Hiking Up a Mountain, My Dog and I: A True Adventure

Updated on June 6, 2018
cam8510 profile image

Chris enjoys photographing the places he visits. He shares these photos as travel articles and also mixes them with creative writing.

St. Mary's Mountain and Peak

Look closely and you can see the wildfire lookout tower on the top of the snow capped peak.
Look closely and you can see the wildfire lookout tower on the top of the snow capped peak. | Source

Darby and I hit the St. Mary’s Peak 3.8 mile trail at about 4:45 p.m. on Saturday. I usually hike at about two or three miles per hour, so we hoped to knock it out in a couple of hours. We could see the peak while driving to the trailhead and knew we would be hitting snow, so maybe it would take three hours. I had my snowshoes along just in case.

Within the first couple of minutes, Darby was interested in hiking faster than I intended. He ran ahead a hundred yards or so, then trotted back whining his displeasure with my speed, or lack of it. He settled into his normal zig-zag pattern. That’s when he crosses the trail, back and forth, heading a short distance into the forest to check things out. That’s quite a help to me as we are in bear and mountain lion country.

My Dog, Darby

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Half a mile into the hike, we hit snow. It started as the remnants of a melting drift running down the center of the trail. Within minutes it was eighteen inches of packed snow on the trail as far as we could see. In the forest around us, there was still some bare ground showing. I slipped the snowshoes on, and we proceeded at my pace.

St. Mary’s peak rises to 9,300 feet. We began at the trailhead which is at about 6,800 feet. The 2,500 feet of elevation gain is spread out over the 3.8 miles, which isn’t so bad.

St. Mary's Peak Trail

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My Atlas snowshoes were my old standbys. I bought them in the early 1990s, and they had served me well ever since—until the St. Mary’s Peak hike, that is. Within minutes of each other, the bindings broke on both snowshoes. While that seemed to be such an unlikely possibility, I had to admit the fact. I ditched the snowshoes under some pine bows I found lying about and intended to pick them up on the way back. Atlas has a lifetime warranty, or at least they did when I bought the snowshoes about twenty-five years ago.

We hiked on until four feet of snow covered the entire landscape. We were hiking at an upward angle across the slope. The sun had been working on the snow all afternoon and it was slightly slushy on top. This meant my trailing left foot was sliding downhill quite often. Darby didn’t seem to be slipping, so I chalked it up to my two-hundred-plus pounds in addition to the thirty-pound pack on my back.

My Twenty-five Year Old Atlas Snowshoes

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Occasionally, where the snow had drifted over the lower branches of the pine trees along the trail, my foot would find a hollow place, and I would sink to my hip. Darby would always be right there offering his moral support.

I knew we were traveling much slower than I had planned, but there was nothing to be done about it. The constant slipping added to the climb was taking its toll on me. Darby was still acting like this was a stroll in the park.

I began taking more frequent breaks until I was only going ten strides or so at a time. The western sky was beautiful but caused me to grow concerned about making it to the top before dark. I kept my eyes on the trees, knowing that as we approached the timberline, they would grow shorter and shorter. But it seemed we were making no progress at all. We hiked on, me struggling, Darby darting out and then circling back to check on me.

Near the Timberline

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My dog and I have created quite a bond in the last six weeks since I got him from a ranch in the Bitterroot Valley. I care for him and respect his instincts and intelligence. He rewards that with his loyalty and friendship.

Darby knew I was having trouble. He began repeatedly to exhibit a behavior I have not seen in a dog before. When I had just slipped and fallen, or when I had just sunk to my hip in the snow, he would run up to me—right in front of me—and stop. He tilted his head back, and his eyes met mine with an intensity I can’t describe. I tried to move forward. He responded by sitting down. He would not budge. What was he telling me? Turn back, you idiot? Or, sit down and take a break? Eventually, he let me pass and on we went.

Meet, Darby

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If I had known how difficult it would be to hike to the summit at this time of the spring, I would not have gone. But to turn back was simply out of the question. It was too far. My body would not take it. This is when I first admitted that I was in a life or death situation.

