Emigrant Peak FKT by Monte Cole


Emigrant Peak FKT

Monte Cole

        In early July I found myself driving south through Paradise Valley outside Livingston, MT, with more intention than usual. An old friend who also grew up in Livingston and left for college said that every time she returned to see the Absaroka Mountains tower over the Yellowstone River she forgot to breathe. On this particular morning my purpose was to confront a mountain that looms large both on the horizon and in my consciousness—Emigrant Peak. As you enter Paradise Valley from the North, Emigrant Peak sits squat, big and blue in the distance, the furthest sizable peak of the Absarokas you can see. I felt no less intimidation approaching the behemoth in July 2020 than I did when I first huffed to the top as a pimply high school freshman. I had climbed Emigrant twice since, always in awe that someone could scurry to the top and back—roughly 4800’ of climbing and descent over 7.5 miles—in two hours and 12 minutes. In trail running these records are known as fastest known times, FKT’s for short, and few mattered to me more than this one: Dan Kraft’s obscure 2:12 on Emigrant Peak. As my Honda Fit groaned its way up the Gold Prize Trailhead road to the base of the mountain, I was delighted to try my hand at setting a new FKT on a route of enduring importance to me. 

If I were a grizzly bear, there are few places I would rather grub around than the first mile of the Emigrant Peak Trail along brushy, burbling Gold Prize Creek. Thus, being human and all, I lugged bear spray and made my presence well known for this first piece of the ascent. Just before mile two, there’s an open, cow-grazed yet sagebrush-dotted slope, where I quickly stashed my bear spray under a spruce tree and faced the awfully steep part of the climb. From there, the trail hugs a fence line straight up the mountain until it reaches a 90 degree barbed wire junction that abruptly jots you south. Then, the fenceline and trail part ways and you reach a big patch of scrubby, high-elevation trees. Through these trees I felt like little more than a glob of sweat and lactic acid. Even speed hiking took resolve. The trees then faded away until all that remained was climbing the spicy Northwest Ridge to the top. I zoned out, stayed upright and soon found myself at the summit.

Despite my better judgment, I then made a blunder that could have cost me the FKT: I took my phone out. Several selfies and texts later I realized I had squandered precious minutes of my tight schedule. As it happens, I had on new shorts and I hadn’t practiced the crux move of putting my phone back in the butt pocket quickly. I fumbled, I fiddled, I pushed and turned until finally, frustrated, I dropped my short-shorts around my ankles, exposing myself to the eagles and bears, shoved my phone in and took off wildly down the mountain. My downhill running on technical terrain is anything but graceful and this all-out descent on the sharp ridgeline of loose rock was no exception. To the couple I hurtled past on their way up, I imagine I looked like an out-of-control scree-moose, were there such a thing. Unbelievably I emerged from the technical section unscathed, leapt over the fallen logs among the scrubby trees and avoided a grizzly bear encounter by the creek. Somehow I returned to the trailhead in 2:06, knocking six minutes off the previous record. 

By all accounts the FKT on Emigrant Peak is a minor one, but one close to my heart and thus I’m proud to have made it a little stouter. I hope someone breaks two hours on the route soon so I have a reason to return!