“Damn it!” I vocalize my frustration as my foot pushes through soft snow and slides off the side of the steep trail dragging my left hip with it, not unlike the previous half a dozen times in the last five minutes. I’m only 300 ft above the valley floor and the University of Montana.
Per usual I’ve chosen to spend my post work time ascending Mt. Sentinel via the steep NW Ridge. Having had an enjoyable and snowy ascent before work I look forward to another lap post quitting time but warming day time temps and the shock of February sun has done its damage on the trail conditions. Not one to be unprepared, I’ve brought my poles, though they do little to prevent each foot plant from sinking through the slush, purchasing on ice and sliding in whatever direction gravity pulls. The poles keep me upright but offer no assistance in establishing a running rhythm up the slope. I narrow my focus to finding pre-established steps kicked by previous mountain goers, hoping they will offer a firmer platform. It’s a 50/50 game with every other step falling out beneath me. I begin lunging for good ground and end up routinely placing my left foot in a right footed step and vice versa, throwing my weight and center of gravity out of whack, and culminating in an awkward, cross legged, upwards dance. After a few minutes of mountain Twister I reach the “M” and glance upwards at the remaining ridge. The wind is hitting hard and coupled with the underfoot conditions I mentally concede to stop just a little further up the ridge at the Glacial Lake Missoula high water mark. My frustration with the conditions and lack of flow attempts to justify my decision. I slow as I continue up and find myself questioning the frantic mindset I had on the lower third of the mountain. Forceful is the apt descriptor I land on. Why am I forcing my way?
Above the “M” I find a short stretch up shallow,windblown snow and decide to take my foot off the gas. Clearing my mind and letting go I quickly settle into a short, choppy, low to the ground cadence. Each toe off coincides with a firm pole placement and I begin a more consistent motion up the ridge. A rhythm is formed and by the time I reach the High Water Mark it’s no longer a question…I’m summiting. I find short segments of exposed rock and dirt and take advantage with longer, firmer strides but always return to the chop step when I regain snow and ice. As I climb the mini cornice guarding the last pitch to the summit I’m in enough of a flow to lift my head and take in the southern view of the high Bitterroots and swirling snow. What was worth stopping minutes ago has become thoroughly enjoyable! I top out but don’t linger. Riding my movement revolution, I 180 and point down. What was slow going up is right to quicken on the down. With my legs feeling this flow I take a few test strides and find quiet nice “foot skiing” conditions. The right grade lends itself to 15 and 20 foot slides, drifting corners, and launching off rocks. Learning to stay on your heals but keep your weight forward makes all the difference. There are no forcing things now and I find myself down the mountain in almost a third the time of ascent.
I carry the momentum off the mountain and tempo the remaining flat, road back to my front door. Along the way I reflect and smile on my short experience. A microcosm of the world around me, my time on the mountain means so much on a personal level. The mountains continually offer this ebb and flow of want and disgust. The mountain reminds me that it is not there to be conquered, to be sieged, but to be experienced. It remains true and pretends to be nothing besides what we make it on any given day. On this particular day it has reminded me to take what is given, give heed to your surroundings and never, ever, fight the flow.