Friday, January 19, 2018

Yellowstone, Stemple Pass, Skidway ski area

I sit here recounting the past week that included a trip to Yellowstone's Mammoth Area (Sunday through Wednesday), some tele skiing at Stemple Pass (Saturday), and an exploration (Wednesday) of what remains of the Skidway Ski Area between Townsend and White Sulphur Springs on Deep Creek, while a January-Thaw Chinook is ruining all the snow.

Yellowstone's Gardiner/Mammoth area in winter

A couple of young bulls sparred outside our bedroom window at Mammoth

Steaming stream on Mammoth Hot Springs Lower Terrace

Winter weather bringing out the best in the hot springs

Looking down into Yellowstone River above the Tower Falls

We spent three days at the Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge at Yellowstone National Park, which we used as a base for a ski to Tower Falls and an exploration of the Mammoth Hot Springs upper and lower terraces.  The steaming pits set against the snow made the trip worthwhile.
We couldn't have had more beautiful weather, with temps in the 30s at day and radiant sunlight that made it feel warmer than that under clear skies.
There weren't many tourists.  We saw more wildlife, particularly elk and bison, than other people.
The area could use more snow, but we had enough for our purposes.
The lodge, though old and a bit spare, is beautifully designed in art deco motif, and we were warmed each night by the piano player expertly doing standards from the American Song Book.
The food wasn't too bad, nor too highly priced in the separate dining hall.  I didn't like walking across the icy parking lot in the dark to and from dinner, but the service there was outstanding because the help is just that:  helpful and ready to serve.
We traveled no further than Tower Junction, deciding that exploration where we were staying would be more worthwhile than traveling the 50 some miles to Cooke City on the other end, and then back again, which would have eaten loads of ski and snowshoe time.

Skidway on the way home

Katie on the ridge

From the ridge looking north toward Mount Edith in the Big Belt Mountains

Look closely and you'll see the old ski runs west of the trailhead.  Our route is in blue. 
The small Skidway Ski Area closed in the early 70s when I lived in Helena.  I had never visited it, but heard that the Forest Service had put in a 3.5 miles cross country ski/snowshoe loop near there and the Skidway Campground.
From White Sulphur Springs it is about 18.5 miles south and west on Highway 12.
There is a nicely plowed parking area right off the road and the ski begins to your right up the road to the campground.  
At about a half-mile the road splits.  If you want to do the full loop, go to your right (west).  If you want to see the campground area, which offers some hills for turns, turn left.  We did the full loop and followed the blue diamonds through mature Douglas fir to the ridgeline, the half-way point, a climb of about 650 feet.  We passed a couple of areas on the way up that looked as though they were narrow runs from the old ski hill.  The snow had iced up and wouldn't have been good for tele turns.  The top is broad and flat and offers great views in all directions and some other possibilities for tele skiing.
On the way down through the forest we saw many signs of elk, moose and deer that had been there recently.
Although this area is marked for cross country skiing, we saw greater snowshoe activity.
When the snow is good, this would make for a good backcountry trip, combined with a soak in the White Sulphur Springs Spa.

A reliable favorite:  Stemple Pass
Mark Hertenstein begins a descent with tele turns in the Poorman Creek headwaters off Stemple Pass

What started out as a tele turn trip in the Cadotte Creek area morphed into a great day of turns at Stemple Pass last Saturday.
There had been a big dump of snow in our area, but it translated into wet, heavy snow in Cadotte, making turns and even cutting trail difficult.
So, we turned our attention to Stemple and had a terrific day.
We found our low-angle open slopes on the lower portion of the North Meadow Loop, about two miles from where we parked at the pass.
We spent a pleasant afternoon in the headwaters of Poorman Creek carving turns in relatively heavy, but very skiable powder.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Just beyond the CDT: Cadotte Creek

Mark Hertenstein on the ridge top

Some of the elk that crossed our path

The ridge top was a winter wonderland
Over the past 10 years or so we've been doing tele turns in the area just west of Rogers Pass when the weather and snow are right.
Mainly we've skied First and Third gulches to the west of Highway 200 not far from the Meadow Creek Road, bypassing the much larger and inhabited Cadotte Creek that runs northeast toward Cadotte Pass on the Continental Divide Trail.
Mark Hertenstein suggested we give it a try Sunday and in doing so opened ourselves to a smorgasbord of  new skiing.  In the past we had avoided the area because of the private inholdings.
A parking area is plowed out where Cadotte Road meets Highway 200.
We did a 6-mile loop on Sunday, gaining about 1,600 feet, mostly off-trail, but on some logging roads.
This area has been extensively logged.
It holds snow well most of the time and there are terrific, vast areas for making turns.
Unfortunately, the wind and sun had hit this area during our recent Chinook, wind-hardening the snow.  We skinned immediately to the north and east and before long were on a ridge line above the East Fork of Cadotte Creek.
We noticed that there were a tremendous number of animal tracks and were soon treated to about a herd of about 30 elk that plowed their way through deep snow across our path.  It was quite a treat!
On top the sun came out briefly, turning the ridge top to a winter wonderland.  From here we were able to look around at the many trip possibilities before heading down through the trees to the East Fork, where we sked back to the Cadotte Road.  From there we explored a couple of logging roads for future reference and then got on a main logging road that took us back to Highway 200.
Surveying some tele slopes

