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Jan 28 2016

Island in the Sky

The Bridger Ridge Traverse proves to be an exhilirating, dawn-to-dusk adventure for a group of MSU students

Featured, Voices of NexGen

It’s completely dark at 6:30 on a Saturday morning, as nine of us load up into our vehicles to take on the 20-mile ridge hike that has been tempting me for two years. Since I set foot in Bozeman, I have stared up at the Bridgers as they called, challenging me to make the trek across. Now, I am on my way to take up the challenge with this year’s Montana State Wilderness Association club members.

We split into two groups, one starting at each end of the trail, to do a key swap when we pass each other. As I drive to the Fairy Lake trailhead, color is returning to the world and all flavors of cotton candy are floating across the sky – a sure sign it is going to be a wonderful day. The excitement kicks in as we start up 9,600-foot Sacagawea Peak, the tallest in the range. From the peak, a quick traverse over to the slightly shorter Naya Nuki reveals a gorgeous preview of the trail as it meanders across the ridge and down to the edge of Bozeman.

A short scramble up a rock face puts us on the highpoint, revealing another glorious view of the surrounding countryside. It’s interesting being on top of a mountain range surrounded by valleys, rather than be in a valley surrounded by mountains for a change. It feels a lot like being on an island out at sea. Other mountain ranges – the Crazies, Absarokas, Beartooths, Gallatins, and Tobacco Roots – pierce the horizon in all directions. Even though we are already in the mountains, I can’t help but feel pulled towards each one of the other ranges.

As we enter Bridger Bowl, we meet up with our group coming from the opposite direction. We sit down to eat our lunches as we swap stories from the hike so far and inform each other of what’s coming up. As treats for the group, Kate passes around some home-baked bread and I share hot chocolate I made in the morning for this moment. Feeling refreshed and rewarded for our progress, we set out in our separate directions. Hiking across the ridge of Bridger Bowl feels nice and relaxing, due to its relative flatness, compared to what came before.

The sun is getting low, so we resolve to push on quickly to summit Baldy before sunset. Once there, we sit down, get comfortable, and enjoy the beautiful end of the day as the sun dips behind the mountains and the lights of Bozeman flicker to life. We set off with a little light left to help guide us down the scree field, before turning on our headlamps. 

On the hike down, two shining eyes catch my attention. After a moment of staring, they turn and the shape of a deer bounds away. A little further on, I find a pile of feathers on the side of the trail. A torn up wing is sitting not far from them – a reminder that it’s good to stick closer together during dusk. The rest of the way down is as silent as the night is dark.

As we approach the “M,” unfamiliar voices drift up, the signal we are descending back into society. After 14 hours of hiking, we reach the car and take a moment to celebrate our success: high fives go around and our remaining water disappears. The hike that has dwelled in my mind for years has been completed. Part of me is glad to be heading back to bed for my reward of sleep, but part of me is already planning out the next trip.

- Austin Wrem, Montana State University Wilderness Assocation president