Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Steamboat traverse: how times change

Yeah, Wayne, it's a long way down
The recovery from the 1988 Canyon Creek fire continues apace as I learned painfully on Monday.
My goal was to climb to the top of Steamboat Lookout (elevation: 8,569 feet), walk the ridgeline to a spot above Cataract and Bailey basins and walk down the ridge between the two drainages back to the car.
The ridgeline we walked
I had done this a number of years ago without much incidence, although I recall fighting some tightly spaced timber on the Cataract/Bailey ridgeline.
I didn't recall having any major difficulties, although I had upclimbed that ridge rather than downclimbed it.
Our hike Monday had lots of major difficulties approaching it the opposite way.
This ridge walk along the spine of the Steamboat massif  is one of the grand ridge walks on the Front.
The trail is excellent from the Elk Creek Trailhead, covering about 6 miles and 3,200 feet in elevation gain when you leave the trail and walk toward the lower Steamboat Mountain (elevation: 8,287 feet) several miles away on the ridge.
The ridgeline we would walk
The views are of the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas all the way to the Swans on the west and to the high Teton peaks to the north and across to the Great Plains.  Haystack peak is a constant companion.
The cliffs to the north below you on the walk are jaw-dropping ---- more than 1,000 feet high and then some.
The sky was clear and it was about 70 degrees on top and things were quite perfect.
Where we got into trouble was trying to find a goat trail on that Cataract/Bailey divide.  We walked right by it and had to return to it, locating it with some difficulty.
That took us into some cliffs where we promptly got trapped.
Climbing partner Wayne Phillips took us back to the west side of the cliffs and noticed a break in the cliffs filled with about 300 feet of really steep, small talus.
Route through the cliffs

It was either try descending this chute or possibly reclimbing to the Steamboat ridge and retracing our steps to the trail, a prospect that could not be completed until after dark and be extremely long.
Phillips, staying close to the side of the cliff walls, did a masterful job leading down through this talus.
Any false step could have sent us down to the bottom or set off a gigantic avalanche of rock.
Then we side-hilled to the top of the Cataract/Bailey divide where I had recalled following a fire line trail.
The trees there had grown so much and there was so much blow down that this was out of the question.
As an aside, Douglas Fir is coming in over much of this area rather than just lodgepole.
Steamboat Lookout Mountain, ridge high point
So we headed down the more grassy slopes toward Bailey Basin, climbing over more deadfall, but less than we would have on top.
We plunged into the basin and finally found the steep Forest Service trail out to the road,  two exhausted mountaineers who had been on our feet nearly 12 hours.
We didn't leave much daylight on the table.
I had several takeaways from this climb:  downclimbing routes look different than upclimbing routes;  fast-growing trees after a fire can obscure and make impossible an earlier, easy route; we should have brought a rope (20 feet would have made the downclimb in the cliffs a snap).
These were the same cliffs that nearly 20 years ago I got trapped in and spent the night after I had lost daylight wandering around in them.
A botanist at work
A much more sensible route is to continue on the ridgeline beyond Cataract/Bailey, climb lower Steamboat and descend to a waiting car on the Dearborn River side, as we have done several times before.
The hopes that there could be an easy and sensible out and back loop from the Steamboat Lookout trail and through the cliffs down Cataract/Bailey were dashed.
The route

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