The wolverine tracks were a good sign. You don’t come across those in too many places these days. Wolverines, you see, don’t take kindly to civilization and all our man-made mess. They simply bail for lesser known, less traveled places. Like Hellroaring Creek on the northern flank of the Centennial Mountains.
Never heard of the Centennials? Neither had anyone we told of our plan to explore them. Having read one too many tales of globe-trotting snowboard adventure¿”Railing in Russia,” “Indys in Iceland,” “Jibbing in Japan,” “Pow in the Pyrennees”¿we simply wanted to do a common man’s trip into a local range. Popping for a spendy plane ticket and an incurable case of jet lag wasn’t requisite to finding the goods. In fact, we knew there was an abundance of amply obscure four-percent snow lurking in our very backyard.
Bridging the Idaho-Montana border, the Centennials run east-west from Henry’s Fork to the sleepy metropolis of Lima, Montana. Along the northern side of the range lies Red Rock Lakes, one of the country’s first National Wildlife Refuges established back in the 30s¿a watering hole for Sandhill cranes and other graceful fauna. On a reconnaissance trip to the area a few years back, I was awed by this sizable Alpine upthrust. Big-mountain lines punctuated by igneous cliffbands. First descents for the taking¿two hours from home.
Troy Kindred, a hardcore backcountry rider and snowboarding coach out of Jackson Hole, was our plan’s instigator. Reid, a friend of his from West Yellowstone, had launched a touring operation with a hut in the heart of the Hellroaring Creek drainage. It was just a matter of pulling together a crew of riders and setting dates.
Unfortunately, Troy busted his ankle a few weeks before the trip and wasn’t able to see his idea come to fruition. Next year, Troy¿we all want to go back.
With a few calls, we had a party of Montana homeboys and a ringer from Wyoming assembled. Chris Ankeny and Nel Boshoff both rip and, well, live around the corner from my house. Ross Peterson, from up Missoula way, sounded game to slog for some grade-A snow. And John Griber, from Jackson, appreciates sweat-equity turns like few others. Lensman Bob Allen and mountain-guide Reid Sanders rounded out our crew.
We postponed our initial blast-off date due to considerable avalanche danger. Four feet of snow and 60-mile-per-hour winds made for death slabs throughout the region. That ended up being a good call.
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We ditched our trucks in a snow-choked corral at the end of the plowed road. From there we loaded our packs, boards, and related stuff onto sleds and were pulled by snowmobiles another seven miles into Alaska Basin. After the shuttle sleds pulled away, we stood in the windy, wide-open flats at the base of Nemesis Mountain. Things got real quiet.
We divvied up the remaining food, gear, and beer to make sure no one was getting away with a less-than-60-pound pack. At Reid’s recommendation, we all used short-approach skis with climbing skins instead of snowshoes¿a critically wise choice considering we broke a lot of trail and ascended massive vertical over the next five days.
Trudging through a stand of aspen on our way up Windy Pass, it became apparent the next four miles were going to be hard earned. Ross got the “Gypsy Wagon” award for having a box of Cabernet perched atop his 5,000-cubic-inch pack and a sixer of Tecate duct-taped to the side¿a real Grapes Of Wrath statement.
We climbed, we descended, and we climbed again. We groaned under hedonistic loads. Though gravity is generally a snowboarder’s best friend, during our approach gravity kicked our collective asses. Nel, on skis for the first time, was particularly entertaining to watch on the downhills. His pack served to pile-drive his head into the snow at the bottom of moderate pitches. Fact is, we all sampled a slice of hummble pie.
It was one of those meteorologically bizarre days¿the sun was breaking through, but large flakes dumped down nonetheless. Pale-blue sucker holes afforded regular glimpses of the surrounding mountains as we contoured upward. Before finally reaching the hut, we crossed two dicey avalanche paths. One had recently run, and the fallout covered a surprisingly wide swath. Cautiously, we proceeded one by one.
Getting on toward dusk, we stumbled upon our base camp¿two adjoining cabin-style wall tents that were, at this point in the season, surrounded by a ten-foot wall of snow. Held up by a frame of hand-peeled logs, this backcountry oasis sported two wood stoves, propane cooking and lighting, bunks with fat foam pads, five skylights, and¿no joke¿green wall-to-wall carpeting. By any winter camping standards, we’re talking ultra-plush. I cut limes for the Tecates while Bob stirred up a pesto linguini.
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Like most of our mornings, we awoke to overcast, dumping skies. After downing copious amounts of high-speed French roast, we set off. Reid cut a steep skin track that led us to the false summit of Miner’s.
Strapping the approach skis to our packs, we mounted our boards and dropped. Snow billowed past our ears as we banked in and out of gnarled old-growth firs. At the bottom, we reveled in the good value of the experience. (“Good value” is a nonscientific measure that weighs the sweat of ascent in relation to the quantity and quality of the turns. It’s a concept we visited frequently over the next few days.)
After a couple-three runs we stopped to inhale some food. In a matter of minutes, the socked-in skies began to break. What had been near-blizzard conditions for most of the a.m. quickly transformed into an azul p.m. Above us we saw the emerging silhouettes of snow-ghost trees. Red, chalky cliffbands provided contrast to the stacked-up ridges. To the east, the summit of Mt. Jefferson began to bare its teeth.
Like Muslims to Mecca, we began marching toward the peak. The higher we got, the more the wind had etched the snow into rippled textures. Late in the day, above a sea of clouds, we stood atop Jefferson. A glorious descent of over 3,000 feet lay between us and the hut. Malt beverages and elk chili were calling. It was time to point it.
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The days began to blend into an existential midwinter blur. Strong java followed by hell-bent climbs followed by blower cold smoke and feathery plumage. Whiteout mornings followed by clear, luminous afternoons. Arduous hikes and hideous hucks. Splitting wood and sleeping good. Tongue wedged in his cheek, Griber threw down the gauntlet: “We have to kill it like every day is our last.” And we did.
Obscure mountain ranges have a distinct magnetism. Aside from the wolverine tracks, the only others we saw were our own. As Pat (one of the hut proprietors) told us, in twenty years of touring around this range, he’d never run into anyone else making turns. In more ways than one, we were merely scratching the surface of the Centennials.
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