Trying to be more thoughtful about documenting my trips this year and in the future. I figured this was as good a place as any and maybe easier to search for when I want to relive my mistakes before the next trip! A bit of struggle getting the photos uploaded, but hopefully it’ll work out and go smoother next time…
A bit of a last minute trip: I had clearance from my wife to go the long MLK weekend, but the 10-day forecast showed bitter cold (-25) in Missoula, so I pivoted to a hasty departure a week early, with temps in the low-20s in Missoula and CalTopo’s weather shading estimating 14 in the area I was headed.
I started from a trailhead abt 20 minutes from home, in the Rattlesnake Wilderness Recreation area near town. Most of my hike I could see the general area of my house if I had a view to the south.
Pretty scabby snow around town (~3000′) prior to departure (recent NYT article abt lack of snow out west), but doing some last minute (ahem, morning of) trip planning on CalTopo and All Trails led me to swap out my mid-top waterproof trail runners and running snowshoes for a more robust set up, winter boots and MSR Revos, plus a heavier shell layer and redundant winter gloves. Without subtracting much while doing the last minute additions, final load out with 5.2lb 30″ snowshoes attached was ~36lbs. Not exactly “backpacking light,” but I’ll shoulder a few extra pounds for a little extra comfort in winter, and on training hikes my SWD has been plenty comfortable up to 45lbs.
Around 4 miles I was cutting trail in just a few inches of snow, still carrying my snowshoes. 6 miles in another set of tracks merged from another trail, and I followed these most of the rest of the way. I’m grateful to whoever broke the trail for me (Aka Snow Angel) to the top of Stuart Peak, just an hour or so in front of me (I glimpsed whoever it was on the summit of Stuart Peak through my monocular when I made the call to wait to go to the top until the next morning).
At the Wilderness boundary (~7.5 miles in) I followed the lead of my Snow Angel and put on my snowshoes. Up to this point there had been a few places I had considered putting them on, but crossing over to the North/West aspect of the ridgeline snow was 3+’ at ~7000′. I also tried to put on my OR expedition gaiters, only to remember the hooks don’t fit in the loops on my boots and the calves are way to big for me. I knew all this from last winter, but had not taken corrective action (had planned different gaiters with the other shoe/snowshoe combination). I ended up not using the gaiters.
I had a few time/location decision points established, and when I got to the ridge that climbs up to the peak of Stuart Peak (about 10 miles in) at 1500 I was about half an hour behind my goal for that location. I wanted to be setting up camp by 1600 due to some new gear and early evenings in Montana this time of year.
I debated my alternatives while spying on Snow Angel, and decided to drop down towards McKinley Lake to camp for the evening. I broke trail along the ridge until the trail (somewhere under all that snow) dropped off to the East. As I descended I spotted a bare ridge with a great Easterly view and beelined towards it, deciding I’d trade the wind (forecast to gust 20+mph) for the view and easier hike out in the morning. Camp was about 7200′.
I tramped down a generous camp spot (15’x20′ or so) with my snowshoes, set up the tent, and dug out a footwell and shelf just in front of the tent, facing East and overlooking the Rattlesnake Wilderness. Thai Green Curry from Gastro Gnome in Bozeman, MT was dinner–a lot of potential but I didn’t measure the water very accurately. It was warm and flavorful, which after ~11.3 miles and 4300′ of climbing was good enough for me.
My first trip out with a new 2p Durston X-Mid Solid (one set up in frozen yard prior to this trip). I’m 6’5″ and was/am looking for the perfect tall guy tent (after a couple nights in the X-mid I’ll stop short of calling it perfect but will tip my hat to it being the best I’ve found). I have resisted trekking pole tents for winter due to concerns about getting proper tension. The tent went up fine, given winds gusting into the teens and numbing fingers. I used trekking poles tips/snow baskets down (with TarpTent adapters), and ended up using my snowshoes as anchors on the windward side of the tent. I did have the tent blow down three times, but solved the problem in the dark at 2300!
