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



Friday, September 19, 2014

Fall colors break out: three days in Glacier, Great Bear

The Huckleberry Lookout Trail with huckleberry bushes in scarlet, fall color

Along the Apgar crest to the high point

Although officially "off trail," animals have maintained an old fire trail across the top of the Apgar crest
After a season-changing, yet summer snowfalls, the weather broke and warm temperatures returned, prompting a quick-hit trip to Glacier.
Originally, I had planned a Scapegoat trip to Flint Peak, but scrapped that when Wayne Phillips suggested accompanying him on a high point climb in Glacier Apgar Mountains on the park's southwest corner (above Lake McDonald).
I hadn't expected so abrupt a change to fall colors that I encountered.  The huckleberry bushes, still laden with what seems like a record berry crop, were a brilliant red.  The honeysuckle, mountain maples, aspen and birch were a psychedelic yellow and green.  The mountain ash were orange from berry to leaf.
It seems as though we hit the height of the fall color dead on, at least on the west side.
I started out earlier than Wayne and did a solo climb of Elk Peak on the park's southeast side ---- gaining over 3,300 feet over 7.3 miles on trail, which rises abruptly from the Fielding Cabin.
Unfortunately, smoke from California fires obscured the views not only on this climb, but my other two hikes on this trip.
This was my fourth time up Elk Mountain, a very enjoyable climb because of the remarkable views gotten from the summit of this former lookout site, particularly Mount St. Nicholas' giant shard.

For details of the hike, click on this link:

Elk Mountain climb

Wayne Phillips achieves another high point --- Apgar, 6,651 feet
That evening, after a wonderful meal at the Belton Chalet, we made camp at the Apgar Campground, and I was astounded to see that most of the 194 camping spots at this, the largest campground in Glacier, were mostly filled.  My goodness, this is mid-to-late September!  The smoke over Lake McDonald made for wonderful sunsets.
Wayne, who is trying to high point all of Montana mountain ranges, was making a second attempt at the unnamed Apgar high point at 6,651 feet.  He was blocked by deadfalls on an earlier more direct and shorter approach a couple of weeks ago.  His redesigned and successful route on Wednesday took us four miles up the Huckleberry Lookout trail to its ridgeline, where we got off trail and walked the Apgar crest the remaining three miles on what appeared to be a former fire trail, now maintained by animals, particularly grizzlies.
We saw so many signs of grizzlies ---- poop, diggings and even a den ---- that we were surprised we didn't see any bears.
The walk along the crest was glorious.  It was free of trees, offering great views in all directions.
We earned our peak, though, walking 15.6 miles and gaining over 5,000 feet of elevation along the way.

For details of the hike, click on this link:

Apgar Mountains high point

Fielding Cabin in Glacier Park's southeast corner

The view up Elk Peak

Mount St. Nicholas from Elk Peak summit
On Thursday, the smoke was so thick and rain threatened, so I drove to Polebridge to buy coffee and a bearclaw pastry from the Polebridge Mercantile, offering me a chance to ogle the amazing yellow aspens and cottonwoods that covered the hillsides and bottom-lands.
I was uncertain about a hike, so I headed by east along Highway 2.  I had considered going back by way of Going to the Sun Highway, but went south because I prefer the Middle Fork road for its wild, scenic nature and plethora of things to do.
Last winter I had rented Zip's Cabin from the Forest, .2 miles from the Great Bear Wilderness Area boundary, and when skiing up the Geifer Creek trail, had noticed the "Snake Loop Trail" sign about a mile up from the wilderness boundary.
I decided to give that 5 mile loop, which gains and loses about 1,500 feet, a try.
What a great decision!
This pleasant loop goes through deep forest, with openings that reveal the area's highpoint --- Baldhead Mountain to the south ---- and the peaks of Glacier Park, particularly Elk Mountain, to the north, in a traverse of this small mountain.
The trail is in desperate need of a maintenance crew.  The first mile of the loop had more than 20 deadfalls I had to step over, and the last mile, at the bottom of the a series of switchbacks, was so littered with blow downs, that I had difficulty reaching the trail.
Snake Loop trail marker in Great Bear Wilderness

