Biking to Ski Hollowtop Peak, Tobacco Root Mountains, Montana
The forecast for the weekend was almost perfect for bicycling in February, in Montana. Our plan was to ride from Bozeman to the tiny cowboy town of Pony, 55 miles away. There we would set up camp and stash the bikes in the forest, in order to climb and ski Hollowtop, the highest peak in the Tobacco Root Mountains.
This would be the third peak in my 7 Summits Of Bozeman project, a five-month plan to climb and ski the highest peak in each of the seven mountain ranges that surround Bozeman -- completing the entire project 100 percent human-powered, traveling only by bicycle, by foot, and on skis.
On Friday the 15th of February, Jon Wareham and I enjoyed beautiful clear skies and 45-degree temps as we rode along the Madison River. Bicycle touring in Montana in the middle of the winter has been never been so good for me. We reveled with mixed emotions about the obviousness of global warming, and endured about 10 miles of headwinds as we came through the canyon.
Once out of the canyon and into the grassy fields of Norris we started to head north with a strong tailwind. The final miles into Pony came as the sun was setting behind the mountains. The temperature plummeted quickly.
Finding a place to camp was easy. We rode our bikes up the Foest Service road as far as we could until they got stuck in the snow. Then we stopped riding and pitched the tent in the nearest set of trees. This is one of my favorite things about bicycle camping; it is so easy to camp almost anywhere, and nobody gets mad. I like to tell people the bicycle is like having a giant welcome mat with you wherever you go. Of course, this plays out best for everyone by following strict Leave No Trace and Tread Lightly ethics every time you are camping. I even go so far as to pick up other people’s trash whenever possible.
Chris Bangs on his way up Hollowtop Peak
The next day, Jon and I hiked the 7 miles to Mason Lake and climbed and skied the north bowl of Hollowtop Peak. On the summit ridge we encountered gale-force winds that felt like jumping out of an airplane, where the wind was trying to excavate my nasal cavity. Struggling not to get blown off the peak and land somewhere in North Dakota, we successfully made big sweeping turns off the summit, skiing down the crater-like bowl that gives Hollowtop its name.
Jon Wareham, left, and Chris Bangs, off their bikes and on their alternative mode of mountain travel
The snow conditions for the ski descent were stable, with a fantastic blend of dense styrofoam topped by a light skiff of powder to carve through. Perfect for this sort of ski-mountaineering objective.
Back down from the summit, we quickly made our way to the famous Pony Bar for a drink. There we were entertained by Scotty, the owner, who is one of those friendly Montana folks who loves to drink, cuss, and tell loud stories that leave you hanging on the edge of your seat.
After only a couple of drinks we made our way back to camp for one more cold night. Our little cove that we were camping in protected us from the storm that blew in while we slept.
In the morning, we awoke and started a fire. We laughed about how great it felt to have biked all the way from home, and then climbed and skied Hollowtop Peak in just two days. Meanwhile, the storm that had blown in continued to rage across the valley. We knew we were going to earn our stripes on the ride back to Bozeman.
Jon Wareham riding the frozen streets of Pony
A mile from camp, riding slowly over frozen mud with wind and snow blowing all around us, I wrecked on my bike and went down hard. My bike, skis, trailer, and I all went skidding across the coarse frozen mud road. It left a nice scrape on my knee and a sore left hand to remind me that we were, in fact, doing something rad.
The majority of the ride home was less exciting; the roads were only slightly wet at first, with very little snow on them. The best part was that somehow we caught a tailwind almost all the way back to Bozeman. That never happens. Right?
As we rode the last big hill outside of town, the storm finally let loose on us. The temperature dropped and snow began to pelt us in the face. By this point, we could sense the warmth of our homes waiting less than 10 miles away.
Despite the cold feet and dangerous riding conditions, we kept going. Behind my face mask and tightly closed hood I smiled for the entire last stretch of the journey. I felt great. I felt empowered. This is what I had come out here for. And this is what I was given in return. I felt like the snowstorm, in its own strange way, was smiling back at me ... blessing me with deep powder dreams and visions of the open road.
Tips for this adventure: When the weather comes, take the good with the bad. These experiences make our lives richer for having gone out and lived them. Learn to be spontaneous while bicycle camping. Follow strict leave no trace and tread lightly ethics and you can camp places that would otherwise be off limits. Anyone who visits Pony, Montana, must stop in at the Pony Bar, one of the friendliest places you'll ever go. Flat tires, chains stuck down deep in your cogs ... This is all part of the game. Bring all the necessary tools, don't be in a hurry, and trust that your adventure will bring you exactly what you need. Winter camping means extra gear and extra weight on the bike. The BOB Trailer hauls up to 70 pounds easily and I do not worry about carrying the extra weight as much as I worry about having warm enough clothes, a good sleeping bag, and really good whole foods to help keep me warm. Stay away from instant foods, processed sugars, and too much caffeine. Keeping your feet warm in the winter is the hardest part. Bring foot warmers, or dump about 15 tablespoons of cayenne pepper into each sock. I ride in cold-weather mountaineering boots when it's really cold. Just as a comparison: The boots that I climbed Denali in kept my feet warm in -30 degree temps while climbing, but my feet get cold while cycling wearing the same boots at 5 to 10 degrees above zero.
Favorite local bike shop: Bozeman Bike Kitchen, a non-profit bike rehabilitation center. Super cheap, great people, learn to wrench on your own bike, volunteer to help others build a bicycle for almost no cost. The only downside is the hours; they are only open Tuesday and Thursday nights from 6 to 8 p.m.