Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Bouncing from winter to spring, walks and drives dealing with self isolation during pandemic

Birdtail Butte on the Cascade-Simms Road.  A Sunday drive.
Our first alpine flower of Spring, the Buttercup above Holter Lake

Looking at what we would climb

On the scramble above Holter Lake

First Douglasia of season

Our Holter Lake route
In the space of five days I skied in deep, fabulous powder and discovered  blooming alpine flowers while hiking.
We skied Showdown area on Saturday after a dump of snow.  We did an off-trail loop on the north side of Porphyry that finished up with numerous runs up and down the Meadows run on the ski area, even dropping down to the lodge.  We covered more than 5 miles and 2,000 feet of elevation.
On Tuesday we hiked in the Holter Lake area on south facing slopes, which are mainly clear of snow.
We hit a couple of high points from the Holter Lake Recreation site parking area in a large loop, over 5 miles and 2,550 feet of elevation gain and loss.
Along the way I found seven varieties of wildflowers including alpine flowers like pink Douglasia, Buttercups and Pasque flowers.  Spring is here on this mountain face.
There is still plenty of snow on east and north facing slopes.
From one of our many walks along River's Edge Trail
There were lots of wildlife out.  At the Holter turnoff bridge there must have been more than 100 mule deer in the adjacent field.  On the hike we scared up a small herd of elk.
I'm hoping that a promised new snowfall this weekend will allow me some more backcountry runs.
Quite a contrast, eh?
On Sunday, Katie and I took a loop drive along the Simms-Cascade Road, visiting the St. Peter Mission and going to the entry point of the new Birdtail recreation area.  We marveled at this "butte" country between the two towns, the remnants of an old volcano that spread out in laccoliths.
We're doing our best to cope with the social isolation brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic that has kept us otherwise isolated and house-bound.
We've also been getting out quite a bit on the River's Edge Trail.

Holter hike route
Wayne Phillips in the timber in deep off-trail powder on the north side of Porphyry Peak

Friday, April 03, 2020

Breaking the monotony of Covid-19 isolation with some tele turns at Showdown

Looking toward the top of Porphyry Peak and Big Seven Run 
Gordon Whirry climbs Golden Goose

Looking back toward Big Baldy above our first turns in fresh powder

A reminder that the ski hill had closed last week for the season because of Covid-19

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock gifted those of us outdoor enthusiasts with a loophole in his statewide Covid-19 lockdown by encouraging us to hit the trails and slopes but with social distancing.
I took him up on it on Thursday, heading to the Showdown Ski Area to take advantage of the great new snow we received on Wednesday.
The slopes got about four inches of fluffy powder on top of the ski area's packed powder base.
The ski area closed for the season last week because of the Covid-19 virus pandemic.
April has begun ferociously with not only snow, but temperatures far below average.  Showdown had been below zero on Wednesday.  In Great Falls we were at zero when I left home on Thursday.
The ski hill was a bit warmer, about 14 degrees, but there was little wind and the radiant Spring sun warmed things up nicely.  The sky was bluebird.
I drove up on my own, but Gordon Whirry had also driven solo and I got to do a couple of runs with him before we both headed off in different directions.
I did a couple of runs on the Golden Goose slopes.  We had untracked powder on the north run and there were only three tracks when we first hit the south slope.  I went over to the Quick Silver run and then did a small portion of Big Seven, before returning to Golden Goose.
I saw only four other parties on the slopes.  The others were headed to the top of Porphyry Peak, so we had our slopes to ourselves.
The drive to and from the area was exceptionally pretty.  Belt Creek is beginning to emerge from its icy covering and running fast and clear.  It is surprising how much snow is piled up on the sides of the highway between Neihart and Kings Hill Pass.
I covered about 4.5 miles of skiing and 1,600 feet of elevation gain and loss.
It was wonderful way to grab a break from isolation.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Breaking the Covid-19 Virus isolation on the first full day of Spring

Thousands of snow geese and Arctic swans lift off Freezout Lake

The Blackfeet bison herd grazing in the Glacier foothills along the Duck Lake Road

