Winter does not blow in from the north; it descends from above. It parachutes down from the clouds and establishes snowy footholds in the high country during autumn rainstorms. At first, winter claims dominion over territory that no one desires. People gaze up from the valleys and admire the stark beauty of the glittering, dusted peaks. But with every storm, winter extends its realm lower and lower, until it becomes an unstoppable force, rushing down and burying the valleys and plains beneath a suffocating shroud of snow.
Although the beginning of autumn was still technically four days away, winter had already sunk its icy talons into Montana’s Pioneer Range. I had waited three days since the last stormfront passed through the region, hoping the snow would melt from the tips of the mountains. But after hiking up to South Gorge Lake at 9,000 feet, I realized that had been wishful thinking. Patches of wet snow ringed the shoreline. Chickadees flitted nervously between snags of whitebark pine, as anxious about the intrusive presence of winter as I was. A cold, fierce wind came down from Tweedy Mountain and surged across the lake, roaring its displeasure. Winter was not yet strong enough to bar me from this elevation, but it seemed determined to discourage me from climbing higher. And yet that was my precise intention.
The highest point in the Pioneer Range, Tweedy Mountain rose two thousand feet above South Gorge Lake, and a steep, rocky spur called the Northeast Ramp led straight up to the summit. None of the terrain looked particularly difficult or dangerous, except for the fact that snowbanks had settled into most of the spaces between boulders. I didn’t expect success, but I headed up the ramp anyways.
Keeping the soles of my sneakers dry was crucial in this endeavor; slippery feet would negate the benefits of traction as I hopped from rock to rock. I managed to balance on the thin fins of granite protruding through the snow for the first thousand feet, but the challenge became cumulatively more difficult. Whenever I felt ready to give up, the pitch eased for a time, and I regained my courage.
I tried my best to hurry. Winter would not abide an intruder in its domain after sunset. Also, the meltwater trickling down some of the flat boulders would turn into a nearly-invisible sheen of ice in a few hours, making my descent precarious. Though only midafternoon, the sun had already begun to hide behind the bulk of the mountain, and the snow on the shaded mountainside began to develop a hard crust. If my feet could no longer break through the surface, then sliding and injuring myself would be inevitable.