I could see the timberline ahead, but it was mocking me, staying just out of my reach. Beyond that line, the sun had melted all the snow. It was that bare ground I was longing for, someplace where I could simply put one foot in front of the other without fear of slipping, falling or sinking. I remember saying several times to Darby, I can’t do this.

But we made it to the timberline and to the snowless ground where I rested for a few minutes. We could see the wildfire lookout tower sitting on the peak. It looked so far. The switchbacks crisscrossed my field of vision. I made the remainder of the trek by sheer will not to let this climb beat me.

The Western Sky from the Eastern Slope of St. Mary's Mountain

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In my total fatigue, I have to admit there were times I had been oblivious to where the trail was. Anything that looked like a trail had been buried under four feet of snow. I was following Darby. He did not let me down. He kept his eyes on the few tracks made by others who had dared venture this far, but sometimes, the only tracks were those of a downhill skier who had skied from the top to the trailhead far below. There was a period when there simply was no trail to follow, but somehow we met up with footprints and rejoined the phantom hikers.

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On the bare ground, we made better time and followed the switchbacks until I traded a more gradual climb for a quick scramble straight upslope to the peak, off trail. At the top, I dropped the pack and dropped to the ground. We had made it just in time for the remnants of a sunset. It was after 10:00 p.m. It is amazing how such an elevation can extend a sunset. The three-hour hike I had anticipated had turned into a six-hour climb for my life.

Darby and I took in the scenery in the failing light and set up camp. We ate dinner and turned in for the night. I slept like I was lying on a bed of feathers.

In the morning we ventured out to the edges of the mountain peak. A fellow in the town near the base of the mountain had told me to be careful up there. Sometime in the recent past, a couple and their dogs went to the peak this early. The man had slipped and fallen to his death.

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I was standing on a boulder taking photos and video when Darby shot by me. We were only twenty feet from the ledge. I shouted, stop! Darby skidded to a stop just feet from the precipice. I doubt he had ever been any place like this before. He thought he was simply running over the edge of a hill. I called him back, and he obeyed. I offered him the reward of much praise. He loves that.

It was time to head back down the mountain. That was the last thing I wanted, but we had to go. The trip back down took two hours. I was weary due to the struggle the previous day, but it was more or less uneventful. When I got to where I had hidden the snowshoes, someone had taken them.

I’m glad I made the climb. I’m glad I have a good dog who accompanied me. But in the future, I will plan more carefully and use more wisdom before I set foot on one of these beautiful but treacherous Montana mountains in the springtime.

Photo Gallery Taken From St. Mary's Peak

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Questions & Answers

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      • cam8510 profile image
        Author

        Chris Mills 2 weeks ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

        Shauna, Sha, Bravewarrior, all three of you...Thank you for that awesome and gracious comment. Thank you for being a faithful reader. As you know, that means a lot to any writer. You got through loud and clear. Since last weekend, I've been told several times (Once by our dear friend, Paula) That my dog is smarter than I am. I appreciate the concern, but I am in Montana. Other than bear, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and the occasional cliff, I shouldn't have any more dangerous weekends like the last one. Seriously, I am grateful for your concern and promise to be careful as I explore this fascinating land.

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 2 weeks ago from Central Florida

        Chris, I've been following you for years now. I respect who you are and am a little envious of your travels. Please read the response I left to your comment on my Woodpeckers article. Frankly, I'm a little worried.

        I need you to know that, although I've gotten WAY behind in my HP reading since I went back to work, I always make it a point to read what you've posted. I thank HP for keeping my notifications coming regularly. I may skip over posts from others whom I follow, but they know I've gone back to work and my time is limited. You're an exception, my friend.

        Put yourself and your safety first. You and Darby just found each other. Don't mess that up. I don't mean to be mean. I mean to get through. I want Chris back.

