take a dry suit and ice climbing gear to play on the waterfalls on the E face of the Trident, and maybe an extra hat. There is nothing quite like it anywhere, and the mosquitoes are gone. But your pack will be heavy, and you’ll be real cold sometimes, and you might even be able to bum a steak at an outfitter camp.

Absaroka Sunset (Leica M6 & Fuji Velvia 50)

Absaroka Sunset

Leica M6, Fuji Velvia 50

I love Velvia 50 because it can simultaneously do pinks, blues, and whites without much color casting and contamination. Digital can’t do that, and it’s nearly impossible to easily correct in Photoshop, which means that it’s tedious and thus, a waste of precious time. Time should be spent on doing important things, not tedious things.

I miss film photography for its ability to deliver out of camera images that don’t require fussing, and I find it pretty ironic that most professional digital photoprocessing software like Color Efex Pro uses nonlinear (and probably, logarithmic) image manipulation functions combined with dodge and burn features to help digital look, well, more like film.

This isn’t a digital vs. film argument. That’s a dead horse I really don’t care to visit or spend time on. I just think it’s really neat that the image above was scanned and dropped straight into my blog without a robust appointment with Photoshop.

So let’s talk about the image instead, and not photography.

This view looks straight into the western edge of the Absaroka Range. One divide behind the horizon is the Absaroka Backbone (hydrologic divide), which snakes towards Wyoming for a distance of 300 miles. It’s my favorite long distance trek in the lower 48. I wrote about the trek, and the Backbone, in Issue 6 which now lives on in PDF format.

It’s a Tough Walk because if you’re going to stick to the benches below the Backbone, and you should, because the trails take you too far away from it, you have to contend with Stuff and deal with Issues.

That Stuff and those Issues were what was on my mind this January evening as I snapped this shot, because I wasn’t really dealing with any Stuff or Issues, having just completed a nice soak at Chico.

Don’t get me wrong, I like hot springs as much as the next guy.

But some days, like today, I miss the toughness of being in a Wild Place.

The Lone Ranger (Backcountry Skiing in the Beartooth Mountains)


The Lone Ranger
Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, 2004

I’m a sucker for final scenes of old western movies.

You know, the one where the cowboy’s riding away from the camera on some dusty desert trail with a tired horse and bandaged head?

Montana backcountry skiers know this feeling well.

It comes after a long day of ducking tree branches, scraping edges, breaking bindings, and wondering if the slope is going to hold.

However, most backcountry skiers will be nursing their wounds at the Ale Works by 8pm.

It’s when you add the weight of gear, the hostility of weather, deeper remoteness, and apres-ski held in a tiny nylon pyramid when you start to feel what the cowboy’s might have felt if their mode of transport was two sticks rather than four legs, and the dust was white instead of tan.