After 38 years of spending his summers backpacking to lakes in the Beartooth Mountains, 64-year-old Kim Latterell can finally say he’s been to all 330 of them that have — or used to have — fish.
On Aug. 24 he reached the final lake on his list — Cataract. The lakes can be found in Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ “Mountain Lakes Guide.” As he had predicted, it wasn’t easy.
“It’s a jungle,” the Billings man said.
“There’s just no easy way there. There’s so much new growth you have to fight through. Even in the big rockslides big trees are down, some suspended 2 to 3 feet off the ground. You have to go around or over.
“But it wasn’t the toughest in the Beartooths. Imelda was tougher.”
Cataract is an inconspicuous lake, less than 10 acres in size, that hides in the folds of a canyon at 8,700 feet. Its outlet, Falls Creek, drains into the upper Stillwater River in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
Although it’s only an eight-mile hike from the Stillwater trailhead, four of it on a good trail, those last four miles are killer.
“It took me nine-and-a-half hours to find a flat spot to camp,” Latterell said, which was only 2.5 miles up the Falls Creek drainage.
“I took in enough grog for three toddies. When I got to base camp Thursday night I had one to ease the pain and to celebrate going that far up that fast — it was five-eighths of a mile farther than I originally planned.”
The next day, Aug. 24, he climbed the final mile-and-a-half to the lake in three and a quarter hours. To commemorate the occasion, as he has done at all of the other 329 lakes he’s visited, Latterell took photos and entered the information in his log book.
“I was so elated,” he said. “My thought was: If I die on the way out, I finally achieved what I set out to do.”
The many lakes Latterell’s visited have proven costly, taking a damaging toll on his body. Among his list of hiking-related ailments are: six fused toes; plantar fasciitis in both feet, left ankle surgery, left knee surgery and left shoulder surgery.
He figures he’s hiked to about 75 to 80 percent of those 330 lakes on his own. Yet this time, for the first time, in case he broke a leg, Latterell carried an emergency locator beacon since he doubted anyone could find him in the thicket of trees if he were injured and late to return.
“It would take a guy a week to scooch off that mountain with a broken leg,” he said.
Although Latterell had “five nasty falls”; lost the safety cap on his bear spray, which accidentally discharged; and wore off much of the skin on his shins and wrists from bushwhacking, he emerged from the hike a new man. In his estimation, no one else has ever matched his feat. Although others may have visited all of the same lakes, those people did part of the trekking via horseback or while working — advantages Latterell did not have.
After reaching Cataract, Latterell said a song popped into his head titled “Me and God.”
“I didn’t do it by myself,” he said. “It was me and God.”
Also helping out was Beartooth Mountain cartographer Ralph Saunders, of Billings, Latterell said. In addition to using Saunders’ maps on his trips, Latterell also said in an email that Saunders’ “willingness to share his time and his knowledge, and his maps, in aggregate, have been an asset to me and my backpacks for many of my trips to these high mountain lakes. I cannot say enough or thank Ralph enough for being my mentor, my teacher, my idol, my safety contact and my friend through these last 10 years, after I decided to take on this unique challenge.”
To commemorate his feat, the Billings-based mapping company MyTopo.com gifted Latterell a 5-foot-by-8-foot map of the Beartooths, which is a compilation of Saunders’ maps.
Latterell concluded his email saying, “Someday, maybe?, when I’m older and less physically able to continue my other pursuits, i.e. hunting, fishing and trapping, I would like to write a book about some of my trips and the events, the adventures, and the mis-adventures that transpired during my backpack trips in the Beartooth Mountains — most made me really happy, many only made me smile, a few made me sad, and even some made me cry … but that’s what life is about, is it not?”