Monday, August 18, 2008

Breaching the Steamboat cliffs

Once the wall is breached, it is a glorious walk on a ridge to Steamboat Lookout peak

Limestone buttresses below Steamboat 
A look from below
I love Steamboat Mountain in the Rocky Mountain Front, and have climbed it many times from many different approaches over the past 35 years.
Like Sawtooth Mountain to the north, it is one of the Great Falls skyline landmarks.
On Friday I tried a new approach successfully that allowed me to enjoy a leisurely ridgeline stroll with Scapegoat Mountain in clear view.
The difficulty with Steamboat is its limestone cliffs and buttresses that jut up several hundred feet. When traveling off-trail the crux is finding a breach in these to ascend the ridgeline.
In years past I’ve found an easy way up from the Bailey Basin.
My route Friday was on a ridgeline between Bailey Basin and Cataract Basin. It meant working both sides of that ridgeline and following many animal tracks to get through to the top.
I began climbing by finding what appeared to be a game trail on the hillside to the east of Cataract Falls. It is quite steep. What I discovered, just as I had found when climbing the Bailey Basin route, is that it is an old fire break, probably constructed for the 1988 Canyon Creek fire.
I was able to us it to get above the Cataract Falls and look down on them, and then work my way up to clearings that finally gave way to fire. There the tree growth of 20 years and the decay of burned trees knotted up the way, making it tough to pass.
When I finally reached the cliffs I had to work my way back and forth across the ridgeline, at times boosting myself up through notches in the rock to attain the top.
In years past I’ve used the Elk Creek trail to climb to the old Steamboat lookout, some 300 feet higher than the mountain named Steamboat and then walked back the 5 or so miles to Steamboat across a glorious ridgeline.
Friday, I walked less than half the distance to the former lookout mountain. The views into the Scapegoat Wilderness Area and across the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex were remarkable. Scapegoat Mountain dominated to the west.
I took the trail back down and marveled at the thick growth of trees that has covered the mountainside since the Canyon Creek fire.
Upon reaching the Elk Creek Pass area, where the Smith Creek trail comes in, I disappointed to find many cattle in the area and using a small lake there.
The cattle had trashed the creek bottom and the trail, and were fouling the lake.
While I had gone off trail to climb this peak, I would recommend to anyone that they take the trail to the top. The climb and views on this 12 mile hike are most satisfying.

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