Mountain High 

Once again, it’s that time of year when we learn just how relative the effect of the outdoor temperature is on the human body. Just days ago, when –20 degree temperatures slowed down the engine oil of Missoula cars and the circulation of blood throughout the body, hardly a soul could admit it wasn’t cold. (Don’t worry, that numbness in the toes means that blood has been rerouted to the body’s core to prevent death as you shiver in pre-dawn darkness, cup of joe in hand, waiting for the car to warm up. It’s the body’s way of cutting its losses: Save a liver, lose some toes.)

Kindly declining to leave Missoula wallowing in arctic misery for the rest of winter (to the dismay of the ancient race that lived here two decades ago and remembers what winter is really like), the weather gods delivered a Pacific reprieve. Temperatures rocketed to 35 degrees, and soon Missoulians could be spotted outside in T-shirts and mere single layers of fleece. The deviation from fall behavior is amazing. In September, when the first freeze hit, it felt like the same incapacitating –20 we just survived.

But enough about the weather, it’s time to explore.

Anglers, it’s time to start dreaming of Steelhead season, which soon beckons. There’s nothing like a trip over Lolo Pass to one of the West’s mythical fishing grounds, the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers. Until that time, though, fisherfolk might be interested in attending the free “Winter Watershed” lecture series, which features the racy “Sex, Bugs and Logs Left Whole” on Jan. 21 from 7–8:30 p.m. This third presentation of the series focuses on the general ideas behind trout fishery restoration and the process of developing projects to restore trout habitat. It also coincides with the monthly meeting of the Lolo Watershed Group. The presentation will be held at the Lolo Community Center on Lolo’s south side.

Any equine lovers out there who want to learn more about packing their ass for backcountry trips? A spring-semester UM class may be right for you. Entitled “Outfitting and Packing,” the eight-week course focuses on equipping horses and mules for backcountry adventures. The class is limited to 12 people and will cover light-on-the-land travel and camping techniques, backcountry horse care, hands-on instruction with horses and mules, riding saddles, packing saddles and cargo equipment. Available for credit, the class costs $100 for students and $135 for the public. The first class kicks off (watch that hoof) on Sunday, Jan. 25. Call 549-2820 for more info.

Do you love to ski but feel that you can’t take advantage of a mountain’s entire terrain? Have you ever cursed powder only to be ridiculed by locals? If so, Big Mountain’s specialty clinics are for you. The clinics will focus on telemark skiing, mogul terrain and powder snow, as well as gender-specific and weather-related workshops. The clinics will run through mid-February and are available weekdays for $30. For more info, dial up 862-2909.

The New Rocky Mountaineers are at it again. This weekend’s trip takes participants south to the famed Blodgett Canyon in the Bitterroot Valley. Maximizing the solitude of winter, the Mountaineers look forward to enjoying Blodgett without its usual slew of recreationists. Featuring a ski/snowshoe up the canyon, winter enthusiasts will utilize one of many campsites. Call Todd Seib at 726-2077 and make it a one-to-three day excursion.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service announced that snowfalls in the Lower Clark Fork Basin and Bitterroot Basin are 105 percent and 116 percent of average, respectively. The Clark Fork basin has received a staggering 182 percent of last year’s dump, with the Bitterroot weighing in at 168 percent of last year’s tally. That’s good news for stream users. Spring streamflows west of the Continental Divide are forecast to average between 94 and 108 percent. Translation: big whitewater in May and enough water for fish to breathe in August.

All of this snow also brings avalanches to mind. Above 5,000’ in the Rattlesnake, and in the Bitterroot Mountains near Lookout Pass, avalanche conditions are moderate, with natural avalanches unlikely but triggered releases possible. In the Bitterroot Mountains near Lolo Pass on wind-loaded slopes greater than 35 degrees, avalanche conditions are considerable. Unstable slabs exist on steep terrain, natural avalanches are possible and human-triggered avalanches are probable.

This week we checked in with some of Montana’s more obscure destination ski hills to inspire the gypsy skier tired of the same old runs. Turner Mountain, the steep, deep and cheap mountain just outside of Libby, reports 49 inches of snow at the top of the mountain. Open on Saturdays, Sundays, holidays and by reservation. Talk about a good time: Rent a ski hill for the day. Maverick Mountain, 40 miles from Dillon in the beautiful Big Hole, touts 48 inches at the top, and is open Thursday through Sunday, making it best to accompany this endeavor with a stay at either Jackson or Elkhorn hot springs. Finally, let’s visit Teton Pass just west of Choteau. One of the state’s newest ski areas reports 34 inches at the top. It’s worth the drive just to stare at (and ski in) the Rocky Mountain Front.

Finally, looking toward summer, Mountain High applauds Glacier National Park for finally commencing the final phase of rehabilitation on the historic Belton Bridge near West Glacier. The bridge, which was Glacier’s original entrance, now serves as West Glacier’s host to heat-beating bridge jumps, impromptu kayaker parties, twilight barbecues and late-night make out sessions. The last two summers just haven’t been the same without access to the bridge. Rehabilitation should be complete in spring 2004.

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