Sunday, January 15, 2017

Bucking deep snow in Mortimer Gulch

The full moon sets above the Rocky Mountain Front alpine glow near Augusta 

The sun and clouds reminded me of a Van Gogh painting

Sawtooth Peak is the backdrop as Mark works his way up the snow field

Originally, I had planned to ski with Wayne's Wednesday crowd exploring a new route from Kings Hill to Jumping Creek in the Little Belts.
Instead, Mark Hertenstein looked at the size of his crowd and decided we wanted more of a wilderness experience and headed for the Front outside Augusta up the Sun River Canyon and up Mortimer Gulch that runs north from Gibson Reservoir.
The winds were howling out on the plains, bringing in a Chinook that was raising temperatures from where they had been stuck far below zero for most of the month.  We ended up skiing in 30 degree weather.
The attraction of Mortimer Gulch is that it is a gateway to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and offers breathtaking views of Castle Reef and Sawtooth Ridge and the high peaks of the Scapegoat and Bob Marshall wilderness areas to the south and west.
For some reason it was also shielded from the howling winds and we skied in relative calm.
The snow is considerably deeper in the Front than the Little Belts this season, a real twist from most snow seasons.
We had to break deep powder on our ski
We skied in two and three feet of powder that, for the most part, still hadn't set up with a good base, probably because the weather has been so fierce since early December.
So, we had the tedious and laborious task of breaking trail as we headed north up the gulch, above the Triple J Guest Ranch and toward the high point, which I've always called Mortimer Mountain.
We tried unsuccessfully to do some tele turns in some of the many open snowfields beneath the ridge to our west.  I ran into rock and bottomless powder that stalled my skis.  I couldn't get them to float.  There was some wind crust as well.
I figured we did about 6 miles roundtrip up and back and gained about 1,300 feet.
We were rewarded with peerless blue skies, tremendous alpine scenery and solitude.
We we able to drive just beyond the Triple J to a plowed out ranch gate and then hop on the powder that covered the road.
The road to the Sun River Canyon had drifted a bit in a couple of spots, but nothing my all wheel Toyota Rav 4 couldn't plow through.
The treat of the day was driving toward the canyon as the sun rose, casting the Front mountains in a spectacular alpine glow under a full moon.
We were very pleased we had turned back from the Little Belts ski scrum.
Up Mortimer Gulch toward Mortimer peak at its head

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Skiing on the frozen bottom of North Fork Teton River

Through the 2007 burn with high Teton Peaks as the backdrop

On the bottom beneath Mount Wright
This has been a weird backcountry ski season so far.
That partially explains why I'm so late in filing my first ski of the near year.
We also spent the Christmas holidays in California and couldn't ski.
The snow just refuses to set up and it has been bitterly cold since Dec. 6, not to mention a lack of snow in October and November.
There are only 13 inches on top of Showdown in the Little Belts, a veritable snow-basket, and more than 30 inches in the Front, but with a questionable base and a wind-glazed and hardened surface.
We skied Saturday doing a combination off-and on-trail hike on North Fork Teton just below Mount Wright beginning at the Teton Pass Ski Area with a turnaround at the Bob Marshall Wilderness boundary where the East Fork Teton comes in.  We skied down through an old burn to the creek, along the creek, right on the frozen river and then back on the old logging road betwen the West Fork and ski area.
We covered about 9 miles with an elevation gain and loss near 1,100 feet.  The scenery is beyond gorgeous here despite logging and the 2007 burn, with high peaks lining both sides of North Fork.
The best part of the ski was getting on the frozen North Fork, which had a skiable layer of snow on top of some thick ice, although it opened up into a flow in spots that we could ski around.
Despite 8 degree weather at the beginning of the trip it was glorious with blue skies and bright sunshine, warming into the teens.