        Lots of love,

        Sha aka Bravewarrior

      • cam8510 profile image
        Author

        Chris Mills 2 weeks ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

        Shauna, This little adventure got my attention. I'll be considering each hike much more carefully from now on. Darby is a welcome addition to my life. He has a lot of dog sense. Thanks for visiting my hub today.

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 2 weeks ago from Central Florida

        Chris, Darby sounds like the perfect dog for you. Thank God you had him with you on this trek! You're very brave (and perhaps a bit foolish?) to hike the mountain at that elevation without human support.

        You took some beautiful shots. I was surprised that you can still see the sunset from that elevation at 10:00 p.m.!

        I love reading about your adventures. Just please be safe, Chris!

      • fpherj48 profile image

        Paula 2 weeks ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

        LOL!!! Just be happy & safe. You & Darby are quite the duo!

      • cam8510 profile image
        Author

        Chris Mills 2 weeks ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

        Paula, it has been suggested several times now that Darby may be the brains of this outfit. I can't and won't argue the point.

        You made several good points.....that I am 1. young 2. healthy, 3. man, 4. possibly a Ninja.

        I'll be on flat land for at least the next few days.

      • cam8510 profile image
        Author

        Chris Mills 2 weeks ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

        manatita, As it turns out, it was a dangerous climb because I didn't wait for the snow to melt. I was afraid to go back because it was so far, and I was so weary. But I also did not know if I could make it to the summit. The alternative was to camp on the side of the mountain, but being out in the open like I was, hypothermia worried me. It worked out in the end, but I've learned some lessons. But, this will be an experience I will always remember and take pride in.

      • cam8510 profile image
        Author

        Chris Mills 2 weeks ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

        Sean, thank you for joining me for this adventure. I'm glad you were able to get into the spirit of the hike.

      • cam8510 profile image
        Author

        Chris Mills 2 weeks ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

        Mike, thank you for reading this article. I'm happy you enjoyed it and the photos.

      • cam8510 profile image
        Author

        Chris Mills 2 weeks ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

        Hari, That is exactly why I do these things, I want the memories that I did rather than I didn't. Thanks for reading.

      • fpherj48 profile image

        Paula 2 weeks ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

        I warned you he would be smarter than your average guy! Can we conclude that day,,,he may have just been a tad smarter than you? LOL

        Cam, I'm sure you're a young healthy man in good shape.....but how about staying that way? You sound like you're competing as a NINJA!!

        You & Darby are seriously bonding. (Each other's Hero) How special.

        Stay down on flat land for a while, OK?

      • manatita44 profile image

        manatita44 2 weeks ago from london

        The whole thing sounded quite dangerous. Why would you wish to risk your precious life? Perhaps the dog was ok. Seems a dangerous climb.

      • Sean Dragon profile image

        Ioannis Arvanitis 2 weeks ago from Greece, Almyros

        Thank you for taking me with you, my friend Chris, on this beautiful hiking! I felt like I was there!

        Sean

      • Readmikenow profile image

        Readmikenow 2 weeks ago

        I enjoyed reading this article. The pictures are also excellent.

      • shprd74 profile image

        Hari Prasad S 2 weeks ago from Bangalore

        Fantastic. Every such endeavour gives a lifetime of good memories.

        - hari

      • cam8510 profile image
        Author

        Chris Mills 2 weeks ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

        Paula, I was hoping you would find your way here. I've been planning this little hike since I was last in Montana five years ago. But I let my excitement for making the trek cloud my judgment. It wasn't that I should not have gone, but that I should have waited at least two more weeks. I also should have been willing to turn back. Even Darby could see that. But we made it, and the only loss was a pair of quarter-century old snowshoes. I did learn two lessons. Pride should not override caution, and this aging body can still take some brutal punishment and come out on top.

        Darby's performance was simply amazing to me. He kept us on the trail. He slowed me down and forced me to rest. I'll never forget how he sat there in front of me, tilted his head back and looked me square in the eyes.

        It's tough for someone from the east to come out here and really believe that June is too early to venture into the higher elevations. Glacier NP, which is just north of us, won't fully open until early July. It is still buried under snow. I think I'm getting it now. I've already postponed my hike up one of the canyons. I was intending to do it this coming weekend, but I'll wait. Maybe I'm learning after all.

