Saturday, May 06, 2006

Major Steele Backbone

A side view of Major Steele Backbone Mountain

The view from the top

The broken back of Major Steele
When I set out Friday to enjoy the glorious warm and sunny weather, I was looking for a relatively easy hike.
I had surveyed the Swift Reservoir USGS topo and it looked like Major Steele Backbone, just north of the reservoir, would be a quick climb. It appeared as though the peak would be about 2,000 feet and the length of the backbone no more than four miles.
As usual, I underestimated the hike and climb.
First off, it is unclear which of the many points on this long ridge is considered the summit.’s top shows the summit at 6,749 feet.
However, the ridge stretches to the South Fork of Whitetail Creek, and the highest point above that creek is 7,094 feet according to the USGS topo.
There’s further confusion because the BLM map I carry shows no high point other than that peak above the South Fork and it is marked 7,093 feet on that map.
So, that left me little choice than to climb all the “peaks” on this long ridge, which made for a long and exhausting hike. I figure with all the ups and downs I must have climbed around 4,000 feet of vertical rather than 2,000 feet.
Major Steele Backbone is named for the superintendent of the Blackfeet Reservation prior to 1921, according to Rocky Mountain Ranger District files.
The majority of this ridge lies on the reservation, although peak 7,094 is on the Lewis and Clark National Forest in the Badger Two Medicine Wilderness Study Area.
That peak faces Heart Butte and Feather Woman peaks.
It is obvious why they call this ridge a “backbone.”
I began the climb just above the Swift Dam.
It didn’t take long to achieve the 800 feet necessary to reach the ridgeline, and from there my peak-hopping ridgewalk commenced.
Because the snowline was about 6,800 feet, the high mountains of the Bob Marshall (particularly Mounts Richmond and Field) and Badger Two Medicine (Poia) areas were cast in brilliant white.
Receding below was the turquoise Swift Reservoir.
To the east was the Great Plains, which offered wonderful panoramas of the glacial lakes country of the Blackfeet Reservation near Heart Butte. Dozens of these gems sparkled below me.
Further in the distance was the Sweetgrass Hills.
Several times on my ridgewalk, I had to descend to get around abrupt dropoffs of several hundred feet.
A couple of times the ridge had gaping stretches where geologic forces had cracked it just like an egg.
The wildflowers were out in profusion blanketing the mountain-sides.
Heart Butte mountain, sacred to the Blackfeet as a vision quest site, as I traveled north.
There was a scattering of snow and I even saw evidence that a snowshoer had been there before me on some earlier hike a week or so ago.
If TopoZone is correct the high point (6,749) is just beyond where the Haywood Creek trail/ATV road intersects with the ridgeline. There are two peaks on the horizon. The one of the left is that high point.
On the way back I hiked between these peaks to that road.
But, once you get on top of this point 7,049 looms another mile to the north and is irresistible.
That involved dropping another couple of hundred feet to a saddle and then working my way through a series of cliffs, a snowfield and some krumholtz to enjoy the top.
Feather Woman and Heart Butte are both right in your face. In the distance to the north the peaks of the southern part of Glacier Park are visible (Little Dog and Summit).
I was tired enough that I decided to head back by way of the Haywood Creek road, a distance of roughly 5 miles. Within two hours I was back at my vehicle. Along the way I was treated to repeated bear sign. Huge footprints were squished into any wet part of the road.
Another way to reach 7,094 would be to walk up the North Fork of Birch Creek to Hungry Man Creek and take that trail that would lead to the summit ridge.

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