BOZEMAN, Mont. — By the time we’d packed our skis and hit the lonely stretch of South 19th Avenue out past Stucky Road, the sun had already dipped well below the horizon. The first stars were beginning to poke out from the jet-black sky. There was no sign of the moon.
Erin McCleary and I were headed to Hyalite Canyon for a cross-country ski trip to Grotto Falls. We packed our headlamps, skinny skis and a Mason jar full of water (I’d somehow misplaced my Nalgene bottle), and were eager for an evening escape into the mountains.
We watched through the truck windows as we passed beneath towering pine trees on our way up the canyon. As we drove farther from the lights of Bozeman, the starlit sky began to pop against the outline of the high peaks.
The trail to Grotto Falls is a quick and easy ski. Efforts supported by the Friends of Hyalite have made accessing the canyon, even at night, comparably easy through the winter months. I was shocked at the exceptional road conditions, particularly above the reservoir — flashbacks to old ice climbing trips and rutted roads seemed a very distant memory.
We arrived at the parking lot just after 8 p.m. and geared up. We cut the headlights to the truck and turned on the red LED lights in our headlamps to let our eyes adjust. In a moment the blanket of night lifted and the stars illuminated the landscape.
McCleary, a professional downhill ski instructor, is one of the best alpine skiers I know. So it came as a bit of a surprise — and was secretly comforting — to see her struggle a bit on her borrowed cross-country setup. I’ve never felt entirely comfortable on cross-country skis, or downhill skis for that matter, much less in the dark.
We set off on the trail, the red glow of our headlamps bobbing with each kick over the packed powder. Near a clearing in the pines we stopped for a break to take in the view of Mount Blackmore. At a dead stop I managed to lose my balance and crash into a heap on the snow. Both McCleary and I erupted in laughter.
Moving south through the canyon, we arrived at a steep section of trail. I kicked my ski tips wide and pushed up the slope, feeling my heartbeat elevate with the effort.
I don’t know if I heard the crash first or the delirious giggling, but McCleary joined me in taking a digger. “This is a humbling experience for me,” she said. I couldn’t see her smile through the darkness, but I could tell it was there.
After topping the rise we cruised over undulating trail toward Grotto Falls. At a clearing we gazed up through the pine trees to admire Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak, the three stars of Orion’s belt. The Big Dipper hung low in the northern sky. At our feet in the powder, a snow angel shared our view.
We pulled close to Hyalite Creek and could hear the gurgle of its flow through the trees. Rising over a knoll, we cast our headlamps down on the inky current below. McCleary and I popped our skis off for the steep descent to the water and the base of Grotto Falls. Behind the face of the falls we discovered an ice cave. The bright green moss clinging to the rock walls contrasted the blue ice falling from the height of Hyalite Canyon.
McCleary checked her watch. It was past 10 p.m. It had taken us nearly two hours to cover the distance to Grotto Falls and we’d need to make haste on the way back.
The return trip to the trailhead was filled with exhilaration and pure terror. Moving downhill in a bubble of light, we cruised through the forest at what seemed like extraordinary speed. Our eyes were barely able to catch up with the light beaming from our headlamps. We dodged a couple fallen trees and navigated a corner that seemed to come on incredibly quick. Neither of us could control ourselves, hooting and hollering the whole way.
“I couldn’t tell if your screams were fear or elation,” McCleary said when we reached the trailhead just 20 minutes after leaving Grotto Falls.
“Both,” I said. “Definitely both.”
We drove back down the canyon to Bozeman and watched the night sky fade into a blanket of artificial light, marveling again at the wonderful magic of Hyalite canyon.