Sunday, April 30, 2006

A "Baldy' birthday climb

Celebrating my 58th birthday on top of Highwood Baldy peak
I always like to mark my birthdays with a climb, a hike or a ski.
This year the conditions were perfect for a climb of Highwood Baldy (elevation: 7,670 feet) to mark my 58th. The sky was a deep, clear blue and snow had melted off its flanks down to the 6,800 foot level.
Just in case, though, I brought along some snowshoes and some crampons.
I passed through three distinct climate zones as I climbed Friday: real spring down below, a pre-spring zone above that, and finally, a winter zone from about 800 feet up to the summit.
I chose the Deer Creek route and didn’t have much trouble crossing Highwood Creek with my vehicle to the trailhead. However, Highwood Creek is just high enough at the trailhead that I decided to drive upstream a short way, drive across the creek and start my climb there. It meant climbing from one small drainage to Deer Creek, but it kept my feet warm and dry.
As I passed through the spring zone the aspens were in their pre-emergent fuzzy stage and the willows were a bright yellow and red. On the ground I spied at least a dozen different wildflowers blooming, the Pasque flower most numerous. There were also Beauty Everlasting, Silky Phacelia, and fritillary dotting the grasses, which are greening up.
This standard route up Baldy follows the Deer Creek bottom about a mile from the fork in the county road to Thain Creek.
I chose this route because I wanted a good workout. The trail starts at about 4,400 feet, so you gain more than 3,200 feet to the top.
In the past several years a number of Great Falls climbers has enjoyed a route from the Geyser side where they gain the ridgeline at North Peak and then walk that ridge a couple of miles to Baldy. Sometimes were drop straight off Baldy’s north face back down to the road.
The Deer Creek route climbs 1,600 feet to a saddle, then follows a grassy ridgeline 800 feet, where it enters a forest and then hits talus slopes for the final 800 feet.
It was at the forest line that I decided to don the snowshoes. I found the snowshoes clumsy compared to the backcountry skis I normally use when climbing. The shoes have climbing claws in the front of them, which made the going somewhat easier. I still ended up tripping on myself occasionally, and losing my footing as I tried to sidehill. Perhaps I had the wrong kind of shoes.
The snowshoes, however, allowed me to travel directly over the top of the snow and talus to the top.
The views this spring day were exceptional.
Directly down below me the valleys of the Highwoods were greening up.
In the distance the Little Belts, particularly the Old Baldy area were white with tons of snow, a good sign for the summer ahead.
Unfortunately, the spring stubble-field fires fouled the air with white smoke, reducing visibility. I had hoped to be able to check out the snow conditions in the Front, and perhaps catch a glimpse to the east of the Little Rockies. I could barely see the outline of the Bearspaw Mountains for the smoke.
Other than a whitetail deer on the bottom, a couple of pronghorns, a couple of bluebirds, and a blue grouse, I didn’t see much wildlife.
I had started out from Great Falls at 8:30 a.m., and was back home by 3:30 p.m.
Not too much effort for an exceptional birthday climb!

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