Friday, October 20, 2017

Assessing the Alice Creek Burn

Fire turned north flank of Green Mountain into a moonscape

A sampling of Alice Creek hillside

Wayne Phillips in the burn

The Continental Divide Trail on Green Mountain served as a fire break
Now that the fire season is over it's time to have a look at the new landscapes.
On our Wayne's Wednesday Walk this week we surveyed the Alice Creek fire that started with a lightning strike in early July, smoldered for a month and then blew up before being put down by snow in mid-September.
It burned some 27,000 acres in its path on the edge of the new Scapegoat Wilderness Addition.
This is Continental Divide Trail country that provides the best access to Lewis and Clark Pass.
It is some 85 miles from Great Falls, about 18 miles from Rogers Pass.
We were in high wind season and the area was under a Weather Service alert for the gusts that were predicted at 70-80 mph.
What we saw was a fire that took out the main Alice Creek drainage and spotted in many areas on and adjacent to the Continental Divide Trail.  The area directly north in the Falls Creek drainage had burned in the Canyon Creek Fire in 1988 and several other subsequent years.
We were surprised by how pleasant the hiking was, despite the fire.  There were some moonscapes on the flanks of Green Mountain and the timber had been scorched to the edge of Alice Creek Road, jumping it in spots.
But, this is open country with alternating timber and grass, and the fire effects were more interesting than repulsive.
Our goal was to climb Green Mountain (elevation: 7,453 feet), but the wind blew so hard we climbed the northern-most false summit some 200 feet shy of the mountain high point, or 7,200 feet.
I figured we covered more than 5 miles and 1,600 feet of elevation, a task made difficult by the wind gusts.
Wayne Phillips took some photos and made some observations, taking GPS coordinates for return trips to measure the fire's effects in future years.
The Alice Creek fire perimeter in red

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Fall colors on Mount Kennon climb in Highwoods

Approaching Mount Kennon

We gained elevation quickly 
Gordon Whirry doing what he does so well

One of the many laccoliths on this climb

We bumped into some snow along the way

The Shonkin Ranger Station

The colors along Shonkin Creek were superb
This is a Fall-colors off-trail ridge walk that included a climb of Mount Kennon (elevation: 5,616 feet) from the Shonkin Ranger Station on the north side of the Highwood Mountains.The most difficult part of this hike is finding the trailhead on the gravel roads outside Highwood toward the ghost town of Shonkin.  Take a good highway map and be prepared for rough road for the last several miles.  I would suggest parking before crossing the creek.  We drove up the rough road to the Shonkin Station. The topography is the low-slung and grassy cattle country with great, open views to the north of the Bearspaw Mountains, to the east, Square and Round buttes, and to the west the high peaks of the Highwoods --- Baldy, Arrow, North, East peaks.  Last year we hiked from this same ranger station up Prospect Peak.  The area is covered with laccolith outcroppings that in spots form walls of volcanic debris.  The cottonwood and aspen bottoms were in full color.  We gained over 2,200 feet over more than 7 miles, returning from the ridgeline down the Shonkin trail.

For a map and other photos, CLICK HERE

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Italy's mighty Dolomite Alps

Katie and I atop Lagazuoi ready to descend the tunnels 
My sweetie using the Via Ferrata cables

The iconic Cinque Torri spires we traversed

We also traversed the Tre Cime chimneys on an otherwise blustery day

At one of the innumerable rifugios, this one built in the 19th century 
We hiked to a rifugio in this region

