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A good view of the new home town

August 17, 2010

“My Montana plates are signals.” – Richard Hugo

My weeklong goal of finding a place and getting all of life’s minutiae took only half a day; by two pm, I had a new signed lease, Montana license plates for my Jeep, a nice Staggering Ox lunch, and a free afternoon!  I had not been planning on a hike, but with everything done, I decided to revisit Mt. Sentinel.

Mt. Sentinel looms over the University of Montana’s Washington-Grizzly stadium (known as Wa-Griz by many).

The 'M'

Known by few outside of FCS football, the Grizzles’ football team won more games between 2000-2009 than any other college football team – more than Texas, Florida, even USC if you give them back all the games they’ve now forfeited! As any visitor to Missoula knows, there is a giant “M” on the Northwest flank of Mt. Sentinel, about 800 feet above the stadium. There are two trails to get to “The M”, each from a signed trailhead southeast of Wa-Griz.  Many visitors walk up to the M, as it has an easy, switchbacked trail that climbs 800 feet in about 1.5 miles, a very easy grade. There’s also a much more direct climb straight to the M, and then on to the top of Mt. Sentinel (about 2400 feet above Missoula); this of course is my preferred route.

The direct trail climbs a ridge between the open, treeless west face of Sentinel and the tree-choked, steeper north face that faces the Hellgate canyon.  Across the Hellgate (beond the Clark Fork River and I90) rises another notable Missoula mountain, Mt. Jumbo.

Jumbo is nearly completely treeless, but if you look closely, you can see some wave-like bevels on the mountain.  These are, in fact, remnants of an ancient shoreline, formed by Glacial Lake Missoula, a huge glacial lake which formed several times during past ice ages.  Part of the advancing glaciers blocked up the rivers to the west, and the lake that formed – half the size of Lake Michigan – buried what would become Missoula under hundreds of feet of water.  The ice dam broke, reformed, and broke again, and the runoff helped form many of the fantastic canyons westward in Idaho and Oregon.  For more on this fascinating phenomena, there is a great book on Glacial Lake Missoula, or you can do a wiki search for it (and also check out the equally impressive Lake Bonneville in Utah/Idaho/Nevada).

The M is so prominent from the valley below because this ridge is pretty pronounced; however, it tapers somewhat before climbing again, so virtually all of the campus is blocked from view after you get above the M in elevation.  To get a sense of scale, look for the couple with their dog on the trail below me.

The trail is somewhat steep, though after Trapper Peak yesterday it seems somewhat mild; still, the hike up is hard on the calves, and the hike back down is thus hard on the knees and quads

Approaching the top, several odd things strike the hiker.  First is a windsoc, inexplicably affixed to the top of a tree (no pole, just the tree – I would not have wanted to climb it and affix this pole!)

Second, near the top, is an odd sign saying “Hook in!”  A closer look reviews that the two o’s in hook are actually D rings, and a view down the slope reveals some orange markers to aim for when rapelling.  Still, the “Hook in!” sign itself was kinda loose, and I’m not sure I’d trust it!

And third, the true summit of Mt. Sentinel actually looks to be (and really is) a tree-covered knob about a half mile south.  It actually is 15 feet higher, but doesn’t have any sort of view (unless you’re like my friend Nat and have a thing for evergreens).

Looking north, you can trace I90 as it passes the airport and continues along the valley floor for another 60 miles before crossing into Idaho. The high, somewhat matterhorned peak in the distance is Ch-paa-qn, about twenty miles away.

Most striking, Mt. Jumbo, which seems to rise impressively when viewed from town, looks all smished from this angle. Stuart and Mosquito Peaks in the Rattlesnake rise beyond.

If you have good knees and are in halfway decent health, this is definitely a trail I would recommend!

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