The Bull King’s 21

Exploring the Brutal Wonders of the Bull of the Woods Wilderness

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Battle Ax from Mount Beachie shortly before sunrise.

On Saturday, June 23, 2018, Scott Martin and I ran The Bull King’s 21. This point-to-point route ascends 19,000' and descends 21,000' over about one hundred kilometers in Oregon’s remote and rugged Bull of the Woods Wilderness. Much of the route is off-trail — following ridge lines across chossy traverses and bushwhacking through thick vegetation. Scott and I established the route with the only known time (OKT) of 30 hours and 32 minutes. This included about seven off-route miles for a total of just over seventy miles.

On Friday, November 10, 2017, Scotty Strain and I attempted a forty-mile route which would have summited three peaks in the Bull of the Woods Wilderness. We were turned back due to early-season, deep snow for which we were not prepared.

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Our first, failed attempt to explore the Bull of the Woods Wilderness.

We had divined that the Elk Bull King of these woods did not find our challenge acceptable. Therefore we were turned away. Following a soak at Bagby Hot Springs and a trip home with our tails between our legs, we went to work on a new challenge. Something worthy of the Bull King’s approval. We had a glimpse of the wilderness gem that is the Bull of the Woods and needed to explore further.

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The GPS track with peaks indicated. The out-and-back section between peaks #14 and #15 is not part of the route.

We began with a simple framework. The route would end at Bagby Hot Springs to give us the opportunity to soak, but it would start somewhere else. The mountains we had to hit included Schreiner Peak (the high point of the wilderness), Silver King, Battle Ax, and Whetstone Mountain. From there, we studied topographic maps looking for any other peaks we could hit along the way. Most of the peaks in the Bull of the Woods Wilderness cannot be reached by an established trail. This set a precedent for using ridge lines and shallow slopes in our route-making.

We tried to institute clean criteria for peak selection. We thought of hitting all of the named peaks or only targeting anything over 5,000'. Attempting to find a lowest common denominator among peaks in the area would result in us either skipping over ones we wanted to bag or include some which were not reasonably reachable from the general area of the route. We also found that there was some inconsistency in the definition and markings of a peak from map to map. Our one guiding principle for this route was that it needed to appease the Bull King. It had to be hard. And and it had to get harder as it progressed. We landed on a vicious 100-kilometer route over twenty peaks: The Bull King’s 20.

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The route somewhat resembles an elk bull’s head.

We had selected the weekend closest to the Summer Solstice for the attempt. That would provide us with the maximum amount of daylight for an adventure which would surely run through two sunrises. We had estimated thirty hours. I invited my friend, Scott Martin, to join us while we were out on one of his training runs for his first Barkley Marathons race. If there was anyone who would be up for this quest, it would be him. Scotty Strain had to drop out after he moved and had to focus on getting set up in a new town.

Scott and I met to review the route one more time. We added another off-trail peak close to the route. He noted that the course resembled an elk bull’s head and antlers. A few days later, we debated about tacking on another “antler” out to Janus Butte. It would add twelve miles and 2,100' of climbing, but it appeared it was all on trail and would be relatively quick compared to the bushwhacking sections. We had our final route: The Bull King’s 22.

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The route’s first peak was jarringly steep.

Scott met me at my house a little before 3am. We left his car at Bagby Hot Springs and drove mine out to the Bull of the Woods Trailhead to start a few minutes ahead of schedule. The first peak, Pasola Mountain, was an out-and-back from the trailhead, so we left our bags in the car. That decision technically made our effort “self-supported” as opposed to “unsupported”, but the remainder of the trip would be unsupported.

The route started downhill on a dirt road, which was a perfect warmup. At the end of the road, we continued through the brush up to a small boulder field. The summit loomed high, directly above us. We were only a few minutes in and already climbing one of the steepest slopes either of us had ever ascended. We climbed over rock and used the sturdier plants as holds. After parting our way through some thick patches of rhododendron, we reached a clearing on the ridge; which we followed to Pasola’s dramatic summit.

