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Breaking Trail with Lewis & Clark

Breaking Trail with Lewis & Clark

Features
By Jay Cowan
posted: 02/02/2004

Descended the mountain to Travellers rest leaveing these tremendious mountains behind us, in passing of which we have experienced cold and hunger of which I shall ever remember.

This is how Capt. William Clark described crossing the Lolo Pass area in Montana's Northern Rockies in September of 1805.

On their way back the following year, Clark, Meriwether Lewis and their Corps of Discovery expedition attempted to return through Lolo Pass by the same route in mid-June (mid-June!) when Clark wrote in his journal: "The Snow became So deep in every derection, from 6 to 8 feet deep, we could not prosue the road." It was the only occasion during Lewis and Clark's entire epic three-year journey across America's vast wilderness that these experienced woodsmen were forced to turn back. Welcome to Montana, guys.

I can testify that it hasn't changed much today on Lolo Pass, where I'm finding even deeper snow as it continues to storm hard. "Prosuing the road" is indeed becoming tough. But at least it's March, when I expect this kind of weather, and I'm driving an SUV. Of course, I won't be able to shoot and eat my SUV, as Lewis and Clark did three of their horses during their 1805 crossing. But I don't figure it will come to that.

Endless snow in September and June is not what the Corps wanted to discover, but it's very appealing to someone coming here to spring ski. Someone like me. Now that the nation has officially embarked upon the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which crossed America from 1803—1806, I thought it might be fun, and vaguely educational, to retrace one of the most important legs of their journey while also skiing some of my favorite local ski areas, which I haven't visited since childhood.

So I feel none of Lewis and Clark's despair over the frightful winter conditions. In fact, I'm loving the weather, even though I'm on my fifth straight day of driving through blizzards and beginning to wonder if I'll make it to the top of Lolo Pass on the Montana/Idaho border. Cars are spinning out all around me, the snowbanks are well over 20 feet high from the massive state highway department plows, and visibility is nil.

But this story really begins back near Helena, Mont., in the only Lewis and Clark County in America that is actually on the Lewis and Clark Trail. Just 20 miles from present-day Helena, the Corps of Discovery came up the mighty Missouri River in July of 1805 to find it flowing out of a sheer canyon so impressive that Lewis christened it The Gates of the Rocky Mountains. "These cliffs rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the hight of 1200 feet.... The river appears to have forced its way through this immence body of solid rock for the distance of 5 3/4 Miles...."

I find the cliffs, now known simply as The Gates of the Mountains, deeply layered under new snow and rising like apparitions into a gray, mottled sky. They are only about 20 miles from Great Divide ski area, and I'm anxious to stop driving. Over the past 24 hours, Great Divide has received 31.4 inches of snow. I've been there before, but there's a lot of new terrain, and I'm keenly interested in skiing it with nearly three feet of fresh.

As with many Montana ski areas, Great Divide began as a ski club venture, first starting its lifts in 1941. Today it has five chairlifts and 1,500 vertical feet, serving what has been described as the town with the most skiers per capita in America. Helena's business people, state government employees and outdoor-minded families will provide the bulk of the 85,000 skier visits this season. But I'm pleased to find that the bottom of the mountain is still a subsistence scattering of ski patrol hut, ticket office, rental shop and cafeteria, and it's brimming with the easy, eager enthusiasm you get when the ride isn't costing a fortune ($29 weekends, $19 weekdays).

Up on the slopes, I blast around the new trails served by the Wild West and Rawhide liftsn mid-thigh snow that's still largely unmolested and not too deep for the terrain. Ramblers like Wild West—peppered with short pitches and glades—and bowling-alley slots through the trees—such as Littles—are mostly populated by local boarders and free-heelers with silly grins on their faces. "One of the good things about a little area is you know all the hidden shots and where the best snow is," says my guide, Travis Crawford, a patroller, cat-driver and high-school senior, who leads me off into more untracked glades. His father, Tim, who owns a summer boat trip company at The Gates of the Mountains, is said to be one of the most knowledgeable people around on the subject of Lewis and Clark.

"I always tell people what great athletes Lewis and Clark were—young, strong and extremely dedicated," Tim Crawford says to me later. "With everything they overcame—the disease, injuries and bad medicine—I don't think too many people today could survive what they did."

