'Snake bit 

Darkness falls on a grueling ski trip across Missoula's backyard wilderness

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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.

click to enlarge CHAD HARDER

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.

click to enlarge CHAD HARDER

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.

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