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May 09 2018

The Rattlesnake Wilderness Illuminated

A Photographic Essay Without Photographs

Exploring Montana, Featured

The project began with a clearly defined objective: to photograph the Rattlesnake Wilderness in winter. That’s it. Photographing one of my favorite wild places on Earth under the cover of snow seemed to strike the exact balance of the physical and creative stamina I crave.

I scheduled my Wilderness forays to take place every weekend from January 1st to March 17th. Meticulous planning resulted in index cards loaded with each of the weekend itineraries including the route, basecamp locations, and possible shot lists. It was a strategy that I had successfully employed previously and one that seemed vital to the success of a project that hinged on managing a vast shooting area within limited window of time. 

But something happened. 

I hadn’t accounted for the energy drain of my day job. Working full-time in an elementary school in the role of a behavior specialist - assisting students with moderate-to-severe behavior needs - left me emotionally, and often physically, spent by the end of each workweek. The prospect of driving from work to the Main Trailhead of the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness every Friday afternoon was overwhelming. In spite of it all, every Friday I would click into autopilot and drive myself wearily, coffee in hand, to the trailhead.

I would hoist my 75 pound pack onto my shoulders and begin walking. Within a few miles, my senses would perk up, my resolve would return, and the entire enterprise would take shape. 

For the first four weekend trips this pattern repeated itself: a weary arrival at the trailhead, slow recovery of energy as the walk began, and then a fairly productive weekend of Wilderness photography would follow. Each successive trip my drive to walk in, climb, and photograph diminished. I was tired. Regardless, my drive to create images rendered moot all other desires. 

By the fifth weekend trip, in mid-February, I was utterly spent. I began the eight mile walk to base camp late afternoon on that Friday. A series of systems moved through the area, bringing swift winds and heavy snow in 15 minute intervals. I contemplated calling it and making camp early, but I persisted. I rationalized that I would be grateful for the extra miles the following morning. As darkness descended, I arrived at my intended campsite. The plan was to get a 4:00 a.m. start the following morning, ascend Mineral Peak, and arrive on the summit in time to shoot first light striking McCleod and Mosquito Peaks. 

That evening, too weary to make dinner, I opted for an energy bar and went straight to bed. My alarm woke me with a start at 3:30 a.m.. I snoozed it. And again. And again. At 4:00 a.m., I finally pushed through the grogginess and began preparations for the day. I left camp at 4:35. 

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And, in that moment, everything changed. In that singular moment of sensory fulfillment my emptiness was revealed. The emotional and physical drain of the winter had left me an empty vessel. I had nothing left to give. But this landscape!

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The skies had cleared and a full moon provided brilliantly cool light, the kind of light that can only fully be appreciated in the heart of winter. I snowshoed on a barely discernible trail for about a mile before turning straight up Mineral Peak. The profile of the snow seemed designed to thwart the backcountry traveler: a 3 to 4 inch crust set atop 6 to 10 inches of powder snow laid upon a semi-firm base. With each step, my snowshoes would rest for a split second on the surface, inspiring belief in its integrity, before inevitably cracking the crust and sinking steadily into the underlying strata. Step, crack, settle, push. Step, crack, settle, push, sink, settle, push again. Bah! The process was agonizing. Routinely, my steps would collapse in on themselves, resulting in a net loss.

The experience of struggling through challenging snow conditions was nothing new. My experience this winter had consisted of variations on this dreadful theme: rotten mid-mountain snowpack.

After an hour of pitiful uphill progress, I clicked off my headlamp and paused to take in the scene before me. I was now 500 feet above the valley floor in the middle of a large snowfield. Everything was illuminated. The moon sat low on the southern horizon, a brilliant light. Rattlesnake Creek shimmered under the sun’s reflected rays far below. My labored breathing began to settle, revealing a profound silence. The stillness was absolute. The sublime beauty of this moment was overwhelming.

And, in that moment, everything changed. In that singular moment of sensory fulfillment my emptiness was revealed. The emotional and physical drain of the winter had left me an empty vessel. I had nothing left to give. But this landscape! My cup was filled a hundred times over. 

In that moment, my shoulders relaxed and the deeply held tension in my body released. The need to reach the summit vanished. The desire to capture images disappeared. I was fulfilled. As I stood there on the hanging snowfield under the light of the full moon, it became clear that the way forward was down. My tent was to be my next destination. My mind, body, and soul craved rest and it was incumbent on me to tend to those parts of my whole. 

As the wilderness experience often is, this was deeply personal. It could not be captured in a single image or even in a series of images. It was a personal fulfillment that transcended understanding while simultaneously defining it. In a moment, everything was clear. 

I drew a deep breath, snapped a mental image of the vista, and turned downhill. Within 45 minutes I was back at my tent. I stowed my camera gear and crawled wearily into my sleeping bag. I smiled. I had, for the first time, seen the Rattlesnake Wilderness. For the first time, and without photographic record, everything was illuminated.

 - Brian Christianson is a photographer based in Missoula

For more information about Rattlesnake Wild: Winter in Missoula’s Wilderness and to view the entire collection of images, visit: www.brianchristiansonphotography.com/rw.