2015 Annual Milestone Review: Backcountry Edition

One could say I had a lot of milestones this year. I hiked 23.5 miles, climbing over 4,000 feet in elevation, my longest and most difficult day hike to date. I finally stumbled upon the elusive Rubber Boa that I’ve been longing to see since I heard about them. I established more self-reliance in the backcountry. I survived a winter in the Tetons and took up new hobbies such as skiing and snowshoeing, and decided I liked it enough to stay.
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Baxter a Peregrine Falcon from Teton Raptor Center and I in Grand Teton National Park (Photo Credit: Sue Ernisse)
I saw more wildlife. I had new work experiences. I explored new places. I gained new opportunities such as working with and rescuing birds of prey, in addition to educating thousands of people about them through the entire summer. And now I’m just starting another opportunity in tracking the Great Grey Owl, also known as the Phantom of the North, in Jackson Hole. I lived in an awesome little cabin and flew over Grand Teton National Park in a small airplane flown by a friend.
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Upper Mesa Falls, perhaps one of the most serene places in Idaho (Photo Credit: Jordan Nelson)
But I would say there is one achievement that sticks particularly out in my mind. One that seemed a little “big” and I wondered how I’d break through it. Camping in the backcountry… in bear country… and carrying all the gear necessary to do so.
3 Bell Mountain Winter Backpacking
February 2015 in the Lemhi Mountains, Idaho (Photo Credit: Rob Ashley)
First, it was acquiring the gear, which I still am doing, but I have a decent supply now. Next was actually going out and doing it. I backpacked three times this year. The first time also being my first winter backpacking trip with two other guys in the Lemhi Mountains of Idaho. We attempted Bell Mountain, but were stopped with 35+ mph winds and 5 feet of powder. It took 30 minutes to cover almost 30 yards.
Bell Mountain Winter Backpacking - Storm
Mid-storm selfie at the turn-around point
After making it to the shelter of the closest tree, we regrouped and decided to head back down into the trees, set up camp, cook a warm meal and bail on the idea of summiting Bell Mountain.
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Three full-grown men fit in that tent. It was cozy.
My second trip was a quick overnighter in Grand Teton National Park with a buddy of mine. We hiked up through Cascade Canyon mid-June and got some incredible shots of the sunrise and sunsets. Our packs were way overpacked though and I was still borrowing some gear, including the backpack, which weighed 8 pounds EMPTY — a beast to say the least.
5 Cascade Canyon - GTNP (Photo credit: Brandon Durgan)
Cascade Canyon Trail, the most popular trail in GTNP. Photo Credit: Brandon Durgan
My third and most memorable trip was a multi-day hike through Yellowstone from the Bechler Ranger Station (near Cave Falls in the southwest corner) to Lonestar Geyser (near Old Faithful). This was the trip where I used all my own stuff, minus a few things that we split up to save weight. I also went very lightweight. I didn’t weigh my pack, but it was significantly lighter this time than the other two times… partially because I had my own pack, weighing at only 1.2 pounds and frameless (supported only by the foam pad I slept on. More about this trip in an upcoming post.
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This is where backpacking lightweight comes in handy. Just one of the many stream crossings along the Bechler River Trail in Yellowstone. (Screenshot from video taken by Jordan Nelson)
This was the longest I hiked in consecutive days, the first day covering 22 miles, the next day, 16.5 miles and the last half day, 10.5 miles. That’s just under 50 miles for those of you like me who can’t do math. This alone was a milestone and an accomplishment.
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Bechler River Trail Route: Yellowstone National Park
But I still hadn’t gone out and camped alone in “bear country”. Why was this a fear? Why was I so concerned? I supposed it’s good I have a healthy respect for them, but I also realized I was making it bigger than necessary. I literally used the excuse that I didn’t have any means to hang food as a reason to not go… The proper response being “Well Aaron, go buy some cord!”
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Loaded up and ready for the decent: Big Hole Mountains, Teton Valley, Idaho
And so I did. Soon after upgrading my mountain bike, I got some last minute supplies, loaded up my bike and headed to the Big Hole Mountains from my front door via Packsaddle Road for an overnighter. I started late, so I was climbing up the steep road in the dark, though I had lights. Finally, I got to the top, set up camp, cooked dinner, hung my food over what I deemed a perfect bear bag branch and relaxed in my hammock, gazing at the “city lights” in Teton Valley below me.
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Bed with a view atop Packsaddle Road in the Big Hole Mountains of Teton Valley, Idaho
 
Why had I such made a big deal about this? Had I overcome this irrational fear of “going out and camping alone”, I would have been able to pack in far more adventures! Those were my thoughts… more about this bikepacking adventure in an upcoming article as well.
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Sunrise Tentview from the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, GTNP

NOTE: This wasn’t the first time I had camped alone. I’ve spent many nights in bear country by myself, but all other times I didn’t have things to hang in a tree (They were smaller trips and I ate before I left and ate breakfast when I got home) or I was just car camping.

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Teton sunrise atop Packsaddle Road in the Big Hole Mountains
So that is what I deem my biggest milestone of the year… something certainly “up my alley” as some would say, but still an obstacle to overcome in my mind. It’s in overcoming these seemingly large obstacles that I see personal growth in myself. In just talking to someone I met at a sandwich shop in Jackson, he was talking about times he’s solo tripped through the Wind River Range (in Wyoming), famous for unforgiving and remote terrain and climates. I thought to myself “I’d never solo trip a place like that. I don’t have the experience or skills…”
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Self-proclaimed pro selfier: Colonade Falls along the Bechler River Trail, Yellowstone National Park
Yet. I don’t have the experience or skills… yet. I guess this is how these obstacles are created so easily — they begin with one simple conversation or thought. I guess we know the next goal I have — a solo, multi-day backpacking trip. Maybe not in the Winds just yet, but sometime, somehow, someway… soon.
Cheers to next year’s obstacles, achievements, milestones, experiences and adventures! May you always explore on!
13 Yellowstone Bechler River Trail - Union Falls - Backcountry Cheers
Baxter a Peregrine Falcon from Teton Raptor Center and I in Grand Teton National Park

Feature Image Credit: Brandon Durgan


Aaron Written by:

Advocate for wildlife, bicycling, curiosity and deep thinking | Nebraskan currently based in the Tetons