Thursday, October 14, 2004

Crown Mountain fall finale

I was looking for a way to bring my fall season’s climbing to a finale and considered a number of options for what promised to be a crystal clear autumn day.
I knew from experience that the high country snow and winds are just days away.
Top on my list was the Blindhorse Canyon with Guthrie Peak above it as the goal. It would have been to celebrate the BLM decision to pull back on the drilling permits there.
But, this is prime grizzly habitat and I’ve seen too many signs of grizzlies this fall, what with the berry crop failure, so I crossed it off my list.
I’d been thinking about Crown Mountain, elevation 8,401 fee up the Benchmark Road outside of Augusta, just inside the Scapegoat Wilderness Area. It had been 19 years since I last scaled this peak. With the short fall days I was looking for an area I could get to quickly, and offer the best scenery in a compact space while getting over 3,000 feet in elevation.
It is 52 miles to Augusta from Great Falls and the Crown Mountain trailhead is another 20 miles up the Benchmark Road.
I was there in an hour and a half.
There has been much improvement at the trailhead since last I climbed here. There’s a nice parking area, better signs, and a clear notion of what’s private and what’s public.
The three and a half miles to where Petty Creek Trail comes in is mostly in the timber, with an occasional clearing where you can look at Crown Mountain, aptly named because its massive cliffs are crown-shaped. It is a pretty steady pull and about 2,000 feet in elevation gain to that junction.
In one of the clearings you can see a large waterfall on Whitewater Creek, shooting off a cliff at the base of the mountain.
Before you climb into the saddle, which takes you around to the backside of the mountain, look up and study the mountain. You’ll see a possible route up through the scree on the mountain’s northeast face. That would be for another day.
While traveling up the trail I was also studying the bare, parallel ridgeline that runs to the west of the creek. I decided that if I could find a breach in the Crown Mountain cap on the west face, I would try to traverse to that ridgeline and follow it down.
Once you reach the Petty junction you enter the Scapegoat Wilderness Area and it is above timberline with stark blond walls of sedimentary rock rising hundreds of feet above you.
Once above a pile of loose rock the south ridgeline of Crown Mountain opens up like a fan.
I stayed to the right, got in the scree and began a 1,000 foot slog up, trying to get to the edge of the cliffs to make the walking easier and which would allow me to use my hands if I needed to.
At about 7,700 feet you can see over the other side and the views of Steamboat and Haystack Butte mountains are spectacular. Haystack sits like a sentry on the Great Plains.
The higher up you go the better the views become with the Sawtooth and Teton peaks of the Front coming into view and when you reach the top you’re able to look all the way across the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas. Scapegoat Mountain, with its high-cliff barrier reef is right in your face.
I was stunned by all of the red-colored mountains in the center of the Bob Marshall and vowed that I would plan trips to climb many of them.
As I had expected, there was a way down through Crown Mountains cliffs to the west and by staying just below those cliffs I discovered a good animal trail that led me to the ridgeline on the west side of Whitewater Creek.
The ridgeline climbs up and down several small peaks, none requiring more than 700 feet in elevation gain, and staying pretty consistently at about 8,000 feet for more than a mile.
Wood Lake on the Benchmark Road below me came into view, as well as Alpine Lake, hidden behind limestone folds.
When I hit the trees the traverse became a little more difficult because of rock outcroppings, cliffs and very steep terrain.
However, there were enough openings that I could see my way as the ridge took its twists and turns.
On several of the turns you could get views of Crown Mountain’s north face and I could make out the faint animal trail I had used.
Once again I saw the waterfall, this time from a different angle, and then it was down to the creek through the timber and up to the trail about a quarter-mile from the parking area.
The weather was so good, the views so spectacular, and the off-trail traverse so interesting that I’ll put this climb on my list for a repeat trip.

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