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 

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Catching up: hikes in Front, Glacier

View from top of Henry looking back on ridge line and Medicine peak

Mount Henry from the west

Another view of Henry near the snow fields

The Appistoki valley to which I had to descend to end my climb
It's been family time with four of our five children, spouses and grandchild visiting, which has slowed my summer hiking a bit.
But I did mange to rehike Willow Creek Falls with my daughter, climb Patrol Mountain with my step-son and spend three days in Glacier, where I did the Mount Henry traverse from the Scenic Point Trail.
It has become increasingly smoky out there with fires burning in northern Saskatchewan and Alberta, Oregon and Washington states.  It is dreadfully dry on the west side of the divide. But it remains fairly green in the east side and I've even found patches of snow.  I'm not deceiving myself, though, and expect a fire season to ramp up here.
It was lookout ranger Samsara Chapman's first day on the job when we visited her on July 1 atop Patrol Mountain.  I think this is her 13th season there.  We saw her supply pack string coming off the mountain as we ascended.
It is always fun visiting with her, and although we were early, we were the second visitors of her season.
I hadn't done the Mount Henry traverse in more than 20 years, and discovered that age does matter.
The hike involves going up the Scenic Point Trail for about 3 miles and about 2,000 feet of elevation gain, a spot where many hikers take a break on their way to the peak, and going off trail toward Medicine Peak (elevation: 8,446 feet), which is the ridge line to Mount Henry (elevation: 8,847 feet),
Medicine looks much tougher to climb than it is.  Yes, it goes up steeply for about 1,500 feet to its rounded top, but the footing in forgiving scree is excellent.
The brilliant red-ridge walk to the base of Henry is glorious, offering tremendous views in every direction, with Summit and Little Dog peaks dominating to the south (with the Bob Marshall even further south).  The Two Med is directly below, and the Appistoki valley almost frighteningly below some 2,000 feet.  In the distance is the heart of Glacier National Park.
About 200 feet from the top of the mountain, a wall of broken rock confronts the hiker.  I wasn't up to negotiating that, so I continued west a few hundred feet, and slightly descended on pretty good animal/climber trails to a large gully.  The trail continued around the gully that drops steeply.  I had to think about it twice, but went down, and there I found two pretty good draws up the gully that had probably been waterfalls earlier in the season.  I got in the first one and started up steeply, moving back and forth between the draws until I reached some good scree right below the top, and went up easily.
Twenty years ago I went straight up, not giving it much thought.  Now that I'm  67 years old, the little draws in that gully made me wonder if it was worth it.  I know that I didn't want to go back down it, and because I was on a traverse, didn't have to.
The traverse to Appistoki peak was easy by comparison, just following the ridgeline, climbing two small peaks along the way. 
When I dropped into the saddle between Henry and Appistoki it was nearly 6:30 p.m., and while I had intended to climb Appistoki, a mere 500 feet from the saddle, I decided against.  I figured I had done that before and didn't need it.
I dropped off the saddle to the east and into the Appisotoki valley, which drains Henry and Appistoki and several large snowfields on Henry's massive red flank.
From there, it was a matter of dropping to the valley floor while working around three large cliff bands that create immense waterfalls.

It mean crossing and recrossing the creek, finally getting on an animal trail that intersects with the Scenic Point trail at about 6,000 feet at the dead white bark pine trees.
I think I enjoyed the walk along the valley floor as much as the ridge walk.  I was surrounded by enormous red walls, waterfalls, and isolation.  This was a true wilderness experience.
Unfortunately, I didn't drink enough water and severely dehydrated. 

Click here for map, more detail on Mt. Henry traverse

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Steamboat ridge traverse; Willow Falls to Fairview Creek

Figuring out what's next to get to the Steamboat ridge line
This has been quite a week.
I added two exceptional hikes/climbs in a week that included a quick backpack into Pretty Prairie in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area:  a Steamboat Mountain ridgeline traverse and a Montana Wilderness Association key exchange walk between Willow Creek Falls and Fairview Creek.
Both trips were in the Rocky Mountain Front west of August.

