Northern Wilds Magazine
A quick group selfie on the deck as the strong winds pin us to the side of the lookout. | CASEY FITCHETT

The Villain of the Wilderness

It was almost like a scene from a military movie. Operation Lookout Self-Extraction was underway.

“We need to make this decision unanimously,” he said. “If one of us is uncomfortable enough not to do this, we don’t do it.”

That someone would be me. I knew it and everyone else in the room knew it. We stood in the center of the small room around the Osbourne Fire Finder. One by one each person said their piece.

When it was my turn, I took a cinematic deep breath.

“I don’t feel great about it, I have to be honest, but I don’t know if we have a better option.” I looked at each of them to gauge their individual reactions. I can basically talk myself into or out of anything based on the energy projected back to me when I read the room. “Yeah, let’s do it.”

The whole plan was hatched back at some point in November—almost four months prior. Two of our best friends in our new Missoula, Montana home had floated the idea to us casually.

“Hey, we snagged a lookout tower rental for a weekend in February. It sleeps four. Are you guys interested in coming with us?”

Scattered throughout the United States, with the majority being in Montana and Idaho, these lookout towers are a rustic and unique getaway. Rented and maintained by the Forest Service and other federal organizations, reservations are notoriously difficult to secure, especially on weekends. They typically sit high on buttes, ridges, mountains, and other locations where one would have a good vantage point to be able to, well, look out for fires as they spread across the landscape.

Shared planning documents, individual quarantines and carefully packing both the pulk sled and our 65-litre packs got us to the eve of the trip. The night before we were set to leave, my partner Jake took a screenshot of the weather forecast for the area and sent it in a text to the group thread. He had doodled a bit on the image to highlight the prediction of high winds in the area. Gusts in the mid-20’s meant that our outdoor activity might be a bit limited, but we were still in good spirits. Have you ever seen a weather forecast that turns out to be not entirely accurate?

The women donned our cross country skis at the trailhead, while the men cinched their snowshoes. We had arrived early enough in the day to have little concern about the remaining daylight on the 4-mile trek in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest to the Granite Butte Lookout.

Pulling the pulk sled with our necessary (and luxury) supplies for the weekend. | CASEY FITCHETT

I have always been intrigued by the way in which a momentary blip in time, an otherwise insignificant moment, can later prove to be somewhat ominous. Or is it that I am looking for meaning when there in fact was none?

On our journey to the lookout we encountered two women on the trail. With the circumstances of the trail, we knew they must have been coming from the lookout. Some chit chat meant less than their parting line.

“Have fun with the wind on the last half mile.”

Their tone wasn’t rude, arrogant, or malicious. The words rattled in my head for a moment before I flipped the switch to confident, almost cocky. I’ve been on expedition-style trips, lengthy backpacking adventures, hiked a couple 14ers, and the like. I know there are definitely things that can break me, lots of things in fact, but I didn’t expect this to be one of them.

Most people in the north know the sensation of ‘post holing.’ For those who don’t, in summation: it’s an incredibly frustrating, demoralizing sensation that constantly threatens twisted ankles and face-planting. Sometimes it does more than threaten. You’re walking on top of snow—minding your own business—and BAM. Out of nowhere your foot (and based purely on that whole gravity thing, the rest of your body) sinks infinitely lower than you expected to go. On this day we post-holed our way up the steep, bald hill, bee-lining towards the 15×15-foot box on stilts that would be our home for the next two nights.

If our saga was a novel, however, the villain Post Hole would be but a measly and almost-forgotten ant compared to the two-headed monster that is the Wind. When we emerged from the trees, we immediately realized the women we met on the ascent weren’t kidding—or weak. The lookout was set atop a bald knob, which meant absolutely no wind block. Between Post Hole and the Wind, it was all we could do to stay upright on the push to the 7,587-foot summit.

For us, over these next two days, the Wind is not just a natural phenomenon, it was the fifth member of our group. It was the entire story; beginning, middle and end. It was that person at the party that you didn’t invite, stays too long, interrupts everyone’s conversation, and literally sucks the warmth from the room. Although there was no official gauge at our exact location, we had enough cell phone service to determine that our area was in a High Wind Warning, which translated to steady 60 mph winds, and gusts of 75 mph.

It has always been odd to me how some people enjoy white noise. Maybe you are one who needs it to sleep. Is it more eerie to you when there is complete silence? It’s definitely not to me. Sure, I can fall asleep when there is something going on in the background, but I don’t actively seek it out. A half-asleep brain plays some crazy tricks on you too when there is white noise you don’t want. You start to believe that anything is possible, namely that your dwelling-on-stilts, which has been standing fine all day, is going to topple like a house of cards simply because it isn’t light outside anymore.

Thankfully the Granite Butte Lookout, our 15’x15’ home on stilts, was able to withstand the 75 mph wind gusts. | CASEY FITCHETT

Going to the bathroom was nothing short of an ordeal. When a member of the group donned their snowpants, you began to immediately feel a sense of empathetic dread for them. You knew what was out there. They’d have to barrel through Wind to get to where they were going. Wind, that bully, would even try to push them down the stairs. It came on strong, and didn’t know when enough was enough. I had to crawl more than once to get to the pit toilet. Once it was a literal crawl, and more than once it was the bear crawl that we occasionally had to do as an exercise in gym class. I’m not typically very fond of snakes, but I envied their natural proximity to the earth in these moments.

Amenities close to none, we spent most of our days chatting, cooking meals, and playing board games and cards. All outdoorsy people, I must admit there was an aspect to being “trapped” inside that drove us all a little stir crazy. The lookout was right on the Continental Divide Trail, and we couldn’t even use it. Sunday afternoon we compensated by doing chores. The boys split wood, and everyone carried that wood up the 20 feet of stairs. Have you ever watched someone wield an axe to cut firewood for the woodstove in 75 mph gusts? It makes your eyes widen, I’ll tell you that.

On the eve of our departure the mood was uncertain. If Wind didn’t leave the party, would it allow us safe return to civilization?

We stirred early in our sleeping bags and checked the weather. Nothing had changed. High winds in the morning, and blowing snow in the afternoon. Being the responsible outdoorspeople we all are, we called the ranger station managing the property first thing to ensure that if we deemed it unsafe to leave before the end of the day, that no one was going to show up to the lookout that afternoon for their reservation.

They assured us that no, no one had plans to show up and if we felt it was unsafe to leave today, we should definitely stay. We jumped into deliberation mode. The first part of our exit was definitely going to be the worst, and we were confident that if we could get down to the treeline the remainder of the trek would be easier.

As you now know, we went for it. At the risk of being anti-climactic and blunt, once we made it to the treeline, it was extraordinarily, unexpectedly, and wonderfully uneventful. I’m sure we all did our own version of willing Wind not to follow us, and it worked.

Mission complete.

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