The south side of the mountain was a long, sheer drop. I noted it as a place to return with some climbing gear and a few friends one day. We took our first summit selfie and started the descent. Climbing down Pasola Mountain was significantly more treacherous than climbing up. We found ourselves just laughing at how impossibly steep it was in places. We glissaded the loose soil into trees, using them as brakes. We down climbed a few slabs. What we didn’t do was simply put one foot in front of the other.

We eventually reached the boulder field, bushwhacked our way out, and charged back up the road to the car. The route had already won our respect upon its introduction.

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The Bull of the Woods Wilderness is so rugged, not even its sign could survive.

The next two peaks — North and South Dickey — were atop a ridge which ran parallel to the Bull of the Woods Trail. We grabbed our packs and headed south. We heeded the wilderness boundary’s broken sign on a fallen tree as an indication of the rugged challenges to come.

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North Dickey summit.

We followed the trail to the ridge and bushwhacked our way up. North Dickey’s slope angle and vegetation density were stout in their own right, but a respite compared to the only peak we had experienced. We tagged the summit and continued south along the ridge.

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In the clouds on South Dickey Peak.

The vegetation thinned out on the steep descent. We were more or less able to run on the forest floor despite intermittent blowdown. We briefly rejoined the trail before aiming off it again to ascend the ridge to South Dickey. After an abrupt slowing through a concentration of shrubbery and small trees, the exposed summit came into view.

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The steep and rocky descent down South Dickey.

The sun got to work burning off the morning clouds. Semi-transparent holes in the fog hinted to the radical prominence of the peak. We pondered the purpose of a wooden triangle embedded into the summit before downclimbing South Dickey’s rocky face to the trail.

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Exploring the old lookout tower atop the Bull of the Woods.

What trails we did have on our route were generally unmaintained, overgrown, and littered with blowdown. We had a few opportunities to run on our way to the Bull of the Woods, but traveling that segment wasn’t much different than bushwhacking. Curtains of plants opened to rocks as we switch-backed up to the ridge. The lookout tower appeared atop the final steep and rocky climb to the summit. We were unsuccessful in keeping quiet enough to not wake the campers sleeping under the tower as we climbed around on it. As long as they were up, we chatted, but didn’t linger.

One of the few clean, runnable, downhill sections came just after Bull of the Woods. We navigated to the fork with the Welcome Lakes and Mother Lode trails; pausing to stash some gear for the out-and-back to Schreiner Peak. We were carrying more than a day’s worth of food, bivy gear, and other emergency equipment. We hung up what we didn’t need on the next “antler” to lighten our loads. I had rigged up a couple lengths of thin nylon cord, each with a mini-carabiner and loops at regular intervals. Those devices made it quick and easy to hoist up a bag and anchor it to just about anything without additional rigging.

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Testing out the stash cord at home before the trip.

We didn’t have much of a selection of quality limbs, so it took a little longer than expected to secure our gear. We were getting devoured by mosquitoes so we accepted a mediocre stash job and moved on.

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The climb to Big Slide Mountain.

After a few short minutes on the Welcome Lakes Trail, we started the steep descent — which preceded a lengthy, sustained climb back up — to the Big Slide Mountain Trail. We noted potential water sources and passed a couple of intrepid backpackers before the trail turned back upward. The air stayed cool on the ascent as the sun vanquished the marine layer — creating an animated interplay between the clouds and mountains. The dense fir forest surrendered to sparser hemlock groves abutting alpine meadows painted with dazzling wildflowers.

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The ascent to the Big Slide Mountain summit.

Big Slide Mountain topped out slightly off-trail up a scramble on loose scree between a few small trees and shrubs. Our fifth summit was the first to offer a true surround view with the land unveiled by clouds. The narrow ridge dropped sharply on each side, opening wide aspects into the expanse of the wilderness. We used the vantage point to identify the peaks we had remaining; and orient ourselves by sight.

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Following the ridge to Knob Peak, picking up an unplanned peak on the way.

Knob Peak was next. As mapped, we would have followed the vanishing Big Slide trail down to Lenore Lake, then climbed back up to Knob Peak. However, the ridge was the more attractive route. It was narrow and rocky. It looked like fun. It would mean a little less climbing, and it appeared to yield two peaks which were not marked on our maps.

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Pointing out Schreiner Peak in the distance. Knob Peak is directly in front of it and the unnamed peak we picked up is to the right.

