Saturday, June 23, 2018

Summer begins as downpour ends: Windy Peak-Briggs Creek loop in Highwoods

Lady Slipper orchids

Gordon Whirry coming off Windy Peak

Sulphur flowers in abundance

One of my favorite summer treats:  billowing white clouds on a clear day

Briggs Creek was clearer than usual

Butterflies added to our enjoyment

We complete the day with dry feet!
After the wonderful Mortimer peak climb on Saturday I was pinned down for another five days as the skies opened and 8 inches of rain fell, flooding and isolating Augusta and Sun River and taking out culverts, roads and bridges throughout the Front.
It's hard knowing if and when we'll be able to use the Benchmark, Elk Creek, Willow, Dearborn, South Fork Teton, and Smith Creek roads.  This could be a grim summer for recreation.
So, when the rain stopped I shifted my focus to the Island Ranges and took a short-tenative hike in the Little Belts on Pioneer Ridge on the final day of Spring (June 20), found it passable and planned a Highwoods hike.
We did the 7.5 miles Windy Peak-Briggs Creek loop on the first day of Summer (June 21), gaining and losing 1,700 feet along the way.  The weather was ideal with poofy white clouds against a backdrop of clear, blue skies.  The grass was greener than green and the wildflowers still pretty good.  We were even treated to Lady Slippers, but the blue lupine stole the show for numbers and colors.
There are nine Thain Creek crossings along the way to Windy Peak, but there were logs and rocks down most of the way that made the higher than usual tiny creek more easy to cross.
Briggs Creek, usually smaller than Thain Creek, was about twice Thain Creek size.  Thank goodness for the large Doug Fir across the creek at the end.  We wound up with dry boots!
The Briggs Creek beaver ponds continue to grow and a fly fisherwoman at the end was testament to its fishing.  Moose droppings everywhere there tells me there's a big-antlered resident there competing with the beavers.
The roads are in great shape, but I'd be careful about trying to take your car across Highwood Creek.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Backcountry season is upon us: Highwood Baldy, Ford Creek Basin, Mortimer Peak

The large peak in the background is Mortimer, which we climbed

Walking down the ridge line

The weather, if windy, has been magnificent and perfect for hiking and backcountry scrambling.
This past week I climbed Highwood Baldy (elevation: 7,670 feet) , hiked Ford Creek Basin (Trail 258 off Benchmark/Willow Creek roads) in the the Front, and climbed an unnamed peak (elevation: 8,275 feet) at the head of Mortimer Gulch near Gibson Reservoir.
Although all were great trips, the climb up "Mortimer" was the highlight and something I've been wanting to do for years.
Last year we took a bad route and got cliffed out.
This year our route, though less direct, was spot on and we enjoyed some of the best 360 views from the top that I've enjoyed in the Bob Marshall country.
Arsenic peak to our west

We climbed up the right side and traversed the top and ridge to the peak

Castle Reef mountain across the valley

"Mortimer" Mountain

As we came down in defeat last year I studied the ridge line to the east and saw a clear route to the top.
This year we followed that and the trip was a success with 3,800 feet gained and lost and 12.2 miles covered.
We followed the Mortimer Gulch Trail No. 252 for about 4 miles where the (unsigned) Mortimer Pass comes in from the northwest.  We hiked another half mile or so to a creek crossing and bushwhacked up to a ridge line that was continuous to the top, climbing five or so "bumps" along the way.
On the way up we got off the trail too early and got tangled in deadfall, but on the way down we could see a clear climber's trail that ended at the creek and a hunter's camp.  I figure that the Triple J guest ranch at the bottom of the gulch would take dudes to the camp, do an overnight and then walk the ridge line to the top, giving them the thrill of their lives.  My climbing partner Mark Hertenstein figured it was simply a game trail.
The Mortimer Gulch trail is a National Scenic Trail. 
The handsome, unnamed mountain at its head can be traversed on a system of trails that include Blacktail Gulch Trail No. 220, Big George Gulch Trail No. 251 and the Mortimer Pass Trail No. 259.
The ridge line narrows down to a knife for the last 200 feet of elevation gain or so over about a third of a mile to the top, but nothing scary.  It reminded me of the Washboard Reef off-trail traverse or Mount Lockhart.
On top we saw three climbers' cairns and some of the most incredible views of the Bob country in all directions.  There's still plenty of snow in that country and we found pretty good drifts on this peak.
We noted that last year's route was more of a straight shot, but would have required ropes to get through the cliffs in at least one pitch.
I was unsure whether I was up to this climb so early in the season and had been working up to it, but found I was plenty fit and up to the climb.
Our route

