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Of heights and haze: Challenges and rewards on the Bridger Ridge

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Rounding Saddle Peak on a smoky day in early September took me back to a moment four years ago when I applied to race in the Ed Anacker Bridger Ridge Run.

I was a 19-year-old college student and in the best running shape I’d ever been in. I paid a fee and wrote a short essay explaining why I deserved to be in the race. My loose plan was to hike, then jog across the spine of the Bridger Mountains frequently enough to be on par with the athletes in the race. With a summer break coming up, I’d have plenty of time to train, I thought.

But earlier this month, with 8 miles of steep ups and downs to go, four hours of daylight left and Saddle Peak looming above me, I mentally thanked the race selection committee for never picking me.

Hiking — not jogging — the 20ish-mile Bridger Ridge Trail from its northern end at Fairy Lake to its southern end at the College “M” parking lot nearly broke me.

It didn’t help that I left home an hour later than I should have and wildfire smoke still lingered in the air. It also didn’t help that I spent my precious morning hours puttering around the trail with a camera.

To be fair, it was hard not to snap photos as the sun rose above Sacajawea and Naya Nuki peaks — two of the tallest in the Bridger range at 9,665 and 9,449 feet, respectively.

Bridger Ridge Trail

Leaves on the western side of the Bridger Mountains below Ross Peak were starting to turn yellow on Sunday, Sept. 5. Mountain grouse could be seen in the underbrush at various points along the Bridger Ridge Trail that day.

Bridger Ridge Trail

Ross Peak juts out from some pine trees on Sunday, Sept. 5 as the Bridger Ridge Trail winds around it. Hikers were sparse along 20-mile trail that day, but a few could be seen at the trail segment just below the peak.

Crossing between the neighboring peaks against a strong headwind while scrambling through scree made me question why I’d gone on the trail alone, or at all.

Family members tried to talk me out of it. They warned me about people who have taken wrong turns or fallen off cliffs. They told me about people who were stranded atop the range overnight.

Those tales kept me moving, yet, when I dropped below Ross Peak, I resumed my puttering. Under jutting rock formations, foliage was just beginning to turn from deep green to gold, and grouse were browsing through it.

My dawdling finally caught up with me around 2 p.m. when I ventured through the northern boundary of Bridger Bowl. By then, there were still 9 more miles of sharp climbs and drops ahead.

From a high point near the top of Schlasman’s lift, I spotted the trail’s course up Saddle Peak. My eyes followed the path as it shot 600 feet up the massive slope directly in front of me.

Bridger Ridge Trail

Three trails join at a junction at the saddle below Ross Peak, as pictured around noon on Sunday, Sept. 5. Forest Service trail No. 551, the Bridger Foothills Trail and the Bridger Ridge Trail meet at that point.

Bridger Ridge Trail

TOP: Saddle Peak in the Bridger Mountains rises prominently above the boundary of the Bridger Bowl Ski Area around 3 p.m. on Sept. 5. At 9,159 feet, it is the fourth-tallest peak in the range. ABOVE: The sun turns red as smoke moves in around late evening.

Bridger Ridge Trail

The approximately 6 mile, near switchback-less trail down Baldy Mountain leads hikers through the burn scar of the Bridger Foothills fire on Sunday, Sept 5. At 7,106 feet, Mount Baldy is the sixth-tallest in the Bridger range.

That sight, some quick math (8 miles divided by four hours left in the day equals 2 miles per hour) and the idea of scrambling down the trail after dark kicked me into high gear.

Woozy and slightly sunburnt, I struggled up Saddle Peak. I tried hard not to think about how Bridger Peak and Baldy Mountain were next. I reminded myself that it would be smooth sailing once I got to the downhill stretch.

My legs soon found that walking down Baldy Mountain after 13 miles of steep ups and downs was anything but smooth sailing.

From the summit of Baldy, the path dropped down the ridge for about 6 miles, with few switchbacks to slow the descent.

I stumbled and kicked up ash as I walked down through the Bridger Foothills fire burn scar. When day transitioned to evening, a thick cloud of smoke moved in and turned the sun red.

Bridger Ridge Trail

The sun turns red as smoke moves in around late evening on Sunday, Sept 5. Wildfire smoke got thicker around the end of the day, just as reporter Helena Dore started hiking downhill from Mount Baldy.

The sun was setting by the time I finally spotted the College “M” parking lot. A quick look at a map showed me I’d taken a wrong turn, though I figured the unknown trail would lead me to the bottom of the mountain eventually.

It took a few scrapes and off-trail scrambles to change course, but I got to the parking lot just before dark. There, I kicked up my aching legs, met up with a well-earned cold beer and laughed at myself.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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