Mounts Siyeh and Cracker on the St. Mary/Many Glacier divide

Grinnell Mountain and Grinell Point

A great way to spend an afternoon in isolation, but in a national park

The St. Mary Lake and valley
I've been pretty faithful with this isolation-thing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Aside from getting out with Mark Hertenstein in the Highwoods on Monday, I've been pretty sealed off from everyone but my wife.  I've had two brief, pre-dawn visits the grocery store for supplies and taken my daily walks.
Katie and I got out for a drive to Benton Lake Wildlife Refuge, where we were unsuccessful in finding any migrating birds and then on to Fort Benton for a walk along the Missouri River.
Then, on the weekend the weather turned spectacular.  The skies cleared and the temperatures shot up and we broke for Freezout Lake and then Glacier National Park.
At Freezout we saw Tundra Swans and Snow Geese in the thousands; a sight to behold.
We enjoyed the drive north up the Front along U.S. 89 and took the Duck Lake Road back to St. Mary.
The highways and park were empty and we decided to have a walk on the Going to the Sun Highway, which is blocked off just beyond the St. Mary Campground.
We started to put on snowshoes, but noticed that the snow was pretty thin, if somewhat icy, and chose to hike.
The lake was still ice-bound and the mountains were covered with snow.  The sky was bluebird and the sun was bright, which helped because we faced a fairly brisk wind.
On our 5-mile hike just short of the Rising Sun Campground we encountered about five groups consisting of 10 people.  Otherwise there was silence and splendor in every direction.
We headed back to Great Falls via U.S. 89 and the Star School cutoff.
We stopped again at Freezout Lake and saw only a smattering of birds coming back in from a day of feeding in the fields or dropping in from the migration for a rest.
It was a very satisfying break from the isolation, something I hope we'll do weekly until it's over.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Escaping coronavirus on a bluebird day in the Highwoods

With South and Middle peaks in the background 
The North Peak saddle full of snow

Some shade with Big Baldy standing above all

The open North Fork Highwood Creek valley

This was a very last minute and late-in-the-day trip into the nearby Highwood Mountains.
I was easy prey for my friend Mark Hertenstein, who called and asked me along for this trip.  Against my better judgment to keep a "social distance," from him, we headed into the back country.  I had been isolating myself for the previous four days in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
This was as bluebird a day as I have ever seen; not a cloud in the deepest of blue sky, temperatures a crisp 20 degrees, and about a foot of fresh powder.
South, Middle, North and Big Baldy peaks gleamed with the new snow.
Because we got such a late start we decided not to do any climbing, but stuck to the road that crosses this small mountain range from the nuclear missile silo on theArrow Creek road out of Geyser to near the Thain Creek ranger station.
There were no signs that anyone had done this trip, even snowmobiles, since the weekend's snow dump.
From the silo parking area we skied about 7 miles out and back along the road to the back side of Big Baldy and back, not stopping for any tele turns.
As the day progressed the radiant heat from the sun made the snow somewhat sticky, requiring a coat of glide wax on our skis.
The only other signs of creatures were numerous deer, elk and possibly moose tracks.
Even with the cold, we stripped down to our base layer shirts because of the sun.
I'm hoping I'll be able to get out for ski trips and hikes during this difficult period of isolation, but understand it'll probably be solo.

Other trips

In the past 10 days, before the big storm, I also reclimbed Priest Butte with friends and climbed Mount Helena.  Katie and I also spent some more time viewing the migrating snow geese and Tundra swans on Freezout Lake.  There we saw some seven bald eagles taking advantage of this moveable feast.

Our route

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Priest Butte: historic, scenic, easy

