Farewell, Mountain – A Riding Retrospective on Monture Trail, Montana

mountain bike crossing a stream in Montana's backcountry on an adventure

This article first appeared in Mountain Bike Tales in August 2010.

MY FRONT TIRE SKITTERS along the cliff-side edge of the trail. The bike shutters as its tire’s side-knobs claw at loose dirt. Kicked-up pebbles fall into the abyss. I imagine myself following them. Instead, my tires grip and swing the bike back under me. I roll to a halt. Between gasps, I look back at Aaron Teasdale, one of my two riding partners on this adventure as he cranks his way up the trail. Beyond him, the steep-sided valley we are climbing spreads out like a giant bowl. The trail snakes down the bare face in a series of switchbacks to a forest of ponderosa and fir trees. We lost Rod Kramer at the base of the switchbacks, lured from the trail by a field of wild huckleberries and a patch of grass for a nap. I haven’t been out of my granny-gear for the last several miles. Maybe Kramer had the right idea after all.

mountain biking, mountains, riding, cycling
Aaron Teasdale leads the way into Montana’s contested backcountry.

I take a drag on my hydration-pack and get only air. This is not good. Beads of sweat roll off my head and splash on my bike frame. We’re approaching 8,000 feet and it’s still upwards of ninety degrees. My pack isn’t just out of water; it’s out of food. I already ate one of Teasdale’s gel packets to get this far—I’m not sure how I’m going to get back.

Teasdale comes to a panting stop behind me. “You okay?” he asks.

I nod. “I was looking around, instead of at the trail and almost went over.”

His face beams as he takes in the mountains on all sides and the scrub-brush just starting to turn red in preparation for fall. Everything glows in the late afternoon light. This view is what we came here for, as well as the view from the top of Limestone Pass at the apex of this climb. “Probably should get going,” he says. And, as if on cue, shadow crosses the trail as the sun drops behind one of the surrounding peaks. Light lingers in the mountains, but we are a long way from the car. At least twelve miles, according to the map, which has proven, more than once, to be a mere approximation of this wild country. He inches past me on the tight trail and continues on.

studying a map, mountain biking, cycling, mountains
The crew studies a map that may, or may not, be hand-drawn.

The trails of the Monture drainage outside Missoula, Montana are epic. That’s one reason we’re here. The other reason is that this trail may soon be closed to bikes. The Monture Trails, along with over 700 miles of Montana’s best singletrack, cross land designated Wilderness Study Area (WSA) by the US Forest Service. While WSAs aren’t National Wilderness, legal battles are raging over whether they should follow the same restrictions as National Wilderness, including a ban on mountain biking. In April, a precedent-setting decision by U.S. District Court Judge Donald W. Molloy condemned 150 miles of singletrack in Gallatin National Forest’s Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn WSA to closure because Gallatin’s bicycle-friendly attitude “failed to preserve the wilderness character.” This ruling sets the stage for possible trail closures in other WSAs around the country.

The crisp air felt almost chilly when we pulled the bikes off the roof of the car this morning. We didn’t obsess about the trail’s uncertain future. We didn’t ride with a “time’s-running-out” fervor. We just rode, enjoying the soothing white noise of Monture Creek. The trail alternated between dusty gravel and bone-rattling rock gardens. We crossed the creek a few times before the walls of the canyon closed in, giving us a taste of the difficult riding that lay ahead. There was no plan. A lot of trails spurred off from the main one (almost none marked on our primitive map), and our plan was to take one and see where it went.

Rod Cramer enjoys some alpine singletrack, riding, mountain biking, cycling
Rod Cramer enjoys some alpine singletrack.

One contender was the trail up to Limestone Pass overlooking the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

We crossed paths with a ranger on horseback. He smiled when we told him we were thinking about climbing up Limestone Pass.

“On those?” he asked. His eyes wandered across our bikes. “Good luck,” he said in that friendly Montana way, where it’s obvious he didn’t think it was possible, but he really hoped we would make it anyway. “Bring plenty of water.”

The ranger’s description of the climb sealed the deal. He estimated over two thousand feet of climbing in less than three miles. “Not many people go up there,” he said.

We found the abandoned cabin signaling the junction with the Limestone Pass Trail but the trail was so overgrown we had to get off the bikes and search for it. This ride was about to become a real adventure.

We dropped into our little rings and began grinding up the first set of switchbacks. The climb was relentless, yet it began rewarding us with beautiful views within minutes. After climbing out of the forested basin, each turn revealed a more beautiful vista than the last. The whole drainage spread out before us, capped by Young’s Mountain. We then climbed up into a hanging valley that split from the rest of the Monture drainage and led to Limestone Pass.

We followed a winding, unnamed creek through a thick stand of pine. In less than a mile, the trees parted and the valley stopped. The trail continued almost straight up, clinging to the side of the glacially carved bowl. So far, the climb had been grueling, and Kramer decided that whatever lay at the top wouldn’t be as good as enjoying the tranquility of the valley.

Teasdale and I forged ahead.

On the edge of the cliff, I push the pedals around trying to keep up with Teasdale. We don’t speak, even as we get to the first false summit. Only the whisper of a faint breeze and the crunch of our tires on the dirt fill our ears. I taste salt and grit when I lick my lips. The red blooms of Indian Paintbrush and myriad other wildflowers drift by my wheels. The climb slackens. I look up and see Teasdale is stopped. We made it to the top. I roll up next to him and lay my bike down.

The trail ahead drops away in a swooping descent into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a primitive world where machines do not exist. Bikes are not allowed, and, though the trail calls to us, we follow the law on this point. This is the end of the line.

mountain bike crossing a stream in Montana's backcountry on an adventure
mountain bike crossing a stream in Montana’s backcountry

Our bike shoes make poor hiking boots, but we scramble to a high point to get a better look at the limestone capped Foolhen and Apex Mountains. The limestone slabs glow white in the low sun like fresh-fallen snow. As the sun falls lower, Teasdale and I discuss the merits of national wilderness and mountain biking’s place in it. We also talk about the looming threat to the trail we are in the middle of riding. On foot it would take us three days to get to this view. On bikes, it is a day trip. Our human-powered machines make the backcountry accessible in a way that was only possible by horses a few years ago. As the summit breeze whips around us, bringing the scent of pine trees and eerie silence not heard in the modern world, there is no mistaking that we are living a true wilderness experience.

Within minutes of arriving at the pass, the shadows begin creeping up the slopes of Bob Marshall’s peaks. It’s time to head back. We take a final, parting-look at a view that very few people have ever been lucky enough to see. A quiet melancholy settles over us as we cinch our helmets back on. Then, we coast over the lip of the bowl. Melancholy is erased as I lean my bike into the first turn. I hope I can get through the switchbacks below without incident. I hope we make it back to the car before it’s too dark to see the trail. But most of all, I hope I’m not the last mountain biker to see the world from this beautiful and wild trail.

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