November 3, 2013

A Step by Step Guide to the Mt Sentinel Hill Climb

Course Preview

Mt Sentinel towering over the University of Montana.

After reading our previous post you know all about the history behind the race and who will be toeing the starting line.  Now lets talk about the actual course.  There are only a handful of trail races that let you decide which route you want to take and lucky for you the Mt. Sentinel Hill Climb is one them!  Ok, let's keep that excitement bottled for a minute while we take a deeper look into your options for Sunday.

sentinel hill climb
GPS Routes and Mile Markers for both Options (Blue = Northern Route  &  Red = Southern Route)

Before we get into your personal preference of pain and trail surface, lets take a look at the facts.  Above is a GPS layout of the course with both options mapped out for you (i.e., the North "Ridge" route in blue and the South Route in red).  Below are the elevation profiles for each route.  If you elect to take the Northern Route you are looking at a total distance of 1.6 miles, 1,934 ft of elevation gain, an average slope of +23% and a max slope of 51%!  If the Southern Route is more to your liking, you will be facing 2.4 miles with 2,135 ft of elevation, an average slope of 18% and a max slope of 37%.   

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Elevation Profile for the Northern "Ridge" Route 

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Elevation Profile for the Southern Route 

So now that you've got the numbers, what should you do on race day?  Well that depends on your preferences for trail surface, scenery and pain!  For those of you who enjoy a solid, compact trail surface, like to keep the legs ticking over and don't mind the extra distance and elevation gain then the Southern Route is for you.  If you live for challenge, don't mind loose dirt and rock in your shoes and aren't afraid to hike or walk when you hit that 51% slope then keep left after the "M" and try your luck on the Northern "Ridge" Route!  No matter which way you choose to go on race day, your journey begins in the same place.

Section 1: The "M" Trail  
(0.75 miles and 680ft elevation gain)
Entrance to Mt Sentinel and the "M" Trail Switchbacks

Let's imagine it is Sunday and race day is here.  You woke up your in own bed (nice), ate a light breakfast, put on your lucky race day gear, rode your bike to the start (awesome) and RD Mike Foote, who hates Sentinel repeats, is barking instructions at you.  You look back at your family one last time, who are supporting you but quietly thinking "glad its not me running up that thing", as you prepare mentally for the oncoming roller coaster of excitement and struggle.  Everyone nervously tucks into the long line that is now pointing upward towards the summit.  You're running through your strategy, checking your shoe laces and all of a sudden we're off...  Immediately your nerves calm and you start to think about this course preview... wait where was the North "Ridge" turnoff again?

First Climb of the Day on the Gentle but Rocky Switchbacks of the "M" Trail

Now you're steadily ascending the easier slopes of the "M" trail, you find that perfect gear and you settle in with what seems like a good group.  Several runners have tore off the front, they must be crazy, while others are quietly humming along behind you.  You're focusing on foot placement because this section has many sharp, awkwardly angled rocks that can catch even the most hardened trail runner (see image above).  On the turns you enter wide and then cut back sharp but not too sharp because those metal poles are unforgiving! 

Looking Down the "M" Trail towards the UM Campus

Just like that, your past the half mile mark and you're starting to feel the climb in your legs as you sneak views of the runners zig zagging behind you.  You've reached the point now where we all start searching for that metal sign post that sits right in front of the "M" but its still several switch backs up.  So you put your head down and keep climbing, you'll be there soon enough.

Really Comfortable Benches with Great Views of Missoula Strategically Placed to Keep You from the Summit

The newly built benches seem like a great idea but you avoid them because you want to make it the entire way without stopping.  Smart decision!  Why make this any longer than it has to be, right?

The Final Switchback before the "M".  The Metal Sign Post is Actually a Map Donated by the 2012 UM Senior Class.

Finally, you catch a glimpse of that metal sign post! You swing left at the last switchback and come face to face with the first and last stretch of flat trail on your way to the summit.  Nice work!  Enjoy the short reprieve, take in the well-deserved view of the Rattlesnake Mountains to the North and get ready to make the most important decision of the day...

Section 2:  Glacial Lake Missoula Rock
(0.5 Miles and 695ft of Elevation Gain)
"M" Trail Sign Pointing to the Sentinel Fire Road Just above the "M"

This next section is critical to your race experience so pay attention.  You've now climbed up over the "M" and you notice something odd.  The other racers in front of you are going in different directions.  Despite the growing inward fear that you are lost, you think back to this post and remember that this is the critical trail junction where you must choose between the Northern and Southern routes.  The beautiful weather coupled by your eight hours of sleep and 2 shots of espresso encourage you to go for the Ridge.  Gutsy, I like your style!  Now it's time to focus.


