Saturday, January 18, 2020

Busting trail on O'Brien Creek after big snowfall

The O'Brien Creek sign near Divide Road 
The always impressive O'Brien Creek 

My skies needed a good scraping after they got a dunking in the creek 
The sight of the sun-dappled Neihart Baldy Mountain means the end of the trip is near

Showdown continues to get amazing snowfalls; another 16 inches fell over the weekend.
I ran up Friday to catch the powder on a very cold day in Great Falls, where the temperature dawned at minus 24.
But, I was going to the trailhead anyway and expected to see temperatures on the 20 degrees plus side.
Between Monarch and Neihart things looked pretty bleak.  Temperatures were well below zero and a heavy snowfall developed.
I tried Steve Taylor's place in Neihart to see if he could give me a ride to the top, but he wasn't home.
I became undecided at this point and said I'd drive to the top and if it hadn't reached at least 20 degrees I'd forgo my planned O'Brien Creek trip for something on the Deadman side of the pass.
It didn't look too good until I hit the Silvercrest Area and temperatures rose dramatically, reaching the magic 20 degree marker.
I turned around and went back to the bottom, got my boots on, grabbed the skis and started to hitchhike.
Immediately, the first car stopped and it was Pete Rysted, former Great Harvest bakery store owner, who left me off at the top, but not without having expressed his concern that I'd have a tough time breaking trail back to Neihart, some 8 miles away.
He was right.
Since I was alone, I was now forced to break trail nearly all the way back.
What is usually a three hour ski trip turned into a six hour marathon.
I got quite a workout.
Luckily for me, the pretty snow stopped and about half-way through the ski, the skies cleared and the sun came out.
Several observations:

  • My wife's snow shoe group had been over 1.65 miles of the trail on Sunday and there were faint tracks left.  They dropped off toward the powerline.  They left me a slight base that I really appreciated.
  • The trail was unbroken from there.  The only other person I know who had skied and broken the trail was Jasmine Krotkov, who did so a month earlier.  No sign of her tracks there.
  • With the snowshoe craze I don't think many folks are doing the full O'Brien run anymore.  It used to be there would be a half-dozen skiers going down.  Now, snowshoers get a shorter workout.
  • The trees in the old clearcut above Divide Road are now fully mature 30-feet high.  I remember being able to look over the top of these trees.
I was really glad to finally hit the snowmobile/skier shared portion of the trail.  A snowmo track had been covered by about 5 inches of powder, but the trail was considerably easier to break in this final 3 miles.
However, the weight of the snowmobile had broken through the snow bridges and ice in about four spots, and my skis got dunked when they went under the ice crust about a mile from the end in the powerline area.
It took me about 20 miles to scrape and clean my skis that froze up with ice immediately.  They got thickly caked with snow as well.  Amazingly, 100 feet up the trail I dropped through the ice again and had to repeat my scraping task.
This is a run worth doing at least once a winter, but watch for the openings in the ice.

A Wayne's Wednesday visit to Cadotte Creek

Snow-shrouded Red Mountain, at 9,411 feet, looms over the Cadotte country
Catching our breath after some telemark turns

Climbing to the ridge line 
Our Wayne's Wednesday Walks group returned to Cadotte Creek on a cold Great Falls morning, where temperatures were minus 17.
On the West side, just beyond Rogers Pass, we found 20 degrees on Cadotte Creek.
We skied a 5 mile loop, gaining about 1,200 feet enroute, and then spent an hour yo-yoing telemark turns.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Teton Pass Ski Area open again giving access to backcountry

