Sunday, March 18, 2018

Glacier: An icy Marias Pass to East Glacier Park trip along Continental Divide Trail

The classic view of Little Dog and Summit mountains at Three Bears Lake near Marias Pass 

Into an scenic bottom

Our group framed by an aspen grove 

We passed many areas like this that tantalized with their telemark potential
This is a 15-mile point-to-point backcountry ski in Glacier National Park on the Continental Divide Trail from Marias Pass to the town of East Glacier Park.
It is one of my favorite backcountry skis for its breathtaking scenery and variety.
It is an all-day trip and route-finding is required because snow covers some trail markers.  I'd advise taking this trip after fresh powder.  It can be treacherous when  icy or after a rainfall.  There are about 2,000 feet of elevation gained and there are uncountable number of drainage crossings, requiring much up and down.  There are several robust climbs, such as to the top of Railroad Creek.  This means there are also substantial downhill runs, which can be tricky on icy trails.  The scenery is the incomparable Glacier scenery that starts at the foot of Summit and Little Dog mountains at Marias Pass.  There are open slopes that will tantalize the tele skier.
I've done this run every couple of years over the past 30 years, mainly with friends from East Glacier Park.
Unfortunately, Saturday we skied after a rainfall and the route was very icy and, I think, somewhat dangerous.

For a map and more detail, CLICK HERE

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Late winter sun in Glacier, Front

Old Man of the Hills  in the Front looms over a Dupuyer area ranch

Middle Two Med Lake in Glacier Park was below me as I skied

At the end of her shift at the Two Med Grill Laurie Lintner went for a workout on Looking Glass Road

This is how East Glacier Park looks.  Sears Motel is marooned by snow.
I could see this coming in the weather forecast for several days.
Everything aligned and off I went for a drive on U.S. 89 up the Front for a scenery tour and then on to East Glacier Park and a 9 mile out-and back ski on the Looking Glass Highway (to the Pass).
Although there was some fog in the morning, the weather cleared Tuesday and it was bluebird all day, with no wind and temperatures that rose from the high teens to the mid-50s.
On the way up to Glacier I made numerous stops for photos of the Front ---- Choteau, Guthrie, Old Man of the Hills, Walling Reef, Feather Woman, Round Butte, Half Dome, with the scenic ranches out on the Plains giving those mountains some perspective.
I had wondered about the snow totals and shape of the roads given the record winter.
I found the roads in pretty good condition, except in East Glacier and north of that town to Looking Glass.
There were snowplows out in force creating vast mounds and walls of snow. 
There was some concern about flash flooding, but I didn't see any indication of that.
There was snow up to and over the rooftops in East Glacier and higher mounds of snow at Marias Pass in the Burlington Northern parking lot than I had ever seen.
Laurie Lintner at the Two Med Grill told me the best bet was to try Looking Glass, and I'm glad I did.
It is also known as Montana Highway 49 and goes from East Glacier through a mountain pass to the Kiowa Junction on U.S. 89.   It is a shortcut from East Glacier to St. Mary. The road is blocked off in the winter because of the heavy snows.
The pass is four miles from where the road to Two Med Campground comes in.
The highway department plows a parking spot at this "Y."
Lintner said the scenery is beautiful on this run, and she is right.
It looks down on Lower Two Med Lake below Scenic Point, with Rising Wolf Mountain the dominant mountain at the flank of Middle Two Med Lake.  The Badger-Two Med is within view, as Mount Sinopah at the head of Middle Two Med.
The snow was not great, a three-inch wind crust on top of about four feet of packed snow, but it softened up with the heat of the day.  The road rises gently, some 250 feet per mile, for a total of just over 1,000 feet.
At the top of the pass I noticed a rough road to the west and took it another half mile or so, just short of the Park boundary, where the views were magnificent and I had lunch.
The road is not steep enough to make tele turns worthwhile, but it was an enjoyable run nonetheless.
Then back to Great Falls along the Front, watching the sun sink and cast shadows and colors over the Front.
What a day!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

CDT: Stemple to Flesher and then some

Steve Taylor (left) and Wayne Phillips do check on avalanche transceivors 

Rob Phillips kicks and glides.  That's Mount Joy in the background.

