EL CAPITAN - The howl rang like a cathedral bell through the canyon corridor, stopping us in our tracks.
It sustained in the still air like the report of a gunshot.
Having never actually heard a live wolf howl before, I was immediately unable to tell if it was the real thing or simply the primitive hoot of some awestruck outdoorsman.
The confirmation came in a chorus of responses - four or five maybe - from somewhere behind us, up canyon.
Slowly and quietly rounding the next few bends in the trail, the lone howl continued to grow louder and draw nearer until it seemed to emanate from the footpath itself.
"Should we cross the creek and go around?" suggested my hiking companion, looking as wide-eyed as I felt.
"No," I said, without any good reason for doing so other than a sudden, odd and intense desire to confront, in some way, this dire beast, or the idea of it anyway, long the cause of so much reckoning.
And so it was, as we stepped into a clearing where a large scree field met the trail's edge, we saw it.
Framed between the branches of a row of trees, the wolf was clearly visible. Huge, deep black and staring right at us, it stood on a boulder about 25 yards away.
Knowing that my camera was deep inside my pack and inaccessible in the moment, I tried my best to document a mental image of the wolf, its yellow eyes glinting like shiny buttons on a black coat.
Satisfied with my mental exposure, we took a few more steps, emerging from behind the trees and into full view of the creature.
For a brief moment, it was us and the wolf, standing, staring at each other like startled passersby on an otherwise deserted street.
I tried to make it last; I tried to make it mean something. But before I could divine any kind of special knowledge or inspiration, the wolf turned and padded effortlessly away.
As we resumed our trudge down the canyon trail, the cacophony of call and response howling returned behind us.
It was an unexpected encounter, of course; we weren't seeking the pack and they weren't seeking us. But it was, however, a perfect and welcome exclamation point to a weekend trip that renewed my infatuation with the Bitterroot Mountains.
The moments of awe that we had expected to encounter on our first ascent of El Capitan - the second tallest peak in the Bitterroots - were no less impressive and provided an amazing narrative arc to the canine epilogue.
Leaving the trailhead early Saturday morning, we made good time on the flat, cool creekside trail up Tin Cup Canyon. At just under five miles, we left the trail, scrambling and bushwhacking our way up the north wall of the canyon toward an escarpment nearly 2,000 feet above. The hot sun, which we had only seen in fleeting glimpses from beneath the canopy of the canyon floor, now beat on our backs as we negotiated steep rock fields and roiling headwalls of beargrass.
Once upon the shoulder, we continued west through thick willow stands into a high forest humid and glowing with the sun's rays. Eventually, the sinuous game trails we followed through the woven downfall gave way to a series of pastoral drainage meadows carrying a small creek that began at the lake that we'd call home that evening. An intricate maze of elk tracks, sunk deep into the spongy earth, gave the impression that we had found a sanctuary of sorts.
Arriving at Kerlee Lake at just after noon, we dropped our packs on the shore and took our first good look at the route we'd follow later that afternoon into the high drainages of The Lonesome Bachelor and El Cap.
We took our time setting up camp and assembling our daypacks for the push to the summit nearly 3,000 feet above.
After about an hour we headed out, walking the shore of the lake to the north end where we spoke for a bit with a gentleman, surprised to meet another group in the area, who had done the route before.
Ascending from the lake's edge, we climbed the initial 800-foot saddle upon which we received our first good look at the route around the southern apron of The Lonesome Bachelor and onto the east ridge leading to the summit of El Cap.
In all honesty, with 10 miles and about 3,500 vertical feet already under the belt that day, the peak looked far away and high above - intimidatingly so. But if there's one thing I've learned while seeking adventure and beauty in the high country, it's that you can always take one more step. Sometimes, that's all you can do. If you do it long enough and keep your wits about you, you'll eventually get to where you're headed.
After contouring around the base of the Bachelor, we started climbing the steep scree field toward the ridge, cheating west as often as we could. Once near the ridge, we followed the undulating series of rock fields toward the peak.
After plenty of short stops to breathe and take in the ever-expanding view of the central and southern Bitterroots, we ended up arriving at the peak at just after 5 p.m.. We ascended, separately, two rock spires that make up the high points of the summit, hooting our exasperated feelings of elated accomplishment into the wind with unapologetic grins anchored to our faces.
After a snack, we eyed the terrifying ski line that descends the peak's east face into the Little Rock Creek drainage and thought, "Maybe ... someday."
With the sun beginning to sink behind a dark haze of water vapor to the west, we took one last look and began our double-time descent back toward camp at Kerlee Lake.
That night, the wind blew and the rain beat against our tent. We arose to a cold, gray morning, ate our oatmeal, packed up and headed for a steep climber's trail we'd learned about that would return us to the Tin Cup Canyon floor.
Back on the Tin Cup Creek trail, we trudged eastward, aching, blistered and exhausted but still buzzing from our previous day's accomplishment.
One step at a time, I willed my body to continue, figuring that the mountains had revealed all that they would that weekend.
Then, we heard the howl.
Will Moss can be reached at the Ravalli Republic, 363-3300.
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