Monday, December 15, 2014

Snow, just not as much as I want

My flocked "Christmas trees" on the Deadman run
We've had some decent snowfalls since my last post, but we've also had some stretches of warm and dry weather that is playing havoc in the backcountry.
I had a report from a friend yesterday that despite great snow at Teton Pass, the surrounding backcountry was only marginal.  It was my planned destination, but after the report I canceled.
Because it snowed this past weekend, I headed for the mountains Monday morning to check things out.
It is really strange;  good snow between Monarch and Neihart, but marginal snow at Kings Hill Pass and on the ridgelines.  There was another 2-4 inches on top of a hard base, but the wind had crusted it, making tele turns difficult.
I went up Deadman trail to the far end of the Deadman bowls, about 3 miles, and I fought that crust all the way.
Luckily, the skies opened up and it was quite beautiful.  It was bright blue and the snow glittered like jewels from the sunlight.  It is so fantastic to live on the east side of the mountains where this is a regular occurence.
I got out only once last week --- skiing up the hill, climbing Porphyry and going across to the Mizpah bowls.  The snow was good, but heavy.
Mizpah ridge

Mizpah cabin

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Earning our turns ---- finally!

Mark Hertenstein doing tele turns on Speculation Saturday

A quick look over the side

What a difference 10 days have made for snow.
Although it was 57 degrees in Great Falls, with howling winds, and 35 degrees at Kings Hill Pass, the snow on Porphyry at the Showdown Ski Area couldn't have been better.
Just 10 days ago there was an windcrust and a thin layer of snow that was skiable, but too icy to manage.
On Saturday we skied in a somewhat heavy powder, making four runs down Speculation and two on Upper Quick Silver, gaining more than 2,100 feet and traveling over 6 miles.
As we drove home, we headed right into the weather front that within hours plunged Great Falls to zero and snow.
On Saturday morning it was snowing heavily and temperatures remained below zero all day.
The Rocky Mountain Front was scheduled to receive the heaviest snows.
No doubt, I'll be checking that out early next week.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

First backcountry ski of season

Wind-crusted early snow on top
While I was spending 10 days in Chicago, it got really cold here and snowed enough to entice to do my first backcountry ski of the 2014-15 season.
It was a beautiful day Wednesday with clear skies and temperatures in the low 20s at Kings Hill Pass in the Little Belt Mountains.
My trip was simple and quick, about 3.5 miles round trip and 800 feet gained and lost climbing up the Showdown Ski Area runs to the top of Porphyry Peak with an elevation of 8,186 feet.
There was about 9 inches on top and 5 inches most the way.
In the wind, the snow was crusted, and soft and faceted most elsewhere.
I got my first turns of the season.
It was minus 37 for a day here.
I'm glad I missed that.
Snow returns this weekend.

For maps, graph and more detail, click here: Porphyry Peak

Golden Goose was skiable, but you had to watch the small trees sticking out of the wind crust

The Porphyry Lookout on top

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Glacier before the storm in her finest larch color

The larch in full color along Glacier Park's Lake McDonald.
I had to get a last look at Glacier in her yellow-larch finery and took a swing through the Swan, the west side of the park, Essex and East Glacier Park Thursday and Friday.
The weather continues to be unseasonably warm, but that promises to end with a major winter storm predicted for Sunday.
On the way to the park on Thursday I stopped for a quick climb to the top of Rogers Pass and a look at the snow in the high country.  Only a week ago things were fairly dry.  Continental Divide Peaks like Caribou and off to the north, Rocky Mountain peak are now coated in white.
Then, I hit the Swan, stopping for breath-taking views of the larch along Salmon Lake and the state park.  Swan Lake was equally spangled.
Then, for a stop at Lake McDonald in Glacier Park, a drive on the inner road as far as it goes --- 6.5 miles from Fish Creek campground to Camas Creek in the heart of the Roberts Fire aftermath (2003).
At Fish Creek I stopped for the 1.8 mile hike to Rocky Point and the interpretive displays on the Roberts fire.
I remember that fire well, and even the Rampage fire that year, but had forgotten that 13 percent of the park or almost 150,000 acres had burned that year, the driest on record.
It was overcast, but the golden larch color still popped.
Then it was off to Essex, the Izack Walton Inn and dinner and finally to East Glacier Park, where I spent the night.
St. Nick from Scalplock Mountain lookout

