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Making tracks

Izaak Walton Inn puts powder on the line

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Post-dinner, Zach and I are ready for a sauna session in the more modern annex across from the lodge. While we wait for it to warm up (you have to ask someone to turn it on for you), we wander into the basement bar, home to a game room, historic photographs, and a Ping-Pong table. Zach defeats me repeatedly, but I manage to land the ball in far more interesting locations. Then it's time to walk across the parking lot for a steam and solidify tomorrow's plan.

We want to explore the backcountry opportunities further up the highway, toward East Glacier. There's ample access right off the road, so we figure we'll wake up early and drive until we see something enticing. Zach tucks his Glacier topo map into the top of his ski pack before climbing into bed.

Our hopes for an early start get sucked out the open window of our room sometime during the night. Trains rock and shimmy through the blackness at regular intervals, while the steam heat bangs. It takes a quick meal of bacon and eggs and the crisp outside air to wake us up.

We chat briefly about heading up to Two Medicine, in Glacier, but once the sun starts glinting off the windshield, we consider something closer—less car time equals more ski time.

There's skiing at Marias Pass, about 20 miles away, but it's also a more popular spot. We want to disappear for the day.

So we drive east along the border of the park, no more than 10 miles from the Izaak Walton. The valley opens away from us, and the peaks slice into the blue with imposing and brilliant cleanliness.

We spot one peak that looks particularly approachable—and doable for leaving the gate mid-morning. The mountain stretches like a long arm resting along the valley floor. A blanket of dark pine climbs above the elbow then slides from its snowy shoulder to reveal a ridgeline, curving away from us with collarbone elegance.

I unfold the map and look at the peaks running in a band along the road. "Mount Shields. Elk Mountain. This one doesn't have a name. Little Dog...I think it's Little Dog. No, it's Elk Mountain," I say, and toss in the elevation. "It's 7,835."

Wisps of snow twist from the ridge, like dancers against the blue backdrop. Zach pulls the car over and looks at the map.

"I think we just passed the turnoff," I point. "I saw a road back there, number 1066."

Still fairly new at this, I slap skins on my skis in record time and we start up snowy 1066 to the palm of Elk Mountain. A cow moose and her yearling are browsing along a creek and we stop just long enough to snap a picture and get the hairy eyeball.

Weaving our way up above the valley, we cross railroad tracks and enter the forest. The trees swallow us. Road sounds and train sounds vanish. A snag creaks.

"I think we can get to the top in three hours," Zach announces, so I assume it will take us four—based on my pace, of course. In the three years I've known him, I've spent much of the time chasing him up mountains and I'm not ashamed to admit I'm slower than he is. It never bothers him, and he always encourages me. It's a fine arrangement.

I love tele-skiing, and for good reason: I grew up on alpine skis when custom boot liners didn't exist. Eventually the foot pain overpowered the pleasure, so I decided to be a cross-country skier, and then learned to snowboard. I stopped skiing for years when life intervened, but I recently picked it up again, this time to telemark. The grace of the sport always appealed to me, and now that I can have a boot fitted to feel like a slipper, I can go as far and as long as I want.

Somewhere close to noon, after a short lunch, we pack up and break out of the trees, crossing the first of several steeper slopes that lead to the peak.

Ascending to the east, we come over a rise and get our first glimpse of the park. From there, we climb west above the tree line, then wrap around until we're on the shoulder, with a clear line to the top. By now, we've climbed some 3,500 feet, and the mountains unfold around us. We lace our way among snow ghosts. I watch Zach ahead of me, the 9,000-foot-plus spire of Mount Saint Nicholas beyond him. A gust of wind smacks me slightly off balance and I laugh—half nervous, half exhilarated.

I've had so much fun getting here that I'm surprised when we reach the top. An exposed face drops below us in a pure curtain of white. Its lines are so tempting—but it's heavily loaded and we've already opted to ski the more stable slope off the northwest.

Looking out over the Great Bear Basin, we can see all the way to the Swan Range and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The wind snatches our voices as soon as words leave our lips. We dig a hole for shelter and hunker down for a snack before skiing down.

In short order I follow a mellow line toward the spire of Saint Nick. The urgency of the wind is replaced by the quiet of a clear winter day. We lazily make our turns, leapfrogging each other, descending into the drainage.

My futile attempts to execute the perfect tele-turn land me in numerous face-plants along the way. The sound of snow exiting my ears is met with Zach's sniggers and the occasional bird song.

We make it back to the Izaak Walton just before dark, ready for meat and potatoes. The resident ski pro, Ambre, greets us as we're finishing.

By summer, this lean 40-something guy surfs on the California coast; by winter he comes to the Izaak Walton, teaches lessons and guides guests on ski tours—sometimes cross-country, sometimes backcountry, sometimes both.

"There is so much good skiing—in any direction," he muses.

My mind flickers back to earlier in the day—standing in a snow hole on top of Elk Mountain and scanning the peaks in every direction.

The conversation drifts to trains, skis and wildlife. A woman interrupts us at one point to ask Ambre if he knows about a moose carcass near the ski trails. She strokes a small dog that trembles in her arms while she scrutinizes the ski pro over her bifocals. It is clear that she wants to find this moose, dead or alive. After she walks away, it occurs to me that this would be an unusual conversation elsewhere in the world—but it's perfectly suited to this old Montana inn, tucked away in the mountains. Ambre tells us that the staff hauled the carcass deeper into the woods, earlier in the day.

I settle down for another night of snow-blown dreaming. It seems that all of us have come here to get deeper into the woods.


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