Steamboat Mountain ridge traverse

I love the Steamboat Mountain ridgeline.
There are views here that rival the Chinese Wall and you've got Scapegoat Mountain and its wall in views as you walk it.
I've done this traverse several ways, often starting at Elk Creek and dropping over to the Dearborn side on a point-to-point.
Getting to the top of the ridgeline is tricky if Steamboat Lookout Mountain isn't climbed first.
The trick is to start at the Elk Creek trailhead, ascend an old fire break trail above Cataract Falls and stay on the ridge between Bailey Basin and Cataract Creek.
Along the way you'll fight the debris from the 1988 Canyon Creek Fire, along with the tightly packed lodgepole pines that have regenerated the area.
Once through, there are two cliffs to navigate, the first being straight-forward and the second more problematic.  How the second is navigated will set the stage to reach the Steamboat peak ridge.
On Friday's climb we moved to the left (east), followed the base of the cliff, found an easy crack to ascend, and then followed an animal trail to the left to where we could climb to the top of the ridge.
In the past I've also gone to the right after climbing the crack and found a game trail at the base of the ridge and through scree to the top further west.
I definitely like the left (east) option, although if I were down climbing rather than up climbing the west option is easier to find at the top.
Once on the ridge it is very straight forward, a breathtaking walk that climbs three mountains along the way, with the lookout mountain at the end.  Along the way are thrilling views of the cliffs below to the northwest and the heart of the Scapegoat Wilderness nearby to the south and west.
At the mountain-top there's the trail, a 6-mile, more than 4,000 feet descent to the Elk Creek trailhead.
We climbed just under 5,000 feet and hiked 12.3 miles on this strenuous trek.

For more photo, route and elevation chart, Click here

Willow Creek to Fairview Creek key exchange

One of the Willow Creek Falls
This is a spectacular 9 mile hike between the Willow Creek Falls and the Fairview Creek trailhead on the Benchmark Road near the airstrip with a gain and loss of about 1,500 feet in elevation. (Ignore my distance and elevations on the chart because I did side trips that added distances).
Approaching from the Willow Creek Falls side, we passed through ranch land, grass, aspen groves and ascended to the falls on a narrow trail that hugged the limestone cliffs on the side of Fairview Mountain.
We passed a series of falls into an open, gorgeous, wildflower-strewn meadow rimmed by bright red rock before taking a sharp north bend and ascending to a pass strewn with igneous rocks, a signal of an intrusion, unusual for the Front.
At the pass we were at the headwaters of Fairview Creek, rimmed to the west by a massive limestone ridge that followed us for the remainder of the hike, and Renshaw Mountain to the north.
We hiked through lovely elk meadows, popping in and out of old growth forest, crossing and re-crossing Fairview Creek.
Unlike much of the Front and adjacent Bob Marshall Wilderness, this area was not ravaged by pine-beetle kill and the old forest was lush and green, as was the vegetation.
It reminded me of the Bob before the fires began raking it in the mid-1980s.

For more photo, route and elevation chart, Click here

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A quick run into Pretty Prairie in the Bob

Where the West and South forks of the Sun River come together in the Bob

A small portion of the Pretty Prairie

The ranger station
I've often done this as a 15-mile roundtrip day hike, but decided I needed some time alone in the backcountry and did it as an overnighter.
This is a trip that highlights the river rather than the mountains, although surrounding mountains are impressive.  The approach is through a pretty intense burn.
Start at the Benchmark South Fork Sun River trailhead, cross the pack bridge over the South Fork in a half mile. 
It's about 5 miles to the West Fork pack bridge, mostly through a recent burn, where small lodgepoles and abundant vegetation is a testament to its rebirth.  At the West Fork packbridge the trail splits.  Go west and you're headed to the Chinese Wall. 
My campsite in the prairie
Go east and it's about about 2 miles to Pretty Prairie.  Most of the traffic heads to the Wall.  The final 2 miles follows the West Fork to its junction with the South Fork, where the South Fork becomes a major river in the Spring. 
The trail travels high above rivers and the sight of the two coming together is remarkable.  Both rivers are extremely beautiful, running a transluscent green color.  Both are great fishing.  Pretty Prairie is just what the name says, a pretty prairie surrounded by (burnt) mountains, with islands of trees that were untouched by fire. 
Set back in the prairie against one of the limestone walls is a Forest Service cabin.  The prairie was full of flowers and the spring grass was lush.  Prairie Creek cuts across the center of the 1.5 mile long prairie, roaring all the way, competing with the noisy South Fork. 
There are numerous campsites, including full-fledged hunters' camps all along Pretty Prairie.  They are all good, if a bit horsey, so I had a difficult time choosing.  I saw no one for the time I was there despite the excellent weather.
A hiker and dog from Bozeman headed for the Chinese Wall

