A Bad Idea

A Bad Idea

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Drew Pogge

The worst experiences make for the best stories.

The mountain lion dodged away as my headlamp stabbed at the darkness. Its muscular tawny form would be beautiful if the lion were not stalking us in the predawn hours as we climbed higher into the Montana wilderness. Its wilderness. It was all beginning to seem like a bad idea.

As ski trips go, this would be one of the worst-conceived, improperly planned, and poorly executed of all time. It is still unknown who first presented the ill-fated idea, but (unless it was me) he should be beaten with a lead pipe. Early September skiing in the northern hemisphere is destined to be a little sketchy, with lots of work yielding poor-quality turns; but sometimes a little can seem like a lot. Fortunately, Bozeman is close to Blaze Mountain.

High in the Spanish Peaks Wilderness, “the Blaze” is a north-facing gully that holds snow year-round. At its prime, the Blaze is good for just over 2,000 vertical feet of consistent, fall-line corn. In early September, it’s probably closer to 300 vertical feet of suncups and rock shards. Undaunted by this possibility, we planned to climb all night and take in the sunrise from Blaze Mountain’s 10,400-foot summit. Theoretically. That is how we came to be stalked by a mountain lion.

Miguel and I were working together unloading freight trucks at the local box store from mid-afternoon until 1 am. Youthful optimism (read: cockiness) and inexperience (ignorance) led us to believe we could work all night and then climb 4,300 vertical feet in the dark, carrying all of our ski gear on our backs. We thought it was a great idea. Hindsight is 20/20.

We met our buddy Chris and drove toward Gallatin Canyon on deserted roads. We reached the trailhead around 1:30 am. As we started up the trail, hopes were high but energy was not. A couple miles in, I was finding my groove at the tail end of our procession. As we crossed a meadow, my headlamp flashed upon a pair of enormous glowing eyes above the waist-high grass. Chris was unnerved, I was too tired to care, and Miguel threw a rock. The lion disappeared into the grass and we continued our march. Unfortunately, I am a delicious-looking fellow, and the lion followed close behind, never revealing itself except as blurs of fear—ahem, fur—whenever I glanced behind. As the last in line, I worried I was to be the injured impala, the wounded water buffalo, the goat sent to slaughter.

Fortuntately, the lion abandoned us after a time. We rested awhile, and as the first light of day ambushed our plan, we saw Blaze Mountain—or so we thought. It was still far above us and no snow was visible. We were all newcomers to the Blaze, and were unsure as to the most direct route.

“Get out the map.”

Blank stare.

“I thought you had the map.”

Blank stare.


We bushwhacked straight up. Neither stream, nor thorns, nor bull moose could deter us as we thrashed away the dawn. Finally we exited the forest onto an enormous avalanche path. Stretching 50 yards across and running at least 1,000 vertical feet, it was a virtual highway of flattened trees. The power it must have taken to rip these mature conifers from their anchors is astounding.

As we entered the basin at the top of the tree line, the route began to look dubious. The clearest way was to scale a rocky chute to gain the summit ridge. It was nearly vertical, so much so that when we leaned forward to grab the next crumbly hold, the skis on our backs would dig into the cliffside above our heads, raining rocks onto those below. We went up one at a time, and made it after several hair-raising close calls. As we crested the ridge, we fully expected to see a gleaming snowfield, begging to be shredded. Instead we saw jumbled scree extending all the way down to what appeared to be a sheer cliff interrupted by only a waterfall. We were on the wrong summit. The Blaze was the next peak up-valley, and we were officially overzealous idiots.


That about summed it up.

We couldn't go down the way we came up, so we started descending the scree. About halfway down, I again wondered if this was such a good idea after all.

By the time we reached the top of the falls, which cascaded through thick vegetation clinging to the terraced cliff, I was cursing out loud with every step. We were exhausted, embarrassed, and just plain pouty. Down-climbing with the packs seemed a recipe for disaster; Chris solved the problem by dejectedly chucking his skis, boots, and pack off the cliff, yelling, “I don't care. I just don't care!” We dumped our own packs off the first cliff and fell/scrambled down. It became a laborious routine. Recover the gear. Chuck off cliff. Fall down cliff. Repeat. Miguel took a ride at one point that removed chunks from his forearm and rear. Take it from me; you don't really know someone until you have tenderly applied gauze to his ass.

We reached the base of the cliffs and thrashed through the creek-bottom brush, skis sticking on every tree branch, feet sticking in every suckhole. We were moving slowly until Miguel discovered a nest of yellow jackets that proceeded to swarm us. After a brief intense jog, we came to another creek crossing with the trail visible on the other side. I was beyond tired, beyond hungry, and far beyond caring. I walked directly through the icy knee-deep current and collapsed at the trailside. The verdict was in: this had definitely been a bad idea.

We shared the last Powerbar and treated some more water, all the while cursing the previous 12 hours. It seemed unreal. It was decided that one of us had accumulated some bad navigation karma at some point. Christopher Columbus had nothing on us. After a bit of rest and some cooling water, we began to feel better, and the cursing turned to laughter about the ridiculousness of it all. It was a self-deprecating, prideless laughter familiar to stupid people. It didn't matter though, we were smiling again. A lion, a snowless mountain, a waterfall, and a nest of stinging insects lay in our wake. It could only get better.

As we lounged at the side of the trail (still several miles walk from the car), two backcountry horsemen came up the trail. “Did ya' get some turns?” We paused, then slowly grinned at one another. We knew we were idiots, but these guys didn't have to! “Yeah,” I said with enthusiasm, “The skiing was great!”

I may be a liar and fraud, but I'm a persistent liar and fraud. I went back and skied the real Blaze two days later with Chris. We have been getting lost less frequently ever since.

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