Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Height of fall colors, a week's worth of hikes

Gordon Whirry on North Fork Deep Creek trail in Bob Marshall

Aspen cover the hillside on North Fork Highwood Creek in Highwoods

The fabulous Slim Gulch/Rierdon Gulch Wall in Bob Marshall Wilderness 

The fall colors this year have been better than usual and I've taken the past week to getting out and enjoying them.
I've had two Little Belts trips, a Highwoods hike, a traverse in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, and a climb of Mount Wright in the Rocky Mountain Front.
On one of my "off " days I traveled to Glacier Park to check out the colors there.
And of course, Great Falls, with its splendid Boulevard District, is in full color, the ash, elm, oak, buckeye, basking in all the glorious shades of red, orange, and bright yellow.
In the Little Belts we did the Crawford Creek hike behind the Belt Creek Ranger Station to Belt Park, walked above Memorial Falls, and did the Pioneer Ridge/Off-Trail Loop, all hikes I've done before and detailed in this blog.
In the Highwoods I walked up North Fork Highwood Creek to a junction that joined the high ridge to the north.
The 18.5 miles Rierdon/Green Gulch Loop in the Bob Marshall/Front country was probably the highlight of this past week.  Rierdon and Slim gulches are as scenic as anything in the Bob.  Unfortunately, Rierdon as wilderness got left out of the Heritage Act, so when you cross the saddle between Rierdon and Slim gulches you enter the Bob there in the new Deep Creek Addition.  The only difference between the gulches is the sign.  It's insane Rierdon Gulch was ignored for wilderness.  The great feature of this hike is the wall that stretches the length of these two gulches, starting at South Fork Teton Road and ending at North Fork Deep Creek.  This 10-mile, 8,000 feet ridge is just as beautiful as the Chinese Wall.  I will warn anyone that as the bend is turned in North Fork Deep Creek and you head up Sheep Creek to access Green Gulch, the scenery is not as spectacular and the trail on the downward is extraordinarily steep.  If you're going to put in this kind of mileage on a day hike, extend the trip several more miles and take it to the South Fork Teton Trail rather than Green Gulch.
Finally, I climbed Mount Wright for the umpteenth time on a clear, cool day Monday.  To the south, I could see the Moose Ridge fire in the Bob near the Chinese Wall smoking;  to the north, the air was incredibly foul from a combination of fires, probably those still smoldering in Glacier Park.
On the day I went to Glacier, I drove by way of Heart Butte to look at the near disaster in that community from the Family Peak/Spotted Eagle complex.  I noticed the butte itself, Feather Woman and Half Dome mountains entirely scorched.  Won't be any trees on those prominent peaks for some time.  On the way home, the smoke was rising on a hot evening.

Here are some additional photos, a map and an elevation chart for the Rierdon/Green Gulch Loop hike:  

Click here

The Moose Ridge Fire --- or is it the Sheep Creek/Sun Canyon smokes the sky Sept. 28

Atop a ridge north of the Pioneer Ridge Trail in Little Belts

Two Med Lake bottom in Glacier Park

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Was this our fire season ending storm???

Katie at Cobalt Lake on Labor Day

The trail was snow covered and slick within a half-mile of the lake

On the trail to Cobalt Lake the ground cover was a blaze of color
I had to check the fire conditions in Glacier and along the Front this Labor Day weekend.
Since late last week we have gotten pounded by steady rain and I had heard that there was some snow at higher elevations.  I had to see for myself.
Sure enough, there had been rain and snow, and the temperatures had dropped drastically.
We stopped at the Izack Walton Inn for a look at what could have been a catastrophe and checked out fire lines near the cross country ski runs and viewed charred trees on the ridge tops above this historic old inn.
We had hoped to drive a loop through Glacier, going through Logan Pass, but heavy snow had closed the pass and we had to retrace our steps by to East Glacier where we spent the night.
The following day, snow or no snow, we decided to do the 12 mile round trip hike to Cobalt Lake in the Two Med beneath Painted Tipi peak.
We had unsettled, windy weather and didn't find snow until about a mile from the lake.  Within a half mile of the lake, the snow became fairly heavy --- about four inches.  The trail was covered just below the lake, and it was slick where the trail was steep.
The mountains were gorgeous with the snow, but the most beautiful aspect of the hike was that the ground cover was in glorious color:  bright oranges, reds, yellows and chartreuse.
This is the time to be on the east side of the Continental Divide to see the ground a blazing.
Is this our fire ending snow?
It is supposed to warm up and get windy, which could dry things out and reignite the many blazes.
Let's hope so.
Snow tips Sinopah's southeast buttress.