I have mitten hooks on my snow stakes to make connections easy (some of the few pics that uploaded). It’s worked pretty well on previous trips, but took me a few tries to figure out the issue this go-round: the guy lines on the X-mid are very thin, and with the gusting wind they were able (3 times in several hours) to slip through a tiny gap in the gate of the mitten hooks. In the dark, in my sleep wear, with numb fingers, on my third try I solved the issue (at least for the night) by looping the guy lines through the lanyards on my stakes and clipping the mitten hooks back on to the lanyard (pic below).
I forgot to open the vents on the tent, so I ownthe condensation. I picked up a couple SensorPush sensors after seeing them in use in a BPL article, in hopes of dialing in my sleep system. I love these! Low outside the tent bottomed out at 10.8 degrees, inside the tent at 15.7. I brought two down EE quilts, rated at 10 and 40 degrees, which I estimate comfort ratings of 22 and 48. I figure that puts them combined at about 0 degrees for 47 ounces, about 8 ounces less than my 24 year old down WM bag that I can’t remember the rating for…the quilts worked out just fine. Drafty on occasion, but not bad. Not sure I would have wanted to go 15 degrees lower, but with an AD60 hoody over a fishnet T and Kuiu zip-off long johns on, I was plenty warm (except when setting the tent back up, though my new Cumulus jacket kept the top half plenty warm). I’m not sure quilts are for me below 20 degrees. I was a little surprised to see only a 5 degree temp difference with the solid tent (especially since I mistakenly sealed it up tight-but maybe that’s why, once I had the ice rind established on the inside!).
Up early as usual, I packed up in the dark after biscuits and gravy from Pinnacle Foods (a favorite), a cup of coffee, and more coffee in my Hydroflask. Trudging back up through the previous afternoon’s tracks warmed me right up. Sunrise was right about when Stuart Peak came into view (pic below), and I followed my Snow Angel’s tracks from the ridge below up to the ~7900′ peak about 30min after sunrise. A little more food and coffee at the top, great views of the Wilderness and the Missoula Valley, and I headed off trail on the ridge to the south, to hit yesterday’s tracks on the perpendicular. Untouched powder several feet deep for a quarter mile of descent-even on snowshoes that’s hard to beat!
I took a slightly different route out, dropping into the main valley rather than following the ridgeline out. The scenery wasn’t as good and it added about a mile (12.3 miles and 1357′ on day 2), but the trail was better and the scenery was different.
First winter trip of the year, and I made some mistakes when I should have known better (not pre-warming fuel canister before dinner, knocking pot over at one point, too much time without mittens on, etc.), but pleased with fitness, the new gear I added since last year, the (mostly last 24-hours) pre-trip planning, and the gentle reminders (i.e., low consequence) of the mistakes I did make. CalTopo hasn’t been a big part of my planning in the past, but it will be in the future (I tend to favor Gaia for route planning). The forecast was pretty spot on.
I need to think more about my sleeping bag/quilt quiver and do more “research” on the X-mid. I think it is the ticket for winter, but with the minimal temp difference and condensation, I’m not sure I need an X-mid solid and X-mid pro (which I don’t have yet, but would likely be the one I’d choose if I could have just one)…the search for the perfect tent(s) continues. Try new gaiters, and/or sew some cordura on the instep of my winter pants (right now I only have pants, but if I sewed cordura on the instep I’d have winter pants!). Lighter shell jacket (the one I threw on is another remnant from the late 90s when Uncle Sam was paying rent and buying groceries in exchange for me carrying a rifle).
Can’t ask for much more from an overnighter 20 minutes from home. I love winter camping because 1) I didn’t see anyone else on the trail except the Trail Angel on the summit through my monocular 2) I figure if you can be successful in winter conditions you’re set up pretty well for shoulder season trips.
Thanks for reading to the end!