To the top on a ladder 
The middle cross was a casualty of wind and rust

The easy route to the top 
The walk across the top

Anyone who has traveled between Fairfield and Choteau can't help notice Priest Butte adjacent to the north of Freezout Lake.  It's the one with the three large, white crosses on top.
Normally I would still be skiing at this time of year, but very mild weather and lots of wind have opened this landmark to hiking.
I've driven by it on U.S. 89 hundreds of times on the way to the Front and Glacier Park, but never stopped until Thursday.
Katie was taking her "girls" for a trek there and didn't mind that I would tag along.
The backdrop for this butte is the snowcapped  Rocky Mountain Front, although the Sweegrass Hills, Little and Big Belt mountain ranges, the Highwoods, and the Continental Divide country are all in view.
Historically, bison grazed it, there are hardened dinosaur prints on its top, the Blackfeet used it for vision quests,  and in 1859 Jesuit priests built a log cabin at its base in an effort to evangelize that Indian tribe.  They didn't last, leaving in 1860.
As State Land, it is open to the public through a latched gate.
The butte, unlike those between Cascade and Simms which are volcanic, is a sandstone.
There are four prominent tops that are easy to reach across open, grassy slopes that are grazed by cattle.
We climbed all four under the direction of Dave Shea, 80, a retired Glacier Park ranger who lives in Choteau and is an expert on native plants, wildlife (especially snakes) and the history of this spot that he frequents. We were also hosted by Linda Sentz of Choteau.
This being winter, the snakes were in their dens, but Shea showed us spots where they come out to shed their skins and we saw several hanging in the vegetation.
From the parking area it is an easy 500+ feet walk up.
There was a surprise on the north butte high point, a wooden ladder, Shea said the Choteau Jaycees had put up a decade ago.
On top we saw that the wind had recently blown down the middle cross, which had rusted away at its base.
We also spied a bald eagle soaring on the thermals.
The walk across the top from north to south offered interesting sandstone hoodoos, great overlooks, ravines, and views of Priest and Freezout lakes.
The 2.1 mile roundtrip walk was easy, the climb only about 700 feet.
On the way out we passed Freezout Lake, where the early migrating Arctic swans, and snow geese were arriving.  In one spot there were seven eagles standing on the ice assessing dinner possibilties.
We had left Great Falls at 8 a.m., and were back at exactly noon, with plenty of visiting and a leisurely pace.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

O'Brien with a twist: No Place for Old Men

The trail opens into parks with great views of the high Little Belts peaks

Perfect conditions on the bottom 
Across a snow bridge


What started out as a simple trip down O'Brien Creek in the Little Belts morphed into a trail-finding adventure that added some distance while we almost circled back on ourselves.
I've been doing this 8-mile run for nearly 40 years and this was the first time we lost our trail.
We never really felt lost ---- there were all the familiar sites in the right places:  Poprhyry Lookout, the powerline, Neihart Baldy and Big Baldy.
Our Wednesday Wayne's Walk group decided to begin the backcountry ski with a little twist; we wouldn't join the O'Brien trail in the normal spot, instead opting to continue up the Porphyry Lookout Road to nearly the top of the Showdown Ski Area Golden Goose run. 
There's a pretty good old road/trail from there to a snowmobile trail just above where O'Brien trail comes in.  We planned to tele the first road/trail and then tele another good slope above the O'Brien trail.
Things went pretty smoothly, and we got in some nice turns in great snow until we finished the final run.  Instead of finding the blue diamond trail marker we headed down a road to the east and sort of decided to do some exploring, thinking we'd hit the trail at some point, or at least Divide Road, which would certainly lead us back to the trail.
The skiing was pretty interesting and fun in the trees that occasionally opened onto parks with great views of the Belts.
When we got to what we thought was Divide Road we saw a snow covered hill we thought was just above the trail.
We had some discussion whether we were where we thought we were and ended up skiing back in the direction from which we came.
We stopped and found the blue trail marker.  We had found it, but wandered about in the process, crossing Divide Road in two places without knowing it because it was covered in wind-blown snow.
From there it was a piece of cake down the trail.
There is a remarkable amount of snow in the O'Brien Creek bottom and the snow bridges were in terrific shape.
We were able to do some turns in one additional spot and the rest of the trip was uneventful.
I enjoyed our period of being "lost."
But, I realized that this was something that our age group should be wary of.
The six of us were 80, 78, two at 71, 68 and 66.
This was no place for old men.
You can see how close we came to making full circle as we wandered

Thursday, February 20, 2020

An easy ski on Grassy Mountain/Skidway on a bluebird winter day

At the end of the trip, Mount Edith to our north, came into its snow-capped view.  (Gordon Whirry photo)