From Helena to Dillon, the officially designated Lewis and Clark Trail heads south. You can cover in a few hours a distance that took them two weeks as they searched for the headwaters of the mighty Missouri, battling treacherous water, rampant prickly pear cactus and mosquitoes as thick as air. It was southwest of Dillon on Lemhi Pass on the Continental Divide where Lewis and a small party came to the dispiriting realization that they would find no navigable waterway, no fabled Northwest Passage across the continent, one of the major goals of their mission. Instead of seeing before them the great Columbia River basin descending toward the Pacific, as they hoped, all Lewis discovered was "immence ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered with snow."

One of those ranges was probably the Pioneers, and I turn west at Dillon and steer for those peaks across the vast Big Hole Valley on my way to Maverick Mountain. The snow has been pounding down all day, and when it occasionally abates, a steady ground blizzard hisses across the pavement like smoke from dry ice. Jackson Hot Springs, half an hour from Maverick, is home to a legendary Montana motel, bar and gourmet restaurant, and was also a rest stop for the Corps.

On their return from the West Coast in 1806, William Clark and his party ate here. "This spring...actually blubbers with heat for 20 paces below where it rises.... I direct Sergeant Pryor and John Shields to put each a piece of meat in water of different sizes..." And in this way they soon cook their meal. Though the water leaves the ground uphill from the lodge at a toasty 138.6 degrees, says proprietress Inge Peterson, it cools to an ideal 105 by the time it reaches the large pool. As I slow-boil myself under the snowy sky, I wonder if they would mind if I dunked a few bratwurst for dinner.

The next morning I bull through the ongoing storm on half-plowed roads and pull into Maverick Mountain. Mine is about the 20th car in the lot. For much of the season, Maverick only opens Thursday through Sunday, giving the place the feel of a private club. On the phone this morning, owner Randy Schilling told me they had two feet of new, and it was still coming down. Schilling has also added terrain this year, cleared through thick timber on steep hillsides, adding a lot of punch to what was already one of the nicest little undiscovered areas in the state. Maverick might do 10,000 skier visits in a good season. That's considered a very slow day at Vail. Local ranchers in their Carhartt coveralls fresh from feeding the cows, Patagoniaed kids from the junior college in Dillon, local carpenters and talc miners make up Maverick's mostly missing clientele. There are only a handful of them out whooping it up today. "This has to be the best skiing here in two or three years," a beaming Dave Miller from Dillon tells me. "Thursday is definitely the day around here," adds local speedster Josh Clinton, "because it's been closed for three days."

I canvass the new stuff on boulevard-like Thin Air, then something cagey called Ripper, which is full of saplings and not really open, followed by some laps on the rousing Widow Maker, perfect in billowing snow that gets deeper with each run. Old favorites like Rock and Roll are fully rippable: Sweet little pockets open up everywhere in the dense lodgepole pines. I rarely cross other tracks all day. The storm rolls through in waves, breaking briefly to reveal broad, monochromatic views of the Big Hole Valley, then settling in with more thick powder. The skiing is giggle-inducingly good, but by 3 p.m. I can see serious black clouds closing in from the direction I need to go, and I know it's time to leave. I figure I've gotten nearly 30,000 vertical feet of unblemished bliss using Maverick's lone old hydraulic double-chair.

A lacerating wind and horizontal snow accompany my drive back to Jackson Hot Springs. It's still storming the next morning as I depart, fortified by Inge's banana-nut-bread French toast. Lost Trail Powder Mountain is about half an hour away at an odd, three-way junction where Chief Joseph Pass meets Lost Trail Pass in the dramatic Bitterroot Range. Here I rejoin the 1805 Lewis and Clark route in what has been described as its most enigmatic phase.

After meeting Sacajawea's birth tribe and discovering—in a romance novel-sounding piece of serendipity—that its chief was her long-lost brother, the expedition was able to obtain desperately needed horses and a guide to take them through these rugged mountains. On Sept. 3, 1805, they camped on top of what would, in honor of their path-finding difficulties, come to be known as Lost Trail Pass. Of the next day, Clark wrote, "A verry cold morning everything wet and frosed, Groun covered with Snow..."And so it is when I arrive. Three feet of fresh snow, as it happens, atop an eight-foot base. Lost Trail consistently gets some of the best snow in Montana from storm systems that stall out over the strange vortex of peaks and passes and regularly bury the place. Appreciative locals, so uniformly chipper they could be straight out of Happy Days, hail primarily from the Bitterroot Valley to the north and Idaho's Salmon Valley to the south, and they've turned out strong on this snowy Friday. No wonder. Lost Trail is truly like a lost area from skiing's golden age. It feels like skiing did when you were little and the mountain was big and everyone was nice.

