A Great Contrast


The last couple weeks have been eye-opening to me as a new resident in Montana and as a lover of the outdoors.  We plunged right from 85-degree temperatures to the 50’s, and have been generally stuck there ever since.  Yet when the sun does come out and warms the valleys, it feels delightful.

In the mountains, it has been a different story.  The highest elevations have now been coated with a growing layer of snow for two weeks, first starting with the Mission Mountains and then spreading to the Rattlesnake and the Bitterroots.  On Saturday, September 28, I saw first-hand just how extreme the contrast can be between valley and summit.

Bitterroot Valley

Just another tranquil Saturday in the Bitterroot Valley.

Early in the morning on that day, my friend Todd and I drove down to just southwest of Hamilton to scale 9,119’ Ward Mountain, one of only three peaks in the Bitterroots to have a maintained trail (the others being Saint Mary Peak and Trapper Peak).  We were hoping that since there was a trail, this mountain would be relatively easy to ascend on snow.  On the way down, small patches of clear weather were opening up, but wind-driven clouds kept pouring over the rugged Bitterroot summits, whose tops were coated with Arctic white.

The morning turned out to be delightful, a mostly sunny sky adequately warming us as we labored up the trail’s steady grade – over 6 miles and 5,000 vertical feet to the summit. Hamilton basked in pleasant 60-degree weather below.

Yet from a rocky crag we saw a harbinger of things to come:



At about 7,000 feet the snow started to appear, first only patchy and behind logs, and then it steadily deepened.  The trail managed to stay bare for a couple hundred feet above the snowline, then it succumbed to winter’s chill.

First snow

The trail just after it got covered.

Before long, Todd and I were trudging through heavy wet snow up to a half foot deep, and the golden larches sagged under the icy weight.  Yet it was stupendously magnificent, a wonder to see:

Winter wonderland

Winter Wonderland.

I had stripped down to shirtsleeves long before, and was still climbing in them a considerable distance above the snowline, but soon I had to stop and put on one sweater – and then less than half an hour later Ward’s exposed summit ridge came into view, the wind howling along its top!  All layers then came on, and hat and gloves too.

At this point, Todd and I had completely lost the trail, but up was the only way to go, and the next half hour was wild – staggering along in a near-whiteout, sometimes plunging into knee (or thigh)-deep snowdrifts, and being blasted by 30-40mph winds which produced a “feel-like” temperature of probably 15 degrees.

And……we made it to the summit right around noon!



Our siesta on top lasted a mere 30 seconds, and we beat a hasty retreat.

Our footprints were nearly obliterated in places by the wind, but it was not hard to follow them, and we rapidly descended back down to balmy country.

The wind was blowing so hard high above that it blew a constant drizzle upon us most of the way down, even though the sun was out.  Thus an awesome sight broke upon our eyes about halfway down:



By the time Todd and I returned to the trailhead, it was in the upper 50’s and perfectly tranquil, but far above the clouds continued to trample upon the summits.   As we drove back home to the comforts of home and bed, we continued to muse in awe upon the contrast of yet another Fall day in the Missoula, Montana area…….


bio photo1Dan Saxton is a newcomer to Missoula.  He originally hails from New York, and spent the last four years in California attending graduate school in San Diego.  Dan was first introduced to Montana (and the West) at the tender age of six, and has considered it one of his favorite places ever since.  Although Dan is hearing-impaired and uses a cochlear implant, he refuses to view his disability as an insurmountable barrier.  Now he seeks to make a living in Missoula, spending plenty of time hiking and climbing along the way and sharing his experiences with many others!