For details of this hike click this link:

Snake Loop in Great Bear Wilderness

Monday, September 08, 2014

Celebrating Wilderness Act's 50th Birthday with two climbs in the Bob

The unnamed alpine lake just below Pyramid Peak (in the background)

Atop Pyramid Peak.  That's Pyramid Lake below
We celebrated the 50th Birthday of the Wilderness Act this past weekend with climbs of Pyramid (elevation: 8,309 feet) and Sunday (elevation: 8,170 feet) peaks in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in the Swan Mountain Range east of Seeley Lake.
Ostensibly, we had traveled to Seeley for the Montana Wilderness Association's party celebrating this occasion, but got caught up on the climbing more than the more sedentary events.
However, we caught the Mission Mountain Wood Band concert Saturday night.
If you went on the associated hikes alone, as we did, you had one heck of a celebration.
We signed up for the Pyramid Pass hike (11 miles and about 2,000 feet elevation gain) on Saturday, joining a group of 20 other hikers.  The hike begins at a trailhead at the end of the Morrell Creek Road, accessed at the edge of Seeley. We had been on this road before to hike to Morrell Falls.
This is a lovely hike on a wide trail, an easy way into the Bob.
Along the way, we encountered two backpackers who were old Helena friends, Dave and Sandi Ashley, who were going into the area to enjoy a glorious pre-fall day.
We walked with them to a gorgeous and unnamed alpine lake below Pyramid Pass and the Peak, where they planned to camp.
Just seeing this lovely mountain gave me "peak fever," and after discussing the length of the stay there, I bolted for the peak, arriving on top an hour and 10 minutes later, which left me only 30 minutes to get back down at the agreed upon time.
I figured a more direct route down, aiming at Pyramid Lake on the Bob Marshall side of the pass, and got back 15 minutes late.  I enjoyed the route finding up and back, but must admit I didn't spend but a few moments on top, drinking in the view of the Bob Marshall to the east and the Mission Mountains across the valley to the west.
The race to get up and back expanded my day to 13.5 miles and 3,700 feet of elevation gain.
That speed-trip really tired me.
Everyone headed back down, stuffing themselves with the copious huckleberries along the length of the trail.
Nearing the top of Sunday Mountain on the Swan Crest
I enjoyed the organized hike up Sunday Mountain on Sunday even more.
The access is up the Morrell/Clearwater Road about a dozen miles north of Seeley.  It begins on the "Swan Crest Trail," really an old logging road that is being reclaimed into a hiking trail on the side of Mount Richmond.  The views of the Swan Crest itself, are outstanding.
In less than 2 miles there's a trail junction for an unofficial climber's trail up Sunday Mountain.  The final 1.3 miles or so, shoots up steeply some 1,600 feet, traveling through a couple of moderately exposed cliffs to the "pass" below Sunday Mountain.
It is a short walk to the top of this grassy topped peak.
It really seems as though the much higher adjacent and unnamed peak (and more difficult peak to climb) to the north should be the designated mountain, but hey, I'll take Sunday Peak as it is.
Katie working her way off Sunday Peak
The views of this end of the Bob are gorgeous, as well as the Mission Mountains to the west.
Our leader, Karen Pratt, explained the significance of the climb ---- to show off Grizzly Basin to the southwest below us that is one of the candidate areas for addition to the Bob Marshall in U.S. Jon Tester's wilderness and logging bill pending in Congress.
It has become very clear to me that the east and west entrances to the Bob Marshall are some of the most beautiful of the wilderness country, although they are not officially designated "wilderness."
I saw that on a recent trip through the Bob, when I was blown away by the Rocky Mountain Front on the east and the country to the west of the Swan Crest.
Happy 50th Birthday Wilderness Act!
Happy 50th Birthday Bob Marshall Wilderness!