Longtime Lost Trail owner Bill Grasser, not surprisingly, is a big Lewis and Clark fan. He shows me on a mimeographed topo map where it is widely believed the Corps came up the southern, Idaho-side boundary of the ski area, right along runs called Upper Far Out and Meadow, past the tops of lifts 1 and 2, and spent the night somewhere on the upper part of the current ski area. "Then they went on up this ridge," says Grasser, tracing a line past the top of his new Saddle Mountain chair, "and around and down over here, about on our Sacajawea run."

I've always thought Lost Trail had great terrain to go with its bounty of snow, and for 2003 they doubled the size of the area with more than a dozen new runs on the Bitterroot side. At 1,800 vertical feet, these are the longest trails on the mountain. Still, I'm so fond of the original mountain that I make two quick face-shot laps down North Face, then fade into the beautiful channels, drops and canyons of North Bowl, where boarders are hucking filled-in cliffs while steep 10-turn openings are still untouched and waist-deep. Then a patrolman named Chinook Swindle takes me through some of the stash glades on the Idaho side, where I keep an eye peeled for Lewis and Clark's blaze on the big, sweet-smelling white pines and spruces. We wrap up the day with a survey of the new runs on the Bitterroot side and a rolling romp down the family-perfect Lewis and Clark slope.

The Lewis and Clark Trail continues down the Bitterroot Valley, as I do, to Traveler's Rest, just eys."

I canvass the new stuff on boulevard-like Thin Air, then something cagey called Ripper, which is full of saplings and not really open, followed by some laps on the rousing Widow Maker, perfect in billowing snow that gets deeper with each run. Old favorites like Rock and Roll are fully rippable: Sweet little pockets open up everywhere in the dense lodgepole pines. I rarely cross other tracks all day. The storm rolls through in waves, breaking briefly to reveal broad, monochromatic views of the Big Hole Valley, then settling in with more thick powder. The skiing is giggle-inducingly good, but by 3 p.m. I can see serious black clouds closing in from the direction I need to go, and I know it's time to leave. I figure I've gotten nearly 30,000 vertical feet of unblemished bliss using Maverick's lone old hydraulic double-chair.

A lacerating wind and horizontal snow accompany my drive back to Jackson Hot Springs. It's still storming the next morning as I depart, fortified by Inge's banana-nut-bread French toast. Lost Trail Powder Mountain is about half an hour away at an odd, three-way junction where Chief Joseph Pass meets Lost Trail Pass in the dramatic Bitterroot Range. Here I rejoin the 1805 Lewis and Clark route in what has been described as its most enigmatic phase.

After meeting Sacajawea's birth tribe and discovering—in a romance novel-sounding piece of serendipity—that its chief was her long-lost brother, the expedition was able to obtain desperately needed horses and a guide to take them through these rugged mountains. On Sept. 3, 1805, they camped on top of what would, in honor of their path-finding difficulties, come to be known as Lost Trail Pass. Of the next day, Clark wrote, "A verry cold morning everything wet and frosed, Groun covered with Snow..."And so it is when I arrive. Three feet of fresh snow, as it happens, atop an eight-foot base. Lost Trail consistently gets some of the best snow in Montana from storm systems that stall out over the strange vortex of peaks and passes and regularly bury the place. Appreciative locals, so uniformly chipper they could be straight out of Happy Days, hail primarily from the Bitterroot Valley to the north and Idaho's Salmon Valley to the south, and they've turned out strong on this snowy Friday. No wonder. Lost Trail is truly like a lost area from skiing's golden age. It feels like skiing did when you were little and the mountain was big and everyone was nice.

Longtime Lost Trail owner Bill Grasser, not surprisingly, is a big Lewis and Clark fan. He shows me on a mimeographed topo map where it is widely believed the Corps came up the southern, Idaho-side boundary of the ski area, right along runs called Upper Far Out and Meadow, past the tops of lifts 1 and 2, and spent the night somewhere on the upper part of the current ski area. "Then they went on up this ridge," says Grasser, tracing a line past the top of his new Saddle Mountain chair, "and around and down over here, about on our Sacajawea run."

