Winter Camping in Montana

Winter camping and cross country skiing in Glacier National Park.

Ultimate Climbing set 2 024
Winter-like Camping

It was a good bit of naivety that got the three of us there- that and my Ford pickup. A thousand or so miles of driving took us from Texas up to Montana’s Glacier National Park, where we planned to live out our dreams of winter camping and cross-country skiing. We had the place pretty much to ourselves when we arrived, probably because it was January. We were alone when we pulled in, except for the two park rangers operating the Polebridge Ranger Station (where we entered the park) and the plethora of wildlife still out and about.

The group included me, David Barrow (from the Acapulco trip), and Jeff Isom, a “game for adventure” summer camp friend. We ended up selecting the destination, at least partly because of Texas friends who lived nearby, figuring that we could combine some winter outdoor adventure with a visit. It was our concept of a good, multi-faceted “ski trip.”

We arrived at our campsite in the full, mid-afternoon, and paltry winter sunshine of the northern Rockies. Thankfully, the road to Bowman Lake was snowplowed for a short distance from the entrance station, which allowed us to drive right up to our site in the otherwise empty campground. The foot of snow and vacant camping spaces combined with the strange lighting and magnificent mountain views to create the feel of being in the actual backcountry.

Since most of the park is closed in the winter, I’m not quite sure how we got into the campground, in the first place. It may have been merely that none of the park employees had ever considered the possibility of having campers, that time of the year. When I got the camping permit, I had the feeling that we were doing something that was permitted, only because no one had thought that there was a need to make it otherwise.

The temperature was still well up into the teens as we brushed the snow off of the picnic table and set things up for cooking supper. By the time it got dark around 4:30, we were finishing up with our evening meal, and by 5:00, we were snug in the relative warmth of our sleeping bags inside our tent. We hadn’t slept all that well on the trip up from Texas, so we were excited by the prospect of the uninterrupted 14-hour sleep that awaited.

I first awoke around midnight, ready to get the day started, but realized that it was a bit early and slipped back into a semi-conscious trance. By 8:00 a.m., it was starting to get light, and I had to get up and moving. And so, I climbed out of the tent and into a breathtakingly fresh morning. One of the positive aspects of the cold temperatures was that the snow on the picnic table and elsewhere did not quickly melt and get things wet. We knew that ice and snow were a necessary part of winter camping and sports. And we’d read about how important it was to not get it on the inside of your clothes, where it could lead to wetness and ultimately hypothermia. So, right off the bat, we decided to avoid that situation by not unduly messing with the fluffy stuff.

Barrow and Jeff soon joined me outside in the morning air. We didn’t bother with a campfire for various reasons, and that ultimately ended up helping us speed up our breakfast preparation. We were eager to get ourselves geared up and ready for an exciting and full day of cross-country skiing, which we assumed would be both fun and warmth-creating. In reality, none of us knew much about skiing, although Jeff and Barrow had both been downhill skiing before, I’d once spent a couple of hours cross-country skiing in Wisconsin, and we’d all done a bunch of reading about it. It sounded fun, and after doing all of our research, we felt well prepared and speculated positively about “how hard could it be?”

The same road that we drove into the campground on continued further on into the park. Since it was unplowed past the campground, it made for an exceptional ski route. We had each purchased and brought along brand new waxless cross-country track skis. We geared-up near the picnic table and somehow managed to put them on correctly. And we did so, even without heat other than the fragments of muted sunlight beaming through the tree limbs. We weren’t about to let finger numbness or cold toes get in the way of our plan. That, because we were having a good time winter camping in the wilds of Montana and were about to go cross-country skiing. As far as we knew, the pain that we were experiencing with our hands and toes was just “part of it.”

I was almost amazed and somewhat surprised when I looked down at my feet and saw the skis attached correctly. At that moment, I concluded that I had fulfilled my vision of camping in the snow and cross-country skiing. It was happening. We were geared up, in January, in the mountains, and about to ski into the wilderness. It didn’t seem to matter to any of us that the organized part of our winter cross-country ski trip plan ended right at that point. Since that trip, I’ve often wondered if we had realized at the time what we didn’t know, would we have done it anyway?