Crucifix shrines were numerous along the trails
We're back from a three week trip in Italy's Dolomite (Tyrolean) Alps.
They're located directly south of Innsbruck, Austria in the northeast corner of Italy, pressing up against Austria.  The area feels more Austrian than Italian.
I wasn't prepared for the jaw-dropping beauty of this mountain range, with its jagged peaks and glaciers.
The mountains rise straight up at high angle several thousand feet from high, green, valley floors.
No one could have prepared me for the quaint agricultural villages with so many ski lifts that I stopped counting them.
It seemed as though each trailhead had little lodges called refiguios at trail heads, intersections, and at  high mountain passes, some of them impossibly balanced on rock.  I found the best food of the trip at these rifugios.
The valleys, even below the ski lifts, are grazed by dairy cattle that produce a wide variety of local cheeses.  Unlike our western U.S. cattle, these weren't running amuck, fouling streams and getting into everything.  They were belled and grazed in steep, electrically fenced pastures.
Besides spectacular hiking trails in every direction, with well-marked alpine trails starting in every town, what draws people here are the remains of WWI, where the Italians pushed the Austrians north, beyond the Dolomites.
Climbers and hikers are drawn to the "Via Ferratas," iron and wire cables that follow precipitous routes along the sides and to the tops of these mountains.  This allowed the Italians to hold the high ground and see where the Austrians were and to shoot down on them.  Believe me, these cabled routes are breath-taking and seemingly impossible to climb without special gear;  climbing helmet, climbing harness, leather gloves, and a special Via Ferrata harness to attach to the cables.
We saw and hiked some of the most famous routes, like traverses around the Tre Cime and Cinque Torri spires, took many lifts for views and trailheads, ate and rested an innumerable rifugios, and saw many battle sites and fortifications, and some open air and indoor museums.  One particular thrill was to hike the thousands of stairs over a kilometer in distance built within a mountain, the so-called Lagazuoi Tunnels.
We had flown into Munich, rented a car and headed over the Alps through Austria where we stayed in four small towns below various clusters of Dolomite peaks and trailheads.
For more than two weeks of the trip the weather was atrocious with snow and rain, finally clearing into what I'd call an Indian Summer that allowed us a bit more trail freedom.
The trails here are steeper than what American hikers are accustomed to, marked by paint on stone or trees.  I couldn't imagine wandering off-trail like I do in Montana, mainly because the trail dropoffs are so precipitous.
The only communities we visited were Bolzano, which had a decidedly Austrian/Hapsburg feel and an incredible museum dedicated to the Otzi Man, the 5,000 year old hunter whose well-preserved remains were found in a glacier; and Cortina, the site of the 1956 Winter Olympics, a very trendy and expensive place that is a playground for the 1 per-centers.
High mountains, low green valleys mark the Dolomites

A graveyard of Italian soldiers and supporters in WWI.  The Austrians have been removed to Austria. 15,000 men died.

Typical hiking route in dairy cattle country
In the small town of Sesso we enjoyed a local festival where the dairy cattle were herded into town and there was music, dancing and other festivities all day long.
Since I was the designated driver I had the experience of driving on the narrow roads of the Alps with their hair-pin curves that left little room for error.  The roads were quite crowded, too:  strings of Porsche rally-cars, lines of bicyclists, black-clad motorcyclists who darted past, even on blind curves.
The atmosphere of the Dolomites was highly busy.  In a matter of minutes on most days at the trail heads we could see para-sailers who had jumped off peaks gliding to the valley floor, serious rock climbers, mountain bikers negotiating impossibly steep terrain, and hoards of people on each trail, no matter what the weather was like.  And, this was the off-season!
Some takeaways:

