Skiing Mt. Sentinel

When pow fell and the craving hit, this skier turned to a local peak.
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When pow fell and the craving hit, this skier turned to a local peak.
Skiing Missoula's Mt. Sentinel

The day after the biggest dump in 65 years at Lolo Pass, I taught an avalanche class to local high school kids. I love teaching and I love evaluating the snowpack, but I also love skiing.

Brian spent all day with local middle school kids roasting marshmallows around a campfire and playing team building games while he watched skiers and snowboarders lap the fresh powder on Mount Sentinel.

Mount Sentinel rises almost 2,000 feet above the Missoula valley floor. It is a great hike during most of the year as it usually snow free. In fact, most of Missoula is snow free in the winter. Despite its grey rainy-ness, I love this city. And I’ve wanted to ski from its peak, the summit of Mt. Sentinel, since I started college in Missoula during the fall of 2005.

It’s been skiable only one other day. And I missed it.

I called Brian after work hoping he shared the same thoughts about needing to get out and ski. He had. We discussed skiing options back in the hills north of Missoula. I drove to pick Brian up and his girlfriend Emily sent us out with fresh lemon cupcakes. That’s when I realized I’d forgotten my boots.

We drove back to get them. By then, it was already dark. As we approached the turn to the North Hills trailhead, the idea of skiing Mt. Sentinel came up pretty quick. So I crossed the river, headed straight to the Mt. Sentinel trailhead. This was our chance.

I hadn’t stepped foot on the University of Montana, where the trailhead is located, in years. Memories of college and that trail up the mountain flooded my mind. I’d run up the trail every spring and sometimes I would walk up just the first switchback to look down upon the University and the city at night. I remembered watching a Rolling Stones concert and 4th of July fireworks from the mountainside.

But today the mountain was covered in powder. Two feet of snow had fallen in the last few days…this was a lot for the Missoula Valley. Thoughts of powder turns quickly replaced my old college memories.

We walked through the gates and up the stairs to put on our skis and set out along a well-established skin track. The track bypassed the tight switchbacks and I felt my excitement grow as I traveled up this mountain that I loved in a new way. I hardly realized when we had made it the first 600 feet to the white concrete M that sits on the side of the mountain as it blended in with the fresh snow.

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Not long after we started we passed a few other hikers and two skiers nearing the end of their decent. They wished us luck as we continued on our uphill journey. Since traveling on snow is one of the least impactful ways to travel, neither of us felt bad that we had left the normal trail and headed almost directly up the mountain. The lights from the city guided our way.

Giddy, we were surrounded by ski tracks from others who had taken advantage of the daylight, but we felt like we owned this night. The lights of the city glimmered below us and the stars started to pop out of the sky above us.

Brian beat me to the top and I heard him let out a few yelps. The sound returned from the south summit of the mountain. Was it an echo or was someone else was taking advantage of the night? He yelped again and this time the response was definitely from a human—a human skiing powder.

We admired the views, drank some hot toddy, and devoured a few cupcakes before we made the move downhill.

The top was a mixture of wind-buffed snow and crust and the low angle blocked some of the light from Missoula. I wasn’t psyched on skiing 2,000 feet of this unpredictable snow. But my love for Missoula still grew with each turn and I’ve never looked at this city the same way since.

The mountain soon got steeper and we hit “that section.”  To this day we still talk about “those turns” on “that section” of Mt. Sentinel. After “that section” Brian and I could hardly speak to each other. We stopped and he tried to describe what we had just skied and I stopped him, simply saying, “I know, I know.”

They were the best powder turns of our lives. Not the steepest or the deepest. But the perfect angle of the perfect amount of powder lit up by the city lights on the mountain of our dreams.

The last few hundred feet of the mountain lead to a bit more survival skiing and we scraped a few rocks. It didn’t matter though. I would have skied across a talus field at that point and still had the best ski of my life.

After we got into the parking lot, speechless, we just bounced around in our ski boots after a giant high five.

I never want to ski it again. I don’t want to taint that night. The lighting and the snow cannot be replicated. We all dream of remote powder turns in mountains around the world. We can’t wait for that dream ski vacation. My dreamiest powder turns were right out my back door and they might never have happened if I didn’t forget my ski boots that night.

Photos: Courtesy of Ben Adkison.