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May 14 2018

Photo Essay: Rattlesnake Wild

Photographer Brian Christianson documented the Rattlesnake Wilderness in winter

Exploring Montana, Featured

Last winter, I made a series of trips into the Rattlesnake Wilderness to capture this spectacular landscape under the cover of snow. 

Wilderness photography is as old as photography itself. With the invention of the camera in the early 19th century, artists began communicating their visions of wild spaces to the masses, and the power of a photograph to explore the soul of a place was established. A single photograph of Wilderness provides the viewer a glimpse that extends from a split second (light) to a season (snow) to hundreds of years of growth (trees/vegetation) to hundreds of millions of years of geologic development (rocks).

With a simple click of a button - and often within a fraction of a second - a new creation is born. There are innumerable decisions that the photographer makes leading up to that decisive moment and even more choices that follow the shutter’s release, but it all hinges on that singular moment when light meets film (or a camera sensor). An otherwise forgotten moment in time is captured forever.

Chasing light in the Rattlesnake Wilderness under the cover of winter combined two of my core passions: extending the lives of spectacular moments and challenging my physical abilities in the backcountry. What’s more, I wanted to highlight the beauty of the remarkable wild space that lays quite literally in Missoula’s backyard. 

The project took place over the course of nine distinct photography trips between January 1st and March 17th of 2018. Five of the outings were multi-day backpacking efforts and with four were day trips. All of the trips were carefully scripted from the start. I didn’t want to miss anything! 

Although the shortest distance to the iconic wooden placards marking the Wilderness boundary is a four or five mile hike, most trails require anywhere from 7 to 16 miles of solid uphill effort. My adventures were split between travel up the low-angle Rattlesnake Creek drainage that bifurcates the Rattlesnake Wilderness, ascents up the thrust of the Rattlesnake Mountains to Stuart and Mosquito Peaks and the start of the range’s spine, and lengthy ridge walks to Point Six, Murphy Peak and beyond on the Wilderness’ western boundary. 

Winter travel in Wilderness is never easy, but it’s always rewarding. I often found myself snowshoeing for hours in knee- to thigh-deep snow under a 75 pound pack. Photographing sunrises requires an early wake up call, so 3:30 and 4:00 a.m. became common settings on my alarm clock. That way, I’d have ample time to travel from camp, scout compositions, and be ready when the first pinks of sunrise began to skim the highest clouds.

This project was a deeply  personal journey for me. The moments and experiences were rich and varied, from times of doubt (“What am I doing out here?”) to spectacular moments of transcendence. I returned to Missoula after each trip with a greater sense of purpose, renewed by the Wilderness experience. What’s more, I returned with memory cards filled with images that I aimed to share with a broader audience. 

What a joy!

Perhaps the greatest reward of this project has been talking to dozens of folks about their Rattlesnake Wilderness experiences. This Wilderness has provided generations of Missoulians, and Montanans, the opportunity to connect with the raw splendor of unspoiled nature and experience the tremendous personal growth that comes with it.  We are truly blessed to have such a diverse Wilderness right out our back door., and I can’t help but smile when I consider how future generations will be shaped by their own experiences in the Rattlesnake.


A snow-covered forest 
The flanks of Mineral Peak along the main channel of Rattlesnake Creek provided dynamic landscape scenes. The presence of dense cloud cover near the summit of Mineral Peak added additional mystique to the snow and ice-plastered forest.


Ice above Rattlesnake Creek
15 to 20 foot tall icicle formations over cliff bands above Rattlesnake Creek created a series of ice caves.


Camping on Stuart Peak
The summit of Stuart Peak served as a routine campsite throughout the winter. The location was ideal for capturing sunset from camp while providing an excellent launching point for quick access to several other peaks, which could be reached by sunrise the following morning.


The Rattlesnake is Missoula's backyard Wilderness
The Rattlesnake Mountains and Wilderness lay in Missoula’s backyard. The area routinely provides a clear view of the vertical seasons as they unfold in the Missoula Valley.


The first snow in September 2017
The first snow of the season blanketed the Rattlesnake Wilderness in late September of 2017. This was the only image shot outside of the January 1st to March 17th window. My wife Linds and I bivied on the summit of Stuart Peak and woke up to a fabulous sunrise over the mountains.


Blanketed under snow
Five months later and from the same location, the mountains were deeply ensconced in snow. Over the lower ramparts of the Rattlesnake, the Swan Range rises to the northeast. Holland Peak, right of center, receives one last touch of light at sunset. 


East face of Mosquito Peak
The east face of Mosquito Peak is among the most impressive mountain faces in the Rattlesnake Wilderness. The above-average snowfall this winter contributed to a rich array of cornices along the high mountain ridges. Cornices along the connecting ridge between Stuart Peak and Mosquito Peak reached an estimated thickness of 25 to 30 feet.


Rattlesnake Creek runs the length of the Wilderness
Rattlesnake Creek runs the length of the Wilderness and within the narrow constrictions of the valley forms several series of cascades. 


Stuart Peak in the Rattlesnake
There was rarely a moment to spare before the light blossomed at sunrise. Stuart Peak is a routine launching point for deeper access to high Rattlesnake Wilderness. 


The crown of the Rattlesnake Wilderness, McCleod Peak
The crown of the Rattlesnake Wilderness, McCleod Peak, is arguably the most remote point in the Rattlesnake. If accessed from the Main Trailhead of the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness, the round-trip journey to its summit is close to 45 miles. Murphy Peak, the second highest peak in the range, provides views of Flathead Lake and as well as the highpoints of the Mission, Swan, and Rattlesnake Ranges


A lone tree bears witness to the sunrise
A lone tree bears witness to the sunrise over the eastern horizon on Murphy Peak. The connecting ridge between Point Six and Murphy Peak is among the loveliest of ridge walks in the area. The rolling ridge runs for several miles between the two summits, all above 7,500 feet, providing uninterrupted views in every direction. 

- Brian Christianson

Please set

Brian is a photographer based in Missoula. You can see more of his work from the Rattlesnake Wilderness at http://brianchristiansonphotography.com/rw