A thermal layer covered the Middle Fork Flathead spangled in yellow larch

The high peaks of the Great Bear Wilderness to the south

Essex and the Middle Fork from the top of Scalplock
In the morning I had a great breakfast at the Two Medicine Grille, enjoying the company of waitress Laurie Littner, a fellow climber, and Rebecca Wright, the cook who is a Badger-Two Med enthusiast and Bob Marshall devotee.
I doubled back to Essex and hit the Scaplock Mountain Trail to do the 8.6 miles, elevation gain and loss of 3,305 feet to the top of the 6,919 foot peak.
The trail was carpeted in fallen larch needles and at about 6,250 feet I started to pick up snow, all the way to the top.
The skies cleared when I reached the top and I got glorious views the pointed Mount St. Nicholas directly to the northwest, the high peaks of the Great Bear Wilderness to the south and below a layer of clouds blanketing the Middle Fork Flathead River.
Scaplock lookout with St. Nick in the background
I saw only one other person on the mountain trail, just at the beginning, as I was finishing.
On the way home I detoured along the Heart Butte Road, getting great views of the Badger country to the west.

Link to Scalplock climb, click here:

Scalplock climb

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Quick trip to Yellowstone Park

Gibbon Falls

The standard harem shot in Mammoth

Norris Geyser Basin


In the Porcelin area of Norris
I took a quick, solo trip to Yellowstone Park this week to see the animals and enjoy the less crowded spaces.
I saw plenty of animals, particularly elk and bison, but also mountain goats and a large grizzly bear.
I had hoped to see a wolf, but did not.
The park was pretty empty.  I spent several hours in the Norris Geyser Basin, one of my favorite spots, and saw not a soul in the back basin and very few in the Porcelin portion of the basin.
There was only a dusting of snow on the high peaks, like Electric and Mount Holmes.
I stayed at the Mammoth Campground and there were plenty of empty spaces.
I went into the park by way of the Paradise Valley and Gardiner and left by West Yellowstone and the Gallatin Canyon.
It had been about 10 years since I had been in the Gallatin Canyon and was stunned by the second home growth, particularly in the Big Sky resort area.  The Ophir School has grown immensely and the Big Sky High School has appeared.  There was highway congestion from Big Sky all the way into Bozeman.
This was a great way to experience the park.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Enjoying the October "bonus"

Wayne Phillips on top the high point on Alice Mountains

Climbing the ridge line off trail

The view from our lunch spot below Alice Mountains high point --- across Falls Creek and Scapegoat Wilderness

The limestone cliffs above Alice Creek trail, along Continental Divide Trail
The weather has been so mild and clear that October has turned out to be a "bonus" month for hiking and climbing this year.
Sunday, I joined my wife and two of her friends on a climb of Mount Wright (elevation: 8,875 feet) in the Rocky Mountain Front, to enjoy the fabulous views across the Bob Marshall Wilderness.  It was my third time up this mountain this season, my wife's second.
The views on this nearly 8 mile hike did not disappoint.  They were so clear we could see deep into Glacier Park, and across the Bob to the Swan Range.
On Monday, it was a climb of the high point in the Alice Mountains, a sub-range on the Continental Divide Trail east and north of Lincoln, not far from the Lewis and Clark Pass.
It was a 10.1 miles hike up a mining road from the Alice Creek picnic area at the end of the Alice Creek Road converted to a Helena National Forest Trail No. 490, rising 3,000 feet to the 8,135 feet summit.
On the way up we cut switchbacks and went directly to the top on a ridge pointing at the summit.
On the way down we took this scenic road/trail all the way, adding 2 miles to the trip, and well worth it.
The views from the top of Alice high point were of the Falls Creek country, Caribou, Red, Scapegoat, Steamboat, Bear Den, Monitor peaks.

