RATBOB II: Run Across the Bob Marshall Wilderness By Steve Brown

By Steve Brown

The Bob Marshall Wilderness complex is enormous. It’s actually three different wilderness areas grafted together: the original Bob, the Great Bear on the north, the Scapegoat on the south. Together they form one of wildest roadless areas in the lower 48. Entire rivers run and mountain ranges rise within its borders. A whole lot of grizzly bears call it home. More than 1,800 miles of trails line its valleys and traverse its mountains. What better place for a Montana trail running adventure?

The quest for the second annual run across the Bob was to run a route that crossed the wilderness from one side to the other, incorporate the Chinese Wall, and not exceed 50 miles by much to avoid the risk of nighttime running. Buoyed by memories of last year’s run from Benchmark to Holland Lake, sometime during the February blizzards I began pouring over maps. By starting again at Benchmark and slicing northwesterly to toward Spotted Bear south of Hungry Horse Lake, it seemed theoretically doable. The real question was whether anyone would agree to join another crazy run, and whether we could hoodwink anyone into driving the ridiculously long shuttle to make it work.

The Prep, the Drive and the Camp

Being Missoula, getting people to join this run turned out to be no problem at all. By March the word was out and I began to get floods of emails from interested folks. The list continued to grow. A few dropped, a few more added, and by mid-July we had 20 fully committed runners. At the last minute, Jeff Rome joined us and won the prize of the last available seat as runner #21.

After numerous emails, phone calls, meetings and the creation of the obligatory spreadsheet to track it all, we settled on transporting everyone in four vehicles generously donated to the cause by Kevin Twidwell, Craig Macholz, Dan Propp and J.B. Younce. Between cars and drivers just about every seat would be filled and it remained a mystery whether all our gear would fit.

We landed on the last weekend of July as the date for the run. Too much earlier and we risked river fords being too deep, especially on a big snow year like this. Too much later and the days start to get too short.

Somehow we managed to cram all our running, camping and eating gear in and we left Missoula early Friday afternoon on July 25. We headed straight to Augusta where we refueled and hydrated on chicken, burgers and beer at the Buckhorn Bar. Then on to Benchmark. The drive from Augusta to Benchmark only tantalizes for what was to come. Benchmark sits in a deep incision in the Rocky Mountain Front, surrounded on three sides by wilderness and a perfect launch spot. It has a big campground, full of horse trailers, where we pitched tents, packed, hydrated some more, told stories, stared at maps, scouted the trail a ways, and generally did the pre-run jitter thing. Andy surprised and delighted us with an inspired rendition of Jed Rogers’ writeup of last years’ adventure.  We went to bed in our scattered tents full of anticipation for a long day that would start shortly after 4 a.m.

Part 1 – The Morning Light: Benchmark to Indian Meadows

With 21 runners, all of whom took blood oaths to strictly comply with wilderness rules (15 person max party size), we started in two groups. The first group of ten departed a little after 5 a.m., in the dark with headlamps lit. The second group of eleven started about a half hour later.

We left Benchmark heading north on the Continental Divide Trail, beginning with a five mile gentle downhill from the campground to the bridge that crosses the West Fork of the Sun River. Within the first mile and a half we reached Deer Creek, the first of many creek fords where it made no sense to try to keep our feet dry, though some did. Soon we reached a recent burn filled with gray and black snags and brilliant pink fireweed, illuminated by the orange light of the morning sun. Much of the Bob has burned at various times over the years and it's great because it opens up the views and makes for great running. As it would be much of the rest of the trip, the trail was immaculately maintained.

At five miles we crossed the West Fork and began heading upstream, west up its long drainage. At the bridge over the West Fork, we decided that it would be even more efficient to break into three groups. Jared Oyler, a veteran from last year, led the first group of six, John Fiore led the second group of six and the other nine of us formed a third group.

The trail from the West Fork bridge to Indian Meadows is fabulous. It wanders up and down the side of Prairie Reef, crosses numerous small creeks bubbling with cool water, and sometimes branches into several tracks the resemble running lanes. The views ahead of us were up toward Nineteen Ridge, Junction Mountain and the Continental Divide. Below us flowed the wide arc of the West Fork as drained east. The morning light bathed in all in soft gold. The mood was uniformly euphoric.