So you've committed yourself to the shorter but steeper route, nice, there's no turning back now.  You're focused and looking at the rocky, narrow trail about 3 feet in front of you, scanning for rocks and turns.  Yes, there are some gnarly climbs just ahead but you're not worried about them right now.  Keep reminding yourself that this is what trail running is all about.  This definitely hurts but its kind of fun!

Junction of the Sentinel Fire Road and Ridge Trail

Now you've made it over the first of a series of unbelievably steep climbs and your confidence is up.  The trail is technical but you've got it today.  Even with your new found confidence, you are still cautious because there is still 3/4 of a mile to go and there is a rather steep drop off to the Clark Fork on your left!  Steady.


The race has really spread out now.  You just passed a few of the runners who gambled on the all out sprint to the summit strategy and of course there's that guy who has been right behind you since the start.  Even your best surges just can't seem to shake him.  Don't worry about him, focus on finding the Glacial Lake Missoula rock to your left.  No reason why you can't take in a little history on your way to the summit.  

The Glacial Lake Missoula Rock Resting at 4200ft Just before the 1 Mile Mark

Section 2 is rapidly coming to a close now.  Sure you've had ups and downs, sprints and walks but you made it over that nasty 51% slope and you're now preparing for the very runnable section to the finish.  Don't be confused by the runners to your right snaking in and out the trees.  They chose the Southern Route.. do not, I repeat, do not follow them into the trees no matter how tempting that beautiful, soft single track looks as it gently cuts into the canopy.  

A Junction from the Ridge Trail Leading into the Woods and the Gentler Southern Route to the Summit

                                            Section 3: Paraglider Wind Sock
                                                                  (0.37 Miles and 490ft of Elevation Gain)
Looking West from the Ridge Trail to Mt Jumbo and The Rattlesnake Mountains

Less than a half mile to go!  Mt Jumbo looks so small from up here, God I love this place.  You've earned this view so certainly take it in but don't linger.  Remember, the last section is where you are going to pull back that group in front of you and finally break free from that stubborn guy who is breathing heavy behind you.  Yeah, he stills there!

First View of the Mt Sentinel Summit 

The trail now looks more like a jeep road than single track.  You have been patiently waiting for this semi-flat section to begin your final push to the summit.  If you squint you can just make out the inflatable finish line arch that someone from the Runner's Edge drove all the way up to the summit...nice touch guys!


Well, that little push paid off.  You passed an entire group of runners and you're still holding that last gear for the final pitch to the summit.  Remember to watch out for the water bars on this last steep section.  Also, don't forget to enjoy the narrow single track here because this is the last of it.


Ah yes, the final turn to the home stretch.  There is a beautiful view just off to your right, of the jagged Bitterroots, the snow capped Lolo Peak and the distant peak of Cha-Pa-Qnn but you don't look, instead you climb hard to the left.  So close!

The Infamous Paraglider Wind Sock - A Beacon of Trust for All Sentinel Recreationists

Yes, the Wind Sock, finally!  You now have undeniable proof that the summit is just a hundred yards or so away.  The trail really expands here and the overlapping braids can be a bit awkward.  Pick a straight line and stick to it.  You swear you can hear voices up ahead but you still can't see the finish yet.  Time to throw caution to the wind and explode into that that last gear you've been saving.  Don't be fooled or discouraged by the false summit here, there is a little dip and then just a short climb to the finish!  

The Summit of Mt Sentinel.  You Can See Mt Dean Stone and the Bitterroot Mountains off in the Distance.

A group of runners are excitedly cheering for you as your approach the now swaying, inflatable finish line arch.  You catch a quick glimpse of the finish line clock as you hit the summit and hunch over to collect your thoughts and breath.

Congrats, you just finished the 2013 Mt. Sentinel Hill Climb!  A sense of achievement sweeps over you as you snag a water and banana and gaze back down to the valley floor.  You gather with friends on the summit, share that all too familiar story about how you almost face planted off the side of the ridge and then come to the inevitable conclusion of this race which is "how do I get down now?" Personally, I recommend the Smokejumpers trail as it will be covered in ice soon until next June and the grade is just gentle enough for a nice cool down back to the Kim Williams and the awards ceremony.

Just think, most Missoulians are still sleeping on this cool, crisp Sunday morning but not you.  You chose to climb nearly 2000ft up Mount Sentinel to support the UM Tri-Team!  Even though you are tired, hungry and in desperate need of a jacket you can't think of a better way to spend a beautiful Sunday morning in Missoula, Montana!

