Our gently-climbing traverse continues around what seems to be an endless series of parallel ridges, and when we finally break above the dense cloud cover, the view is as extraordinary as it is horrifying: the winter sun, setting fast behind a cottony inversion. It wouldn't really matter, except that the darkening north face of Stuart Peak still looms between us and our waiting truck. I stare up at the mountain, let my knees go and collapse in exhaustion.
Closing my eyes, I rest for a moment and consider the miles still separating us from the trailhead. This wasn't what we'd had in mind when we set out on our tour from Snowbowl six hours earlier.
Yes, our route was ambitious: a one-day traverse of the high, remote upper Grant Creek basin, from Montana Snowbowl to the main trailhead of the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. We'd planned to drop in near Point Six, head down a beautiful protected chute known locally as "Too Steep To Tele," and cross the basin to ascend its east side somewhere between Mosquito and Stuart peaks. Then we'd just follow the ridge to the trail and be home free, skiing a near-continuous 4,000 feet of mostly mellow terrain into town.
But lured right of "Too Steep," we'd found ourselves cliffed out and sketched, a mistake that ate up two hours as we humped back up to a skiable line. Perhaps we should have called it a day then, but we'd packed for a significant day trip and continued on. Besides, it wasn't unknown territory. My partner Kara McMahon and I had explored the area multiple times. I'd been on forays in the basin as far back as the early '90s, including an ignorant, whiskey-fueled photo shoot that I survived only by dumb luck. And on a trip four years earlier I'd hiked and skied the route alone, coming the opposite direction, in May.
This time, however, I'd erred. When the day dawned bright the morning of the trip I was so eager for adventure that I'd dismissed my lingering flu and misjudged my capacity. While getting down into the bowl had been easy, coming out on the other side wasn't.
And now, things keep getting harder. I find myself struggling, feverish, out of breath and pausing every 10 steps or so. Resting on the snow, I can feel my eyes closing, my consciousness drifting.
"Hey! Chad! You can stop as soon as you have to," Kara offers. "But until then, you have to keep moving."
Clearly, she's not interested in dealing with 210 pounds of flu-weakened skier on the wrong side of Stuart Peak on a cold March night. But I'm thinking about our options. I'll feel better in the morning, I reason. Perhaps we should build a fire, or two fires, and take a nap between them? We can leave at sunrise and still make it to work tomorrow. No? Then, a snow cave?
She rebukes my absurdities with the only real answer: no. If I can continue, then we must.
Flipping her skis back around, she turns and heads off across the slanted ice, the dim light of her headlamp bobbing toward the diffuse orange glow of Missoula's trademark inversion. The radiance is our guiding star; just follow the light, and eventually, we'll find Missoula.
My head swimming, I sit up, slam my skis into the hardening crust and stand upright. A faint beam nods a steady rhythm, already 50 yards distant and moving quickly. I shake my head and try to focus on each singular icy step while forgetting about the hours still separating us from relief.