The Bighorn Mountains: A Survival Story

The vast outdoors can eat you alive…

No, this is not a harrowing tale of survival. This is a story about how a great day can turn into a long night. It is also a lesson in the importance of preparedness and common sense in the face of ones own stupidity.

A Brief Backstory

During our bike ride to the rock outcropping (see previous blog post here), we discovered a 15 mile trail through the wilderness. Basically, we had ridden what was the last 2-3 miles of the that trail the day before. “It seems doable”, said the optimist (that’s me by the way).

All together, we knew. Wait. Scratch that! All together, we THOUGHT that there were three trail heads along recreation trail 053. A thought that came from a single glance of a map two days prior with no further research. Later, we would discover there were only two trail heads. One in and one out. A start and a finish. The Beginning and The End.

That single thought set in motion a survival story gone right. All I can say is, I’m quite thankful Eric is a warm fuzzy manimmal who likes trinkets, gadgets, and over packing. While I suppose he deserves some of the blame, he definitely turned a bad situation into a much more tolerable one.

Let the Story of Survival Begin

The Falls

A welcoming sight.

“Welcome”, said the enchanted forest as it lured us deep into the woods where our cries were muffled by seething trees frothing with pine…

Ok, it wasn’t that dramatic. You know me and my over active imagination. It was just that, well, the trail was so inviting. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions—the flow was fun with a few technical rock and root challenges along the way. The trail was mostly downhill, but the grade was gentle and forgiving. We knew that the way back would be challenging but rideable.

An utterly gorgeous ride!
Pit stop at the creek

I say “the way back” as if that was our plan. Sadly, we really didn’t have a plan which may have been part of the problem. We were just two free birds enjoying the day doing what we love—riding bikes. The thoughts really stopped there. That’s all fine and dandy when you’re not in the unfamiliar wild. But out here, it could have been a costly mistake.

Pit stop at the rocks

Not far into the ride, we came to our first creek crossing. There was a nice bridge and we spent a few moments cooling off and watching the water gently glide over the large rocks. After a relatively easy climb we stopped to admire the views and climb the massive rocks jutting from the tops of the earth.

It felt like we were at the top of the world anyways. Felt being the key word here. Eventually, we would find out that there are many “tops” of the world. This was just one of many in the area.

The signage through this section of the trail was spot on. Another key factor in our optimism turned misconception later that day.

Like I mentioned before, to this point, the trail was smooth going, well marked, and inviting. So, on we went.

By mid day, we made it to the falls. Eric and I were in our own little world having had the entire place all to ourselves. We took lots of photos, had lunch, and sat quietly peering out into the wilderness. It was pure bliss! And the views. Oh, the views. We could see in every direction for what felt like hundreds of miles.

Approximately 3 miles from the trailhead.
We were a long way up!
The falls were a LONG way down.
I was in major happy mode.

The descent

It didn’t seem like much at first.

Well, this is where the story gets a little hairy. Basically, I let an emotional high overpower my judgement. Eric was blinded my by energy and enthusiasm. I mean, generally, common sense is our strong point. Today it was not. I blame the powerfully seductive quality of the forest but in reality, we had a risky moment of stupidity that could have cost us our lives.

Thankfully, it did not! Instead, we were granted a chance to live our our days with another notch in our story-belt.

But, the terrain changed quickly.

Here is a little proof that mid way down that massive descent, I started to have some second thoughts. It was one of those moments where if I was alone I would have turned around. I’m almost positive that we both kept saying to one another, “Are you sure about this?” as we each placed one foot in front of the other marching onward and downward at a startling pace.

Eric spotted a toothpick which turned out to be a good sized bridge at the bottom.

At one point, it became so steep that the crumbled rock rolling under our feet carried us down. I’ve never experienced a downhill so great that it was equally as tiring as going up. The photo above shows Eric peering down asking, “Is this really the trail?”. It was straight off a cliff and he wasn’t joking for once. I looked down and thought, “If so, we’re turning back”, but after glancing to the left I discovered we were just at another switchback. A few hours later, I had wished the cliff was the only option. We could have still made it home by then.

Canyon Bottom

Despite being all downhill, it was nearly 1:45 by the time we made it to the canyon bottom. Yes, this is the same creek that the giant waterfall pours into. Despite everything, I was still feeling pretty excited. I mean, the forest was magnificent!

Looking back, I think we also climbed the two mountains in the background.

We made our way down to the creek, filtered some water and thought seriously about what our next step. I suppose there was still a flicker of doubt on whether or not we should keep going. We were both way too wishy-washy considering the situation.