  • This area is overcrowded with high end tourists
  • The scenery is worth the trip alone
  • The rifugios are something American recreation spots in the West might want to consider
  • The insanity of WWI is everywhere in the Via Ferrata routes
  • Be prepared for the Austrian influence in this Italian province.  It is decidedly German here, language and food and all
  • Although crowded, the trails are worth hiking
  • Residents are helpful, and multi-lingual, and when they can't speak English, still easy to communicate with
Once again, we flew in and out of Calgary, where the fights are about half the cost of American cities and the flights shorter and more direct.  We paid $750 U.S. for a roundtrip ticket to Munich.  The flight from Calgary to London is 8 hours with an hour layover, and another hour to Munich.  Try that from Great Falls!
It was great to be back in Great Falls.  The summer wildfires were out, there is new snow in the mountains, the Fall colors are on full display and the air is finally clear!
Of course, I headed directly to the mountains despite some jet-lag.
I climbed Windy Peak in the Highwood Mountains on Thursday.  The best Fall colors are still a week off.
On Friday I climbed an unnamed 8,280 feet peak off-trail north of Renshaw Mountain off Benchmark Creek on Friday, gaining 3,500 feet.  It may have been the best day of the year:  temps in the 70s, no winds, clear skies, snow on the mountain tops, and visibility deep into the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas.
It gave me a chance to compare and evaluate what I had just seen in the Dolomites with the Bob Marshall country.
There's no comparing the sheer majesty of the Dolomites.  They simply rise more sharply than the Bob peaks.
But, the Dolomites offer no solitude.  They are an anthill of people, many of them well-heeled travelers from around the world.  Our Front and the Bob, also limestone peaks, offer a wilderness experience that can't be matched by the Dolomites and the experience is free and accessible to those of us in Montana, who don't work for high wages.
My hike up the mountain Friday gave me a much greater sense of satisfaction than anything I had experienced in Northern Italy the previous three weeks.
I'm so happy to be home.
Back home Friday walking a Bob Marshall ridgeline ---- my favorite landscape of all!

Thursday, August 31, 2017

An exceptional Siyeh Pass hike: Grizzlies, wolves holding elk at bay

The elk aren't just cooling off, see the wolf pack circled in this photo by Katie Kotynski

Good sized momma griz and cub above Boulder Creek lake

At Siyeh Pass where we watched the elk-wolf drama
We headed to Glacier last Saturday hoping to escape the many fires and smoke enveloping north central Montana.
We found pockets in the park of hazy, rather than smoky skies.  But, uniformly the smoke curtain came down in the afternoons.
What set our hiking apart on Saturday's Siyeh Pass hike was the wildlife.
When we got to the Pass for lunch we looked down Boulder Creek and the lake at its head and watched a large mother grizzly and cub descending through the brilliant red rocks.
It appeared as though there were numerous large rocks in the lake, which we viewed from about 2,500 feet above it.  Then, it seemed as though the rocks moved.
Katie scoped them with her telephoto lens and discovered a herd of a dozen cow elk in the water up to their bellies guarded by a large bull elk.  They would move around from time to time.
We watched for about 45 minutes and concluded that they were cooling off on this hot and smokey day.
The Fall colors show themselves in huckleberries at the trail-side
When we got home the following night Katie started to examine her photos and discovered five wolves in the grass in front of the lake!
The wolves had chased the elk into the lake and held them there, where the bull protected them.
That's a lot of wildlife, and wildlife in a real dramatic scene.
On other trips we've seen bighorns and mountain goats cavorting on the permanent snowfield above the drainage.
We did the hike from Siyeh Bend to Sunrift Gorge, some 10.4 miles with an elevation gain of 2,300 feet and drop of 3,500 feet. The skies were bright blue on the way up and a heavy smoke, probably from the Sprague Creek fire near Lake McDonald on the west side.
The St. Mary Valley was filled with smoke as well.
On the hike it was interesting to see the fire scars from the 2015 Reynolds fire that burned up the Sunrift Gorge.  The limber pine trees were scorched and their twisted remains are reminiscent of the trees on the Scenic Point hike at Two Med.
On Sunday we went back to Two Med and did a short moose scouting hike on the south shore trail, with a stop at Aster Falls.
We noticed there and in Sunrift the volume of water is quite high, probably from melting glaciers and snow.  The Sexton Glacier on the east side of Going to the Sun Mountain is disappearing fast.
The limber pine ghosts above Sunrift Gorge from the 2015 Reynolds Fire

Katie at Siyeh Pass.  We watched climbers ascend the Cracker Mountain ridge behind her