See you guys on Sunday!

September 26, 2013

Lost in the Swans

(The GPS of our route - affectionately named Tyson's Holland Peak Loop)

It is strange how forays into the backcountry begin.  They usually start as an idea thrown out when we are all sitting around together.... or browsing  This particular trip began when my coworker Chris Dundon started emailing Justin Angle and I pictures of Holland Peak.  Justin was immediately in and so was I.  Despite living in Montana for two years, I had never ventured into the Swans.  Then the night before left - plans changed.   Justin was now out but Chris and I were still in.  So I was a little surprised to see Justin waiting inside the Eurovan as I crept through the early morning shadows of the Ace Hardware parking lot.  Through a series of events during the night, Chris was now out but Justin was in.  The scenic 90 minute car ride north on 200 and 83, past Seeley Lake to the Rumble Creek trailhead, flew by.  As each mile passed by, I patiently waited for the smoke from the Idaho forest fires to lift and allow us to see the towering Mission mountain range to our West.  The smoke never did clear.  We rumbled into the Rumble Creek trailhead parking lot, just after 7am, where we met Tyson, Dan and Dan's brother from Tennessee.

(Rumble Creek Trailhead) 

Another small group hit the trail a few minutes before us.  They were heading up to Holland Peak as well.  So we set out towards the summit with the confidence that Tyson had hiked this trail twice before and we had a group in front of us to lead the way.  What could possible go wrong?  Easy out and back, tons of trail experience between us, we got this.

(Tyson staring at Dan's iPhone in disbelief!) *Photo by Justin Angle

Tyson was 100% certain that we shouldn't cross the South Fork Rumble Creek drainage.  He recited how he and Mike Foote ran past the trail and had to retreat back north of the drainage to hit the correct trail.  So walked up to the bridge over the drainage and turned around.  Justin and I would later find that we were no more than 50 feet from the correct trail when we turned around.

So we back tracked, found a "climbers trail", with two logs laid a-crossed it (first warning), and up we went.  This particular stretch of trail was very steep and we started to string out across the mountain.  Then in mid sentence - the trail disappeared.  I was leading at this point and stopped.  We debated whether we should go up the mountain or continue on alongside the mountain.  Tyson was still convinced we were on the correct side of the drainage, so we headed straight up the mountain.  At this point we all knew were were lost but we continued on anyway.  Who likes to admit they made a mistake and turn around?  Tyson, in a last ditch attempt to find a.. I mean.. any trail, tore off up the mountain.  From this point we mostly followed game trails and wandered aimlessly through the back- country of the Swans.  Our movements were now being dictated by Dan's iPhone and cellular data plan.  What had happened to that group in front of us?  We joked that they were probably across the drainage and nearing the base of Holland Peak at this point!

    (Looking South towards the South Fork Rumble Creek drainage and the Holland Peak trail)

Dan and Google Earth lead us to a clearing where we scrambled across rocky, side slopes while ingesting some much needed calories.  It was amazing how our attitudes had changed, for the better, since we had left the forest canopy and entered the open grassy meadows.  The views looking back into the valley were incredible, even with the thick gray smoke still blocking any view of the Missions.  At this point we were all concerned that we'd hit a ridge and be forced to return on that horrible route we had taken up the mountain...  Dan's iPhone indicated that a small alpine lake was not too far north from where we were cutting across the mountain.  There was still slight hope that we'd gain access to Holland Peak.

(Tyson disappearing into the shrubs and grasses near North Rumble Creek Lake)

We eventually ran into a dried-up creek bed and followed it up to North Rumble Creek Lake.  The jagged rocks surrounding the lake were incredible!  Tyson dove into the chilly, clear water as Dan and his brother caught up to us.  Spirits were high again as we climbed up another creek bed towards Upper Rumble Creek Lake and the base of Holland Peak.

(Dan and Tyson climbing up from the north Rumble Creek Lake)

(Me scouting a route to the base of Holland Peak)  *Photo by Justin Angle

The creek bed abruptly ended and spit us out into a beautiful meadow full of wild flowers.  Out of sheer luck we had managed to hit the base of Holland Peak.  While skirting South along the lake, we could hear that other group making their way up to the summit.  Every few minutes we would hear loose rock crashing down the ridge towards us and the lake.



Before I could get my pack off, Dan and Tyson were already fishing.  We could see several trout swimming lazily near shore.  Watching Dan and Tyson cast into this beautiful, blue alpine lake was surreal.  Minutes later Dan and Tyson had caught their dinner and were projecting the glow of kids on Christmas morning.  At this point none of us were interested in summiting.  The intoxicating atmosphere created by Holland Peak and Upper Rumble Creek Lake was reward enough for our early efforts.