Yeah, I know, crazy, right? At this point in the reading, I’m sure it’s painfully obvious that we should have turned around multiple times.

This crossing really was the the point in which misremembering the map and being too confident in the number of trailheads really hurt us. Despite all doubts, we decided to push forward thinking trailhead number two was closer than going back.

After a short rest and cool down at the bottom of the canyon, we made our way to the imaginary trailhead.

Little did we know at the time, we were still 10 hours away from home.

Awe. Look at these naive little whippersnappers! This would be the final kiss as we quickly went into survival mode not long after our peaceful retreat at the bottom of the canyon.

The last kiss….

The Climb

Ok. Let’s forget about the climb for one brief moment and talk about this behemoth. After looking back, the entire scene playing back in my mind, I think of all the movies I’ve watched over the years. You know, the ones where you’re yelling at the ignorant human on screen because they are walking so obviously into a disaster. Usually, I’m left thinking the scenario is ridiculous. But now, I think, ANYTHING is possible!

Well, the tree above was just past the canyon bottom and one of many signs that we should probably turn around. But, we didn’t…so the story must go on. Let’s just say this wouldn’t be the first, second, third…..or 10th tree trunk we had to heave ourselves and our bikes over during the course of the next 8 hours. There were many.

Eventually, we gave up counting. In fact, we quit doing anything and everything to conserve energy for all that mattered—-getting home. Even the pictures were few and far between.

Sometimes the trees were helpful to avoid the energy required for reaching the kickstand.

Ok, now back to the climb. Basically, it was a whole lot of up and in the words of Forrest Gump, “That’s all I gotta say about that”.

That dark brown/black line trending upward is the angle of the slope!
I wasn’t joking about the up!

More Obstacles?

Of course! Obstacles equal adventure, right!?!

So far we had battled with rocks, boulders, roots, tree trunks, NOW bushwhacking! Eventually, the trail became so dense we weren’t even sure if we were still on course. There was absolutely no indication whatsoever that any brave soul(s) had biked, hiked, or tackled the trail on horseback through this section. It was at that point, I decided that folks from Wyoming are total bad-asses!

After a while, we made our way through the thicket but not without a few trophy scrapes and bruises.

Waist high!

Reality Strikes

We were more concerned than we looked!

At this point, we were growing more and more concerned. Another 3-4 hours had passed and our progress was at a snails pace. We had several conversations both internally and externally regarding our fate for the evening. It had been several hours since we had seen a sign or trail marker and with the thick brush and fading sunlight, the outlook was grim.

We were tired. The water supply was dwindling, and we were high enough up that it was uncertain if or when we would find more. We even talked about ditching the bikes since they were holding us up and wearing us out.

Then, it was as if the mountain heard our cries and signs appeared before our weary eyes. Unfortunately, none of the four signs that we saw were indicators that we were on the correct trail. Noooooo!

More decisions. Eric wanted to keep climbing up. I wanted to head towards the closest familiar landmark and work back to the van from there. Either way, neither of us knew the right answer. It was all guesswork, so on we climbed up railroad ridge. The uphill was starting to get to me. I was lightheaded and had the dry heaves for several minutes. I tried to eat a meat stick for the salt intake and Eric was patient and encouraging the entire time. Mentally we were doing great, physically, we were dwindling. Me more than Eric for sure!

Eric still had hope we were going to make it out. Me on the other hand, I was convinced we’d be spending the night in a dark, bear and mountain lion infested forest. I am still shocked at how calm we were in the midst of our self imposed tragedy. What else can you do? Panic was NOT an option.

With calm mind, we did an inventory of our supplies and found the following:

  • Nature Valley Fig Bars x 2
  • Slim Jim x 2
  • 1 litre of water (plus filtering supplies)
  • Emergency Blanket x 1
  • Buff x 2 (face covering)
  • One thin extra layer each
  • Toe Socks x 1 pair
  • Light x 1
  • Inflatable seat x 2
  • 50% phone battery (each)

After climbing up Railroad Ridge for over an hour and making minimal progress due to downed trees, rocky terrain, and fatigue—we stopped. Another discussion regarding our route ensued before we gathered our supplies and ditched the bikes. After about 10 steps straight up, something just didn’t feel right and we both knew it. We scooped up our bikes and headed back down the hill to where we spotted all of the signs.

Towards the end, I could barely lift my bike over the downed trees. I was out of gas!

It was absolutely the best decision we made all day! The second we got back to the signage Eric spotted OUR sign. How we missed it the first time, I have no idea! All I know is that we both had a second wind once we knew we were headed in the right direction.

