Sunday, August 3, 2014

Hiking to St. Mary's Peak: Near Victor, MT

It's been a while.  More than a while, over a year since I have written here.  A lot has happened and I have thought to write many times but didn't.  The reasons aren't important.  I'm back now.  I may go back and cover some of what I missed...I may not.  But this is a good place to start.

On Friday I say to D,  "Maybe we could go for a hike tomorrow".  He says okay.  We have a book of all of the trails - which are numerous - in our area.  At dinner, we mention to our friends that we are considering a hike and Steven suggests St. Mary's.  There is a lookout tower at the top.  I assume he has been up there.  I assumed wrong.  Later I find out they had only heard people talk about this trail, they had never actually done it themselves.

We arrive at the trailhead about 9:15 after an 11 mile drive on a pothole-filled, rocky dirt road.  David said he felt nauseated from his breakfast sloshing around so violently.  He has the aforementioned book with him and has read that the hike is rated as "moderate", that there is a spring a little over a mile in and the wilderness boundary is a little over two miles.

The lookout is at 3.8 miles according to this sign and the book.  Remember, that is one way.
We have hiked much further than that since moving here and I don't feel any concern that I can't do that distance.  But we are still at the car.  The hike isn't what I consider scenic in that you are mostly in the trees.  A lot of the hikes here run next to a river, creek or lake so there is a view of and the sound of the water.  The trees are pretty thick and you can't see out across the mountains or the towns below other than during occasional breaks.  Not that I am looking around much.  The trail is steep and in places, very rocky.  At one point D checks some app he has and the trail is at an 11 degree incline.  I would think that somewhere between 8-12 degrees was pretty consistent the whole time.  There was one area where you level out a bit but it doesn't last long.  I do try to enjoy the beauty of this trail, even if it isn't what I expected, as much as I can while I am stopping for very frequent breaks to catch my breath. 
There are a lot of trees here that have either burned or have had some type of disease.  The bark is gone and there is a distinct twisting to the trunks and branches.
Several varieties of wildflowers grow along the trail.  There are differences in what we see at the bottom compared to what is at the top.
This one I actually know the name of:  Beargrass.  I'm not sure why it is called that but I am on alert for bears and have my bear spray with me.  On the trip down I see something black standing with its front paws up against a tree and my heart jumps a little as I think it might be a bear.  It turned out to be a big black dog.
As I mentioned, I am taking a LOT of breaks.  I liked to think that I was fit enough for this but that is clearly not the case.  Maybe the altitude is a factor but I don't know.  I have never been this high before.  I am pretty sure I have never been as high as where we started the hike at about 6800 feet.  All the years I lived in the Dallas are I was close to sea level.  I have only lived here 18 months and our house is at about 3600 feet.  I get winded quickly and my legs feel like lead.  And did I mention this trail is steep?
It's a little hard to tell that D is in this photo due to the color of his clothes.  He is right to the tree line.  Probably wishing he hadn't brought me along.
By the time we reach the wilderness boundary I feel really worried about the food and water situation.  We both have water on us but only about 20 oz each.  I had breakfast consisting of 1/2 of an English Muffin and a little peanut butter about an hour before we left the house (not even close to enough considering what we are burning).  I have a Kashi bar in my backpack.  D has a package of 8 cheese crackers and a protein bar.  We left the trailhead about 9:30 am.  It is pushing noon.  I feel weak and shaky.  I am stopping more frequently.  I have consumed about half of my water and hate to use more because we aren't to the top and we still have the walk down to consider.  D has already shared 1/2 of his crackers with me.  The voice inside my head is busy making mental lists of things I hate at the moment:
  • My hiking stick
  • My shoes
  • My pants (which are too big and too long)
  • My backpack
  • Bumble Bees and Horseflies
  • Rocks
  • Dirt
  • The voice inside my head
We meet a couple going the other way and she tells us we are about an hour from the lookout tower.  She says they have been coming down for 45 minutes. 
In the distance I spot a lake.  One of the bright spots on this part of the trail for me as I am more and more tired.  The book says this trail is best in late September because the haze common to this time of the year here will be gone.  Today is one of those hazy days.
The couple said that when we clear the tree line we will see the tower.  We will lose it in the switchbacks in the final part of the trail but at least you know you are almost there.
I SEE IT!  No really, it is up there at the top of that ridge.
We are a little closer. D says that when we get to this next part he thinks it will level out.  That gives me hope because I am still stopping constantly and feeling weaker and weaker.  Putting one foot in front of the other feels so hard.
