Sunday, April 13, 2014

Spring skiing in the Highwood Mountains

Skiing up North Peak in the Highwoods on a gorgeous, if icy, Spring day
Temperatures were in the 70s last week, but plunged to a meager 8 degrees on Sunday morning.
But, the skies finally cleared after a full day of wet, spring snow in Great Falls.
Mark Hertenstein and I hadn't been skiing in the Highwoods for a couple of years.  In fact, he hadn't seen the 25 windmill Scion Kop project northwest of Geyser on the flank of Highwood South Peak.
Despite the snow in town, I was skeptical that we'd find much in the Highwoods.
There were about three new, fluffy inches on top of any icy base that is more than four feet deep.  On the south and west facing slopes, there was just a skiff.
Lunching in sunlight at 25 degree angle
It was so beautiful, though, that we decided to head up toward North Peak (elevation: 6,943 feet) anyway on our standard route up an old road/trail along the southeast flank of the peak.
We climbed to within 400 feet of the top before turning around and heading down.  There was a stiff, cold wind blowing on the ridge line and it had beaten the snow into an ice.
It was tough to set our edges into the ice and down right scary heading back down, always cautious not to get out of control.
Mark said he'll hang up his cross country skis for the rest of the season.
We'll see.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Porphyry-Mizpah ridge ski

Snowboard shredders were after the same backcountry I was seeking, but I got away from them.  Middle, the Mizpah Ridge.  The warming hut was covered with as much snow as I've ever seen in a winter.
Locals are really carping about the long, hard winter, but I see it as an opportunity for an extended backcountry skiing.
Temperatures have been in the 50s here in Great Falls, with an expectation of our first 70 of the season on Tuesday.
On Sunday the forecast called for a high of 32 at King's Hill, with as much as four inches of snow throughout the day.
I was gone.
There's been considerable melt in the Little Belts, but from Neihart to Kings Hill Pass, there was plenty of snow on Sunday.
I skied to the top of Porphyry (elevation: 8,195 feet) and then onto Mizpah (elevation: 7,765 feet).  There was about two to three inches of new powder on top of a crust on top of a 100 inch base at the top of Porphyry .
When I hit the crust, my skis really sailed.
It snowed a grapple off and on throughout the late morning and afternoon. It collected into nice powder.
The ridge opens up on Mizpah above large, spectacular bowls.  I was alone and decided against taking turns there for fear of slides.
I did an up-and-back ski to the end of the bowls where the trail dives into the forest.  I gained about 2,000 feet and skied about 8.5 miles, enjoying a number of great tele patches.

The blue line was my route.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A "Zip" into the Great Bear

In the Great Bear Wilderness at the high point on the ridge opposite Baldhead Mountain .
I had seen the "Zip's Place" sign on U.S. 2 south of Glacier Park between Marias Pass and Essex and always wondered about it.
This past weekend I found out after reserving "Zip's," a Forest Service cabin a half-mile from the Great Bear Wilderness Area near the Geifer Creek trailhead.
Zip's was built in 1954 by the Kimmet Family of Cut Bank and named for "Aunt Zip," who was the first in her family to own the place. She died in the early 1990s and the Kimmets sold it to the Forest Service, which rents it to the public for $50 per night.
It is well the worth the price, with a furnished living room and dining room, two bedrooms, six beds, a kitchen with electric stove, refrigerator and microwave and a propane gas stove (no wood fireplace).
This is the fanciest of the Forest Service cabins I've rented.

Luxurious living arrangements at Zip's Place, although cave-like with the snow over the porch
About 1.5 miles from the cabin, there's a plowed out winter parking place.
Here we loaded up sleds and pulled them over the road to the cabin.
Snowmobiles frequent this road, which packs down the snow and makes the pull easier.
When we arrived at the cabin, we found that the heavy snowpack on the roof had slid down in front of the porch, essentially creating a cave.
The looks of the area are very similar to the area around Essex ---- the rounded, steep mountains with their avalanche chutes, the trains chugging in the distance, the large, mature trees that give the area an enclosed feeling.