The West Fork pack bridge

The South Fork Sun from a camp site

Sunday, June 14, 2015

More than a week's worth: a potpourri of hikes and climbs

On top of Mount Royal in East Buttes of Sweetgrass Hills.  Gold Butte and West Butte in distance
I've been extremely active these past 10 days, hitting the Continental Divide Trail at Rogers Pass on both sides, climbing Mount Sentinel in Missoula one day, and then going to the "M" the next, climbing Mount Wright in the Front and then Elk Peak in Glacier Park the next, and finally doing Wolf Butte in the Little Belts on Friday followed by Mount Royal in the Sweetgrass Hills on Saturday.
I'm going at it pretty hard and fast, trying to get in shape for the backpacking and climbing season.
At this writing, I'm a bit tired and am glad for an off day.

The blue alpine flowers offer a sharp contrast with red shale on Rodgers Peak

Rogers Pass

The CDT Trail here is the best at this time of year with the alpine wildflowers in full bloom.
I went to the west side on the way to Missoula for a meeting. It climbs over 800 feet to the divide.  I went only as far as Cadotte Pass before turning around, enjoying the wild display of fragrant, blue Forget-Me-Not flowers.  I saw my first Beargrass flower in bloom on the way down.
I picked up the east side on the way back home, joining my wife's Get Fit Great Falls group that was climbing Rodgers Peak.

Mount Sentinel

The first day of my stay, I climbed Missoula's iconic Mount Sentinel to the top, a gain of 1,958 feet on a perfectly clear and cool morning, affording great views of the Missoula valley.  I spooked a colorful and puffed out male sharptail grouse and several deer.
On the following day I went only as far as the "M" on this mountain, a gain of 625 feet.

Looking across the Bob from the top of Mount Wright

Mount Wright

I'm always anxious to get up Mount Wright in the Rocky Mountain Front in the Spring with its 3,245 feet elevation gain over 3.5 miles to the top.  This nearly 9,000 feet mountain offers spectacular views across the Bob Marshall Wilderness and great visibility of Glacier peaks.
I was not disappointed with the views, but noted the sparse snow there and on lots of the low country across the Bob.
This is early for this peak.  The snow is going fast.

Great Bear peaks from top of Elk Peak in Glacier

Glacier's Elk Peak

This 7,835 feet peak on Glacier's southern end is very similar to Mount Wright for distance and effort --- 3,332 feet in elevation gain over just under 3.5 miles to the top.
The trail is picked up at the Fielding entrance to the park reached from Highway 2 at Mile Marker 192 about a half-mile up Forest Service Road 1066.
The views from the top of this peak, once a Park lookout, are really fantastic, particularly looking south into the Great Bear and Bob Marshall wilderness areas.  I found myself intrigued by the possibilities of a trip down Ole Creek in the Park from this vantage point, with the high walls of peaks like Sheep, Battlement and the Barriers on one side and Summit and Little Dog on the other side of a low valley.
From here, the pointed chard of Mount St. Nicholas is a powerful presence to the west.
I jumped a young bull moose in a meadow on the way up.

Jim Heckel approaches top of Wolf Butte

Wolf Butte in Little Belts

I love doing this hike in the Spring when the grass is an incredible green in this Little Belts spot south of Geyser.
This is an unusual little peak that sticks out on the prairie on the very north end of this mountain range.
It is 6,791 feet with an elevation gain of just over 2,000 feet, the last 1,200 almost straight up through a maze of house-size granite boulders.
The peak is difficult to find, located behind one of the boulder walls.
There are terrific views here of the Highwood Mountains.