Above some open water on North Fork Waldron Creek

Gordon Whirry in the Waldron Bowl area

We found these blue and pink tapes very helpful in route finding to the bowl 

It has been a couple of years since the Teton Pass Ski Area closed, putting a large swath of the the Front backcountry out of reach for winter users.
With its reopening a couple of weeks ago the 28 miles of Teton Canyon County Road is now plowed to the area.
When the ski are was closed, the county only plowed as far as the national forest boundary, with the 9 or so miles to the ski area unplowed.
There were a few hearty souls who would ski or sled to the area, but for the vast majority of us this put that area out of reach.
We went out Saturday to enjoy this area again after this long respite.
We skied the familiar North Fork Waldron Creek about a half mile south of the ski area, covering some 4.5 miles into the Waldron Creek bowl below Mount Lockhart, gaining and losing 1,100 feet along the way.
The first mile is on a good, open former logging road.
It disappears from there and it's always a guess and some reckoning to find a direct route to the bowl.
Happily for us, someone has marked a route with blue and pink tape as the road enters the forest and at least as far as the trail descends to the creek.  It eliminated a large amount of guesswork.
However, at the creek bottom we lost the markings and headed up a route we remembered that winds through the trees and crosses creek tributaries.
My memory was quite good and we found a pretty good direct route to the bowl.
It was an overcast day, obscuring the great views of the mountains and their headwalls in this area.
The snow was darn deep and we lost a track at about 1 mile and had to break trail the rest of the way.
I think the snow was as deep as I had ever seen it in my 40 years of skiing in this area.
Being back in this area during the winter absolutely delighted me.
Let's hope the ski area is a great success and the road remains open so I can get into the South Fork, and West Fork as well.
Heck, I'll even buy a lift ticket!

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Jumping Creek's rocky run

A foot of newly fallen snow made this trip a wonderland 
Across the top, heading for Mizpah Peak and its bowls

Mary Stelling on her queenly throne taking a rest 

Our group of nine on the final stretch

These stats add a 300 foot telemark run I took down Golden Goose at Showdown
The 8.5 miles Jumping Creek backcountry run that starts at Kings Hill in the Little Belts, climbs Porphyry and Mizpah peaks (small bumps on a ridge), scoots past Ranch Creek and comes out across from the Jumping Creek Campground is a remote and challenging run.
It wouldn't be so bad if it were not for a mile-stretch of road that has been badly churned by off-road vehicles, exposing lots of unavoidable rock, and lots of scattered deadfall.
If you could ignore this one-mile stretch, this is a challenging and scenic trip.
Our Wednesday Wayne's group skied this Wednesday and despite abundant snow still hit the rocks and several of our group even resorted to walking a stretch, skis in hand.
The last mile or so of the trip is on an old logging road, which if the snow is sparse can provide a fast, icy ride.  But, we had great snow Wednesday and were able to easily ski right down it.
The trip gains over 1,100 feet (most of it from Kings Hill to Porphyry Peak) and loses 2,400 feet and offers several nice telemark stretches.
The highlight of this trip is skiing across the open ridge allowing for tremendous views of the east side of the Little Belt Mountains, the Big Belts' Edith and Baldy peaks to the west, and an occasional glimpse of the Crazy Mountains.
The rock garden comes about a mile to the south where the Ranch Creek Trail turns down into the old clearcut.
Above Ranch Creek it was interesting to look down on the old clearcut that we used to easy ski down almost unimpeded.  It is now a maturing re-grown forest.  I've been skiing this area for 35 years.  That seems like fast growth to me.
I don't recommend this trip unless there is sufficient, settled snow with a good base to cover the rocks.
We had a foot of new snow, but unfortunately there was no good base on the rocky mile.
Our route

