Gateway to Winter: A Night on Hellroaring Plateau

One of my favorite things to do in summertime is to go backpacking in the mountains near my home.  I love that I can escape for a weekend to leave behind the stresses of city and work to take in the clear alpine air, the sweeping summit views, and the sound of rushing mountain streams.  Whenever I come back, I always feel rejuvenated and ready to take on new challenges.

Of course, there are a few downsides to summer camping, too.  The swarms of annoying mosquitos can reach biblical proportions.  Inconsiderate campsite neighbors (and their dogs) always add a source of conflict.  And then there are the bears.  You know, those fierce, hungry, hairy beasts known to wander into campsites at night, wreaking havoc on unwary campers?

But the biggest problem with summer backpacking?  Summer is just not long enough!  You know the deal: Every year, you spend months waiting for the snowpack to melt and the mountain trails to open up.  Then, sometime around July you drag out the tents and sleeping bags and spend every moment of endless workdays looking forward to the weekend.  You make sacrifices so you can spend every fleeting summer weekend in the mountains, desperate to maximize your limited time by cramming it all in – checking peaks off your list, slaying trout in pristine alpine lakes, and roasting campfire marshmallows with your kids.  Summer is when memories are made!  And then, a few too-short weekends later, the first snowflakes start to fall, and it’s all over.  It will be at least another nine long months before you get a chance to do it again.

Enter winter camping.  I’ve always wanted to try it.  It offers all the great things I love about summer camping, but with no bugs, no crowds, and no bears!  (Well technically, there are bears, but supposedly they’re all hibernating.)  Best of all, it offers a way to extend the hiking season and a chance to get out and experience the mountains in new ways.

So, I decided to give it a shot.  Last weekend I loaded up my backpack, strapped on my trusty snowshoes, grabbed my camera, and ventured up to the Hellroaring Plateau in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness just outside of Red Lodge, Montana.

There is no official trail accessing the Hellroaring Plateau.  Instead, summertime adventurers normally take a high-clearance vehicle up a steep, seven-mile-long four-wheel-drive road that winds along the cliffside to the trailhead at the top.  Since I don’t own a high-clearance vehicle, I’ve never had much opportunity to spend time in the Hellroaring section of the A-B Wilderness.  Sure, I could have just hiked up the road, but sharing the journey with noisy ATV’s and gas-guzzling pick-up trucks just never appealed to me as being an enjoyable wilderness experience.

Until now.  Since the road is impassible to most vehicles in the wintertime, this seemed like a great choice for a weekend getaway of adventure, solitude, and my first winter overnighter.

Following a mid-morning start, it took me most of the day to hike up the snow-covered road, stopping occasionally to admire fantastic views of the main fork of the Rock Creek valley hundreds of feet below.  At a switchback approximately three-fourths of the way to the top, a rock outcropping was catching the sun nicely, so I lunched for awhile and spent about an hour shooting several  time lapse videos of clouds drifting over the mountaintops across the valley.

As I continued a little farther up the road nearing the top of the plateau, I took a short detour through some trees to avoid a potential avalanche slope where I came upon what I immediately recognized as a five-star campsite – a level spot to pitch the tent amidst a few stout trees offering wind shelter and a fantastic view of the Beartooth Plateau to the south.  I rigged the camera to shoot some more time lapse video of the afternoon sun while I went to work setting up my tent.

As the sun sank below the western mountaintops, the air began to sting with the chill of nightfall.  Despite the complete absence of wind, the temp began to drop rapidly, and my cozy down sleeping bag beckoned from inside my warm tent.  I grabbed my stove and melted snow to cook up some grub, then began to settle in for what I knew would be a long, cold night.

It was only seven o’clock and I wasn’t yet ready for sleeping.  I tried to occupy myself by reading Falcon Press’s “Avalanche Handbook,” a relevant text given my present situation, but I found the reading too dry to hold my interest for long.  Good thing my ipod was loaded with a couple movies and podcasts for just such an occasion.  I spent the next couple hours being half entertained and half lulled to sleep by the 1983 classic “Never Cry Wolf.”  After I exhausted that, it was on to my last remaining unplayed episodes of “The Dirtbag Diaries.”

I think I actually managed to get in a few winks of sleep, but before long I was tossing and turning in a fit of insomnia, due in part to my fear of freezing to death, and partly due to the fact that the bivy flap covering my sleeping bag was practically suffocating me.  Keeping the flap zipped over my head did afford me a few additional degrees of warmth and comfort, but after several minutes approaching a near state of carbon dioxide induced hypoxia, I’d be forced to unzip it and come for up air.

I pretty much repeated this cycle throughout the night, periodically unzipping the flap for a gulp of fresh air, followed by re-zipping it and sinking back into the warm depths of my sleeping bag until it was time to resurface for another breath.  I felt like some sort of underwater marine mammal, all the while trying not to freeze, and acquiring zero sleep in the process.

Inside my tent, the silence was deafening.  It was time to break the monotony, so I opened the tent flap and stuck my head out into the night in hopes of catching a glimpse of the aurora borealis.  But it was not to be.  Disappointed by the absence of a shimmering green light show this night, my consolation was a clear, moonless black sky, illuminated by countless stars twinkling from eons away.  A particularly bright, blinking one to the south was identified by my SkyView ipod app as the planet Saturn.  Slightly higher in the sky and to the right a small orange dot looked like Mars.  As I found myself immersed in this moment, suddenly all my previous discomforts seemed trivial, and I was at once grateful to be lying here on the cold snow having this experience instead of spending yet another uneventful weekend at home.

Four o’clock eventually came around, and it was time to get moving.  I fired up the stove for a breakfast of strong coffee and hearty oatmeal, then suited up for a cold trek across the plateau. If I hurried, I could position myself to catch some awesome sunrise photos.  I shuffled about in the dark for about an hour when I noticed the eastern sky becoming colored with the ominous, telltale shade of delicate predawn pink and orange.

As the light gained strength, the westward wind began gusting across the rocky plain, whipping up spindrift in small tornado-like whirlwinds.  I marveled at the sparse amount of snowpack this high up on the mountain.  This had been an unusually mild winter, and what little snow there was had been blown across the wind-scoured tundra, exposing bare spots of frozen alpine turf and glacial remnants of ancient granite boulders.  There was no need for clumsy snowshoes here, so I removed them, and paced around shooting panoramas of the expansive plateau, then rigged the camera for a sunrise time lapse and took shelter from the biting wind behind a huge boulder.

I had previously entertained thoughts of ascending the walk-up summit of 12,000 foot Mt. Rearguard four miles across the plateau, which was now beautifully illuminated in alpenglow.  But in these fierce winds that would have been a miserable, possibly dangerous affair indeed.  Satisfied that I had gotten the shots I wanted, I retreated back to my camp and began the chore of packing my things into my backpack for the long return trip to my awaiting car some 3,000 feet below.

Plodding down the snowy path, my mind wandered into a reflective state, mentally tallying all the things I had gained from this experience.  Although this trip would soon be over, it had opened the door for more adventures to be had.  Having gained the confidence to push beyond the conventional comforts of summer, I was already looking forward to future cold weather excursions, and all the places I’d soon get to visit.  I can’t wait!

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