The forest gets darker much faster.

Eric and I walked up and down the wooded terrain until about 10:15 P.M. when we finally accepted our fate and called it a night. At this point, an overnight stay was inevitable. It was pitch black, we were sharing one light. The risk of injury was high due to poor trail conditions and visibility issues. So, we found a large pine tree to block the wind and Eric made us a bed of pine needles. We tried to eat a little something before bed to trigger thermogenesis to help keep us warm(er) through the night. Water had still not been found so we sipped slowly trying to savor each drop.

Night

Our view WITH a light. It was dark! Can you spot the stars?

I’m sure Eric and I were a sight to see. That’s probably why the critters left us alone—they took pity on our weary souls. Here we were, layered with every article of clothing we had (which wasn’t much), buffs wrapped around our face/neck, and bike helmets on while spooning under a star filled night. Our emergency blanket that barely fit over each of our torsos crinkled like a pair of pneumonia filled lungs, our legs and feet tangled, shivering in the breeze. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so cold. It’s amazing what the human body can endure when it needs to.

Despite being cold and worn out, a smile swept across my face. I have to say, this was one of the darkest, star-filled nights I’d ever seen. It was magnificent. I lay there for several moments appreciating the stars. Eric and I were almost giddy despite the situation. I think we’d both accepted that it was what it was—we were here—may as well enjoy it. If this was to be our last night on Earth, well, we died doing what we loved in one of the most beautiful starry nights we’d experienced in our lifetime.

After a night filled with broken sleep, morning finally came. We woke at first light and took in our surroundings. The photo above marks the spot just to the left of our sleeping quarters.

Above is our makeshift bed.

Our pine tree to the left, and a cold Jenni.

We SURVIVED!!!!

The Final Stretch

About a mile or less from our camp we found water! Yay! At the creek’s edge, we drank, enjoyed, refilled, and moved on. The trail gave us a brief reprieve, but it didn’t last long. Such a tease! We had good forward momentum, and were feeling surprisingly good considering. Eventually, the trail grew more rigorous than the day before and we were congratulating ourselves for stopping when we did last night. About 2 miles in, we discovered that the trail was undergoing some major maintenance.

About 2.5 miles from our previous nights camp, we found the construction crew’s empty base camp. It was here we also had another decision to make. Go to the trailhead we knew existed OR follow the 4-wheeler tracks straight up in hopes that it would take us to the road. We opted for the hard road up which turned out to be another good choice which saved us from racking up another 7 miles.

I say hard because it was brutal. It was a half step up, grab the bike brakes to steady yourself, then another half step up. It was S-T-E-E-P! Steep and filled with loose dirt and small, slippery rocks. A great way to warm up when you’re cold!

Almost to the top, the sun started to shine through the trees and I stopped to relish in the moment.

It felt so good!

After another mile or so, we made it back to the road that would take us home. Now, we could ride and ride we did! Eric and I peddled our little hearts out and when we first laid eyes on Van in the distance, we rang our bike bells in overwhelming celebration. We knew we made it—we knew the gratifying nightmare was over! We were home!!!

A Lesson Learned

Yes, we learned from all of our mistakes! The biggest take home point is, never leave home unprepared. The trail was challenging, but if we would have had the proper gear, this would have been just the adventure we were looking for. There are no excuses! I’m just glad that it all worked out. Maybe we didn’t get an A, but we passed the test. We stayed calm, utilized our resources, and we lived. That’s gotta count for something.

As far as Wyoming goes, we also learned that just because the trailhead allows bikes doesn’t mean you should take them! It was difficult, fun, and beautiful but we won’t be back—with bikes anyways!

Stats

Unfortunately, we were not able to get all the statistics from our trip. We know that we went approximately 13 miles with an elevation of gain of between 3-4000 feet. Numbers wise, it doesn’t seem that bad, however, the trail conditions were definitely brutal and unforgiving at times.

After some research, we also discovered this was the coldest night of all nights we’ve been in the Bighorn area, dropping down to a crisp 38 degrees. Again, not that cold if you’re prepared!

All-in-all it was a trip to remember!

Thanks for reading!

Until next time friends……

3 Responses

  1. Bill & Elsie Davis

    Wow and double Wow. Glad you are ok and safe. While reading I had to stop and breath. Love you guys be good.

    • Jenni

      Were good! Headed back out by foot and more prepared! Should be a fun 🙂

  2. Debbie

    Oh my gosh! What a day and night! I am so glad you both made it. Yikes!!!!

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