On the logging road back to the ski area while losing daylight

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Winter Solstice in the Little Belts

Gordon Whirry shuffles past the Porphry Peak lookout

Lucky for us, we had marked this rarely used trail last fall, making the trip easier
Winter is "officially" here, although it has seemed like we've been it her clutches for several weeks now.
We got out on one of our "Wayne's" backcountry ski trips on the start of winter at Kings Hill, opting for the 4-mile Trail 747 loop that starts at the pass, climbs Porphyry Peak at Showdown, a half-mile south down the ridge on Trail 727 where it meets the Trail 747 cutoff trail that descends just under a mile to an old logging road that is a snowmobile trail in the winter.  A couple of miles down this road and it meets the O'Brien Creek backcountry ski trail.  It ascends about three-quarters mile to the Showdown Ski Area and then back to Kings Hill Pass.
It been almost violently cold for the past two weeks, with temperatures getting only as high as 10 degrees and as low as 27 below, only to be replaced by cold winds that have blown the snow around.
This was a relatively tough ski today because we had to break trail beyond the ski area and down to the snowmobile trail, where, luckily, tracks were laid, making our ski back somewhat easier.
Because of the cold, the snow hasn't set up yet and while there are a couple of feet of powder it hasn't consolidated, leaving it without a base.  That means sinking in the snow and fighting to get the skis back to the surface.
While it was blowing in the morning, the sun finally broke through around 11 a.m., and it was spectacularly sunny.
This is probably the last ski for 2016 with a Christmas Eve storm coming in.
I look forward to a great 2017!

Monday, December 12, 2016

Good snow at Teton Pass

Despite great snow at Teton Pass, we had it mostly to ourselves
We switched gears on Sunday, going to Teton Pass rather than King's Hill, because the snow is so much better along the Rocky Mountain Front than the Little Belts.
It was bone-chilling cold to the Teton Canyon where the temperatures jumped from minus 2 to more than 20 degrees.
While it wasn't snowing on the Great Plains, we got plenty of snow all day back in the mountains around Teton Pass Ski Area.
The only problem was that a good base hasn't set up yet in the backcountry and slogging through deep base-less powder was pretty tough.
After a little of that, we opted for the ski hill itself and did yo-yo tele runs for most of the four hours we were there, taking advantage of powder that hadn't been worn away by the omnipresent snowboarders.
I figure we skied in at least two feet of powder and temperatures reached as high as 26 degrees.
The big snow was expected to fall overnight.
In the meantime, as of this writing, another foot of snow fell in the Little Belts.  That usually snow-packed range really needed it.
Really frigid air continues here.  In the past week we've gotten to 11 degrees once, and wind chills have us well below zero.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Finally !!! Backcountry skiing

First tele turns of the season down former Poma Lift run at Showdown
I can't remember ever having to wait so long to begin my cross country ski season.
I finally got out Thursday, Dec. 8, but for only a short run.
Normally, we can get out as early as mid-October and surely in the month of November, except for this year, because of no snow.
We've been pinned down by ultra cold weather and I figured that a good soak at the White Sulphur Springs Spa would cure what ailed me (i.e., cabin fever).  So, I packed my ski gear in the car hoping the snow would be good enough for a quick run.
It was minus 3 at Kings Hill Pass when I got out of the car, where a Showdown cat was clearing the pass's parking area.
Showdown delayed its Dec. 9 opening for lack of snow and the area was a mess of groomer tracks, working what little snow has fallen.
There is about 8 inches on the pass, but no base.
I decided to try it anyway, and went as far as the former Poma Lift area and took two runs to about a 100 feet above the bottom when I hit too much rock.  Luckily I was wearing my rock skis.
I also went a little more than half way up Golden Goose, a Green run, before I decided skiing back down on the chopped up, thin snow would be suicidal.
It was still great to finally get out on skis and I hope enough snow falls in the next couple of days that the skiing will be better.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Exploratory on trail below Fairview Mountain

Walking up the Beaver-Willow Road beyond the closed gate with Sheep Shed Mountain above us 

