Friday, July 13, 2012

Adventures in Montana

Last week, immediately after RDing the 34th annual 4th of July Rodeo Run 5K/10K in Belle Fourche (where we raised approximately $1000 for the Belle Fourche Cardinals Youth Football and Cheer program) , we packed up the Santa Fe and headed to Missoula.  This has become an annual pilgrimage for me, as the mini-vacation was built around the 6th annual Missoula Marathon.  I haven't missed a Missoula Marathon yet and earned my one and only BQ there in 2008.  It was a streak that started when running road marathons was my main focus, but is now something that continues chiefly because I'm always looking for an excuse to go to Missoula. This year, although the marathon was a big reason we were there, the marathon was not the focus of the trip for me.  I was more interested in exploring some of the trails around Missoula, something I sadly didn't do much of in the four years I lived there while attending UM (i.e., during my pre-running life). In the days before the trip, I scoped out two locations that I definitely wanted to hit:  Lolo Peak and Mt. Sentinel/University Mtn.

Lolo Peak is a 9,100 foot summit just southwest of Missoula.  As you look to the SW from the Missoula Valley, you can see a prominent peak that many people assume is Lolo, but is actually neighboring North Peak, which obscures the view of the every so slightly taller Lolo from most locations in the valley.  Based on the Summit Post description of the route, it's roughly 14 miles out and back, following an established Forest Service trail for the first 4 and then going cross-country the remainder of the way, with a fairly discernible unofficial path leading to the summit (it's a popular hiking location in the late summer/early fall).  I got up bright and early on Thursday morning and headed up to the trailhead.  The trail up to Carlton Ridge was a fairly good grunt with virtually no flat or downhill sections to offer a respite from the climbing, so I alternately ran/hiked.  My one worry with the route was the amount of snow that would be left at the upper elevations.  Well, a few miles up the trail, I found out how much was left.

Fortunately, the snow was hard packed and it was fairly easy to walk/run on top of it without punching through.  So, onward and upward.

After about 4 miles, the trail crests Carlton Ridge, which offers the first real view of Lolo and North peaks to the west/southwest and Carlton Lake below.

Lolo on the left, North on the right

It was cold up on the ridge, so I didn't enjoy the view for long before running down to Carlton Lake to get a better view of what lay ahead if I were going to make an attempt on Lolo.  

Lolo reflected in Carlton Lake

As you can see, Lolo isn't all that intimidating of a summit from up close, but I had some worries about how long it might take and how easy route-finding might be given the amount of snow still lingering above 8,000 feet.  I pressed forward for a bit from Carlton Lake, soon crossing over into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

Into the wild

Soon after crossing the wilderness boundary, it became obvious that route-finding would indeed be a problem.  The snow was obscuring the user-created trail to the summit and there were no longer any obvious tracks across the snow as there had been on the way up to Carlton Ridge.  I started guesstimating how long this endeavor may take and decided that I didn't really want to slog around on an uncertain path in the snow for 3-4+ hours, so decided to call it a day and turned back to the trailhead.  Ended up with 9.2 miles of running and some pretty spectacular views, even though I didn't achieve the day's ultimate goal.

The mission for Friday was to bag not one, but two peaks, albeit much less impressive ones than Lolo.  Basically, my plan was to run the Pengelly Double Dip course. Pengelly is a race I've never run, but want to someday.  This was my way of at least getting to experience the course.  It's roughly a half marathon that starts on the UM campus and follows the popular hiking trail up to the iconic M on Mt. Sentinel (the M is approximately a third of the way up the mountain, not at the summit).

View of the UM campus and downtown Missoula from the M.

From the M, the route traverses the western face of Mt. Sentinel to the south along an old fire road.  This route takes you into Pattee Canyon, where you begin to wrap around the backside of the mountain and join up with the Crooked Trail.  The Crooked Trail takes you back north, but now on the eastern side of the mountain.  Just below the Mt. Sentinel summit, the trail hits a four way intersection.  The race course first takes you to the left, up to the summit of Mt. Sentinel.

Looking down on neighboring Mt. Jumbo from atop Mt. Sentinel. 

Looking across downtown Missoula and the Missoula Valley from atop Sentinel.

From the summit of Sentinel, the course goes back down to the four way and this time heads straight across to University Mtn.  While the trails up to the M and the summit of Sentinel featured several switchbacks, the trail up to University has no such amenities.  That bastard goes straight up and, in a cruel twist, includes a false summit that gives a view of more of the same in store before reaching the actual summit.  Reach the actual summit I did, eventually, after some extremely slow power hiking reminiscent of the The Wall on the Bighorn course.

Looking back down on Mt. Sentinel from atop University Mtn. (the Sentinel summit is the grassy one on the right in the middle of the picture)

From there, you dive bomb back down the trail and again hit the four way intersection.  This time you hang a right (the only direction you haven't been yet) and follow the Hellgate Trail down the northern face of the mountain.  I had actually been on this trail a couple of times in college, hiking with my dog.  Of course, it was much more fun running it and in no time I was back down at river level, on the Kim Williams Trail, which follows the Clark Fork River and takes you back onto campus.  All told, my Garmin told me I covered just over 12 miles.  The race is advertised as a heavy half, so not sure if I cut a section out somewhere, but I hit all of the prominent locations at least.

Oh, yeah, and I did run a marathon a couple days later.  In a nutshell, it sucked.  The race itself is great, but I just wasn't into it, either mentally or physically.  Too soon after Bighorn to really race a marathon and my legs did not enjoy the sensation of 26.2 miles of almost totally flat pavement pounding.  Ended up with a 3:40:02. Not a personal worst, but it is my slowest time at Missoula so far. Could I have run faster if I hadn't been off galavanting in the mountains in the days before the marathon?  Maybe.  But I don't really care....wouldn't do it any differently if I could.