Ford Creek Basin Trail

Views from one of the Ford Creek Basin meadows
This was also a week of bungling hikes.
Hard as it is to believe, we screwed up the Ford Creek Basin 5 mile hike, which I would consider near beginner, and wandered around looking for trail.  This was an out and back hike that gained 1,300 feet.  We began at the trailhead on Willow Creek Road behind Scoutana camp and ended at Ford Creek Ranch on the Benchmark Road where we had another car parked.  The wildflowers were stunning as were the views of the Crown Mountain, Steamboat and Haystack complexes.  There were numerous fresh grizzly, moose and elk signs.
Somehow we managed to start the hike off trail and ended up having to correct, a correction that took us through a field resplendant with the season's last Balsamroot Arrowleafs and many Larkspur wildflowers.

Highwood Baldy

Greener than green and full of flowers Highwood Baldy
I normally do Highwood Baldy at the beginning and the ends of each season.
The snow was off the top of this peak early this year.
There are several routes to the top.
The Deer Creek route up the bottom is the most frequently used one.
In the spring I like to go to the ridgetop for flowers and choose a route that starts at the Stephenson Ranch fenceline just before the second crossing of Highwood Creek on the road just beyond the Thain Creek Campground turn off.
There's a bridge between the Stephenson ridge and the ridge above Deer Creek.  It's a little complicated and requires attention.
My problem was that when I got to the trailhead I discovered that I didn't have a map and that my GPS was out of battery;  I had to go blind.
Getting up the peak was no problem navigationally, but getting down I found myself dropping into McMurtry Creek rather than hitting the Stephenson ridge line.
The positive side of this was that I discovered beautiful open parks and very tall aspen trees on the Stephenson Ranch and still came out only about 100 yards from my car.
This island range high point is surprisingly difficult to climb, with more than 3,200 feet of elevation gain, and significant route finding on the summit cap through tons of talus.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

A rite of Spring: Mount Wright

The Jones Columbine were everywhere along the summit cap 

Mark Hertenstein beneath the peak

The Bob Marshall's Sun River country to my back

The snowfields on the east flank of Mount Wright
The weather was supposed to be stormy, but it held off long enough Saturday for us to climb Mount Wright (elevation: 8,795 feet) in the Rocky Mountain Front.
There's plenty of snow on the mountain's East flank that climber's face on the trail route.
We may have been a week to 10 days early for the best alpine floral show, but the Jones Columbine, Forget-Me-Nots, and Douglasia were out.  It might have been the best show of Jones Columbine I've ever seen.
A grizzly had been rototilling in this rock garden for biscuit root.
The snow in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in the Sun River drainage appears to have mostly melted, with patches and cornices near the top.
Further back in the Bob, Pentagon, Silvertip and Holland peaks look loaded on the West Side.

Friday, June 08, 2018

A month's worth of travel and hiking

Katie and me on our wedding anniversary hike in Glacier

Katie in Maritime Alps in Italy above the town of Roaschia

A storm moves in as Katie signs the register on West Butte in Sweetgrass Hills

Wayne Phillips passes through a floral garden of pink Douglasia and blue Forget Me Not alpine flowers on Rogers Peak
It has been more than a month since my last post, but that doesn't mean I haven't been active,
We spent 22 days in France and Italy (via YYC Calgary Airport) with hiking in the Maritime Alps between those two countries; an anniversary hike around Two Med Lake at Glacier National Park when we got back, our annual trip to the Rogers Pass section of the Continental Divide Trail to view the alpine flowers on Rodgers Peak, and a trip up West Butte in the Sweetgrass Hills with Katie's "Girls in Glacier," hiking group.