Remarkably large snow amounts hung from most trees 
The star of our show, 76-year-old Wayne Phillips who says this is his last Stemple Flesher trip

Each backcountry ski season there are several trips that are on my "must do" list.
The Continental Divide Trail's 11.5 miles Stemple Pass to Flesher Pass trip near Lincoln is always one of these.
I missed during last year's horrendous season.
We made up for it Saturday with a run that included an inadvertent side trip because the trail makers were very difficult to find because the snow is so deep they are covered or at least partially so.  Usually the markers ---- the upside-down slash on both sides of a tree ---- are at eye level or above (5 feet or so).  This year they were at our feet.
This is a difficult section of trail to follow because it winds through thick forest and across the face of mountains that rise to more than 7,000 feet.

The trail markers were buried in snow.  They are usually at eye level
Luckily I had with me my GPS and on it was the marked route we had taken in 2016.  We were able to see if we were varying from the trail or the route we had taken that year --- mostly.
We were also blessed with an exceptionally beautiful bluebird day and a skiff of fresh snow.  Temperatures were in the teens at the start, warming up to freezing during the trip.
We started early knowing that when the sun hit even cold snow it could radiate heat far in excess of the outside temperature and clump up our skis with wet, heavy snow that are nearly impossible to move.
We had some of that which was remedied by some scraping and glide wax.
We also had some wind-crust that sent us hurtling down the trail out of control.
But overall, the trip was marked by pretty good, if variable snow and magnificent views and tired skiers at the end of the day.
We skied nearly 2 more miles than was necessary by prematurely climbing to a high point thinking it was another high point we needed to scale to avoid an avalanche exposed side hill on the CDT trail.  Also, because we wandered around looking for the trail markers and at one point got way off trail.
One of the highlights of the trip was the performance of 76-year-old H. Wayne Phillips, a long-time skiing and hiking partner, who said this would be his last Stemple Flesher run.
Over the 10 hours and 40 minutes of hardcore skiing Wayne performed like a 25 year-old.
Truly impressive.

Take a look at trip route on topo map with more by clicking HERE

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Sunshine, bluebird skies make for snow mush on Jumping Creek

Gerry Jennings enjoys some downhill

The snow on the cabin is an example of our snowfall this winter 

Lots of stopping to scrape snow and reapply waxes

An example of the mush we went through when doing our tele-turns
I've never been much of a fan of the new Jumping Creek run that runs across the top of the Porphyry/Mizpah Ridge in the Little Belts and descends to Highway 89 near the Jumping Creek Campground.
I've done this twice as a ski and once as a hike and have encountered problems each time.
Our Wednesday trip was no different.
What promised to be a sun-filled day got ugly about half-way through this 8.5 mile backcountry ski as sun penetrated the snow, softening it and making skiing without snow-clumping nearly impossible.
There's about 1,700 feet of elevation gain on this trip and 2,700 feet of loss, which should have provided us with interesting terrain variation and plenty of tele-turns.
Instead, we spent too much time scraping snow, and re-waxing, while carrying around tons of weight on the bottom of our skis.
It made turns difficult in the mash-potato snow.
At points there was wind-glaze that made the downhill suicidal and lots of trees for a dangerous obstacle course.
The course was just fine to the Mizpah cabin, but difficult from there on.
The sunlight and blue skies compensated somewhat.  Also, the company, our retireds from the Wayne's Wednesday Walks group, with members ranging from 78 to 60.  Our two oldest members, Chuck and Gerry Jennings, 78 and 77 are absolute marvels.
The snow looked great, but that was deceptive.  Yes, we've had great amounts, but the base was uneven.
My feeling is you can get the same highlights by taking the same route to either Nugget or Ranch Creek runs.
Save yourself the bother from there.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

