Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Making a pass(es)

The flank of Mount Morgan on Dawson-Pitamakin traverse

Cousin Martin Suarez takes a scenic break

Katie descends from Pitamakin Pass into Dry Fork drainage
I made a concerted “dash for the passes” at the end of August.
It was a second time in three weeks for Headquarters Pass in the Front with my cousin Mary and her son Mark from Minnesota, and then the Dawson-Pitamakan loop in Glacier National Park that included my wife, Katie.
Headquarters Pass is always satisfying. We did it mid-week, yet saw more people than I had ever seen on this jaunt. Many were guests at Nature Conservancy’s Pine Butte Swamp Guest Ranch and we also met some guys who were dayhiking after a trek through the Bob Marshall.
Cousins Martin Suarez and his mother, Mary McCartney at Headquarters Pass in Front
I’ve always held Dawson-Pitamakan as one of the finest, if not the finest day hike in Glacier, but it had been about 10 years since I last did it. I wasn’t disappointed on any level. We hiked after the weather had cooled off, and there was fresh snow streaking the high peaks. Yet, the skies were blue and the sun shown brightly. The copious huckleberries were a constant distraction.
What’s great about Dawson-Pitamakan is its views of the remote Nyack country, with Mounts Phillips and Stimson looming to the south and west. And, there are alpine sections where you walk ledge and cliff tops high above the valley floor, dotted with high mountain lakes.
There are several opportunities to climb nearby peaks along the way.
While waiting for my hiking companions to catch up I climbed the twin tops of Mount Helen directly south on the ridgeline from Dawson Pass, a 1,000 foot plus gainer. McClintock would have been easily climbable from near Cut Bank Pass, Mount Morgan a bit more problematic, but doable, and Rising Wolf a possibility.

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.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tenderfoot via Balsinger Creek in Little Belts

Even in the heat of summer it is brilliant green in the head of Tenderfoot at Balsinger

Tenderfoot Creek, a good fishing stream 
A surprise cabin

Several of the nice outcrops

Double falls
Here’s a rule of thumb for any hikes off Divide Road in the Little Belts --- it’s going to be steep.
I’ve done the Pilgrim Creek hike and the Taylor Hills hike to the Tenderfoot from that road in years past.
On Wednesday I went to explore the Balsinger Creek hike into the Tenderfoot.
It far exceeded my expectations for a nice day hike.
And it followed the Divide Road Rule by dropping nearly 2,000 feet, which meant having to climb back out at the end of the hike.
All these hikes are from well-marked trailhead. It’s just a long drive to get to them. I drove to just below Kings Hill Pass and headed west to reach Balsinger Creek trailhead and came home by way of Logging Creek and Stockett. From Balsinger Creek it took me an hour and a half to get home, although it is only about 50 miles away. The road is good, it’s just that it is gravel and winding.
The Tenderfoot Creek drainage is a main tributary for the wild Smith River. Likewise, Balsinger Creek is a main tributary of Tenderfoot Creek.
The Tenderfoot is a special, wild place and in the past has been proposed for wilderness designation. I can see why. The isolation, scenery and fishing are outstanding.
While the trail signs say it is about 4 miles from Divide Road down to Tenderfoot Creek by way of Balsinger, I’d add another mile, at least.
The first three or so miles of the trail is very good and well marked. The last mile and a half, where the Taylor Hills cutoff trail comes in is quite sketchy. I counted more than 20 crossings of the creek in this final stretch. All-told there are 30 crossings from the top down to Tenderfoot. Multiply that times two for the trip.
The top part of the trip is open, offering good scenic views of the southwest part of the Little Belts. Then it descends into pleasant lodgepole forest.
The final mile is a narrow canyon and the creek rushes through it into deep fishing holes, tumbling in many spots into waterfalls.
I saw lots of fish darting around in the water and feeding on a plentiful moth hatch.
The canyon stretch reminded me a lot of Pilgrim Creek, another wilderness candidate in the Little Belts. Both Balsinger and Pilgrim have large, flat rock bottoms and are similar in looks to an Appalachian stream.
I wish I had brought my fishing hole.
The Balsinger hike differs from the Taylor Hills hike in that it gets to the Tenderfoot by staying more in the trees and the Taylor Hills hike is more open and passes through a working ranch. I’ve seen elk herds on the Taylor Hills hike.
Both trails appear to get most of their use from mountain bikers rather than hikers. In the fall it’s probably hunters on horseback.
Despite its steep nature, I’d encourage anyone to check out this wild country hike.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Sawtooth South Ridge High Point via east approach

A large cave in the limestone face of the plateau south of Sawtooth Ridge 
On top we found a cave opening, perhaps where the cave from the face exits?

