The idea for the Bob Marshall Wilderness Open started in two places, over three decades apart. The first was in May of 2010, at the Ninemile Trailhead in Yellowstone National Park. I stood there dazed by the sight of pavement and the hum of cars, which seemed like a different world than the wet and hostile one I had spent the previous days traversing. The previous summer I had sold myself on visiting the park at least once every month for a full year, and that May trip had been a celebration of completing that project and of finishing graduate school. All that paled in the face of the overwhelming place I had just been. The Thorofare is usually cited as the most remote place in the lower 48, never mind that in August 26 easy and wide trail miles will get you there, provided you don’t get run over by a mule train. That May it took me days of hard miles, skiing in the rain through 8500 foot high valleys and following moose and griz tracks over passes, to get there. When I finally reached dry dirt and stood by the backcountry entrance sign to Yellowstone, I felt like the last person on earth. A series of revelations flashed by: it was possible to visit these supposedly closed places, and doing so stripped away the calming artifice which comes with summer crowds. The bears and bison stared at me like I was the first human they’d seen that year, which was probably true, and aside from a few signs and waterbars, the trails looked like they had been built by ungulates, not man. Real wilderness, with at least the authentic hint of centuries past still existed in my backyard if I went looking at the right time. Immersion in this anachronism is why the Bob Open exists.
In the days before I started that trip I lost sleep over it, and the event which led me to go in the face of that is the other thing which created the Bob Open. In the mid 1970s my mother walked into an Atlanta backpacking shop looking for a job, and my father was the assistant manager who hired her. Backpacking is in my blood, I went on my first trip when I was two, and thus if backpacking is about experiencing our ancestral wilderness it is inevitable that I’d be drawn to ever more remote trips.
Living in northwestern Montana after graduate school, remote trips were easy to come by. I took the three day weekend afforded by Memorial Day the next year to do an 85 mile traverse across the southwest corner of the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex. I skied over 7500 foot passes, past snow drifts as big as a house. I followed griz tracks along meadows, the water still filling in the mud. My tarp got squished onto my face by wet snow the first night. I waded waist deep in streams in 35 degree weather, portaging my packraft around log jams, and floated rivers at an effortless 8 miles per hour on the cusp of spring runoff. On the third day I stowed my skis on my pack to downclimb a vertical 10 foot snowbank, wade a knee deep stream, and climb a similar bank on the other side. Late that last day, as I fought mental exhaustion in the face of cliff bands choked with snow, I put on my crampons and followed griz tracks through the maze and down to the trail. My wife picked me up, and as we drove down the road to get a steak and beer I not only felt like I had been away a month, I felt like I had visited another planet. All the while so close to home.
Later that summer I completed the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic across the Hayes Range east of Denali National Park. I learned what real wilderness actually was, when my partner and I were pinned down by a storm, without sleeping bags and 70 straight line miles from the nearest road. After I returned home I realized that while Alaska wilderness was bigger, in spring our northern Rockies neighborhoods were not too far off. I wanted to share what I’d been seeing the past few years with others, and an event like the Classic seemed an ideal way to do so.
Thus the Bob Marshall Wilderness Open was born. Wilderness because that was the venue and the challenge. Open because anyone would be invited to come. Bob Marshall not only because the complex of that name was an ideal venue, but because Bob Marshall himself was an ideal icon. As a conservationist he appreciated the important political and cultural role wilderness would play in modern society, and as a hiker of prodigious appetite he knew the value to be had in drinking wilderness in 50 mile-a-day gulps. The Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic has been around for over 30 years. Each course has a designated start and finish, and rules that all travel from one to other must be human powered, not on roads, and unsupported. The start and finish are typically 100 to 150 miles air miles apart. It’s a physical challenge, because of terrain largely bereft of human trails. It’s an emotional challenge, as being so far from civilization is scary. Finally, it is an intellectual challenge, because with no set route the emphasis is placed on route finding strategy and execution.
I wanted the Bob Open to be similar, if necessarily a bit smaller, and without even the slightest veneer of competitiveness. I’ve been doing endurance races on foot and mountain bike for a while now, and have plenty of personal experience with how much effort it takes to finish at the back of the pack. I wanted the emphasis at the Bob Open to not be on speed, but on depth of experience.
After I returned from Alaska I sat down with my maps, and tried to come up with a good route. The Open would take place over Memorial Day, that I knew. The grandfather of the Open is the Parcour de Wild race, which Ryan Jordan of BackpackingLight organized in October of 2009. Kevin Sawchuk and I completed that course, across the Bob from south to north, on a blind date and ended up being the winners simply because no one else finished. Autumn in the Bob can certainly be harsh, we had feet of snow and a low around –10F, but rivers are low, crossings are easy, and packrafting is largely out. In order for the Open to be a multidimensional test of skills and not just a foot pounding contest, it had to take place in spring. Snow in the passes and uncleared deadfall on the trails would slow down the runners, and high rivers would make packrafting an attractive option and demand that non-boaters pay attention to their stream crossings. With the date set, I picked a start in the east, on the Teton River, a finish in the west, at the Hungry Bear Steakhouse, and put out the word.
That first year, 2012, exceeded my expectations. A big spring storm rolled in right at the start, dropping over a foot of snow in some areas the first night. Of the seven people who started, five bailed. I was one of them, paralyzed in the middle of a snowstorm by the recurrence of a stomach virus I thought I had gotten over. Everyone hiked at least 50 miles, and the two guys who made it all the way through were exemplars of bold caution and perseverance. Dan Durston made wrong turns on route and suffered through a tweaked knee, lost his bear spray and water bottle in ski crashes, but kept up constant forward progress. He even took advantage of low flows brought on by the cold snap to swim across the South Fork of the Flathead, cutting miles off his route by not detouring upstream to a packbridge. Greg Gedney took a creative, complicated, and likely never before done route through slot canyons and over high passes, logging 101 hours on course through the storm, bivvying around fires without a sleeping bag.
This year enthusiasm ran high, and 11 folks showed up to experience a different, south to north course. In stark contrast the weather was mostly sunny and warm, with one night below freezing and some thunderstorms and drizzle as the weekend closed. Durston and Gendey were repeat offenders, picking a 100 mile route which was almost half floating. Durston used last years mistakes as reminders to stay efficient, and did his route in 39 hours, including five hours of sleep. I was thrilled to finish a slightly longer, more easterly route through unknown country. I brought a tarp, sleeping bag, and plenty of coffee and enjoyed myself enormously. Indeed, everyone did, and everyone finished their route, a testament to the power of good weather and the importance of those who have gone before and removed the dread of the unknown.
My hope is that the Bob Open will continue to grow slowly, and that those who come experience it will take their memories home and use them to look at familiar terrain with new eyes. The so-called off season isn’t as far off as most people think, and holds all kinds of rewards. I’m batting around ideas, and the 2014 start and finish will be set soon.
This post was written by Trail Ambassador Dave Chenault.