Snow comes to the mountains of Montana intermittently throughout the summer. I usually see more serious snow arrive in September, but even those storms are usually pretty short and kept to the higher elevations. October is where it’s at if you’re a snow junkie, but in some years, even October in Montana can make you feel like you’ve been erroneously displaced. In other words, until the snow really comes to the Rockies (usually in December!), all bets are off and any reliability in snow forecasting is sketchy at best.
That’s why I was pretty excited to watch our first big snow of the year come across the radar in late September.
By September 28, with snowflakes falling and piling up, I contracted a cold. After a few days in bed, I couldn’t stand it anymore: I was itching to get outside and film another episode of “24.” I may have not quite been healed, as I felt awful on this hike. I was exhausted, I froze, my head hurt, my body ached, and I couldn’t stomach any food.
But it was Montana’s first big snow of the season, and I wanted to see it!
I have no regrets. My friend Ryan Connelly and I enjoyed each other’s company in one of the most beautiful locales close to my home, on one of my favorite routes: a traverse of the Hyalite-Cottonwood divide.
Twenty minutes of driving, a few hours of hiking, an overnight camp on the ridge, and another half-day of hiking brought us right into the back door of our friend Seth’s home on upper Cottonwood Creek. Snow, wind, and cold temperatures in the first part of the hike gave way to warm sunshine as we hiked out. It all added up to the perfect recipe for an overnight getaway.
Most of that snow has melted, Indian Summer has come again, but I’m not depressed that it’s only nine more months until summer. I love snow hiking… ultralight style, of course.
I knew it would be cold, so I considered that in my camp/sleep clothes.
Sleeping Pad: I slept on snow. In addition to a TorsoLite and the pack for my feet, I augmented my ground insulation with a few downed fir boughs placed underneath the tent. This made a world of difference and negated the need for a foam pad. I’m not sure I’d want to rely on this strategy for all of my winter trips (it takes time and doesn’t work above the treeline…), but for this type of trip where I was keeping the packed kit simple, it was perfect.
Sleeping Bag and Clothes: I hadn’t swapped out my summer quilt for something warmer yet (my winter bag was in my crawl space, and I was too lazy to go get it) so I simply added some puffy clothes (a Cocoon Hoody, Pants, and Balaclava) and kept the quilt in my kit. I normally carry the quilt and hoody, so the pants and balaclava were a luxury, but I was glad I had them. Temperatures in the teens and a stiff breeze kept the camp cold. I skipped the rain gear (it would be too cold to rain), so the only other clothing I had was what I normally wear while hiking: a wool hoody, a baseball cap, a windshirt, Powerstretch gloves, a pair of synthetic tights, wool socks, and my shoes. The only glitch in the system was that I didn’t have gaiters or an extra pair of socks. I had cold feet most of the night, and it was terribly uncomfortable.
Shelter: I brought a tent (gasp!), as I sometimes do when I see the forecast for wind or blizzard conditions. My tent was designed and built for me by Roger Caffin and is a single-wall shelter with carbon fiber poles. I’ve found it to be the most blizzard-resistant shelter I’ve ever used that still weighs two pounds or less.
Cooking: I brought a small pot, a mug, a spoon, and a firestarting kit. Any excuse to hang out by a fire on a long winter night is good enough for me. The warmth and cheer were welcome.
Pack: I brought the Arctic Dry Pack on this trip, primarily for its simplicity. I’m drawn to the idea of having a packbag that’s completely waterproof without additional protection. I knew I’d be wallowing through snow-covered tree limbs on the trail, and I like the security of knowing my gear will stay dry.
Photo/Video Gear: Most of the video and photos were taken with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1, a small waterproof HD camera. I also had along an Olympus E-P1, but after falling on the trail with it around my neck on the first night, snow melted into the lens housing, and the lens stopped autofocusing. I kept it in my pack the rest of the trip, dried it out when I got home, and it appears to work perfectly again.
These photos were captured with the Panasonic TS1.