Thursday, November 09, 2017

Backcountry skiing's been great!

Perfect backcountry conditions

Beaver pond off Divide Road hadn't frozen yet

Dave Brown reaches the top of the powerline right of way
The first snows of the winter/backcountry ski season have been great.
I think these snows have already surpassed last year's terrible snow, particularly in the Little Belts.
I've been out three times in the past three days, twice in the Kings Hill Area of the Little Belts and found the snow excellent, at about a two-foot powder depth and some early skiable base.
Wednesday I led our Wayne's Wednesday's Walk group in Wayne's absence from King's Hill Pass down the O'Brien Creek trail to its junction with the trail to Silvercrest Cross Country Area and then back to the pass via the powerline.
We covered about 5 miles and 1,000 feet of elevation gain and loss if you throw in the yo-yo ski from the powerlines high point.
Showdown Ski Area, where we started is mostly groomed and pretty torn up.
On Tuesday I skied to above the Golden Goose run and then down various runs to the ski lodge on a bluebird, sunshine day.  Temperatures were a bit cold at no higher than 15 degrees with a breeze that made it seem colder.
Yet, it is warmer than it has been.  Last weekend temperatures went below zero.
It's so good to be back up on skis.
Our route

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Snow capped peaks, blue skies, larch in color.  How could it be better?

Larch in color everywhere

Hiking through the Rice Ridge Burn

Braver than me, Wayne, 76, crosses the deep, cold, swift North Fork on narrow logs

Suzy Taleff goes across the North Fork 
We set out to see the larch in their fullest color Wednesday, and see them we did.
But our trip into the North Fork of the Blackfoot River area on the edge of the Scapegoat and Bob Marshall Wilderness turned into a look at the massive Rice Ridge Fire that burned most of the summer and resulted in evacuations at Seeley Lake.
We were surprised that the 160,000 acres blaze reached this far east and with such force.
Our trip, designed by hike leader H. Wayne Phillips was a 7.2 miles loop that started at the Bear Creek Trailhead and ended at the North Fork Blackfoot Trailhead.  We gained more than 1,300 feet of elevation and most chillingly, some of us forded a (crotch) deep and icy Blackfoot fork at the end of the hike.  Wayne and Shelli Liknes had enough courage and balanced to cross on some logs hewn by firefighters.
This was a hike of contrasts, from the snow-covered peaks to the north and east, to the grassy bottoms strewn with deadfall.  There were the lush and colorful larch, but there were also burned moonscapes where the Rice Ridge fire declared out only as late as 10 days ago where it met the big Canyon Creek burn in 1988.  We were impressed by the the regrowth in the Canyon Creek Fire and surprised at the breadth of the Rice Ridge Burn this year.
Deadfall across the Bear Creek Trail
We parked cars at the North Fork Blackfoot and Bear Creek trail heads and hiked through bottoms with high, snow-covered peaks in the distance, yellow and orange larch spangled hillsides in every direction and the burn of summers present and past within view.
The Canyon Creek fire of 1988 took out 250,000 acres in 1988 and the Rice Ridge fire burned across the mountains from the Seeley Lake area this past summer, scorching 160,000 acres meeting in this area.
We hopped over and around innumerable deadfalls in the trail, making the going slow.
Toward the end of the hike in the fierce burn of last summer, the trail became difficult to follow.
This trail will need a tough crew to clear it for the average hiker.
Be prepared for the Blackfoot crossing at the end!
A half-mile descent above Prairie Lake (swamp) might have been the prettiest part of this off-the-charts beautiful hike.  It offered shaded views of the swamp, mountains to the east and unburned timber.

For map and more photos, CLICK HERE

Golden larch nestled in the Doug Fir

Hillsides of colored larch

The North Fork Blackfoot valley reminded me of the North Fork Flathead valley

The Rice Ridge fire perimeter in pink

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Fall colors: the Swan, Middle Fork Flathead

The Swan Range above Holland Lake

Swan Lake reflections 
The larch light up the Swan Lake hillsides

At Essex, the train overpass and Snowslip Mountain in full color
The winds died down sufficiently for us to take our annual Fall color tour around the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex on Monday:  along Montana 200 over Rogers Pass, through Lincoln, up the Swan via Seeley Lake and Swan Lake, on the southern edge of Glacier Park, over Marias Pass, through East Glacier Park and Browning and back to Great Falls via Valier cutoff.
On the Montana 200 portion the larch were plentiful from Ovando on, but somewhat muted.  We had arrived about a week late for the height of color.
Along the Swan, from Salmon Lake on to Glacier, the colors were spectacular and the larch everywhere up the slopes of the Missions and the Swans.
There were still some cottonwoods in color

Katie on the banks of Swan Lake

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