It doesn't always happen, but autumn hit like the flick-of-a-switch this year. A couple of early season low pressure systems moved across the Northern Rockies a few weeks ago, shutting down any hopes of an extended summer. One minute everyone was bouncing around town in shorts and Chacos, and the next hunkering through light snow and gray skies.
A change not easy for me to accept.
I wish I could get stoked on the wintertime as much as I can on summer, but it's just not that way. I don't necessarily 'hate' winter, just my lethargic attitude towards it. Ya, the lack of sunlight sucks, and ya it's cold, and ya - it's cold, but if you hit it right, a beautiful stillness envelops the backcountry that seems unattainable in any other season.
On Thursday, Blake told me he was thinking about skiing over the weekend, and I told him we should try to winter camp. I mean, if you can't beat it, might as well go all in. After convincing him he didn't need to see a ski movie or attend a drinking event, we poured over the data. The Tobacco Root Mountains not only had the most snow in the state, but there was also enticement of the little hot spring on South Willow Creek. We roped Mickey in, and set off on the 3 hour drive early Friday afternoon.
After a night of car camping and grilling brats and veggies near the hot spring, we set out Saturday morning for the Bell Lake trail just up the road. We obviously weren't the only ones who did our homework, as 3 other cars were already at the trailhead, and a solid skintrack had been set. We ran into a few guys trying to set up the Bell Lake Yurt for the season. Like everyone else, they had been caught off guard by the 4 feet of snow accumulation over the past month. After chatting with them for a bit, we made our way up to the lake, and found a wind-sheltered spot to set up camp. A quick bite to eat, and it was time to ski, at least for Mickey and Blake.
Skiing and myself have a complex relationship. I had never put on skis until 4 years ago. The goal was to get out in winter much like I did on my mountain bike during the other 3 seasons. The uphills were always fine, but I never really caught on with the down. That may be putting it lightly. Mountain biking, packrafting, fishing, and climbing have all come easy. Sure, there's always more to learn in any of those activities, but I moved from being a novice rather quickly. With skiing, not so. Even with the low-tech 3-pin cable setup I'd been running, the expectation was to at least not fall down continuously in moderate terrain.
This season I decided to give skiing one more shot. When a deal became available on a nice-weight touring setup, I couldn't pass it up. Lucky for me, I was able to call the only person who had written a review of the boots in question. I followed the advice given and ordered a full size down. Thank-god that happened because after trying the new boots on, I realized my old ones were a full size too big, and my feet have been swimming in them for years. Since my tech bindings hadn't been installed on the new skis, I had to run the old setup up in the Tobacco Roots.
No big deal, but it meant not even thinking about skiing with Mickey and Blake.
They went off for a number of runs while I set up camp, and played with the camera. After they got back around dusk, we ate and drank beers well into the night, while giddily contemplating how strange it was to be camping in 2.5 feet of consolidated snow in the middle of October. In the morning, we broke camp. They went off to summit North Thompson Peak, and I headed back down to the car. After dropping my gear, a sunny 4 mile jog brought me back to the little hot spring, which happens to be caretaked by a fellow named Morris, and it's the nicest undeveloped one in the state of Montana.
While cooking food a couple night before, Morris had ridden up on his atv. He introduced himself as the district ranger and campground host. He ran these mountains, and had been doing so for 35 years. He came to the Tobacco Roots after serving "on the fence" in Nam. He's seen the rise in use of the area, but none more so than with his little hot-pot he first dug 30 years ago. "Ever since they put it in that god-damned guide book, every yahoo from Bozeman wants to come down and trash the place after the bars let out", he said. I couldn't help but make the correlation between the rise-of-use from this book - which is how I found out about his spring - and a new map that is set to come out guiding people to over 50 hot springs like it. It's not something that I haven't thought long and hard about.
After an hour soak and some good company, I was on the move again. Micky and Blake picked me up on my walk back, and we headed to the Pony Bar. Then, back to Missoula. Their tales of skiing got me excited to put on my new skis in the coming weeks. While I've been conditioned to keep my expectations low, maybe this season I'll graduate as an intermediate skier, and maybe one day bigger things will be possible. I've got too many fun ideas in my head that revolve around being able to actually ski, to give up on it just yet.
On the playlist: Trampled by Turtles - Keys to Paradise
On the playlist: Ducktails - Hamilton Road