Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Frozen Solitude: A Winter Trek through the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness

Perhaps the best, and certainly the easiest part of my brutally cold winter trek through the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness took place on a scorching hot July day. I was on a four-day backpack trip to rescue my skis, which I had cached in the wilds the previous December. On the way out I met a river guide leading clients from Georgia down the Selway River. 

"Are those skis you have strapped to your pack?" he asked. I smiled and nodded. 
"You've either been out here a long time, or you're crazy," he said. 
"Both," I replied.

So I told him about my winter excursion, a 14-day, 125-mile trek through the remote 1.4-million acre wilderness in south central Montana and central Idaho. It's a story of wicked-cold temperatures, blizzards, avalanches, icy creek crossings, cliff jumps and a mortally wounded moose. The guide offered dinner in exchange for entertaining his clients with my adventure. We settled around the campfire and my story unraveled like a tall tale. Wearing only a T-shirt, shorts and Tevas, swatting mosquitoes on a warm summer evening, I struggled to convey just how brutally different the land becomes during the short, dark days of winter.

"It was day three of my winter journey," I began, "and all had gone as planned . . ." 

I had already skied up Lost Horse Creek to Bear Creek Pass, and enjoyed the long, gradual downhill trek along Bear Creek to the Selway River. Thus far skies were blue, temperatures crisp but comfortable, and the snow (as deep as 20 feet in places) was packed and easy to ski. Even getting out of my sleeping bag in the morning wasn't so bad. At this rate, I thought, I might just get through the wilderness and reach Elk City, Idaho in eight days instead of ten as I had planned. But by the time I reached the Selway River, clouds had rolled in, snow was falling hard, and the river had a cold, grey menacing look. Ice was clinging to the banks, snow was piled deep on the islands and boulders, and  emerald water was slowly carrying mini-icebergs north towards the Lochsa and Clearwater. The 40 or so yards across is an easy swim in sum­mer, but deadly in winter. I found a good fording spot, where the river was waist-deep, and built a large fire as a backup in case things went awry. I stripped off my clothes and, car­rying my pack high above my head, I tried to wade across. My feet grew so numb I could not feel the bottom as I tried to pick my way across the rocky riverbed. I'll never know if I stepped on loose rock or slippery algae, but my feet came out from under me and I fell into an icy bath. I barely made it to my fire, still hot enough to warm me. Once dry, I dressed, dried out the wet gear, cooked up some hot chocolate, ate, repacked, stripped and tried again. This time I wore wool socks and long johns and had better luck. I reached the west side numb, cold and humbled, and quickly changed into dry thermals, wool pants and jacket, windbreaker, boots, hats, gloves and wrapped my sleeping bag around me for added warmth. I remember feeling smug as my body temperature adjusted, thinking I had just completed the most difficult part of the trip. 

I was wrong.

As with human relations, my infatuation with the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness has grown stronger through adversity; you have to see the harsh side of people and places before you truly know them and can truly love them. The Selway drew me in when I moved to Montana in 1985, straight out of the Marine Corps, and began exploring the more remote parts of the country.  In those days, I worked four 10-hour days for the Forest Service, using all my three­-day weekends, vacations, sick days and occasional days of playing hooky to develop an intimate relationship with the place. I backpacked throughout the mountains in summer; fished and swam in most of the lakes; hunted elk and picked huckleber­ries in the fall, and searched for dropped antlers in the spring. I scaled the jagged, granite walls; crawled through the steep jungles of alder and menziesii; slipped, cussed and climbed my way through spruce bottoms tangled in blowdown; basked in glorious fall days in high mountain meadows graced by golden larch and the pungent odor of alpine fir; nearly drowned in one of the creeks and survived a punish­ing fall off a cliff. I've seen the mountain goats, elk, moose, wolverines, black bear, mountain lions, wolves and other wild critters that inhabit the place, all on my spring, summer and fall trips.

Winter, of course, is different.

Like flood and fire, winter brings death to the high country but plays a vital role in keeping the whole healthy; in its wake comes rejuvena­tion and life. l wanted to see the Selway in its harshest mood, when this brilliant, vibrant landscape falls into a deep, long silent sleep.

My first attempt failed. My friend Jim and I skied part way down Bear Creek on a clear January afternoon and camped under massive cedars. We awoke the next morning to a startling rumble that sounded like thunder. We dressed and climbed out of the tent to investigate. We watched in awe as a massive wall of snow let loose from a ridge maybe half a mile away, knocking out trees in its path and launching car-sized boulders as if they were pebbles. There are few things I fear as much as avalanches. While a Marine, on ski patrol in northern Norway, some comrades had been buried and had come close to death. Once, in the Bitterroot Mountains, an avalanche slammed me into trees and buried me up to my waist. I've had recurring nightmares of riding down a steep slope atop an avalanche and slowly sinking into blackness beneath a white tomb.

So Jim and I abandoned the trip that day and backtracked our way out.

We tried again the next year, in February, but ran into wet, sticky snow too difficult to ski on, and so retreated once again. On my third, successful attempt I went alone, during my Christmas break, as Jim traveled to warmer climes for vacation.