The south facing flank of Sinopah

There's usually a moose hereabouts below Rising Wolf peak

Thursday, September 03, 2015

A mine tour, a ridge walk, a soak in the Little Belts

A face mask to filter out wildfire smoke is a must as Wayne Phillips ascends a ridgeline north and connecting to Pioneer Ridge

Tintina's Jerry Zieg explains the location of the Black Butte Mine north of White Sulphur in the Smith River headwaters
I'm climbing the walls.
Not literally.
No, the smoke from the many fires has driven me inside and looking for alternatives to my climbing and hiking.
The air cleared enough Tuesday and I took full advantage and headed for the Little Belts south of Great Falls.
Lots of variety to this day:  I tried a new route on the Pioneer Ridge, did a formal tour of Tintina's proposed Black Butte copper mine at the head of the Smith River, and soaked at the Spa in White Sulphur Springs.
The highlight of the day was the tour of the proposed copper mine, a very controversial proposal because of its location.
Click this link for Tintina's video explaining the mine:

Tintina video explaining mine

Company officials appeared to be open to any question thrown at them.
Most of them involved in handling of tailings, the toxic waste rock left over after the copper is extracted.
On the mine site's large storage area, with Black Butte in the background

Tintina's geologist Jerry Zieg taking questions from the public at a White Sulphur Springs mine presentation
The fear is that some catastrophe might occur where the poisonous waste product from mining would find its way into nearby Sheep Creek, which flows into the Smith River, polluting this national treasure.
Here is a great, recent New York Times article that offers a balanced news report on the conflicts in the proposal:

NY Times article on Tintina mine proposal

My natural inclination had been to support mining if it can be proven that the Smith is in no danger.
Those 200 well-paying jobs that would come from this development would benefit the locals and the state.
However, after visiting the site and hearing the company's side, I'd need much more assurance before supporting the mine.
Our state's legacy is too clear and present:  mining has left lasting scars.  The adjacent, mine-polluted Belt Creek drainage should be lesson enough.
We can't afford even the possibility of a polluted Smith.
Proposing a mine in the Smith's headwaters is inappropriate.  This is sacred ground.  There must be some places where development can't occur.  This is one of those places.
Click below for an excellent website opposing the mine:

Save Our Smith website

 On the ridgeline heading toward the Pioneer Ridge Trail

The Pioneer Ridge alternative route:

An off-trail alternative to Pioneer Ridge route in Little Belts.  Begin at Pioneer Ridge trailhead across US 89 from Belt Creek Ranger station.  Instead of following the trail, cross the creek and start up the ridge on the north side, staying with it all the way.  It will eventually join the Pioneer Ridge Trail, but its advantage is that it is less steep and more open, with tremendous views in all directions.  It can be made into a nice loop with the Pioneer Ridge Trail.  This account is only for a one mile, 1,225 feet gainer.  Once the ridge line is gained, simply stay on top of it, gaining another 800 feet as it meets the trail.  I can see this area has great potential for backcountry skiing, telemarking and snowshoeing.

