Winter Camping in Montana

Winter camping and cross country skiing in Glacier National Park.

Ultimate Climbing set 2 024
Winter-like Camping

It was mostly naivety that got the three of us to where we were to begin with. That and my Ford pickup. A thousand or so miles of driving had taken us from Texas and then up into Montana’s Glacier National Park, where we planned to live out our dreams of winter camping and cross-country skiing. Since it was January, we had the place pretty much to ourselves, except for the two park rangers who were manning the Polebridge Ranger Station (where we entered the park) and the plethora of wildlife still out and about, such as elk and Gray Wolves.

My companions for the trip included longtime friend David Barrow and Jeff Isom, a “game for adventure” summer camp friend who did it all despite being on the tail-end of a flu/cold/fever event. We ended up selecting our destination at least partly because of Texas friends who lived nearby, figuring that we could combine some winter outdoor adventure with a visit. In two short words, it was our concept of a good “ski trip.”

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

Since most of the park is actually closed in the winter, I’m not quite sure how we got into the campground to begin with. It may have simply been that none of the park employees had ever considered the possibility of having campers that time of the year. I remember getting the camping permit from the two men at the entrance station and getting the feeling that we were doing something that was legal only because no one had thought that there was a need to make it illegal.

The temperature was still well up into the teens as we brushed the snow off of the picnic table and got things set 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 of our balmy tent. Since we hadn’t slept all that well on the trip up from Texas, we welcomed the solid 14 hour sleep that awaited us.

I first awoke around midnight, ready to get the day started, but realized that it was a bit early and went back into my semi-conscious trance. By 8:00 am it was starting to actually get light and I simply had to get up and moving. And so, since I’d not yet learned the value of waiting to do so until the sun was actually beginning to warm things up, I climbed out of the tent and into a breathtakingly fresh morning. The nice part about the cold temperatures was that the snow on the picnic table and elsewhere was mostly not melting and getting things wet. We’d learned that ice was good for winter camping and sports unless you got it on the inside of your clothes, in which case it would likely melt and get you wet which could then lead to hypothermia or freezing to death.

Barrow and Jeff, soon joined me outside in the morning air. We didn’t bother with a campfire for various reasons, which 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 would warm us up. None of us really knew anything about the activity that we’d come there to do, although Jeff and Barrow had both been downhill skiing before, I’d once spent a couple of hours cross-country skiing in Wisconsin during a seminar, and each of us had been 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?”

We’d each purchased and brought along brand new waxless cross country track skis for the trip. The same road that we’d driven into the campground on continued on into the park. And since it was unplowed past the campground, appeared to be an exceptional ski route.

We were able to put on our skis, despite the fact that there was no real external heat other than the bits and pieces of muted sunlight that were beaming our way through overhanging tree limbs. We weren’t about to let finger numbness or cold toes get in the way of our plan, 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 a normal part of the experience and was to be expected. I was almost amazed and somewhat surprised when I looked down at my feet and saw the skis actually attached to my ski boots, correctly I assumed.

At that moment, I concluded that my vision of camping in the snow and cross-country skiing had been fulfilled. It was happening. We were geared up, in the mountains, and about to ski into the wilderness. It didn’t seem to matter to any of us that the verbalized part of our winter cross-country ski trip plan ended right at that point. That was likely because we each assumed that one of the others did in fact know basic things about what we were about to do like how to operate the skis, what frostbite looked like, or how to repair a broken ski if it hit a rock 3 miles out into the backcountry. Since that trip, I’ve often wondered that if we’d realized at the time what we didn’t know, would we have done it anyway?

Once geared up and ready to go, not knowing exactly what to do next we stood motionless on the snow and quickly began to realize just how cold it was. That fact, combined with our excitement for seeing where the road/trail went as it left the campground, brought us to the abrupt conclusion that it was simply 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.

