Skip Logos, Search and Top Navigation
Skip to Top Navigation

Field Camp 1975
Jim Ewart's tale of the Teton Wilderness Area Project

Jim Ewart - Field Camp 1975Jim Ewart in February 2006 writes about the Teton Wilderness trip, sometimes referred to as the "death march":

     "After a time mapping White Mountain, the majority of the camp went with Derrill Kerrick to what I heard were pretty cushy digs at a campus near Alta for more mapping of metamorphic rocks. The remaining twelve of us marched off into the Teton Wilderness Area [which lies east of the park] with Barry, making the group number a lucky thirteen. However, we didn't learn where we were going or how we were to get there until the evening before we set off; Barry told us only to buy 11 days worth of nonperishable food in Jackson Hole earlier in the day. Of course, this also meant that we didn't know what was to happen until after the vans had left with the others. (The sole of one of my boots had detached by this point so I also decided to buy a new pair of boots while in town.)

     I was with Barry when he picked up some mail in Jackson Hole. He seemed particularly irritated with a letter from Wayne Burnham and then declared that the Department Chairman had doubled the liability insurance when he heard where we were going and how we were to get there.

     Before describing the trip I should say that Barry had enlisted our group prior to the start of field camp and had warned us that his session would involve extended backpacking and would be physically demanding. So we knew about that and had appropriate gear. Well... most of us did... one fellow had a boy scout pack with an external frame that was not kind to his back.

     The first morning we drove to a lodge [Togwotee Lodge] and descended a rather long trail down to a tributary of the Snake River [the Buffalo Fork]. In the course of the trip we would cross the continental divide and the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. The entire trip involved hiking approximately 100 miles. Barry had outlined the trip with us on the map as we set off. He had pointed out the locations of two ranger stations and what was to be done if someone or, particularly, if Barry was injured during the course of the trip. A second, backup map was given to one of the more experienced of us (not me) should Barry's copy get lost. At one point on the descent, Barry decided that the switchbacks were taking too long so we took an off-trail "short cut". I recall this involved scrambling over a lot of blow-down and much cussing.

     We finally rejoined the trail and proceeded up-river through a very dry bottom dotted with sagebrush and not much overhead cover. The dry soil, churned by the passage of packhorses, rose in puffs of dust as we trudged along in the hot sun. We were already tired from the off trail adventure, though it wasn't yet noon. I was dragging at the back of the line, which was to become my station for the entire journey because my feet were blistering. It was then that I noticed an odd looking, amorphous cloud wafting toward me through the line of hikers. The cloud turned out to be mosquitoes, and they were very hungry. I recall wiping my arms and leaving behind disturbing amounts of blood -- as much from the marchers in front as from me. The mosquitoes became our constant companions, leaving us only once that I recall; that would be late in afternoon of the following day while we crossed the divide in a hail of water and ice.

     The first night, though, was very pleasant and a welcome relief for all of us. We camped in woods at the edge of a meadow being used by some horse packers. We had a nice fire going and were enjoying some of the more perishable (and heavier) food. At one point we heard a rustling in the darkness beyond the edge of our vision. We could make out the shape of a large beast moving about and assumed one of the packers' horses had gotten loose of its hobble. Our mistake became obvious when the head of a moose loomed out of the darkness, peering at us. Its curiosity satisfied, the moose disappeared into the night and that was the last we saw of it.

     The next morning my feet seemed to have swollen. They no longer fit very well in my boots, which were still size 9.5, though soggy (and cold) from having trudged several times across the stream the previous day. The morning of the second day was uneventful. I was having difficulty keeping up, but found that I could manage if I didn't stop walking when the others took rest breaks. This became my routine for the rest of the trip. It began to cloud and rain softly after lunch. As we began our ascent of the switchbacks toward the Continental Divide at Two Oceans Pass, Barry told everyone to have warm clothes, and such rain gear as we had, ready and to not delay in putting them on if the weather took a bad turn. This was good advice, because the rain steadily increased in intensity and changed to sleet and then hail as we approached and crossed the 10,000+ foot-high divide. I should mention that the trails, unlike eastern trails, were relatively easy, having been designed for pack trains. That is, except for the fords.

     We came to the most difficult of the fords as night descended on the Yellowstone side of the divide. In the dark we faced the Yellowstone, swollen by the summer melt to over-waist depth. By the time I got there, a rope had been strung from a tree on the far bank to one fellow anchoring it on my side. Most of the guys were already on the far bank and a couple were stationed in the river helping the stragglers across. Most of us had only one change of clothes, so we stripped to our skivvies in the vain hope of keeping something dry and waded into the river. The packs we removed and handed overhead in monkey-brigade fashion, to avoid having them partially submerged by the rushing water. We had worked out the scheme of using a rope for support in a previous deep ford; this tactic proved a key factor in none of us going for a night swim in that cold water. We camped at the nearest reasonable spot, which was in sight of the place we had forded. Before long a fire was going and nearby trees were festooned with ropes from which were hung thirteen pairs of socks, pants, shirts, and various undergarments. It was a cold, wet night, but we were all relieved that the day had ended and no one was otherwise much the worse for it.

     The next day was great -- more or less flat walking downstream along the Yellowstone to the area we where we would camp for three days to do some geology. The sun came out and along the way we were treated to glorious views of a giant glacial valley and its hanging water falls. We stopped hiking early to camp near a cobble-strewn bank of the river. Barry passed out some extra fishing gear and we all went fishing for a few hours. Enough were caught to feed us all. That evening we treated ourselves to golden trout fried in a cast iron pan one of the horse packers had left hanging on a tree. Sitting on the bank watching the moonlit Yellowstone wash by, while eating that fish, is one of my fondest memories of the trip.

