|Travis heading towards the Northwest Ridge with Missoula to his left, East Missoula to his right, and Mt Jumbo center frame.|
Last Saturday, me and Blake were sitting around looking at his new book, 50 Greatest Ski Descents in North America. He was showing me the ones he had done, including Mt Rainer. I listened in awe, then flipped to the Idaho/Montana section and found Castle Peak. After a brief bike/ski approach discussion, my mind clicked-in on a question: If you could ski any mountain in the world, which would it be?
On paper there is nothing special about Mt Sentinel, and it certainly doesn't qualify as a "greatest" of any kind. The mountain rises abruptly from the football stadium at eastern edge of the University of Montana, just across the Clark Fork River from downtown Missoula. The most heavily traveled hiking trail in the state heads up 800' feet of switchbacks to a iconic giant white "M". Which is viewable from anywhere in the valley below. From there, a number of trails spread out across the face and it's gullies before converging 1200' higher on the summit, a barren windblown place. At any inbounds area, the West Face run would be labeled as a "blue", and a fairly mellow one at that. Unfortunately, and in accordance with reality, this could never be. Mt Sentinel's seasonal accumulation is usually measured in inches, not feet. Most years you could be mountain biking the lower half in late February.
When I first moved west from Ohio, I landed in a student housing apartment right at the base of Sentinel. On it's slopes is where I first mountain biked. It's where I went on my first trail run. It's the mountain that first inspired me to climb it in the winter. Sentinel just does that to you, and in my estimate, it does it to roughly 100% of the students upon their arrival at the University of Montana. Needless to say, when I got onto my first pair of skis, I dreamed of rippin' down it's face so much it became bucket-list material.
There have been tales of people skiing it over the years. Those usually get drawn out in late night bar conversations: "There was this one time back in 94" or "96' was the year to ski the thing". There's also people like Blake, who ski Sentinel every year, but they ether stick to the North Face, or rock-hop down the West. Neither of which sound appealing to me. I've always said the only time I'd call off work to go play, is if the snow conditions were perfect on Sentinel to do a proper run.
|Me high above downtown Missoula. Photo Travis Switzer|
I sat at my desk fielding questions and talking to journalist late into the day. In the evening, Travis and I hatched a dawn patrol plan. Meet at 5am. Start skinning by 5:30. We made our way up the "M" trail on a solid skintrack, and continued on to the summit marveling at the sun rising in the east. Then, after a brief stop on top, and a couple big grins, we let'r rip down 2,000 blissful feet.
On the playlist: Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers - Dire Wolf