Monday, January 06, 2020

Finally! First day in the backcountry in 2020

The Porphyry Peak Lookout
I found out too late that I needn't have waited to get into the backcountry for the first time in this new year.
The wind has been blowing non-stop and I thought our good snow would have been wind-crusted and melted, and so I stayed home until Sunday, Jan. 5.
I ventured out tentatively on that day to see what the wind had wrought, finding incredibly terrific and deep snow in the Little Belts in the Kings Hill Area.
I hate to keep repeating trips, but for the third time this winter I went did the 747 Loop that goes to the top of Porphyry Peak (first peak of the year!)  It is a 5.6 miles loop that gains and loses more than 1,000 feet in elevation.  Without rushing, I did the loop in under 2 and a half hours.
There had been a small dump on Saturday, depositing about 3-4 inches on a two-foot base.
The wind had also blown soft snow over our tracks of two weeks ago.
The snow was like velvet and the turns couldn't have come any easier.
On the back side of the mountain where 747 meets a roomed snowmobile trail/road, snowmobiles had put down tracks in the center, leaving a wide strip of powder on either side.
Sometimes this two-mile stretch on the road to the O'Brien Creek trail is a sheet of ice and fast an and somewhat dangerous.
Sunday, anyone could have made turns.
While the wind was blowing on top ,the vast majority of the loop was sheltered.  Although the sun shown brightly, it was bitterly cold.  The temperature in the sunlight at my car at Kings Hill Pass was only 21 degrees.
I took the long route, avoiding the Golden Goose run on the Showdown Hill, going up the trail to the north to the top.
Like me, other people were avoiding the wind and stayed away from the hill, so there were very few people on the ski runs.
After the trip I hopped in my new car to test it out on the icy road to White Sulphur Springs, where I did my first soak of the new year.
With a backcountry ski and a hot springs soak I felt positively European!
Our route

Friday, December 20, 2019

Getting in shape on 14 inches of new snow in Little Belts

Gordon Whirry deals with his errant ski that took a solo trip down a Showdown run

Gorgeous, unbroken snow at the Trail 747 starting point
The Porphyry Peak backcountry

This shows how deep the new snowfall was on the groomed snowmobile trail
Last weekend's Little Belts snowstorm dumped about 14 inches of powder in the Kings Hill area.
Our Wayne's Wednesday Walks group (three of us) tackled the deep snow, doing the Trail 747 loop that climbs from the pass to the top of the ski hill, back around Porphyry Peak and then back to the pass via the O'Brien Creek Trail.
It's about a 4.5 miles run, but we made it longer when one of us set a ski down at the top of the Golden Goose ski run at Showdown and it took off, with us in pursuit.
It traveled about 200 feet down hill before settling in the power.  Wayne Phillips' sharp eyes picked out the tips of the ski that had veered off the run into the forest, where he had been skiing the edge between the run and the trees.
What luck!
Wayne was the only of the three of us wearing leashes on our skis, and we got a scolding for being so careless.
Let that be a lesson!
This was my second time down this quick loop, and originally I had opposed it.  But, the snow was so exceptionally good on the back side of Porphyry that it kind of made up for the boredom of repetition.  I don't mind this loop when the road at the end of the established trail is not groomed.  It is a major snowmobile route.  We often shoot down this more quickly than I like when it is groomed.  It was groomed this day, sort of ruining the backcountry experience.
Now that we've done several ski trips repetitively and have gotten in shape, it's time to move on to the more challenging trips.
Bring them on!

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Back to Cadotte, exploring another gulch

Looking back toward Red Mountain country 
Up the drainage toward the pass

On the open ridge

Working our way out of the wind
After a weekend snowstorm, well, really it was an ice storm, we ventured back to Cadotte Creek on the west side of the Continental Divide on Monday.
We had hoped to ski in the Teton country, but the winds were too high and we thought the west side would be calmer.
It wasn't.
We chose First Gulch for our ski trip.
We started up the bottom on about four inches of new, fresh powder on a thin base.  We had to be careful of stumps and snags left over from the extensive logging in the area.
In about a quarter-mile a drainage, with a low pass at the ridgeline, presented itself and we worked our way up, some 750 feet to the top.
Despite the clear blue skies, the wind was howling on top, so we traversed to the east side of the ridge and stayed away from most of the blowing.  The views of the Continental Divide country and Red Mountain were dominant.
Eventually, we exhausted the ridge and worked our way down to the bottom and across the small tributary and eventually climbed to an old logging road, which we used to get back to the open bottom and out.
Instead of calling it a day, from the car we skied into the willows and found a snow-ice bridge across the Blackfoot River to the other side.  It wasn't long when we hit a fence-line.  That and some guard dogs persuaded us to turn around.  We could hear a dog pursuing us as we scrambled across the river and safely back to our car.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Off trail backcountry ski trip up Cadotte Creek