The Geifer Creek Trail sampler
The lavish living arrangements made the rain Saturday morning easier to tolerate on this backcountry ski trip.
We could see that about 500 feet above us the rain was falling as snow in the trees.
We headed up the Geifer Creek Trail, which travels through fairly thick tree cover, gaining about 800 feet to the avalanche runouts below Baldhead Mountain (elevation: 7,794 feet) that towers over the drainage.
There, we tentatively ascended, taking tele turns back down to the bottom along the way.
The snowpit
When we got too close to the obvious avalanche chute, I dug a snow pit that revealed about two feet of heavy powder on top another two feet or so of slab above a rock-hard frozen base.  I couldn't get to the dirt.  We were at 18 to 25 percent angles.  We proceeded cautiously with beacons on to the ridgeline above the trail and found a pretty good non-designated trail there we thought might be a hunter's trail or maybe even an old elk trail.  Near the "pass" opposite Baldhead, we turned around and headed back.
The views here of the rows of mountains in the Great Bear and on the south end of Glacier Park, were magnificent.  Such an alpine scene!
On the way back, about a mile and a half from the cabin, my ski binding broke, effectively ending what was to have been two days of skiing.  I walked back in the ski tracks.

The blue line was our route.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Catching up: Seattle spring, Showdown and Stemple

Square Butte from the air on the way back from Seattle
I've got a little catching up to do.
I went to Seattle two weekends ago, enjoying the budding spring there with a walk through a spectacular arboretum. Last weekend there was a ton of snow and I skied the out of bounds perimeter around Showdown Ski Area.  Yesterday, it was back to Stemple Pass and the Continental Divide Trail with a climb of 7,154 feet Crater Mountain.

Katie in the University of Washington arboretum among the camelias
My wife had a conference there and I accompanied her March 8-11.  We did many of the standard Seattle tourist things, such as Pike's Market and Pioneer Square.
It rained a ton, but we managed to walk a ton as well, exploring neighborhoods adjacent to the downtown where we stayed.
We caught an all Richard Strauss concert by the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall.  I got a choice "rush" ticket for $9.50.  This is a beautiful hall and the orchestra is first rate.
Seattle Art Museum entrance
The Seattle Art Museum had a great Miro exhibit that ate up part of our Sunday.
We visited St. James Catholic Cathedral twice, once for Mass and once for a Lenten concert by Pro-Musica.  The cathedral is quite beautiful architecturally and the concert haunting in its solemnity.
Of course, there was a stop at the REI mothership to peruse the latest in outdoor gear.  We hitched a ride to the University District for a walkaround to look at shops, and then it was back to our downtown hotel via the arboretum and Madison Avenue.
The arb was in full spring bloom.

Little Belts perimeter:
The following weekend, I was itching to ski the new snow in the Kings Hill area and get some exercise, and toured the perimeter of the out of bounds at Showdown, climbing Porphyry Peak along the way and exploring the backcountry south of the ski area.
The snow was pretty dense and I got quite a workout.

Me on top Crater Mountain

Crater Mountain at Stemple Pass:
I climb Crater Mountain every couple of years when I do the Stemple Pass backcountry outside of Lincoln along the Continental Divide Trail.
The weather was absolutely perfect on Saturday with temperatures in the high single digits, which rose to the mid-20s by the end of the afternoon.  There was no wind and the sky was a clear blue.
We stopped to telemark on numerous north and east facing slopes along the way.
South and west slopes were too wind-blown and had a wind glaze on them, making them unsafe what we planned to do.  I had expected powder on all slopes since it had snowed nearly 30 inches in the past week.
On top Crater we could see 360 degrees into the mountain scenery.  Red Mountain, of course, was the monarch on the north horizon, the highest point in the Scapegoat Wilderness and the biggest mountain in the Bob Marshall Complex.
Wayne Phillips approaches top of Crater Mountain

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Venturing outside in bitter cold

Well, maybe that is a little bit misleading.
Yes, we've had temperatures as low as minus 20 in Great Falls.
And yes, it has yet to even reach zero degrees here for the entire month of March.
But.....we ventured out for a little snow shoeing in the Kings Hill area and found temperatures in the mid-30s on Sunday.
We were looking for anything in our battle with cabin fever during this harsh winter.
Luckily, we found it.
It is minus 4 as I sit here writing this.
But, it was 38 degrees when we got back to the car from our journey about 1 p.m.
We worked our way from where Baraboo Creek goes into Sheep Creek a few miles south of Kings Hill Pass.  We gain roughly 700 feet of elevation in really deep snow, covering four miles up and back
It was fun to be out.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Pulling a pulk into Kading Cabin and a question about Electric Peak Wilderness

