February 2, 2013

Failed Stuart

Coming off a Sheep mountain snowshoe high I was adamant on climbing Stuart Peak.  I have lived in Missoula for 18 months now and have never made my way up the most prominent peak South of Missoula.  This time Chris, Apple and I were joined by another coworker Mark Schleicher and his friend Nathan.  We hit the Ravine Trailhead just before 7 am hoping that the weather would get better as the day went on....

The first couple of miles were dark, rolling and frustrating.  Getting my gear to sit right took a while and then I realized that this trail climbs a lot and then drops back down before it starts the long climb up to Stuart.  Before we left I told Chris that dogs were not allowed in certain areas of the Rattlesnake but he refused to accept this.  When we saw this sign I was all smiles.  Notice how he refused to look at the camera while next to the No Dogs sign!

The two days before we were blasted by a snow storm that left no less than a foot of powdery snow.  As I predicted, no one had been on the trail since the storm.  That meant we were breaking trail the entire 11 miles up to the 7,950 ft summit of Stuart.  Route finding was also fun because none of us had been on the ravine trail before.  On top of that we were all very aware of the recent avalanche warnings.  The snow was so high that the white blazes (who's brilliant idea was that) were barely visible on the snow covered trees.  Without blazes there is no way to tell which direction the Stuart Peak trail went with all the snow.  Luckily Mark and Nathan had been on the Stuart Peak trail enough that they knew the general direction of the trail.

Once on the Stuart Peak trail we were breaking through a couple of feet of heavy, wet snow. It was obvious that we were moving very slow up the mountain.  A few miles from the wilderness boundary Mark mentioned that we wouldn't make the summit at this pace.  I was confused because I was willling to push for the summit if it took all day and all night.  Immediately I went to the front and started breaking trail.  Imagine doing high knees in a foot of fresh snow while going up 5,000 vertical feet.  For the next 2 miles I went as hard as I could with my big wooden snowshoes.

I spent the best part of an hour in my happy place. Finally we made it to the wilderness boundary. We took a minute to eat, drink and regroup. Meanwhile I was quietly wondering if my effort was enough for the group to continue onward to the summit. After a few minutes of silence we came to the decision to turn around. I thought about continuing on alone but the last few miles were taking their toll on me and the weather was still awful. Zero visibility with the occasional tease of blue sky hundreds of feet above us. I absolutely hate turning around on a summit unless the weather is really bad or there is an injury. Eventually I took the experience for what it was, enjoyed it and headed back down after 6 hrs of grueling trail breaking. Still it was a bitter pill to swallow.

On the way back the wheels completely fell off. My pants wouldn't stay up and my snowshoes straps had frozen solid to my pants. I couldn't adjust the snowshoes with my frozen gloves and they kept kicking out. What resulted was me face planting hard many times and falling way behind the group. Eventually I strapped the snowshoes to my pack and post holed my way back to the parking lot. It was like the mountain was having a laugh since I couldn't reach the summit!

Adding insult to injury, the sun started poking through the clouds as we were approaching the parking lot. Unreal.

Feeling beaten I tossed my snowshoes and pack in the trunk of the Jeep and headed home to salvage what was left of the day. Stuart peak followed me all the way home in my rearview mirror. I will be back!

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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.