The forest east of Big Slide was recovering from the prior year’s Whitewater and Little Devil fires. The blaze had cleared out the thicker vegetation which would have made bushwhacking slow and painful across this ridge, but had left a gauntlet of burnt-out blowdown in its wake. Travel was tedious, but the pervasive beauty of distant scenery and the mountain’s coat of wildflowers overwhelmed the perceived effort.

We passed over what we felt were two peaks. We had discounted them because they weren’t marked on our maps, but they seemed to be their own mountains. Upon review, it was determined that the first “peak” was part of Big Slide Mountain. The second one — which was undeniably prominent — was the high point of what turned out to be an unnamed mountain between the named peaks. We kept asking ourselves aloud, “How is this not a peak? This has to be!” It was, and we estimated its elevation to be 5,423'.

Our count would be off from this point onward.

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The ridge traverse to, and the summit of, Knob Peak.

Fire debris and scree called for a deliberate descent into the saddle before Knob Peak. We carved out our own switchbacks, hopping over log hurdles until the path bent back upward. The ridge narrowed into a rocky blade too thin to tread. We traced the foot of the crag through vibrant grasses and wildflowers until the mountain flattened at its summit.

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The climb to Schreiner Peak.

Following a brief descent, the trip from Knob to Schreiner Peak — the mission’s highest point — was a short and simple climb on the side of a few narrow rocky sections. We snapped a couple of photos from the top of a large and unstable summit cairn. Battle Ax, the second highest point we would reach, both dominated the horizon and appeared distant. The immensity of our route became palpable.

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The highest point in the mission.

Pansy Mountain stood on the other side of a demanding trek. The plan was to backtrack to Big Slide Mountain and pick up the trail to our packs. But the warming atmosphere was causing us to empty our water supply at an unsustainable rate. In an early mapping of the route, we had resolved that we would encounter clear, cold, running water often enough to only require minimal storage and no filter. However, the final course didn’t cross water until much later. We hadn’t considered that in the revision. We took a gamble and headed towards Lake Lenore at the base of Big Slide. While it wouldn’t be safe to drink from the lake itself, we had hoped to find the spring which fed it.

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The gorgeous and demanding descent to Lenore Lake.

Rather than go back over the peaks we had already hit, we hugged their south-facing slopes. The traverse was strenuous on our calves and ankles as we kept our feet planted at a sharp angle. The phantasmagorical wildflower meadows lower on the mountain robbed the effort of pain. We crossed the saddle between Knob Peak and its unnamed neighbor and started the climb down to Lenore Lake. The north-facing slope of the ridge was made of scree, blowdown, and boulders. There wasn’t an inch at an angle shallow enough to stand. We glissaded, climbed down trees, and smeared down slabs.

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Lenore Lake.

We reached the valley, ran over a small hill, and then we were at the muddy shore of the drying Lenore Lake. Our gamble had paid off. An anemic spring tricked from the ground mere yards from the lake. It was enough. We hydrated and filled our flasks and bottles.

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A gift from the Bull King found on our off-trail climb.

I checked my map for the location of our next water source; and for an alleged trail between the lake and Big Slide. We were many and long hours away from our next opportunity to refill our water. We would have to move efficiently to get there in a timely manner, but slowly enough to minimize sweating. As I hunted for the trail which had been erased by fire, I couldn’t believe what I had found: a one-liter bottle of Aquafina. I had assumed it was empty, but welcomed the extra capacity. To my surprise it was heavy with water. To my further surprise it looked brand new. I untwisted the cap, cracking open the plastic seal before hearing a faint fizz. I had just found an unopened bottle of water off-trail on a steep slope in the wilderness. This was obviously a gift from the Bull King, who was pleased with our progress and wanted us to succeed.

I stashed the bottle and we pushed up to the ridge over Big Slide. Scrambling straight up slopes so steep we needed our hands to balance had become routine. We took no break before running the moment we had trail underfoot. There was a surprising and delightful amount of backpacking traffic for the remote wilderness. It was reassuring to know such a wonderful area wasn’t being overlooked.

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The view from the summit of Pansy Mountain.