Maritime Alps

There are national parks in both France and Italy in the Maritime Alps, which are about 50 miles north and east of Nice, France.  They are directly south of massive Mount Blanc.
We stopped in Roaschia, Italy where Katie's paternal ancestors came from.  It is an area south of the better known town of Cuneo and not far from Turino.
We hiked to an area near a rifugio that reminded me of the Rocky Mountain Front with its high, limestone walls.  However, the lower elevations are filled with hardwood trees like Sycamores and Horse Chestnuts and maples, giving the mountains a different feel than Montana slopes.
Last year we spent three weeks in the Dolomites across Italy on its northeast side just below Austria.  That area is filled with high-end, glitzy shops and ski lifts up every drainage.  Money.
Where we went in the Maritimes was equally beautiful, except there are no ski lifts and we saw only two other people on the trail on a beautiful day of spring hiking.  The rivers and creeks were the color of the Flathead River, meaning they were coming off glaciers.
The Maritimes are dotted with small, isolated communities like Roaschia.  Little villas known as tetti are built in the heavy forest above them.  Most of these stone structures, built in the 17th and 18th centuries are now abandoned, virtual ghosttowns.  No wealth here.  These towns empty out in winter and few come back during the summer.  The locals are puzzled about how to regenerate populations and are proposing that the Maritime parks incorporate them within their boundaries.  Seems pretty bleak to me.
Roaschia has a summer population of about 100 and there is a restaurant and a hotel to service the population, which shops in Cuneo.
In France our hiking was limited to walking and seeing the sights and museums in such great cities as Paris, Lyons, Nice and Bordeaux.  We did get out to the Pyrennes where we had to opportunity to climb a small mountain and straddle the French-Spanish border with a foot in each country.
I loved the Pyrennes and would love to return to these mountains, which seem so less congested than the Alps.

Glacier is incomparable

We were treated to amazing weather in Montana when we got back and took full advantage.
Glacier in incomparable.  That park and our Rocky Mountain Front country visible on a drive there world class scenery-wise.
We have the added advantage of access to truly wild and sparsely visited landscapes.
I'll take our Montana scenery over anything I've seen in Europe.

Rodgers Peak alpine flowers

Our alpine wildflower tour of the Continental Divide Trail off Rogers Pass was amazing.
The blue, fragrant Forget-Me-Not flowers stole the show, spangled on the red arguilite stone amidst the yellow graba and the pink Douglasia.
In the distance the snow-capped Scapegoat Wilderness high-point, Red Mountain at 9,411 feet.
It doesn't get any better than this!

West Butte:  Sweetgrass Hills

On Thursday Katie asked me to lead her "Girls in Glacier" hiking group up West Butte in the Sweetgrass Hills.  The butte (really a mountain) at 6,983 feet, rises abruptly from a flat, agricultural plain.  Up against the Alberta border it is the highest of three such buttes north of Shelby/Chester.
I lead 15 women from our parking spot.  Fourteen reached the top as the Great Plains sky put on a tempestuous performance.  We could see storms moving in as we neared the top, causing us to take cover in a wooded area as rain and hail pelted us.
I thoroughly enjoyed the drama of the malevolent sky bringing moisture.
From the top we could see the other buttes floating on the prairie as dark clouds descended on them.
This is a sacred spot for the Blackfeet Indians and we saw prayer flags in the threes on top where they do vision quests.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Highwoods: Windy Peak exploratory

Lots of bleached Pasque flowers on this hike 
The Shooting Stars wre out

A "Selfie" on top Windy Peak

A couple of delusional "snow nymphs" I met along the way. They were convinced the snow would safeguard them from ticks

