Monday, April 04, 2011

Lava Peak in an April snowstorm

Mark Hertenstein near the summit

Nice wide open slopes  
The creeks are running and it is spring, despite the snow and white Highwood Baldy
I love the Highwood Mountains, that small, volcanic range east of Great Falls that is a prominent feature of the city's skyline.
Its access points are just low enough that unless there is a good dump of snow skiing can be iffy. For example, the Geyser access along South Peak Road up Arrow Creek is only 4,700 feet in elevation.  Kings Hill Pass in the Little Belts, by comparison is nearly 7,400 feet, almost as high as the Highwoods' second highest peak, Arrow Peak (elevation: 7,485 feet).
So when it started dumping over the weekend we eyed the Highwoods.
I thought we might climb North Peak and play on the ridgeline that leads to Big Baldy, the range's highest point at 7,657 feet, and do some tele turns.
Instead, when we reached the North Peak ridgeline at the Highwood/Arrow divide, we turned our back on North Peak and headed toward a ridgeline to Lava Peak (elevation: 7,142 feet).
I've climbed this peak during the summer up a ridge to the north of the one we selected Sunday.
Although we skied uphill in continuously driving snow that was accumulating quickly it really wasn't any problem and was quite enjoyable.
We skied in 7 to 12 inches of fresh powder resting upon icy hardpack.  If we set our edges we went straight to the frozen snow. The temperature was in the low 20s.
The ridgeline was wide enough and clear enough that we had no trouble climbing the 2,400 feet from the car to the top.
Along the way there was an occasional volcanic outcropping that obviously gave the mountain its name.
We could see pretty good tele slopes on both sides of the ridge.
I reckoned that we climbed the named peak without realizing it, going on to an unnamed point some 20 feet higher.  Arrow Peak was just ahead on the ridge.  But, that is for another day.
On the way down we succumbed to the temptations of the tele slopes and dived into the Big Coulee Creek drainage that provided excellent tele turns over a couple of miles coming down more than 3,000 feet.
Then it was a lovely but exhausting slog through trees and open fields to the Trans-Highwood Road and back out in the snowfall.
As we finished this 9-hour trek we were pretty exhausted and were treated to a sky that finally opened, revealing some blue sky and cumulus clouds laden with more moisture.
On this trip we discovered an area full of potential and a new route to Arrow Peak.

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