     Soon after the fish was consumed, we began to notice an odd metallic sound coming from the brush just outside of camp. After a brief hunt for the source of the sound we discovered Bob (the experienced one) huddled around something he obviously wanted to keep to himself. It was a metal bowl in which he had been stirring with his metal spoon this glop that turned out to be instant pudding (Jello green pistachio instant pudding). Bob was convinced to share some of his delicacy with us and it was generally agreed that it was the best desert we had ever tasted. Bob, it seems, had devoted a surprising portion of his precious pack space to this wonderful stuff. (I don't know about the others, but for many years thereafter I never failed to take Jello instant pudding, and always some pistachio, on camping trips.)

     Over the next three days we engaged mapping exercises that consisted mostly of measuring volcanic sections. Barry indicated to us that this area was being mapped by a friend of his from the USGS, Bob Crandall. However, Bob accessed the area by helicopter and couldn't spend much time on the ground. So, Barry assured us that our work would contribute greatly to this effort. I'm not sure our work was as useful as Barry suggested it might be, but it sounded like a reasonable excuse for the effort expended in reaching the place.

     One morning during our stay in the area we heard a bellow coming from the vicinity of Barry's tent: "An A in the course for anyone who has prunes." Wayne Narr and I searched our packs, because we knew that we had something like prunes. They were figs, which I dutifully presented to Barry. (A couple of months later I learned that both Wayne and I got an A for field camp, though I'm certain it had nothing to do with the figs.) The figs had been one of the brighter food selections Wayne and I had made for the trip. Most of the guys had scrounged what they could from the markets in Jackson Hole, because we couldn't afford the freeze-dried goodies that were available at the camping supply places. One of the less successful selections we made was this stuff that had recently hit the market - hamburger helper. Neither of us knew what it was, but it was obviously dry (therefore light) and from its name we figured it must be something like hamburger. We discovered that while it is possible to boil hamburger helper into some kind of porridge, its taste leaves something to be desired in the absence of hamburger.

     The march back out of the Teton Wilderness was less eventful. We accomplished it in one less day, though. The last day was a forced march of about 25 miles. I recall that we were making good time and at one point Barry offered us the option of pushing for the trailhead or camping through the evening. Everyone, except me, voted to push on. I didn't want to because my feet were slowing me down. Well, the vote decided it and we forged ahead. Barry asked Bob to lag behind with me to make sure that I made it. As it turned out we arrived at the valley of the mosquitoes well before dinnertime. Barry was waiting there with a few of the others so we could end the journey together. The mosquitoes were still biting, but by this time we didn't pay much attention. They had ceased raising welts.

     We made it back to the lodge around four or five in the afternoon. There was a bar in the lodge and Barry took us right in and bought a round of beer for us all. No one at the bar seemed to take undo notice of us, though I'm not sure why. It must have looked (and smelled) like a scene out of Gunsmoke as the cowhands were coming to town. During the journey we had washed, sort of, but not with much conviction, and most of us were wearing clothes that had been changed perhaps once in the past week. I don't remember the brand of the beer, but I am certain it was the best tasting I have ever encountered. While we enjoyed the beer, Barry convinced the owner to open up the kitchen early for dinner. We all sat down to a full meal and then repaired to a dormitory setup in the attic of the place to wash and take a nap. After sleeping for about an hour or two every one of us went back to the dinning room and ate a second full meal. I think that second chicken fried steak was just as good as the first one. The second pie was pretty good too.

     In retrospect, I don't think any of us that made the trip thought of it as the 'death march.'  That was a term coined by others. It has been 30 years since that summer of 1975, and it was an adventure I well remember."

[addendum after reading Steve's piece] Scree skiing! I heartily joined in that bit of fun, which was probably why the soles of my boots were flapping in the breeze not long after White Mountain. I think it was Randy Woods who helped me get some mule skin on my feet during lunch that first day of the march. We hadn't stopped moving long enough to do it before then. By that time, though, the blisters had risen. So we cut donut holes in the patches of mule skin, which helped a little. My feet were toughened from field camp, but no match for the stiff leather of those logger's boots -- not one of the wiser purchases I've made.

Steve's story reminded me of a few things I'd forgotten, like the grizzly bear and the powdered tequila (I think I got a taste of the stuff the night of the trout fry. Thanks Steve).

Like Steve, I had a few after-field camp adventures. I went back to White Mountain to help Charlie Faust (then with the USGS) and his partner Daffodil (a dog, whom Charlie referred to as Dafferdowndilly) with his mapping of that area. Late one afternoon, we left White Mountain and went to Cathedral Cliffs to collect some basalt samples from the Heart Mtn. Slide detachment zone. Charlie (who was more intelligent than I) stayed at the car after directing me to climb up through a breach in the 50 ft+ high lower escarpment. Above this was a slope of tuff that led up to the detachment zone. I got up there well enough and got my prize, but on the way back across the slope the thin cover of pebble-sized scree slipped from beneath my feet. I quickly found myself sliding down the slope toward the cliff of basalt columns below. I splayed my arms and legs, but this only slowed my slide enough to give me time to think about it. I realized that I was either going to stop this or it would likely be the end of me. Fortunately, I still had my rock hammer in my hand and was able to stop the slide by digging its spade end into the soft rock with as much force as I could muster. Once I got my self seated upright and turned around, I was rewarded with the most spectacular and beautiful sight I think I've ever had. The sun was low in the sky and was shedding a gorgeous golden light over the valley and the scattered patches of cloud that had moved in below me. The clouds cast dark shadows and were shedding rain and lightning on the ground beneath. It was dark by the time I got back to the car and met Charlie and his dog. I don't recall what happened to that rock.