Friday, January 05, 2018

Paine Gulch exploratory

Dry Gulch Ridge above Paine Gulch

Outcrops along the trail

Just above the Trail No. 737 trailhead off US 89
I know I've been up Paine Gulch in the past, but frankly, I don't remember it.
My wife and I took a lovely snowshoe up this gulch on Thursday covering a little more than two miles and gaining about 550 in elevation beneath some towering spires on this Little Belts Mountain hike.
The gulch is pretty hidden because a private inholding sits at its trailhead for Trail No. 737.
This was owned by the late geologist David Baker, a real character, and and expert and promoter of the Little Belts.
The Forest Service has established a trailhead to the south of his gated and posted property that can be hard to locate.  There's a brown Forest Service "TH" sign visible from U.S. 89.
The gulch is located just a little north of where the old Lazy Doe bar and restaurant was located.  Unfortunately, this landmark and eatery was torn down last year and it looks as though the place never existed.
There is a good public parking spot for your hike a couple of hundred yards north and west of the trailhead where there's a state historical sign on one of the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles located in the area.
The trail skirts Baker's place and then climbs steadily above the tiny rivulet at the bottom of the gulch.  In about a mile the first of the large outcrops appear, an impressive sight.  There are also several side gulches to the north.
There are lots of downed trees and if you're cross country skiing be forewarned of steep, tight terrain where turns could be terrifying if there's ice.  A skier had been there ahead of us and before the most recent storm and left his faint tracks.  I'd recommend skins for up and down some of the tight spots.
We were on snowshoes and didn't have any trouble, except for one large tree across the path.
The forest is a combination of lodgepole, Doug Fir and Ponderosa pine.
At about 1.5 miles the trail breaks out in a flat, open area beneath the Dry Fork Ridge to the north and the back of Sun Mountain to the south.
Here the hillsides have been scorched in a summer wildfire and there are only small stands of live pines, juniper and aspens, but the scenery is positively thrilling.
The trail goes for another mile and a half or so.
This valley would be the perfect spot for climbing Sun or Servoss mountains or the Dry Fork Ridge.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Fabulous snow days in Little Belts

Porphyry Lookout on a spectacular bluebird Jan. 2

Flocked trees, perfect powder, gorgeous sky

Off in the distance the highest peak in the Little Belts, Big Baldy 
After a tele turn in Jumping Creek upper reaches

I followed New Year's skiing with Days 2 and 3 of 2018 in the Little Belts enjoying great weather and incredible powder.
On Tuesday I went solo up Porphyry Peak at the Showdown Ski Area, down Trail 727 to a snowmobile road and explored logging roads until I hooked up to the O'Brien Creek Trail and back to Kings Hill Pass.  The weather sparkled, bluebird skies and radiant heat despite 18 degree temperatures.
Wednesday our Wayne's group went up Porphyry and followed the Trail 747 ridge trail past the Mizpah bowls to U.S. 89 and Jumping Creek trailhead, a distance of 8.6 miles, with an elevation gain of 1,400 feet and a loss of 2,600 feet.  The weather was wintry, with snow falling along the ridge.  I was surprised when we hit rocky slopes beyond the Ranch Creek bowls, and then found extensive extant logging along the bottom two miles to the car.  The snow was otherwise excellent, but I think I'll pass on this run in the future. We found unstable snow conditions as it settled with "thunder" underneath our skis.  We saw considerable moose and elk sign on the ridges.
We had to re-learn the lesson we've so often encountered ---- separating on a trip.
There were five of us.  We set out independently for the top, two of us thinking the plan was to meet at Top Rock Cafe, where we we eat and regroup before the long ridge run.  We took the Prentiss Run up to the top.  The other three went around the back side road where the Porphyry Lookout is located.  They saw my tracks from the day before and kept on skiing, while the two of us sat at the cafe waiting for the group.  About a half hour into the wait we realized something was wrong, and went to check the ski tracks at the lookout area, some 500 feet from the cafe.  The tracks indicated the group had pushed on.  By the time we got ourselves together, we had waited for an hour on top, and we hurried along the trail, hoping to catch the group, which we did at the warming hut on Mizpah Peak.   Too many assumptions here.......
Our Jumping Creek route marked in brighter red

Monday, January 01, 2018

Beginning a Happy 2018 with Kings Hill summit climb; 29 below in Great Falls, 15 above Kings Hill

The best way to bring in a New Year

Trees flocked from the new snow

The view from the Kings Hill summit looking back at Showdown Ski Area
The weather was minus 29 at the house this morning that began the New Year 2018.
After a call to my Mother in Chicago to wish her a happy 92nd birthday, I began plotting how to bring the New Year in properly with a backcountry ski.
I decided to head to the Kings Hill area when I found that it would be about 15 degrees ABOVE zero, while it wouldn't get to zero in Great Falls.
My plan was for a short ski ---- from Kings Hill Pass in the Little Belts to the top of Kings Hill mountain and its 8,009 feet summit, about a 650 feet climb of just over a mile up.  I used the Deadman Road, skied across the top, and teled down the ridge back to the pass.
The snow was easy to handle because it had been hit by wind and settled, making trail-breaking no task at all.  In fact, there was a wind crust in spots.
It was 21 degrees in Monarch and about 8 above at the Belt turnoff.  As I neared where the old BarS restaurant was on the outskirts of Great Falls the temperature was minus 8 and stayed that way until I got home.
This has been a very cold Christmas stretch.  But, man, has it been beautiful.  Bright sunshine, sparkling snow.  This was like a Christmas the way I remembered them 40 years ago.
A young snowboarder shows me his "Powder Surfer" board that doesn't have bindings