(Dan posing with his freshly caught cutthroat trout at Upper Rumble Creek Lake)

After absorbing the beauty of Holland Peak and Upper Rumble Creek Lake, Justin and I decided to head back down via the actual Holland Peak trail.  It is always difficult to leave such beautiful places. Fortunately, Montana has so many!

(Holland Peak - 9,356 ft)

Justin and I quickly down climbed the steep, rocky trail towards yet another rumble creek lake.  By this point, the clouds had slid north leaving us to bake in the afternoon summer sun.  The temperature had to be hovering around the mid 90s.

(Lower Rumble Creek Lake with Holland Peak towering in the background)

Alas, we finally stumbled upon our first wildlife of the trip.  A family of mountain goats had congregated on some rocks just off the north shore of Lower Rumble Creek lake.  It was strange that we didn't see any wildlife while off trail for two and a half hours but only during our short stint on trail.  


Looking back I find it comical that we turned this simple out and back into a loop but I guess that is what makes being out in the wilderness so much fun.  Montana's backcountry is unpredictable,  unrelenting and exciting.  This particular trail is moderately difficult with some steep early climbing and exposure near the summit.  Our route ended up being around 8 miles long with 4,500 ft of climbing.   Holland Peak makes for a great day hike for those who start early.  My first experience in the Swans really impressed me.  The Swans have a different feel than other mountain ranges near Missoula.  I look forward to spending more time exploring them.

September 13, 2013

Glacier from 9,553 Feet

After my scenic bike ride up to Logan Pass, I locked up the bike and took off on foot.  Bikes aren't allowed anywhere off road in U.S. National Parks.  The hiking was a good change up after being in the saddle for two-plus hours.  From Logan Pass I headed North, along the garden wall, on the highline trail.


The highline trail follows the continental divide all the way into Canada and Waterton National Park. Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks combine to form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a biosphere reserve and world heritage site.  Translation - they are biologically diverse, protected and jaw dropping.


Late Spring/early summer is a great time to be in Glacier, no crowds and full blooms! (check out the bear grass above)  I had never been to Glacier during this time of year and it was completely different than my winter and late fall experiences.  Glacier has a way of making you feel like you have never been there before!


A few miles into the highline trail you begin to see the Bishop's Cap (9,127ft) towering to the west and Haystack Butte rising subtly from the east.  I had the perfectly cut single-track all to myself - no animals or people.  I really have trouble leaving this place.


After about 45 min I made it to Haystack Butte and took a hard right.  From there I could see the mountain that I wanted to climb.  Mt. Gould stands at an impressive 9,553 feet, smack dab in the middle of Glacier National Park.  The climb up gains more than 2000ft!


Climbing Gould was tricky.  After a steep, steep climb up past the initial border field, things only got worse.  The section everyone warns you about is the diorite sill which is the scientific name for wet, slippery, eroding cliffs.  You literally have to climb up a slot that running water has carved out to gain access to the upper pitches of the mountain.  My heavy backpack, from the bike ride up, swinging side to side really didn't help.  Neither did the 1600 million year old rocks sliding out from under my feet.  My bike helmet was put to the test on this eroding mountainside.  Thankfully I was the only person on the mountain.


Rock cairns are great for finding your way up mountains that you've never been on.  The only problem is that people build rock cairns just to stack rocks really high and not necessarily to guide curious climbers up the correct path to the summit.  I chased cairns up the mountain and had to turn around at several steep and sketchy dead ends - very funny....  What is it about cairns that you make you feel so confident and relaxed that you are going the right way?!


With tired limbs and ripped up hands I criss-crossed my way up and up.  A few hundred feet from the top I turned a corner and came face to face with a large male mountain goat.  The goat was shedding its wooly white coat; it was literally dragging behind it as turned and ran away from me.  Then I started to notice just how high up I had climbed.  Haystack butte looked so small and defined now.  You could trace the windy park road all the way back through the valley and to the west side of the park.  The higher elevations were still desperately holding on to the last of their winter snow drifts.


After two hours of mindless switchbacks and feeling lost, my eyes finally rose over the peak.  The reward was incredible.  Looking south towards Many Glacier Lake you can see almost 5,000 ft of vertical relief!  Not a good spot for people who don't like exposure... good thing I love it!   It was amazing to see all the little alpine lakes tucked away amongst the higher peaks.  Most visitors would never even know they are there.


