Our gently-climbing traverse continues around what seems to be an endless series of parallel ridges, and when we finally break above the dense cloud cover, the view is as extraordinary as it is horrifying: the winter sun, setting fast behind a cottony inversion. It wouldn't really matter, except that the darkening north face of Stuart Peak still looms between us and our waiting truck. I stare up at the mountain, let my knees go and collapse in exhaustion.
Closing my eyes, I rest for a moment and consider the miles still separating us from the trailhead. This wasn't what we'd had in mind when we set out on our tour from Snowbowl six hours earlier.
Yes, our route was ambitious: a one-day traverse of the high, remote upper Grant Creek basin, from Montana Snowbowl to the main trailhead of the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. We'd planned to drop in near Point Six, head down a beautiful protected chute known locally as "Too Steep To Tele," and cross the basin to ascend its east side somewhere between Mosquito and Stuart peaks. Then we'd just follow the ridge to the trail and be home free, skiing a near-continuous 4,000 feet of mostly mellow terrain into town.
But lured right of "Too Steep," we'd found ourselves cliffed out and sketched, a mistake that ate up two hours as we humped back up to a skiable line. Perhaps we should have called it a day then, but we'd packed for a significant day trip and continued on. Besides, it wasn't unknown territory. My partner Kara McMahon and I had explored the area multiple times. I'd been on forays in the basin as far back as the early '90s, including an ignorant, whiskey-fueled photo shoot that I survived only by dumb luck. And on a trip four years earlier I'd hiked and skied the route alone, coming the opposite direction, in May.
This time, however, I'd erred. When the day dawned bright the morning of the trip I was so eager for adventure that I'd dismissed my lingering flu and misjudged my capacity. While getting down into the bowl had been easy, coming out on the other side wasn't.
And now, things keep getting harder. I find myself struggling, feverish, out of breath and pausing every 10 steps or so. Resting on the snow, I can feel my eyes closing, my consciousness drifting.
"Hey! Chad! You can stop as soon as you have to," Kara offers. "But until then, you have to keep moving."
Clearly, she's not interested in dealing with 210 pounds of flu-weakened skier on the wrong side of Stuart Peak on a cold March night. But I'm thinking about our options. I'll feel better in the morning, I reason. Perhaps we should build a fire, or two fires, and take a nap between them? We can leave at sunrise and still make it to work tomorrow. No? Then, a snow cave?
She rebukes my absurdities with the only real answer: no. If I can continue, then we must.
Flipping her skis back around, she turns and heads off across the slanted ice, the dim light of her headlamp bobbing toward the diffuse orange glow of Missoula's trademark inversion. The radiance is our guiding star; just follow the light, and eventually, we'll find Missoula.
My head swimming, I sit up, slam my skis into the hardening crust and stand upright. A faint beam nods a steady rhythm, already 50 yards distant and moving quickly. I shake my head and try to focus on each singular icy step while forgetting about the hours still separating us from relief.
The wild within
Grant Creek is best known for the shiny McMansions cluttering its lower valley, each claiming its own five acres of historic elk wintering grounds like pimples on a supermodel's ass. But just a few miles upstream—and only 13 miles as the raven flies from downtown Missoula—an upper basin rises, as pristine and difficult to reach as nearly any in Montana. Its flanks are so well-defended that few people—other than skiers or snowboarders venturing in from Snowbowl—ever explore them.
The drainage's southern boundary was once accessible via a creekside trail, but that path is now closed off, blocked by an unbroken lineup of private land. Its eastern ridge abuts the well-traveled Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, but trails leading into the basin are few, far between and often overgrown. They're also long. Approach from the main corridor trailhead and you'll walk more than seven miles just to summit the ridgeline, and you're still a long haul from the basin's spectacular high point, 8,167-foot Murphy Peak.
The west side offers no trail access. All routes require bushwhacking across a steep, cliff-scarred ridge stretching north from Snowbowl Road to the Flathead Reservation. This, its most northerly flank, is also the basin's burliest, the sacred no-white-man's land of the South Fork Jocko Tribal Primitive Area.
All said, it's one wild basin.
Most visitors to the upper reaches of Grant Creek are skiers and snowboarders coming from Snowbowl who drop out-of-bounds near Point Six for a few wild turns in the nearby slackcountry powder stashes, all accessible with relative ease just by buying a lift ticket.
Yet while most adventurers arrive prepared to negotiate the terrain safely, others do not. That can be a problem, because nearly every descent leading from Snowbowl into the basin either crosses an avalanche path or is itself a slide zone. It's relatively easy to follow in the tracks of a qualified group up and over the edge into the untracked and tempting freshy-fresh. Getting back out, though, is another story.
But so it goes. Snowbowl runs a ski area, not a nanny service. The resort can't control those who choose to leave from top-of-the-mountain gates. Skiers know that if they stay on-area, they have the safety net provided by members of the National Ski Patrol, handy telephones and a road out. But those who point their tips past the signs that warn of death, pass through the well-marked boundary gates, and drop into the Grant Creek drainage should consider themselves fairly warned that should their day go south, help can be a long ways away.