It really isn't spring hiking season until the Highwood Mountains clear.
And I'm here to report that they are clear right now.  The road to Thain Creek, with numerous trailheads, is in good shape.  The creeks are running high, but have little effect on hiking, except if you want to reach Highwood Baldy on Deer Creek approach.  Only the top 450 feet of that mountain is still covered with snow.  I'd advise snowshoes for that last pitch to the top.
The flowers are out --- Pasque, Shooting Star, Spring Beauty, Fritilary, Arrowleaf --- and the Black Hawthorne is ready to pop.  There is a green cast on the aspen and even the grass is greening in spots.
I went Saturday to do the Windy Peak-Briggs Creek 9-mile loop.
This hike turned into an exploratory when, after climbing Windy Peak (Elevation: 6,000 feet) I decided to go off-trail and proceed down the open ridgelines to Briggs Creek near the Thain Creek Campground.
This turned out fantastically.  I got into a bit of brush on occasion, but for the most part stayed on the top of open, grassy ridges.
Along the way I could see that this area is a real haven for wildlife.  I saw deer, elk and moose scat;  lots of it!  I found a spring they obviously use.
At the bottom on Briggs Creek I found that the beaver, which returned after a campground-destroying flood, have been super busy knocking down large trees and creating a chain of ponds behind dams.
This would probably explain why the moose have returned.
I almost hiked the North Highwood Creek Center Ridge Trail, but when I got to the parking area there must have been a dozen motorcycles readying to go into the same general area.
That's when I turned around, reasoning that more off-trail opportunities sans motorcycles are available on the Windy Peak Loop.
However, right below Windy Peak some of the cyclists came through.
That's when I decided to forgo the trail and walk the ridgeline.
I also climbed Windy in an unconventional way, up from a saddle to the west of the peak beween the peak and the gorgeous outcrop, also to the west.  I fought a couple of snow fields and lots of brush, but the climb was more direct this way.
At the saddle to the south of the peak I found two female hikers sitting in one of the banks of snow.
They said they were there to avoid contact with ticks.
I called the "Snow Nymphs," and told them they were delusional if they thought they could avoid ticks in the heart of the season.
The day was overcast, but I could still get pretty good views from on top Windy:  Little Belts, Bearspaws, the buttes, Big Belts and the Front.  Still lots of snow up there!
Busy beavers were at work on Briggs Creek

The beavers created a series of lovely ponds behind their dams

My off-trail route below Windy Peak

Friday, May 04, 2018

Finding the rare Kelseya rose in bloom

Delicate blooms on the pink flowers 
Katie gets up close for a photo

The Kelseya grows on cushions hanging from the limestone cliffs

This was a big enough deal that Katie scaled a scree slope to get to the flowers
The second time was the charm in search of a blooming Kelseya rose in the Trout Creek Canyon north of the mining camp of York near Helena.We had tried 10 days ago and the Kelseya was not quite ready.But, on Thursday it was in full bloom on the walls of the Trout Creek Canyon.The flat, easy trail starts where the road ends at the Vigilante Campground in the Helena National Forest in the Big Belt Mountains.You can see these colorful pink flowers that grow as if on pin cushions.The Trout Creek Canyon is located on what used to be the Figure 8 Route.  It got wiped out in a flood in 1981 and has since been converted to a great hiking trail.H. Wayne Phillips, a retired Lewis and Clark National Forest ecologist put together a piece on the flower for his weekly old guys hiking group.  I offer it whole-cloth:"In 1888 Francis D. Kelsey, pastor of the Congregational Church in Helena, made the first botanical collection of a flowering cushion plant that was growing on the limestone walls in the Gates of the Mountains area along the Missouri River, ofter referred to as Kelsey's "moss".  The plant was so unique that botanist named it in honor of its discoverer, Kelseya uniflora. To this day, it is the only plant known in this botanical genus. Because it was discoverd in Montana, and most of its populations occur here, the Montana Native Plant Society adopted the iconic Kelseya as its symbol. The drive to the trailhead, all on asphalt surfaces, will likely take 2 hours, but it will be worth it Not only because of the Kelseya, but also the narrow limestone canyon, with its soaring limestone cliffs, towers, and spires, which are (at least to me) reminiscent of Zion.  The hike is 6 miles round trip and gentle in grade.  The challenge will be the numerous creek crossings.  Although the creek is small, and in places underground, with spring run off, there are some crossings that are challenging.  Bring wading shoes, gaiters, poles, tick repellant, camera, and maybe "yaktracks" in case there are icy sections of the trail (which there were 10 days ago). "Even without the flowers this is an exceptionally scenic canyon and worth the hike. 

