Solo Camping: Alone and Afraid

Two years ago, as the first snows of winter began to blanket the upper reaches of the mountains, I felt a familiar beckoning. I had spent every weekend of the fall pent up indoors doing schoolwork. The mountains were calling, and I could put them off no longer.

My restlessness can lead to hasty decisions. One Friday afternoon I pored over maps and arbitrarily picked a trail close to Bozeman I had never hiked before. Work on Saturday and schoolwork due Monday left me only a short window of opportunity to go get lost. I did not bother trying to recruit friends to join me for this outing, given my last minute plans and highly restrictive schedule. I was stoked for my very first overnight solo trip.

Saturday I ditched work early; camping gear pre-packed. I drove toward the northern Absaroka Mountains. After stopping for gas and taking several wrong turns I arrived at the trailhead for Elephanthead Mountain. Judging by the sun’s position over the horizon I had one hour of daylight remaining, tops. I rummaged through my pack to grab my headlamp — No headlamp. I dumped the entire contents onto the ground, nothing. I tore apart my car, looking for any light-emitting device. An emergency light? Who’s that prepared? Apparently not me.

Faced with the decision of spending my first night alone in the mountains without a light or going home ashamed and defeated, I made the only logical choice. I took off running up the trail.

I reached alpine terrain as the sun faded beneath the horizon. A mad scramble to collect firewood ensued . As darkness loomed, I fumbled to prep and start a small campfire. I have lit perhaps hundreds of campfires, in every weather condition imaginable. None came close to being as satisfying as hearing the first crackles of igniting dry spruce twigs on this night.

When compared with my home state of Alaska, I have always considered the animals of Montana to be rather tame and insignificant. For this reason I never bother to hike with bear spray in Montana. As darkness enveloped my small fire and me this night, I was regretting this philosophy. Sitting there, munching my dinner of trail mix, I wondered how close the nearest critters might be.

I tried to read by the light of the fire. This was about as effective as trying to throw a party without friends. I quickly gave up, choosing instead to use my full imaginative power to think of different beasts that might try to take advantage of a lone paranoid camper. Thoughts of mountain lions, the only animal in the Rocky Mountains known to hunt man, sent shivers down my spine. Once while hiking off the beaten path in Death Valley National Park, I came across the carcass of a recently killed wild horse. The head had been dragged several hundred feet from the body. If a mountain lion could do this to a horse, surely it would have no problems doing worse to me.

Sleep didn’t come easy and didn’t last long. I was half-conscious when the rustling of nearby trees would jerk me back to an alert state. When I did sleep, my mind filled with visions of snarling wolves encircling me or of forest rangers finding and fining me for my poor camp practices.

I was elated when dawn finally broke. Despite my restless night, I felt strong and eager to make for the summit. As I sped up the trail, I congratulated myself for being so fearless and such an excellent solo adventurist. Within an hour I reached the end of the trail and the beginning of a steep talus slope that rose 1,000 feet to the summit. A week earlier, in proper hiking attire, this would have been an easy ascent. However, in trail runners and with a foot of fresh snow, it was tricky going. The snow was enough to hide the ankle-breaking holes between rocks from view, but not enough to prevent you from breaking through to them. I was cognizant that a broken ankle would require a mountain rescue team and deliberately slowed my pace.

Forty mph winds whipped across the upper reaches of the mountain, making for a dramatic summit experience. I snapped some selfies, took a moment to admire the Absaroka Mountains on this bluebird day, and then headed down. I rejoined the trail and starting running, not stopping until the trailhead.

At noon I was back at MSU, sitting in the library sipping coffee. As grim as my workload was, I could not help but feel immensely satisfied.