Distinguish the Day

A notable Spanish Peaks traverse.

Maybe it was the dread of the approaching winter that excited my ambitious side, or perhaps I needed a worth culmination to a long summer of running. All I know is that one October day, I planned a traverse of the Spanish Peaks on foot, and in one day.

The genesis of my plan grew long before, from countless months working nine-hour days, with four hours of class in the morning. My joints are beginning to rust. I could no longer distinguish each day from the next—entire weeks and months were melting together. I needed to distinguish each day.

Distinguish each day.

The idea hit me hard and soon became my mantra. I immersed myself in trail running, and by summer’s end, not only had I completed my first ultra-marathon, but I’d run nearly every trail within an easy drive of Bozeman. I’d run into moose and black bear, gotten caught in a late snowstorm on top of Mount Baldy, and dodged a lighting-and-hail combo high atop the Gallatin Range. But my adventurous impulses remained unappeased. That’s when I thought of running the Spanish Peaks.

I took one night to hastily plan the 32-mile trip, and the morning after, set off from the Indian Ridge trailhead in Gallatin Canyon. I made good progress, and by late morning found myself in the alpine meadows of the ridge. I donned my jacket to fight the sharp fall chill, and took a lunch break to watch the colorful world of the two lake-filled canyons flanking the ridge. I continued up, following a path of my own choosing across Beacon Point toward Summit Lake, enchantingly set between towering granite peaks. While blundering between shy mountain goats in their secretive rocky lairs, I kept an uneasy eye on approaching dark clouds. I was on top of a dangerously slender ridge, scrambling and shimmying on loose rock by the time the snow-filled clouds were on me.

I was making terrible time, painstakingly negotiating the knife-edge ridge, and decided to drop down to lower elevations. But by the time I abandoned my alpine route, it was too late. I stumbled and slid down an avalanche chute to the north of Hellroaring Basin below, and refocused my efforts on simply reaching the road before dark. I struggled against freezing wind and growing exhaustion to climb the high ground above Bear Basin. It was dark by the time I started my descent toward the Lava Lake trailhead. My “epic” was becoming more epic than I’d bargained for.

As freezing rain and snow pelted me nonstop, I couldn’t help but imagine what lurked in the darkness around me. I’d brought a headlamp, “just in case,” but now relied on it entirely to get me home. Unfortunately, it wasn’t bright enough to make me feel safe. I anticipated a grizzly bear or mountain lion bursting onto the trail at any moment—or worse, creeping up from behind. I couldn’t stop to rest due to the cold, so I kept running, despite growing weariness. During those late night hours, alone, mile after mile, I believed the trail would never end.

But it did. I stopped running, finally reaching the highway at the Hellroaring trailhead. I hitched a ride back to my car in the freezing rain. I also had to explain to my worried mother—and embarrassingly, a worried search-and-rescue crew that was rallying for an early-morning search—the exact details of my delay.

It wasn’t until I got home, shed my sopping-wet clothes and shoes, and jumped into a warm bath that was I able to reflect on the day. I hadn’t achieved my goal of traversing the Spanish Peaks in a day, but I had lived up to my mantra. That day was certainly distinguishable.