Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The highs and lows of Mount Brown in Sweet Grass Hills

Emerging from the opening in Devil's Chimney to the cave's large cavern

Readying to enter the cave

June Sprout at the base of the Mount Brown summit cap

West Butte in the distance

At the saddle between Mount Brown and Mount Royal

It seems as though the Sweet Grass Hills are becoming an annual habit.
We returned Tuesday to climb the high point in the East Butte sector of this isolated Island Mountain Range north of Chester along the Canadian border and explore the Devil's Chimney Cave along the way.
I had done it once before more than 10 years ago, but from a different aspect than we climbed Tuesday.
The really unusual thing was that I had been asked to lead a group of 17 women from Great Falls' (Girls in Glacier) and southern Alberta  (Women of Wonder) all-women's hiking groups on this off-trail route.
We got 15 of those women to the top, in addition to me and Gordon Whirry, who assisted.
We also encountered a very significant health issue with one of the two women who did not summit.
Almost right from the start of the hike this Alberta woman lagged and at the Devil's Chimney decided not to go to the top.
When we came down from the top 3 hours later she seemed ready to go and hiked for about a mile when she broke out in a sweat and could hardly proceed down the steeply pitched down-trail about another mile from the car.
It took us a couple of hours to get her to the car on that last mile.
We got a call the next day that she had had a heart attack in the car on the way back to Alberta and she is in the ICU in a Lethbridge hospital.
This woman was obviously not fit enough for this hike to begin with and showed up in inappropriate footwear ---- the flat, uncushioned running shoes with toe fittings ---- and we later found out she had had heart issues before and had taken a nitro pill and a muscle relaxant while we were climbing the mountain.
What a nightmare!
We were lucky to get her back to the car.  She was lucky to get to medical care in time.
This was an obvious case of someone who had not disclosed an important health issue to us, who had overestimated her conditioning, and hiked without the proper equipment.
She had put herself and the entire group in jeopardy.
Linda Evans raises the "Holy Grail" to celebrate the top of Mount Brown
But on the positive side, another of the Alberta women who has been suffering from advanced cancer, had Mount Brown on her "bucket list," and came ready and able to climb the mountain, covering the 9 miles and 3,100 feet of elevation gain and loss quite easily.  Last year I led the same groups up West Butte's high point so she could gain that peak, and my wife had assisted her in climbing Gold Butte, so she now has fulfilled her dream list of all three high-point summits.
Humorously, when we opened the summit register in an old ammo box, there was a silver chalice, which we are sure marks this high point as the "Holy Grail" of the Sweet Grass Hills.
All 19 of us successfully wiggled our way through the tight opening of Devil's Chimney to enter the large cavern for group photos.  Many had never been spelunking before and were thrilled.  The cavern is unusual because there are two openings at its top that allow daylight to stream into it.
We had a beautiful day with tall grasses, puffy clouds, and lots of wildflowers.
These lush hills shoot up from the dry plains on the Canadian border north of Shelby-Chester.
I had climbed Brown from a public access point at Whitlash previously, but we wanted to go into the interesting and large Devil's Chimney Cave, so we chose a route southeast of Mount Brown across private land on the Meissner Ranch, which graciously gave us permission.
The Mount Brown high point is in the trees without any views.  Four years ago we climbed Mount Royal, more prominent from Chester, using much the same route as Mount Brown.  The two mountains share a long, grassy saddle. Mount Royal is 40 feet lower than Brown, but offers better and open and sweeping views of the other Sweet Grass Hills and Great Plains.  Royal's disadvantage are the many electronic signal devices and a road.
Incidentally, above the grassy saddle on Mount Brown and on the ridgeline there is a rough and now unmaintained trace of a trail to the top.  You'll be stepping over and dodging many deadfalls, but it is a better route than trying to negotiate the unstable talus on either side of the ridge.

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