Monday, June 28, 2010

Stuart Peak

I am trying to adjust to my new reality - working 9 to 5, off on weekends, riding a bike commute route, dealing with heat ... I'm realizing that most of my wardrobe is irrelevant here in the summer. Amid piles of rain gear, wool, poly pro and polar fleece, I found only one pair of bike shorts and four short-sleeve jerseys. Montana is dry, with lots of air particles that seem to trigger my allergies, and it's hot. Did I mention it's hot? It's not hot compared to, say, New Orleans, but it's an adjustment after a few years of living in a place where residents celebrate if the temperature rises above 70. I have yet to go on a bike ride where I don't run out of water. But I'll figure it out in time.

But one advantage of moving to a new place is an exhilarating sense of discovery everywhere I turn. Even bike commuting through town is still an adventure to me. Everything is so fresh and new that even small tastes are fulfilling; all the same, my appetite for adventure is more insatiable than ever. I see this green valley surrounded by mountain ranges, and beyond that, bigger mountain ranges, criss-crossed with an endless network of fire roads and trails, and I feel like I could go anywhere, and everywhere, and I want to. Of course time is a constraint, and so is knowledge of the region, and I had limited amounts of both on Sunday afternoon. I was waiting for my friend, Jen, to arrive from Utah en route to Sand Point, Idaho, so I could see her before she continued west. When I received a text from her telling me she was running late, and wouldn't show up until after 10, I realized I had a whole late afternoon and evening to discover something new.

I pulled out the Rattlesnake trail map that I just acquired on Saturday and decided to try an adjacent long trail, Stuart Peak. I didn't know how high Stuart Peak was. I didn't know how long the trail was. I rode seven miles of scorching pavement to reach a smooth strip of singletrack wending through a shady canyon, and knew I was in the right spot. The first three miles were grin-inducing fun, even on the climb, but then the real grunt started. Steep, horse-tromped, loose dirt cut a bee-line toward the sky. I tried with all my energy to ride uphill until I was seeing stars, then took short breaks, which became walking breaks. My lungs burned and my legs throbbed. I thought maybe I burned all my matches, flared out too soon, but the lure of the unknown beckoned, and I couldn't stop following it.

About five more miles of intermittent red-line riding and gasping walk breaks brought me to a wilderness boundary, where I gladly deposited my slave-driver of a bicycle behind some trees. I'm the rare mountain biker who agrees that bikes should be banned from wilderness areas. For me, the view is mostly personal. I just like the idea that there are still places in the country that can only be accessed on foot. It gives them a more mystic quality, like stepping into a place that time forgot. And it forces the relentlessly hurried among us to savor the world at a slower pace.

Bikes allowed or not, it wouldn't have mattered on the Stuart Peak trail, where I quickly hit deep, punchy snow. By this time, I was pretty close to running out of water, so I just filled my Camelback bladder with slush, which was incredibly refreshing.

The final ascent to the peak was a full-on snow climbing, where the north-facing crust was fairly icy and hard despite the scorching weather in Missoula, now far below. I checked my GPS and saw the elevation was approaching 8,000 feet, which meant I had climbed nearly 5,000 feet since leaving town. The number gave me a sense of satisfaction. If nothing else, it validated how much I had suffered up the climb.

And then, just before 8 p.m., I reached Stuart Peak. Gotta do the self-portrait on top of the peak, even though shorts aren't the most flattering look for me. I'd like to say that living Outside might allow me to get something of a tan, but that would be a lie. I'll probably go through several bottles of SPF 70 before I finally just surrender to wearing pants in 90-degree heat.

The topography of this region is significantly different than coastal Alaska, but striking nonetheless.

I bounded down the snowfield and collected my bicycle, giddy about the 4,000 feet I still had to lose. The descent was amazing. There aren't words that actually describe that level of exhilaration and freedom, the smooth, snaking free-fall through a blur of trees. I unravelled more than three hours of sweat-drenched climbing in 20 perfect minutes.

I think I'm going to like Missoula.