Once outfitted and ready, we stood motionless on the snow for a moment as though we weren’t quite sure what to do next, and quickly began to realize just how cold it was. That fact, combined with our excitement for seeing where the road/trail went when it left the campground, brought us to the abrupt conclusion that it was time to get moving. Conveniently, ski tracks led on up the road almost right from where we stood, and within only minutes, we were on our way.

The first half mile or so was almost flat as the road meandered into and through an ever-thickening forest. The low angle allowed us to cover a significant amount of distance relatively effortlessly. We were going slightly uphill, which thankfully slowed things down a bit. The forest was thick to either side and soon opened up and framed a distant and particularly magnificent peak. The only noise we heard was the swooshing of our skis as their sliding surfaces bit into the track, allowing us to continue moving forward. It was just how it’d been described.

Those first few minutes were subtly profound for me. The world around us was muted by the winter light, the quietness of the snow, the lack of wind, the low temperature, and the fact that there were no other people around. And at the same time, I felt a strong sense of enormity, complexity, and sharpness as I found myself in what I came to recognize as genuine wildness.

It occurred to me that the tracks we were following had been made by some anonymous and long-gone skiers and that with the arrival of spring, they would inevitably melt away. And at the same time, I realized that, in reality, trails are permanent and don’t depend on who or whatever made them, to continue to exist.

As we skied on up the road, I had the continual sense that eyes were staring at us, invisibly from somewhere far-off back in the trees. Clouds soon began rolling in and thickening up the sky. The air warmed, but not in a thawing way. A hawk screeched in the distance, and we rounded a corner and were treated to a whole new vista of big and magnificent peaks filling in the forest/picture frame in front of us.

After 30 minutes or so of shushing along, we arrived at the top of a gradual hill and decided to stop, turn, and have some downhill fun. We’d put in our work while kicking and only slightly gliding our way up, and it was time for some payback. And payback is what we got, although it wasn’t the fun kind that we’d envisioned. We stopped and turned to retrace and slide down 100 yards of our path, which essentially meant it was a downhill. Slot cars are what come to mind as I reflect on that first descent. Thank goodness the trail turned and flattened out when it did, which forced us to crash before we could reach terminal velocity because we certainly had no control of the skis. I don’t recall having any notion regarding how to manage downhill speed, to begin with, and just reckoned that part of it would somehow come naturally.

Those first crashes began the process of dashing any hopes that we’d been harboring regarding staying dry. Initially, we were just relieved that after each downhill run, we were still in one piece. Up to that point, the snow that entered every crevice of our tightly bundled bodies whenever we fell had been of no consequence. At first, we just brushed it away. But eventually, the bits trapped within our clothes began to melt. And after only a couple of crashes, I was starting to get noticeably damp and chilled. When I combined that with the physical pounding I was taking, I decided that falling and the kind of downhill that we were experiencing was not all that fun.

My two companions came to the same conclusion, and we decided that, in reality, it was the tracks that were creating the problem. We determined that we needed to find a downhill slope devoid of any. So, we proceeded up the road toward Bowman Lake, equipped with the mission of looking for a better place to slide out of control and crash.

We kicked and glided for another quarter of a mile. All the while, we looked to either side for an untrodden, open, and suitably sloped area for more downhill. Instinctively, a suitable landing area had also become a prerequisite.

Suddenly, the narrow, tree-shrouded roadway that we’d been skiing up opened into a humongous meadow, and what appeared to be an almost perfect downhill ski embankment sat near the road and to our left. At first sight, any apprehensions that we harbored regarding finding the right spot evaporated. We knew we’d found it and didn’t even hesitate as we worked our way over to its base.

The hill was about 20 feet tall with a moderate grade and a large and open flat area, or run-out, at the bottom. The forest stopped well back from the top, meaning that it stood mostly out and away from the big trees. There didn’t appear to be any visible obstructions along most of its slope. And that meant that there was plenty of space for turning and maneuvering, or whatever it was that people did, as they slid blissfully downhill. It seemed to be just the kind of spot we were looking for.

Instinctively, we side-stepped our way up and along the side of it to the top. Once there, the entire meadow came into view, and we saw a huge herd of elk almost overwhelming its northern edge, only 500 yards away from us. Steam rose in sporadic whiffs around the animals, rising from elk bodies warmed by either playful bantering or massive exhales. Thin clouds had taken over the sky, and snow flurries fell harmlessly and, since there was no wind to speak of, almost straight down.

