A Trip Through Paradise (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this three-part series, we reached our camp on Circle Creek, set up our home-away-from-home for the next two nights, and settled in for some fun. I closed by introducing you to the key players. Now it's time to get on with the adventure.

The landscape keynote on this particular trip was Sphynx Mountain. Sphynx is, without doubt, the most noteable mountain in the Madison Range. While the entire range is made up of beautiful mountain peaks of various shapes and sizes, Sphynx must take the prize for most unique.

The Sawtooths (one mini-section of the extensive Madison Range) exude what makes a mountain majestic in my mind: jagged, rocky peaks. But Sphynx has captured my imagination from the first. Thus the opportunity to see this mountain from every angle, to examine it up close and personal, and to allow it to dominate my three-day trip - well, I couldn't have chosen an area I'd rather explore.

The day began bright and early. The night before had been warmer than I expected (I'd guess low to mid 40's). Thus it was easy to crawl out of my warm bed into an adventure filled day. After we filled our bellies, we saddled up. There was some discussion about the pack stock - leave them on the highline or take them along?? In the end, we decided caution was the better part of valor for, as you may recall, Molly was a great mule AS LONG AS she knew (or at least believed) she was not free. Once free - well, we knew we'd be taking a trip back to the trailer to find her should she escape the highline. So, Molly wore the soft-sided paniers with our lunch. Chance went unencumbered.

We picked up our trail where we'd left it yesterday to camp on Circle Creek. Today's route took us west (through the draw shown above), between Sphynx Mountain to our north and Circle Mountain to our south (shown to the right in this photo). The day's excitement started early. In addition to the bear tracks we'd followed to camp yesterday, early on we picked up some HUGE FRESH Grizzly tracks. Being in the lead, I kept my eyes on the trail, one leg on each side of the horse, and, as one elderly friend and horse trainer always said, "my mind in the middle." I must admit, I expected to meet that bear around every corner.

After about two miles we came to our first junction. In an adsolutely beautiful meadow nearby sat an outfitter's camp. A few tents scattered around. A few horses on the highline. And, no bear tracks in the trail. It looked like that particular bear was as shy of meeting people as this person was of meeting him. Boy was I glad!

A bit further up the trail we took our first break. Our hillside 'rest area' offered beautiful views back down the valley we'd just traversed and up toward Sphynx - the star of this particular show.

I was a bit surprised to find this sign tacked to the tree to which we secured our mounts (and pack animals). I did not expect to find an old stock driveway this far up the mountainside.

I never did learn the name of the mountain whose flank rose to our southwest as we descended to the next trail junction. However, it served as a distinct landmark displaying our progress.

After a brief rest for our trusty mounts and a few muscles stretches
for their riders, we were back in the saddle again. Since the whole trip
revolved around Sphynx, I was looking forward to more views of the mountain.

A bit further down the trail we crossed Bear Creek and junctioned into
the Bear Creek Loop trail. As our trail turned north-east up a lovely
draw, we gained our first glimpses of the day's high point (and I'm not
talking about Syphnx) - and it would definitely live up to that name!

After meandering through the lovely little draw our trail began to switchback up the pine covered hillside. Little did I know the day's excitement was just beginning. The first 'hint' came when the trail suddenly popped into the open and the ground seemed to disappear below my horse's nose as he made a sharp left turn. Once I put my heart back into my chest, I looked up to find Sphynx rising majestically to my right.

The scenery wasn't the only thing enhancing the day's adventure. Yesterday we'd ridden under a jewel-toned sky. Today's wind carried the sounds of change. Behind us a thunderstorm brewed while cold-grey clouds threatened liquid entertainment. And here were we - three fools headed for the highest point in the surrounding countryside!

While this section of the trail clung to the side of a steep tree-clad mountainside, ahead we could see Helmet standing sentry over a nice wide draw which offered a nearly level place to grab some lunch and give our mounts a break before the final climb.

I doubt anyone has ever enjoyed a prettier view out their cafe window. I'm not sure a prettier one exists. Certainly our animals were impressed - NOT! Heads down they filled their bellies while, heads up enjoying the view, we filled ours.

A striking mountain backdrop. A beautiful paint horse. A lush landscape. Like I said, this was a trip through paradise! (Our trail will be passing to the right of Helmet taking us over the saddle between it and Sphynx).