The best I can figure, the last time I was in the Little Blackfoot was roughly 33 years ago, not long before I moved back to Great Falls from Helena.
It was one of the areas I learned about backcountry skiing in the 1970s, and a favorite fishing and hiking spot, where once I day-hiked to Cottonwood Lake and back.
This past weekend I returned on skis for a trip to Kading Cabin, a 1930s vintage log ranger station, located on a Forest Service campground.
The plowed road goes nowhere near closer than 7 miles from that campground, some 16 miles south of Elliston, just on the westside of MacDonald Pass near Helena.
It had been snowing most of the week there and it was snowing when we hit that last seven miles of road to the cabin.
No skier or snowmobiler had tracked the road, so it meant putting down our pulks and pulling them through about 18 inches of fresh powder uphill, gaining about 750 feet along the way. It was terribly cold, with the temperatures never breaking 10 degrees for the three days we were there.
This is gorgeous country, headwaters of the Little Blackfoot in the Helena National Forest, heavily mined and logged.
However, there is a roadless core that is crowned by the Continental Divide Trail and contains the scenic Blackfoot Meadows, the river dammed into a small lake in an area overrun by willows.
This area has been part of a proposed wilderness area known as Electric Peak Wilderness for more than 30 years, but as far as I can tell only the portion on the east side of the divide is part of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester's wilderness bill (Forest Jobs and Recreation Act).
I can't imagine this area without the Blackfoot Meadows in it.

The log book in the cabin goes back to 1988, when the cabin was opened to public rentals.
There's a darn good history of a proposed Electric Peak Wilderness written by group of visiting wilderness advocates in 1989 when they stayed there.
It was strong enough that it was rebutted by a Forest Service employee, of the opinion that it is not of high enough quality for consideration.
It is a fascinating exchange, apropos today considering Tester's omission.
Anyway, the snow was so deep it took us five and a half hours to plow our way to the cabin, arriving in total exhaustion.
The next day's trip to the edge of the meadows ---- I think we missed it by almost a mile, really --- was terribly tough, and we had to switch snow-breaking frequently.
We saw occasional elk and moose tracks, some very fresh.
I liked this cabin and its location almost as much as any cabin I've stayed at during the winter.
It is isolated and overlooks an open valley, with the creek running through it.
There are spots reminiscent of O'Brien Creek, but almost on steroids.
While we were skiing to Blackfoot Meadows, snowmobiles came as far as the Kading Campground sign, packing down the trail.
It is one of the few times I was glad there was a track.
We got on it Sunday and got back to the car in less than two and a half hours.
I'll certainly return this summer.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The many gulches of Cadotte Creek

The Cadotte Creek Second Gulch country between Rogers Pass and Flesher Pass Road turnoff
There's Cadotte Creek and three more very ski-able gulches to the west, all accessible from Highway 200 west of Rogers Pass.
We skied Gulch Two on Saturday, a bright, warm day. We had fresh snow along with cloudless skies.
The fresh snow is the key here.  This is low-lying country below 6,000 feet with south and west facing slopes that can take a lot of wind.  Wait too long after a snowfall and it will be iced up.  Get it immediately and you won't find a tele area near Great Falls that's easier to reach with low-angle slopes.  This is roughly 70 miles from Great Falls ---- just a bit further than you would travel to reach Kings Hill Pass in the Little Belts. This is untouched country that doesn't get skied much, and there is lots of it.
There are several spots along Highway 200 that are plowed out for parking.
It's just a matter of skiing up one of the logging roads that go up these gulches that have been clearcut in the past.
I'm still testing where my right shoulder is at after surgery, so this was a perfect place.
We made about 10 "yo-yo" runs, doing a wide arc at the head of this gulch.  We gained more than 2,000 feet.
From our high point we could clearly see the Continental Divide and Rodgers Peak above the pass.
I'm still playing with my new GPS toys --- the Garmin Etrex 20 and Magellan Switch Up.
Our route marked by way points, but showing our telemark tracks

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Stemple Pass turns on a cold day

Top:  Perfect tele slopes,  Middle:  great snow,  Bottom:  Crater Mountain above all
It has been a week of minus temperatures, including one day as low as minus 34.
I wasn't sure I'd get out, but the opportunity presented itself Saturday as I drove back to Great Falls from Helena after a two day meeting and I took a detour to Stemple Pass.
The sky cleared, the sun came out and the temperature rose to 2 degrees.  At last above zero!!
I took a nice route on a high trail toward Crater Mountain, thinking I would reach that peak.
Instead, I found a great telemark slope and did some yo-yo's with some nice turns.
The new snow, the clear skies, the higher temperature made for a nice, short ski.
My route.

