12 in 2012
Call for Adventure
The idea was simple yet challenging. It was enticing, adventurous. And our parents didn’t think we could do it. The project had a nice ring to it: “12 in 2012,” a Stuart Peak summit every month of the year.
Stuart Peak lies in the Rattlesnake Wilderness, the trailhead being only four miles from my doorstep. The hike itself has no technicalities, but the mountain rises slowly and is situated deep in the center of the glacially carved valley. Just under 8,000 feet in elevation, the peak towers nearly a mile over Missoula. Round trip, the hike is 16-18 miles, depending on which route is taken, and can take 5-10 hours depending on conditions and if the trail is dry enough to mountain bike the first four miles.
In 2011, my good friend, Chris Herrick, and I played with the idea of doing some kind of adventure that would be extremely challenging, yet feasible. We’d climbed several mountains previously, most of them much more technical than Stuart. Yet we’d only climbed during the summer. Winter excursions were a new thrill to us. We brainstormed several ideas, but once climbing Stuart once a month in 2012 was suggested, I knew that we’d found our adventure.
When I proposed the idea to my parents, they weren’t very fond of the idea. I remember getting into heated arguments frequently with my father about Stuart Peak. Looking back on it, I laugh to think that we would actually argue about climbing a mountain, but my dad, being the Chief Flight Nurse of Life Flight, had a reason to be cautious. He was never trying to smother our goals, but rather make sure we would come back in one piece, or at least come back at all!
Up and up and up: A brief summary of my most memorable Stuart Peak summits
I remember that night before our first climb of the project, Chris and I were jacked. We filmed awkward interviews of each other that we could incorporate into a video for the climb. We made disgusting cookies that would be high in caloric content to eat while hiking. That night was probably the first and only time I’ve ever been so giddy to wake up at 5:00 AM.
The next morning, it was pitch black when we pulled up to the trailhead to meet my burly friends that we convinced to join us. Shout out to Mac Sullivan, Drew Gottman, and Kate Saffel—the first Stuart crew.
We hiked through the frigid darkness for 3 hours before the sun glazed over the frosted forest and offered us a new perspective on a familiar landscape: a break in the trees showed us the entire Missoula Valley from above, with Mount Sentinel and Jumbo looking like folds in the earth rather than mountains.
We plodded our way to the top, our progress dramatically slowing once we strapped on our snowshoes. As we gained altitude, the temperature lowered and the visibility became poor. It was as if a thick fog had enveloped the last 1000 feet before the summit. ( A common occurrence I came to realize.) After a 6 hour push, we finally reached the summit. The weather was nasty so we didn’t spend very much time on top, but I recall feeling very mixed emotions. First being, “What the hell have we gotten ourselves into,” and “This is super cool!”
The trip down was faster, but as it got darker and colder, it seemed like the pain and fatigue from the time we’d spent on our feet got overwhelming at times. Needless to say, everyone was very excited and proud to get back to the car.
Our second Stuart Peak summit started similarly to the first. It was dark and extremely cold. But after about an hour into the hike, we realized it was going to be a drastically different day. The sun climbed above the Sheep Mountain ridge, and the sky became a brilliant blue with not a single cloud. I think I said the word “beautiful” over 50 times that day.
When Chris and I got to the last 300 feet before the summit, the scenery was incredible. A thick layer of frost hoar glistened like shattered glass under the low-lying winter sun. Although the air temperature was probably only 35 degrees, the sun reflected off the snow and it felt like 50.
Once we got to the summit, it was the breathtaking. The cold air allowed for visibility to extend 200 miles. We could pick out Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall, the Missions, the Swan, and even the Pintlers to the south. We celebrated the day by roasting sausages on the summit.
In March, we chose to carry our downhill boots, downhill skis, and snowshoes to the summit. Chris and my packs were extremely heavy and awkwardly weighted, so moving nimbly through the forest was really difficult. Mix that with a heinous snowpack, and you have the hardest day of hiking of my life!
It took us over 6 hours to reach the top, and only 2 to ski down.
Whenever I’m in pain on Stuart Peak, I think back to March, and I don’t feel as bad for myself anymore.
August was a prime summer day. We left from my house around 1 pm and it was already 90 degrees. I remember that I was instantly biking in only my running shorts and would lie down in any creek we passed by.
We quickly made it to the top and spent ample time on the summit. We had better things to do… Being extremely hot, we hiked down to the lake to take a dip. Normally, the lakes are quite nippy, but today was a miracle day. When we submerged ourselves into the lake, it was warm! The lake had become so low and baked by the sun that the water was actually comfortable to swim in. This was by far my best experience with a mountain lake, and a great day to be alive in the Rattlesnake Wilderness.
September was the only Stuart Peak summit that Chris and I broke into two days. We left late afternoon, and got up there around dusk. Because of the raging fire season this year, smoke sunk into every valley and low-lying area in Western Montana. Luckily, on the alpine summit of Stuart Peak, we were able to surface above the smoke and get a great view of the sunset.
We camped directly on top of the mountain, which has its pros and cons. The top offered great views, and the ability to say, “We climbed ON TOP of that mountain!” not that either of us would brag to our friends about camping on top of Stuart Peak anyway… The con being that the summit is windier and colder than any other spot on the mountain.
This past weekend was the last of our Stuart Peak hikes of 2012. I was hoping for a day as clear as February, but Mother Nature took control. Looking back on the hike, it was extraordinarily average.
I thought that the final Stuart Peak climb of 2012 would be more emotional, but once we got to the summit, it was hard to be emotional and celebrate because of the cold. But I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
After climbing Stuart so many times, I view the mountain more as a person, someone who never changes, only on the surface. The December expedition threw a lot at us in the form of conditions, but the mountain was the same as I’ll always remember it.
Conclusions, Post 12 in 2012
After accomplishing the 12 in 2012 project, I have a mix of emotions. I’ll miss climbing Stuart monthly. But I’m also glad to have done it and move on to larger and more technical things. After climbing it 12 times this year, and 3 times in 2011, it will be weird to take a break from the Mountain. It quickly became a constant in my life, and I looked forward to seeing how the mountain had changed during my month of absence.
The terrain became familiar, and felt like more of an extension of my home than a National Wilderness Area. But with familiarity comes boredom. As humans, we are always searching for something new and exciting. By climbing Stuart monthly, towards the later months it felt like I was coasting; almost numb to the surroundings.
After travelling 214 miles on Stuart, I’m proud to be done. It was an experience that I’ll definitely remember for my whole life, and it was a good foundation for future adventures to come. Stuart made me realize that I don’t want to lead an ordinary life, but rather a life full of new and exciting challenges around every corner, because I believe that boredom is the worst possible emotion to experience.
“When you stop doing things for fun you might as well be dead.”