|Approaching Mount Joy summit|
|On top Crater Mountain|
Folks from the Great Falls area should never forget that we’re only an hour’s drive from the Continental Divide Trail if you pick it up at Rogers Pass.
Think about it when weather turns adverse, windy, or too dry. The conditions on the divide are often different than in the island ranges of northcentral Montana, and snow often hangs along its ridgeline.
I headed a bit south of Rogers Pass Sunday because the Little Belts had been too hammered by wind for enjoyable backcountry skiing.
Mine was a trip just to check out the conditions at Stemple Pass, which often holds the key to conditions along the Front.
I had been told that the snow was magnificent just a week ago.
But, like in the Little Belts, Stemple has been buffeted by this incessant wind.
The difference is that the tree line at Stemple seems to be holding pretty good snow in place along the Continental Divide. Yes, certain aspects are rock-hard from the wind. But there are aspects available for high quality skiing, too.
I had set out for Stemple with no expectations. I thought I might cruise the Stemple-Flesher trail out and back, perhaps shooting one of the Stemple Pass loops. I thought I might even be lucky enough to catch a party with a shuttle doing either South Fork Poorman or Rooster Bill runs.
No such luck.
But I was lucky in a better way.
Across the windy, crowded parking lot my eyes couldn’t miss a pair of brightly colored Scarpa plastic tele skis on a lone skier preparing for a run.
I ambled over, introduced myself, mentioned that he was the only other skier with tele boots, and asked if I could join him.
East Helena 6th-grade teacher Todd Samson was gracious enough to show me around.
I had always wanted to learn about the tele attributes of Crater Mountain, and that’s where Todd was headed.
I had been to Crater Mountain before, but had never sampled its telemark possibilities.
Stemple Pass, elevation: 6,349 feet, is in the Helena National Forest, 96 miles south and west of Great Falls. There is a network of well-established cross country ski trails that get lots of use from mainly Helena skiers.
I can always count on finding someone there I know from Helena.
There’s plenty of skiable (if somewhat wind-blown) snow at Stemple, although some of it is hardened by the wind.
Samson led me up Mount Joy, a short way off-trail, where we found some folks preparing to dive over for some turns.
That’s what we did on our way down through some trees to the trail to Crater peak.
We started up Crater, passing large telemark slopes made too icy by the wind.
Samson assured me that we’d find decent powder nearer the tree line out of the direct force of the wind.
On top we got fabulous views of the Blackfoot River valley near Lincoln and the high Continental Divide country. We could look back at Mount Joy, we had just skied off. Along the divide I could spy Granite Mountain Lookout, which I had skied in previous years.
Then, it was down through the trees, hitting narrow openings, just wide enough to test this skier’s abilities to turn quickly and tightly. Samson, who was wearing skis that he could tack down at the heel, handled them easily, hopping from turn to turn. It was a sight to behold. My style was more conventional, sweeping my turns and traversing when my confidence wouldn’t allow me to point my skis straight downhill.
We returned part way up Crater for yet another run.
Then it was back down the Stemple trail to the parking lot, passing other tempting slopes that could have eaten up any of the remaining daylight.
Although this is a pretty good drive from Great Falls (about an hour and 45 minutes) it reminded me how good and diverse the Stemple Pass area is for parallel and telemark skiers alike.