The highest of the three 'tines' on the Sawtooth Ridge

I’ve walked the entire Sawtooth Mountain ridgeline, climbing all its peaks.
But until Friday I had never climbed to that ridgeline from the east.
Now I’m kicking myself for not having tried it before because going from that side made me explore the Sun River Game Range, a massive state elk management area adjacent to Sawtooth from the east.
During the winter elk from the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area migrate there in huge herds, one of the great sights on the Rocky Mountain Front.
I had always climbed Sawtooth from the west, south or north aspects.
Sawtooth contains three distinct “sawtooth” peaks on its north ridge and a gradually sloping high point on its north ridge, just across a precipitous gap from its south ridge.
We had set out for an exploratory climb of the south ridge with hopes of finding a way across the gap on the ridgeline. Well, my climbing partner Mark Hertenstein had that in mind.
I was impressed with the game range, which is pocked with small glacial lakes, lots of aspen groves and some slopes that rise steeply from the prairie.
We accessed the range from Augusta. The road is gravel and becomes rough in spots.
We passed by the headquarters building and a nice picnic area before swinging onto a spur road heading directly toward the Sawtooth’s south massif.
I’ve always considered Sawtooth the ultimate scenic backdrop to the city of Great Falls, visible from a number of overlooks. I can see these sawtooth points poking their heads up above Gore Hill while driving down 10th Avenue South on clear mornings on the way to work.
Our hiking access point proved to be near the range’s small inholding, the Norris Ranch, which is easy to skirt and prevent trespass.
We were very surprised to find a huge cave opening on the rocky face of the South Ridge.
Mark determined that it would take technical climbing protection to get up that face and into that hole. I watched from below as he became a speck at the base of this face below the hole.
Just in front of the wall is a large area that looks like a glacial moraine, built out of limestone debris. It looks like a moonscape and is very interesting.
Above this moonscape is an enormous limestone talus field that we crossed to the south where we discovered the break in the wall. It was an interesting slog up talus, scree and many ledges and through cliff bands to the top of the ridge.
The ridge was a great payoff, an easy walk to the 8,100 feet South Ridge high point where we could see across the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat and up the entire Front and across the Great Plains. The game range below us to the east reminded me of the topography on the Blackfeet Reservation because of the small lakes and stunted trees.
Mark then began to explore possible routes through the gap to the North Ridge and decided it might be better to save that climb for another trip. However, we think it can be reached from the scree fields from either the west or east sides of the gap.
We then turned around and had a pleasant down climb using the scree to make the trip quicker than the up-climb.
This was my second exploratory on Sawtooth this season.
No doubt the Sawtooth gap is next.

A ski-fishing expedition in the Bob Marshall via Route Creek

North Fork Sun near Lick Creek in Bob where I went looking for a ski I lost there 
Packers coming through

View from the top of Old Baldy

I’ve finally worked through another obsession.
In March 2007 I lost a ski in the North Fork of the Sun River near Wrong Creek in the Bob Marshall Wilderness while assisting on a winter snow survey.
I fell in Lick Creek while crossing it and then my skis slid into the North Fork while I was putting on dry clothes. I retrieved one, but helplessly watched as the other cruised downstream. For a full account see my archive and look for March 2007.
Since then, I’ve been obsessed with planning to retrieve that ski.
I was blocked last summer by the fires raging in the Scapegoat and Bob Marshall Wilderness area.
Then, this year I had to wait until the snow cleared and the high water dropped to go back in and search.
When on the snow survey we started at Gibson Reservoir and went up the entire North Fork Sun, some 38 miles to the spot where I lost the ski.
I figured a much shorter way in to find it.
I went in from the Middle Fork of the Teton by way of Route Creek Pass, a distance of some 13 miles one-way. It is a much faster route, and darn scenic, too.
I took off Tuesday with a full pack and lots of hope.
I don’t know what I was thinking.
I reached Wrong Creek by 1:30 p.m., and was in the North Fork searching by 2 p.m.
It became quickly clear to me that my search would be futile.
I scoured the holes and perimeters of the North Fork for a couple of hours to no avail.
No ski in sight.
Anyone reading this please keep your eyes open for my metal-edge cross country ski. It is a Fischer with a cable backcountry binding on it.
I suspect it is far downstream at the bottom of a hole or in a logjam.
Anyway, I had a great backpack trip to compensate for my failure.
I stayed at Nesbit Creek. I passed on Wrong Creek. Wrong Creek was just too open and horsey.
In the two days I passed by only one group of people, a bunch of dudes coming in from Route Creek on the way to the North Wall. They seemed thrilled by their horseback experience.
On the way out I dropped my pack at Route Creek Pass and climbed Old Baldy (elevation 9,153 feet), the second highest peak on the Rocky Mountain Front.
My views in all directions were exceptional ---- all the way to Glacier where I could pick out peaks in the Logan Pass area like Reynolds, to the Swans on the west and of course, the Front to the east.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Stanton Lake diverson excursion

Katie at Stanton Lake with Grant peak in background in Great Bear Wilderness

Prolific and beautiful west side daisies
We took a quick trip to Kalispell this weekend for Katie’s high school reunion.
On the way back to Great Falls we detoured to a trailhead I had hiked so many years ago that I didn’t recall much about it --- the Stanton Lake Trail in the Great Bear Wilderness.
It is about 15 miles east of West Glacier on U.S. 2, just past the Stanton Lake Lodge.
It is about 2 miles to the lake from the trailhead, with a couple of steep pitches.
The hiker is rewarded with spectacular views of Great Northern Mountain and Stanton Glacier that feeds the lake.
The lake has that wonderful emerald color that only glacier fed lakes can have.
We took about two hours to do the hike, but could have done it much faster had it not been for the distraction of one of the best huckleberry crops I’ve ever seen.
The trailhead is very near the highway. There is a rough approach to a parking area, so we parked right off U.S. 2.
It is heavy, but pleasant timber all the way to this gem of a lake.
I understand there are cutthroat and rainbow trout in this gem.
We encountered no one on the trail or the lake until we were nearly back to the trailhead.
I couldn’t help but think of less than a mile away in Glacier where all the trails are jammed with people.
We got a great hike and a great huckleberry pie out of the excusion.