I marveled at how the scene was becoming even more perfect all the while. First, the timing had come together that allowed the three of us to be there in the first place. Then, Jeff had miraculously recovered from his flu, or whatever it was he had on the way up. And the highway from Texas had been clear and the driving fast and easy. Also, we had the campground all to ourselves and had learned a lot about winter camping in only our first night out. And finally, we were about to solve the last piece of the cross-country skiing puzzle and do some real downhill. To top it all off, it was lightly and harmlessly snowing, a herd of elk was meandering around in the near-distance, and we were warmish. It was all going so well, that I began contemplating writing a magazine story about it—a sort of “how-to” about winter camping and skiing.

Since I had the least idea about how to ski down the hill, I got to go first. Jeff had time to spare until it was his turn. And since he was intrigued by the sight of the elk, he decided to take the opportunity to try to ski up near them through the trees and get a closer look. While I prepared for my run, he simply disappeared into the thickness of the forest.

I was a little surprised by just how long and steep the slope appeared from my vantage point on its upper edge. I looked down at the bottom once again and felt better about it as I once again noted the wide open and long “slowing down and stopping area” at the bottom. And so, with no further thoughts, I pushed off. I was amazed by how quickly I gained momentum as the slide got underway. There was no time to consider turning or controlling my speed. I crouched into a full downhill, Katie-bar-the-door, tucked position with skis pointed straight toward the bottom. The 20′ downhill was over in seconds as the run-out thankfully took over and brought me to a stop. Somehow, I hadn’t fallen. And, as a bonus, I’d learned that there was no need to worry about anything regarding going downhill on skis other than the need to keep them pointed downhill.

Once I came to my stop, I turned and looked back up to the top, where Barrow was getting into position for his run.

“It’s perfect,” I yelled up.

And then, in another instant, he went over the edge, taking a similar line to mine and using the same technique. He, too, made it to the bottom unscathed. Success and more information for my story, I concluded. I could add a whole box or something about downhill cross-country ski technique, I reckoned. I recognized that I needed to take particular note of how we were doing it during our next few runs if I was going to come off as a real expert.

Once both of us were down at the bottom, we congratulated each other at having made it down successfully and on how awesome it was. Immediately, we began heading back up for another go. It took a few minutes to get up there, but there was no hesitation as we got to the top and instantly turned and headed back down. The second run was almost even better than the first since by then we knew what to expect and wasted no time on figuring out the technique since, by this point, we had that part down.

Then, just as we began side-stepping back up for our third descent, Jeff appeared.

We both yelled up at him, “the snow’s good. Just point your skis down, and you’ll come to a stop at the bottom. You don’t have to do anything.”

He didn’t need our encouragement and just skied up to the edge and went over without hesitation. From our new vantage point to the side, we were almost startled to see just how fast he got going as he zoomed past. He reached the bottom still upright and, as expected, slowed to a stop.

“Wow, that was good,” he said.

And then Barrow asked, “Did you get up close to the elk?”

“Not really,” he answered. “But I did ski up on some wolves, I think.”

“Coyotes, probably coyotes,” I was relatively sure in my response.

“No, they were way too big for that,” he confidently responded.

We ended up playing on the hill until we just got too tired to make another climb back up to the top. At that point, we just headed back to camp, skiing and crashing our way back down in way less time than it’d taken for us to get up there. After our day of skiing, we spent one more night camping. At that point, it became time for the second part of the trip. Phase 2 included staying in a warm house, and the opportunity for me to perfect my cross-country downhill Telemark turns at the local downhill ski area.

All in all, it was an almost perfect trip. During those few days of cold and snow, I had my first real taste of winter camping, learned some of the nuances of downhill skiing, and for the first time, might have been close to wolves. On the drive back to Texas, I tried to ponder the cold, pain, and numbness of the previous days. I wanted to be glad and content to be in my pickup truck with a good heater and on a road that was paved continuously for over a thousand miles. But each time I did, I thought back to one of our painful moments when I saw ski tracks heading quietly into a forest with wild snow-covered peaks calling my name and sounding just like wolves. It was then that I concluded that sometimes the rewards are worth a little pain.

