Saturday, June 16, 2018

Backcountry season is upon us: Highwood Baldy, Ford Creek Basin, Mortimer Peak

The large peak in the background is Mortimer, which we climbed

Walking down the ridge line

The weather, if windy, has been magnificent and perfect for hiking and backcountry scrambling.
This past week I climbed Highwood Baldy (elevation: 7,670 feet) , hiked Ford Creek Basin (Trail 258 off Benchmark/Willow Creek roads) in the the Front, and climbed an unnamed peak (elevation: 8,275 feet) at the head of Mortimer Gulch near Gibson Reservoir.
Although all were great trips, the climb up "Mortimer" was the highlight and something I've been wanting to do for years.
Last year we took a bad route and got cliffed out.
This year our route, though less direct, was spot on and we enjoyed some of the best 360 views from the top that I've enjoyed in the Bob Marshall country.
Arsenic peak to our west

We climbed up the right side and traversed the top and ridge to the peak

Castle Reef mountain across the valley

"Mortimer" Mountain

As we came down in defeat last year I studied the ridge line to the east and saw a clear route to the top.
This year we followed that and the trip was a success with 3,800 feet gained and lost and 12.2 miles covered.
We followed the Mortimer Gulch Trail No. 252 for about 4 miles where the (unsigned) Mortimer Pass comes in from the northwest.  We hiked another half mile or so to a creek crossing and bushwhacked up to a ridge line that was continuous to the top, climbing five or so "bumps" along the way.
On the way up we got off the trail too early and got tangled in deadfall, but on the way down we could see a clear climber's trail that ended at the creek and a hunter's camp.  I figure that the Triple J guest ranch at the bottom of the gulch would take dudes to the camp, do an overnight and then walk the ridge line to the top, giving them the thrill of their lives.  My climbing partner Mark Hertenstein figured it was simply a game trail.
The Mortimer Gulch trail is a National Scenic Trail. 
The handsome, unnamed mountain at its head can be traversed on a system of trails that include Blacktail Gulch Trail No. 220, Big George Gulch Trail No. 251 and the Mortimer Pass Trail No. 259.
The ridge line narrows down to a knife for the last 200 feet of elevation gain or so over about a third of a mile to the top, but nothing scary.  It reminded me of the Washboard Reef off-trail traverse or Mount Lockhart.
On top we saw three climbers' cairns and some of the most incredible views of the Bob country in all directions.  There's still plenty of snow in that country and we found pretty good drifts on this peak.
We noted that last year's route was more of a straight shot, but would have required ropes to get through the cliffs in at least one pitch.
I was unsure whether I was up to this climb so early in the season and had been working up to it, but found I was plenty fit and up to the climb.
Our route

Ford Creek Basin Trail

Views from one of the Ford Creek Basin meadows
This was also a week of bungling hikes.
Hard as it is to believe, we screwed up the Ford Creek Basin 5 mile hike, which I would consider near beginner, and wandered around looking for trail.  This was an out and back hike that gained 1,300 feet.  We began at the trailhead on Willow Creek Road behind Scoutana camp and ended at Ford Creek Ranch on the Benchmark Road where we had another car parked.  The wildflowers were stunning as were the views of the Crown Mountain, Steamboat and Haystack complexes.  There were numerous fresh grizzly, moose and elk signs.
Somehow we managed to start the hike off trail and ended up having to correct, a correction that took us through a field resplendant with the season's last Balsamroot Arrowleafs and many Larkspur wildflowers.

Highwood Baldy

Greener than green and full of flowers Highwood Baldy
I normally do Highwood Baldy at the beginning and the ends of each season.
The snow was off the top of this peak early this year.
There are several routes to the top.
The Deer Creek route up the bottom is the most frequently used one.
In the spring I like to go to the ridgetop for flowers and choose a route that starts at the Stephenson Ranch fenceline just before the second crossing of Highwood Creek on the road just beyond the Thain Creek Campground turn off.
There's a bridge between the Stephenson ridge and the ridge above Deer Creek.  It's a little complicated and requires attention.
My problem was that when I got to the trailhead I discovered that I didn't have a map and that my GPS was out of battery;  I had to go blind.
Getting up the peak was no problem navigationally, but getting down I found myself dropping into McMurtry Creek rather than hitting the Stephenson ridge line.
The positive side of this was that I discovered beautiful open parks and very tall aspen trees on the Stephenson Ranch and still came out only about 100 yards from my car.
This island range high point is surprisingly difficult to climb, with more than 3,200 feet of elevation gain, and significant route finding on the summit cap through tons of talus.

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