Bighorn Mountains Part 2 – Cloud Peak is a Beast

After leaving Buffalo, WY early on a Sunday, July 31st, Brian and I set out for the main goal of this trip to climb Cloud Peak in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. A friend had done it the year before and so I thought, how hard can it be? We will get to that answer later.

As we researched the trip we found some items online that kind of explained the hike but nothing too detailed. This hike would be unlike any other I had ever taken. On this trip I would need to carry everything I needed for three days of camping on my back.

I started doing CrossFit a bit over a year ago and I have been fitting that in as I can between work and whatever other craziness life presents me. Brian and I also did some short test hikes in our area but there is nothing like the Bighorns around us to really prepare. See we live in Dell Rapids, SD – elevation 1,509 feet above sea level. We were about to attempt to climb to 13,138 feet above sea level.

We started our trek at Ten Sleep Lake. Our day one destination was Mistymoon Lake. My pack came to 35 lbs., Brian’s 50 lbs. of just the necessities. At the end of this blog I’ll list what we brought and suggest some products that you may want to include in you camping gear. Brian said hikers will do things like drill holes in their toothbrush to drop weight. I completely understand that frame of mind now.

The hike to Mistymoon is a little approximately 7.2 miles. There are a few river crossings so make sure you have waterproof hiking boots. Since it was the last day of July the water levels were lower and we were able to rock hop across most locations, even if that meant leaving the trail and walking a bit further upstream to cross. I did invest in trekking poles for the climb and I am glad I did. One water crossing had some pretty slippery rocks and the poles kept me upright and out of the water. I’ll talk more about their usefulness later. Oh, and when you cross water, don’t forget to unhook you backpack and leave it lose just in case you were to lose your footing. You don’t want 35 or more pounds trying to hold you down in the water.

On the hike up we took our time, took lots of photos and stopped often for water and snacks. We knew we had all day so we enjoyed the hike. The highlights on the way up included a multitude of wild flowers and a young moose grazing in an open area on the mountainside. Six hours later we arrived at Mistymoon.

A Travel Note: We used a water filtration system (a pump-style) and tablets to purify the mountain water. We had two 1-liter bladders and five other water bottles with us.

By the time you reach Mistymoon Lake you’ll notice that the trees have all but disappeared and the new terrain is short grass, scrubby bushes and large rocks. Finding a level spot for the tent with no rocks is not easy. We chose a spot up the hill to the west a bit.

Now for some advice. Stop down to the cold mountain lake after you have set your camp and put your feet in the cold water. They will thank you later. The added weight and the incline of the mountain will have them a bit sore but putting them in the icy water really saved me. I also took Ibuprofen each day as a precaution. Between the hike, the weight on your back and sleeping on a thin mat why take chances?

We ended our first day with some noodles cooked over our PocketRocket stove and Brian had gone all out to celebrate. He brought two small bottles of wine in plastic bottles to celebrate. It was much appreciated.

By 9 p.m. we were done, exhausted and ready for sleep.

Tame the Beast?

By 5 a.m. we were both pretty much awake. The excitement and the time change made waking up Monday morning easy. Brian started some water boiling for coffee and oatmeal. As I worked on getting warm clothes on (it was about 39°F) I suddenly heard Brian whisper, “I need your camera.”

I knew this must be good if he wanted my camera over his iPhone. I quickly grabbed it, checked the settings and stuck it out the tent door. I quickly came rolling out to find Brian taking photos of a bull moose out in the stubby bushes by our camp munching away.

Bull moose, Bighorn Mountains, Mistymoon Lake
Bull moose, Bighorn Mountains, Mistymoon Lake

Now keep in mind, a bull moose is nothing to mess with. Keep your distance and respect their space. I wished I had brought my large camera lens but the weight would have been too much and we were out of room in the packs. We quietly took a few photos and proceeded to have our breakfast. So did he. This was easily the highlight of my day.

Now on to the climb. By 7 a.m. we had cleaned up from breakfast, packed our day hiking packs and started out to climb Cloud Peak. The morning was brisk and we were layered up. Several mule deer crossed our path and brought me cheer to my day. I love the outdoors, but outdoors with animal watching is heaven for me.