Part 2 – The Chinese Wall

After about 17 miles from Benchmark the trail left the valley of the West Fork and grew steep. We began to see glimpses of the Chinese Wall looming above us. The Chinese Wall is the Bob’s iconic geologic feature. It’s enormity is almost hard to grasp and pictures do it no justice. It’s 1,000 vertical feet of Cambrian limestone that stretches more than 20 miles from Haystack Mountain on the south to Larch Hill Pass on the north. The Continental Divide forms its crest. It’s the backbone of the continent, and it’s a long ways from any road. 

The climb became even more spectacular the higher we climbed as the meadows filled with beargrass, penstemon, paintbrush and other wildflowers. Finally at about 20 miles late in the morning we reached a high saddle where the whole expanse of the wall to the north and south. This was Cliff Mountain. At the saddle was a huge flat rock where we spread out for an impromptu lunch and recharge spot. 

From Cliff Mountain, the trail ran north along the base of the wall for more than five miles. Those five miles between Cliff Mountain and Larch Hill Pass has to be some of the most stupendous trail running imaginable. The other 48 miles could have been run on rusty nails and hot coals, or worse -- pavement, and it still would have been worth it just for those five miles of trail bliss. The trail gently undulates up and down, but is never out of view of the precipices that loom above. The vegetation alternates between meadows even more packed with beargrass and groves of subalpine fir. Little creeks seep from the talus, providing plenty of spots to reload water bottles or just splash cold water that only minutes before was subterranean. At one point we stopped and stared at a huge mountain goat up on the cliffs above. It was one of those stretches where I kept thinking that I never wanted it to end because I could imagine anything better anywhere. Judging from the number of photo-taking and gawking stops we made, it appeared that pretty much everyone else agreed.

Eventually we reached the Wall's northern terminus and the trail began to climb again. At about mile 25 and early in the afternoon, we reached a fork in the road and a decision point. From here we had two options. Option A, crossed the Continental Divide at Spotted Bear Pass, then dropped into the headwaters of the Spotted Bear River drainage where it began a long descent to eventually reach the trailhead 25 miles distant. Option B offered about the same distance, but required a complicated series of climbs and descents, beginning with Larch Hill Pass, then eventually looped around until it met the Spotted Bear River near its confluence with Wall Creek. 

Part 3 – The Split

Spotted Bear Pass

The first group headed east for Spotted Bear Pass. The trail to Spotted Bear Pass meandered through more high meadows with views back the wall. Along the way it passed by the only legitimate lake on the route - My Lake, before ascending the pass and crossing over to the west side of the Continental Divide. From the pass the trail dropped steeply into the Spotted Bear canyon, though rocks below the Three Sisters, at times resembling more of a stream bed than a trail. It was a sign that the home stretch was not going to be a cakewalk. Eventually the trail dropped into the long Spotted Bear valley and after about 12 miles crosses Pentagon Creek and reached the Pentagon Cabin, our designated meeting place. 

Bungalow Mountain

The second group headed west, up and over the Continental Divide at Larch Hill Pass. At the top of the pass, two backpackers were lounging in the shade more than two days into a hike that had taken us the morning run. One of them swore to us that he thought he was hallucinating when he saw women (Allison and Anya) running toward him, deep in the wilderness carrying handheld water bottles and not much more. (Anya was also carrying an axe, found at the base of the wall, but that’s a whole another story). Each backpacker we passed was equally dumfounded that we were choosing to run in one day what normally requires at least a five day backpack.

After crossing the pass, we descended down a serpentine ridge into the upper reaches of the White River basin. The White River is one of those rivers where the entire river, from source to mouth, is wholly within the Bob, completely wild. After climbing all morning, the trail down the ridge was stupendous. The trail began with an easy downgrade with long views toward Silvertip Mountain and mountains to the west. Eventually we reached the bottom of the canyon, and crossed Juliet Creek, an upper tributary to the White River where we refilled. Juliet Creek turned out to be the last water for several hot dry hours.