For map and more photos, CLICK HERE

Sunday, August 23, 2015

This and that from summer hikes: fire, fire, fire forces us to hike creatively

Near Sunrift Gorge, shot from the car.  No stopping allowed on Going to Sun Highway on east side
The Reynolds Fire aftermath
No, there's nothing wrong with the camera, it's smoke obscuring Glacier's Mount Sinopah at Two Med Lake

Fire and smoke-filled skies now dominate Montana's outdoors scene.
My brother's long-awaited motorcycle trip from Chicago to Glacier was ruined by the fires.
I've sucked it up and sucked in my share of smoke this summer, trying not to let the fires ruin my good time.
However, even a trip out of state --- to California and its Lassen Volcanic National Park --- was affected by smoke.  I did climb the volcano.  Not much of a big deal with just under 2,000 feet of elevation gained, but views were spoiled by the many fires going in the Golden Bear state.
Katie and I on top Mount Lassen volcano in northern California
I would recommend a trip to this park, north and east of Sacramento, for its unspoiled beauty, and hot sulphur springs, reminiscent of Yellowstone.  Not only is it in a gorgeous part of California with tall, dense trees and sparse population, but the park itself is virtually empty.  No Glacier-like lines here.
I've been struggling with a pulled calf muscle for the past six weeks and have returned to a several easy hikes to  keep in shape and stretch it out.
One of the hikes was to Headquarters Pass, one of the Front's treasures, which offers a great variety of high mountain views, looks to the Chinese Wall from its high point, and access to Rocky Mountain Peak, the tallest mountain in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
I was thrilled to see the Bob Marshall boundary sign had been moved within a half-mile of trailhead, a product of the passage of the Heritage Act, that added acreage to the Bob.
Wayne Phillips at new Bob Marshall Wilderness boundary sign, a half-mile from HQ Pass trailhead

Where the boundary sign used to be, at HQ Pass
It was disappointing that the iconic boundary sign at HQ Pass had been removed, though.  I would have left it as a reminder of the arbitrariness of wilderness boundaries and because it was so scenic.
My wife and I spent three days in Glacier Park this past week to get a look at what the fires have done there.
It was my first look at Going to the Sun Road after the Reynolds Fire, which burned on both sides of the road from Rising Sun Campground (the campground was incredibly saved) to just beyond the St. Mary/Virginia Falls trailhead.  The walk to St. Mary Falls has been forever changed, although I noticed that Virginia Falls foliage is unburned.  The fire will open some views and freak out lots of tourists who don't understand the need for fire.
After a quick shot to Logan Pass, we stayed put at Two Medicine and East Glacier Park, enjoying the culture of that quaint part of the park.
Most of the time, we could only see outlines of the mountains because the valley was so smoke-filled, mainly from the Thompson Fire in the Nyack area.  That fire will probably mean that I'll never fulfill one of my bucket list objectives --- the 36-mile Nyack-Coal Creek wilderness loop in the park.  I had planned it for this August, but the fire there, nearly 15,000 acres at this writing, won't lie down until hit by hard snow.
While there, the Bear Creek fire in the Great Bear Wilderness, across Highway 2 from the park's southern boundary, blew up and threatened to jump into the park and burn down the Izaak Walton Inn area.  Residents there are on moment's notice for evacuation.
Highway 2 from East to West Glacier was temporarily shut down, then opened Saturday with a lead car.  BN was protecting its railroad trestles in the area.
Meanwhile, smoke poured into central Montana and Great Falls from the Sucker Creek fire near Lincoln and smaller fires burning along the Front.  Large fires in Washington, Oregon and of course, California, added to this mess.
At Two Med we limited ourselves to short day hikes at the lake, going to Aster Park Overlook and Paradise Point one day, and then exploring the Two Medicine River above Running Eagle Falls (formerly Trick Falls).   At this time of the year, the river dives into the limestone for more than a mile, emerging in a gusher at the falls, and leaving a dry riverbed above it.  We hiked the rocky and colorful riverbed until it reappeared at another waterfalls upstream, where it descends into a sink hole.  This is an off-trail hike and most interesting.  The upstream waterfalls is gorgeous.
Where this smoke and fires leaves us is anyone's guess.
After a rainfall on Friday night, we're anticipating the return of hot weather and heavy-duty smoke for the full upcoming week.
I'm climbing the dry Two Med river bed

