Solving the riddle of the Sphinx.
According to Greek legend, the Sphinx is a mythological creature guarding the city of Thebes. Travelers desiring entrance must solve its riddle and those answering incorrectly are devoured. For skiers, the Sphinx is a 10,876-foot peak in Montana’s Madison range. In an area full of mountains, the Sphinx stands out.
While surrounding peaks resemble the pointy ones drawn by a child, the Sphinx is more blob-like. Looming 4,600 feet above the valley floor, its amorphous outline and blocky walls draw the eye and call skiers to its western slopes. It’s not the hardest peak out there, but it’s not easy, either, with some 5,000 feet of climbing over an eight-mile approach.
The first time I skied the Sphinx was in less-than-ideal conditions. Since then, each time I’ve driven by, I’ve dreamt of skiing it again; but with so many spring ski options being an easy drive from Bozeman, it took me ten years to make it back.
This time I bring Mike along. We find our only free Saturday in April and mark “Sphinx” on our calendar. Given the peak’s long approach and the finicky spring weather, there is a small window when it’s in good condition. Would the day be epic or character buildling? Would we be stoked or would we be content uttering that frequent failed-mission refrain: “Any day in the mountains is a good day.”
In the chilly morning stillness, we arrive at an empty trailhead as colors of sunrise pirouette on the horizon. A foot of snow from a recent storm covers the ground and stable weather is forecast. Although I grumble about the early departure, it is hard to deny the beauty of daybreak.
Mike and I come alive as the day does. We arrive at the switchbacks as the weather does its spring dance. Clouds and clear skies oscillate, offering intermittent visibility. Wind is light, but we know the Sphinx could roar at any moment.
As we plow on, the mighty Helmet comes into view. Puffy white snow surrounds this red mass of rock and we head to the right. A short descent brings us to the bottom of a sparsely treed meadow. Perfect powder sits on this consistently pitched 800-foot slope and we’re tempted to lap it. But the Sphinx looms ahead and we skin on.
After the meadow, we reach a cloudy gully 900 feet below the summit. The crux of the approach, a break in the cliff band, is in front of us. I think back to my trip to the Sphinx a decade ago. In firm conditions, this spot was daunting. Half my group trudged in boot crampons and half struggled with ski crampons. Today, the snow is soft and the weather cool. Skinning calls for focused but manageable work. The steep gully continues. Its towering rocky walls block the summit and overhead hazards keep us alert. Eventually, the terrain opens and eases off revealing a 400-foot skin to the top.
On the chilly summit the Sphinx chooses not to roar. Our eyes take in a vast panorama of places we’ve explored on skis, bikes, and foot. The Spanish Peaks, Buck Ridge, and Cedar Mountain are right in front of us while endless mountains are farther. Some are haloed in clouds while others glow under cobalt skies. The Madison Valley sits quiet and peaceful thousands of feet below. Dramatic cornices line the summit ridge ending in plunging cliffs. We are ecstatic.
It is tempting to linger on the cool, windless summit, but we don’t want to push our luck, so we descend. Mike goes first, arcing graceful tracks down the gully. As we reach the crux, I feel like a rock star as I ski the steep pitch in stellar conditions. Before we know it, we’re back at the meadow making effortless turns as we head toward the Helmet.
"Well, that was sweet," Mike says as we regroup at the bottom of the meadow. All I manage is a quiet "Yup."
I grin non-stop as I take the silence, the perfect weather, and the striking rock walls. When we arrive at the switchbacks, the reality of spring skiing sets in. Pleasant weather becomes our enemy as the sun wreaks havoc with conditions, forcing us off our skis. There are times we post-hole up to our thighs and it takes 20 minutes to go 100 yards.
"A burger and fries would be perfect right now," I think. When I start dreaming of greasy food, I know my attitude and energy are about to plummet, so we stop for a snack in the sunshine before continuing on. The rotten snow eventually turns into patchy stew of muck and then a snow-free trail. To our surprise, we come to a meadow covered in snow.
Quickly forgetting about the agony back at the switchbacks, we link easy turns down this gentle grade. The meadow flattens into a snow-covered path and we power-wedge down the last ribbon of snow. Half a mile before the trailhead, we run into the first people we’ve seen all day.
Mud on our boots and ski pants, faces warm and newly suntanned, and tired but not wiped out, we soon arrive back at our car. It is always nice to have a mountain to yourself, and when it’s a powder day on something as iconic as the Sphinx, it’s a rare treat.
Anticipation is part of any adventure and while Mike and I went into it ready for anything, we were surprised that things went so well. Now we know that to solve the riddle of the Sphinx, it takes a combination of skill, stamina, and, most importantly, luck.
This essay originally appeared in Ascent: Backcountry Snow Journal.