As it turns out, civilization is strictly contextual.
Glacier has a lot of gobsmacking valleys, and it’s an absurd exercise to quantify them.
St. Mary in winter has a special fondness for me. The road is so crowded and hectic in summer. It’s narrow enough that looking at the scenery while driving is not really possible, and I’ve never been inclined to bike it along with the cars, so skiing it is.
Many is nice, but St. Mary hems you in quickly and hard. Besides the usual nuclear headwind and weird snow, at 7 miles you have a short piece of mandatory, low-level avalanche exposure (visible at far right). More on that later.
By the time I left the road and headed off on trail I was already 10+ miles in. A few more miles and a good opening in the river and a meadow presented a good campsite. The sun was out, but it felt like a storm was brewing. Camping away from trees seemed wise.
Some time well into the night I woke up to the sound of rain pounding down on the ‘mid. As if the sticky, crusty snow needed to be worse. Nothing to be done, and I was prepared to spend the morning inside drinking tea if conditions dictated it, so I went back to sleep.
I woke back up a bit before dawn to driving graupel and 60 mph, panel-deflecting gusts. As I couldn’t enjoy coffee with the shelter flapping into the back of my head, I put on boots and headed outside to move a few stakes (2.5’ sticks, buried) and tighten things up. With the rockin and rollin under control, I was able to get back in my bag and enjoy breakfast while waiting for full light. The snow had firmed up a bit, and while storm visibility made my original destination into a question mark, the day at least seemed worth investigating.
I packed sleep gear and lunch into my pack, and left the food bag, wood stove, and sleeping pad strapped to the center pole so they’d stay put if the shelter happened to blow away in my absence.
The world started to go dark by mid-morning. Temperatures dropped 10 degrees F between 7 and 9am, the snow picked up, and the wind rose until it was steady at 30 mph. Putting on skins to get up a sub-alpine lake seemed a bit pointless if I couldn’t see anything, and avalanche exposure was a relevant question. I puttered around the woods, the skiing ever better as the swampy, waterlogged garbage under the surface froze solid. I selected a waterfall as my final destination, though it was so well covered in snow that it was invisible.
Back to camp I went, temps dropping further, and the skiing ever the better for it.
The ‘mid had survived the test admirably; I shook a bit of snow off and headed inside. Out of the wind at last, I checked my watch. It was 2 hours earlier than I had thought possible. It was an easy choice to make tomorrows coffee, and that nights dinner, right away and ski out to end the trip earlier than planned.
An hour later, and 500 meters down the trail from camp, I came upon this tree, freshly fallen across my tracks from the day before. In summer, you’d be right there and psyched to make the last 20-30 minutes back to the pavement. In winter, the same spot felt way the hell out there.
You can’t cheat the mountain.
The wind relaxed slightly as I went further east, away from the heart of the alpine. Snow no longer tried to infiltrate my hood with so much insistence. When I reached the aforementioned avy zone, I saw that it had indeed slid in the last 24 hours. Colder temps made me less nervous about a repeat offense, and I didn’t have to ski across the debris themselves, but I still went quickly through to the other side.
As a reward for my patience and discretion, the wind gave me the last five miles. 3.5 of them had been walking on the way in, and the pavement was still scoured bare anywhere not well lined by trees, but the ditch was filled in with silky, predictable, fresh snow. I was able to do one of my favorite things in the world, leisurely and fast diagonal striding with no track set, for miles.