Monday, May 29, 2006

'Capping' off the named Gates peaks

View of Gates of the Mountains from top of Cap Mountain

Route up Cap Mountain
To keep my outdoors experiences interesting I like to identify an area and climb all the named peaks in that area.
Last year I completed the named peaks in the Highwood Mountains.
I think I’ve already done the named peaks in the Rocky Mountain Front, but am often surprised to find one I haven’t done (there are so many).
In Glacier I climb out valleys, like Two Medicine, Cutbank Creek, St. Mary’s.
I’ve been working on the named peaks in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area lately and am down to my last one.
Recently I picked off Cap Mountain (elevation: 6,760 feet ) on an extremely hot spring day.
I had made a stab at this mountain twice before. Once I chose a route up Big Log Gulch, picked a bad ridge and simply ran out of time. Another time I set out for the mountain by way of adjacent Sacajawea Mountain, but after climbing that handsome (or should I say winsome) peak, I ran out of daylight.
Cap Mountain is just far enough out of the way and off trail that you’ve really got to want to climb it.
I was finally successful by going up the Spring Gulch route (the same one used to take a lovely walk along the Missouri River to Coulter Campground or Meriwether Picnic Area).
Spring Gulch, on the Gates’ extreme southwest corner reached by York and Nelson on a rough road, was burned during the fire years of the late 1980s, but had greened up prettily and was dotted with wildflowers.
It is about 1,000 feet up before the trail drops toward the Missouri River.
It is at this point where there climber attains a ridgeline off trail for the final 1,500 feet.
From here you encounter a series of hills, some covered with ponderosa and doug fir, others with limestone outcroppings. There were also occasional large elk meadows.
For some reason flowers that I have encountered much later in summer were already out, such as bright red Indian Paintbrush and Fairyslippers.
Cap Mountain, although the highest peak on the southwest end of the Gates, is tree covered and rather unexceptional looking when compared to nearby Sacajawea or even Willow peak in the distance to the north.
Below, however are series of limestone canyons and the bends in the Missouri River. Further to the north Holter Lake comes into view.
Had I stayed on the ridge I would have been able to climb Cap by coming back around it from the east. This was the long way.
At one point I decided a more direct approach was in order, which required dropping more than 500 feet into a gulch and then climbing through limestone gendarmes to reach a south ridge that pointed directly to the top. This was the steepest part of the climb and I wished I had stayed on the easier, but longer ridgeline.
One the next to the last hill I encountered a thick tangle of new pine trees growing tightly together, making them difficult to penetrate.
Once through those it was an easy 500 feet to the summit, which was a pile of limestone that broke through the trees.
Because it was so hot I felt a little weak from the climb. I laid down on the rockpile and closed my eyes.
I could hear the flapping of wings that meant a bird was drawing near.
I didn’t think too much of it and kept my eyes closed, trying to regain my strength.
But when the wings got closer I realized that there were several birds and they were quite large.
I opened my eyes in time to see the ugly red head of a vulture and three companion vultures headed right for me!
I quickly sprang to my feet and grabbed a couple of rocks and chased the (now) squawking scavengers off. They flew off into the distance, looking for something probably not as animated.
I was a little shaken, but admired their size and flight.
It set me to thinking that it must be that time of life when the creatures most interested in me are vultures.
The views on top were remarkable. The Gates are dominated by fantastic limestone formations and the scenic Missouri River below. I could see as far north as the Rocky Mountain Front that was still snowcapped.
I returned the way I had come up, saving what little water I had to keep my throat moist.
It seemed an eternity before I hit the car and drove back to the York Bar, where I drank more than a quart of liquid immediately.
Doing Cap Mountain leaves me one named mountain in the Gates to climb, Sawtooth, which will be much easier when the weather cools off in the fall.

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