On the way up Mount Royal with Mount Brown in the background in East Butte area of Sweetgrass Hills

Mount Royal in Sweetgrass Hills' East Butte area

This was my favorite hike during this period and I'm sure it will rank among the favorites for the summer.
I had been in the East Buttes to climb its high point, Mount Brown, about 10 years ago.
This was a Montana Wilderness Association sponsored hike.
A climb of Mount Royal (elevation 6,908 feet) in the East Butte portion of the Sweetgrass Hills northwest of Chester, and just south of the Canadian border crossing at Whitlash. This hike is in an area that has long been considered sacred for Blackfeet ceremonies (we saw prayer flags tied to trees), and sought by mining interests for its gold (a pursuit stymied by botched heap leach cyanide mining in places like Zortman/Landusky in the Little Rockies). This is a so-called "Island Range," an isolated igneous intrusion shaped by glaciers, and now a lonely mountain range on the vast prairie. The hike was put together by Patrick Johnson of Helena and Arlo Skari of Chester for the Montana Wilderness Association to highlight the area's wilderness potential. It covered nearly 8 miles and an elevation gain of over 3,100 feet and included a side trip into a limestone cave's cavern. Light streamed into the cavern from two large "sky light" holds in the ceiling. Access was across state, BLM and private land. Visible for much of the hike was rounded Mount Lebanon (elevation: 5,807 feet) to the northeast, and Mount Brown (elevation: 6,977 feet), the highest point in the Sweetgrass Hills and East Butte area. We were treated to exceptionally green spring grass and copious wildflowers. Mount Royal is the only truly developed portion of this part of the Sweetgrass Hills, with numerous communications structures on its summit and a road leading to this site from the south. However, we were able to experience a great backcountry trip by approaching the summit from the saddle to the north, bypassing that road. We didn't have to deal with the development until hitting the top. Even then, the 360 degree views more than compensated, allowing us to view the Gold (Middle) and West buttes clearly to the west, as well as the Rocky Mountain Front and Glacier/Waterton peaks (dimly) further west. To the south and east were the Highwood Mountains near Great Falls, and directly east, the Bearpaw Mountains.
In a meadow below Mount Royal

Inside the cave

Click here for more on the Mount Royal hike

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

My new Front guide out June 10

My revised and updated Front guidebook will be out June 10.
There will be a book signing at the Front brewery on that date from 5-7 p.m.
For full Tribune story go to: Tribune story

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Exploring new Front territory on Jones Creek center ridge

A Chinook Arch cloud formation was with us much of the morning
Mark Hertenstein working his way up Jones Creek center ridge in Front

On the ridge, taking a break as we work our way to the north
A hike Sunday reminded me of the need to explore new territory along the Rocky Mountain Front.
I've always enjoyed the Jones Creek Trail No. 155 off the Teton River Road, using it to access peaks like Choteau from the west, the unnamed ridge on the west that define this scenic valley, or simply for a hike or ski up the bottom. 
When I say "trail" here I use the term advisedly as it isn't marked other than a road sign, and it means following the large wash up a usually dry creek bed.
On Sunday I was in search of any markers I could find for the West Fork Trail No. 156 that is supposed to split from Jones Creek at about 1.5 miles.
When we hit the junction of Jones Creek and the West Fork, we found a pretty good trail that took us up the ridge that separates the two creeks, instead of what I had expected --- a trail that followed just above the West Fork.
It was our lucky find.
Incomparable scenery from the ridge
I had never considered walking along this ridge line, although I've done many others along the Front.
It is the classic Front/Bob Marshall limestone ridge, much like what we've found traversing from Mount Lockhart to Teton Peak or along the Washboard Reef from Teton Pass.
We found ourselves in the center of alpine valley, with the Choteau ridge to the east, and on the distance, great views of snow-covered Old Baldy, Rocky peak, Headquarters Pass, Teton Peak, Lockhart, Mount Wright and Patrick Gass.  To the south, Cave Mountain dominated.
It rises about 2,600 feet from the road, and we traveled it about 4.5 miles to a high point of 7,730 feet.
This ridge intersects at a 90 degree angle into a divide above the East Fork Teton that comes off Blackleaf Canyon.  It was spangled with wildflowers, particularly rich in deep-blue forget me nots.
We dropped to that divide's saddle to the west and came down the West Fork, looking for the "trail," enjoying the scenery along the way, following deeply green, grassy slopes and carpets of glacier lilies.  I've never seen so many glacier lilies.  Eventually we found a trail near the creek about a half mile above the main creek junction.
Coming out, we were in a valley of tall mountains and facing Cave Mountain.
Exciting trip.

Click on this link for more photos, map, graph: Jones Creek exploratory

Very small amounts of snow along this ridge line

Descending into the West Fork Jones Creek

Glacier lilies everywhere