Posts in Category: Hiking & Backpacking

One for the books…2014

Northern Bridger winter coat. February

Northern Bridger winter coat. February


2014 was a year of large life events for me.
Teton Crest Trail in-a-day. Tetons peeking from some of the best displays of wildflowers that I've seen. August

Teton Crest Trail in-a-day. Tetons peeking from some of the best displays of wildflowers that I’ve seen. August

Julia and I got married July 5th. It was the absolute best of times. Really though, words can’t describe.

The newlywed Bride and Groom. July (photo: Shane Rickert)

The newlywed Bride and Groom. July (photo: Shane Rickert)

We purchased our first house together also in July. Seized the day, per se. Trails out the front door and mountains minutes away.

Our backyard mountains in their summer glory. August

Our backyard mountains in their summer glory. August

I raced my first official mountain ultra marathon in June and my second in September. Hooked.

The Rut 50K 2014. SO good. September (photo: Julia Truax)

The Rut 50K 2014. SO good. September (photo: Julia Truax)

I began early in the year with a desire to be in the best shape of my life. This I accomplished mainly through trail running and AT skiing. While numbers don’t even begin to tell the story, a bit helps: over 1000 trail miles ran and just about 300,000 vertical feet gained (and lost). Skiing not included and not forgotten. Many thousands of vert and ephemeral times to match.

One fine day deep in the Bridgers. February (photo: Adam Pohl)

One fine day deep in the Bridgers. February (photo: Adam Pohl)

For many years I wasn’t taking the best care of myself and decided to do something about it. It hasn’t always been straightforward, but the rewards are too great for my meager words to explain. It’s a continuing and iterative process that has me intrigued, excited, and looking forward to the future. I owe my father a huge thanks here, as it was he who introduced me to running over 20 years ago. He then pursued among other things, road running, hiking, backpacking, and overall the outdoors. I soon followed suit. I began road racing around ten years old and continued to do so for over 5 years. Other recreation took the place of running soon after I ran my first half-marathon accompanied by none other than my Dad. It’s been a while since then but now I’m back at it and loving the pursuit. So, thanks Dad for the early intro!

Alpine running and alpine forget-me-nots in the Northern Gallatins. July

Alpine running and alpine forget-me-nots in the Northern Gallatins. July

“The times…”, as Dylan so poetically coined. In all, this was a fairly eventful year in my life – one that I wouldn’t trade for a thing. I couldn’t have done it without the help, love, and support of many fine folks along the way. Friends, family, and strangers alike – I’m thankful for you all and immensely grateful for yet another trip around the sun. Thanks 2014, and welcome 2015. Here we come.

Three Cheers! July (photo: Shane Rickert)

Three Cheers! July (photo: Shane Rickert)

Perseverance on the Sphinx

Mark getting into the Lowe Route

Mark getting into the Lowe Route


Oh, alpine climbing. As with most things that are worth achieving in life, they often require a bit of hard work and perseverance. In this case, between a climbing partner and myself we collectively totaled over 60 miles of walking our ice tools around this fall in unsuccessful attempts to snag the Lowe Direct on the north face of Sphinx Mountain (10876’/3315m) here in the Northern Madison. And this doesn’t count last year’s attempts. Some could think that this was born of gross oversight or ill-preparedness but the main component of our story is timing. They say it is of the essence.
Myself on the upper traverse in October 2013

Myself on the upper traverse in October 2013


Fickle early season melt-freeze conditions that are precluded by a storm are the main part of this equation. Too much snow, and the approach becomes impassable due to loading. Too little, and the climbs don’t form. Climbers have been avalanched off of this face, so conditions are nothing to be taken lightly. The country is also prime elk hunting country and thick with grizzlies, which adds another twist to the five mile approach. On our last attempt, we finally saw a grizzly (running away from us below the north face) as opposed to just huge tracks on the trail. Better there than in the first mile or so of ‘bone-alley’, a narrow canyon corridor often adorned with fresh bones where a bear encounter would likely be less fun.
Bone Alley - Late Oct '13

Bone Alley – Late Oct ’13


This last weekend yielded a successful romp on the Lowe Route, with the Direct not being in. Although we gave it another look, the bottom pitches weren’t formed and we didn’t feel up to that sort of adventure climbing so we once again retreated from the base of the Sphinx’s north face. This time, though, the upper pitches looked to be mostly in and we rallied back to the Helmet/Sphinx saddle and up to the traverse into the upper routes. The Earl-Trimble had plentiful ice, with a party on it and everything but the dagger WI5 pitch of the Lowe was formed.
On route

On route


Despite not getting the classic pillar, by this time I was ok with it and happy to be finally swinging tools on some ice. We were two of over a dozen folks seen on the face that day and were lucky to have climbed, as at least one party was turned away. I can relate from waiting last year on that face while multiple parties queued up for perfect October conditions. A bit later and a bit thinner this year, but climbable all the same.
Topping out on the Lowe (p: McAlpine)

