Monday, March 06, 2006

High on the Highwoods

Highwood Mountains' scenery brings Eric Newhouse to his knees

Off with the skis to cross the creek

Our annual Eric Newhouse birthday ski
I’ve long been curious about skiing across the heart of the Highwood Mountains, between the Thain Creek campground cutoff to the missile silo at the head of Arrow Creek on the Geyser Road.
It’s a trip that travels between the two highest peaks in that range, Highwood Baldy and Arrow Peak.
I now have no doubt that it is doable on a point-to-point day ski, but probably doable as an up and back ski trip as well.
All that’s needed is sufficient snow, which one can’t always count on in the windswept and low-slung mountain range east of Great Falls.
I thought we had the perfect storm on Saturday that deposited about four inches of snow in town, so Sunday we headed off for Geyser to check out the possibilities.
We were quite disappointed to find little new snow had fallen along the road.
The storm seems to have stopped at about 6,000 feet, dropping good snow at that level and along the ridgeline from Middle Peak to Highwood Baldy.
My first inclination is always to go high and try Middle or North peaks, but my skiing partner, Eric Newhouse had better sense and never having been on this stretch of road, persuaded me to stay low so he could have a better look.
It turned out to be a good decision.
We skied from the missile site to Shoulder Creek along the road, a distance of about 6 miles (12 miles roundtrip). That brought us to about 2 miles from the Thain Creek turnoff.
What stopped us fast flowing and cold Highwood Creek, which was brimming with snowmelt brought on by this bright and clear winter day with temperatures near 50 degrees.
We had been able to negotiate several ice bridges across the creek higher up, but the lower we descended, the trickier it got crossing the creek. We both broke through the ice at one point, each drenching a foot (and me a ski).
We decided to turn around when we could find no reliable snow or rock bridge.
Over the distance we gained and lost about 1,500 feet.
There was good snow, about a foot of it at the high point on the run, but we found ourselves scraping rocks and picking up snow underfoot on the lower elevations.
Our low point on the trip, where we turned around was about 4,500 feet. Our high point about 5,600 feet.
What a wonderful feeling to have this beautiful area to ourselves, this clear, warm day!
The only distraction was an occasional jet painting a contrail overhead in the inky-blue sky.
The animals were out enjoying the day, too.
We found numerous footprints in the snow, including fresh tracks we believed to be mountain lion.
We could leisurely break and snack without fear of instantly freezing up, as we basked in the sun.
I know that we’ve got winter storms headed our way yet this winter, but this was a reminder of how much fun a spring ski tour can be.
And, so close to Great Falls!
The missile site is 12 miles northwest of Geyser.
On the way back out we stopped at the town tavern, a true community gathering place, where we were able to rub shoulders with folks who looked like they could have been models for Norman Rockwell.

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