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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.