Monday, February 03, 2014

A Bob Marshall winter tour

Top:  the North Fork Teton bottom; middle: wilderness boundary below Mount Wright; bottom, Guard cabin
The sky couldn't have been bluer and the air crisper than Saturday, the first day of February.
I had been aching for a back country trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, so I took this stunning day for a quick tour into the Bob along the North Fork of the Teton River.
The only downside may have been extremely cold weather.
The high was 14 degrees, and I'm sure it was much colder on the Teton bottom.
I went solo into the area near the Teton Pass Ski Resort where the road drops into the West Fork campground area, some four miles and a 1,000 foot drop away.
Instead of using the road as I usually do, I immediately dropped through the Fool Creek Fire burn area to the bottom, dodging fire snags, deadfall and stumps along the way.
There were several nice stretches to practice my telemark turns in pretty good powder protected by this north facing slope.
It had snowed earlier in the week and the surrounding peaks glistened white.
Beautiful back country powder and bright blue skies
The bottom along the North and West forks is spangled with winter-dormant yellow and red willows.
I had sought solitude and found it here on the lonely bottom where I found a lovely beaver dam.
It felt great to be cross country skiing during this winter of physical recuperation.  Skiing is so much more liberating and fun than snowshoeing, something I had been doing of necessity in deference to my healing shoulder.
Past the campground and then past the West Fork Forest Service Guard Station I cut fresh trail in the powder another mile to East Fork Teton, where I found a great snowbridge and then made my way another 50 yards to the Bob Marshall Wilderness sign for photos.  Mount Wright towers over this area and its snowy top was being whisked skyward by the high winds raking the peaks.
After a bite to eat and some water I turned around and skied back out, pausing to notice that the Guard Station was inhabited by visitors who had propped their skis and snowshoes against the building.  I wished I could have stayed the night.
Then I started up the four miles of road and the 1,000 feet, stopping only to chat with a family going into the station on snowshoes and at the end, a skier who had spent the day at the hill who was about the downhill back to the cabin.
Hard to beat such a gorgeous day!
My route from my GPS

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Route finding into North Fork Waldron Creek bowl

Katie in the North Fork Waldron Bowl below the Mount Lockhart headwall
I've been into the North Fork Waldron bowl summer as well as winter, but each time the route is a guessing game.
To make things easier in the future I took a GPS in on a snowshoe Saturday, luckily finding a direct route that I can share.
The bowl lies about 800 feet below the high Mount Lockhart ridgeline in the Rocky Mountain Front.
It is the drainage immediately south of the Teton Pass ski hill.
There are two sure-fire ways to find the trailhead:

  • Go to the ski hill and follow the hill up the south boundary for a couple of hundred feet and you'll find a blue diamond that takes you back through some steep, timbered country and eventually links to the North Fork Waldron route (actually a former logging road)
  • A little less than a mile before turning to the ski lodge there's a turnout on the Teton Road where parking has been plowed.  You'll know if you have the right spot if you see a gate across the road.   The trail starts there
Routes:  Red, from the ski hill;  Magenta, from the road. "X" is where "road" ends and it's off trail to bowl

The North Fork Waldron route isn't marked.  It's really an old logging road that is relatively easy to follow for most of its 2.5 miles into the bowl.
There are several ways to get mired in the deadfall of the old clearcut on this road, but if you watch the trees you should see a pretty clear "path" through them.  The road stays above the North Fork of Waldron Creek on the north side most of the way.
At just about 2 miles the "road" drops to the creek.  
From here it disappears and you're on your own for the next half-mile or so into the bowl.  This is a natural turnaround point for those not comfortable with route-finding.
Look above and to the right and ascend into the trees.  Head due west, trying to keep the creek and its several forks below you to the left.
You'll gain more than 200 feet through the deep woods.
Katie in the "bowl" with Choteau Mountain in the distance
When you reach the "bowl" you'll know it because you're out in the open again with the Mount Lockhart headwall and its many avalanche chutes another 800 feet above.
This can be dangerous country when the snow is unstable, so be wary and prepared for avalanche.
I have found it relatively safe to ascend to the 7,100 feet level, climbing a series of small benches.
The views here are remarkable and the reason why you should try to reach the bowl, with the Lockhart ridgeline to the west and the ridge separating the North from the South forks of Waldron Creek directly to the south.  To the east massive Choteau Mountain dominates the skyline in front of the Great Plains.  This is a great lunch spot.
The slope back down is steep enough to telemark if you have skis.
I had two different kinds of measuring devices with me.
What you're looking for if you start from the road rather than the ski hill
The Garmin E-Trex20, which measures in a straight line and without cumulative elevation gain and loss, showed that I had climbed 1,736 feet and snowshoed 4.8 miles over 3 hours and 18 minutes.
My Magellan SwitchUp watch, which measures cumulatively, recorded 5.84 miles and an elevation gain of 2,058 feet.
The sky was blue as can be and the sun bore down on us with temperatures in the 40s.
This was a spectacular winter day.
North Fork Waldron Creek route on GPS w Waypoints