Sunday, August 27, 2017

HQ Pass to Our Lake Traverse

Gordon Whirry ascends to top of "Pass Peak" on traverse with Baldy Peak in background
Taking a break above Our Lake

The stroll to the lake from the saddle
I do this Headquarters Pass to Our Lake Traverse about every other year.
It is extremely scenic, taking in the Sawtooth Range/Bob Marshall Wilderness high peaks, and giving the hiker a range of route-finding options.
It begins at the end of the South Fork Teton Road northwest of Choteau.  The trailhead there is a main artery into the Bob Marshall Wilderness and travels to both Headquarters Pass and Our Lake.
Since I had been to Our Lake already this year, I decided to start at Headquarters Pass, a trail that is 3.5 miles long and gains 2,000 feet.  It passes by a couple of beautiful waterfalls and a large spring in the basin below Rocky Mountain Peak, the highest point in the Bob.
This is also the route for climbing Rocky if you are so inclined.
At the pass views of the heart of the Bob unfold to the west, looking down on the North Fork Sun and to the Chinese Wall above Moose Creek on the horizon.
Unfortunately, we were smoked in and got hazy views of the North Fork and nothing of the Wall.
At this point there are several off-trail choices, but ultimately you must pass to the north where there is a saddle high above Our Lake.
Facing the ridgeline of an unnamed mountain I like to call "Pass Peak" the easy route is through the scree and talus to the west of the ridge, angling up and to the northwest until you reach the saddle.  On Wednesday, we chose to climb Pass Peak, about 1,000 feet above Headquarters Pass.  If you do it this way you'll find it most easy a bit to the left of the ridge line.  But, you will need to use your hands on the first 250 feet of ascent.  The top of the peak is 8,571 feet, some 3,000 feet above and 4.1 miles from the trailhead.
Enjoy the tremendous views of Rocky and Baldy limestone 9,000 feet + peaks to the south and north, respectively, the Bob to the west and the Front and Great Plains to the east.
From here on out everything is a descent, and steeply so from the saddle.  Just below the saddle you'll find a stream bed.  Follow it down on its east side.  It drops to the lip of a cliff band and here you'll have to make another major decision.  It is possible to get into the stream bed at this point and carefully work your way down to the lake through the cliffs.  The scree can be treacherous, so proceed carefully as you descend.  In the early summer there is usually snow in this stream bed, making this option impossible.  The alternative is to follow a well worn game trail above the stream bed to the east until you deal with steep scree and a cliff band.  Be careful.
On Wednesday we opted for a third alternative, one that does not go to the lake directly.
Above the cliff bands and game trail we did a short climb up the ridge to the east and then descended through an open mountain-side, dropping to the Our Lake trail, about a third of a mile from the lake.
This is the easiest and least treacherous route, but requires a back track on the trail to reach the lake.
Then it is an enjoyable walk down the Our Lake trail back to the South Fork trail head.
Round trip:  8.4 miles.  Elevation gain:  3,030 feet.
The off trail section of traverse is marked in the fuschia color

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Defying smoke, Blackleaf Canyon

Despite fires, Mount Frazier appeared clear on the Front up Blackleaf Canyon
I may have been denying myself unnecessarily this fire season.
I had limited my trips from what I could judge from smoke conditions in Great Falls.  If I couldn't see the Rocky Mountain Front, the Highwoods or the Little Belts I stayed home.
Such was the case Saturday when I passed on an opportunity to go to the Front for a Headquarters Pass-Our Lake traverse.   It was really socked in here, but the winds had shifted to the north.
Turns out it was a picture-perfect day on the Front with views of the Chinese Wall from HQ Pass.
So, I decided to test out the conditions Sunday, and despite the smoke in Great Falls headed to the Blackleaf Canyon in the Front.
The wind had shifted some and it was coming from the south, blowing some smoke into the Blackeaf.
But, it cleared sufficiently that I had very nice day hiking to the East Fork Teton divide behind Mount Werner, logging 7.5 miles and 1,800 feet in elevation.
I had clear views of Mounts Frazier and Werner, between which the trail passed, and even some blue sky.
I took it slowly and enjoyed the grandeur of the area and the solitude, although I did share it with a small herd of angus cattle.
I never tire of the canyon's high walls, walls inviting enough that they have rope climbing routes on them and I saw two climbers getting in position to test themselves on it.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Rickard Canyons, a Little Belts surprise