It doesn't level out.  And it is time for a confession.  I have tried to get D to hike ahead and I will catch up.  I feel terrible.  My body is tired and achy.  I am dehydrated.  I am hungry.  On this part of the trail he could see me if he looked back and there is not likely to be a bear around and if there was, I have the spray.  About 20 people and half a dozen dogs have caught and passed us.  I feel like I am going to cry and have felt that way for a little while now.  I even put my sunglasses on so he wouldn't see if I did.  We stop and I drink some water and try again to get him to go on.  I really want to be left alone in my misery.  He refused.  I cry.  He can't help but see. 
I had this exact sensation once before.  I was in the hospital and they had given me anesthesia and I felt like I was going to cry.  I told the nurse and she said - go ahead, it does that to some people.  So, I choose to believe that altitude sickness does that to me.  It makes me cry.  It helps to let it go because holding it in the last little while has made it harder to breathe.  D suggest we head down.  NO WAY.  It is right there.  I can do this.
And I do.  And it finally levels out.  It is also 62 degrees here at the top so it feels great, almost cold with the wind.
Officially the top at 9335 feet.
Truthfully, since my cry, I feel a lot better.  I know I can make it back, regardless of the food and water situation.  It won't be easy but I feel confident I can do it.  Without stopping or complaining.  In my defense, I tried to keep the complaining to a minimum.  I didn't always succeed, but I tried.
The gentleman manning the watchtower lets me take some photos inside while we talk.
He has a small stove and a box of what appears to be dried meals.  There is a very small mirror on the wall in case he wants to see himself or shave?  There are measuring cups hanging from a nail.  The space is very small and this is his entire living/sleeping area.
Nice view from the bed though.
This is the scope he uses when there is smoke.  He said you look through this end and line up the smoke with the cross hairs on the other side.  Then you take the compass heading along the outer ring and call to Hamilton (the nearest town of any size) with the information.  Then you try to pinpoint the exact location of the fire by using the map and counting peaks or using other landmarks.
He also has this map that folds down from the ceiling.  He is showing how using a string that comes from the location of his tower he can cross reference that with the information from other towers to try and get an exact location of the fire.
I don't get to ask most of the questions I have.  His phone rings and he takes the call (which appears to be a personal call) so I leave the tower to look around before we head down.  I did have a lot of questions though:
  • How long do you stay up here at a time?
  • How do you get your supplies up here?
  • What do your supplies consist of?
  • What does one do to get this job?
  • Do you like your job?
  • Do you ever get bored?
  • Do you like that people hike up here to your "house" or do you wish we would all just stay away and leave you alone?
  • What's it like when storms come?
  • How many fires have you personally seen?
  • Do you have lights or do you simply go to bed when it gets dark?
  • What if you have to go to the bathroom and it is dark?
  • What if you have to go to the bathroom and people are here?
There IS a toilet.  In this photo it is a wooden seat to the right in the bushes.  It isn't well concealed, there are no walls, no door.  Anyone would see you sitting there.  The direction it faces ensures you would see someone coming well before they saw you but still.  I couldn't do it.  I don't even want D in the next room when I am in the bathroom.  But, he might have the best view ever.  No need for reading material.
Time to head down.  There are 4 college-age girls that pass us on the way up and I let them pass on the way down.  They talk non-stop.  I don't want to go down the mountain listening to these chatty cathys the whole way.  D and I don't talk any more than needed most of the time when we hike.  I like to hear the birds and the wind.
The trip down is much easier than the trip up and we do make it with almost no stops.  The only problem with going back down is that every few hundred feet a bumble bee or horsefly will come to check you out by trying to fly in your ear.  I have to take off my ball cap to swat them away.  They are persistent and annoying.  When we see the spring I feel almost elated.  I really have felt fine since I cried and D shared half of his protein bar with me but I am very tired and ready to be at the car.  It took us about 3 1/2 hours to hike up and just over 2 hours to hike down.  We learned a lot on this hike, mostly about what not to do.  And I learned that one person's "moderate" is another person's "strenuous".
We are filthy, tired, hungry and thirsty.  Unfortunately there is still the drive back down the 11 mile road where you feel like your spleen is being relocated before we can stop at the nearest place to eat, a Subway.  I am sleepy and since I drove up, D is driving down.  But what I really feel more than sleepy is a sense of calm.  Maybe I needed to push myself that far.  Maybe I needed to cry for no reason.  I am happy that I made it to the top, even if it was hard. 
My friend Joanne asked if it was worth it. 
When you are standing on top of the world, it is hard not to feel that it is worth it.

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