11 March 2008

Crossing Divides: Of the Continent & the Imagination

Springtime is working its way up the high valleys of the northern Rockies. Trout are rising to midges and early stoneflies on the Big Hole and Jefferson Rivers. The snow in our yard is gradually giving way to grass and mummified dog turds.

Spring skiing: Andrea Stierle emailed early last week suggesting a cross country trek from Deep Creek on the Big Hole (east slope) side to German Gulch on the Silver Bow Cr/Clark Fork (west slope) of the Continental Divide. It's not a trivial tour: 11 miles total with a 900 foot climb in the first 4 miles and a 2,000 foot drop in the second 7 miles. Of course, I did not figure this out until after the tour when we posed the curious question: "How far was that?" Here's the route, marked by the blue dog leash, and of course it unwinds along the corners of four separate topographic maps:

Before the trip, the questions floated around: How is the snow up along the Divide (i.e. is the surface set up, is it icy wind pack)? No one knew. Does anyone have this plotted out on a GPS? Nope. Does anyone know the exact route? Ah, no. But everyone had made some version of the trek before, and we have a lot of collective hiking experience (and, in my case, elk hunting time) along most of the route.

So, let's go! First drop Mike's truck on the German Gulch Rd above Fairmount Hot Springs ("Oh yeah--the front end is out, so no 4WD. We can't drive in quite to the gate..."). Starting out from the Mill Creek highway near Sugarloaf Mountain are (from left) Mike Stickney, Andrea and Don Stierle, Chukah the Dog, Larry Smith, and Chuck the Dog:

Perfect weather--sunny and in the 20s deg F starting out, several inches of fresh snow a few days ago. Afternoons have been warm (40s deg F) and so the snow is generally firm. Everyone was on lightweight touring equipment: traditional length, waxable (mine with Swix purple the full lenghth), "back country" skis with leather boots. Mike, Larry, and Don are superb telemark skiers. Andrea has logged a lot of backcountry miles. Yikes, what was I getting into?

We paused a few minutes after the steep climb from Sugarloaf on a rolling high flank of the Divide. Sadly, Andrea had knee surgery recently, and decided (before the steep climb) to turn back, have a ski on the Little California loop at the nearby groomed cross country trails, and then go for a soak and meet us at Fairmount Hot Springs. Here's the group with a look back to the Pintler mountains (Sugarloaf is the round-top on the right):

And here they go across the top of the world (you can tell that Chukah is the young dog, out in front):

Up and across the Divide, we then found a ridge running east toward Butte. The skiing here was fantastic, and I wish I had captured Mike's graceful tele-turns on video. And I'm glad no one captured my occasional face plant.The route did get a little confusing. After some deliberation (which actually involved getting out the maps!) we thought we were on a Forest Service road leading down Beaver/Beefstraight Creeks, tributaries of German Gulch Creek. Time for a quick lunch:

Then some more confusion as the ridge twisted and turned and split. But we found a narrow trail (unsullied by snowmachines) running in more-or-less the right direction. And, as Mike pointed out, "It'll lead somplace." Good enough. And what a great ski down! Here's Larry with Chuck on his heels:

By some fine stroke of luck ("No, no. It was superior map reading skills and the inherently correct male sense of direction.") we had found the Whitepine Creek pack trail (which, even though I frequently hunt that area, did not know existed). This led us to the German Gulch Rd, not a mile from where we were parked, and just 5 hours after we began. You can tell by the happy faces just how good that long downhill run was:

Yesterday, walking around campus and looking west to the Divide where we had skied over, I thought, "We should do this every weekend." As Don pointed out, however, we really did luck out with perfect snow and weather conditions. On an average winter day, the wind is blasting along the Divide hard enough to knock you down. A week earlier and the snow might have had no bottom. A week later and it might be treacherous icy crust. Allah be praised, life is good, we hit it just right.

The Continental Divide is just a line on a map. It's how we think about it that makes it significant as a boundary, as a symbolic barrier to be crossed heroically. But no, that's not fully true either: it's not merely a thought-construction. It's a genuine barrier to many kinds of flora and fauna, the weather and climate vary, and -- as geologists Mike and Larry can explain -- there are other, very real, differences.

And so it is with life. It is full of diverse kinds of Divides. Many, perhaps, are merely psychologically or socially constructed. But many also have deeply real qualities that may transcends our limited grasp. Some people play it safe, and try never to cross. One thing is for certain: you don't get the exhilirating run down without the hard climb up.

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