After a mild winter in southwest Montana, it felt like time to pack the winter gear up as soon as march 20th. Usually, it seems like spring is just another word for two more months of winter with a few warm days thrown in the mix, but not this year. This year, February was more like April, with 10 days over 50 and less than two inches of snow. The trend continued through March, giving the impression that winter was officially over.
We checked the forecast, and saw the high for the next day was in the seventies. We figured it would be a perfect day to bag our first peak of the season. We made our plans to meet up at Target first thing in the morning and called it a night.
It felt like summer as we waited for everyone to show up. One by one, everyone pulled up and we piled into one vehicle. We were all fired up by the time we reached the trailhead, and we set out from there. It was great, to be out hiking with friends on a warm spring day, especially after be stuck inside most of winter.
It hadn’t been an hour when we first started seeing snow. It was a couple of inches deep in some of the meadows, but a track had been worn from hikers before us. As we crossed the creek, another group was coming down the mountain. I had noticed the gators the leader was wearing as he gave us the warning. Those words no hiker wants to hear. “Postholing Ahead”. How bad could it be? We came right out of the snow and were walking on dry ground. A clear trail was all the confidence we needed to ignore the warning.
Once we came to a point where snow covered the summer trail, we decided to bushwhack up a steep slope, and the plan was to traverse the ridge to reach the pass. It was a south facing slope, so the snow wasn’t bad, and we found no problems getting to the top. We continued along the ridge for only a few minutes, and then it all went to hell. White cold frozen snowy hell.
It wasn’t long before the hard snow-pack pack turned into a thin hard crust, over soft, wet and heavy snow. It reminds me of Creme Brulee if you will. That delicious burnt sugar that needs to be cracked with a spoon before the delicious egg and sugar coagulation can be reached. There we were, over 8’000 feet walking on this thin sugary crust, not even realizing the misery that lay underneath. Then, all of the sudden, it happened; one step, two steps, three steps. There was no four. The third step started out alright, but then as weight was shifted to that third step, the crust gave. Next thing I know, I’m up to my ….. in snow. I look to my comrades, and they all suffered a similar fate.
It felt like every other step was a posthole, and then, when things were going really well, one foot would go down, and then the other would follow, packing the first foot down in there, with this heavy-wet snow. The only way out was to roll out at that point. This went on for about an hour, till we came to a stand of dead trees. The snow was set up a little better there. We continued through the dead trees as the fire did several years before, walking ever so gingerly. There was still a bit of postholing going on, but nowhere near as vicious.
We had finally made the pass, and headed up to summit. Improper winter gear and chest-deep snow prevented us from making the objective. We were faced with a decision now. Go back the way we came, or try to follow the summer route. We finished our PBRs and decided down the drainage would be the route to take. The summer trail lay buried, but we had a good idea where it went. It was steep at first, so a glacade seemed in order. That worked well for all of about 15 feet. Swamp-ass was the reward for attempting such a bold move, and what a relief it was to not have to take those extra twelve steps.
The rest of the way down was more of the same. Posthole after posthole. It was to the point where it was even more painful to watch everyone else go down. The empathy for them, knowing what it was like. Each demoralizing step. High on the side of a mountain, freezing cold and soaking wet, waist deep in snow. That’s when the hysteria sets in. It starts to seem funny when being stuck. There are no roads or cars. There is no easy way out. The only way out is to walk out, and the funny part is we did it to ourselves, intentionally. Still, we gathered our senses and slowly made our way down the mountain.
I would easily say that by the time we made it back to dry trail, the three of us left over 1,000 holes up there that day. It is a memory that has made me more patient during spring. It’s good to understand that, just because it feels like summer down here, doesn’t exactly mean the same up there. In the words of my friend Gary, “It’s tough calling it from the couch”