We reached our stash, then swiftly repacked while taking on a mosquito blitz. We were on trail for only a moment before going back into the trees up the ridge to Pansy Mountain. The shallowest path still required some hand-holds to scramble to the summit. A sharp line which marked the fire’s boundary kept the expansive view hidden until the moment we crossed it — like the uncovering of a child’s eyes when receiving a surprise gift. A falcon skimmed overhead at speed and shrieked when we emerged.

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We had to circumvent nearly sheer, chossy pinnacles to reach the next peak.

Our hearts momentarily sunk when we saw the ridge between Pansy and Mother Lode. We knew this would be a narrow ridge, but not that a series of chossy pinnacles stood in the way. The problem from where we stood was that we had no idea how steep each one was on its south-facing side. While we could have moved slowly across their tops, we may have found that one or more ended in a sheer drop. That would have forced us to turn back or to make a risky descent. The slope on either side of the ridge was too steep and ridden with scree to safely traverse. There was a very real chance that we would have to turn back or re-route to finish the mission.

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The ridge traverse.

We noted the density of trees on the west-facing slope and determined that we could advance by using them as holds. In the worst case scenario, we could leverage them to descend the talus to the valley floor, then climb back up on the far side of the ridge. We slid down to the tree line and made our way across. Where we couldn’t find trees, we tested the embedded rock for solid holds; most of which just fell away with a weak tug. Movement was calculated and methodical. Circumventing the final pinnacle required a long, careful descent down a chute to the tree line. We went one at a time due to frequent rockfall.

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The final climb back onto the ridge and to the summit.

Going low around the pinnacles was the right choice. The final one did, indeed, drop off at close to a 90° angle. Getting off of it would have been a nightmare. The ridge beyond them was pleasantly runnable and climbable. The true summit of Mother Lode was centered between a few trees. We tagged it with our toes and went west.

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Infinite views from the peak between Mother Lode and Silver King.

When we stood on Pansy Mountain, it appeared that there was a mountain between Mother Lode and Silver King. Like our previous unnamed peak, climbing it felt like we were on a new mountain; and it was clear that we were standing on a summit when we reached its prominent top. However, we discounted it until we could verify it, thus throwing off our count even further.

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The summit of this unnamed peak is a spine runner’s dream.

The ridge narrowed into a stone staircase as we approached the summit. I was giddy rushing up it with a surround view in my peripheral. I disobeyed an impulse to run back to Mother Lode just to follow the ridge again.

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The beast that is Silver King.

Silver King was one of the mission’s key points and the end of the perilous ridge traverse. Descending the previous peak was cautious work. The slopes were so steep on each side, we found ourselves at eye level with the tops of 100' trees which were only about 20' away. A woodpecker followed us, sounding its alarm until we reached the saddle. The climb to Silver King was arduous. We moved quickly up rocky slabs, but were beginning to feel the drag of our water conservation effort as our sweat evaporated in the direct heat of the sun. A cool breeze brought relief as we crawled onto the mountain’s flat top to receive what would be the day’s most rewarding and unobstructed view.

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Resetting the counter to 11, though we really had bagged 13.

I emptied what remained of the Aquafina into Scott’s bottles and we headed south to the Twin Lakes Trail. We would pick up a small, dome-like peak on the way. After a steep scramble down boulders fixed into the south side of Silver King, we entered into a thick jungle of rhododendron. I had my phone out with Gaia on screen to pinpoint the exact location of the subtle summit. We bagged it and continued to bushwhack south.

We picked up the trail and did a map check for our next water source. We were parched. There was a potential spring nearby and slightly off-trail, but a more probable draw about two miles out. We relied on speed to get us to water, rather than move conservatively to prevent dehydration. It was the first time in hours in which we had run an extended distance. A quick pause at the spring turned up nothing. We barreled downhill towards the Twin Lakes. The shale grinding underfoot had a pleasant tone to it. Our mouths were dry and there wasn’t a single drop between us. The westernmost of the two lakes was gorgeous and photogenic, but we were just focused on advancing.

At the bottom of the valley on the west end of the lake, a group of backpackers had started making camp by a stream. We dove right in between them, filling our bottles and flasks and emptying them into our mouths. It may have been one of the greatest moment of either of our lives. We took our first break of the day to eat, drink, and rest. It wasn’t more than a few minutes, but it was a revitalizing reset.