Where the Two Med River dives into a sink hole and disappears, showing up at Running Eagle Falls
Where the Two Med River emerges from the limestone as Running Eagle Falls

Katie walking the dry Two Med River bed

Friday, August 14, 2015

Bowl Mountain in Bob offers exceptional views

Packers with Bowl Mountain in the background

The Bowl Mountain wall to the west and below the peak
This is a 17-mile round trip hike to the top of Bowl Mountain (elevation: 8,217 feet) in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in the Flathead National Forest.
This is an area that got pounded by the 2007 fires and on the day of this hike it was filled with smoke again from fires burning around the state.
Originally, I had set out to hike to Teton Pass from the West Fork Teton, a distance of over 11 miles round-trip and about 2,000 feet elevation gain.
But, when I got to the pass and the Flathead National Forest's Bob Marshall Wilderness sign I couldn't help but keep going and Bowl Mountain was the handiest mountain.
This is an unaesthetic mountain in a burned over area ---- not selling points, right?
Looks were deceiving.
Ground cover is in color already
Even though smoke obscured my views, as I ascended this mountain --- only 1,600 feet from the Bowl valley trail --- I discovered I was surrounded by an intersection of reefs, mountains and ridgelines and Bowl was in the center of it.
Further, although the high point of Bowl is rounded it sits above a spectacular wall  below to the west that goes on for more than a mile.  At this intersection is the Corrugate Ridge, Washboard Reef, Porphyry Reef and the mountains of the Front.
Normally, when I hike to Teton Pass I continue on for a traverse of the Washboard Reef.  That traverse, with its several highpoints dominated the eastern view.
Most of the Teton Pass hike is now within the Bob Marshall on the Lewis and Clark Forest as part of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, signed into law by President Obama last winter.

For map, elevation graph and more photos, CLICK HERE

Bowl Mountain ridge line

West flank of Corrugate Ridge to the east

Monday, August 10, 2015

25 years later, a return to Scapegoat Peak, but this time a traverse

On the traverse to the top of Scapegoat peak that sits above high cliffs that look like the Chinese Wall
A three day, 36 mile backpack trip that turned into a South to North traverse and climb of Scapegoat Peak  (elevation: 9,202 feet) in the Scapegoat Wilderness.
The trip started and returned via the Crown Mountain Trail west of Augusta to Straight Creek and then to the Green Fork, a 12.5 miles walk to our campsite at a shallow, unnamed lake below the Green Fork cutoff in a lush valley where several large waterfalls gushed from towering walls.
The second day is a walk across the cutoff along the Halfmoon Basin below the towering cliffs of the Scapegoat Masif.
I've been to the Chinese Wall and I can say the views here and the overall wilderness experience was far superior to the Chinese Wall.
We walked to the south end of the wall, some 3 miles across and up via the Scapegoat Mountain trail, where, seemingly, all hopes of climbing Scapegoat appeared to be dashed because of the impenetrability of the high cliffs.
Our campsite at an unnamed, shallow lake at the Green Fork Cutoff Trail
After lunch we tried an experiment:  ascending the cliffs about 1,000 feet tentatively along goat trails, always rising.  I must say this unprotected climbing was unnerving.
Once on top, it was an easy walk north in desolate alpine tundra to the base of Scapegoat, and then 700 feet up scree and then I went to the back where I had remembered a scree ramp to the top from when I had climbed this peak some 25 years ago.
The views from the top are exceptional, into the entire Bob Marshall complex as well as the Missions, the Great Plains and the handsome peaks of the Rocky Mountain Front.
We proceeded down to the north, knowing from previous climbs that we had to hit a break in the cliff band back to the Green Fork.  The only glitch is that I had remembered a climber's break just to the left of a waterfall, but the climber's trail we followed took us high along the cliff band to the east and then down a scree field to the trail.  This high trail is precarious.  Any misstep would result in disaster.  If you try it, be careful!
Strolling along the Scapegoat Massif in the Halfmoon Basin
I remember a low trail from the waterfall that was no trouble at all.  Twenty-five years can play tricks on your memory!  The next day we walked out.  Of course, the biggest highlight of the trip was Half Moon Basin and the incredible Scapegoat Massif.
However, I enjoyed the steep trail down Crown Creek immensely, despite it having burned three years ago.  It was resplendent with asters and fireweed.  There were plenty of signs of grizzlies; scat littered the trail.
I would not recommend this traverse to anyone who is not comfortable on precarious goat trails.  I would recommend the climb of Scapegoat from north to south and back, and I would try to locate the climber's trail adjacent to the waterfall rather than through the cliffs to the east.
Unfortunately, my batteries went out on my GPS on the way through the cliffs, so the route and distance is off in the map and charts.
It should add about 1,000 feet and another 2 miles to the trip.