For details on the Alice Mountains hike click on this link:

Alice Mountains high point

Beth Thomas and Katie Kotynski attack the summit ridge

Coming off the top

Beth Thomas and Sarah, from Sweden, on the top of Mount Wright 

Back to the car

West Fork Teton, a wilderness stream

Sarah, in front of the first mountain she's ever climbed, Mount Wright

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Ushering out the climbing season with Old Man of the Hills and Mount Poia

Steve Taylor and Dwight Smith work their way up Old Man of the Hills Mountain

Demian Kotynski on the ridgeline to Mount Poia (in the background)

Dwight Smith, 72, proud of having climbed Old Man of the Hills (in background)
I began preparing for the backcountry ski season with a couple of climbs last week with old familiar Rocky Mountain Front country favorites:  Old Man of the Hills (elevation: 8,347 feet) and Mt. Poia ( 8,275 feet).
Old Man is within the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, Poia, just north in the Badger Two Medicine Wilderness Study Area.
Old Man peak route
Both are isolated, hard to get to and handsome mountains.
This has been a late fall season on the Front and the aspen, cottonwood and ground cover were at their height of color.  The weather was warm and just slightly breezy.
The Old Man climb was at the request of friend Dwight Smith, 72, who has been after me to climb this mountain for about 7 years.  The climb, particularly the knife ridge beneath the summit cap, was a challenge and thrill for Smith who had never done this kind of off-trail climbing.  Although the knife ridge scared him, he made it to the top!  We were joined by experienced mountaineer Steve Taylor and his son, Daniel.
Mount Poia Route
I've climbed this peak three different ways, and think this most direct of the routes was clearly the most scenic.  We climbed a dry fork of Washout Creek, just inside the wilderness boundary through the North Dupuyer Creek canyon. It was like climbing stairs.  Atop it was a steep ridge walk along a limestone wall.  I had started out on this route two years ago with Jim Heckel, but once we hit the ridge line we turned around, beaten by 100 degree heat!  I've also climbed it via a saddle and west ridge from Washout Creek, and by way of a long approach from the Blackleaf Canyon and the South Fork of Dupuyer Creek.
What makes this peak so special are the view to the north of Walling Reef, an icon of the north end of the Front.
What makes this peak especially hard is the drive to the trailhead over one of the toughest, bump and rutted roads imagineable.
Our route Wednesday was 6.1 miles roundtrip and 3,000 feet of elevation gain.
Two days later, my son, Demian, and I did Poia from the Heywood Creek parking area off Swift Reservoir along the North Fork Birch Creek on a crisp, clear autumn day.
It involves walking two miles of trail to Killem Horse Creek and following a ridgeline another 4.1 miles to the top.  The first mile is through heavy deadfall, the second quite steep on a more exposed slope with limestone outcroppings, the final 2 miles is a glorious, exposed, alpine stroll.
The mountain looks more challenging to climb than the reality.
The summit cap offers views of gendarmes and spires below on its north side.  We saw many goat beds, but no goats.
I've climbed it this way before, as well as up Small Creek when I've combined Poia with Scarface and Morningstar peaks, a mountaineering experience I call the "Three Sacred Peaks," because these three are named for Blackfeet legend.
On the way down, we took a bad turn and got cliffed out, but after spending more than an hour working our way out, we lost daylight and walked our the final 2 miles in the dark.
While a straight climb of the peak is 6.1 miles one way and 4,350 feet in elevation gain, our "detour" upped that to more than 5,100 feet and more than 13 miles of walking roundtrip.
We could see directly into Glacier Park to the north, back along the Front to Old Man of the Hills, Walling Reef and as far south as Old Baldy and deep into the Bob and Great Bear wildernesses.
Mounts Richmond and Fields to the south were the large, dominant peaks.
A week earlier I spent an afternoon enjoying fall color in the Highwood Mountains on an exploratory of ridglines.
The colors through North Fork Dupuyer Creek canyon were exceptional

The "hoodos" on the Mount Poia ridgeline

Mount Richmond, in the background, was a dominating presence on the Poia climb

Old Man of the Hills from the Great Plains

Looking down the route we used to climb Old Man of the Hills

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The perfect hike: Our Lake to HQ Pass traverse