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Bringing in my 70th Bob Marshall-style

Gordon Whirry at the Gibson Reservoir Overlook

Gordon hiking the Gibson Reservoir Trail

Mark Hertenstein and Gordon Whirry approach the top of Mortimer Ridge in deep snow

Mark Hertenstein is awed by the views on top

My 70th Birthday portrait
I always do a birthday climb on around the date of my birthday.
With such splendid weather on Friday I did it a day early this year and the climb was a spectacular way to celebrate my 70th.
This wasn't a major climb, but gorgeous beyond belief.
It was to a high point on the ridge between Mortimer and Big George gulches in the Bob Marshall Wilderness country adjacent to the Gibson Reservoir on a steep west facing and cliffy 1,500 feet rise.
It was relatively cloudless, blue sky that contained some haze we figured came from agricultural field burning.
While we passed isolated snow patches on the way up, there was a solid covering of deep snow at the top.
The advantage of this climb was the 360 degree mountain views.
The still-deep snow made the views even more impressive.
We could clearly see the White Ridge to the west with its Prairie Reef and Slategoat Mountains deep in the Bob.  To the north the high point was Arsenic Peak.  To the east, Castle Reef, and to the south, Sawtooth.
Below us was Gibson Reservoir mostly covered in a shimmering emerald ice above a drawn down pool that exposed naked hillsides.  We figure the snow melt from this record snow year will soon fill the lake.
I am still not at full hiking capacity, although I seemed to have recovered from the dizziness I suffered on Wednesday's climb of Mount Chisholm.  But the effects of the dizziness caused me to be hesitant as we descended the steep hillside into Mortimer Gulch.
On top we enjoyed the views as we lunched and I noticed that it had been visited recently probably hours before we got there by a grizzly who left signature long-nailed paw prints.
It was nice to be in the Front for my birthday.  The last two were in Vienna, Austria and Zagreb, Croatia.
Good to be home.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Sketchy Chisholm Peak in Adels

This will have to serve as my 70th Birthday portrait.  It will be official Saturday.

This shot illustrates the mountain's difficult terrain 

Gordon descending the mountain's south flank

A map of the Mount Chisholm area
I love the Adel Mountains, an appendage of the Big Belt Mountains south of Cascade.
This range is an old volcano that sent fingers out onto the plains, creating our beloved Square, Crown and Birdtail buttes on the southern Great Falls horizon.  They have a maroon hue and are dotted with massive Ponderosa pine trees.
They are cut through by the Missouri River and some of the best trout fishing in the state as attested to by the growing number of outfitters and their clients who wet a line year 'round.
The problem for hikers and climbers is one of access.
There are numerous BLM and state sections in this area, but they are separated by private lands historically used for grazing, but increasingly for rural subdivision.
Finding the access is tough, but possible.  Of course, there's asking the landowners, but they are hard to find.
I've done that, but usually I study BLM maps and find public lands sections that are adjacent to one another and accessible from the Missouri River Recreational Road or Interstate 15.
Probably the most accessible hike and climb I've found is located in the little settlement of Hardy just west of the Hardy Bridge Fishing Access site.  There is a BLM section there below one of the more prominent mountains in the area ---- Chisholm Peak (elevation: 4,639 feet).
First Arrowleafs of the season

