Nature Writing in the U.S. Part 3: Climbing Mt Jumbo

I sleep beneath Mt Jumbo. The trailhead is right at the end of the street from Blossom’s Bed and Breakfast, my home away from home in Missoula, Montana.

From there, it’s a steep climb, with several ‘switchbacks’ (where trail cuts back and forth across the slope rather than straight up, I assume to prevent erosion as well as heart attack) right up to the ‘L’. There’s a  big white L on the side of the mountain, visible for miles around. Apparently it represents Loyola Sacred Heart High School (there’s a matching ‘M’ on Mount Sentinel, on the other side of the Clark Fork River, named for Montana University).

I can see the L from my bathroom window in Blossom’s aptly names Mount Jumbo Room. Missoulans walk, run(!), and walk their dogs up there, and back, from dawn till dark.

The ‘L’ trail is about two thirds of a mile up, and it’s a workout for me in the cool air. The sun is out but I’m layered up under a jacket and beanie-topped. Two pairs of socks inside boots. At the L I stop, trying not to let on how hard I’m breathing in front of a pair of locals, to take in the view out over the valley.

Missoula sprawls out either side of the river, and snow-coated mountains soar all around. Invigorating stuff. The locals are canoodling. I get up and keep climbing. It’s steep going up to the ridgeline, and I pass remnants of icy snow in Jumbo’s folds. I’m told Jumbo turns green with energy when spring comes but spring is a long time coming this year. At the back end, Jumbo’s wheatgrass is still sleepy moth-brown, just a few tiny yellow buttercups suggesting things are on the move.

Back in 1995, Missoula residents voted to support an open space bond to help purchase Mt Jumbo to protect its unique wildlife habitat and public access. Additional funding from Five Valleys Land Trust along with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the Lolo National Forest and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation cemented Mt Jumbo as the cornerstone of Missoula’s open space parks. Apparently, herds of elk and deer winter on the steep hillsides, and paragliders like to launch from its summit in spring and summer. Elk feeding activity limits public access during the winter; Mt Jumbo is closed from December 1st to March 15th every year. Which explains the frenzy of activity in April, I guess.

I walk through snow. I’m in a deep crease of the elephant, the path drops away steeply below me and I struggle to find my snowlegs. Hawthorn, service berry, and ninebark demonstrate how to hang on. The path cuts above a small pine; it’s a relief to have something to grab hold of.

Finally I am approaching what looks like a ridge top. It’s spectacularwhere I stop to get my breath, but exposed; wind rushes up the valley, whistling around and through me. More and more mountains reveal themselves behind Jumbo. I am high in the Rocky Mountains. I am in Montana. Any minute and I’ll be singing John Denver songs.

I step forward, wishing the steep slope ahead of me over. Something moves. And stops. For a perfect moment, I think it is a wolf. When still, it disappears, grass-coloured. It takes a few steps and stops, to look back at me. I fill up with fresh air and happiness. But it’s a coyote, rangier and with a shorter tail than a wolf. I hear later that a wolf pack up top of the mountain has driven the coyotes down. In the flesh, it’s a beautiful animal, exceeding its reputation. I’m in the wild.

I walk on and my coyote friend lopes off. I’m following the ‘Backbone Trail’ and at last I’m up on the elephant’s spine, surrounded by mountains and majesty.

The Salish Indians called the present Mount Jumbo ‘Sin Min Koos,’ which translated, means something like ‘obstacle’ or ‘thing in the way.’ David Thompson called it ‘Brown Knowl’ when he climbed in on February 26, 1812. Later, eastern settlers thought Mount Jumbo looked like a sleeping elephant and miners christened a nearby copper mine ‘Jumbo Lode’ in honour of Barnum and Bailey’s most famous attraction. Locals saw the  mountain as a reclining elephant with its rump in the Clark Fork River and its trunk pointing north toward the Rattlesnake Mountains and the round grassy mountain became known as ‘Elephant Hill.’ Later, the feature was renamed Mount Jumbo. Language, names, and our sense of landscape evolve, like the places themselves.

The trail levels out and winds around. I see another hiker ahead of me with a dog off leash; my chances of seeing more wildlife have taken a hit. I dawdle about, taking photographs to give him a lead. There are vole tunnels mazing around at the snow’s edge, and lichen covered rocks.

The path disappears in snow. Douglas fir and ponderosa pine crowd around, hung with lichen and the vivid green ‘wolf moss’. It’s like something out of a fairy tale, or the many books I have read. I can’t help grinning; I’m on top of a mountain, in a forest, covered with snow, at the other end of the world.

I see deer scat all over, but no deer, and many other prints in the snow (elk? Wolf? Bear?) And plenty of humans. I follow someone else’s footprints, where the snow is already packed down. The sun comes out and the glare off white is disorienting. The only trouble with walking in snow is that you spend too much time looking at your feet. Every now and then I plunge knee deep in soft snow. On one occasion, when I am looking up for the source of sweet bird song, my right leg goes in up to the thigh.

Pushing uphill in snow has me short of breath, the air burning my lungs dry and tight, and I have a moment of fear, a mild asthmatic at altitude with no ventalin. And I’m thirsty. I venture off the path to take it all in, and suck on some snow. 4800 feet is quite a climb for a hill woman.

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