Topping out on the Lowe (p: McAlpine)


Mark approaching the Sphinx summit accompanied by lenticular

Mark approaching the Sphinx summit accompanied by lenticular


As I sit here with a lingering sense of accomplishment and an eye/ear towards the next, temperatures have dropped over 50 degrees F from a high of 62°, to one of single digits over the last few days. I just snuck in my first powder turns of the season and look forward to the coming of winter. Our amazing Montana autumn has finally come to an unofficial close and its now time to sharpen tools, wax skis, and pray for snow. Last season was one for the books; let us sneak in another…
Tetons (far) and S.Madison (near) from the top

Tetons (far) and S.Madison (near) from the top


Self-timer on the summit of the Sphinx. Happy climbers

Self-timer on the summit of the Sphinx. Happy climbers

Ridges and loops – Fall in the Spanish Peaks

Julia with Gallatin Peak behind, left

Julia with Gallatin Peak behind, left

Ahhh… a full-length Montana fall. We’ve had quite the autumn this year so Julia and I have been trying to squeeze in as much outside fun as possible during this impeccable weather window. While we have accomplished a lot of “done-in-a-day” recreation, backpacking has fallen off a bit this year due to a few large life events. Thankfully, this long fall season has allowed for us to play a little catch-up with the outdoors. Two free coinciding days recently yielded a most amazing, 20+ mile loop that is not too far from our back door. And with what has amounted to a quintessential Montana Indian summer, it has been hard not to get out to soak it in.

Morning gold along Thompson Lake

Morning gold along Thompson Lake

Julia soaking it up on Indian Ridge with the expansive Gallatin Valley behind

Julia soaking it up on Indian Ridge with the expansive Gallatin Valley behind

Ridgelines are high on the list of fun, as well as loop/lollipop hikes that allow one to traverse different ground nearly the entire trip. Time is sometimes of the essence, and bang for buck has become an increasing theme in our (and maybe your?) ever-evolving backcountry strategy. This particular loop held just what we were looking for – distance not too far or short, miles of ridgeline travel above and at timberline, high and wide alpine vistas, peaks to incorporate just off trail, a logical campsite midway at an alpine lake, and enough up/down to keep us working for it. Everything you need and nothing you don’t.

Summit chickens

Summit chickens

The aptly named, Summit Lake (Photo: Julia)

The aptly named, Summit Lake (Photo: Julia)

The loop begins and ends at S Fork Spanish Creek TH (N end of Madison range) and can be easily figured out from there with a topo, as it is the only true non-redundant loop. It is a great overnight trip, or would also be a great longer run for those so inclined. Overall length is in the low 20’s for mileage and ~5000′ for vert. Clockwise or counter is the only major remaining question. My vote is for a counter clockwise run, based on water availability and terrain selection. It could feasibly be done with just a handheld w/ inline filter if ran in this direction. It could almost be done without a filter, except for one important, and semi-suspect water source. As for backpacking it, we put in the longer mileage day and Indian Ridge first, and thought that this may be the preferred method to camp. But either direction would still be most pleasing.

Miles of this (Photo: J)

Miles of this (Photo: J)

Westward from Beacon Pt.

Westward from Beacon Pt.

Trailside company

Trailside company

Gear Highlights/Lowlights:

A cold, calm night on a bench sitting above the lake yielded, (go figure, yet again) significant condensation inside of our single walled/hybrid Big Sky International Mirage 2P shelter. You’d think we have had enough time over the three-plus years of use to just get rid of it, but no, we press on because of weight/space balance and the hopes for optimal conditions. We do have a double-walled Hilleberg for more serious weather but it is overkill for a lot of summer use here in the Montana Rockies. So along comes the Mirage 2P and then we end up cursing it about half of the time. And loving it the other half.

Big Sky Mirage 2P just waiting to accumulate condensation

Big Sky Mirage 2P just waiting to accumulate condensation

So, it may be time to rethink the 2P summer shelter situation come next year. We’ll have to leave that one for when the time comes though, so until next time folks. Winter is currently knocking on the door.

Blustery Bridger ridge run, the end of October

Blustery Bridger ridge run, the end of October

A short round on The Beaten Path

Autumn colors and the East Rosebud

Autumn colors and the East Rosebud

Weather and Labor Day plans don’t always see eye-to-eye when living in the Northern Rockies. While a lot of the US is heading into an ideal backpacking season, Montana can be getting snowed on this time of year. Despite the definitive forecast of rain/thunderstorms/snow up high, Julia and I packed our rain gear and headed into the Beartooth this recent holiday weekend.