Along the bottom of Third Gulch looking toward the high point we we would climb

We skied past beautiful red and green rock outcrops

It was icy-cold in the wind

Mark looks out over the Blackfoot River valley
I've now healed sufficiently since my Oct. 17 car accident that I'm venturing again into the backcountry off-trail.
On Monday, Mark Hertenstein and I, took advantage of the good Sunday snowstorm to enjoy the upper reaches of Cadotte Creek, just west of Rogers Pass and the Continental Divide Trail.
There are three parallel gulches west, between Bartlett Creek and the Cadotte Creek Road.
There's also a large powerline that runs through the area, with a wide swath cleared along its bottom.
The area is webbed with old logging roads, which make access terrific.
We've been able to do long loops across the tops of the ridges above the gluches.
On Monday we went right up the bottom of Third Gulch, the first gulch west of the Cadotte Road.
At the end of the gulch we climbed the ridge between Third and Second gulches, climbing to a high point, before skiing across to an even higher point, roughly 6,300 feet, on a ridge between Third Gulch and Cadotte Road.  We were able to ride this ridge all the way down to a powerline road and out.
I figure we did about 5 miles and gained and lost about 1,700 feet on inconsistent, but very ski-able snow.  The weather, in the low 20s, was perfect for the snow.
Our views from the ridge lines and high points were of the Continental Divide country above the Blackfoot River.
We cut around some very beautiful outcroppings that had Glacier Park-like red and green stripes.
I was very pleased to be able to do such a ski after such a long lay off.
Now, I need to keep it going!
Our route is marked in blue

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Great early season snow accumulating

The Forest Service was trying to burn this green slash pile

Empty slopes on great snow 
Wayne Phillips takes a break on the top of the ski hill

New snow flocked trees along our route

Reaching the Trailhead 747 

Fabulous backcountry skiing 
The snow continues to pile up in the mountains, promising a great backcountry ski season.
Great Divide Ski Area near Helena has already been open for two weeks.
The snow groomer has been busy on Showdown Ski Area in the Little Belts.
I took some turns on the Showdown hill Wednesday on the way with our Wayne's Wednesday Walks group on the 5+ miles Trail 747 loop that begins at Kings Hill Pass, climbs to the top of Porphyry Peak, and then down the back side of the mountain on back to the pass via the O'Brien Creek Trail.
Our seniors-laden group of four guys smoked the traverse in 3 hours and 20 minutes, even stopping for lunch and a break.
The snow had a nice, but somewhat icy base topped by 2-3 inches of fresh snow.
The temperature was 20 degrees and the sky, though overcast, opened up with some sun when we hit the top of Porphyry.  I thought it was darn cold when we stopped.
It was really great to have the entire, large area to ourselves, although on the way up Porphyry, we encountered Forest Service crews trying to set large slash piles, harvested from the ski area, on fire.  It didn't seem as though they were having much success with the green timber.
We were all heartened by the great snow and our trip.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Car accident, cold and snow cancels Fall hiking

Looking down the old Poma Lift run before I did some turns
After more than a month on the sidelines, I finally got out Thursday for some skiing in the King's Hill area to test my conditioning after being injured in a car accident.
My wife and I were in Minneapolis with our 6-year-old grandson in the car when we got struck from behind by a large semi that pushed us into a bus on the 494 Interstate.  We are thankful that all the safety gear worked as intended;  the airbags deployed, the seatbelts restrained us, and the frame, while crunched between two large vehicles, held.
Our grandson suffered only a cut on his head from debris that flew inside the car, and my ribs and legs (from bracing on the brake) took a licking, but Katie's ribs, back and neck really took it as we were banged from the back and took a hit from the front.
Katie and I had our first-ever rides in an ambulance to an Edina, MN hospital where we were X-rayed and examined and Katie had a CAT scan.  Our little guy is having trouble coping with this accident, though.
After a night with Katie's daughter, we had to book a one-way plane ticket back to Great Falls.