Ascending a steep mountain ridge.
Practicing ice climbing near the top of Black Powder Pass

It was a good bit of naivety that got the three of us there- that and my Ford pickup. A thousand or so miles of driving took us from Texas up to Montana’s Glacier National Park, where we planned to live out our dreams of winter camping and cross-country skiing. We had the place pretty much to ourselves when we arrived, probably because it was January. We were alone when we pulled in, except for the two park rangers operating the Polebridge Ranger Station (where we entered the park) and the plethora of wildlife still out and about.

The group included me, David Barrow (from the Acapulco trip), and Jeff Isom, a “game for adventure” summer camp friend. We ended up selecting the destination, at least partly because of Texas friends who lived nearby, figuring that we could combine some winter outdoor adventure with a visit. It was our concept of a good, multi-faceted “ski trip.”

We arrived at our campsite in the full, mid-afternoon, and paltry winter sunshine of the northern Rockies. Thankfully, the road to Bowman Lake was snowplowed for a short distance from the entrance station, which allowed us to drive right up to our site in the otherwise empty campground. The foot of snow and vacant camping spaces combined with the strange lighting and magnificent mountain views to create the feel of being in the actual backcountry.

Since most of the park is closed in the winter, I’m not quite sure how we got into the campground, in the first place. It may have been merely that none of the park employees had ever considered the possibility of having campers, that time of the year. When I got the camping permit, I had the feeling that we were doing something that was permitted, only because no one had thought that there was a need to make it otherwise.

The temperature was still well up into the teens as we brushed the snow off of the picnic table and set things up for cooking supper. By the time it got dark around 4:30, we were finishing up with our evening meal, and by 5:00, we were snug in the relative warmth of our sleeping bags inside our tent. We hadn’t slept all that well on the trip up from Texas, so we were excited by the prospect of the uninterrupted 14-hour sleep that awaited.

I first awoke around midnight, ready to get the day started, but realized that it was a bit early and slipped back into a semi-conscious trance. By 8:00 a.m., it was starting to get light, and I had to get up and moving. And so, I climbed out of the tent and into a breathtakingly fresh morning. One of the positive aspects of the cold temperatures was that the snow on the picnic table and elsewhere did not quickly melt and get things wet. We knew that ice and snow were a necessary part of winter camping and sports. And we’d read about how important it was to not get it on the inside of your clothes, where it could lead to wetness and ultimately hypothermia. So, right off the bat, we decided to avoid that situation by not unduly messing with the fluffy stuff.

Barrow and Jeff soon joined me outside in the morning air. We didn’t bother with a campfire for various reasons, and that ultimately ended up helping us speed up our breakfast preparation. We were eager to get ourselves geared up and ready for an exciting and full day of cross-country skiing, which we assumed would be both fun and warmth-creating. In reality, none of us knew much about skiing, although Jeff and Barrow had both been downhill skiing before, I’d once spent a couple of hours cross-country skiing in Wisconsin, and we’d all done a bunch of reading about it. It sounded fun, and after doing all of our research, we felt well prepared and speculated positively about “how hard could it be?”

The same road that we drove into the campground on continued further on into the park. Since it was unplowed past the campground, it made for an exceptional ski route. We had each purchased and brought along brand new waxless cross-country track skis. We geared-up near the picnic table and somehow managed to put them on correctly. And we did so, even without heat other than the fragments of muted sunlight beaming through the tree limbs. We weren’t about to let finger numbness or cold toes get in the way of our plan. That, because we were having a good time winter camping in the wilds of Montana and were about to go cross-country skiing. As far as we knew, the pain that we were experiencing with our hands and toes was just “part of it.”

I was almost amazed and somewhat surprised when I looked down at my feet and saw the skis attached correctly. At that moment, I concluded that I had fulfilled my vision of camping in the snow and cross-country skiing. It was happening. We were geared up, in January, in the mountains, and about to ski into the wilderness. It didn’t seem to matter to any of us that the organized part of our winter cross-country ski trip plan ended right at that point. Since that trip, I’ve often wondered if we had realized at the time what we didn’t know, would we have done it anyway?