Katie and Jaye at Lost Lake below Fairview Mountain
Grizzly paw prints on the road
Really, we should have been skiing, and this area would have been a pretty good spot if there were snow.
There was a skiff of the white stuff along the way, and it hung in the air.
This was a Wayne's Wednesday Wilderness Walk exploratory hike on Trail 210 that runs parallel to the Beaver-Willow Creek Road reached from the Benchmark Road and the old Camp Scoutana.
The trail runs along the base of Fairview Mountain.
It is about a 7 mile walk, but we made it into a 9.3 mile trek that gained and lost nearly 2,000 feet because we had difficulty finding trail.
We had four in our group start from the south near the Willow Creek Falls trailhead.  The other four of us (me included) were to start from the north and there was to be a key exchange.  In the end, only two made it all the way through.
We were hampered in trail-finding from the north end by the high-grade outfitter/hunting trails that bisected the main trail, misleading and confusing us.
We went off on a number of wild-goose chases before giving up.  On one of my exploratories I found what I thought to be the thru-trail, and turned back and we turned around.
When we were later reunited with the two who had come all the way through, we discovered that my tracks were within 100 yards of where the south group had stopped for lunch, and where two of those four also turned back.
We had two extra miles added each way because the gate on the road near Sugar Loaf was closed (for the winter).   It was a beautiful walk on the road though, because there was no traffic and there was a light amount of snow.  On the way back we found distinct grizzly bear tracks on the road (photo included on this adventure).
A highlight of the trip from the north to south was Lost Lake beneath Fairview Peak, a gorgeous opening in the thick Doug Fir forest.  The group coming up from the south encountered high wind and some trail-finding difficulties, too.
The entire area of high peaks on the southern end of the Rocky Mountain Front was quite beautiful in its alpine glory.

The "Xs" mark where the two cars were parked.  The gray line is where the group from the south started at the Willow Creek Falls trailhead area.  The group from the north parked at the "X" on the purple line and walked north, looping to the south.  Note the gap between the gray and purple lines and you'll see how close we came to connecting, before we turned around and headed back to the car.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Mann Gulch traverse

Folded limestone above Meriwether Canyon

Looking down on the Missouri River near the Gates

Dave Ashley views a marker where one of the smokejumpers died

At the wilderness boundary near Willow Mountain
It shouldn't be this warm and clear at this time of year.
Here it is nearly mid-November and we're hiking, not skiing.
We took advantage of 60 degree weather and clear skies Saturday to traverse Mann Gulch in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness, the site of the 1949 forest fire tragedy that killed 13 Forest Service smokejumpers.
The spots where they died are marked with crosses and monuments in this remote site.
In the past it has been difficult to reach this site because the best trails are reached from the Missouri River, which means traveling by boat.
About five years ago retired smokejumpers built a nice trail from the Willow Creek side of the wilderness off the Beartooth Game Range.
Instead, Saturday, we headed up a hunter's trail on a gulch just west and a little south of where Willow Creek flows into Elkhorn Creek on the game range, bypassing the new trail.
It was a quick 2 miles and about 1,000 feet to the saddle above Mann Gulch, much quicker than the new trail or coming up from Meriwether Canyon or up Mann Gulch from the bottom.
We added a ridge walk from the saddle to where the trail plunges into Meriwether and then bushwhacked down to the Mann Gulch bottom before heading up to view the monuments.
We covered roughly 7.1 miles and gained nearly 2,700 feet on this hike.
For me, the highlight was walking the ridge between the saddle and where the trail headed down to Meriwether.  There are fantastic views of the limestone walls and ridges and Willow Mountain.  There are also great views of the river near the mythological "gates."
Although we enjoyed this summer-like day, we realize that we badly need snow.

Wayne's walk:

Earlier in the week our Wayne's Wild Walk took us on a little-used trail in the Little Belts, really a ridge trail across the top of Porphyry Peak, No. 747.  However, we only went from Jumping Creek trailhead to the Mizpah Bowls and back to our car to check out as a backcountry ski trip.  It most certainly is, from Kings Hill Pass back to Jumping Creek Trailhead, about 9 miles.

For more, a topo map of hike and additional photos:  CLICK HERE

On the ridge below Willow Mountain 
Sleeping Giant Mountain

Above the oxbow on the Missouri

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Many Glacier in late season

Katie at Apikuni Falls

Looking back at Swiftcurrent Peak from Fishercap Lake

Wilbur Creek Falls

Mount Wilbur, Iceberg Notch B-7 Pillar along the Garden Wall

Katie at Lake Josephine with Mount Gould in background
Usually we're backcountry skiing by now, so this late season trip to Many Glacier was a real treat.
It's bone dry here, warm and windy, with temperatures climbing into the 70s on the Great Plains.  There's some snow in the high country, but it is scant.
We did four short hikes in Glacier on Saturday on a day-trip:  Apikuni Falls, Fishercap Lake, Wilbur Creek Falls and Lake Josephine.
The sky was a brilliant, cloudless blue and of course, the park was virtually empty.
I've often felt that the park is wasted by keeping it open for only several months a year.  This is a good example of that.
The colors are gone, the leaves on the ground, and the place has a feel that winter is about to descend.
We drove to the park by way of Valier cutoff, and back down Highway 89.
The Rocky Mountain Front along the way was in spectacular array, knifing to the sky.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Trail work, larch, hoodoos again

