I've been up Bunsen Peak dozens of times.
Perhaps 100 times. Perhaps more. For over thirty years, I took 6th graders from Long Island, NY, to Yellowstone National Park and on every trip, we made a pilgrimage up to the top of that mountain which bolts up from Swan Lake flat in its singular, volcanic reach to 8,564 feet.
Bunsen stands like a sentinel over the northwestern parts of Yellowstone and offers breathtaking 360-degree views of the region. One can see Electric Peak, Sepulcher Mountain, Antler Peak, Mount Holmes, as well as spectacular vistas of Mammoth, Gardiner Canyon, Blacktail Deer Plateau and the Yellowstone River Valley in the surrounding flats below. It is a steep climb over switchbacks for 2.2 miles, but it is very doable with patience and rest breaks at some incredible points along the way. There is a stunning view of Cathedral Peak and the Golden Gate right at the turn of one of the long switchbacks. You can see the Mammoth Hotel and village and you realize how much elevation you have gained in the first mile of the hike. You also walk through growth of a new and relatively young lodgepole forest, a recovery of the 1988 Yellowstone fire and, yes, I had a group of 6th graders with me in Yellowstone then, but that is a blog post for another time.
As you climb higher and higher, the trees become more scrub-like and the trail takes you over broken shale. The only downside of the trail is that powerlines come up and over the mountain from the backside.
Near the summit, the trail gets even steeper and narrower when you break the tree line, and that is when you get the first glimpse of the ice-cream shack. Yes, the famous ice-cream shack. You can see it from the parking lot at the bottom, but once you hit the trail, it is lost until you nearly reach the summit. At the bottom of the trail, I’d gather the group of 12-year olds as they fussed with their packs, and lathered on sunscreen and bug spray.
You see, we’d been eyeing that formidable looking mountain all week. We passed it on the first day in the park and I remarked that by the end of the week, we’d all be on top of that gigantic thing if they were up to the challenge. I’d look in the rear-view mirror to see their reaction and it was usually the same: a look of awe, some fear, and some “yeah, right.” Throughout the week ,we’d hike other trails in the vicinity and we’d pass Bunsen, or see it in the distance and I’d remind them that Bunsen was calling them and that we’d be hiking to the top before too long. For kids from the flat east coast, hiking to the top of a mountain was not generally a thing they had ever thought about. Inevitably, a kid would finally bring it up at dinner and ask when we would climb Bunsen Peak. I would tell them it would be tomorrow.
Tomorrow came and there we were at the bottom, gearing up and stretching. The usual questions popped up:
“How far is it to the top?”
“Are there any flat spots along the way?”
“You’re standing on it.”
“Do you think we can all make it?”
“Sure, you’re all pretty tough kids.”
Will the ice-cream shack be open?
“I don’t know, maybe.”
We began the hike. I led out slowly, allowing everyone to fall in line and get into pace. I went gently for a bit so that they could all adjust their breathing, and then picked up the pace a little at a time. After a few minutes, we’d risen up a few hundred feet and they got their first view of how much elevation they’d gained as they looked down on the road below. I remember their comments and mild disbelief that they’d climbed so much in such a short distance and that they’d felt pretty good so far. That’s when I came to sudden halt as I rounded a bend in the trail. Sprawled majestically on a precipice, a big horn ram was watching over the Golden Gate. He was huge and he was just sitting there less than 20 yards from where we stood, and we had nowhere to go. We stood there eyeing each other for a moment and I could hear cameras snapping away. The kids knew to be quiet, so they spoke in whispers and waited for my directions. I told them to move down the trail quietly and slowly without any sudden movements and wait for me about 50 yards up the path. I stood firmly between the ram and the kids, and the ram eyed me once more. It seemed we had an understanding, me and the ram, and he let us pass. I thanked him and met up with the kids who were waiting, their eyes full of excitement. I told them that I’d called ahead and ordered the ram for our viewing. They all laughed, and we headed on up the trail.
A few switchbacks later, we passed a steaming pile of bear scat on the trail. It was fresh and the warmth of it could be seen in the early morning chill. The bear had clearly been feasting on the raspberries. My heart was pounding, and I instinctively reached for my bear spray to make sure it was within my grasp. I flipped open the strap and slid the safety off and was ready to draw it if necessary. I reminded the kids of procedures if we encountered a bear, and we continued onto the next switchback, the kids singing some pop song loudly along the way. Two more switchbacks and still no bear. We stopped for a snack and water break on the curve of a switchback and spent a few minutes admiring the view of Mammoth Hot Springs and Gardiner in the distance. One of the kids recognized the trail we had taken around Beaver Ponds earlier in the week. They talked about the ram and how majestic he was. They talked about being at Old Faithful Geyser Basin and how by walking back into the basin we’d left the thousands of people who were sitting on the benches waiting for the geyser to blow and then how they’d all promptly head back to their cars to be windshield tourists. It’s amazing how a week or two of hiking trails can change the perspective of twelve-year-olds.
We gathered our stuff and moved into line as we continued to walk up the trail. Two of the boys were eager to lead so I let them walk a few steps ahead of me. We weren’t 100 yards along when the first kid screamed out,
“Shit! A bear!”
There was a raspberry bush and this young grizzly popped up from behind it, the color of its fur blended with the color of the rocky ground around us. The cub darted away and cut down to the lower switchback and scampered down the trail away from us. The two boys were talking a mile a minute,
“I didn’t even see it until I nearly stepped on it!”
“It ran right between us!”