By the time we were into the hike about an hour we had made it to the base of Cloud Peak. A waterfall comes down the mountain into a beautiful valley. Takeaway number one for the day, next time camp overlooking that valley. You want to get as close as you can to the base of the beast to save your energy.

After a little rock hopping to cross the small river we started up the mountain looking for cairns to direct our path. Keep in mind, it would be hard to get lost on the way to the summit. There is a shear, steep mountain wall that rises to your left and a river valley to your right, which also eventually becomes a steep drop off. You need to work the area in between, finding the best path. There are numerous cairns on the way up and I’m sorry but the first set we followed was put there by a crazy person or a really good climber. One or the other, but I digress.

At this time it would be good to mention I am only 5′ tall. This often presents unique challenges and this would be one of them. My almost 6′ tall husband would step his way across boulders, I often would have to choose a different path to be able to reach the same areas. At times I back tracked to try to find the places I could reach. Other times I had to resort to crawling over boulders, handing up the trekking poles as I went. Keep in mind, you do want trekking poles for this climb though. They are helpful in numerous ways.

A travel note: I wasn’t sure I needed trekking poles but I am so thankful I decided to make the purchase. They help you do simple things like stand back up with the weight of the pack on your back. They help you balance while climbing, crossing water and even more so when you’re descending the mountain.

This mountain is really just boulders and rocks and it is not like the wonderful hike to Mistymoon Lake. The sizes of the boulders vary and the steepness of the mountain varies. The initial cairns we followed took me to a location with large boulders, combined with steep terrain. About half way up, I realized I couldn’t do it. We stopped, looked at the area and backtracked down quite a ways so we could attempt a more gradual climb.

By this time we were seeing quite a few of the Pikas that live in the area. We had just learned about them from a local and we have since learned they are an early victim of global warming. They live at elevations above the tree line and rely on a cool, moist environment to survive. They really are fascinating and I recommend you read more on them. Again, the animals really bring me joy on these outings.

Pika, Cloud Peak, Wyoming
Pikas live above the tree level and need cold, moist environments to live. Unfortunately, global climate change has already taken a toll on the population of the mountain residents.

After finally getting through this new area I we had backtracked to, we continued through an area of dried up lakes and more boulders, a bit more elevation and three and a half hours of climbing and I ran out of energy, oxygen, and the ability to keep going. It seemed every 10 feet up the mountain we climbed, I would have to sit and catch my breath. We were around 12,000 feet above sea level at this point. After more inspection of the map, looking at where we were and time of day I realized the beast (Cloud Peak) had won. I was not cut out for this yet. Maybe my first ever mountain climb should not be the highest point in the Bighorns?

The decent was hard emotionally. I know Brian could have gone all the way to the summit. Also, on the way down we found some new cairns marking easier trails. If only I had seen those on the way up, if only we had camped closer, would I have made it? There are a lot of questions that continue to nag at me.

The beast had won for the day, but I will be back. The training continues.

After getting back to base camp in the afternoon and taking a nap we packed up and hiked down the hill about an hour and a half to Lake Helen. I felt pretty defeated, but the new campsite was outstanding.

The following morning we would complete the hike out in two hours. Brian noted that I was having an easier time keeping up. I responded, “Honey, I have 35 lbs. on my back and it’s downhill. If I keep my feet moving it’s all just gravity.”

Just for reference, here is our equipment list:
Back Packs
Tent – We have a 3 lb. two-man tent.
Sleeping bags – Need to be warm, but light
Sleeping pad (a luxury when you are above the tree line on a rocky hill)
Food for three days (high protein, easy to make)
A small cooking stove (no campfires allowed) – We have a PocketRocket
Any cooking pots, cups, you need (keep it light and simple)
Toothpaste, brush
Comb and hair bands (ladies you’ll want you hair back, it is windy)
Sunglasses, hat and sunscreen
Garbage bags, items to clean your utensils
Waste bags (leave nothing, and I mean nothing behind)
Clothing: winter coat, long johns, zip-off leg pants, short-sleeved and long-sleeved shirts, rain gear (the mountain makes its own weather), the temperatures varied greatly from close to freezing to 70+ degrees while we were there.
National Geographic’s Map: Cloud Peak Wilderness Area
Bear Spray, hooked on to the backpack for easy access

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