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This unnamed peak hid behind a beastly and painful bushwhack.

The trail east of the stream was strewn with blowdown. It was slow when we wanted to move fast. We weren’t sure exactly where we wanted to ascend the next peak on the list. The unnamed five-thousand-footer was Mother Lode’s neighbor to the east. Once it came into view, we picked a line and started to climb. We had bushwhacked rhododendron and burned-out trees —each of which were challenging in their own way. This mountain was dotted with burned-out rhododendron, which proved to be hazardous and painful to navigate. Rhododendron becomes incredibly hard and nearly unbreakable when burned. We tagged the summit and achingly went back out the way we came.

Janus Butte rests of the eastern border of the wilderness. It is far from the cluster of the route; requiring a long side trip which includes a bushwhack through thick vegetation on a steep slope. It is not part of the Bull King’s 21. However, it was killing me that we were going to leave only one named peak in the Bull of the Woods untouched. One map and one online source indicated that there might be a trail all the way to the summit. If that was the case, it may have been worth including.

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Getting our feet wet repeatedly on the way to Janus Butte.

Battle Ax cast its shadow on us. If we truly did have a trail the entire way there, we would have been standing on the summit of the butte in time to watch the sunset’s alpenglow give nearby Mt. Jefferson its lavender, twilight tint. We stashed some gear for the out-and-back and went east on the Elk Lake Creek Trail. About a mile in, Scott said, “This trail is way too nice for this route.” He was right. The “antler” didn’t belong on the Bull King’s head. The riverside trail was beautiful and flat. It crossed over Battle Creek half a dozen times; paying visits to deep, emerald pools and cascading waterfalls.

The proposed trail started across the river, beyond a chasm of debris. Using a combination of Gaia and a paper map, we spent thirty minutes searching until we picked up ribbon markers leading into the woods. We followed them to their end, but there was no obvious trail. All that remained were blurry blazes on a handful of trees. The attempt was over.

We made great time getting back. The path was slightly downhill and we had lightened loads. It was getting dark. The crux of the mission lie ahead and there would be no water sources available to us for hours — possibly all night. We drew our water supply from Battle Creek. “This seems a little warm”, Scott said.

I came down with a serious case of gastroenteritis immediately after this adventure, but it is unknown if it came from a bad water draw. There are many clues that it didn’t, but the chance that it did has had me rethinking my choice not to bring a filter more often. I would have filtered that water if I had had the chance.

We turned on our headlamps as we drew near the line where we would go off-trail once again. There were three unnamed peaks on the ridge we were about to traverse. We both knew that what we were about to do would not be easy. The next peak was a 2,400' climb at a nearly 45° angle on a slope absolutely choked by old, healthy rhododendrons. Miles more of the stout shrubs followed.

Before stepping onto the ridge, I told Scott, “I’m really looking forward to how easy the rest of life is going to seem after this.”

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This was our view for five hours.

The Pacific rhododendron is a woody shrub with broad leaves and flowers which range from white to pink to a deep magenta. Many outdoor enthusiasts in Oregon and Washington have had to navigate them at one time or another when the plants have encroached on an unmaintained trail, or when the trail has been lost all together. It’s a stubborn plant which is difficult to manipulate. Its branches snap back with great force when disturbed. The thought of having to cross through one or two rhododendrons is cringe-inducing. The act is painful and strenuous. Willfully diving into an endless sea of these large and hearty plants is absurd.

Knowing that I would be spending the better part of the evening combating rhododendrons, I tried to learn how to maneuver through them as efficiently and painlessly as possible. The ascent to the ridge’s first peak was so steep, the branches almost functioned as a ladder in some places. After a dozen or so whacks to my shins, I began to develop a technique of parting their branches at about chest level, then walking onto those branches near their root. The key to fluid movement was keeping my feet off the ground. The sturdy plants easily supported my weight. Within an hour, I felt more like I was working with the rhododendrons than fighting them. Scott stayed just behind me, keeping enough distance to avoid a recovering branch to the face; but he seemed to have found his technique, as well.

