So it was just Dan and I. The Wife was out of town, the Boys were sleeping in—so we loaded up and made our way up to Big Sky and the Beehive Basin trailhead.
It was a pretty straight-forward approach—follow the trail, punch through the snow in a bit, slap on the snowshoes, wish for skis, and then on up into the low-hanging gray of what’s affectionately called “sprinter”—the Jekyll and Hyde-ish mix of sun and snow that is fairly typical this time of year in Montana’s mountains.
Reaching the still completely covered alpine lake, we skirted around to the left side and started to ascend the steeper scree slopes that would lead us to the Fourth of July Couloir—our route for today. We’d discussed going up to the east and summiting via the ridge line, but conditions were just sloppy enough to make that feel like less than a good idea.
We’d been crossing from time to time what looked like a few sets of tracks on our way up, and then, just around the corner from our route, we saw them—three other climbers who were descending from the far side of the narrow valley. We pushed on up and over a short climb and met them as they came back down to the middle of the valley.
“Do you guys know where the Fourth of July Couloir is?”
“Just follow us”, we replied, as we headed up and to the left, now relying on a heady mix of dead reckoning, past experience, and a little GPS love for good measure.
The trio was exploring the basin for the first time as preparation for a trip to climb in Peru, so we graciously allowed them to break trail up the couloir as part of their training. Arriving at the base of the final scramble to the summit, we gave them first dibs on the short, ice-covered lead as well before following each other up into the clouds and wind.
The rest of the ascent was a little more spicy than the last time we’d climbed this in late summer. The addition of slush and snow and cornices made kicking steps up and around to the top a carefully considered exercise in patience and thoughtful foot placements. All in all though, it was the perfect amount of excitement for a Saturday morning outing. The camaraderie of new friends and sheer joy of being in the mountains—regardless of the weather—kept all of us attentive and chatty as we worked our way back down to the rap station.
The descent was uneventful. The clouds never parted, other than the occasional sucker hole, so we simply kept on kicking steps back down to our waiting snowshoes and then on through the ever-worsening snow conditions. At this point in the day (mid-afternoon), the snowpack had been greenhoused enough that the three without snowshoes were punching though and post-holing with nearly every step. We never heard them complain though—a testament to the fortitude of the those who choose to spend their weekends schlepping through alpine snowfields instead of mowing suburban lawns. Not always the wisest decision, but typically much more rewarding.
A mile or two before we reached the car and trailhead, the sun broke through the thick clouds and the cerulean blue skies of Montana spring finally showed up like we’d hoped for. At this point though, it was more of a hinderance than a help. The reflected solar energy cooked any exposed skin and I gritted my teeth, lamenting the lack of lip balm. These early season shakedown trips are great to work out the kinks of a long winter, but sometimes the consequences of hurried packing and not thinking through everything are painful. In spite of the red nose, we were glad to have put in the time to come out and climb.. Such a beautiful part of the world—every season is different here, and every trip into this basin is worth the effort in different ways.