But back over our shoulders, storm clouds were closing in. If we were to finish this loop, it was time to get up and over that pass before they sent us on a hasty retreat.

Soon we were switch-backing our way up the last terrace to the saddle. While still a significant slope, thankfully this portion of the trail wasn't too steep - since we were approaching timberline with few trees to reduce the feeling of gliding through space. However, the lack of trees also meant in many places we were the tallest things on the slope. And, when you hear thunder, there is always lightening. Playing the role of 'sitting duck' on the back of my paint pony (even if it sounds like the start of a good western :-) just didn't appeal much!

The thunder rumbled - now nearly overhead. In the lead I approached the saddle. At lunch, Gail told me the last time they made this trip they walked their horses down the other side. However, he hoped, they may have worked on the trail a bit.

Well, from the top of the saddle, everything is DOWN - in nearly every direction. Unfortunately, only a short section of trail is visible from the top. So. . .as we reached the top Gail calls out to me (remember, I'm the leader - more like the blind leading the blind at this point) - "You decide whether we walk or ride."

"ME! I don't know the trail. You tell me."

"Nope, you're the leader. That's your job."

Well, that's what you get for taking a job without a written job description! In the end, Chief made the decision. He said, "I'm not playing lightening rod for one more second. Either you head me down off this fool's point or I'm making my own trail out of here."

So we plunged off the back side of Helmet - down a trail so scary I had to go back on foot (a few weeks later - that story might make it to the blog in the near future) to get the previous and next pictures - taken at leisure, at least in part due to the sunny skies.

To say it wasn't much of a trail is an understatement - at least for the first half-mile or so. The trail clung precariously to the north-east face of Helmet. The avalanche runs were little more than a collection of baseball- to football-sized round rocks looking for a reason to roll. The trail's best spots were not wide enough to see from my horse's back. Needless to say, I kept a leg on each side and my mind in the middle!

It was on our way down the 15 to 18 (I lost count somewhere down the line) switchbacks which dropped us into the next drainage that I discovered Red's one less-than-desirable trait. While I rode 'engine' on Chief, Burt rode 'Caboose' on Red. One of Chief's best traits is his willingness to walk right out - even down a ridiculously steep and narrow trail (and, to his credit, he never even stumbled - thank God, I think I'd have died of heart failure on the spot if he had!). Red, however, was ridden, as you will recall, by an admitted greenhorn. And, being old and wise, he already knew to take advantage of every advantage life throws your way.

So, while Chief strode on down that mountain, Red creeped. Naturally this increased the distance between the front and the back of our train. By the time we'd completed two or three switchbacks, Chief, Molly and I as well as Silky, Chance and Gail were already a level or two below Red. At this point, Gale called for a slow down for, he warned, were we to get much further ahead, Red would start taking short cuts - straight down the mountain!

Chief was not at all pleased with this turn of events. He had no desire to slow the pace! In fact, he wasn't opposed to picking it up a bit. So, this left us with only one option. Stop! I quickly learned to stop on the 'curve' of the switchback. Dancing feet weren't as scary with at least a nominal wide spot. And, as long as I was stopped, Silky was content to stop as well. And - - Red continued to plod down the hill, taking his own sweet time. Thus I enjoyed even more of the steepest section of this adventure than I'd hoped.

At the bottom of the mountain's face, we headed east toward Cougar Creek passing below Sphynx's brow to our south. Another four or five miles brought us to the final turn toward home. Heading south to south-west through the trees and down the meadows, this seemed easy. Little did I know there was one more adventure in store.

One more tight narrow spot - not as steep nor as high as the last 'adventure' - but this one held pretty little McAtee Creek and a slick-rock crossing followed by a BIG down tree on a steep hillside with almost no where to go. Thankfully there was just enough room - and on the uphill side - for the stock to squeeze by.

No, no pictures. The day had continued to darken as the thunderclouds rolled overhead. In fact, by the time we hit camp (about seven hours after we'd taken off that morning) it was hailing and raining and thundering. Thankfully we received a reprieve long enough to get the stock cared for and our own bellies full. By then, however, we were all content to head for drier and warmer quarters.

Lady of the Lake

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