|H. Wayne Phillips on top Flattop Mountain with Glacier's Little Dog and Summit mountains in the background|
|Turning in a basin between Flattop and Elk Calf mountains|
|Approaching Elk Calf summit|
Friends have been telling me that this has been one of the best backcountry ski seasons at Marias they’ve seen in years.
You generally battle winds there that buff the snow into ice in most places, exposing full hillsides in others.
I went to check out the area a week ago to see if the stories of bountiful snow were true.
We arrived after about four inches had been deposited on more than five feet.
There were some icy spots, but generally the snow was powdery and very good for telemark turns and climbing.
We had set out to climb Flattop Mountain (elevation: 6,549 feet), about a 1,200 foot rise from Marias Pass, the lowest spot along Montana’s Continental Divide.
Accompanied by H. Wayne Phillips, we made our way up the Pike Creek Road veering to the south to attain the ridge that climaxes in Elk Calf Mountain (elevation: 7,607 feet).
With some luck, we happened into an old fireline along the Continental Divide that serves double-duty as a hiking and snowmobile trail.
Fire had gutted both sides of this high ridgeline, but in doing so opened up sweeping vistas.
The new snow covered up some tracks that had been laid down the day before by a group of my Glacier Mountaineering Society friends who had climbed Flattop, some on skis, others on snowshoes.
While this is big snowmobile country, they had left this divide trail to the skinny skiers.
We left the trail to get to the ridgeline quickly.
The ridgeline became a small peak (“bump”) that afforded us spectacular views of Mounts Elk, Summit and Little Dog to the north in Glacier Park. To the south we could see we had a ways to go to get Flattop, and Elk Calf seemed sort of unattainable, but worth dreaming about. To the west were the peaks of the Great Bear Wilderness Area, to the east, the low-slung Two Medicine country.
We dropped off the “peak” on the west side of the divide and quickly came to a small lake that sits at the head of Skyland Creek in the Flathead National Forest. We took a break to admire the beauty of the area, noticed the large snow cornices on the banks of the lake, and took shelter from a cold northwest wind that blew all day.
Climbing out of the lake we regained the ridgeline and Wayne made a line that skirted Flattop.
We were on our way to distant Elk Calf first!
Our goal was to stay as far away as we could from the corniced lip of the Elk Calf ridgeline. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds because the ridge is narrow and there are outcrops of rock above the snow.
The wind had sculpted “speed bumps” into our path, much like what snowmobiles do when they rut up a trail.
At one point I took off my skis to negotiate the rock, and then skied up to the top where I waited for Wayne, who was working his way up the final third of a mile without skis.
The wind cut through me as I waited for his arrival on the summit.
There were enormous snow cornices on top that prettied up an otherwise barren peak.
We looked around, our eyes filled with the views of Badger-Two, the Bob and Great Bear wilderness areas, Glacier Park, and the Great Plains in the distance.
Skiing down was somewhat easier and surely faster.
We made one start down through some excellent telemark terrain, only to discover it was overhung with a cornice that might have broken off, and that it pitched straight down through into a likely avalanche chute.
We worked our way back up, gained Flattop peak, gaped in awe at the scenery, and quickly worked our way back across the lake and down narrow telemark chutes back to our vehicle.
We had covered some 10 miles roundtrip over eight hours gaining and losing about 3,000 feet.
Not a bad winter’s day!