Still, it happens almost every year—ambitious but ill-prepared or adrenaline-addled explorers pull stunts that could bury them alive, or find themselves in the deep-snow bottoms of adjacent ravines, wondering how they might get out, or call for rescue, or just survive the night. In fact, I've almost been there myself.
Smokin' da 'bowl
It seemed a perfect match. I was a budding shooter yearning for outdoor adventure images to fill out a thin portfolio. They were a group of local snowboarders, needing shots of themselves looking badass 1992-style to impress potential sponsors. We agreed on a date, and I went downtown to buy a wide-angle lens, six rolls of film and a fanny pack—along with a plastic bottle of Jack Daniels.
On a bluebird powder day we headed "behind Snowbowl" to photograph big airs. The spring sun was hot and the snowpack was settling, causing natural slides nearby on the high, south-facing slopes of Murphy Peak—an obvious concern for anyone with even a cursory understanding of avalanche hazards, but meaningless to us, or at least to me.
This was my first-ever trip exploring the alpine off-area in winter, and I was amazed at the snowboarders' deliberate efforts to trigger slides by knocking cornices off into the bowl.
As the photographer, I went first, dropping into a deep line and releasing a slow slough as I cut in beneath a cliff. We thought nothing of the instability, and the amped riders lapped it hard, outdoing each other with 30-foot airs against the bright blue sky, hooting and racing to the bottom.
I rode down to join them, surrounded by towering snow ghosts. We passed the whiskey, sparked mad bowls and ogled our rad lines, all while standing atop huge piles of self-created slide debris and never questioning the tons of snow still clinging above us.
Luckily, what we didn't know didn't hurt us, and soon our group of 10 or so was post-holing up through the deep snow back to the ski area. It was tough, sweaty going, and I vaguely recall being grateful to be able to share the task of breaking trail.
Sixteen years later, here I am, dragging my sick and sorry carcass out of the other side of Grant Creek in the dark. It's my first time on these way-too-fat-for-touring Black Diamond Verdict demo skis. Gracing their bottoms are misfit skins nowhere near the edges of their 136 millimeter tips. The hard snow and our upward spiraling path keeps our boards firmly on edge, rendering my skins useless, and the constant slipping crushes my morale.
Resisting the urge to flop down, I instead focus on following Kara's bouncing light, coaxing me onward through lightly illuminated trees toward what must soon be our high point. My vision dims. An eternity passes. We plod on in silent exhaustion, eyes peeled for any hint of the trail that must cut through here somewhere, albeit hidden five feet beneath the crusty pack.
But we find no trail, nor even an obvious swath through the trees. Eventually I collapse to rest. We're in dense forest now, and Missoula's dim orange radiance outlines the branches above. I'm about to close my eyes when I hear an exclamation, and then a laugh.
"Got it!" Kara yells, almost cackling with relief. I quickly skin toward her. Days-old snowshoe tracks pit the dirty, crusty snow. Just a bit farther, we spot a Rattlesnake Wilderness boundary sign, typically head-height but now barely peeking from the snow.
It's an important landmark, and the protection it denotes explains precisely why we hadn't seen a single "improvement" since leaving the ridge above Snowbowl—not a house, not a snowmobile track, not even an old road cut. Despite the proximity to town, these mountains remain wild, as gloriously untamed and fearsome as they've been for eons.
The snowshoe tracks lead off into the darkness of Spring Gulch and eventually to our truck and food and a nice warm bed. It's 10 o'clock, and although we still have seven or so miles to go, they're all downhill. All we have to do is skitter out through the trees in the dark.
Kara turns on her phone and calls Ryan Shaffer, our dogsitter, to let him know we'll be late and not to worry. We share the last piece of jerky, chug our remaining slush water and push off into five miles of combat skiing followed by a blazing runout down the last two miles of Spring Gulch. Home feels close, and the fear of an unplanned winter night in the backcountry is gone. Our near-epic is now little more than a weary evening tour in the Rattlesnake.
Nearing the horse bridge, two hooded figures appear in front of us on the trail, flanked by big dogs and carrying loaded bags. It's Ryan, with our dogs and a friend, coming to meet their benighted friends with food and drinks. They also bring an epiphany, one we don't verbalize until the next day, a realization that we're extraordinarily fortunate to live in a city with a wild area so close and well protected as the Rattlesnake. We may have just traversed some forbidding alpine terrain, but somehow it feels as though we barely left town.
We scratch the dogs and gladly accept the gifts, showering our friends with assurances that they've earned enough good karma to last the rest of the ski season. We kick off our skis, zip up our down jackets and tromp the last half mile to the truck. The last slippery steps—on bulletproof ice in plastic ski boots—feel remarkably secure.