Click on this link to see details of the Sunday Mountain climb: Sunday Mountain climb


I've circled Sunday Mountain to the north and Pyramid Peak to the south to give an idea about their relationship n the Swan Crest


Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Summer's last hurrah ---- 5 days in Glacier

Glacier's Garden Wall above the Highline Trail in alpine glow
Our original plan was a quick stay at Glacier Park's Granite Park Chalet in advance of the Labor Day weekend.
However, my brother Dan and his wife, Kristin, from Chicago decided he would like to visit and hike in Glacier during the same time, so a 2-day trip turned into 5-days.
Much of the time the weather was quite unsettled.
Yet, we hiked to Firebrand Pass, went to Granite Park Chalet via the Highline Trail and then onto Swiftcurrent at Many Glacier, then did day trips with my brother, Dan, and his wife, Kristin in the St. Mary's and Two Medicine valleys.  I figure we were somewhere in the 45-50 mile range when it was all done.
Granite Park Chalet was a pleasant surprise.  I hadn't expected too much.
What we found was a warm and welcoming staff that knows how to get their guests to interact.
I was delighted to find that colleague Dave Byerly, a retired Lewistown newsman, was running the front desk, assisted by a crew of Calgarians and a Montana University System accountant.
Guests were from all over, although most had a Montana connection.
We had room that slept six in three bunkbeds on the top floor that faced out toward spectacular Heaven's Peak.  There was no electricity, nor heat ---- so we used headlamps and piled on three woolen blankets to keep warm when the temperature plunged into the 30s.
We had to bring our own food that prepared on rotation in a kitchen where hot water was provided.
At the Grinnell Glacier Overlook

Granite Park Chalet

Leaving the chalet

Readying the lookout for the winter, Buck, the ranger, is ready to leave for the season

Katie on top Swiftcurrent Peak with the Swiftcurrent Valley below her
The chalet, a remnant of the park's chalet-to-chalet travel system for the well-heeled, is one of two of these left, the other being Sperry near Lake McDonald.
Interesting day hikes fan out from this spot ---- Swiftcurrent Mountain Lookout, Grinnell Overlook, and Ahern Pass the most notable.
We did the Grinnell Overlook on the way in.  It had been at least 10 years since I had last stopped there on my way to a climb of Grinnell Peak.  On the way out we climbed Swiftcurrent Peak just in time to see Buck, the lookout ranger, battening down the wooden hatches over the lookout's windows.  He had his backpack ready and he was heading out for the season when he was finished.
I've done this lookout hike every year for the past 10 years.
The weather during the entire five day trip was very unsettled and a skiff of snow even fell at the very top of the peaks one of the nights.
A large bull moose near Red Rocks Falls in the Swiftcurrent Valley
We had exceptional luck seeing wildlife on this trip.  Perhaps, most significant was a large bull moose grazing near the the trail in the Red Rocks Falls area.  We saw three grizzlies and two black bears, various bands of bighorn sheep, eight mountain goats in a group, and a bull elk with his small harem of five cows.  One of the grizzlies, a sub-adult, gave us a start when we went to fetch water.  We forgot our bear spray, and of course this was the time a bear would choose to walk in our direction from out of nowhere.  He wasn't interested in us, though and went about his business away from us.
The two days of hiking with my brother and his wife included a walk in the clouds on the side of Mount Oberlin near Logan Pass, a glorious waterfalls hike (Bering, St. Mary, Virginia Falls) with a side trip to Sun Point, and a climb of Scenic Point in the Two Med.
My brother was particularly delighted with the Scenic Point hike, taking him up the Apistoki Valley to a small peak that offers exceptional views of Rising Wolf, Apistoki, Sinopah, and other peaks in the Two Med Valley.
Dan and Kristin Kotynski of Chicago atop Scenic Point

The descent in the Apistoki Valley

The "ghost" trees of a long ago fire added to the scenic beauty