Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Big Baldy beckons

Mark Hertenstein on top of Big Baldy Mountain in snowshoes

Slogging back down
So much choice. Such confusion!
On Sunday we couldn’t decide if we’d hike, ski or snowshoe, and whether it would be in the Front, along the Continental Divide, the Adels, Highwoods or Little Belts.
We prepared for all and headed for the Highwoods.
Along the way Square Butte near Geraldine came into view and that became the temporary object of desire.
We rousted a swamper at the bar in Geyser who let us use his phone book and began calling around on a cell phone for permissions to climb this landmark. When we discovered there might be more than a single permission, we gave up and headed for Dry Wolf Canyon, with an eye toward climbing Big Baldy Mountain (elevation 9,175 feet) by way of Placer Gulch/Snow Creek.
The trailhead is about 15 miles south of Stanford on a great gravel road, wending through bucolic cattle country, and the limestone cliffs of the Dry Wolf Canyon.
Because the gates were down we were able to drive up a jeep trail to an old cabin before the first creek crossing, where we parked.
We had skied this country before and knew it well.
What we hadn’t anticipated was the amount of water pouring out of the mountains.
It literally gushed down the trail and it was coming from all directions.
So, as quickly as we could we climbed up a ridge between Placer and Snow Creeks and worked our way through thick forest, deadfall and volcanic boulders before hitting substantial snow at about 7,000 feet.
Here, we put on our snowshoes until we hit the open slopes of Baldy at 8,000 feet.
The snow on these slopes was just about perfect for telemark skiing. The only problem was that we were on snowshoes, not skis; sort of like clunking around with combat boots rather than ballet slippers. Note to self: bring telemark skis next time.
We had chosen this east-facing slope, hoping to minimize the impact of the winds howling above us on the 8,900 foot ridgeline. To a large extent, we did.
When we hit the ridgeline we hit the winds, but also the incredible, powerful scenery that is so dominant to the east of Great Falls. After snowfalls we can see this more than two-mile ridge that resembles a dish of ice cream being prepared for a banana split.
Directly in front of us was this long, flat ridge that rises only slightly, less than 300 feet to two summits, 9,175 and 9,127 feet.
Huge snow cornices hung off the walls below these summits, high above Rhoda and Twin lakes.
We noticed that snowmobiles had been up on top at some point.
Unlike the great snow on the east slopes, the snow on top had been hammered by the wind into a hard crust.
Because the wind was so fierce and there wasn’t much to be gained by going to 9,175, we climbed to 9,127 and turned back.
Coming back off the east face, my climbing partner, Mark Hertenstein, fell to his back and slid down much of the 1,000 feet to the forested slope.
Then we retraced our steps and were back in Great Falls at 6 p.m.
Another great day in paradise.

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