A CDT treat: backcountry ski Rogers Pass to Cadotte Pass

We are so blessed to be just an hour's drive from the Continental Divide Trail at Rogers Pass.
I was doubly-blessed Saturday to be able to ski that trail from Rogers to Cadotte Pass in deep powder on a bluebird day, with relatively light wind.
I've tried this a number of times before, but have always been blocked by high winds that strip the snow from the ridgeline and hardens any remainder to concrete.  That has meant that we have skied the Rogers Peak side many times.
The circumstances of the ski trip were fortuitous;  a dump of snow overnight that wasn't to be blown about.
We used the CDT from the pass, but had to scale a wall of snow plowed back by the Montana Department of Transportation, which has been doing a great job clearing the roads and passes this extremely snowy and cold winter.
We skinned to the top, veering from the trail to the south, topping a high point on the ridgeline above Cadotte Creek.  This offered amazing views to the Rocky Mountain Front, Red Mountain, the highest point in the Bob Marshall/Scapegoat/Great Bear wilderness complex, and the Great Plains.
We skied the rest of the day without skins, occasionally dropping off the ridge for tele turns in terrific powder.
We went as far as the high point just above Cadotte Pass, traveling 6.5 miles roundtrip and gaining and losing 2,100 feet of elevation when the tele stops are thrown in.
On the way back after several long tele runs, we veered to the south across a small streambed and found the best powder of the day on the shaded, steep and thinly timbered hillside.
My friend, Mark Hertenstein made turns to the bottom about 800 feet below, while my legs crapped out and but for a few stretches had to traverse rather than drop.  Guess I'm getting old and weak!
I'm not sure why the Rogers Pass area is not a mecca for backcountry skiers, like Marias Pass south of Glacier Park.
When it's not good at the pass we can usually find great skiing in Cadotte Creek on the westside a few miles south or up Meadow Creek where there's mine reclamation work going on and the road is plowed.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Bender, O'Brien runs in frigid weather

Tracking deep powder in Bender Creek meadow

Annie Taylor in the O'Brien Creek bottom

An example of the snow we broke on Bender Creek
The weather has been exceptionally cold and snowy the past couple of weeks and the skiing has been exceptionally good.
Last week we did a Wayne's Walk sans Wayne down O'Brien Creek and Wednesday, another one, again without Wayne over Bender Creek to Hoover Ridge and back.
I hadn't done O'Brien, a 7-mile course from Kings Hill Pass, for a couple of years because of poor snow conditions.  It was worth the wait as the snow was deep, with great base and all the snow bridges were in and the trail broken and set.  I was reminded how much I dislike the lower third of this trail, which is always hammered by our shared snowmobile users.  Wish there was a solution to this shared use.
It was minus 13 in town when we took off for Bender Creek, 10 miles east from Monarch up the Dry Fork of Belt Creek on Trail 731.
However, for the third day in a row the skies were bluebird, promising to give temperatures a lift later on, and lift they did.  It was 13 ABOVE at the trailhead, and once we got in the sunlight we basked in the radiant heat.
Bender can be great after a good snowfall and sufficient base that hasn't been hammered by snowshoes.
It appeared as though no one had broken Bender, and the four of us took turns plowing the two-and-a-half feet of powder that had hollow gaps in it.
The trail rises steadily, but dips significantly when it crosses the creek (on great snow bridges).
The trail is located in a tight valley that at about 1.8 miles opens to a gorgeous meadow.
Here the trail takes a 90 degree turn up and into the trees, a trail that can be difficult to find.  It then takes broad switchbacks through open tele slopes and lodgepole pines, eventually cresting Hoover Ridge, having climbed nearly 1,500 feet and traveling 2.6 miles from the start.
On the way back down we took advantage of some low angle tele slopes for a few turns before plunging back into the creek bottom, where a command of telemark turns is a must.  I wore a helmet and was glad I did.
The scenery in the Bender is particularly good in the open tele slopes looking north toward towering and snow-capped Mount Barker, just under 9,000 feet.
Other than that, I've skied in my neighborhood day after day in spite of bitter cold, cutting tracks between the Grandview development and the Mount Olivet Cemetery, with fabulous views of the Little Belts and Highwoods.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Deadman, Nugget, Flesher, Dr. Elton Adams

