Thursday, August 07, 2014

A trip to the high point in the Flathead Alps in the Bob Marshall Wilderness

H. Wayne Phillips on the high point in the Flathead Alps, elevation 8,387.
H. Wayne Phillips, who will be 73 on Sept. 2,  is nearing the end of his quest to reach the summits of every mountain range in Montana, and he added the high point in the Flathead Alps this week in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
I accompanied him on this five day loop-trip that began and ended at the Benchmark trailhead.
It covered 48 miles and entailed gaining and losing 10,607 feet.
As there always is in a trip of this sort, there were surprises:  the massive beauty of Hoadley Reef and an exquisite campsite nearby, the complexity of climbing that Flathead Alps high point, the breadth of the 2007 Ahorn Fire that killed substantial old growth forest, and the grandeur of the Junction Mountain/Pearl Basin areas.
Wildflowers were at their apex ---- beargrass was everywhere.  Huckleberries were plentiful.  We were surprised that we saw no major wildlife.
Hoadley Reef stretches out behind me
We saw two runners in the first mile of the trip, a three-person trail crew clearing East Fork Ahorn for the first time in five years on the second day, and then no one else until we came out the West Fork Sun from Reef Creek on Wednesday.  It was a zoo from the West Fork pack bridge to Benchmark, with strings of horses coming in to do the Chinese Wall.  We saw three horses for every dude in one pack long string.  There were numerous trails in meadows in this stretch, a sharp contrast from earlier in our backpack where trails were sometimes hard to find.
We were mildly surprised and I admit, a bit disappointed, in the Pearl Basin, despite its impressive views of Twin Peaks.  We would have liked a campsite more like what we found at Hoadley.
But camping really wasn't what we were there for.  It was to climb the Flathead Alps high point at 8,387 feet.
Junction Mountain near Pearl Basin
Phillips, a retired forester, wildflower expert and alpinist, had carefully studied the maps and devised a route directly from Pearl Basin, first clearing the Lewis Range (Continental Divide) with a gain of about 1,400 feet, then dropping into Cayuse Creek, a tributary of the South Fork Flathead, and ascending a steep drainage for access to the Alps' ridgeline, climbing a slightly lower peak than the high point first, and negotiating a saddle to the tallest summit.
From the looks of it, there appears to be an easier route from a ridgeline that rises from the South Fork Flathead River, but that would have involved a long trip in from the Danaher or coming in from Holland Lake on the West Side.  We were East Side interlopers.
Unfortunately, once we dropped into Cayuse Creek, we had difficulty trying to establish which saddle we were looking for, and I got impatient and climbed for an elk trail that led us off course, but ultimately where we needed to go to reach the summit ridge.  It added about an hour and a half to the climb.
It was a beautiful walk along that ridge, looking at these monster and almost frightful looking mountains ---- rock thrust straight up.
West Fork Sun River
There was nothing difficult about hitting the top.
Phillips, by this time, figured out which saddle it was that we should have gone up and we aimed right for it.
It was a beautiful walk up and then down the saddle to Cayuse Creek.
Our trip back up would be on the goat trail that Phillips had found on the way to the peak.  It extended across the face of the mountain and most of the way down to Cayuse, adjacent to a large scree field.
But, a thunderstorm was brewing and we tried to wait it out.  When we thought it clear, we made a safe run for it.
We found a lovely camp on Reef Creek on our final night out, complete with a rushing stream in a shaded area, and only 9.5 miles from our car.

The end of our trip was spent dodging pack trains and horse muck on wide, braided trails

For trip detail, photos and charts, see these day-by-day links:

Day 1, click on link (to Hoadley Reef):

Benchmark to Hoadley

Day 2, click on link (to Pearl Basin):

Hoadley Reef to Pearl Basin

Day 3, click on link  (reaching the Flathead Alps' high point):

Climbing the Flathead Alps high point

Day 4, click on link (Reef Creek camp):

Pearl Basin to Reef Creek camp

Day 5, click on link (home by way of West Fork Sun):

Reef Creek camp to Benchmark

1 comment:

Bill said...

The horse traffic out of Benchmark really is out of control, all for the sake of making sure the "dudes" have plenty of cold beer and comfy beds in their wall tents. Not really a wilderness experience with accommodations like that, is it?