Our thoughts on the plants began with disdain. We each have rhododendrons growing in our yards at home and talked about ripping them out the moment we got back. Eventually, they had won our respect.

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This photo (with the incorrect count) perfectly captures the experience of sustained rhododendron bushwhacking.

The angle of the slope flattened and a break in the foliage appeared. Due to some map discrepancies, we weren’t entirely sure if the first peak on that ridge would count — until we stood on its rocky top. A roar of frogs bellowed from one of the Twin Lakes below, which held the reflection of Mars blazing so brightly it drowned out the stars.

Scott and I worked hard to maintain a better than one-mile-per-hour pace. After a short descent, the ridge narrowed and began climbing in earnest. Rhododendrons began to team up with short hemlock trees. When the two plants were entangled, they were nearly impassable; and the thinning ridge line limited our ability to travel around them.

Scott became nauseous. That was rare for him. Gastrointestinal issues on adventures like these aren’t uncommon, but can be severe. He kept moving despite his deteriorating condition, until he began vomiting and could move no more. We found a relatively clear spot to rest and regroup. I always carry the anti-diarrheal, loperamide, in my first aid kit. It wasn’t a perfect solution for Scott’s symptoms, but I offered it as the only anti-nausea option we had between us.

We waited. Mars floated centered above the summit of Mt. Jefferson. There was enough light in the sky to faintly make out the volcano’s glaciers and snowfields. The frogs which were so loud earlier had vanished out of earshot. At nearly 5,000', I was altogether comfortable in a tank top and shorts. There was no wind. It was a perfect, silent evening.

I examined my map. If Scott’s predicament worsened, we would have to bail. There couldn’t have been a more remote and difficult place from which to extract ourselves. In the best case scenario, we were at least eight hours away from help. Should I have activated my SPOT, Scott’s issue would have most likely resolved itself before search and rescue could arrive. We just had to wait. We contemplated bivying for the evening.

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Peak #14 (ahem, #16).

After about twenty minutes, Scott perked up. He had a miraculous, remarkable turn in his mood and energy. “I think that worked!”, he said. And with that, he was moving again as if his episode had never occurred. We fought our way through the last of the peak’s rhododendron-hemlock defense, onto the next rocky high point.

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The final peak on the unnamed ridge.

The ridge between the center and westernmost peaks was like a bulbous catwalk, beginning with a sharp drop of a few hundred feet. The elevation meandered as the density of shrubs flickered in and out; introducing vine maples into the ropy skein. Boulder fields occasionally broke up the path, providing both relief and an extra wariness about unintentionally invading the home of a large predator. Our pace was improving as we pushed up the final, steep steps to the unnamed ridge’s highest point.

We had about two miles to go before were back on trail. Rhododendron thickets were present, but lost ground to concentrations of maple. Facing west, the ridge had three basic faces which all went downhill; and a slight curvature south. This made navigation non-trivial. We knew were we supposed to be going downhill, but the slightest moments of inattention pointed us off course into the adjacent valleys. We were eventually able to train our eyes to stay on top of the ridge.

The bushes thinned to rock, and the rock ran out to a sheer cliff. That drop wasn’t obvious on the map. We backtracked to the point where the rocky cliff met the mountain, then followed the crease at the base along a staggeringly steep angle; braking our momentum on trees and rocks. The slope descended further before it began to level. We could feel the end of the ridge approaching.

The mountain wasn’t going to let us off easily. At its foot were deep trenches of blowdown and grasping plants. Over each hill, we expected to see the Bagby Hot Springs Trail crossing by, but we’d be met with another hill. When we thought we had cleared the final one, a large pond presented itself. Not in the mood to get our feet wet, we crossed it over thin, fallen trees. Up another blowdown-laden hill. Then, at long last, our feet were on trail again.

Over five miles in as many hours, we had just completed one of the most trying bushwhacks either of us had experienced. Only four peaks remained and they were all on trail. We immediately started running downhill towards Elk Lake. We were just about out of water again and had a potential source coming up on the map.

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Beachie Mountain by dawn’s first light.