I've always thought Lost Trail had great terrain to go with its bounty of snow, and for 2003 they doubled the size of the area with more than a dozen new runs on the Bitterroot side. At 1,800 vertical feet, these are the longest trails on the mountain. Still, I'm so fond of the original mountain that I make two quick face-shot laps down North Face, then fade into the beautiful channels, drops and canyons of North Bowl, where boarders are hucking filled-in cliffs while steep 10-turn openings are still untouched and waist-deep. Then a patrolman named Chinook Swindle takes me through some of the stash glades on the Idaho side, where I keep an eye peeled for Lewis and Clark's blaze on the big, sweet-smelling white pines and spruces. We wrap up the day with a survey of the new runs on the Bitterroot side and a rolling romp down the family-perfect Lewis and Clark slope.

The Lewis and Clark Trail continues down the Bitterroot Valley, as I do, to Traveler's Rest, just eight miles short of Missoula. It's here where I catch Highway 12 going west up Lolo Pass the next morning, with heavy snow still filling the sky. I'm relieved to gain the summit and a little surprised to find a new log-cabin visitor center and parking lot there, full of rigs pulling snowmobile trailers and SUVs disgorging backcountry skiers and boarders. The snow is nine feet deep on the roof of the nearly entombed Forest Service visitor center, where there are displays devoted to the Corps of Discovery on the walls. They point me toward a maintained cross-country loop to Packer Meadows, another well-known Lewis and Clark site.

The Missoula area has two good lift-served ski areas, Montana Snowbowl and Marshall Mountain, within half an hour of town and within hailing distance of the Lewis and Clark Trail. But for my last day of poking around in the explorers' tracks, I want to get away from developed ski areas and experience what it might have seemed like 200 years ago. Fat chance, with snowmobiles roaring everywhere. Soon, though, I've slipped off through the tall timber, the balsam firs, pitch pines and larch, onto a quiet trail under lowering skies, where it's possible to still imagine Lewis and Clark cleaning their guns and inventorying supplies while discussing the next day's plans. The expedition passed twice through the broad, 7,000-foot high Packer Meadows on its journey into history. Each time, the woodsmen were just trying to escape the snow and the mountains. And here I am, just trying to get deeper into both.

Too bad Lewis and Clark weren't skilled in a popular Scandinavian custom for sliding on snow that had been around for two millennia, even then. But on June 28, 1806, as they were returning home, near this very spot, with the snow as deep then in late June as it is now in early March, Clark begins to understand. He writes that the snow makes going over rocks and fallen timber much easier and concludes like any good skier: "certain it is that we travel considerably faster on the Snow than without it." st eight miles short of Missoula. It's here where I catch Highway 12 going west up Lolo Pass the next morning, with heavy snow still filling the sky. I'm relieved to gain the summit and a little surprised to find a new log-cabin visitor center and parking lot there, full of rigs pulling snowmobile trailers and SUVs disgorging backcountry skiers and boarders. The snow is nine feet deep on the roof of the nearly entombed Forest Service visitor center, where there are displays devoted to the Corps of Discovery on the walls. They point me toward a maintained cross-country loop to Packer Meadows, another well-known Lewis and Clark site.

The Missoula area has two good lift-served ski areas, Montana Snowbowl and Marshall Mountain, within half an hour of town and within hailing distance of the Lewis and Clark Trail. But for my last day of poking around in the explorers' tracks, I want to get away from developed ski areas and experience what it might have seemed like 200 years ago. Fat chance, with snowmobiles roaring everywhere. Soon, though, I've slipped off through the tall timber, the balsam firs, pitch pines and larch, onto a quiet trail under lowering skies, where it's possible to still imagine Lewis and Clark cleaning their guns and inventorying supplies while discussing the next day's plans. The expedition passed twice through the broad, 7,000-foot high Packer Meadows on its journey into history. Each time, the woodsmen were just trying to escape the snow and the mountains. And here I am, just trying to get deeper into both.

Too bad Lewis and Clark weren't skilled in a popular Scandinavian custom for sliding on snow that had been around for two millennia, even then. But on June 28, 1806, as they were returning home, near this very spot, with the snow as deep then in late June as it is now in early March, Clark begins to understand. He writes that the snow makes going over rocks and fallen timber much easier annd concludes like any good skier: "certain it is that we travel considerably faster on the Snow than without it."

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