This winter has been one to take advantage of – that is if you are a hiker and not a skier. As news of an approaching snow storm had powder hounds sniffing the air, I took off for a solo winter hike up one of the Missoula go-tops, Mount Sentinel. Within three minutes of leaving my apartment, I hit the trailhead near the university golf course.
Light patches of snow lined the outskirts of the muddy trail. The sun broke through the low clouds sporadically as I made my ascent up the mountain, and as my elevation increased so did the bitter cold wind. The wind cut through my sweaty jacket, gloves and hat making me consider turning around. It is the reality of winter hiking, the sweat of the ascent frozen by the temperatures and winds of Montana. But I had planned ahead. I found a tree near the top of Sentinel that provided a bit of shelter and put on some fresh gear. Rejuvenated, I trudged up the final stretch to Pengally Ridge.
The view made me forget the wind.
I felt like a little kid staring out of an airplane window as I peered down on beautiful Missoula. The air felt clean, and the silence serene. After a couple of minutes admiring the scenic views, I headed off towards the back of the mountain, so I could cut across to the summit.
Snow built up on the trail and trees closed in giving it a more secluded feel. I heard a rustling sound. I saw gold and tan out of the corner of my eye and my heart skipped a beat. Wildlife had been scarce up to that point. My mind made the most extreme leap and I found myself praying it wasn’t a mountain lion. My pulse raced as I turned to face my fate. I sighed and chuckled in relief as I saw a clump of weeds blow in the wind.
With my nerve regained I set out for the summit, a 15-minute trek from Pengally. The summit, for those who have not made it, is a bare outcropping of rocks and scrub grass. On a warmer day it would be a great spot to take in the views and rest, but it is December so I quickly took in the majestic views of Mt. Jumbo, East Missoula and the Clark Fork River before making my descent.
One word described the return: Slippery! Every ascent that had taken my breath away on the way up became moments of held breath on the way down as I went down sideways, carefully taking one step at a time.
Still, the winter hike, one only steps from my back door, showed me again why living in Missoula is a gift. It was more of a gift as I warmed up back in my apartment.