On this day I would be the tail of the dog, and not wagging much. Drooping, yes, but in a fulfilled, exhausted kind of droop, not a sad one.
In a narrow and rocky gulch, with the brisk winds of Paradise Valley left behind, a group of nine of us climbed on skis and a splitboard up the eastern flank of 10,921-foot Emigrant Peak. A splitboard is snowboard that splits in half so the user can climb uphill.
Hilary Eisen, of the Bozeman-based Winter Wildlands Alliance, had invited me along to provide a firsthand look at what a precious resource the area is for backcountry skiers, rock climbers and other recreationists. The gulch’s narrow road leads to patented claims where Lucky Minerals, a Canadian company, plans exploratory drilling to assess possible mining.
Burn baby, burn
I was on a slow burn. The feeling wasn’t isolated to the muscles of my feet, legs, arms and shoulders as they pistoned me uphill. A blister was slowly and agonizingly flaring to life on the side of my left heel, a constant, blazing reminder of every heavy step. Despite an application of duct tape, and the patient concerns of my cohorts, if I was going to go up I’d have to suffer.
“Pain is weakness leaving your body,” my friend had texted me only days earlier. I felt like I was losing weakness at an alarming rate on this day. Until then, I didn’t realize I had so much weakness to lose. I began to wonder if there would be anything left of me but a hollow shell once all of the weakness was drained out.
I couldn’t whine, though. My fellow travelers were a tough bunch. Take Erica Lighthiser, for example. Prior to settling in Livingston she and her husband loaded up their three children and black Labrador retriever into bicycle trailers and pedaled from their home in Colorado north to Whitefish along the spine of the Rocky Mountains. That’s a distance of 1,000 miles if you take the direct route, and they didn’t. Such acts of endurance put my little shuffle up Emigrant Peak into puny perspective.
I took solace in the fact that at the end of the day I could soak in Chico Hot Springs, although I had to wonder how the hot water would interact with my seething blister. Hot on hot didn’t seem like such a good idea. Maybe a bright green foam float noodle to raise my foot out of the hot springs?
Luckily for me, I was shooting my own photos on this day, giving me numerous excuses to stop, slowly take off my backpack and remove a camera to capture a shot of the surrounding mountains and to document the ascent and descent of the skiers.
Taking photos is a great excuse to stop for a breather while still looking like I am actually doing something. “I’m working, OK? Sheesh.” Even though I’m shaking so badly that it’s hard to focus. Fast shutter speeds are required at times like these.
All bodily complaints aside, it had turned out to be a glorious spring day. The sun came out, which I had not predicted, leaving me blinded since I’d neglected to bring my sunglasses. Overdressed for the cold wind, I continually had to peel layers and find places to stow them in my narrow daypack. Stop for too long, though, and the cold would quickly seep back in, a chilling reminder of the mountain’s winter setting.
Although we had the mountain to ourselves on this weekday, Emigrant Peak has long been a sought-after ski hill for those willing to climb and earn their turns. One of the first outings, according to Thomas Turiano’s book “Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone,” was in the 1950s by Dave Wessel who skied the north face. Turiano writes that one of the first recorded descents from Emigrant Peak’s summit was in 1983.
The west face of the mountain — over the hill from where we were — is also skiable terrain, and in a winter with good snow coverage skiers can descend more than 5,000 vertical feet.
My descent would be much shorter, about 1,000 vertical in less than a half mile of skiing down a snowy gorge. After a quick lunch beneath the stern looking snow-dusted crags of Emigrant Peak, six of the party decided to climb higher while I stayed behind accompanied by Lighthiser and her friend, Michelle Uberuaga, a one-time Mount Rainier climbing guide.
The problem with a short ski descent is that on rented gear it takes about 800 vertical feet to get used to the skis. Just when I was finding my groove it was time to leave the gulch, bushwhack through the trees — or “schwack” as the group’s only snowboarder called it — and ski the road back to the car, colliding with snow-hidden rocks along the way that sent Uberuaga quick stepping before crashing, this shortly after a conversation about how she’d never suffered a concussion. A close call.
Walking the last section of the road I felt dog tired. But the two real dogs who had journeyed with the group, and traveled over the course of the trip probably twice as far as I had, were pretty peppy in comparison to this old pup.
Eisen laughed and joked about “sandbagging” me about the true difficulty of the outing. I had imagined a cross country ski trip up a road, and never quite shook that initial image even though she later asked me about alpine touring gear and backcountry skiing experience. Maybe weakness isn’t the only thing that’s drained from my brain over the years.
Oh, and my friend who said, “Pain is weakness leaving your body,” he wants to bike 100 miles in two days through Yellowstone National Park. I’ve still got a couple of weeks to get in shape for that cycling excursion. It's bound to test my meager commuter cycling abilities, but to be honest I think I’d rather get rested up.