Condensation happens - my trip to the Bighorns

Dreamer

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Cloud Peak Wilderness August 12-15, 2009

I was looking for somewhere new to backpack after a solo mountaineering trip in the Winds and a relaxing visit to the Thermopolis hot springs. Back in 2001 I bought a nice 1969 Ford E150 (one of those van/pickups) in Helena, MT to drive back to Maine. For whatever reason I choose a route through Teton Pass where the trouble started. Turns out the trucks motor skipped terribly on big climbs. Barely made it over. Nobody to work on it in Jackson so I just kept going after getting some useless new plug wires. Made it to the Bighorns but could not get over that last pass until the Appalachians. Spent a week in Gillette waiting for a useless part and then limped the rest of the way home. In 2009 I remembered that long wait for a tow on the roadside and decided to go hike there, being so nearby. I knew nothing about the range. Bought me a map and took a look. As is my preference, I outlined a rough route idea and choose what appeared to be an out of the way trailhead on the west side to the north of the likely popular area. The trailhead area was pretty ugly. It being overrun with dozens of longterm RVers with lots of both ATVs and horses. I packed at the parking area, bringing 6 days of supplies, and set off around 5:30p. My plan was to hike as far as I got that evening. The trail was very difficult to follow in spots due to the multitude of intersecting horse use trails. I had to employ lots of trail sleuthing.

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the trailhead

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plenty of lovely open areas

I camped the first night in the thick trees near a beautiful lake away from the frequented sites. This spot did still show lots of horse use. My plan was to head over by Cloud Peak and see about going up.

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perfect morning reflection

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my favorite kind of sign

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I came from off to the right

On my second night I stayed in the open just below the start of the scramble. The route up looked clear cut, lots of rubble but not steep. It was a perfect day, I hiked in shorts and t-shirt. On the way down, near the bottom, I meet the first people since the trailhead. To me, it seemed late to start the accent.

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this pretty much represents the whole climb

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my take on the classic summit pic

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West face of Cloud Peak

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the summit from near camp

I was tired and just relaxed near camp. At the time, and for the previous decade, I used a hooped WPB bivy sack as my only shelter. I really loved the feeling of being outside all the time. In the sack at night I would leave the hatch open for full view unless wet weather came. During storms I could totally feel the rain and wind lashing. A nice sunset transitioned into a strong thunderstorm at dark.

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sunset

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sunset

I awoke early to an odd sound and as I peeked out I was shocked to see wet snow falling heavy with about 4" on the ground. As my awareness grew I realized something very bad had happened. My lower half was all wet. Now, living in a bivy, one needs to expect some condensation, but that night was over the top. My UL 30deg down bag was sopping wet, ready to wring. I found a puddle inside the end of the bivy like 2' around and an inch deep. The bag was done. I was in trouble. Above tree line. 13 miles from the trailhead in a near whiteout. Ok, maintain composure. What are the options, 1: stay put - no way, no dry shelter, not possible to stay warm or dry out anything. 2: retreat lower - not good, likely very tough to start a fire and a long miserable cold wet day and night. 3: exit - not good, long unknown route on secondary trails in terrible visibility with enough snow to obscure the tread.

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now what? August 15, 2009 6:30a

I packed my gear. Was really, really happy that I had, not long before, traded in my 5" x 8" silnylon poncho for a WPB suit, so I was able to keep my core dry. Only had some fleece gloves and mesh sneakers though. I made my way carefully to Misty Moon Lake where there were many tents. The folks that I had meet the previous afternoon were there and welcomed me into their small tent. The dry rest was so welcome but I felt that I could not stay and did not even ask. I headed out on the back way to my truck. Every so often there was a tall stick marking the open route. I could not see the tread at all. I would head past one pole and hope to spot the next before I lost the previous. As I lost altitude, the precipitation transitioned to sleet and then steady rain. The tread started to appear and fill with slushy water. My feet were soaked and cold even under motion. Had to wade multiple creeks. My hands were so cold and wet that they started to fail. After some anxious confusion with the horse side trails, I finally made my truck. My hands were so cold that I had to grip the key between my palms to open the door. Heat! It was over half an hour before I was able to unzip my jacket. Whoa, close one. That was the end of the bivy for me.
 
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Jackson

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#5
So was it a leak in your bivy that resulted in the pool? Seems like a whole lot of water for it just to be condensation! Unless there was some good sag near the foot of the bivy so all the condensation ran down and dripped onto the same spot.

Either way, very interesting story. Great that you made it out alright, but it sure sounded like a miserable hike out. The part about having to hold the key between your palms really helps illustrate how frozen your hands were.
 
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#6
Wow sounds like a dicey scenario. Sounds like you made all the right calls. Thanks for the report.
 

Dreamer

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So was it a leak in your bivy that resulted in the pool? Seems like a whole lot of water for it just to be condensation! Unless there was some good sag near the foot of the bivy so all the condensation ran down and dripped onto the same spot.
I believe that there was no leak, only condensate. It is conceivable that water entered the slightly open overhanging front opening or the zipped closed foot vent, but that had never happened before even in some really windy wet storms. It was only the second season for that bivy, and later I looked hard for any damage, finding no cuts, holes or membrane delamination. I think that the humidity was exceptionally high that night. The transition from heavy thunderstorm to wet snow with the temps moving around the freezing point likely led to the outrageous condensation. Yes, the foot end was a little lower and all the water collected there, but the whole inside was wet, top to bottom.

... it sure sounded like a miserable hike out.
Oh yeah! One of the very few times in the backcountry that I had to make decision after decision feeling like my immeadiate wellbeing hung on every one. A very valuable experience that helped build my self confidence in my ability to make rational considered decisions under pressure, and just plain tough it out. I reconsidered all my gear and techniques in a new bright light.
 

Miya

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#9
Glad everything turned out okay and you are alright! Definitely got to see some beautiful things before it got awful, if that is any consolation.
Thanks for sharing!
 

Dr Nebz

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#11
Hypothermia is real and it does kill. You made the right choice. Moving is the best way to generate heat. That was nice of those campers to let you dry out. I've done the go to bed like its summer, wake up with 6" of snow on the ground and its a virtual whiteout. It spins you head for sure. Glad you made it out in one piece. Thanks for sharing! Beautiful area!
 
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