Even though our weather largely was perfect, the climb out of this canyon was a furnace. After climbing several thousand feet up a waterless, south facing slope, we eventually regained the several thousand feet of altitude we'd lost. We crested Wall Creek Pass. At this point we had two choices, either down the nice cool shady Wall Creek Valley — with the promise of water, or the faint fork to the right that continued to climb the dry ridge toward Bungalow Mountain. In true Robert Frost fashion, we opted for the trail less traveled because it continued up.

The climb to Bungalow Mountain baked us further. Much of it had burned recently and the ground was sort of black. Someone said it looked like Mordor and it was true. Unlike the Chinese Wall where the views were above us, the Bungalow Mountain trail allows us to run (sort of) up a long ridge that dropped precipitously on the east side into the Christopher Creek basin. The higher we climbed, the more distant the views and the realization that this area is huge and still untrammeled. Eventually we summited and found the remnants of an old lookout, now mostly a pile of braised glass and old nails. To the east we gazed at the Three Sisters, to the south the deep White River U-shaped valley and the peaks of the Flathead Alps way in the distance. On the far northern horizon we could see Mount St. Nicholas and the other mountains in Glacier, and west the glaciated massif of Silvertip Mountain. We marveled, we snapped some pictures, we sipped precious water, ate a bit and proceeded down, hoping that the rendezvous point with the others eight mile distant would materialize.

Part 4 - The Home Stretch 

After a nine mile descent we finally reached the Spotted Bear River. Crossing it required an icy thigh-deep ford, but it felt good at that time of day. Once crossing the river, we rejoined the main Spotted Bear corridor trail and ran a little over a mile to the Pentagon Cabin, where we planned to find the other group and possibly pick up the shuttlers who had the option of running in to meet us. Pentagon Cabin is a backcountry patrol cabin. In a moment of what seemed to be perfect timing, both groups reunited without too much waiting. All that was left was an easy 10 mile run down the Spotted Bear River trail to the trailhead where vehicles and beverages would await.

No matter how long the distance, the home stretch always seems hard. After a long day on the trail, ten more miles sounded easy, but it's still ten miles. At that point the eating and drinking sort of stops and gets replaced by daydreams of just being done. Some of us descended into pain caves. Others were invigorated by mirages of coolers full of icy drinks. But the trail remained beautiful as it crossed several more streams, pass the roar of Dean Falls, skirted two irridescent blue lakes with dancing trout, and gradually led to our finish at the Silvertip Trailhead. For several of us (Dean, Anya, Craig), 53 miles of trail bliss just wasn’t enough so they blew right by the turn to our designated trailhead, continuing on down for several more increasingly dark miles. But eventually we all were reunited with the good feeling that comes after a good long day.

Part 5 - The Afterglow

One of the best things about trail running in Montana is the shared camaraderie that comes at the end of the run. This one was extra special, in huge measure due to the extraordinary measures of our shuttle crew. After seeing us off at 5:30 a.m., Jamie, Geno, Glen and Kevin drove the four vehicles nearly 300 miles via Choteau, Browning, Marias Pass, and the length of Hungry Horse Reservoir to schlep all our stuff to Spotted Bear. They also stopped along the way to load up on groceries (and beer), set up camp and, while Geno made dinner, ran in ten miles to greet us. The trip never would have been possible without these folks. Their generosity and good humor was incredible.

Once we were all back to the campground and the muddy shoes and sweaty clothes changed, we sat around a big fire telling stories and laughing deep into the night. It's moments like that after a long day with good friends that you realize that this was much more than a 53 mile run though the woods. In many ways this was better than a race, or any solo run because the incredible beauty and the long miles were a shared adventure.

So now it's time to start thinking about next year already. Save the last weekend in July...

The Crew

Shuttle Driving Heroes:

Geno Bassette

Glen Johnshoy

Jamie Swartz

Kevin Twidwell

Appreciative Runners:

Allison Onstad

Andy Tucknott

Anya Wechsler

Brian Fruit

Craig Macholz

Dan Propp

Dean McGovern

Doug Maves

Jared Oyler

JB Younce

Jeff Rome

Jen von Sehlen

John Fiore

Kate Oyler

Ken Ellis

Mark Munro

Patty Kent

Ross Carlson

Steve Brown

Tim Mosbacher

Vo von Sehlen


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