Sunday, August 28, 2005

Into the Little Belts

H. Wayne Phillips atop Butcherknife

Peter Johnson coming off Mount Irene

Mount Irene

The polluted Dry Fork of Belt Creek near Barker and Hughesville
I’m recovering from a hearty bout with the flu and what better place to regain my legs than the nearby Little Belt Mountains?
On Thursday I went there to climb Butcherknife Mountain (elevation: 7,944 feet), and on Saturday, Mount Irene (elevation: 7,299). Both are relatively easy walkups. Both can be reached by pleasant drives in just over an hour from Great Falls.
Butcherknife is a favorite of local elk hunters, and I can see why. There’s plenty of grass with adjacent tree cover in this high country.
To reach Butcherknife, drive to Stanford and take the Dry Wolf Road. It is about 14 miles up a good and scenic gravel road to the well-marked turnoff to the trailhead (another mile or so up a one-track road).
Butcherknife is a long ridgeline that leads to the highest peak in the Little Belts, Big Baldy (9,177 feet). I’ve skied up to Baldy’s flanks this way in the winter, up the Snow Creek, just south of Butcherknife Creek.
I was as much scouting Butcherknife for its backcountry ski potential as I was climbing this peak and walking its ridgeline.
I can report that the terrain appears to have exceptional cross country skiing and telemark potential.
Butcherknife Trail No. 417 rises steeply, and persistently through the woods at about 6,000 feet to the ridgeline at 7,100 feet. Then, it is a glorious walk across three “bumps” to the south until reaching the final bump, a more scree and talus slope than the other two, in reaching the top.
The first two are grass covered and the northwest facing slopes would no doubt be excellent telly territory.
The views from the top included the north side of Baldy, Yogo, Bandbox, Gibson, Taylor peaks, Peterson, Clendennin, Mixes Baldy, Barker, Tiger Butte, Bighorn, Thunder, Neihart Baldy and Long peaks in a complete circle around us. Unfortunately, it was a tad smoky.
We came straight down the peak to the east, following grassy slopes into an old clearcut that has come back nicely, feasting on scads of raspberries along the way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many ripe, wild berries for the picking at one time.
We descended on an old logging road until tiring of it, plunging headlong into alder thickets and slopes covered with windfall. We came away with a few scratches and noticed lots of elk sign. I can see why the elk like this enclosed, isolated country. The route we chose was beneath a prominent limestone outcropping that dominated the landscape there.
The Little Belts were so pleasant that we decided to return on Saturday, this time on an exploration of the extreme northern end, looking for a route on Mount Irene.
Irene is about 1,000 feet lower than the dominant peak in the area, Mount Barker. It is connected by a ridgeline.
In part, what made this peak appealing was the drive through new territory.
To reach it we traveled to Raynesford, east of Belt, turned at the Kibby corner gas station, headed six miles through Kibby Canyon and turned at the unmarked Kibby county road. We went another six miles through the spectacular Limestone Canyon (some nice summer homes located here) where we found the rough county road up Big Otter Creek to the south. The road is marked with a warning that the road is unimproved, but has a Forest Service road distance sign, indicating it was six more miles to the forest boundary. I can see where the road would be challenging to anything other than a four-wheel drive vehicle, which I have. I wouldn’t drive it when wet, though. In about four miles we came to a sign indicating a state Fish, Wildlife and Parks hunters walk-in area just below Irene Peak. This would have been a good place to access the peak directly.
Instead, we continued another two miles up the road as it became increasingly rougher and steeper and began to switchback. Luckily, there were no other cars as we headed uphill to a pass above the Dry Creek country, where we did finally meet another car tentative about heading down.
This pass, at about 6,100 feet, gave us good access to the ridgeline that eventually lead to Irene.
Since I didn’t have a topographical map with me, I was guessing which peak was Irene, and ruled out the first one when we topped out at nearly 7,700 feet. We figured out that this was a rib of Barker. So we headed down the ridgeline to a saddle below Irene.
Irene is an old volcanic peak full of loose talus that was tough to walk on. From the saddle it was another 300 feet up this stuff.
The views from the top were remarkable. Off in the distance the Highwoods, Round and Square buttes came into view. Belt Butte was a pimple on the plains.
Peterson, Mixes Baldy, and Clendennin were the big peaks to the east, Big Baldy to the southeast, and Barker blocked the view to the southwest. We could see a good ridgeline extending from Irene to Otter peak. Unfortunately, there was some smoke in the air.
On the way down we dropped to the saddle where we found a good game trail that lead us around the 7,700 foot peak, so we didn’t have to reclimb it. We left Barker for another day.
The game trail was most scenic, offering great views of limestone cliffs below us and on the flanks of Clendennin.
Back at the car we continued our drive, dropping first in the mining ghost town of Hughesville, and then its sister ghost town of Barker. There are more old mining structures in Hughesville than Barker, but more summer homes in the Barker area. The old structures are quite scenic and historic, if toxic and polluting. I stopped to shoot photos of Dry Creek, which runs a bright, metal laden orange.
There are signs of environmental cleanup along the way, but the pollution seems so huge I wondered if it would ever be restored.
Eventually the creek loses its orange color as it flows into Belt Creek near Monarch.
The drive down Dry Creek is beautiful for the high limestone cliffs.
We had accomplished our climb and had a nice drive to boot!

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