Nothing Comes Free

Earning Montana at the Baldy Blitz.

Words of reflection around these parts frequently come accompanied by the adage: Montana doesn’t come free. You have to earn it. It’s never been truer than when applied to the Baldy Blitz—a cold, snowy, ten-mile roundtrip sprint to the top of Mt. Baldy (8,914 ft.) in the southern Bridgers.

The race is held in May each spring, when winter hasn’t quite relinquished its icy clutches on the high rocks and jags. In fact, snow is almost guaranteed. Randy Oostema, a veteran of both the Ridge Run and the Blitz, maintains that although the Blitz is less than half the distance of the Ridge Run, it is a more difficult venture. I have run the Blitz several times and can attest to the same: each time it has presented extreme, memorable challenges.

In 2008, wind-driven rains soaked runners, with the rains turning to heavy snow halfway to the summit. The icy rain soaked my running tights and mittens and completely froze my hands. Unable to pull up my sagging tights, I had three options: ask a guy to help me pull up my pants (and risk almost certain derision), ask a gal to help me pull them up (and risk having my numb face slapped), or finish the race with increasingly droopy drawers. I chose the latter, and the moon was practically full when I finished. But it was easy compared to the 2011 Blitz.

I was certain that deep and trackless snow was to be the nemesis of all who ascended Baldy on that mid-May morning. For anyone living in southwest Montana, lenticular clouds are a familiar sight. They are the lens-shaped clouds hovering over the high peaks, created when strong winds accelerate up the windward side of the mountain, and then rapidly descend the leeward side of the mountain. The clouds appear stationary over the summit, but actually house raging wind within and beneath the cloud.

As I headed to the car on the morning of the Blitz, strong easterly winds slammed the kitchen door on me. Driving south through Bridger Canyon toward the M, I observed something I had never before seen: one continuous lenticular cloud capping the entire Bridger ridge.

As the field of competitors ascended the mountain, the winds increased dramatically. By the time we reached the ridge at Yoga Rock, we knew that the rest of the race was going to be one heck of a bull ride. The snow we post-holed through was forgotten in the face of tempestuous winds.

In the few stretches where the “trail” veers west off of the ridge, we were somewhat sheltered from the most severe gusts, and traversing untracked, waist-deep powder diverted our attention from the violent winds. Once we regained the ridge, however, we were savagely reminded.

The last portion of the climb to Baldy’s summit is steep and completely exposed. It was here that we experienced the full brunt of lenticular punishment. I lived on the East Coast for many years, and had the opportunity to experience hurricanes, but those winds had nothing on the gale through which I staggered to the summit of Baldy. As I neared the turnaround, I saw several runners lying down to prevent the winds from launching them off the mountaintop. Leaning at a 45-degree angle into the tempest and pushing full force with my trekking poles, I made slow progress between stops and backpedals. Sweat didn’t just drip off my brow—it was blown across my face. At one point, the wind gripped my sunglasses and ripped them from my temples. In an instant, they disappeared into the western horizon. At the summit, I touched the rime-ice-encrusted steel post and began my descent to the finish, glad to escape.

Through the years, I have run many, many races. For most of those races, t-shirts and finisher awards are all I have to remember my experience. Races like the Baldy Blitz, with extreme conditions and difficult challenges, provide the most satisfaction and most spectacular memories. Like Montana, those memories have to be earned.