Sunday, January 03, 2010

Silvercrest, Bender Creek, Hoover Ridge ring in New Year backcountry skiing

Up an opening on the Bender Creek run

Nice vantage point on Bender Creek
I brought in the New Year with a pleasant ski with my wife and the Heckels on the groomed Silvercrest area in the Little Belts.
That was followed Saturday with a robust exploratory run up Bender Creek (Trail 731) in the Little Belts to the high point on Hoover Ridge, a gain of some 2,100 feet. On the way back down Mark Hertenstein and I telemark skied in some beautiful bowls of powder.
It had been a couple of years since I had skied Silvercrest because I’ve been so busy in the backcountry. I had forgotten how beautiful the area can be when there’s ample snow and good weather.
We had a very warm day to welcome in the New Year in the mountains. It was 40 degrees in Monarch while it was a frosty 7 degrees in Great Falls when we got back.
We skied the D loop with the wives and Jim Heckel and I tacked on the E loop for good measure. I struggled a bit because I was using my old track skis and low cut touring boots.
On Saturday Hertenstein and I had set out to explore the possibility of climbing Mount Barker (elevation 8, 309 feet) but abandoned that when we saw how little snow covered its south approach which is most accessible from the Dry Gulch Road that heads east out of Monarch.
It was a very warm day with temperatures in the 40s in town and low 30s in the mountains. The wind absolutely howled from the southwest.
We looked over the mountains on both sides of the road as we traveled some 10 miles down Dry Gulch to the old mining camp of Barker where the snow plowing ends. Servoss Mountain (elevation: 7,330 fet) looked very promising
Turning around we found Trail 731 up Bender Creek, a trail I had explored to Hoover Ridge last summer. I remembered making mental note of its potential for telemark slopes.
So we tried it.
Mark and I had also hit the west end of the Hoover Ridge two years ago via Ruby Creek at the sold waste transfer station at Hoover Creek.
The first mile or so of trail looked as though it had been skied or even snowshoed and was a bit icy. The rest we broke, sinking in more than a foot to the base. We skinned all the way to Hoover Ridge.
The trail works its way uphill to its junction with Hoover Ridge in a tight canyon of fir and lodgepole trees and an occasional outcropping of volcanic rock. As we worked our way higher the snow covered tops of the surrounding mountains began to show ---- Servoss, Barker, Irene, Mixes Baldy and Clendennin peaks.
We had to deal with wind when we reached the Hoover Ridge which is heavily timbered.
Occasionally the ridge broke open revealed the other high points in this end of the Little Belts ---- Neihart Baldy and Long peaks, Big Baldy.
The high point seems to be at about 7,400 feet, not far from the connecting trail and ridgeline to Pioneer Ridge.
I’d like to put together a ski sometime that begins at Bender Creek and goes to Pioneer Ridge and the Belt Creek Ranger Station via Hoover and that connecting ridge.
Coming down we worked our way carefully through the tight trees on Hoover and the faster trail to the telemark bowls.
We did three runs in these bowls before heading back down the trail. The bowls are not as steep as Mizpah or South Deadman bowls. Nor was the snow as good as I found in those bowls earlier in the week. However, they were mighty fine to turn in --- the snow was forgiving and we had a great time.
The trail back down to the car from the bowls wasn’t as forgiving, though. We had set such a deep track it was hard to step out of it and it was icy and quick. I had a couple of tumbles on the way down and felt like a turtle trying to get off its back as I attempted to get up.
My biggest concern about Bender Creek is its potential for use by snowmobilers. While we didn’t see any in there Saturday it looks like a great access point to Hoover Ridge for the machine. I’d also be concerned about it being an icy, fast and tight run.
The trail leads the skier into great, wild country with fantastic views and will be a place I plan to return when the snow flies again.

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