      • fpherj48 profile image

        Paula 2 weeks ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

        Chris.....May I say something I simply cannot help but think?? YOU are one crazy man! My heart was pounding and all I was doing was reading.......Darby has turned out to be a simply wonderful companion to you, no doubt about that. I'll bet he thinks you're crazy too! LOL

        You must REALLY love hiking. Yes, PLEASE, next time, plan more carefully. Whew!!!!!!

      • cam8510 profile image
        Author

        Chris Mills 2 weeks ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

        Linda, Hypothermia was our biggest danger, I think. There was also the danger of Darby falling. Whenever I went through the snow up to my hip there was the danger of breaking a leg or twisting my knee. Darby's attention to where the trail was located was brilliant. Ideally, I would have had my Nikon for the photos, but my iPhone did a good job, I think. Thanks for visiting.

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 2 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Your hike sounds like it was potentially very dangerous. Darby is a wonderful dog. You're so lucky to have him. I love your photos, especially the ones taken from the peak.

      • cam8510 profile image
        Author

        Chris Mills 2 weeks ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

        Eric, I had the same thought as you, so I tweaked the title a bit.

      • cam8510 profile image
        Author

        Chris Mills 2 weeks ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

        Michael, I'm afraid my snowshoes are not only historical items in my life they are also history. They were never returned. Thanks for reading and for you kind comments about the story.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 2 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        I just love following this. Fantastic as our creator of it. I have a pair of those ultralights. I would go with ultralight small XC skiis though I like the call like going full back light - damn tough call but you won. That is it!!

        So glad that you came back and made this great hub, I would reckon folk think it just a story.

      • Michael-Milec profile image

        Michael-Milec 2 weeks ago

        Have your snowshoes been restored by now Chris? I hope and pray that the honest finder will bring them back due to understanding your deep sentiments about personal attachment to historical items. By doing so, your excellent article would become a jewel of your and your dog's adventurous success.

      • cam8510 profile image
        Author

        Chris Mills 2 weeks ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

        w Eric, as the days pass, I'm reflecting on the events of those days and appreciating them. At least I have some new ways of describing a scene like this in a story. I know you've to some extreme places doing some awesome feats. Thanks for reading.

      • cam8510 profile image
        Author

        Chris Mills 2 weeks ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

        ptosis, I'm really happy with the photos, and guess what? iPhone camera. Thanks for telling me about your close encounter with a cliff and your dog. Glad he is ok.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 2 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        So you brought back so many memories I am tearing up. I sure know what you mean by sheer will. My snow hiking days my best buddy was Kublai Kanh Of Xanadu. Really. A full pedigreed Chow Chow that I got for free because he was so obnoxious living in Phoenix --- duh.

        Your story makes me so happy for you. Thank you so much for sharing it so perfectly written.

      • ptosis profile image

        ptosis 2 weeks ago from Arizona

        Whew! Your dog almost took a dive! I have my little 11# Chuggers on a harness. One day at Chiricahua Mountains, went up the stone stairs to the look out on a stove pipe of 50'. Dog just jumped over the wall. If he had a neck collar and didn't have leash attached to backpack - my dog would've snapped his neck or fell 50'. - http://hub.me/acO4m

        Awesome pictures!

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

        I would hold onto Darby if I were you. That dog is worth his weight in gold. Glad you made it safely. I've done similar things hiking in the spring. Now I wait until July when I know the snowpack is gone. Lesson learned.

      • cam8510 profile image
        Author

        Chris Mills 2 weeks ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

        RTalloni, Thank you for going along on this adventure. I hope you and others are able to experience just a taste of this spot on our Mother Earth.

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 2 weeks ago from the short journey

        Sounds like a very good thing that you and your dog were together! The story of your hike is a neat read and the pics are amazing. Thanks for sharing so others could make a vicarious visit to St. Mary's Peak.

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