Wayne Phillips on the snowy Flesher Pass area CDT

Great snow on CDT
Despite not having posted the past several weeks, I've not been idle.
There have been a couple of trips on the Deadman run with a climb of King's Hill, a trip down the spectacular Nugget Creek, Trail's Day at Silver Crest winter sports area to assist fledgling skiers with a side trip to the top of Porphyry Peak and a tele down, and a lovely trip from Flesher Pass on the Continental Divide Trail toward Stemple Pass and back.  There was also an aborted trip to the Front, blocked on the Teton Road at Clary Coulee by unplowed and impassible snow.
The most unusual of these trips was Nugget Creek.
We've done this trip a couple of dozen times, climbing Porphyry and Mizpah peaks and skiing the ridgeline up and down to Milepost 23 on U.S. 89 in the Little Belts ---- a 10 mile run with 3,000 feet of elevation loss.
We've often struggled finding route toward the end of the ridge.
But this hike we found ourselves lost and circling back on ourselves not once but twice!
I've never inadvertently crossed my own tracks in 45 years of backcountry skiing.
There were four of us, all highly experienced skiers who had done this trip before.
Wayne Phillips, the trip leader and discoverer of this route, told us as we were going in that others had lost their way at this point.  I scoffed at this.
I was amazed it then happened to us.
We were in a total white-out and that may have had something to do with it.  The clouds enveloped us and snow began to furiously pelt us.  Our usual landmarks, small rises in the ridgeline, were no longer visible.
Other landmarks did not appear as we skied on, inadvertently and incorrectly adjusting our route.
We were all shocked to ski across our  own tracks.
We adjusted, skied confidently ahead, and crossed our tracks again!
We took compass and GPS measurements and were astounded that we had difficulty determining which way was south, the direction we had hoped to travel.
Eventually, Wayne suggested that I take my GPS away from the group about 100 yards and determine the direction it tracked.  That did show us where to go.
Wayne was not surprised this had happened to us, just that it had never happened before.
I was amazed and confused and realized that I had not been reading my GPS correctly.
So much for my pride in my ability to handle that fairly complicated gadget.
The snow this winter had been unbelievably good powder, particularly in the Little Belts, and deep, but full of heavy moisture on the Continental Divide.

R.I.P Elton Adams

Dexter Hale photo of Elton Adams ice climbing

The Great Falls climbing community lost one of its most distinguished climbers Feb. 4 .
Dr. Elton Adams, 74, fell to his death ice-climbing on Cataract Falls up Elk Creek on the flank of Steamboat Mountain Feb. 4.
Adams had introduced a generation of climbers to the sport of ice-climbing over the past 25 years, me included.
I climbed with Adams on these very falls in 1993, and did a Tribune feature story on ice-climbing then.
Adams was energetic and ethusiastic beyond his 74 years and always fun to talk to about his climbing adventures around the world, that included Aconcagua in South America and Kilimanjaro in Africa.  He was also a beloved physician at Benefis.
He was a force who will be missed.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Yellowstone, Stemple Pass, Skidway ski area

I sit here recounting the past week that included a trip to Yellowstone's Mammoth Area (Sunday through Wednesday), some tele skiing at Stemple Pass (Saturday), and an exploration (Wednesday) of what remains of the Skidway Ski Area between Townsend and White Sulphur Springs on Deep Creek, while a January-Thaw Chinook is ruining all the snow.

Yellowstone's Gardiner/Mammoth area in winter

A couple of young bulls sparred outside our bedroom window at Mammoth

Steaming stream on Mammoth Hot Springs Lower Terrace

Winter weather bringing out the best in the hot springs

Looking down into Yellowstone River above the Tower Falls

We spent three days at the Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge at Yellowstone National Park, which we used as a base for a ski to Tower Falls and an exploration of the Mammoth Hot Springs upper and lower terraces.  The steaming pits set against the snow made the trip worthwhile.
We couldn't have had more beautiful weather, with temps in the 30s at day and radiant sunlight that made it feel warmer than that under clear skies.
There weren't many tourists.  We saw more wildlife, particularly elk and bison, than other people.
The area could use more snow, but we had enough for our purposes.
The lodge, though old and a bit spare, is beautifully designed in art deco motif, and we were warmed each night by the piano player expertly doing standards from the American Song Book.
The food wasn't too bad, nor too highly priced in the separate dining hall.  I didn't like walking across the icy parking lot in the dark to and from dinner, but the service there was outstanding because the help is just that:  helpful and ready to serve.
We traveled no further than Tower Junction, deciding that exploration where we were staying would be more worthwhile than traveling the 50 some miles to Cooke City on the other end, and then back again, which would have eaten loads of ski and snowshoe time.