Once outfitted and ready, we stood motionless on the snow for a moment as though we weren’t quite sure what to do next, and quickly began to realize just how cold it was. That fact, combined with our excitement for seeing where the road/trail went when it left the campground, brought us to the abrupt conclusion that it was time to get moving. Conveniently, ski tracks led on up the road almost right from where we stood, and within only minutes, we were on our way.

The first half mile or so was almost flat as the road meandered into and through an ever-thickening forest. The low angle allowed us to cover a significant amount of distance relatively effortlessly. We were going slightly uphill, which thankfully slowed things down a bit. The forest was thick to either side and soon opened up and framed a distant and particularly magnificent peak. The only noise we heard was the swooshing of our skis as their sliding surfaces bit into the track, allowing us to continue moving forward. It was just how it’d been described.

Those first few minutes were subtly profound for me. The world around us was muted by the winter light, the quietness of the snow, the lack of wind, the low temperature, and the fact that there were no other people around. And at the same time, I felt a strong sense of enormity, complexity, and sharpness as I found myself in what I came to recognize as genuine wildness.

It occurred to me that the tracks we were following had been made by some anonymous and long-gone skiers and that with the arrival of spring, they would inevitably melt away. And at the same time, I realized that, in reality, trails are permanent and don’t depend on who or whatever made them, to continue to exist.

As we skied on up the road, I had the continual sense that eyes were staring at us, invisibly from somewhere far-off back in the trees. Clouds soon began rolling in and thickening up the sky. The air warmed, but not in a thawing way. A hawk screeched in the distance, and we rounded a corner and were treated to a whole new vista of big and magnificent peaks filling in the forest/picture frame in front of us.

After 30 minutes or so of shushing along, we arrived at the top of a gradual hill and decided to stop, turn, and have some downhill fun. We’d put in our work while kicking and only slightly gliding our way up, and it was time for some payback. And payback is what we got, although it wasn’t the fun kind that we’d envisioned. We stopped and turned to retrace and slide down 100 yards of our path, which essentially meant it was a downhill. Slot cars are what come to mind as I reflect on that first descent. Thank goodness the trail turned and flattened out when it did, which forced us to crash before we could reach terminal velocity because we certainly had no control of the skis. I don’t recall having any notion regarding how to manage downhill speed, to begin with, and just reckoned that part of it would somehow come naturally.

Those first crashes began the process of dashing any hopes that we’d been harboring regarding staying dry. Initially, we were just relieved that after each downhill run, we were still in one piece. Up to that point, the snow that entered every crevice of our tightly bundled bodies whenever we fell had been of no consequence. At first, we just brushed it away. But eventually, the bits trapped within our clothes began to melt. And after only a couple of crashes, I was starting to get noticeably damp and chilled. When I combined that with the physical pounding I was taking, I decided that falling and the kind of downhill that we were experiencing was not all that fun.

My two companions came to the same conclusion, and we decided that, in reality, it was the tracks that were creating the problem. We determined that we needed to find a downhill slope devoid of any. So, we proceeded up the road toward Bowman Lake, equipped with the mission of looking for a better place to slide out of control and crash.

We kicked and glided for another quarter of a mile. All the while, we looked to either side for an untrodden, open, and suitably sloped area for more downhill. Instinctively, a suitable landing area had also become a prerequisite.

Suddenly, the narrow, tree-shrouded roadway that we’d been skiing up opened into a humongous meadow, and what appeared to be an almost perfect downhill ski embankment sat near the road and to our left. At first sight, any apprehensions that we harbored regarding finding the right spot evaporated. We knew we’d found it and didn’t even hesitate as we worked our way over to its base.

The hill was about 20 feet tall with a moderate grade and a large and open flat area, or run-out, at the bottom. The forest stopped well back from the top, meaning that it stood mostly out and away from the big trees. There didn’t appear to be any visible obstructions along most of its slope. And that meant that there was plenty of space for turning and maneuvering, or whatever it was that people did, as they slid blissfully downhill. It seemed to be just the kind of spot we were looking for.

Instinctively, we side-stepped our way up and along the side of it to the top. Once there, the entire meadow came into view, and we saw a huge herd of elk almost overwhelming its northern edge, only 500 yards away from us. Steam rose in sporadic whiffs around the animals, rising from elk bodies warmed by either playful bantering or massive exhales. Thin clouds had taken over the sky, and snow flurries fell harmlessly and, since there was no wind to speak of, almost straight down.

