Sunday, April 22, 2007

Highwood Baldy by North Peak route, a spring ski

Our ski route
It rained (and spit) snow almost non-stop Tuesday through Thursday last week.
When it cleared Friday there stood Highwood Baldy peak (7,670 feet), freshly coated with snow at the edge of Great Falls looking like a giant scoop of ice cream.
I found Baldy just as irresistible.
For years I’ve been wanting to do a ski to the top of Baldy by way of North Peak from the Geyser side.
Two years ago I walked that long ridgeline in late spring and climbed the peak that way, so I knew it to be a good potential ski route.
The problem with the Highwoods is that the mountain range takes a hard beating from the prevailing south and west winds that blow the ridgeline clear.
If you’re going to ski there you had better get it after a fresh snow.
So that’s what we did Saturday.
Wind and snow whipped tree with Baldy in background
We started at the gate near the missile silo on the road out of Geyser.
Less than a mile to the north a ridge and rough road rises up an east flank of North Peak.
It rises nearly 2,000 feet from the start to the top of North Peak, where it is tempting to head south and get Middle and South peaks rather than the more distant Highwood Baldy peak to the north.
We found plenty of ski-able, if wet and dense spring snow. Early in the day it was consolidated enough that we didn’t have to worry about it clumping up beneath our skis. However, there was some problem with it gathering at the bottom of our skins, which were wetter than normal because of the high moisture content of the snow.
From North Peak the route snakes west and then north to Baldy.
We encountered only light, somewhat warm breezes most of the way, although we did bundle up on North and Highwood Baldy peaks when where we took breaks.
The entire Highwood mountain range was white with the new snow.
Saturday was an exceptionally clear day, with bright blue skies. The usually dry Bear’s Paw Mountain range to the north was loaded with snow. To the south the Little Belts looked as heavy with snow as any part of the past winter. Big Baldy was especially covered. We could see the small ranges around Lewistown to the east, and the Rocky Mountain Front and Big Belts to the west. There were even glimpses of East Butte in the Sweetgrass Hills. What a day!
Our ski down was somewhat treacherous because of the heavy and sometimes icy snow conditions. There were a few telemark turns, but for the most part we had to painstakingly descend by traversing back and forth across the steepest drops.
I wore out at the end of the day and found myself dumping into the snow out of breath just as if I were an out of condition, beginning skier.
Yet, we had proven that this trip could be done.
As we drove out of the Highwoods the fields of winter wheat were remarkably green in contrast to winter conditions we had been in all day.
Yes, it’s still too early to put up those backcountry skis!
Mark Hertenstein enjoys a ski as gorgeous as there could be

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