Montana Headwall » Head Trip

High on cedar

Alpine strollin’ in the Madison Range

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Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • CHAD HARDER

The fastest retreat would be to backtrack. If we wanted to make it to the car (and dinner), we should go that way. Instead, adventure called, so we chose a lower line that would loop back to Lake Cameron—sort of. From the summit it looked to be the route of least resistance, with long ribbons of dirty spring snow perfect for glissading. The sun was falling, so we quickly boot-skied 2,000 vertical feet of mountain, keeping an ear out for running water gathering beneath ever-thinning snow. Every so often the subsurface creeks were loud enough to scare us off the speedy corn, and we were relieved when we finally stepped off the last of it without punching through.

We spent the next few hours sidehilling progressively more challenging terrain, and eventually hit the well-used trail, just a couple hundred feet below our lakeside campsite. (This sidehill traverse is not recommended.)

With the sun almost set, we stripped and charged into the lake to swim and bathe. The cold water recharged us and washed us squeaky clean. Near-exhaustion returned as we dried off with T-shirts, accompanied by a deep-belly clamor for calories. But we’d run out of those three hours earlier, and ever since I’d been mumbling about burgers and beers at Ennis’ famed Long Branch Saloon. Would one be enough?

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • CHAD HARDER

But as we dressed and the stars came out, a four-mile slog to the car became less and less likely, even if that meant a night out without much dinner. I found the food bag and lowered it from the tree. It felt flimsy and thin, almost empty. Dumping the contents on the ground, I took inventory: a small bag of gorp, a few broken crackers, enough coffee grounds for a single press, and three nips of gin. I can survive on caffeine and alcohol, but Kara doesn’t work that way. She needs “real” food. I figured we'd have to walk out by headlamp, and since it was already almost 10 p.m., we’d still likely miss dinner in Ennis.

After weighing our options, we both agreed the evening was so perfect we should stay one more night. I got a fire going while Kara pitched the tent. As the dry wood blazed we shared the last handfuls of our heavily mined and peanut-rich trail mix. It wasn’t burgers and beers, but it quieted the rumbling. The fire dimmed, we nodded off, and crawled into the tent to crash.

I woke in the predawn, thinking of bacon. With Kara still snoozing, I boiled the thin coffee remains extra-long, trying to darken it up. The aroma combined with hot morning sun finally rousted Kara from her bag. I treated her to “breakfast”—our last three crackers, slathered in GU energy gel. Kara called it “alpine biscuits and gravy.” Suddenly a tremendous racket shattered the meadow's silence: The elk herd had returned to splash in the lake, 100 yards away. Calves chased each other in and out of the water while cows took long drinks from the shore. They never saw us, but seemed to know something was amiss, and after about five minutes they spooked and quickly disappeared from view. We felt blessed to share their breakfast nook.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • CHAD HARDER

Now entirely satisfied, we took another dip in the lake before packing up and heading out, following fresh grizzly tracks down the trail. The prints—clear depressions in the tinder-dry and dusty trail—hadn’t been there 36 hours earlier. They were as long as my size-12 shoe. We made plenty of noise descending and never saw the bear. Soon enough we arrived at the truck—the one we didn’t yet know had a dead battery. But a few hours later, bellying up to the Long Branch bar and downing bacon cheeseburgers, we'd forgotten all about it. Long Branch makes their burgers big. I still ate two.

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