The accident was the demise of our 2015 Chevrolet Traverse that had only 62,000 miles.
The past three weeks we've been in and out of doctors' offices, dealing with insurances, buying a new car, and coping with our injuries.  I'm healing more quickly than Katie, but find new aches and pains
The ski hill has pretty good early season snow
emerging almost every day.  Katie's injuries appear as though they will take much more time to heal.  The tendons that extend from my right calf to my ankle and my left-inner knee have been painful, and that calf feels as though it was whacked with a baseball bat.
I'm very thankful that we survived something so horrible.
I resumed walking almost immediately, but it took weeks before I felt I had recovered enough to try skiing.
We've been both cursed and blessed with snow and cold most of October.  In fact, this has been the snowiest October in history, with more than 3-feet having fallen.  That knocked out the usual mountain trips for color because, particularly on the east side, the color was brief and fleeting.  We felt fortunate to have been able to take one drive to the Seeley Lake area to see the Larch in color, a drive in our new car.
I didn't do too much Thursday, skiing about an hour up to the base of the Golden Goose run at Showdown Ski Area.  I did a few turns on the old Poma Lift run and felt pretty good about what I was able to do.  The tendon in my ankle pulled a bit, but I backed off when the pain started. 
The snow was quite good, though a bit icy, although this is quite early for skiing.  With the record snows, Great Divide Ski Area is opening its earliest, today, Nov. 9.
 I've got a way to go, but am hopeful this will be a good ski season yet.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Record snowfall+record cold=We're skiing Oct. 1!

White everywhere on our drive to the trailhead.

Our drive was on sometimes scary one-lane road

On the trail

The river far below 
Mark at lunch under the sun

We stopped for some turns in this area

The snowy Dearborn with colorful aspens
It has been only four months and eight days since our last backcountry ski trip, but up to 4 feet of snow in the Front and temperatures as low as a record 9 degrees in Great Falls (and a record 19.9 inches of snow) made skiing a logical choice on Tuesday.
And, the sky turned a bright blue and there was no wind.
That big, wet snow deposited a pretty good base.  I didn't hit bottom all day, although a couple of rocks did show up.
The earliest I remembered skiing was around Oct. 5.
Oct. 1 is some kind of record, too.
We headed up through Augusta to the Dearborn, hoping the roads had been plowed and we might try Falls Creek.
The ride up was pretty hairy, sometimes down to one lane with piles of snow making it impossible to pull over should another car coming in the other direction would want get by.  We were lucky there was only one car and there was space for it to pull over and let us by.
Even in the dead of winter I've rarely seen so much snow in the fields and on the peaks.  It was white in every direction.
When we got to Falls Creek the parking lot had not been plowed.  We hoped that there would be space somewhere near the Dearborn River Trailhead for us to pull over, or maybe even the Christian school and camp across the road.
To our surprise the lot had been cleared and then a truck came up behind us.
Kraig Lang, the retired Forest Service Wilderness Ranger, immediately got out and came over and we renewed our acquaintances.  He had led me and Mark Hertenstein on a hydrology survey through the Bob Marshall Wilderness some 13 years ago.
He said the big storm came in while he was back in a hunter's camp and he was returning to pick up his trucks.  Through the snow he crossed the Divide and had left his horses near Indian Meadows not far from Lincoln on the other side of the Divide.  He was exhausted from riding some 20 solid hours to get out.
We skied in only a couple miles, just beyond the Forest Service property line, but we took side trips to the lip of a couple of overlooks to admire the blue sky, the bright sun, the emerald water and the sparkling snows that accentuated the rugged Steamboat Mountain cliffs above us.  On the way back we stopped to do some of the season's first tele turns.  The deep snow made them sluggish.