Saturday, November 30, 2013

Searching for Winter: Rattlesnake trip report (sometime recently)

Mountains: Stuart Peak, Mosquito Peak, Stuart Peak (Rattlesnake Wilderness)
Distance: ~22-23 miles (round-trip)
Vertical feet gain: 6520 feet
Total elapsed time: 9 hours 5 minutes (6:12AM - 3:17PM ~20 minutes of breaks) 

The office life has never suited me. It is very likely that the office life has never suited anyone. Although my job can be immensely rewarding, it is, at the end of the day, an office job on the top floor of a somewhat stuffy building that lacks ventilation and adequate windowage. The net result of all of this - the full-time office life - breeds an intense desire for outdoor adventures.

With a mild fall and a reluctant winter, my outdoor adventure focus over the last few weeks has shifted to searching for winter. To the high country!

Sometime recently:

6:12AM: I left the warmth of my car at the Main Rattlesnake Trailhead - ~4,000 feet - for the chill (~10-15 degrees) of the morning. The trailhead was snow-free, as was the trail for the first 5 miles. The Missoula area had had a few good snowfalls in the high country over the last couple of weeks which was followed immediately by a cold front that froze the landscape in time. I planned accordingly and was equipped with snowshoes, crampons and ice ax, and full winter outerwear. 

I traveled by headlamp for the first 1 1/2 hours. Three hunters on bikes passed me on the Main Trail - my last signs of human life for 7 hours -  around 6:20AM. I took advantage of the dry trail and traveled swiftly (~3-3.5 miles/hr) in the predawn light. 

~8:00AM: Snow! At around 6,000 feet the snow began. At first a hard, frozen crust of an inch or two, boot-packed well by what had likely been hunters, grew steadily with every step to 1-2 feet at the Wilderness boundary (~7 miles in). About 1/2 mile after the Wilderness area began, with an increasing snow pack and a less well-traveled trail, I donned my snowshoes. A few minutes later, I left what was left of the boot-packed summer trail and opted to route-find my way up the trail-less south slope of Stuart Peak.

8:45AM: More snow! As I continued up the mountain, the snow pack increased to 4 or so feet. With snowshoes, I was impacting no more than 6 inches with every step. The consistency of the pack - powder snow on a hard crust - made for easy, rhythmic travel. Beautiful!

9:08AM: The Summit of Stuart Peak!
An excited self-portrait on the summit of Stuart Peak with
Mosquito Peak, the next objective, over my left shoulder.

~9:25AM: I left the glorious summit of Stuart Peak for Mosquito Peak. Per usual, I disregarded any of the summer trails and kept a tight line on the ridges. Oh, the joys of winter travel!

~10:30AM: I arrived at the foot of the summit ridge of Mosquito Peak after a nice slog over the long rolling connecting ridge between Stuart Peak and Mosquito Peak. I impacted about 6-12 inches with every step, but kept a steady, if somewhat slow, continuous plod. At the base of the summit ridge, I exchanged my snowshoes for crampons and trekking poles for my ice ax. 

The summit ridge of Mosquito Peak. My track is visible on the ridge.
This shot was taken on my way back to Stuart Peak.
Looking down the summit ridge to a false summit of Mosquito Peak.
Here,without snowshoes, I was postholing 1-2 feet with every step.

11:06AM: The summit of Mosquito Peak! Remarkably and entirely coincidentally, I arrived on the summit of Mosquito Peak exactly 2 hours after Stuart Peak (~1 hour, 35 minutes from the time I left Stuart for Mosquito).
Self-portrait #2 of the day on top of Mosquito Peak.
That expression, again, is a cry of joy, not pain.

My ice ax planted on the summit of Mosquito Peak with Stuart Peak right of center.
I spent less than five minutes on the summit of Mosquito Peak before heading down to my snowshoe, extra gear and trekking pole cache. Upon donning my snowshoes and repacking my gear, I slogged my way up and down the rolling ridges back to Stuart Peak.

~12:45PM: Back on top of Stuart Peak!
Self-portrait #3 and final picture of the day on top of Stuart Peak again.
Mosquito Peak (form whence I came) is visible over my right shoulder. 
It would be untruthful of me to suggest that I was nothing, if not tired, on the second trip up Stuart Peak. I was tired, but no less elated to be out on one of the most beautiful days in recorded history. And, about to walk 8.5 miles downhill! Yahoo!

The trip back to the trail head, although uneventful, was extremely enjoyable and relaxing. I cruised downhill, turning the 2 hour 56 minute ascent into a 2 hour 20 minute descent.