For more on hike, map and chart, click here

A floral display of asters and fireweed on Crown Creek

A lonely snowfield below the peak 

A view from the top of Scapegoat Mountain

Looking down the Green Fork Valley where we were camped

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Fairview Mountain is aptly named

Dwight Smith atop Fairview Mountain in the Front

In the wildflowers below the great saddle

Dwight Smith on the summit ridge to Fairview Mountain

Heading down

Full view of Fairview Mountain

This is a relatively easy and simple mountain climb west of Augusta in the Rocky Mountain Front just off the Beaver Creek-Willow/Benchmark roads junction.
Yet, it offers a series of waterfalls, terrific views and wild country.
This was the fourth time I've climbed this mountain, but the first time on this easy route that I highly recommend.
This route is 8.5 miles long with about 3,100 feet in elevation gained, but the distance can be shaved by going up or coming down the mountain sooner than the saddle I recommend.
Fairview Mountain is visible on the Great Falls skyline, so it makes it ready target for climbing.
The climb involves taking the Willow Creek Falls Trail No. 204 just beyond the old Scoutana Girls Scout camp.
There are two fences at the parking area.  Duck under the one furthest to your left (south) and follow it to Willow Creek, staying away from the private road.  The trail is easy to pick up here.Walk up through the Willow Creek Falls and tight canyon on Fairview's southern flank.Just beyond the that southern end there is a creek bottom (sometimes dry in summer). Leave the trail and cross tje creek bed, looking up to the left where there is a ridge topped by a rocky crown.  Traverse this to a large snag about  250  above.  There is a good break in the wall here and the top can be gained.
On top, it is a simple and glorious walk through tall grass to a large saddle that is bare on its western flank.  There are numerous good game and cattle trails to follow to this swale.
Once there, proceed directly uphill another 700 feet to the summit ridge.
It is a glorious walk to the top ---- the southern-most high point --- along an exposed ridge.
The false (north) summits below are reachable from a low point on this ridge, an easy and worthwhile hike.
The 360 views from on top are remarkable ----- Scapegoat Wilderness to southwest, Bob Marshall Wilderness to west, Patrick's Basin and Teton high peaks of the Front to the north and east, and Sawtooth Mountain directly east.  Below you east and south is Haystack Butte and the island ranges of central Montana.
For route map, more photos and graph CLICK HERE

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Grandpa's Ridge near Benchmark, Shangri La in Glacier

On a ridge above Green Timber Creek

A look across the ridge heading north

On the ridge top above the Fairview Plateau with a glimpse of Haystack Butte
Grandpa's Ridge near Benchmark --- July 17, 2015

