Day 51 – Mount Sheridan

So today’s our highest mountain and one of our more strenuous hikes of our entire trip. We get up early, as usual. I’m a little worried because the mountain, which is looming behind us, is very socked in by clouds. I really don’t want to hike 3,000 feet up in 3.9 miles and be denied a view. But it’s a long ways to the top and who knows how the weather will shape up, so off we go.

The trail starts going uphill immediately, at first gently through a gorgeous valley of wildflowers. I’m wearing rain pants just because it’s in the 40s and I don’t like to be cold and wet. Just like yesterday, it doesn’t take long before I’m warm enough to shed the rain pants and my Nano-puff jacket.

In about 45 minutes, the trail swings right into a long series of switchbacks that curve up a hill. We can already look down on the lake and the trees that shelter our campsite but we can also look up and see the observation tower on top of Mount Sheridan, still a very long way away.

We take our time, grateful now that there’s a lot of cloud cover since we have no tree cover. We are just hiking an exposed mountainside. Each switchback takes us a little further west, actually away from the peak. We finally turn and head up through some woods but we are still way below and way west of the summit.

Periodically Walt consults the map to see if we can figure out where we are; not that it matters.

The trail heads through a bunch of tight switchbacks that are really just taking us up through the woods. Each time the trail changes: valley, switchbacks, woods, the trail gets steeper and our breaks become more frequent. We are heading east a little bit and I’m hoping we’ve passed that part of the trail that is furthest west of the summit, but I’m not sure.

The trail turns again, flattens out a bit and we’re headed south into a bowl with snow on two sides. We could see from the valley that there were still some spots of snow up high, so we’re not surprised that it’s near our trail (but, luckily, not on our trail). I’m most intrigued by the wildflowers growing up here. They’re much sparser than they were in the valley, of course, but there’s still more than you would think. We’re probably at about 9,000 feet of elevation and it’s gotten chilly enough that I’ve put back on the long-sleeve shirt I took off two hours ago.

We wind through the bowl and come up to the south ridge. There’s a mountain to our left but it’s not our mountain. We can’t see Sheridan at all. The views are still pretty spectacular, down to the distant Tetons. Now we wind around the mountain, headed east first, then north before stepping up to the saddle between this little (relatively) mountain and Sheridan.

Wow. We look out over Heart Lake to the north and see the ridge we have to walk the last quarter of a mile up to Sheridan. The ridge is sloped and one serious misstep would be catastrophic but it’s not so narrow as to be scary or dangerous, at least not in the sunlight and dry weather.

We make the last push to the top and are rewarded with views of Yellowstone National Park that most people never see. We can see Yellowstone Lake to the North, the Absaroka Mountain Range to the Northeast, the Grand Tetons to the South. There’s no one else here. The observation hut is padlocked but there’s a bench outside where we can sit and enjoy our view and M&Ms.

I turn on my phone and, as so often happens on top of mountains, I have a cell signal. I send my brother a photo of the view – we regularly taunt each other with these kinds of pictures. He replies that he wishes he was with us. I do too, actually. I know he would love this hike and he’s always fun to be with. We’ve done a number of day hikes and long-distance hikes together. He is unfailingly calm, kind and cheerful.

We don’t stay on top long. It is chilly and even though we know we will get to the bottom in about half the time it took us to get to the top, it’s still a long way down.

Back at camp, we have a snack before heading into the tent to relax. It feels good to be off our feet. Soon we here a voice. “Hello. Anybody home? Ranger.”

A ranger has arrived to take up residence in the patrol cabin at the nearby west end of the lake for the 9 days. He checks our permit, thanks us for having hung our food properly, tells us if we need anything to let him know, and heads off. There’s a bunch of campsites around the lake but we haven’t seen anyone else out here. We saw several groups headed out as we were headed in yesterday but no one headed in.

An hour or two later, we hear thunder. It sounds closer than the thunder we heard yesterday but Walt remarks “not much rain.” Usually we hear the rain tapping on our tent. A few minutes pass and we hear very loud tapping. I look up and then out the back of the tent, where we can see outside under the fly.

“It’s hailing.”

“No.”

“Look,” I say, pointing out the back of the tent. Sure enough, there is already a small pile of pea-sized hail on the ground.

Walt unzips the tent and peers out under the front of the fly. Same view. He quickly zips it back up. All I can think is: “we should have had a hot lunch.” We have two freeze-dried dinners left, one of them is our favorite chicken and mashed potatoes and right now I’m really sorry we didn’t eat if for lunch. I decide that if the hail doesn’t stop soon, we’ll skip dinner and eat the chicken for breakfast. I pull the sleeping bag liner over my head, deciding the best way to get through this is to hide.

The hail goes on for way longer than I would have expected and it’s almost 7 p.m. before it finally stops and we come out of the tent (in rain gear and gloves). It’s not as bad as I feared. There’s a few piles around the tent and by along the path that runs through camp but it’s not too bad. Except that it’s 45 degrees!

Walt asks if I think the ranger will come by to check out how we made in the hailstorm. We both agree that he won’t. He knows we know where he is if we need him.

We cook, eat and clean up quickly before heading back into the tent.

In anticipation of even colder temperatures, I pile on pretty much every item of clothing I have, except my rain gear, which I’m saving for an emergency. So I have on my regular underwear, long underwear, and my hiking pants; two pairs of socks with handwarmers between the inner and outer layers; a short-sleeve shirt, a long-sleeve shirt, a wool sweater, my Nano-puff; my buff and a wool cap on my head. I am covered in sleeping bag liner with a fleece blanket we had brought in anticipation of extra-chilly temps on top of that with the Puffin covering everything. Plus, I am wedged as close to Walt as I can get through all the layers. It’s not pretty and it’s not really a fun way to sleep but it worked for the night.

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