Sunday, December 19, 2004

A 'sweet' December climb

West Butte
Gold and East buttes from top of West Butte
I’ve always had a quick excuse not to climb in the Sweetgrass Hills, just south of the Canadian border and north of Shelby.
Either I’m in a hurry on my way to Calgary or Lethbridge, or I’m off to Glacier Park or the Rocky Mountain Front where I’ve been satisfied to view this “island range” from afar.
The lack of snow and thus the opportunity to do some backcountry skiing has had me casting about for places to hike this December.
We’ve been hitting the unique butte country west of Great Falls in pursuit of recreation while we wait for enough snow to accumulate to make putting on the skis worthwhile.
On Saturday the right stuff converged for a West Butte climb. At 6,984, feet, West Butte, is the highest of the three large buttes that most folks identify as the Sweetgrass Hills.
It is an area that looks a lot like Baldy in the Highwoods. There is a 2,400 foot rise from the parking area to the top, so it is a respectable.
Several years ago I climbed in the East Butte area of the Sweetgrass Hills north of Chester, bagging that area’s highest peak, Mount Brown, elevation 6,977 feet, just seven feet shy of West Butte.
I had sort of set my sights Saturday on doing not only West Butte, but also Gold Butte, 6,456 feet, but because of the short winter day and long drive from Great Falls (120 miles) we’ll have to do that some other time.
This volcanic range, really a clustering of small peaks, rises like a mirage off the otherwise brown, desolate prairie that is pocked with oil and gas development, saline patches, and cattle ranches. We saw some evidence of wheat and even irrigated land in this otherwise barren landscape. From the map we could see that the area had been prospected and mined. From our knowledge of local history, we know that the Blackfeet Indians considered this area to be a sacred place, which had been used to collect the “sweet grass” necessary to ceremonies and for vision quests.
The mountains are an oasis. We found evidence of healthy elk and deer herds on this climb.
Although there are patches of BLM and State Lands, permission is required to hike the West Butte, and one of our party secured that.
The weather held up. It was in the 40s and 50s most of the day with the exception of right on top when the wind whipped up and chilled all of us to the bone.
We got to our hike by taking the Sunburst exit off I-15 and following a good road that turned gravel, pointing the car directly toward West Butte.
The climb was straightforward. You can see what you need to do from the southwest approach we used. We got into a small gully, topped a ridge with a laccolith extrusion, and alternated between grass, talus and white pine forest clusters.
The talus was laced with old game trails, which makes traversing the face of the mountain easier.
The top is rounded and marked with a low cluster of rocks and a good-sized metal register box that we all signed.
It was interesting to see how many Canadians had crossed the border to climb this landmark. I know that it is clearly visible from north of Milk River, Alberta and from the Alberta Writing on Stone Provincial Park.
We could see the other buttes from the top. The pointed Gold Butte looked the most interesting. I was surprised to see the many prairie potholes from above.
On the eastern and southern horizons there were the other “island” ranges like the Bearpaws, the Little Belts and Highwoods. The west, the Front as far south as Sawtooth and as far north as Waterton and the Canadian Rockies. Directly, the vast void of the plains.
When we finished we took a drive around the southern end of West Butte to examine the gorgeous high cliffs and rocky outcroppings.
While I was happy to climb this late in December, it worrisome to realize how dry it is.
We desperately need moisture and snow or we’re sure to have fire next summer.

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