Sunday, April 10, 2005

Third butte a 'sweet' charm

Our route was from Cameron Lake
The third one was the charm, and quite charming, too.
We finally climbed the third and final butte, the “pointy” one, Gold Butte, 6,456 feet, in the Sweetgrass Hills on Sunday, a gloriously sunny, if windy spring day.
You’ve really got to want to do it if you want to climb in this mountain range.
Access points are Sunburst, Oilmont or near Chester for the three most prominent “buttes” (really mountains) in this range: West, Gold and East buttes.
But there’s plenty of payoff for the effort.
Sunday we had clear views of the Rocky Mountain Front, Glacier and Waterton parks, the Cypress Hills (in Alberta), the Bearpaw, Highwood, Little Rockies, and Little and Big Belt mountain ranges from our alpine perch.
We had climbed Brown Mountain, the highest point in the East Butte area four years ago, and West Butte a week before Christmas last year.
Part of our reward on Sunday on Gold Butte was the early spring flowers like fritillary, silky phaceilia, phlox, and pasqueflowers. Two golden eagles circled overhead. There were deer and antelope in the distance. I even saw my first ladybug of the year.
Finding the best approach to the mountain was a trick.
We took the road east out of Sunburst past West Butte to the Gold Butte Road and then to the Miners Coulee Road in search of Cameron Lake, a small dammed up trout pond at the foot of the Gold Butte’s southwest face. We had driven nearly two and a half hours from Great Falls to this spot, more than 120 miles. It is hard to believe that you can see the head of his mountain from high points on a clear day in Great Falls!
The approach, all off trail, is fairly obvious. We parked at Cameron Lake headed for west ridge, passing along the way large outcroppings of volcanic rock strewn in the bottoms.
It seems obvious that the hills are a product of lava flowing up through cracks in the earth’s crust.
The climb to the top is about 2,500 feet, a good day’s hike. About half of it is in easy grass, the rest in talus that Mark Hertenstein likened to “walking on plates” that slip under foot. Once you reach this talus, which reminded us of climbing Highwood Baldy, the slopes get much steeper, going to a 30-35 percent grade. What made the climbing easier were game trails that had flattened the rocks into more easily negotiated paths.
On top we discovered that someone had constructed two shelters out of the talus rock to block the wind from hikers. I also found sure evidence that Native Americans are using this mountain, like the others in the Sweetgrass Hills, as a vision quest site. Brightly colored swatches of fabric were tied on a tree trunk beneath the summit.
After a relaxing lunch out of the wind, we came straight down south face of the mountain where we had to negotiate a band of steep cliffs.
While the Sweetgrass Hills themselves are located on public land, much of the access is across private land, and permission from landowners is encouraged.

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