Like many mountains in southwest Montana, the approach to Hilgard Peak begins by driving up a road better suited for a jacked-up pickup than the Subaru station wagon we are riding in. As our party of four slithers around snowy corners and bottoms out in frozen wheel ruts we bounce around the interior with kid’s toys, coffee mugs and car seat pieces.
We are not a group of hardened alpinists, though we wish we were. My brother and our friend Ed are new fathers who run their own businesses. They have not slept in months. Our friend Andy works in Billings where the air is embarrassingly thick for a mountaineer. I work at ASC and ride at the back of the pack in a weekly cyclocross race. But, we each love the mountains and the camaraderie of high places.
We camp at 9,000 feet in eighteen inches of snow beside a lake ringed by unnamed peaks. Because the grizzlies are not yet asleep we hang our food after dinner and sleep with bear spray in the tents. The night is deeply quiet and dark, the air still and trees silent under the snow. By morning the temperature at camp is in the single digits and my summer-weight sleeping bag is feeling thin.
We don’t make it to the summit. After climbing over the ridge into Hilgard basin we find over two feet of powder snow on top of miles of scree and boulders. Some steps we sink to the knee, others to the hip. Sometimes there is only a black void between boulders and our feet dangle in space while we flounder back to better ground.
Back at camp I chopped a hole in the ice of the lake and collected a sample of the sediments from the lake bottom. I marked the GPS coordinates of the sample site and began breaking trail for nearby Avalanche Lake. There were some protests about the detour from my companions, but I reminded them that hardened alpinists are often also scientists and explorers.
Science and exploration are companion expressions of human curiosity. The questions we ask when we are outside, what lies over the ridge, how do grizzlies spend their lives, what does sediment of an alpine lake tell us, are often the same ones scientists ask in their work. Those who love the outdoors often wonder how they might give back to the places they love and contribute to their conservation. The work ASC does to pair adventure and science is an ideal outlet for this desire to help.