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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.