Skidway on the way home

Katie on the ridge

From the ridge looking north toward Mount Edith in the Big Belt Mountains

Look closely and you'll see the old ski runs west of the trailhead.  Our route is in blue. 
The small Skidway Ski Area closed in the early 70s when I lived in Helena.  I had never visited it, but heard that the Forest Service had put in a 3.5 miles cross country ski/snowshoe loop near there and the Skidway Campground.
From White Sulphur Springs it is about 18.5 miles south and west on Highway 12.
There is a nicely plowed parking area right off the road and the ski begins to your right up the road to the campground.  
At about a half-mile the road splits.  If you want to do the full loop, go to your right (west).  If you want to see the campground area, which offers some hills for turns, turn left.  We did the full loop and followed the blue diamonds through mature Douglas fir to the ridgeline, the half-way point, a climb of about 650 feet.  We passed a couple of areas on the way up that looked as though they were narrow runs from the old ski hill.  The snow had iced up and wouldn't have been good for tele turns.  The top is broad and flat and offers great views in all directions and some other possibilities for tele skiing.
On the way down through the forest we saw many signs of elk, moose and deer that had been there recently.
Although this area is marked for cross country skiing, we saw greater snowshoe activity.
When the snow is good, this would make for a good backcountry trip, combined with a soak in the White Sulphur Springs Spa.

A reliable favorite:  Stemple Pass
Mark Hertenstein begins a descent with tele turns in the Poorman Creek headwaters off Stemple Pass

What started out as a tele turn trip in the Cadotte Creek area morphed into a great day of turns at Stemple Pass last Saturday.
There had been a big dump of snow in our area, but it translated into wet, heavy snow in Cadotte, making turns and even cutting trail difficult.
So, we turned our attention to Stemple and had a terrific day.
We found our low-angle open slopes on the lower portion of the North Meadow Loop, about two miles from where we parked at the pass.
We spent a pleasant afternoon in the headwaters of Poorman Creek carving turns in relatively heavy, but very skiable powder.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Just beyond the CDT: Cadotte Creek

Mark Hertenstein on the ridge top

Some of the elk that crossed our path

The ridge top was a winter wonderland
Over the past 10 years or so we've been doing tele turns in the area just west of Rogers Pass when the weather and snow are right.
Mainly we've skied First and Third gulches to the west of Highway 200 not far from the Meadow Creek Road, bypassing the much larger and inhabited Cadotte Creek that runs northeast toward Cadotte Pass on the Continental Divide Trail.
Mark Hertenstein suggested we give it a try Sunday and in doing so opened ourselves to a smorgasbord of  new skiing.  In the past we had avoided the area because of the private inholdings.
A parking area is plowed out where Cadotte Road meets Highway 200.
We did a 6-mile loop on Sunday, gaining about 1,600 feet, mostly off-trail, but on some logging roads.
This area has been extensively logged.
It holds snow well most of the time and there are terrific, vast areas for making turns.
Unfortunately, the wind and sun had hit this area during our recent Chinook, wind-hardening the snow.  We skinned immediately to the north and east and before long were on a ridge line above the East Fork of Cadotte Creek.
We noticed that there were a tremendous number of animal tracks and were soon treated to about a herd of about 30 elk that plowed their way through deep snow across our path.  It was quite a treat!
On top the sun came out briefly, turning the ridge top to a winter wonderland.  From here we were able to look around at the many trip possibilities before heading down through the trees to the East Fork, where we sked back to the Cadotte Road.  From there we explored a couple of logging roads for future reference and then got on a main logging road that took us back to Highway 200.
Surveying some tele slopes