Rampage Mountain pokes its head through the clouds in Glacier Park above Middle Fork 

Our Wednesday old guys hiking group clearing brush along Belt Creek north of Neihart

The larch in color at Swan Lake

Steve Taylor and Gordon Whirry clearing Trail 747 on the west flank of Porphyry Peak

We've been getting out, but I haven't been posting as frequently.
Our Wayne's Wednesday Walks redid the hoodoos at Rock City north of Valier last week, and this week did some trail work in the Little Belts.
The week before Katie and I took three days in the Flathead to see the height of the larch color and enjoy some down time at the Laughing Horse Lodge in Swan Lake.
The larch were particularly colorful and plentiful this year with the usual suspects ---- Salmon Lake near Seeley, Swan Lake, and the area around Essex the best.
We did a couple of short hikes in Glacier Park --- Fish Creek Campground to Rocky Point through the 2003 Roberts Burn, and along the Boundary Trail outside West Glacier.  The colors there were impressive as well.
Most of our group had not seen the hoodoos at Rock City and we did a bit more extensive walking than I had done previously, covering some of the bench on Birch Creek above where it comes into the Two Medicine River, and getting down to the Two Med itself.
Our trail work Wednesday was a result of a request from Neihart Mayor Steve Taylor, in cooperation with the Forest Service to start some initial work on Taylor's Dream --- a trail between Neihart and Monarch along Belt Creek.
Despite Highway 89 running alongside the creek we found the area gorgeous because of the granitic rock canyon walls, the fast rushing creek and the country it opens the hiker to.  Steve envisions it a great place to ski or snowshoe as well as hike.
We did a section between the Harley Creek Bridge and the Neihart Cemetery.
Lots of work to do here, folks.
Then, we drove some of the logging roads south and west of Porphyry Peak and ultimately took the road to the Trail 747 trailhead from the road.
We cleared brush and cut trees (Steve did), and hiked to the Porphyry ridgeline.
This trail has become a wintertime favorite for a backcountry ski loop including a climb to the top of Porphyry, down 747, down the road to the intersection with the O'Brien Creek Trail and back to our starting point,  Kings Hill Pass.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Doing Ear Mountain most directly

On our way up the northeast ridge line

Mary Stelling braces herself against the wind

The Ear Mountain cliffs just above us
I wanted to get on record the easy way to climb Ear Mountain.  Well, okay, a somewhat easy way.  This involves going to the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks parking area off the Bellview Road northwest of Choteau, accessed from the Teton River Road.
There's a good parking area and a gate across what used to be a road.  Get on the road and follow it until it crosses a small drainage (you'll see the steel culvert). This is a wood cutting area.  Start up the ridge and follow it to the base of the cliffs.  This is on the norheast side of the mountain.
This is as far as we went last week with our Wayne's Wednesday Group hikers because the wind was blowing so hard we thought it risky to go any further.
We went 3 miles up and gained 2,700 feet.
If doing the full climb, at the cliff base there is a great, but narrow goat trail that goes across the face of the mountain to a very obvious saddle to the west.  Carefully follow it to that point where the trail becomes more pronounced and goes to the back of the mountain.  Follow that good trail in the scree to where it stops at a large and steep gully full of talus.  This is the way up.  Follow it through the cliffs, about 200 feet of elevation, and it is an easy walk to this mountain's high point.
In years past the most popular way of climbing this mountain is from the BLM trailhead off the South Fork Teton Road. This involves lots of up and down and across the Yeager Flats.
The way I described is much simpler and direct.

