Saturday, February 05, 2005

Winter ridge walk in Little Belts

Nancy Dow atop Mixes Baldy
When I’m looking for somewhere close to climb, the Lonetree Creek area of the Little Belt Mountains near Geyser is always a sure bet.
This year’s winter weather has been absurdly warm, so much so that my backcountry skis are gathering dust in my basement, and my hiking boots have been getting a workout instead.
It was in the 60s on three successive days this week, and that was enough to prompt me to look for a nearby mountain to climb.
Even with these years of drought strung together I’ve always been able to find good snow for skiing on ridge tops. I have to think back to 1987 for when it was so dry. That year I climbed Highwood Baldy on Feb. 15.
This year is like that one.
The Forest Service’s Lonetree Road is just east of Geyser. It is an easy and scenic nine-mile drive up a good gravel road from Highway 200 to the Lewis and Clark National Forest boundary.
Terrific mountains in the 7,000-8,000 foot range line both sides of the road from there.
Last fall I climbed Wolf Butte, Granite and Taylor peaks on the east side, and Peterson Mountain on the west side of the road.
Atop Peterson in September I realized that if I had the time I could continue an incredible ridge walk and snag Glendennin (maps spell it with a C as well as a G, but I’ll use the Glendennin spelling for this report) and Mixes Baldy as well on the same ridge.
So, that’s where I headed Friday to complete the traverse.
I parked just beyond Peterson Creek and started up a long timbered ridge, aiming for a knob of rock, spying a wall of rock just beyond it to the summit of Glendennin, at elevation 7,808 feet.
We parked at an elevation of 6,000 feet, so it is just under 2,000 feet to the top.
The ridge walk is quite simple and direct. The only difficulty was substantial blow down of trees that had to be negotiated. There was some snow, but we were able to stay on top of it most of the way, and when we broke through it was to just below the kneecap.
To get above the wall of rock, there’s a 30-foot stretch of 3rd class rock where you have to use your hands. Once on top you walk on grass, very similar to what you might encounter on the Continental Divide Trail near Rogers Pass. The rock below reminded me of an accordion lying on its side. The wall ranged between 30 and 50 feet high.
Then it is just a walk to the top, well marked by an enormous cairn. From where we parked it was about a 3-mile climb.
I’ve noticed that many of the Little Belt peaks have cairns, unlike the Front where cairns are rare.
The views from the top of Glendennin and Mixes Baldy are phenomenal. You are in the center of the state and can see 100 miles west to the Rocky Mountain Front and Continental Divide. To the north we spied the Sweetgrass Hills, Highwoods, Bearpaws and Little Rockies from left to right. The laccolith buttes outside Great Falls (Square, Crown) and Geyser (Round, Square) are very obvious. To the east were the Judith, Moccasins, and Snowies. To south the Belts, Big and Little, which blocked our view further south.
We were now looking over at Mixes Baldy at 7,952 feet, just above Glendennin.
To get it meant dropping 700 feet down the volcanic talus to a saddle and regaining nearly 900 feet over grass, and small outcroppings.
It was well worth the climb. It gave us more intense views of the Little Belts with Big Baldy dominating the view to the southeast and Barker peak to the west in front of us.
We descended back to the saddle between Mixes Baldy and Glendennin and worked our way down a ridge below Glendennin back to the car.
The open winter weather could be a harbinger of a drastic fire season.
It is extremely dry, and if we don’t get snow pack fast there’s trouble ahead.

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