3:17PM: Back at the trail head!

All told, the outing was exactly what I was searching for: an escape from office life and the discovery of winter! I felt and feel incredibly blessed to be afforded opportunities to experience God's beauty and the accompanying peacefulness. I always come back after trips like this a little better than I left. A new creation!

Onward and upward!


Saturday, November 9, 2013

Mount Sentinel Hill Climb: Race Report

"There's a long line of cars/And they're trying to get through" Cake
A day late, a buck short. I apologize for the delay on the Mount Sentinel Hill Climb race report. A week or more past, I drafted up a pretty lengthy report only to have my computer freeze and ultimately lose the blog post.

Take two:

Linds took this picture moments after the start of the race from the bottom of the course.
I am visible with a yellow hat and black long-sleeve shirt.
The Mount Sentinel Hill Climb is an all-out effort race up Mount Sentinel's 2,000 vertical feet by way of 2 trails: the shorter and steeper northwest ridge and the longer, but gentler 'M Trail'. All runners are required to take the 'M Trail' to the giant cement-casted 'M' about 1/3 of the way of the mountain. At the 'M', runners are presented with the option of continuing on the gentler 'M Trail' or power up the steeper northwest ridge trail. With a previous PR of 24 minutes and 30 seconds on the length of the northwest ridge trail, I didn't know what to expect with the added distance of the 'M Trail' up to the 'M'.  This was a chance to find out!

Around 9:55AM on the morning of the race, 100 runners self-selected positioning and crammed themselves into the starting channel leading up to the entrance of the 'M Trail'. Although by trail standards the 'M Trail' is broad, it, at widest, can accommodate 2.5 adults shoulder-to-shoulder. I positioned myself roughly a third of the way back. Knowing I would not be running a step of the race, I opted for a comfortable placement that wouldn't impede passage of the swift mountain runners.

At 10AM the gun went off. It took a good 15-30 seconds for the front third of the pack to clear out and get moving up the trail. As spaced opened up, runners to my left and right began to first slowly walk, then walk swiftly and finally run! I was able to open up my power-hiking stride within the first 15 feet and finally get to work doing what I love best: moving swiftly in the mountains.

The longest and most gentle switchback of the entire route occurs first. Although crowded, there was enough space to somewhat gracefully move through the runners. At the turns of the first couple of switchbacks the pace expectedly slowed to a walk as the group made the turns. The first leg up to the 'M' proved a game of leapfrog with runners. On the steeper switchbacks I would pass 3-4 runners who in turn would pass me on the gentler switchbacks when they got back up to a solid running stride.

By the time I got to the 'M' runners had more or less settled into their pace/position for the race: a dozen or so in front of me and 80 or so behind me. I passed in the 'M' (620 feet off the valley floor) feeling strong, beaming brightly and enjoying myself thoroughly! I have no idea how much time had elapsed to get up there and frankly I didn't care. I was having a blast.

A few feet passed the 'M' the course splits: northwest trail or 'M Trail'. This was a no-brainer for me. I live for the northwest ridge trail!

I passed a few more folks on the middle portion of the mountain on the northwest trail as runners began to slow to a power-hike on the steeps. My approach with power-hiking, as it was with marathons and ultra-marthons, 'swift and steady'. I passed my last runner at about the halfway point. From there, I slowly closed in on the guy in front of me, only to have him pull away on the few gentler sections of the northwest ridge trail.

In this manner, the upper half of the mountain proved to much like any of the other 50+ times I had used this route as a training ground in the last year. Again, beaming, I accepted my place and smiled my way up to the final summit ridge of Mount Sentinel.

As I crested the ridge and the slope lessened to the summit, the finish line archway and clock came into view. The clock read 25 minutes and 40-some seconds. I was tempted to run in the last bit and see about getting under 26 minutes, but opted to stick to my guns and keep to my power-hiking race. I quickened to a power-walk and hit the finish line at 26 minutes and 32 seconds. Having never timed myself before utilizing this exact route (the 'M Trail' to northwest ridge trail route), I had nothing to compare it to and decided only to be pleased that I had had such a great time and had set a new PR.

Curious as to how the race unfolded, I checked the results later in the day to find out that I came in 14th place. The winners, elite trail runners, made it to the top in under 21 minutes! Amazing. All told, I am very pleased with my performance (I won't pretend I am not competitive) having not run a step of the race.

I had a blast and loved the low-key, local nature of the race. I will be back next year!

Onward and upward,