Friday, January 05, 2018

Paine Gulch exploratory

Dry Gulch Ridge above Paine Gulch

Outcrops along the trail

Just above the Trail No. 737 trailhead off US 89
I know I've been up Paine Gulch in the past, but frankly, I don't remember it.
My wife and I took a lovely snowshoe up this gulch on Thursday covering a little more than two miles and gaining about 550 in elevation beneath some towering spires on this Little Belts Mountain hike.
The gulch is pretty hidden because a private inholding sits at its trailhead for Trail No. 737.
This was owned by the late geologist David Baker, a real character, and and expert and promoter of the Little Belts.
The Forest Service has established a trailhead to the south of his gated and posted property that can be hard to locate.  There's a brown Forest Service "TH" sign visible from U.S. 89.
The gulch is located just a little north of where the old Lazy Doe bar and restaurant was located.  Unfortunately, this landmark and eatery was torn down last year and it looks as though the place never existed.
There is a good public parking spot for your hike a couple of hundred yards north and west of the trailhead where there's a state historical sign on one of the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles located in the area.
The trail skirts Baker's place and then climbs steadily above the tiny rivulet at the bottom of the gulch.  In about a mile the first of the large outcrops appear, an impressive sight.  There are also several side gulches to the north.
There are lots of downed trees and if you're cross country skiing be forewarned of steep, tight terrain where turns could be terrifying if there's ice.  A skier had been there ahead of us and before the most recent storm and left his faint tracks.  I'd recommend skins for up and down some of the tight spots.
We were on snowshoes and didn't have any trouble, except for one large tree across the path.
The forest is a combination of lodgepole, Doug Fir and Ponderosa pine.
At about 1.5 miles the trail breaks out in a flat, open area beneath the Dry Fork Ridge to the north and the back of Sun Mountain to the south.
Here the hillsides have been scorched in a summer wildfire and there are only small stands of live pines, juniper and aspens, but the scenery is positively thrilling.
The trail goes for another mile and a half or so.
This valley would be the perfect spot for climbing Sun or Servoss mountains or the Dry Fork Ridge.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Fabulous snow days in Little Belts

Porphyry Lookout on a spectacular bluebird Jan. 2

Flocked trees, perfect powder, gorgeous sky

Off in the distance the highest peak in the Little Belts, Big Baldy 
After a tele turn in Jumping Creek upper reaches

I followed New Year's skiing with Days 2 and 3 of 2018 in the Little Belts enjoying great weather and incredible powder.
On Tuesday I went solo up Porphyry Peak at the Showdown Ski Area, down Trail 727 to a snowmobile road and explored logging roads until I hooked up to the O'Brien Creek Trail and back to Kings Hill Pass.  The weather sparkled, bluebird skies and radiant heat despite 18 degree temperatures.
Wednesday our Wayne's group went up Porphyry and followed the Trail 747 ridge trail past the Mizpah bowls to U.S. 89 and Jumping Creek trailhead, a distance of 8.6 miles, with an elevation gain of 1,400 feet and a loss of 2,600 feet.  The weather was wintry, with snow falling along the ridge.  I was surprised when we hit rocky slopes beyond the Ranch Creek bowls, and then found extensive extant logging along the bottom two miles to the car.  The snow was otherwise excellent, but I think I'll pass on this run in the future. We found unstable snow conditions as it settled with "thunder" underneath our skis.  We saw considerable moose and elk sign on the ridges.
We had to re-learn the lesson we've so often encountered ---- separating on a trip.
There were five of us.  We set out independently for the top, two of us thinking the plan was to meet at Top Rock Cafe, where we we eat and regroup before the long ridge run.  We took the Prentiss Run up to the top.  The other three went around the back side road where the Porphyry Lookout is located.  They saw my tracks from the day before and kept on skiing, while the two of us sat at the cafe waiting for the group.  About a half hour into the wait we realized something was wrong, and went to check the ski tracks at the lookout area, some 500 feet from the cafe.  The tracks indicated the group had pushed on.  By the time we got ourselves together, we had waited for an hour on top, and we hurried along the trail, hoping to catch the group, which we did at the warming hut on Mizpah Peak.   Too many assumptions here.......
Our Jumping Creek route marked in brighter red