Thursday, October 07, 2004

Scarface: a Blackfeet legend

Scarface climb offered views into Badger Two Med, Bob Marshall and North Fork Birch Creek
I’ve always thought that mountain climbing gives a person one of the best all-around aerobic workouts.
I’m here to tell you that mountain biking has it beat by a mile in that category.
The fall days are getting shorter and I had my heart set on climbing Scarface and adjacent Morningstar peaks in the Badger Two Medicine Area near Swift Reservoir, but hiking it in the daylight just didn’t pencil.
So, I decided I would try mountain biking the first, relatively flat (elevation gain 400 feet) four miles, hoping to save valuable time and daylight. At that point, Small Creek, I would stash my bike and gain the last 2,600 feet to the top of Scarface, elevation 8,282 feet.
What I didn’t count on was the extreme workout I would get on the bike before the climb.
Yes, I gained only 400 feet, but in the process went on a harrowing roller coaster ride on the North Fork of Birch Creek Trail, trying to outsmart ruts, steep-drop-offs, treacherous rocks and roots in the trail, and stream crossings. In many spots the horses had chewed up the trail with their hooves, adding to the obstacle course.
I found myself walking the bike across streams and steep pitches.
I was also carrying my heavy daypack, crammed with survival equipment for mountain climbing trips. It threw me off balance and added to my winding as I cranked on the pedals uphill.
I covered the distance to where I began my climb in about an hour and 20 minutes --- not much faster than had I walked it. There was the added disadvantage in that I had to keep my eyes on the trail straight ahead of me, meaning I couldn’t take in this beautiful backcountry scenery.
I’ll be re-evaluating this mode of outdoor travel for future climbs. I’m not optimistic I’ll be doing that again.
Scarface and Morningstar are named for characters in Blackfeet mythology, that tribe’s version of the Christ-legend. Scarface’s other names are Poia, which is also the adjacent mountain peak which I climbed last fall, and Morningstar.
In the legend Poia comes down to earth to live among the Blackfeet, where he was derisively called Scarface, and then made his way back to the heavens, where he became the Morningstar. It was Poia who brought the Sun Dance to the Blackfeet.
I’ve been particularly hot to climb all three because Great Falls will host as part of its Lewis and Clark bicentennial signature event a 1903 opera based on this legend called Poia.
I chose a difficult route up small creek crossing the creek to the west side and gaining the massive limestone ridge that separates Small and Steep creeks, as quickly as I could. The ridge is typical of Bob Marshall Wilderness Area ridges, full of cruddy, loose rock and is very narrow.
I dealt with a high wind all day long, which kept threatening my balance and eating up time.
Along the way there are several challenging pitches that make you figure out your next move and approach. To escape the wind, I would occasionally drop behind the ridge and walk as far as the steep slope would permit.
There are a couple of nice peaks on this ridge that top out over 8,000 feet. There were terrific views of the seldom seen Emerald Lake beneath Family peak. I could see out to the plains, the Front, across the Bob, and into Glacier Park from this ridge. Poia is quite impressive from here, too.
Scarface is aptly named. It has a deeply striated face several hundred feet above the saddle adjacent to Poia.
When I got to the top I mistook the Scarface top for Morningstar, and didn’t realize I was not on Morningstar until I gazed across a small valley and that monstrously large peak.
I checked out the possible approach across a connecting ridge and with the wind being what it was (it had cost me much time) and the impending earlier nightfall, I opted to turn back after Scarface.
Instead of following the limestone ridge top back down, I worked my walk through some shallow cliffs to the great basin above Small Creek formed by limestone ridges running off Poia and Scarface.
I found some krumholtz tall enough to shelter me during a break and enjoyed impressive views of Mount Richmond across the North Fork Birch Creek valley.
I followed an elk trail out of the basin into the trees which eventually opened up into steep summer elk meadows, and then found a well-worn elk path that lead me down through a series of meadows and into tree-lined benches ending at the North Fork trail above Small Creek.
Thoroughly exhausted by this time, I got on my mountain bike for a rough four-mile ride back out.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get Morningstar, but learned enough about a direct route using those great elk trails, that on a long summer day I’m sure I’ll get both peaks ---- next time without the mountain bike.

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