Off The Map Side-Stories #10: The Wrong Way Down

I stopped a few miles from the trailhead, turned around, drove a few miles towards home, then turned around again and stared hard at the snow-covered summits.  Did a hike in the Pintler Wilderness make sense?  Sure, the weekend storms had dropped plenty of snow on these Montana mountains, but if the sun had sufficiently warmed the south sides of the peaks, maybe the conditions up there were better than I could see from my northern position.

Turns out, not really.  But I desperately needed a break from bathroom renovations in my tiny Montana house, so I dealt with the slippery and treacherous conditions and tried not to faceplant whenever stones shifted beneath the thin veneer of snow.  The Pintler Mountains were mostly gray, undistinguished and lacking in hospitality or humor, but I appreciated their isolation and independence.  Most travelers and locals visit the trout-laden lakes at their feet; very few seek out the summits, especially the lesser-known peaks I was investigating – Little Rainbow Mountain, Mount Howe and Mount Evans.  

I really shouldn’t have climbed the third mountain, based on the speed I was going, but snow makes for sublime scenery, especially as the sun is nearing the horizon.  I soaked up the views, then struck out for my predetermined shortcut – a ridgeline that would eventually provide a safe route down to a trail in the valley below.  If everything went according to plan, I’d reach my jeep right before darkness descended on the Pintlers.

I should never have changed the plan.  Soon after gaining the ridge, I was tempted by the first gully that dropped off to the left – a steep shortcut to my shortcut that I guessed would allow me to reach the valley an hour ahead of schedule.  The route had the usual complement of unstable rocks and scree.  I kept my balance up until the point when a boulder the size of a refrigerator came loose underneath me.  I would have gone tumbling down the mountainside along with it, had I not immediately clutched at the branches of a dwarf pine tree.  The needles were slick with snowmelt, but I somehow managed to keep my grip. 

After two thousand feet of this sharp and messy terrain, I began to feel the relief of almost having reached the floor of the valley.  Then I came to the cliffs.  The way was blocked.  There was no safe passage anywhere in the vicinity.  I did not want to retreat all the way back up to the ridgeline, so I almost decided to risk my life downclimbing the remainder of the cliffs.  Almost.  I hate being defeated by geology, but I resigned myself to one last upward battle.  I was definitely not going to make it back before nightfall now.

And as I took my first steps back up the slope, my right thigh seized up.  A cry escaped my lips, and I hopped on my left leg until the ripples of pain went away.  That was unexpected… and unwelcome.  I tried again, but my body was insistent on being done with the uphill hiking.  It cramped every few steps, so I finally sat down and spent a few minutes massaging the rebellious muscle.  It begrudgingly bore my weight after that. 

Drawing on my last reserves of energy, I gained the ridgeline once more and followed it to the north, shunning the temptations of other gullies until I could be sure I had bypassed the cliff bands.  Sunlight streamed through notches in the peaks to my west, illuminating the haze of smoke from distant fires until the sun nudged its way below the horizon. 

I finally decided it was time to descend myself, choosing a wide gully that seemed unlikely to hold any hidden cliffs.  It held plenty of broken rock, however.  I had to select each boulder carefully before committing my full weight.  Areas with larger rocks were less likely to shift beneath me, but if the boulders began rolling, as they had earlier, there was a far greater chance of having a leg pinned or pulverized.

Three hundred feet above the valley floor, the slope steepened and cliffs once again barred my passage.  Fatigue and dismay threatened to overwhelm me, but I tried to push the feelings aside until I had a chance to explore the adjacent gullies.  I scrambled sideways across the mountainside and discovered other options.  Here, there were diminutive trees that I could cling to in order to help me down the steeper sections.  With their assistance, I finally reached the foot of the mountain.  And came to the swamps.

From above, I’d observed these regions of open land where the soil was too saturated to support the roots of trees.  At least I had enough remaining light to help me pick a path through the marsh.  I balanced atop tufts of grass, avoiding the patches where silvery reflections gave away the presence of water.  Beyond the swamp lay a darker forest, which I entered in the hopes of finding a trail on the far side of the valley.  All my landmarks disappeared, obscured by the forest canopy.  I followed the dying traces of the sunset instead, heading west until I reached the second swamp.  

This meadow was mostly drained by a single, sinuous stream, and columns of mist rose from the surface of the meandering channel.  I traced the course of water until I found a segment narrow enough to jump across, and in the forest beyond, I discovered the trail I’d seen on my maps.  Four miles to the trailhead. 

Only then did I turn on my headlamp.  I’d wanted to conserve the battery, just in case, because I couldn’t remember if I’d have any moonlight tonight.  What I did have, however, was plenty of stars.  They shone clear and crystalline in the sky as the air quickly dipped towards freezing.

I’d expected temperatures to get cold, but I knew a warm shower awaited me at home – my first full rinse in five days.  I’d just restored the plumbing, and the grout and mortar supporting the new tiles should finally be dry.  It would feel glorious.

Until then, I needed to focus on the trail.  The path was not well-used, and it tended to disintegrate in open areas.  Hikers usually spread out in those places, leaving no permanent markers of their passage with their footsteps, so I had to rely on intuition to find where the trail reentered the forest on the further side.

With a bit of instinct and a comparable amount of aimless wandering, I reached my jeep on the shores of Storm Lake just before ten o’clock.  The snow had certainly lengthened the day’s journey.  Maybe I should have waited an extra day to venture into the mountains, allowing more time for the sun to clear a path to the peaks.  But then I would have missed the vision of white-capped summits stretching out into the Montana plains, and lacked the photos to prove I’d been there.  I’d say that’s worth postponing a shower, at the very least.