We went down half a dozen switchbacks before meeting the Elk Lake Creek Trail, which more closely resembled a defunct dirt road than a trail. We made a right and sped uphill; eager for fresh, cold water. The path turned back into trail beyond a rocky cul-de-sac. The seasonal stream on the map was still running strong. We took an extended break to eat, hydrate, and refill our water as we mentally prepared for the final peaks.

Elk Lake Creek Trail terminated at what appeared to be a parking area for several trailheads. After some minor navigation snafus, we picked up the Beachie Mountain Trail. We had expected that trail to show signs of high traffic according to its apparent popularity online, but it was overgrown to the point that we were effectively bushwhacking again. We had both been awake for over twenty-four hours by then. Our banter had dwindled as we shoved our way up the mountain; only communicating to verify navigation.

The day’s first grey-blue breath rose from the horizon as we passed a viewpoint below the summit. Warm lines of yellow and red grew in as we reached the peak. We snapped a photo, got lost, and bushwhacked onto a trail so scant it could only be navigated by flags, then we rushed back to the viewpoint below.

Battle Ax is an ominous presence in the Bull of the Woods Wilderness. The mission’s second highest peak stands as an all-seeing, monolithic, god-like trapezoid. It’s a curiosity from every vantage. The wide-angle lens of my phone’s camera couldn’t capture the experience of standing before the behemoth silhouetted by dawn’s first light. High up on a neighboring mountain, we still had to crane our necks to look up at its flat top. The shifting breeze of a new day felt like the Battle Ax’s cold exhale as it woke.

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Ascending Battle Ax.

We traced our steps back to the parking area and ran across to the Battle Ax Trailhead. I lead a hard charge hoping to make it to the summit by sunrise. We realized soon into the climb that this mountain, which was an oddity from afar, grew only more bizarre upon examination. Its composition changed at nearly every switchback. Massive, colorful, warped clay blobs alternated with stone slabs and stacked boulders. I found photography of the most interesting features to be futile. The freakish bends and creases didn’t remotely impress in my images the way they did in person.

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The Battle Ax summit and its long shadow.

The sun broke the horizon just before we reached the summit. The day quickly grew warmer, stirring the mosquitoes and biting flies. We tolerated their jolting attacks while we watched Battle Ax’s shadow reach far to the west; not unlike its bigger volcanic cousins. Having met our quota for insect bites, we escaped to the far end of this giant trapezoid’s shortest side.

We weren’t sure about the next two peaks on our list. “X” marked a spot on the north side of Battle Ax’s ridge which possibly could have been a peak, or just a viewpoint. The topographic data pointed to either. We descended into the forest and past a large, stubborn snowfield before we realized we had sunk below the elevation of the next peak without noticing. It was off our list.

Our minds were growing weary, despite gains in pace. The unnamed peak south of Silver King came into view and never seemed to disappear from our right. When we eventually reached the junction of the Bagby Hot Springs Trail, Whetstone Trail, and Twin Lakes Trail, we paused to wrap our minds around what was left. Using our Green Trails maps, we added up the distances to and from Whetstone Mountain, then out to Bagby Hot Springs. Simple math was difficult, but we managed to correctly gauge that we had about five hours remaining. We were drained. On the floor with nothing left. Yet we still had five hours to go and a big mountain to climb.

In retrospect, we could have just headed straight to Bagby and called it good. But instead, one of us said, “Well, we’ve gotta do it.” I don’t know that the thought of short-cutting the route even crossed our minds. We picked ourselves up and started running down the Twin Lakes Trail. That was the wrong way. We turned around, went back up to the junction and ran down the Whetstone Mountain Trail. That was the right way.

The next peak on our list was directly on the trail. It had a long, flat summit which was obvious on a map, but not to our exhausted selves. As we passed over it, I said, “I think this is supposed to be it.” But we were too tired to make a big deal out of it.

The final, key peak of our mission was Whetstone Mountain. Like Janus Butte, it was a relatively distant outlier. Unlike Janus Butte, we knew that we would have good, runnable trail to reach it. On the other side of the previous, unnamed peak, the trail descended sharply down a long series of switchbacks. I simultaneously felt my heart sink at the prospect of climbing up that section on the way back, and rise at the elevation gain we would accumulate.

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Scott and I reach the 21st and final peak.