Crossing a clearing the day after my frigid river swim, I felt the snow beneath my skis move slightly, carrying me downhill. When it stopped, I cautiously backed out to a safer place in the trees. I dug a snow pit, examined the various layers and observed how the top, wet, heavier portion could easily slide on a lower frozen layer. In other words, avalanche danger was high. Retracing my path back down to the Selway River, I headed south, then west up a different drainage. Eventually I found a safer route, but the detour added an extra day to my trip. And then a blizzard moved in.

I spent two days in my tent, reading, writing in my jour­nal, and feeling lonely, vulnerable and restless. There were times I thought the wind would pick up the tent, with me in it, and carry me away. I kept knocking snow off the tent so it wouldn't collapse under the weight. The few times I ventured out in the brutal wind to relieve myself, I did not let go of my temporary home for fear of losing it in the whiteout condi­tions. When the storm subsided, only the top two feet of the tent showed above the snow. I had to dig my way out.

Skies cleared to blue, temperatures plummeted, and I packed up and moved on. That evening, as I sought a place to spend the night, my ski binding broke. I had just passed the halfway point where it was as easy to push on to Elk City, Idaho, as it was to turn back, and I was seven days into what I'd optimistically expected to be a ten-day trip. With skis rendered useless, I strapped on a pair of snowshoes I'd brought along for emer­gencies. As grey clouds rolled in, bringing another storm, I tied my skis to a distinguishable alpine fir on a prominent ridge where I knew I could find them come summer. Then I moved on as quickly as I could on snowshoes. The going would be much slower than skiing, and I had only enough rations for three more days. Toward dusk, another obstacle stopped me -- a series of sheer cliffs. Not wanting to risk adding another day by turn­ing back, I took my chances. Finding a section of cliff that looked to be only 20-feet high, I threw my pack down and watched it disappear in soft, powdery snow. Then I jumped. My body jabbed through the snow like a knife, stopping chest deep. Relieved that I had hit no rocks or trees, I laughed out loud with adrenaline-induced exhilaration. I had overcome fear, pushed limits and survived to tell about it.

After brushing off snow and digging out my pack, I noticed a scrawny old whitebark pine, covered in hoar frost with weathered, twisted branches reaching in all directions. The tree seemed the only living thing around. I felt a strong bond with this monarch, admiring it for its tenacious ability to cling to life in such a harsh place. I took a photo of that tree, so cold and alone in a barren land scape, and dubbed it Frozen Solitude. That old stone pine signaled a turning point. The rest of the trip was tolerably cold, and the hard-packed snow allowed snow­shoeing to go more quickly than anticipated. Bright stars and a fat moon lit up clear, brilliant nights that offered spectacular shows of aurora borealis. Up Wylies Ridge towards Square Rock, on past Black Mountain, Elk Summit and Running Lake, then down toward Meadow Creek, I covered many miles, legs often exhausted from lifting the extra weight of snow that often accumulates on top of snowshoes.

Near the end of my trek, I noticed fresh moose tracks down along a spruce bottom and followed them. Soon I saw blood, large red splotches brilliantly contrasting an otherwise white and grey world. Like ink on paper, the tracks revealed a story. I found the place where a mountain lion had leapt from behind a boulder, and could see where predator and prey rolled and struggled for a good 50 yards. Then the lion tracks went a separate direction. I continued on the blood trail, and came upon the moose, a large cow, lying in a creek. When she saw me, she tried to stand up, but fell back down into the cold, running water. Her left side was torn and bloody from tooth and claw. There was nothing I could do for her, not even sure it would be right if I could. Feeling sad, and intrusive, I moved on, contemplating my contradictory feelings of sorrow and elation. Seemingly brutal and unusual to us modern day people, such events occur every day in the wilds, in the real world, a world of life and death, decay and renewal. To be buried by avalanche, drowned in a river, frozen to death in a blizzard . . . such an end would be mourned by friends and family at home. But out there, out in the wilds, I would simply fertilize the sedges and forbs eaten by elk come spring. Wilderness, the last wonderful wild vestiges of the real world, can bring us closer to our roots.

By the time I approached Elk City, I had been without food for three days. I felt weak and exhausted, but even then, when I heard the obnoxious whining of a snowmobile in the dis­tance, I longed to return to the silence of winter wilderness. When I reached town, friends threw a party for me, but after so many days alone it was overwhelming to be around people. I had difficulty keeping food down at first; the greasy pizza and cheeseburgers were a shock to my stomach after the lean days of trekking.

The next summer, I returned for my skis, coming in from the Paradise area, which is only accessi­ble by car in the summer. After a wonderful evening with the river guide and his southern clients, I walked back to my tent, crawled into my sleeping bag and drifted off to sleep thinking about snow and cold and ice and bliz­zards. I could hear the Selway River nearby, trickling water born from high mountain snowmelt flowing across the land, cascading over ledges and meandering through lush, green meadows, bringing life to this wild place; nourishment, suste­nance and life all derived from the harsh deadness of winter. I fell asleep, feeling warm, safe and content.

But that night, I dreamed of avalanches.


Note: This piece originally appeared in the 2005 Winter Issue of the Big Sky Journal, and received 2nd place in the Outdoor Writers Association of America's Excellence in Craft Contest, Nature Writing Category.

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