While the state burns, meadows in Rickard Canyon remains green and lush

These three limestone peaks intrigued me

Canyon walls like those in the Gates of Mountains Wilderness

We were expecting a road and got a nice trail, probably maintained by outfitters

Caves everywhere in the limestone
The Little Belts continue to surprise and please.
On a Wayne's Wednesday hike combined with a Montana Wilderness Association exploratory we took a look at Rickard Canyon that part of the Middle Fork Judith Wilderness Study area.
This area is north and isolated from the star attraction of the Middle Fork, the river itself.  It is accessed from the road that cuts through the Judith Game Range and runs past the range headquarters.
We were told to expect to walk on a road part way and with this dusty and smoky season that prospect wasn't too enticing.
What we got was a walk up a couple of limestone canyons reminiscent of the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness with meadows filled with lush, (still) green high grass.  The air quality even cooperated, opening to bright if somewhat hazy skies.  At least it was somewhat clear while we were there.
What was supposedly a road receded within two miles to a nice hiking trail that's not on the map, but what has been maintained, probably by outfitters.
Butterflies on groundsel wildflowers
Pressed by time constraints we didn't follow the trail to its conclusion, a trail that was pointed straight at Kelly Mountain.  I figured we were about 1.5 miles below the peak, where there is a trail that travels across the Woodchopper Ridge to the south and Kelly and Yogo peaks to the north.
While we assumed that this area might be dropped from the WSA boundaries, we came away convinced that this is a worthy part of the study area, and would support a primitive use designation if outright wilderness is not approved.
As you drive through the South Fork area you realize there are dozens of these canyons in the Judith part of the Little Belts.
The battle for the Middle Fork Judith has been going on for more than 50 years.
The Rickard area should remain as it is.
Our route in fuschia color in relation to Judith Game Range in Little Belts

Friday, August 11, 2017

Into Glacier's Belly again, a trip that almost wasn't

The full moon rises over Mount Pollock as seen from our Flattop camp

At Cosley Lake in the Belly

One of the numerous waterfalls 
Glacier is bursting at the seams and I guess I should have seen it coming.
Annually I apply for the ultra-popular Highline Traverse hike online in March.  I've been on this trip once before on a friend's permit.
I always get a rejection notice or a drastic change of route, even when applying early when registration opens in mid-March.
It is a trip I'll apply for again because my brother, Dan, would love to take it.
What I got this year was a pale imitation of what I asked.  Instead of Granite, Fifty Mountain, Stoney Indian, Mokawanis, Cosley Lake campgrounds, I got West Flattop, Kootenai Lakes, and the dreaded Goat Haunt and Mokawanis Junction sites.
My brother passed, and I almost did.
Fourteen at our Kootenai Lakes camp one night