The trail leveled off and climbed as much as it had given away on the descent. We encountered a surprising number of backpackers and hikers. I was curious about the inbound travelers. For some reason, Sunday morning seemed like a strange time to start a trip to me. My brain wasn’t fully functioning.

We had rehearsed the distances of the trail’s segments so we wouldn’t miss the fork to the summit. Tracking the outbound trip made it drag on endlessly. Scott’s brain was in better condition than mine as he caught the summit trail when I had missed it. The thrill of having only 500' to climb to the last peak of the mission was tampered by the reality of what was left after we had reached it. I didn’t overexert myself.

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If Whetstone Mountain had turned out to be our twentieth peak, this would have been a cool way to record it.

Whetstone Mountain offered one of the more spectacular views we had seen in the past twenty-six hours. It’s popularity was justified. We weren’t sure how many peaks we had hit, so we took photos of ourselves marking it as numbers eighteen, nineteen, and twenty. If only we had thought to include twenty-one. We were being absolutely mauled by mosquitoes and flies. We flew down the mountain back into the woods.

With the peaks behind us, we just needed to put our heads down and get to Bagby Hot Springs. The plan was to officially end the route there so we could soak in the tubs and then nap a little bit before going home. We still had a two mile hike out to the car beyond the springs. I wasn’t sure if I was looking forward to soaking, passing out, or just getting home. Or all of those things. It was beginning to get hot out and our water supply was running low again.

We ran downhill, power-hiked uphill, and sort of jogged everything else. I began to feel the weight of my pack on my shoulders. I was excited to reach the climb back up to the unnamed peak. I monitored the elevation gain on my watch as it grew to near 19,000'.

We made great time reaching the junction and continued on the Bagby Hot Springs Trail. We refilled our water at the first stream crossing the trail. We were on the final stretch and started to hit the gas hard. After more than twenty-seven hours in motion, we were running our fastest miles of the mission. The first downhill section was technical and obstructed by blowdown and stream crossings, but we just hammered over and through. The trail lost its consistent downward attitude and started to roll up and down. Pausing for a bathroom break triggered a nasty cramp in my right hamstring. Scott pulled ahead while I slowed during the ten minutes or so it took to recover.

Scott waited. I caught up. The cramp dissolved and I was ready to finish strong. Time disappeared in the last miles. There was only the moment. We rounded a corner and there was the familiar, final waterfall before the hot springs. Up the last hill. Down a gentle slope. The old buildings came into view. Scott asked where we should mark the official end. I ran up a short, steep hill to the old ranger station, touched the porch, and stopped my watch. Of course this evil monster of a route had to end uphill. The Bull King would have wanted it that way.

Scott and I hugged and high-fived. It was Sunday morning and throngs of people were out enjoying the hot springs. We opted to skip the soaking and head home. Walking out with the crowds, it felt like we were superheroes who had just saved the world, but couldn’t tell anyone about it.

We had taken caffeine pills on the unnamed ridge and they were still running strong enough to pull off a shuttle back to my car. I drove home. I was fine until I was about five minutes way. I saw a family parked on the side of the road, all seated on motorcycles wearing matching black leather jumpsuits and yellow helmets. As I approached them, they turned into flowers and bushes. I had started hallucinating. I shook it off, rolled into home, showered, and had a one-hour nap before I had to take up parenting duties for the evening. The endurance challenge continued.

This was the most difficult, bizarre, wonderful, and rewarding experience I have had to date. The Bull of the Woods is a beautiful wilderness, but more than that it is a hard place. It is the epitome of nature’s indifference to man. It guards its treasures. There were multiple times where we reached an obstacle which, on any other route, we would have called it impassable and turned around. But on this mission, we just did it anyway.

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Bushwhacking.

I wasn’t entirely joking when I said that life would seem easier after going over that ridge. These adventures continually shift the definition of what a problem is, and how to react to it. Working late, fixing a leak, a crying child and other issues which have previously warranted some moaning no longer trigger the same level aggravation they once did. Then there is the desire to make the next adventure more difficult. The downside to easy is boredom. The Bull King’s 21 is going to be a hard one to beat, but I’m sure I’ll come up with something.

Written by

Wilderness athlete, technologist, and family man.

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