I marveled at how the scene was becoming even more perfect all the while. First, the timing had come together that allowed the three of us to be there in the first place. Then, Jeff had miraculously recovered from his flu, or whatever it was he had on the way up. And the highway from Texas had been clear and the driving fast and easy. Also, we had the campground all to ourselves and had learned a lot about winter camping in only our first night out. And finally, we were about to solve the last piece of the cross-country skiing puzzle and do some real downhill. To top it all off, it was lightly and harmlessly snowing, a herd of elk was meandering around in the near-distance, and we were warmish. It was all going so well, that I began contemplating writing a magazine story about it—a sort of “how-to” about winter camping and skiing.

Since I had the least idea about how to ski down the hill, I got to go first. Jeff had time to spare until it was his turn. And since he was intrigued by the sight of the elk, he decided to take the opportunity to try to ski up near them through the trees and get a closer look. While I prepared for my run, he simply disappeared into the thickness of the forest.

I was a little surprised by just how long and steep the slope appeared from my vantage point on its upper edge. I looked down at the bottom once again and felt better about it as I once again noted the wide open and long “slowing down and stopping area” at the bottom. And so, with no further thoughts, I pushed off. I was amazed by how quickly I gained momentum as the slide got underway. There was no time to consider turning or controlling my speed. I crouched into a full downhill, Katie-bar-the-door, tucked position with skis pointed straight toward the bottom. The 20′ downhill was over in seconds as the run-out thankfully took over and brought me to a stop. Somehow, I hadn’t fallen. And, as a bonus, I’d learned that there was no need to worry about anything regarding going downhill on skis other than the need to keep them pointed downhill.

Once I came to my stop, I turned and looked back up to the top, where Barrow was getting into position for his run.

“It’s perfect,” I yelled up.

And then, in another instant, he went over the edge, taking a similar line to mine and using the same technique. He, too, made it to the bottom unscathed. Success and more information for my story, I concluded. I could add a whole box or something about downhill cross-country ski technique, I reckoned. I recognized that I needed to take particular note of how we were doing it during our next few runs if I was going to come off as a real expert.

Once both of us were down at the bottom, we congratulated each other at having made it down successfully and on how awesome it was. Immediately, we began heading back up for another go. It took a few minutes to get up there, but there was no hesitation as we got to the top and instantly turned and headed back down. The second run was almost even better than the first since by then we knew what to expect and wasted no time on figuring out the technique since, by this point, we had that part down.

Then, just as we began side-stepping back up for our third descent, Jeff appeared.

We both yelled up at him, “the snow’s good. Just point your skis down, and you’ll come to a stop at the bottom. You don’t have to do anything.”

He didn’t need our encouragement and just skied up to the edge and went over without hesitation. From our new vantage point to the side, we were almost startled to see just how fast he got going as he zoomed past. He reached the bottom still upright and, as expected, slowed to a stop.

“Wow, that was good,” he said.

And then Barrow asked, “Did you get up close to the elk?”

“Not really,” he answered. “But I did ski up on some wolves, I think.”

“Coyotes, probably coyotes,” I was relatively sure in my response.

“No, they were way too big for that,” he confidently responded.

We ended up playing on the hill until we just got too tired to make another climb back up to the top. At that point, we just headed back to camp, skiing and crashing our way back down in way less time than it’d taken for us to get up there. After our day of skiing, we spent one more night camping. At that point, it became time for the second part of the trip. Phase 2 included staying in a warm house, and the opportunity for me to perfect my cross-country downhill Telemark turns at the local downhill ski area.

All in all, it was an almost perfect trip. During those few days of cold and snow, I had my first real taste of winter camping, learned some of the nuances of downhill skiing, and for the first time, might have been close to wolves. On the drive back to Texas, I tried to ponder the cold, pain, and numbness of the previous days. I wanted to be glad and content to be in my pickup truck with a good heater and on a road that was paved continuously for over a thousand miles. But each time I did, I thought back to one of our painful moments when I saw ski tracks heading quietly into a forest with wild snow-covered peaks calling my name and sounding just like wolves. It was then that I concluded that sometimes the rewards are worth a little pain.

 

 

Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.