Finally, a Pasque flower, a real sign of Spring
In the absence of an organized Wayne's Wednesday Walk I climbed the peak with Gordon Whirry, a third time for me.
From a saddle on the west side of the peak we went to the north side of the mountain (through the trees) until we reached a gap in the ridgeline and then climbed on the peak's south side, hugging the wall and looking for logical spots to gain elevation.  If you look closely you can see a climber's route and several ducks that we found helpful in navigation.  It is very slow going and you have to use your hands in many spots.  I would say this is full scale scrambling in spots that are high Class 3.
The rock throughout is broken igneous that moves around and it leaves patches of ball-bearing like rock that is easy to slip on.
On top the views are amazing;  the Missouri River meandering in bends below the Mountain Palace and in the distance to the west the Continental Divide, dominated by the largest peak in the Scapegoat Wilderness and Bob Marshall Complex, Red Mountain (elevation:  9,411 feet).  It is completely covered by snow as are the other peaks along the Divide. There is still plenty of snow in the Adels as well. We were surprised to see many beds that bighorn sheep had set up on the south side of the range.
We came down the south and then east side of the mountain through a lovely canyon and tall ponderosa trees to the railroad tracks just north of a train tunnel in the mountains.
Walking along the railroad tracks along the river back to the car there were drift boats full of fly fishermen wetting their lines.
It was encouraging to see some wildflowers in bloom.  Spring has been inordinately late this year.
We saw our first Pasque flowers of the season, buttercups, fritliary, and even a blooming clutch of Arrowleaf Balsamroots!  A week earlier we had gone looking for wildflowers in the Sun River Canyon and found a measly dandelion for our effort.  The next day we went to the Trout Creek Canyon near York in the Big Belts and the Kelseya rose hadn't bloomed either.
Mount Chisholm's East Face

Our walk out was along the railroad tracks and Missouri River with Mountain Palace above us

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Hiking season begins belatedly

Steamboat Mountain from Sun River Game Range/Sun Canyon Road

Katie and me below Castle Reef Mountain

View from Wagner Basin

Our Wednesday hiking group on lunch break

Sun River in the Canyon
We're a tad late to begin the hiking season this year with all the snow.
Not that I'm complaining.
The backcountry ski season was long and wonderful and I'd love to see more of the same in the future.
It's just that we've become used to hiking in late March and early April, and we have been tentative about getting out there this year because there have been wave after wave of storms.
We really began our season with a hike up Mount Sentinel in Missoula on Saturday, about a 2,000 foot gain to the top.  The mountain trail, which starts on campus, has a bit of snow on the ridgeline, and I caught flurries when I topped out.
There are several ways to reach the top.  My favorite has been to take the trail immediately to the left up the north edge of the mountain.  This is very steep.
On Saturday I decided to explore and went to the "M" and above it took the trail to the right (south) that crosses an old road and switchbacks up a ridge and past an abandoned 1890 copper mine.  When the ridge top is reached I had a choice of connecting with the north trail or going back south that parallels the ridge and wraps around the east side of the summit cap and then to the top.  I went south.
I found this a less strenuous approach than the north ridge line.
I hit only one short patch of snow and ice.  We saw three alpine flowers.
On Wednesday, Wayne Phillips led our old-guys hiking group into the Wagner Basin below Castle Reef Mountain in the Sun River Canyon below Gibson Dam and did a roundtrip hike of 5.5 miles, gaining and losing 1,200 feet.
We saw a single dandelion, but numerous bighorn sheep and deer.
I also picked up a couple of ticks.
The weather was superb, with bright sun,  blue skies, moderate wind,  and the landscape was dappled with abundant snow.
This easily accessible area from Augusta offers some of the best Rocky Mountain Front scenery.  It is dominated by Castle Reef and Sawtooth Mountains that flank both sides of the road like a giant gate.
Mount Sentinel in Missoula

From the top of Sentinel in a snow squall