This ridge is immediately off the Benchmark Road west of Augusta, near Wood Lake between Lick and Mule creeks.  If approached from Willow Creek Falls on the east, it would be above the headwaters of Fairview Creek.  It is a 2-mile hunk of limestone that rises about 3,000 feet, but is nearly impossible to see from the Benchmark Road.  I saw it first when hiking between Willow Creek Falls and Fairview Creek, noticing the massive wall above me, and vowing to climb it. It may be easier to climb from Fairview Creek, but the hike would be much longer. We did it from the Benchmark Road from Lick Creek, reached the top, walked its length and then returned on a traverse down Mule Creek, before walking about a mile back to the beginning.  We gained and lost about 3,400 feet over 8.3 miles. The high point is about 8,143 feet and the ridge is pretty much at 8,000 feet all the way.  The route is fairly straight-forward:  begin at the Lick Creek Falls, gain a steep ridgeline to the southeast and stay with it to the top.  The top is fairly narrow and a bit broken, but can be negotiated by down-climbs on both sides of the ridge when obstacles are encountered. At the north end of the ridge drop diagonally toward ridgelines above Mule Creek where gorgeous, lush elk meadows are encountered sporadically most of the way down.  The 360 views from the top are amazing.  To the south and west is the Scapegoat  Wilderness, with its big peaks, Scapegoat, Flint, Observation, Triple Divide, Crown and Sugar Loaf dominating.  Further north, the Wood Creek Ridge (a fabulous off-trail ridge walk itself), the Patrol Mountain ridge, and further north Hoadley Reef and into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Twin Peaks, the distant Swans, and Cliff Mountain and the Chinese Wall to the Far north.  Swinging a bit east, Slategoat, and the high Teton Peaks of the Front.  Just below, the Patrick Basin, recently added to the Bob, Allen, Sheep Shed, Fairview and its Plateau below, Castle Reef and Sawtooth, the Ford Creek Country, and Haystack, the Highwood, Little and Big Belt Mountains and finally the adjacent close-in peaks like Renshaw and Cyanide.  Wow!  It is quite a payoff for a relatively short and easy climb.  Unfortunately, this area did not make the cut to become part of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act's wilderness.  It will be protected, however, as a Conservation Management Area.  This country is as good as anything I've seen in the Bob.
Grandpa's Ridge?  For want of another name we call it this because my climbing partner, Mark Hertenstein was expecting to become a grandfather for the first time within hours.  I already am one!

Click here for map, route, elevation chart, photos

Shangri La below Mount Wilbur, an off-trail climb in Glacier

Katie working her way up the cliff band into Shangri La

Katie in Shangri La!
Repeat of Shangri La in Glacier Park --- July 13, 2015

This is a repeat of a climb I did with a cousin two years ago.
My wife, Katie, wanted a taste of it and she did great!
This is an off-trail adventure on the north-facing flank of Mount Wilbur in Glacier National Park that takes the climber to a gorgeous lake in an alpine meadow and then down steeply into Iceberg Lake. A good climber's trail is picked up near Red Rocks Lake on the Swiftcurrent Trail that leads to the base of a steep band of cliffs drained by a creek fed by snow that is present most of the summer. There are several Class 3 moves at the beginning of this climb through the bands.  Once on top the cliffs, move toward the creek, follow it and it opens up into a beautiful, shallow lake below Wilbur's north face in an alpine meadow filled with colorful wildflowers. Proceed to a saddle west and above the lake and a trail climbs to a scree field above Iceberg Lake.
Our first look at Iceberg Lake from ridge above Shangri La.  We descended steep scree to Iceberg
The scree field slopes severely downhill, first through a band of cliffs.  When possible, move through the cliffs to the right where there is vegetation and a less severe scree chute.  The vegetation can be used to steady yourself. Once through the scree field, stay on this right-hand side chute and the downclimb becomes easier.  There will be one more small cliff band near the bottom, but the angle recedes and the downclimb to the lake is easy.  Pick up the Iceberg Trail here and back to Swiftcurrent Trailhead.

Click here for route map, elevation chart, more photos