Thankfully, the first half mile or so was virtually 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 uphill, which slowed things down a bit, but only slightly. The forest  became thick to either side but soon opened up and framed-in a distant and particularly magnificent peak. The only noise that 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, void of human noise, and  frozen into a sort of suspended animation. The silence of the snow and lack of wind further added to the impression. I suddenly felt very small and a strong sense of enormity, complexity, and sharpness developed as I found myself in the midst of what I came to recognize as true wildness.

I recognized that the track we were following had been made by some anonymous and long-gone skiers and would soon enough melt away. And at the same time, I was struck by the realization that actual trails are permanent and don’t depend on who or whatever made them in order to continue to exist. I concluded that while it was a good bet that there were not likely any other skiers up ahead, we were enveloped by a dynamic and vibrant world that was crisscrossed by a trail and very much alive.

After 30 minutes or so of shushing along, we arrived at the top of a gradual, but grinding 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 uphill to where we were and it’d finally become time for some payback. And that’s exactly what we got, although it wasn’t the fun kind we were envisioning. We stopped and turned to retrace and slide down 100 yards of our path, essentially getting in a little 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, forcing us to crash before we could reach terminal velocity, because we certainly had no control of the skis. In fact, 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 and/or avoiding potential hypothermia. We were initially relieved to discover that, other than the physical pain associated with flexing seldom used muscles while trying to stop followed by the inevitable ground impact of our bodies, that once we got back up on our feet we found ourselves still in one piece. The snow that entered every crevice of our tightly bundled bodies whenever we fell was of no consequence and was easily brushed away, at least until the bits that were somehow trapped within our clothes began to melt. After only a couple of crashes, I was beginning 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 also came to the same conclusion and we decided that the tracks were actually the issue. We determined that all we needed do in order to make downhill skiing fun was to find a slope devoid of any of those. And so, we proceeded on up the trail equipped with the new mission of looking for a better place to slide out of control and crash.

We kicked and glided for another quarter of a mile, looking all the while to either side for an untrodden, open, and suitably sloped area for some more downhill. Instinctively, a good landing area had also become a prerequisite, although it wasn’t openly mentioned as a point of consideration.

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

The hill was about 20 feet tall, had a moderate grade, and a wide open flat area at the bottom. The forest stopped well back from the top, which meant that it stood mostly away from the big trees. There weren’t any visible obstructions along a broad area of its slope, so that there was plenty of space for turning and  maneuvering or whatever it was that people did while sliding blissfully downhill. One quick look and we knew that it was just the spot that we’d been looking for.

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

I marveled at how the scene was getting more perfect all of the while. I thought about how the timing had come together that allowed the three of us to even be there to begin with. And then, there were the facts that we had the campground all to ourselves, had learned so much about winter camping in only our first night out in Montana and had figured out how to cross-country ski. And now, we were about to do some real downhilling, a bunch of elk were meandering around off in the distance, and to top it all off 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 in position to go first. Jeff had time to spare until it was his turn and since he was really intrigued by the sight of the elk, decided to take the opportunity to see if he could ski through the trees over near them 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 speed. I crouched into a full downhill, Katie bar the door, tucked position with skis pointed straight down 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 result of it all, 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. “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 realized that I was really going to have to be aware of the various details of how we were doing it during our upcoming runs, if I was going to come off as a true expert.

Once we were both down at the bottom, the two of us congratulated ourselves on making it down and on how awesome it all was and then immediately 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 almost immediately headed back down. The second run was almost even better than the first, since by then we knew what to expect and had the technique down.

Just as we began side-stepping back up for our third descent, Jeff appeared at the top.

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 really have to do anything.”

He didn’t appear to need our encouragement and just seemed to get up to the edge and go 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 on his feet and skis and, just 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 and finally 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 to the meadow. We spent one more night out winter camping and then decided that it was time for phase 2 of the trip which would include staying in a warm house with running water and a chance for me to test out my newly learned downhill techniques at the local downhill ski area.

Other than Jeff getting cutoff from getting to ski up closer to the elk by the pack of coyotes or wolves or whatever they were, we got to do all kinds of good stuff and learned a lot. All in all, it was an almost perfect trip.

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

 

 

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.