Here is a topo of the route and more photos:  CLICK HERE

H. Wayne Phillips with Metis (Earwax) Mountain in background 
Descending the ridge line 
The group encounters snow

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Rock City: magical land of hoodoos

Our group in a field of hoodoos

Frank Smith near a free-standing hoodoo

Where the Two Med and Birch Creek come together

Hoodoos above the Birch Creek cliffs
Thanks to the Portage Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation I was introduced to Rock City, about 10 miles north of Valier on Saturday where hoodoos abound and Birch Creek and the Two Medicine River join in sight of a snow speckled Rocky Mountain Front.
Frank Smith of Great Falls, of the foundation, led a dozen hikers to this magical place on the plains.
After snowfall and melt during the week that muddied and softened the dirt road, we had to abandon a plan to drive to the rim of this unusual land of weathered rock formations, and hiked up the Rock City Road a couple of miles to reach the hoodoos.
This was our third experience with hoodoos --- rock weathered chimneys and slots --- this season.
We found them on the Lewis and Clark "Fight Site," Montana Wilderness Association hike led by Larry Epstein where the Corps of Discovery had an unfortunate skirmish that killed a teen Blackfeet boy, and at the Writing on Stone Provincial Park near Milk River, Alberta, not far from the Port of Sweetgrass.
While those hoodoos were beautiful, and historical, Rock City was far more spectacular.
Finding this spot is a tad complicated, because it is not formally marked, although it sits on Bureau of Land Management property, bounded by wheat farms.
Drive straight north of Valier on the highway to Cut Bank.  After several miles the road swings sharply to the west.  A "Rock City" street sign on a gravel road is straight ahead.  Take it and in several miles becomes dirt.  Stay straight ahead for a couple more miles.  It becomes two-track to the Two Medicine River's rim where the hoodoos become very visible.  When it is dry you can drive right to those rims.
The route to Rock City
If confused, Valier locals will tell you where it's at.
Take your time, wander around, squeeze through tight slots, ascend flat topped hoodoos, and eventually climb to the grass on the southwest for a view of where Birch Creek and the Two Med join.  There are high, sandstone cliffs above both bodies of water
Birch Creek is the smaller stream to the south.  The Two Med is powerful and where the two are joined there are rapids.
While Valerians are familiar with this area, it is largely unknown by those of us from Great Falls, who speed through this scenic northcentral Motnana farm town on the way to Glacier or the Front.
My great concern is that if it is eventually discovered it can be overused.
This place deserves some kind of protection.
Hoodoos everywhere

Tight squeeze for Richard Fischer through a slot

Stove pipe hoodoos

Saturday, October 01, 2016

East Side ground cover at autumnal best

Scarlet huckleberries and red rocks on Steamboat hillside

On top Steamboat Lookout

Steamboat above an aspen grove
I made a last minute decision Friday to climb Steamboat (Lookout) Mountain (elevation: 8,565 feet), hoping to enjoy fall color along the Rocky Mountain Front.
Along with the clear skies, warm temperature and light winds, I nailed it.
While many enjoy the changing trees, I go for the ground cover on the east side of the Rockies.
The rose bushes, huckleberries and fireweed turn various shades of red, yellow and orange and light up hillsides.
They are particularly striking against the red rocks on this hike.
I did the standard Elk Creek Pass Trail route from the Elk Creek Trailhead, a route that is about 13.2 miles and gains and loses nearly 3,800 feet roundtrip.
I got a late start since I worked a couple of hours before deciding to go, arriving at the trailhead just before 11 a.m.  I was on top before 2 p.m., and back at the car around 5:30 p.m.
The huckleberry bushes were particularly brilliant, a deep scarlet color accentuated by the green grasses, as well as the red rocks.
I usually do this climb at least once a season because I've been fascinated by how this forest has come back since the 1988 Canyon Creek Fire.  I like to measure the progress of the regrowth. This 250,000 acre hot fire burned most of that summer and in September of that year jumped the highway and burned out on the plains.
It has been interesting to watch the forest come back in my short lifetime.
There are thick stands of lodgepole and Douglas Fir trees, so thick that it could probably use another fire to thin them.
Aspens aglow
This is also an area that I often see elk, and when I gain elevation I get fabulous views of some of my favorite country, the Scapegoat masif, Crown Mountain area, and to the north the Sawtooth-Castle Reef and high Teton peaks country as well as Haystack Butte closer by.
I rarely see anyone on this hike, but on Friday passed a local couple on horseback (yes, I passed them!) on their way on a loop ride that would take them back home via the Dearborn.
The Elk Creek bottom was brilliant with the yellow aspens.
On the way home I stopped and took a few photos of the Sun River bottoms east of Augusta, shouting color from its cottonwoods.
Crown Mountain complex seen from top of Steamboat
Steamboat Lookout Mountain summit cap
Golden cottonwoods on the Sun River bottom east of Augusta