Sunday, March 13, 2005

West Fork cabin magic

A trip the West Fork cabin that started with open weather and a climb of Mount Wright, ended with a ski out
Several years ago I had heard that the Forest Service was planning to open the West Fork of the Teton cabin in the Lewis and Clark National Forest to public use in the winter.
I began bugging the Ranger District in Choteau to put my name at the head of the list.
I was among the first that signed up for this cabin, located within a mile of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area boundary, when it was opened last fall.
Originally, I had put in for the fourth weekend in January, but cancelled for lack of snow.
I moved the date to this past weekend, March 11-13, betting on the annual spring snowstorms.
You can imagine my disappointment when the weekend rolled around and the forecast called for 70 degrees for the first day of the trip. However, forecasters were also predicting four inches of snow and much cooler weather for the next two days.
So, we decided to pack for both kinds of weather and threw our skis in the van along with our hiking boots. Lucky for us we did so, because the forecasters were right and the tradition of storms for this time of year held fast.
The Forest Service rents the cabin for $65 a night. It sleeps four comfortably, but there is room for six. It’s pretty basic, with no indoor plumbing or lights, and you have to haul out what you haul in.
For most folks, access would be a problem.
Most winters the closest you can get to the cabin by vehicle is the Teton Pass Ski Area, more than three miles away and 400 feet down in the North Fork of the Teton River valley.
The Ranger District personnel assured us that people had been accessing the cabin during this drought-stricken winter by car, so we planned to drive right up.
Sure enough, the road was passable to the cabin’s gate, and there were only small patches of ice to navigate.
Mount Wright, at nearly 8,900 feet, towers over the area, and was only dappled with snow patches clinging to its east face.
Once we got settled, we decided to climb the mountain, opting for a southwest ridge scramble rather than using a trail to the top.
Although it was windy, the sky was clear and we easily made the top and enjoyed some of the best views in the Front, with clear visibility to Mounts St.Nick and Stimson in Glacier Park, Holland Peak, clear across the Bob Marshall to the West, and the island mountain ranges like the Highwoods, Belts and Sweet Grass Hills out on the Great Plains to the east.
Coming down about 700 feet we met the trail and then ascended a limestone ridge that parallels it back to the West Fork Road, enjoying the scrambling on the broken rock.
After a lantern-lamp meal, warmed by the fire in the stove and heat from the small propane furnace, we went to sleep to the sound of a soft, welcome rain.
When we awakened it was to a winter fairyland. About a foot of snow had fallen overnight, and was still coming down.
Now we had to deal with the dilemma of what we should do. Should we sit tight and hope we could drive out of this river bottom, risking getting the vehicle stuck until spring thaw, or make a run for it?
Good sense prevailed, and we closed up the cabin and inched our way back up the hill to the ski area.
We were still undecided whether to pack up our gear there, put it on a sled and ski back down or go back to Great Falls.
We decided to ski while trying to make up our minds, and went up the new, deep powder on the snowmobile trail up the South Fork of Waldron Creek, which takes you to open bowls of powder just below the headwall on an unnamed peak adjacent to Teton Peak.
This was the best telemark powder and skiing we had found all winter, and we played there for a couple of hours cutting turns.
When we got back to the van, we discovered a snowplow had worked the road, and our minds were made up --- we’d pack our gear on the sled and ski the 3 miles back to the cabin for the night!
It turned out to be a great decision.
We had another cozy evening in this wilderness cabin and the next morning we were primed for a great backcountry tour into the Bob Marshall via the East Fork of Teton trail, about a mile from the cabin. The trail is a route to the Blackleaf Canyon.
More snow had fallen during the night, making the skiing, through country dominated by snow-laden trees that resembled snow ghosts, magical.
We got back to the cabin for lunch, cleaned up the place, packed and headed back up the road with the sled for the van.
What a marvelous way to spend a winter weekend.

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