A "selfie" above Our Lake

A friendly mountain goat greeted me at HQ Pass

The 8,589 feet unnamed peak I climbed en route
Sometimes when I'm hiking long distances I like to occupy my mind by making up lists of best hikes, best climbs, best waterfalls, etc.
As I did the Our Lake to Headquarters Pass traverse Thursday it became clear to me that this was the perfect hike.  It has several waterfalls, the option of mountains to climb, a nice off-trail segment and 360 degree mind-blowing views ----  the Chinese Wall to the west, the peaks of the Rocky Mountain Front to the east, Our Lake below to the north, and Rocky Mountain Peak to the south.
I had a picture perfect and cloudless day for this, and it was topped off by an encounter with a mountain goat patrolling the pass when I reached it.
This is an 8.1 mile trek with 2,944 feet of elevation gain if you do the unnamed peak (at 8,589 feet)and ridge line that descends to the pass.
The most difficult part of the hike is the ascent up the southwest gully that rises from Our Lake.  Early in the season it has a snow bank in it that often extends to the lake.  When I do an early traverse I usually skirt above it to the east.  That's what I did Thursday.
However, the snow had melted out of it and I think I would have been able to simply walk up that steep gully where it had been.
I kept thinking about what Jim Heckel had suggested:  instead of going up that gully, do the ramp just before the trail bends to its last approach to Our Lake.  I've got a map here.  The red is my usual route up the snow gully.  Jim's (better) route is in the purple color.
My route is in Red.  Heckel's better route is in the purple color

This was a scorcher of a day in Great Falls, with temperatures reaching 94 degrees.  It was a cool 80 when I reached the car.

For more details and a map of the traverse, click on this link: Our Lake to HQ Pass Traverse

Here are a few more photos:
Rocky Mountain Peak rears its head above HQ Pass as I proceed down the ridge line

The spring in the valley below the pass

The most spectacular waterfall on the hike

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Goodbye summer, hello fall

Approaching the Scenic Point summit

Coming off Scenic Point on the way to East Glacier Park

The "Girls" hiking through brilliant ground cover

The aspen in full full color

Who could resist a Goose Island photo on such a clear, calm day on St. Mary Lake?

West side color in the park
We bade summer goodbye last weekend with the Scenic Point to East Glacier Park walk-through on Saturday and then followed it with a final drive over the Going to the Sun Road on Sunday (and a walk to the Hidden Lake Overlook).

Click here for details: Scenic Point to East Glacier Park walk through

The colors on the east side, mainly aspen, cottonwood and the ground cover were sharp and crisp, with yellows dominating in the trees and oranges and reds radiating from the ground.
The west side was breathtaking ---- with colors everywhere.  It was at its height for now, recognizing that in a month the larch will be in full color, giving us a second shot there.
The Going to the Sun Road is closed for the season, as are the park's lodges.
We stayed at the Glacier Park Lodge on its final night on the GPI's $99 a night special for Montanans.  We ate at Serrano's and the Whistle Stop and had pie at the Two Medicine Grill.
On Saturday night we also stopped by the Glacier Two Medicine Alliance annual gathering at the Rising Wolf Ranch near Marias Pass.  The colors there were beyond belief and when the sun went down the bright stars spangled the sky.
Katie's sad that the lodges have closed
The Scenic Point walk, 11.6 miles, goes up and over Scenic Point Mountain and down the front of the mountains and through the Blackfeet Reservation back to East Glacier Park.  This walk is a tour of some of the park's best geologic features ---- from high mountain scenery to the prairie.
I accompanied my wife's "Girls in Glacier" hiking group on this hike.  I joined six women on the trek.
On Tuesday, I got antsy for the Rocky Mountain Front and set out on the Steamboat Lookout Trail, the Elk Creek Trail No. 205 southwest of Augusta.  The trailhead is 71 miles from my front door.  The weather was overcast and windy and rather than climb Steamboat when I reached the lookout cutoff trail, I continued on 205 another mile and a half to the Scapegoat Wilderness boundary and pass over the Elk Creek/Dearborn River divide, which offers stunning views of the Scapegoat Masif and the Crown Mountain country.
I was surprised to find that apparently there had been no cattle allowed into this Elk Creek country this year and the green grass was shin-high and the trail free of cattle droppings.  It had been two years since I had hiked this trail and was delighted to see how much trail work had been done by the Forest Service, clearing the debris of the Canyon Creek fire (1988).  The trail, once choked by the debris, and cattle droppings and even cattle, is now a delight to walk.
As one who has hiked this trail repeatedly, before and after the fire, it is interesting to see how this area has come back from the burn.  The north and east slopes are now heavily timbered.  I'd venture to guess that within 5 years those slopes will show little evidence of the conflagration.  The west and south slopes are still pretty littered with dead fall and blow down trees and there is sparse tree regrowth.
As in the Glacier, the colors popped.

Click here for details of Elk Creek hike: Elk Creek hike

The ground cover on the Elk Creek Trail No. 205

The burn and the skyline

Scapegoat Wilderness trail sign at Elk Creek/Dearborn divide

Scapegoat Masif and mountain from the divide

Aspen color on trail