Sunday, February 22, 2009

A spectacular Harley Creek exploration

Spectacular outcrops

Along the creek bottom 
With some new snow and near 50-degree temperatures forecast, Saturday held great promise for a spring backcountry ski day.
Our main problem was trying to decide what to do.
We headed to the Little Belt Mountains with several ideas in mind, but no definite plan.
By the time we got to Monarch we had discussed a few options. Neihart was upon us and we still hadn’t made our minds up.
We decided to look at the snow conditions on the south side of Neihart Baldy accessed by Jefferson Creek; too bare.
Jim Heckel and I lobbied for Porphyry Peak’s north side where we knew the telemark turns could be good.
Mark Hertenstein was in the mood to explore.
Thank goodness we turned the car around at Jefferson Creek, and at Mark’s suggestion, headed for Harley Creek, just north of Neihart.
Jim and I had opposed Harley because it is hit pretty hard by snowmobiles.
That was confirmed for the first couple of miles on the road. This is a snowmobile corridor, although we saw no machines all day.
However, we knew that by finding one of the side gulches we could escape the machines. A couple of years ago Mark and I had skied Harley Creek to Graveyard Gulch and explored the upper reaches of the Graveyard Gulch, which were strewn with blowdown and steep sidehills.
We also knew that if we followed Harley Creek Road we would find some telemark slopes.
The weather has been such that the south facing slopes had lost most of their snow.
We could see that the north facing slopes were holding the snow pretty well, though.
About a half-mile or so beyond Graveyard Gulch we realized the futility of going to the Harley Creek telemark bowls.
So, we started looking for gulches to the south and west and in the shadow. We hoped they might hold snow.
We traveled without a map, so this was going to be guess work. But, our guess was that if we traveled far enough up a gulch we might hit a road that would take us back to Harley Creek Road to complete a loop.
At this point then, we saw an obvious opening and plunged in.
To our surprise and delight the creek bottom rose moderately and there were only brief instances of having to negotiate blowdown.
To our even greater delight, every so often the landscape would open up revealing high volcanic outcroppings,spires and couloirs of snow. While I’ve seen the limestone canyons of the Little Belts, outside the Belt Creek canyon, I haven’t seen such a continuous and spectacular display of volcanic spires in this small mountain range.
We encountered several frozen waterfalls that we were able to climb around or avoid by going into the forest above them.
Some were frozen into cathedrals of ice.
Eventually, we hit the open, bowl country of the creek’s headwaters that had been hit by last summer’s fires that threatened the Harley Creek cabins.
Here, the exposure to the sun had hammered these slopes and the snow had softened enough that it started to clump under our skis. Otherwise, there was icy snow here.
It was time to turn around.
It was an equally spectacular ski back.
We stayed on the bottom all the way, scooting down the frozen waterfalls, instead of avoiding them.
We all agreed this would be a wonderful place to hike in the summer.
When I got home and looked at a map I realized we had skied up the main Harley Creek and were within a half mile of finding that road that would have made this into a Harley Creek Road loop trail.
This exploratory was better than most, one of the better days of scenery and skiing in the Little Belts.

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