As we paddled into the class four rapid, we hit an eddy behind a large rock and the raft spun a forceful 180 degrees. Here, the river rushes around and over elephant size boulders. Three channels are formed and only one is suitable, the middle. It constricts into a tight slot as it drops several feet into a frothy laterally breaking wave. The Kitchen Sink rapid on the Madison River has terrified me many times in the past. I now paddled into it with a no-worries attitude; complacency dues were to be paid in full.
I quickly called commands to correct our angle, but we turned lethargically. One of the paddlers had fallen into the bottom of the boat and we barely managed to straighten the raft back downriver before the nose of the boat slipped into the slot. I was terrified that we would not make it and get washed up on Snaggle Tooth, a rock feature known to grab rafts and shake off the occupants before releasing the raft unmanned and unscathed to run the bulk of the class four rapid. I was relieved to just make it by the rock formation only to be horrified as we slid sideways up a large, smooth boulder. As we slid back down and our right tube hit the water, it put the raft up on edge. It paused for a moment, teasing the angle of repose and for a split second, I thought we were going to be ok. We then dropped into the laterally breaking wave and it stopped the right tube like a pole vaulter’s plant and bodies went flying. The bottom of my thirteen and a half foot yellow raft, where my feet had been firmly planted, was now above me. Then I was underwater at the top of the notorious Kitchen Sink Rapid. I felt like a vegetable and there were garbage disposals everywhere; standing waves in front of me, recirculating holes to my right and left and grinding rocks sticking up randomly through the current.
Being a former raft guide, I was able to quickly pull myself on top of the upside down raft. My main concerns were my five passengers. I looked around and counted five heads floating in a raging white torrent with dozens of shiny beer cans bobbing around them. Our cooler had been ripped open and the beer we had saved for the mellower section was in a free for all with my passengers.
Everyone was flushed through the rapid except for Shannon. I had told him to grab a hold of the raft. He did, but at the last technical section, the raft hung up in some rocks and he was pulled underneath it. The current pinned him and all his 280 pounds there against the rocks. I could hear him yell in desperation from under the raft. It was as if I was hearing his last words and then he went silent. I thought about having to give him CPR and telling his wife he had drowned, but then he emerged downriver, arms backstroking franticly.
We eventually got everyone back together, flipped the raft and started the endless process of gathering beers and paddles, our beer supply constantly growing at each eddy. We recalled the flip over and over again, Shannon telling us that he had thought he was going to die. I did too and it gave me an empty feeling. I hardly even knew him and had almost killed him. I was the local and he trusted me when I had told him to hang on and that had caused him to get hung up in the boulders and pinned under the raft. He, Alex his brother and Chad had come out with my childhood friend Steven from Georgia for an annual backpacking trip. It was Steven’s fourth year and their second. They had arrived 24 hours earlier for the beginning of their vacation. What a start, I thought. And tomorrow we would be doing the hardest backpack trip of their lives.
For our four-day hike, we picked a secluded alpine lake high in the Madison Range of Southeast Montana. We would gain over 5000 feet of elevation in 12 miles of hiking with full backpacks. I broke the hike down into three sections. The first part was all on trail, six miles of rolling terrain with moderate elevation gain. By far, this would be the easiest miles of the day. Bushwhacking came at the start of the next section. For four miles we could expect a steady gain of elevation while route finding through thick timber at the bottom of the drainage and then climbing through scree and talus fields to a cliff. The last section was two miles and starts with a class five scramble and then continues on through steep cliffs, before finally mellowing out to smooth granite and sparse forest nearing the lake. I knew after a long day, the navigation through the cliffs would have the potential to break us.
Steven and I had backpacked to the lake three years earlier. He is a fast hiker and we did the hike then in 8 hours. I added two hours for the rest of the group, though, I knew anything could happen; the year before, Alex had fallen over with cramps, and later projectile vomited while perched on the side of a cliff where I had gotten us lost. Instead of a lake, we had camp our first night out in what we dubbed as cow-poop-meadow.
Andy, a friend from Seattle, would meet us at the trailhead this year. He was the wild card. I had invited him out for the hike and was surprised when he accepted. He claimed to be in great shape. When we met him at the trailhead the next morning, he was smoking and drinking his second beer. I could see he had grossly underestimated my description of the hike; “it’s fucking brutal”, I had told him weeks earlier.
We began the final packing at the trailhead. Everything in the next four days was dependent and directly tied to this moment. Although the Georgia boys had every new and fancy backpacking gizmo, none of us were weight conscious. We each carried our own tent, snuffing out any Brokeback Mountain references. But most of the weight came from alcohol and mixers. Yes, mixers, I could not believe it either. I was fine with carrying beer into the mountains, but mixers. Along with nine beers each, our group carried 2 liters of ginger ale, 32 oz. of diet Dr. Pepper, 16 oz. of Coke, a liter of whiskey and a liter of vodka. Even though I disagreed with the necessity of weighty mixers at a high alpine lake, I stuffed a liter of Ginger Ale in my pack, trying to figure out if this was a drinking trip or a backpacking trip. I concluded it was the best of both.
Andy, the rookie backpacker, put his backpack on and then strapped a fully loaded day pack to his chest. It was a sound idea, trying to balance out, but it sent the rest of us into hysterics. Later, we would discover he had can foods, battery operated Christmas lights and an ax in his pack. After a weight distribution adjustment we were ready to go. It was 10 AM. In ten hours we would be at the lake, I mistakenly thought.