The Porcupine spire above Kootenai Lake

Gordon Whirry relaxes at Fifty Mountain
However, I took a last ditch chance and asked friend Gordon Whirry, a retired Great Falls architect who had never been in the Belly River area of the park if he'd like to give it a go.  He did, and, gladly, we went Aug. 5-9, a five-day 56-mile trip that covered the north end of the park up its gut from the Loop and Packers Roost to Waterton Lake, up and over Stoney Indian Pass, and out the Belly.
I was worried that the hot weather and the smoke from the many nearby wildfires might ruin the scenery.  It altered it, but the scenery was great, and even enhanced by the smoke at times.
We were extremely fortunate to be able to change our campsites.
We swapped the concrete and busy shelter at Waterton Lake's Goat Haunt for a second night at Kootenai Lakes and got Glenns Lake Head instead of Mokowanis Junction.
I had visited, but never camped at any of these sites in my four visits to the Stoney-Waterton-Belly country.  I had day-tripped to Kootenai Lakes, but never stayed.
Gordon Whirry calls it a trip
While I had been reluctant to spend a second night at Kootenai, it turned out fortuitous that we got that because the hike there from West Flattop was nearly 15 miles with 2,220 feet up and 3,600 feet down in blistering 88 degree heat and smoke.  We needed a down day.
I loved the burned over West Flattop, and we camped with a nice father and daughter team from Wisconsin, climbing the ridge line above the camp for a look to the Highline Trail and peaks to the east.
The burn enhanced the views as we enjoyed a nearly full moon that rose over the Logan Pass area to the south as we readied for sleep. Loop/Flattop hike was about 8 miles, with a 2,600 feet rise.  We added a couple hundred extra feet with the bushwhack to the ridge line.
On the next day's monster hike to Kootenai Lakes, we were surprised by the lack of water in the Fifty Mountain campsite, and had to go upstream to find some.
Our 5-day route through the park in fuschia color
The smoke obscured the lovely views of the glacier filled mountains in the Livingston Range to the west.  The wildflowers, though, particularly the lavender cut leaf daisies filled the grassy tundra beneath Cathedral Peak.
We were shocked to see so many dry streambeds in this otherwise wet, west-side landscape.
The dry and open mountain side gave way to the thick and brushy vegetation and we were glad to get into the trees at our shady and cool Kootenai camp.
The camp sits below the pointed spires of the Porcupine Ridge and the lakes are really advanced beaver ponds where we found feeding moose, ducks and Trumpeter Swans.
With four sites that allowed four campers per site, the camp was full.  The second night there were 14 campers vying for space in the food prep area.  The folks were friendly, cooperative and quiet at night, and it turned out to be a pleasant, social time.
On our down day we walked to Goat Haunt and did side hikes across the long suspension bridge over the Waterton River and Rainbow Falls, some 8.5 miles roundtrip with another 500 feet or so of elevation gained and lost.
I gave up my pipe dream of climbing the Porcupine Ridge lookout and enjoyed the rest day, looking ahead to a 3,000 feet climb to Stoney Indian Pass in the morning.
The hot weather broke some the second night with a cloudburst that left our tents wet, the humidity high and the dense vegetation along the trail soaked.
We suited in our rain gear for the slog through the brush up Stoney.
At the lake it was warmer, drier, and breezy, a perfect place for us to unload our packs and dry out our gear, before climbing the pass.
A Glacier Guide doing 70 pounds plus sherpa work for personality Jack Hanna and his wife

Glenns and Cosley Lake as seen from above Mokowanis 
Gordon Whirry near Cosley Cabin with Bear Mountain in background

At the pass, the best part of the trip began, the walk down to the Belly's lakes, passing numerous waterfalls along the way.  Waterfalls of all sorts hung from cliffs, fed by glaciers and snowfields beneath Cathedral, Wahcheechee, Kip and Stoney peaks.
When we arrived at our Glenns Lake Camp we were thrilled to find a shaded site right on the lake, a site even surpassing the beauty of the Kootenai camp.  We had walked nearly 12 miles this day.
In the morning we were awakened by the other-worldly screams of loons that got us going.
Our final day was spent walking the length of Glenns and then Cosley lakes, viewing the Gros Ventre Falls, being treated to the open views of this eastside exit that included massive Mount Cleveland, the highest point in the park and the country we had walked through from Stoney Indian Pass on down.
Then, we completed our trip with the 1,000 feet, 1.5 mile walk up to the Chief Mountain park entrance car lot, having walked another 13 miles on our final day.
It was a great trip, a surprise in the heat and smoke.
Impressive suspension bridge over Waterton River

We ran into lots of dry streams in this drought-stricken area