Julia getting soaked on The Beaten Path

Julia getting soaked on The Beaten Path


Pit-stop for berries on the way in. (photo: J)

Pit-stop for berries on the way in. (photo: J)

While we planned to hike a bit further on The Beaten Path via East Rosebud, we stopped short at Rainbow Lake after being properly soaked for the duration of the hike in. Berries, bear scat, moose, and the surreal scenes that occasionally crept through the clouds kept us occupied along the way. It ranged from a steady drizzle to a full-on gale during the walk and we soon realized that wet was going to prevail. The early stop allowed us to properly set up camp, attempt to dry out, and have a fire with dinner. We even utilized a high-pitched HMG Flat Tarp for standing protection when away from the fire. The decision to stop early resulted in quite the enjoyable evening.

#nofilter. Rain and a fogged lens leads to this.

#nofilter. Rain and a fogged lens leads to this.


Alpine lakes and stream-like trails for us.

Alpine lakes and stream-like trails for us.

The next morning we eased into things – lying in and listening to the constant patter of rain on our silnylon shelter. The rain eased up and we slowly broke camp while enjoying coffee/tea and shortbread. We then hiked a couple of miles up the trail to scope the next alpine lake prior to turning around to head back. We lucked out with a little bit of clear skies at Lake at Falls which was soon to be socked in on our way back. The rain heightens the colors and the experience. Not every trip can be with bluebird skies and waist-deep wildflowers. At least that’s the mantra when in the thick of some nasty weather.

Morning break in the clouds above Rainbow Lake.

Morning break in the clouds above Rainbow Lake.


Granite and rain and me. (photo: J)

Granite and rain and me. (photo: J)

The gear highlight of the trip goes to the new MontBell Ex Light Down Anorak. This hooded, UL down pull-over has a big kangaroo pocket and a draw hem. My men’s medium (sans stuffsack) comes in at 173g/6.1oz with a claimed 65g/2.2oz of 900 fill power goose down. At over 35% down and just a hair heavier than its predecessor, the Ex Light Down Jacket (160g/5.6oz), this new anorak has me grinning. This little number was unleashed soon after arriving at our soggy night’s camp and provided plenty of warmth as part of my layering system throughout the night and into the next morning. Low temps were around the upper-thirties (°F) based on overnight snow levels. While not the burliest or warmest, it is one of the most viable UL jackets currently on the market. Nice job, MontBell.

Thumbs up to the Ex Light Down Anorak. An instant classic.

Thumbs up to the Ex Light Down Anorak. An instant classic.

It just snowed again (!) – this time to the valley floor, but will be trending back to traditionally warmer end-of-summer temps come tomorrow and for the next week or so. In the meantime I’ll be participating in Big Sky’s 2nd annual The Rut 50K on Saturday along with a slew of other runners. Best wishes to all involved and a big thank you to all of the folks who manage such an event – here’s to a great race and a wonderful autumn!

Hucks. By the handful. (photo: J)

Hucks. By the handful. (photo: J)


Pika and raspberries make for good times.

Pika and raspberries make for good times.

An Ode to October

October grass colors on a long trail run

October grass colors on a trail run

October has been quite varied in terms of weather and also choosing what to do outside in the changing seasonal conditions. It is not surprising for this time of year here in the Northern Rockies, so I went out whenever I could this month in search of fun. And that, I found. October yielded many miles and many vertical feet of trail running, skiing, and even some ice climbing, all within the greater Bozeman area.

Crypt Orchid WI3, October ice climbing in Hyalite

Crypt Orchid WI3, October ice climbing in Hyalite

October powder skiing in the Bridgers

October powder skiing in the Bridgers

I managed a good amount of quality runs this month, including another 20+ miler on October 10th. Fast forward to Halloween and it was pleasantly snowing above 6000′ on my 10K run today.

South Cottonwood trail colors and snowfall

South Cottonwood trail colors and snowfall

We encountered snowfall early this year and I managed a couple of October ski outings in the middle of the month, including the best of both worlds – nasty mank and also some pre-season October powder. Completely a blast!

The ridge looking toward Hardscrabble. October skiing in MT

The ridge looking toward Hardscrabble. October skiing in MT

The last week has led to two ice climbing romps, with one being bigger than our party had expected. So, the Lowe Route on The Sphinx awaits while I was able to solo a Hyalite route in thin conditions. The north face of the Sphinx is absolutely stunning btw, and also in magnificent shape ice-wise. So thank you October, and welcome November.

Myself approaching on the Sphinx. Earl-Trimble WI4 in foreground and Lowe Route WI5 behind

Myself approaching on the Sphinx. Earl-Trimble WI4 in foreground and Lowe Route WI5 behind

The north face of the Sphinx in excellent October shape

The north face of the Sphinx in excellent October shape (click for detail)

Grizzly print on Sphinx approach. Size EU43 for reference.

Grizzly print on Sphinx approach. Size EU43.5 for reference.

Rapping the upper flow of Crypt Orchid WI3

Rapping the upper flow of Crypt Orchid WI3

Mountain goat silhouette on the Sphinx approach

Mountain goat silhouette on the Sphinx approach