Backpacking the Rattlesnake Wilderness

Finally spring break has arrived! It is time to replace the textbooks and study guides for trail maps and hiking boots. To start the week off I decided to load up the backpack and hit the rattlesnake wilderness with my buddy James. We planned on packing in about 8 miles on our first day, and then hitting the peak the second day, followed by our descent on the third and final day. It was a well thought out plan that would have worked out beautifully if it was not for a few tiny problems.

James and I at the trailhead pre-hike.

Now I am was born an east coast boy and I have not been accustomed to the ridiculous climate that the western states have. So in saying that, when we started hiking it was a mild 55 degrees out and looked to be steadily climbing. Now I forgot to mention that we were also gaining 5000 feet in elevation during this hike/trek, so bear this in mind as you continue to read. Anyways we started hiking at about 1 in the afternoon, and not 20 minutes into our excursion it started to rain/snow. This was nothing really and did not dampen our spirits, although it did dampen our clothing and packs. After the wintry mix concluded the sun came out and dried us out in time for the next bit of precipitation. This time though it was hail. Now it was not large, but the fact remains it was hail!

A good hatchet is a great backpacking companion.

After our brief encounter with the hail we continued on. We started to hit some serious elevation gain about an hour and a half into the journey, we took it slow and enjoyed the good hard work. Then we met our first fellow hiker who was coming back down. As he walked towards me I noticed that his boots and pants were pretty wet which seemed a little strange. After we met and exchanged names and other backpacker info, he then informed me that he have turned around without reaching his destination because the SNOW was too DEEP. Great, this is exactly what I wanted to here. Anyways we pushed on and soon found out that our fellow hiker was not lying. We hit snow with still about 3 miles of intense hiking to go. With our pace reduced and break periods increased we continued onward and upward. After hours or grueling hiking in what appeared to be 30-40 inches of snow (increasing with elevation) we finally decided to stop and make camp. I also forgot to mention that the temperature had now dropped below freezing and the wind had also come out to play.

We figured there was about 50 inches of snow at our first campsite.

As soon as I got my tent set up I grabbed my sleeping back and crawled in for a nap. I woke up to the sound of James chopping some fire wood and making a fire. I put on all the clothes that I had brought (not many) and went out to join him. Fortunately the wind had died down, but the temperature was still dropping. We made a fire, cooked dinner, and then I hit the sack hoping that the next day would be full of sun and warmth.

Making fires on the snow is a tricky business. We woke up the next morning and found the ashes about 4 feet down in the snow!

I woke up the next morning the with the sun shining, which was a lovely feeling. James and I enjoyed a breakfast of oatmeal and pop tarts and then hit the trail. We decided to just leave our camping gear and do the rest of the journey as a day hike. We made it about 3/4 our a mile until we hit the north facing side of the mountain and started sinking down to our thighs in the snow. This unfortunately was as far as we could go. We had to turn around with our destination in sight, so close yet so far away. We journeyed back to camp and tried to figure out what to do with the rest of our time. After getting back to camp we decided to move it all to the ridgeline where we could at least get a view.

Some of the visible peaks from our campsite.

We made camp number 2 and then just bummed around camp for the rest of the day trying to stay warm and out of the wind. The warmest place for me was my sleeping bag, so I took a nice nap or tried to anyways.

My tent placement for camp site number two made for some beautiful vistas.

The day ended with another fire side meal and a few night pictures of the surrounding area.

Missoula in the distance was a spectacular view. It is amazing to be able to do all this not 10 miles out of downtown.

We woke in the morning after another chilly night (22 degrees) and made breakfast. After our morning meal we packed it all up and headed back down to the trailhead where we would hopefully meet our ride.

He seems a little upset about his arrangement.

It was a great weekend and I learned a lot about “spring” backpacking. I will never again head into the mountains as unprepared. I hope you all enjoyed the post and I am looking forward to hearing your comments. Also check back next week to see how the rest of my spring break goes.

“Our” peak!


2 thoughts on “Backpacking the Rattlesnake Wilderness

  1. Brings back memories of backpacking the Wind River Range in Wyoming in the 80’s with my brother…sunny day starting in our shirt sleeves, followed by it snowing at 6000 feet as we headed to the lakes we wanted to fish. Camping in the snow, using rocks from the fire in our cheap eastern sleeping bags to keep warm that night, pulling tent pegs in the morning covered with ice crystals. Later we arrived at our destination at 10,000 feet with rods at the ready, only to find the lake frozen solid on top, Good times! 🙂

Leave a Reply