My foot plunged deep into the dense snow and sunk to my knees. I lifted my leg up and punched in the next, groping for some kind of platform on the weak trail. Frustration crept around the edges of my mired body. I let out a sigh, thick with condensation in the cold air, and looked at the valley ahead. The Rattlesnake Mountains rose like tree-studded fortresses above the narrow canyon. The moonlight cast a bright glow on the snow, infusing the corridor with a depth and texture that was different — but in a way, more brilliant — than daylight.
I turned off my headlamp and took a few more heavy steps. Behind me, my sled floated easy and free on top of the crust — a crust I had mistakenly thought would be strong enough to hold me. Every so often I glanced back to make sure the sled was still upright. It followed me like a faithful pet, its pole wagging like a tail against the tug of my harness. I couldn’t help but laugh, and feel a strange sort of affection for my sled. It held everything I needed to survive out here, here on the edge of the Rattlesnake Wilderness, where a mere five miles of foot travel had taken me out of the city and into the heart of a silent, lonely, wild place. I had a mask to shield my face from cold wind, already near zero degrees and dropping. I had mittens to bring my tingling fingers back to life. I had food to stoke the inner furnace, water in an insulated pouch, and a sleeping bag and pad to rest when I became tired. Stars splattered the narrow strip of sky overhead. The orange glow of Missoula’s lights had faded. We were alone, my sled and me, ready to take on this winter wilderness. But we were missing one crucial piece of gear — snowshoes. Plus, I reminded myself, this was just a training run. And I was clearly not running. Reluctantly, I flipped a wide U-turn and headed back the way I came.
The next evening, I went for a run straight from my downtown office. My micro-spikes crunched on the glare ice of the river path before I veered up the mountain on the Hellgate Trail. Conditions on the snow-covered singletrack were hellish — rock-hard postholes covered in a couple inches of new powder that made it impossible to gauge foot placement. Running was an ankle-twisting, knee-wrenching exercise in futility. Even walking was technical to the point of frustration. Bill caught up to me near the saddle. We agreed to continue to the peak of Mount Sentinel and drop down the ridge. “Can’t be worse than this,” I reasoned.
Nearly all the snow had blown clean off the face of Mount Sentinel, leaving only a base of jumbled rocks protruding from glare ice. On the front side, where the mountain plunges steeply and directly into the city, there are no trees to shield against the heinous Hellgate winds. Strong gales pushed at our backs, carrying a deep and bitter chill despite “warm” temperatures in the teens.
But the larger concern was keeping our balance on the unbelievably slick surface, where even micro-spikes slipped out on the iced rocks. We joked about needing an ice ax and crampons on the same mountain that college students hike up in their Crocs in the summer. We felt like mountaineers. Conditions only worsened as we picked our way down the steep face. The switchbacking “M” trail managed to catch a bulk of the drifted snow, forcing us to either wade through thigh-deep drifts or skitter along the razor-thin edge of the ice-coated trail. Finally we abandoned the trail and dropped straight down the face, taking careful steps on an ice sheen that threatened to send us careening toward University Avenue, several hundred feet directly below, if we slipped.
About 100 vertical feet above the road, two patrol cars with flashing lights stopped in the middle of the street directly below us. Three officers stepped out, shined their lights toward us, and shouted things we could not hear in the roaring wind. “Maybe we’re in trouble because we’re off trail,” I speculated. But the whole scene was confusing. We pointed that we were going to make our way over to the main trailhead. The officers got back in their car and drove there to meet us.
As we skittered down the last of the glare ice, the three officers jogged up the stairs toward us. “Are you OK?” one asked. “We got a call that someone was flashing an SOS signal from the mountain.”
“We’re fine,” Bill answered.
“SOS?” I said. “No. I mean, we had our headlamps on. But we didn’t flash any signals. We came up the mountain a different way and didn’t know the route down was going to be so bad. But we’re fine.”
“Do you have a vehicle nearby?” the officer asked. “Do you need a ride?” The wicked wind whipped up a veritable ground blizzard in the deserted parking lot. The scene looked dire but I couldn’t help but laugh because the danger had been minimal at best.
“We came from town,” I said. “We can just walk back.”
Bill and I started running again and guffawed about the headlamp “SOS” and the grave concern on the faces of our would-be rescuers. We later learned that the information had gone out on the police scanner, the local newspaper took notice, and there was quite a hubbub about two people trapped in a storm on Mount Sentinel.
Who says you can’t have adventures on weeknights?