|On Lime Ridge|
|Mark Hertenstein on Choteau Mountain|
|A really bad selfie on top Steamboat Mountain|
That week is even more memorable when it is in the dead of winter.
Normally, late February has some of the deepest powder snow and coldest temperatures.
If you climb it will be on backcountry skis with hopes of telemarking.
With the continuing drought, the Rocky Mountain Front mountains are clear of snow where it counts and inviting targets for those who have the time.
Such was the case last week when I was able to climb Choteau and Steamboat mountains and Lime Ridge, all in the Front. By putting on about 3,000 feet of elevation gain practicing my telemark turns by going up and down Porphyry Peak in the Little Belt mountains, I easily exceeded the 10,000-foot benchmark last week.
I’ve climbed Choteau and Steamboat mountains numerous times in the past. The west and south facing slopes of both peaks are free of snow.
I had set out for the Dearborn River outside Augusta and Bean Lake on this 50 degree Wednesday just looking for a hike when I realized Steamboat was attainable. I followed a ridge directly up from the river just beyond the Lewis and Clark National Forest boundary sign, 1.8 miles from the parking area. Climbers have marked the game trails leading to the basin beneath the peak with small stone cairns. It is extremely steep in spots, and you lose the game trails within 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Stay on the ridge that runs parallel to the large stonewall to the west. It dumps you onto an open basin beneath the peaks. I found some shallow hard-crust snow I could walk on to the top where I had lunch. The elevation gain is about 3,100 feet to the top from the parking lot.
On Friday the weather promised to be near 60 degrees, so I set out for Augusta again, this time for Lime Ridge suggested by Nancy Dow. This is a 7,600-foot ridge that is easy to miss because the Sawtooth Ridge to the east and the ridge above the Beaver-Willow Creek Road to the west overshadow it. It is timbered on its west face, which makes it even less impressive. The payoff is the limestone lip on its eastern face that tops off several hundred foot stone walls. The views are dominated by Haystack Butte on the plains, Steamboat, Sawtooth, and the rocky, unnamed ridge to the west. Along the way we happened upon an open south-facing slope of abundant grass that had been frequented by quite a number of elk this winter.
You begin the hike by driving up the Beaver-Willow Road just beyond the Girl Scout summer camp and looking for a sign announcing the Lime Gulch trail. We followed the trail up the gulch a few hundred yards, and immediately began ascending Lime Ridge through the trees. We reached the ridgeline within 1,000 feet, and walking north along the ridge gained an additional 1,100 feet before dropping into the saddle just above the head of Lime Gulch. We walked the trail back through the gulch, dominated by the limestone cliffs above us to the west. As we dropped elevation we could look back at the saddle, dappled with streaks of snow.
This scenery of this area is a combination of Bob Marshall reefs and Glacier Park foothills. The only downside might be that it is extensively grazed in the summer. Get there in the spring and early summer before the cattle are there!
Finally, on Saturday we walked the entire Choteau Mountain ridge from the Teton River Canyon Road at Clary Coulee to and from the top of the mountain, gaining about 3,200 feet for sure, but probably lots more from the continuous ups and downs.
I’ve climbed this nearly 8,400 foot mountain twice before but never this way.
Unless you have a long day and are accustomed to some tricky ridge walks, I wouldn’t recommend it for the beginner. There are stretches of slab limestone that are tilted at angles that make walking precarious. There are some places where we had to descend to the snow below us to the east to work our way around abrupt drop-offs on the ridge itself.
At one point on the way up our ridgeline ended and we had to work our way up a crack in the limestone wall above us, using vegetable belays along the way.
However, we had another day of cloudless skies and bright sun that made this long journey highly satisfying.
Snow hung off the face of Choteau Mountain, in many places to top. At the rim there were spectacular overhanging cornices.
Just below the top we were treated to a herd of eight white, shaggy mountain goats enjoying the sun on the southwest slope.
This was an all-day sojourn. We began as the sun rose and were in the sunlight for all but the last 15 minutes of the day!