I am always anxious in the beginning of such a long and hard trip and I just want to put miles and hours behind me. But in the first thirty minutes, my calves began to knot up and threatened to cramp. I had to stop. Was karma telling me something? Should we change plans? I almost killed these guys yesterday. I was the strongest and most experienced hiker and here I was lying down on the ground less than two miles from the trailhead. I had lost my mojo, I thought. After ten minutes of stretching I was able to get things worked out and started hiking again. I help Andy find a steady rhythm as he profusely sweated morning beer out of every pore. I mean absolutely pouring out like a faucet. He pounded water at every chance and then would bend over at the waist, almost parallel to the ground and elbows locked into his thighs, trying to give his hips a momentary relapse from the pain.
It was going to be a long day, I thought. I really wanted to do an easier hike at this point; no route finding, no cliff climbing, no stress. I knew Steven would have none of it. He had planned and trained for this trip for months. He would push ahead with the others while I set a moderate pace for Andy. As I tried to block out the increasingly pulsating pain in my hip flexors, I began feeling a great weight of responsibility to get everyone to the lake and back safely.
This sucked, I whimpered to myself. I had taken vacation days too and time away from my family, and this was becoming way too stressful. After all, less than 24 hours prior, Shannon had been trapped under my raft screaming for his life. He was still visible shaken. Now, all I could think about was this trip being over and parting ways with everyone still alive. Some scrapes and bruises, sans a pint or two of blood, fine, just leave Montana alive.
Just before we were to start bushwhacking, we found several large bear scats on the trail. Great, I thought, just another thing that may kill one of us. We left the trail and Steven and I took turns route finding in the steep, dense drainage bottom. It was slow and arduous. Andy began cramping in the first big scree field. He had to sit and take several breaks. The others moved from the scree and slowly weaved through talus boulders to the bottom of the class V move. Chad was deathly afraid of heights. He had been thinking about this moment since we had first brought up the idea about this hike a year ago. It did not help that he had to sit nervously just under the cliff and think about it while waiting on Andy and I to catch up. He would occasionally snap at Steven who kept trying to capture his fear in a photo. Just as Shannon had thought he was going to die yesterday, Chad was certain that he was about to die. Just before we reached them, Andy tumbled down a steep patch of loose rock and dirt. He got up, rubbed dust and blood away, and continued back up the steep hill, commenting on the spectacular view.
It was three thirty when Steven and I scouted the crux move. Then, everyone but Chad made a human chain, passing each pack up one at a time to the top. The move was short easy, a low class V at best, but very exposed. We spotted one another and talked Chad through a shaky legged ascent. From here, the route finding became extremely tricky. Steven and I constantly scouted ahead and then came back to the exhausted group to lead the easiest way. At one point, Andy told me with not a hint of remorse that he would put his heavy gear in the daypack, leave it and hike with his big pack for a while, then return for the day pack, covering the same ground three times. One mile would end up being three. In over twenty years of backpacking, I never seen or heard of anyone doing this, but it was the only way for him to push on. I knew, for safety’s sake, I would accompany him each time. Thus we sat into a rhythm, hike for twenty minutes, stop and let Steven scout the cliffs ahead while Andy and I dropped our packs and went back to retrieve his day pack.
By seven thirty, we were all exhausted and I told Steven to start looking for any campsite that would fit our group, even though it had been hours since I had seen a flat spot big enough for one tent, much less six. Just after eight, we finally hit the last split in the drainage and found a great campsite. It had taken us four and a half hours to hike a mile and a half. We sat up camp, rehydrated and ate dinner just before an intense rain and lightning storm sent us running for our tents. I thought for sure one of the Georgia boys would get lit up.
The next morning we packed and did the last thirty minutes to the lake. Even after a nights rest, Andy had refused to carry all his gear in one load. We immediately turned around at the lake, hiked back and picked up his other pack. After we set up camp at the lake, it was five o’clock somewhere for the next two days.
The best part, for two days straight, we rarely almost died. Shannon had recovered from the near death experience on the river and we were both able to loosen up. We jumped in and out of the frigid lake, climbed ridges and mountains, played hacky sack, threw the Frisbee, sipped beers and mixed drinks while constantly laughing at and with each other. Everything was just right, but I knew I could not truly relax until I parted ways with everyone. We still had the hike out.
On the final morning I was anxious to get going. After hiking up most cliff sections three times with Andy, I had all the fast lines memorized. We then made it to the crux with no problems, quickly handed down packs and spotted each through the stair stepped granite cliff. Motivated by the prospects of a burger and fries, we flashed through the talus section and then kept motoring though the scree and wooded drainage bottom until finally we came to the trail. I had my own car at the trailhead and I knew in just an easy 6 miles and I could part ways with everyone alive and well.
We crossed two small streams and the trail rolled from lodge pole forest to opened sage meadows fringed with aspen grooves. We enter a wooded section and Shannon and Alex stirred up three black bears and one grizzly. Everything had to be exciting I thought, pulling my bearspray from my holster as we hiked past ripe huckleberry bushes. We finally made it back to the cars, agreed that it was a great trip and said goodbyes. They would head into West Yellowstone for the night and I would head home. I got in my car alone, relieved and thinking, ‘Good riddance. Well, until next year anyway.’
Mark D. Miller lives in Bozeman where he writes and builds with stone.
Photos by Steven Gilliam