Gordon Whirry from the top of the Grassy Mountain ridge

Gordon pulls some turns

The summer-like clouds on this cold day surprised us

The stats
Wayne Phillips is out of town and we didn't think we had enough interest in a backcountry ski for one of his Wednesday Walks, so Gordon Whirry and I did a trip without our usual crowd.
Originally, we thought a trip back to the great powder in the Front's Teton country would be our goal, but on quick reflection when I picked him up we redirected to the Skidway Campground in the Big Belt Mountains, about 20 miles south and east of White Sulphur Springs, for a short loop.
We reasoned the trip would give us something new and different with a look at all the snow piling up in the Island Ranges of Central Montana on a gorgeous bluebird day.
The day started super-cold, with temps as low as minus 5 in the Monarch canyon, but up to 15 above when we reached Skidway.
We were not disappointed.  The west side of the Highwoods, which was bare last week, is now filled in; there's more snow in the Little Belts, particularly with 57 inches in the past week at Rogers Pass; the views of the Baldy Peaks, Mount Edith and the Big Belts were breathtaking in white mantles; and the Castle and Crazy mountain ranges are also loaded with snow.
Skidway is the site of a former small ski area on Grassy Mountain just off the Deep Creek Canyon on U.S. 12.  The Montana Department of Transportation plows out a small parking area for skiers and snowshoers just off the highway.
While the snow was not as deep or good as the Little Belts or Front or Continental Divide country, it was still great.
Katie's Girls in Glacier group had been over the 3.8 miles circuit on snowshoes two days ahead of us and put down a pretty good track in the deepest snow, so we didn't have to break trail.  It was a tad slippery, so I put on skins to the top.
There are old-growth Doug Fir trees on this well-marked loop trail that goes through the campground at the end.
On the top of the ridge-line the views grew even more spectacular in every direction, enhanced by bluer than blue skies and poofy summer-like clouds. On top, the Grassy Mountain high point came into view, as well as the Elkhorn Mountains near Helena.
While a tad icy, I was able to pull a few turns on top, and near the campground it was tele heaven.
On the way back home we stopped at the Spa in White Sulphur and had an hour-long, unplanned soak in the hot springs pools, followed by a visit with the Spa's owner Gene Gudmundson.
We were back by 4:30 p.m., completing a perfect, if easy, day!
Gosh, it's great to live in northcentral Montana.
Our route

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Down into the West Fork Teton hole (and back)

The monarch of the North Fork valley ---- Mount Wright behind me 

Wind and water have sculpted the North Fork Teton bank

The rebirth of our forest, scorched by the fire in 2007

Our breathtaking scenery as we skied back out of the hole 

Our statistics

The weather forecast couldn't have been worse, the snow everywhere else couldn't have been deeper or more unskiable, but Monday I found the West Fork Teton country in the Rocky Mountain Front about perfect.
Mark Hertenstein and I teled into the "hole," some 850 feet and 3.2 miles down to the West Fork cabin along the upper forks of the Teton River.
The Little Belts, where we normally ski when the snow flies, had way too much snow to move about in the backcountry ---- some 47 inches fell in the past week.
The forecast for the Teton country was for high winds and 10 below wind chill.
I'm glad we went anyway.
We found a slight breeze, about 20 above, and clouds that opened into blue skies, revealing "sucker holes," on the horizon.
The surrounding mountains, particularly Mount Wright and False Lockhart really popped under snow cover.  Something about the atmosphere made them seem even bigger than they are, and these are a couple of the biggest mountains on the Front.
When the sun emerged it cast the surrounding ridgelines in a golden hue.
After reaching the divide between the Teton Pass Ski Area and the West Fork we headed off into the "ghost" forest of burned trees, working our way to the North Fork Teton bottom willows.  The creek was running fast and open where I would have expected a coating of ice at this time of the winter.
The banks of snow on the river were dramatically sculpted by the water and wind.  Some furry pussy willows shown.
While skiing through the burned timber we were encouraged by all the new, mostly lodgepole pines that have grown up since the big fire of 2007 swept through and scorched this area.
I consider the high Teton country, of which this is a part, the heart of our world-class Rocky Mountain Front.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Trying to find LESS snow to ski

Mark Hertenstein works his way up a snow field
Enjoying great powder and scenery

Enjoying a break

Pulling tele turns

Never did I think I'd be looking around for LESS snow.
That's what happened Saturday after the Little Belt Mountain received some 37 inches of new snow in the past week.
For a backcountry skier that's virtually impassible.
I checked the Teton country, but it was getting new snow and wind.
So, I had heard that there was a reasonable amount of snow at Stemple Pass and that's what we settled on.
There was lovely snow, so we had a wonderful day.
We set out for Granite Butte Lookout, but got only half-way because high winds had blown the snow off the ridgeline, which we needed to make this lookout over this Continental Divide country south of Lincoln.
We could have taken an old road to the base of the lookout, but there was too much wind on that route, and the higher trail offered more protection in the trees.
What we discovered on the trail were tons of other places for good off-trail and telemark opportunities.
After exploring the trail a couple of miles and enjoying the wind-sculpted snow, we headed back and stopped for an hour of telemark turns in a large, open area of great snow.
Our route