One of the reason I chose to climb Mt Gould was to get an aerial view of Grinnell Glacier.  I had gotten a glimpse of it before with my brother Dave a few years back but we didn't get this close!  It was nice to see one of the few remaining glaciers in the park and the inspiration for the parks name.  The sun glistened on the teal blue proglacial water which itself stood out against the white snow and crumbling sedimentary rock shelves.  I spent 45 min just taking in the most beautiful views you could imagine.  The only thing that kept me from staying up there was my body's unrelenting requirement of calories, water and rest.  I still had to down climb, hike the highline trail back, bike to the St Mary entrance and drive 4 hrs home... worth it!

On the way down I met some people playing in the boulder fields below the diorite sill.  Even from a few hundred feet above I could see them contemplating the effort it would take to reach the summit.  These were the first people I saw all day so I stopped to enjoy my peanut butter sandwich and encouraged the two guys from Canada to just go for it.  They were headed up when I left so I hope they made it.  It was almost 2pm at that point and last call for safely getting up and down in day light.


It was now mid-afternoon and the highline trail was buzzing with people and goats... everywhere.  I passed multiple sets of female goats with offspring.  The adult goats would walk nonchalant right past you but the younger goats would panic and dive off the side of the trail.  I'm always amazed at their ability to stand upright on those steep slopes.  Towards the end of the trail, an adult female passed by me on a very narrow section of the trail. I literally climbed up off the trail onto a rock to get out of its way.  The goat walked up to me, turned its head and just stared for a minute and then just kept on going.  By then, the whole wait for the goats to pass routine was getting old but it was nice in a way.  While out in the backcountry your movement or travel is affected by the wildness of the area and not your stop watch or sense of immediacy to get home.  Sometimes it is just nice to slow down!

On Tuesday, I'm heading back home to see my family in Cleveland so I spent the weekend in Glacier to take in as much of Montana as I could.  While stuck in traffic around the strip malls of midwest suburbia I will be dreaming of the stillness and openness of my new home - Montana!


September 8, 2013

Going to the Sun Road via Mountain Bike

With all this new free time, I decided to make the drive up to Glacier for the weekend.  Last year it was pretty smoky so I was worried about visibility.  This time it was perfect!  No smoke just a few puffy clouds strolling across the sky.  


I left Friday after work with my tent and my mountain bike.  The sun was just setting as I pulled in to my campsite.  It has been a few years since I've been to the East side of Glacier.  The major access is on the West side of the park and a trip over there usually involves the normal tourist hysteria of major national parks.  


On the east side of the park there was very few people at all.  Nice and quiet!  I cooked up some freeze dried beef macaroni and fell a sleep to the buzz of the forest instead of the city!  Tomorrow was going to be a long, long day.


I woke up early, had some coffee and pressed on to the Saint Mary entrance.  A few other bikers were prepping their expensive road bikes while I hopped on my trek mountain bike.  Going to the Sun road is absolutely amazing.  The scenery is breathtaking and the chances of seeing wild animals is better than other national parks.  


The morning son casted reflections of the granite mountains in to the lake for me.  On bike I was much slower than I normally would traveling through the park.  It gave me time to appreciate every view for longer periods of time.  Traveling by bicycle was a completely different and new way to experience the park.



(Wild Goose Island on Saint Mary Lake)

The morning temperature was really cool and climbing wasn't as tough as I had hoped.  I wasn't moving fast and was passed by a few road cyclists who were pumped that I was riding a mountain bike.  Slow was the best speed to enjoy the mountains and scenery.  


(Citadel Mountain - 9,030ft)


(Heavy Runner Mountain 8,762ft)


(Looking West towards Clements Mountain 8,760ft)

The entire route to Logan Pass, which was about 15.5 miles with 2,400 ft of climbing, only took me an hour and half.  It felt much longer though!  


The atmosphere up at Logan Pass was completely different than my first few hours in the park.  I had seen a few cyclists and cars but for most of the time I was isolated.  After a while you get used to the quiet and it is a big change to see the hustle and bustle of humanity.  I am reminded of that concept every time  I venture outside of Missoula and through major cities.  The change of pace, noise and  surroundings makes me uncomfortable.  I get migraines and become disorientated.  In the end I accumulate to city life but learn to respect and appreciate my ability to disconnect on a daily basis!  

Check out thetime lapse of my ride below and enjoy Glacier National Park in under 90 seconds!

Originally from Strongsville, OH, I spent 8 years in Raleigh, North Carolina and have since recently moved to Missoula, MT. I have been a runner all my life and have recently started pursuing ultra marathons. Any excuse to be outside and on the trails.