Two weeks ago Saturday I had a go at Stuart Peak. The high at 7,000 feet (1,000 feet below the summit of Stuart Peak) was -15 degrees with wind chills predicted to be in the -40s. The weather was predicted to be stable, clear and cold!
I made good time, covering the first 4.5 miles in about 1.5 hours. There was 1-2 inches of snow on the ground up to the that 4.5 mile mark. The snow depth increased rapidly from that point (~5,000 feet) up. I donned my snowshoes at about the 5 mile point and began the slog!
The temperature, although in the -10s, was bearable. On my feet I sported two pairs of wool socks stuffed inside of boots rated to -20 degrees. My legs were covered with two pairs of long-underwear under light trekking pants. On my upper body, I wore 4 layers underneath a winter parka (down mittens with over mittens on my hands). And finally, on my noggin, I wore a balaclava, a fleece neck warmer and a beanie.
Labored breathing laden with the moisture of my breathe froze instantly on any surface within 7 inches of my mouth. Fortunately, the approach to Stuart Peak lies in a well protected gully, making the wind a non-issue for the first 5-6 miles.
That said, the strong winds combined with the snow of recent days resulting in a 2-3 inch crust on top of 6-8 inches of fairly light powder snow. The crust was weight-bearing 5% of the time: slow-going. Every step required patience as I broke through with each snowshoe and regained purchase on the packed powder beneath the crust.
6.5 miles up, the trail rounds a corner providing the first view of Stuart Peak. With the turn of the corner came the first encounter with a bitter wind in the -30s. The last time I felt winds that cold was in Great Falls in 2008 when I would go for long runs in -20 to -30 wind chills (this required goggles and 0% skin exposure).
I continued slowly for another 150 feet breaking through the crust, gaining traction and taking another step. At such a frustratingly slow pace, I had another 2-3 hours to the summit, which meant another 3-4 hours exposed to the brutal wind that was increasing in strength and decreasing in temperature. I stopped to assess the situation: the tips of my right toes were getting pretty dang cold and required frequently 'wiggle-stops'; exposure to the wind/cold was only to increase over the next 3-4 hours and the wind roared overhead! Uninterested in frostbite in such a low-reward scenario, I opted to make this point (~6800 feet) the day's high point. I snapped a picture and headed down to the warmth (-8!). This trip goes down as the first time in 5 years that I have not seen another soul in the Rattlesnake (on the trail or at the trailhead).
|Self-portrait at the high point on 'take one'.|
|On the summit of Stuart Peak!|