Sunday, September 11, 2005

A big hike in the Little Belts

Glorious on top

Rhoda Lake

Site of mail carrier airplane cash with fatalities
Big Baldy (elevation: 9,176 feet) in the Little Belt Mountains is a climb that is easier than the drive to the trailhead.
But don’t think there isn’t plenty to see while on the trail.
Here you’ll find an alpine environment that includes “center of the state” visibility, three alpine lakes, granite sidewalls, and a two-mile long ridge walk, if you want it.
Big Baldy, range’s highest mountain, can be plainly seen from Great Falls and is a good marker for snow conditions in the Belts.
While I’ve driven the family sedan before, I wouldn’t recommend it. Thursday I drove my SUV and the road was tough on my rig.
You can reach the mountaintop any of a number of ways: via Dry Wolf Creek Road and either the Snow Creek (Trail No. 419), Butcherknife (Trail No. 417), Dry Wolf (Trails No. 401-414) trails; the Pioneer Ridge Trail No. 734-733 or the easiest way, which I’ll describe below, straight up Trail No. 416 at the base of the mountain at the end of Road 3300.
You can reach the Dry Wolf Creek Road No. 251 from the Chamberlain Creek Road No. 3328 across the road from Silvercrest on U.S. 89 or from the road that climbs to Kings Hill just behind the cabin at Kings Hill Pass.
If you start at Kings Hill it is 14 miles to the trailhead, 10 of it along 251, and a rough four miles along Road 3300 where it intersects with 251 at Tepee Butte. Wait until the road is dry and when it is most passable. There will still be large ruts and deep mud holes even in the best of weather.
The trail from this point starts at 8,100 feet, so it is a simple 1,100 feet to the top.
It rises steeply from the parking area through the forest for several hundred feet before reaching volcanic talus slopes intermingled with grass. The higher up you go the grassier the terrain becomes. A remarkable feature of this mountain is its grassy slopes. On top you would swear you were on an eastern Montana prairie rather than the top of one of the center of the state’s high points.
It took me about 35 minutes to reach the top from the car employing a steady but moderate pace.
The trail is well marked with huge cairns of the volcanic talus.
I’ve found that this is a hallmark of many of the Little Belts peaks, and marks this trail across its nearly two mile top, which rises and falls by about 200 feet to a couple of saddles before descending to the Butcherknife Ridge to the east.
The top is slightly marred by a Forest Service communications shed. It is marked with a sign, below which you can look down onto Rhoda Lake. There’s also a metal climbers register. However, the register doesn’t have any formal notebook in it for signing in, and it is filled with slips of paper with names on them, some of which flew away when I opened it for a look. I was torn about taking the papers down to the ranger station. But to do so would have left an empty register. Next time up I’ll take a new sign in sheet with me to make this more orderly.
The Hazard Lake fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, 75 miles to the northwest, filled the air with haze and smoke. Nonetheless, I could clearly see the Highwood Mountains, Square and Round buttes to the north. In 1984 when I climbed this peak I could see as far as the Rocky Mountain Front, Big Belts and Elkhorn ranges to the west, the Sweet Grass Hills to the north, the Bear Paws, Little Rockies, Judiths, Snowies, and assorted ranges on the state’s southern border, as well. In the foreground were the big peaks of the Little Belts like Barker, Yogo, Bandbox, Granite, Peterson, Taylor, Clendennin and Mixes Baldy. Kings Hills Ski Area and the Porphyry Lookout were in plain view, too.
After a break on top I followed the cairns through the surrealistic grass to the east, into the saddle, up to the second high point and good views of the next basin that contained the Twin Lakes. The first is no more than a tarn, an orange colored scoop of water polluted by the ores from the rocks around it. Below it is a larger, but still small lake that looked healthier. There was no doubt that by following the rim of the ridge down one could scramble to the lower lake easily, and work up to the smaller lake.
Instead of doing that I continued to follow the cairns to a point where I could clearly see Butcherknife Ridge, which I had climbed the previous week.
Then I cut back to the second high point and worked my way back to Baldy Peak along the rim.
At the saddle beneath the peak I looked down at Rhoda Lake and could see how easily a person could drop the 500 feet or so through the talus and scree there to this body of water, which I’ve heard is full of good-sized cutthroat trout.
Instead, I was distracted by finding the pieces of a twin engine airplane that had crashed into this mountainside 13 months earlier, killing its two Kalispell occupants who were flying mail across the range from Billings. Continuing to look for more debris, I stumbled across a wooden cross bearing the partial names of the two Scott K (Kiral) and Larry B (Larry Baier). Rhoda Lake provided a scenic backdrop to this somber symbol.
After reclimbing Baldy and drinking in more of the peak’s scenery, I dropped about 500 feet straight down west off the peak to meet the Pioneer Ridge cutoff trail No. 733 that connects to main Baldy Trail 416, and headed back to the car. The trail offers scenic views of the long Pioneer Ridge and the flank of Long and Neihart Baldy peaks.
I had turned a short hike up this massive mountain into a day-long adventure full of satisfying vistas.

1 comment:

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