My bear spray was out and my finger on the trigger. I screamed for the kids to get into a tight group and call out, ‘Hey, Bear!’ Where there is a cub, there is a mother. We made a lot of noise and stood in place for a good half hour. The whole time, I waited for an angry grizzly mom to jump at us. But, there was nothing. (Later, when we got back from the hike, we stopped in the ranger station to report the sighting. Apparently, this was a second-year cub whose mother was hit and killed by a car just recently. Often tourists don’t do the 45-mph speed limit and the wildlife suffers. The rangers weren’t sure if it had learned to hunt or if was ready to be on its own yet. Unfortunately, they didn’t give it much chance for survival.)
Two big animal sightings on the way up and the mountain became less formidable. The kids were ready for anything. Talk soon turned from grizzly bear to ice cream when we reached the top. They wondered what flavors would be available today. Of course, my high-school-aged assistant and the few kids that had already done this hike with me the year before had told them about the shack. And there were lots of questions:
“What flavors do they have?”
“Don’t know. Usually, Chocolate and Vanilla. Sometimes something different like Moose Tracks or Huckleberry.”
“How do they get it up there?”
“Ice Cream runners.”
“Ice cream runners?”
“Yeah, they run up the mountain with a 5-gallon container on their shoulders.”
“How do they keep it cold?”
“They have electric in the shack. Look, see the wires?”
“What flavors will they have today?”
And as if on cue, an ice cream runner came running down the mountain. There he was, wearing shorty running shorts and a thin muscle shirt soaked with sweat in the still-not-too-warm morning air. He had a bag on his back.
“Look, see? An ice-cream runner! He’s taking the trash down the mountain!”
A second runner bolted by, similarly dressed and sweaty. Excitement grew and mouths watered for ice cream as we hit the steepest part of the trail. Two switchbacks in, the shack became visible again. The electric lines crossing over the mountain heading in the general direction of the shack confirmed there was, indeed, power to the shack and ice cream only a few more gnarly switchbacks away.
“Do you want a break, kids?”
“No! We can make it!”
As we rounded the last switchback, the shack was in plain sight and everyone gasped in a collective moan.
“Oh, no! It’s closed!”
“I told you it might be.”
Alas, the shack was shuddered, and a brass-colored lock held it fast. Disappointment grew and sounds of disgruntled little hikers pouted out. After some fuss and false claims about them running out of ice cream or it being the servers’ day off, one of them finally took real stock of the situation.
“That’s not an ice cream shack!”
“What is it?”
“A relay station, see the antenna?”
“You fooled us! “
“You believed it, but look, this is why we really came up here.”
The minor summit was in view. With that, the kids scrambled beyond the shack. I pointed to the real summit just a few dozen yards away and told them that was where we were going to sit. And there, up on the top we sat like kings and queens in our own little thrones of stone looking out over Swan Lake Flat and the regions beyond. Ice cream forgotten, they spoke of making it to the summit, how it wasn’t that hard, and how glad they were that they made it to the top. They discovered the rusty metal box up there and sifted through the hundreds of messages people had left. Some were prayers, some were explanations of joy or stories of sadness. Others were dreams of the future or wishes to be healed. Most were written in English, but others in languages from all over the world. There were drawings and sketches and even a faded watercolor stained with rust. The box was a history lesson and a window into time. The kids took turns reading out the messages and stories. Some made them laugh, others brought a few tears.
While the kids mused over the notes in the box, I told them I was going to take a little walk. A few wanted to join me, but I said I needed to go by myself. Assuming I meant to relieve myself, they turned back. Usually, I am happy to have the kids join on a walk, but this one was special, and its destination must be kept secret. You see, I have an old friend up there on the summit of Bunsen Peak. He’s one I visit on each pilgrimage. I found him nearly thirty years ago and have him safely tucked into the bush where we had met and each trip I walk to where he is and drag him out into the light to check on him. The mice have found him and there are nibbles here and there, but all in all, this mighty elk antler is in pretty good shape for being in the elements after all of these years. Of course, I bring him up to the summit where the kids are sitting. I usually put the antler on my head so that the kids see it first as I rise up the rocks. We pass the elk antler around and everyone remarks about its heavy weight and how much two of those things would weigh on the top your head if you were an elk. After photos with the antler the kids pass it back to me. I sit with it for awhile, remembering trails I’ve taken with friends and students. I recall the wonderful people I’ve met in my life and feel the blessing to have summited this mountain and all the other mountains once again. I rise to store the elk horn for my next visit. The kids know not to ask to follow. They respect that it stays where I found it and sense its location must remain hidden.
We pack up and head back down towards the tiny colored dots below. We can see the vehicles from the summit and the kids are once more rewarded with the knowledge that they hiked up from way down there and I’m rewarded knowing that for some, it was a life-changing moment. For those who struggled to summit and succeeded (and in 30+ years, none have failed), they discovered they had the power of their own two feet and the courage to go on when they feared they could not. For others who summited easily, they recognized they could reach out to help their peers who struggled. For others it might have been the sighting of the ram, or the bear, or the distant mountains that gave them a sense of awe and inspired them to pursue the outdoors in their future.
On the way down, we paused long enough for me to tell them the story of being caught in an electric storm at this spot on the trail where the tall, dead lodge poles were blowing down in the wind as the lightening was hitting the ground a few hundred yards away from where my group hunkered. Thought we were going to die that day, but we all made it out.
Once back in the van, we headed to Gardiner, the town just outside the north gate of the park. I had a friend who owned an ice cream shop. She was a remarkable woman and she loved when I brought the kids to town. With a twinkle in her eye, she asked the kids if the ice cream shop on the top of Bunsen was closed today and then proceeded to make ice cream cones the size of their heads.